Markan priority

Markan priority
According to the hypothesis of Markan priority, the Gospel of Mark was written first and then used as a source for the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.

Markan priority is the hypothesis that the Gospel of Mark was the first written of the three Synoptic Gospels, and that the two other synoptic evangelists, Matthew and Luke, used Mark's Gospel as one of their sources. The theory of Markan priority is today accepted by the majority of New Testament scholars[1] who also hold that Matthew and Luke used a lost source of Jesus's sayings called Q. Their conclusion is largely based upon an analysis of the language and content relationship between the various books. The understanding that Mark was the first of the canonical gospels and that it served as a source for Matthew and Luke is foundational to modern critical scholarship.[2]

A minority of scholars accept Markan priority but reject Q; the Farrer hypothesis, whose chief proponents are Michael Goulder and Mark Goodacre, is the best-known theory that does this.[citation needed] Some Jewish/Christian scholars such as Robert Lindsey, David Flusser, Shmuel Safrai, and David Bivin have proposed that there was a Hebrew version of the Gospel before it was transcribed into Greek and that this necessitates Lukan Priority.[citation needed]

The Augustinian hypothesis is for Matthean priority. A former student of Bultmann, Eta Linnemann, followed by F. David Farnell, is the best known proponent of a simultaneous priority of Matthew and Mark under the Mosaic requirement that "on the evidence of two or three witnesses a matter shall be confirmed" (Deuteronomy 19:5).[3]



This subject is closely related to the topic of synoptic gospels, so it may be useful to review that article before reading the following text

Before the 18th century, the belief of many, including the Church Fathers Papias (c. 60-130), Irenaeus (c. 130-200), Origen (c. 185-254), Eusebius (c. 260-340) Jerome (c. 340-420), and Augustine of Hippo (c. 354-430), had been that Matthew was the first gospel to be written. Therefore, Matthew is the first gospel to appear in the chronological order of the four gospels in the Second, or New Testament. This traditional view of gospel origins, however, began to be challenged in the late 18th century, when Gottlob Christian Storr (1786) proposed that Mark was the first to be written.

Storr's idea met with little acceptance at the time, with most scholars favoring either Matthean priority, under the traditional Augustinian hypothesis, or the Griesbach hypothesis, or a fragmentary theory. In the fragmentary theory, it was believed that stories about Jesus were recorded in several smaller documents and notebooks and combined by the evangelists to create the synoptic gospels.

Working within the fragmentary theory, Karl Lachmann (1835) compared the synoptic gospels in pairs and noted that while Matthew frequently agreed with Mark against Luke in the order of passages and Luke agreed frequently with Mark against Matthew, Matthew and Luke rarely agreed with each other against Mark. Lachmann inferred from this that Mark best preserved a relatively fixed order of episodes in Jesus's ministry.

In 1838, two theologians, Christian Gottlob Wilke and Christian Hermann Weisse, independently extended Lachmann's reasoning to conclude that Mark not only best represented Matthew and Luke's source but also that Mark was Matthew and Luke's source. Their ideas were not immediately accepted, but Heinrich Julius Holtzmann's endorsement in 1863 of a qualified form of Markan priority won general favor and is still the dominant hypothesis today.

Nevertheless, this line of reasoning is now widely seen as inconclusive.[1] In particular, it is now accepted that although the contents of Mark lie logically between Matthew and Luke, this fact on its own has no definite chronological consequences, although combined with other facts could still support Markan priority.

Modern arguments for Markan priority

Modern scholars argue for the priority of Mark in a number of ways. Some argue directly for it, while others argue against Markan priority's main rivals, the Griesbach hypothesis and the Augustinian hypothesis, both of which claim (among other things) that Mark had access to Matthew's gospel.

Content not present in Mark

Mark's gospel is by far the shortest, and omits much that is in Matthew and Luke. It is argued that he would be unlikely to omit important events from Matthew and Luke, if he had access to their gospels.[4][5]

Content only found in Mark

There are very few passages in Mark that are found in neither Matthew nor Luke, which makes them all the more significant. If Mark was editing Matthew and Luke, it is hard to see why he would add so little material, if he was going to add anything at all. The choice of additions is also very strange. On the other hand, if Mark wrote first, it is often the case that Matthew and Luke would have strong motives to remove these passages.[6]

One example is Mark 3:21, where we are told that Jesus' own family thought he was "out of his mind". Another is Mark 14:51-52, an obscure incident with no obvious meaning, where a man with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane flees naked.

Significant too is Mark 8:22-26, where Jesus has to try twice to heal a man, his first attempt not being entirely successful.


Regarding verses where Mark differs from Matthew and/or Luke, it is often easier to see why Matthew or Luke would alter Mark than the reverse. For example, Matthew 20:20 eliminates a criticism of the disciples found in Mark 10:35 and later verses. Matthew 8:25 and Luke 8:24 both eliminate disrespect towards Jesus from the disciples in Mark 4:38.[5]

Mark's Jesus often seems more human than Matthew's. Davies and Allison[6] list a number of passages where Mark but not Matthew portrays Jesus as emotional (e.g. Mark 1:41, cf. Matthew 8:3), ignorant of some fact (e.g. Mark 6:37-38, cf. Matthew 14:16-17), or incapable of some action (e.g. Mark 6:5, cf. Matthew 13:58).

It is argued that it is easier to see why Matthew would edit Mark to make Jesus more divine and more powerful, than why Mark would edit Matthew to weaken Jesus.

