“Popular” not “Primitive”: the Case for Matthean Primacy.

By Robert Ellison, Second year theology student at London School of Theology 



For hundreds of years the Church Fathers considered Matthew to be the first written Gospel. In the last 150 years this has changed; scholarly consensus now considers Mark to be written first and this is often taught in seminaries. A lot of people ask whether it matters: the Synoptic Problem can seem irrelevant. I personally do not have a problem with Mark first and initially I thought it was. However, if Matthew is first it is great to know that the Church Fathers were right and this means the possibility of an earlier date for the first Gospel. Also it can help us more fully understand why the Evangelists organised their Gospels in the way that they did. However, whether Matthew or Mark is first is not an issue of faith.

I have written a book making the claim that there is hard evidence for the primacy of Matthew. In it I have argued for the Augustinian view that the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) were written in that traditional order. The study recognises that most arguments for the order of the Synoptic Gospels can be reversed and that arguments difficult to reverse need prioritising. Before I reveal what I believe to be strong evidence for Matthean priority, I want to demonstrate how easy it is to reverse the strongest arguments for Markan priority. The germ of the idea was in E.P. Sanders’ book from the Sixties, The Tendencies of the Synoptic Tradition; he began to demonstrate how what we think of as “primitive” can instead be “popular.”

I suggest that Mark’s Gospel is not “primitive”, as many scholars would suggest; it is written as a “popular” shortened introduction to the gospel for Romans. Mark omits most of Matthew’s block teachings because it is too much information too soon for Romans being introduced to Christianity for the first time. The first strong argument for Markan priority is reversed in this way: Mark’s Gospel is not written in primitive Greek (as scholars sometimes claim), it is written in spoken Greek. He is writing for Romans in Rome and the surrounding regions. He is introducing them to Christianity with an abbreviated Gospel; the shortened Gospel is more easily memorised and read aloud in its entirety in public places, in streets, market-places, and city assemblies. It was performed aloud to an audience that was generally illiterate and would relate more to spoken than literary Greek. What was considered “primitive” may now considered “popular.”

A second strong argument for Markan priority may be reversed in this way. A lot of Mark’s accounts are longer, more colourful, vivid and detailed than Matthew’s accounts, but this is not because Matthew has abbreviated Mark’s accounts. If Mark abbreviates most of Matthew’s block teachings, he is left with many sparse, threadbare accounts which do not make for arresting listening if performed in public places. In Matthew, from “The Sermon on the Mount” in Chapters 5-7 to the ten miracles in Chapters 8-9 there is no time delay; he is simply recounting events: then this happened, then that happened, then this happened. It all occurs over one long day, with a particularly long evening, otherwise dubbed “Matthew’s longest day”. Obviously there is time conflation occurring, but Matthew is quite simply just not such an effective storyteller as Mark. Mark has a stronger sense of time and place. For instance, when Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law from a fever and cures many in the evening, in the morning he gets up and goes to pray. The detail of the morning after is not in Matthew.  Matthew, unlike Mark, does not recount the return of the disciples from their mission: “The Mission of the Twelve.” It is a narrative oversight which is characteristic of a writer who is unconcerned with a strong sense of time and place. Mark has to be a more effective storyteller than Matthew because his Gospel is less about the block teaching; the actual events, the action, become more the focus of attention. Subsequently he needs to add more colour, vividness, and detail to many of the accounts to increase the likelihood of the gospel holding the attention of the listeners. This is why many of his individual accounts are longer than Matthew’s, even though he is generally abbreviating Matthew. Mark is compensating for Matthew’s more ineffectual storytelling to increase popular interest; this makes the public reading performances more effective.

Another strong argument for Markan priority is the presentation of the “harder readings” of Jesus; there is a less reverential and more human depiction of Jesus in Mark than in Matthew which may imply that the Gospel is more primitive. However, this argument can again be shown to be reversible. Mark is seeking to make Jesus appeal to Romans. Jesus is at his most impressive, forthright, manly, and heroic in Mark’s Gospel, especially in the way he commands the demons and convicts the disciples of their misunderstandings; this appeals to Romans who are used to the proud heroics of Empire-building, gladiatorial displays, and Hellenistic epic dramas. Mark has sought to undercut this heroism with more vulnerable human traits to offset Jesus’ heroism being interpreted as arrogance, thus increasing his popular interest. When the young rich man says to Jesus, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus says, “Why do you call me good?  No one is good but God alone.”  This is the most discussed “harder reading” of Jesus in Mark. In Matthew the rich young man asks, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” Jesus replies, “Why do you ask me about what is good?  There is only one who is good.” Jesus’ response in Mark would appeal to Romans; he is implicitly not associating himself with being good. Instead they sympathetically relate more to his humanity. In Matthew’s parallel account Jesus also says, “If you wish to be perfect […].”  This is not in Mark’s account; Jesus is neither “good” nor “perfect.”  No one likes someone who is too good, too perfect. For a Roman audience this would make Jesus appear more sympathetically human. Consequently, the way Mark presents the “harder readings” of Jesus are not an indication of primitiveness; they are a way of increasing his popular appeal.

