Monday, March 6, 2023

Saint Augustine and Mark 16:18

           Saint Augustine of Hippo (354-430) is known far and wide for his work in theology, and for his book Confessions and City of God.  Less well-known is his interpretation of part of Mark 16:18.  This is not surprising, since although his name appears in the UBS GNT’s textual apparatus for this verse, his composition On the Soul and Its Origin is not often consulted by modern commentators.  Too many modern commentators do not offer any comment on Mark 16:9-20, except to say that it is a late and spurious passage.  (I know not why they might imagine that the verdict of “late and spurious” is supported by the evidence from the 100s, which is earlier than any manuscript of Mark 16 known to exist.  More about that, God willing, in a future post.)

          But unlike the commentators who are chronologically further away from Saint Mark,  Saint Augustine, who was chronologically much closer, expressed no doubt about recognizing Mark 16:9-20 as authoritative Scripture.  Some people might wonder, “We have heard Papias’ report that Justus (Joseph Barsabas) was compelled by unbelievers to drink snake-poison, and we have read Luke’s report that Paul was not harmed when a viper struck him on the island of Malta.  But it is not as if Justus prepared his own goblet of poison, and Paul had been looking for sticks, not a viper.  Christian congregations throughout the world have not become famous for putting the LORD to the test by picking up snakes or by drinking deadly poison, which is done at some congregations in American Appalachia – sometimes with disastrous consequences.  How did Saint Augustine interpret Mark 16:18?”
          To find out, we need only take in hand Augustine’s book and turn to the second chapter (or, book), and read.  Augustine cited Mark 16:15 in the second chapter of his Fourth Homily on First John, To the Parthians, but for now, let’s focus on his interpretation of Mark 16:18.  Each chapter of On the Soul and Its Origin is a letter.  In the first letter, written to Augustine’s colleague Renatus, Augustine identified and diagnosed some doctrinal errors he had found in two books written by an author named Victor, which Augustine had received from Renatus.  In the second letter, written to a presbyter named Peter, Augustine informed Peter of the false teachings he found in Victor’s two books, and he counsels Peter to work with Renatus to guide Victor away from his erroneous beliefs.

          That is the context of Book 2, chapter 23.  As Augustine advised Peter to vocally and openly guide Victor away from the false beliefs he has expressed – and after he pointed out that Peter might find additional falsehoods that Augustine has not covered – Augustine compared Victor’s teachings to a goblet of poisoned wine:  mostly good, but deadly if consumed.

          Just as poisoned wine might be served in a beautiful goblet, Augustine wrote, harmful doctrines can be delivered in well-crafted words.  And if Peter were to keep silent about what he has read, some people, after observing that Peter has read Victor’s books, might read them for themselves, and not know which parts Peter digests, and which parts he leaves in the cup. 

          Here I turn directly to the text of Augustine’s On the Soul and Its Origin, which I have slightly paraphrased (Book 2 of On the Soul and Its Origin can be read in English at the New Advent website):   

          “They do not know what you have drunk, and what you have left untasted, and so, in light of your wholesome character, they assume that whatever is drunk out of this fountain will make them healthy.  For what are hearing, and reading, and memorizing what has been read, than different processes of drinking.  However, the Lord foretold, concerning his faithful followers, that even if they might drink any deadly thing, it would not harm them.
          “And thus, those who filter what they read with discernment may give their approval to what is consistent with the standards of our faith, and they may disapprove of things that should be rejected.  And thus, although they commit to memory statements which are declared to be worthy of disapproval, they receive no harm from the sentences that are by nature poisonous and depraved.”

           This is a correct way to apply the passage.  Such an interpretation never occurs to many commentators today, I suspect, because either (a) English-speakers mainly think of drinking as something done to a physical liquid (although people still might occasionally say things like, “Soak up this lesson,” or “Savor your victory”), or (b) the commentators fail to interpret all of Mark 16:9-20 because they have not taken a close look at the voluminous evidence in its favor.

          Some people might object, “But brother Snapp, Christ the living Word does not speak in riddles.  And the Holy Spirit does not speak in riddles.” But I  commend to them to perceive the meaning of the parables that Jesus told, to listen again to statements such as Luke 12:49-50 (where Jesus refers to the Holy Spirit as a fire, and to his sufferings as a baptism), and to consider that the words of Psalm 78:2 are repeated in Matthew 13:35.  

          While we are on the subject of Augustine’s use of the final portion of the Gospel according to Mark (which was received in the early church as Mark’s presentation of the memoirs of Saint Peter the apostle), let us take a look at another composition by Augustine:  his Harmony of the Gospels, which he composed before the year 400.

          “But brother Snapp,” someone might say, “Those who study the manuscripts scientifically know that the Western Old Latin text is notorious due to its expansions.”  That is true.  It is also true that the most of the changes found in the Western Old Latin text are benign (usually attempting to clarify or specify the authors’ meaning, although occasionally the attempt is very poorly made, like in Mark 1:41) and where the changes are substantial, they tend not to amount to more than a few agrapha.  Also . . . .”  Keep reading. 

           In Book Three of Augustine’s  Harmony of the Gospels, in the 24th and 25th chapters, Mark 16 is covered in detail. 

          Before focusing on the Gospel of Mark, though, Augustine comments on Luke 24 (showing the “Western” arrangement of the Gospels, Matthew-John-Luke-Mark), only briefly mentioning that “Mark likewise mentions that He appeared first to Mary Magdalene; as also does John,” thus referring to Mark 16:9) and Augustine quotes the Gospel of Luke 24:13-24.  After offering his explanation of how Luke’s account interlocks with the accounts from Matthew and John, Augustine turns to what Paul wrote in his first letter to the church at Corinth:  He was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve.  After that He was seen of above five hundred brethren at once.” 

