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Arguments for Markan Priority (that Mark was the first Gospel written)

For reasons related to an unusually convoluted thread (I’d be surprised if anyone can even detect the thread!  I myself barely can – it has to do with Jesus’ view of the afterlife) I need to answer a reader’s question about why scholars think the Gospel of Mark was the first to be written (once I do that, I can show how Luke often changed Mark, which will get me back to Luke’s treatment of Jesus’ rejection in Nazareth, which will get me back to the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, which will get me back to the question of whether the parable represents Jesus’ own views….).

So far as I can tell, and to my surprise, I’ve never published a blog post showing why scholars – since the 19th century – have typically maintained that Mark was the first of the Synoptic Gospels to be written and that Luke and Matthew both used Mark for many of their own stories about Jesus.   That view is called “Markan priority” (Mark is prior to the other two).  Here is a thumbnail sketch of three arguments often cited, as laid out in my textbook on the New Testament

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Arguments for Markan Priority

For the past century or so, three arguments have proved widely convincing for establishing Mark’s priority to Matthew and Luke:

Patterns of Agreement. Since the main reason for thinking that the Gospels share a common source is their verbatim agreements, it makes sense to examine the nature of these agreements in order to decide which of the books was used by the other two. If you were to make a detailed comparison of the word-for-word agreements among these Gospels, an interesting pattern would emerge. Sometimes …

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And Then There Was Q
Jesus’ Death and Resurrection in Mark: Another Blast from the Past

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Comments

  1. DavidNeale  November 28, 2017

    Really helpful. Thank you. I knew that Marcan priority is an overwhelming consensus position among scholars; but I hadn’t fully understood the textual reasons why. (I know that this is a somewhat separate issue from whether Q existed – if I understand him rightly, Mark Goodacre fully accepts Marcan priority but believes that there was no Q and that Luke worked from Matthew. I remember you mentioned his views in some of your earlier posts on the subject.)

    Does anyone really hold to Matthean priority any more? I don’t know whether most conservative evangelicals do or not. I suppose that their insistence on the inerrancy of the Bible wouldn’t necessarily require them to hold to Matthean priority, since Matthew doesn’t make any kind of internal claim about its date (or indeed its authorship). But I’ve encountered evangelical websites which argue strongly that Matthew was written by Matthew the tax collector, even though it makes no such internal claim, so I suppose that some evangelicals must see early church tradition as authoritative in some sense.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 29, 2017

      THere are a few scholars who hold to Matthean priority, but very few.

    • Rthompsonmdog  November 29, 2017

      If you are interested, Dr Goodacre has a blog and podcast (NTBlog & NTPod). I am most of the way through the podcast episodes and have enjoyed getting another perspective since he covers many of the same topics as Dr Ehrman.

      I have not spent any time reading his blog.

  2. thelad2  November 28, 2017

    Thanks, as always, Bart, for the continued excellence of your blog. Though it is not the main topic of the current long and winding thread, I have a question about “Q.” Why do most scholars believe in “Q’s” existence? If I am not mistaken, no ancient record or reference to it exists anywhere. Wouldn’t a simpler explanation be, as Mark Goodacre suggests, that the similar/identical stories found in Matthew and Luke (but not in Mark), can be more easily explained by acknowledging that Luke had a copy of Matthew’s gospel, and chose to edit it as he saw fit?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 29, 2017

      See today’s post! (It seems weird that an author would change stories’ locations from *one* source only when those particular stories are not found in *another* source. That would require some pretty deft and involved comparisons of texts — more like the way scholars proceed now than how they proceeded in antiquity)

  3. godspell  November 28, 2017

    Bart, this is a related but separate question–how would Mark’s gospel first have been distributed? I understand that most who read it would be reading copies made by believers (with some adherent errors or in some cases deliberate changes), but at some point there was an original copy. What do we know about how such books got into circulation, so the process of copying and distributing them began? And how would it have differed from, let’s say, the histories of Josephus or Tacitus?

    We can only imagine the excitement of some early Christian, getting his or her hands on a copy. Either reading it (if literate) or having it read aloud.

    Mark’s command of Greek may have been flawed, but he was still unquestionably an inspired author, if not necessarily in the sense modern fundamentalists would use.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 29, 2017

      Ah, that’s a good but complicated question. I’ll add it to the mailbag.

