Did Mark base his Gospel on Matthew and Luke? [Akin]


jimmyakin.com/wp-content/uploads/diagram-griesbach-hypothesis-300x171.jpgRecently I’ve been writing about the way that the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are related to each other.

These three are known as the synoptic Gospels, and how they are related is known as the synoptic problem.

You can read what I’ve been writing here.

Today I would like to talk about the view that Mark based his Gospel on Matthew and Luke.

What This View Is Called

This view goes by a variety of names, but one of the most common is “the Griesbach hypothesis,” after Johann Jakob Griesbach, who proposed it in the late 1700s.

Today, some like to call it the “Two-Gospel hypothesis,” because Mark would have used two other Gospels in composing his own.

This name is problematic because it is not the only possibility: Luke could have used Mark and Matthew and Matthew could have used Mark and Luke. In each of these cases, one Gospel would have been based on the other two.

There is thus no reason why the first of these options should be called the “Two-Gospel” hypothesis, so we’ll call it the Griesbach hypothesis for the sake of clarity.

The View in History

Although Griesbach proposed this view, its advocates often claim that he was not the first to do so.

According to many translations, one early proponent may have been Clement of Alexandria, who wrote around A.D. 200 that the Gospels with the genealogies (Matthew and Luke) were written first, suggesting that Mark wrote later and presumably used them in writing his own.

(However, see here for an argument that this is not what Clement said.)

If Clement did propose the Griesbach hypothesis at this early date, it did not end up becoming the most common view, historically.

Instead, a view proposed by St. Augustine, which holds that the four Gospels were written in their modern canonical order, became the most common view for most of Church history.

I’ve written about that view here.

Today the most common view is the “Two-Source hypothesis,” which holds that Mark was written first and that Matthew and Luke used both Mark and a second, hypothetical source that scholars have named “Q.”

I’ve written about my own skepticism that there was a “Q” source here.

The Griesbach hypothesis is, however, the second most popular view today.

In fact, the current popularity of the Griesback hypothesis is such that, if you are skeptical of the Two-Source hypothesis, many scholars will assume that you must be an advocate of Griesbach—which is a bit frustrating for those who hold alternative views.

The Griesbach hypothesis attracted a number of advocates in the mid-20th century, including—most notably—William R. Farmer.

William Farmer developed an argument for the Griesbach hypothesis which contains 16 “steps.” You can find a paraphrase of it online here. It is also found as chapter 4 in the book Rethinking the Synoptic Problemhttp://ir-na.amazon-adsystem.com/e/ir?t=jimmyakincom-20&l=as2&o=1&a=B00FOWLYL8, edited by David Alan Black.

I’m not going to respond to Farmer’s argument in a point-by-point manner, because doing so would require too much space, but I would like to do a concise evaluation of the view.

(NOTE: I’ll be doing a separate piece looking at the variant of the Griesbach hypothesis proposed by Bernard Orchard, et al. It’s sufficiently different that it warrants its own treatment.)

A Thank You to the Advocates of Griesbach

Before that, I want to say how much I appreciate the work of Farmer and his colleagues, because prior to their efforts, the Two-Source hypothesis had become so dominant in 20th century New Testament scholarship that it was virtually unquestioned.

Because of their efforts, the world of scholarship was forced to confront the problems with the Two-Source hypothesis, and, even though it is still the most popular view, it is held more tentatively now than it was, and greater respect is shown to alternative views.

Thank you Farmer and colleagues!

Now, let’s look at the evidence concerning Griesbach . . .

The Patristic Evidence

Advocates of the view often point to Clement of Alexandria for support since he appears to say that Matthew and Luke were written before Mark.

This claim is significant not only because Clement wrote very early (c. A.D. 200) but because he was bishop of Alexandria, the see which reportedly had Mark as its first bishop. One would think that Clement would thus be in a good position to know the circumstances in which Mark’s Gospel was written.

However, there are several problems with this claim:

*]If Clement did make it, then he is very much alone in doing so. I can’t think of any other patristic source that makes the claim.
*]The most popular view in the later patristic age was the Augustinian hypothesis, which had Mark being written second rather than third. Clement’s contemporary Irenaeus of Lyons, seems to have advocated the Augustinian hypothesis. Clement’s student, Origen, also seems to have held the Augustinian hypothesis.
*]The earliest reference we have—from John the Presbyter—says that Mark wrote his Gospel based on Peter’s preaching, not based on Matthew and Luke. John the Presbyter may or may not have been John the Apostle, but he appears, in either event, to have been one of the authors of the New Testament, and thus was in an even better position than Clement to know about the composition of the Gospels.
*]It appears that the claim attributed to Clement may be based on a mistranslation. Stephen Carlson argues that the key Greek verb (progregraphthai) should be rendered “published openly” rather than “written first.” On this view, Clement was claiming that Matthew and Luke were published openly, while Mark was initially written for a group of private individuals, without Peter’s initial knowledge or authorization. This fits the context of what Clement says. See Carlson’s argument, here.
[/LIST]The patristic evidence thus does not provide significant support for the Griesbach hypothesis.

The Argument from Order

One of the major arguments used by advocates of the Griesbach hypothesis is based on the sequence in which the synoptic Gospels present their material.

It is pointed out that Mark’s sequence almost always agrees either with Matthew’s order or Luke’s order. He switches between these two orders in a zig-zag fashion.

Griesbach advocates have argued that this is best explained by the idea that Mark had both Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels before him, and at any given point he had to choose which of their two orders he would follow, since he obviously couldn’t follow them both when they sequenced the same material differently.

The problem with the argument from order is that the proposed explanation is not the only one.

For example, suppose that Mark and Matthew wrote first and that Luke used the two of them. In this case, Luke would choose between the order found in Mark and the one found in Matthew. This would also explain why one of the synoptics seems to zig-zag between the orders found in the other two.

Or suppose that Mark and Luke wrote first and that Matthew used the two of them. In that case, Matthew would choose between the order found in Mark and that found in Luke. Again, this would explain why one of the synoptics seems to zig-zag between the orders found in the other two.

