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Who CARES if Mark was the First Gospel Written?

When I teach students in my Introduction to the New Testament class about the Synoptic Problem, it becomes a bit like pulling teeth.  To be sure, at the very outset, students are intrigued.  When I set it up, it’s kind of like a detective story – who copied whom, and how would we know?  I make it as interesting and intriguing as I can: how can we figure this out?

But then I have to get into the weeds to explain the evidence, such things as the patterns of verbal agreements among Matthew, Mark, and Luke in passages they all three have in common (such passages are called “the Triple Tradition”):  sometimes all three have exactly the same wording; sometimes all three have different wording; sometimes Mattthew and Mark have the same wording but Luke disagrees; sometimes Mark and Luke have the same wording, but Matthew disagrees; but only rarely do Matthew and Luke agree, and Mark disagrees.  I show this in detail with a particular passage (the rich man that comes up to Jesus to ask about how to have eternal life and Jesus ends up telling him to sell everything).   I then show the logic of thinking that this shows that Matthew and Luke must have used Mark, and probably did not use each other.

And as I show, in detail, which words are shared and which are different in various combinations, my students’ eyes start to glaze over.  And I can see them saying (those still awake), WHO THE HECK CARES???

And so once we plod through this and the other arguments, I then explain why it MATTERS.  For scholars today, probably the biggest reason it matters is …

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  1. Avatar
    obrienma  February 15, 2019

    I often feel that I get the full value of the cost of the blog from a single post; this is one such post. Thanks Bart!

  2. Avatar
    JohnKesler  February 15, 2019

    “(The word ‘immediately’ is one of Mark’s favorites. The Greek word is EUTHUS. Mark uses it over *40 times*. Luke uses it …. wait for it…. once.)”

    I counted 40 times in Mark, eight in Luke, nine in Acts and 15 in Matthew.
    Sources: https://studybible.info/concordance/new/G2112 and https://studybible.info/strongs/G2112. Is this accurate?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 17, 2019

      No, EUTHUS as an adverb occurs once in Luke. He does, however, several times use the closely related EUTHEOS.

      • Avatar
        JohnKesler  February 17, 2019

        https://studybible.info/strongs/G2117 says that this entry is for the Greek EUTHUS, and that it occurs just 17 times in the entire NT. According to Brian Kelly at https://catholicism.org/immediately-characteristically-st-mark.html, “The four evangelists used the adverb ‘immediatley’ (euthus, in Greek) an amazing number of times. Saint Matthew used it twelve times, Luke fourteen times, and John only six times. Mark however…used the word twenty-eight times, and his is the shortest Gospel, only sixteen chapters.” What resource is the best for determining how many times a Greek word actually occurs? I know that learning Koine Greek is preferable, but short of this, what should I use?

        • Bart
          Bart  February 18, 2019

          Even without Greek, if you get to know the letters you could use a Greek concordance that lists every reference for every word. The statistics I’ve given you are not debated data. The first website you list simply doesn’t know what it’s talking about.

  3. Avatar
    AstaKask  February 15, 2019

    If Mark was true then one conclusion almost has to be that Jesus chose the greatest clodheads in Palestine to be his disciples.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 17, 2019

      Not sure about that. The vast majority of the population was uneducated; and it’s hard to know how swift the average peasant/day-laborer was! But yes, the claim they were a bit thick is central to Mark’s plot.

  4. Avatar
    fishician  February 15, 2019

    This helps explain my question from the previous post about why Markan priority can matter. Thanks!

  5. Avatar
    ddorner  February 15, 2019

    How big a deal would it be if we were to find a copy of “Q”?

  6. Avatar
    fishician  February 15, 2019

    Forgive an off-topic question, but it relates to your afterlife series: in the story of the rich man and Lazarus the KJV uses the word “hell” but it is “Hades” in the Greek, yet Jesus would have been speaking Aramaic. Did the Aramaic-speaking Jews use the word “Hades”? If not, is there any way to know what word Jesus would have used? And would this suggest that the story was a later invention by Greek-speaking Christians, put back into the mouth of Jesus?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 17, 2019

      Ah, that’s a great question! But my view is that this is not something Jesus actually said. It is Luke’s story, but not historical (and Luke was writing it in Greek). If it *was* historical, then Jesus would have had to have used the Greek word Hades at this point, and hope his listeners knew what he was talking about.