Primitive and unusual language in Mark

Mark's Greek is more primitive than the other Gospel writers. Often, Luke or Matthew will state a parallel Jesus quotation much more eloquently than Mark. In addition, Mark occasionally uses an unusual word or phrase where Matthew uses a common word. It is argued that this makes more sense if Matthew was revising Mark, rather than the reverse.[6]

In addition, Mark is the only author who quotes Aramaic words and phrases which may have been the actual words of Jesus. He alone gives the words Boanerges (3:17), Ephphatha (7:34), Talitha cum (5:41), Abba (14:36) and the Aramaic form of Eli in the cry, Eloi, Eloi lama sabachthani (15:34). It has been argued by Geza Vermes that these quotations indicate a closeness to Jesus not shown in the other Gospels.[7]

Vividness and verbosity of Mark

When Mark and Matthew agree, Mark often has a more vivid, verbose version. It is argued that it is unlikely that Mark was inserting details into many Matthean quotes while leaving out huge events such as the birth of Jesus. Rather, this verboseness is explained as nearness to actual eye-witness testimony.[5]


Mark Goodacre lists a number of occasions where it appears that Matthew or Luke begin by altering Mark, but become fatigued and start to copy Mark directly, even when doing so is inconsistent with the changes they have already made. For example, Matthew is more precise than Mark in the titles he gives to rulers, and initially (Matthew 14:1) gives Herod Antipas the correct title of "tetrarch", yet he lapses into calling him "king" at a later verse (Matthew 14:9), apparently because he was copying Mark 6:26 at that point.[8]

Another example given by Goodacre is Luke's version of the feeding of the multitude. Luke apparently changed the setting of the story: whereas Mark placed it in a desert, Luke starts the story in "a town [nb 1] called Bethsaida" (Luke 9:10). Yet later on, Luke is in agreement with Mark, that the events are indeed in a desert (Luke 9:12). Goodacre argues that Luke is here following Mark, not realising that it contradicts the change he made earlier.

Arguments against Markan priority

External evidence

Early church writers appear to indicate that Matthew's gospel was written first. Irenaeus, in Against Heresies 3.1.1, says "Matthew also published a gospel in writing among the Hebrews in their own language, while Peter & Paul were preaching the gospel and founding the church in Rome. But after their death, Mark, the disciple & interpreter of Peter, also transmitted to us in writing what Peter used to preach. And Luke, Paul's associate, also set down in a book the gospel that Paul used to preach. Later, John, the Lord's disciple --- the one who lay on his lap --- also set out the gospel while living at Ephesus in Asia Minor".

However, the gospel ascribed to Matthew here would appear to have been in Aramaic, while all known early copies of Matthew are in Greek. It has been argued that the gospel ascribed to Matthew here may be a different text from the Gospel according to Matthew, possibly even the Q document itself.[9]

Minor agreements

Occasions where Luke and Matthew agree with each other against Mark suggest that Luke and Matthew were not independent of each other, and thus argue against certain versions of Markan priority (especially the two-source hypothesis).

Redaction procedure

According to William R. Farmer,[10] it is in many cases easy to see how Mark, if he had access to both Luke and Matthew, could have written the precise verses that he did. For example, Mark 1:32 mentions both that evening had come and that the sun was setting, while Matthew 8:16 and Luke 4:40 each mention one of those.

Building upon Markan priority

For the majority of scholars who accept Markan priority, a further problem is explaining the "double tradition" material which is found in both Matthew and Luke but not in Mark. There are broadly two ways to explain this: by appealing to Q, a hypothesized document available to both Matthew and Luke; or by postulating that one of Matthew and Luke was familiar with the other's work as well as with Mark. The Farrer hypothesis is such a theory.

See also


  1. ^ There are variants in the surviving manuscripts that read "a desert place belonging to the city called Bethsaida", and this is found in the King James Version. However, no desert place is mentioned in the critical text (Nestle-Aland) that is the basis for most modern translations. It is believed that these variants were, in part, an attempt by later scribes to harmonize verses 10 and 12 (source: NET Bible, footnotes to Luke 9:10)


  1. ^ a b Christopher Tuckett: The current state of the Synoptic Problem, 2008 Oxford Conference In The Synoptic Problem
  2. ^ Funk, Robert W., Roy W. Hoover, and the Jesus Seminar. The five gospels. HarperSanFrancisco. 1993. "Introduction," p 1-30.
  3. ^ Robert L. Thomas Three views on the origins of the Synoptic Gospels 2002 p255, and p322 "Farnell's third axiom notes, quoting Linnemann, that the reason for four independent Gospels stems from the legal principle of Deuteronomy 19:15b: "[O]n the evidence of two or three witnesses a matter shall be confirmed.""
  4. ^ Mark Goodacre: The Case Against Q
  5. ^ a b c G. M. Styler: Synoptic Problem, in The Oxford Companion to the Bible
  6. ^ a b c W. D. Davies and Dale C. Allison: A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to Saint Matthew
  7. ^ Geza Vermes, Who's Who In The Age Of Jesus, p. 175
  8. ^ Mark Goodacre: Fatigue in the Synoptics, New Testament Studies 44 (1998)
  9. ^ L. Michael White, From Jesus to Christianity, San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2004.
  10. ^ William R. Farmer The Synoptic Problem. Mercer University Press, 1981. ISBN 0915948028. An online summary of the argument is available.

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