Wacky Scripture? -tmp(Mark 16:9-20)

Recently someone asked me a question about verses that “sound really weird”. I could understand
the concern—especially when you find yourself listening to some
charismatic speaker (repeatedly) justifying his position from one verse
in Scripture. Sure, its bad form to do that sort of thing, but it still
leaves you wondering—what’s the deal with those verses in italics or
between the brackets in your Bible and do we need them?

The passage that stoked the question was {{Mark 16:17, 18}} where the
writer is speaking about authenticating signs by those who have
believed that consisted of exorcising demons, speaking in tongues,
picking up snakes, unhurt by drinking poison, and healing the sick.
These verses have been used by charismatic circles to support the use
of miraculous gifts as a sign of belief (although I haven’t heard of
many who go and do the drinking poison bit).

Mind you, people have come up with their positions from less
“controversial” portions of Scripture so there really is no reason to
say a position is wrong simply because the evidential passage is
currently contested. I personally would argue from the general teaching
of Scripture before questioning single verses (as you’ve seen with my
position against Calvinism and Arminianism).

So, for those of you who don’t know, there is a debate regarding
this portion of Scripture (and several others {{John 7:53-8:11}}, {{1 John
5:7}} and bits and pieces of other verses scattered here and there) if
they were located in the original manuscripts. The last two hundred
years or so has seen the rise of Biblical Textual Criticism that has
put the Scriptures under intense scrutiny to decipher authorship,
dating, commonality and so on. We are greatly in debt for the intense
work that has been (and continues to be) done in scholarly circles in
regards to textual criticism. The subject and study thereof is a
lifetime’s work so forgive my superficial overview of what’s going on
with these portions.

In the case of the Mark passage, the early Church fathers never
referenced these verses. It was soon discovered that they never had
these verses in their studies. Scholars looked back and discovered that
this longer ending appeared somewhere in the first half of the second
century. Now, this doesn’t mean it wasn’t in the original—until a
person starts looking at things like the writing style, the content,
the vocabulary (a bunch of the original vocabulary used here is not
found anywhere else in the book of Mark), and the emphasis on signs not
found in any of the other gospel accounts. Upon examining these things
serious doubt was cast on Mark’s authorship of this portion. Some do
support Markan authorship but many still contest it.

This being the case some Bibles put contested portions in brackets, in
italics, annotate it and in other cases (1 John 5:7 ESV, NASB, MSG,
HCSB) merely delete it. Open up a commentary and you’ll appreciate the
discussion right away.

Regarding {{Mark 16:9-20}} and authorship—does this invalidate the
passage as a whole? I don’t think so. Many of the things found in this
portion specifically are found in other accounts: Mary and the tomb ({{Mk
16:9-11}} and {{Lk 24:1-12}}), the appearance to the two on the road ({{Mk 16:11, 12}} and
{{Lk 24:13-32}}), The Appearance to the 11 ({{Mk 16:14}} and like all the Gospels ) The Great Commission ({{Mk
16:15, 16}} and {{Matt 28:19,20}}), the Ascension of Jesus ({{Mk 16:19}} and {{Acts 1}}) The
Preaching of the Gospel ({{Mk 14:20}}a and all of {{Acts 28:4-5}}). The miraculous signs have
all the markings of the Old Testament prophets and indeed are evidenced
when Paul is bit by a serpent and doesn’t die.

Why are portions like this even in the Bible? Well, there’s a whole
mess of reasons. In the case of the Old Testament it’s a whole long
discussion of the Septuagint (the Greek translation of some Hebrew Old
Testament manuscript normally called the LXX and done over several
years by different people here and there) having information that the
Masoretic Text (a complete Hebrew Manuscript of the Old Testament that
has been shown to be pretty accurate based on findings of earlier dated
fragments) may or may not have and if the translators were using the
Greek version as a commentary (or not). Little mistakes can be
attributed to a sleepy copier but big portions like the Mark passage
and others could be some helpful Scribe trying to shed light on
things—but causing a bit more trouble in the process. Sometimes, we
just don’t know if the portions are original or not and then there’s
arguments about it.

Should these portions be deleted from Scripture? For a while, I
thought yes. Now, I think it depends. If the portion is clearly not
part of the original manuscripts and the context is already saying the
same thing then yes, delete it. But there’s other reasons passages like
this should stick around.

Firstly, they have played a role in history. There’s plenty of
scholarship work done on the passages and in movements can be
attributed to them. The history alone, I think, is worthwhile enough to
keep the verses (in brackets or something else).

Secondly, portions like this are still great to interpret in
context. A couple of things that you’ll notice that it don’t contradict
any major doctrine. You also get motivated to study the surrounding
passages to see if it flows with the progression of thought in the
passage.

Thirdly, you get motivated to study the rest of Scripture to
properly understand this portion. By studying the passages in light of
the other gospels and the general teaching of Scripture you might find
that it’s not so much a mandate for snake handling and poison drinking
(which I find immensely comforting) but it could apply to something
else (perhaps authenticating the ministry of the Apostles).

Lastly, in some cases we really might not know. That being the case,
it’s sometimes “better safe than sorry” to keep the passages and let
the arguments have their say.

-r-

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