Beyond Tradition

"Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men." Colossians 2:8

The Q Conundrum

by Sean D. Harmon 

Could a large number of reputable scholars actually be getting the process of gospel development completely wrong? It's almost too inconceivable to even imagine the thought.

As discussed in a previous article, there is no doubt that when examining the accounts in the three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) -- in spite of the fact there is a good deal of disagreement and variation with the content in all three -- there are unmistakable agreements (arguably about 90% of Mark found in Matthew, and more than 80% of Mark in Luke) that have remarkable similarities
(sometimes practically word for word). I'll refer to this as the triple source tradition (duplicated traditions shared by Matthew, Mark, and Luke) just for clarity. This is particularly evident in how the scenes and the dialogue are arranged or structured, better known as the "synoptic problem." The theories surrounding this issue inevitably open the door to first gospel priority or textual-dependency theories (i.e. one gospel was written first and was used as a source reference by the other two).

The primary theories consist of Markan priority -- Mark was written first and Matthew and Luke used it as a source reference; the Augustine theory -- Luke used Matthew and Mark; and the Griesbach theory -- Mark used Matthew and Luke. As I discussed in the last article that was a brief outline of this (here: Gospel Within a Gospel), Markan priority has been the prevailing theory to explain gospel development for quite some time, and though this argument appears to still hold a consensus, we need to remember that these are merely hypothetical arguments, with a great deal of evidence (mainly circumstantial) supporting them, as well as contrary evidence working against them, yet without any external physical evidence (i.e. an extant manuscript, a quote from a church father, etc.) to back them.

One thing that becomes perfectly clear from the internal analysis of the gospels, which leads one to form such theories, is that the core tradition of Judeo-Christianity was firmly established by an authoritative front. In other words, the synoptic problem proves that, regardless of how the gospels were conceived, whether independently or copied from one source gospel to the other, the authors wanted to maintain a level of consistency with a core tradition that was already firmly established, indicative of a controlled and unified church for the most part, as opposed to scattered communities throughout the region randomly inventing isolated pockets of legends.

Since we cannot interview the gospel authors themselves, nor do we have any record describing the process in any kind of detail, any argument on this subject, including the ones I hold, is purely hypothetical. Frankly, I'm impartial to any gospel development theory, so my agenda here is not necessarily to shoot down one theory over another for the sole purpose of advancing some other apologetic argument I endorse that is hindered by it. In short, my apologetics about the resurrection and its historicity, for example, are not affected by a particular gospel development theory one way or another. I try and make it a habit of not stacking arguments on top of unsubstantiated theories, or using the tail to wag the dog. The theory of textual-dependency does nothing to affect or antithetical to any of the other arguments I've laid out in these articles. I insist for myself arguments that aren't dependent on it one way or the other, thus I can take it or leave it. Many critical arguments, however, make the grave mistake of taking these theories for granted. The theory of textual-dependency is much more detrimental to most critical arguments that are solely supported by it, particularly theories of redaction criticism, which is often why it's taken for granted in these cases. Example...

Matthew 26:63-64 "But Jesus remained silent. The high priest said to him, 'I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.' 'Yes, it is as you say,' Jesus replied. 'But I say to all of you: In the future you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.'"


Mark 14:60-62 "But Jesus remained silent and gave no answer. Again the high priest asked him, 'Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?' 'I am,' said Jesus. 'And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.'"


Luke 22:66-68 "At daybreak the council of the elders of the people, both the chief priests and teachers of the law, met together, and Jesus was led before them. 'If you are the Christ,' they said, 'tell us.' Jesus answered, 'If I tell you, you will not believe me, and if I asked you, you would not answer. But from now on, the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the mighty God.'"

This is an example of the triple source tradition
taken from Matthew, Mark and Luke that consisted of the scene of Jesus' trial before the Sanhedrin. If you notice the sentences in bold in Mark and Matthew, Jesus directly indicates that they will see his second coming in the clouds, whereas Luke simply states that no one will "see" anything but that Jesus will merely be "seated at the right hand of God." Scholars will consider Markan priority a priori and presume that Luke obviously changed the phrase from Mark, and then presume that he was writing this at the end of the first century (80-90's CE) when the Jewish authorities whom Jesus made this declaration had already passed away, making it impossible for them to witness his return, hence Luke's redaction being a necessity to correct this problem. Therefore, they argue, this proves Luke should date well after 70 CE. So, presupposing that Luke copied Mark, they then assume a redaction by Luke, which then leads to another assumption why he made the redaction, which is then used to support a post-70 gospel date of Luke. See how this works?

However, these circular arguments are still not at all foolproof using this methodology, as there are many other instances in Luke that could have caused problems had his gospel been written post-70, specifically things he left unchanged; such as the angel declaring that Jesus would defeat the enemies of the Jews and reign over the tribes of Israel when most of the tribes were not only already scattered post-70 but the remnant had just been crushed by the Romans during the war, presumably before Luke wrote his gospel (Luke 1:30-33, 1:67-79); or Jesus declaring that his generation would be around to witness his return (Luke 21:25-32), a generation where the average life expectancy might have been younger than 50 and that would have been somewhere between 60-100 years of age after 70 CE; or Jesus' prediction about the total destruction of the Temple (Luke 21:5-6) -- "there will not be left one stone upon another" -- when in fact the retaining wall (West Wall) and some of the towers were left standing in the aftermath, some of which still stand to this day.

In any event, the example I gave is just one instance of using a theory to support a premise, or presupposing a theory to support another theory. And this a methodology that is surprisingly rampant in the case of critical theories that use Markan priority as a foundation. As a result, Markan priority becomes a house of cards because if Markan priority is incorrect, one would have to imagine what would happen to all those suppositional arguments that are stacked on top of it. Though Markan priority still seems to have many faithful adherents and a strong consensus base, the theory has regained growing skepticism among current scholars. Terence C. Mournet says of the theory...


"Strictly speaking, it is important to realize that these ‘formal proofs’ for Markan priority and the existence of Q are not “knock down” arguments that are beyond reproach. Each of these classic arguments has been subjected to rigorous examination, and some have not stood the test of time. Several of the classic arguments for the two-source hypothesis can no longer be accepted in their originally proposed forms."[2]


I use the word "regained" because this was not the initial theory that predominated scholarship. Markan priority is actually a late comer, though undoubtedly the theory that has been the longest lasting. Nonetheless, on closer scrutiny, there is simply no escaping the ugly reality that the Markan priority hypothesis (or any textual-dependency theory for that matter), which many scholars sometimes comfortably treat as de facto, is but a theory that is racked with unsolved problems and issues that fling the theory into a reality of serious doubt once those problems and issues are brought to the fore. 

Problem #1

Naturally, Markan priority proponents suppose that Mark came first in the gospel order, yet there is direct external evidence against this. I'm not arguing here whether the weight of this fact supports a certain view one way or the other, just stating a fact.


The church father Irenaeus stated that Matthew's gospel was written first, and that it was written while Peter and Paul were still in Rome "laying the foundations of the Church," which would have been pre-70, something I discussed in greater detail in another article (here: Post-70 View: 7Key Points, The fathers know best).

Clement of Alexandria

Clement, on the other hand, may have had an independent source because he not only emphatically stated that Mark wrote his gospel when Peter was still alive -- that Peter "neither approved nor forbade his work" once he heard about Mark's work (possibly contradicting Irenaeus who implied that Mark's gospel was written when Peter had "departed" Rome) -- which would have also been post-70 and quite possibly in the late 50s or earlier, but also confirmed that the gospel of Matthew was written prior to Mark's gospel, thus placing both gospels before 70 CE.

So, both Irenaeus and Clement confirm that Matthew came before Mark, yet they seem to be citing different sources since they diverge on their opinions of when Mark was written -- either before or after Peter "departed" from Rome. This becomes no small problem when you're dealing with multiple, what appears to be independent attestations.

Irenaeus and Clement's claims are not only a hurdle specifically to Markan priority, but their claims are also part of a larger overall scope of external attestation against Markan priority. The other church fathers, who were just as aware of these internal similarities between the gospels, also oddly did not express any knowledge of textual-dependency between the authors other than possibly Papias and Augustine. This is exceptionally odd being that most of them were scribes themselves and all of which would have compared the precise similarities between some of the earliest manuscripts available at the time in the earliest Greek form, just as scholars do today -- only the latter would have had less sources and much later sources than the former.

Papias & Augustine

Papias, the earliest church father (early second century), is a bit more uncertain and disputable (more on that in a bit); and though Augustine did not actually indicate textual-dependency directly, he may have implied it, or at least indicated each writer knew about the work of the others. However, it should be noted that both Papias and Augustine endorsed the belief that Matthew was originally written in a Semitic language, and Augustine also indicated that Matthew wrote his gospel first. So, while Augustine's acknowledgment that each author knew of the other is really unclear if it actually supports textual-dependency, his claim about the order, with no mistake about it, directly contradicts Markan priority.

In fact, every church father between the second half to the fourth century who described the order of the gospels, such as Irenaeus, Clement, Jerome, Eusebius, Origen and Augustine all held the view that Matthew came first, and held it rather casually as though it was a certainty. Whether this was shared information between them is not certain in some cases (though we know this is probably not the case between Irenaeus and Clement, which was the reason I pointed that out separately), we know for a fact that this was the only unanimous view about the issue with no other view they held to the contrary. Whether this view was accurate or not is not the focus of my argument. I'm just stating a fact.


Eusebius goes on to record a unique tradition about Pantaenus who traveled to India around the late second century to do missionary work and discovered a copy of the gospel of Matthew written in Hebrew, which was delivered to the natives there by the apostle Bartholomew a century earlier.[3] Eusebius also quotes Papias, and though Papias neither confirmed nor denied any particular gospel order, he not only claimed that Mark actually got the content of his gospel directly from Peter, but also stated that Matthew "wrote the oracles (logia)" in a Semitic language. So, to simplify all this; not only were there no views directly supporting textual-dependency between the gospels (other than Papias and Augustine, which are questionable and doubtful) in addition to no conflicting views that Matthew's gospel came first in the order, but unanimous that Matthew's gospel was initially written in a Semitic language. Again, just stating a fact.

Papias' Logia

Even though we know for a fact that the original author of the gospel of Matthew was a Jew based on the Greek gospel of Matthew we have today (more on that in a bit), needless to say, since we obviously don't have any such Semitic Matthean manuscript preserved today verifying this claim, this, as well as Papias' use of Logia has been the subject of a huge controversy among scholars,[4] especially, and not surprisingly, Markan priority scholars.

