In Sunday School classes across the country, there was a game that was played as I was growing up. They called it “Sword drill” after the Hebrews 4 passage comparing God’s Word to a sword. The game is quite simple. The Bible is held on top of the students head until the teacher calls out a scripture. Students slam their Bibles on the table and frantically search for the scripture that was called out. The first to arrive at the passage and begin reading would get a point. I have better and kinder Sunday School teachers than I was as a teacher. My two favorite verses to call out to my students were: Acts 8.37 and Mark 15.28. Most likely they are quoted in the footnotes of your Bible, but it is not often they are found in the actual text of your Bible. They are called textual variants (more on that later) and scholars don’t really know what to do with them. It brought me great joy to see the confusion on some of my kids faces…kinda mean right. I always gave them doughnuts to make up for it.
The quotation of Isaiah 53.12 is the textual variant, the added verse, of Mark 15.
Prior to Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in 1439, manuscripts, books, and correspondence was copied by hand. It was an arduous, time-consuming, and precise. Errors in copying, both intended and unintended, happened. Sometimes, scribes hust heard things wrong. At other times things were misspelled. Think back to a time before word check and spell check. Sometimes, the scribe felt background information was needed for the reader to understand (see John 5.4). Or the scribe wanted to harmonize two passages (Luke 11.2-4 and Matthew 6.9-13). It wasn’t an exact science nor is it an easy topic to study. But what does this have to do with Mark 15.28.
It too is a textual variant that most scholars would argue was not in the original text of Mark. Mark was the first gospel written. It lacks the intricate structure that the other gospels possess. It show signs of being written rather hastily. It also doesn’t use OT prophecy in the same way, nor the volume of the other gospels. Mark is like a 6th grader on Red Bull, bouncing around telling the story at a fast pace, hoping his readers can keep up! One of his favorite words is euthus meaning “immediately”! The oldest, most complete, and best preserved manuscripts, codices, and papyri, do not have this verse in them. Some later families have the verse inserted. It is doubtful that Mark wrote this verse.
So if Mark didn’t write it, who did?
This is not meant to weaken anyone’s faith in the Bible or the accuracy of Scripture. To the contrary, I think it can strengthen it. The Bible is more complex yet so simple. It is a simple story of God loving the World, with a storied history.
The early church’s used to get letters and books from writers, make copies, and then send them on to the next one. People would copy down reports and books for their own personal libraries. They shared with one another, traded with one another, and compared libraries. With the same veracity of a 9 year old with Pokemon cards, men of ancient renown collected volumes of documents.
There is no doubt in my mind that John Mark wrote the original gospel of Mark. Ancient historians attest to it, the content seems to point to him, and I believe that he even wrote himself into the book (Mark 14.51-52). But once Mark wrote down his gospel and made his own copies (however many there were); he sent them out to the Church’s as a testimony to the identity of Jesus. And somewhere along the way, someone inserted this verse and it got copied over and over and over. Many later copies of Mark have this verse. It is in both manuscripts and papyri. It is wide spread.
So if it wasn’t original to Mark, and someone else inserted it after the fact, why worry about it here? Why Easter?
First off, Isaiah 53 is finally put in the “right” place. It’s a passage about the sacrifice of the servant in place of the people. And every other place its been quoted, it wasn’t at the crucifixion! Some early scribe, probably thinking about Luke 22, put this verse about “counted with the transgressors” at the cross. Some early believer knew this was something that needed to be spelled out to the readers of Mark.
Secondly, it connects with the mission of Mark. The main point Mark is trying to make is communicated in Mark 10.45: “For the son of Man came not be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” If that isn’t the thrust of Isaiah 53, I certainly don’t know what is. If that isn’t the main thrust of the Crucifixion in Mark 15, I certainly don’t know what is. Some early scribe connected the two and took away the doubt.
Finally, it says something about Isaiah 53. All of the major New Testament authors drew from Isaiah 53 in vastly different ways and for many different purposes. Mark, or should I say the scribes and copiers of Mark, used it in the most straight forward way possible. Jesus hangs between 2 criminals…which is exactly what Isaiah said. Could it possibly be that a scribe, who knew that they did not have apostolic authority or the direct access to an apostle, shouldn’t stray to far from what would be called direct application? Just a thought.
The point is that Isaiah 53 has more than just crucifixion in mind as evidenced through the last week. But when it comes down to it, the major application, the major point of Isaiah 53 is straight forward: a servant took on our sin.
“For the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10.45)