What is currently regarded in scholarly circles as the most viable option is that the similarities among these documents can only be accounted for on the basis of literary dependence. This basic premise has led to what has become the prevailing method of synoptic analysis known as Redaction Criticism, i.e., the study of how authors have created a literary work by editing and modifying their sources of information. And the foundation of the whole theory is the presumption of Markan priority (MP), i.e., Mark’s Gospel is believed to have been produced first and was then utilized by both Matthew and Luke in compiling their corresponding works. It has been estimated that about 90% of Mark’s material is found in Matthew and about 55% in Luke (see B. H. Streeter, The Four Gospels 151, 159-60).
This popular theory is based on the following observations: (a) Mark is the shortest (the supposition being that Matthew and Luke expanded the material); (b) Mark’s writing style tends to be more awkward (thus Matthew and Luke supposedly smoothed it out); and (c) purportedly Matthew and Luke do not often agree against Mark, while the materials they share in common (not found in Mark) are usually located in a different sequence (see Bart D. Ehrman, The New Testament: Historical Introduction [4th ed.] 93-96).
However, contrary to the confident assertions of MP theorists, this artful proposal is neither a proven fact nor a satisfactory explanation. It does not account for the approximately 230 agreements of Matthew and Luke against Mark,1 which has compelled critics to surmise yet another source, viz. a hypothetical document designated Q (from the German Quelle, meaning "source"). Despite the fact that there is no tangible evidence that this Q source ever existed, its presumption does not explain the unique content of Matthew and the unique content of Luke not shared with Mark or with each other. Nevertheless, rather than abandon the theory, scholars have simply contrived two more hypothetical sources, viz. "M" for the information peculiar to Matthew and "L" for the distinct material in Luke.
Lest we become too enamored with the imaginative world of hypotheticals, we ought to concentrate on what is verifiable and determine how the MP theory holds up under the scrutiny of the biblical texts themselves. While the information in over 250 verses in Matthew is not duplicated elsewhere, and 500 verses appear only in Luke, the material in almost fifty verses is unique to Mark. If literary dependence is the sole option, how do MP theorists account for the fifty-five verses of Mark not found in Matthew, or the striking omission in Luke of the material in Mark 6:45–8:26 and 9:41–10:12? What about the curious absence in both Matthew and Luke of the following sections of Mark: 1:1; 2:27; 3:20-22a; 4:26-29; 7:2-4, 32-37; 8:22-26; 9:29, 48-49; 13:33-37; 14:51-52?
There are also interesting details in Mark that do not appear in the parallel accounts of Matthew and Luke.2 It is not without significance that Luke places a great deal of emphasis on prayer (cf. 3:21; 6:12; 9:18, 28-29; 11:1-8; 18:1-14; 21:36; 22:32, 40-46; 24:53), yet the prayer of Jesus in Mark 1:35 is not found in Luke. Notice how MP theorists respond: "It is possible that the reference to prayer here is a later addition . . . the statement was not included in the version of Mark known to [Luke]" (D. E. Nineham, The Gospel of St Mark 84). If the absence of empirical proof does not subvert this hallowed theory, and if speculative assumptions and circular reasoning are needed to bolster it, one must wonder why it has retained its status for so long as the coveted badge of critical scholarship!
–Kevin L. Moore
1 The approximately 230 agreements of Matthew and Luke against Mark, when viewed collectively, require a more reasonable explanation than the “insignificant” or “accidental” assertions that MP theorists tend to offer. See esp. Robert L. Thomas, “An Investigation of the Agreements between Matthew and Luke against Mark,” in JETS 19 (Spring 1976): 103-112. Thomas concludes: “For too long New Testament scholars have been bound to the assumption of direct literary dependence among the writers. Perhaps this has been a blindfold rather than a help in supplying answers. At least the option should be entertained that the three synoptists worked in relative independence of one another in producing their gospels” (112). See also Robert L. Thomas, “Redaction Criticism,” in The Jesus Crisis: The Inroads of Historical Criticism into Evangelical Scholarship, eds. Robert L. Thomas and F. David Farnell (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1998): 233-66.2 See, e.g., Mark 1:13b, 20b, 35; 2:26b; 3:17b, 20-22a; 4:3a, 36b, 38a; 5:13b, 26, 41b; 6:3a, 8b, 9a, 39b, 48b; 7:30; 8:35b; 9:3b, 41b; 10:11b-12, 30b, 45b, 46b; 11:10a, 17b; 12:29b, 32-34; 14:30b, 36a, 15:21b, 47a.
Related Posts: Synoptic Problem/Markan Priority 2, Authorship of NT Gospels, Biblical Authorship (Part 1), Biblical Authorship (Part 2)