And there are other options, still.

For a detailed look at why the argument from order isn’t sufficient to settle the synoptic problem, see David Neville’s book, Mark’s Gospel–Prior or Posterior?: A Reappraisal of the Phenomenon of Orderhttp://ir-na.amazon-adsystem.com/e/ir?t=jimmyakincom-20&l=as2&o=1&a=1841272655.

What Is Mark’s Gospel Supposed to Be?

A fundamental question that the Griesbach hypothesis needs to answer is what Mark’s Gospel is supposed to be.

On the Griesbach hypothesis, Mark would have had to draw a significant amount of material from both Mark and Luke. Yet Mark is also shorter than either Matthew or Luke.

Mark would thus appear to be a conflation and epitome of the other two synoptic Gospels.

It’s a conflation (a fusion) since it includes material from both, and it’s an epitome (an abridgment) since it is shorter.

How well does this hypothesis stand up to examination?

Not A Plausible Epitome

I’ve written before about the question of whether Mark is a plausible epitome of Matthew, and the conclusion was that it is not.

The same considerations apply to Mark being an epitome of Matthew and Luke.

A combination of Matthew and Luke would be somewhat longer than Matthew alone. Matthew is around 18,000 words in the Greek New Testament, and an edition of Matthew that had been expanded by the 7,000 or so words in the unique passages of Luke would be around 25,000 words long.

This fused work would have fit on one scroll and could be read in about two and a half hours. It is thus not nearly long enough to require an epitome.

Epitomes were popular in the ancient world because they allowed people to get the gist of long works in a short amount of time. For example, 2 Maccabees is an epitome that condensed a five-scroll history by Jason of Cyrene into a single scroll.

That’s the kind of space savings that ancient readers expected in an epitome, and that’s not what we find in Mark. At a little more than 11,000 words long, it would only be about half the size of a combined Matthew and Luke, and it would only reduce the reading time by a bit more than an hour.

There is also the fact that Mark typically uses more words to tell an individual story than Matthew or Luke, which is the opposite of what ancient epitomists did. They typically told a story in fewer words and thus saved space. This was, in fact, one of the two principle tools used by epitomists.

The fact that Mark uses more words than the other two synoptic evangelists makes it look like Matthew and Luke were epitomizing individual stories from Mark so that they could fit supplement them with material not found in Mark and still keep their Gospels a reasonable length.

Besides telling a story in fewer words, the other major technique used by ancient epitomists was to simply omit material, which in this case would mean whole stories about or sayings of Jesus.

Naturally, epitomists would omit what they considered to be the less important material and retain what they considered to be the more important material. They might even include some new material if they thought it was particularly important.

When we look at Mark through the lens of the editorial choices he would have made in composing his Gospel from Matthew and Luke, we confront a baffling situation. In making an epitome of the two, Mark would have ejected large amounts of very valuable data, including:

