THE PROGRESSIVE PUBLICATION OF MATTHEW’S GOSPEL:
A NEW BASIC APPROACH TO THE ANALYSIS OF SYNOPTIC RELATIONSHIPS
B Ward Powers
In 1962 G M Styler, in his Excursus “The Priority of Mark”, page 223, said:1
“After a century or more of discussion, it has come to be accepted by scholars almost as axiomatic that Mark is the oldest of the three Synoptic Gospels and that it was used by Matthew and Luke as a source. This has come to be regarded as ‘the one absolutely assured result’ of the study of the Synoptic Problem.”
Styler recognized that the Markan Priority hypothesis was not without its problems. But he holds firmly to the Markan Priority explanation because it has fewer problems than any other explanation.
Styler concludes (page 231), “Until some less incredible explanation is forthcoming, the natural conclusion that Mark is prior to Matthew will continue to hold the field.” In my judgement Styler’s analysis remains valid. Most scholars hold to Markan Priority (with or without the addition of Q to explain Matthew-Luke agreements), not because they can’t see the problems with this hypothesis, but because it seems to them to hold up as a better explanation than any alternatives, and can be said to cover more of the observable data.
In 2000 - six years ago - David Black and David Beck convened a Conference at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary which gathered together (to quote the convenors) “some of the world’s leading experts in the field of New Testament studies”. The purpose was to assess the current state of scholarship relating to the Synoptic Problem. The papers presented to that Conference have now been published by Baker Academic as Rethinking The Synoptic Problem, edited by Black and Beck.2 William Farmer presented the Two-Gospel hypothesis; the other four presenters were in agreement in holding to Markan Priority. Unless otherwise identified, I am referring in this paper to the presenters published in that book.
There were three points of agreement between all participants:
firstly, that the Complete Independence view of the three Synoptics did not hold up in the light of the data we have;
secondly, that Mark is clearly the middle factor between the two Major Synoptics, so that the two basic alternative hypotheses which correspond with the data are either that Mark was first-written, and was used by Matthew and Luke (i.e., some version of Markan Priority); or that Mark was third-written and it used Matthew and Luke as sources (i.e., some version of Markan Dependence on the other two). Scot McKnight’s assessment (pages 76 and 77) sums this up:
“Whether first or third, Mark is the middle factor. ... We are reasonably confident that Matthew, Mark and Luke are related at the literary level and that it is highly likely that they are mutually dependent, however one might see that relationship or set of relationships.”
The third point of agreement was that this question of Synoptic interrelationships remains today a crucial issue in New Testament scholarship.
McKnight analyzes (page 75) the nature of the Synoptic Problem thus:
“I begin by observing that our Synoptic Gospels ..., when carefully compared in a synopsis, show some remarkably signs of similarity along with even more interesting cases of dissimilarity. The evidence we find in underlining our synopses is just that: phenomena in need of a good explanation.”
McKnight acknowledges (page 67) that the so-called proofs of Markan Priority put forward by B H Streeter in 19243 are not decisive for Markan Priority as against Markan Dependence, and that either is possible. The choice between them is to be made on the basis of probability. He says (page 86), when weighing alternative explanations, “We are dealing with probabilities, not possibilities. I don’t rule out the possibilities. I only ask which is more probable.” McKnight’s assessment of the evidence brings him down on the side of Markan Priority, which he holds (he says) because of the balance of probabilities.
The alternative view, the Two-Gospel or Griesbach view, as held by Farmer and his school, rests heavily upon the explanation that Luke knew and used Matthew’s Gospel as a source. Farmer claims decisively (page 100), “Luke seems to be dependent on Matthew .. and in many passages he appears clearly to have copied his text from Matthew.” But the other presenters disagree. Thus (page 47) Darrell Bock says expressly, “the nature of Luke shows that he did not know or use Matthew.” Bock then spends 5 pages supporting his point at both macro and pericope level.
And other scholars have also written at length to show this: particularly Robert Stein in The Synoptic Problem: An Introduction.4 He spends thirteen pages of his book (91 to 103) setting out “arguments against the use of Matthew by Luke”, and sums up (110), “The Q hypothesis has its problems, but the alternative hypothesis - that Luke used Matthew (or vice versa) - has far greater problems still!”
