Priority of Mark

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The Gospel of Mark is shorter than the other Gospels and some of the grammar and theology is unique. There are also significant similarities bewteen Mark and the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.


Synoptic Gospels

Part 2

II. The Priority of Mark

A. Length

1. Overall size is shorter.

2. Individual accounts are typically longer.

B. Grammar

1. Use of Historical Present

2. Use of Slang

a. Redundant expressions

b. Aramaic phrases

C. Theological Difficulties

1. Rich Young Ruler

2. Limiting Jesus' Power

3. Beside Himself

D. Agreement between Gospels


Course: New Testament Survey - Gospels

Lecture: Priority of Mark

Will you join me in prayer? Father in heaven, we take for granted the privilege that is ours, and the freedom we have of meeting in your name. We pray to you to discuss your word without fear of persecution. For those this day that name your name in places where there is suffering for Christ’s sake, we pray our father a special grace upon them, a strength of joy and knowing that they are serving you. Father, we also pray that if or when the time comes that we face such persecution, that you help us to be strong, and like the example of others in the Book of Hebrews, chapter 11, of Stephen, our Lord when they were put to death, that we would bless and not curse. We ask your presence today and teach us we ask for Jesus’s sake, amen.

Yesterday we looked at some of the data, in the synoptic gospels, which suggests that there is some sort of a written relationship, a literary relationship that exists between Matthew, Mark and Luke. We look at that from the perspective of various passages in which the wording of similar accounts are very, very close, and that you start asking, “Well, how come they are so close in wording?” Is there some sort of a written source that is causing this?

We then looked at the order of the materials, in order that there is a sequence of order that has followed rather closely in Matthew, Mark and Luke, and that there is no necessary tie in these events, such as saying that they are days in a biography, in which you look at somebody’s and you say, “This happened on day one, this happened on day two.” There are mixtures of sayings and stories of Jesus that have no necessary tie and yet they occur in the same order in Matthew, Mark and Luke, which suggests once again the use of a literary source. We looked at some parenthetical agreements, where an editor has inserted a comment and we find that oft times, two or three of the gospels have at that same place, that same editorial comment, and one of them is addressed to a reader in Mark 13:14, which indicates this is not just an oral matter, but it’s a written matter that they are following.

We then looked at several passages in which Matthew, Mark and Luke quote a passage from The Bible, and the wording is exact but it is different from the kind of wording that we find in the Greek translation of the Old Testament called the Septuagint, and it’s different from the other material such as the Masoretic text or the Targum texts. Then finally we looked at Luke 1:1 before, which Luke specifically states that others had written accounts before them and that he has investigated much of this for some time past.

Having “established” that there exists a literary relationship between the gospels, the next question came up “Well, what is that literary relationship?” Assuming that Matthew, Mark and Luke used some literary source in common, what did that source look like? At first it was a general thought that there was some early gospel, some older gospel, primitive gospel that was out there that Matthew, Mark and Luke used and that’s why they look alike. Scholars then began to say “Well, I wonder whether this primitive gospel looked like Mark, Matthew or Luke?  And then they came to the conclusion that it was an older Marcus, a primitive gospel of Mark. Then eventually, they started to say well, “That poor Marcus looks so much like Mark, why don’t we simply say Mark was the first one and Matthew and Luke used it.”

What we will try to deal with today is the establishment of a literary relationship in which Mark was the first gospel written and then Matthew and Luke used Mark to assist them in the writing of their gospels. Some of the arguments in favor for “the priority,” not in logic or in valuation, but in kind, the priority of Mark, meaning that Matthew and Luke used Mark, are as follows.

