Why might Mark want to abridge the Gospels of Matthew and Luke?

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by Neil Godfrey

Johann Jakob Griesbach
Johann Jakob Griesbach (Image via Wikipedia)

There is nothing . . . improbable that for certain purposes an abbreviated version of the Gospel might be desired; but only a lunatic would leave out Matthew’s account of the Infancy, the Sermon on the Mount, and practically all the parables. (Canon Streeter, The Four Gospels, p. 158, cited in Dungan . . .)

David Laird Dungan cited the above passage from Canon Streeter’s The Four Gospels, p. 158, in his chapter in Jesus and Man’s Hope.

Marcion’s example

Dungan does proceed to offer evidence from the second century Patristic writings that someone really might have written an abbreviated Gospel that removed all the birth narrative and a very large portion of the teachings of Jesus. He quotes Irenaeus:

[Marcion] mutilates the Gospel which is according to Luke, removing all that is written respecting the generation of the Lord, and setting aside a great deal of the teaching of the Lord . . . (Against Heresies, 1:27:2)

And from the fourth century, Epiphanius:

For indeed [Marcion’s] Gospel appears to resemble Luke, but having neither beginning, middle, nor end [!], giving the appearance of a garment gnawed by many moths (Pan. adv. Haer. 42.11 — Dungan’s quotation, with his emphasis)

The mistake of assuming a single Gospel trajectory

Dungan next addresses the assumption that all the Gospels based on Matthew and Luke were intended to complement them. He quotes Beare:

It is hard to imagine why Mark should ever have been written, if it was designed for the use of churches which already possessed and were using Matthew and Luke. Who would want this ‘apocopated’ version of the gospel story?

Beare, says Dungan, further ‘goes on to assert that the “whole history of the use of the gospels in the church” bears out this contention.’ Dungan’s replies:

The fact is, the whole history of all known Gospels bears out precisely the opposite: many Gospels were created or used in opposition to Matthew and Luke — apocopated ones, elongated ones, all kinds. For example, Epiphanius tells us the Ebionites had a “forged and mutilated” Gospel that was like Matthew except that its birth narratives were cut off, which they used to the exclusion of all other Gospels (adv. Haer. 30.13.2 ff.). The Gospel of the Egyptians likewise was used by a group in opposition to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Marcion certainly rejected the use of Matthew and canonical Luke, according to the testimony of Tertullian, Irenaeus, and others. Indeed, he had a most “apocopated” Gospel for his churches, many of which had no doubt been using Matthew and Luke previously. Tatian’s Diatessaron was apparently an anti-Marcionite version, but he did not seem to have any qualms about completely remoulding the Gospel tradition, and thereby displacing the Gospels of his forebears. The Gospel of Peter may have served as a replacement for the canonical Gospels, in that it is a sort of harmony of all four (as Vaganay shows, . . . ), and is clearly stemmed from a milieu where the four canonical Gospels were well known, but not too well liked apparently (see Eusebius, H.E. VI 12.4 f.). In short, during the early second century, it was not at all uncommon to turn away from canonical Matthew and Luke, either by rejecting them completely, or combining parts of them into new Gospels which then superseded them, or simply pitting John against them (see especially R. M. Grant, Earliest Lives of Jesus, p. 28 ff.). (p. 94)

Christians who might have produced a Gospel of Mark

Irenaeus writes of those who taught Jesus was separate from the Christ though in the one body for a time:

Those, again, who separate Jesus from Christ, alleging that Christ remained impassible, but that it was Jesus who suffered, preferring the Gospel by Mark (adv. Haer. III 11.7)

Some Christians seemed to interpret Mark’s passion account in a way that Simon of Cyrene, not Jesus, was crucified. Dungan adds:

This seems to fit with the odd remark of Hippolytus, who said concerning the Marcionites . . . : “when therefore Marcion or some one of his hounds barks against the Creator, and adduces reasons from a comparison of what is good and bad [i.e. from Marcion’s writing, the Antitheses], we ought to say to them that neither Paul the apostle nor Mark . . . announced such (things). For none of these doctrines has been written in the Gospel according to Mark” (Syntagma VII 18 ANF V 112). (p. 95)