Thus it is recognized that there are problems with Markan Priority and the Q explanation, but any alternative view is seen to have even greater problems. So, in choosing to adhere to Markan Priority plus Q, most scholars would still say, like Styler, “Where is there a more convincing alternative?”
I am offering, for your consideration, a more convincing alternative to Markan Priority and Q.
I am suggesting that the key to the Synoptic Problem lies in the recognition that one of the Gospels was written and published in stages, and that that Gospel was Matthew. That is, the Gospel of Matthew had its beginnings in a series of separate documents authored by the apostle Matthew over a period of some years, which thereafter were circulating independently in the churches.
[When this hypothesis is seriously examined, it will be seen that it meshes well with what we know of the situation in the early church, and with the external evidence of church history, and it explains all the observable data of the Synoptic Gospels.
The Synoptic explanation I am presenting has several important features, but its distinguishing characteristic is its proposal of the progressive publication of Matthew’s Gospel, and to indicate this and differentiate this hypothesis from others with which it partly agrees, I will refer to it throughout by this distinctive feature: the Progressive Publication hypothesis.]
There are five propositions upon which this hypothesis rests.
Proposition 1: Matthew Responds to a Growing Need
Shorthand had been in use for some time in the ancient world, and it would be a reasonable expectation that Matthew knew and used one of the available shorthand systems in his official taxation work. It is not unlikely that Matthew used these skills in making notes of Christ's deeds and teachings at the time they occurred. The development and use of shorthand in the ancient world is discussed by, amongst others, E J Goodspeed, Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist, pages 86 and following, 108 and following; R H Gundry, page 182; W Hendriksen, New Testament Commentary on Matthew, numerous places; B Gerhardsson, Memory and Manuscript, pages 148 to 156.6
In any case it would be highly probable that the apostle Matthew wrote much of the eyewitness material which according to Luke's account (1:1-4) was circulating at the time when Luke was gathering the content for his own Gospel. Luke 1:2 refers to eyewitness material "handed on" to others - παραδιδωμι in this and similar passages means: "of oral or written tradition: hand down, pass on, transmit, relate, teach”.
The alternative would be to say that, of these various documents of which Luke was aware, none at all came from the apostles, the very men who were chosen by Christ specifically to be his companions (Mark 3:13-14) and to whom he gave much of his teaching privately (for example, Mark 4:34) and who alone would be in a position to record many of the details of what he said and did, and whom he designated his witnesses (Luke 24:48; Acts 1:8).
It is highly improbable that the apostles would have no connection at all with the production of the accounts of Christ's life and teaching which began to circulate, or, if it be acknowledged that some of these accounts did originate with the apostles, that Matthew had no part in their production.
The circumstances which would give rise to the writing down
of such accounts are easy to envisage. Jewish Christians from the churches of
Coming in many cases from congregations where there were few
eyewitnesses to Christ's life, and where there was a thirst for more
information about him, these pilgrims would be eager to take home from
The first Christian
Proposition 2: Many Take It In Hand
Once short accounts of this nature began circulating, and meeting a felt need, other eyewitnesses would be motivated to take pen in hand in similar fashion and begin recording Christ’s teaching and deeds of which they were aware. We have the evidence of Luke’s Prologue to tell us this. These accounts would also have been of varying lengths, and written in either Aramaic or Greek. They would circulate side by side with those already written by Matthew, and, doubtless, side by side with oral traditions about Christ.
The various churches would in the process of time accumulate numbers of these short accounts and would add to their own collections by exchanging copies with other churches around them. This occurred, we know, in the case of Paul's Epistles, and there is no reason for it happening in relation to the Pauline documents and not in the case of the documents of the incidents and sayings from the life of Christ to which Luke refers. In fact the Prologue to Luke's Gospel looks like a reference to the very situation which I have just outlined.
Proposition 3: Luke Collects His Material
In AD 56 Luke arrived in
If, then, Luke was engaged between AD 56 and 58 in
discussions with eyewitnesses and in collecting information to provide the
basis for his record of the events from Pentecost onwards, it is clear that he
used the same opportunities, and questioned the same people, about the life of
Christ. He does not say at what time he first learnt about the documents in
circulation which set forth narratives of the events of the life of Christ. It
may have been earlier than his AD 56 visit to
Concerning Luke's Prologue, Plummer (International Critical Commentary on Luke, page 2)8 says,
"This prologue contains all that we really know respecting the composition of early narratives of the life of Christ, and it is the test by which theories as to the origin of our Gospels must be judged. No hypothesis is likely to be right which does not harmonize with what is told us here."
