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The Priority of Mark

The Priority of Mark

This web page is a summary of the arguments for the priority of Mark. It largely follows the essays given in The Two-Source Hypothesis: A Critical Appraisal / edited with an introduction by Arthur J. Bellinzoni, Jr., with the assistance of Joseph B. Tyson and William O. Walker, Jr, published Macon, GA by Mercer University Press 1985.

Please also see my page on The Existence of Q.

I also recommend this excerpt from Carl Patton on The Priority of Mark.

I also recommend Daniel Wallace's essay on The Synoptic Problem. Wallace's essay is itself a summary of the arguments given in Robert H. Stein's The Synoptic Problem: An Introduction (Grand Rapids: Baker 1987).

I also recommend Stephen Carlson's summary of The Two-Source Hypothesis.

The Synoptic Problem

Matthew, Mark, and Luke are called the Synoptic Gospels. The double tradition is the term for the material common to Matthew and Luke. The triple tradition is the term for the material found in all three synoptic Gospels: Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The extent of agreement in wording and order in the triple tradition is so great as to demand an explanation of literary interdependence among all three Gospels. The synoptic problem poses the question: which evangelist used which Gospel?

There are four answers to the synoptic problem that have commended themselves in recent years.

  1. The Two-Source Hypothesis
    Mark wrote first. Matthew and Luke independently used both Mark and a document termed Q.
  2. The Farrer-Goulder Hypothesis
    Mark wrote first. Matthew used Mark, while Luke used both Mark and Matthew.
  3. The Griesbach-Farmer Hypothesis
    Matthew wrote first. Luke used Matthew, while Mark used both Matthew and Luke.
  4. The Augustinian-Butler Hypothesis
    Matthew wrote first. Mark used Matthew, while Luke used both Matthew and Mark.

The first two solutions share the trait called Markan priority, that is, the idea that Mark was the first of the synoptics. Markan priority itself is compatible with the Two-Source Hypothesis and with the Farrer-Goulder Hypothesis. The last two solutions are examples of Matthean priority. Lukan priority is rarely supposed. The purpose of this essay is to argue for Markan priority.

The Argument from Sequence of Incidents

Kummel explains two divergences of Matthew from Markan order (op. cit., pp. 57-58):

In connection with the first great discourse of Jesus (Mt. 5-7), there follows a string of ten miracle stories by way of illustrating 4:23; thus Matthew brings together in chs. 8 and 9 miracles that are scattered throughout the first half of Mark (1:29ff.; 4:35ff.; 5:21ff.). (b) Matthew attaches to these miracle chapters a mission address (10:5ff.), as an introduction to which he has moved forward the call of the twelve (Mk. 3:13ff.). Here also can be observed in detail Matthew's alteration of Mark's sequence; the two controversy sayings in Mt. 9:9-17 are out of place in a cycle of miracles and can be accounted for only on the ground that this is where they occur in Mark. Very significant likewise is the comparison of the parable chapter, Mk. 4:1-34, with Mt. 13:1-52: because Mt. 13:36-52 has been added even though the Markan sequence has been maintained, the explanation of the parable of the weeds has been separated from the parable itself by the parables of Mt. 13:31-33 and by a concluding statement in Mt. 13:34-35; further, a second concluding statement follows in Mt. 13:51.

The opposite position - that Mark has altered the sequence of Matthew or Luke - offers no clarification in any of the cases mentioned (Wood offers other examples), so that the hypothesis of Griesbach, according to which Mark has excerpted the other two synoptists, is disproved, as well as the theory that Mark has used and abbreviated either Matthew or Luke.

Wood provides an example in which Markan priority shows its superiority as an explanation in a particular examination of order (op. cit., p. 80):

Unfortunately, Dom Butler does not examine the question of order in detail. If he had done so, he would almost certainly have been forced to recognize against and again that Mark's order is original and Matthew's secondary and derivative. Indeed, one clear instance would suffice. In Mk. I, the call of the first four disciples is followed by the entry of Jesus into Capernaum. The scene in the synagogue on the Sabbath is linked with the healings at sunset. Because it was Sabbath, the people waited till the Sabbath was over before bringing their sick to be healed. The series of events reads like Simon's recollection of his first Sabbath with the Master. Of this interconnected series, Matthew has only the call of the four disciples and the healing of Simon's mother-in-law, followed by healings at sunset. The call of the four disciples is related in ch. 4, and the other two incidents are related in ch. 8 after the healing of the centurion's servant. By linking the healing of Simon's mother-in-law with the healing of the centurion's servant Matthew gets the place right. He brings Jesus in to Capernaum and so into the house of Peter, but he misses the note of time. He does not hint that these two cures took place on the Sabbath, as he has omitted the scene in the synagogue. Consequently, there is no point in his saying that the cures on a large scale took place "at even." Only if the healing in Simon's house took place on the Sabbath would the people have waited till sunset before bringing their sick to be healed.

