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A New Argument that Mark Was the First Gospel (Editorial Fatigue): Guest Post by Mark Goodacre!

In response to my post on why scholars have long thought that Mark was the first Gospel and that Matthew and Luke copied it for many of their stories (a view called Markan Priority), a blog reader asked how Mark Goodacre’s view of “Editorial Fatigue” contributed to the argument.  This is a new argument that Goodacre came up in his extensive work on the Synoptic Problem (the Problem of how/why Matthew, Mark, and Luke have so many agreements, often verbatim, and yet so many disagreements; the standard “solution” by far most widely accepted involves Markan Priority) – a Problem he has researched and taught on for many years of his academic career.

This new argument is widely seen as very persuasive.   I didn’t trust myself to summarize and illustrate it, though, and asked Mark (Goodacre!) (a member of the blog, as it turns out) if he could post on it.

He suggested simply giving the full summary of the argument, with illustrations, from his authoritative discussion, The Synoptic Problem: A Way Through the Maze (The Biblical Seminar, 80; Sheffield Academic Press, 2001).   And here it is, in his own words!  (This will take two posts)

Mark has graciously agreed to answer any questions you have about it in comments you make.


When one writer is copying the work of another, changes are sometimes made at the beginning of an account, which are not sustained throughout.  The writer lapses into docile reproduction of his / her source. Like continuity errors in film and television, examples of editorial fatigue are unconscious mistakes, small errors of detail which naturally arise in the course of constructing a narrative.  This phenomenon of ‘fatigue’ is thus a tell-tale sign of a writer’s dependence on a source.   The best way to explain the phenomenon is to illustrate it.  Let us therefore return to one of our examples from triple tradition material, the story of the Leper: Matt 8.1-4 // Mark 1.40-45 // Luke 5.12-16.

In Matthew’s version of the story there are two elements that are difficult to reconcile:  many crowds at the beginning of the narrative (8.1) and the charge “See that you say nothing to any one” at the end of it (8.4).  A miracle that has been witnessed by many is apparently to be kept secret.  This is in contrast to Mark where there are no crowds.  The Markan leper meets Jesus privately and the command to silence is coherent.

This odd state of affairs can be explained by the theory of Markan Priority, for which this is therefore evidence.  This is what seems to have happened.  Matthew has just featured three chapters of largely non-Markan teaching material (Matt. 5-7, the Sermon on the Mount) and here he is returning to triple tradition (Markan) material. He resets the scene by making a characteristic Matthean change, introducing ‘many crowds’ (Matt. 8.1; cf. 4.25, 13.2, 15.30 and 19.2; never found in Mark).  But as he goes on in telling the story, docile reproduction of his source, or editorial fatigue, causes him to reproduce a feature not consonant with his new introduction to it.  This example is particularly striking in that the “secrecy theme” (“See that you say nothing to any one”) is such a striking and major theme in Mark’s Gospel (e.g. 1.34, 3.12, 5.43, 7.36, 8.30), but is much less common in Matthew.  It seems likely that Matthew has made characteristic changes to Mark at the beginning of the pericope, changes that lead the account into inconsistency when Matthew reproduces the characteristically Markan wording at the end of the pericope.

And this is not an isolated example.  One that seems similarly persuasive is the story of the Death of John the Baptist (Mark 6.14-29 // Matt. 14.1-12). For Mark, Herod is always ‘king’, four times in the passage (Mark 6.22, 25, 26 and 27). Matthew apparently corrects this to ‘tetrarch’ (Matt. 14.1).  This is a good move: Herod Antipas was not a king but a petty dependent prince and he is called ‘tetrarch’ by the Jewish historian Josephus (Antiquities 17. 188; 18. 102, 109, 122).  This kind of precision is typical of Matthew.  Later, he will specify that Pilate (Mark 15.1, 4, 9, 12, 14, 15, 43, 44) is properly called ‘the governor’ (Matt. 27.2, 11, 14, 15, 21, 27, 28.14), and ‘the high priest’ (Mark 14.53) is ‘Caiaphas the high priest’ (Matt. 26.57).  Earlier, in his Birth Narrative, Matthew tells us that Herod the Great is a ‘king’ (2.1, 3) and that Archelaus is not (2.22). More is the shame, then, that Matthew lapses into calling Herod ‘the king’ halfway through the story of John the Baptist’s death (Matt.14.9), in agreement with Mark (6.26).

