Markan priority is an answer to the question what is the precise literary relationship between Matthew, Mark and Luke, also known as the Synoptic problem. A close comparison of the first three gospels suggests that one or more of these writers had one or more of the other gospels before them as they wrote. This is more than a common oral tradition. Matthew, Mark and Luke have a fundamental literary agreement.
Mark Stein in his book the Synoptic Problem provides the following evidence for this precise agreement.
Agreement in Wording
While Matthew, Mark and Luke differ slightly from one another, when the tell the story, on the whole, they use the exact same words.
- Matthew 19:13-15, Mark 10:13-16, Luke 18:15-17 (216-217)
- Matthew 22:23-33, Mark 12:18-27, Luke 20:27-40
- Matthew 24:4-8, Mark 13:5-8,Luke 21:8-11
Agreement in Order
Stories are often arranged topically or non-chronologically in Matthew, Mark and Luke. And yet in their topical arrangement of stories Matthew, Mark and Luke exhibit remarkable similarities in order.
- Jesus’ teaching in Synagogue – choosing twelve (Matthew 8:14-10:4, Mark 1:21-3:19; Luke 4:31-6:16)
- Peter’s confession – the healing of the blind man (Matthew 16:13-20:34; Mark 8:27-10:52; Luke 9:18-18:43)
- Jesus’ mother and brothers – Jesus rejected at Nazareth (Matthew 12:46-13:58; Mark 3:31-6:6; Luke 8:19-8:56 (4:16-30)
Agreement in Parenthetical Material
Parenthetical material are things clearly written by an author and not imbedded in the story itself. When parenthetical material appears one or more gospels it again suggests that someone was copy the other.
- “Let the reader understand” (Matt 24:15-18, Mark 13:14-16, Luke 21:30-22)
- "He said to the paralytic" (Matt 9:1-8, Mark 2:1-12, Luke 5:17-26)
- “For he had said to him” (Matt 8:28-29, Mark 5:1-8, Luke 8:26-29)
- “For he knew it was out of envy” (Matt 27:15-18, Mark 15:6-10)
The gospel writers occasionally differ in their quotations of Old Testament Scripture. However, when they do differ with Old Scripture they typically agree with one another.
- Matthew 3:3, Mark 1:3, Luke 3:4 (the LXX of Isaiah 40:3 reads “make straight the paths of our God” and the Masoretic text reads “make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God.”
- Matthew 22:37, Mark 12:30, Luke 10:27 Mind and heart together are not mention in either the LXX or the Masoretic text.
Luke's Authorial Testimony
Luke also indicates that a literary relationship existed between his gospel and others (1:1-4)
Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account of the things
accomplished among us, just as they were handed down to us by those
who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, it
seemed fitting for me as well, having investigated everything
carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in consecutive
order, most excellent Theophilus; so that you may know the exact truth
about the things you have been taught.
All this evidence leads scholars to ask which gospel(s) came first? Again this is known as the Synoptic Problem. Which gospel(s) was/were used by the others?
For the following reasons scholars have singled out Mark's gospel as the first.
Mark is by far the shortest gospel. By word count Mark (11,025 words) is a little over half of the length of the Matthew (18,293) and Luke (19,376). Which is more likely that Matthew and Luke expanded upon Mark or that Mark combined and shortened Matthew and Luke? If Mark is shorter it seems more likely that Matthew and Luke expanded it.
Mark’s Poorer Writing Style
Colloquialisms and inferior writing style
In Mark 10:20 the rich young man replies to the question of Jesus concerning the commandments, “All these I have observed (ephylaxamen) from my youth.” The parallels in Matthew 19:20 and Luke 18:21 change the verb to ephylaxa.
In Mark 1:12 we read that after Jesus’ baptism the Spirit “drove” (ekballei) him into the wilderness to be tempted. The word in Mark is almost always negative. Thus, Matthew 4:1 reads “Jesus was led up (anechthe) by the Spirit,” and Luke 4:1 states that Jesus “was led (egeto) by the Spirit.”
- Boanerges (Mark 3:14-17; Matt10:1-2; Luke 6:13-14
- Talitha cumi (Mark 5:40-41; Matt 9:25; Luke 8:54)
- Corban (Mark 7:9-13; Matt 15:3-6
- Ephphatha (Mark 7:32-35; Matt 15:30)
- Abba (Mark 14:35-36; Matt 26:39; Luke 22:41-42
- Golgotha (Mark 15:22-23; Matt 27:33-34; Luke 23:33)
- Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachtani? (Mark 15:34; Matt 27:46 – Hebrew Eli Eli)
- “That evening, at sundown” (Mark 1:32; Matt 8:16; Luke 4:40)
- Fasting (Mark 2:18; Matt 9:14; Luke 5:33)
- “He was in need and was hungry” (Mark 2:25-26; Matt12:3-4; Luke 6:3-4)
- “The Shore at the water’s edge” (Mark4:1
Which is more likely? Matthew and Luke attempted to improve the language of Mark or that Mark devolved the style and grammar of Matthew and Luke? If Matthew and Luke have better language it seems more likely that Matthew and Luke improved upon Mark.
Mark’s Harder Readings
The Apparent Limitation of Jesus’ Power or Influence
- Many vs. all (Mark 1:32-34; Matt 8:16; Luke 4:40)
- Crush him (Mark 3:9-10; Matt 12:15; Luke 6:19)
- Could not do (Mark 6:5-6; Matt13:58)
Negative Descriptions of the Disciples
- Do you not understand (Mark 4:13; Matt 13:18; Luke 8:11)
- They did not understand (Mark 6:51-52; Matt14:32-33)
- Jesus was indignant (Mark 10:14; Matt 19:14; Luke 18:16
- Request (Mark 10:35-37; Matt 20:20-21)
Miscellaneous Theological Issues
- “Why do you call me good?” (Mark 10:17-18; Matt19:16-17; Luke 18:18-19)
- Anger (Mark 3:4-5; Matt 12:12b-13; Luke 6:9-10)
- Abiathar/Ahimelech (Mark 2:25-26; Matt 12:3-4; Luke 6:3-4)
Which is more likely that Matthew and Luke cleared up some of the difficulties of Mark or that Mark created difficulties where none existed before. If Mark appears to exhibit an inferior picture of Jesus than its more likely that Matthew and Luke improved upon Mark.
Mark’s more Primitive Theology
- Lord (Mark 9:5-6; Matthew 17:4; Luke 9:33)
(Mark 9:14-18a; Matthew 17:14-15; Luke 9:37-39)
(Mark 13:35; Matthew 24:42; Luke 12:40)
Which is more likely that Matthew and Luke attempted to calibrate Mark’s theology to higher Christology or that Mark lowered the exalted Christology of Matthew and Luke?
Mark’s apparent lack of information on the Destruction of the Temple -
- Matthew 23:37-39 and Luke 13:34-35 “Behold your house is forsaken and desolate.”
- Matthew 22:4-8 – “The king was angry, and he sent his troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city.”
- Mark 13:14, 19-20; Matthew 24:15, 21-22; Luke 21:20-21, 23-24 “Jerusalem surrounded by armies” “and Jerusalem will be trodden down by the Gentiles”
Which is more likely that Matthew and Luke added information about the temple destruction because they came later or that Mark, as the later gospel, took out information about the temple destruction from Matthew and Luke’s narrative
Accepting Mark makes sense of Matthew and Luke.
Probably the weightiest argument today in favor of Mark’s priority involves the comparison of the Synoptic Gospels in order to recognize and understanding their unique theological emphases. This is called Redaction Criticism. It's explored further in Jon Ericson's answer.