For one, Mark is the shortest of the gospels. It is much easier to conceive that Matthew and Luke would have added material to Mark, than that Mark used Matthew or Luke and chose to eliminate materials. It’s easier to think of Matthew as saying that “I want to add a birth account, and therefore, I’ll add it to Mark,” than Mark saying “Why would you want to eliminate a birth account?” Easy to see Matthew and Luke adding the Sermon on the Mount or the sermon on the plain to Mark than Mark for some reason eliminating it. Easy to understand of the Beatitudes being added to Mark, than Mark for some reason choosing to leave them out. And there are lots of things like this – the genealogy, resurrection stories and so forth, various teachings if you go and underline whole synopsis, you’ll find a lot more teaching materials in Matthew and Luke than in Mark. And yet Mark has an interesting emphasis. He emphasizes time and time again, Jesus’s ministry as a teacher. In fact the word, “teacher, teaching and teachings,” teaching as a verb, occurs more often in Mark than in Matthew and Luke. Now I think he’s using these other gospels or one of these other gospels, it’s very strange that he emphasizes the teaching ministry of Jesus so much but eliminates so much of the teaching found in the other gospels. So, one of the reasons then that it is more likely that Mark was the first gospel used by Matthew and Luke, than vice versa, is that it’s easier to explain Matthew and Luke adding additional material to their Mark in source, than the reverse.

Now someone has suggested well, maybe what Mark is doing is that he has been commissioned by the Galilee Press to produce a condensed version of the gospel. So he is going to abbreviate it, to make it more useful. There is nothing inherently wrong with that suggestion, until what you do is you look at the stories. Now, in a Reader’s Digest kind of condensation, the book that’s being condensed is shortened. But everything is shortened. Every chapter of the book has become shortened in some way. If you look at Mark, it is a shorter gospel in size. But if you look at the stories in Mark, they tend to be always longer than Matthew and Luke. In other words, it is Matthew and Luke that abbreviate the stories of Mark, not the other way around. So it would be a very strange condensation to leave out sections of Matthew and Luke but that what you do include, you make longer. So it doesn’t look in any sense that Mark is a condensation effort. So once again, it looks like it’s easy to say Mark was probably the first gospel written and Matthew and Luke used it.

Another argument in favor of the priority of Mark is that the grammar of Mark is inferior to that of Matthew and Luke. Inspiration of God doesn’t mean that everybody is a literary genius that writes the scriptures. Some parts of our New Testament are written with wonderful good Hebrews, great Greek, Luke and Acts, good Greek. Paul wrote pretty good Greek. Revelation? Not very good Greek. Makes grammatical errors. He doesn’t care. He’s so excited in the middle of something, he’ll switch to something. Sentences are incomplete and so forth and so on. Now if you compare Matthew, Mark and Luke, Mark is the least developed, the least literary in style of the three gospels. It’s much easier to think of Matthew and Luke improving on the grammar of Mark than Mark using Matthew and Luke and somehow making it worse.

Let me give a non-biblical example. By some miracle, William Shakespeare has been brought to life again. And he comes, and he has to copy something, and he is copying Robert Stein’s book, in which he reads the following: “And the father said to his son, “there ain’t no way you get no car this night.” And as he is about to copy that down, his hand begins to shake, and he says, “I can’t do that.” So he changes it – “There is no way that I will permit you to have the car this evening.” When I think of the reverse, on reading Shakespeare’s, “There is no way that I will permit you to have the car this evening,” I probably know enough English to say, that’s pretty good English. I shouldn’t change it to “There ain’t no way you get no car tonight.” So it’s easier to see an improving of grammar than an unproving or disproving of grammar. Now, we have things for instance in Mark that are not really great style. He likes to use what is called the historical present in Greek.

What that means is when Jesus does something, he comes to the village. He sees. He says. Matthew and Luke tend to have “he came to the village and he said, after he saw,” using past tense instead. Now, there are 151 examples of this historical present in Mark. Matthew has 21. Luke has one. It looks more likely that Matthew and Luke eliminate the historical present to make it a more normal usual aorist than the reverse.

Sometimes, Mark has redundant expressions. Turn with me to page 36. Now remember, Mark is shorter than Matthew and Luke. But what we have many times in Mark are redundant expressions, which Matthew and Luke omit. Now if you talk about the reverse, Matthew being abbreviated by Mark, it’s strange that he abbreviates it and then he adds redundant expressions. For instance, in Mark 132, we have Mark saying, “That evening at sundown.” Now, I’m not arguing that it happened that way. That’s when evening comes, at sundown. But one of them is redundant, isn’t it? You could say “that evening at sunrise,” that would be really different. But it’s a redundant expression. Now you have to think of, if Mark is using Matthew or Luke, h eliminates the Beatitudes, and he throws in an extra “at sundown,” in something like this. It doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Another example, page 44, Mark 2:25. You notice by the way the parallels Matthew had “that evening,” and Luke had “when the sun was setting.”  Mark 2:25, Mark has, “have you never read what David did when he was in need and he was hungry.” Now, Matthew and Luke simply have, “when he was hungry.” One of them is redundant.

