Recently I’ve been writing about the way that the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are related to each other.
These three are known as the synoptic Gospels, and how they are related is known as the synoptic problem.
You can read what I’ve been writing here.
Today I would like to talk about the view that Mark based his Gospel on Matthew and Luke.
What This View Is Called
This view goes by a variety of names, but one of the most common is “the Griesbach hypothesis,” after Johann Jakob Griesbach, who proposed it in the late 1700s.
Today, some like to call it the “Two-Gospel hypothesis,” because Mark would have used two other Gospels in composing his own.
This name is problematic because it is not the only possibility: Luke could have used Mark and Matthew and Matthew could have used Mark and Luke. In each of these cases, one Gospel would have been based on the other two.
There is thus no reason why the first of these options should be called the “Two-Gospel” hypothesis, so we’ll call it the Griesbach hypothesis for the sake of clarity.
The View in History
Although Griesbach proposed this view, its advocates often claim that he was not the first to do so.
According to many translations, one early proponent may have been Clement of Alexandria, who wrote around A.D. 200 that the Gospels with the genealogies (Matthew and Luke) were written first, suggesting that Mark wrote later and presumably used them in writing his own.
(However, see here for an argument that this is not what Clement said.)
If Clement did propose the Griesbach hypothesis at this early date, it did not end up becoming the most common view, historically.
Instead, a view proposed by St. Augustine, which holds that the four Gospels were written in their modern canonical order, became the most common view for most of Church history.
I’ve written about that view here.
Today the most common view is the “Two-Source hypothesis,” which holds that Mark was written first and that Matthew and Luke used both Mark and a second, hypothetical source that scholars have named “Q.”
I’ve written about my own skepticism that there was a “Q” source here.
The Griesbach hypothesis is, however, the second most popular view today.
In fact, the current popularity of the Griesback hypothesis is such that, if you are skeptical of the Two-Source hypothesis, many scholars will assume that you must be an advocate of Griesbach—which is a bit frustrating for those who hold alternative views.
The Griesbach hypothesis attracted a number of advocates in the mid-20th century, including—most notably—William R. Farmer.
William Farmer developed an argument for the Griesbach hypothesis which contains 16 “steps.” You can find a paraphrase of it online here. It is also found as chapter 4 in the book Rethinking the Synoptic Problem, edited by David Alan Black.
I’m not going to respond to Farmer’s argument in a point-by-point manner, because doing so would require too much space, but I would like to do a concise evaluation of the view.
(NOTE: I’ll be doing a separate piece looking at the variant of the Griesbach hypothesis proposed by Bernard Orchard, et al. It’s sufficiently different that it deserves its own treatment.)
A Thank You to the Advocates of Griesbach
Before that, I want to say how much I appreciate the work of Farmer and his colleagues, because prior to their efforts, the Two-Source hypothesis had become so dominant in 20th century New Testament scholarship that it was virtually unquestioned.
Because of their efforts, the world of scholarship was forced to confront the problems with the Two-Source hypothesis, and, even though it is still the most popular view, it is held more tentatively now than it was, and greater respect is shown to alternative views.
Thank you Farmer and colleagues!
Now, let’s look at the evidence concerning Griesbach . . .
The Patristic Evidence
Advocates of the view often point to Clement of Alexandria for support since he appears to say that Matthew and Luke were written before Mark.
This claim is significant not only because Clement wrote very early (c. A.D. 200) but because he was bishop of Alexandria, the see which reportedly had Mark as its first bishop. One would think that Clement would thus be in a good position to know the circumstances in which Mark’s Gospel was written.
However, there are several problems with this claim:
- If Clement did make it, then he is very much alone in doing so. I can’t think of any other patristic source that makes the claim.
- The most popular view in the later patristic age was the Augustinian hypothesis, which had Mark being written second rather than third. Clement’s contemporary Irenaeus of Lyons, seems to have advocated the Augustinian hypothesis. Clement’s student, Origen, also seems to have held the Augustinian hypothesis.
- The earliest reference we have—from John the Presbyter—says that Mark wrote his Gospel based on Peter’s preaching, not based on Matthew and Luke. John the Presbyter may or may not have been John the Apostle, but he appears, in either event, to have been one of the authors of the New Testament, and thus was in an even better position than Clement to know about the composition of the Gospels.
- It appears that the claim attributed to Clement may be based on a mistranslation. Stephen Carlson argues that the key Greek verb (progregraphthai) should be rendered “published openly” rather than “written first.” On this view, Clement was claiming that Matthew and Luke were published openly, while Mark was initially written for a group of private individuals, without Peter’s initial knowledge or authorization. This fits the context of what Clement says. See Carlson’s argument, here.
