This post will review:
The positive case (arguments that Mark was written 2nd or 3rd)
The negative case (a critical assessment of arguments used to
advance Markan Priority)
An abductive case (is there a better answer?)
Additionally, it aims to provide an extensive library of links to online and printed resources on this subject (disclaimer--some of those works are my own).
The Positive Case:
Evidence that Mark was 2nd or 3rd
The Argument from Order
The argument from order suggests that Mark was third by comparing the order in which pericopes are presented. Matthew & Luke frequently alternate “following” Mark’s order, especially in the first half of Mark. Where Matthew stops following Mark, Luke starts following Mark, and vice-versa. Furthermore, Matthew & Luke never agree in order against Mark.
Malcolm Lowe examined the Argument from Order mathematically and through formal logic and showed that the explanatory power of each hypothesis strongly favors Mark being third.
In other words, how often does the order of materials in the Gospels align with what would be predicted based on Matt & Luke copying from Mark, versus what would be predicted based on Mark copying from Matt & Luke. Any synoptic theory acknowledges exceptions, but how many exceptions are we talking about?
How often does the prediction match what’s actually in the Gospels:
- With Mark first: 57/90
- With Mark third: 88/90
Lowe’s paper and formal proof are excellent—you can find them here.
As for the alternating pattern, let’s look at this pattern 3 ways:
(This argument is most helpful when visualized—my channel has a deeper discussion of this argument with whiteboard drawings here.)
If Mark were first and the other two authors wrote independently, then by pure happenstance where one stopped following Mark the other started…over and over again. This is what David Barrett Peabody pithily referred to as "they neatly divided Mark's Gospel between them" (and more improbable still, that they did so by accident).
Since Matthew & Luke do sometimes agree in order where Mark is not present, suggesting that their common order derives from Mark cannot adequately explain the phenomenon of shared order. Note that some have said that Mark must be first because where there’s no Mark to follow Matt & Luke go their separate ways. This is backwards. Even where there is Mark to follow Matt or Luke regularly disagree with Mark’s order anyway!
If Mark were first and the third author knew both Mark and the second Gospel, then the third author went to the extraordinarily laborious effort of making sure he followed Mark where the other one didn’t, but was ambivalent about following Mark where the other one did.
Since both Matthew & Luke have a clear structure to their Gospel—and it has nothing to do with this alternating Markan pattern of order—the idea that the third author complicated their task by inserting this obscure alternating pattern into their work is both ad-hoc and inexplicable. Unless we want to get into conspiracy theories on coded messages (I don't), I conclude that it would be wildly improbable to produce this pattern by accident, and irrational to do it on purpose.
If Mark were third, then the process is clean and straightforward: where his sources agreed in order, he followed their order. Where they did not agree in order he necessarily could not follow both and so chose one or the other.
The Patristic Testimony
The testimony of the early Christian Fathers is unanimous (to see how incredible that is, look at how many things they disagreed about) that Mark’s Gospel was NOT written first.
Irenaeus, though not explicit, regularly treats Mark as 2nd or 3rd in sequence. Except where quoting a source and using the order of that source, he always puts Matthew first, suggesting that at this early date, Matthew was considered the primary source. (the classic example being Against Heresies 3.1)
Clement puts Mark third (see HE 6.14)
Again, in the same books, Clement gives the tradition of the earliest
presbyters, as to the order of the Gospels, in the following manner:
The Gospels containing the genealogies, he says, were written first.
The Gospel according to Marks had this occasion. As Peter had preached
the Word publicly at Rome, and declared the Gospel by the Spirit, many
who were present requested that Mark, who had followed him for a long
time and remembered his sayings, should write them out. And having
composed the Gospel he gave it to those who had requested it.
Origen puts Mark second (HE 6.25.4)
Among the four Gospels, which are the only indisputable ones in the
Church of God under heaven, I have learned by tradition that the first
was written by Matthew, who was once a publican, but afterwards an
apostle of Jesus Christ, and it was prepared for the converts from
Judaism, and published in the Hebrew language. The second is by Mark,
who composed it according to the instructions of Peter.