So the fact that Mark is a shorter gospel and he has redundant expressions, seems to argue that Mark was used by Matthew and they said, “We don’t need both expressions. One of them we can eliminate and we will do so.” If you get to Mark 2:9, page 41, we have here a kind of slang expression which is changed by Matthew and Luke. The word used for “pallet,” in 11, “I say to you, rise up, take up your pallet and go home.” That’s kind of a Macedonian slang expression. So I’d say, Jesus said, “Rise, take up your pad and go home.” And Matthew and Luke have a more normal expression like “bed,” and so, again, it’s easy to think of Matthew and Luke changing Mark and using a better expression for that.

Another thing that we have – Aramaic expressions found in Mark. Turn with me to page 127. Now remember, a gospel is in Greek so that Aramaic is not the language that the readers know. But in Mark, we have in a number of places Aramaic expressions, such as in verse 41, that would be line 64, we read, “Taking her by the hand, He, Jesus, said to her, “Talitha cumi,” which means he has to explain it, because his readers don’t know what it means, “Little girl I say to you arise.” Now, when Mark has these Aramaic expressions, Matthew and Luke always omit them. Now that makes sense, because they have a lot of other material they are going to add to Mark, and they in fact, have to abbreviate Mark. So, leaving out the Aramaic which no one understands anyhow, makes perfectly good sense.

Mark, on the other hand, if you use Matthew or Luke, why he won’t put Aramaic expressions in which you have to explain and leave out the Beatitudes?  It just doesn’t seem realistic. What Mark is doing here, look for another example of this on page 142. Here we have Mark, 7:11, let’s see, line 55-56. So a man says to his father and mother “What you would have been gained from me is corban.” Then he has to explain that word that is not Greek, that is “given to God.” Matthew simply eliminates the Aramaic.

By the way, if you look at Matthew, you will notice Matthew is much smaller print. Now why did they do that? There is a reason. When you have smaller print it means Matthew has this passage, but it’s not in the exact order that you have it. In other words, you have to look for this passage earlier in the gospel, beginning at verse four of Matthew’s chapter. So he has it, but it’s in a different location. Now if you go to the top of 142, you’ll see that Mark has this in small print because if you’re following Matthew, it’s in a different place in the story. So small print means it’s not following consecutively, but it’s the analogy to it. It’s the parallel account and we want to put it there so you can see it. But it’s not in the exact order.

There is also for instance, a reason for the difference in order. When you talk about the Old Testament, it consists of two parts. What are they? The law and the prophets. Mark has in his gospel, first Jesus giving a quote from Isaiah, and then he quotes the law. Matthew reverses him. It makes good sense for Matthew, right?  Why would Mark go on and do it? Not much reason for Mark changing it. For Matthew, to have law and prophets makes perfectly good sense. Furthermore, when you argue in a rabbinic world, you argue from the law and support it with the prophets. So, it’s a very good reason for Matthew to have changed the order that way. That’s why we have small print in these places, because it’s not the normal order that we’re following at that point.

One more example of that. Let’s turn to 297. Here you have line 27, in Gethsemane Jesus prays to God and he prays in line 27 in Mark, “Abba, father.” In other words, you have the Aramaic expression, “Abba,” and then you have the Greek, “pater.” Matthew and Luke simply eliminate the Abba, because their audience doesn’t understand it. Probably Mark has them because that’s the form of the tradition he is familiar with and he puts it the way he has memorized it, in the Aramaic expression.

Another grammatical one or those of you who are taking Greek, if you look at Mark 10:20, you will find that in the Greek, Mark uses what is known an aorist middle, not really a – an unusual kind of Greek. Both Matthew and Luke change it to a plain aorist active, which is much more normal in that regard.

