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Mark: The First Gospel in 19th Century Research

My custom/self-imposed policy is to re-post blog posts only when they are a few years old, in the expectation that most blog members will not have seen them and that some of those who have — if they are at all like me — won’t actually remember them.  In this case I need to post one from 2017.  In a later post I am going to argue that when William Wrede published his book on the Messianic Secret, it disabused scholars of a long held assumption, that Mark, as the earliest Gospel, was a fairly disinterested straight-up report of what actually happened in the life of Jesus.

To get to that, I have to explain why nineteenth century scholars thought Mark was the oldest, earliest, most original Gospel there was, and that Luke and Matthew both used it for many of their own stories about Jesus.  (John is a different kettle of fish: not as closely related to any of the other three as they are to each other.)  That view is called “Markan priority” (Mark is prior to the other two).  Here is a thumbnail sketch of three arguments often cited, as scholars began to work them out especially in the nineteenth century, as laid out in my textbook on the New Testament.


Arguments for Markan Priority

Over the years, 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 (i.e., someone was obviously copying someone else, since they are word for word the same), 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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A New Argument that Mark Was the First Gospel (Editorial Fatigue): Guest Post by Mark Goodacre!
The Beginning of the Quest of the Historical Jesus



  1. Scorpiored48  February 8, 2019

    It seems very important to establish Mark as the first written Gospel but is there equal urgency in establishing Luke or Matthew as the Second and Third Gospels? It seems everyone agrees that John was written last.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 10, 2019

      Not so much. What matters more is that they both used Mark in constructing their own accounts.

  2. Brittonp  February 8, 2019

    Excellent summary! I am really enjoying this series on Mark.

  3. Nichrob  February 8, 2019

    I am really enjoying these posts on Mark. Very good…! Thanks…!!

  4. scissors  February 8, 2019

    Two questions, if I might

    1.) Could the verbatim wording be due to copyists familar with all 3?

    2.) Does Mark Goodacre’s fatigue argument cinch up Markan priority? If I recall correctly, Goodacre observed that Herod is described everywhere in Mark as a king. Matthew comes along and corrects Mark by referring to Herod as a Tetrarch, but later lapses into referring to Herod as a King.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 10, 2019

      Yes, that option is often floated. Well, it used to be. Now it is generally seen as an unnecessarily complicated step. I’m not sure. He’s on the blog: maybe he can comment. In fact, maybe I’ll ask him to do a guest-post on editorial fatigue!

      • Hngerhman  February 10, 2019

        Dr Ehrman: Please do – if Prof Goodacre’s commentary on fatigue is anything at all as elucidating as his input on the Garrow-on-Matthew debate (thanks much to Evan) from a little over a year ago, blog members would be in for a treat, beyond the already overwhelming embarrassment of riches that is this blog/charity. And any layering on/reactions from you to that would be next-level amazing. Not that I’m excited by the prospect at all… Cheers

      • JohnKesler  February 10, 2019

        Editorial fatigue is what I find to be the most compelling argument that there is a *literary* dependence in the Synoptics. Particularly impressive is the death-of-John-the-Baptist pericope, alluded to by “scissors” above. In Mark’s version, Herod “feared John” and “protected him,” which is consistent with Mark’s statement that Herod was “deeply grieved” (Mark 6:26), but which is quite inconsistent in Matthew (14:9), since in Matthew’s version, Herod “wanted to put [John] to death” (14:5).

  5. fishician  February 8, 2019

    Great summary of Markan priority. Thanks! (Although I am still disappointed that during my many years in church I was sheltered from such interesting information.)

  6. JohnKesler  February 8, 2019

    1) Do you think that there’s any proof that a “proto-Gospel” underlies the Synoptics? 2) What about Papias’ testimony that an Aramaic (“Hebrew language”) version of Matthew existed?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 10, 2019

      1. No, I think that makes matters more complicated than they need be; 2. No evidence of it exists; it’s generally thought that Papias was guessing, since he thought Matthew wrote a Gospel and knew that he would have spoken Aramaic.