There is, further, a more serious inconsistency in the same verse. The story in Mark is that Herodias wanted to kill John because she had a grudge against him, ‘But she could not because Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him.’ (Mark 6.19-20). In Matthew’s version of the story, this element has dropped out:  now it is Herod and not Herodias who wants him killed (Matt 14.5). When Mark, then, speaks of Herod’s ‘grief’  at the request for John’s head, it is coherent and understandable: Herodias demanded something that Herod did not want. But when Matthew in parallel speaks of the king’s grief (Matt 14.9), it makes no sense at all.  Matthew had told us, after all, that ‘Herod wanted to put him to death’ (14.5).

The obvious explanation for the inconsistencies of Matthew’s account is that he is working from a source.  He has made changes in the early stages which he fails to sustain throughout, thus betraying his knowledge of Mark. This is particularly plausible when one notes that Matthew’s account is considerably shorter than Mark’s: Matthew has overlooked important details in the act of abbreviating.

[Tomorrow’s post will illustrate fatigue from the Gospel of Luke as well]

If you were a member of the blog, you would get meaty posts like this five times a week.  That week would cost you only fifty cents.  You get tons for your money, and every cent goes to charity.  So why not join???


Editorial Fatigue in Luke: More from Blog Guest Mark Goodacre
Mark: The First Gospel in 19th Century Research



  1. Avatar
    Nexus  February 12, 2019

    What a coincidence! I was just going to ask a similar question to the following question on the guest post about John the Baptist.

    Do you have any thoughts on why John the Baptist is unworthy to undo the sandals of Jesus, but Luke and John allow a sinful woman to cry on/anoint his feet and dry them with her hair?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 13, 2019

      I guess he feels unworthy and she doesn’t! But the point of the former is that John *recognizes* Jesus superiority; the second ia about how Jesus welcomes repentance.

  2. Greg Matthews
    Greg Matthews  February 12, 2019

    Mark (Goodacre), what are common arguments that people make in an effort to discredit Editorial Fatigue as a defense of Markan Priority? I’ve supported the idea since I first came across it, but there are still contrarians who want to argue that Mark copied from Matthew and/or Luke and quite a few other complicated alternatives as well. I believe the author of the Anchor Bible commentary on Matthew tried this? Thanks!

  3. Avatar
    dws  February 12, 2019

    Mark, that is really interesting. Thanks for letting Bart post this. Looking forward to the next installment.

  4. Avatar
    3Timothy  February 12, 2019

    Can Bart or Mark Goodacre say something about the style of Mark the gospel writer? I’ve read that the earliest gospel has a “crude” style in that Mark uses the unsophisticated “immediately” (the Greek adverb euthus) to join episodes. On the other hand, the Markan Sandwich seems very sophisticated. I can’t read Greek, so I can’t judge Mark’s style. Is Mark eloquent, or is Mark’s Greek like the writing of a high school student? Is one gospel writer’s style like, say, Hemingway? Is Luke’s style more elegant and therefore more like, say, Jane Austen or Dickens?

  5. Avatar
    Eric  February 12, 2019

    When I saw this title, I thought we had a guest-blogger to relieve Bart’s “editorial fatigue”!

    Thanks for this arbument, makes sense and hence broadens the mind.

  6. Avatar
    Rthompsonmdog  February 12, 2019

    Dr. Goodacre, thank you for contributing to the blog.

