Did Matthew Abbreviate Mark? [Akin]


jimmyakin.com/wp-content/uploads/greek-harmony-300x211.jpgThis post is going to be a little technical for popular interest, but it presents the results of a test I recently did in my ongoing look at the Synoptic Problem.

I use my blog to record such results so that I have easy access to them later on.

In what follows, I will be testing the claim that if Matthew used Mark, he abbreviated the material he found in Mark. Note the “if,” because it’s important. I am not here arguing that he did use Mark. That’s a topic to be discussed elsewhere.

Here goes . . .

The Issue at Hand

An important perception among biblical scholars is that, if Matthew drew material from the Gospel of Mark, he seems to have abbreviated this material.

The presumable reason for this would be to allow Matthew to have space to fit in all the other material he wanted to add to Mark and still keep his own Gospel the size of a single volume (either a single scroll or a single codex).

In The Four Gospels, B. H. Streeter gives several examples of how Matthew (apparently) shortened different sections or pericopes (per-IH-ko-PEES) of Mark. He notes how Matthew’s versions have fewer words in Greek than the corresponding pericopes in Mark.

Recently, when doing some online research, I ran across a claim by E. P. Sanders that Matthew does not consistently shorten material from Mark. If you look at all the pericopes Matthew and Mark have in common, they’re fairly even in terms of overall word count. Matthew’s total word count for these pericopes is slightly shorter than Mark’s, but not by much, and most of the difference is grouped in just a handful of pericopes (see The Tendencies of the Synoptic Tradition, 82-87).

This, however, struck me as the wrong test: Doing a straight pericope-to-pericope test could be misleading, since Matthew adds material from his own sources to pericopes.

For example, in*the account of the Testing in the Wilderness, Mark has only a brief note that the event took place, but he doesn’t describe it in detail. Matthew does; he has the three “temptations” that the devil presents Christ with.

A better test, it occurred to me, would be to eliminate Matthew’s additions (like the three temptations) and see if we find that he shortened what remains.

To see if Sanders had done this test, and to make sure I was understanding his claim and the basis for it in his own research, I bought a copy of his book.

Unfortunately, he didn’t do the kind of test that is needed. He just did a straight pericope-to-pericope test.

Also unfortunately, I didn’t know anybody else who had done the needed test, either.

Why This Is Important

In Synoptic Problem studies, a good deal hinges on whether Matthew would have abbreviated the material he took from Mark, because that gives us a clue to the order of the two Gospels.

It’s much more likely, given the way ancient authors worked, that Matthew would have consistently tightened up Mark’s text than for Mark to consistently expand Matthew’s text in a sentence-by-sentence manner.

Therefore, if Matthew’s material looks like a tightened up version of Mark’s, Mark probably wrote first.

In view of the importance of the question at hand, I wanted to find the answer.

Fortunately, I realized that I had the tools available to do the test myself.

The Tools

Some time ago I began developing a synopsis of the four Gospels that presents both the English and the Greek text of each one in parallel columns.

(It’s not yet published, since I’m still adding new features to it, but I hope to publish it in the future.)

To develop this synopsis, I loaded the Greek and English text into a spreadsheet (Microsoft Excel) and matched the text up verse-by-verse. (Of course, the verse divisions, like the pericope divisions scholars use, are not in the original text, but they are useful.)

The advantage of having the material in a spreadsheet is that I’m able to sort and manipulate the synopsis in various ways that can’t be done with a synopsis printed on paper.

These sorting capabilities, I realized, would let me do the kind of test I wanted to do on Matthew and Mark. Using Excel, it shouldn’t be difficult to isolate the material needed from the two Gospels and then do a word count on the Greek text.

Excel doesn’t have a good word count tool (that I know of), but Microsoft Word does. (N.B. Although Greek has diacritical marks which could, in some character encodings, cause Word to think there were more words than there are, this would have applied to both texts equally and the overall result would remain valid. However, I verified that I was not using one of those character encodings so the word count should be accurate.)