I'll get to why this is critical and why it works against Markan priority in a bit; but as a result, some have argued that instead of referring to Matthew's gospel, Papias was referring to a sayings source that existed prior to the original gospel that was ascribed to Matthew since the word logia meant "sayings." Some have even gone so far as to associate this with the hypothetical Q source (which I'll also discuss in a bit). Although what Papias actually meant remains somewhat ambiguous, the argument that insists the source he was referring was not a full Matthean gospel is nowhere near emphatic, in fact, most likely improbable for a few reasons:


  1. Even the theorists who promote the theoretical Q source agree that it originated in Greek, with very little to no evidence that it was ever in a Semitic language.[5]
  2. Papias' own work was called Expositions of Logia of the Lord, and from Eusebius' quotes of that work, it was obviously not a sayings source of Jesus only or even just a commentary of his sayings, but certain deeds done by Jesus, including an account of a woman brought before him that was accused of many sins, in addition to commentary not only on how the gospels were actually derived, but pretty much an entire history of Papias' interactions with the "elders" or those who were in contact with the apostles. Point being, it would seem Papias was using that word Logia not as just a source of sayings only, but in a more general sense -- i.e. Matthew's gospel was the Logia, not because it was just a sayings source, but, much like Papias' own work, contained the Lord's sayings as part of the content. John Kloppenborg, an actual advocate of the theoretical Q source, makes a very strong case for this.[6]
  3. It's rather unnecessary to assume Papias was referring to just a sayings source aside from Matthew's gospel since no other church father mentioned or was aware of it. It would seem exceptionally strange that they would not have been privy to any such source since most of them were scribes themselves and constantly on the hunt for manuscripts with much of the same passion New Testament textual scholars have today. Eusebius certainly assumed Papias was referring to Matthew's gospel and obviously had no objection or dispute with the assertion that it was written in a Semitic language, so we might assume not only that such a belief was common but that the context Eusebius pulled the quote from within Papias' own work was convincing enough to him that Papias was indeed referring to the gospel of Matthew.
  4. Though Papias surprisingly did not seem to directly confer any particular gospel order (or at least Eusebius' quote of Papias left it out), Papias did state that Mark received some criticism for the particular "arrangement" he composed his gospel. This implies that Mark was being compared to other written works before him. Since Papias specifically used Mark and Matthew in the context of an apologetic for Mark, this logically works if he was comparing Mark's gospel to Matthew's gospel as opposed to a work of just sayings. Kloppenborg also concurs with this.[7]  
  5. The nail in the coffin against just a sayings source is Papias' actual quote...


"'And the presbyter would say this: Mark, who had indeed been Peter's interpreter, accurately wrote as much as he remembered, yet not in order, about that which was either said [logia] or did by the Lord. For he neither heard the Lord nor followed him, but later, as I said, Peter, who would make the teachings anecdotally but not exactly an arrangement of the Lord's reports [logia], so that Mark did not fail by writing certain things as he recalled. For he had one purpose, not to omit what he heard or falsify them.'"


Papias was obviously referring to a work done by Mark that was more than just a sayings source. In the first sentence he describes Mark writing down the "Logia" as well as Jesus' actions ("or did"). The second time Papias just uses "Logia" even though he was still referring to Mark's work. Since these two parallels use the same word and have a similar clause,[8] this shows that Papias' Logia alone could refer to a work with Jesus' sayings and actions, hence no reason not to also assume this with his reference to Matthew's Logia, particularly since it appears he used both works in the same context (noted in #3 in the list above).

Was Papias dumb?

As you can see, the evidence that Papias was referring to the gospel of Matthew is pretty substantiated, which leaves the issue solely on Papias himself and just how reliable he was, thus Markan priority proponents often dismiss Papias' claim by discrediting Papias himself. They point out where Eusebius referred to Papias as a man "with very limited understanding." However, we know that Eusebius obviously trusted Papias' information about church history enough to cite him quite extensively and never warned his readers about his inability to convey these facts accurately. Moreover, where and why Eusebius made this statement about Papias also needs to be put into proper context. Eusebius about Papias...


"But it is fitting to subjoin to the words of Papias which have been quoted, other passages from his works in which he relates some other wonderful events which he claims to have received from tradition.

That Philip the apostle dwelt at Hierapolis with his daughters has been already stated. But it must be noted here that Papias, their contemporary, says that he heard a wonderful tale from the daughters of Philip. For he relates that in his time one rose from the dead. And he tells another wonderful story of Justus, surnamed Barsabbas: that he drank a deadly poison, and yet, by the grace of the Lord, suffered no harm.

The Book of Acts records that the holy apostles after the ascension of the Saviour, put forward this Justus, together with Matthias, and prayed that one might be chosen in place of the traitor Judas, to fill up their number. The account is as follows: "And they put forward two, Joseph, called Barsabbas, who was surnamed Justus, and Matthias; and they prayed and said."

The same writer gives also other accounts which he says came to him through unwritten tradition, certain strange parables and teachings of the Saviour, and some other more mythical things.  

To these belong his statement that there will be a period of some thousand years after the resurrection of the dead, and that the kingdom of Christ will be set up in material form on this very earth.  I suppose he got these ideas through a misunderstanding of the apostolic accounts, not perceiving that the things said by them were spoken mystically in figures. For he appears to have been of very limited understanding, as one can see from his discourses."[9] 


I highlighted the pertinent passages from Eusebius' quote for this discussion. Notice that just preceding the last passage where Eusebius calls Papias a man of "limited understanding" (last sentence in bold), Eusebius is describing certain traditions from Papias about the apostles that he not only had no issues with, but enthusiastically described the stories and tales. Then once Eusebius gets to the last passage (highlighted in red), he criticizes it as "strange" and "mythical." Without getting too detailed, there were church fathers who interpreted the thousand year reign of Christ described in the book of Revelation (Revelation 20:1-6) as being symbolic, while others interpreted it as a literal future event or an actual corporeal kingdom on earth wherein Christ would rule.

This is known as eschatology, and even today the feud rages on between Christians in regard to eschatology that can get quite heated and personal. As you can plainly see in the context above, Eusebius held a symbolic view -- Papias a literal view; thus Eusebius made this statement about Papias' level of understanding not in regards to Papias' knowledge of historical tradition in general, which he found "wonderful," but specifically about his literal interpretations in regards to the issue of eschatology, which is why it's separated by the passage highlighted in red. The passage: "For he appears to have been of very limited understanding" (in bold) clearly refers to the preceding passage -- Papias' eschatological view.

Gospel According to the Hebrews

Another trump card Markan priority proponents often use is to suppose that the church fathers all confused this Semitic Matthean work with the Gospel According to the Hebrews that was highly favored above all written works by the Nazarene or the Ebionite sect, or they simply exaggerate a confusion factor they contribute to this issue, claiming the fathers' inability to know the difference between the very documents most of them were scribing and translating themselves.

The Nazarenes and Ebionites were apparently earlier Jewish-Christian sectarian sects around the second century that were considered heretical because they denounced many of the other works of the canon. The problem is that no one knows for certain what Gospel According to the Hebrews was or what it contained. Unfortunately we don't have this manuscript in full, only in fragmented secondhand verses quoted by the church fathers. And though it has many quotes that are not found in the Greek Matthew, it has some identical quotes and some quotes that are similar but slightly different.

Even though there is a bit ambiguity about different sects, certain beliefs they held and certain works they used, this supposed confusion about a document spreads across too many educated men; men who were passionate about collecting manuscripts and examining the variants between the manuscripts. Though they reverberated the belief that the document was written by Matthew, Jerome (who actually translated the document into different languages) and Origen seemed to treat it not only cautiously, but as a separate document apart from Matthew's initial gospel in Greek, which suggests they were not confusing the two Semitic gospels they believed were written by Matthew.

There are quite a few questions that remain unanswered, as well as quite a few potential possibilities, but since this issue is obviously not anywhere near a conclusive one, at the very least, it's enough information to put Markan Priority in a rather questionable light. Therefore, it becomes almost essential that all this data to the contrary be downplayed by Markan priority proponents. This is certainly not a surprise. What are they to do with an alleged Semitic version of Matthew, in addition to the unanimous claim that Matthew came first, and how does this fit into the Markan priority scheme? Simply put... it doesn't.

There is no physical evidence or external testimony for Markan priority, thus all the support for the theory is based on the analytical internal comparisons of the gospels with each other specifically in the Greek language. However, if we assume the possibility that Matthew was written in a Semitic tongue, and especially that it was written first in the gospel order, well, this throws an irreparable wrench into that scheme. Therefore, in their view, evidence based on their analysis of the gospels in the Greek is the sole authority that trumps any external evidence or issues to the contrary.

The testimony of Papias is therefore dismissed, usually based on what Eusebius said about him (pointed out earlier). It is presupposed that all the later church fathers merely perpetuated the same error solely from Papias. But is this really plausible? Are we to suppose that all the church fathers were so cavalier, careless and gravely mistaken on this point? There are quite a few notable problems stacked up against this view:


  • They certainly didn't always agree on many other aspects of tradition, yet this point was unanimous.
  • If Papias was a "man of limited understanding," then it seems additionally odd they all readily adopted his information about how the gospels were conceived.
  • In an era that had grown somewhat anti-Semitic in many cases (which is as early as the Gospel of Peter and even hints of it seen within Justin Martyr's dialogues), it would have served them to readily denounce the view that a Semitic text had anything to do with Matthew, or at least raise some questions about it, much more so than to readily accept it. Thus carelessness or partiality on their part certainly can't be presumed here.
  • The fathers were all suspicious and exceptionally discriminative of works used by groups they considered heretical, or traditions that had unknown and unconfirmed origins; even questioning works that were eventually accepted into the canon New Testament. If a Semitic Matthean gospel was in any way associated with heretical sects that found favor with it, then this further discounts partiality, as they had every reason to seriously question the validity of it even more.
  • Many of them were scribes and multilingual expert translators themselves, had a passion for collecting and comparing various manuscripts, and were just as concerned and attentive to variants between the texts, so once again, this rules out carelessness. And of course, they would have had access to some of the earliest manuscript sources known at that time, sources we have lost and that scholars could only dream of having today.
  • The gospel of Matthew was most likely the earliest and widely used gospel of the other three synoptics,[10] and is quoted by Ignatius, Polycarp, the Didache, Justin Martyr, and Celsus from the first to the mid-second century; then used extensively by the fathers after that, including Irenaeus and Clement II towards the end of the second century. Some of the earliest manuscript fragments we have are Johannine and Matthean manuscript fragments, which date from the second century (discussed here: The Genesis). With such a wide distribution of Matthew early on, it not only shows precedence of his work, but seems next to impossible they would have all been this careless as to its origins or gotten his work confused with another work.


If we assume Papias was wrong, and that they all just perpetuated Papias' error without ever questioning such an error, then we must find a reasonable explanation for this, particularly when everything stated above suggests otherwise.

Jewish priority

As I previously noted, there is little doubt that the author of the original Greek gospel of Matthew was Jewish who specifically wrote his gospel to Jews, not only based on his extensive knowledge and use of ancient Jewish methodology and exegesis (pesharim), but the overall Jewish framework of his gospel, and this is an assessment that few current scholars disagree with.[10] The probability is that either he was a highly educated Jew who wrote his gospel in Greek to other educated Greek-speaking Jews, or perhaps Matthew wrote his gospel to educated Jews in a Semitic language, and either wrote a second gospel based on his first or he or someone translated his first work into Greek later on. Though the latter two views are certainly not the consensus among most Markan priority proponents for obvious reasons, none of these arguments can be emphatically ruled out as a possibility based on the external factors we just discussed.

It would seem that the author of the gospel of Mark specifically designed his text towards predominantly Greek-speakers (we see him clearly interpreting certain Aramaic words and phrases in his narration for better comprehension to his readers). Since the predominant convert in the first century Judeo-Christian church was Jewish, particularly in the first few decades of the Christian movement up to about 70 CE (discussed here: The Beginning, The first century resurrection view), naturally, we would expect a Jewish author (such as Matthew) to be among the first to transcribe such traditions into a written text specifically for a predominantly Jewish community, whether in a Semitic tongue or Greek tongue. Though circumstantial at best, this also seems to logically fit into the scheme of what the church fathers believed about Matthew's work and its particular order.