Wood provides another example in which Markan priority is demonstrated in the arrangement of material. In Mk 2:1-3:6, there are "a series of incidents, not necessarily connected in time or place, but linked together by the them of the growth of Pharisaic opposition" (op. cit., p. 81). Wood finds it difficult to believe that Mark drew his material from Matthew because Matthew places the first three incidents in chapter 9 and the other two in chapter 12 (op. cit., p. 82): "Again, the probable conclusion is that the order is original in Mark and that Matthew took it over from Mark but failed to perceive the connexion between the first three and the last two incidents."

Wood also sees the priority of Mark in the evangelist's use of the literary device called chiasmus, that is, the pattern a b b a, which Mark uses in order to indicate a passage of time between the beginning and end of a given incident a by inserting the b material. This pattern is found in chapter 3, where Jesus' family decide to have him arrested and the accusation of possession by Beelzebub is sandwhiched inbetween. This pattern is also found in chapter 6, where the death of John the Baptist is placed to indicate the passage of time for the mission of the Twelve. In each of these cases, it is easier to suppose that Mark is the original literary artist, while Matthew contains the memory of Mark's order without retaining Mark's narrative logic.

Concerning Mark's story about Jesus' family in chapter 3, Wood writes (op. cit., pp. 82-83):

For though Matthew's narrative is affected by the marshaling of events in this order these two blocks as arranged in Mark are not to be found in Matthew. In the first instance, Matthew's narrative has b b a. He appends the repudiation of his relatives by Jesus to the criticism of the Pharisees, and Jesus' answer to them. But the first part of Mark's a b b a is missing. In consequence, the reason for Jesus' refusal to speak to His relatives is left unexplained, and His apparent discourtesy becomes unintelligible. Nor is there any ground in Matthew for associating this incident with what immediately proceeds. The connexion of the intervention of the relatives with the verdict of the scribes, which is patent in Mark, is lost in Matthew. The conclusion seems inevitable. The order is original in Mark; it is secondary and derivative in Matthew.

Concerning Mark's story concerning the mission of the Twelve, Wood argues (op. cit, p. 83):

Matthew records the mission of the Twelve in ch. 10. He nowhere troubles to mention their return. Much later in ch. 14 he records the judgment of Herod that Jesus is John the Baptist risen from the dead, and relates the story of the death of John the Baptist. He follows this with the withdrawal of Jesus to the desert and the feeding of the multitude. Here, again, Matthew seems to have had Mark's pattern a 1, b, b, a 2, before him, but having separated a 1 from the rest of the block, he has no real grounds for following b b by a 2, and he proceeds to make a quite impossible connectio nbetween b and a 2. Misunderstanding his source and the situation, he assumes that the death of John the Baptist took place just before the feeding of the multitude and is the occasion for the withdrawal of Jesus to the wilderness. He tells us that the disciples of John buried John's body and went and told Jesus who, on hearing this, withdrew to a desert place apart. But manifestly the death of John the Baptist had taken place some time before the Twelve set out on their mission and before Herod could say of Jesus, this is John the Baptist risen from the dead. The juxtaposition of the story of the death of John the Baptist with the story of the feeding of the multitude is original in Mark. Mark is not correcting a blunder in his source, presumed to be Matthew. Matthew is misunderstanding a succession of incidents which he found in his source, which appears to be Mark.

This same argument is presented by G. M. Styler (op. cit., p. 71):

We have passed on to an argument which to the present writer puts the priority of Mark beyond serious doubt, namely, that there are passages where Matthew goes astray through misunderstanding, yet betrays a knowledge of the authentic version -- the version which is given by Mark. The two accounts of the death of the Baptist (Mk. 6:17-29; Mt. 14:3-12) contain clear examples of this. Mark states fully the attitude of Herod to John; he respected him, but was perplexed; and it was Herodias who was keen to kill him. And the story that follows explains how in spite of the king's reluctance she obtained her desire. Matthew, whose version is much briefer, states that Herod wanted to kill John. But this must be an error; the story, which perfectly fits Mark's setting, does not fit Matthew's introduction; and at 14:9 Matthew betrays the fact that he really knows the full version by slipping in the statement that "the king" was sorry. It is surely clear that Matthew, in a desire to abbreviate, has oversimplified his introduction.