      • Lev
        Lev  November 29, 2017

        I would love to read what you have to say on this question, Bart.

        I’m really keen to learn more about how the gospels were transmitted/copied/distributed.

      • godspell  November 29, 2017

        No doubt bulging like Santa’s bag on Christmas Eve. Damn, that opens an entirely new bag of worms……

  4. RonaldTaska  November 28, 2017

    A persuasive argument. Thanks.

    For those new to the blog, I strongly recommend Dr. Ehrman’s textbook of the New Testament. It is an amazing book in form, content, and clarity.

  5. talmoore
    talmoore  November 28, 2017

    Dr. Ehrman, a while back I was thinking of ways that Matthew and Luke could be “untangled”. That is, is there a way to reconstruct the sources behind them? (I was thinking about this is in my effort to try to find what may have possibly been Jesus’ actual words, so I could incorporate them into my novel.) Anyhow, that got me thinking about gospel harmonies, like the Diatessaron. I thought, maybe if I look at how the Diatessaron used the four gospels as sources for what was basically a fifth gospel then that might give me an idea of how to untangle the synoptic gospels. And that’s when it hit me. Imagine if the Diatessaron was the only “gospel” that survived. What if the four gospels that the Diatessaron was based on were lost, and all we had was the Diatessaron to work with? Would we be able to reconstruct the four “lost gospels” from the one surviving Diatessaron?

    Alas, I have yet to embark on such a (obviously daunting) project, so I can’t answer the last question. But it might answer the question on how to untangle Matthew and Luke. Namely, what if we imagine that Matthew and Luke are themselves, like the Diatessaron, simply gospel harmonies? What if there were several gospels prior to Matthew and Luke, and that Matthew and Luke are trying to more-or-less harmonize them with each other? But as opposed to the Diatessaron, all of the gospels that Matthew and Luke are trying to harmonize have been lost — all except for one: Mark.

    Indeed, Luke is basically admitting at the beginning of his gospel that he’s essentially creating a gospel harmony. And Matthew’s sophisticated structure also betrays an attempt at harmonizing disparate gospels. I know it’s a small thing to think of Luke and Matthew as gospel harmonies, but I have found that looking at them through that lens makes them much easier to deconstruct.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 29, 2017

      Yes, the Diatessaron might be a helpful heuristic — if we *had* it. But alas, we don’t. Trying to reconstruct it is one of the thorniest most convoluted problems in all of early Christian scholarship; I have known very smart people with abilities to work in multiple ancient and medieval languages who have devoted their lives to it. What a mess the problem is!

      • Wilusa  November 29, 2017

        I suspect I’m not the only blog member who’s never heard of the “Diatessaron,” and has no idea what you’re discussing. Please enlighten us!

        • Bart
          Bart  December 1, 2017

          Ah, sorry. The Diatessaron (literally “through the four”) was a Gospel harmony of the four Gospels done in the second century by a church father named Tatian, in which he took all four Gospels and conflated them into one big Gospel narrative. It was “the” Gospel used in Syria for centuries, but it no longer survives.

          • talmoore
            talmoore  December 1, 2017

            It no longer survives in the *original*. I believe there are versions in Latin and Arabic that do exist, no?

          • Bart
            Bart  December 4, 2017

            How we wish! But no. Latin ms Fuldensis is a harmony, but not the Diatessaron. And there are medieval harmonies of various sorts, but none of them the Diatessaron. Trying to reconstruct it involves figuring out, in part, where the remnants of it may reside in these later harmonies.

          • talmoore
            talmoore  December 5, 2017

            Aha! Then I’ve misunderstood.

      • SidDhartha1953  November 30, 2017

        So there are references in ancient sources to a gospel harmony called the Diatesseron, but no mss? Are there even citations to show how the harmonizer brought disparate texts together? Do the references to it express a favorable or unfavorable opinion of the effort?

        • Bart
          Bart  December 1, 2017

          Yes, that’s right. Yes, there are numerous references in writings of church fathers that represent “harmonies.” But are they the father’s own citation habits, or are they based on a text? And there are indeed much later harmonies that survive. But are they based on the Diatessaron, or are they independent efforts. It’s a quagmire.

  6. Lev
    Lev  November 28, 2017

    Whilst I agree that Mark was the first canonical gospel to be written, would you say that Q was the first gospel (outside the canon) to be written?

