Yesterday I started a brief series to fill in some of the common understanding of gospel experts that may or may not have trickled down to pulpit and pew. If we are to do an archaeological dig on Jesus Tradition, the earliest material at our disposal is found in Paul. That does not, of course, mean that later material might not give as good or even a better window on Jesus. But earlier is prima facie more likely to give us that window.
Today I want to speak of another majority opinion of gospel experts--one that is now going on 150 years old. If you step back and think about it, it is rather impressive for a group of experts to agree solidly on something like this for such a long period of time. I am referring here to "Markan priority," the conclusion first reached in the late 1800s that the Gospel of Mark is most likely the earliest of the gospels and that Matthew and Luke almost certainly used it (or some edition of it) as a primary source.
The reason for this conclusion goes something like this:
1. All about about 31 verses of Mark can be found in almost identical form in Matthew and Luke. This begins to suggest that Mark was either a source for the other two or that he summarized by drawing from both of them. Very rarely do Matthew and Luke have the same wording in disagreement with Mark. Far more often, either Matthew and Mark agree in wording and Luke is different or Mark and Luke agree and Matthew is different.
2. Important to recognize is that the wording is too similar to be a matter of oral tradition. The overwhelming majority of experts consider it definitive that these three gospels stand in some literary relationship to each other.
Consider the following:
And after six days takes Jesus the Peter and the James and the John and brings them up into a hill high privately alone (9:2)...
And a cloud came overshadowing them and a voice came from the cloud, "This is my Son, my beloved [Son], hear him" (9:7)
And after six days takes Jesus the Peter and James and John the brother of him and brings them up into a hill high privately (17:1)...
... a bright cloud overshadowed them, and behold a voice from the cloud speaking, "This is my Son, my beloved [Son], in whom I am pleased, hear him" (17:5).
About eight days taking Peter and John and James he went up into the mountain to pray... (9:28)
A cloud came and was overshadowing them... and a voice came from the cloud saying, "This is my Son, who has been chosen, him hear" (9:34-35).
As is often the case, the verbal similarity between Matthew and Mark is very close, with only some minor variations. Notice, however, that in the case of the second verse, Mark and Luke are closer at some points. The virtually unanimous sense of those who have gone through all three gospels with a fine tooth comb of comparison is thus that these three gospels stand in some literary relationship to each other.
As a side note, God could have dictated such strong similarities in the midst of minor differences, but why would he? The minor variations are meaningless--they would serve no purpose for God to dictate in such a way. And these gospels never claim to be dictated word for word from God and in fact Luke tells us he used sources. It is overwhelmingly likely that inspiration worked through a normal process of using sources and writing in a way that worked together and through the minds and categories of the authors.
A second realization is that Mark was almost certainly not an eyewitness to anything but perhaps some of the final events in Jerusalem. The earliest witness to him points this out (Papias). He was not a disciple. People often get this confused. Neither Mark nor Luke were eyewitnesses, and Luke may not even have been a Jew.
3. The order of the gospels is also quite interesting. Matthew and Mark are very close. Luke often is the same but also is different in order at some points. This is quite remarkable when we consider that Jesus did many things that aren't in the gospels. That Matthew-Mark-and Luke would narrate the same basic events in the same basic order also points to a literary relationship.
4. Among these three, Mark's grammar is the least polished (the most Semitic, in my opinion) and least theologically developed. This points to Mark being the first rather than the last. For example, in Mark Jesus is simply baptized by John. By contrast, Matthew deems it important to clarify that Jesus does not need to be baptized by John--he is doing it because it is part of the plan. Mark has Aramaic words like "Talitha cumi," "Ephatha," and "Abba" that Matthew and Luke do not have. Mark 1 starts numerous verses with "and," "and," "and," "and," a fact that most translations have altered because it is bad English style. That same material is somewhat spread out and smoothed out in Matthew.
Here's just a small example of the kind of dynamics we find repeatedly:
"And whenever you see the abomination of desolation standing where it is not supposed to (let the reader understand), then let those in Judea flee to the hills" (13:14).
"Therefore, whenever you see the abomination of desolation, which was spoken through Daniel the prophet, having stood in the Holy Place (let the reader understand), then let those in Judea flee to the hill" (24:15-16).
This is an even better illustration of how close the Synoptic gospels (Matthew-Mark-Luke) can be at times. Notice that they even have a parenthetical comment in common ("let the reader understand"). If we ask which is more likely to be original, we see that one of Matthew's characteristic themes--the fulfillment of Scripture. In general, things tend to expand rather than condense, although this is not an absolute. Mark's style is a little rougher, though not much.
Let's then look at Luke:
"And whenever you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near. Then let those in Judea flee to the hills.
I have put the verbal similarities in bold. You can once again see a word-for-word layer in Luke, but it has also tweaked the prophecy to make it correspond more closely to the way the prophesy actually played out. Rather that the temple being desecrated by some object placed in it (as in Daniel), the temple was destroyed by the Roman armies. This modification Luke has made makes it virtually certain that Luke-Acts were both written after the temple's destruction in AD70. Notice also that Luke follows Mark's "and" rather than Matthew's "therefore."
What we find is that the assumption that Mark was first and that Matthew and Luke then used Mark as a primary source has incredible explanatory power. Time after time, this assumption yields a plausible explanation for the various similarities and modifications we find between the Synoptics.
Two closing examples:
1. In Matthew we are a little puzzled by the way Jesus curses a fig tree that immediately withers (21:18-22). Matthew uses the event as an illustration of what a person with faith can do.
Mark has the story different. In Mark, Jesus does not curse the fig tree after he has overturned the tables in the temple but right before. Then the next day they find that the tree has withered. This is a "sandwich." Mark sandwiches Jesus' action in the temple with the incident with the fig tree.
If we assume Markan priority, we can see what happened. In the original version of Mark, the fig tree story was very relevant to the passion story. Matthew's modifications, by contrast, have left us with a story that seems oddly placed. Luke then doesn't copy the story at all.
2. In Luke 23:25, Pilate has been talking to the chief priests, the rulers, and the people (23:13). In 23:25-26, it seems like Pilate delivers Jesus over to these people. When we look at Matthew 27:27-31 and Mark 15:16-20, we realize that Luke has abbreviated the account. He has omitted material in which soldiers take Jesus away and beat him.
So, like any hypothesis, the repeated and detailed comparison of the Synoptics has resulted in a very strong consensus among gospel experts that Mark was very likely the first of the gospels and that Matthew and Luke used it as the starting point for their own gospels.