Therefore, all I had to do was isolate the relevant material, paste the Greek text into Word, and see what the resulting word count was.

So I did the test.

Pass 1 of the Test

To isolate the relevant material, I took the following steps:

*]I made a copy of the spreadsheet so I could manipulate it without harming the original.
*]I struck all material related to Luke and John.
*]I struck the longer ending of Mark (since it likely was not original and not what Matthew had in front of him).
*]I struck all the pericopes in Mark that have no parallel in Matthew (allowing a pericope-to-pericope comparison)
*]I struck all of the verses that Matthew contained which have no parallels in Mark. This represents the additions that Matthew would have made to mark (thus allowing a more refined pericope-to-pericope test than the one Sanders did).
*]I then pasted the resulting Greek text from both Gospels into Word.

*]Matthew: 8,114 words
*]Mark: 10,542 words
[/LIST]If Matthew used Mark, it would seem that he abbreviated the pericopes he used by 2,428 words or 23%, dropping almost one in four words.

Pass 2 of the Test

Although the above results should be the best way to look at the problem, a potential objection occurred to me: The above selection of material includes verses in Mark that Matthew would have omitted entirely.

It seems to me that these verses should be counted in the test (as in Pass 1). There is nothing to say that, in selecting material from Mark, Matthew couldn’t delete entire verses within a pericope. Indeed, the evidence indicates that he would have.

However, just to go the extra mile (to bend a phrase from Matthew), I decided to do a second pass of the test, eliminating the verses in Mark that had no parallel in Matthew (even though the pericopes that contained them did have a parallel in Matthew).

My prediction, if Matthew was shortening Mark, was that the Matthew material would still contain fewer words (since Matthew was tightening things up within verses as well as by deleting verses) though the result would be less pronounced.


*]Matthew: 8,114 words
*]Mark: 8,569 words
[/LIST]Thus if we compare just the verses that have direct parallels in both Gospels, it would seem that Matthew abbreviated these verses by 455 words or 5%, dropping about one word in twenty as he tightened up the text (aside from the whole verses he dropped).


On both versions of the test, the data supports the conclusion that if Matthew used Mark, he abbreviated the material he took from it.

This is particularly clear on the better version of the test (Pass 1), but also true on the “go the extra mile” version of the test (Pass 2).

The difference in the results of the two passes indicates that Matthew would have done much of his abbreviation by dropping the contents of entire verses, while also tightening up the contents of the verses he retained.

The versions of the test that I did represented a pair of rough-and-ready assessments that depended significantly on computers. A more refined, human-based, and scholarly version of this test could be performed in the future, but the results are likely to be the same in substance.






Ok, but your “presumable reason” is strange ?

The presumable reason for this would be to allow Matthew to have space to fit in all the other material he wanted to add to Mark and still keep his own Gospel the size of a single volume (either a single scroll or a single codex).


This is old “news” in biblical scholarship. Because the canon presents Matthew as the first Gospel, people assume it was the first of the written Gospels, and the findings that Mark preceded Matthew doesn’t always set well with those same people.

A common belief for centuries was that Mark “borrowed” from Matthew. But scholars have presented pretty compelling evidence that just the opposite is true. It did not set well with St. Augustine, either, who viewed Mark as a plagiarist of sorts (Augustine seemed to view Gospels written by Apostles superior to those written by disciples of the Apostles).

In the grander scheme of thing, outside of academic interest, the chronology of the writings of the Gospels does not detract from the message, for regardless of who wrote the Gospels, or when they were written, the Magisterium has determined to be inspired by God.


It’s much more likely, given the way ancient authors worked, that Matthew would have consistently tightened up Mark’s text than for Mark to consistently expand Matthew’s text in a sentence-by-sentence manner.
Therefore, if Matthew’s material looks like a tightened up version of Mark’s, Mark probably wrote first.