Matthean priority?

Another interesting but brief excerpt Eusebius quotes of Papias asserts that Matthew "wrote the oracles (logia) in the Hebrew language, and everyone interpreted them as he was able." Who exactly "they" are in this case has also been rife with a slew of debate, whether he was referring to the other gospel authors, which would presumably confirm textual-dependency (although in this case he would actually be confirming Matthean priority instead), or just those in the early church who came into contact with a Semitic gospel of Matthew and wanted to make copies of it.

If we're to speculate, it actually works quite well in a logical sense. If people were having trouble reading Matthew's initial gospel because they weren't fluent in the Semitic tongue, perhaps this was the situation that compelled him or someone else to write a second gospel in Greek. Since the two gospels were probably identical, or at least assumed by those who knew about the works, the Semitic version gradually lost priority among Greek speakers who became the predominant converts of the church, thus gradually turned into dust and faded away. Or if the Semitic version was heavily used by such sects as the Nazarenes and the Ebionites, perhaps it lost its luster because of its association with these sects.

The much later church father Epiphanius not only also confirmed a Semitic Matthean work, not surprising at this point, but indicated this work also had a genealogy from Abraham to Jesus, much like the Greek version, but that the Nazarenes were greatly redacting the text to orientate it to their own doctrinal beliefs.[12] Eusebius, Origen, and Jerome also stated that the virgin birth was both accepted and undermined by different varieties of Ebionite and Nazarene sects,[13] further bolstering Epiphanius' claim of redaction. Thus, the issue of redaction could have been another factor the Semitic gospel of Matthew lost favor to the Greek version, particularly when the struggles of Christian and Jew resulted in the further dissolution of the two at the turn of the century; or as Craig Evans puts it: "Gentile Christianity devalued Torah and Jewish traditions, while rabbinic Judaism devalued the life and death of Jesus Messiah (Jewish Versions of the Gospel of Matthew, p.11 - pdf)."

Please note that I'm not arguing for or against Matthean priority here, just underscoring the often avoided issues with Markan priority, hence the issues with textual-dependency in general.


Though most of these factors remain indeed speculatory and uncertain, fact of the matter is, this is quite a bit of cumulative external data that, at the very least, provides quite a bit of inconvenience to a Markan priority paradigm. To summarize:


  • Markan priority has no external evidence or support and solely relies on internal analytical comparisons between the present Greek gospels.
  • We know for a fact that the church father's didn't always agree with tradition and had much contention and conflicting views between them, yet all the church fathers believed Matthew's gospel was written first with no contention or conflicting views about this belief.
  • We know for a fact that Papias, the earliest written record we have about the gospels, believed Matthew's gospel (highly unlikely just a sayings source) was written in a Semitic tongue, and all the other church fathers and historians concurred with this belief with no contention or conflicting views.
  • We know for a fact that the author of Matthew was Jewish, and that Matthew was the most widely circulated gospel in the earliest stages of manuscript copying.
  • We know for a fact that there is a record by Eusebius stating that the gospel of Matthew, written in the Hebrew tongue, was delivered to a location in the eastern regions. 
  • We know for a fact that no church father -- many of whom were multilingual scribes -- espoused a theory similar to Markan priority or argued Mark as the first gospel in the gospel order or even suggested the possibility, in spite of the fact they were all just as aware of the internal similarities between the three gospels in the Greek tongue as scholars are today.
  • We know for a fact no church father expressed any belief that an external source (i.e. Q) was used when the gospels were conceived (though this is more of an argument from silence).
  • We know for a fact that there was some written work attributed to Matthew that was in the Semitic tongue, had a similar genealogy and was being redacted by other groups for theological reasons.


What do we make of this? Perhaps nothing. Perhaps it's all just misconception and error between these men. Though there is indeed too much uncertainty in this information to make any definitive case in support of an alternative theory, there's just too much information as a whole to explain away in order to pave a clear path for Markan priority. These numerous external issues alone are noticeable bumps in the road to Markan priority, thus, at the very least, must render the Markan priority paradigm highly susceptible to question, if not outright doubt.

Problem #2

The Markan priority theory typically sponsors another hypothetical source, or anchor source, called the "Q source" (argued as being earlier than even the first gospel itself) to account for the duplicated traditions found in Matthew and Luke absent in Mark, in addition to other hypothetical sources (M, L, S) found either in Matthew, Luke or John only.

The presence of these hypothetical external sources, particularly Q, keeps the literary-dependency process between Matthew, Mark and Luke consistent since most Markan priority proponents believe that Matthew and Luke wrote independently of the other. In other words, if we argue that Matthew and Luke copied Mark, how do we explain the duplicated traditions found only in Matthew and Luke that are not in Mark, unless Matthew and Luke also copied each other? But the latter defeats the purpose of Markan priority and leaves the door open to Matthean priority instead (Matthew came first, and the others copied him). However, there are at least equal problems with a Matthean priority theory as Markan priority, hence the reason the latter is preferred.

Likewise, if we argue that Matthew and Luke were sharing a common oral tradition instead of a written source Mark did not use or was not privy to, then there is no reason to argue this about the whole gospel development process itself, particularly in light of the external problems with textual-dependency I pointed out earlier. If the culture was proficient enough in oral transmission in this area, why not the triple source tradition as a whole? It also makes us wonder why Mark didn't use any of these traditions had they been oral, since the probability that Mark had knowledge of these oral traditions that both Matthew and Luke knew would have been much higher than him knowing about a written source the two shared.

So, the best hypothetical scenario to fit into this scheme is that Q was a literary source; a source that was not readily available to Mark. Problem is, there is no physical source, nor is there such a source attested to by the church fathers (pointed out in Problem #1). This external hypothetical source (Q) is a clear case of an unsubstantiated hypothesis supporting another unsubstantiated hypothesis (Markan priority), which makes this scenario more and more precarious to say the least. Building a theory on top of another theory can make things interesting but not very smart as a sound premise.

But if that wasn't enough for us to stop and pause, another problem is that some of the duplicated accounts found in Matthew and Luke do at times exist briefly in Mark, or overlap, which are more identical in Matthew and Luke against Mark. Jesus' Temptation is just one example of an actual narrative briefly summarized in Mark, but extended and detailed similarly in Matthew and Luke (compare Mark, Matthew and Luke's Temptation narrative here). In fact, when you compare these accounts, it is clear that Mark was summarizing a story he apparently took for granted that was known to his readers, thus left out pertinent details. Mark leaves out huge gaps of information found in Matthew and Luke about the Temptation, such as:


  • What Jesus was doing in the wilderness for forty days (fasting).
  • How Satan tempted Jesus (three times using scriptures).
  • How Jesus resisted Satan (with counter scriptures).
  • When the angels ministered to Jesus (after the temptation).
  • Why the angels ministered to him (because he was famished).


There are many accounts in between the three gospels where it is clear Mark was summarizing or abbreviating details found in the others, especially in Matthew, and these are moments that Matthean priority proponents seize in order to use against Markan priority because it becomes difficult to explain this in a Markan priority-Q paradigm. Please note, once again, I'm not making a case for Matthean priority, just making a point of the difficulties.

Other examples are much more subtle and not just with Mark. One such example is Matthew (4:18-22) and Mark (1:16-20) indicating that the disciples are "mending" their nets when Jesus calls the fishermen to discipleship. Why were they mending their nets? We find this out in Luke, where apparently a miracle of fishes occurred before calling them to discipleship that ripped their nets prior to them forsaking their fishing duties to follow Jesus (Luke 5:1-11), a scene that Matthew and Mark chose not to illustrate in their narratives for whatever reason. The Greek word "mending" that Matthew and Mark use is katartizo, which specifically means to "join together" or "complete" as in a restoration, so "mending" is indeed the correct translated word here. This suggests an external tradition that was known to all of them but is outside the scope of textual-dependency (Luke obviously didn't copy this from either Matthew or Mark, though they all apparently knew about the same tradition).

These types of instances not only convolute what was in Q, but whether or not Q was just a sayings source only or if it had a structured narrative. If the latter is true, then this would seem to imply an actual written gospel, which only gives way to even more questions that remain unanswered. Who wrote it? Why wasn't it preserved like the other gospels, particularly if it was authoritative enough to be used as an underlying reference by all three? If we argue that we're dealing with perhaps a mixture of both written and oral tradition, not only does this convolute where we draw the line to distinguish the difference, but again, why textual-dependency is even necessary or why we can't assume the whole development of the gospels independently came from oral tradition.

This also forces us to consider the even more problematic possibility that Mark did in fact have Q, yet oddly felt the need or freedom to edit it much more abruptly -- more like subtracting -- whereas Matthew and Luke felt the collective need to stick to it verbatim. There is another type of overlapping that is mainly found in the sayings, which suggests Matthew and Luke were inconveniently jumping back and fourth between the so-called Q source and Mark as they feverishly copied information from both, coincidentally using or excluding the exact same phrases. An example of this dialogue overlapping...

Matthew 26:67-68 "Then they spat in His face and beat Him with their fists; and others slapped Him, and said, 'Prophesy to us, You Christ; who is the one who hit You?'"


Mark 14:65 "Some began to spit at Him, and to blindfold Him, and to beat Him with their fists, and to say to Him, "Prophesy!" And the officers received Him with slaps in the face."


Luke 22:63-64 "Now the men who were holding Jesus in custody were mocking Him and beating Him, and they blindfolded Him and were asking Him, saying, 'Prophesy, who is the one who hit You?'"

This was part of Jesus' Passion scene. Did Matthew and Luke copy this from Mark? Markan priority proponents say yes, and they support this with the phrase "blindfolded him" (in bold) that Matthew and Mark include, but Luke excludes. However, we're then forced to assume that as Matthew and Luke were copying Mark, they coincidentally both glanced over at the Q source for the exact same phrase "who is the one who hit you?" This is but one example of this type of Mark-Q overlapping problem, and it would appear in this case that both Markan and Matthean priority actually cancel each other out, or that they instead shared an independent oral outline and Mark actually did the omitting himself.

We could assume the Passion account in fact was in Q, and assume that Mark also had Q, yet strangely left the phrase out that Matthew and Luke included (in red), but then the argument of what constitutes Markan priority and Q once again becomes hopelessly convoluted, indistinguishable and even nonsensical, leaving obvious questions: if Mark had Q and this source had an actual narrative, then what's to stop us from assuming they didn't actually copy Mark but used this phantom gospel instead as the source reference? However, this would not be good for biblical criticism because this would suggest a Markan-type source that was extremely early, circulating early enough that would have made it independently accessible to all three gospel authors. An actual written source this early strongly suggests an actual apostle authored it, which would also explain why it was used as a baseline tradition.

Moreover, hypotheticals aren't supposed to raise more unanswered questions than they solve, because of course the questions that inevitably follow: what was this Q source, who wrote this Q source, why didn't the church fathers acknowledge it, and why wasn't it preserved with the others?

Another example...