  7. tcasto  February 8, 2019

    Thanks Bart for such an interesting series of posts. I’ve followed your books and lectures for a long time so I’m pretty familiar with most of your points. This latest series did provoke an “aha”. I’ve long agreed that Jesus did not proclaim himself God’s son but rather as the forerunner of “the Son of Man” who was to come. I was undecided as to how extreme he was in forecasting his own death (as opposed to others putting those words in his mouth posthumously). This series, especially the discussion of Jesus as expecting his actions to spur a popular uprising, lead me to conclude this was NOT the case. I think it quite likely that he had come to believe that his death was somehow to be the catalyst for the coming of the Son of Man. Clearly such an act would not require the uprising of the population.

    How accurate Mark is in detailing three specific prophecies I’ll leave to others, but I have my doubts. But I do think he saw his fate, as the victim of Rome’s cruel practice of crucifixion, as a necessary step.

    Thanks for the opportunity to wax!

  8. Matt2239  February 8, 2019

    What about the sequence of Q? The sequence of Mark is the same in Matthew and Luke, and then the source Q is anywhere, but is it sequential where it appears? For example you might see Mk1, Mk2, and Mk3 in Matthew and Luke. But Q can be anywhere, such as Q1, Mk1, Mk2, Q2, and Mk3. Could it also be Mk1, Q1, Q2, Mk2, and Mk3? In these examples, Q is sequential to relative to itself while non-sequential relative to Mark. That would be a powerful indicator that source Q existed in manuscript form and was not simply oral traditions that Mark omitted.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 10, 2019

      That’s right. The fact that Q sayings get inserted in various places is one of th eqrguments that Luke isn’t getting them from Matthew but an independent source, apart from both Martthew and Mark.

      • Leovigild  February 10, 2019


        I think you misunderstood the question. Matt2239 was asking if the “Q material” (the double tradition) appeared in the same sequence in both Matthew and Luke. The answer is no. However, the fact that they frequently agree on wording suggests their common source was written not oral.

        • Bart
          Bart  February 11, 2019

          I don’t think I’m disagreeing. Q was written, and its sayings are inserted in different places in the outlines followed by Matthew and Luke.

  9. Radar  February 8, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,
    Is there a good table or chart (or series of them) online or in a book that quickly show the places, for reference, where all three verbally agree, where Mark and Matthew verbally agree against Luke, where Mark and Luke verbally agree against Matthew, where Matthew and Luke verbally agree on non-Markan material, and where they contain differently-worded material about the same story that is non-Markan, and etc.? I’ve thought about painstakingly doing this myself, but having some helpful guidance would be, well, helpful.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 10, 2019

      The best way to see all that is by reading carefully a Gospels Harmony that places all the accounts side by side in parallel columns so you can see for yourself (and mark the agreements of various kinds in different colored pencils!). Best one, probably, Synopsis of the Four Gospels by Kurt Aland (make sure you get the English edition with the English title!)

  10. mikezamjara  February 8, 2019

    Dr Ehrman:

    When do you think that the christians felt the need to create a “new testament”?. I mean, the gospels were written many decades after Jesus and Paul doesnt seem to had the intention that his letters were part of jewish Scripture. I mean, When did the christians added the gospels and letters to the Torah to create a new bible?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 10, 2019

      Ah, very long story. Search on the blog for “canon” and you’ll see a number of posts devoted to it.

  11. Wainwrightr  February 9, 2019

    Unrelated comment here sorry. Bart have you ever thought about doing a piece or series of blog posts about the stance Jehovah’s Witnesses take regarding blood transfusions? As a former witness myself I am keenly aware of the danger this policy presents to millions of JW’s and can’t help be frustrated by the general apathy there seems to be among scholars about the subject. I’m sure that someone as prominent as yourself, who could comment with your expertise, would be able to have some sort of impact and maybe even save lives.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 10, 2019

      I never have! Mainly becaues I”m not an expert on modern religious movements!

