The Rejection of Pascal's Wager
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The Proof of Markan Priority

The traditional belief that Matthew was the earliest gospel written was finally shown to be false in 1835 by the German philologist and textual critic, Karl Lachman (1793-1851). He presented compelling evidence that the gospel of Mark was the earliest of the synoptics and that the authors of Matthew and Luke copied extensively from it. Given below is the evidence:

  • The order of both Luke and Matthew are dependent on Mark.
  • The vocabulary of these two are also dependent upon Mark.
  • The content of Mark is almost completely copied by Matthew and Luke.
  • It can be seen from many passages that Matthew abbreviates Mark
  • Sometimes Matthew trips over himself by attempting to improve on Mark.
  • The Style of Mark is more primitive and theologically less developed than the other two synoptics.

The Order of the Synoptics

(For those who want to follow this argument with a fine tooth comb, a table is provided.) Mark's order is the "backbone" on which all the three synoptics are based:

  • The order of Mark's narrative is supported most of the time by the gospels of Matthew and Luke.
  • In those cases where either Matthew or Luke diverged from Mark's order, the other is usually found supporting it.
  • There is no case where Matthew and Luke agreed with each other in their order against Mark.
  • Whenever both Matthew and Luke diverged from Mark they also diverged from one another.

Where Matthew's order agrees with Luke, it begins and ends with the pattern of events in Mark. Mark's order is basic to the other two gospels. [1]

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Vocabulary

Luke and Matthew very often used the exact vocabulary used in Mark.
  • In fact 59 percent of Matthew's and 55 percent of Luke's language repeat Mark's words.
  • And Luke, when he is quoting the utterance of Jesus from Mark, the similarity in words rises to 69 percent. [2]
  • Sometimes words and constructions in the three gospels tally to such an extent that it is impossible to maintain the synoptics were written independently of one another.
  • Sometimes we find unusual word by Mark being used in the same context by Matthew and Luke. For example in the episode of the healing of the paralytic (Mark 2:1-12). Jesus while talking to the scribes, suddenly breaks off midway through his sentence and addressed the paralyzed man. We find this oddity repeated in both Matthew and Luke (Matthew 9:1-8, Luke 5:17-26). [3]
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The Content of Mark is Almost Completely Copied by Matthew and Luke

The gospel of Mark consists of 661 verses. Of these Matthew repeats about 600 verses, while Luke uses about 350, some of which differ from the verses used by Matthew. From Mark's 661 verses only 31 verses did not appear in some form or another in Matthew and Luke. Mark's gospel can be divided in another, more natural way, into separate episodes or pericopae. Events which today's writer would separate by using different paragraphs. With this method we can divide Mark's gospels in 88 separate episodes or pericopae. Of these 88 only three are not found in the other two gospels. [4]

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Matthew Abbreviates Mark

Matthew is undoubtedly a longer gospel than Mark. This fact has led to the traditional idea, first suggested by Augustine, that Mark copied and abbreviated Matthew. This can easily be shown to be false. In similar episodes in Mark and Matthew we see that it is almost always Matthew who abbreviates Mark. The reader can select the episodes himself from the table provided and convince himself of this fact. One example will suffice here. In the episode of Jesus feeding the 5000 Mark (6:30-44) uses 194 words while Matthew (14:13-21) uses 157 words (in the original Greek). The table below shows the two gospel versions in parallel. Even in translation, Matthew's abbreviation of Mark can clearly be seen. Without a doubt it was Matthew who abbreviates Mark. [5]

Mark 6:30-44Matthew 14:13-21
30


31




32

33



34




35



36



37




38


39


40

41





42
43


44
The apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught.
Then because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat he said to them, "Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest."
So they went away by boat to a solitary place.
But many who saw them leaving recognized then and ran on foot from all of the owns and got there ahead of them.
When Jesus landed and he saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep wihtout a shepherd. So he began eaching them many things.
By this time it was already late in the day, so his disciples came to him. "This is a remote place,: they said, "and it's already very late.
Send the people away so that they can go to the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat."
But he answered, "You give them something to eat." They said to him, "That would take 200 denarii! Are we to go and spend that much on bread and give it to them to eat?"
"How many loaves do you have?" he asked."Go an see." When they found out they said, "Five and two fish".
Then Jesus directed them to have all the people sit in groups on the green grass.
So they sat down in groups of hundreds and fifties.
Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he agve thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to his disciples to set beofre the people. He also divided two fish among them all.
They all ate and were satisfied,
and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces of bread and fish.
The number of men who had eaten was five thousand.








13





14




15







16






17

18
19








20



21








When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place. Hearing of this, the crowds followed him on foot from the towns.

When Jesus landed and saw the large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed.


As evening approached his disciples came to him and said, "This is a remote place, and it's already getting late. Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy them,selves some food."


Jesus replied, "They need not go away. You give them something to eat."




"We have only five loaves and two fish," they answered.
Bring them here to me," he said.
And he directed the people to sit down on the grass.

Taking the five loaves and two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples have them to the people.

They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basket fuls of broken pieces that were left over.
The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children.

Matthew's Attempted Improvement of Mark

Sometimes we see in Matthew, in the author's attempts to create a more elegant version than Mark, trips all over himself and produce a flawed version. A case to point is the story of John the Baptist's murder. Let us first look at Mark's version.