Luke 1:1-4 may be translated as follows:
"Seeing that many have set to work putting together a consecutive narrative covering the things which have been fulfilled amongst us, exactly as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the Word delivered to us, it seemed good to me also, after investigating everything thoroughly and accurately from the beginning, to write a chronological account for you, most excellent Theophilus, in order that you may know more fully about the truth, reliability and certainty (all implied by ἀσφαλεια) of the matters of which you have been informed."
The words ἀναταξασθαι and διηγησιν are rendered by Plummer (ICC Commentary, page 2)8 as "to arrange afresh so as to show the sequence of events". I am intrigued to see that in his Commentary on the Gospel of Luke (Vol 1, page 55)9 Godet asks, concerning these words,
“Did this arrangement consist in the harmonizing of a number of separate writings into a single whole, so as to make a consecutive history of them? In this case, we should have to admit that the writers of whom Luke speaks had already found in the Church a number of short writings on particular events, which they had simply united: their work would thus constitute a second step in the development of the writing of the gospel history."
Godet himself then rejects this idea, because it would interpose “intermediate accounts between the apostolic tradition and the writings of which Luke speaks". But if these short writings had originated from the apostolic circle itself (that is, from Matthew) then Godet’s objection is answered.
I believe Godet's rejected suggestion is in fact an accurate description of exactly what was happening: Luke found that numbers of people were gathering the various eyewitness traditions of the deeds and teachings of Jesus, and were combining them together into a consecutive narrative.
As I mentioned earlier, the word Luke uses for the "delivering" or "handing on" by the eyewitnesses and ministers of the Word - παραδιδωμι - can refer to either (or both) oral or written tradition. Plummer says (page 3),
"He gives no hint as to whether the facts were handed down orally or in writing. The difference between the polloi and these autoptai is not that the polloi wrote their narratives while the autoptai did not, but that the autoptai were primary authorities, which the polloi were not."
Ellis says (New Century Bible, Luke, page 63)10, "delivered: i.e. in both oral and written form." So also Leon Morris (Tyndale Commentary, Luke, page 66)11. A.B.Bruce (Expositor's Greek Testament, Luke, page 459)12 says,
"Verse 2: καθως implies that the basis of these many written narratives was the παραδοσις of the Apostles, which, by contrast, and by the usual meaning of the word, would be mainly though not necessarily exclusively oral (might include, e.g., the Logia of Matthew)."
Luke is not criticizing these compilers for what they are doing; but he quotes their activities as a reason (almost a justification) for his doing the same thing ("It seemed good to me also... to write...”). He then states the four characteristics of his own work, and it may perhaps be inferred that he is motivated to engage in his project because these characteristics, which he regards as important, are (in some measure at least) absent from the work of the others. He has, he says, from the beginning investigated everything accurately and written an orderly account.
Now, it is unreasonable to hold that Luke knew of the collections of material which others had made, and he refers to this other material, and yet did not look at these narratives he mentions, and would then claim to have checked out “everything”.
The significance of Luke's fourfold claim is reinforced by his final comment. He is writing so that Theophilus may be enabled to know for certain (ἐπιγινωσκω) the truth, the reliability, and the certainty (ἀσφαλεια) of the λογοι of which he had been informed. Luke is giving an assurance to Theophilus (and of course to all his other readers) that the account which he has produced can be depended upon completely to convey the message of which they had heard. This indicates the measure of Luke's confidence that in what he had written he had carried through the standards and the program which he set out in the previous verse.
So we may conclude that while Luke was in
There is wide general agreement with this understanding of the implications of Luke’s Prologue that I have just given. The distinctive proposition that I am putting is that these documents that Luke collected did not (as some people would think) include Mark’s Gospel, for this had not yet been written, but that amongst the eyewitness material to which Luke himself refers were numerous separate short accounts written by the apostle Matthew.