Additional Patristic testimony contra Markan Priority can be found in further material by Eusebius, Epiphanius, Jerome, Augustine, and others. Augustine in particular doesn’t just cite history that’s been handed down, but analyzes the text in his review of the matter (see a discussion in The Synoptic Problem – Four Views (hereafter “4 Views”) pp.84-87).
In the early writers Mark is almost “the forgotten Gospel”. Eduard Massaux provided an analysis of the dominant position of the Gospel of Matthew in the early church (see here), which is very difficult to explain if Mark had a chronological head-start.
There are occasions where it appears Matthew is borrowing words from Mark; there are also occasions where it appears Mark is borrowing words from Matthew.
Eduard Zeller suggested that for every example of a favorite word/phrase where it looks like Matthew is doing the borrowing, there are 2 examples going the other direction—that Mark is doing the borrowing.
Zeller's work on borrowed words didn't presuppose which Gospel was first, and concluded Mark borrowed from both Matthew & Luke. An excellent summary in English is in the Introduction to One Gospel from Two Mark's Use of Matthew and Luke.
Minor agreements of Matthew & Luke
The minor agreements of Matthew & Luke are easier to explain if Luke used Matthew as his primary source. (but the minor agreements, with some imagination, are also compatible with the Farrer hypothesis which supports Markan priority)
The Two Gospel Hypothesis suggests that the best explanation is that Luke wrote second using Matthew as a/the principle source. David Barrett Peabody has written:
If the hundreds of ‘minor agreements’ scattered throughout the Triple
Tradition are seen to merge with and form a pattern with the scores of
‘major agreements’…then it becomes increasingly apparent that Luke was
primarily dependent on Matthew and not Mark, and there is no need for
Q or the priority of Mark. (One Gospel from Two - Mark’s Use of
Matthew and Luke, p. 6)
Further discussion is found on this site here
The Negative Case:
A critical assessment of the arguments used to advance Markan Priority
It’s the majority view among New Testament scholars: this is unremarkable given the history of the Synoptic Problem
Majority views change over time, so this by itself is not a determinative proof. However, the counterpoint is even stronger when considering why Markan Priority is the majority view.
Most New Testament scholars are not specialists in the Synoptic Problem—they challenge consensus views in their own area of expertise, but adopt the majority view in areas outside their area of expertise (to not do so would be a career-limiting move—they’d get labeled as extreme if they challenged too many prevailing views, and in a publish-or-perish environment that can derail one’s career).
Peabody has pointed out that the “supermajority” headcount is not nearly so strong when the audience is narrowed from people who are experts in the New Testament in general to specialists in the Synoptic Problem. Among the latter group the debate is much more vigorous. (Four Views p. 143)
The rise of Markan Priority to prominence in the 19th Century was laden with theological & political ulterior motives. This does not disprove the theory, it just explains why it is popular.
a. Markan Priority was a convenient response to David Friedrich Strauss, who argued from the Griesbach Hypothesis that the Gospels were extremely unreliable fiction. By asserting Markan Priority (for theological goals), some of Strauss’s opponents were able to assert that even if Matthew & Luke were late and unreliable, Mark’s contents were trustworthy. This ultimately proved to be a double-edged sword. I go into further detail on this point here.
b. During the unification of Germany Bismarck was at odds with the Catholic church. A significant power struggle emerged, and the possibility of undermining the Catholic church’s claims to authority (Matthew 16 forms a core part of their case) gave Markan Priority a huge boost among anti-Catholic German scholars. If Mark came first and Matthew was a later, less-reliable embellishment, that not only could cast doubt on Matthew 16, but also on the Patristic writers who argued for both Matthean Priority & Roman primacy.
Although Bismarck himself likely did not know enough New Testament scholarship to articulate a view on the Synoptic Problem, he brought the German universities under government control, with the effect that professors friendly to his goals controlled the narrative. It was these German universities that made Markan Priority the mainstream view in New Testament scholarship (see here)
The history of the theory—and the fact that it is still vigorously debated among top synoptic scholars—suggests that too much weight is put on its popularity. The popularity of the theory can be readily explained for reasons other than iron-clad reasoning.
