The Problem of Joseph Smith’s Copying of Mark’s Gospel

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3 Nephi 11:33-34 from the Book of Mormon is almost a direct quotation from 16:16 of the Gospel of Mark in the Christian New Testament. According to Mark, Jesus Christ says that “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned” (16:16). 3 Nephi is similar,

“And whoso believeth in me, and is baptized, the same shall be saved; and they are they who shall inherit the kingdom of God. And whoso believeth not in me, and is not baptized, shall be damned” (11:33-34).

For those who are aware of the scholarship on manuscripts of the New Testament this is a problematic quotation in the Book of Mormon. It is all the more concerning for Mormons who hold to the inspiration of Joseph Smith and the texts he produced.

What is the issue here? This small portion of Mark (from 16:9 until 16:20) that speaks of the resurrected Jesus, Jesus’ commissioning of the disciples to proclaim the gospel, and Jesus’ ascension is unoriginal to the original Gospel of Mark. Most scholars, textual critics, and New Testament historians are aware that this small segment in Mark is the work of a scribe somewhere in the early second century CE, which is a long time after Mark’s date of authorship in 70 CE. The earliest and most reliable manuscripts of Mark conclusively show that 16:8 is the original ending of the gospel. Christian Bible translations include a footnote from Mark 16:9 onward stating that it is not included in the earliest manuscripts. The Ryrie Study Bible footnotes the following concerning verse 16:9-20,

“These verses do not appear in two of the most trust-worthy manuscripts of the N.T., though they are part of many other manuscripts and versions. If they are not a part of the genuine text of Mark, the abrupt ending at Verse 8 is probably because the original closing verses were lost. The doubtful genuineness of Verses 9-20 makes it unwise to build a doctrine or base an experience on them (especially vv. 16-18).”

This is problematic to the revelation received by Joseph Smith and to the inspiration of the Book of Mormon. 3 Nephi 11:33-34 quotes an unoriginal part of Mark. This suggests that Smith was unaware that this part of Mark was a later unoriginal addition applied by a scribe. He seems to have assumed that the long ending of Mark (and verse 16:16 in particular) was reliable and that he could make use of it in his own writing. Smith lacked the knowledge that textual criticism and what this field later revealed. Scholars in the early twentieth century and later began noticing the longer ending to Mark to be unoriginal. Smith composed the Book of Mormon in 1830, a long while before these academic developments.

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