The patristic evidence thus does not provide significant support for the Griesbach hypothesis.
The Argument from Order
One of the major arguments used by advocates of the Griesbach hypothesis is based on the sequence in which the synoptic Gospels present their material.
It is pointed out that Mark’s sequence almost always agrees either with Matthew’s order or Luke’s order. He switches between these two orders in a zig-zag fashion.
Griesbach advocates have argued that this is best explained by the idea that Mark had both Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels before him, and at any given point he had to choose which of their two orders he would follow, since he obviously couldn’t follow them both when they sequenced the same material differently.
The problem with the argument from order is that the proposed explanation is not the only one.
For example, suppose that Mark and Matthew wrote first and that Luke used the two of them. In this case, Luke would choose between the order found in Mark and the one found in Matthew. This would also explain why one of the synoptics seems to zig-zag between the orders found in the other two.
Or suppose that Mark and Luke wrote first and that Matthew used the two of them. In that case, Matthew would choose between the order found in Mark and that found in Luke. Again, this would explain why one of the synoptics seems to zig-zag between the orders found in the other two.
And there are other options, still.
For a detailed look at why the argument from order isn’t sufficient to settle the synoptic problem, see David Neville’s book, Mark’s Gospel–Prior or Posterior?: A Reappraisal of the Phenomenon of Order.
What Is Mark’s Gospel Supposed to Be?
A fundamental question that the Griesbach hypothesis needs to answer is what Mark’s Gospel is supposed to be.
On the Griesbach hypothesis, Mark would have had to draw a significant amount of material from both Mark and Luke. Yet Mark is also shorter than either Matthew or Luke.
Mark would thus appear to be a conflation and epitome of the other two synoptic Gospels.
It’s a conflation (a fusion) since it includes material from both, and it’s an epitome (an abridgment) since it is shorter.
How well does this hypothesis stand up to examination?
Not A Plausible Epitome
I’ve written before about the question of whether Mark is a plausible epitome of Matthew, and the conclusion was that it is not.
The same considerations apply to Mark being an epitome of Matthew and Luke.
A combination of Matthew and Luke would be somewhat longer than Matthew alone. Matthew is around 18,000 words in the Greek New Testament, and an edition of Matthew that had been expanded by the 7,000 or so words in the unique passages of Luke would be around 25,000 words long.
This fused work would have fit on one scroll and could be read in about two and a half hours. It is thus not nearly long enough to require an epitome.
Epitomes were popular in the ancient world because they allowed people to get the gist of long works in a short amount of time. For example, 2 Maccabees is an epitome that condensed a five-scroll history by Jason of Cyrene into a single scroll.
That’s the kind of space savings that ancient readers expected in an epitome, and that’s not what we find in Mark. At a little more than 11,000 words long, it would only be about half the size of a combined Matthew and Luke, and it would only reduce the reading time by a bit more than an hour.
There is also the fact that Mark typically uses more words to tell an individual story than Matthew or Luke, which is the opposite of what ancient epitomists did. They typically told a story in fewer words and thus saved space. This was, in fact, one of the two principle tools used by epitomists.
The fact that Mark uses more words than the other two synoptic evangelists makes it look like Matthew and Luke were epitomizing individual stories from Mark so that they could fit supplement them with material not found in Mark and still keep their Gospels a reasonable length.
Besides telling a story in fewer words, the other major technique used by ancient epitomists was to simply omit material, which in this case would mean whole stories about or sayings of Jesus.
Naturally, epitomists would omit what they considered to be the less important material and retain what they considered to be the more important material. They might even include some new material if they thought it was particularly important.