Matthew 19:18-19 "'Which ones?' the man inquired. Jesus replied, 'Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honor your father and mother, and love your neighbor as yourself.'"


Mark 10:19 "'You know the commandments: 'Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honor your father and mother.'" 


Luke 18:20 "You know the commandments: 'Do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honor your father and mother.'"


In these passages, Matthew includes six commands, Mark six and Luke five. If Matthew and Luke copied this saying from Mark, we are to assume that both Matthew and Luke coincidentally chose to leave out the commandment "do not defraud" (in bold), which Mark included, and of course wonder why they left it out. Matthean priority is also canceled out here because of the additional phrase in Matthew (red text), which raises the same issue between Mark and Luke.

Another example...


Matthew 13:31-32 "He told them another parable: 'The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all your seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and perch in its branches.'"


Mark 4:30-32 "Again he said, 'What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest seed you plant in the ground. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds of the air can perch in its shade.'"


Luke 13:18-19 "Then Jesus asked, 'What is the kingdom of God like? What shall I compare it to? It is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his garden. It grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air perched in its branches.'"


This is much like the previous passages we examined only more blatant of a problem. The black bold passages are the similarities between Luke and Mark not in Matthew, suggesting Markan or Lukan priority. The blue passages are the similarities between Matthew and Mark not in Luke, suggesting Markan or Matthean priority. The red passages are the similarities between Matthew and Luke not in Mark, suggesting Matthean or Lukan priority. This is yet another passage that leaves textual-dependency convoluted, which seems to cancel it out all together.

Not surprising, the Q theory has gone through a myriad number of adjustments and modifications as a result of these problematic nuances. Usually when I'm confronted with a Markan priority proponent in a discussion about it, I'm forced to ask them just what Markan priority theory they're advocating:


Markan priority?

Markan priority-Q?

Markan priority-Q-M-L?

Markan priority-Q, proto-Luke?

Markan priority-Q, proto-Matthew?

Proto-Mark, Markan priority-Q?

Deutero-Mark, Markan priority-Q?

Markan priority-Q-M-L, Antiochian, Proto-Luke?


In some extreme cases, scholars disregard Q all together and instead make ridiculous suggestions that different versions of the written gospel Mark itself were used by Matthew and Luke (which stands against no external or material evidence), or even different versions of Q, or developing stages of Q, in addition to a litany of hypothetical proto-gospels, not to mention triple-source and four-source theories with different factions of textual-dependency and Q theorists building theory on top of other sub-theories in an attempt to save it at all costs in spite of the ever-mounting issues.[14]

The fact that Markan priority scholars can't agree on one theory would suggest that perhaps they're looking at the wrong theory. Not only must we contend with the Q conundrum, but additional issues such as the single traditions found in Matthew, Luke and John only (M, L, S sources); where these extrinsic traditions came from and why they were not used by the others.

The point here is not necessarily whether these theoretical pre-gospel sources could have existed or not (they could have existed and just not been used as much, thus were lost), but to point out how overstated and unsubstantiated the argument is that there is a nice and orderly Markan priority-Q theory; a theory that most Markan priority proponents remarkably take for granted because they believe the consensus agrees it's true, and then confidently stack other arguments and premises on top of it as a settled argument (such as Burton Mack and Kloppenborg who break down these sources into sub-layers, which they actually use to interpret various Christian doctrine that might have existed in different communities!).

A claim of consensus (if such a claim is even currently accurate or attainable) doesn't make a theory any more or less valid. Just from the first two problems we've examined, the textual-dependency theory, particularly Markan priority, is really a series of unproven theories stacked on top of the other, and what's worse, they're all theories that face some serious questions and complications, with possible evidence to the contrary.

Problem #3

The fact that there are Aramaic variations and traces in the gospels is another irreparable wrench in the Markan priority machine. In most cases of historical analysis, the simplest theoretical solution is usually the best solution, especially when that solution conflicts with other external factors the least. It's certainly not any less plausible, in fact simpler and more consistent with the evidence that we have thus far analyzed that the gospel authors were writing independently of each other; that it's common oral tradition that keeps them attached. The differences and variations were simply the unique and diverse ways the stories were taught and preserved orally by each individual community, or the authors were layering in extraneous traditions over a common oral outline they all followed.

The idea that the four gospels were based on a common outline -- or the "Ur-gospel" (a foundational common source tradition separately used by all three) instead of the authors merely copying from each other was indeed an idea proposed by some of the earlier scholarly pioneers in this field, such as G. E. Lessing, Karl Lachmann and J. G. Eichhorn. They argued that this source was best preserved in the canonical Mark.[15]

However, it's possible that this so-called Ur-gospel was simply oral tradition instead of a written source; a type of common oral outline all the apostles followed when evangelizing in the early stages of the Christian movement. Scholars such as Gotthold E. Lessing and Johann G. Herder were staunch supporters of this argument. We could suppose this oral outline would have been taught and preserved in different communities that had additional extrinsic or patches of traditions by different eyewitnesses (apostles) that were independently gathered by all four gospel authors and layered into their own written outline. This common oral outline hypothetical would have been used to keep the early church anchored and evangelism structured in an organized way within an apostolic controlled environment (which I'll discuss more later). Although the stark similarities would attest to this remarkable oral consistency, variations would certainly be expected (it has been established by scholars like Kenneth Bailey, that I'll discuss in Problem #6, that there was also a certain amount of controlled flexibility).

Herbert Marsh argued that this theoretical Ur-gospel was in Aramaic,[16] and some scholars have actually taken a radical stand in favor of the Greek gospels being direct translations of earlier sources that were originally written in Aramaic, such as C.C. Torrey. Though this is obviously not the view among current scholars, particularly those partial to Markan priority, this demonstrates that there are indeed clear traces of an Aramaic source underlying the gospels, enough of which would bring these scholars to such a conclusion.

Though the degree of this substratum remains debatable, few scholars, even those partial to Markan priority, deny that it's there, which gives further credence to the idea that there was essentially an Aramaic tradition foundation that at least the early apostles, who were Jewish, likely used for evangelism. James D. G. Dunn says of these Aramaic traces...


"What is of more immediate importance for us here are the important observations by Aramaic experts with regard to the character of the teaching tradition. All have noticed that the tradition, even in its Greek state, bears several marks of oral transmission in Aramaic. Already in 1925 C. F. Burney had drawn attention to the various kinds of parallelism (synonymous, antithetic, and synthetic) and rhythm (four-beat, three-beat, kina metre) Characteristic of Hebrew poetry. And Matthew Black noted many examples of alliteration, assonance, and paronomasia. This is all stuff of oral tradition, as we noted above. Joachim Jeremias climaxed a lifetime’s scholarship by summarizing the indications that many of the words appearing in Jesus’ teaching had an Aramaic origin, and that the speech involved had many characteristic features, including ‘divine passive,’ as well as the features already noted by burney and Black."[17] 


Maurice Casey (Aramaic Sources of Mark's Gospel; 1998) argued a solid case of substantial parts of at least Mark's gospel translated from Aramaic. Martin Hengel states of Mark: "I do not know of any work in Greek which has as many Aramaic or Hebrew words and formulae in so narrow a space as does the second Gospel."[18] F. F. Bruce states of Mark...


"There is no lack of evidence in his (Mark's) Gospel that much of the material originally existed in Aramaic; his Greek in places preserves the Aramaic idiom quite unmistakably...  Another interesting fact which comes to light when we try to reconstruct the original Aramaic in which our Lord's sayings in all the Gospels were spoken is that very many of these sayings exhibit poetical features. Even in a translation we can see how full they are of parallelism, which is so constant a mark of Old Testament poetry. When they are turned into Aramaic, however, they are seen to be marked by regular poetical rhythm, and even, at times, rhyme. This has been demonstrated in particular by the late Professor C. F. Burney in The Poetry of our Lord (1925)."[19]


Of course, considering Markan priority as a reality, we might expect these Aramaic traces to be found at least in the gospel of Mark. Being the first and earliest gospel in this hypothetical order, he would have gotten his traditions from the earliest outside sources. But this just presents more problems and difficulties. Once again, we must resort to circular reasoning here and presuppose Markan priority to explain these traces; or in other words, presuppose a hypothetical to be true: that Mark came first. If Mark did not come first then the entire textual-dependency house cards comes crashing down because of this single issue.

If Mark was not written first, then where this Aramaism came from remains a mystery, which complicates, if not debunks entirely textual-dependency. However, under the presupposition of Markan priority, we certainly would not expect to find these traces in the others if they copied from his written Greek source. Are these Aramaic traces found in the others? Yes. There indeed has been a rather extensive list of scholarly research also pointing out the Aramaism in Matthew.[20] James Hastings states of the gospel Matthew:


"... and even if we cannot follow Weiss in every application of his conclusions, there remains proof enough to render the theory of an original Aramaic Gospel, as underlining the Synoptics, probable to a high degree. The supposition is even more plausible in the case of the portions of St. Matthew's Gospel which are peculiar to the Evangelist."[21]


Luke is not excluded from this phenomenon. Chang-Wook Jung has an interesting assessment of C. C. Torrey's analysis and belief that Luke's work was also translated entirely from original Aramaic sources...


"C.C. Torrey, having found that the NT involves many difficult passages and while not confining himself to the Gospel of Luke, claims that the Gospels and Acts were the translation of an Aramaic original... Concerning the Gospel of Luke, he admits that it was published in Greek, but posits that the gospel is composed entirely from Semitic documents 'assembled and translated by Luke himself, while Mark, Matthew, and John were written and published in Aramaic."[22]


Interestingly, Jung later points out that one of the key arguments against Torrey's view is that most documents in Palestine were written in Hebrew, not Aramaic, which is used to counter Torrey's presupposition that these underlying Aramaic sources Luke presumably used were "written" material. However, he completely overlooks the possibility that they were oral.

The gospel of John is remarkably not excluded from this equation either. Saeed Hamid-Khani lists quite a few 20th century scholars, such as A. Schlatter, C. J. Ball, C. F. Burney. J. A. Montgomery, O. T. Allis and Torrey who debated about the fourth gospel having a clear Aramaic archetype. Apparently these scholars never disagreed that this Aramaism existed abundantly throughout John's gospel, but a back and fourth scholarly war on whether John's gospel was translated directly from an Aramaic gospel or a writer drawing upon Semitic sources and traditions.[23]

Well, now the problems are becoming rather insurmountable to just dismiss. If the gospel authors in fact all drew from independent Aramaic and even Greek oral traditions instead, then we should expect to find these mixed traces or patches of linguistic variations. Thus, the simplest conclusion to be made from this is not to dismiss all these scholars as being off their rocker or just plain wrong in their assessments, but that the gospel authors indeed used a variety of these external sources independently; otherwise this makes no sense assuming they copied the traditions from one Greek source to another.

Problem #4

Though Markan priority proponents primarily concentrate on the three synoptics, sometimes they do, or are forced to consider other external sources, such as the second century apocryphal Gospel of Thomas, as having possible traces of Q found in some of these works as well. However, fitting these external sources into the Markan priority-Q paradigm becomes more than slightly problematic. How does one explain Paul in this equation, yet another external source? Why does Luke's version of the communion resemble Paul's version, which differs from the communion in Mark and Matthew that are identical to each other...

