Matthew’s Reaction to Mark’s Innovation – By Michael J. Kok

Michael J. Kok on J. Andrew Doole’s What was Mark for Matthew?

Michael J. Kok, What was Mark for Matthew?, Mohr Siebeck
J. Andrew Doole, What was Mark for Matthew?, Mohr Siebeck, 2013, 222pp., $118

If Matthew, Mark, and Luke were students handing in their Gospels as assignments, they might get hauled into the professor’s office for plagiarism. To prove the accusation, the professor could pick up a Synopsis and look up any story that appears in all three Synoptic Gospels side-by-side (syn = together, opsis = view). Some may protest that, according to tradition, each New Testament Gospel draws on a distinct authority in the early Church: Matthew and John are identified as apostles themselves, while Mark and Luke appear as assistants of the apostles Peter and Paul. However, the close agreement of the first three Gospels in wording and sequence reveals that they were not written independently of each other. At times even the narrator’s asides are identical, as both Mark and Matthew interrupt Jesus’s apocalyptic warnings with the note “let the reader understand” (Mark 13:14; Matthew 24:15). Unless the Gospel writers directly received every word they wrote down by divine dictation, which does not explain all the little and big points where they differ from one another, we have a good puzzle on our hands.

Even the great theologian Augustine recognized that there must be a literary relationship between the Gospels. He deemed Mark to be Matthew’s abbreviator with little distinctive to contribute (On the Harmony of the Evangelists 1.2.4). In one of the first critical attempts to solve the Synoptic Problem, Johann Jakob Griesbach (1745-1812) surmised that Mark conflated Matthew and Luke. His theory still has its advocates, but it paints a strange portrait of Mark as a harmonizer of Matthew and Luke. Why would Mark omit Jesus’s birth (Matthew 1-2; Luke 1-2), ethical pronouncements (Matthew 5-7; Luke 6:20-49), and resurrection appearances (Matthew 28:9-20; Luke 24:13-53)? And for what did Mark need the extra space? Was it to make room uniquely to report how Jesus’s kin wanted to take custody of him because they thought he lost his marbles (Mark 3:21), how Jesus healed with the use of saliva (7:32-35; 8:23-26), how the first attempt to restore sight to a blind person left him unable to tell people apart from walking trees (8:24), or how a young follower of Jesus fled from arrest in the nude (14:51-52)? It is more likely that Matthew and Luke relied on Mark, enlarging it with other material and screening out the obscure or awkward bits. Further, Matthew and Luke take over nearly all of Mark’s content, generally agree with each other when they follow Mark’s order, improve upon Mark’s grammar or style, and edit Mark’s seemingly problematic statements.

Yet this near consensus leads to a conundrum. Since Matthew repeats over 90 percent of Mark’s content, why would readers bother to consult with Mark once they had Matthew’s updated version in their possession? At one end of the spectrum, David Sim argues that Matthew was embarrassed by Mark, a problem he fixed by writing a new and improved Gospel. In What Was Mark for Matthew?, J. Andrew Doole takes the opposite view: Matthew was “essentially a Markan Christian” and “a successor in the Markan line and a witness to the Markan account of the life of Jesus.” Doole grants that Matthew replaces Mark’s work, yet he suggests that Matthew esteemed it as the accepted record of Jesus, closely following Mark’s order and content even as he appended birth and resurrection stories and gathered sayings of Jesus from other sources. Doole presumes that Mark must have been held in high regard to become the main source for two Gospel writers living in different geographical areas. He argues that its authority lies in the tradition that Mark’s account is based on the memories of Jesus’s chief disciple Peter.

Miniscule 2427 Gregory-Aland, Beginning of Mark. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Miniscule 2427 Gregory-Aland, Beginning of Mark. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

So who wins the debate?

