22 Aug 2011

J.W. McGarvey’s Evolving Relationship with Mk 16.9-20

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Bible, Exegesis, J. W. McGarvey, King James Version, Restoration History

mcgarveyJ. W. McGarvey is widely regarded as the greatest scholar produced by the Stone Campbell Movement. As we continue to think about the ancestry and history of the King James Version I thought I would tie Stone Campbell history with that of the KJV. McGarvey was indeed a great scholar and one of his strengths was the ability to let fresh light change his mind on even important subjects. Briefly in this blog I will trace the “evolution” of his views on the ending of the Gospel of Mark. His “conclusion” of the matter in his commentary on Mark dating from 1875 (really became nothing but a point on the timeline), his visitation of the subject again in 1886 and then ten years later in 1896 (2x). Its should be fairly obvious that McGarvey softens and alters his original position in light of further evidence.

1875: Commentary on Matthew and Mark

McGarvey has an extended discussion on the ending of Mark in this commentary. He says “Our final conclusion, is that the passage in question is authentic in all its details, and that there is no reason to doubt that it was written by the same hand which indited [sic] the proceeding [sic] parts of this narrative. The objections which have been raised against it are better calculated to shake our confidence in Biblical Criticism than in the genuineness of this inestimable portion of the word of God.” (p. 379).

McGarvey, in his Commentary, had made great efforts to disprove the work of British scholar Henry Alford (The Greek New Testament) who had made — at the time — the most persuasive arguments against Mark 16.9-20. At the end of his discussion McGarvey reveals that he had received John W. Burgon’s The Last Twelve Verses of Mark. He cautiously recommends the book to his readers with this interesting caveat that Burgon tends to be “extravagant in many of his expressions, and often extreme in his conclusions.” McGarvey’s endorsement of Burgon is hardly the wholesale or “over the top” like some of Burgon’s later fans. We will mention Burgon again below.

Also of interest is this interesting qualification that McGarvey make, especially in light of his rather confident “conclusion.” He writes: “The authenticity of the passage being conceded, and the fact being apparent that it was written by some one who possessed of independent and correct sources of information, the question of its genuineness might be waived without detracting from its authority or credibility; for a true piece of history attached to Mark’s book is not less valuable or authoritative because some other person than Mark may have been the author of it . . .

Why make this qualification? Why separate authorship and authority? As McGarvey’s views mature with further study we will see he continues to do this.

1886: Evidences of Christianity

The eleven years after the publication of McGarvey’s Commentary, were years filled with significant developments in the field of textual criticism with many important discoveries and publications. One of the most important was the publication of the 1881 Revised Version of the Bible and Westcott and Horts Greek New Testament and Introduction with the Appendix of variant readings. McGarvey believes that W&H have done a great service to the faith and endorses their work. McGarvey briefly returned to the issue of the ending of Mark. He says, “The genuineness of these [Mk 16.9-20 & Jn 7.53-8.11] is doubted by some critics, though confidently defended, especially the former, by others. Further investigation will doubtless bring all to the same judgment concerning them” (Evidences, pp. 15-16).

In a lengthy footnote McGarvey pitted Hort’s discussion against that of Frederick Scrivener (Introduction to the Critical Study of the New Testament). Scrivener, in McGarvey’s view, has provided an “elaborate answer to all the arguments of Dr. Hort.” But McGarvey does not say anywhere how he comes down on the issue in 1886. Significantly, I think anyway, McGarvey makes no mention — at all — of Burgon’s book that also tried to meet the arguments of Hort.

1896: Christian Standard

We are now twenty-one years after McGarvey’s Commentary and his original conclusion. In the space of two months McGarvey visited the subject of Mark 16.9-20 two times (in his column “Biblical Criticism”). I quoted one of those in my earlier post that was questioned. By this time much more light had been shed on the subject than was available in 1875, and even in 1886. Significantly, McGarvey defers to Alford’s opinion rather than his own (which recall he tried to refute in 1875):

Yes, the statement is true; and it is true of more verses than the gentleman said; for the last twelve verses are absent from the Sinaitic and Vatican MSS., the two oldest now extant, both belonging to the fourth century. They are also absent from some later MSS., and in some others they appear in various forms. The question whether this negative evidence proves that the verses are not genuine, has excited much controversy among textual critics. Some contend that they have been accidentally lost from the few MSS. which have a gap here, while others contend that the original gospel did not contain them. I think the trend of opinion in recent years is in favor of the suggestion first made by Alford — that the fragment was not originally part of Mark’s Gospel but that it is an authentic piece of history appended by a contemporary writer. This would account for its absence from some MSS. and its presence in others.” (“An Oft Repeated Question,” Christian Standard 32 [1896], p.1239).

