Lecture: Mark comes third and last in time among the synoptic Gospels


Ran across an excellent video, from a lecture by John Finnis, an Oxford & Notre Dame philosopher of law. He persusively argues that the conventional view widely accepted today, that the Gospel of Mark is of an earlier date than the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, is wrong, and that the evidence is clear that Mark comes third and last in time among the synoptic Gospels. I am a biblical novice, but I thought this talk was just awesome, that I had to share.



Hmm… did he really say that Markan priority is wrong, or rather, just that the arguments given for Markan priority are poorly constructed?


Something that always puzzles me about the scholarly pursuits on this topic (order in which gospels were written) is what difference does it make which gospel was written first?


Because in the world of scholars it is “Publish or Perish!”. You can’t publish unless you come up with new theories and conjectures [speculations?]. :smiley:


You know scholarship, they make mountains out of molehills.

To the OP: this isn’t really a new theory. This is the so-called Griesbach-Farmer hypothesis (aka the two-gospel hypothesis). It was first proposed by a Lutheran pastor and scholar Johann Jakob Griesbach back in 1776. Griesbach’s theory was popular among scholars (mostly German and/or Protestant) for about a century (for reasons I’ll describe later), before it began losing ground to a theory Heinrich Julius Holtzmann’s made in 1863, which would eventually become the two-source hypothesis (aka the Q hypothesis). So Griesbach’s theory, after enjoying a century of popularity, then fell into a century of decline, until in the 1960s-70s, a Methodist minister and scholar named William Farmer revived the theory. Farmer was joined by Benedictine Dom Bernard Orchard, who popularized the theory on the Catholic side of scholarship (back in the theory’s heyday, Catholic scholars continued to hold the traditional Augustinian hypothesis - Matthew-Mark-Luke, in that order - over against Griesbach). Thanks in part to them, the two-gospel hypothesis is a dominant (or at least, one that gets some press, if you hang with the right persons) rival of the Q hypothesis in American scholarship.

In the UK (specifically, in Oxford) the case was slightly different (you really have to remember that there is an ‘American’ and a ‘European’ side to scholarship as well ;)): in 1955, an Oxford professor named Austin Farrer voiced his dissatisfaction with the prevailing Q hypothesis. He believed in Markan priority, but he viewed Q as an unnecessary liability. So he produced his own hypothesis which, while retaining Markan priority, did away with Q entirely: the Farrer hypothesis. Since then, Farrer’s theory has been picked up by some other British scholars like Michael Goulder (more recently) Mark Goodacre, who has a website for it.

(Oxford is quite unique in that skepticism over Q’s very existence was apparently quite commonplace in it, unlike in other universities or scholarly circles, where Q and the two-source hypothesis is pretty much accepted as gospel truth. In fact, many of the scholars who hail from or have had connections with Oxford such as Farrer, Goulder (Farrer’s student), Goodacre, N.T. ‘Tom’ Wright, John Fenton, and the American E. P. ‘Ed’ Sanders are all Q skeptics. As Goodacre - who studied in Oxford in the 80s - mentioned, everyone in 1980s Oxford seemed skeptical about Q. :D)


Matthean Priority is nothing new. It’s what nearly all the Church Fathers agreed on, and the prevailing opinion for two millennium up until the last few generations.


I think Jerome was also probably impressed with the Hebrew Truth based on Matthew’s preference.

“Matthew also called Levi, apostle and aforetimes publican, composed a gospel of Christ at first published in Judea in Hebrew for the sake of those of the circumcision who believed, but this was afterwards translated into Greek though by what author is uncertain. The Hebrew itself has been preserved until the present day in the library at Caesarea which Pamphilus so diligently gathered. I have also had the opportunity of having the volume described to me by the Nazarenes of Beroea, a city of Syria, who use it. In this it is to be noted that wherever the Evangelist, whether on his own account or in the person of our Lord the Savior quotes the testimony of the Old Testament he does not follow the authority of the translators of the Septuagint but the Hebrew.”
**St. Jerome of Stridonium, Lives of Illustrious Men, Ch.3 **


Ever since Papias wrote about Matthew composing or arranging compiling “in order the logia” (‘sayings’ or ‘oracles’) of Jesus “in the Hebrew language/dialect,” with “every one interpreting them as he was able,” various Church Fathers had taken this to mean that Matthew originally wrote his gospel in ‘Hebrew’, which could mean either the language we call Hebrew, or Aramaic - the language of many Hebrews of Jesus’ time and afterwards. (Though granted, “in the Hebrew dialect” could also simply mean “in the Hebrew style:” in other words, he was referring to Matthew writing the logia in a Jewish rhetorical style rather than the language it was written on).