Further, both Mark and Matthew relate this story as a "retrospect" or "flashback," to explain Herod's remark that Jesus was John risen from the dead. Mark quite properly finished the story, and then resumes his main narrative with a jump; Matthew, failing to remember that it was a "retrospect," makes a smooth transition to the narrative which follows: John's disciples inform Jesus; and "when Jesus heard. . ." (Mt. 14:12-13).

While Wood argues that Mark's order is prior to Matthew's, Fitzmyer develops several particular arguments from order to show that Mark's arrangement is also prior to Luke's (op. cit., p. 42):

One last remark in this matter of order pertains to the so-called Lukan transpositions. In at least five places Mark and Luke do not have the same order of episodes, where they might have: (1) The imprisonment of John the Baptist (Mk. 6:17-18) is found in Luke 3:19-20. (2) Jesus' visit to Nazareth (Mk. 6:1-6) is found at the beginning of the Galilean ministry in Luke 4:16-30. (3) The call of the four disciples (Mk. 1:16-20) appears later in Luke 4:16-30. (4) The choosing of the Twelve (Mk. 3:13-19) and the report of the crowds who followed Jesus (Mk. 3:7-12) are presented in an inverted sequence in Luke 6:12-16, 17-19. (5) The episode about Jesus' real relatives (Mk. 3:31-35) is found after the parables in Luke 8:19-20. Of less significance are two other episodes that appear in a different order: the parable of the mustard seed (Mk. 4:30-32), which is found in Luke 13:18-19 (in this instance an independent Lukan source may be involved); and the betrayal of Jesus (Mk. 14:20-21 and Lk. 23:21-23, an episode of the passion narrative). In any case, a more plausible reason can be assigned for the transposition of the five episodes by Luke than for their transposition by Mark. This would again argue for the priority of Mark over Luke.

Thus, it is most plausible to see Mark's order as original and prior to both Matthew and Luke.

The Argument from Grammar and Aramaicisms

Streeter formed the argument in this way (op. cit., p. 29):

Matthew and Luke regularly emend awkward or ungrammatical sentences; sometimes they substitute the usual Greek word for a Latinism; and there are two cases where they give the literary equivalent of Greek words, which Phrynichus the grammarian expressly tells us belonged to vulgar speech. Lastly, there are eight instances in which Mark preserves the original Aramaic words used by our Lord. Of these Luke has none, while Matthew retains only one, the name Golgotha (27:33); though he substitutes for the Markan wording of the cry from the cross, "Eloi, Eloi..." the Hebrew equivalent "Eli, Eli..." as it reads in the Psalm (Mk. 15:34 = Mt. 27:46 = Ps. 22:1).

Kummel also makes use of this argument (op. cit., p. 58):

But when the word usage of Matthew and Luke is compared with Mark, it is apparent either that Matthew and Luke have in large measure changed the colloquial or Semitic text of Mark into better Greek, and have done so in the same or similar ways, or that only Matthew or Luke has affected any such alteration: cf. the replacement of krabattoV (Mk. 2:4) by klinh (Matthew) or klinidion (Luke), or the change of the difficult construction ti outoV outwV lalei; blasfhmei (Mk. 2:7) in different ways by Matthew and Luke.

Styler provides a single example (op. cit., p. 69): Mk. 10:20 has efulaxamhn, which is gramatically incorrect. Mt. 19:20 reads the correct form, efulaxa.

On the basis that it is more likely that the later evangelists corrected grammatical errors (rather than introducing them) and that a Greek writer is unlikely to introduce Aramaic words into his source (while it is likely that they removed them for their Greek-speaking audience), the priority of Mark is seen.

The Argument from Harder Readings

This argument was advanced by Streeter (op. cit., p. 28):

In the same spirit certain phrases which might cause offense or suggest difficulties are toned down or excised. Thus Mark's "he could do there no mighty work" (6:5) becomes in Matthew (13:58) "he did not many mighty works"; while Luke omits the limitation altogether. "Why callest thou me good?" (Mk. 10:18) reads in Matthew (19:17) "Why askest thou me concerning the good?"

