Discovering the Sources for the First Gospel, 1

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

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)

The first thing to understand is the important place imitation, or mimesis, had for the practice of all the arts of the time.

Contra the modern literary world, which is obsessed with originality and both new and inventive content, the ancient world was obsessed with imitating the great works (oratory, literary, sculpture, etc.) that were already in existence. (p. 8, my emphasis)

The very idea that imitation itself was the natural state of things was central to the thinking that grew out of Plato’s philosophy and ancient concepts of the universe more broadly. And when it comes to art, including the literary arts, we find the following ideals expressed:

Isocrates stressed the need for students to imitate their teacher.

Against Sophists, 17-18:

the student must not only have the requisite aptitude but he must learn the different kinds of discourse and practice himself in their use; and the teacher, for his part, must so expound the principles of the art with the utmost possible exactness as to leave out nothing that can be taught, and, for the rest, he must in himself set such an example of oratory that the students who have taken form under his instruction and are able to pattern after him will, from the outset, show in their speaking a degree of grace and charm which is not found in others. When all of these requisites are found together, then the devotees of philosophy will achieve complete success; but according as any one of the things which I have mentioned is lacking, to this extent must their disciples of necessity fall below the mark.

Panegyrics 10:

And it is my opinion that the study of oratory as well as the other arts would make the greatest advance if we should admire and honor, not those who make the first beginnings in their crafts, but those who are the most finished craftsmen in each, and not those who seek to speak on subjects on which no one has spoken before, but those who know how to speak as no one else could.

Cicero, similarly, in On the Orator 2.21.90:

Let this, then, be the first of my precepts, to point out to the student whom he should imitate, and in such a manner that he may most carefully copy the chief excellencies of him whom he takes for his model.

Quintillian stressed the importance of repeatedly reading masters in order to imitate them. Insititutes of Oratory, 10.1.19-20

let what we read be committed to memory and reserved for imitation, not when it is in a crude state, but after being softened and, as it were, triturated by frequent repetition. For a long time, too, none but the best authors must be read, and such as are least likely to mislead him who trusts them. They must be read with attention and, indeed, with almost as much care as if we were transcribing them. Every portion must be examined, not merely partially. A whole book, when read through, must be taken up afresh

Adam Winn argues that if we study the way ancient authors imitated other works we might be in a position to more validly detect sources the gospel authors used. Hopefully we could develop criteria for determining literary dependence.

This potentially opens the way for us more securely to identify literary sources used by the creator of Mark’s gospel.

Simply because Mark’s gospel is regarded as the first narrative account of the life of Jesus does not mean that it was not without literary [precedents] or that Mark was not dependent on literary sources. Our knowledge that ancient writing was an imitative art argues against the conclusion that gospel sources must be other gospels. (p. 7 — Unfortunately the book is full of typos and my square-bracketed ‘precedents’ indicates a correction for one of these.)

Reading Winn’s discussion of Mark’s literary sources leads me to wonder how such an analysis of ancient literary techniques might shed light on arguments that . ..

  • Primary History (Genesis to 2 Kings) is a “mimesis” of the Histories by Herodotus,
  • or if it might shed any light on the relationship between the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke,
  • or especially on the Gospel of John vis a vis the Synoptic Gospels.
  • or even, another curiosity of mine, the Book of Acts and whether there is any plausible case for thinking it is modeled on Virgil’s Aeneid and the Primary History (Genesis to 2 Kings).

Nor let us forget to have a re-look at Dennis MacDonald’s argument that many episodes and motifs in the Gospel of Mark are modeled upon Homer’s epics.

How ancient authors imitated the masters

Adam Winn explores in detail (eighteen pages) the way the Roman poet Virgil imitated the epic poet we know as Homer. He identifies six ways Virgil varies or adapts his source material. Through a study of these techniques it is clear that imitation was a free and creative exercise.


Virgil sometimes creates a new single story out of quite separate and distinct episodes in his source.

In Book 10 of the Odyssey we see Odysseus and his crew, having just escaped from an island of giants who ate several of their companions, arrive at another island that they hope will be a safe haven. Odysseus sets out to explore, climbs a rocky crag for a better view, and on his return kills a stag with his spear. He brings it back to his men who are still in mourning over the recent deaths of their friends.

In Book 12 Odysseus sails past the monster Skylla who kills several more of his crew. He comes to a new harbour that is a dwelling place for nymphs. Once again he leaves his crew behind while he sets out to explore the island, but this time returns to find his men have offended the god Apollo by eating his sacred cattle. As punishment they are condemned to die, and soon after their ship is struck by lightning and all drown.