  7. Avatar
    Hngerhman  February 12, 2019

    Prof Goodacre –

    Thank you for this – and in advance for tackling reader questions! Very much looking forward to the next post as well as all the interesting discussion these two blog entries will likely engender.

    Question: In isolation from other Markan priority arguments, what is your opinion on how one best balances applying this (very compelling) fatigue argument on the one hand against the “harder reading is likelier” argument on the other? To this non-scholar, they would seem to point in opposite directions here (in the absence of other supporting arguments).

    Many thanks!

    N.B. I wasn’t yet a blog member during your substantial contributions to the Garrow-on-Matthew debate. Please accept belated-but-much appreciation for doing that – was really great.

    • Avatar
      Hngerhman  April 8, 2019

      Dr Ehrman –

      Editorial fatigue seems to be the inverse of the harder-read-is-likelier criterion. Are there any rules of thumb one can apply to determine which is likelier correct in a given instance?

      Overly simplistic example within one specific story/tradition:
      Text 1: A, B, C and D (details cohere)
      Text 2: A*, B*, C and D (details do not entirely cohere)
      * = signifies a similar but different version of textual chunk

      Under the fatigue rubric: Text 1 is deemed the source
      Under the harder-read rubric: Text 2 is deemed the source

      Thanks much!

  8. Avatar
    fishician  February 12, 2019

    Most interesting. As I’ve studied the Bible over the years I have noticed little quirks like this, but did not have an explanation like this. Looking forward to examples from Luke.

  9. Avatar
    Brittonp  February 12, 2019

    Excellent summary of your argument. Thank you for sharing it with us Professor Goodacre.

  10. Avatar
    godspell  February 12, 2019

    You can see this in the accounts of Jesus’ baptism as well.

    Mark says Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan, and then he (he personally) saw the heavens torn open, the Holy Spirit descending upon him, and only he heard God’s voice saying he was God’s son–a personal revelation. It’s not even a long paragraph, and is there only to show that Jesus is God’s adopted son, now that he’s been cleansed of his sins (whether before or during the baptism).

    Matthew has John protest that Jesus needs to be baptized by him, and Jesus makes a rather weak argument as to why it needs be done this way. Matthew keeps Mark’s language, but rewrites it–God is now speaking to all assembled–“This is my son” not “You are my son.” A proclamation, not a personal revelation.

    But now Matthew has created a problem Mark’s gospel does not have. People would know John the Baptist never became a follower of Jesus, that even after his death he still had a cult that rivaled that of Jesus, and did not follow Jesus. If John had accepted Jesus as his superior, why would this happen?

    So Mark has MORE material about John later, to try and substantiate Jesus’ primacy. But that just confuses matters further. Why is John questioning the man he said should baptize him? And why is Jesus saying no man born of woman is greater than John? I don’t think Matthew made that up, but he’s trying to use other accounts to bolster the first one. Mark would probably have used the story of John querying Jesus from prison if he’d known it. It would have fit his narrative very well. Even the man who baptized Jesus fails to understand him. The absence of that story from Mark indicates Mark doesn’t have it, and that means Mark never read Matthew.

    Mark doesn’t show any great need to subordinate John to Jesus, though he clearly thinks Jesus is greater. Both were men of faith, and God chose Jesus to be Messiah, because his faith was greater. For Matthew and Luke, Jesus must be utterly unique from his very conception. Only John’s gospel ‘fixes’ the problem by retelling the story from scratch, and getting rid of the baptism altogether.

  11. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  February 12, 2019

    Very interesting. Thanks so much for the post. Do you think “editorial fatigue” tells us anything about “inspiration” or about books being the “Word of God’? This is not meant to be sarcastic. I am serious.

