The Bibles we read are the product of countless acts of transcription and translation. This was human labor and, like everything we humans do, it involved plenty of missteps and mistakes.
You may have heard of some of the more famous, or infamous, examples of that, such as the so-called “Wicked Bible” of 1631, which accidentally omitted a key word in the seventh of Moses’ ten commandments, so that Exodus 20:14 wound up reading “Thou shalt commit adultery.” That reversal of the verse’s meaning was a simple, obvious, and easily corrected mistake — unlike the deliberate mistranslation that completely reverses the meaning of a passage in the following chapter of Exodus because of partisan American politics.
Wikipedia offers a long and amusing list of “Biblical errata” — misprints, mistranslations, scribal errors, typos and printing errors that resulted in all sorts of bungled Bibles. There’s the “Blasphemous comma” — a missing comma in several King James editions that puts Jesus on a cross between “two other malefactors” instead of between “two others, malefactors.” And the 1718 edition of the KJV that renders the “sin no more” of Jeremiah 31:34 as “sin on more.” And the earlier 1562 Geneva Bible that garbled a Beatitude into “Blessed are the placemakers.”
Our friends who insist that the Bible is “inerrant” are aware of things like this, and they try to account for it in two ways. First, they clarify that this claim of “biblical inerrancy” doesn’t apply to every copy or edition ever printed, but “only to the autographic text of Scripture” (that’s from the “Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy,” which established this ancient inerrantist tradition in CE 1978).
By the “autographic text” they mean the original documents on which the original texts were first written. That makes sense. This is, after all, how we go about validating the legitimacy of most texts or quotations. We want to know what was originally said. We consider the original thing authentic and legitimate and any variation from it to be inauthentic and illegitimate.
“Because I could not stop for Death — / He kindly stopped for me.” That’s Emily Dickinson. If a printer’s error misrenders that “Because I could stop for Death …” then we would say it’s no longer really Emily Dickinson, but something else. Likewise, our inerrantist friends say, reasonably, the commandment to commit adultery in the misprinted “Wicked Bible” isn’t really the Bible, but something else. The real Bible is the original that preceded any such errors of transcription and translation.
The tricky bit here, though, is that the books of the Bible are far, far older than Emily Dickinson’s poems and so we don’t actually have any of the original manuscripts. Our earliest biblical manuscripts come from long after most of the “autographic texts” were written. Those originals are long lost and what we have is a copy of a copy of a copy, and a translation of a translation of a translation.
It seems a bit slippery, then, to put so much emphasis on the perfection and inerrancy of original “autographic texts” that no living person has ever seen and that none of us is able to consult.
Our inerrantist friends recognize this, too, which is why they assert this emphatic denial*:
We deny that any essential element of the Christian faith is affected by the absence of the autographs. We further deny that this absence renders the assertion of Biblical inerrancy invalid or irrelevant.
It’s perfectly fine that these inerrant original “autographs” no longer exist, they say, because of the second part of their accounting for the problem of transcription and translation errors. The claim of perfection and inerrancy, they say, “applies only to the autographic text of Scripture, which in the providence of God can be ascertained from available manuscripts with great accuracy.”
The heavy lifting there is done by the subtle enormity of this appeal to “the providence of God.” Nevermind all the many examples of scribal errors, transcription mistakes, mistranslations in or out of Hebrew, Greek, Latin, German or English. God has been intervening, providentially ensuring that our copies of copies of copies and our translations of translations of translations still allow us access to the original perfection of those long-lost inerrant autographs.
This is the logic that gives us the kooky American phenomenon of “KJV-only” fundamentalism. If you’re reading this somewhere in America, then somewhere not far from where you’re sitting there’s a small nondenominational church of “Bible-believing” fundamentalist white Christians who believe that the King James Version (1611 authorized edition) is the only true and legitimate Word of God. They think the much-larger white evangelical church on the other side of town is full of heresy and apostasy because those heathens over there read from the NIV. (The New International Version and all other such more contemporary translations might as well be the Book of Mormon as far as the KJV-only folks are concerned.)