I can see reasons why this might be true, but I can also think of some reasons why it might not be. Statistics are difficult to use unless you can provide multiple samples/tests which allow correlation/anti-correlation with various hypothesis.

What level of more “probable” are we talking about, quantitatively? 1% 10% 50% ? and why?

For example; let’s suppose Mark, who wrote for Peter as his scribe, had a particular point that he wished to emphasize. Then it would follow that any time he gleaned information from any source, Mark would tend to combine it with details from other sources on that particular point; and hence, Mark’s narrative would grow whenever that point was mentioned and shrink otherwise.

So, there is some probability that Mark (if it copied anything from Matthew) would grow when particular subjects of special importance to Mark are mentioned. eg: I suppose Mark is also be constrained by scroll sizes; therefore he would (of necessity) shorten some pericopes in order to expand the ones which he was more interested in.

I’m not able to glean much information from the jpeg picture posted ; but I do notice that some of the extra words which are missing in Matthew such as “surnamed Peter”, tend to emphasize Mark’s sponsor; eg: Peter. That seems to me to be a very “likely” reason for Mark to have expanded Matthew’s text in a few places.

I don’t know if my hypothesis is sufficient to detect a meaningful correlation, as there may be a plurality of reasons that texts shrank or expanded. Surely Matthew’s text isn’t “always” shorter.

So, in all the pericopes that you have painstakingly cut out: do you find a wide variety of subjects of varying importance to Mark/Matthew which always shrink, or do they tend to change sizes based specific repeating subjects or stylistic issues?



I have two more general thoughts after reading through Akin’s articles on the subject.

I think one of the issues that needs to be considered (which Akin didn’t touch) is “who is the intended audience” of Matthew, and that of Mark.

We don’t know specifically whom is being written to. Therefore, Akin’s arguments such as “is the Our Father” less important than the “Syro Phonecian” woman have no criteria to be judged by. In such a circumstance readers are obviously going to be swayed by thoughts like:. eg: “I’ts important to ME!”; Isn’t it important to all Christians equally? So – There is a danger of reasoning about ancient peoples based on 21st century ventriloquism. It may/or not apply to a particular case in history equally as it does today.

Second thought:
The length of works is undeniably limited by the writing media it is placed on.
However, Akin doesn’t consider why Mark’s work is significantly less than the length of a single scroll; Note: Akin did say Matthew’s work is nearly the length of a standard scroll.

Scrolls were expensive, and wasting parts of them is not a typical practice of anyone who could have written more. Here’s a list of hypothesis, not all of which are realistic; but I think they about cover the range of reasons Mark’s writing would be extra short.

  1. He couldn’t use a full sized scroll because one was not available or too expensive.
  2. He needed to hide what he was doing, and did not write on standard material.
  3. He didn’t have more material than is in the gospel (poverty gospel.)
  4. His scroll was combined with other works, and so was limited to the left over size.
  5. Mark was settling disputes about Matthew’s Gospel, and so was not as concerned about areas of the Gospel which his flock was in agreement over; but Mark was more interested in areas where there was confusion or dissent and extra clarification was necessary.

An example of 4. might be that For example: How likely would it have been for 1st Peter to have been part of the scroll which contained the Gospel of Mark?

Indications are that Peter was illiterate, and therefore he had a scribe/convert to Christianity (Mark) write down what he said.

Peter as pillar of the church (pope), was given charge by Christ to remind his brethren of things after Jesus’ death. Therefore, preference should be given to testing/exploring the idea that whoever writes for Peter would also have that unpopular burden of correcting error as part of their writing. eg: Peter was assuredly settling disputes when writing his Gospel and letters.


I think in analysing who wrote first (and i favour Matthew) it is qualitative testing of differences rather than quantitative testing of differences which will be more persuasive.

You could just as easily construct a theory where Mark having more words would point to Matthew writing first. For example, if an eye witness (Mark / Peter) is relating events based on a different source, are they on balance more likely to add or retract information?

I’d say add.

closed #8

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