So what we have here is some grammatical issues in which they have different kinds of things, and it’s easy again to see where Matthew and Luke would want to improve on the grammar of Mark by changing it. The reverse is less understandable. So sure gospel has more grammatical problems associated with it.

Another thing that we notice about Mark is that there are a number of instances where there are theological difficulties in Mark, and the parallels in Matthew and Luke tend to try to eliminate those difficulties.

Let’s look at maybe the most famous of these examples on page 217. Here is the story of the rich young ruler. In all three accounts he is rich. In Matthew he is young. In Luke, he is a ruler. Thus, together, he is the rich, young ruler. As he was setting out on this journey, Mark  has a man run up and out before him and ask him, “Good teacher, what must I do to earn eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” You can’t read any commentary on Mark without noticing that there is a lot of space devoted to that opening verse, or verse 18, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” And the reason is preeminent. Why in the world did Jesus call himself not good? Is he denying his goodness? Is he saying he’s a sinner? You know, some radical scholars have argued that. Certainly Matthew, Mark and Luke didn’t think that. They didn’t write here and say Jesus is calling himself a sinner. Generally, there are one of two explanations. One is that Jesus is saying to the rich young ruler, “Do you fully understand what’s implied when you call me good?” In other words, if you call me good in this interpretation and you are right, that implies my deity. Are you aware of that?

The other more common explanation is that Jesus isn’t contrasting any human from the ultimate perfection in goodness of God. Even he who is without sin is not good in the absolute perfect sense that God is good. He has limitations that God does not have and so forth and so on. And I think that is probably the way I would understand it. But that’s a problem. Now, Luke has the same thing, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” But Matthew tries to eliminate the problem for the sake of his readers and he reads, “Why do you ask me about what is good?” One who is who is good. In other words, why are you raising the question of goodness at this point? And he is trying to help his readers so that it is a less difficult passage for them to read. Now, I can much more easily understand Matthew doing that to Mark, than Mark and Luke doing what they have to Matthew. If Matthew is what they are using, they have now, they have taken a very innocent statement and made a real theological question about it. I don’t think it’s that insolvable but it is a problem nonetheless. “Why do you call me good?” So you have that being omitted by Luke.

If someone asked the question, what did the man really say? What did Jesus really say? Did he say “Why did Jesus really say? Did he say, “Why do you ask me about what is good?” Or, “Why do you call me good?” My answer would be, well, he didn’t say either. Well, that’s English. I’ll say, okay, well what about the Greek? He still didn’t say it because he spoke Aramaic. So what we have in our gospels is a translation of what Jesus said in Aramaic into Greek. Once you go from one language to another, you go into the area of interpretation. Translation is an interpretation.

Now, my understanding of this is that gospel writers are divinely inspired to give the mind of Jesus in this area. But you can have different forms of translation. For instance, one of The Beatitudes has, “Blessed are you poor for yours is the kingdom of God.” Matthew has, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” What did Jesus say? Poor, or poor in spirit? Well, he said both. In a sense, he said it one, but they mean both. What you have in Luke is probably a King James RSV, New American Standard Bible, word for word translation. The nearest word for “poor” what Jesus said, is the Greek word, “poor.” Matthew gives us an NIV thought for thought translation, because he knew that poor was not primarily an economic designation, but a spirit mentality of humility. And we know that because the word “poor” is used that way in the Old Testament. The [inaudible] community by the way, refer to themselves as “the poor.” They didn’t mean they were economically poor, they meant that they were the poor and the humble.

David in Psalms, in two Psalms, I can’t think of what they are, refers in the psalm to God and he says, “Bless me because I am a poor man.” He is king of a nation. I mean, if he’s poor, can you imagine what the rest of the people must be like. What he means is that “I am humble.” So now you have a translation. What did Jesus actually say? Poor in spirit? Poor?

I would guess if I had to, that in the Aramaic, he probably used poor, but he means poor in spirit. So they are both the same. Both equal. So in translating, you are dealing with an inspired author, Matthew Mark and Luke, John as well, who take the words of Jesus and are led by the spirit to accurately interpret them for their readers. So what they mean by those words is “without error.”