When we look at Mark through the lens of the editorial choices he would have made in composing his Gospel from Matthew and Luke, we confront a baffling situation. In making an epitome of the two, Mark would have ejected large amounts of very valuable data, including:
- The Genealogy of Jesus (Matt. 1:1-17, Luke 3:23-38)
- The Birth of John the Baptist Foretold (Luke 1:5-25)
- The Birth of Jesus Foretold (Luke 1:26-38)
- The Visitation (Luke 1:39-56)
- The Birth of John the Baptist (Luke 1:57-80)
- The Birth of Jesus (Matt. 1:18-25, Luke 2:1-20)
- The Circumcision and Presentation of Jesus (Luke 2:21-40)
- The Slaughter of the Innocents (Matt. 2:1-23)
- The Finding in the Temple (Luke 2:41-52)
- Jesus Preaches the Gospel in Nazareth (Luke 4:16-30)
- The Beatitudes (Matt. 4:23-5:12, Luke 6:17-26)
- The Value of the Law (Matt. 5:17-20, Luke 16:16-17)
- Teaching About Killing and Anger (Matt. 5:21-24)
- Make Peace with Your Accuser (Matt. 5:25-26, Luke 12:57-59)
- Teaching on Adultery and Lust (Matt. 5:27-30)
- Teaching on Divorce and Adultery (Matt. 5:31-32)
- Teaching on Swearing (Matt. 5:33-37)
- “Love Your Enemies” (Matt. 5:38-48, Luke 6:27-36)
- Piety Before Men and Alms (Matt. 6:1-4)
- Piety Before Men and Prayer (Matt. 6:5-8)
- The Lord’s Prayer (Matt. 6:9-15, Luke 11:1-4)
- Piety Before Men and Fasting (Matt. 6:16-18)
- “Treasure in Heaven” (Matt. 6:19-21, Luke 12:33-34)
- “The Lamp of Your Body” (Matt. 6:22-23, Luke 11:33-36)
- “You Cannot Serve God and Mammon” (Matt. 6:24, Luke 16:9-15)
- “Do Not Be Anxious About Your Life” (Matt. 6:25-34, Luke 12:22-32)
- “Judge Not, Lest Ye Be Judged” (Matt. 7:1-5, Luke 6:37-42)
- Pearls Before Swine (Matt. 7:06)
- “Ask, Seek, Knock” (Matt. 7:7-11, Luke 11:9-13)
- The Golden Rule (Matt. 7:12)
- The Narrow Gate (Matt. 7:13-14, Luke 13:22-30)
- “No Good Tree Bears Bad Fruit” (Matt. 7:15-20, Luke 6:43-45)
- Putting Jesus’ Teaching into Action (Matt. 7:21-27, Luke 6:46-49)
- The Centurion’s Servant (Matt. 8:5-13, Luke 7:1-10)
- The Widow of Nain’s Son (Luke 7:11-17)
- Jesus’ Travelling Companions (Luke 8:1-3)
- Rebuffed in Samaria (Luke 9:51-56)
- Excuses for Not Following Jesus (Matt. 8:18-22, Luke 9:57-62)
- Healing Two Blind Men (Matt. 9:27-31)
- Exorcizing a Mute Demoniac (Matt. 9:32-34)
- Sending the Seventy (Luke 10:01)
- “The Harvest is Plentiful” (Matt. 9:35-38, Luke 10:02)
- Basic Instructions to the Seventy (Luke 10:3-11)
- The Seventy Return (Luke 10:17-20)
- Fear and Comfort (Matt. 10:26-33, Luke 12:2-12)
- Jesus Brings Division (Matt. 10:34-36, Luke 12:49-53)
- The Cost of Discipleship (Matt. 10:37-11:1, Luke 14:25-27)
- A Question from John the Baptist (Matt. 11:2-19, Luke 7:18-35)
- Woe to Unrepentant Cities (Matt. 11:20-24, Luke 10:12-16)
- Hidden from the Wise (Matt. 11:25-30, Luke 10:21-24)
- The Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37)
- “Mary has chosen the good portion” (Luke 10:38-42)
- “By Your Words You Will be Justified” (Matt. 12:33-37)
- The Friend at Midnight (Luke 11:5-8)
- “Blessed Is the Womb that Bore You!” (Luke 11:27-28)
- “The Sign of Jonah” (Matt. 12:38-42, Luke 11:29-32)
- The Unclean Spirit Returns (Matt. 12:43-45, Luke 11:24-26)
- The Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds (Matt. 13:24-30)
- The Parable of the Weeds Explained (Matt. 13:34-43)
- The Parable of the Rich Fool (Luke 12:13-21)
- Repent or Perish (Luke 13:1-9)
- Healing a Crippled Woman (Luke 13:10-17)
- The Parable of the Leaven (Matt. 13:33, Luke 13:20-21)
- Jesus Warned That Herod Wants to Kill Him (Luke 13:31-33)
- Dinner with a Ruler of the Pharisees (Luke 14:1-15)
- Counting the Cost (Luke 14:28-33)
- The Parable of the Treasure in the Field (Matt. 13:44)
- The Parable of the Precious Pearl (Matt. 13:45-46)
- The Parable of the Net Thrown into the Sea (Matt. 13:47-52)
- Does Jesus Pay the Tax? (Matt. 17:24-27)
- The Parable of the Lost Sheep (Matt. 18:12-14, Luke 15:1-7)
- The Parable of the Lost Coin (Luke 15:8-10)
- The Parable of the Lost Son (Luke 15:11-32)
- The Parable of the Shrewd Steward (Luke 16:1-8)
- Lazarus and the Rich Man (Luke 16:19-31)
- Forgiving the Brother Who Sins (Matt. 18:15-22, Luke 17:3-4)
- “We Are Unworthy Servants” (Luke 17:7-10)
- Ten Lepers Cleansed (Luke 17:11-19)
- The Coming of the Kingdom (Luke 17:20-37)
- The Parable of the Persistent Widow (Luke 18:1-8)
