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What Did Matthew and Luke Think about Mark?

In this post, I will refer to the Gospels by their traditional names (i.e. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) as a matter of convenience, presuppose the theory of Markan priority (i.e. Matthew and Luke depended on Mark), and bracket out the debate over whether or not John was dependent on Mark. Although the case for why Mark was most likely the source for Matthew and Luke is presented in textbooks introducing the New Testament (see my posts here and here), the question in the title of this post is not always asked. How did Matthew and Luke evaluate their main source when they reproduced around 90 and 65 percent of its content respectively, but edited it along the way and expanded it with material drawn from other sources on Jesus’s miraculous conception, words, deeds, and resurrection appearances.

When working on my dissertation, I was influenced by David Sim’s article “Matthew’s Use of Mark: Did Matthew Intend to Supplement or Replace His Primary SourceNTS 57.2 (2011): 176-92. He observes that Matthew corrected Mark’s grammar, lengthened Mark’s narrative, deleted Markan passages that seemed irrelevant or offensive, edited other Markan passages to support his views, and updated the story of Jesus to be applicable to his own “community” in the late first century (179-81). Sim judges it inconceivable that Matthew’s readers continued to consult Mark once they had a corrected, updated Gospel (182-3). Further, the motive for replacing Mark, Sim infers, was to reject Mark’s “Pauline” stances on the Law of Moses and the leaders of the Jerusalem Church (i.e. the Twelve, the family of Jesus) (185-8). Sim reaches similar conclusions about Luke’s intentions to replace Mark in light of his more drastic editing of Mark (189). Moreover, he follows many commentators in detecting a critique of Luke’s predecessors in Luke 1:1-4, which contrasts the previous attempts to write accounts about Jesus with the evangelist’s orderly narrative (188).

J. Andrew Doole answers this question differently in his book What Was Mark for Matthew (WUNT 2.344; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2013). Against scholars who infer that Matthew’s primary interest was in the sayings of Jesus that he took over from Q and only integrated into Mark’s narrative framework at the secondary stage, his main aim is to “stress the proximity and loyalty of Matthew to Mark. The proposal is that Matthew is essentially a Markan Christian” (10). Thus, he underscores that Matthew largely produced a new edition of Mark that left its narrative intact, though he supplemented it with material taken from Q, “M” (he does not view this material as deriving from a single written source or reflecting Matthew’s own redactional work), and the Jewish Scriptures, and that there is a lot of continuity between Mark and Matthew in spite of Matthew’s relatively minor re-arranging or editing of his Markan source. I engaged Doole’s thesis in a popular-level review of the book for the Marginalia Review of Books, while Joseph Verheyden wrote an article in response entitled “Matthew’s Building Blocks – Mark and Q: A Critical Look at a Recent MonographIn Die Skriflig 49.1 (2010): 1-10.

James Barker rejects the dichotomy that the evangelists either intended to supplement or replace their sources in his chapter “Tatian’s Diatessaron and the Proliferation of Gospels” in The Gospel of Tatian: Exploring the Nature and Text of the Diatessaron (London: Bloomsbury, 2019; I am using the pre-publication version here). After noting that manuscript rolls could last for 150 years and surveying how similar kinds of texts proliferated without the new ones replacing the old in antiquity (e.g., supplements to Homer, encomia for Cato the Younger, histories of the Jewish revolt, translations of the Hebrew Scriptures) (3-11), he stresses that it was rare for texts to be replaced in their authors’ lifetime. Rather, a text could be eventually lost if it stopped getting copied over time, revised or expanded in the process of re-editing it, have its content absorbed into a new literary work, or be destroyed by censors (11-4). For Barker, it is better to speak about the absorption of Mark into Matthew as a separate literary work rather that treat the latter as a revised edition of the former, but the author of the latter book did not expect that Mark would stop circulating just as the Chronicler did not expect that people would stop reading the books of Samuel-Kings (15). Likewise, he agrees with Loveday Alexander that there was no polemical intent behind the Lukan prologue, for Luke’s comment that it seemed good to him to write as well was a way to claim that his work was equal to his predecessors (16; he allows some one-upmanship or, in Chris Keith’s terminology, “competitive textualization” in the boast to have written the orderly account on p. 29). Other Gospels, such as John or the Infancy Gospels, presupposed knowledge of and supplement the Synoptic Gospels (17-19). Some readers valued the New Testament and Nag Hammadi Gospels (19), while other readers like Marcion used only one Gospel (20). Mark still received attention after it was absorbed into Matthew and Luke, for Tatian reproduced its unparalleled material in his Diatessaron (26-7). His key contention is that the Diatessaron was not composed to replace the “fourfold gospel” and shows that later interpreters read these texts alongside each other (23-5).