We have another type of example like that. At the baptism, a voice comes from heaven and says, “You are my beloved son.” Mark. Matthew has, “This is my beloved son.” Now what did Jesus say? Or can you say he didn’t say the Greek or English, he said probably Aramaic, Jesus. When Augustine in 400 was asked about the passage, he said, “They both said the same thing.” Matthew is telling his readers that when God spoke to Jesus that day, he said that this was his son. And in Mark, God is speaking to Jesus, “You are my beloved son.” No difference between them. But what you always have to say is what is inerrant, is the meaning that the biblical author intended by the words. Not the words in and of themselves, but what the Biblical author intended to do and they are not Jesus’ secretaries, taking shorthand, but his inspired and authoritative interpreters.

There are sometimes for instance, there seems to be a limiting of Jesus’ power by Mark. He doesn’t mean it this way but turn with me to page, let’ see, 46 I have. In Mark 3:10 for instance, Mark has, “For he had healed many, so that all who had diseases pressed upon him to touch him.” The nearest parallel Matthew has is he healed them all. “Many” could be misunderstood. Now the word “many” in Hebrew is frequently a synonym for all. “For he would give his life as ransom for many,” Isaiah 53:12, really means for “all.” And so what we have here, is that he is giving his life for all, or has healed many or all. But Matthew realizes that that could be misunderstood and somebody might raise the question, “Well, why didn’t he heal them all? Why just many of them? Was he limited in his ability?” And the answer was “No, he didn’t heal – he healed everybody who was sick.” By the way, not everybody healed, because not everyone was sick. You don’t heal people who are not sick. You don’t say “Rise, take up your bed and walk,” because I am standing up already.

Whatever Mark means doesn’t mean he was unable to heal someone. Mark doesn’t give us any impression of that. So his intention is that he healed everybody who needed to be healed at that time.

But Matthew realized there could be some difficulty with that and he has, “He healed them all.” There are sometimes negative descriptions of the disciples. Let me give you the followers of Jesus, page 107. It’s not easy to follow in a synopsis or passage to passage because sometimes you will be following Mark, and then it will switch to Luke and it will follow Luke, and you will be waiting to get back to Mark again and it takes a while sometimes.

The easiest way is to look at the top of the page and notice the passage at the top. You know that for instance, on page 107, anything before Mark, Matthew 12, 22-30 is to the left. Anything after that, is below and to the right.

Now, Mark alone has this. “Then Jesus went home, and the crowd came together again so that they could not even eat.” And when his family heard it, they went out to seize him for people were saying “He is beside himself.” He is beside himself is a very round about polite way of saying, he’s crazy. Now please note, Matthew and Luke do not have that. Matthew and Luke’s gospel have enough other material. However, we won’t worry about that now. And there is a limited size to a scroll. A scroll was generally 25 to 30 feet long. Mark is not a full scroll. So you can add a lot of things to Mark to fill up a scroll if you want. However, there is a limit to this. And Matthew and Luke add a lot of material. Sometimes we’ll call it cue material, sometimes we’ll call it ill or immaterial if it’s only found in Luke or Matthew. As a result of that additional material, they can’t include all of Mark. So they tend to abbreviate certain stories and they abbreviate things that they don’t think are as important.

Now let me ask you. If you had to abbreviate Mark, would Mark 320 and 21 be high on your list of verses you are going to abbreviate? Sure. On the other hand, if you were going to copy the gospel of Matthew and you eliminate the Sermon on the Mount, is this the kind of thing you put in place of it? It’s much harder again, to think of Mark having to use Matthew, eliminating so much of the teachings, the sermon on – The Beatitudes, The Lord’s Prayer in there, the birth accounts. But instead you go out of your way to add that. It’s easy to see the reverse of this, than what we have here.

Another thing we find at times is that some of the agreements that we have in wording are unusual. Turn with me to page 16. If you had a Greek synopsis, you would notice that what Matthew is doing in following Mark is that he takes and makes a participle into a finite verb. And he follows the ordering in the content of Mark. Now Mark has in verse 10, line 12, “and Jesus had been baptized by John. And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens open and the spirit descending upon him like a dove.” That makes perfectly good sense.

