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.

Mark Goodacre is the author of several books, including The Case Against Q, and Thomas and the Gospels.



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]

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