Kummel provides more examples of harder readings in Mark (op. cit., p. 59):

More decisive than the purely linguistic alterations of the Markan text are the indications of substantive changes. In Mt. 3:16 euquV before anebh apo tou udatoV is incomprehensible, but is readily explained on the basis of Mk. 1:10 euquV anabainwn...eiden. In Mt. 9:2 the reason for the remark "Jesus saw their faith" cannot be discerned; Mk. 2:4, however, reports the most unusual undertaking of bringing the sick man to Jesus by digging a hole in the roof, a detail which MAtthew has obviously omitted. In Mt. 14:1 the correct title for Antipas is used, tetrarchV instead of the popular basileuV in Mk. 6:14, but in 14:9, Matthew has basileuV (= Mk. 6:26), which can only be understood as a careless taking over of the Markan text. Still more striking is the replacement of Mk. 10:48 ti me legeiV agaqon by the inoffensive ti me erwtaV peri tou agaqou in Mt. 19:17, and the strengthening of eqerapeusen pollouV (Mk. 1:34) to pantaV (Mt. 8:16) and eni ekastw (Lk. 4:40). Here, as in other places, Luke appears to be secondary: instead of the ambiguity of the subject in Mk. 2:15, "As he sat at table in his house," Lk. 5:29 has the clarification, "Levi arranged a great feast in his house." In Lk. 23:18 it is incomprehensible why the crowd suddently asks for Barabbas to be freed, especially since he is not even identified until the following verse, but Luke has omitted the information given in Mk. 15:6 about Pilate's custom of releasing a prisoner.

Styler presents an argument along the same lines (op. cit., pp. 70-71):

In some passages Mark is suggestive but obscure, and Matthew's parallel looks like an attempt to leave the reader with an edifying message; but we are left with the suspicion that Matthew has not penetrated to the real sense. Compare, for example, Mk. 8:14-21 with Mt. 16:5-12 where Matthew interprets the "leaven" against which Jesus warns his disciples as "the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees."

But the best instance is the difficult passage about the purpose (or effect) of parables. Butler's treatment of this leaves me quite unconvinced. Matthew seems here to be trying hard to extract a tolerable sense from the intolerable statement that Mark appears to be making, namely that Jesus taught in parables to prevent outsiders from having a chance of understanding and being converted. He assumes that Mark's "all things are (done) in parables" means "I speak in parables." But recent commentators have suggested a line of interpretation of Mark's text which the present writer finds wholly satisfying; namely that the same teaching is put before all by Jesus, but whereas some by God's grace penetrate to its inner meaning, for others it remains external, a parable and nothing more; and herein the dark purpose of God, as predicted in Isaiah, is fulfilled. Mark may have partly misunderstood what he recorded; but it seems certain to the present writer that his words are closer to the original, and that Matthew's version is an unsuccessful attempt to simplify what he found intolerable.

Another example of misunderstanding by Matthew may be claimed at Mk. 2:18 (= Mt. 9:14). Mark's first sentence ("the disciples of John and the Pharisees were fasting") sets the scene; then "they" ask Jesus why his disciples, unlike those of John and of the Pharisees, do not fast. The persons who ask are surely not the ones who were the subject of the previous sentence; they are persons unspecified. Matthew's sentence is much shorter and neater. But he obviously assumes that "they" are the disciples of John and the Pharisees.

Geza Vermes offers these examples of harder readings in Mark (The Changing Faces of Jesus, p. 234):

Before healing a leper, Mark's Jesus is moved by pity toward the sick man, or according to a manuscript variant by anger, no doubt directed at the demonic source of the disease (Mark 1:41). Neither Matthew nor Luke refers to the state of mind of Jesus. Again, in Mark, Jesus looks at his critics with anger (3:5). Luke omits "with anger" (Luke 6:10) and Matthew deletes the whole sentence (cf. Matt. 12:12-13). The comment by Jesus' relatives that he is out of his mind recorded in Mark (3:21) proved too much for both Matthew and Luke; they ignore the words altogether. The Pharisees' request for a sign from heaven makes Jesus groan before replying (Mark 8:12). Luke implies that Jesus did not anser (Luke 11:16) and Matthew overlooks the undignified sigh (Matt 16:2). Luke and Matthew edit out Mark's allusion to Jesus' annoyance with his disciples when they tried to keep children away from him (Mark 10:14; cf. Matt. 19:14; Luke 18:16). Mark's Jesus frequently displays ignorance: he asks for the name of a demon (5:9). The question is copied by Luke (8:30) but left out by Matthew. Mark's report on a less than perfect healing performance by Jesus is upwardly revised by Matthew and Luke: instead of curing "many" (Mark 1:34; 3:10), he cures them "all" (Matt. 8:16; Luke 4:40). In Mark, Jesus' inability to perform "mighty works" in Nazareth apart from healing a "few" sick people (6:5) becomes in Matthew "he did not do many might works there" (13:58); there is no parallel in Luke.