Some tried to find this ‘Hebrew’ gospel; others (like Jerome) even claimed to have found it. But it’s likely that what they found was not the original ‘Hebrew’ gospel which Matthew had (supposedly) written, but gospels used by various Jewish Christian sects which happen to be based on Matthew’s. Jerome in this quote even admits that the gospel he found was used “by the Nazarenes of Beroea, a city of Syria.”

(The ‘Nazarenes’ are Jewish Christians who continued to consider themselves Jews and practice Jewish customs, although unlike the ‘other’ Jewish Christian sect we know of, the Ebionites, their beliefs are closer to orthodoxy: for one they believe in the Virgin birth, whereas many Ebionites held that Jesus was simply the biological son of Joseph who was the ‘Son of God’ only in the sense that He was chosen or ‘adopted’ by God because of His holiness. In a letter to St. Augustine, Jerome even seems to criticize the Nazarenes for holding on to Jewish practices while accepting Jesus: “while they pretend to be both Jews and Christians, they are neither.”)


I didn’t take the time to watch the video, mainly because I’m currently taking a class on the synoptics. When you actually take the time to compare the texts in each of the gospels it is clear Mark came first, Matthew and Luke edited Mark. The only question that really remains is did Luke know Matthew or is there some strange Q source that LK and MT pull from.

this was the simple way it was explained to me.

The rector of a student puts out two letters. One says John is a competent seminarian. (in this case he means the positive use of competent) A second one says John is an excellent seminarian. Now if he first say competent than changed it to excellent he things he is a better student than he originally said. If it is the second one, than it is a worse seminarian. We know that the rector thinks John is an excellent student, and we can discern that he probably wrote competent first and than said it wasn’t enough he is excellent.

There examples just like this in Mark and Matthew. Mark and Matthew have two versions of the same story, it is likely one edited the other. When you examine this if you hold MT (Matthew) comes before MK (Mark) he is denying something that is clearly true from revelation. So it would be like the rector changing it from excellent to competent when he things he is excellent.

Look at the story of the rich young man.

there is the tripple tradition where Matthew Mark and Luke are almost identical.

We see in Mark “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” and Jesus said to him “Why do you call me good?” no one is good but God alone.

We than see in Matthew “Teacher what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” And He said to him "What do you ask me about what is good? One there is who is good.

If Matthew is first than Mark is putting in a statement which would appear to deny the divinity of Christ. Think about it, Mark things the story of Matthew doesn’t have enough, he needs to say don’t call me good but call God good.

Again this is seen another place in the Triple Tradition.

MK: And he healed many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons.
MT: And he cast out the spirits with a word and healed all who were sick.
LK: and he laid his hands on every one of them and healed them.

So if MT comes first he says he healed all who were sick, than MK comes in and says no he didn’t heal all he only healed many. That is putting a limit on God.

These are just two very clear examples of a lot. IT is very clear and it for very good reasons Scholar’s hold that MK comes before MT.

Let me make this very clear, Catholics are not bound to hold to any theory on who wrote first. I’m just arguing what I think makes the most sense.


It is actually very important and has an impact on theology found in the scriptures.

I brought up an example earlier. There are instances where if Matthew came before Mark than mark would be editing Matthew in a way that would imply heresy. Ex: MK would add in Jesus saying no-one but the father is good, when Matthew didn’t say it. If it is the other way around no big deal.


But were the writings of Papias that wide spread to be considered a single source for this information? St Irenaeus is thought to have known St Polycarp a disciple of St. John and friend of St. Ignatius, and he recounts the same order.


I find those to be weak arguments. You can make the same argument in reverse:

*Mk 1:32 When evening came, after the sun had set, they began bringing to Him all who were ill and those who were demon-possessed.

Mt 8:16 When evening came, they brought to Him many who were demon-possessed; and He cast out the spirits with a word, and healed all who were ill.

Lk 4:40 While the sun was setting, all those who had any who were sick with various diseases brought them to Him; and laying His hands on each one of them, He was healing them.*

Mark combines the introductory phrases from both Matthew and Luke. Also, if Markan, why does Luke consciously choose a different way of saying it when he has both Mark and Matthew available?