Mark: "While they were eating, he took some bread, and after a blessing he broke it, and gave it to them, and said, Take it; this is my body. And when he had taken a cup and given thanks, he gave it to them, and they all drank [pino is the Greek word used here for "drink"] from it. And he said to them, This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many."


Matthew: "While they were eating, Jesus took some bread, and after a blessing, he broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, Take, eat; this is my body. And when he had taken a cup and given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, Drink [same Greek word pino] from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins."


Luke: "And when he (Jesus) had taken some bread and given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, 'This is my body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of me.' And in the same way he took the cup after he had supped [deipneo is the Greek word used here for "supped"], saying, 'This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.'"


Paul: "... the Lord Jesus in the night in which he was betrayed took bread; and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, 'This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.' In the same way he took the cup also after he had supped [same Greek word deipneo], saying, 'This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.'"


Unless Paul had access to Luke's gospel, which post-70 CE proponents would vehemently contest (being that Paul’s Corinthian letter dates to the 50s!), this strongly suggests an external source -- L source? -- which was more than likely an oral source. Also note that neither Luke nor Paul were at Jesus' Last Supper, yet they each quote the event extremely accurately, down to precise Greek words and direct quotes.

Though there's always a possibility Luke lifted Paul's verse from his letter (assuming Luke wrote it well after Paul's letters were circulating and had access to his letters, which is doubtful), considering Luke used very little actual material from Paul's letters makes this very unlikely (discussed here: Meet the Ghost Writers, Evidence that both works were written by Luke, Paul's companion). Another interesting and rather subtle tie with Luke to Paul is Jesus' appearance to Peter, implied only by Luke and Paul as being a solo event distinct from the other disciples...


Luke: "And they got up that very hour and returned to Jerusalem, and found gathered together the eleven and those who were with them, saying, "The Lord has really risen and has appeared to Simon [Peter].""


Paul: "and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas [Peter], then to the twelve."


Though the gospel of John is much more independent of the synoptics, he's almost never figured into the equation, probably because his gospel throws even more of a wrench into the textual-dependency machine. Not only does Luke's account of the woman anointing Jesus' feet differ from Mark and Matthew's version, which resemble each other, even more puzzling is the fact that Luke's version of the anointing resembles John's version...


Mark: "While He was in Bethany at the home of Simon the leper, and reclining at the table, there came a woman with an alabaster vial of very costly perfume of pure nard; and she broke the vial and poured it over His head."


Matthew: "a woman came to Him with an alabaster vial of very costly perfume, and she poured it on His head as He reclined at the table."


Luke: "and standing behind Him at His feet, weeping, she began to wet His feet with her tears, and kept wiping them with the hair of her head, and kissing His feet and anointing them with the perfume."


John: "Mary then took a pound of very costly perfume of pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped His feet with her hair; and the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume."


Whether this is a different account from Mark and Matthew or the same account, once again suggests oral tradition common to Luke and John. Here are some other similarities between the gospel of John and the others (note that the comparable passages are in vertical sequential order on the same webpage):

Traditions not found in Mark, considered the Q source:

John 1:23 - Matthew 3:3, Luke 3:4
John 3:35 - Matthew 11:27, Luke 10:22

John 13:16 - Matthew 10:24, Luke 6:40

John 15:1-2 - Matthew 3:10, Luke 13:6-9

John 19:41 - Matthew 27:60, Luke 23:53 (the tomb was "new," not indicated in Mark)

Traditions not found in Matthew or Mark (L source):

John 1:1 - Luke 1:2 (both use the Greek word logos for "word")
John 5:46 - Luke 24:2
John 8:2 - Luke 21:38
John 12:36 - Luke 16:8

John 12:3 - Luke 7:38

John 13:27 - Luke 22:3

John 20:3-6 - Luke 24:12
                                                                                                                                                                                                      John 20:19-20 - Luke 24:36-40 

Traditions found in either John and Mark or all four (triple source):

John 4:44 - Mark 6:4
John 5:8-9 - Mark 2:11-12
John 6:7 - Mark 6:37

John 10:20 - Mark 3:21

John 12:25 - Mark 8:35

John 12:12-13 - Mark 11:8-10

John 2:14-16 - Mark 11:15-16

John 13:20 - Mark 9:37

John 13:38 - Mark 14:30

John 18:3 - Mark 14:43

John 18:18 - Mark 14:67

John 2:19 - Mark 15:29

John 18:39-40 - Mark 15:6-7

John 19:17 - Mark 15:22

John 2:19 - Mark 14:58

John 19:24 - Mark 15:24

John 19:38 - Mark 15:42-43


James Arlandson also catalogs dozens more commonalities between John and the other gospels in his article (though some are more anecdotal than others).[24] As you can plainly see, there is indeed a rather large identifiable portion from all three synoptic sources scattered throughout the gospel of John, though not as identical as the links between the synoptics to warrant interdependency, which leaves Markan priority proponents particularly puzzled by these connections. There have been no shortage of contentions between scholarly camps on whether these synoptic traces in John are directly interdependent or not.[25]

William Farmer argues that out of the ten miracle stories in Mark, Matthew and Luke include only eight and the SAME eight, leaving Markan priority proponents to suppose a lucky coincidence; a statistical probability of which Farmer concludes is "very great."[26] Incidentally, the two extra miracles in Mark that are missing from Matthew and Luke consist of the use of saliva (Mark 7:32-35, 8:22-24), and the latter miracle is actually similar to the miracle and method Jesus used that is illustrated in John (9:6-7). All these implications suggest a common oral heritage familiar to Mark and John, Luke and John, Luke and Paul, and possibly even more subtle connections between Paul and John (discussed here: The Christology of Paul, John and Paul).

Then there are also intimate connections, such as the miracle of fish and loaves recorded by all four. John records a unique instance of Jesus asking Philip where they can buy bread (John 6:5). Why Philip? We find earlier in John that Philip was from Bethsaida (John 1:44), though this still doesn't give us the specific reason Jesus asked Philip, until we go to the same miracle recorded in Luke and find that the miracle location was in Bethsaida (Luke 9:10-17). These extremely subtle interconnections are solved by assuming oral sources, yet remain inexplicable in the context of literary sources. Moreover, the incident in Bethsaida even suggests an eyewitness testimony recalling such intimate details that were subconsciously displayed.

Textual-dependency forces us to presume that the similarities between John and the synoptics indicate that John also had access to these external sources, including all three gospels and meticulously and subtly interwove all this information into his own work (which takes us ahead to Problem #8). Another issue is how he actually accumulated all these sources. The writers undoubtedly wrote hundreds of miles apart from each other in scattered areas without the luxuries of mass transit or communication. A typical solution to make this viable is to suppose a very late date for the gospel of John (somewhere around the end of the first century or even second century), giving him a theoretical chance to accumulate all this material.

This presents other problems not only with the date issue -- being that the date itself is but a very tenuous theory (discussed here: Gospel Date) -- but why these sub-sources (Q, L, etc.) weren't preserved or at least acknowledged by the fathers if they were still circulating so late.

Another incongruity is the issue of why John chose to deviate more than the other three, or, considering his uniqueness and independence in his own right, why he even bothered copying any of the literature used in the synoptics in the first place. It makes more sense that John was consciously or subconsciously drawing on remnants of common oral tradition familiar to him and the synoptic gospels.


Problem #5

There are inconsistency issues textual-dependency proponents seem to ignore. As we pointed out previously, even though the triple source tradition or duplicated accounts in each gospel are remarkably similar in most cases, there are also places where they diverge. This conditions the textual-dependency proponent to presuppose redaction criticism -- that these variations were intentional changes made by each author, such as the example of Luke that I gave in the beginning of this article. In other words, if they were copying one source gospel, then one would have to assume a level of consistency and thus the duplicated traditions should be exactly the same at all times, but this is often times not the case.

Therefore, this naturally creates the supposition that they each made these changes themselves. Indeed scholars have greatly used this supposition to their advantage in devising a slew of other theories about the authors' intentions for these divergences and variations, whether for theological purposes, purposes of evangelism, something from the source they just didn't like and thought needed editing according to their personal or creative tastes, or addressing a particular issue the community or audience needed addressing (such as suggested by Mack and Kloppenborg, as I previously noted).

However, a lot of the variations are not very logical within this scheme, as many of the differences serve no clear purpose for an editing change, often based on nothing that would appear to have any relevance to theology or evangelism and, in most cases, actually create unnecessary conflict, or changes where Mark is actually more "developed" in religious and theological ideas than Matthew or Luke, or both, and thus the change would have been less theologically developed within this supposed scheme.


Why did Mark (15:39) and Matthew (27:54) record the Roman centurion calling Jesus "the Son of God" during his crucifixion, yet Luke (23:47) supposedly changed it to  "righteous man?" If Luke was copying Mark or Matthew, why would Luke go against the grain of developed Son of God theology and entitlement here? In fact, not only does Luke have no problem bestowing the Son of God title onto Jesus by individuals in other areas of his work (see Luke 1:35, 8:28), but he was only one among two authors (Matthew being the other) who gave a description of the virgin birth in the beginning of his gospel, and nowhere is there an overt progressive theological premise that stands out more than the Son of God born of a virgin birth. Although attempts can certainly be made to read the mind of Luke and suppose why he made the assumed change, it's just pure guesswork, thus remains an inconsistency.

In Mark (3:28-29), Jesus proclaimed that any sin is forgiven except the sin of blaspheming the Holy Spirit. Why would Mathew and Luke add the extra sin of blaspheming the Son of Man himself (Jesus) among the sins that are also forgiven aside from blaspheming the Holy Spirit (Matthew 12:31-32, Luke 12:10)? This not only implied that it was okay to blaspheme Jesus, but that the Holy Spirit was somehow more preferential in the Holy order?  

In Mark (14:61-62), Jesus’ response to the high priest as to whether he was the Christ or not is an emphatic "I am" -- a claim that was distinctly recognized by Jews in association with the emphatic claim God made to Moses (Exodus 3:14). However, in Matthew and Luke, Jesus' response is "Yes, it is as you say/You are right in saying I am" (Matthew 26:63-64; Luke 22:70). Why did they alter the text from the stronger and more theologically progressive divine affirmation found in Mark?

Why does Luke (22:55-60) record that Peter's denial occurred after the assembly of the Sanhedrin, whereas Mark and Matthew record that it occurred before, which did nothing to improve the text or the scenario other than create a conflict with the chronology of events?

There is nothing that reflects this inconsistency more than the resurrection accounts. If Matthew was copying Mark, why did Matthew only list two women who arrived at the tomb (Matthew 28:1), when Mark listed three (Mark 16:1)? Three witnesses were obviously better than two, especially in the case of women as inferior eyewitnesses in ancient culture. Though Markan priority proponents naturally suppose that Matthew's intent was to specifically correlate it with Jewish law and the adequacy of "two female Jewish witnesses," this contrivance is silly in spite of Jewish law, especially since three witnesses would have had just the same authority, or else he could have just added a man if he was inclined to strengthen a "perfect witness."

Mark called his one angel just a "man" (Mark 16:5). Why did Luke call the angels "men in dazzling clothing" (Luke 24:4) instead of calling them "angels." In other words, why would Luke feel free to embellish Mark's version by changing the number of angels from one to two, yet remain consistent with Mark's more conservative and lackluster noun he used to identify the individual?

