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Eyewitness to Jesus? The Priority of Mark

The Two Source hypothesis solution to the Syno...
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Even though the gospel authors did not identify themselves, indicate when or where they wrote, or list what sources they used in compiling their narrative, modern New Testament scholars have been able to piece together some of this information indirectly from the texts themselves. One of the most profound things to come out of close investigations of the texts is the solution to the so-called Synoptic Problem, which I’ll describe below. This states that Mark (I’ll always refer to the authors by their traditional titles, even though we don’t know their real names for sake of clarity) was written first and that Matthew and Luke independently used Mark as a major source. That Mark was written first is sometimes referred to as “Markan Priority” or the “Priority of Mark.”

What is the Synoptic Problem? Specifically, the problem is one of literary dependence. Synoptic means taking the same point of view. Mark, Matthew, and Luke are called the Synoptic Gospels because, despite some important differences, taken as a whole they are literally very similar (have much material in common). The three books generally follow the same order of events with regards to Jesus’ ministry: They begin with his baptism in the Jordan River and follow with descriptions of his tours through the villages of Galilee. They conclude with Jesus’ one trip to Jerusalem and spend a lot of time describing the final days of his life.

The Gospel according to John, however, is much different despite the fact that the general story line is the same (public ministry, miraculous acts, authoritative teaching, rejection followed by death in Jerusalem). 90% of John’s version is unique to his gospel, just to emphasize the overall difference. In John, Jesus journeys back and forth to Jerusalem while the Synoptics show him traveling there only once. John has Jesus ramble off long, philosophical discourses about his own divine nature and relationship to the Father. The Synoptics, in contrast, have Jesus teaching in parables and aphorisms (quotable statements that often question conventional wisdom), mostly related to the Kingdom of God. John does not discuss the Kingdom of God and the Synoptics shy away from John’s heavy theological philosophy (like that of the Word becoming flesh).

Because the three Synoptic Gospels share so much material and narrative order with each other, they must share some kind of close literary relationship. The Synoptic Problem is the problem of unraveling these literary dependencies.

Mark is considerably shorter than Matthew and Luke, yet Matthew and Luke both generally follow Mark’s layout and content. This would seem to indicate that Matthew and Luke are both expansions of Mark. Indeed, all three Synoptics share some material. Of the 661 verses in Marks’ Gospel, Matthew’s Gospel uses about 607 (92%) and Luke’s Gospel uses about 360 (54%). On the other hand, Matthew and Luke share a large amount of teaching material (“sayings”) that is comparable in form, often agreeing in verbatim, that does not appear in Mark. These verses, shared in Matthew and Luke but absent in Mark, total about 230. Even though Matthew and Luke generally follow Mark’s ordering of events, sometimes they deviate. Either Matthew or Luke may deviate from Mark’s order, but almost never in the same place and in the same way. When Matthew departs from Mark, Luke does not. When Luke departs from Mark, Matthew does not. This suggests that Mark is the determining factor in the Synoptic’s version of the principle events in Jesus’ life, which means that Mark’s gospel is the basis for the other two.

Just as it seems clear that Matthew and Luke rely heavily on Mark for their narratives, it seems just as clear that both Matthew and Luke were written independently of each other. In other words, the author of Matthew was not aware of Luke’s gospel and the author of Luke was not aware of Matthew’s gospel. This fact is evident when you consider Matthew and Luke’s versions of events that are not told in Mark. For example, Mark does not include any birth narratives, genealogies, or post-resurrection stories. Tellingly, Matthew and Luke’s versions of these differ radically, often to the point of contradiction, suggesting that they created these pieces independently of each other.

From all of this, scholars have come up with a two-document theory that explains the literary dependencies between the Synoptics. To summarize, Mark is the source for the chronological framework in Matthew and Luke. Matthew and Luke also used an additional written collection of Jesus’ sayings, which accounts for the 230 sayings verses that are shared between Matthew and Luke but do not appear in Mark. This hypothesized collection is called Q, which comes from the German word for “source,” Quelle. Additionally, of course, both the authors of Matthew and Luke included much of their own material that is distinct to its particular gospel.

The literary dependence of Matthew and Luke on Mark and Q is not consistent with the idea that all three authors were writing as independent eyewitnesses to Jesus’ life and death. The author of Luke, as previously mentioned, actually doesn’t claim to be an eyewitness but rather states that he compiled his account based on secondary written sources and oral accounts (see Luke 1:1-4Open Link in New Window). That Mark and Q were among these written sources is quite evident. That Matthew, who utilizes more than 90% of Mark’s narrative, could serve as an independent eyewitness, cannot be deemed likely. Rather, it seems clear that the author of Matthew worked in a similar fashion as the author of Luke.

This page was last modified on November 13th, 2009 at 7:16 pm


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