*]The Genealogy of Jesus (Matt. 1:1-17, Luke 3:23-38)
*]The Birth of John the Baptist Foretold (Luke 1:5-25)
*]The Birth of Jesus Foretold (Luke 1:26-38)
*]The Visitation (Luke 1:39-56)
*]The Birth of John the Baptist (Luke 1:57-80)
*]The Birth of Jesus (Matt. 1:18-25, Luke 2:1-20)
*]The Circumcision and Presentation of Jesus (Luke 2:21-40)
*]The Slaughter of the Innocents (Matt. 2:1-23)
*]The Finding in the Temple (Luke 2:41-52)
*]Jesus Preaches the Gospel in Nazareth (Luke 4:16-30)
*]The Beatitudes (Matt. 4:23-5:12, Luke 6:17-26)
*]The Value of the Law (Matt. 5:17-20, Luke 16:16-17)
*]Teaching About Killing and Anger (Matt. 5:21-24)
*]Make Peace with Your Accuser (Matt. 5:25-26, Luke 12:57-59)
*]Teaching on Adultery and Lust (Matt. 5:27-30)
*]Teaching on Divorce and Adultery (Matt. 5:31-32)
*]Teaching on Swearing (Matt. 5:33-37)
*]“Love Your Enemies” (Matt. 5:38-48, Luke 6:27-36)
*]Piety Before Men and Alms (Matt. 6:1-4)
*]Piety Before Men and Prayer (Matt. 6:5-8)
*]The Lord’s Prayer (Matt. 6:9-15, Luke 11:1-4)
*]Piety Before Men and Fasting (Matt. 6:16-18)
*]“Treasure in Heaven” (Matt. 6:19-21, Luke 12:33-34)
*]“The Lamp of Your Body” (Matt. 6:22-23, Luke 11:33-36)
*]“You Cannot Serve God and Mammon” (Matt. 6:24, Luke 16:9-15)
*]“Do Not Be Anxious About Your Life” (Matt. 6:25-34, Luke 12:22-32)
*]“Judge Not, Lest Ye Be Judged” (Matt. 7:1-5, Luke 6:37-42)
*]Pearls Before Swine (Matt. 7:06)
*]“Ask, Seek, Knock” (Matt. 7:7-11, Luke 11:9-13)
*]The Golden Rule (Matt. 7:12)
*]The Narrow Gate (Matt. 7:13-14, Luke 13:22-30)
*]“No Good Tree Bears Bad Fruit” (Matt. 7:15-20, Luke 6:43-45)
*]Putting Jesus’ Teaching into Action (Matt. 7:21-27, Luke 6:46-49)
*]The Centurion’s Servant (Matt. 8:5-13, Luke 7:1-10)
*]The Widow of Nain’s Son (Luke 7:11-17)
*]Jesus’ Travelling Companions (Luke 8:1-3)
*]Rebuffed in Samaria (Luke 9:51-56)
*]Excuses for Not Following Jesus (Matt. 8:18-22, Luke 9:57-62)
*]Healing Two Blind Men (Matt. 9:27-31)
*]Exorcizing a Mute Demoniac (Matt. 9:32-34)
*]Sending the Seventy (Luke 10:01)
*]“The Harvest is Plentiful” (Matt. 9:35-38, Luke 10:02)
*]Basic Instructions to the Seventy (Luke 10:3-11)
*]The Seventy Return (Luke 10:17-20)
*]Fear and Comfort (Matt. 10:26-33, Luke 12:2-12)
*]Jesus Brings Division (Matt. 10:34-36, Luke 12:49-53)
*]The Cost of Discipleship (Matt. 10:37-11:1, Luke 14:25-27)
*]A Question from John the Baptist (Matt. 11:2-19, Luke 7:18-35)
*]Woe to Unrepentant Cities (Matt. 11:20-24, Luke 10:12-16)
*]Hidden from the Wise (Matt. 11:25-30, Luke 10:21-24)
*]The Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37)
*]“Mary has chosen the good portion” (Luke 10:38-42)
*]“By Your Words You Will be Justified” (Matt. 12:33-37)
*]The Friend at Midnight (Luke 11:5-8)
*]“Blessed Is the Womb that Bore You!” (Luke 11:27-28)
*]“The Sign of Jonah” (Matt. 12:38-42, Luke 11:29-32)
*]The Unclean Spirit Returns (Matt. 12:43-45, Luke 11:24-26)
*]The Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds (Matt. 13:24-30)
*]The Parable of the Weeds Explained (Matt. 13:34-43)
*]The Parable of the Rich Fool (Luke 12:13-21)
*]Repent or Perish (Luke 13:1-9)
*]Healing a Crippled Woman (Luke 13:10-17)
*]The Parable of the Leaven (Matt. 13:33, Luke 13:20-21)
*]Jesus Warned That Herod Wants to Kill Him (Luke 13:31-33)
*]Dinner with a Ruler of the Pharisees (Luke 14:1-15)
*]Counting the Cost (Luke 14:28-33)
*]The Parable of the Treasure in the Field (Matt. 13:44)
*]The Parable of the Precious Pearl (Matt. 13:45-46)
*]The Parable of the Net Thrown into the Sea (Matt. 13:47-52)
*]Does Jesus Pay the Tax? (Matt. 17:24-27)
*]The Parable of the Lost Sheep (Matt. 18:12-14, Luke 15:1-7)
*]The Parable of the Lost Coin (Luke 15:8-10)
*]The Parable of the Lost Son (Luke 15:11-32)
*]The Parable of the Shrewd Steward (Luke 16:1-8)
*]Lazarus and the Rich Man (Luke 16:19-31)
*]Forgiving the Brother Who Sins (Matt. 18:15-22, Luke 17:3-4)
*]“We Are Unworthy Servants” (Luke 17:7-10)
*]Ten Lepers Cleansed (Luke 17:11-19)
*]The Coming of the Kingdom (Luke 17:20-37)
*]The Parable of the Persistent Widow (Luke 18:1-8)
*]The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18:9-14)
*]The Parable of Unforgiving Debtor (Matt. 18:23-35)
*]The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard (Matt. 20:1-16)
*]Jesus in the Temple (Matt. 21:14-17)
*]The Parable of the Banquet (Matt. 22:1-14, Luke 14:16-24)
*]Woe to the Scribes and Pharisees (Matt. 23:1-36)
*]“Your House Is Forsaken” (Matt. 23:37-39, Luke 13:34-35)
*]“The Son of Man Is Coming at an Unexpected Hour (Matt. 24:42-51, Luke 12:35-48)
*]The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins (Matt. 25:1-13)
*]Dinner with Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10)
*]The Parable of the Talents/Pounds (Matt. 25:14-30, Luke 19:11-27)
*]The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Matt. 25:31-46)
*]Jesus’ Daily Schedule (Luke 21:37-38)
*]Who Is the Greatest? (Luke 22:24-32)
*]Preparations for the Future (Luke 22:35-38)
*]Jesus Before Herod Antipas (Luke 23:6-12)
*]Securing the Tomb (Matt. 27:62-66)
*]Explaining the Empty Tomb (Matt. 28:11-15)
[/LIST]Mark would have had to have judged all of that material not worth including in comparison to the following tiny handful of passages, which are unique to his Gospel and which he therefore chose to include:

*]Jesus Teaches by the Sea (Mark 2:13)
*]Jesus’ Family Hears (Mark 3:20-21)
*]The Kingdom Like Seed (Mark 4:26-29)
*]Healing a Deaf Man (Mark 7:32-37)
*]Healing a Blind Man (Mark 8:22-26)
[/LIST]Such an editorial choice seems inexplicable, given the high value of much of the material Mark would have chosen to omit and the low value of the additional passages he would have chosen to include.

Much more explicable would be editorial choices by Matthew and Luke to omit the handful of passages that are unique to Mark, which are of low value and which would allow them to include more of the valuable material that is found in their Gospels and that is not found in Mark.

Not a Plausible Conflation

There are also problems with the idea that Mark is a fusion of Matthew and Luke, and a particularly important one occurs on the level of the individual stories that Mark records about Jesus.

It has long been noted that, if Mark used the other two synoptic Gospels, he didn’t just switch between the two in their overall sequence of material about Jesus. Instead, he switched between the two within the course of a single story.

In other words, if you read through the Greek text of Mark, even within a single story, you’ll run into a short stretch of material that Mark would have taken from Matthew and later a short stretch of material he would have taken from Luke. This material might be a single word, a phrase, etc., but not the whole story.

Mark thus would have assembled his individual accounts of the things that Jesus did by piecing together material from Matthew and Luke like a puzzle.

How easy it is to do that kind of fusion of texts depends on the kind of writing techniques that are in use at the time.

Today, it is easier than it has ever been. Given the availability of word processors, a modern author can have two source documents open before him on his screen, and he can cut and paste fragments of text from the two into a third document that he is composing. When done on the level of words and phrases, the procedure is clunky, but it’s possible.

