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Closely Related:
- What are the arguments in favor of Markan priority?
- What are the arguments against Marcan Priority?

The synoptic problem refers to scholars' attempts to understand the relationship among the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke (known as the synoptic gospels because they have so much material in common).

Two solutions to this problem—the ancient Augustinian hypothesis and the more modern Griesbach or two-gospel hypothesis—start with the premise that Matthew was the first gospel written. What are the arguments used to support this view?

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External Evidence

  1. Matthew is almost unanimously testified as the oldest gospel by the church fathers. Clement of Alexandria even supported both Matthew and Luke as before Mark. This is significant because Mark is said to have founded the Coptic branch of Christianity in Alexandria, Egypt. If any place were to argue for Markan priority, Egypt would be the most likely. A sampling of the church fathers' testimony follows:
  1. Papias “Matthew wrote in Hebrew and others translated.” (HE 3.39.16)
  2. Origen said the first gospel was written by Matthew in Hebrew. (HE 6.25.4)
  3. Irenaeus (grandson in the faith of John by Polycarp of Smyrna) said the first gospel was written written by Matthew in land of Hebrews in their own language. (Against Heresies. 3.1.1)
  4. Eusebius — Matthew had first preached to Hebrews and wrote in their own language (HE 3.24.6)
  5. Jerome “Matthew was the first to compose in Hebrew and his text is still available in [library near Bethlehem].” He even challenged his critics to go see it if they doubted. (Lives of Illustrious Men ch. 3)

As the church rose out of the mission to the gentiles, it is interesting that the church fathers supported the Judaic gospel of Matthew instead of Mark. Also consider that they testify that Mark was the companion of the Apostle Peter in Rome which became one of the five sees of the early church (Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria, Egypt). Unless the tradition of Matthean priority were very early, it is unlikely that they would all arrive at it independently. In fact, the slight differences in their testimonies provide evidence that they came from different sources.

  1. Even though one of the main arguments for Markan priority is that Mark is shorter and "later authors would be more likely to expand than contract," such is not always the case (see, for example, the Reader's Digest Condensed Library). Summarizing a longer work is well known and has been for a long time. There are even ancient works which name their sources and state, "this work will be a shorter, more understandable account of the events than X."

  2. The Didache clearly relies on Matthew. While the date of this document is debated between AD 50 and AD 150, the earlier it is, the earlier Matthew has to be.

  3. When you examine second-century Christian writings, Matthew is quoted far more frequently than Mark. So is Luke. If Mark enjoyed a period when it was the only written gospel, it seems that it should have been more popular. Likewise, Matthew's Gospel enjoys a more central place in the second century liturgy than any other gospel or even Paul's epistles. (see, for example, Massaux's extensive treatment of the subject here)

Internal Evidence

I am separating textual evidence from internal evidence. The difference is that internal evidence will be themes or concepts while textual evidence deals with specific words and phrases.

  1. The fall of Jerusalem is completely missing from Matthew. This event rocked the Jewish world. Matthew, who so often points out when a prophecy is fulfilled, does not add an editorial comment to Jesus' prophecy that Jerusalem would be overthrown. Not a single "and this prophecy was fulfilled" about the fall.

[added on edit]

Some have pointed to Matthew 22:7 as referring to the fall of Jerusalem as an event happening in the past. In fact, this verse is almost universally accepted as such. However, sending in troops and burning a city with fire were quite common ways of dealing with troublesome cities in the past. In fact, it is so common in Near Eastern, Old Testament, and Rabbinic writings that its occurrence here should not be thought to refer to a single event.

Moreover, for an after-the-fact prophecy, Matt 22:7 is very inexact. While the walls of Jerusalem fell, it was the temple that burned. In fact, post event "prophecies" do make this distinction.

We have overthrown the wall of Zion and we have burnt the place of the mighty God (II Baruch 7.1). [I.e. the temple. For this sense, cf. II Mace. 5.17-20; John 11.48; Acts6.14; 21.28; etc.]