Immediately one thinks of the “qualification” McGarvey made originally in 1875 in his Commentary — the historicity and authorship do not depend on coming from Mark’s hand. Why is it that McGarvey does not come out as strong as he did in his Commentary? One can see that he has moved in his position regarding the Ending of Mark.

One month later, McGarvey received a question from C.H. Thompson concerning Mark 16.9-20 and Vaticanus. I will quote his reply:

The question of the genuineness of these verses is one of the most intricate with which textual critics of the New Testament have to deal. At the close of my commentary on Mark, I attempted to set forth the principal evidence, pro and con, as it was known at the time of publication. Since then new light has been thrown upon the question, and the most elaborate discussion of it, in the light of them recently gained information, can be found in the appendix to the Greek text of Westcott and Hort. I think that, after a candid study of the evidence as a whole, it must be conceded that the question is as yet unsettled. It would be reckless to say that the passage is spurious; and it would be hazardous to affirm that these verses are certainly genuine. At the same time, I think it safe to say, as I did before, that the statements contained in them are authentic, whether written by Mark or appended by another hand.” (Ending of Mark, Christian Standard 32 [1896], p. 1367).

This is certainly an “evolved” view from his “conclusion” at the end of his Commentary in 1875. He flatly states the question is unsettled and it is hazardous to affirm them as genuine. Dogmatism on the matter in 1896 was not an option. He returns to his position — his “out” — in his commentary. The information in 16.9-20 is accurate whether written by Mark or not. Why? Because the information is all paralleled in the other Gospels. Please note that Burgon is not even on the radar screen of McGarvey any more. In fact McGarvey says that the best discussion to be found is in Westcott and Hort commending that source. There is clear movement, by McGarvey, away from his confident conclusion of 1875. Enough new information had been put forward since 1875 that McGarvey’s scholarly instincts knew more was yet to come.

Wrapping Up

We can learn a great deal from our forefather in the faith.  Probably the most startling fact from McGarvey has to do with his disposition toward learning. McGarvey never assails textual scholars as unbelievers, heretics or attacking the Bible as some lesser men have done in recent years.

In Evidences of Christianity he argues just the opposite that textual critics are actually doing apologetics! His attitude toward Westcott and Hort is in stark contrast to many lesser minds since his day.  The second remarkable part about McGarvey is his willingness to learn new information regarding the matter. McGarvey knew the evidence known in his day actually existed and had to be explained.  He continued to learn because he kept up with the stream of discoveries being made at the time.  Finally, McGarvey as he grew and understood the matter recognized it is NOT simple and thus refused to dogmatize. That is, McGarvey considered the genuine possibility that Mark 16.9-20 was not authentic.

One should note that the question has moved considerably in the 100+ years since 1896. I would estimate half of the info now available was not known in 1896. The status of the versions has changed drastically since then, Burgon’s claims about the Church Fathers has been disproved in study after study. Perhaps we can learn from McGarvey’s willingness to amend his conclusion in light of further information.  There are actually four preserved endings to Mark’s Gospel that are attested in the ancient manuscripts.  As McGarvey would know, the facts of the case actually matter.

McGarvey Appendix

A McGarvey Appendix from a letter I wrote several years ago in response to an opinion I expressed on the Markan Long Ending:

Greetings Brother … from the land of beer and cheese. Thank you for the copy of the article by Brother Wayne Jackson in the Carolina Christian about Baptism and Mark 16.9-20. I read the article. . . agreeing with some . . . disagreeing with some. My reply will be simply to a few short footnotes to the article.

Before I give my two footnotes on Jackson’s article let me say that we should be able to present a biblically based, Christ-centered theology of both the form and function of baptism without recourse to Mark 16.9-20. Now just in case Brother Jackson sees this I confess that I do believe in baptism and Acts 2.38 (all of it). Now to the footnotes.