It is also curious that the reasons for asserting Markan Priority have changed over the last century and a half, as prominent arguments are overturned and new arguments for Markan Priority must be developed to replace them (my thoughts here).
The shorter length and less-polished Greek of Mark: This was explained 1900 years ago, the explanation is simple, and it is multiply attested
Both Papias (~105) & Clement of Alexandria (~200) recorded that the Gospel of Mark was based on preaching by Peter. Since Clement provides a number of details not found in any known fragment of Papias (and since Clement was from the Alexandrian church Mark is said to have founded), it is likely that Clement has at least some independent information (For the testimony of Papias, see HE 3.39; for several of the key statements by Clement see HE 2.15 & HE 6.14).
This means we have at least 2 early sources for a very significant claim about Mark’s origin:
- The material came from Peter
- The material was based on preaching
If Mark is the long-hand version of short-hand sermon notes, many of the features of Mark make a lot more sense:
- Mark includes 0 long sermons: an extemporaneous preacher is unlikely
to recite a long monologue from memory.
- Mark is the fast-paced action-oriented gospel: an extemporaneous
preacher (a good one, at least) is likely to tell stories.
- Mark may be shorter, but he’s verbose. He includes fewer stories but
more details per story. If the preacher was present for the events
described, he can add flourish and details to the stories (that’s
also true if he wasn’t present but is just a good storyteller).
- Unlike Matthew & Luke, Mark wasn’t trying to fill up 1 full papyrus
scroll (see Synoptic Problem section of this post); he was recording
what was said (as attested by Papias, see HE 3.39)
- Mark’s Greek is less-refined: he’s preserving the way the material
was spoken. If you don’t believe this try it out: your grammar is
better when you write & edit than when you speak live.
The idea that later writers always improve/polish the material of sources they quote sounds intuitive and appealing, but it is not anything close to consistently true. There are numerous 2nd+ century Gospels that quote the canonical Gospels, and the later non-canonical Gospels degrade the grammar of their sources.
William Farmer summed this up well:
Since sometimes writers improve the grammar of their sources while
others spoil it, such considerations provide no objective basis by
which one document may be adjudged primary or secondary to another.
There is no provable correlation between style and chronology (see
In summary, the shorter length and less-polished Greek of Mark can be readily explained without appealing to a priori assumptions of source criticism.
For a more extended version of my thoughts on this point, see here.
Editorial fatigue: this is reversible
Editorial fatigue occurs when an author B is using author A as a source, and author B makes changes to A, but does not make them consistently, thus tipping off the reader who the source was.
It has been argued that Matthew shows signs of making mistakes of fatigue in editing Mark. This is probably the best argument for Markan Priority because these examples are real. The trouble is, there is a long list of examples going the other way—where Mark appears to make mistakes of fatigue in editing Matthew. See a summary by James Deardorff in the "counter examples" section here.
My thoughts on how bi-directional editorial fatigue can be more readily explained are found here.
Christology: this is self-refuting
The idea that Matthew & Luke must be dated late (whereas Mark can be somewhat early) because of higher Christology (in Matt & Luke) is readily countered by the fact that we have epistles of Paul with a higher Christology than any of the Synoptics. Since the undisputed epistles of Paul were unquestionably written before AD 70, the idea that Matthew & Luke must be post-70 (or even post-60 for that matter) on the basis of their Christology is untenable.
I suggest that “theological development” tells us nothing at all about the order in which the Synoptic Gospels were written—my slightly tongue-in-cheek argument to this effect is found here.
The Olivet Discourse: this is based on philosophical assumptions, not evidence from the text
My thoughts are on this site here
The Abductive Case:
If Matthean priority or Lukan priority are a better fit with the data, that would be an argument against Markan priority. That's a separate but related question.
I suggest that the major categories of evidence relevant to the Synoptic Problem can be better explained by the order Matthew-Luke-Mark than on any competing hypothesis. That's a post for another day, but if you are interested in my thoughts I have a video here.