Did Matthew, Mark, and Luke Copy Each Other?

By Garrett Best

If you’ve ever read the first three Gospels in the New Testament, you don’t have to be a scholar to notice that Matthew, Mark, and Luke are similar to one another. In fact, Matthew, Mark, and Luke are so similar that they have been called the “Synoptic” Gospels which comes from a Greek word meaning “seen together”. Mark has a total of 661 verses and about 90% have some parallel in Matthew and about 65% of Mark’s verses are paralleled in Luke. In addition, there are about 230 verses that Luke and Matthew have in common that don’t appear in Mark.

Most scholars are convinced that the best explanation for these parallels is a literary relationship between Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The most likely scenario to explain the similarities between these three Gospels is that the writers used one another’s work in order to write their own. Someone copied someone.

There are four main reasons scholars believe that there is a literary relationship between Matthew, Mark, and Luke. I will introduce them briefly.

  • Similarities in Wording 

This is especially significant if we remember that Jesus and his disciples most likely spoke Aramaic most of the time, and the Gospels are written in Greek. How do the Gospels end up with similar wording in the Greek translation of Jesus’ originally Aramaic words? And, even more impressively, with the Greek narration of Jesus’ deeds?

Read the story of Jesus healing Simon Peter’s mother-in-law in the Synoptic Gospels (Mk 1:29-34; Lk. 4:38-41; Mt. 8:14-17). All three accounts emphasize she was sick with a “fever”. Immediately after she is healed, she begins to “serve” Jesus. But, notice what comes next in all three accounts: “that evening at sundown” (Mk. 1:32); “that evening” (Mt. 8:16); “Now when the sun was setting” (Lk. 4:40). Such an odd detail to have in common. All three go on to narrate how many sick and demon possessed people were brought to Jesus and he healed them. Mark and Luke even are similar in narrating how Jesus rebuked the demons so that they wouldn’t reveal his identity because they knew he was the Christ. In all three accounts, there is a high degree of similarity in wording and details used to narrate the accounts. This is just one example of a phenomenon that occurs throughout. Scholars are convinced the similarities are too striking to be coincidence. Someone copied someone.

  • Similarities in Order

One of the striking features of the Synoptic Gospels is that for the most part, they put the same stories in the same order. For example, in Mark 2:1-3:6 there is a series of stories involving controversy over Jesus’ healing ministry and also his teaching. Note the order in Mark’s narrative: Jesus heals a paralytic, calls Levi to follow him, argues with the Pharisees over fasting, argues with Pharisees over the disciples picking grain on the Sabbath, and heals a man with a withered hand. Compare that order with Luke 5:17-6:11. They both contain the exact same order of stories. The same type of exact similarity of order occurs in the sequence of events happening on the night Jesus was betrayed in Jerusalem (Mk. 14:1-31; Matt. 26:1-35; Lk. 22:1-34).

When all the stories that all three Gospels share are set-by-side, they rarely disagree in order. The most likely way to explain this phenomenon is that one Gospel was written before the others which established the basic order of the story of Jesus and the other two Gospels utilized that basic outline in order to write their Gospels. Someone copied someone.

  • Similarities in Parenthetical Notes

“But when you see the abomination of desolation standing where he ought not to be (let the reader understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains.” (Mk. 13:14)

“So when you see the abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains.” (Matt. 24:15-16)

Did you notice the identical parenthetical comment “(let the reader understand)”? In your English translations, that note is put in parenthesis because Jesus didn’t say it. The narrator of the Gospel added it. What does it mean? Let the reader of Daniel understand? Let the reader of the Gospel understand? I think it’s more likely that the Gospel writers are referring to the person who would have delivered and read the Gospel aloud to the church. I think the Gospel writers expected the person delivering and reading the Gospel to the church to know something about this prophecy in Daniel in case the church had questions.

How else do you explain the exact same parenthetical note by the narrator in the exact same place in the text? Someone copied someone.

  • Similarities in Old Testament Quotations

The Synoptic Gospels quote Isaiah 40:3 to present the wilderness ministry of John the Baptist as a fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy. All three Gospels are using the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, the Septuagint, to quote the prophecy from Isaiah 40:3. The Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible follows the original Hebrew text. The last phrase of the Septuagint is:

εὐθείας ποιεῖτε τὰς τρίβους τοῦ θεοῦ ἡμῶν (“make straight the paths of our God“)

This is exactly how the original Hebrew reads: “make straight the paths of our God”. However, notice how Matthew, Mark, and Luke quote Isaiah 40:3.