But if you look at Matthew, he’s changed one of the participles into a finite verb, and he leaves the word, “immediately,” in but it turns out strange. Matthew has, “And when Jesus was baptized, he went up immediately from the water, and behold the heavens were opened.” This was a winter baptism in Minnesota, where the old believers would cut a hole in the ice and baptize and then get out real quick. It’s just, you can see how in changing Mark’s grammar, this could result. But the result – to start out writing it this way would be very strange and again, it looks like Matthew has used Mark here and has not double checked what that has done with regard to the particular change he has made.

Look at one more. Page 312. We talk about abbreviating the accounts, by Luke and Matthew of Mark to add their additional material. Well, in Luke 23, verse 18, that would be line 27 on page 312, I think it’s 3:12 in [inaudible]. “The crowd all cried together, “away with this man and release to us Barabbas.” Do you know what’s going on here? There is a custom that is being referred to that on the Passover, the Governor, in this case, Pontius Pilate, would release a prisoner to them, whichever one they wanted. But you don’t know that because you read Luke. Luke doesn’t tell us that. In abbreviating, he omitted that section somehow. But you know it from your reading of Mark and Matthew. So in abbreviating it, maybe he assumes Theophilus knows the story well enough that he doesn’t have to include the custom, or so, but it’s easy to understand Mark’s originality there.

Now, we did some underlining. Not a great deal so far. But let’s look at some possibilities here. If we had Mark first, Matthew was used by Mark, and Luke is used by Mark, when you have coloring, when Matthew and Luke would agree with Mark, you’d have blue, right? Do you all agree?

But what would happen if Mark was copied exactly by Matthew but Luke changed for some reason? How would that show up in your underline? You’d have black Do you have black in your underline?  Yeah, it’s not paramount, is it? Now what would happen if Luke followed Mark exactly when Matthew didn’t? What would you have? You’d have green? Quite a bit, right? What is the one color you don’t have much of? How would you have to get red according to this? You’d have to have Matthew changing Mark, Luke changing Mark, and doing it unconsciously in the exact same way. So you would not expect to have much red. And that is exactly what we find in our underline.

But now let’s go to another possibility. Let’s have Matthew first. Used by Mark, used by Luke. When Mark follows Matthew perfectly, but Luke changes it, you would get black. You know, we have that. When Luke follows Matthew and Mark doesn’t, you would get red but we don’t have an awful lot of that. To get green, you would have to have Mark, choosing not to follow Matthew and Luke not choosing to follow, but not only that but somehow wording it and making the changes identical. That’s strange. This and this seem Matthew being first, Mark and Luke but we have one other possibility. Boy I like playing with colored pencils. This is fun like a kid again. You have Luke, and you have Matthew and you have Mark. When Matthew follows Luke exactly, and somehow you have red here, and we don’t have that, if Matthew follows Luke but Mark doesn’t. If Mark follows Luke but Matthew doesn’t, we have green. Well, we have green. That goes pretty well. But what would you not expect to have?  Black, because again you’d have to have those two coincidentally coming out that way and black we don’t have. So of all the explanations the first one that we had explains the amount of black we have, not as much as some other colors, but good enough. Green explains the lack of red and that is exactly what we have found. So if one of these gospels served as the main one for the other two, this is the way you would come to understand it. That gives us two, three, five possibilities. Once you have Mark in priority as to how they are related.

Tuesday when we get together, we are going to talk about the issue of whether Matthew and Luke knew each other. It has nothing to do with whether they were personal friends. It means whether the writer of Matthew or Luke knew the gospel of Luke or Matthew. I would seek to argue that they did not know each other, and that would eliminate all but one of these possibilities, and we will come to the conclusion if you are following my reasoning that only the possibility in line, three across, the middle one, Mark being first, used by Matthew and by Luke if possible.


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1 New Testament Survey - Gospels - Quiz 2

New Testament Survey - Gospels - Quiz 2


37 min