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Why did the Gospel of Mark Survive?

February 22, 2013

One of the many curiosities in the study of the NT and earliest Christianity is the early history and fortunes of the Gospel of Mark (hereafter, GMark).  On the one hand (assuming the dominant view of Mark’s priority), the GMark appears to have been very influential.  It is widely thought that the authors of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke were likely prompted to write the kind of Jesus-books that they did by GMark.  Indeed, we scholars judge that GMark was the principal model and most significant source for them.  GMatthew appropriates about 90% of GMark, and GLuke uses ca. 60% of GMark, each of them also, of course, following the basic “storyline” of GMark, commencing Jesus’ ministry in the context of John the Baptizer and taking the story on through to Jesus’ execution and resurrection.   Indeed, a case has been made that GMark was also known and influential for the author of the Gospel of John.  But, even if we confine ourselves to GMatthew and GLuke, if imitation is the highest compliment, the author of GMark did very well indeed!

On the other hand, to judge from the evidence of citations and identiable allusions in early Christian writers, and also from the comparative number of extant early copies of the Gospels, GMark seems not to have been cited, copied or read nearly as much as the others (especially GMatthew and GJohn).  From among remnants of early Christian manuscripts of literary texts dated to the first three centuries CE, we have only one sure copy of GMark (in the Chester Beatty Gospels codex known as “P45,” dated ca. 250 CE).  By contrast, we have remnants of at least a dozen copies of GMatthew, at least sixteen copies of GJohn, and seven copies of GLuke.  For further perspective, we have remnants of three copies of the Gospel of Thomas.  (For further details, see my discussion in The Earliest Christian Artifacts:  Manuscripts and Christian Origins, pp. 15-41.)  In short, it looks like GMark suffered an almost total eclipse in the second century CE.

But, curiously, in our earliest extant manuscript that was apparently intended to house in one codex the Gospels regarded as scripture (for/by those for whom the manuscript was copied), GMark is there among the “fab four” that thereafter comprise the four Gospels of the NT.  Practically lost from sight, submerged from view in the second century evidence, GMark bobs up again like a cork in the water and takes a place in P45.  And, granted, earlier in Irenaeus’ work, Against Heresies (3.11.8; ca. 175-190 CE), the familiar four Gospels are named as the only ones to be accepted (interestingly, GMark is named last here).

So, a couple of obvious questions present themselves:  Why was GMark apparently given comparatively so little attention in the second century, after having such a remarkable influence initially?  And why, given its comparatively less popular usage (neglect?) in the second century, did GMark nevertheless survive and, indeed, acquire a place among what became the canonical accounts of Jesus?

It makes an interesting contrast with what we think happened to “Q” (or at least those of us who accept the “Q” hypothesis).  As widely thought among scholars, “Q” was also used as a major source (in this case, for a body of Jesus’ sayings) by the authors of GMatthew and GLuke.  In response to those who ask why this “Q” didn’t survive, the typical answer is to say that “Q” was so heavily absorbed into GMatthew and GLuke that it was rendered thereafter redundant, and simply couldn’t compete with these more elegant and rich narrative Gospels.  OK.  So, why didn’t something similar happen to GMark?  It too (so we commonly think) was heavily absorbed into GMatthew and GLuke, and (as noted) seems thereafter to have suffered a comparative decline in usage.  But it survived, somehow, and indeed obtained a prestigious place in the Christian canon of scriptures.

Once the other Gospels appeared, especially GMatthew, we can, perhaps, understand more readily why GMark was comparatively neglected.  Just about everything in GMark appears also in GMatthew, and a whole lot more in addition.  But the more difficult question is why did GMark not suffer the same fate as ascribed to “Q”? 

For my money (until someone comes along with a more persuasive suggestion), the early association of GMark with the Apostle Peter was likely at least one major factor.  This tradition is reflected already in Irenaeus (Against Heresies, 3.10.5), and he was likely passing on a tradition that went back earlier still.  (In the early 4th century, Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 2.15-16, ascribes a similar tradition to the 2nd-century figures Clement of Alexandria and Papias.)

In any case, even after acquiring a spot among the canonical Gospels, GMark continued to be comparatively less used down the centuries.  This changed only in the 19th century, when GMark came to be seen as the earliest Gospel, and therefore more valuable as a historical source for the “historical” Jesus.  The comparative simplicity of GMark was likewise then perceived as a virtue.  (For a review of the historical fortunes of GMark, see Brenda Deen Schildgen, Power and Prejudice:  The Reception of the Gospel of Mark, Wayne State University Press, 1999.)  Nowadays, GMark might even be the preferred Gospel by many.

But, in addition to its inherent value and fascination, GMark presents us with these questions about its early fortunes.

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  1. [James: As you’ve written such a looong comment, I’ve chosen to include some brief responses in brackets specifically where I want to reply. These are marked “LWH”.]

    I’m coming to this discussion late, but not too late, I hope.

    Some qualifications should be made to some premises of some of your conclusions.