Proposition 4: Publication of the Two Major Synoptic Gospels
Meanwhile, while Luke was on his way to
The evidence indicates that Matthew, in compiling his
material for his Gospel, used what he had previously written (rewriting it - as
distinct from just translating it - in Greek where it was originally written in
Aramaic), adding some extra stories where thought desirable (including his
opening chapters, and his distinctive material in the Passion narrative), and
providing his "program notes" linking one block of material with the
next. The date of publication of the finished Gospel would have been AD 60 or
thereabouts, and the place probably
So: did Luke see Matthew’s Gospel? As a completed Gospel? No, he did not. The arguments which are put forward against Luke using Matthew’s Gospel, to which I have referred earlier, are valid. But then, so also are those arguments to which Farmer has pointed for Luke knowing Matthew, where there is close identity between the two Gospels. The explanation is that Luke read and used the sections of Matthew which had been in circulation in the churches, and of which he had obtained copies in his collecting of information
Thus material originally written by the apostle Matthew and circulated during this period between the time of Christ and AD 60 became incorporated independently in both the Gospels of Matthew and of Luke, though neither of these writers saw the finished Gospel of the other.
According to my count, it is reasonable to conclude that approximately 395 verses (37%) of Matthew and 408 verses (35½%) of Luke have a common literary source. There are a number of additional verses in the two major Synoptics which record the one incident or which have similar subject matter, but where there do not appear to be adequate grounds for concluding that the two accounts in the two Major Synoptics have been derived from the one document.
Proposition 5: Mark Produces A Special-purpose Gospel
Within a few years of when the Gospels of Matthew and Luke began
to circulate in the church - the early church Fathers identify the date as
being about AD 65 - Mark, in
Mark consists almost entirely of "action stories" which show Jesus healing, performing miracles, engaged in conflict with his opponents, and so on: such teaching as there is, either arises out of these situations or is illustrative of the teaching aspect of Jesus's ministry, and in any case is always related directly to one or more of the main themes of Mark. In his Gospel, he does not assume the post-Easter faith, as do Matthew and Luke. Mark traces the journey of the disciples from doubt and disbelief, and aims to take his readers and hearers on that same journey. His Gospel is an evangelistic tool - a resource book for evangelists - aimed at introducing Jesus to the interested outsider. It was intended to be used as a source-book in evangelistic preaching, and even to be read aloud in places where people gathered. So Mark had a specific linguistic program and purpose in view. While skilfully conflating the accounts of Matthew and Luke, Mark transformed their more literary wording into clear and simple, everyday language - into the language of preaching - changing some of their vocabulary into the common words used by his hearers, and rendering the whole into simple, straightforward sentences. In fact (as Streeter3 himself has most perceptively noted, page 163), Mark is telling his Gospel in the colloquial spoken Greek of Rome and its Empire.
Mark’s Gospel quite consistently includes material that is in Matthew and Luke which was in accord with his themes, and excludes the rest. Mark’s Gospel sets out the kerygma being preached to unbelievers. It is "pure" kerygma, while Matthew and Luke are combinations of kerygma and didache. Mark’s Gospel climaxes with the cross, and with the revelation of Jesus as the Son of God - which he does not teach earlier. His motivation in producing his Gospel is exactly the same as that of those Christians today who publish extracts from Scripture in modern speech for use in evangelistic outreach: like those who do this today, Mark knew that the rest of the Gospel story was readily available in the church for those who became interested.
To explain the order of Mark: (a) In accordance with his intention to produce a Gospel of the deeds rather than the teaching of Jesus, Mark adopted a framework which avoided the Sermon on the Mount, the Sermon on the Plain, and Luke’s Central Teaching Section. He followed the framework of Luke’s Gospel to Mark 6:14 (Herod’s comment about Jesus), and thereafter the framework of Matthew’s Gospel. (b) Into his Lukan framework he added four sections from Matthew: Mark 1:16-20; 3:22-35E; 4:30-34; 6:1-6. Into his Matthean framework he added four short sections drawn from Luke, consisting of material not paralleled anywhere in Matthew: 6:30-31; 9:38-41; 11:18-19; 12:41-44E. These insertions were placed in Mark’s Gospel at the same point at which they occurred in his source.
The figure that is customarily given for unique verses in Mark is usually 50 to 56 verses, but I have found on my count that the equivalent of 156 verses of Mark (or 23½%, just under one quarter of the Gospel) consists of material which could not have been derived from either Matthew or Luke (or, to state this in the Markan Priority way, verses which consist of Markan material that was not then used either by Matthew or by Luke in their respective Gospels). This comprises for the most part of a wealth of small but vivid details not found in the Major Synoptics, details which had lodged in Mark’s memory from the preaching of Peter, and with which he has enlivened his stories.
