Which Gospel was Written First?

By Garrett Best

In the last post, I presented a brief snapshot of the evidence that suggests there is a literary relationship between Matthew, Mark, and Luke. There are so many similarities between those three Gospels that they have been termed the Synoptic (“seen together”) Gospels. In this post, I’d like to look at the evidence for which of these three Gospels was written first. I’m going to start with the consensus of scholarship on the Synoptic Gospels and then work backwards to provide the evidence that supports this consensus.

Consensus of Scholarship: The Gospel According to Mark was written first sometime in the 50s-60s A.D. Later, the writers of Matthew and Luke independently used the material in Mark’s Gospel to write their respective Gospels. In addition to Mark, scholars believe that Matthew and Luke both used another gospel which is now lost, called “Q”.

In this post, I only plan to tackle the evidence for why Mark was most likely written first. In the next post, I’ll lay out the evidence for the existence of another gospel called Q.

Arguments for the Priority of Mark

  1. The Argument from Length- Mark’s Gospel is the shortest of the three with 661 verses. Matthew has 1,068 verses and Luke 1,149 verses. Since there is a literary relationship among these three, either Mark has shortened Matthew and/or Luke, or Matthew and Luke have taken Mark’s shorter Gospel and built upon it. Of the words in Mark, 97% have a parallel in Matthew and 88% have a parallel in Luke. Is it more likely that Matthew and Luke added material to Mark or that Mark omitted material from Matthew and Luke. It seems difficult to explain why Mark would omit so much of the teaching material of Jesus if he had been using Matthew and/or Luke. Why would Mark omit the accounts of Jesus’ birth, the Sermon on the Mount, most of Jesus’ teaching material, the Lord’s prayer, etc.? To scholars, it seems more likely that Matthew added that material to Mark’s shorter Gospel presentation than Mark removing all that great teaching material from Matthew.
  2. The Argument from Greek Style- Greek scholars have noted that Mark’s vocabulary, style, and sentence construction is inferior to that of Matthew and Luke. While there are multiple ways of demonstrating this, I want to focus on Mark’s redundancies and excessive use of the Greek adverb “euthus”. Mark’s Gospel contains numerous redundancies:
    • “that evening, at sundown” (1:32)
    • “and immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean.” (1:42)
    • “Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting and people came and said to him, Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast” (2:18)
    • “Have you never read what David did, when he was in need and was hungry,” (2:25)

    And, these are just a few examples from the first two chapters. Scholars have estimated that there are over 200 instances of redundancy in Mark. In the majority of these instances, Matthew and Luke have edited or removed these redundancies. If Mark used the other Gospels, then you would have to assume that Mark added these redundancies. It is easier to believe that Matthew and Luke have removed these redundancies in order to improve the Greek syntax of the source they were using, Mark.

    Mark uses the adverb “euthus” (“immediately”) excessively. He uses it over 40 times. Because everything happens “immediately” in Mark, you get the impression everyone is running around and everything happens very quickly. By comparison, Matthew only uses that adverb six times and Luke once. Beginning every new unit of material with “immediately” is not the best Greek style. What better explains this evidence? That Matthew and Luke have improved upon Mark’s poorer Greek style or that Mark has taken Matthew and Luke’s superior Greek style and diminished it?

  3. The Argument from Difficult Readings- Mark’s Gospel contains some of the more difficult passages to interpret. For example, what does it mean when Mark says that Jesus “could do no mighty work” (6:5) in Nazareth? By comparison, in Matthew Jesus “did not do mighty works” (13:58) there because of their unbelief. In Mark, Jesus looks at the Pharisees “with anger” (3:5); becomes “indignant” at the disciples (10:14); and in one healing story, it appears that Jesus is unable to heal a blind man on the first try (8:22-26). In the parallel accounts in Matthew, there is no mention of Jesus “anger”; being “indignant”; or the story of the faulty healing. Then, there’s the reference in Mark 2:26 to David eating the bread of the Presence when “Abiathar was high priest” when it appears Ahimelech, Abiathar’s father, was high priest at the time of this event. Matthew 12:1-8 contains the parallel story with no mention of Abiathar. In Mark 1:12, it says the Spirit “drove/expelled” Jesus out into the wilderness which is usually a very reserved for “expelling” or “casting out” demons. Matthew and Luke both say the Spirit “lead” him out to the wilderness. If you compare all of these difficult passages to their parallel in Matthew or Luke, these difficult passages have either been omitted or improved. It is not likely that Mark would have added these difficult readings to Matthew or Luke’s presentation thus making Mark’s presentation more primitive and unrefined.
  4. The Argument from Verbal Agreements- When you set Matthew, Mark, and Luke side by side and compare them, Matthew and Luke rarely agree against Mark. Matthew and Mark agree with one another many times against Luke. Luke and Mark agree with one another many times against Matthew. But, Matthew and Luke almost never agree against Mark. This means that Mark is the middle man. Either Mark was the first Gospel to be written and Matthew and Luke used Mark, or it means that Mark was written last as a conflation of Matthew and Luke. Given what we have seen already, of these two options, it is more likely that Mark was written first and Matthew and Luke both independently used Mark.
  5. The Argument from Order- Matthew and Luke both follow the basic order of Mark. When either Matthew or Luke depart from the order of Mark, the other usually follows Mark’s order. Luke and Matthew depart from the order of Mark in order to insert their unique material, mostly the teaching material of Jesus. An interesting example is Luke’s large block of teaching material which occurs in 9:51-18:14. This is where the majority of unique material in Luke occurs. Luke has been following Mark’s order up until this point but departs from Mark’s order at Mark 10:1 in order to insert all the material in Luke 9:51-18:14. Interestingly, when Luke finishes this block of unique material, he goes back to Mark’s order in Luke 18:15. It’s as if Luke chose to pause at Mark 10 to add most of his unique material and then picked right back up where he left off.

Scholars all agree that there is a literary relationship between the Synoptic Gospels. Someone is copying someone. Admittedly, all of the evidence presented above is circumstantial. There is no definitive way to prove that Mark wrote first and Matthew and Luke copied Mark. However, circumstantial evidence is evidence nonetheless. The evidence we have from the Synoptic Gospels points to the priority of Mark.

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