Virgil combined elements from both stories to portray the Roman founding hero, Aeneas, sailing in to a harbour in Libya after losing several ships in a storm. This harbour, too, is a dwelling place for nymphs. Aeneas likewise sets out to explore and climbs a rocky crag for a better view. He does not kill just one but seven stags for his mourning crew. Aeneas promises his crew success, not death, and soon afterwards they are reunited with the crew they thought had died at sea.

One is reminded here of the Mark’s opening quotation from the prophets. The blue is from Malachi and the red from Isaiah. Was the author’s memory faulty, hence the mongrel quotation? Or was he crafting just the right passage from the various scriptures to serve as the introduction?

As it is written in the prophets, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee. The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.

Winn also suggests that there has been conflation in the creation of Mark’s depiction of Jesus in the wilderness. Many commentators have noticed the prototype of this scene in 1 Kings 19 where Elijah goes into the wilderness for 40 days and is also sustained by angels. But was the addition of Jesus being with the wild animals prompted by 1 Kings 17 when Elijah made another journey into a wilderness and was sustained there by wild birds?

Dennis MacDonald in Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark suggests a similar conflation from Books 10 and 13 of the Odyssey. In Mark’s scene where Jesus stilled the storm at sea, Jesus (like Odysseus) embarked late with a number of other boats with him, fell asleep in his boat, was woken by frightened followers, and (unlike Odysseus who lost hope) himself stilled the storm, following which the crew all praised the god of the winds. But there is one detail in Mark’s story that is not found in that comparable scene from Book 10, and that is Jesus sleeping on a cushion. In Book 13 of the Odyssey there is another scene where Odysseus falls asleep in the ship and this time he is said to be sleeping comfortably on a rug.

Others have protested that Mark most likely drew his inspiration from the story of Jonah. But need it be an either-or question? There clearly are distinct details in the Homeric account that mirror what we read in Mark. Was Mark drawing on stories of both Jonah and Odysseus? It would not necessarily be out of the question when we remember that one of Mark’s strongest themes is the uniting of Jew and Gentile believer in Christ.


Reversal is found at many levels, from the overall structure of the story as a whole down reversing the order of events in the smallest story units. Character roles and experiences can also be reversed. So, too, can themes. We find all of these in the way Virgil imitated Homer.

Virgil weaves out of Homer’s two epics a single poem. See how Virgil reverses the larger structure of Homer’s epics.

Homer’s grand narrative begins with the war between the Greeks and Trojans.

This climaxes with the battle between Achilles and Hector and Hector’s death.

Following on from these events is the long and hard-ship filled sea voyage of Odysseus.

When he arrives home he finds his palace overrun by those who would want to kill him and take all he owned for themselves.

Virgil reverses this.

He begins with the home of Aeneas being overrun by the Greek conquerors.

He escapes and begins his long and adventure-laden sea voyage towards his destined new home.

The conclusion of the epic is the war between his Trojans and the Italians

which is finally concluded by the death of Turnus at the hand of Aeneas.

Another type of reversal is most obvious in Virgil’s imitation of the boxing match found in Homer’s portrayal of the funeral games held in honour of Achilles’ beloved Patroclus. This is the sequence found in each, with the reversal highlighted:

  • In both versions the prizes are announced
  • In both a powerful/skilled boxer steps forward
  • In both this first volunteer boasts he will win and seeks to claim the prize
  • In both, the onlookers are at first all silent
  • In both, a reluctant and clearly inferior challenger steps forward to fight
    • In Homer he is much smaller
    • In Virgil he is very old
  • In both, the inferior fighter appears to be quickly knocked down
    • In Homer he is genuinely knocked out
    • In Virgil he retaliates in anger and knocks the champion unconscious
  • In both, the defeated fighter is carried back, semi-conscious and spitting up blood, to his friends
  • In both the second place prize is brought to the defeated fighter’s dwelling

An example of role reversal is when Virgil breaks his pattern of matching his hero Aeneas with Homer’s Odysseus. In the Odyssey it is Odysseus who formally requests assistance from a king who is sheltering him and his crew. But in the Aeneid, Virgil breaks the pattern and instead of having Aeneas begging the help of the queen, he puts forward the lost crew of Aeneas to make this plea.