What to make of this linking of the Gospel of Mark to Marcionites? Tertullian and Irenaeus tell us that it was the Gospel of Luke that Marcion redacted — “although apparently Marcion denied this”. I have earlier posted the discussion from Tyson’s book on Marcion and Luke-Acts that present strong arguments that it was indeed a version of Luke’s gospel that Marcion adapted for his own. So how to explain Hippolytus’s remarks?

Dungan cites the “showcase evidence for the Two-Document hypothesis”. In Mark’s account of the rich man addressing Jesus as “Good Master” and asking what he must do to inherit eternal life, Mark’s Jesus replies: “Why do you call me good? No-one is good but God alone. . . .” (Mark 10:17 f.). Matthew, on the other hand, has the rich man say, “What good thing must I do to have eternal life?” and Matthew’s Jesus replies: “Why do you ask me about what is good? One there is who is good . . . ” (Matt. 19:16 f.)

Now the point always made in discussions of this passage is that no-one in the early church would have reformulated Mark’s version out of Matthew’s. It is generally considered a piece of show-case evidence for the Two-Document hypothesis. But Hippolytus claims that Marcion had this passage in his Gospel, and interpreted it a special way:

“For this reason, [Marcion] affirms, Jesus came down unbegotten, in order that He might be liberated from all (admixture of) evil. And He has, [Marcion] says, been liberated from the nature of the Good One likewise, in order that He may be a Mediator, as Paul states [Gal. 3:19] and as [Jesus] Himself acknowledges: ‘Why call ye me good? there is one good’.” (Hippol. Synt. VII 18 AFN V 113). (p. 96)

Thus it is quite possible that, for the Marcionites and probably others, Luke’s or Mark’s Gospel accounts would have been preferable to Matthew’s. Mark’s (and Luke’s) accounts can be used to distinguish the Marcionite “Good God” revealed by Jesus from the Old Testament God of the Jews.

Given this possibility, it is quite reasonable to think of Mark’s gospel as being composed later than Matthew’s, and being dependent upon Matthew’s.

Dungan stresses that he is not arguing that the Gospel of Mark was the Gospel used by the Marcionites. Such a view would require a thorough re-evaluation of all the Marcionite studies published till now. But their gospel was certainly something like Mark’s.

The political context of de-Judaizing Jesus

S. G. F. Brandon has proposed an anti-Jewish motivation for the creation of Mark’s gospel — a motivation that explains the character of its contents, and especially its omissions. Dungan refers to his works, The Fall of Jerusalem and the Christian Church (1968) and especially Jesus and the Zealots (1967). Brandon proposes a date around the fall of Jerusalem in 70.

But Roman anti-Jewish sentiment may have run higher for several decades after that, when word came back of the many insurrections during the year 115-117, and especially after the great Bar Kochbah (Ben Cosibah) Rebellion in 132-135. It is interesting to note that the two waves of gospel-producing activity seem roughly to correspond to the lull following the two major rebellions in 67-70 and 132-135. Using Brandon’s suggestion, therefore, as a way of accounting for the specific character of Mark’s contents (and omissions), namely, as an attempt to “de-Judaize” Jesus, we can readily see on Griesbachian terms how Mark could have been produced in Rome anytime between 70 and the first sure, extensive reference to it (in our form), namely, Tatian’s Diatessaron. (p. 97)

I am aware of a range of literary and textual arguments that are not addressed here and that are used to argue for the priority of Mark. I will attempt to address some of those in future posts. The point here has been to show the broader contextual possibility and possible motivations for wanting to produce a Gospel like Mark’s in response to one like Matthew’s.


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19 thoughts on “Why might Mark want to abridge the Gospels of Matthew and Luke?”