First the textual issue regarding Mark 16.9-20. Jackson cites J.W. McGarvey as a defender of the authenticity of the “Long Ending” of Mark. McGarvey’s Commentary on Matthew and Mark was published in 1875 (if my memory serves) before the publication of Westcott and Hort’s Greek NT. It was before the discovery of the Syriac MSS at St. Cathrine’s in the Sinai Desert. It was before the discovery of many other evidences that suggest these verses are not authentic. McGarvey’s commentary is about as out of date on textual issues as a book on the Solar System from the same period. That is not a put down just a simple fact.

However, McGarvey was an astute student of textual criticism and his views on the “long ending” of Mark went through considerable evolution after 1875. By 1896, writing in his column in the Christian Standard “Biblical Criticism,” he indicates that Mark probably did not write verses 9-20. Today there are few scholars of any kind (including Churches of Christ) that accept the authenticity of these verses. There are actually four endings to this Gospel that are known. I would not base any “doctrine” on this text. We have nothing to fear from this. As Jackson says in his article (when he critiques A.T. Robertson) we should let “grammar” (i.e. the TEXT) determine our theology and not theology the text.

Second, it is most fascinating that Jackson uses McGarvey in the manner he did. Why? Because McGarvey did not believe that baptism (immersion) was absolutely, necessarily, essential to salvation on that glorious day of reckoning. He declared this very clearly in the Gospel Advocate in reaction to some he believed were taking extreme views on the issue,

“Dear Bro.:
Replying to yours of the 15th, I have no doubt there are pious persons who have never been immersed. It would be absurd and ridiculous to deny it in the face of what we see and know of thousands of persons living and dead who have exhibited self-sacrificing love of God and man, which puts to shame all common disciples. I have as little doubt that many unimmersed persons will be saved in the final day. It is not necessary in order to contend for scripture teaching on the subject of baptism to take the ground that God has tied his hands and put it out of his power to grant mercy to any who have been misled in regard to that ordinance. He has bound us, but he has not bound himself; except that he is bound to do what he has promised. He has not bound himself to do no more than he has promised. Don’t injure the cause of truth by taking positions which rob God of the power to be merciful.

Yours fraternally,
J.W. McGarvey”

(Gospel Advocate [vol 37 [December 12, 1895], 790).

Now I wonder if McGarvey is one of those “apostate change agents” that Jackson was talking about “brother …” But I think McGarvey has some pretty wise words here. We do not have to become folks who rob God of mercy in order to present the biblical theology of baptism. Baptism is, after all, about God’s mercy and grace — to present it as otherwise is to present an untruth.


Concluding Thoughts

I want to recommend an outstanding resource by my friend Stan Helton. Stan has done a yeoman’s task sifting through nearly all the articles published on the textual issue of Mark 16 in the Stone Campbell Movement. See his article “Churches of Christ and Mark 16:9-20” in Restoration Quarterly 36 (1994): 33-52. I give him credit for first calling my attention to McGarvey’s maturing views.

11 Responses to “J.W. McGarvey’s Evolving Relationship with Mk 16.9-20”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    God has commanded baptism “for the remission of sins”. Acts 2:38; 22:16; 9:6; etc. God will not hold some accountable for obeying this command and releases others from obeying it. God cannot lie. Titus 1:2. And He treats mankind fairly. He doesn’t require baptism of some TO BE SAVED and forgive and forget about it when others disobey the command whether it is done because of ignorance or willfully. I just wanted to give my 2 cents. Each man shall be judged according to his own sins. Rom. 14:12. Dan Morris

  2. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:

    Dan I am delighted you have shared your “2 cents.” My intention was to present McGarvey’s views. First I do not need Mk 16.9-20 to speak biblically about baptism. I think had McGarvey been alive today given the trend of his thought and the research that has done in the last century that he would have agreed with contemporary scholarship – which is what he appears to be doing in 1896. Second I wanted to show that one could teach and preach baptism and let God be the judge – McGarvey did that beautifully. The Biblical record on more than one occasion shows God being merciful to not simply those who are mistaken but even those who are rebellious … as he said to Moses – I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy. God is God.

  3. Randall Says:

    As always, I found your post to be interesting and insightful. I have been a little bit of a student of Stone Campbell history and McGarvey has been an important figure.