I submit that all of the difficulties, problems and inadequacies of the Markan Priority view are met completely by the Progressive Publication hypothesis (including Markan Dependence) as I have outlined it. I contend that there is nothing inherently improbable in any part of this hypothesis, while it is in accord with all the known facts, and is compatible with the external traditions about authorship. It provides a framework within which it is readily possible to explain all the observable phenomena of the Synoptic Gospels.
This view that I am putting forward has no need of Q. We can recognize all the material in Matthew and Luke which shows evidence of a common literary source as having been based upon documents written by Matthew and progressively circulated over the years, documents which were amongst all those collected by Luke, to which Luke refers, and which he utilized in writing his own Gospel.
This hypothesis shares with the William Farmer Two-Gospel school the belief in Markan Dependence (i.e. that Mark’s Gospel was written third, and used Matthew and Luke as sources). But apart from this, it is a very different approach. In particular, contrary to the Two-Gospel school, I find the evidence to be strongly against the idea that Luke ever saw Matthew’s Gospel in its final form: there are many sections of Luke’s Gospel which can be accounted for only on the basis that Luke had not seen Matthew’s Gospel.
It is to be noted that the Progressive Publication hypothesis is not dependent upon coincidence, or assuming that which is to be proven, or circular argument, and it involves a minimum of subjective assumptions. It meets fully the various criticisms which have been levelled in the past against other forms of the Markan Dependence or Griesbach explanation.
ThIs hypothesis accounts for the interrelationship between the three Synoptic Gospels solely in terms of the three men known to us from the New Testament, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, without hypothesizing other authors in order to account for this interrelationship. But it also recognizes and encompasses the role of the other eyewitnesses/writers, together with Luke's own investigations, to whom and to which Luke refers in his Prologue. And it rests also upon the well-attested tradition that Peter's preaching stands behind Mark's Gospel.
A tremendous amount of New Testament scholarship has proceeded upon the assumption of Markan Priority. The very existence and extent of this body of scholarship will tend in itself to create an inertia which will be resistent to the suggestion that we may need to think again about "the one absolutely assured result of the study of the Synoptic Problem". In this connection may I close by quoting the words of Vincent Taylor (The Gospel According To St. Mark, page 76) comments which were written about other Synoptic research, which he rejected, but comments which I find very apposite here concerning Markan Priority, which he accepted:
"There is no failure in Synoptic criticism, for, if we reject a particular suggestion worked out with great learning and ability, we are compelled to reconsider the evidence on which it is based and seek a better explanation, knowing that a later critic may light upon a hypothesis sounder and more comprehensive still."
That, I suggest, is how we should regard the idea of abandoning the hypothesis of Markan Priority, in the light of the case I have presented for the Progressive Publication of Matthew’s Gospel.
FOOTNOTES AND BIBLIOGRAPHY
1. Styler G.M. “The Priority of Mark”, in C.F.D.Moule, Birth of the NT (Black,1962).
2. Black D A and Beck D R (eds), Rethinking The Synoptic Problem (Baker Academic, 2001).
3. Streeter B H, The Four Gospels (MacMillan, 1924).
4. Stein Robert H, The Synoptic Problem: An Introduction (Baker and IVP, 1987)
5. Gundry R H The Use of the O.T. in Matthew (Brill, 1967); Sevenster J N Do You Know Greek? (Brill, 1968); and also the references they give.
6. Goodspeed E J Matthew,
Apostle and Evangelist (
7. Albright & Mann: pp. clxxiv f., Anchor Bible: Matthew (Doubleday, 1971).
8. Plummer Alfred International Critical Commentary on Luke (T & T Clark, 1896).
9. Godet F Commentary on the Gospel of Luke (T & T Clark, 1869).
10. Ellis E E New Century Bible, Luke (Nelson, 1966).
11. Morris Leon Tyndale Commentary, Luke (IVP, 1974).
12. Bruce A B Expositor's Greek Testament, Luke (Hodder, 1897).
13. Dodd C H The Apostolic Preaching (Hodder, 1936), pp.117, 118, 121, 122, 123.
14. E.g. Bruce F F, p.224, The Acts of the Apostles: The Greek Text (Tyndale, 1951);
Moule C F D, p.92, The Birth of the N.T.; p.105, The Phenomenon of the N.T.
Farmer William The Synoptic Problem (MacMillan, 1964).