  1. Dungan does proceed to offer evidence from the second century Patristic writings that someone really might have written an abbreviated Gospel that removed all the birth narrative and a very large portion of the teachings of Jesus.

    Ah.. but does Griesbach offer evidence for the gospel of Marcion actually being created by “gnawing” out material? 😉

  2. I once heard an old preacher say that Mark was abridged because it was made for the busy Roman on the go, as if someone was writing up copies of mark to pass out to crowds leaving the Circus or something. Beyond it’s shortness there is Mark’s consistently worse use of language and the more “embarrassing” situations in Mark (I know how you hate those sorts of arguments, but they do make sense). While solutions have been proposed for all these issues to promote Matthew’s priority (#1 position of Christendom for over a thousand years!) whether they are more likely than Markan priority is the issue.

  3. The Griesbachian microconflation by Mark of two gospels is radically different from the Marcionite abridgement of a single Gospel (Luke). The Marcionite procedure seems more relevant for the Augustinian hypothesis, because here Mark is only abridging a single gospel, just like Marcion.

  4. The point of Marcion’s example is to show a real situation where Christians would/did want to truncate the fuller Gospels of Matthew/Luke. This is not an argument that the Gospel of Mark was Marcion’s Gospel. No-one can say that — and Dungan makes it clear he is not arguing this.

    One argument against Mark being the last Gospel is that “only a lunatic” would omit the birth narratives, Sermon on the Mount, etc etc. But Church history — the history of the other Gospels we do know about — testifies the contrary.

    1. “This is not an argument that the Gospel of Mark was Marcion’s Gospel.”

      Yet if Mark was Markion’s gospel, or at least a slightly orthodoxized version of it, it would explain the matter of the missing ending quite well. I.e. that Markion wanted to leave the apostles without ever seeing the risen Christ, so he just ends his gospel with the women fleeing the tomb and telling noone. It would make the perfect segway for him between the gospel and the apostolikon: straight from the non-ending of Mark to Galatians.

  5. I think a good critique of the Griesbach hypothesis is Robert Derrenbacker’s Ancient compositional practices and the synoptic problem. Mark Goodacre also has some reasonable arguments against Markan posteriority in his Case against Q (although far less detailed than Derrenbacker).

  6. I’ve always found the argument that “Y would have taken over A if he had known X” especially weak. I have no problem whatsoever with Mark leaving out much of Matthew, especially given the Jewish flavor of much of this material. Much more problematic, at least for the Griesbach hypothesis (not for the Augustinian hypothesis) is Mark’s microconflation procedure.

    1. “…but only a lunatic would leave out Matthew’s account of the Infancy…” (Streeter)

      Actually, only a lunatic would not remove the virgin-birth story, especially since its so clear that Isaiah 7:14 refers to Mahershalalhashbaz and that “he shall be called a Nazarene” doesn’t exist in the OT and that the prophecy of Rachel weeping (Jer 31) is about her children being in Babylonian captivity not dead. You’d have to be loony to believe that story if you’re lived past 18.

      1. Sounds like an argument for the application of the “criterion of embarassment”. Why does Mark omit Matthew’s crazy birth-narrative? Maybe he was as embarrased by Matthew’s crazy prophecy-mining as modern Christians are embarrassed by modern prophecy-miners who have constructed things like The Rapture whole cloth from misreading bits and pieces in a way reminiscent of how Matthew constructed his prophecies whole cloth from misreading bits and pieces?

        1. I thought the criterion of embarrassment argument was “its so embarrassing that we have to believe its true” not “its so embarrassing that it should be removed.”