- The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18:9-14)
- The Parable of Unforgiving Debtor (Matt. 18:23-35)
- The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard (Matt. 20:1-16)
- Jesus in the Temple (Matt. 21:14-17)
- The Parable of the Banquet (Matt. 22:1-14, Luke 14:16-24)
- Woe to the Scribes and Pharisees (Matt. 23:1-36)
- “Your House Is Forsaken” (Matt. 23:37-39, Luke 13:34-35)
- “The Son of Man Is Coming at an Unexpected Hour (Matt. 24:42-51, Luke 12:35-48)
- The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins (Matt. 25:1-13)
- Dinner with Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10)
- The Parable of the Talents/Pounds (Matt. 25:14-30, Luke 19:11-27)
- The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Matt. 25:31-46)
- Jesus’ Daily Schedule (Luke 21:37-38)
- Who Is the Greatest? (Luke 22:24-32)
- Preparations for the Future (Luke 22:35-38)
- Jesus Before Herod Antipas (Luke 23:6-12)
- Securing the Tomb (Matt. 27:62-66)
- Explaining the Empty Tomb (Matt. 28:11-15)
Mark would have had to have judged all of that material not worth including in comparison to the following tiny handful of passages, which are unique to his Gospel and which he therefore chose to include:
- Jesus Teaches by the Sea (Mark 2:13)
- Jesus’ Family Hears (Mark 3:20-21)
- The Kingdom Like Seed (Mark 4:26-29)
- Healing a Deaf Man (Mark 7:32-37)
- Healing a Blind Man (Mark 8:22-26)
Such an editorial choice seems inexplicable, given the high value of much of the material Mark would have chosen to omit and the low value of the additional passages he would have chosen to include.
Much more explicable would be editorial choices by Matthew and Luke to omit the handful of passages that are unique to Mark, which are of low value and which would allow them to include more of the valuable material that is found in their Gospels and that is not found in Mark.
Not a Plausible Conflation
There are also problems with the idea that Mark is a fusion of Matthew and Luke, and a particularly important one occurs on the level of the individual stories that Mark records about Jesus.
It has long been noted that, if Mark used the other two synoptic Gospels, he didn’t just switch between the two in their overall sequence of material about Jesus. Instead, he switched between the two within the course of a single story.
In other words, if you read through the Greek text of Mark, even within a single story, you’ll run into a short stretch of material that Mark would have taken from Matthew and later a short stretch of material he would have taken from Luke. This material might be a single word, a phrase, etc., but not the whole story.
Mark thus would have assembled his individual accounts of the things that Jesus did by piecing together material from Matthew and Luke like a puzzle.
How easy it is to do that kind of fusion of texts depends on the kind of writing techniques that are in use at the time.
Today, it is easier than it has ever been. Given the availability of word processors, a modern author can have two source documents open before him on his screen, and he can cut and paste fragments of text from the two into a third document that he is composing. When done on the level of words and phrases, the procedure is clunky, but it’s possible.
Before the advent of word processors, the process would have been more difficult. A hundred years ago, an author attempting this feat would likely have had his two source documents open in front of him on his writing desk, and he would have glanced back and forth between them, flipping pages when he needed to move forward in the text, and stitching together the phrases he was encountering to form a new, third document, which he would also have kept on the desk.
This would not have been nearly as easy as cutting and pasting in a word processor, but it would have been possible, and advocates of the Griesbach hypothesis have proposed that this was how Mark worked.
But there are problems with this image.
Working with Scrolls
The first problem is that it is not clear Mark would have been flipping pages. The codex—or modern form of a book that has pages attached to a spine so that they can be flipped—was not common in the ancient world, and it was only beginning to become popular in the first century.