  12. Avatar
    Apocryphile  February 12, 2019

    Does the fact of Markan priority have any relevance to the question of why John the Baptist was put to death – e.g. Herodias’ grudge vs. simply the fact that John was attracting large crowds, and apparently symbolically reenacting the crossing of the Jordan into the promised land? It seems that historically, the latter would be the more plausible, since its politically subversive meaning would have been quite apparent to Herod, and the large following he was attracting equally problematic for the Romans.

    I was just wondering whether any historical kernel can be gleaned from the Gospel accounts in this regard, or if we need to look to other sources – e.g. Josephus – for the explanation.

  13. Avatar
    JohnKesler  February 12, 2019

    I agree that the John-the-Baptist pericope appears to exhibit editorial fatigue, but one thing I find odd is that that Matthew uses a different Greek word for “grief” than does Mark. It’s not as though Matthew is unfamiliar with Mark’s word for “grief,” for Matthew uses it in Matthew 26:38. (In Matthew 26:38 and Mark 6:26, the NRSV says “deeply grieved.”) If Matthew were lapsing into “docile reproduction,” why would he change the Greek word? And since he was cognizant enough to do that, why wouldn’t he remove the inconsistency and say that Herod was “glad,” or something like that?

  14. Avatar
    JohnDaugherty  February 12, 2019

    Dr Ehrman,
    This Markan Priority thread is incredible! Thank you. I can’t believe I enjoy this textual discussion so much!

  15. Avatar
    JohnKesler  February 12, 2019

    The story of the leper may also exhibit Marcan priority—though not fatigue—in Matthew and Luke’s omission of Jesus’ “anger” at the leper (Mark 1:41). Do you agree that using the principle of lectio difficilior potior, “anger” is more likely than “pity” to be the original reading? If so, why would Mark record that Jesus was angry at a man begging to be healed?

  16. Avatar
    brenmcg  February 12, 2019

    Hi Mark, I think editorial fatigue is a very good indicator of secondary work but I think Matthew was written first and Mark edited Matthew when writing his gospel.

    Do you think Mark’s claim that 6:20 “Herod feared John and protected him, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man” contradicts Mark 6:17 “For Herod himself had given orders to have John arrested, and he had him bound and put in prison” is a good counter-example of editorial fatigue in Mark?

    Also re the fatigue in Matthew – Matthew’s gospel claims Herod wanted to kill John but did not want the stigma associated with being a prophet killer (Josephus claimed this was the reason for Herods defeat in battle). Its the classic “will no-one rid me of this turbulent priest”. Herod’s grief or regret in Matthew is due to the realisation that he will in fact have to become a prophet-killer to fulfill his promise to Herodias’s daughter. Do you think this makes the argument of fatigue in Matthew weaker than the fatigue in Mark?

    • Avatar
      godspell  February 13, 2019

      I think you’re neglecting the rather obvious fact that Mark might be copying sources that existed before any of the gospels we have, which are not available to us. There could be editorial fatigue in Mark that has nothing to do with Matthew or Luke.

      It makes sense Herod Antipas, whose position was anything but secure (too much unrest and the Romans might remove him), would be hesitant to kill or imprison a popular religious figure, would need substantial provocation in order to do so.

      Mark may have been writing for a more elite audience than Matthew, people who were more familiar with past events. Matthew may feel the need to add explanations Mark never bothered to provide–a gloss, if you will–because he’s writing for an audience that is increasingly gentile, largely uneducated, and obviously unfamiliar with Jewish politics from decades earlier. So that again is him editing Mark, who in turn is splicing together various stories he has from sources we can’t read now. To use Goodacre’s methodology, you have to work from texts you actually have.

      (I’m still waiting, incidentally, for you to explain why Mark would edit out all the stories from Q, if he had them right there in Matthew and Luke.)

      In any event, I understand the argument Mark Goodacre is making, but yours seems rather obscure, and geared largely towards pushing a pet theory.

      (And I kind of did the same thing myself–you really need to know the texts inside out to compare them properly.)