On the basis that it is more likely that the later evangelists worked around the harder readings than it is that Mark introduced them, Markan priority follows as a conclusion from this evidence.

The Argument from Redaction

Although the argument has not been found in these essays, it is advanced by Robert Stein and is summarized by Daniel Wallace in his essay.

To the examples that have been given for the omission of Matthean redaction, I will add a few more examples. In Mt 24:14, there is the unparalleled statement, "And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached throughout the whole world, as a testimony to all nations; and then the end will come." This is to be seen as a piece of Matthean redaction, fitting with the theme of spreading the gospel to all nations (cf. Mt 28:19). But this sentence find no parallel in either Mark or Luke.

In Mk 13:18, we find the statement, "Pray that it may not happen in winter." In Mt 24:20, we find, "Pray that your flight may not be in winter or on a sabbath." The Matthean version is a relatively awkward construction, as one might expect the writer to choose one or the other: either winter or the sabbath. The addition also fits Matthew's redactional aims, and thus it is more plausible to see the Markan version as primary.

Twice in Matthew we find the laconic phrase "You have said so" on the lips of Jesus, in response to Judas in Mt 26:25 and in response to the high priest in Mt 26:24. These are in passages that are otherwise almost identical between Matthew and Mark. It is easier to understand them as Matthean additions to the Markan account than to think that the author of Mark would have noticed and excised the Matthean phrase in both cases.

The Argument from Theology

Fitzmyer expresses the point in this way (op. cit., p. 39):

What sort of early theologian does Mark turn out to be if his acount is based on Matthew and Luke? Having behind him the certainly more developed Christologies and ecclesiologies of Matthew and Luke, what would be his purpose in constructing such a composition? There is an unmistakable Markan theology, with which one has to cope, as is now evident from the study of the Redaktiongeschichte of the second Gospel. But that this was produced by an abbreviation of Matthean and/or Lukan theologies is incomprehensible to most students of the Synoptics.

Streeter suggests one way in which the more primitive theology of Mark is suggested (op. cit., p. 28):

This confirms the conclusion, to which the facts mentioned already point, that the Markan form is the more primitive. Of these small alterations many have a reverential motive. Thus in Mark, Jesus is only once addressed as "Lord" kurie, and that by one not a Jew (the Syrophoenician). He is regularly saluted as Rabbi, or by its Greek equivalent didaskale (Teacher). In Matthew kurie occurs 19 times; in Luke kurie occurs 16, epistata 6 times.

Both Matthew and Luke show clear concern for the ongoing role of the church. By contrast, as Norman Perrin argues, the Gospel of Mark shows no concern for a period of time between the resurrection and the parousia. It is difficult to understand how Matthew could have written the "Little Apocalypse" yet also be concerned for the authority of Peter and the mission to all the nations. It is even more difficult to understand why Mark, presumably the later evangelist, would evince no such ecclesiastic concerns. The evidence is best explained on the hypothesis that Mark was the first of the synoptics and was written shortly after the First Jewish Revolt when expectations of the imminent parousia were very strong. Matthew and Luke were written when the ongoing role of the church had become more important because the expectations of the parousia had been pushed forward.

The Argument from Content

Ninety percent of Mark is shared with Matthew, while fifty-five percent of Mark is shared with Luke. At first glance, this could be explained in a way other than Markan priority; for example, it could be explained on the basis that Mark conflated Matthew and Luke. However, the amount and type of material that the evangelist Mark would have had to have passed over in his alleged abridgment and the character of Mark's own content make it more probable that Mark's role is that of a source behind the other two.