    Early evidence (John via Papias) claims Matthew wrote an Aramaic sayings gospel, which sounds a lot like Q. If we combine this with the multiple and repeated Patristic evidence that claims Matthew wrote first, then this points us strongly in favour of Q priority.

    Granted, Q would have been translated into Greek by the time the authors of Matthew and Luke composed their gospels, but I understand some scholars maintain that Q’s earliest form was in Aramaic and this points us to a very early date given that its composer and audience were Palestinian Jews.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 29, 2017

      I think it’s hard to know when Q would have been written, only that it had to be before Matthew and Luke.

  7. HenriettePeterson  November 28, 2017

    Is there any general consensus among scholars what Matthew’s and Luke’s modifications were based on? Did they just modify Mark at will, inserting their own creative interpretations? Did they modify based on other oral accounts?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 29, 2017

      Probably based largely on oral traditions they had heard, and their own sensibilities about what really happened or about how better to tell a story.

      • nbraith1975  November 30, 2017

        Bart – Based on the amount of research work one must do to write an account of any historical event when there is ample legitimate documentation sources available – even for a highly trained scholar today; it can be reasonably understood that for someone to research an historical event some two thousand years ago using only oral stories that have been passed down for many decades after the event happened, that it would be logical to conclude that whatever the final document represented would, in many instances, be highly questionable as to its legitimacy.

  8. stokerslodge  November 28, 2017

    Bart, is there any evidence to support the view that Matthew also wrote a gospel account in the Hebrew language ?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 29, 2017

      A number of church fathers claimed he did, but there is no surviving evidence of it.

      • Wilusa  November 29, 2017

        Were they thinking of virtually the same Gospel, in a different language? And…do you mean that they thought whoever wrote “Matthew” also wrote a Hebrew Gospel, or that these church fathers really thought the author was a tax collector named Matthew?

        • Bart
          Bart  December 1, 2017

          Different ones had different views, but most thought it was “our” Matthew, or at least the Matthew on which ours was ultimately based. Yes, they thought the tax collector had written it.

  9. wostraub  November 28, 2017

    Bart, thank you for another enlightening post.

    A question that I’m sure you’ve been asked: Were Mark, Matthew and Luke aware of Paul’s writings? They must have known about Paul’s execution in Rome in the 60s AD, but I can’t find any trace of Paul in the Gospels.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 29, 2017

      There’s no hard evidence they knew any of the letters that we now have, but Luke clearly knew a lot about him (given the book of Acts), Mark appears to embrace some of the major parts of his theology, and Matthew appears to be reacting against his view of the Law. They may have *heard* these things, though, rather than read them.

      • HenriettePeterson  November 29, 2017

        If Matthew is against Paul’s understanding of the Law (after Jesus’ death), isn’t it then a clearly Jewish gospel written from a Jewish perspective?

        • Bart
          Bart  December 1, 2017

          Not necessarily. There were gentiles we know about (think: Paul’s enemies in Galatia) who were insisting that converts begin to follow the law stringently, as they had themselves started to do.

          • HenriettePeterson  December 1, 2017

            Paul’s opponents in Galatia were for sure gentile Christians? Couldn’t they be Jewish Christian missionaries travelling like Paul did?

          • Bart
            Bart  December 4, 2017

            When he indicates in Galatians 5 that he hopes the knife slips when their own circumcision occurs — that is the normal interpretation of 5:12 — it is usually taken to mean they are zealous converts to the cause, not Jewish in origin. But that interpretatoin, of course, could be wrong.

          • godspell  December 1, 2017

            Jewish by belief, but not by ancestry. Zealous converts. In this time period, I’d call this a fairly nominal distinction. Jesus’ own family is believed by some scholars to have only converted a few generations before his birth. Galilee was not exactly the Jewish heartland, which was a problem for Matthew and Luke.

  10. Pattylt  November 28, 2017

    From what I have read, Q is thought to be basically a sayings Gospel thus the stories that Matthew and Luke use from Q are placed not only in differing locations in the text but also with different “padding” or lead up to the saying. Do you also agree with the analysis that Q seems to have different stages? Q1 is earliest and has sayings not attributed to Jesus, Q2 begins to attribute sayings to Jesus, etc.. Also, no passion narrative in any of it? Obviously, I’m anxious for your take on Q!