Why were the post-resurrection angelic messages different in Mark and Luke (Mark 16:6-7; Luke 24:5-7)? Mark records the angel instructing them to tell the disciples "and Peter," with a particular emphasis on Peter, whereas Luke and Matthew leave this out. A typical explanation in Luke's case is that he changed the angel's quote in order to remove any reference to a meeting in Galilee since Luke didn't record a meeting in Galilee. But this doesn't explain why Luke removed the reference to Peter. Luke does in fact imply (the only one to imply this!) a special sighting that apparently occurred to Peter before the sighting in Jerusalem (see Luke 24:33-35), which makes Luke's alteration of the angel's special attention to Peter even more incongruous. 

Why did Luke (Luke 23:45-46) record that the veil in the temple was rent before Jesus died, yet Mark (Mark 15:37-38) and Matthew (Matthew 27:50-51) record that it occurred after he had died? If we assume Luke deviated here, not only are we left without a reason for this intentional conflict, but it could have raised issues with soteriology. The veil in the Temple in Jewish tradition represented the separation between God and man because of sin, thus the act of splitting the veil in Christian tradition represented the atonement that was finalized by Jesus' death on the cross, creating access between God and man. Therefore, Luke's deviation of Mark and Matthew's chronology would have been antithetical to the theological significance illustrated in Mark.

This is something that Markan priority proponents don't have an easy answer to. If we assume they were changing things for the sake of change, most of the changes don't follow any sort of consistent, logical or even theological consistency. Proponents of textual-dependency might dismiss this argument as too circumstantial. Although I do agree, not only does this not stop these proponents from coming up with their own speculations and assumptions for the supposed redactions between the three authors to support the idea they were changing Mark's account, but any questionable barriers that might work against textual-dependency must always be considered in the equation when proposing theories that are hypothetical in the first place.

Bottom line, these variations are to be expected if they are traditions from independent sources, but as conscious and intentional redaction, they linger with no reasonable explanation in light of textual-dependency, nor are the divergences consistent with the fact that much of the duplicated information is practically verbatim in other areas between the three.

Problem #6

Simply put, textual-dependency does not have firm historical support because it puts emphasis on a literary paradigm at odds with the unmovable fact first century Judea was predominantly an oral culture first; a literary culture second. The entirety of Judaic culture was orientated around oral tradition, how the law was transmitted and legends of oral tradition from the time of Moses.[27] Samuel Byrskog states…


"Writing was usually seen as supplementary to the oral discourse. Orators should avoid note-books that were too detailed. One is reminded of Quintillian's criticism of Laenas' dependence on such notes and his clear-cut advice: 'For my own part, however, I think we should not write anything which we do not intend to commit to memory'... Writing was not avoided as such, but functioned mainly as a memorandum of what the person already should remember from oral communication."[28]


Eusebius indeed confirmed the fact that John taught the gospel traditions in oral form until he transcribed it to text. Eusebius, quoting Papias, also says this of Peter before Mark transcribed his oral teachings to a gospel.[29] In light of this, the idea that the gospels were formed specifically from an oral outline for an oral culture not only correlates with history but would logically explain why the gospels are designed the way they are. Among the scholars perceptive enough to spot this essential point is Mournet, who adds…


"If we study orally composed material in the same way that we would study a written text, then we are in danger of misinterpreting the tradition, and likely to draw improper inferences from the material."[30]


The gospels appear as a raw accumulation or collage of organized oral traditions layered into a most basic common outline that the early church community followed in order to keep the movement anchored in sound tradition, as opposed to each writer specifically writing a personalized biographical story. If you were writing about an experience you personally had, say... about 911, but you chose to write it as a song and wanted to convey it to a much wider audience, you would obviously write it differently than if you strictly wrote it as a historiography or as an official record for public archives. Of course, you don't want false facts, but you would structure it a certain way, leave out extensive details, condense necessary details, leave out first person voices, etc.

This was an evangelistic movement in an illiterate world from day one, and even putting the oral culture aside, the gospels themselves were undoubtedly written communally and read out loud to the church congregations to those who had no literary skills, couldn't afford copies, or just to bring a sense of church unification (see 1 Timothy 4:13; Colossians 4:16). This is why there is telescoping of certain events and obvious gaps of information in between events (discussed here: Those Darn Contradictions, Gaps, different perspectives and timelines). If we're putting the conception of the written gospels, how they were structured and for what purpose in the context of an oral culture, the way they are designed makes perfect sense.

We find elements of oral tradition expressed in Paul's letters (examples: 1 Corinthians 11:23, 15:1-3; 1 Thessalonians 2:13; 2 Thessalonians 3:6), further exemplifying the historical setting these writings were conceived. We also find glimpses of this oral function from the mouths of men within the New Testament itself (examples: Acts 2:14-36, 7:2-49, 10:36-43; 13:16-41). The fact Luke composed it in this manner clearly suggests that he felt confident his readers were accustomed to men giving such long-winded oratories from memory.

The economy was strained, taxes were high, texts were expensive to produce, papyrus cost money, ink cost money, and scribes cost money.[31] Literacy was more of a luxury, as the majority of the Judean populace was undoubtedly marginally literate.[32] It would seem that the textual-dependency proponents rarely keep all this in historical context of the first century instead of the 21st century! Oral methodology would have been a reality even for those who weren't illiterate or could hire a scribe. Vast amounts of information was usually written on scrolls, yet scrolls were impractical to carry around and information contained therein not easily referenced or retrievable thus making memorization a practical necessity for anyone, rich or poor, illiterate or not. Orville B. Jenkins points out...


"Also keep in mind that scrolls were expensive, and rare by our standards. You didn't just go out a buy a few copies.  And you could not easily carry them around with you for reference.  No, the writings were stored in human memory, a feat literate persons today cannot imagine."[33]


In light of all this, we are forced to acknowledge the fact that the gospels center around what was primarily oral tradition. Even though this view is obviously not at all popular with Markan priority proponents for obvious reasons, based on some of the evidence we just covered, no reasonable or credible scholar can totally rule out oral processes to at least a degree of influence on Judeo-Christian tradition and how it was preserved. Putting great emphasis on the fact that the culture was highly proficient in oral methodology and transmission makes it that much unnecessary to assume the writers had to copy from literary sources.

However, since textual-dependency proponents cannot buck against the historical facts, the attempt they use to counter this idea is the unlikeliness one could possibly memorize such extensive amounts of information as a whole gospel in such accurate detail. Once again, however, this is just hopelessly entrenched in 21st century perception of how information is relayed between individuals today 2,000 years removed from this reality.

A 21st century individual, encaptured by technological luxury, might not be able to achieve such a feat, but this was as common to an ancient as accessing smartphones have become to us new millennials. The epics of Homer started off as oral chronicles,[34] and Barbs could recite the entire epics of Homer from memory.[35] Jewish boys had to memorize the Torah,[36] and we could presume this included the auxiliary extension of those laws associated with everyday societal function, something Jesus criticized them for burdening the people with -- example: Matthew 15:2-6; Luke 11:46).

Moreover, as I discussed in a previous article (Gospel Within a Gospel), the idea that ancient communities were incapable of memorizing and recalling epics of even extended legendary narratives and sayings in such accurate detail has also been challenged by scholars and anthropologists such as Albert B. Lord and Jan Vansina.[37] Though this doesn't in and of itself prove independent oral tradition is the method by which the four gospels were conceived, it completely shatters the only argument against it as unfounded. Muslim children even today are known to memorize all 6,200 verses of the Koran,[38] compared to just about 678 verses that make up the gospel of Mark.

Current scholars such as Kenneth Bailey, Richard Bauckham, N.T. Wright and James D. G. Dunn have also challenged Rudolf Bultmann's theoretical argument about the development of the traditions of the gospels he called form criticism. Bultmann proposed this theory around the early 20th century, which suggests that the traditions evolved or formed "in layers" over time, primarily in literary (or pre-gospel) form. Current scholars with a clearer understanding of Near Eastern culture frown on his analysis and have supplanted his ideas with an ancient oral methodology they often cite as formal controlled oral tradition.

Bailey, who spent years studying Middle Eastern cultures, also shattered the false association with oral tradition to the "telephone game." He argues that oral tradition in theses cultures was and still is a highly efficient process monitored by the elders in each community , only in Bailey's experience, this was a community system. Since the community was involved, it is a strict and controlled environment by which this process is carried out.[39] No one can recite the traditions other than whom the elders deem qualified.

There is some flexibility in how the traditions are told, but the sayings, parables, allegories are kept much more rigidly. Unless the traditions are recited accurately, the one reciting it is shamed by those in the community who correct his error. In relation to the gospels' origins in theory, an oral outline similar to Mark would be expected, with flexibility of this outline only permitted by the apostles and elders (see Matthew 15:2; Luke 9:22; Acts 11:30; 14:23; 1 Peter 5:1; 1 Timothy 5:17), with perhaps streams of extraneous oral tradition (Q, M, L, signs) added only as permitted by the apostles and elders themselves.

I established in another article (here: The Evangelists: Chaos theory) that such assumed control over the traditions, whether oral or written, would have been a certain reality during the apostolic stages of Christianity. It's no wonder why Papias preferred hearing the "living word" (oral tradition) taught by the apostles, whom he also identified as "elders," from those who had direct associations with the elders than the actual written word itself.[40] It's remarkable how much textual-dependency falls outside the scope of Near Eastern culture, seemingly downplaying or just ignoring this important aspect of history and instead seems irresistibly drawn to a postmodern perspective of how we store and convey information.


Problem #7

As mentioned, oral tradition in this culture is a stark reality based on what we know of this culture. Oral information would have saturated the early pre-70 church, whether one wants to argue that these were stories, legends or just rumors is a moot point. These oral traditions were undoubtedly considered just as authoritative as any written text, probably more so, since they were not only handed down in a predominantly illiterate environment, but because, according to Luke and Paul, they were handed down by the chief conveyors -- the Jewish apostles and eyewitnesses themselves (see Luke 1:2; 1 Corinthians 11:23, 15:3).

If we assume textual-dependency is true, we can also accurately presume that the only real reason the authors needed to copy each other instead of using the oral traditions around them is that they were not confident with this information, or that there was a mishmash of conflicting oral information floating around that the authors had to carefully and selectively guard against.

My argument, from Problem #6, is that the early church indeed had an authoritative and controlled system of oral tradition transmission from the very beginning, which explains either why the traditions in each gospel were very similar (in other words, they were all referencing oral tradition that was kept fairly accurate, and in most cases remarkably so), or that the authors of the gospels themselves chose to keep their works within a degree of consistency that was acceptable under these controls.

Critics often deny that these controls were in place as a necessity to explain how these stories rapidly progressed from rumors, myth, legend and theology -- i.e. form criticism -- and yet likewise deny the possibility that the gospel works were written by the ascribed authors (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John). However, even assuming both of these arguments are true, we are forced to deal with the fact that the authors duplicated each other from a common source. Thus, if the authors merely copied their information from a written source, why the authors passed up so much oral information that would have inevitably been circulating without these controls in place remains the unanswered question.