Even the Alexandrian Patriarchate admits Matthew and Luke came before Mark. And Mark was their first Patriarch! Why would they ever admit that if it weren’t true?

We see in Mark “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” and Jesus said to him “Why do you call me good?” no one is good but God alone.

We than see in Matthew “Teacher what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” And He said to him "What do you ask me about what is good? One there is who is good

Mark was not implying a heresy. There was nothing problematic there at all. He is asking a rhetorical question. Why does he do it that way? Keep in mind that Mark(written in Italy) is aimed at Gentiles and not Jews who knew the OT. Hence the smoothed out semitisms and explanation of the word rabbi as teacher. You had to spell it out for the Gentiles since they did not know God from the OT. On the other hand, Matthew(written in Judea) quotes scripture more than anyone else because his audience is Jews who already understand scripture and that the nature of God is infinitely Good.


This is one of those Matthean-Lukan agreements vs. Mark. I’ll get into the data (note: just the data, I won’t propose any solution here - for now) later. For now, let’s tackle the Fathers first.

But were the writings of Papias that wide spread to be considered a single source for this information? St Irenaeus is thought to have known St Polycarp a disciple of St. John and friend of St. Ignatius, and he recounts the same order.

This is going to be a bit long, but:

The relevant passage Papias survives only in a quotation from Eusebius. Papias himself doesn’t explicitly identify which gospel was written first, although the way Eusebius quotes him, it seems that Papias described the circumstances of the composition of Mark’s gospel first before he described Matthew compiling the sayings of Jesus “in the Hebrew dialect/language.”

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 (a sort of brief anecdote about a particular person; could also sometimes be as short as a single statement by said person), but had no intention of providing an ordered arrangement of the logia (‘sayings’, ‘oracles’) 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.

…] Therefore Matthew put the logia in an ordered arrangement in the Hebrew language, but each person interpreted them as best he could.

There are actually a minority of scholars who think that Papias actually had Markan priority in mind here. The most recent of these is Francis Watson, who argues in his book Gospel Writing: A Canonical Perspective that Papias actually testifies to something like the Farrer-Goulder theory (Mark first followed by Matthew and then Luke, no Q).

Note Papias’ statements: “Mark …] 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. …] Peter …] used to give his teachings in the form of chreiai, but had no intention of providing an ordered arrangement of the sayings of the Lord.” Which is then followed by: “therefore Matthew put the sayings in an ordered arrangement in the Hebrew language.” As per Watson’s reading, according to Papias, Mark, Peter’s “interpreter,” recorded the latter’s recollections of Jesus, which became our canonical gospel of Mark. In Papias’ opinion, however Mark’s gospel was deficient in a way: it was “accurate” (because Mark wrote everything he had heard from Peter faithfully, or so say Papias), but it was “not in an ordered form.”

This is where Matthew comes in: in Watson’s reading, Papias claimed Matthew improved upon Mark’s ‘disorderly’ gospel by putting “in an ordered arrangement” the logia or sayings of Jesus (Watson thinks the word oun ‘so, therefore’ when the topic shifts from Mark to Matthew is key, implying Matthew wrote after Mark), and later gospel writers, in turn, used (‘interpreted’?) it for their gospels. (Luke claims in his prologue that he has written “an orderly account;” was it a light stab at the more ‘disordered’ gospels that preceded him and which he may have used?)



It was St. Irenaeus (who apparently made some use - uncredited - of Papias) of that first explicitly recounts the order of the gospels as Matthew-Mark-Luke. Many of the Fathers who write about the gospels seem to derive their information directly or indirectly from Irenaeus (the two telltale signs: the reference to Matthew writing in ‘Hebrew’ and that this Hebrew gospel was the first gospel to be written), though apparently not all. Whenever they specify the order of the gospels however, they give or imply the order Matthew-Mark-Luke.

Clement of Alexandria (again, as quoted and paraphrased by Eusebius) is our only ancient source that seems to attest a Matthew-Luke-Mark order. Virtually every other ancient source other than Clement we have which do refer to or write about the order of the composition and publication of the gospels always seem to advocate the ‘standard’ sequence of Matthew-Mark-Luke. In fact, some people have recently questioned whether Clement was really talking about a Matthew-Luke-Mark order at all. Stephen Carlson in his article Clement of Alexandria on the Order of the Gospels actually argues that we’ve been reading the whole thing wrong. The word “written first” in the phrase “the Gospels containing the genealogies were written first” (just to remind you, this isn’t Clement directly speaking but Eusebius’ paraphrase of what Clement probably wrote) in Greek is progregraphthai (προγεγράφθαι); Carlson argues that 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.” (Progegraphthai is actually the word commonly used to describe public notices or proclamations.)