    First, it’s important to realize how loosely some patristic authors quoted from the Gospels. And it’s important to add to the equation the faithfulness of the preservation of the patristic writings themselves; just as the text of the Gospel of Mark tended to be harmonized to that of Matthew, similarly non-specific quotations of Mark embedded in patristic writings may have been conformed to the more familiar Matthean form.
    [James, I specifically mentioned quotations that we can identify, not unidentifiable ones. Among identifiable quotations, there are far fewer of Mark. Fact. LWH]
    Plus, we should also appreciate that Mark is simply a shorter text and therefore we should expect a proportionately lower rate of quotation of it . . . [Sure, in one sense. But that doesn’t acount for the data.LWH]

    Second, it’s important not to ignore the fragmentary nature of some of the manuscripts of the other Gospels. Take P75, for example: here we have Luke and John. Do you really think that there was no twin-volume, initially, containing Matthew and Mark?? [James, we can speculate all day long. I prefer simply to tot up the extant data. I specifically referred to extant MSS, not guessing what others may have been around. LWH]
    And regarding fragments, how do we know that in their pristine state, these MSS did not contain all four Gospels? A lot of your theory seems to depend on the random ways in which MSS decayed. To put it another way: which has more Greek manuscripts from the first three centuries: Mark chapter 10, or Matthew chapter 1? [No, James. My approach is that used by Classicists also to judge comparative popularity of classical texts. LWH]

    Third, aren’t a couple of MSS in the equation basically amulets? If so, they may indicate the popularity of specific passages (such as the Lord’s Prayer) but not of Gospels as a whole. [No. I don’t include identifiable amulets in my count. LWH]

    Fourth, although the Gospel of Mark lacks manuscript-evidence in the second century, it is saying too much when one says that it was “Practically lost from sight, submerged from view in the second century evidence.” Justin refers to Mk. 3:17; Tatian incorporates the Gospel of Mark (including 16:9-20) into his Diatessaron; [Hmm. James. And how do you know this? The Diatessaron is not extant in Greek, but only in fragments and in later translations. LWH] it looks to me like we don’t have a lot of distinct quotations from Mark in the 100’s because (a) we don’t have a lot of source-specific quotations of anything from the 100’s (that is, quotations in which the author specifically names his source) [Naming the source isn’t the issue: It’s our ability to identify the source from the wording of the citation. LWH], and (b) Mt and Lk appear to be quoted more often because they have more distinct material to quote [Very likely! But that means that GMark wasn’t used/cited as often. My point exactly. LWH].
    And then there’s Epistula Apostolorum to consider. Plus, doesn’t Irenaeus say that there was a group of heretics that specially favored the Gospel of Mark? [Doesn’t change the facts I’ve cited. LWH]

    So I don’t grant that it is justifiable to say that “It looks like GMark suffered an almost total eclipse in the second century CE.” Too much of the picture is in the shadows. [Maybe a bit rhetorical on my part, but undeniably, based on evidence available, GMark seems not to have been used or copied anywhere near as often as the other Gospels. LWH]

    You asked: Why did GMark not suffer the same fate as ascribed to “Q”? I am sure that the association with Peter had a lot to do with it, but perhaps the Gospel of Mark survived mainly as a result of an initial monopoly and efficient copying: figuring that it was disseminated in Rome from the late 60’s onward — after being requested by Christians there — it would have adequate time to establish itself as a valuable text in various locales before copies of other Gospel-accounts arrived to compete with it. It just had a head start, and that was enough to keep it in circulation until someone wisely made a four-Gospel collection. [Perhaps. But all this thus accepts that GMark “survived” even though apparently not as much copied/read. LWH]

    You stated in one of your comment-responses that “The “long ending” (Mk 16:9-20) is only one effort to equip GMark with a more “suitable” ending (under the influence of the other Gospels), and on several grounds is rightly judged as a secondary addition, not part of the original text.” I disagree. I am curious about what grounds you propose a second-century ending-creator would have to compose an ending for Mark which has all the features that Mark 16:9-20 has. Why would anyone read about the disciples’ compliance in Mt. 28, and proceed to state that the disciples did not believe Mary Magdalene after she had seen Jesus? Why would anyone read about the disciples encountering Jesus as the two travelers were reporting to the main group of disciples, in Luke 24, and proceed to describe their report, and Jesus’ appearance to the eleven, as two events rather than one? Why would anyone throw in the unusual (and unparalleled) signs in 16:18? Why would anyone read John 21, and not use it as a major source? And, perhaps most crucially, why would anyone, having read Matthew 28:9-10, completely abandon the scene in Mark 16:8, and fail to complete the sentence and the scene: why did he restate the day and time, and write as if Mary Magdalene’s companions were no longer on the narrative stage? Why did he write about Jerusalem-appearances instead of Galilean ones? Don’t all these things cumulatively convey that Mark 16:9-20 was not written to conclude the Gospel of Mark, and that (contra Kelhoffer) the author was not familiar with the texts of the Gospels (though he was familiar with some of the same traditions that their authors were familiar)?
    [James: I trust that you’re sufficiently acquainted with the detailed studies, most recently Kelhoffer’s, but many others earlier, that indicate (a) that the “long ending” is secondary, but (b) early, and (c) rather clearly alludes to, and shows influence of, the endings of the other gospels and contents of Acts. E.g., the doubting disciples is a motif from Luke. I know that this is a pet issue for you, but this isn’t the issue, or the place to discuss it. LWH]

    Yours in Christ,

    James Snapp, Jr.

    • Larry,

      I hope this follow-up will be worthwhile.

      I’m not questioning that there are far fewer identifiable quotations of Mt or Lk or Jn than there are of Mk; the thing to see is that some of those unidentifiable ones might be from Mk.; this adds a very large slice of “Unknown” to the pie-chart, so to speak.

      The data is not /completely/ accounted for by Mk’s shorter length, but it has something to do with it: we should expect there to be fewer quotations from Mk, compared to Mt and Lk and Jn, because there is less of Mk to quote. (And fewer identifiable quotations because Mk does not have as much unique material as the others.)

      You said: “I prefer simply to tot up the extant data. I specifically referred to extant MSS, not guessing what others may have been around.” That’s precisely the problem: you’re considering only the data, and not its possible/probable implications (such as the extremely high probability that P75 had a twin brother-volume containing Mt and Mk, or that some other fragment-MSS included Mk when they were pristine).