The argument from content looks at the special Markan material that is not found in Matthew and Luke and suggests that it is much easier to explain the omission of this material by Matthew and Luke than it is to explain the omission of the double tradition, special Matthean, and/or special Lukan material by the evangelist Mark. There's next to nothing in Mark that is not also present in Matthew, while there is relatively enormous amount of material found in Matthew but not Mark (or in Matthew but neither Mark nor Luke). Since so much of Mark is already present in Matthew, it is easier to see why Matthew was written given the existence of Mark that it is to understand why someone produced Mark given the existence of Matthew. Furthermore, since Mark would then be seen as a sort of synoptic harmony, Daniel Wallace has urged that it is somewhat difficult to understand why Mark would have been preserved and accepted as canonical. The theory of Markan priority explains why Mark was not eclipsed entirely by Matthew and Luke.

Georg Werner Kummel argues in this way (op. cit., p. 54):

In the material that is common to all three, Matthew and Luke have extensive congruence with Mark. On the basis of the resulting presupposition indicated by this evidence -- that Mark could be the common source for Matthew and Luke -- the omission of small bits of Markan special material by Matthew and Luke is thoroughly comprehensible; the two healings (by means of magical manipulations) and the position adopted by the relatives of Jesus are offensive; Mk. 9:49 is incomprehensible; the note in 14:51 is no longer of any interest; only the omission of the seed parable is inexplicable, although Mt. 13:24ff. does have at this place in the Markan structure the parable of the tares among the wheat. That Matthew and Luke must have used a very similar source is implied in any case by a comparison of the extent of the material. For the dependence of Mark on Matthew and/or Luke, or of Matthew on Luke, or of Luke on Matthew is inconceivable, since the omissions which would have to be assumed are incapable of explanation.

G. M. Styler expresses the argument in this way (op. cit., p. 73):

In the next place, Mark, if he is using Matthew, has used only about 50 percent of his subject-matter, but has expanded it in the telling. But it is hard to see why he should have omitted so much of value if he was using Matthew: not only the Sermon on the Mount and much teaching besides, but also the narratives of the Infancy of Jesus. Mark does include teaching; and so it cannot be replied that he was only interested in narrative.

The point may be put like this: given Mark, it is easy to see why Matthew was written; given Matthew, it is hard to see why Mark was needed.

Griesbach suggests that Mark omitted the infancy narratives because of his emphasis on Jesus as teacher. Farmer argues that Mark modeled his Gospel on the Petrine speeches in Acts, which don't include the infancy narrative. John Kloppenborg elaborates on the argument concerning the omission of the infancy narratives in response (Excavating Q, p. 17):

In his comparative analysis of Greco-Roman biographies, Philip Shuler (1990) observed that infancy accounts typically functioned in order to serve the eventual characterization of the adult life of the hero. Thus there are good reasons for imagining why Matthew and Luke would add them: they were simply conforming their accounts to the typical features of biographies. Shuler noted that some biographies lack infancy and childhood stories. The Gospel of the Ebionites and Marcion deliberately omitted infancy narratives for theological reasons. In order to make plausible Mark's omission of the infancy accounts, however, it is not sufficient simply to note that some biographies lack these stories. It would be necessary to supply other editorial reasons for Mark's omission -- for example, that he had come to think of Jesus' kin as opponents or as persons of inferior belief. As I have argued elsewhere, it would also be necessary to suggest a historical or social setting in which such a strategy would be intelligible (Kloppenborg 1992b). None, thus far, has been proposed.

Fitzmyer argues that Markan priority is the best explanation for several reasons (op. cit., pp. 38-39):

When the argument is left on the theoretic level, as it often is, the priority of Mark appears to be more of an assumption than a conclusion. But the retort is made that the priority of Mark over Matthew and Luke depends as well on the concrete comparison of individual texts and on the complex of subsidiary questions related to it that must be answered. For instance, in the case of the latter one [that Mark is intermediate but not primary, on the Augustinian or Griesbachian hypotheses] one may ask a series of questions: (1) Why would anyone want to abbreviate or conflate Matthew and Luke to produce from them a Gospel such as Mark actually is? (2) Why is so much of Matthew and Luke omitted in the end-product? Why is so much important Gospel material that would be of interest to the growing and developing church(es) eliminated by Mark? Why, for example, has he omitted the Sermon on the Mount and often encumbered narratives in the retelling with trivial and unessential detail (for example, the cushion on the boat in Mark 4:38; the "four men" in Mark 2:3 and so on). In other words, given Mark, it is easy to see why Matthew and Luke were written; but given Matthew and Luke, it is hard to see why Mark was needed in the early Church. (3) How could Mark have so consistently eliminated all trace of Lukanisms? If he were a modern practicioner of Redaktionsgeschichte, the elimination might be conceivable. But was he so inclined? (4) What would have motivated Mark to omit even those elements in the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke that are common? His alleged interest in narratives, rather than teaching, would have led him instead to present a conflated and harmonized infancy narrative. (5) Mark's resurrection narrative, even if it be limited to 16:1-8, is puzzling. Can it really be regarded as an abbreviation or conflation of the Matthean and/or Lukan accounts?