They delivered ... to the enemy the overthrown wall, and plundered the house, and burnt the temple (II Baruch 80.3).

And a Roman leader shall come to Syria, who shall burn down Solyma's [Jerusalem's] temple with fire, and therewith slay many men, and shall waste the great land of the Jews with its broad way (Sibylline Oracles 4.125-7).

It seems to me that if this were being written post AD 70, then the prophecy would have been altered to distinguish the fates of the city and temple. Christians did come to see the burning of the Temple as God's judgment on the Jewish leadership, but the events do not correspond closely enough to require Christ's parable to be a reference to it or the wording to be an after the fact description. A final note on Matthew and the city can be found in Matthew 27:8 ("For this reason that field has been called the Field of Blood to this day."). Matthew seems to view the city as still intact when he writes that.

Likewise, the cryptic statement in Matt 24, "let the reader understand" need not mean the "this prophecy has been fulfilled." Whenever Matthew wants to say that a prophecy has been fulfilled, he says so (for example, Matt 1:22; 2:15; 2:23; 3:15; 4:14; etc).

I understand Matthew 24 to be referring to the parousia. Matthew states that the distress of those days will be followed immediately by the coming of the Son of Man (24:29). This did not happen in AD 70. If Matthew is trying to portray Jesus as an unmatched prophet, he failed by including material that did not happen.

  1. While Matthew contains a high Christology, this by no means means it has to be written after Mark who does not present such a high theology. (Easily explained if Mark's Gospel is meant for an audience who is new in the faith.) Paul's letters contain a high Christology, and most scholars date Paul (died ~64) before Mark (who they place ~70). Moreover, Paul's letters show that Christian traditions even earlier than his had a high Christology.

  2. The same can be said for Matthew's high liturgy. In fact, one of the verses that is brought out to show Matthew came late in the first century or beyond is Matthew 18:17 based on the word "church." However, this ignores that the Greek word used there, ecclesia, enjoyed wide usage in the Septuagint to translate qahal, "sacred assembly," and was used by diaspora Jews.

Textual Evidence

  1. There are a significant number of places in Matthew where the parallel account in Mark makes more sense to have been edited down than for Matthew to expand. It is possible to read Mark with the hypothesis that it came from Matthew and run into no redactional problems that challenge said hypothesis. However, reading Matthew as a redaction of Mark does cause such problems.

  2. There are places where Mark uses a certain word but Matthew does not, even though he used that word in other places (for example "pherein"). This makes more sense with Mark editing Matthew than of Matthew copying Mark.

  3. There are places where Matthew has phrases he likes and uses them consistently. Mark has parallels of most of these accounts and is very free in his translations of the phrases. It makes more sense for Mark to be free styling from Matthew than it does for Matthew to be forcing the phrase into his wording whenever he sees it in Mark. One of these phrases is opias de genomenes, found first in Mt 8:16 and Mk 1:32. Markan priority has to conclude that Matthew copied the form exactly as Mark had it the first time, then always and consistently used the same grammar whenever he found a similar phrase in Mark and introducing it himself in Mt 20:8 which has no parallel in Mark.

  4. There are places where Mark combines details from both Matthew and Luke. An example of these duplicate expressions can be seen in Mark 1:32 compared to Mt 8:16 and Luk 4:40.

Mk 1:32 When evening came, after the sun had set, they began bringing to Him all who were ill and those who were demon-possessed.

Mt 8:16 When evening came, they brought to Him many who were demon-possessed; and He cast out the spirits with a word, and healed all who were ill.

Lk 4:40 While the sun was setting, all those who had any who were sick with various diseases brought them to Him; and laying His hands on each one of them, He was healing them.

In these parallels, Mark combines the introductory phrases from both Matthew and Luke. In this case, Markan priority would require that Luke know of both Matthew and Mark and consciously choose to use the exact phrase that Matthew does not. However, if Matthew writes first and Luke second, there is no such problem.