εὐθείας ποιεῖτε τὰς τρίβους αὐτοῦ (“make his paths straight”)

make his paths straight,’” (Mk 1:3)

make his paths straight.’” (Matt. 3:3)

make his paths straight.” (Lk. 3:4)

Notice that neither Matthew, Mark, nor Luke quote Isaiah 40:3 precisely. Instead, all three have made an identical alteration to the Greek translation of Isaiah. Rather than saying “make straight the paths of our God“, they all three say “make his paths straight” with the identical Greek construction. All three provide the same revised quotation of Isaiah 40:3 which does not occur in the Masoretic Hebrew text or Greek Septuagint of that verse. How do you explain this kind of similarity? Someone copied someone.

Conclusion: Most scholars are convinced that the Synoptic Gospels are copying one another. It is difficult to explain the similarities in wording, similarities in order, similarities in parenthetical notes, and similarities in Old Testament quotations without positing some theory of literary dependence. So, who copied who? That will be the subject of the next post. Stay tuned.

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15 comments

  1. This is a tough question. Luke states that he did use other written sources in the composition of His Gospel, Per my study, he used Q and Mark. Mark may well have been the earliest of our Greek Gospels written.Did Mark use Q? I do not know. There may have been an earlier Hebrew or Aramaic Gospel of Matthew, as referenced by one of the church fathers. So along with Mark and Q and Greek Matthew and Hebrew/Aramaic Matthew, there was Luke. They certainly are all related in style. Each has its own style. Mark is the shortest and most dynamic.Luke has a broader universal view of Jesus as the savior of the Gentiles, as well as Jews. Then Matthew was special to the Jewish Christian Community. So it is complex and interesting, and it is hard to be dogmatic about which Gospel came first and who used what. So generalities and broad strokes come into play when discussing how the Synoptics were written and how they relate to each other.
    Thanks, Gary

    1. I haven’t found any solid evidence that there was ever a Q. If anything, it may have been Matthew’s gospel which he originally wrote in Aramaic. Do you know if any ancient evidence for the existence of Q?

      1. I don’t think many scholars buy into the Aramaic Ur-Matthew. I think most people think Papias was wrong about that. And, in a couple of posts, I will try to say why I think there was a Q, or something like a Q out there.

      2. I think scholars generally trust his statements about Mark using Peter’s preaching; however, they doubt his statements about Matthew originally being written in Aramaic. There have been theories that there was an Aramaic Ur-Gospel and Matthew, Mark, and Luke all translated from the original Aramaic Gospel. This would explain the similarities and differences. Papias’ claim about Matthew has been used to support that idea.
        Several factors argue against these. First, if the Synoptics are translating into Greek from an Aramaic original, then we would expect much more variability than we have. It’s unlikely there would be so much similarity in the translation. The similarities in Greek point you back to some theory of literary dependence. Second, the Synoptics are quoting from the Septuagint for their Scripture quotations which points to Greek literary context, rather than Hebrew. Third, there is good reason to doubt Papias’ statement. Matthew doesn’t read like a translation of Aramaic. It reads like a product of Hellenistic Judaism. Papias’ statement is ambiguous to begin with because it is not clear whether he means that it was written in the “Judean language” or whether it means written in the “Judean idiom and style.”
        I think in the end, scholars rejected the Aramaic Ur-Gospel because it kept looking more and more like Mark or Matthew. The more and more it looks like Mark or Matthew, the less you need it to explain Mark or Matthew.

      3. True in all you have written here. The theory is that there was an Aramaic Gospel of Matthew circulating in Jewish Christian circles. Then later, the same author Matthew wrote his Greek Gospel. The Jewish sect called the Ebionites held onto the Aramaic Gospel and it vanished along with the Ebionites. The Greek Matthew had the priority of the two Gospels written by Matthew, as the Church turned to the Graeco-Roman world to spread the Gospel, and rejected the Jewish Christianity of the die hards in Jerusalem. This all became a moot point during the Roman-Jewish was of AD 66 to 70. Finally in 135 AD, The Temple Mount was scraped clean of the Jewish Temple and the city of Jerusalem was renamed. The Ebionites then fled to Edessa and took their minority view of Jewish Christianity with them. I do believe Papias meant that there was an Aramaic Gospel of Matthew. I do not think that Mark used it nor did Luke. There may have been lists of the saying of Jesus people wrote down and kept and showed the Gospel writers. Also there was the living memory of the church to advise the writers. Matthew, Mark and Luke had access to the first generation of Christians, as well the mother of Jesus and other Friends of Jesus. Then there is the Holy Spirit.