    • Bart
      Bart  November 29, 2017

      No, I don’t think there’s any convincing evidence for multiple editions of Q. On the rest: see today’s post!

  11. smackemyackem  November 28, 2017

    Thought you might be interested in this

    https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2017/11/jesus-tomb-archaeology-jerusalem-christianity-rome/

  12. Stephen  November 28, 2017

    Having read through the arguments for many years it would be hard to disagree with Markan priority but it does leave us with lots of questions, for me mostly about Mark’s own sources. So here’s one – do you agree with the scholars who detect a Pauline influence on the gospel? If so what aspect of the gospel leads you to this conclusion? The Christologies aren’t really the same are they? Sorry that’s more than one.

    Thanks

    • Bart
      Bart  November 29, 2017

      I would say the CHristologies are different, but the soteriologies — teh significance of Jesus’ death — are very similar. I don’t think there’s any evidence Mark had read any of Paul’s letters, but he may have heard of some of his theological views. Or else these views were reasonably widespread.

  13. anthonygale  November 28, 2017

    Do you think the hypothesis that Luke and Matthew were independent of each other is as solid as Markan priority? Because there are some agreements between Luke and Matthew that are more challenging to explain. It’s also hard to believe that Q, if it existed, circulated enough to be used by both but then dropped off the face of the Earth without so much as a mention by an early church father, while references to so many other documents survived (with some being found). I realize there are problems with the notion that Luke and Matthew knew each other. But I think it’s a mistake to simply accept the (apparent) least problematic solution. What if the true answer is something more complicated, say they originally wrote independently but learned of each other in between subsequent editions and scribes later corrupted the texts. I’m not saying that particular scenario is likely. I’m just suggesting that the real solution to the synoptic problem, or other problems, might be something nobody has thought of. Might that be the best explanation for why all proposed solutions have problems?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 29, 2017

      See today’s post! But it’s not hard to believe that Q dropped off the face of the earth. The very great vast majority of early Christian writings did as well!

      • HenriettePeterson  November 29, 2017

        Would it be a mega-epic-turbo find if an early manuscript version of Q was discovered?

      • anthonygale  November 29, 2017

        I don’t think it’s hard to believe a document was lost. What I find hard(er) is that a written document, circulated enough to get to both Matthew and Luke, without them knowing each other, was lost without so much as a mention, while so many other (less important?) documents were preserved. “M” and “L”, if they were written documents, seem easier to be lost without mention because only one gospel writer used them. Taken with the other reasons to doubt Q existed (e.g. the agreements against Mark), I think the existence of the Q document is less solid than is often suggested. But thats just my opinion. In any case, the complexity of the synoptic problem is fascinating to me and is one of my favorite issues.

        • Bart
          Bart  December 1, 2017

          Luke says he had “many” predecessors who wrote Gospels. Mark and Q probably aren’t to be thought of as “many” — so lots have been lost!

          • anthonygale  December 1, 2017

            How problematic do you consider the “most significant” agreements between Matthew and Luke against Mark? For example, “he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit… and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand (and he will clear/to clear) his threshing floor and (gather his wheat into the granary/to gather his wheat into his granary) but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” I am aware that several explanations have been proposed to explain these agreements. I think they are plausible, yet their requirement makes the Four Source Hypothesis start to look more convoluted. Still less convoluted than other theories (satisfying Occam’s Razor) but enough to cast some doubt I think.

            I’m not trying to argue the Four Source Hypothesis is necessarily wrong if it comes across that way. I just think some aspects of it are softer than others.

          • Bart
            Bart  December 4, 2017

            Extensive agreements of Mt and Lk in material not found from Mark is simply from Q (even if Mark has *part* of the saying, but not the rest of it)

  14. gavriel  November 29, 2017

    1. Previously you have avoided discussing the implications of the so-called “minor agreements” between Luke and Matthew against Mark. Maybe you could devote a full posting to it now? Some of us enjoy the more technical postings.
    2. Is it a very inconceivable that Luke knew all Q, Mark and Matthew, and thought that Matthew’s mixing of Mark and Q was a failure, so that he felt justified in making a wholly different approach?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 29, 2017

      1. My view is that most of the minor agreements can be chalked up to: 1) Accidental agreements in changes on occasion 2) the form of Mark available to Matthew and Luke was slightly different in places to the form we have today.
      2. Once a solution gets more complicated than necessary, it seems less plausible. YOu don’t need Luke knowing three sources when two will do the same trick, especially if knowing the three creates other problems (how was he doing these kinds of side by side comparisons, word for word, among three documents, e.g.?)