To grasp Doole’s line of reasoning, readers must realize that he builds on a standard solution to the Synoptic Problem known as the Two Source Hypothesis: Matthew and Luke drew on Mark’s biography of Jesus and a collection primarily made up of sayings that has subsequently vanished. Scholars give this lost text the exotic name of Q for the banal reason that the German word Quelle means “source.” Q includes some of Jesus’s most famous words (e.g., the Lord’s prayer, love your enemies, judge not). Doole seldom engages the growing body of Q skeptics who presume that Luke copied Matthew (or vice-versa) rather than viewing both as relying on a common sayings source. Mark Goodacre sums up the case for and against the existence of Q in his textbook on the Synoptic Problem. Yet the Two-Source Hypothesis, which Doole adopts, remains in the majority. Besides these two sources, Matthew knew a hodgepodge of oral traditions. Some were popular tales, such as the story of how Peter pays the temple tax by catching a fish with a coin in its mouth in Matthew 17:24-27. Others embellished upon Mark, as when Matthew 14:28-31 not only has Jesus walk on water but Peter as well. Doole, then, sees Matthew as a scribe who sticks to the sources rather than a creative author spinning fictions out of whole cloth. With this in mind, he can explore how Matthew treated Mark as his key source.

Against some scholars who argue that Q was originally Matthew’s prized possession long before he came into contact with Mark’s biography of Jesus, Doole convincingly demonstrates just how foundational Mark’s Gospel was for Matthew’s own project. All the elements from Mark are present: the baptism of Jesus, the authoritative teaching and powerful miracles in Galilee, the hostility from the religious cream of the crop, the bumbling disciples, and the fateful trip to Jerusalem where Jesus is welcomed as the city’s deliverer one day and crucified the next. In relocating some of Mark’s dramatic miracles to a different point in the narrative, Matthew likely recounts these incidents from memory without checking his copy of Mark for when they occurred before reverting back to Mark’s order of events. Matthew could have compiled another sayings collection as Jesus’s greatest hits, but he followed Mark’s footsteps in composing a story of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

Matthew sprinkles sayings of Jesus from other sources within Mark’s outline. Even the three chapters of pure teaching in Matthew’s renowned Sermon on the Mount is set up with a summary of Jesus’s fame from his healing ministry and ascent on a mountain to teach that sounds like it was ripped from the pages of Mark. Other sources supplement and, very rarely, correct Mark. For example, Mark recounts how the disciples forbade an exorcist from healing in Jesus’s name since he was not part of the “in” clique, but Jesus shatters boundaries between insiders and outsiders with the line “whoever is not against you is for you” (Mark 9:40). Matthew cuts out the episode, as its message is tough to square with the exclusive Q saying, “whoever is not with me is against me” (Matthew 12:30/Luke 11:23). Matthew also had traditions about the Virgin Birth or the risen Lord’s Great Commission to spread his message to all nations, but Doole feels that these “bookends” fill out Mark’s story with a suitable beginning and epilogue.

Doole evaluates Matthew’s use of Mark’s Gospel as conventional and deferential. Take the controversies over Jesus’s religious practices. In one story (Matthew 15:1-20; Mark 7:1-23), the teachers of the Law are shocked that Jesus’s disciples ignore the “tradition of the elders” by not washing their hands before they eat. In turn, Jesus condemns them for adding human traditions to the divine commandments and goes on to assert that impurity arises from within a person’s heart rather than from external agents. Scholars often hold that Matthew backs off from Mark’s radicalism in deleting Mark’s note that Jesus effectively ruled all foods clean (7:19), consigning a big chunk of biblical law about clean and forbidden foods to the dustbin, and relating his biting critique solely to the non-biblical custom of hand-washing (Matthew 15:20). But Doole observes that Matthew retains the conflict and even the pronouncement about the real cause of impurity. Matthew reconciles Mark’s radical Jesus with traditional piety. At this point Doole overlooks a minority reading that may work in his favor. According to James Crossley, Mark was not thinking about the Jewish food laws that Jesus and his opponents would have obeyed. Instead, Jesus denies that unwashed hands can contaminate the food, hence “cleansing all foods” (7:19b). If Crossley is right, Matthew makes explicit what is implicit in Mark.