Before the advent of word processors, the process would have been more difficult. A hundred years ago, an author attempting this feat would likely have had his two source documents open in front of him on his writing desk, and he would have glanced back and forth between them, flipping pages when he needed to move forward in the text, and stitching together the phrases he was encountering to form a new, third document, which he would also have kept on the desk.

This would not have been nearly as easy as cutting and pasting in a word processor, but it would have been possible, and advocates of the Griesbach hypothesis have proposed that this was how Mark worked.

But there are problems with this image.

Working with Scrolls

The first problem is that it is not clear Mark would have been flipping pages. The codex—or modern form of a book that has pages attached to a spine so that they can be flipped—was not common in the ancient world, and it was only beginning to become popular in the first century.

As a result, it is quite likely that Mark would have been working with the form of book which was common in antiquity—the scroll. It is not as easy to advance the text in a scroll, which has to be rolled forward and back to consult different passages.

It’s nowhere near as easy as flipping pages, and the problem would become particularly acute if Mark were trying to fuse phrases from a story that occurs at one point in Matthew’s sequence and at a different point in Luke’s sequence. It would involve lots of manual scrolling to find the right place.

There is also the fact that, if a scroll is opened to a passage near the beginning or the end, it will have a tendency to curl itself up and obscure the text unless you hold it open with your hands or with a paperweight. (This tendency is lessened in the middle of the scroll, since you may have a sizeable roll on both sides, helping to keep the book open and the passage you want visible.)

Also, scrolls can tear in two if they aren’t properly supported—at least if they are made of papyrus, which many were (papyrus was cheaper than parchment, which was made from animal skin). When opened, the weight of one side of the scroll can be such that, if you lose your grip, it can twist the scroll and cause the papyrus to rip.

These problems could be overcome if you had paperweights and a writing desk, but that leads to a second problem . . .

No Writing Desks

Surprising as it may seem, they didn’t use writing desks in the first century, and all those classic paintings of the New Testament authors using them as they composed their works are historically anachronistic.

Instead, as revealed by illustrations from the ancient world—as well as by statements from the period—the ancients wrote without desks, either sitting on a stool or standing, holding the writing material in front of them or placing them on a knee.

This means that any sources they were consulting as they wrote were not within inches of their face as they sat at a desk.

The sources may have been laid on the floor or on another object, but they weren’t as conveniently displayed as they could be on a writing desk, and—given the distance and the tiny size that the hand printing often used (to save money on writing materials)—they would have been harder for an author to read, making him less likely to switch between them on a word-by-word or phrase-by-phrase basis.

Alternately, the sources an author was using could have been read out loud to him, and this method seems to have been used when scribes were making multiple copies of a single work, but it also would have made it very laborious to take individual words or phrases from each source and knit them together.

Ancient Conflation Practices

Because of the limitations of ancient writing methods, people in this period did not combine works in the way Mark is claimed to have done.

Instead, as studies of ancient literature show, the difficulty of borrowing tiny bits from two works and merging them together into a new work prevented this from being a normal practice.

What they would do is base a passage on one source and use its wording and then switch to another source for a new passage.

If the two sources had parallel versions of a single passage they wanted to use, they would stick with the wording used by one of the sources, not attempt to merge the wording of the two in an alternating manner.

(For more on this, and on ancient writing methods in general, see Robert A. Derrenbacker’s Ancient Compositional Practices and the Synoptic Problem, online in pdf here.)

The only notable exception to this is a work composed in the second century known as the Diatesseron. This was a harmony of the Gospels written by a Syrian named Tatian.

He actually did undertake the task of going through the Gospels line by line and trying to merge everything, retaining every small detail that he could.

The result was a work that, in English translation, is 62,440 words long (compared to 86,320 for the four Gospels), meaning that the Diatesseron is 72% as long as the Gospels combined (source).

Tatian’s example shows that it was possible to stich more than one source together in a low-level manner, but it was rare because of how difficult it was.

This raises the question of motive.

**Tatian vs. Mark **

Tatian was writing in the second century, after the four Gospels had come to be regarded as sufficiently sacred and inviolable that, although he wanted to create a new text by merging them, he also wanted to preserve virtually every detail contained in them. (He omits only 1.8% of their content, or 0.7% if you set the genealogies aside; source.)

As a result, the Diatesseron does not have the literary artistry of any of the Gospels. It is clunky and repetitious, as Tatian tries to jam everything in together.

Mark’s situation is entirely different.

On the Griesbach hypothesis, he clearly does not think that he has to retain all of the details found in Matthew and Luke. Indeed, he would have had to throw out huge chunks of the two Gospels, including many of their most valuable parts!

If that was his attitude toward his source material then it is inexplicable why he would feel so strongly about the phrasing of the two that he would undertake the physically laborious process of regularly merging their individual phrases.

Instead, he would have followed the ancient practice of someone combining two sources and used the wording of whichever source he had before him at the moment.


We thus find that—contrary to the Griesbach hypothesis—Mark’s Gospel does not work either like ancient epitomes or like ancient conflations, making it unlikely that it is a conflation and epitome of Matthew and Luke.

More plausibly, Matthew and Luke abridged material from Mark (both by omitting whole passages and by tightening up the wording of those they retained) and then expanded it with additional material they wished to include.




I see people talking about this from time and so I’m glad to see Mr. Akin addressing it. This helps fill in a lot of blanks for me.






Nothing to add for now, but I must say that I really appreciate Jimmy’s input here.

The Griesbach hypothesis is, however, the second most popular view today.

In fact, the current popularity of the Griesback hypothesis is such that, if you are skeptical of the Two-Source hypothesis, many scholars will assume that you must be an advocate of Griesbach—which is a bit frustrating for those who hold alternative views.

This is true, particularly in American scholarship. In British scholarship, meanwhile, there was a minority opinion that developed among Oxford scholars* (headed by Austin Farrer and Michael Goulder) that questioned the idea of the existence of Q, all the while retaining the idea of Markan priority. Out of the three hypotheses (Griesbach, Q, Farrer), however, Farrer’s is the most obscure/less-known one, for a number of reasons.