Similarly, Mark’s use of the Messianic Secret is often considered evidence of the Gospel’s primitiveness. What is the Messianic Secret?  Often Jesus says to the people he has healed not to tell anyone of what he has done, particularly early in his ministry. Why the secret?  Perhaps it is to do with Jesus being able to continue proclaiming the gospel for as long as possible before his death. In the other Gospels there is less withholding of information as to who Jesus is. My argument states that Mark however sees the Messianic Secret as a means of increasing mystery and suspense. The question of who this Jesus is becomes a way of holding the attention of the audience. Both God and the demons say he is the Son of God but Jesus never does. Only when the chief priest of the council asks him if he is the Son of the Blessed One does Jesus answer, “I am.”  It is a dramatic revelation: the culmination of a narrative that has withheld information to build suspense and increase popular interest. No other human says he is the Son of God, unlike the other Gospels; it is only the Roman Centurion at the foot of the cross who exclaims that Jesus is “God’s Son.”  Mark is seeking to gradually persuade his Roman audience that Jesus is real in the same way that the Centurion is finally persuaded. Mark’s unique inclusion of “Jesus Cures a Blind Man at Bethsaida” is the only miracle in the Gospels where the healing takes place in stages. The blind man says, “I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.”  Jesus lays his hands on his eyes again and the blind man sees everything clearly. This is how Mark is structuring his narrative; this miracle is analogous to how Mark is gradually persuading his Roman audience that Jesus is real. By the end of the Gospel he is hoping that they will see clearly who Jesus really is just like the Roman centurion. Mark withholds information not because his Gospel is “primitive” but because he is using suspense and mystery for “popular” appeal.

Having shown how arguments for Markan priority may be reversed, we move onto what I claim proves that Matthew is first and why we should interpret Mark’s Gospel as “popular,” not “primitive.” There are four noticeable changes in the order of events when comparing Matthew and Mark: “The Mission of the Twelve,” “The Stilling of the Storm,” “The Gerasene Demoniac,” and “Jairus’ Daughter.”  As Mark is writing an abbreviated introductory Gospel to Romans he removes most of the teaching from Matthew, including “The Sermon on the Mount.”  This means that when Jesus sends the disciples on their mission to proclaim the message there has hardly been any teaching. Ten miracles have occurred but only three brief pieces of teaching. There is a cause-and-effect narrative development problem: there is an effect, the disciples going off to teach, but no cause; there has been hardly any teaching by Jesus, just miracles. Therefore Mark relocates the account of “The Mission of the Twelve” to later in the Gospel after his first block of teaching, “The Kingdom Parables.”  Mark also moves three of the miracles (“Stilling of the Storm,” “Gerasene Demoniac,” and “Jairus’ Daughter”) to directly after “The Kingdom Parables” so it does not feel narratively contrived that the disciples suddenly head off to teach directly after this first block of Markan teaching.  The three relocated miracles create a sense of time passing. I argue therefore that Mark does not change the order because of formal or thematic reasons, as is often argued; the formal spacing between Matthew’s five “Pentateuchal” teaching blocks varies considerably and there are also two other extended blocks of teaching in Matthew which get overlooked: “Jesus Denouncing the Pharisees” and “The Three Rejection Parables.” Instead, Mark changes the order because of the cause-and-effect narrative development problem. It is an irreversible argument. Mark has a specific reason to change the order, but Matthew does not. Matthew’s general rather than specific explanation for changing Mark’s order, for formal or thematic reasons, is by comparison a weak argument. This suggests that Matthew comes before Mark. Furthermore, Luke generally follows Mark’s order of events, including these four noticeable changes. He includes an abbreviated version of “The Sermon on the Mount” reasonably early in his Gospel so he cannot use this specific reason − of not enough teaching going on − for relocating the four noticeable changes. He is simply following Mark’s order of events. Therefore he comes after Mark and the traditional order of Matthew, Mark, and Luke is correct.

A challenge to this view has been why would Mark omit “The Sermon on the Mount”?  However, we still have this problem even if Mark is first. The great sermon would have been memorised in early oral tradition, so why is it not in Mark?  A better solution is that “The Sermon on the Mount” is omitted because, as with Matthew’s block teachings, it is too much information too soon for Romans; we can picture their puzzled expressions: “Blessed are the meek”?  “Judge not, that ye be not judged”? “Love your enemies”?  Romans are used to Empire-building, gladiatorial displays, and epic heroic dramas. Mark is adopting a gradualist approach to conversion. Therefore Mark’s Gospel is more than simply an abbreviation of Matthew, or a “primitive” Gospel. Mark, far more so than Matthew, is an effective storyteller. His Gospel is seeking to hold the attention of Romans who know little about Christianity, and he is doing it in creative, inventive and God-inspired ways.


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