          Augustine proceeds to explain why Paul would say “the twelve” rather than “the eleven.”  He noticed a textual variant, saying that some copies of First Corinthians 15:5 read “eleven” rather than “twelve.”  [There are a few Greek-Latin copies, D* F G, which display this reading, which shows how the Old Latin text invaded the “Western” Greek manuscripts.]  Granting that there were just eleven apostles after the death of Judas, Augustine explains that there are three options:  (a) either the reading “eleven” is correct, or (b) Paul was referring to twelve other disciples, or (c) Paul used the term ”the twelve” as a symbolically significant number, the twelve apostles being the counterpart to the twelve tribes of Israel (i.e., the ten sons of Jacob + Jacob’s two grandsons Ephraim and Manasseh). By time time Luke wrote, Judas’ place had been taken by Matthias (as Luke reports in Acts 1:15-26). 

          When Augustine reached the passage known today as Mark 16:12, he stated that Mark reports, “And after that He appeared in another form unto two of them, as they walked and went to a country-seat.’” (It should not be overlooked that Augustine does not attribute this to Peter, but to Mark.)  Augustine proceeds to write:  “In the Greek codices, indeed, the reading which we discover is ‘estate’ rather than ‘country-seat.’”  To make sure everyone grasps and understands the significance of the statement from Augustine, I repeat:  Greek copies of the Gospels in North Africa that were used by Augustine in North Africa show that Mark 16:9-20 was included in the text in those Greek copies.

          Also, Augustine’s use of Old Latin copies shows that Mark 16:9-20 was included in Old Latin copies of the Gospels – contrary to what has been claimed by commentators such as Ron Rhodes (see his error on page 31 of The Complete Book of Bible Answers by Ron Rhodes, © 1997 by Ron Rhodes, published by Harvest House Publishers, republished in 2007 as What Does the Bible Say About…?) and James Edwards (see his error on pages 497-498 of his commentary on the Gospel According to Mark in the Pillar Commentary Series, © 2002 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.).

          (I do not wish to depart from the subject of Augustine here, but it should be noted that two Old Latin copies lack Mark 16:9-20:  the copy known as Codex Bobbiensis (VL 1, k), which has a very strange text at the end of Mark – it features an interpolation between Mark 16:3 and 16:4, and its text concludes with a truncated text of verse 8 followed by the “Shorter Ending” – and Codex Vercellensis (VL 3, a), which, due to damage, does not have the pages with text after Mark 15:15 that the codex had before it was damaged.) 

          Augustine’s name appeared in the textual apparatus of the fourth edition of the UBS GNT, but an acknowledgment of the testimony of Augustine’s Greek manuscripts did not.  This oversight should be amended.  Greek copies possessed by Augustine in the year 400 provide substantial early testimony about what Greek text of the Gospels was transmitted in North Africa. 

           Readers who see Augustine’s testimony in favor of the inclusion of Mark 16:9-20, and the testimony of Augustine’s Greek manuscripts in favor of the inclusion of Mark 16:9-20 should also observe a beautiful theme that Augustine mentions:  the parallel between the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve apostles.  The children of Israel would have been made of ten tribes eligible to have land (the tribe of Levi had cities, not territory), if Joseph’s two sons had not been added into the picture (in Genesis 48).  Only after Joseph, Jacob’s favorite son, was removed from the picture, and his place was taken by his two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, did the number of tribes reach twelve. 

          And a counter-part to that is seen in the twelve apostles:  they were initially twelve in number, but Judas betrayed Jesus (a thematic counterpart to the opposition to Jesus by the high priest Caiaphas, of the priestly tribe of Levi), reducing the number of apostles to eleven.  Then James, the brother of John, was killed by Herod according to Luke’s report in Acts 12:2.  That reduced the number of apostles to ten.

          Matthias took Judas’ place (as Luke reports in Acts 1).  And later on, after Jesus called Paul of Tarsus to be his witness, the number of apostles was restored to twelve.  Thus there is a parallel between Ephraim-and-Manasseh and Matthias-and-Paul:  Manasseh was firstborn and had the right to receive the firstborn son’s blessing (and Joseph, in Genesis 48, said that this was his right).  Yet Jacob insisted that while Manasseh would also be great (see Genesis 48:19), he knew that Ephraim would be greater and that his descendants would become “a multitude of nations.”

          Likewise, although James the son of Zebedee was a great apostle, and was chosen first (cf. Mark 1:19), Saint Paul (the last  apostle to be chosen) was greater, for after he heard Jesus’ call, he shared the good news about Jesus Christ to many nations, and wrote epistles which are included among the books of the New Testament, and his spiritual offspring have grown into a multitude of nations all over the world where the good news of Jesus Christ is proclaimed.



  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Thanks James for this insightful and informative blog.

  3. What is significant about Augustine’s testimony is that even though he works off a Latin translation of the Bible in his works, in several places you find him going back to the meaning of the word or the phrase in the Greek text and in doing so he reveals that he is aware of textual variants in the Greek text. He used the long ending of Mark countless times in his works and not even once he mentions that the text is missing in some Greek copies available to him. He is aware that the woman caught in adultery is missing in some copies but not a peep about the long ending of Mark that he used extensively in his works.

  4. James thanks for this blog. One minor point: in your second to last paragraph, "he knew that Manasseh would be greater" should be Ephraim.

    This passage is seen as important for a number of reasons. The fact that Paul survived the serpent poison was a fulfillment of the prophecy in Mark 16:20 that God would "confirm the word" as it was given by the apostles with those signs. And here, we have the statement (commandment) that the Gospel should be preached to "every creature" in the world (verse 15). One could go on but these already serve to demonstrate the importance of the ending of Mark's Gospel.

  5. Andrew,
    Thanks; I have edited that sentence accordingly.