  • Oxford was the place where the two-source (‘Q’) hypothesis was first introduced in the English-speaking world (being imported from Germany) and developed into the form commonly known today. So, it’s rather interesting that it would also be one of the places where the idea of the existence of Q would be first questioned. In fact, it is said that by the late 20th century, a good deal of biblical scholars who hail from Oxford were Q skeptics.


Thank you for writing on a topic I have much interest in.

We each have our ways of looking at this.

For me, I think it may be incorrect to think of Mark ‘sitting down’ to write a gospel.

I think Mark’s gospel was indeed a conflation of Matthew and Luke only because Peter’s preaching was based on a conflation of Matthew and Luke. I think it was common for shorthand note takers to record the speeches of important talks of that time, especially in Rome.

When we consider this possibility, which as you have mentioned was alluded to by early fathers, many of the seemingly difficult problems disappear.

  1. Mark’s Greek is poorer than the others but the text looks to have been copied.

Whoever composed Mark’s gospel (probably St. Mark) was working from shorthand notes and so while the ideas and presentation are the same the person translating from the shorthand used their own Greek, which was not of the better standard.

Also the notes themselves are based on the preaching of Peter who spoke in a non literary style. He spoke, as you would expect, in a common preaching style that reflects the more common verbal style of Marks ‘writing’.

  1. The importance of Peter is sometimes played down in Mark

Peter was standing in front of a Roman crowd where they execute people for any hint of sedition. Peter is unlikely to say things like ‘Jesus’ kingdom will last forever, I hold the keys to that kingdom and it will withstand the powers of hell. That is just asking for trouble from the Romans.

  1. Important parts of Matthew and Luke are left out.

We must remember that Peter is preaching as a harmonizer during a difficult time of division in the Church which was clearly recorded. That is, the pro Jewish Christians (Matthew is written in a very Jewish context) and the new Gentile converts which St. Paul is keen to include (and in which his disciple Luke seems to have written to de-emphasise Matthew’s Jewish context).

So where they differ, such as in the infancy narratives, Peter, the leader and harmoniser of the two groups simply does not preach that on this day in Rome. Why choose one or the other and stir up controversy? It is simply a speech after all. Similarly with the Sermon on the mount. Matthews version (the original) was very Jewish centred. Luke de-emphasises the Jewish context in his shortened copy. Who is Peter going to favour - neither. He simply does not preach about that. Again, it is just a speech in my opinion.

  1. Mark’s gospel was not revered as much as the others in the early church.

This is because it was simply a translation of a speech. Important yes, but it was not meant to stand for all time as an alternative to Matthew and Luke. It is only when we mistakenly think it is supposed to, that we then ask questions like - why didn’t Mark write about the Sermon on the Mount?

  1. The order of Mark and his vocabulary switches between Matthew and Luke

That is because Peter is reading from both Matthew and Luke to a Roman audience that is split between Jewish and Gentile factions. He is showing his respect to both by reading from Matthew and Luke. He wants to be inclusive as much as possible.

  1. Sometimes Mark’s gospel passages are longer and/or have greater detail than either Matthew or Luke.

This is because while Peter is reading from both Matthew and Luke, he was also a central eye-witness to the events and it is only natural for him to provide greater detail. His audience would expect that as would anyone hearing a key eye witness read other’s accounts.

  1. The text of the Synoptics are extremely similar but there are some subtle changes in vocabulary and word structure.

This can be accounted for by both the fact that Peter was preaching and prone to using his own words and that Mark’s gospel had the extra stage of being compiled from shorthand notes which would on occasion produce just that affect.

In my opinion this is the most likely history of how the gospels were written. It is traditional, fits in with church fathers, is in synch with the development of the Church and its early factional problems, explains the differences as well as the close borrowing in the gospels and as I see it, it has no real criticisms.

But of course I am open to any such criticisms if they are present. I just don’t see any at the moment.


I’ll also point folks to a similar thread a while back, for reference.



I read an interesting hypothesis that stated that Mark is only the first Gospel written if you consider Matthew in its current form.

The hypothesis was that Papias was correct to say Matthew wrote his Gospel first, but as Papias noted it was a collection of oracles (“sayings”) and in Hebrew characters.

Noting that scholars who accept the Mark-first premise often believe that someone other than the apostle Matthew created the narrative surrounding the “sayings” in Koine Greek, relying on Mark for this “added” narrative, this model would explain conflicting data as follows:

  1. St. Matthew literally composed the Gospel in Hebrew, but it originally consisted of “sayings” as did all early Gospel accounts.
  2. This original “sayings” source is the Q nobody can seem to find (used as the shared source of sayings among the Synoptics).
  3. Mark was the first to complete a canonical Gospel in the format we have today.
  4. The narrative of Matthew was added after Mark when setting sayings of Jesus in a narrative became the standard for Gospel accounts; this could have been added by the apostle himself or as some suggest someone associated with the Jewish Church he founded.
  5. The end result does indeed have Matthew and Luke borrowing from Mark, but only for producing the completed product. Matthew came first, in Hebrew, and originally a list of sayings. It may not fit as Q in all hypothetical models, but it fits the general pattern.

The hypothesis ends with suggesting that the witness of Papias is often discarded by a desire to be “enlightened” and appear more reliant on empirical evidence, but the fact that critical scholarship also acknowledges that Matthew was originally written for mainly a Jewish Christian audience does not explain its current extant existence in Greek. It would have originally been composed in Hebrew, and the only witness to a Gospel to the circumcised is Papias. It answers questions but makes one more reliant on Tradition, something many academics don’t seem to want to do.

Again this is just a theory.


Yes, the Hebrew gospel theory. Actually, the early Fathers starting from St. Irenaeus did read Papias in this way. A few of them, like St. Jerome, went so far as to find this ‘Hebrew gospel’ of Matthew. (Jerome and a couple of other Fathers even claim to have found it, but it seems that in reality, what they ‘found’ were edited versions/translations of canonical Matthew used by some Jewish Christian sects of their day.)

