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Markan Priority or Posterity?

Traditionally, Matthew’s Gospel was highly treasured in the early church and listed first in both the Canonical and Western order of the Gospels as well as in the first explicit defense of the authoritative use of four Gospels in Irenaeus of Lyons (Against Heresies 3.1.1). Indeed, Augustine’s opinion that Mark was a follower and abbreviator of Matthew (Harmony of the Gospels 1.3) held sway for roughly 1400 years. Some scholars point to a statement by Clement of Alexandria (in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 6.14.5-7) that the Gospels with the genealogies (i.e. Matthew and Luke narrate Jesus’ ancestry and birth) were published first. However, Stephen Carlson proposed an alternative translation in which the Gospels of Matthew and Luke were published openly before the public while Mark’s text was intended for private circulation (cf. “Clement of Alexandria on the ‘Order’ of the GospelsNTS 47 [2001]: 118-25 ).

The “Griesbach” or “Two Gospel” hypothesis was named after Johann Jakob Griesbach (1745-1812), the first scholar to compose a Synopsis placing the three Gospels side by side in parallel columns, who argued that Mark’s Gospel conflated the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. This theory was a pillar in the theoretical framework of F. C. Baur and the Tübingen School on the conflict between the Jewish Christian thesis and Gentile Christian antithesis that was reconciled by the Catholic synthesis; Matthew’s Jewish Gospel and Luke’s Gentile Gospel were summarized in Mark’s harmonizing account. Today, this theory is a minority view and is supported online at The Two Gospels Hypothesis Website or Geoff Trowbridge’s summary of William Farmer’s case.

If Mark summarized Matthew and Luke, why start with the baptism of Jesus and end at the empty tomb in 16:8 while omitting their birth and resurrection accounts? Why omit the ethical teachings of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount or Luke’s Sermon on the Plain and their other common sayings? Some might answer that Mark focused on the Christian proclamation (kerygma) as recorded in the speeches of Acts, such as Peter’s message extending from Jesus’ baptism to his resurrection and appointment to judge (Acts 10:34-43), but the book of Acts could have been influenced by Mark’s “gospel” outline and Marks story is more than an extended “Passion Narrative.” Finally, why would Mark omit such important material to make room for minor and puzzling additions such as the emotional states of Jesus (Mark 1:41; 3:5), the charge of insanity (3:31), the use of saliva to heal and the two-stage healing of the blind person (7:32-35; 8:23-26), the aside that Jesus cursed the fig tree despite it not being the season for figs (11:14), the mention of the sons of Simon of Cyrene (15:21), and the flight of a naked youth in the Garden (14:51-52). It makes more sense that Mark composed the initial biography of Jesus that Matthew and Luke refined and filled out with additional oral or written traditions. The case that Mark’s Gospel was written first (i.e. Markan priority) is built on the following:

  1. Order: Mark is often the “middle term” and Matthew and Luke rarely agree in wording or order against Mark.
  2. Length: Mark is the shortest of the three and Matthew reproduces around 90% of Mark’s content while Luke around 65% due to some significant omissions (e.g. Mark 6:45-8:26).
  3. Style: Matthew and Luke cut out Mark’s Aramaic expressions (Mark 3:17; 5:41; 7:11, 34; 14:36) and edit Mark’s more elementary grammatical or literary features (e.g. removing Mark’s redundant repetition of the expression “and immediately” or softening some of Mark’s harsher imagery such as Mark 1:12/Matt 4:1/Luke 4:1).
  4. Harder readings: How does Matthew 13:58 reword the statement in Mark 6:5-6 about Jesus’ healing powers? How does Matthew 19:17 reword Jesus’ reply about divine goodness in Mark 10:18? Why does Matthew 14:33 change the response of the disciples in Mark 6:52 to Jesus walking on water and how does this impact how the reader views them (see also the additions of Matthew 16:17-18 or Luke 22:31-32)? Is it more likely that Luke would correct Mark’s reference to Herod as “king” (Mark 6:14) or Mark would change Luke’s accurate title “Tetrarch” (Luke 3:19)? These examples could be multiplied.

There have been rebuttals to the individual points (e.g. William Farmer’s critique of fallacious arguments from order in his article), but the arguments taken collectively have persuaded the vast majority of New Testament scholars. One sign of the consensus is that of the innumerable academic commentaries on Mark’s Gospel, C. S. Mann’s commentary on Mark for the Anchor Bible series is one of the rare exceptions in working from the basis of the Griesbach hypothesis and it has since been replaced by Joel Marcus’s two-volume commentaries that is firmly in support of Markan priority.

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