      • fabiogaucho  November 29, 2017

        Are you conceding the possibility of a Proto-Mark?

        • Bart
          Bart  December 1, 2017

          Not necessarily: I’m just saying that Mark circulated before Matthew and Luke each got it, and scribes were changing it all along. I’m not necessarily *against* a theory of proto-Mark, but I’ve never seen any compelling reason to buy it either.

  15. Carlov  November 29, 2017

    Bart, I don’t mean to digress, but can you please recommend a book that explains how historians come to their conclusions? By what methods or criteria do they determine whether something is historically accurate? Thank you.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 1, 2017

      Ah, that’s a good question. I need to think about a book that would be suitable for a non-historian: nothing comes to mind offhand. Maybe someone else on the blog has some suggestions?

      • Carlov  December 1, 2017

        Isn’t there a notable textbook that Professors of History recommend to their Undergraduate students? I’ve gathered bits and pieces from your videos regarding this matter. I’ve heard you refer to concepts like “the criterion of dissimilarity”. I’ve also heard you refer to a specific set of criteria – sources need to independent of one another; they need to be unbiased towards the subject; they need to be consistent with one another; they need to be contemporary to the events, and you need multiple sources. I want a book that explains all these concepts so I’m able to do my own research on not just the History of Christianity, but other historical periods as well.

        • Bart
          Bart  December 4, 2017

          There may well be, but I don’t know what it is. Maybe someone on the blog has a suggestion.

  16. fabiogaucho  November 29, 2017

    Aside from the priority, I don’t think you made a post on the dating of Mark. Everyone seems to say it’s between 66-70 AD. Is it because it *had* to be after the beginning of the Jewish-Roman War and *had* to be before the destruction of Jerusalem? Is the mini-Apocalypse in Mark 13 the key to dating?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 1, 2017

      Yes, I now think it was soon after 70, since ch. 13 does seem to know about the destruction of the Temple. But I”m not dogmatic about it — I think it could be argued either way.

  17. Vatikan  November 30, 2017

    These recent posts about the Gospel of Mark have been really interesting! I have a question that stems back to your post about Jesus’s family appearing to hide him from the community. Why would Mark include this piece that could easily be interpreted that his own family was embarrassed by his actions? Does it stem back to Mark’s overall theme that only the reader & the Roman soldier knew who he was? Also, do modern scholars believe this excerpt can give us any idea about the overall status of Jesus’s mental health? For example whether he was sane or not?

    Thanks!

    • Bart
      Bart  December 1, 2017

      Yes, it’s part of the theme that no one could figure him out (except Mark!)

      • godspell  December 1, 2017

        I don’t suppose there has ever been a biographer (in any sense of the word) who didn’t believe he/she understood the subject at hand better than anyone else ever had or would in future. I mean, why go to all that trouble otherwise?

      • webo112
        webo112  December 1, 2017

        Bart, then sometimes stories that may at first seem to appear to pass the criteria of dissimilarity, may in fact fail this criteria if contrasted to the author’s goal correct?
        I presume that scholars need to consider the context of the saying when tested against this criteria? In the above example, this story would pass the criteria, but not pass as easily as historical, when viewed though the authors’ intention of this story; where he may have fabricated this story to suit his view of Jesus that he want the readers to see.

        • Bart
          Bart  December 4, 2017

          Yes, the storing/saying needs to be considered not just in light of “general” dissimilarity but also in respect specifically to the views and agenda of the author who presents it.

  18. Dhul_Qarnayn  December 2, 2017

    Nice post doctor Ehrman, it might also please you to know that you actually did make a post about this 1 year ago, i remember because that very week my christian friend asked me about this and i used your argument.

  19. modelthry  December 6, 2017

    I’m curious about the statements attributed to Jesus while on the cross. They vary across the Gospels. Generally speaking, do scholars think there’s any historicity in any of them? Mark’s portrayal seems like one the other writers would have had incentive to change.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 8, 2017

      My own view is that no one was taking notes at the time — and in fact none of his followers were within shouting distance.

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