How did students of the four Gospels determine that the earliest of them is Mark? The answer is fairly simple and the case is overwhelmingly clear. How certain is the conclusion? It is so certain that only a small percentage of scholars hold to any other theory. The large agreement among different interpreters of the Gospels that Mark came first is for a simply reason. That reason is what happens when you lay side by side the three “Synoptic” Gospels: Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
These three Gospels have been called “Synoptic,” a word which means “seeing together,” because they share in common a large amount of material, follow the same basic order, and stand apart from John, whose Gospel is unique among the four.
Long ago people realized you could display the text of the three Synoptic Gospels side by side in columns to form a synopsis or parallel Gospel or a harmony. When you do this you find that a large percentage of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are parallel. They share a large amount of verbatim agreement, though each of the three has unique ways of diverging from each other in small and large matters. Much is the same and some is different.
For a long time, people who have studied the Gospels in synopsis (parallel columns) have referred to “the Synoptic Problem.” That problem is: how do we account for the agreements and differences in the parallel accounts and in the other material in the Gospels? Many of the observations I will share here come from a book that I think is the simplest and best-explained handbook on the topic, by Mark Goodacre, The Synoptic Problem: A Way Through the Maze.
In this article I am focusing only on the way comparing the Gospels in synopsis helps us see that Mark was the first to be written. Many other fascinating topics arise from a comparison of the Gospels in this manner.
Here is one of the things you find when you put the Gospels in parallel columns and study the agreements and differences: Mark is the middle term between Matthew and Luke. What I mean is this: again and again in material that occurs in all three Gospels (material called Triple Tradition) Matthew and Mark have agreements in common and Mark and Luke have agreements in common far outweighing the fewer agreements Matthew and Luke have against Mark. In the differences of detail, both Matthew and Luke agree with Mark more than they agree with each other.
Goodacre proposes a way for students to see this for themselves. You can take a synopsis (or harmony or parallel) of the Gospels and work it out for yourself. Find all the Triple Tradition material (it occurs in all three Synoptic Gospels) and use colored pencils to do a survey of agreements and differences. Here is a list of some, not all, of the Triple Tradition material (from Goodacre, pgs 35-36):
- Matt 8:1-4 … Mark 1:40-45 … Luke 5:12-16 . . . . . . . . . . . Leper
- Matt 9:1-8 … Mark 2:1-12 … Luke 5:12-16 . . . . . . . . . . . . Paralytic
- Matt 9:9-13 … Mark 2:13-17… Luke 5:12-16 . . . . . . . . . . Call of Levi/Matthew
- Matt 9:14-17 … Mark 2:18-22 … Luke 5:12-16 . . . . . . . . Fasting, New Wine, Patches
- Matt 12:1-8 … Mark 2:23-28 … Luke 5:12-16 . . . . . . . . . . Grain on Sabbath
- Matt 12:9-14 … Mark 3:1-6 … Luke 5:12-16 . . . . . . . . . . . Man with Withered Hand
- Matt 10:1-4 … Mark 3:13-19 … Luke 5:12-16 . . . . . . . . . . The Twelve
- Matt 12:46-50 … Mark 3:31-35 … Luke 5:12-16 . . . . . . . . Mother and brothers
- Matt 13:1-23 … Mark 4:1-20… Luke 5:12-16 . . . . . . . . . . Sower Parable
- Matt 8:23-27 … Mark 4:35-41 … Luke 5:12-16 . . . . . . . . Calming Storm
- Matt 8:28-34 … Mark 5:1-20 … Luke 5:12-16 . . . . . . . . . Gerasene Demoniac
- Matt 9:18-26 … Mark 5:21-43 … Luke 5:12-16 . . . . . . . . Jairus, Bleeding Woman
- Matt 14:13-21 … Mark 6:30-44 … Luke 5:12-16 . . . . . . Feeding Five Thousand
- Matt 16:13-20 … Mark 8:27-30… Luke 5:12-16 . . . . . . . Peter’s Confession
- Matt 17:1-8 … Mark 9:2-8 … Luke 5:12-16 . . . . . . . . . . . Transfiguration
- Matt 17:14-20 … Mark 9:14-29 … Luke 5:12-16 . . . . . . . Epilectic Boy
- Matt 19:13-15 … Mark 10:13-16 … Luke 18:15-17 . . . . . . . Little Children
- Matt 19:16-30 … Mark 10:17-31… Luke 18:18-30 . . . . . . Rich Young Ruler
- Matt 20:29-34 … Mark 10:46-52 … Luke 18:35-43 . . . .Blind Bartimaeus
- Matt 21:1-9 … Mark 11:1-10… Luke 19:28-38 . . . . . . . . . Triumphal Entry
- Matt chs. 21-28 … Mark chs. 11-16 … Luke chs. 20-24 Passion Narratives
So here is Goodacre’s coloring project and here are the results you will get. Color words found only in Matthew blue. Words found only in Mark color red. Words unique to Luke should be yellow. Words shared only by Matthew and Mark would be purple. Words shared only by Matthew and Luke would be green. Words shared only by Mark and Luke would be orange. Finally, words found in all three will be brown.
Here is what you will find. There will be a lot of brown, some purple, some orange, but very little green. In other words, agreements between Matthew and Luke against Mark are rare. This shows that Mark is the middle term between the three. What does Goodacre mean by “middle term”? This can be illustrated as below:
TRIPLE TRADITION MATERIAL AGREEMENTS
. . . MATTHEW . . . MARK . . . LUKE . . .
. . . MATTHEW . . . MARK
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .MARK . . . LUKE
He means that Matthew used Mark as a source and also Luke used Mark as a source. If we propose that Mark was first and that both Matthew and Luke read Mark, it explains the fact that Matthew agrees more with Mark against Luke than with Luke against Mark. It explains how Luke agrees more with Mark against Matthew than with Matthew against Mark.
How we can tell that neither Matthew nor Luke was first: If Matthew was the first Gospel and if Mark and Luke both knew Matthew, then Matthew would be the middle term. If Luke was first, it would be the middle term. Mark is what Matthew and Luke have most in common. Therefore Mark was first.
More evidence: Another phenomenon in the Gospels is that there is a good body of material found in Matthew and Mark, but not Luke, and a good amount found in Mark and Luke, but not Matthew. And the Matthew-Mark material and Mark-Luke material follows the order of guess which Gospel? Mark. Again we see Mark as the middle term. Another line of evidence is the tendency of Mark to make statements in raw, unfiltered, almost scandalous terms. Whenever Mark describes Yeshua in a manner than might be controversial, we sometimes find that Matthew and Luke soften the description. If Mark makes the disciples look bad, we find that Matthew and Luke make them look less bad. Then there is the matter of material Mark does not include, things like the Lord’s Prayer and the various teachings that make up Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount and Luke’s Sermon on the Plain. Does it make sense, if Mark came later, that he would omit this material? In choosing what to include and what to leave out of a written Gospel (the community knew many more sayings and deeds of Yeshua than the Gospels record) why would Mark leave out the Lord’s Prayer once it was part of the Synoptic Gospel tradition? He would not be likely to. More likely, Mark was written before Matthew.
In short, the evidence stacks up that Mark is what Matthew and Luke have most in common and that Mark was the earliest to be written and circulated.