The point is noteworthy because throughout the entire epic, Virgil is presenting Aeneas as a second Odysseus. It is important to note that Virgil feels free to break from this dominant motif if doing better so suits his narrative. (p. 23)

One sees another example of reversal, a reversal of theme, in the example I opened with above to illustrate “conflation”. Where Odysseus pronounces the judgment of death upon his crew and they all die at sea, Aeneas promises salvation and they all survive to arrive at their new home. There are many examples of this sort of reversal (another is the way Aeneas easily escapes through or completely circumvents some of the dangers that beset Odysseus on his journey) since Virgil is clearly portraying Aeneas as a greater than Odysseus, and one more blessed by the gods.

Compare Mark’s story of the paralytic being lowered through the roof of a house where Jesus is preaching in order to be healed (Mark 2:1-12). The paralytic is confined to his bed; Jesus recognizes the faith of those who have brought him; Jesus forgives him and heals him. Thus the episode in 2 Kings 1:1-17 where a king falls through the roof and is confined to his bed is reversed. In the original story the messengers on behalf of the invalid met Elijah, but Elijah condemned their lack of faith in Yahweh and condemned the patient to die.

To be continued

Other techniques Winn identifies in Virgil’s imitation of Homer are

  • Diffusion
  • Omission
  • Altering details
  • Intensification

I’ll continue discussing these in future posts and conclude with the criteria Adam Winn proposes for identifying literary mimesis.

The following two tabs change content below.

Neil Godfrey

Neil is the author of this post. To read more about Neil, see our About page.

Latest posts by Neil Godfrey (see all)

If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!

16 thoughts on “Discovering the Sources for the First Gospel, 1”

  1. Sort of off topic, but this reminded me of the practice of cento, where you take the words of a poem and rearrange them for a new meaning. Irenaeus charges the heretics with doing this to scripture:

    AH 1.9.4

    4. Then, again, collecting a set of expressions and names scattered here and there [in Scripture], they twist them, as we have already said, from a natural to a non-natural sense. In so doing, they act like those who bring forward any kind of hypothesis they fancy, and then endeavour to support them out of the poems of Homer, so that the ignorant imagine that Homer actually composed the verses bearing upon that hypothesis, which has, in fact, been but newly constructed; and many others are led so far by the regularly-formed sequence of the verses, as to doubt whether Homer may not have composed them. Of this kind is the following passage, where one, describing Hercules as having been sent by Eurystheus to the dog in the infernal regions, does so by means of these Homeric verses—for there can be no objection to our citing these by way of illustration, since the same sort of attempt appears in both:—

    “Thus saying, there sent forth from his house deeply groaning.”— Od., x. 76.
    “The hero Hercules conversant with mighty deeds.”— Od., xxi. 26.
    “Eurystheus, the son of Sthenelus, descended from Perseus.”— Il., xix. 123.
    “That he might bring from Erebus the dog of gloomy Pluto.”— Il., viii. 368.
    “And he advanced like a mountain-bred lion confident of strength.”— Od., vi. 130.
    “Rapidly through the city, while all his friends followed.” — Il., xxiv. 327.
    “Both maidens, and youths, and much-enduring old men.”— Od., xi. 38.
    “Mourning for him bitterly as one going forward to death.” — Il., xxiv. 328.
    “But Mercury and the blue-eyed Minerva conducted him.”— Od., xi. 626.
    “For she knew the mind of her brother, how it laboured with grief.”— Il., ii. 409.

    Now, what simple-minded man, I ask, would not be led away by such verses as these to think that Homer actually framed them so with reference to the subject indicated? But he who is acquainted with the Homeric writings will recognise the verses indeed, but not the subject to which they are applied

  2. R.G. Price, thank you for that link. I can finally understand the cursing of the fig tree pericope. Even Randel Helms missed this, stating that this “strange story” was based on “oral tradition” (Gospel Fictions, page 73).

    1. I think the analysis is kind of weak in some places, but the strong instances lend strength to the weak instances. You may with to stress that the OT may not be the *only* works being referenced by the writer. (In particular, you cite the Homeric analysis near the beginning, you may wish to reference individual parts back to that or other works when they are inexplicable or only weakly explained by the hypothesis under consideration). The full explanatory power of a hypothesis that Mark was constructed from literary allusions can only truly be seen in light of *all* the works it alludes to.

      Might want to fix some grammar and spelling errors. For example, the repeated use of ‘trail’ instead of ‘trial’.