I think the problem with the ‘Hebrew gospel’ theory is the same problem we have with Q*: if you put aside the literary references (not all of which are independent tradition: Papias was used by Irenaeus, Irenaeus was used by the Fathers who followed him, etc.) and the claims of it being ‘found’ (pretty much false alarms), you really have solid no material proof for it. No manuscripts, no whatever.

But then again, does it literally have to be a gospel written in ‘Hebrew’ (which really just means the ‘Jewish’ language: either Hebrew proper or Aramaic)? I mean, Papias simply says that it was written in Ebraidi dialektō. Now dialektō could mean ‘language’ (cf. Acts 22:2), but it could also mean ‘style of writing’, which would fit our (Greek) Matthew more, since it is indeed in a ‘Hebrew’ (= Jewish) rhetorical style (Matthew’s beginning with a genealogy and his overall emphasis on the fulfillment of OT prophecy, for one). In other words, what if Irenaeus and the rest had simply misread Papias?

  • In fact, I should point out that the Q theory actually has its roots in Papias. The original term for Q in German was logienquellelogia source’, an obvious throwback to Papias’ references to Matthew’s arrangement of Jesus’ logia (‘sayings’, ‘oracles’). In the 18th-19th century, scholars did use Papias’ testimony to theorize about the existence of a Hebrew/Aramaic ‘proto-gospel’ of sorts which somehow became the source for the three synoptics. It was only later that the theory was remodeled to remove its reliance on Papias (because scholars had begun to think that he was unreliable), but the main idea - of a written source for the gospels - was kept.

P.S. It’s true that Matthew is currently thought to have been written for ‘a Jewish Christian audience’, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it has to be in Hebrew or Aramaic. (We also have works intended for Jewish Christian audiences that were written in Greek (originally, as far as we can tell): just from the NT there’s the Epistles of James and Jude and the Epistle to the Hebrews, for one.) Matthew’s gospel is currently thought to have originated from Antioch, a place with a large Jewish population, but at the same time, also a Greek-speaking city. In other words, we’re talking about an audience of Greek-speaking Diaspora rather than Aramaic/Hebrew-speaking Palestinian Jews.


That being said, I won’t put too much stock on the idea that since Papias said that Matthew compiled the logia it must refer to a ‘sayings source’, because he also uses the same word to refer to Mark writing his recollections of Peter’s memories of Jesus. (Well of course, we could assume that Papias was actually speaking of different writings by Mark and Matthew and not our canonical gospels at all!) In other words, Papias kind of uses the word in a broad way: he equates logia with “the things either said or done by the Lord.” In other words, anecdotes, not just soundbytes. He was using ‘logia’ in the same way other writers used ‘gospel’.

[INDENT]“The Elder used to say: ‘Mark, in his capacity as Peter’s interpreter, wrote down accurately as many things as he recalled from memory—though not in an ordered form—of the things either said or done by the Lord. For he neither heard the Lord nor accompanied him, but later, as I said, Peter, who used to give his teachings in the form of chreiai (brief anecdotes about or quotes by a particular person), but had no intention of providing an ordered arrangement of the logia of the Lord. Consequently Mark did nothing wrong when he wrote down some individual items just as he related them from memory. For he made it his one concern not to omit anything he had heard or to falsify anything.’”

These things are related by Papias concerning Mark. But concerning Matthew he writes as follows:

‘Therefore Matthew put the logia in an ordered arrangement in the Hebrew language, but each person interpreted them as best he could.’[/INDENT]

If you notice, the way Papias writes - he seems to speak of Mark first before Matthew (at least, that’s the way Eusebius quotes him) - one can read him as envisioning the scenario:

(1) Mark, Peter’s “interpreter,” writes down Peter’s recollections “of the things either said or done by the Lord.”
(2) This written record was “accurate” because Mark wrote everything he had heard from Peter faithfully, but it has a single flaw: it was “not in an ordered form” because Peter, as per Papias, “used to give his teachings in the form of chreiai but had no intention of providing an ordered arrangement of the logia (sayings, oracles) of the Lord.” Not that Mark would know, since Papias says, “he neither heard the Lord nor accompanied him.”
(3) It was then (“therefore”) that Matthew is said to have “put the logia” of Jesus “in an ordered arrangement in the Hebrew language.” In other words, Matthew, in Papias’ scenario, had corrected the supposed deficiency of Mark’s account by putting out an ‘orderly account’ of Jesus’ logia.

Papias is our earliest source that talks about the writing of the gospels, but of course it’s not an automatic guarantee that his version is really ‘what hapened’ (it’s still possible that Papias - or rather his source, John the Elder/Presbyter - were hypothesizing just like we do today). But supposing that we’re reading him correctly, Papias has a rather interesting scenario here: a ‘disorderly’ account written by a disciple of an apostle being improved/superseded by an ‘orderly’ account by another apostle.

In fact, overall you get the feeling that Papias or Elder John was being defensive of Mark: he emphasizes Mark’s connection to Peter and his accurate transcribing of Peter’s recollections, and pretty much argues that people should cut Mark his ‘disorderly’ account some slack “since he neither heard the Lord nor accompanied him” and was not really in a position to arrange the material he heard in order, because he never knew the correct sequence, and Peter apparently did not tell him.

To put things in context, Mark’s gospel was the least popular in early Christianity. So much so, that it wasn’t quoted very much and was apparently not deemed to be worthy of a full commentary - you’ll have to wait until the 8th century for that. In fact, we really only have a single surviving manuscript of it that predates the 4th century. Maybe as early as Papias’ time, some Christians were criticizing Mark’s gospel for its ‘incompleteness’ compared to the other gospels. To which Papias (Elder John?) answered, yes, it is disorganized, but that’s because Mark accurately wrote down everything he had heard from Peter (who was also drawing from his memories on an ad hoc manner): its lack of order is precisely its claim to authenticity. In any case, Papias (in this reading) claims that fortunately, another apostle (Matthew) addressed Mark’s deficiency.