  1. Matthew leaves semitisms in place where Mark smoothens them. This includes wording and patterns that Mark breaks. Yes, Mark has eight semitic words, but Matthew has many more semitisms (so does Luke, a plethora of semitisms). Many of Mark's semitisms seem to be added for drama while Matthew's flow naturally.

Adding to the semitisms are 12 times where Matthew (and Luke) uses the participle of a verb while Mark uses the past tense. Using a participle for the second verb in a set (and he answered, saying) is well-known when coming from a semitic language (all over the Septuagint) but is not used in normal Greek. Mark also uses these participles but not as often. It would be more likely to edit them out than to edit them back in.

Many more examples exist where Matthew and Luke agree with one another in wording and Mark is different.

  1. Matthew and Luke both record 8 healing miracles. Mark has 10. The two left out of both Matthew and Luke are the saliva miracles (Mark 7:32-35 and 8:24). Did they both decide to skip the same miracles independently or did Mark add them from another source?

More details can be found here and here.

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    @JonEricson, I can't do better than hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/questions/1372/… – Frank Luke Mar 23 '12 at 2:38
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    Could you add some examples under Textual Evidence #1? Thanks in advance. – Jas 3.1 Mar 19 '15 at 23:43
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    So encouraging to see someone appeal to the Church Fathers, rather than citing modern "experts" – user15733 Sep 1 '16 at 1:57
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    @TheNonTheologian, thank you. While I might disagree with the Church Fathers on some issues, to ignore them is to ignore early wisdom. It is the fallacy of modernity, that only the new can be true. – Frank Luke Sep 6 '16 at 20:02
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    The reason so much emphasis is placed on the Church Fathers in the Orthodox Church is that we believe that what the Apostles actually taught was passed down to them faithfully (viz. 2 Th 2:15). Ignoring how they understood Scripture to me is somewhat akin to poring over the Declaration of Independence with a dictionary while Thomas Jefferson is in the room. – user15733 Sep 6 '16 at 20:44
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I am less fluent in this one (since I lean toward Markan priority) but this one does have a couple of strengths:

  1. It has a substantial amount of tradition behind it. Many early Church fathers subscribed to Matthean priority
  2. It does not rely on a theoretical, as-of-yet-undiscovered Q document.
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    Markan priority doesn't necessarily require a Q document. – Bruce Alderman Mar 19 '12 at 21:22
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    Fair enough and very true. However, there are the same issues that Q "addresses" that would still need to be resolved. Q seems to be the most commonly-held resolution. – swasheck Mar 19 '12 at 21:35
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Matthew seems to have been written first.

The two classic listings of what ended up being the New Testament both have Matthew first. The first is the same as ours, while the second begins Matthew, John, Mark, and Luke. It makes sense Matthew is listed first for a reason, which may make more sense as you study the evidences.

The first 5 verses of Luke say "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."

So, there are already MANY compiled accounts already in existance; not one, not a couple, but many! So, Luke is out of the running for being first for sure.

But Polycarp (AD 70-155) quotes Matthew well. It's not clear at all that he definately quotes Mark or Luke. From Ignatius (AD 35-107) we have strong Matthean qoutes, while the ones from Luke and Mark are barely noticable, and, could hve actually been used to help create Luke.

The arguments FOR Markan priority are not evidential. There are NO scraps of Mark know in existance that predate about AD 350. There is a scrap of Matthew from AD 160, and a scrap of John from AD 120. As a side note, the copy of The Didache is dated to be AD 100!

But back to Mark, all the most popular arguments are conjecture at best, against an overwelming amount of qoutes from early church fathers, and dated scraps. Under good scrutiny, Mark is a reduction of Matthew, and a paraphrasing into common street language of Greek speaking people. I think its safe to say Matthew was written first, and then John, followed pretty closely by Luke & Mark.

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There is another theory giving the Gospel of Matthew a partial priority. This theory is that the Gospel of Matthew has evolved, knowing more than one redaction.

One first redaction was similar to what has been called "Q" in the 19th Century. This redaction may date very early.

