Have you ever read a commentary on a passage in the New Testament that involves a textual variant, and you say, “Hmm; let’s see what this other commentator says,” and the other commentator says almost the exact same thing? It’s as if one of them borrowed the other writer’s words, or as if they are slightly rephrasing what was written by an earlier author.
For example, consider what Bart Ehrman wrote in Misquoting Jesus (also published as Whose Word Is It?) on page 48, where the author is illustrating scriptio continua – but can’t spell the jargon – and uses the example, “lastnightatdinnerisawabundanceonthetable” – and you think, “That sounds a lot like what J. Harold Greenlee wrote on page 62 of Scribes, Scrolls, and Scripture. What an amazing coincidence!
Or consider what Bruce Metzger wrote on page 47 of his influential handbook The Text of the New Testament, referring to a phenomenon observed in Codex Vaticanus: “Unfortunately, the beauty of the original writing has been spoiled by a later corrector, who traced over every letter afresh, omitting only those letters and words which he believed to be incorrect.” Years ago, Steven Avery, a KJV-Onlyist, pointed out in an online forum that one might conclude that Metzger had read page 203 of Frederic Kenyon’s much earlier work, Our Bible and the Ancient Manuscripts, and recollected its contents: “Unfortunately, the beauty of the original writing has been spoilt by a later corrector, who, thinking perhaps that the original ink was becoming faint, traced over every letter afresh, omitting only those letters and words which he believed to be incorrect.”
Does this sort of thing still happen? And, are there cases where errors have been perpetuated in this way? Let’s look at what Dr. Norman Geisler, a leading evangelical apologist, wrote about Mark 16:9-20. His statements are still circulated online at the Defending Inerrancy website.
On page 378 of When Critics Ask, Dr. Geisler addresses a question about Mark 16:9-20. He begins with a statement about the 1984 edition of the NIV, which is no longer true since this feature in the NIV was altered in the 2011 revision. Then he makes several claims:
(1) “These verses are lacking in many of the oldest and most reliable Greek manuscripts, as well as in important Old Latin, Syriac, Armenian, and Ethiopic manuscripts.”
This is typical of many commentaries which are echoing Bruce Metzger, who wrote that the ancient manuscripts Vaticanus and Sinaiticus, and one Old Latin manuscript (Codex Bobbiensis), one Syriac manuscript (the Sinaitic Syriac), many Armenian manuscripts, two Georgian manuscripts, “and a number of manuscripts of the Ethiopic version” do not contain Mark 16:9-20. Geisler has merely blurred the data that he got from Metzger – and in the process he turned two manuscripts into “many,” as well as obscuring the important detail that he is referring to minute minorities of Latin and Syriac manuscripts.
Geisler also has failed to update his description of Ethiopic evidence. In 1980, Metzger released the article The Gospel of St. Mark in Ethiopic Manuscripts, in New Testament Tools & Studies, Volume X of New Testament Studies – Philological, Versional, and Patristic. In that article, Metzger retracted his earlier claim and concluded that all existing Ethiopic manuscripts of Mark 16 include verses 9-20. Metzger mentioned this material in a footnote in his Textual Commentary. Unfortunately Geisler never got that information, and no one has told him, so he is still teaching his readers a false claim about the Ethiopic manuscripts.
This sort of mistake can be observed in a tall stack of commentaries which are nothing but echoes of Metzger where text-critical subjects are concerned. The authors did not want to plagiarize, so they took all kinds of liberties in their descriptions of the evidence. The resultant mess is not quite as misleading as those times when Bart Ehrman claimed that the story of the adulteress (John 7:53-8:11) originated in the Middle Ages, but it’s still pretty bad.
(2) “Many of the ancient church fathers reveal no knowledge of these verses, including Clement, Origen, and Eusebius. Jerome admitted that almost all Greek copies do not have it.”
Once again, Geisler is performing reverse ventriloquism. The first edition of Metzger’s influential handbook The Text of the New Testament was the basis for those two sentences. Metzger wrote: “Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Eusebius show no knowledge of the existence of these verses; other Church Fathers state that the section is absent from Greek copies known to them (e.g., Jerome, Epist. cxx. 3, ad Hedibiam, “almost all the Greek copies do not have this concluding portion”).the Greek text of Eusebius’ composition Ad Marinum, in which Eusebius uses Mark 16:9 several times, is now available with an English translation.
(3) “Many manuscripts that do have this section place a mark by it indicating it is a spurious addition to the text.”
This claim is based on Metzger’s statement that “In other witnesses the passage is marked with asterisks or obeli, the conventional sigla used by scribes to indicate a spurious addition to a literary document.” But has anyone ever tried to list those “many manuscripts” that allegedly have special marks by Mark 16:9-20 to signify that the passage is spurious? More on that in a minute.
I have researched the ending of Mark in detail, and my position is that these twelve verses were in the text when the Gospel of Mark first began to be copied and circulated for church-use. Most of what Metzger wrote about this passage is remarkably vague and selective. His comments need significant clarification and supplementation, and when that is provided, the text-critical contest looks very different.
When commentators perpetuate another author’s mistakes like this, it is almost impossible to undo the damage. Metzger’s false claim that some Ethiopic manuscripts end the text of Mark at verse 8 is still being spread not only by Norman Geisler but also by Matt Slick at the CARM website, and by James White at the Alpha & Omega Ministries website. And in the fourth (2005) edition of Metzger’s handbook, The Text of the New Testament, co-edited by Bart Ehrman, even though on page 120 it mentions that Metzger showed that all known Ethiopic manuscripts of Mark 16 support verses 9 through 20, on page 322 of the very same book, there’s the claim that “a number of manuscripts of the Ethiopic version” omit verses 9-20!
Commentators such as Larry Richards, who claims that “many ancient Greek manuscripts” end Mark’s Gospel at 16:8, could not name any of them except for Vaticanus, Sinaiticus, and minuscule 304 – because there aren’t any more than those three.
Writers such as N. T. Wright and Craig Evans, who claim that “a good many of the manuscripts” or “Many of the older manuscripts” have asterisks alongside Mark 16:9-20 to indicate that the passage is doubtful, could not name those manuscripts if their lives depended on it – because there aren’t any. (Dan Wallace attempted to list them and that was an epic fail. Two small groups of manuscripts have special notes accompanying the passage, but the closest that any Greek manuscript comes to simply having an asterisk is minuscule 138, which has an asterisk in the margin, but that manuscript has the usual catena-comment on the passage, and the asterisk is just a proxy for a Eusebian section-number.) And writers such as Ben Witherington III mislead their readers with false claims about Eusebius and Jerome – because the writers did not consult the patristic writings directly, and instead just digested what Metzger wrote, and regurgitated it, all mixed up, into their readers’ laps.
But these commentators were not liars. They were sloppy, lazy parrots who depended on obsolete resources. Evangelical commentators and apologists have a text-critical parrot problem. Let the reader beware.