Finally, Matthew D. C. Larsen has re-conceptualized the Synoptic Problem in his book Gospels before the Book (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018). He denies that the “Synoptic Gospels” were considered distinct literary works by ancient readers before Irenaeus, arguing instead that the best analogue for them is the unfinished, open-ended, pre-literary memorial writings known as hypomnēmata, apomnēmoneumata, or commentarii (11-36). The huge amount of overlap between them may not suggest that they were separate literary works, but enlarged revisions of the same textualized story of Jesus, and Mark’s incompleteness may be why it was subject to continual editing beginning with the new edition of “Mark” that we call “Matthew” and continuing with the scribes who appended new endings to it (100-20). For instance, in his reading of the Papias’s tradition (87-93, 107), Mark recorded what he “remembered” (apemnmoneusen) of Peter’s preaching on Jesus’s words and deeds, but his work lacked “order” (taxis), whereas professional historians prepare their rough drafts for publication by adding taxis and lexis (“style”) to their notes (cf. Lucian, Quom. Hist. conscr. 6, 48). Further, Matthew simply re-arranged Mark’s logia (“oracles”) in revising the same text. Larsen’s thesis also sheds light on the terminology that Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen of Alexandria used to describe the Gospel texts.

I agree with Doole that the latter evangelists regarded Mark’s historical outline as fundamentally reliable and am open to Barker’s case that some Gospel writers supplemented or expanded upon their sources without imagining that they were thereby displacing them. Yet I think that Larsen provides a model for why there may have been an expectation that Mark’s notes would cease to be copied once they were “completed” by Matthew and Luke. I am still inclined to view these latter Gospels as separate literary works, but their authors may have judged Mark’s notes to be in a rough and unfinished state as they improved their grammar, style, and rhetorical arrangement. They conformed Mark’s life of Jesus to the typical bibliographical format starting with their subject’s genealogy and birth. Like Larsen, I pointed to Eusebius’s paraphrases (cf. Eccl. Hist. 2.15.1-2; 6.14.5-7) of Clement’s traditions that Mark drafted his hypomnēma to help select Roman Christians recall Peter’s preaching, while Matthew and Luke published their works openly for widespread circulation (The Gospel on the Margins, pp. 210-11; cf. Carlson’s translation). I think Sim was on the right track about how some readers had concerns about Mark, though I have challenged its allegedly Pauline features, and highlighted why the later evangelists edited certain Christological statements that were liable to getting misconstrued (e.g., Mark 6:5/Matt 13:58; Mark 10:18/Matt 19:17; Mark 15:34/Luke 23:46) and rehabilitated the disciples (e.g., Matt 16:16-19; Luke 22:31-32). Mark Goodacre’s chapter “The Orthodox Redaction of Mark” in “To Recover What Has Been Lost: Essays on Eschatology, Intertextuality, and Reception History in Honor of Dale C. Allison Jr. (eds. Tucker S. Ferda, Daniel Frayer-Griggs, and Nathan C. Johnson; Leiden: Brill, 2021), 319-35 similarly observes that Matthew clarified Jesus’s sinless nature (e.g., 3:14-15), Davidic descent (e.g., 1:1), birth in David’s hometown (e.g., 2:5-6), ability to heal (e.g., 13:58), and post-mortem appearances (e.g., 28:9-10, 16-20).

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