There is a lot of overlap in the content of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. All three of them narrate the same events, often with identical wording and in the same chronological sequence. Many Christians argue that any literary dependency between the Gospel authors is down to them recording different aspects of the same events surrounding Jesus. This argument is often accompanied by the analogy of independent witnesses at a crime scene. Thus the Gospel authors, or witnesses, each recall different aspects of the same incidents, may disagree on the minor details, whilst being in fundamental agreement about the story as a whole.
I shall put forward evidence that some of the similarities between the different Gospel accounts are so striking that we must conclude that plagiarism is the most likely explanation for literary dependency. We can even determine the direction of copying, i.e. who copied from who, by analysing the changes in narrative.
There is compelling evidence that the authors of Matthew and Mark’s Gospel copied from one another. This is in the form of identical parenthetical material in their Gospels. It is highly unlikely that two writers would by coincidence insert into their accounts exactly the same editorial comment at exactly the same place. An excellent example is the speech of Jesus in Matthew 24:15 and Mark 13:14:
“So when you see the abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains.” [Matthew 24:15-16]
“But when you see the abomination of desolation standing where he ought not to be (let the reader understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains.” [Mark 13:14]
These comments (“let the reader understand”) are almost certainly the author’s editorial comment directed to their readers, rather than a quote of the words of Jesus. Yet both Matthew and Mark add the exact same comment in the exact same location in the discourse.
The most likely explanation is that one of the writers was copying the other as he wrote his own personal account and inserted not only the bulk of the discourse, but the same editorial comment. The only alternative explanation is that this is Jesus’ comment directed to the hearer who was reading the Old Testament (Book of Daniel which the above verses are referencing). Though this is highly improbable in light of the setting (Jesus addressing a crowd through oral discourse) and the typical literacy rate of first century Palestine, about 3%, according to Professor of Jewish studies Catherine Hezser who did the most thorough examination of literacy in Palestine.
Now that we’ve established that there is copying going on between the authors of the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, we will determine the direction of the copying. In other words, did Matthew’s author copy from Mark, or did Mark’s author copy from Matthew? There is strong evidence to suggest that the author of Matthew’s Gospel copied from Mark. What follows are some pieces of evidence from the Gospels themselves that can be used to prove that Matthew’s author used Mark as a source:
i. The incident of the woman in the crowd (Mark 5:25-34 v.s. Matthew 9:20-22).
And a woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years. She had suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors and had spent all she had, yet instead of getting better she grew worse. When she heard about Jesus, she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, because she thought, “If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed.” Immediately her bleeding stopped and she felt in her body that she was freed from her suffering. At once Jesus realized that power had gone out from him. He turned around in the crowd and asked, “Who touched my clothes?” “You see the people crowding against you,” his disciples answered, “and yet you can ask, ‘Who touched me?’” But Jesus kept looking around to see who had done it. Then the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell at his feet and, trembling with fear, told him the whole truth. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.” [Mark 5:25-34]
Just then a woman who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years came up behind him and touched the edge of his cloak. She said to herself, “If I only touch his cloak, I will be healed.” Jesus turned and saw her. “Take heart, daughter,” he said, “your faith has healed you.” And the woman was healed at that moment. [Matthew 9:20-22]
In Mark’s account above, Jesus is clearly not omniscient (i.e. does not have all knowledge like God) as he does not know who in the crowd touched him. Contrast this with Matthew’s account which omits this detail.
ii. The incident of Jesus walking on water (Mark 6:49-53 v.s. Matthew 14:25-34).
But when they saw him walking on the lake, they thought he was a ghost. They cried out, because they all saw him and were terrified. Immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” Then he climbed into the boat with them, and the wind died down. They were completely amazed, for they had not understood about the loaves; their hearts were hardened. When they had crossed over, they landed at Gennesaret and anchored there. [Mark 6:49-53]
Shortly before dawn Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said, and cried out in fear. But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” “Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.” “Come,” he said. Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!” Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?” And when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down. Then those who were in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” When they had crossed over, they landed at Gennesaret. [Matthew 14:25-34]
In Mark’s account above, the Disciples are portrayed as being incompetent and disbelieving. Contrast this with Matthew’s account which puts forward an image of Disciples being true believers.
iii. The incident of Jesus and the question of eternal life (Mark 10:17-18 v.s. Matthew 19:16-17).
As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone.” [Mark 10:17-18]
Just then a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?” “Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, keep the commandments.” [Matthew 19:16-17]
In Mark’s account above, Jesus rejects the questioner’s praise of him being good. Contrast this with Matthew’s account which subtly re-phrases Jesus’ response. Matthew’s author seems to have been troubled by the implication of the question “Why do you call me good?” and therefore re-phrased it (very slightly) in such a way as to change the question and avoid the difficult implication that Jesus might be admitting to not being wholly ‘good’.
With all the previous examples in mind, and assuming that both Gospel authors are true believing Christians (which is not unreasonable), which is the more likely scenario:
– Mark copied from Matthew, thereby bringing down the Disciples and Jesus by giving them a worse portrayal than Matthew, or
– Matthew copied from Mark, thereby improving their portrayals?
Clearly, the most logical conclusion is that Matthew’s author copied Mark and changed some of the details because they weren’t happy with the way that Mark told the stories. His intent may be explained by historical changes in Christology, the study of the nature and person of Jesus Christ, by the time that the Gospel was penned. Perhaps in his day Jesus had taken on more of a divine persona within the Church and therefore he was merely projecting his theological beliefs into his account.
Finally, perhaps this is a wider point worth pondering for my fellow Christian readers. If Mark’s Gospel is divinely inspired by God, as many Christians claim, then why did Matthew feel the need to change his words? Obviously Matthew didn’t think that Mark was inspired by God otherwise he wouldn’t have changed the words of Mark.