      When I asked, “Which has more Greek manuscripts from the first three centuries: Mark chapter 10, or Matthew chapter 1?” you didn’t give a real answer. I rephrase the question to emphasize my point: if it is valid to gauge the popularity of a Gospel in the 100’s-200’s on the basis of how many copies of it are extant from the 100’s-200’s, then why isn’t it equally valid to gauge the popularity of a chapter of a Gospel in the 100’s-200’s on the basis of how many copies of that chapter are extant from the 100’s-200’s?

      You said that your approach “is that used by Classicists also to judge comparative popularity of classical texts.” And how many of those Classicists were judging the comparative popularity of classical texts which were, in almost all known non-fragmentary copies, bound together?

      You asked how I know that Tatian incorporated the Gospel of Mark (including 16:9-20) into his Diatessaron. By observing the same basic arrangement of Mk. 16:9-20 in Fuldensis (in the West) and in the Arabic Diatessaron (in the East), and by observing Ephrem Syrus’ use of Mk. 16:15 in his Syriac Commentary on the Diatessaron (extant in Chester Beatty Syriac MS 709). Further information on this is in my research-book on the ending of Mark; haven’t you read it?

      When I mentioned that Mt and Lk appear to be quoted more often because they have more distinct material to quote, you stated, “Very likely! But that means that GMark wasn’t used/cited as often.” That doesn’t follow, because unidentifiable quotations may be quotations of Mark.

      When I mentioned that Irenaeus says that some heretics specially favored the Gospel of Mark, you replied, “Doesn’t change the facts I’ve cited.” It does not change them but it supplements them to the point of changing their implications: figuring that the heretics to whom Irenaeus referred had a minimum of three copies of Mark, that alone is more than the number of extant MSS of Matthew from the 100’s, isn’t it.

      LWH: “GMark seems not to have been used or copied anywhere near as often as the other Gospels.” If we use your approach consistently, we will also find that some chapters of Matthew seem not to have been used or copied anywhere near as often as the other chapters of Matthew.

      Regarding the studies about the ending of Mark: I have not seen a single study that demonstrated that the author of Mk. 16:9-20 depended on Mt or Lk; my own research, besides revealing significant errors in some of the earlier studies to which you refer, leads rather to the opposite conclusion. But, as you mentioned, that is a subject for another place.

      Yours in Christ,

      James Snapp, Jr.

      • James: Once again, I’ve allowed your rather longer-than-normal comment because it’s on the topic and you offer specific statements. I’ll be briefer!
        –You want to speculate about what MIGHT have been the case, and I simply point to what we have and can identify. So, among identifiable and attributable uses of the Gospels, there are far fewer of GMark. It’s simply special pleading to urge that among the unidentified uses there may be some unknown number of Markan ones.
        –Yes, Classicists have the same problem of most MSS from the earliest period being fragmentary, and, yes, as I indicated, they tend to guage comparative extant numbers as likely indicative of comparative number of ancient copies.
        –Your purported analogy (number of copies of a given chapter of GMatt and a given chapter of GMark) is invalid. The question isn’t how fully the texts of these Gospels were preserved, but what evidence we have (from citations and remains of ancient copies) of comparative use/copies of each text.
        –As to the long ending of GMark, we agree that’s not the issue, and will have to remain disagreed about it being an original part of GMark.
        I hope we’re done. You’ve had your say and I’ve indicated why I’m not persuaded. Let’s move on.

  2. ljhooge permalink

    I would guess 3 reasons as to why the GoM stuck around:

    1). The GoM got off to A GOOD START. E.g., Matthew and Luke both knew about it and used it. The GoM was probably(?) well known in Christian circles. The broader the base, the greater the likelihood that it wouldn’t have been forgotten.
    2). The GoM was written as a story. A STORY WILL ALWAYS HAVE AN ADVANTAGE OVER ‘SAYINGS’ (e.g. Q). Story offers context, connections, plot, themes, etc., which would have made the GoM much more attractive – much more interesting to an audience.
    3). It very well may have been connected to PETER early on. ‘Authority’ may have pushed it over the top – guaranteeing it’s preservation.

  3. C.J. O'Brien permalink

    Two hypotheses regarding the puzzle of 2nd century scarcity/neglect and later canonicity and eventual survival. One is that it’s a statistical artifact. The sample-size of 2nd c. manuscripts is small, and so randomness is magnified. Also, 2nd c. manuscripts are fragmentary, and GMark is shorter in comparison to GMatt and GLuke. Less papyrus ever existed that was inscribed with the text of Mark, even if the number of copies was the same at a given point, and so fewer fragments were even candidates for survival.

    But another explanation might possibly be that the reasons for the neglect of Mark in the 2nd c. are the same (or in the same general category) as the reasons the authors of GMatt and GLuke appropriated and edited the material. The same theological controversies that made Mark a troublesome narrative for those authors and their implied audiences, such that they were driven to rewrite it, made it less likely to be disseminated and read. This tendency would have been yet further reinforced by the existence of the new adaptations. As time wore on, the 2nd c. concerns that made GMark problematic were obviated. A few copies survived, and rehabilitated by the apostolic association in an age keen for those links to the past as well as by the attenuation of the controversies that once surrounded it, GMark began to be copied more and acheived canonicity.

    • C.J.: A thoughtful set of comments! To the first, I reiterate that the comparative evidence of citation in early Church writers also indicates less usage of Mark. So, I myself doubt the cogency of your “statistical” proposal.
      As to your second suggestion, I wonder if you’re reading a bit more strife into the wrting of GMatt and GLuke than is warranted. There is no indication in them of correcting or refuting other stories about Jesus. In the main, they “improve” Mark’s Greek, and also beef up the story with lots of sayings material, and of course both add birth accounts and resurrection-appearance accounts. So, the authors likely saw their works as expansions and improvements on GMark, but I doubt that they found it “troublesome” (no evidence of that).