  7. JW:
    I agree that the WHY is there of course. But the HOW does not work. “Matthew” claims a chain of historical witness that properly promoted Jesus and therefore thinks it is historical witness based. “Mark” rejects historical witness to Jesus and is based on revelation. If “Matthew” was the only narrative source for “Mark” why would “Mark”, fueled by Revelation, use so many complete stories in “Matthew”? Why not change them more? The conflict of theme, Historical vs. Revelation, also clearly favors Markan priority here. If “Matthew” wrote first why do so many of the stories have a unified theme of Disciple misunderstanding only to be saved (badly) at an awkward ending if his primary purpose is to promote historical witness as properly witnessing Jesus. Yes, the age and lack of sources makes it possible that “Matthew” was first but when you compare different types of evidence for the two, language, copying, theme, Christology, irony, intercalations, chiasms, historical errors and consistency, every one favors Markan priority except Patristic. “Patristic support” always reminds me of that loser gambler that always goes the wrong Way because they don’t appreciate that they lack the inside information. When betting on women’s tennis and Patristics, I always bet against the heterosexual.

    For the most part Matthean priority is promoted by Fundies/Creationists (just put that in for me and Ed and James) which tells us that it is not based on evidence and is actually another category of evidence favoring Markan priority, Fundies are betting against Markan priority and they are statistically, usually wrong.

    Oh course the Doherty type smoking gun is that ending. Oh that ending. “Mark’s” women say nothing and are afraid. Totally consistent with an entire Gospel of Greek Tragedy. “Matthew”, in contrast, has the women say everything, and his ending that parallels “Mark’s” is close to word for word but instead of the women running away (from the killer Rabbi) and saying nothing they run away and say everything. If “Matthew” is original than why the big deal about the empty tomb since a few lines later they will all meet Jesus himself for Christ’s sake. Also related is why is “Luke’s” post resurrection totally different from “Matthew’s” (same goes for the Infancy). The best explanation is that their base did not have it so they were on their own. In my famous debate with Snapp I have a table illustrating that deviation from “Mark’s” 16:1-8 is proportional to the order of the Gospels, the earlier the Gospel, the longer it follows 16:1-8. This gives scope to Markan priority.


    1. Reasonable points to be addressed, obviously. Maybe there can never be final certainty about the Gospel relationships. Responses to consider:

      Arguments from incredulity (“why would” and “why not” arguments) are rhetorical and are the sorts of arguments I fault historicists on. They are usually derived from replaceable/interchangeable premises. Thus Matthew’s disciples who repeatedly fail only to be repeatedly rescued need not be a dialogue with Mark’s failures who are not rescued. The theme of failure and divine rescue in Matthew is an extension of the same theological theme that ties the books of the Old Testament together. Humans fail, God rescues — that is the message of the OT (and probably lots of religions). It is a comforting seller.

      when you compare different types of evidence for the two, language, copying, theme, Christology, irony, intercalations, chiasms, historical errors and consistency, every one favors Markan priority

      Mark would be chuffed that the irony here is that every one can also be turned around to argue for Markan posteriority. Take historical errors. Mark can be argued to be adding another layer of prophetic fulfilment to a Matthean account by tying his narrative more closely to Isaiah 9:1. (Several scholars have argued that Mark is guided very strongly by Isaiah.) There is no absolute reason why one account should and must logically precede the other. It can be argued either way.

      Ditto if one sees Mark as structuring his gospel according to the conventions of Greek Tragedy or other literary genre. This was sort of where I was originally thinking of heading with my recent posts on Spong’s treatment of Matthew and Luke. Matthew and Luke write up Jesus as a Moses and an Elijah; Mark as a Hebrew figure as a Hellenistic tragic hero, for example. This would, after all, be consistent with Mark’s stress on attempting to balance Jesus’ appeal and message to both Jews and gentiles.

      1. Just to thrown the cat in among the pigeons – here is an idea I’m beginning to think about: Perhaps the gospel of Matthew is the very last synoptic gospel – which would make it an ‘answer’ or counter argument to Marcion and his non-Jewish Jesus. Paul Anderson has a great theory re the synoptic problems – that the gospel of John, or actually the pre-Johannine tradition was influential in the creation of the synoptic gospels.