If we assume the traditions were radically evolving into fantastic supernatural legends and myths, surely, there had to have been a whole pool of stories, traditions, accounts, rumors and legends about Jesus and his three year venture swirling around a presumed uncontrolled environment that they could have picked from (see John 20:30, 21:25). Why did they pass this up, and what made the first gospel (presumably Mark) so authoritative, especially if it was not written by the apostle it is currently ascribed to?

Moreover, even more puzzling is that had the writers been avoiding this outside information that would have continued flowing even after their written works, then this would also beg the question why the three synoptic gospels were kept anonymous from within the work itself. If they were not written by the apostles ascribed to them, this takes us back to the issues I raised about authorship in another article (here: The Ghost Writers), which can be formed into a question: why were the written gospels not given a pseudonym or signature from the start, especially using more "choice" apostles (Peter, Andrew, Philip, Thomas, Paul, etc.) in order to give them more authority over this influx of unwanted oral information?

Textual-dependency comes with a slew of inconsistencies and issues not just with the history of oral tradition, but in association with other critical arguments outside the theory, such as form criticism and views of authorship.


Problem #8

It never fails that when I hear a scholar repetitively claim in their discussions that the gospel authors "used" Mark, I not only try and visualize this, but wonder exactly what they visualize or if they even bother giving it a second thought. Use? What does this mean? As I noted earlier, textual-dependency proponents remarkably and recklessly drag the 21st century into the first century, which amazes me when they seem to only focus on the literary internals of the theory, such as how these similarities are structured in each gospel compared to the other, yet don't give the physical reality or practicality much in-depth thought.

Let's not forget that these were traveling evangelists (we know the author of Luke/Acts was for a fact), and we must deal with the fact that the written sources (Mark, Q, et al.) that were supposedly referenced by them would undoubtedly have been guardedly preserved by the particular communities or churches that were in possession of them and not exactly readily given into the hands of an evangelist to take on his journeys throughout the countryside.

One would have to imagine the authors spending years hand copying all this material as they traveled from place to place, then scattering all this material around their office desks (please note the sarcasm) as they set out to write the final draft. However, let's think about this process. Copying from one source to another is not anywhere near as easy as it is sold to us at first glance even for a writer today with all our modern amenities and comforts, let alone a writer in the first century.

Don't think it would be difficult? Just try copying by hand (there was no Microsoft Word or iWorks) and with a pen (erasing wasn't easy), the gospel of Mark, subtracting, revising, and changing words, speeches, phrases, events, rearranging some of the structure as you go, inserting other things from other sources (sometimes breaking up blocks of dialogue and scattering them in bits and pieces throughout your work) and you'll see what I mean. Keep in mind that the materials -- papyrus and ink -- were expensive and there is no evidence of additional drafts, thus this was a one time shot! One naturally imagines a retired group of first century writers in their own study behind some large organized office with cut-and-paste editing software along with all this reference material available on their digital storage drives.

We could assume that they all simply read the gospel of Mark (of course, once again, assuming they all had access to his gospel), as well as the other theoretical written sources (Q, etc.), at some point and recalled these sources from memory. Yet this just defeats the purpose and necessity of a literary process, as it is just as difficult to argue each author would have been able to recall such specific detail from memory, practically verbatim and interweaving all this information into their narratives as it is to argue it could have been orally preserved that way. It amazes me how this issue is almost completely ignored, when in fact it warrants a lot more consideration within the textual-dependency paradigm than it gets. 

I ask you -- is this theory thus far good enough to use as a foundation for other arguments that rely on the theory being true? Considering all the issues against textual-dependency we've covered so far, it would require monumental temerity to consider it a premise solid enough to comfortably stake other arguments on. In other words, if one concluded that the gospel of Mark should be dated at 70 CE, and therefore conclude that Matthew and Luke should date later based on the theory that they copied Mark, when considering these issues we just raised here, it would require quite a bit of risk to put any confidence in the certainty of that conclusion with what we know so far. 


Looking at the Markan priority evidence

Most of the evidence for Markan priority is circumstantial at best, based on the seemingly interdependent relationship between the three gospels. Indeed, there is a great deal of this circumstantial evidence which, when used in a cumulative way, can look quite convincing.

There is, however, a great deal of evidence for other textual-dependency theories such as the Augustine theory or the Griesbach theory (Matthean priority) as well, some of this evidence which either solves the problems that Markan priority can't solve or presents problems that don't make sense in the scope of Markan priority. However, the reality is that each theory has major problems against it, as I have pointed out, also evident by the fact that there are numerous scholar disagreements between the theories. Thus, the consensus case against these other theories is based primarily on choosing between the lesser of evils, or which theory has the least amount of problems against it. Obviously this crates a false dichotomy that doesn't make the problems of each theory go away.

However, these seemingly interdependent relationships as well as divergences between the gospels would be expected in the context of an oral culture strictly following a common outline that was controlled and monitored by church superiors (the apostles and elders). It would seem that scholars are so wrapped up postulating the strength of their own textual-dependency theory against proponents of opposing theories, each side misses the slew of evidence against the textual-dependency theory all together. The complications only arise in the scope of textual-dependency, yet most of these complications are easily solved looking totally outside of textual-dependency and at an independent oral development theory instead.

That is, not only does the oral development theory (the gospels independently derived from common oral tradition instead) offer solutions for the problems presented against all the textual-dependency theories, but it does not conflict with the evidence used to support these textual-dependency theories either. Just some examples of the evidence used to support Markan priority against other textual-dependency theories (i.e. Matthean priority) is as followed:


  • The term Son of David is used eleven times in Matthew, but only four times in Mark and Luke. If Matthew were the first gospel, why would Mark and Luke omit this phrase seven times?
  • The Greek word "immediately" (eujquv) is distinctively Markan, occurring over 40 times. Every time Matthew uses the exact word, there is a parallel in Mark. Further, Matthew uses the alternate spelling eujqevw but only in areas that don't parallel Mark.
  • Mark uses the Greek word kyrios (Lord) of Jesus only six times. Matthew, on the other hand, uses it fifteen times. Why would Mark eliminate such an important theological word if he were copying Matthew?
  • Mark was shorter, so why would he summarize everything Matthew and Luke wrote the way he did?


All these problems are reasonable within an oral theoretical scope: Mark stuck much more closely to the oral traditional outline that was more primitive (which is compatible with what Papias said about Mark: "For he had one purpose, not to omit what he heard or falsify them"), thus Son of David was a common theme Matthew wanted to espouse; or Mathew, assuming he was the disciple Matthew -- being an eyewitness, remembered that term and used it firsthand in his own recollections; or Matthew writing specifically to Jews knew that the phrase would have a much bigger impact to his readers than Mark and Luke who were writing to different audiences. The same explanation can be used for "immediately" and "Lord" or why Mark was shorter, because he stuck strictly to the oral outline without adding any extrinsic traditions or personal eyewitness accounts. Other arguments supporting Markan priority consists of:


  • The argument from grammar: Matthew and especially Luke use better grammar and literary style than Mark, suggesting that they not only used Mark, but improved his grammar.
  • The argument from harder readings: Based on other early scribal habits, Luke and Matthew apparently removed difficulties we find in Mark, whereas in Mark the difficulties were untouched. In other words, it's easier to assume Matthew and Luke cleaned Mark's gospel up as they copied it than to assume Mark would have introduced such difficulties if he was copying the better gospels.


Outside the scope of textual-dependency these are once again easily explained just the same. They all followed the same common oral outline apart from each other, yet Mark's scribal hand either wasn't as experienced translating the Aramaic traditions as the others or he stuck more rigidly to the outline. An example is that if they translated this outline from Aramaic to Greek, Mark either wasn't as educated in either Aramaic or Greek, or he rigidly stuck to a literal translation of the Aramaic as closely as possible, which made the phrases awkward (if someone translated Spanish to English, yet stuck with as literal an interpretation as possible, it would make for a rather sloppy and awkward translation). This would also explain why there are more Aramaic traces in Mark's gospel -- i.e. he either couldn't translate it as well or kept to the original form as close as possible. Other arguments are:


  • The argument from agreement in order: Luke and Matthew rarely agree with each other when they depart from Mark’s order, or in the narratives common to all three, Matthew and Luke agree in sequence only when they agree with Mark, and when they both diverge from Mark, they both go in different directions.


Though the argument from order is pretty much considered the firmest of evidence for Markan priority, this is only true presupposing textual-dependency. Once again, all the problems are solved by assuming they stuck to a common oral outline as an anchor; Mark much more so, while Matthew and Luke added layers of other extrinsic oral tradition (or Matthew added in his own eyewitness accounts), like patches sewn into a solid piece of fabric. Matthew and Luke interwove patches of extrinsic fabric while Mark stuck with the original fabric more rigidly, which would corroborate with what was discussed in Problem #6 about oral tradition and the fact they were most likely written as oral and communal constructs, as opposed to strictly formal historiographies.  


Let the "reader" understand

By far the strongest and only uncontrived argument for textual-dependency I've seen is the identical parenthesis found in both Matthew and Mark (Matthew 24:15; Mark 13:14), known as the Olivet Discourse. The Olivet Discourse consists of a dialogue Jesus had with his disciples about a series of future events that would occur in Judea and is similarly recorded in the three synoptics. It's obvious that the parenthesis "let the reader understand" could not be due to a common oral heritage, and seems quite coincidental that both Matthew and Mark would place the exact same editorial in the exact same spot if one was not in fact copying the other.

But is it really that much of a coincidence? If you notice, the parenthesis is addressing a very heady passage pulled from the Old Testament book of Daniel (a series of passages really: Daniel 9:27, 11:31, 12:11). Without getting too specific about eschatology, the Daniel passages have enormous prophetic significance to both Jews and Christians, and indeed these passages have been the subject of much heated debate between the two religions, as well as divisions within Christianity itself about the interpretation. Point is, it undoubtedly had just as much prophetic significance to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Jewish Temple to a Judeo-Christian back then as it has today. Thus we can assume it stirred up some of the same controversy, hence the reason the passage was specifically noted with a word of cautious discernment to the reader. So, even if we assume this was an oral tradition, it isn't hard to see where the original oral account may have addressed the hearer -- "let the hearer understand" -- giving both Matthew and Mark a common incentive to change it from "hearer" to "reader" as they transcribed the oral tradition to written texts. 

This does still impose a degree of coincidence, though not as bad. However, another even more likely possibility, which leaves no coincidental factor, is that the original oral tradition in fact did address "the reader," yet was specifically referring to Daniel's scroll source where the prophecy was previously read from (at that time they of course would have already had written texts of Daniel), or addressing those who, after listening to Jesus speak, would have been inclined to read it from the Daniel scroll themselves in order to analyze it with what he had just spoken about the prophecy. So, let the "reader understand" was specifically a reference to their understanding of Daniel's prophecy, not the general content of what Jesus was describing around it.

As we mentioned, Luke also records the discourse but the parenthesis is not found in Luke's discourse because he doesn't specifically reference Daniel's prophecy, though he does follow a similar prophetic series of events, including events that would occur at Jerusalem (Luke 21:20-22). This adds more weight to the fact that the note to the reader was specifically associated with the Daniel reference itself.

And as a result of what was just covered in this article, it should come as no surprise that there have been quite a few scholars, such as Bo Reicke (who argues for a complete independent oral process), William Farmer, John Wenham, Eta Linnemann, Hans Stoldt, John Rist, E.P Sanders, and Terence C. Mournet (who also argues in favor of orality) who have all questioned at least the Markan priority-Q theory, finding it seriously wanting.