Mark 6:17-29
For Herod himself had given orders to have John arrested and put in prison. He did this because of Herodias, his brother Philip's wife, whom he had married. For John had been saying to Herod, "It is not lawful for you to have your brother's wife." So Herodias nursed a grudge against John and wanted to kill him. But she was not able to, because Herod feared John and protected him, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man. When Herod heard John, he was greatly puzzled; yet he liked to listen to him. Finally the opportune time came. On his birthday, Herod gave a banquet for his high officials and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee. When the daughter of Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his dinner guests. The king said to the girl, "Ask me anything you want, and I'll give it to you." And he promised her with an oath, "Whatever you ask I will give you, up to half my kingdom." She went out and said to her mother, "What shall I ask for?" "The head of John the Baptist," she answered. At once the girl hurried in to the king with the request: "I want you to give me right now the head of John the Baptist on a platter." The king was greatly distressed, but because of his oath and his dinner guests, he did not want to refuse her. So he immediately sent an executioner with orders to bring John's head. The man went, beheaded John in prison, and brought back his head on a platter. He presented it to the girl, and she gave it to her mother. On hearing this, John's disciples came and took his body and laid it in a tomb.

Mark's account above tells of King Herod having John imprisoned because of his wife's demand. But he also respected John and liked listening to him. When Herodias' daughter demanded John's head, Herod's reaction of being "greatly distressed" makes sense, as he did not want to kill John, but in view of the situation had no choice. Now let us look at Matthew's version:

Matthew 14:3-12
Now Herod had arrested John and bound him and put him in prison because of Herodias, his brother Philip's wife, for John had been saying to him: "It is not lawful for you to have her." Herod wanted to kill John, but he was afraid of the people, because they considered him a prophet. On Herod's birthday the daughter of Herodias danced for them and pleased Herod so much that he promised her with an oath to give her whatever she asked. Prompted by her mother, she said, "Give me on a platter the head of John the Baptist." The king was distressed, but because of his oath and his dinner guests, he ordered her requests be granted and had John beheaded in prison. His head was brought on a platter and given to the girl, who carried it to her mother. John's disciples came and took his body and buried it.

As before note that Matthew's account is an abbreviated version of Mark. But we can also see that Matthew has twisted the story such that it is slightly different from Mark's. In the Markan account, Herod was presented as someone who did not want to kill John; he respected the Baptist and liked listening to him. Matthew however said that Herod wanted to kill the Baptist from the beginning but "feared the people". Matthew than reverted to Mark's account and said that Herod was "greatly distressed" when he heard the girl's request. But this does not make sense in Matthew's account for we are told that Herod wanted to kill John from the beginning. It would have made an excellent excuse to have John killed. In short, Matthew by setting out to create an improved version from Mark ended with a blunder of inconsistency. [6]

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The Style of Mark

Apart from the above another evidence comes from the form of the gospels. We find in Mark a roughness in style and grammar not seen in Matthew and Luke. The preservation of Aramaic words in Mark is also generally considered to be further proof of the primitiveness of Mark. Mark's content also gives evidence that it is the most primitive, i.e. least developed theologically, in character. Take for instance the excerpt below from chapter ten of Mark:

Mark 10:17-18
As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. "Good teacher," he asked, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?" "Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone."

Here we see Jesus expressly denying any claim to divinity#*,.a factor which, by the time Matthew came to be written was already gaining ground in Christianity. We see how Matthew altered Mark's account:

Matthew 19:16-17
Now a man came up to Jesus and asked, "Teacher, what good thing must I do to get internal life?" "Why do you ask me about what is good?" Jesus replied "There is only one who is good."

Note that Matthew has changed the question and taken out the "good" before "teacher". He has also altered Jesus reply such that it no longer reads like a straightforward denial of his divinity. It is easily conceivable how Matthew could have altered Mark for theologically motivated reasons. It is inconceivable how Mark could have altered the Matthean version to reach his. Thus again the evidence point towards Matthew copying from Mark, not vice versa. <[7] In many passages in his gospel, Mark portrayed Jesus with human emotions and gestures; Jesus is sometimes amazed or sorrowful, angered or grieved. By the time Matthew and Luke came to be written it had become difficult for the author to view Jesus Christ as a man with human emotions. They thus altered any passage they find in Mark that has Jesus displaying them. Take for instance the episode below:

Mark 10:13-16
People were bringing children to Jesus to have him touch them, but the disciple rebuked them. When Jesus saw this he was much displeased. He said to them, "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belong to such as these. I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it." And he took the children in his arms, put his hands on them and blessed them.

Now let us look at how Luke and Matthew altered this episode to fit with their own preconceived theology.

Matthew 19:13-15
Then the little children were brought to Jesus for him to place his hands on them and pray for them. But the disciples rebuked those who brought them. Jesus said "Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these." When he had placed his hands on them, he went on from there.

Luke 18:15-17
People were also bringing babies to Jesus to have him touch them. When the disciples saw this, they rebuked them, But Jesus called the children to him and said, "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will not enter it."

Notice how both Luke and Matthew omitted Mark's phrase, "he was much displeased", a very human emotion. The two evangelists also omitted the human gesture of Jesus taking the children in his arms. Matthew gives only the laying of hands, an impersonal religious gesture. [8]

All these considerations, taken together provide a compelling case for Markan priority. It shows us that Mark wrote first and the other two evangelists, independently, somehow got a hold of a copy of his gospel and incorporated it into their gospels. Thus the gospels of Matthew and Luke are heavily dependent upon Mark.

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References

1.Bentley, Secrets of Mount Sinai: p140-141
Martin, New Testament Foundations I: p140
Parmalee, Guidebook to the Bible: p110
2.Bentley, Secrets of Mount Sinai: p141
Martin, New Testament Foundations I: p140
3.Bentley, Secrets of Mount Sinai: p141
Martin, New Testament Foundations I: p140
4.Bentley, Secrets of Mount Sinai: p141
Martin, New Testament Foundations I: p140
Parmalee, Guidebook to the Bible: p110
5.Bentley, Secrets of Mount Sinai: p142
6.Ibid: p142-143
7.Ibid: p143-145
8.Parmalee, Guidebook to the Bible: p111

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