      4. I looked deeper into what scholars said about Papias and the possibility of there being an Aramaic version of Matthew. You are right: most scholars do not accept the Aramaic original of Matthew. But I have not found any solid evidence for this. Their arguments have just as much weight as Papias’ quotation. Actually, I still believe Papias is more reliable because he lived within 100 years of the event. (Jerome also believed that there was an Aramaic original of Matthew; though his witness is not as solid because he said he used it to translate the Vulgate, which is extremely unlikely.)

        Really, the only real evidence in modern scholars who refute the Aramaic original of Matthew is the fact that Matthew used the Septuagint for his OT quotations (as you mentioned). This is a very weak argument. There were really only two languages choices for Jews in the first century: the ancient Hebrew (which no ordinary man knew and few scholars knew) and Greek. Since Matthew (who probably spoke Aramaic) had to either turn to the Hebrew or Greek, he would have turned to the Greek because the Septuagint was much more widely used than the Hebrew.

        Do not doubt that there could be a lot of similarities if the synoptic gospels were taken from an Aramaic original. We know that the Christians were master copyists. The degree of variation between copies have proven to be so minor over the early centuries. The same can be true for translations, especially since there were probably well-known practices in translating any language into the universal language of Greek.

        You said that Matthew doesn’t read like an Aramaic translation. To me, that is the only real evidence against an Aramaic original. But do we have any Greek works that actually were originally Aramaic that we can compare with Matthew? Perhaps it was translated word-for-word but was translated to read like a Greek work.

        I don’t know what you mean at the end about looking like Mark and Matthew and having to explain them.

        In the end, I think Papias is so much more trustworthy than recent scholars over the last 150 years. I haven’t seen any solid evidence either way. I believe Papias because he was so very close to the time period we are talking about.

        Gary, that theory about Matthew’s Aramaic gospel being used by the Ebionites is interesting. What evidence is there for that? My first thought is that it is strange. I mean, why would a writing by an inspired apostle later be exclusively used by a group that the early Church considered heretics?

      5. I read that in several places. The Ebionites were the extreme Jewish Christian sect which remained in Jerusalem, and believed the Messiah was only for Jews. They disavowed the ministry and vision of Paul and his mission to the Gentiles. To the Ebionites, you had to become a Jews to become a Christian and keep all of the Law. Right now, I have nothing on hand to back up my claims. If I come across something worthy of putting up I will. I am under the weather right now, and my concentration is good for 5 minutes at a time.

      6. Sorry you are feeling sick! I am very, very interested in looking into those several places. I would greatly appreciate those sources when you are feeling better.

  2. The gospels follow the Septuagint more than the Masoretic. But there were probably very minor variations of the Septuagint in the first century. Matthew, Mark, and Luke may have exactly copied Isaiah 40:3 from a copy of the Septuagint they had at the time. But there is still enough coincidence in the other examples you gave to establish your point.

    1. Thank you for your comment. I made an alteration to the original post to make my point more clearly. Your comment helped me to clarify what I meant. I appreciate it. Yes, they were using the Septuagint to quote from Isaiah as they usually do. The problem is that the Septuagint closely follows the Hebrew text here by saying “make straight the paths of our God”. The Synoptics all quote the Septuagint exactly with one alteration. They have removed “of our God” with “his” (Gk ‘autou’). They may have been using a version of the Septuagint that contained a variant reading here, but even so, I still think it points to a literary dependence, unless you posit that all three Gospels are independently using the same variant Septuagint reading which seems unlikely.

      1. Yes, there may well have been various MSS of the Septuagint in Jesus time. That is very possible, as the LXX was translated about 200 years+/- the time of Jesus. We all know about copyists variations. The LXX was a good translation of an older Hebrew text. Often the DSS and the LXX agree against the Masoretic text. For some odd reason, people who are KJV only think the LXX was reverse engineered into our surviving Greek manuscripts with no evidence to support that view.

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