The Church Fathers Were Right: Matthew Wrote His Gospel First, Mark Afterwards.

As anyone who has followed my blog knows, I’ve been arguing for a long time that the historical-critical argument that Mark wrote his Gospel first needs to be re-visited.  Or to be more direct, this theory is probably wrong. My initial blog on this subject (The Earliest of the Four Gospels) considers the scholarship.

Who Cares?

Why is this debate even relevant?  Well, most people assume that the authors of the four Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – wrote their stories about Jesus independently. However, we run into a serious difficulty with this assumption when we read the three synoptic Gospels side-by-side. The first three Gospels (Matthew’s, Mark’s and Luke’s) have a lot of very similar material.

The Synoptic Gospels

These three Gospels are known as the “synoptic” Gospels because they see “with the same eye.” Thus, the term synoptic.  But what, exactly, is common to the synoptic Gospels? First, they contain the parables of Jesus. There are about 33 to 37 parables, and eight are common to all three of the synoptics.  The author of John’s Gospel decided not to report the parables of Jesus, because he wanted to emphasize the seven miracles or signs of Jesus in a format that entailed longer narratives, rather than brief snippets of parabolic material.

Secondly, the account of the passion of Jesus is quite similar across the synoptic Gospels.  The differences between Matthew, Mark and Luke are minor. John’s account of the Gospel differs most in detail. Finally, the synoptic Gospels are similar because certain passages mirror each other almost word-for-word. Scholars in the 18th and 19th century found this word-for-word similarity among the synoptic Gospels puzzling, to say the least.

Common Language between Matthew and Mark

Take the following example of similarities between Matthew’s and Mark’s Gospel. They don’t just describe the agony in the Garden of Gethsemene in a similar fashion. These two passages employ nearly the same language. We might say that Mark “redacted” the account found in Matthew’s Gospel. Mark made modest, barely noticeable changes to the original material in Matthew (or vice-versa):

Matthew 26:36-46 Mark 14:32-42
Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to them, “Sit here while I go over there and pray. He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me. They went to a place called Gethsemane, and Jesus said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray. He took Peter, James and John along with him, and he began to be deeply distressed and troubled.My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death,” he said to them. “Stay here and keep watch.
Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” Going a little farther, he fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. “Abba”, Father,” he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.”
Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping.Could you men not keep watch with me for one hour?” he asked Peter. “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the body is weak.” He went away a second time and prayed, “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.” Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. “Simon,” he said to Peter, “are you asleep? Could you not keep watch for one hour? Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the body is weak.” Once more he went away and prayed the same thing.
When he came back, he again found them sleeping, because their eyes were heavy. So he left them and went away once more and prayed the third time, saying the same thing. Then he returned to the disciples and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and resting? Look, the hour is near, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise, let us go! Here comes my betrayer! When he came back, he again found them sleeping, because their eyes were heavy. They did not know what to say to him. Returning the third time, he said to them, “Are you still sleeping and resting? Enough! The hour has come.Look, the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise! Let us go! Here comes my betrayer!

So this begs the question: who wrote first, Matthew or Mark?  

The Fathers of the Early Church asserted that Matthew wrote his Gospel first. These include Papias (130), Irenaeus (c. 130-200), Origen (c. 185-254), Eusebius (c. 260-340) Jerome (c. 340-420), and Augustine of Hippo (c. 354-430).  Daniel Harrington quips that Saint Augustine believed Mark to be a “follower, lackey, and digester of Matthew” (see De Consensu Evangelistarum 1.2.4) While some contemporary scholars might take exception to Augustine’s observation, I think he is partially right. I don’t know that Mark is a follower or lackey of Matthew, but he can be, at times, a slavish copier of Matthew’s longer Gospel.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, Heinrich Holtzmann and Christian Weisse rejected this tradition.  According to these two nineteenth century scholars, the Gospels of Matthew and Luke took material from Mark and another source – the so-called “Q” source.

I pointed out the serious flaws in their work in my previous post. However, I’ve been wondering if there were structural issues in regard to Mark’s Gospel that would indicate that Mark is not our original Gospel.  The answer, in my view, is “yes.”

The Gospels of Matthew and Luke, for instance have highly intentional opening chapters that tell us of the nativity of Jesus Christ. The content is not even common. Though both Luke and Matthew have geneologies, Matthew’s Gospel gives us the visit of the Magi, the flight into Egypt, and the massacre of the infants.  Luke’s Gospel, by contrast, gives us the annunciation and the visitation; the birth of John and the canticle of Zechariah.

Structurally, Matthew inaugurates the ministry of Jesus with the Sermon on the Mount. This spans three chapters.  Matthew then concludes the ministry of Jesus with the Sermon in the Temple. This spans five (!) chapters.  In other words, Matthew’s Gospel is structurally intentional, from beginning to end. The Gospel of Matthew is not a “subsequent edition.” It is not a “Reader’s Digest” version, nor a redaction, nor a summary. It is an original work.

Take, by contrast, the first chapter of Mark. Mark barrels through the preaching of John the Baptist in seven brief verses, jumps to the baptism of Jesus (covered in three verses), and speeds through the temptation of Jesus in the desert in two verses.  In other words, Mark compresses what were 30 verses in Matthew and 30 verses in Luke into 13 verses.

Nor does Mark let up this frenetic pace in the second half of chapter one. Here is a summary of Jesus’ activities: he calls the disciples (five verses, from Mt 4:18), he preaches (two verses), he casts out a demon (six verses, see Luke 4:31-37), he cures of Simon’s mother-in-law (six verses, from Mt 8:14-16), he performs additional cures and exorcisms (three verses), he retires to pray (two verses, see Luke 4:42-43), he preaches and drives out more demons (two verses, see Luke 4:44), heals a leper (five verses, from Mt 8:1-4), and finally retires to pray again (one verse).

Note that the larger pericopes (call of the disciples, the cure of Simon’s mother-in-law, healing of the leper) come from Matthew’s Gospel. If you look closely at Mark chapter one, you’ll note that he summarizes a lot of material so that he can move on to what he regards as important: the ministry of Jesus (as opposed to his birth, or the preaching of John the Baptist). Mark’s Gospel is the work of a redactor of a previous Gospel. Matthew did not borrow material from Mark. On the contrary, Mark summarized Matthew’s Gospel, and added his own reflection based on the memory of Peter and the community of Mark, where he found it to be necessary.

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