Doole, in my opinion, underestimates the changes that Matthew made to his main source text. Since Mark’s Gospel begins with John’s baptism of Jesus, his readers might get the mistaken impression that Jesus becomes God’s son only when he is possessed by a divine spirit and a voice from heaven announces his divine adoption at the moment he rises out of the water (Mark 1:9-11). On the contrary, says Matthew, Jesus was the royal Messiah and son of the Lord from his supernatural conception! Matthew makes several corrections along these lines to fend off wrong implications that readers might draw from Mark, such as that Jesus needed to be baptized for the forgiveness of sins (Matthew 3:14-15) or that he was not intrinsically good (Matthew 19:16-17/Mark 10:17-18) or was not always able to perform miracles (Matthew 13:58/Mark 6:5-6) or did not have a 100 percent success rate in his healings (omitting Mark 8:23-26).

Likewise, since Mark ends with a cliff-hanger about whether the disciples got the memo to re-unite with the resurrected Jesus in Galilee (Mark 16:7-8), Matthew ensures that the disciples saw and were commissioned by the risen Jesus (Matthew 28:9-20). He makes explicit what is, at best, implicit in Mark in narrating the redemption of the disciples after they were last seen betraying and abandoning Jesus in his hour of trial. This is consistent with how Matthew rehabilitates the disciples from the treatment they were given at the hands of Mark. Mark’s disciples cannot figure out how their master has the power to walk on water and miraculously multiply bread because their hearts are hardened (Mark 6:51-52; 8:17-21), which is the same heart condition as Jesus’s enemies (Mark 3:15). Conversely, Matthew’s disciples eventually get the point and worship him accordingly (Matthew 14:33; 16:12). After Peter confesses Jesus as the Messiah, he is praised for his insight and given the keys to the kingdom rather than merely told to shut-up before getting rebuked for his satanic resistance to Jesus’s plan to die (Matthew 16:13-23/Mark 8:27-33). This makes it difficult to accept the tradition that Mark was Peter’s assistant when Matthew had to clean up Mark’s harsh image of the disciples.

To return to the debate of Sim versus Doole: Doole makes a strong case that Matthew follows Mark as a basically reliable biographer of Jesus. Even so, Matthew was concerned that Mark’s Gospel was liable to misinterpretation at multiple points that necessitated the effort to correct, update, and replace it. Other Christians expressed similar sentiments. Luke aimed to supplant his predecessors with an “orderly” account (Luke 1:1, 3). An early second century bishop contrasted Mark’s lack of order with Matthew’s carefully arranged composition (Papias, in Ecclesiastical History 3.39.15-16). Matthew stands first in the New Testament and the earliest defense of the scriptural status of the four Gospels (Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.1.1). Augustine demoted Mark to Matthew’s lackey and Mark remained in Matthew’s shadow until modern scholars reversed this judgment. If it was not for the tradition linking Mark to Peter’s authority, Matthew may have succeeded in permanently displacing Mark’s Gospel. Mark’s Gospel could have become another lost ancient work just like Matthew’s other sources.

In the end, it was Mark’s genius to put the Gospel story of Jesus of Nazareth into writing. Doole has brilliantly encouraged his readers to consider how an intellectual scribe like Matthew reacted to such an innovation. Matthew desired to preserve the tradition about Jesus by copying most of Mark’s work, but he seems to have felt that Mark was no longer able adequately to address the social and theological concerns of his own day. So Matthew wrote an updated version. As Christians retell the story of Jesus — highlighting his inspirational words or deeds, explaining away texts that trouble them, or harmonizing differences between the New Testament Gospels — they continue to update the story and seek to make it relevant in each new generation.

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