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The two oldest reasonably complete ancient manuscripts of the Bible are Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus.  Both of them date to the fourth century after Christ.  Curiously, though (and, these days, rather scandalously), neither of them includes the familiar ending for the gospel of Mark.  In fact, both Vaticanus and Sinaiticus conclude Mark’s gospel at 16:8—which leaves the women at the tomb fearful and confused:  “And they went out quickly, and fled from the sepulchre; for they trembled and were amazed: neither said they any thing to any man; for they were afraid.”

This seems—to put it mildly—an extraordinarily strange ending for a book that announces itself as the “euangelion,” the “Gospel” or “good news,” of Jesus Christ (Mark 1:1).  After all, Mark 16:8 is simply not very good news.  And it’s difficult to imagine that a writer who began on such a positive note would conclude so negatively, not only failing to include an appearance of the risen Christ but leaving the women at the tomb terrified and perplexed.  Some writers have even gone so far as to claim that the possible absence of verses 16:9-20 from the genuine text of Mark demonstrates that the very first Christians didn’t even teach that Jesus rose from the dead.

Be that as it may, most contemporary academic biblical scholars have come to believe that verses 16:9-20 were not originally part of Mark’s gospel.  One scholar, in fact, says that he doesn’t own a single commentary published within the past century that treats 16:9-20 as actually belonging to Mark.

They cite many reasons for their opinion beyond the mere fact that Vaticanus and Sinaiticus omit the traditional conclusion.  For one reason, the Greek style and vocabulary of 16:9-20 seem to be different from the rest of Mark.  And several early Christian authors appear to have been aware of manuscripts that lacked those verses.  Moreover, the transition between 16:8 and 16:9 is notably awkward.  It’s odd.  The women who are so prominent in 16:1-8 appear to have been forgotten.  Although she had been mentioned just a few verses before, Mary Magdalene is reintroduced to readers as if she is unknown.

Additionally, while the accounts given in Matthew and Luke seem to track with and to follow Mark up through 16:8—Mark is widely assumed to be the earliest of the four canonical gospels, and perhaps a basis for the later Matthew and Luke—they diverge thereafter.

However, a small minority of scholars continues to argue for the authenticity of Mark 16:9-20.  They point out, for instance, that approximately 1653 ancient manuscripts of the gospel of Mark contain 16:9-20.  That’s 99.8% of all surviving ancient manuscripts of Mark.  Furthermore, three second-century authors—Irenaeus, Tatian, and St. Justin Martyr—appear to quote from Mark 16:9-20, and many more authors from the third-fifth centuries do the same.  Which means, clearly, that they must have been familiar with at least some version of the gospel’s “long ending.”  The dissenting scholars also note that there are only three manuscripts that actually end at 16:8—the two already mentioned from the AD 300s, and a third that dates from the twelfth century.

Let’s assume, though, just for a moment and for purposes of argument, that Mark 16:9-20 actually is an independent document that was grafted onto Mark’s original gospel at some later date.  Clearly, that hypothetical free-floating document must have been written very anciently since, as we’ve just observed, it was known to writers as early as the second century AD—that is, in the 100s.  There is, thus, a bright side to the idea that it might not be original:  In that case, we might view it as something of a fifth New Testament gospel, a distinct and independent witness to the resurrection of Christ.

But, a critic might object, it wouldn’t be a fifth witness to the resurrection of Christ if the shorter version of Mark contains no reference to Christ’s resurrection!  And that, of course, is true.  However, it simply is not true that Mark never refers to Christ’s emergence from the tomb.  Here are six examples from the universally accepted text of the second gospel:

“And he began to teach them, that the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected of the elders, and of the chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” (8:31)

“And as they came down from the mountain, he charged them that they should tell no man what things they had seen, till the Son of man were risen from the dead.  And they kept that saying with themselves, questioning one with another what the rising from the dead should mean.”  (9:9-10)

“And after that he is killed, he shall rise the third day.”  (9:31)

“And they shall mock him, and shall scourge him, and shall spit upon him, and shall kill him: and the third day he shall rise again.”  (10:34)

“But after that I am risen, I will go before you into Galilee.” (14:28)

“And he saith unto them, Be not affrighted: Ye seek Jesus of Nazareth, which was crucified: he is risen; he is not here: behold the place where they laid him.  But go your way, tell his disciples and Peter that he goeth before you into Galilee: there shall ye see him, as he said unto you.” (16:6-7)

With such prophecies in mind, it’s important to observe that Mark characteristically likes to illustrate the fulfillment of Jesus’ predictions.  New Testament scholar Robert Gundry cites numerous examples of such fulfilled prophecies in the gospel: “They include the seeing of God’s kingdom as having come with power at the Transfiguration, the finding of a colt, some disciples’ being met by a man carrying a jar of water, the showing of the Upper Room, the betrayal of Jesus by one of the Twelve, the scattering of the rest of the Twelve, the denials of Jesus by Peter, and of course the Passion.”