  7. Avatar
    godspell  February 15, 2019

    It only matters if you really care about understanding the gospels. If you just want to blindly accept them as holy writ, then the more you know, the worse off you are (as your own life history amply demonstrates, Prof. Ehrman).

    If you want to reject them out of hand, dismiss their importance, insist they are a pack of lies–same thing!

    The best way to maintain invincible certainty on any subject is to avoid examining it too closely. The deeper you look, the more doubts you will have, even as certain underlying patterns become ever more evident.

    I’ve nothing against faith–I revere it–but no one needs faith where there are facts. Faith is where facts leave off.

  8. Telling
    Telling  February 15, 2019

    It must be quite frustrating to have had the Son of God arrive on scene and purportedly proclaim that believing in Him will buy eternal life, and then find that what was given to us is quite muddy and murky, so much as to require scholars upon scholars century after century to make great effort at grasping what actually we are to believe in order to gain this eternal life.

    Hindus and Buddhists are sailing, the teaching and methods (particularly with Buddhism) are clear and straightforward. But the murky Christian beliefs require that we not look to these other religions, nor are we allowed to look to those who reside in the spirit world and who make contact with people in our world who write books about what it’s like there and what we can expect.

    Quite frustrating, I would say: Believe the Christian Church and only the Christian Church — one source, no other, and that source is indeed murky and problematic.

  9. Avatar
    brenmcg  February 16, 2019

    If the idea that Mark’s gospel is a bare-boned historical account falls apart shouldn’t we begin to see stories like Jesus walking on water for what they are? allusions to the old testament. Matthew originally writing the allusion to Isaiah 41 before Mark doing his edits to remove the allusions and make a more bare-boned non-historical account.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 17, 2019

      I”m not saying I agree with that view!

    • Avatar
      godspell  February 20, 2019

      Matthew is self-evidently anything but a bare bones historical account, desperately trying to make Jesus fit Old Testament prophecies that had nothing to do with the Messiah.

      However, I hardly think it’s an established fact Matthew is referencing Isaiah by telling that story. Is it possible he’s making a connection? Sure, but he will take any story about Jesus and try to make it fit prophecy–that’s his theme. Doesn’t mean he made the story up. John clearly isn’t ‘editing’ the synoptics–and he tells almost the same story as Mark. Meaning that he and Mark probably had the same source.

      With Mark, the story is all about faith, and not at all about prophecy. And this is how I know he hadn’t read Matthew’s version. It fits his idea of Jesus perfectly–that his power comes from faith alone, and that others could do the same if they had the same belief. Peter tries and briefly succeeds, before his confidence falters.

      I prefer Matthew’s rendition of the story, but Mark wouldn’t have edited it that way. Matthew had another source that Mark and John didn’t have. Matthew certainly added the part about the disciples calling Jesus the Son of God, which isn’t in John either.

      There are no bare bones historical accounts, so this isn’t a good argument for Matthew’s priority. Like Matthew, you tend to try too hard to make the material fit your thesis.

  10. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  February 16, 2019

    Great series. Keep plugging away. So, the question becomes how historical is Mark?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 17, 2019

      Yes, that’s what was driving the research for a very long time.

  11. Avatar
    scroffler  February 17, 2019

    Doesn’t the central logic of redaction criticism (in the context of the Synoptic Gospels) seem to imply that the authors of Matthew and Luke were working from a written copy of Mark *as we know it today*? How can we know, or assume, that they were? What if their version(s) of Mark were different than the Mark we know today – wouldn’t that undermine the whole enterprise of detecting and understanding the alterations they made to their source?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 18, 2019

      I think most experts would say that they worked with a copy of Mark “pretty much as we know it today,” with some exceptions. And that htey form of Mark used by Matthew was not exactly the same as the one used by Luke. It makes it all fairly complicated, but when you do the analysis time after time after time, it seems to work out *on balance.*

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