A better hypothesis?

The inevitable question that might arise is that if this was truly an oral conception, why there was a need of written gospels in the first place? There are viable reasons why, such as simply a case of supply and demand, or as Eusebius put it: "under the pressure of necessity."[41] As a result, a few reasons would include:


  • An increasing number of Greek speaking converts and the need for Aramaic translations (an apostle prolific in both Aramaic and Greek translates the Aramaic oral traditions into Greek text, then further Greek scribes can use it as a source to produce more copies).
  • Communities being introduced to the movement that weren't as inept or disciplined in oral methodology.
  • A rapidly spreading movement and the impossibility of an apostle being assigned to every Christian community at all times, thus the need of a traditional anchor.


Even if textual-dependency were true, oral tradition cannot be ruled out of the historical equation entirely. It's perfectly logical that the apostles would have created and shared a common oral outline of the traditions, perhaps structured similar to Mark that the movement followed in order to stay grounded in their evangelism and keep the creed organized.

The unsolvable complications and uncertainties that work against Markan priority, once again, work in favor of an oral process as a solution, which may not be as popular, but certainly isn't any less hypothetical, in fact, simpler and less conflicting with the eight problems against textual-dependency that were brought up in this article. Dnd most importantly, it actually correlates with the external data that is available (i.e. church fathers) instead of downplaying or just dismissing it:

  • Matthew: wrote his first work in Aramaic or Hebrew, which followed the basic oral outline told by the apostles and elders that incorporated a mini biography of Jesus, and was structured around what Peter and the other post-crucifixion Jewish apostles were using to proclaim the risen Lord, such as is found in Mark, and this most likely would have been very early, sometime within a few decades after the crucifixion. At some point, Matthew wrote another gospel in Greek (his final?), quite possibly as he traveled to Syria or somewhere father East (most scholars concur Matthew either wrote it in Palestine or Syria), which also followed this same common outline with perhaps additional accounts layered in that he too experienced, recalled, or subsequently researched (some apologists speculate he got his Nativity tradition from records kept by the Syrian magi). I personally believe he wrote his Greek gospel well after Mark and even Luke, and was perhaps either inspired by them to write his work in Greek or just out of necessity of a growing Greek church community. Why was his Semitic gospel not preserved? A couple of possibilities: Greek speaking Christians eventually became the predominant convert and authority; or the Semitic version was being redacted by groups that were considered unorthodox, hence, in either case, its necessity and/or favor decreased, thus turned to dust and faded away.
  • Mark: (not an original disciple) followed the same common oral outline more stringently than the others (possibly the first one to write it in Greek), obviously not adding any accounts of his own (with the exception of the young man fleeing, which some speculate might have been him, and is interestingly absent in both Matthew and Luke -- Mark 14:51-52). Yet the traditional outline he got was from Peter, who also followed the common outline as he taught at Rome to either a mixture of Jews and non-Jews or Jews and proselytes.[42] Mark either struggled to translate it from Aramaic to Greek, or just stuck with the Semitic form as rigidly as possible in its translation.
  • Luke: (not an original disciple), used the same common oral outline and was much more proficient with its translation into Greek. Since he stated that he investigated the reports from several sources, got his extrinsic oral traditions from a variety of other apostles and eyewitnesses, which he layered into the main body.
  • John: either used the common oral outline as well, or recalled his own experiences, layering in his own theology, which he exclusively used to teach an advanced community of Christians who were already familiar with the oral traditions.



Guaranteed, if you are at all familiar with biblical scholarship, you will find Markan priority taken for granted or presupposed in almost every critical analysis and study of the gospels by almost every scholar in the field. This should astound you, especially after reading this article. The thought of building whole arguments on a theoretical premise this unstable, at best, not only affects the genuineness of those arguments but can obviously be monumentally costly if the premise turns out to be incorrect. The thought of staking an argument on this premise one way or the other, whether for or against the theory, is not only extremely disingenuous but absurd to me. How would you ever know just how factual your argument is if it's resting solely on a premise that has this many issues? Consensus does nothing for you here other than create the illusion that it's fact because consensus doesn't make a theory any truer than the actual evidence that supports it.

It goes without saying that scholars will most likely continue endorsing Markan priority with never-ending modifications, adaptations, supplemental theories and sub-theories and continue to presuppose it as fact based on consensus. When looking at how long the history is for Markan priority, it doesn't come as much of a surprise really. At this point, it would sort of be analogous to finding a dinosaur bone with a human bone; a mountain of academic work over many decades would be toppled as a result. Likewise, a whole lot of biblical criticism progress in the field of scholarship (i.e. order of the gospels, form and redaction criticism, dating of the gospels, etc.) would become unraveled without Markan priority as a foundation for all this study.

In this rather long-winded article, my intent was not to emphatically shun textual-dependency entirely in favor of an oral process, though I do challenge the shaky veracity of the former as it should be challenged. I personally prefer oral tradition because that's where the evidence seems to lead, but I admit that oral tradition is just as hypothetical as Markan priority, and unlike most of its proponents, I won't make such emphatic presumptions.

My intent here is to simply point out that Markan priority-Q, a hypothesis that is treated as downright orthodoxy among its faithful, and remarkably used as a foundation to recklessly and dangerously stack other arguments on, is just that… a hypothesis... and not at all a very sturdy or viable one as I have shown. 


Go home 


Source References

1. See Higher Criticism.

2. Terence C. Mournet, Oral Tradition and Literary Dependency: Variability and Stability in the Synoptic Tradition and Q, p.155; 2005.

3. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, book 3, chap. 1 (

    Clement II, as quoted by Eusebius, Church History, book 6, chap. 14:5-6 ( 

    Jerome, On Illustrious Men, chap. 3 (

    Origen, Commentary on Matthew, book 1 (

    Augustine, The Harmony of the Gospels, book 1, chap. 2 (

    Eusebius, Church History, book 3, chap. 24:6-7; reference to Pantaenus: book 5, chap.10 (

4. Papias , as quoted by Eusebius, Church History, book 3, chap. 39 (

5. John S. Kloppenborg, The formation of Q, pp.59-64; 2000.

6. ibid., pp.53-54.

7. ibid., pp. 52-53.

8. D. A. Carson, Douglas J. Moo, An introduction to the New Testament, p.145; 2005.

9. Eusebius, ibid., book 3, chap. 39:8-13.

10. F. David Farnell, The Synoptic Gospels in the Ancient Church (pdf), p.2(54); 1999 (

      Dan B. Wallace, Matthew: Introduction, Argument, and Outline. Introduction; external evidence (

11.Craig S. Keener, A commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, p.40; 2005.

      Paul Foster, Community, law, and mission in Matthew's Gospel, pp.1-6; 2004.

      Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew, pp.1-2, 8-9, 20; 1991. p.8.     

      Daniel B. Wallace, Matthew: Introduction, Argument, and Outline: #3 Internal Evidence (

      Michael L. White, Who Was Matthew Writing For? (

      Marilyn Mellowes, The Gospel of Matthew (

      Papias , as quoted by Eusebius, Church History, book 3, chap. 39:16 (

      Irenaeus, Against Heresies, book 3, chap. 1:1 (

      Jerome, On Illustrious Men, chap. 3 (

      Eusebius, ibid., book 3, chap. 24:6 (

      Origen, Commentary on the Gospel of John, book 6, chap. 17 (

12. Nicholson E. Byron, The Gospel According to the Hebrews, p.9, 13-15; 2009.

13. Origen, Contra Celsus, book 5, chap. 61 (

      Jerome, Epistle to Augustine, letter #112: chap 4:13 (

      Eusebius, Church History, book 3, chap. 27 (

14. See the madness: Stephen C. Carlson, Overview of Proposed Solutions (

15. William R. Farmer, The Synoptic Problem, pp.14-18; 1976.

16. Stephen Hultgren, Narrative Elements in the Double Tradition, pp.5-7; 2002.

17. James D. G. Dunn, Jesus Remembered, p.225; 2003. 

18. Martin Hengel, Studies in the Gospel of Mark, p.46; 1985.

19. F. F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents; Are they Reliable? Chap. 4, The Gospels (

20. B. C. Butler, The Originality of St Matthew, pp. 147-156; 1951. 

      Brunett H. Streeter, The Four Gospels, p. 297; 1964.  

      Matthew Black An Aramaic Approach to the Gospels and Acts; 1967.  

      W. D. Davies, and Dale C. Allison, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel according to Saint Matthew, vol. 2, p. 43; 1991.  

      Pierson Parker, The posteriority of Mark, in New Synoptic Studies of W. R. Farmer, pp. 68-70; 1983.

      J. C. Hawkins, Horae Synopticae, pp.131-134; 1909.

      Martin Hengel, Studies in the Gospel of Mark, p.46; 1985.

      Maurice Casey, Aramaic Sources of Mark's Gospel, p.102; 1998.

      Ben Witherington, The Gospel of Mark; 2001.

      J. C. Doudna, The Greek of the Gospel of Mark; 1961.

      Also See Aramaic Primacy

      The Aramaic New Testament: A repository for scholarly work in the field of Aramaic Source Criticism (

21. James Hastings, A Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels: Volume 1, pp.670-671; 2004).

22. Chang-Wook Jung, The original Language of the Lukan Infancy Narrative, pp.12-15;2004.

23. Saeed Hamid-Khani, Revelation and Concealment of Christ, pp.140-144; 2000.

24. James M. Arlandson, Similarities among John's Gospel and the Synoptic Gospels (

25. Dwight Moody Smith, John among the Gospels, p.13, p.15, pp.86-110; 2001.

26. Farmer, ibid., pp.166-167.

27. Jewish Encyclopedia, Oral Law (

28. Samuel Byrskog,  Story As History, History As Story, p.116; 2002.

29. Eusebius, ibid., book 2, chap. 24:7, 39:14-15.

30. Mournet, ibid., p.75.

31. Alan Ralph Millard, Reading and Writing in the Time of Jesus, p.165; 2000

32. Martin S. Jaffee, Torah in the Mouth, pp.15-16; 2001.

      Mournet, ibid., p.113, p.144.

33. Dr. Orville B. Jenkins, Hebrew Usage in the First Century: Memory (

34. Mournet, ibid (the Mishnah), p.123; (Homer), p.135-136.

      See also Zvi Grumet, Orality and Texuality: A Historical Perspective (

35. Paul Copan, William Lane Craig, Come Let Us Reason, pp.105-107; 20012. 

36. Gary W. Moon, Apprenticeship with Jesus, pp.84-85; 2009.

      Copan, Craig, ibid., p.106.

37. J. P. Holding, On the Reliability of Oral Tradition, citing Paul Eddy and Greg Boyd, The Jesus Legend; 2007 (

38. Michael Luo, Memorizing the Way to Heaven, Verse by Verse (NY Times); 2006 (

39. Kenneth E. Bailey, Informal Controlled Oral Tradition; 1995.

40. Papias, cited by Eusebius, ibid., book 3, chap. 39:3-4.

41. Eusebius, ibid., book 3, chap. 24:5.

42. Karl P. Donfried and Peter Richardson, Judaism and Christianity in first-century Rome, p.120-127; 1998.