Why is it that all the modern commentaries on the Gospels of Matthew and Luke (and to some extent John) include discussions of those works’ literary sources but scarcely any raise that question for the Gospel of Mark, the Gospel that supposedly started it all?
Adam Winn (Mark and the Elijah-Elisha narrative : considering the practice of Greco-Roman imitation in the search for Markan source material) suggests the answer to this question
is directly related to the limited paradigm that New Testament scholarship has inherited from source, form, and redaction criticism. (p. 2)
Source criticism presumes that a source for a gospel has to be another gospel or at least something like another gospel (e.g. Q). So if Mark is the first gospel then the question of literary sources can scarcely arise.
Form criticism has declared that Mark’s sources were oral traditions. With this answer firmly entrenched there has been no incentive to ask if there might also be literary sources behind the gospel.
Redaction criticism established very stringent criteria to determine when a gospel author was dependent upon another work. There must be
- specific agreement in details/order
- strong verbal agreement
Winn challenges the assumption that ancient authors limited themselves to using sources so slavishly. He examines ancient instructions and practices to show that authors used their literary sources very often in ways that shunned strong verbal agreement and that freely changed the details and order of material in their sources. Dennis MacDonald made similar points in his earlier work, The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark.
Winn argues the need for a new set of criteria that is derived from the typical practices of ancient authors.
The way forward
Gospel studies has traditionally given very little notice to the way ancient authors used literary sources.
Gospel interpreters have virtually ignored perhaps the greatest window we have into the way ancient authors used literary texts in their compositions. Certainly by studying the way in which ancient authors imitated and rewrote extant sources, we can gain insights into how the gospel authors might have used each other or even other extant literature to compose gospels. (p. 9, my emphasis) read more