Having created so strong an expectation in the minds of the readers and hearers of his gospel that Jesus would rise from the dead, it seems improbable that Mark essentially dropped the subject. Why would he close his account without sharing an actual sighting of the resurrected Christ?

The gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John parallel each other in their accounts of Jesus’ death, his burial, and the empty tomb.  But, while the resurrected Jesus appears in Matthew, Luke, and John, he does not appear in Mark if its final verses are jettisoned.  That seems a glaring omission.

Some scholars who believe 16:9-20 to be a later addition to Mark argue nonetheless that 16:8 isn’t really the gospel’s last verse.  And they remark that it’s easy to imagine reasons why the last verses of Mark might have been lost.  For example, the eminent British New Testament scholar N. T. Wright suggests that the original ending (and perhaps the original beginning) of the gospel might have been destroyed in a manuscript that was an ancestor to both Sinaiticus and Vaticanus.  How?  Simply through the ordinary wear and tear to which ancient manuscripts would have been subjected.  The outer portion of a scroll would be particularly exposed to constant handling and to the environment around it.  Moreover, several endings exist among the ancient manuscripts of Mark’s gospel, which suggests that other ancient readers too might have found 16:8 an odd ending.

One very short supplemental conclusion to the gospel, found in eight ancient manuscripts right after Mark 16:8, reads as follows:  “But they reported briefly to Peter and those with him all that they had been told. And after this, Jesus himself (appeared to them and) sent out by means of them, from east to west, the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation.”

And, after all, Matthew and Luke completed the story by recounting appearances of the risen Lord.  So why would Mark have considered 16:8 an adequate ending?

Whether or not we choose to believe that Mark 16:9-20 belongs to the original gospel text, there is one conclusion that definitely cannot be justified by the available historical and textual facts:  Some critics of Christianity, combining the facts (a) that Mark’s gospel is commonly reckoned the earliest of the four New Testament gospels with the possible fact (b) that the traditional closing of Mark may have been added later, make the leap that, therefore, the first Christian preaching did not include the resurrection of Jesus.  Therefore, they insinuate or even triumphantly declare, Christ’s resurrection was a later invention.

But this claim cannot be sustained.

One of the arguments advanced by those who affirm the authenticity of 16:9-20 as the conclusion of Mark’s gospel points out that, as far as we can tell, no ancient critic of Christianity seems to have noticed Mark’s failure to describe the resurrection of Jesus.  Some of those critics, though, were quite familiar with the texts of the New Testament.  Why didn’t they make a fuss about Mark’s omission?  Many modern opponents of Christianity certainly do!

An obvious explanation for their silence might be that the copies of Mark’s gospel that were available to them didn’t lack 16:9-20—or that, at the least, those manuscripts contained some sort of text that did indeed describe the experiences of the earliest disciples with the risen Christ.

For such experiences were already well-known.  Many New Testament specialists now recognize that the New Testament contains seemingly “creedal” or “creed-like” texts—formulaic passages, that is, that seem to preserve prior statements of basic, essential, and absolutely early Christian teaching.  I give you one example:

Discussing 1 Corinthians 1, Gordon Fee wrote that “it is generally agreed that in vv. 3–5 Paul is repeating a very early creedal formulation that was common to the entire church”:

“Moreover, brethren, I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye have received, and wherein ye stand; By which also ye are saved, if ye keep in memory what I preached unto you, unless ye have believed in vain.

“For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures: And that he was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve:  After that, he was seen of above five hundred brethren at once; of whom the greater part remain unto this present, but some are fallen asleep.  After that, he was seen of James; then of all the apostles.  And last of all he was seen of me also, as of one born out of due time.” (1 Corinthians 15:1-8)

When did Paul write 1 Corinthians?  The letter is variously dated to AD 53, AD 54, or AD 57.  Clearly, though, he had been in Corinth prior to his writing of that letter.  When?  Paul’s first visit to Corinth, which lasted about eighteen months, is commonly placed at AD 49-51.

And he says in 1 Corinthians 15:3 that he delivered to the Corinthians what he himself had already “received,” presumably before his visit there.  So it must have been prior to AD 51 or perhaps even prior to AD 49.  (Which is to say, well under two decades after the crucifixion of Christ, and well within the range of living memory.)  And that puts the teaching well before the likely composition of the gospel of Mark, which is generally placed at about AD 70:

Commenting on 1 Corinthians 15:3-4, the late Father Joseph Fitzmyer, an eminent New Testament scholar, observed that “Paul repeats the basic Christian kērygma, ‘proclamation,’ which eventually developed into the gospel tradition and gave us the four canonical Gospels”

I have certainly not covered all of the relevant data or arguments in this brief article.  For further reading, see Julie M. Smith, “The Ending of Mark’s Gospel,” Brigham Young University New Testament Commentary (https://www.byunewtestamentcommentary.com/the-ending-of-marks-gospel/).  N. T. Wright comments briefly on the subject in a YouTube video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aZW9g-kmg5c.  Nicholas P. Lunn makes a strong argument in his 2014 book, “The Original Ending of Mark: A New Case for the Authenticity of Mark 16:9-20.”