    I did copy part of your post and placed it in a comment on another blog (Jay Guin’s One in Jesus) that has been dealing with the issue of the view of baptism in the CofC. I thought McGarvery’s words, and yours, were appropriate to the other blog.

  4. Bob Bliss Says:

    Bobby, fascinating story about McGarvey. Did McGarvey write for The Christian Standard? I didn’t come across anything like this during Dr. Robinson’s class. I’m sure in my “younger” years I would have rejected such thinking but now I’m a little more open to such. I, like you, know that losing the longer ending of Mark doesn’t change my theology of baptism. Or my theology about the authority of God’s word.

  5. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:


    How was your class?? As always I am honored to have you reading and especially commenting.

    On McGarvey. McGarvey never was a writer for the Gospel Advocate and certainly not the Firm Foundation. In his opinion they were to extreme.
    After the Civil War and the demise Lard’s Quarterly … McGarvey, along with I.B. Grubbs, Lard, and one more whose name is escaping me for a moment began a journal called Apostolic Times. They were pro-society but anti-IM. After the AT died McGarvey became a columnist for the Christian Standard and remains so until his death. McGarvey never left the “Disciples.” He spoke at the large centennial gathering in Pittsburgh.

    He was a moderate and tried to a large extent embrace the ideals of the “later” Campbell. He could teach baptism without saying God did not reserve the right to be merciful to those who were mistaken. I think McGarvey was probably right.

    Bobby V

  6. Bob Bliss Says:

    Bobby, class was absolutely fabulous!. Dr. Robinson is passionate, energetic, and just plain exciting. I have a whole new outlook about our fellowship. Although my views on our history were certainly changed it left me with a renewed commitment to our heritage and fellowship.

    I guess in my reading I didn’t really catch on to what McGarvey did and what periodicals he wrote for. We really didn’t talk much about him in class and I haven’t done much reading about him on my own.

    I do understand about the “later” Campbell. It is a shame that “our side” of the Stone-Campbell movement took on the Sand Creek mentality instead of the changed Campbell and the Stone mentality. Just shows how much we all need God’s grace.

  7. Gardner Hall Says:

    The fact that God’s mercy is his alone to extend should make us avoid saying that we know it will be offered to the “pious unimmersed.” Perhaps McGarvey gets too close to that line. Yes, we need to remember that he is merciful and therefore never pronounce sentence of condemnation on those who are unbaptized. But neither should we pronounce sentence of salvation nor in any way offer consolation to those who ignore his teaching that baptism is for remission of sins, saves us, etc. (That’s true whether Mark 16:9-20 was written by Mark or not.)

    Thanks for the thoughtful analysis. McGarvey is indeed an interesting figure.

  8. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:


    Your concerns certainly do not hinge on Mark 16.9-20. I do not use those verses and I would not be surprised when we get to the New Heavens/New Earth that the autograph of the Gospel of Mark lacks those verses.

    I appreciate your concern and I think we need to let God be God. However! And I think we can say this both legitimately and biblically … God is our Father. And we should be able to “know” our Father.

    Based upon my life experience with my Dad I can pretty much predict his response in a given situation. I know him. Surely Christians who have been taught to refer to God with the intimate word “Abba” should “know” their Dad well enough from both Scripture and “life experience” to know him.

    Throughout Scripture our Father/Abba is presented as one who “delights” in mercy. He DELIGHTS in it. In spite of our habitual habit of appealing to texts like (half) of Leviticus 10 or Uzzah – texts that are used in a way that is contrary to their intent for neither depict God as acting upon a mere technicality … as the whole story of both texts makes abundantly clear.

    Hosea, Jonah, Ex 34 need to shape the vision we have of our Abba. Thus I have no doubt — along with Alexander Campbell, Moses Lard and J. W. McGarvey — that folks like Martin Luther though mistaken on a few matters but not in rebellion will in fact be around the Table of the Lord in the eschaton.

    I have seen my Abba’s track record.

    Bobby V

  9. Gardner Hall Says:

    Of course when thinking of giants of the reformation and other admirable unimmersed people who have already passed away, it is hard to imagine them as being lost, but the bottom line is that such is not our business, but the Lord’s. I like you can hope and even expect that mercy will have been extended to them, but it is not for me to make that determination. I don’t have to worry about what God has done with them, because it will have been exactly the just and proper thing.