Hence, Clement (or rather, Eusebius paraphrasing Clement) is not so much saying that “the gospels containing the genealogies” (i.e. 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’, 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. In other words, Clement was not describing the chronological order the gospels were written, but contrasting the gospels of Matthew and Luke (which were for the general Christian public) with the gospel of Mark (which was for a specific audience).

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 written first / were 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.

Of course, we also need to point out that even Clement’s testimony, as Jimmy Akin pointed out once, is not identical to the Griesbach theory. The only real similarity is the Matthew-Luke-Mark order of the gospels. And as shown above, it’s not even clear whether the chronological order of the gospels is what Clement was talking about at all.

Rather than post lengthy jargon, I’ll just link to another thread a while back where I talked about this: forums.catholic.com/showthread.php?p=12259265 Kindly refer to my posts there (posts 7-13).


I can make the argument the other way too, Matthew and Luke took out the introductory phrases.

but it doesn’t really make sense to argue in the opposite way.

You are missing the point here. There are multiple passages in the triple tradition where if Mark condensed or edited Matthew than he would be changing phrasing that would reduce the power of God.

Matthew says he healed all that came, than Mark disagrees with Matthew and says no he only healed Many. If Matthew condenses Mark than that problem isn’t there. Mark says he healed many, Matthew things oh that’s not convincing enough for my readers so I’ll put all.

Again this is just one example, and I’m far from an expert but there is a reason the majority of Biblical Schola’s hold Mark comes first because the internal evidence in the Synoptics overwhelmingly points to the fact that Mark came first. I should mention that only looking at triple tradition, aka where all three have the same story, Mark is the longest. What this shows is that Matthew and Luke edited and condensed Mark. What makes Mark and Luke longer is the double tradition, aka things only in Matthew and Luke.

Another Argument for Markan priority is that only 3% of Mark is unique to him. It is typical for those who wrote in the ancient world to add their own stories and such. For mark to have 3% compared to 35% of Luke only in Luke and 20% of Matthew only in Matthew, seems to point to Markan priority. Mark wrote first and Matthew and Luke condensed Mark and added their own stories.


I’m not breaking down that argument about the Fathers. What is evident is that there was no agreement about the order of the Gospels among the fathers. There may be a lot saying Matthew comes first but there are still fathers who disagree.

  1. Augustine actually didn’t even hold the same theory through his whole life. He first said Matthew Mark Luke than Matthew Luke Mark. If there is such a consensus about the order why would Augustine, the 2nd biggest Catholic Superstar in history, change his mind?
  2. We see at-least two differing opinions before Augustine on this.
  3. When it comes down to it, the Church has not commented on this matter so we are free to believe what we want.
  4. Even if there was a consensus which really isn’t there, it doesn’t solve the major problems Matthean priority presents, I presented one.


You must look at it this way.

You find two copies in the trash of a story, almost word for word with a few minor changes. You assume oh this is two drafts of the same story.

One says all loved Jane for she was very kind to everyone.

the other says many loved Jane because she was very kind to many people.

If the first was the original and second the edit than the edit implies that Jane wasn’t as nice as they made it out to be.

If the second was the original and the first the edit, than it confirms that she was kind to many people.

If we find out that Jane really is loved by everyone, it makes sense that the 2nd is the original and 1st is the edit.

Same goes for the Gospel’s.

Matthew: Why do you ask what is good.
Mark: Why do you call me good.

It is evident from the greek this passage is copied and than edited. If Matthew is original Mark changes the encounter from a question about good deeds to a question about whether Jesus is Good. Why would mark do this? The best explanation is that he was trying to emphasis something. IF Mark believed that Jesus was God why would he add this comment about why do you call me good, if it wasn’t there in the first place?

Now if Matthew came in and edited it, than it makes more sense. Matthew thought mark’s language was too strong, or he didn’t want readers to think maybe Jesus isn’t divine, so he changed it to what good deed, not really changing the story at all, just slightly changing what Christ said in order to make a point or lighten the language.