A later redaction (or more than one later redactions) included other written traditions such as the infancy telling and the Gospel of Mark.

There is no proof on this theory but it can explain several phenomena:

Papias “Matthew wrote in Hebrew and others translated.” (HE 3.39.16)

But about Matthew's this was said: "For Matthew composed the logia [sayings] in Hebrew style; but each recorded them as he was able" (Eusebius, Church History, Book 3, Chapter 39.15-16)

Later authors repeat this (see Frank Luke). The Gospel of Matthew was until the compilation made by Tatian the only gospel in "Hebrew" (probably actually rather Western Aramaic in modern terms).

If the original Gospel of Matthew, "Q", was written by the Apostle Matthew (or according to his testimony) in Hebrew/Aramaic, Papias' testimony that “Matthew wrote in Hebrew and others translated" is correct.

A later redaction could explain why the important source "Q" disappeared and was never named or mentioned in the early writings: it was fully incorporated into the new redaction of the Gospel still called the Gospel of Matthew; nothing was lost. The first redaction was integrated without changes, and the Gospel of Mark and other sources were integrated into this Aramaic version, and the complete text was translated into Greek. This can also explain that "Matthew leaves semitisms in place where Mark smoothens them" (cited above). It is also possible that both Greek and Aramaic versions were published simultaneously in the final redaction.

After integrating the other relevant sources, the Gospel of Matthew had become the most complete Gospel. The Gospel of Mark stood back because almost all of its contents could be read in the Gospel of Matthew. This explains that the Gospel of Matthew has become the most cited and used Gospel in the second century until now.

Luke says in his preface:

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

Among the "many who have undertaken to compile an account", there would be the Gospel of Mark and the early version of the Gospel of Matthew he knows and uses as reliable sources in his careful investigations. The redaction of his Gospel knowing the final redaction of the Gospel of Matthew would not have made sense; if he would have liked to add some other sources or give explanations to non-Jewish readers, he would not change the chronology given in the Gospel of Matthew although he intends to write it in consecutive order, but only insert his elucidations and additions into the given structure.

This theory reconciles the observations that lead to the "Q" theory with the argumentation given in the above answer by Frank Luke.

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  • Thanks for this, and for thoughtfully putting together a theory that can incorporate the early testimony of Papias. Upvoted +1. If the original of Matthew was comparable to Q, how does it provide a source for Mark? ("Q" officially consists of content that is in Matthew & Luke but not in Mark). Also, what chronology in Matthew would Luke not have changed? I get the impression Matthew was principally trying to organize his material by topic rather than chronology. – Hold To The Rod Apr 22 at 22:46
  • @HoldToTheRod - If the original of Matthew was comparable to Q, how does it provide a source for Mark? According to this theory, Mark is independent. - Matthew was principally trying to organize his material by topic: yes, maybe even the supposed original was ordered by topic, but it is also placed in a time frame. I do not see a sense to write the Gospel of Luke as it is written knowing the Gospel of Matthew as it is now. – Dflat Apr 23 at 19:44
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Like many others, I find the first answer very helpful.

Let me just add a bit:

The most interesting book about the synoptic problem that I have read is by John Wenham: "Redating Matthew, Mark & Luke".

He shows that it is most likely that Matthew was written first with a date around 40, then Mark around 45, Luke in the mid 50's and Acts about 62.

If we take Relevance Theory into account, we can see that while Matthew wrote to a Jewish audience, Mark wrote to a Gentile audience (probably in Rome). Mark explains Jewish customs which Matthew has no need to explain. Mark also deletes material that were primarily intended for a Jewish audience like the long "Sermon on the Mount". Mark focuses on actions, not speeches, and he also has as his background the preaching of Peter.

The imaginary Q was invented in Germany in the 1830's, and it is amazing how popular it has become as compared to the traditional view until then, based on the early Church Fathers.

In this article, 4 arguments are listed in favour of Q, but those arguments lose all validity if we assume that Matthew was first and that both Mark and Luke knew of Matthew.

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