    It is my business, however, to consider how deal with good evangelical friends today who are alive and who have not been immersed into Christ and whether to treat them as full brothers. Can I do that when in the first century, there were simply no unimmersed Christians? Would it not be presumptuous for me to say that such began to be accepted as true disciples around 500 A.D., 1500 AD or whenever?

    God’s “track record” towards those who do not comply with his conditions seems to depend upon their heart. With some, like the Northerners who ate the Passover without the proper cleansing, he chose to extend his mercy. With many others, however, a lack of attention to God’s conditions has indicated presumption, a lackadaisical attitude towards his authority and a trust in men’s teaching rather than a focus on Christ. Only God knows the hearts of those who for whatever reason haven’t been baptized into his son. The only thing I can base my judgment on regarding whether to accept someone as my brother or not, is whether they have accepted his conditions, whether as penitent believes that have been baptized into Christ and washed away their sins or not. If they haven’t, I may admire them and pray that God will extend mercy to them if they pass away without compliance, but I can’t treat them as brethren until I can see that they have been washed in the blood of the Lamb. That’s the careful, respectful approach that avoids presumption and leaves final judgment up to God.

  10. Brent Says:

    Excellent post. I have come to understand that a person who has never changed their understanding or position on a particular spiritual issue during their life is stuck in a spiritual rut. Such a person is not growing spirutually. No one has perfect understanding. I used to think I did, but I know now without doubt that I will never have perfect understanding. My mind is continually being opened to new truths. I think God enjoys watching my mind grow. He did not grant me perfect understanding at the beginning. I know I have not reached the level of knowledge that McGarvey had, but even McGarvey was continuing to have his mind sharpened. He did not close his mind.

  11. James E. Snapp, Jr. Says:


    (Haven’t I seen this material before?) McGarvey’s youngest position is very similar to that of Samuel Tregelles: that Mark 16:9-20 was probably not attached to 16:8 by Mark, but is nevertheless canonical and authoritative. We routinely accept as inspired Scripture passages of books such as Psalms, Proverbs, and Jeremiah while simultaneously granting that they were not added by the primary human authors of those books. Tregelles figured that we should do the same thing regarding Mark 16:9-20.

    You asked, “Why separate authorship and authority?” Because single-authorship has never been a parameter for the canonicity of a book or book-section. Surely you have read commentaries that suggest that John himself did not attach John 21, or that Paul himself did not arrange Second Corinthians 10-13 after Second Corinthians 9. Yet we do not therefore expunge those chapters from the canon or turn them into footnotes, or add headings that convey to readers that those passages should be ignored.

    I suspect that McGarvey focused his view after Broadus (upon whom McGarvey leans repeatedly in his commentary-note) adjusted his view. But that is all we’re looking at here: a focus on the point that Marcan authorship of Mark 16:9-20 is not essential to the acceptance of the passage as Scripture. McGarvey insisted on that point in his earliest comments on the subject.

    The “evolution” that occurs in McGarvey’s position is the degree of certainty with which he accepts the passage. In his youngest comments, his certainty is less. But McGarvey does not move from a position of regarding Mark 16:9-20 as inspired Scripture to a position of regarding Mark 16:9-20 as something other than inspired Scripture. Right?

    Also, regarding what McGarvey said about Burgon’s book: granting that McGarvey did not say that Burgon is a model of restraint and tact, he did recommend Burgon’s book.

    Now, regarding some other things: what exactly are these “Syriac MSS at St. Cathrine’s in the Sinai Desert” to which you refer? I think you must be referring to a single Syriac manuscript, the Sinaitic Syriac.

    You wrote, “McGarvey’s commentary is about as out of date on textual issues as a book on the Solar System from the same period. That is not a put down just a simple fact.”

    The same must be true, then, regarding the commentaries by Hort and Alford, right?

    You wrote, “Today there are few scholars of any kind (including Churches of Christ) that accept the authenticity of these verses.” And there are few scholars of any kind who write about this subject without getting their facts wrong (which Alford did repeatedly, btw), and fewer that write without resorting to vague and misleading expressions.

    Also, you wrote, “Burgon’s claims about the Church Fathers has been disproved in study after study.” To which claims are you referring, specifically? It looks to me like Alford’s claims, not Burgon’s, need the most revision in light of more recent studies and discoveries.

    Yours in Christ,

    James Snapp, Jr.

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