      • Wainwrightr  February 10, 2019

        You wouldn’t need to be. There view that blood is forbidden is mostly rooted in the Jerusalem counsel passage of Acts 15. They take the prohibition on not eating blood as being applicable to intravenous blood transfusion also. Their reasoning is that Acts 15 is reiterating the Noahide covenant and was binding on all mankind for all eternity. I think given the historical context of Acts 15 (if the context not entirely ahistorical) and the fact that Paul’s writings seem to contradict the decree in Acts 15 (eating meat sacrificed to idols in pagan temples) give grounds for viewing Acts 15 as not binding but for the purpose of integration of Jewish and Gentile converts together in what was a fledgling faith.

  12. AstaKask  February 9, 2019

    Who do you think was the best author, on purely technical merits, of the four Gospel authors?

  13. brenmcg  February 9, 2019

    The more random the ordering of non-Markan material in Matthew and Luke the better the argument of order works. However Mark and Matthew’s ordering of events from the beheading of John the Baptist are entirely the same – that is from Mark 6 to 16. The argument of order can only be applied to the first 5 chapters of Mark. The reason the ordering was messed up here can only be due to the sermon on the mount. Either Matthew has added it to Mark and messed up the order or Mark has removed it from Matthew messed up the order.

    What we see is that Mark largely follows Luke’s order, up to Luke’s sermon on the plain. At which point, having just told the story of the “Lord of the Sabbath”, Mark skips to this same story in Matthew. He continues following Matthew, only to add the three consecutive stories of “Jesus Calms the Storm” “Demon possessed Man” and “Jesus Raises Dead Girl” and the story of Jesus sending out the twelve which had been passed over in the skip, to the end of his gospel. It is this skip that resulted in the “Faith of the Centurion” being lost by Mark.

    • brenmcg  February 9, 2019

      Also re “Jesus Calms the Storm” “Demon possessed Man” and “Jesus Raises Dead Girl”, these are consecutive only in Luke and Mark. Matthew has the three stories “Forgiving the paralyzed Man” “Calling of Matthew” “Questioning about Fasting” inserted in the middle of them.

      There’s no particular reason for Matthew to insert the stories here but there is a reason for Luke to remove them. He has moved the calling of Matthew to back before the sermon on the plain. Luke believes Matthew was the first to write down the sermon and it wouldn’t do to have his calling occur after it.

      **it would be difficult to understand why Mark would introduce awkward grammar or a strange word or a difficult idea into a passage that originally posed no problem, but it is easy to see why Matthew or Luke might have wanted to eliminate such problems.**

      It is easy to see why Matthew and Luke would change Mark but it is also easy to understand why Mark would introduce awkward grammar. Mark has an awkward style of greek writing. When he edits something he introduces and awkward style of writing.

    • godspell  February 10, 2019

      You say ‘messed up’ but that’s loaded language. I think all four gospel authors do pretty much exactly what they intended to do, with the material they had to hand. Mark didn’t have Q. Luke and Matthew clearly had Mark and Q. (Why would Mark edit out Q? Many of those stories would fit his agenda just fine.)

      John is harder to figure, and I suspect much of the material in his gospel that sticks out is original to him (and of course the Woman Taken In Adultery was added later). But that’s just an opinion I can’t substantiate. A feeling.

      There are so many arguments for Mark’s priority. But the best argument of all is just to read the four gospels in order. And you see the story changing, evolving, and that speaks to Mark’s priority, to Matthew and Luke being an attempt to develop it further, to smooth down some of the rough edges of humanity in Jesus–and to John being an entirely different approach, from somebody who has lost any idea of Jesus being a man.

      • brenmcg  February 12, 2019

        How the story evolves depend very much on who you think wrote first. Assuming Matthew wrote first its just as easy to see how/why Mark is changing it.

        In the teaching on divorce is where Mark has no grounds for divorcee but Matthew allows in the case of sexual immorality which is supposed to be derived from which. Are 1st C christians supposed to become more pious or less pious historically? It depends on assumptions of who wrote first.

        A good indicator of priority is order. The re-ordering of the other gospels is mostly random and unexplainable for almost all combinations. The only one that has some sort of explanation is Mark copying from both Matthew and Luke – as explained above. I think its too good to be by chance and Mark probably used Matthew and Luke.