      Also, there’s an uncertain reference to a particular passage in Isaiah when you’re talking about Mark 7:1-23. It would be helpful to at least cite *which* passage in Isaiah this is (so those of us who don’t have it memorized might find it), and might even be worth quoting how the passage is usually translated, since you specifically say its quoting from the septuagint and differs in wording in all other versions. At the very least make this its own paragraph and be clearer on the motivation: I understand you only mean to cite it as evidence that Mark’s writer had to hand the septuagint specifically, but its not totally clear about that when first encountered in-line.

  3. Neil, I only skimmed your post, but this seems almost identical to the way Brodie begins his book The Birthing of the New Testament. Are you familiar with it? For a moment I thought you were summarising that work.

    1. I haven’t read that book but I am not surprised. Adam Winn in this book explains that one of his purposes is to establish a more rigorous foundation for Brodie’s proposals. I have read a few of Brodie’s works — books and articles, but not the one you mention.)

  4. I’ve mentioned in comments on this blog before that I suspect the Gospel of the Hebrews was not only what scholars suppose was the “Q” source used by Matthew and Luke, but also that it predates Mark.

    Variations of this idea have been suggested by scholars since the 1600’s:


    In ch. 5 (titled “Jewish-Christian Gospels”) of “The Non-Canonical Gospels” (Foster; 2008), Andrew Gregory writes:

    “This modern belief that there were at least two different Jewish-Christian Gospels is in contrast to the patristic understanding, for the Fathers appear to have assumed that only one such gospel existed, albeit perhaps in different forms” (p. 56).

    He also mentions that:

    “Two reasons may be noted why these texts might be considered potential sources of information about Jesus that is independent of, or earlier than, the canonical gospels” (p. 55), namely:

    1) The patristic Hebrew Matthew tradition

    2) The supposition of an unbroken chain between the Jerusalem church and Ebionites

    (Gregory provides arguments against these reasons.)

    In “Jewish-Christian Gospel Tradition,” Klijn writes:

    “It appears that Jerome and the authors after him supposed that only one Jewish-Christian Gospel existed, that this had originally been written in Aramaic and that it must have gone back to the original Hebrew text of the Gospel of Matthew” (p. 27).

    Regarding the Ebionite Gospel quoted by Epiphanius, which he says was ascribed by them to Matthew, Kiljn writes:

    “[I]t is clear that at the end of the quotation [of this gospel in Epiphanius] it is Matthew who is being addressed in particular. This means that the name “Gospel according to Matthew” can also be defended,” and that:

    “[I]ts numerous parallels with the canonical Gospels can only be explained if we assume that the author of this work used a Greek text of the New Testament” (p. 28), and that:

    “The date of the work is difficult to establish. It seems to have been composed with the help of the three synoptic Gospels but without John” (p. 29).

    But another explanation is that is could pre-date and was known to Mark, Matthew and Luke, and that it was the Gospel of the Hebrews/Matthew cited by patristic sources.

    As Eisenman writes in JBJ: “Scholars generally refer to these [Jewish Christian gospels] as three distinct Gospels, but their relationship is impossible to determine on the basis of the data available to us, nor is it clear that they were ever really separate at all” (p. 708).

    Consider that the arguably early and Jewish Christian Didache is generally acknowledged to use only a Matthew-type text. Clayton N. Jefford, in a chapter called “The Milieu of Matthew, the Didache, and Ignatius of Antioch: Agreements and Differences” (in “Matthew and the Didache: Two Documents from the Same Jewish-Christian Milieu?” ed. by Hubertus Van de Sandt) writes:

    “Arguments that the Didachist actually is dependent upon some edition of Matthew are no longer the majority view but, instead, scholars now tend to believe that the two authors have drawn from a common collection of local, Jewish-Christian materials” (p. 36).

    I suspect that this “common collection of local, Jewish-Christian material” is the Gospel of the Hebrews/Hebrew Matthew cited by patristic sources and the hypothetical source called “Q.”

    Note that there is only one gospel in the Didache:

    8:3: “As the Lord commanded in His Gospel”
    11:4: “act according to the decree of the Gospel”
    15:5 “as you have it in the Gospel”
    15:7 “as you have it in the Gospel of our Lord”

    And it is generally acknowledged that the citations of this gospel are from a Matthew-type text.

    The Didache also knows of the Jewish Christian tradition of Jesus “coming on the clouds of heaven” (16:7; cf. Hegesippus in EH 2.23) and the proscription against “things sacrificed to idols” (6:3; cf. Acts 15:29 and 1 Cor. chapters 8-10). It also, interestingly, knows of a “two ways” tradition that is also in the Dead Sea Scrolls (4-5; cf. 1QS col. 3 and 4).