KJV-only folks aren’t really all that different from the rest of the “biblical inerrancy” crowd — they just follow the logic of the idea a bit farther down the road. And they don’t realize they’re not supposed to say the quiet parts loud. They take the logic of the active “providence of God” in preserving the Bible’s purported inerrancy as the centerpiece of their faith. They believe God acts and intervenes to ensure that the English-language Bibles in their pews and in their hands have been shielded from human frailty and from the wiles of the devil and his servants.Thus, they believe, God has ensured that we have precisely the form of the Bible that we have. And in doing so God has intervened to protect us from being led astray by any other possible form of the Bible.
Which brings us back to the Gospel of Mark and its many various endings. The King James Version doesn’t include all of those endings, nor does it even acknowledge their existence. It includes the longer ending of Mark — continuing past verse 8, where our oldest and most-reliable manuscripts stop, to include what it offers as verses 9 through 20, an interpolation composed and appended many years after the original “autograph” was first written.
What’s perversely fun here is how this idea of divine providence and divine protection relates to the possibility of an original, “lost” ending to Mark’s Gospel.** If, indeed, the original ending of Mark was lost and much later replaced with the addendum we have in verses 9-20 of the King James Version, and if, indeed, this version is the product of God’s providence and protection, then we must conclude that the original ending originally written by the evangelist Mark must have been something God needed to get rid of — something that God had to step in to protect us from reading.
What horrors or heresies or errors do you suppose Mark might have originally written? It must have been something spectacularly awful to require Almighty God to providentially intervene to prevent us from being led astray by it.
As I said in part 1, this is where “biblical inerrancy” overlaps with Da Vinci Code conspiracy theories. The possibility of a “lost” ending to Mark’s Gospel has long led to fevered speculation that it might actually be a suppressed ending — that Mark continued on after what we have as verse 8 to write something They didn’t want us to read. (Who are “They”? Take your pick — the Knights Templar, the Illuminati, the Jesus Seminar …)
This makes for a fun exercise in storytelling, or in joke-writing. If the lost ending of Mark was, indeed, something that God’s providence needed to protect us from reading, then what did that original, too-dangerous-to-be-allowed-to-endure ending say?
We can only speculate. So let’s do that.
I’ll start. Here are some possible lost endings to Mark’s Gospel gleaned from other more recent sources and manuscripts:
• Jesus meets two disciples on the road to Emmaus but they do not recognize him. They arrive at an inn and sit down to break bread together. Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” starts to play, then abruptly stops as the screen goes black for seven minutes.
• Tom Sawyer arrives and hijinks ensue, mostly at Jim’s expense, which seems like a violation of everything we’d previously read.
• The first 13 chapters of Mark are presented out of order, after which the rest of the Gospel is abruptly canceled by the Fox network.
• A terse message informs readers that the Kickstarter campaign for a crowd-sourced 17th chapter failed to meet its goal.
• After Jesus’ crucifixion and burial, Mark introduces two new disciples, played by Robert Patrick and Annabeth Gish.
• Mary Magdalene awakens and hears the shower running in the other room. It’s Jesus. She realizes the past three years were all a dream.
• Instead of continuing the story of Jesus and his followers, Mark waits 20 years, then presents a trilogy of disappointing prequels focusing on the childhood and adolescence of Judas Iscariot.
• “How’s Annie? How’s Annie?”
– – – – – – – – – – – –
* As we discussed here last month, if you want to understand “biblical inerrantists,” you should read all the “We Deny” statements in this Chicago Statement replacing “We deny …” with “We fear …” or “We Have a Terrifying, Gnawing Suspicion that …” Hence the denial above would read:
We fear that essential elements of the Christian faith may be affected by the absence of the autographs. We further have a terrifying, gnawing suspicion that this absence renders the assertion of Biblical inerrancy invalid or irrelevant.
** It’s entirely possible that there is no such “lost” ending. The original version of Mark’s Gospel may have simply stopped abruptly at Mark 16:8. “And they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” The End. Many very smart biblical scholars argue that this is the likeliest explanation — even though it would’ve been a very strange choice for the author. That theory leads to another realm of speculation: Why would Mark choose such a strange and abrupt ending? Was there some intervening circumstance (his death or arrest, perhaps) that forced him to stop so abruptly?
That’s not as much fun as speculating about the possible content of a possible lost ending, but it’s still grounds for more intriguing speculation than the sadly pedestrian theory toward which I lean — which is that Mark’s original ending was likely copied and adapted in either Matthew or Luke, so we probably already have it elsewhere in the New Testament.