        After all, from a mythicist perspective, or a sceptic stance, why the need to follow the historicist on their road to nowhere! A developing Christology or a developing pseudo-historicity? Depends which way one reads the book – methinks the historicists are reading it back to front…


        Acts 4:19-20—An Overlooked First-Century Clue to Johannine Authorship and Luke’s Dependence upon the Johannine Tradition: Paul Anderson. (more articles by Anderson on this site).

        Anderson has written a book:

        The Fourth Gospel and the quest for Jesus: modern foundations reconsidered. It’s available on google books for view – also amazon.

        Below is a link to a pdf file where Anderson’s book has been reviewed.


        Expanded Interfluentiality: A Review of Part III:
        Paul Anderson’s Theory of Gospel Inter-Relationships
        Michael W. Pahl
        Page 136

        Anderson’s theory thus essentially presents a four-stage process leading to the final forms of the canonical Gospels

        (1) A pre-Gospel stage. The Johannine tradition developed as an independent stream in distinctive ways (e.g. distinctive passion narrative, signs stories, etc.). There was some interfluentiality between the pre-Markan and early Johannine streams, and the Johannine oral traditional material from this period eventually became a source for Luke–Acts and possibly Q.

        (2) An early Gospel stage. The Gospel of Mark was written (c. 70 CE), and an early edition of the Gospel of John was written (c. 80-85 CE) at least in part to respond to Mark. This early edition of John was a narrative from the ministry of John the Baptist to Jesus’ resurrection, distinguished by non-Markan ‘signs’ and dialogues and culminating in the conclusion of Jn 20.30-31.

        (3) A later Gospel stage. The Gospels of Luke (c. 85 CE) and Matthew (c. 90 CE) were written, employing Mark, Q and other distinctive traditions. There was some interfluentiality between the Matthean and Johannine streams around the time of the writing of Matthew and between the two editions of John.

        (4) A final Gospel stage. A final edition of the Gospel of John was written, incorporating the prologue of chapter 1, the material of chapters 6 and 15–17, the epilogue of chapter 21 and some other material (e.g. the ‘beloved disciple’ and eyewitness references).

        One of the key distinguishing features of Anderson’s theory is his characterization of the ways in which the Johannine stream of tradition interacted with each of the Synoptic streams, and distinctively so. He proposes that these Gospel inter-relationships followed discernible patterns from the perspective of the Gospel of John and the Johannine community:

        A Paradigm Shift for How Jesus Scholars Work? A Review of Part IV, ‘Jesus in Bi-Optic Perspective—A Nuanced Appraisal’
        Anne Moore
        Page 144

        Paul Anderson’s The Fourth Gospel and the Quest for Jesus is, in my opinion, one of those monographs that advocate a shift of perspective in scholarship. It is concerned with the assumptions that guide ‘how scholars work’. In the Introduction, Anderson refers to Thomas Kuhn and the idea of paradigm shifts in scholarship (p. 4). Anderson’s book proposes a paradigm shift in reference to the placement or consideration of the Gospel of John within New Testament scholarship, specifically Christian origins and historical Jesus research.

        Honest to John! A Response to Reviews of The Fourth Gospel and the Quest for Jesus
        Paul N. Anderson
        Page 152

        Since the writing of the book, I have found another three dozen ways in which Luke departs from Mark and sides with John, doubling the evidence for Luke’s dependence on the Johannine tradition in its oral stages, as argued in Part III.

        1. Interesting. Thanks. I have for some time been persuaded by Matson, Lawrence and Shellard of the strong possibility that canonical Luke (composed/finalized in the mid-second century) drew on both Matthew and John — and (until most recently) Mark, too.

    2. “’Matthew’ claims a chain of historical witness that properly promoted Jesus and therefore thinks it is historical witness based.” (Wallack)

      Where did you get a crazy idea like that? Matthew doesn’t mention interviewing any witnesses, nor does he claim to be a witness. The author, who we assume was called “Matthew” doesn’t even link himself to the Matthew mentioned in the text as one of the apostles. The idea that “Matthew” the author has based his work on any sort of historical witness or even a pretended claim to historical witness is entirely nonsenical jibberish. You made it up.

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