Very interesting. Thank you all!


Actually, no.

As Jimmy had pointed out, only Clement of Alexandria (to be more specific, Eusebius’ paraphrase of what Clement probably wrote) comes close to alluding to something resembling the modern Griesbach theory. But even then, Clement - or rather, Eusebius - only says speaks of the gospels with the genealogies (Matthew and Luke) first and then of Mark’s gospel; nowhere does he imply that Mark had used these other two gospels.

In fact, as Jimmy says, it’s doubtful whether we’ve been reading Clement right all along. The word “written first” in the phrase "the Gospels containing the genealogies were written first"in Greek is progegraphthai (προγεγράφθαι). While the word is usually translated and understood in the temporal sense, it is more possible that the other possible meaning of the word is intended here - “to write before the public.” In other words, it is not implied that Matthew and Luke were chronologically the first to be written, but rather, that those gospels were ‘published openly’. In other words, these two gospels were ‘for general consumption’, for all Christians, not specifically written for a specific group or local church, unlike Mark’s, which in Clement’s quote was originally written at the behest of and was targeted to only a select number of people.

Again, in the same books Clement has set down a tradition which he had received from the elders before him, in regard to the order of the Gospels, to the following effect. He says that the Gospels containing the genealogies were progegraphthai (written first / published openly), and that the Gospel according to Mark was composed in the following circumstances:—

Peter having preached the word publicly at Rome, and by the Spirit proclaimed the Gospel, those who were present, who were numerous, entreated Mark, inasmuch as he had attended him from an early period, and remembered what had been said, to write down what had been spoken. On his composing the Gospel, he handed it to those who had made the request to him; which coming to Peter’s knowledge, he neither hindered nor encouraged. But John, the last of all, seeing that what was corporeal was set forth in the Gospels, on the entreaty of his intimate friends, and inspired by the Spirit, composed a spiritual Gospel.


We only have bits and pieces of our earliest source Papias for us to draw any conclusion - though as I noted in the last posts, one can read him as espousing a Mark-Matthew order (Mark wrote an accurate yet disorganized gospel first, which was superseded by Matthew’s orderly account in the ‘Hebrew’ language/Hebrew style). St. Irenaeus speaks of the gospels in the canonical order (Hebrew Matthew-Mark-Luke-John) but also doesn’t explicitly mention the order of composition of the synoptics nor suggest any literary relationship between these gospels. Origen, followed by later writers like St. Jerome and St. Augustine, takes Irenaeus’ statements literally and assumed that the (Hebrew) Matthew-Mark-Luke-John order is the chronological one. In fact, Augustine is probably the first to explicitly suggest a literary relationship between the gospels. In his view, Matthew was the first gospel; Mark condensed Matthew (he had chalked Mark up as being simply an ‘epitomizer’ of Matthew); Luke edited Matthew and Mark; John wrote his gospel to fill in the gaps.


Most Fathers agree that Peter was involved in some way with Mark’s gospel. But they don’t agree on the details themselves.

  • Papias mentions Mark’s gospel being an accurate transcription of Peter’s brief anecdotes about Jesus. So accurate, that the gospel came out ‘disorganized’ as a result - because Mark simply wrote down these anecdotes as Peter related them, with no care for order, either chronological or rhetorical. It is not mentioned exactly when Mark wrote the gospel.

  • Irenaeus suggests that Mark “transmitted to us in writing what Peter used to preach” after Peter’s and Paul’s ‘exodus’ in Rome. It’s quite unclear what ‘exodus’ refers to: it could refer to a literal departure - Peter and Paul left Rome for a while (although we have no evidence of a well-known departure of Peter from Rome after his arrival there) - or (this is the more common usage in early Christian writings) to a metaphorical ‘departure’, i.e. when Peter and Paul were martyred. So assuming that exodus is used in this way, Irenaeus thus thinks that Mark wrote his gospel after Peter had already died.

  • The so-called Anti-Marcionite prologue is written around the same time as Irenaeus and pretty much relates the same thing as Irenaeus does: “Mark recorded, who was called Colobodactylus (“stumpy finger”), because he had fingers that were too small for the height of the rest of his body. He himself was the interpreter of Peter. After the departure (post excessionem) of Peter himself, he transcribed (descripsit) this gospel in the parts of Italy.” The passage shows the same difficulty as Irenaeus: does ‘departure’ mean a literal depature or a metaphorical one?

  • Clement of Alexandria notably contradicts Irenaeus, since in his version of the story, Peter is still very much alive and is apparently in Rome when Mark had written his gospel: “When Peter had publicly proclaimed the word and by the Spirit preached the gospel at Rome, those who were present, being many, urged Mark - as one of his [Peter’s] long-time followers who remembered what was said - to make a record of what had been spoken. And he did this and distributed the gospel among those who had asked him. And when this matter came to Peter’s attention, he neither strongly forbid it, nor urged it on.”

  • Origen simply states that Mark wrote his gospel under Peter’s instructions; he doesn’t however state whether he wrote it when he was still alive or when he was already dead.

  • Jerome makes some use of Clement in his version of the story. In his version, Peter is also alive when Mark wrote his gospel. Unlike Clement’s Peter, who had a more ambivalent response to Mark’s gospel (“he neither strongly forbid it, nor urged it on”), Jerome’s Peter gives a more explicit, pope-like seal of approval: “When Peter heard this, he approved and published it on his own authority for reading in the churches.”

  • St. Augustine, in a striking departure from his predecessors, passes over the Mark-Peter tradition in silence and instead lays more emphasis on Mark being Matthew’s breviator, who wrote his gospel ‘following’ and as a condensation of Matthew’s. It was St. Isidore of Seville who managed to reconcile the two ideas - of Mark being Matthew’s breviator while at the same time being a follower of Peter - and became the source for subsequent repetitions of this opinion throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.


I have something to add to my last post.