      • C.J. O'Brien permalink

        I think you underestimate to what degree GMark is and was a puzzling and problematic text. At a finer level of detail than your general account of the major changes, I believe much of the editorial activity by the authors of GLuke and GMatt testifies to discomfort with their source material.
        Even at the level of gross additions, clearly even early audiences found it strange that the narrative begins in medias res, without even a nod at a heroic or exalted birth, and ends with unresolved doubt and fear.
        Along the way we have:
        Discomfort over the role of John and the treatment of the baptism
        Smoothing over the puzzling inconsistencies in the motif called “The Messianic Secret”
        A tempering of GMark’s overwhelmingly negative portrayal of Peter and the Twelve
        The related abandonment of the typology invested in the Parable of the Sower (related because the identification of “Petros” with the “rocky ground” of the parable is softened or outright eliminated in GMatt by the device of an alternative etymology)
        Even the “beefing up” with sayings material corrects an oddity that Jesus in GMark does very little teaching that doesn’t serve as thematic typology by which later parts of the narrative are to be understood.
        Intentional removal of literary features like chiastic structure and intercalation that pattern GMark’s narrative to an extent remarkable if it is to be taken as a straightforward account of factual events
        By no means an exhaustive list.

      • C.J.: I hope I don’t underestimate anything, and I agree that, after GMatthew and GLuke appeared GMark was apparently thought a less satisfactory (or less orderly) account. It is also undeniably the case that the authors of GMatt & GLuke made some changes to what they took over from GMark, some of the emphases that you mentioned modified. But I remain doubtful that we should imagine the authors as engaged in some sort of theological conflict with GMark. There has been a tendency to import into early Christianity the mood of German theological scholarship of the 19th century, in which “Streitschrift” is the game. There were conflicts to be sure, as we know because they were explicitly indicated (e.g., Paul’s references to “false brothers”, etc.!). But differences don’t necessarily mean conflict.

  4. Hi,

    The connection of Mark with Peter is also the connection with their preaching in Rome, which is also one connection with Mark very possibly being originally written in Latin, although editions of Mark in both Latin and Greek likely circulated even in the 1st century.

    If we accept the Ockham-friendly connection that Luke was writing to the high priest Theophilus, then it is unlikely that Mark preceded Luke. Markan priority is a very thin reed on which to base any theories. As is the idea that we should accept the woman afraid ending, rather than the traditional ending in 99.9% of the Greek, Latin and Syriac manuscripts, supported by Irenaeus and other Ante-Nicene evidences.

    We have extant early manuscripts, usually fragments, largely from the Alexandarian region.

    Mark would have been more influential in the western regions, and thus Irenaeus is one who references Mark and Peter early. The language and culture and geography goes a long way to explaining the puzzle and putting the pieces together.

    Steven Avery
    Bayside, NY

    • Steven: There’s no reason/evidence for GMark originating in Latin. Indeed, we have no indication of any Christian Latin text before the late 2nd century. In lst-century Rome, more people spoke Greek than Latin.
      Second, there’s no basis for making the “Theophilus” of GLuke a priest. It’s more commonly thought that he was an official of some sort (the “most excellent” typically used in addressing govt officials). The “long ending” (Mk 16:9-20) is only one effort to equip GMark with a more “suitable” ending (under the influence of the other Gospels), and on several grounds is rightly judged as a secondary addition, not part of the original text. Comparative citations of early Christian writers East or West shows GMark less cited than the other Gospels. I fear that your attempt to solve the puzzle is more problematic than the problem posed.

      • Hi,

        Thanks for the thoughts. Each issue is worthy of its own discussion, so let me take one example. The misunderstandings about Rome, heavily downplaying the Latin element in the 1st and 2nd century,, are often based on tricky Bruce Metzger writing (see post 7136 on the textualcriticism forum) as Latin was clearly a major element in Rome.

        And if a writing was meant to go to the western empire, Latin would be even more fundamental.


        This article, while defending Romans in Greek (no problem there) points out that Rome was largely bi-lingual. (And there would be a good part of the community for whom Latin was the only or native language.)

        David Solomoni
        Why Paul wrote in Greek to the Romans
        “by the time Romans was written, a substantial part (if not the majority) of the population in Rome was bilingual”

        [textualcriticism] Bruce Metzger assertions on Greek and Latin in early Rome


        Contemporary Review (1881) – Latin Christian Inscriptions – George T. Stokes
        “the Latin service which had grown up by its side for the use of Latin-speaking converts… Latin-speaking majority”

        [textualcriticism] Bruce Metzger assertions on Greek and Latin in early Rome


        As for the linguistic support for Mark being originally Latin and our now having a translation Greek, that is a long, involved and fascinating discussion.

        Theophilus is another area where scholastic myths are common. Most scholars are simply not comfortable with the early dating that this rather simple and clear identification gives..

        As for the Mark ending in 99.9% of the Greek, Latin and Syriac mss, that is well covered in many places.


      • Steven: The blog post by Solomoni actually goes against your view! Read to his final statement. Likewise, the publication from 1881 (there is more recent stuff out there!) refers to the emergence of Latin texts among Christians toward the end of the 2nd century (not in the first century). Irenaeus (bishop of Lyons in the late 2nd cent) wrote in Greek. All archaeological and textual evidence indicates Greek used among Christians in Rome (not Latin) through the first two centuries. See, e.g., Peter Lampe, From Paul to Valentinus: Christians At Rome in the First Two Centuries. Translated by Michael G. Steinhauser. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003. There is no basis for your claim that GMark was composed in Latin. I repeat: Your claim about the Theophilus to whom Luke-Acts is dedicated being a priest likewise has no basis. You’re entitled to your opinions, but in scholarship opinions have to survive the critical review process. When you’ve survived that, by submitting work to refereed journals, publishing work that is reviewed by scholars in the subject, let us know. Sorry to have to be a bit sharp, but it’s simply not on to take some sort of high tone, claiming “scholastic myths”, etc., as if you have some kind of superiority in the matter.
        I think we’re done with this thread.