      • Avatar
        brenmcg  February 16, 2019

        **I think you’re neglecting the rather obvious fact that Mark might be copying sources that existed before any of the gospels we have, which are not available to us …**
        Yes this will always be possible with any theory on the synoptic problem. The point here is that Matthew would fit the requirement for a previous gospel if this example of editorial fatigue is accepted in Mark and there’d be no need to posit another gospel.

        **It makes sense Herod Antipas, whose position was anything but secure (too much unrest and the Romans might remove him), would be hesitant to kill or imprison a popular religious figure, would need substantial provocation in order to do so.**
        Yes this is Matthew’s narrative. Its Mark that tells us Herod protected John knowing him to be a righteous and holy man. Strange considering Jesus later tells us to beware the yeast of Herod.

        **It makes sense Herod Antipas, whose position was anything but secure (too much unrest and the Romans might remove him), would be hesitant to kill or imprison a popular religious figure, would need substantial provocation in order to do so.**
        Whoever is writing for the more gentile audience is the most likely to be written second. Matthew is agreed to be the most Jewish of the gospels and Mark removes some clearly difficult lines for a gentile audience eg Matthew’s “I have only been sent to the lost sheep of Israel”

        **I’m still waiting, incidentally, for you to explain why Mark would edit out all the stories from Q, if he had them right there in Matthew and Luke.**
        I think Matthew wrote first, the Luke wrote using Matthew,then Mark wrote using both Luke and Mark. No need for a Q gospel. Mark left out the nativity because he didn’t believe it was true, the sermon on the mount because of its emphasis on the law.

        **In any event, I understand the argument Mark Goodacre is making, but yours seems rather obscure, and geared largely towards pushing a pet theory.**
        But its the same structure of argument – Mark Goodacre thinks there’s a contradiction in Matthew when Herod grieves upon learning he’ll have to kill John despite saying earlier he wanted to kill John, which there isn’t.
        I say there’s a contradiction in Mark when he says Herod protected John despite saying earlier Herod had John arrested bound and put in prison, which there *is*.

        • Avatar
          godspell  February 17, 2019

          You never heard of protective custody? 🙂

          You’re judging Herod by modern standards, and I suppose we can see the same personality type in power today, but even so–not killing him when he’s openly speaking against Herod, and members of Herod’s court want John dead, is a form of protection, even if it’s largely motivated by fear of a backlash if John is killed–perhaps even fear of God’s retribution. The fates of rulers in the Old Testament who lay their hands on prophets is generally pretty dire. Herod wasn’t a very good Jew, but basically everyone was superstititious then.

          I’ve studied a lot of history, and this all sounds quite plausible to me–this is often how tyrants behave, when trying to deal with a charismatic popular troublemaker like John–try to get him to back down, dissuade him from speaking out–before using the ultimate dissuader. See if a bit of time in a cell will cool his ardor. Not the least bit inconsistent. This isn’t a good example of editorial fatigue, and having done some reading up, I’m not convinced editorial fatigue is one of the stronger arguments for Mark’s priority. Just a back-up argument, that works better in some instances than others.

          I see so much in the Q stories that would appeal to Mark, further his theme–if he cut out certain stories, that would be one thing–he cuts EVERYTHING out, and the stories he cuts out are stories that would come along later in the development of Christianity.

          The fact that he leaves ALL that material out makes it very clear he never had it, which means he never had Matthew or Luke. Anyway, if Mark wasn’t a source for Matthew and Luke (as most scholars agree is the case), then nearly everything is in the synoptics is Q.

          The harder you try to back this up, the more problems you create, which tends to argue for this being a bad theory.

          • Avatar
            brenmcg  February 18, 2019

            Mark and Matthew both agree Herod had the power of life and death over John – there’s no-one to protect John from except Herod. But according to Mark, John has nothing to fear from Herod because Herod “protected John knowing him to be a righteous and Holy man”. Mark’s Herod doesnt think John is troublemaker – Matthew’s Herod does.
            “Herod had given orders to have John arrested, and he had him bound and put in prison.” these are actions of someone who thinks John is a troublemaker – Matthew’s Herod; not the actions of someone who thinks John is a righteous and holy man – Mark’s Herod.