  14. josephpatterson82  February 9, 2019

    Thanks for sharing your scholarship with us. I understand that the early church believed that Matthew was written first. What were their reasons for believing Matthew was written first by the early church and do any modern NT scholars still argue for Mathew being the first gospel? Thanks

    • Bart
      Bart  February 10, 2019

      They thought Mark must have been a condensation of Matthew, and that Matthew would have been prior because he was an eyewitness. Yes, there are a few scholars who still argue for Matthean priority (most famously William Farmer), but they are very much a minority.

      • Hngerhman  February 10, 2019

        Dr Ehrman – your comment re: Farmer reminded me that, after my prior question in another post thread about Paul and Lord Supper tradition (did he cross-check it w/ Peter/James during those 15 days in Jerusalem pre-1st Corinthians), I found a paper by Farmer that seems to propound (based largely on vocabulary) a similar thought. Sorry for the ignorance, but I don’t have a sense as to where his work fits in the scholarly debate. Curious your high level thoughts on his work, if perhaps as a devil’s advocate for dialectical purposes – putting the Markan priority arguments (and others?) through some additional exercise? Thanks much!

        • Bart
          Bart  February 11, 2019

          I”m afraid I haven’t read his book in thirty years. But I found it so thoroughly unconvincing I never felt a need to read it again! So I can’t remember all the arguments — maybe someone else on the blog can help out?

          • Hngerhman  February 11, 2019

            Helpful framing – thank you!

      • anthonygale  February 10, 2019

        Do folks who argue for the priority of Matthew offer points that are strong? I understand that the case for the priority of Mark is the strongest and I agree. But are there at least a few points that someone can offer and say: hey, this supports the idea that Matthew came first?

        • Bart
          Bart  February 11, 2019

          I guess the strongest is that if Matthew if prior, then Mark and Luke both copied it and you don’t need to posit a hypothetical Q source to explain the similiarities of Matthew and Luke.

          • anthonygale  February 11, 2019

            Any compelling reason to believe Matthew wrote first rather than Luke?

          • Bart
            Bart  February 12, 2019

            It’s generally assumed, but I don’t know of any particularly compelling evidence of it. Maybe someone else on the blog does?

  15. Hormiga  February 9, 2019

    >The best explanation is that Matthew and Luke each used Mark as one of their sources and also had a different source that they plugged into the narrative framework of Mark at different places.

    I’m not sure how well I can express this, but it seems curious to me that two presumably different people in two different places and working independently undertook essentially the same project: to augment Mark with supplementary sources. Both had Q and decided to use it, plus some other material unique to one or the other of Matthew and Luke. Or is it even fair to characterize their efforts as Markan augmentation rather than a general effort to pull together various Jesus materials, of which Mark was just one?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 10, 2019

      My guess is that it happened with greater frequency. We’d love to know. Since Christianity was such a tiny movement at the time, though, and since various commiunities were communicating with each other in writing, I suppose it’s not to strange they were sharing their books with one another on occasion.

  16. mannix  February 10, 2019

    You mentioned the Beatitudes (which is in the upcoming 2/17 Lukan Gospel) This may be a “nothing”, but I am intrigued by the phrase “…stood on a level place…” (6:17, RSV). Mt. has Jesus deliver the message on “mountain” (5:1). Could this difference be simply that or, in light of Lk 1:1-4, be “correcting” “Matthew”? Why specify “level place”? “Luke” also states that “many” others had undertaken to write an “orderly account” of Jesus’ ministry…could “Mark” have been specifically one he had in mind?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 11, 2019

      Yes, the passage in Luke is often referred to as the Sermon on the Plain, as opposed to Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. Both are drawn from Q in part, but it the material is presented in different ways and to a different extent.

  17. brenmcg  February 11, 2019

    Hi Bart – a lot of the arguments here require Matthew and Luke to be independent of each other. Do you think when Mark Goodacre gives arguments for Luke’s use of Matthew they actually amount to arguments against Markan priority?

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