As a result, it is quite likely that Mark would have been working with the form of book which was common in antiquity—the scroll. It is not as easy to advance the text in a scroll, which has to be rolled forward and back to consult different passages.
It’s nowhere near as easy as flipping pages, and the problem would become particularly acute if Mark were trying to fuse phrases from a story that occurs at one point in Matthew’s sequence and at a different point in Luke’s sequence. It would involve lots of manual scrolling to find the right place.
There is also the fact that, if a scroll is opened to a passage near the beginning or the end, it will have a tendency to curl itself up and obscure the text unless you hold it open with your hands or with a paperweight. (This tendency is lessened in the middle of the scroll, since you may have a sizeable roll on both sides, helping to keep the book open and the passage you want visible.)
Also, scrolls can tear in two if they aren’t properly supported—at least if they are made of papyrus, which many were (papyrus was cheaper than parchment, which was made from animal skin). When opened, the weight of one side of the scroll can be such that, if you lose your grip, it can twist the scroll and cause the papyrus to rip.
These problems could be overcome if you had paperweights and a writing desk, but that leads to a second problem . . .
No Writing Desks
Surprising as it may seem, they didn’t use writing desks in the first century, and all those classic paintings of the New Testament authors using them as they composed their works are historically anachronistic.
Instead, as revealed by illustrations from the ancient world—as well as by statements from the period—the ancients wrote without desks, either sitting on a stool or standing, holding the writing material in front of them or placing them on a knee.
This means that any sources they were consulting as they wrote were not within inches of their face as they sat at a desk.
The sources may have been laid on the floor or on another object, but they weren’t as conveniently displayed as they could be on a writing desk, and—given the distance and the tiny size that the hand printing often used (to save money on writing materials)—they would have been harder for an author to read, making him less likely to switch between them on a word-by-word or phrase-by-phrase basis.
Alternately, the sources an author was using could have been read out loud to him, and this method seems to have been used when scribes were making multiple copies of a single work, but it also would have made it very laborious to take individual words or phrases from each source and knit them together.
Ancient Conflation Practices
Because of the limitations of ancient writing methods, people in this period did not combine works in the way Mark is claimed to have done.
Instead, as studies of ancient literature show, the difficulty of borrowing tiny bits from two works and merging them together into a new work prevented this from being a normal practice.
What they would do is base a passage on one source and use its wording and then switch to another source for a new passage.
If the two sources had parallel versions of a single passage they wanted to use, they would stick with the wording used by one of the sources, not attempt to merge the wording of the two in an alternating manner.
(For more on this, and on ancient writing methods in general, see Robert A. Derrenbacker’s Ancient Compositional Practices and the Synoptic Problem, online in pdf here.)
The only notable exception to this is a work composed in the second century known as the Diatesseron. This was a harmony of the Gospels written by a Syrian named Tatian.
He actually did undertake the task of going through the Gospels line by line and trying to merge everything, retaining every small detail that he could.
The result was a work that, in English translation, is 62,440 words long (compared to 86,320 for the four Gospels), meaning that the Diatesseron is 72% as long as the Gospels combined (source).
Tatian’s example shows that it was possible to stich more than one source together in a low-level manner, but it was rare because of how difficult it was.
This raises the question of motive.
Tatian vs. Mark
Tatian was writing in the second century, after the four Gospels had come to be regarded as sufficiently sacred and inviolable that, although he wanted to create a new text by merging them, he also wanted to preserve virtually every detail contained in them. (He omits only 1.8% of their content, or 0.7% if you set the genealogies aside; source.)
As a result, the Diatesseron does not have the literary artistry of any of the Gospels. It is clunky and repetitious, as Tatian tries to jam everything in together.
Mark’s situation is entirely different.
On the Griesbach hypothesis, he clearly does not think that he has to retain all of the details found in Matthew and Luke. Indeed, he would have had to throw out huge chunks of the two Gospels, including many of their most valuable parts!
If that was his attitude toward his source material then it is inexplicable why he would feel so strongly about the phrasing of the two that he would undertake the physically laborious process of regularly merging their individual phrases.
Instead, he would have followed the ancient practice of someone combining two sources and used the wording of whichever source he had before him at the moment.
We thus find that—contrary to the Griesbach hypothesis—Mark’s Gospel does not work either like ancient epitomes or like ancient conflations, making it unlikely that it is a conflation and epitome of Matthew and Luke.
More plausibly, Matthew and Luke abridged material from Mark (both by omitting whole passages and by tightening up the wording of those they retained) and then expanded it with additional material they wished to include.