This isn’t the best passage to show this, so I suggest you look at the issue of all vs many. If Mark takes all and makes it many, it implies that there are some people who Jesus couldn’t heal, if Matthew takes many and makes it all than it confirms what Mark was saying.


There seems to be some sort of a presumption that whoever, sequentially, wrote 2nd and 3rd gospels had copies of the 1st gospel in front of them! And, if any events or words contained in that 1st copy were not recorded almost identically (word for word/phrase for phrase) those authors could be considered heretical!!!
Please consider that the authors were probably:
*off in different locations,
*writing their gospels at various times in history,
*may not have had copies of whichever was the original gospel,
*just wrote their gospels, as they remembered it (if they were eyewitnesses and present at the time the events occurred) ----
*or as they remembered the preaching of those who were apostles and/or first hand witnesses.

Matthew was an eyewitness.
Mark wrote his gospel from his memory of Peter’s preaching. (newadvent.org/fathers/250103.htm Chapter 39 paragraphs 14-16. Very interesting.)
Luke naturally heard Paul’s preaching and also apparently interviewed eyewitness (Lk 1:2)

As St. John says, “there are also many other things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written”. (John 21:25) Each author would have decided not only what he wanted to include, but the length/details/etc. he wanted to include.

In addition to being an eyewitness, John could have had all 3 gospels right in front of him when he wrote his gospel Yet he chose to omit Our Lord’s words of institution of the Eucharist in his very lengthy record (5 whole chapters: chapters 13-17) of Jesus’ words at the Last Supper. His omission of those words does not make him a heretic anymore than the synoptic omission of all the words provided by John makes them heretics.

Matthew says he healed all that came, than Mark disagrees with Matthew and says no he only healed Many. If Matthew condenses Mark than that problem isn’t there. Mark says he healed many, Matthew things oh that’s not convincing enough for my readers so I’ll put all.

Regarding “all” vs. “many”, you’ll find more than one place in Scripture where “all” does not mean every single person, but rather “many”.


More than you might suspect.

Matthew’s Gospel is the only one in which Christ bestows on Peter the Keys of the Kingdom. Marcan primacy clearly offers support for discounting the claims for a papal authority which rests on the Peter passage in Matthew absent in Mark.

From this link:

The breaking up of the text of Matthew into many parts with the earliest and most reliable coming from Mark and “Q”, and the later and less certain (which tended to include material that was troublesome) coming from the church or from the hand of the Evangelist, made it possible for liberal theologians to pick and choose what made the most sense to them as they composed “historical reconstructions” of Jesus serviceable for the time.

ALL the earliest historians recorded that it was Matthew who wrote first. Any theory, however clever, must be doubted when it is unable to face the challenge of history.
I found The Authors of the Gospels to be a convincing read.

To those who still maintain that Mark did indeed write first, I ask the following: What do you know of the American Revolution, the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Civil War, and the Spanish-American War from personal experience? I’d venture to guess, “absolutely nothing” (i.e. everything you know about these wars you know from what others have written… and, in the grand scheme of things, the 238+ years since the signing of the Declaration of Independence is a mere “drop in the bucket”).

Sir Frederic Kenyon, in The Story of the Bible, notes that “For all the works of classical antiquity we have to depend on manuscripts written long after their original composition. The author who is the best case in this respect is Virgil, yet the earliest manuscript of Virgil that we now possess was written some 350 years after his death. For all other classical writers, the interval between the date of the author and the earliest extant manuscript of his works is much greater. For Livy it is about 500 years, for Horace 900, for most of Plato 1,300, for Euripides 1,600.” Yet no one seriously disputes that we have accurate copies of the works of these writers. However, in the case of the New Testament we have parts of manuscripts dating from the first and early second centuries, only a few decades after the works were penned.

Of course, the same is true for some of the writings of the ECFs as well.

If someone came along today and claimed – with no evidence to back it up – something (anything!) about the writings of Virgil, Livy, Horace, Plato, or even Euripides that contradicts what we already know, no one would hesitate to say that the new claims must be in error.

So why would the claim – which first made its appearance 1,800 years after the time of Christ and which contradicts all the ancient historians, the tradition of the Catholic Church, the traditions of the Eastern Orthodox Churches, and the general consensus of the founders of the various Protestant denominations – that Mark was written between 50 AD and 65 AD, Matthew around 70 AD and John and Luke/Acts at the end of the 1st century to the first decades of the 2nd be worthy of serious consideration?

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