Indeed, the last point alone is a strong one. All recent commentators on the synoptic resurrection narratives have worked within the framework of Markan priority: these include Edward Lynn Bode (The First Easter Morning), Reginald H. Fuller, (The Formation of the Resurrection Narratives), Herman Hendrickx (The Resurrection Narratives of the Synoptic Gospels), Willi Marxsen (Jesus and Easter), and Norman Perrin (The Resurrection according to Matthew, Mark, and Luke). These authors indicate several ways in which the stories seem to have developed from Mark to the later evangelists. Matthew and Luke seem to have worked around the strange note of silence on which Mark ends, just as an anonymous second century scribe worked around it by adding the longer ending. If Matthew is considered to be the first gospel, it seems incredible that the later evangelists would have passed over in silence so many important features of Matthew's narrative, from the great earthquake (Mt 28:2-3) to the guard at the tomb (Mt 27:62-66; 28:4,11-15). It is easy to see the development of the resurrection narratives from the Markan story to the elaborate legends of Matthew and Luke, but it is more difficult to see a development in the opposite direction. The story of the guard at the tomb is particularly telling because it has been weaved throughout the Matthean resurrection narrative. It is difficult to explain why Mark and Luke would have carefully excised all the material about the guard at the tomb in their own stories.

The same is true of elements special to Matthew's passion story: the death of Judas (Mt 27:3-10) as well as the earthquake and the rising of the saints (Mt 27:51-54). It is easier to see the legendary accretion of these Matthean elements than it is to see their scrupulous omission by the authors of Mark and Luke. Indeed, note that the exclamation of the centurion in Mt 27:54 is prompted by the wonders of "the earthquake and what took place." Instead of supposing that the author of Mark retained the exclamation while forgetting the explanation, it makes more sense to posit the elaboration of the story by Matthew.

Styler has also advanced this argument for the priority of Mark (op. cit., p. 74):

Lastly, an examination of Matthew's additions tells heavily against his priority. Under this head are two classes of passage. (i) First, pieces of teaching included by Matthew but absent from the parallel section of Mark. Butler claims that Matthew's whole context hangs together; and if he has really inserted them into a framework provided by Mark he has done so with a felicity that is beyond belief. But, with some exceptions, this judgment will be challenged. Thus, in spite of Butler's claim that the famous Tu es Petrus passage has parallels or antitheses with both the preceding and following verses, few will find him convincing. On the contrary, the passage will still seem to many to be an insertion into Mark's account of Peter's confession of faith -- although not, of course, necessarily an invention.

(ii) There are also some narrative additions in Matthew which seem to stem from later apologetic, or even from the stock of legendary accretions which are evident in the apocryphal Gospels. Butler argues strongly that any such judgment is premature and unwarranted; that if the detailed comparison of Matthew and Mark proves Matthew to be older, then that verdict must be accepted, and any suspicion that Matthew's special narratives are "late" must be mistaken. But since we hold that the detailed comparison of Matthew and Mark tells in the other direction, in favor of Mark's priority, then the judgment that Matthew's narratives are late, and sometimes close to the legendary, must be given full weight.

When all these considerations are taken together, the idea that Matthew and Luke added their materials to the Gospel of Mark is seen to be a much better answer to the synoptic problem than the idea that Mark produced an abridgment of Matthew or of the other two.


Several different types of evidence converge on the hypothesis of Markan priority:

  1. The Argument from Sequence of Incidents
  2. The Argument from Grammar and Aramaicisms
  3. The Argument from Harder Readings
  4. The Argument from Redaction
  5. The Argument from Theology
  6. The Argument from Content

Thus, the supposition of Markan priority is a secure and well-founded one.

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Kirby, Peter. "Greek Reconstruction of 0212." Early Christian Writings. <>.