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.
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.