            *The fates of rulers in the Old Testament who lay their hands on prophets is generally pretty dire.* Yes very true but this is Matthew’s explanation not Mark’s. There’s just an clear error in Mark’s account here.

          • Avatar
            godspell  February 25, 2019

            There are clearly errors in all the accounts we have from this period, and not just relating to Jesus. Josephus makes some pretty significant errors in chronology–who was he editing?

            I just don’t see how this proves your point. Nor does it seem hard to understand how Herod might have hesitated to kill or imprison a charismatic popular preacher. He would only do so if he felt he had no other choice. John seems to have intentionally pushed the envelope, gone out of his way to provoke Herod into retaliating–which is interesting–since Jesus seems to have done the same thing later on, with the Jewish authorities, and less directly, the Romans.

            Regardless of whether Mark or Matthew is closer to the historical truth of Herod’s attitude towards John–and as of this time, we can’t determine that with any certainty–it doesn’t prove Mark edited Matthew. It could just as easily prove the opposite. Matthew is REMOVING something from Mark’s account. Editing doesn’t mean adding, as a general rule.

            Can you really not imagine some reason Mark may have had for being more diplomatic about Herod? Let me see–the Herodian dynasty ended in 92CE with the death of Agrippa II–hmm! That wasn’t too hard. The later gospel would be less concerned with offending a powerful family–that ceased to have any real power shortly before the end of the First Century. To be sure, probably none of the gospel authors were under that dynasty’s direct authority, but people like that have powerful friends all over the place. No version of the story casts them in a favorable light, of course. But Matthew is far more scathing–indicating that he’s not worried about any repercussions at all.

            That’s just a guess, but it does provide a bit of historical context.

            Which your arguments have mainly lacked.

          • Avatar
            brenmcg  February 26, 2019

            The argument is not about historical or chronological errors – its about internal consistency. Mark’s self-contradiction requires an explanation and a good explanation is that he has made a minor edit to Matthew’s account which has not been consistently applied throughout the rest of Mark’s copying of Matthew.
            This is the argument Mark Goodacre is making with respect to Markan priority but the problem is Matthew hasn’t contradicted himself in this passage – Mark has.
            **Can you really not imagine some reason Mark may have had for being more diplomatic about Herod?**
            Yes there’s probably lots of reason’s why Mark would be more diplomatic about Herod. The problem is he has not consistently applied this diplomacy throughout the Herod and John the Baptist passage. Matthew’s original anti-Herodian account shows through.

  17. Avatar
    Pattylt  February 12, 2019

    I definitely see fatigue operating once these examples are pointed out! Are there other types of issues that arise due to fatigue besides failing to keep the story consistent? I have no idea what there could be, just want to ask so I can be aware of them!
    Thank you for posting!

  18. Lev
    Lev  February 12, 2019

    Mark – fab post and really glad you’re engaging with this.

    May I ask a couple of cheeky off-topic questions? If Joel Marcus and Bart Ehrman were to debate a subject of shared expertise:

    1. Who do you think would win?
    2. Who would you like to win?

  19. Rick
    Rick  February 12, 2019

    Fascinating! Dr. Goodacre, or Bart, is this the first critical approach that .. gets into the mechanics editing and transcribing?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 13, 2019

      I suppose it depends on what you mean by mechanics. The process and strategies of copying have always been central to the Synoptic Problem.

  20. Mizraim Martínez
    Mizraim Martínez  February 12, 2019

    Hello Dr. Goodacre, I’ve read the explanation of why Markan prority is mostly accepted, but I do not know what is the rationale that apologist use to defend the tradition that it was Mathew the first to be written. How do they try to defend that position?

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