      • Hi,

        Since you consider the peer-review to be the critical issue (I do not, as the academy has a built-in bias to certain beliefs like late dating) .. here are the peer-reviewed papers that touch on the Theophilus proposal, all written by Richard H. Anderson.

        1) Theophilus: A Proposal, Evangelical Quarterly, 69:3 (1997), 195-215 (I. Howard Marshall, editor);

        2) The Cross and Atonement from Luke to Hebrews, Evangelical Quarterly, 71:2 (1999), 127-149;

        3) Luke and the Parable of the Wicked Tenants, The Journal of Biblical Studies, Jan-Mar 2001, Vol. 1, No. 1;

        4) A la recherche de Theophile, Dossiers d’Archeolgie, Dec 02-Jan 03.

        There is a great deal more on the topic since that was published. Sometimes events and research goes faster than peer-reviewed studies.


      • Steven: You can’t have it both ways, claiming that refereed journals are biased against new ideas and then citing articles published in them that you think support your idea.
        In any case, there have been numerous suggestions about who or what “Theophilus” refers to in Luke-Acts, with many scholars thinking that he was perhaps a Roman official of some sort. It appears that he had been taught about Jesus and early Christian faith, and was probably a convert. That’s all we know. The name appears in ancient literature, inscriptions and papyri, so there appear to have been numerous individuals so named.
        Anyway, to be treated as having any import, research must go through the scholarly publication process.

  5. Jens Knudsen (Sili) permalink

    Indeed, a case has been made that GMark was also known and influential for the author of the Gospel of John.

    Is there a good account of that hypothesis for the layman? I’ve heard it mentioned before, but not read any of the evidence.

    I’ll happily accept primary literature as well – I still have online access at my uni.


    Interestingly the packrat hypothesis for survival that Crossant suggested, if true, speaks against the idea of Q as a written source, doesn’t it.

    • Jens: Here are a few references discussing GJohn and the Synoptics:
      –Borgen, Peder. Early Christianity and Hellenistic Judaism. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1996, pp. 128-58.
      –Smith, D. Moody. John Among the Gospels: The Relationship in Twentieth-Century Research. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992.

      I don’t recognize the “packrat hypothesis” of a “Crossant”. Do you mean J. D. Crossan?

      • Yes, I did, but even that was all wrong.

        I really meant Anthony Le Donne, who linked me here in the first place.

        Sorry …

        Thanks for the references! Unfortunately neither book is available locally, so I’ll have to send for ILL or buy them myself.

  6. Tony Costa permalink

    I think the fact that GMatthew became more prominent in the readings of the churches over that of GMark is due in my estimation to the human inclination towards having longer and fuller accounts especially in this case of the life and sayings of Jesus. Since GMatthew has about 90% of GMark, the former would be seen as having GMark + more added features to the life of Jesus. The more the better I would assume. The brevity of Mark especially in the Easter account (16:1-8) did not appeal to many as the manuscript tradition testifies in the later creation of the “longer ending” to Mark (16:9-20). Later on the tendecy to ‘harmonize’ the gospel accounts became prominent especially in the Byzantine MS family. It seems GMatthew took pride of place because of its fuller account.

  7. Mark permalink

    I would assume that most scholars accept the more extravagant narratives found in the later Gospels as a kind of mythic framework in which to tell the Jesus story, virgin births, heavenly signs and Wise men bearing gifts being examples. Are there similar biographies dealing with historical figures from the ancient world that were primary influences on the Gospels? Or are the Gospels unique?

    • Mark: There are somewhat similar types of stories of miraculous births or omens marking the births of important figures (e.g., kings), and biographical-type writing was coming into its own in a way in the Greco-Roman period (e.g., Philo’s Life of Moses). Richard Burridge has argued cogently that the gospels reflect traists of “bios” literature of the time. But the “primary influence” on the writing of the Gospels seems to have been the shape and nature of early Christian beliefs and traditions about Jesus. That is, the Gospels also rather directly reflect the preaching and teaching of earliest Christianity about Jesus. See, e.g., my treatment of “Jesus Books” in my book, Lord Jesus Christ (pp. 259-247).

  8. Why didn’t GMark suffer the same fate as ascribed to “Q”? My answer, based on a view that the historical sayings source was somewhat different from Q as normally reconstructed, is twofold. Firstly, the “logia” (if we take Papias’ statement to refer to a collection of sayings) was compiled by the apostles of the early Jesus movement before the widespread success of the missions of Paul. Consequently it did not reflect the gospel as we know it from the letters of Paul. So some second century Christians may have snubbed it, just as Luther later snubbed the Epistle of James. For according to my reconstruction of the logia, its theology was in some respects closer to that of the Epistle of James than to the theology of Paul. Secondly if I am right about its provenance, the logia would have been written in Aramaic. An Aramaic document would have been meaningless to an increasingly large proportion of Christians as the gospel spread westwards.

    • Ron: Let’s distinguish what we know, what can be proposed with some scholarly support, and what our private opinions are. We know that there is a considerable body of sayings material shared by GMatt & GLuke. Most think the best explanation is they drew on a common/similar source, a collection of Jesus’ sayings/teaching, and we call this “Q”. It seems likely to have been arranged topically. All latest scholarship judges that it emerged in Greek, not Aramaic. Per the “Q” hypothesis, it circulated widely enough and was seen as sufficiently compatible for the authors of GMatt & GLuke independently to use it. This much we either know or is widely held. Your other claims (e.g., similarity of “Q” theology to Epistle of James, written in Aramaic, theology incompatible with Paul, etc.) are your own, but haven’t been put forward so that they have received scholarly support. So, your explanation for the “disappearance” of “Q” doesn’t have much force . . . unless you succeed in persuading scholars via the usual means: refereed journal articles, scholarly books, etc.

  9. Niccolo Donzella permalink

    Deducing a neglect of Mark from a paucity of discovered early copies is unconvincing absent strong evidence of a correlation between use and survival. Maybe overuse destroyed the early copies, or maybe we haven’t found them yet.

    • Niccolo: Yes, it is an inference. But there is a correlation between the comparative number of extant copies of the Gospels and the evidence of comparative frequency of citation in early Christian writers. We know that GMatt and GJohn were the favorites. And they have the highest number of extant manuscripts from the early period. So, that would suggest that heavy usage didn’t = absence of extant copies, but the opposite.

      • Niccolo Donzella permalink

        Good point, Larry. Thanks. Along with its association with Peter, might GMark’s survival have had something to do with its accessibility? My understanding is that it was composed in a more vernacular style.

      • Niccolo: GMark is written in a syntactically simpler kind of Greek. But in usage GMatt was much preferred by early Christians.

      • Niccolo Donzella permalink

        Your post led me to your enlightening article: P45 AND THE TEXTUAL HISTORY OF THE GOSPEL OF MARK, and your discussion of scribal preferences in favor of producing a “clear, readable, and inoffensive text of Mark.” I am not sure what you meant by “inoffensive,” but since you also refer to “perceived religious needs” and an “ecclesiastical readership,” I am wondering whether you were referring to some difficulty particular to Mark with respect to these readers. If so, would you comment on what that was and whether this might also have something to do with the usage of Mark during the earliest period?



      • Niccolo: By “inoffensive” I included the sense of stylistic preferences. E.g., manuscripts of GMark often change the repetitious “kai” (= “and”) connecting sentences to sentences involving a subordinate clause (with participle) and a main verb. As I showed in my 1981 book, Text-Critical Methodology and the Pre-Caesarean Text, P45 seems closely related to Codex W in GMark, both manuscripts witnessing a text of GMark with similar qualities. E.g., in Mark 3:21, where the most likely readings are that Jesus relatives (οι παρ’ αυτου) came to seize Jesus because they thought he had gone a bit crazy (εξεστη), W & D have “those surrounding him, the scribes and the rest”, avoiding the idea that Jesus’ family could have thought him crazy.

      • Niccolo Donzella permalink

        Thanks! Why the repetitious Kai/and? Some type of mnemonic device from an earlier oral tradition, or just a scribal tic?

      • Niccolo: The frequent use of the “kai-connective” can be seen in a couple of ways. It reflects the syntactical style of the Greek OT, which translates the frequent use of the Hebrew “vav-consecutive”. But use of such a simple connective is also reflective of story-telling, and so some have thought that GMark either retains/reflects something of the oral-tradition on which the author drew.

    • Niccolo Donzella permalink

      Might a connection to oral tradition, if that is so, also explain both initial disuse, as a scribal preference, and later canonization?

      • Niccolo: I’m not clear what you’re trying to suggest. If you mean that the unsophisticated syntax of GMark might have contributed to it being neglected in favor of other Gospels, possibley. what comments we have suggest simply that it was seen as less “ordered”, whatever that might mean. But I think in general GMatt esp., was seen in comparison as offering much more for church usage.

    • Niccolo Donzella permalink

      Yes, that is what I was suggesting, or asking, really — whether its unsophisticated syntax contributed to disuse, as scribes preferred copying something more polished and in demand for “church usage.” And I should ask, is it the case that scribes were compensated though orders for manuscripts, and did they have some influence over what was copied based on what was in demand? I am imagining a manuscript market of independent producers, as opposed to what I would think would have developed over time as the church grew in size and organizational complexity — a set of church employed scribes tasked to produce what church officials determined were needed. If there was sch a market, and if as you say GMatt and GLuke were thought better suited to church usage in teaching, I wonder whether perhaps market forces may have contributed to the disuse and relative paucity of copies. Its association with Peter and the oral tradition would,as you say, explain rthe eventual survival through canonization.

      BTW, I do appreciate your time and insights in this informal context, messing around with untutored sorts such as me.

      • Niccolo: Your assumptions about the circumstances in which earliest Christian manuscripts were copied is not quite correct. From the quality and diversity of the “hands”, the various ways manuscripts were constructed, and what else we know about church organizational structures in the early 3rd century CE, it appears that generally manuscripts were copied locally, likely “in house” (i.e., by fellow Christians), not in scriptoria or in conditions controlled by ecclesiastical authorities. For a good overview of the use and distribution of texts in early Christianity, see Harry Y. Gamble, Books and Readers in the Early Church: A History of Early Christian Texts (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995). More recently, also Kim Haines-Eitzen, Guardians of Letters: Literacy, Power, and the Transmitters of Early Christian Literature (Oxford/London: Oxford University Press, 2000).

  10. You could also mention the fact that Justin Martyr (before Irenaeus or Clement) describes Mark’s Gospel as “Peter’s memoirs”, and that there is a good case for thinking that Gospel of Thomas 13 also reflects the association of this Gospel with Peter. But PAPIAS, probably writing very early in the 2nd century, deserves the credit for being the earliest witness, and he ascribes what he says about Mark to John the Elder before him. (As far as I know, no one at all doubts that Eusebius quotes Papias accurately on this point.) Irenaeus and Clement are most likely dependent on Papias. I wonder if “almost total eclipse in the second century” isn’t a bit too strong in view of Justin’s clear use of Mark. The difficulty, of course, in detecting the use of Mark by our literary sources is that often an allusion could be equally well to Matthew or Mark (or Luke). Mark did have an advantage over Matthew and Luke in their common material in that Matthew and Luke usually abbreviate Mark’s stories, leaving Mark’s versions as the most attractive and engaging in story-telling terms. This might have helped it survive, along with the Petrine connexion, which I am sure was very important.

  11. terry fry permalink

    So “Q” has appeared again. The main reason “Q” never survived is it never existed. I never heard any scholar present proof of it’s existence. All of the earlier gospels were not saying gospels but gospels that presented Jesus sayings with the context it was spoken. The gospel of Thomas is interesting but dates from the 2nd century. We should stick to the evidence we have physically not some imaginary document.

    Now I’m no scholar but, for some strange reason, I read a lot of writings of those who are. Maybe I enjoy having my mind challenged. But I feel when scholars follow myths not fact there’s a problem.
    But I do enjoy what you write. Even if I might disagree on some minor point. Thanks!

    • Terry: “Proof” of something from the ancient world is always difficult, if you mean empirical proof. “Q” is a hypothesis, i.e., a proposal to account for known, empirical data: In this case the curious similarity of about 200 verses of Jesus’ sayings in GMatt & GLuke. It’s not the only hypothesis offered for these data, but it’s the one most popular among scholars today. It’s not a “myth”, but a hypothesis, which is what scientists and scholars work with daily.

  12. Scott Caulley permalink

    Thanks, Larry, for another stimulating post. At the risk of restating what others might find obvious:

    This is a question I have pondered, but I find the “default” to the Papias tradition less than satisfying. The Papias tradition raises questions (Matthew wrote in Hebrew?), but for me the problem is more basic. I think the direct connection to Peter is probably a reflection of later concerns. As Hengel notes, it is a later impetus which seeks after the fact to connect writings to apostles (as with Matthew’s Gospel). [I think Hengel’s effort to support the traditional connection of Mark with Peter is an ironic inconsistency in his thinking, given his position on the title of Matthew].

    On the other hand, it seems clear enough that the Gospel of Mark was preserved, while Q was not, because Mark reached a status in the church which Q did not. The question is, why? Connection to an apostle was important later, but was it important when Mark wrote his Gospel? If so, unless we assume the Gospel was written only as an “in-house” project, one might expect to hear of that association. After all, if association with an authority is the criterion for preservation, then Q should have been preserved without question (going back to Jesus). But if the project was only “in-house”, why did it get copied and circulated? These questions just take us in a circle.

    What is present in Mark, and missing in Q, is the connection to the apostolic testimony not only to what Jesus taught, but to the events– especially the crucifixion and resurrection, AND the meaning assigned to these by the tradition understood to go back to the apostles. It is not just sayings, but the entire story (the narrative aspect: “whenever the gospel is preached, this story will be told in memory of her”; and the historical connection: “crucified under Pontias Pilate”, etc.). The preservation of the [proto-] apostolic interpretation of the meaning of the events was, it seems, central the canonizing process.

    An important extension of your question might be, since the church found Mark to be wanting in its (then) current abrupt form (the “original” ending of Mark), why not just jettison the Gospel, rather than provide the new editorial “fixes” we know as the “long endings”? The answer must include the realization that the church had found Mark’s Gospel to be valuable and a valued part of its heritage, to be kept, copied, and (eventually) circulated.

    We should probably ask further, why did Matthew and Luke preserve Mark’s format and his basic story line? If all they were interested in was the content, why not reuse Mark’s content in a different way?

    In some important sense, the answer again comes down to the status Mark had attained in the church. If Hengel and others are correct, that Mark’s Gospel essentially “invented” the genre, this likely part of the answer. Apparently Mark shaped the creation of Matthew and Luke at the most basic level– they kept Mark’s overall format and approach. And it is not unreasonable to think that Matthew and Luke’s other sources confirmed Mark’s story line, as well as provided the additional material unique to each later Gospel.

    While the importance of apostolic connection is present in the traditional title of Matthew, why not in Mark? Why not in Luke? The “apostolic connection” criterion of the canonizing process seems to be a later concern.

    The Papias tradition may be historically accurate. But if that is the case, it raises other, harder questions, such as: If the connection of Mark’s Gospel to Peter was so important to the first users of the Gospel (not just later), how could the early church so easily allow that Gospel to be eclipsed by the others? Indeed, it is Matthew’s Gospel which presents us with special Peter material– one could argue that the “Peter” connection seems more important in Matthew than in Mark. What seems to have happened in the eclipse of Mark, however, was a pragmatic decision: Matthew provided a more liturgically appealing arrangement of the material than did Mark. These observations speak against the notion that the “Peter” connection of Mark was vitally important to the earliest users of the Gospels. Rather, the evidence seems to support the idea that apostolic connection for early Christian documents was a later concern “retrojected” back onto the earliest times.

    Scott Caulley, Grayson, KY

  13. Great Post. Just a quick question: are there any other examples in the Roman Era (or even before) of books being appropriated in the way Mark’s book was used by the othe gospel writers?

    • Scott: Yes, in general one can find other examples of authors using/adapting the work of precedessors, such as Josephus’ use of Nicolaus of Damascus’ 144 book universal history for Josephus’ Jewish Antiquities. And read Anthony LeDonne’s comment to my posting also.

  14. If Mark came to be seen, not as a source for Matthew and Luke but rather a copy or digest from the other two, then it would not have been considered particularly useful or additive. It would have therefore fallen into disuse. But its status as old and apostolically related gave it the veneer of scripture that should be preserved.

    Gary Greenberg

    • Gary: Perhaps. It is the case that GMark came to be seen as a truncated version of GMatthew (perhaps the meaning of references to the author, “Mark”, as “stump-fingered”, Greek: kolobotaktylos).

  15. John Garrett Bolton permalink

    I wonder if this would be a curiosity at all independent of the Two-Document Hypothesis and the question of Q. One in this case *must* wonder what happened to Q (and why it’s never referred to at all); but if there never was a Q then GMark’s continued existence isn’t peculiar at all. Or is it?

    • John: Well, yes. But, given that most NT scholars find the hypotheses of (1) Mark’s priority, (2) the independent writing of GMatt & GLuke, and so (3) a common source of the large body of sayings material, the most cogent views of things, we have the situation addressed in my posting. But the real question doesn’t depend on “Q”. It arises from the view that Mark was used as a source by GMatt & GLuke, and then seems to have declined in usage in the second century, but nevertheless “made it” into the charmed circle of the canonical gospels.

  16. Thanks for this Larry.

    I might also add that we have numerous examples from the ANE where texts were cannibalized. That is, they were incorporated, authorship was “reassigned” and the primary text was destroyed. Notice, however, that we find at least two remarkable exceptions to this in Jewish scripture. We have overlapping traditions set side by side in the Pentateuch and a similar relationship demonstrated between Samuel/Chronicles. The presence of these texts in the Qumran library suggests that these concomitant shelf-lives are not merely explained by geographical preference. I might also add to this list the case of Jude/2 Peter. Could it be that there was an element of “sacred preservation” in Jewish culture that Christianity inherited?


  17. Judy Diehl permalink

    This is fascinating stuff, Larry. What I find most interesting is your comment that “the early association of GMark with the Apostle Peter was likely at least one major factor.” Why do you say this? Does the association with Peter lead to the neglect of GMark earlier or to the authoritative position of it later? In other words, is the association with Peter a “helpful” one or a “harmful” one? If Paul was the “apostle to the Gentiles” and Peter ministered to the Jewish Christians (and was the foundation behind GMark), would this have an effect on the use of GMark in the overwhelmingly Gentile Roman Empire?
    Thanks for your thinking!! Judy

    • Judy: I meant to suggest that the association of GMark with Peter may have been a factor in GMark surviving and succeeding in being canonized. The comparative neglect of GMark I would attribute to it likely being thought a poorer version of the Gospel-story in comparison with GMatt especially. GMatt has pretty much all of GMark and a whole lot more besides. By the second century, Peter and Paul also were associated with Roman Christianity, both of them held to have been martyred there. But for more on Peter, come to our conference here 4-5 July! (As preparation, you could also read Hengel’s book, Saint Peter: The Undersestimated Apostle, for a lively and even provocative study of him.)

  18. Thank you Dr. Hurtado. As I was reading this post I kept thinking that the association with Peter may have been key, and that is what you concluded.

    GThomas is connected to a disciple of Jesus, but it doesn’t seem to have had as wide-spread an acceptance as GMark. In your opinion, does this have to do with the different dates of origin (i.e., Thomas came later)? Does it have to do with regional origin? Does it have to do with the status of the disciple with which it is associated (Peter > Thomas)? Something else?

    • Brian: I’ve given my view of GThomas in my book, Lord Jesus Christ (pp. 452-79), to which I must refer you and others seriously interested in the matter. In a nutshell, GThomas bears clear marks of an “elitist” or quasi-esoteric orientation, and seems to have circulated among certain early Christians who were attracted to this. I see no evidence that it was ever intended to be used as “scripture” by circles of Christians in their gathered worship. But I must ask you and others to read my argument/analysis, which can’t be laid out here.

      • Bogdan permalink

        Excuse me Dr. Hurtado, may i ask you why Gospel of Thomas is considered to have been used by early Christians by some scholars? As far as i think and i studied Gospel of Thomas was used by a sect which Paul seems to be very affraid to poison early Scriptures! I believe Gospel of Thomas has nothing to do with main Early Christianity. Thanks

      • Bogdan: First, I wonder if your definition of “early Christians” is a bit too narrow. If we speak in historical terms, “early Christianity” was quite diverse, and all those deemed “heretics” in subsequent orthodox theology must be included. You may not like their Christianity (just as you may not like a number of versions today), but historically they were part of the scene. Second, from the contents and where the earliest MSS were found, it’s pretty clear that GThomas was a Christian composition and was read by some Christians. There’s no evidence of it stemming from some defined sect, but it does seem to me to promote what I’ve called an elitist attitude toward Christians who don’t share the particular slant advocated in the text. So, I suspect that it circulated from person to person among people who appreciated its contents (and may have thought of themselves as some sort of spiritual elite). See my discussion in my book, Lord Jesus Christ (pp. 452-79).

      • Bogdan Lupu permalink

        Thank you very much for your kind and professional answer Dr. Hurtado. I hope i am not offtopic. The GThomas has some very clear contradictions with the traditional Christianity. For example: In 14. fasting and prayer are considered wrong. In total contradiction with the canonical gospels and early Fathers teachings. I also take notice of Galatians 1:8 “let him be anathema” and the “wars” against so-called false teachings. Sorry for my English Dr. Hurtado, but i am a big fan of you.

      • Bogdan: Yes, GThomas does seem to pose differences to what became “orthodox/traditional” Christianity. But all through the ancient period, especially the first three centuries, there was a variety of versions of what became “Christianity”, some of them in sharp conflict with others. In theological terms, one side denies the other is truly in the faith, and so what became dominant, “orthodox/traditional/catholic” Christianity, was able to label some other versions (e.g., Jewish Christianity, gnostic Christianity, et alia) as “heresies”, not truly “Christian”. Fair enough. To the winner belongs the spoils. But in historical terms in the early period, all these variant versions are considered versions of “early Christianity”. That isn’t a theological judgement (and doesn’t imply any theological approval), simply a historical judgement.

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