Review of Chapter 4 of Redating Matthew, Mark and Luke

In this chapter Wenham argues that Matthew’s relationship to Mark can be explained on the lines of the patristic tradition. The patristic tradition holds that:

  1. The apostle Matthew was the first to write a gospel and that he did so in the Hebrew language for Hebrew readers.
  2. The Gospel of Mark was the second gospel written. It contains the teaching of the apostle Peter given in Rome.

There are three main possibilities for the relation between Matthew and Mark:

  1. They are independent of each other
  2. Markan Priority: Matthew used Mark
  3. Matthean Priority: Mark used Matthew

Wenham finds the large number of differences between Matthew and Mark in parallel passages to be a strong argument for a level of independence between the two gospels. Yet the identify of order from Matthew 14:1/Mark 6:14 on points in the direction of a literary connection between the two gospels.

Most scholars believe Matthew used Mark. Wenham draws attention to the fact that four of the five heads of evidence used by Streeter to argue for Markan Priority can just as easily be run in a different order. All this kind of evidence shows is that Mark is a middle term between Matthew and Luke. It no more proves Markan Priority than it proves Matthean Priority. The remaining head of evidence is the primitive nature of Mark. By “primitive” Streeter means its roughness of style and its use of Aramaic words. He says it reads more like a shorthand account of a story told by an impromptu speaker. Wenham is quick to point out that this is what would be expected in light of the patristic evidence which holds that Mark is based on the discourses of Peter.

There are additional arguments for Markan Priority that must still be addressed. First, it is said that it is difficult to believe Mark would omit so much important Matthean material if he knew of its existence. Wenham sees behind this argument the assumption that Mark was trying to replace Matthew. But there is also the possibility that Mark supplements Matthew with Peter’s vividness and his own emphases. He doesn’t need to include all of Matthew’s material for it can be read in Matthew’s gospel.

Second, Mark’s wealth of detail indicates priority. Wenham notes that this argument assumes a tendency by later writers to add more detail. But it is just as possible that this detail is the result of Peter’s vivid recollection.

Third, Matthew’s account (14:3-12) of the death of John the Baptist requires knowledge of Mark’s account (6:17-29). It is said that the statement in Matthew’s account that Herod was grieved at having to kill John the Baptist contradicts his earlier words of wishing for the Baptist’s death. Mark appears to explain this contradiction by noting that Herod both feared and respected John but also wanted to get rid of him. Wenham counters that it is hardly a contradiction for the Matthean Herod to both respect John on some level while also being annoyed at John’s denouncement of his sexual sins. It is also quite possible that Matthew knew the fuller story from earlier traditions, not Mark’s gospel.

Fourth, Matthew’s account (27:15-18) of the release of Barabbas destroys the logic of Mark’s account (15:6-10). Wenham does not find the logic of Matthew to be any worse than in Mark.

This brings us to Wenham’s position: Mark used Matthew. He admits that there are no knock-down arguments. He finds the arguments he uses to make Matthean priority more plausible than Markan priority.

First, Matthew’s arrangement is more that of an original composition than the work of a compiler of earlier sources. It is difficult to see it as the result of making 8,000 changes to someone else’s work.

Second, Christianity started as a Jewish movement so it is natural that Matthew, the gospel most directed at Jewish readers, should be early. For example, Matthew appeals to the fulfillment of Scripture to show that Jesus is the Messiah (1:1, 17; 2:4; 16:16; 26:68; 27:22), he includes many conflicts with the Pharisees, and he has the story of the guard at the tomb in response to Jewish claims that the disciples stole Jesus’ body. I think this argument says more about the situation of the author and readers than it does about the date of composition.

Third, Mark reads like Peter’s version of the same tradition written for Jewish and Gentile readers outside Palestine. One objection to this is that Peter is not more prominent in Mark than in Matthew or Luke. Wenham counters that Mark still records much about Peter, including those stories that would be embarrassing to Peter. For me, that’s beside the point. My problem with this argument is that it doesn’t show Mark used Matthew.

Fourth, it looks like Mark is omitting Matthean material at points (e.g., Mt. 13:3/Mk. 4:2; Mt. 13:34/Mk. 4:33-34; Mt. 23:1/Mk. 12:38). Unfortunately, some of the points here are made in Greek making it difficult for a layman (such as myself) to judge the argument. Wenham notes that we would expect Mark to omit much Jewish material found in Matthew if he was writing for Gentiles outside Palestine.

Fifth, Matthean priority provides a better rationale for the differences in order between the two gospels. Matthew 3:1-4:22 and Mark 1:1-20 follow the same general order. At this point, assuming Matthew uses Mark, Matthew jumps from Mark 1:19 to v. 39 to v. 22 to v. 40 to v. 29. On the other hand, if Marks uses Matthew, it appears Mark is recounting a sequence of memorable events from Peter’s life in chronological order. Another point of difference in order occurs after the entry into Jerusalem. Mark provides greater chronological precision. Wenham finds it unlikely that Matthew would destroy this precision. A complex dislocation of material occurs in Mark 4:35-6:11 and Matthew 8:23-13:58. Wenham provides a graphic of this that, to this layman, does look easier to explain assuming Mark followed Matthew while omitting material.

Sixth, Matthew looks like it may have originally been written in a Semitic language. Wenham provides a number of examples that are impossible for me to judge (in fact, even he is not an expert on the languages involved although some such experts agree with him here). He does admit that Semitic idioms are bound to appear in an account written by someone whose first language is Aramaic. However, he thinks Matthew goes beyond Semitic idioms. He also says it is more likely Mark would omit or clean up strange Semitic expressions (strange from the perspective of a Greek speaker) than that Matthew would add them to a Greek Mark.

Seventh, the apostle Matthew/Levi the tax collector would have been the one member of the Twelve who we know could write well. As a tax collector he may have known shorthand. He would converse with tax-payers in Aramaic and write his reports in Greek. Note-taking was a common practice among Jews and Greeks of the time. Therefore, it is quite possible that Matthew did write the first Gospel as tradition attests. Outside the call of the four famous fishermen, Matthew’s calling is the only one mentioned in the Synoptic Gospels. Perhaps this is a nod to his importance as the writer of the first gospel. While this argument contains many good, interesting points I’m not sure how strong of an argument for Matthean priority it is.


One thought on “Review of Chapter 4 of Redating Matthew, Mark and Luke

  1. Pingback: Review of Redating Matthew, Mark and Luke | Biblical Scholarship

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