I’ll say that this point - St. Augustine being the first Church Father to suggest a literary relationship between the gospels - is important.

The problem with some folks - Griesbachians who like to use Clement of Alexandria in particular - is that they’re reading too much into Clement. Clement, in fact just about every Church Father from Papias and St. Irenaeus before Augustine, does not suggest any literary relationship between the synoptic gospels in their writings. They were not concerned with things like “Mark used Matthew” or “Mark used Matthew and Luke” or “Luke used Matthew and Mark” - in other words, which evangelist used whom. Instead, they talk about stuff like where and (chronologically) when a gospel was composed, who it was composed for (Hebrew Matthew was for Jewish Christians, Mark was for Roman Christians, etc.). In other words, they didn’t know or care about the so-called synoptic problem - the literary relationship between the synoptics.

(You might say St. Augustine was the first textual critic: he was the first Father to notice the synoptic problem and to attempt to solve it. To put it another way, Augustine is (indirectly) to blame for the rise of modern higher criticism. ;))

So IMHO trying to co-opt Clement’s testimony for the Griesbach hypothesis is kind of misguided in a way: even if Clement - or rather, Eusebius paraphrasing Clement - did mean by the word progegraphthai that Matthew and Luke were chronologically written before Mark (as opposed to it denoting the different circumstances these gospels were composed: the ‘public’ gospels of Matthew and Luke vs. the ‘private’ gospel of Mark), nowhere does Clement/Eusebius imply that Mark used Matthew and Luke as sources. In fact, what he simply says, as Jimmy had already pointed out, is that Mark was based on Peter’s oral teachings.

Some Griesbachians will try to get around this by saying that maybe Peter, Mark’s source, was using Matthew and Luke as sources for his teaching? But this is really total speculation / reading too much into the available data: nowhere in Clement/Eusebius will you find any explicit mention or even a suggestion to this effect.

The First Gospel

As far as I have heard, Mark was the first gospel written, and it only makes sense to me as it is immediate, brief and not full of details.

I believe Matthew and Luke “fleshed” Mark’s gospel out to convince their intended audience of their agenda. Mathew wrote for the Jews emphasizing the lineage of Jesus and important Jewish laws and characters, and Luke wrote for the Gentiles who were unfamiliar with the Jewish religion and who lived in a society dominated by Greek culture and language. Luke wrote his gospel in the common Greek of the day.


I think Mark being brief is not automatic proof that it really is the first gospel.

I mean, look at the book of Tobit. There are two or three versions of Tobit in Greek: one (the version contained in most manuscripts and the source text for the RSV Tobit) is shorter, the other one (found only in the 4th-century Codex Sinaiticus and a few other mansucripts - also the source for the NAB Tobit) is longer. For a long time, scholars assumed that the shorter version was the original one because, hey, ‘the shorter reading is better’. That, and the fact that it’s pretty much found in most other Greek manuscripts available. However, when bits of four Aramaic and one Hebrew manuscripts of Tobit were found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, people found out that they agree more with the longer Greek version. In other words, the longer Greek text turned out to be more closer to the original versions, while the shorter version was apparently a later condensed, streamlined version of the book.


Since you brought up the subject of Tobit, which version is the **Douay-Rheims Bible ** based on ?
See comparison here




Still, I believe that Mark was first. It tells the whole story in a simple way and seems the truest to me. Both Luke and Matthew add things to Mark gospel, they don’t take away from it. The ending of Mark especially rings true - the awe and fright the women felt when they saw that the tomb was empty and the angel told them Jesus had risen from the dead.


And again, there’s the distinct possibility that all three synoptics were written fairly independently of each other. Think about it - until the 1500s, with the advent of Gutenberg’s printing press, copying manuscripts was a tedious process. The gospels (as we have them now) are often said to have been written within ten years of each other. And only Mark went to Alexandria, where he stayed as the first bishop of Alexandria (we know this due to Alexandria considering itself to be the “See of Mark”). This is important, as, at that time, Alexandria had the Great Library (this is how the writer of 2 Maccabees had access to Jason’s 5-volume work). The Great Library often had only copies of ancient manuscripts (which is why it was such a tragedy when the Library burned down after an earthquake - many ancient manuscripts were lost forever). Alexandria was also the home of a large Jewish community (as it was where the Septuagint translation of the OT was done) and later to a large Christian community. As such, Mark would have been more likely to have copies of Matthew and Luke than vice versa. But, as Akin mentioned, Mark doesn’t appear to be an abridgment of either Matthew or Luke, or even a compilation and abridgment of Matthew and Luke.


Tobit was made from a late Aramaic (‘Chaldean’) text/paraphrase. It’s a different version altogether.

Jerome to the Bishops in the Lord Cromatius and Heliodorus, health!

I do not cease to wonder at the constancy of your demanding. For you demand that I bring a book written in the Chaldean language into Latin writing, indeed the book of Tobias, which the Hebrews exclude from the catalogue of Divine Scriptures, being mindful of those things which they have titled Hagiographa. I have done enough for your desire, yet not by my study. For the studies of the Hebrews rebuke us and find fault with us, to translate this for the ears of Latins contrary to their canon. But it is better to be judging the opinion of the Pharisees to displease and to be subject to the commands of bishops. I have persisted as I have been able, and because the language of the Chaldeans is close to Hebrew speech, finding a speaker very skilled in both languages, I took to the work of one day, and whatever he expressed to me in Hebrew words, this, with a summoned scribe, I have set forth in Latin words.

I will be paid the price of this work by your prayers, when, by your grace, I will have learned what you request to have been completed by me was worthy.

That’s the thing about Tobit: there’s no single version of the book. There’s like the five DSS manuscripts in Aramaic and Hebrew, the two or three Greek versions, the Vulgate version (based on a late Aramaic version), the Vetus Latina versions (which are generally quite similar to the longer Greek version and the DSS manuscripts, sometimes even more closer to the DSS texts than the Greek is), medieval Hebrew and Aramaic versions, and the versions in other languages.

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