    Now consider that the anti-Jewish Christian Epistle of Barnabas knows of the “two ways” tradition of the Didache (18-21) and only cites a Matthew-type text (4:14 = Mt. 22:14; 5:9 = Mt. 9:13).

    These are two early sources that know of a Matthew-type text but not Mark.

    Eisenman points out that there are indications that Mark is also aware of Jewish Christian traditions (Paul’s three “pilars” and the death of James), but distorts them in support of a pro-Pauline agenda. The indications are complicated but compelling enough to make me suspect that Mark, like the Epistle of Barnabas, is an early gentile reaction to the Gospel of the Hebrews/Hebrew Matthew/”Q.”

      1. I want to have a look at these links when I have more time, solstice. I also want to make a correction concerning the Didache in my comment above. The ban on “things sacrificed to idols” is in 6:5 (not 6:3) and the “two ways” tradition starts in chapter 1 (not 4). I was in a big hurry at the time, but I’m satisified with the rest of the post.

      2. It doesn’t feel very convincing. Mark is quite obviously constructed from other sources (OT, Odyssey, possibly Paul’s letters). The 2 Gospel hypothesis fails to describe its contents accurately, or indeed at all. Its also very clearly post-70 AD when the temple is destroyed.

        The 2 Gospel hypothesis requires Mark to literally be from the mouth of Peter. As such it fails.

        Further, Mark doesn’t require Matthew or Luke for any of its details. They can all be adequately explained by its literary sources. It would be mind-boggling for Mark to describe actual history, and thus for it to share substantial elements and *language* with Matthew and Luke if there wasn’t direct copying and redaction.

        Any adequate explanation needs to also explain Marcion’s Apostolikon, which likely predates Luke (and Luke is redacted from). The evidence for Marcion’s gospel being first is compelling – there’s simply no reason Marcion would have deleted so much text, most of which does not disagree with his theology. What I’d like to see is a compelling comparison of Mark and the Apostolikon.

        (Actually, what I’d really like to see is Marcion’s version of Paul’s letters, of which i’ve only found 2 online, which are tantalizing glimpses of what are likely far less interpolated versions of his letters).

        1. I might be confused. Where i use Apostolikon I actually mean the Gospel of Marcion’s canon. Is the Apostolikon his collection of Paul’s letters instead? I’m working from memory here…

          1. Marcion was the first to propose a New Testament canon. His canon consisted of only eleven books grouped into two sections: the Evangelikon, being a version of the Gospel of Luke,[9] and the Apostolikon, a selection of ten letters of Paul the Apostle (whom Marcion considered the correct interpreter and transmitter of Jesus’ teachings). Both sections were purged of elements relating to Jesus’ childhood, Judaism, and material challenging Marcion’s dualism. Marcion also produced his Antitheses contrasting the Demiurge of the Old Testament with the Heavenly Father of the New Testament. (Wikipedia, Marcion of Sinope)

            1. Ah, I confused Apostolikon and Evangelikon in my head.

              You say purged, I’m more persuaded that Marcion’s texts had material added to them to reach the ‘canon’ versions. There may be some cases of material being purged, but in most cases addition to the canonical sources is the only sensible explanation. (For example, much of the material in Luke that is not in the Evangelikon has nothing to do with Jesus’s childhood, Judaism, or dualism at all).

              1. I looked at those links, solstice. I’m still convinced of Markan “priority” and its use of sources like the “OT, Odyssey, [and] possibly Paul’s letters,” as Squirelloid wrote. The idea that the Gospel of the Hebrews was the Ebionite “Matthew” and “Q” and that it was known to Mark, (Greek) Matthew and Luke simply adds another gospel in front of the usual line up, one that we know actually existed, unlike “Q.”

  5. JW:
    Everyone would agree that the parallels are there between “Mark” and The Jewish Bible. The next step is to try and explain why. The competing theories are:

    1) Fiction = “Mark” took Jewish Scripture and presented it as Jesus’ history

    2) History = “Mark” took Jesus’ history and presented it as Jewish Scripture

    Paul has a primary objective of using The Jewish Bible to find Jesus’ history, is the only significant extant Christian author before “Mark”, and parallels well with “Mark”. Hence 1) is the more likely answer. Thus we can go beyond the parallels and explain why “Mark” used The Jewish Bible to create Fiction.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Discover more from Vridar

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading