Excerpt from Chapter 3 of Mark Goodacre, The Synoptic Problem: A Way Through the Maze


Additions and Omissions

When we are thinking about Markan Priority, there is one question that we need to ask ourselves again and again and it is this: does the evidence make better sense on the assumption that Mark is writing first, and that his Gospel was used by Matthew and Luke, or does it make better sense on the assumption that he is writing third, and is dependent on Matthew and Luke? These are the two dominant alternatives in Gospel studies, Markan Priority or Markan Posteriority.

One question that naturally arises is whether Mark’s Gospel makes better sense on the assumption that its unique elements are matters that Mark has added to Matthew and Luke (Markan Posteriority) or whether its unique elements are matters that Matthew and Luke have each omitted from Mark (Markan Priority). Equally, is the material that is absent from Mark better explained as material that Mark has omitted from Matthew and Luke (Markan Posteriority) or as material that Matthew and Luke have added to Mark (Markan Priority)?

The matter is not an easy one to settle, particularly as one’s answers will inevitably be determined by one’s perspective on other, prior issues. It often used to be assumed, for example, that the evangelists would have omitted very little of substance from their sources. If they did not include a given pericope or a particular chunk of material, it is because they did not know about it. Mark could not have known about the Birth Narratives (Matt. 1-2, Luke 1-2) or the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7) or he would have included them. Indeed this was one of the major presuppositions behind the acceptance of Markan Priority, one that still makes its presence felt sometimes today.

However, in recent years scholars have been more confident about appealing to the creativity of the evangelists and those with sharp minds can often think of all sorts of reasons that an evangelist may have omitted this or added that. Perhaps, for example, Mark omitted the Sermon on the Mount because it is not consonant with his fast-moving, dramatic narrative, its focus on Jesus as a New Moses hardly congenial to Mark’s Jesus who sits so much more lightly towards the Law. Perhaps he omitted the Birth Narratives because he saw them as similarly surplus to requirements.

Yet a closer, less superficial look at the question of supposed Markan omissions and additions may be more revealing, and may indeed point towards Markan Priority. It will be worth paying special attention, in particular, to the key issue of the relationship between the supposed additions and omissions, asking ourselves whether a coherent picture of Mark the redactor emerges on the assumption that Mark wrote third, using Matthew and Mark as his sources. There are several ways in which Markan Priority explains this data better than does Markan Posteriority. Let us take them in turn.

(a) Apparent omission of congenial material

If Mark wrote third, using both Matthew and Luke, one will want to know why it is that he omitted so much material from his predecessors. For while there is much material that is common to the three Synoptics (triple tradition), there is also a substantial body of material that is in Matthew and Luke alone (double tradition). Since the rationale for the writing of Mark has sometimes been stated, by those who think that he wrote third, as being the retaining of concurrent testimony in Matthew and Luke, the question of the omission of double tradition material becomes all the more striking. Or, to put it another way, why, on the assumption that Mark wrote third, is there any double tradition at all?

Of course the natural answer to this question would be that the double tradition pericopae must have been material that was in some way uncongenial to Mark. Our question will therefore be to ask whether the double tradition indeed has the character of material that looks uncongenial to the author of Mark’s Gospel. Is it defined, on the whole, by "un-Markan" elements?

It has to be said that the double tradition does not obviously have a clearly un-Markan profile. Indeed, there are places in Mark where the insertion of double-tradition might have been highly conducive to his purposes, both literary and theological. Of the several examples that could be given, the clearest is the apparent omission, if one thinks that he knew Matthew and Luke, of the Lord’s Prayer. For in Mark 11.20-25, after the fig tree has been withered, there are some Jesus sayings about prayer, including the following:

"So I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses."

This might have been an ideal location for Mark to have inserted a version of the Lord’s Prayer. The general theme, even some of the specific language is paralleled in Matt. 6.6-13 // Luke 11.2-4. What Mark has done, on the assumption that he knows Matthew, is to take the explanatory words ("if you forgive others . . .") from Matt. 6.14-15 without taking over the prayer beforehand. In other words, this data does not make good sense on the assumption of Markan Posteriority.


Currently the two most popular ways to explain the fact that Mark is usually "the middle term" are Markan Priority (Matthew’s and Luke’s use of Mark) or Markan Posteriority (Mark’s use of Matthew and Luke). One has to ask whether the evidence makes best sense on the assumption of Markan Priority or Markan Posteriority.

Some of the material not in Mark makes better sense on the assumption that it has been added by Matthew and / or Luke than on the assumption that it has been omitted by Mark.


(b) Apparent Addition of Elements not Congenial to Matthew and Luke

There is little material that is present in Mark but absent in both Matthew and Luke. This is in stark contrast to the substantial amount of material unique to Matthew and the even greater amount of material unique to Luke (see previous chapter). This state of affairs makes the handful of verses that Mark shares with neither of the other Synoptics all the more interesting. The main examples are the following:

Mark 7.33-36: Healing of a Deaf Mute

Mark 8.22-26: Blind Man of Bethsaida

Mark 14.51-52: Man Running Away Naked

The question that we inevitably find ourselves asking is whether it seems more likely that these are passages that have been omitted by Matthew and Luke (Markan Priority) or whether these are passages that have been added by Mark to Matthew and Luke (Markan Posteriority). It has to be said that Markan Priority seems more likely. The healing of the Deaf Mute features some rather graphic details of Jesus’ healing techniques:

"He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven he sighed and said to him ‘Ephphatha,’ that is, ‘Be opened’." (Mark 7.33-34)

Similarly, the Blind Man of Bethsaida is a somewhat bizarre story:

‘And they came to Bethsaida. And some people brought to him a blind man, and begged him to touch him. And he took the blind man by the hand, and led him out of the village; and when he had spat on his eyes and laid his hands upon him, he asked him, "Do you see anything?" And he looked up and said, "I see men; but they look like trees, walking." Then again he laid his hands upon his eyes; and he looked intently and was restored, and saw everything clearly. And he sent him away to his home, saying, "Do not even enter the village."’ (Mark 8.22-26).

As in healing of the Deaf Mute, Jesus’ healing technique involves the use of saliva. Mark’s Jesus here contrasts somewhat with both Matthew’s and Luke’s Jesus. Nowhere in Matthew or Luke do we find healings of this type, using physical agents like saliva. It may well be that they both had distaste for this kind of depiction of Jesus. But we have other features too that are more straightforwardly explained on Markan Priority than they are on Markan Posteriority. Notice the element of secrecy involved in both healings. "Do not even enter the village", Jesus tells the healed blind man, just as he had told the healed deaf-mute "to tell no-one" (Mark 8.36). These elements of secrecy are much more scarce in Matthew and Luke than they are in Mark.

Furthermore, this story might seem to place some kind of limit on Jesus’ ability – the healing is not instantaneous but takes time. This is not the only time that Jesus’ power appears to be limited in Mark’s Gospel. Similarly in 6.5, after the incident at the synagogue in his home country, we read "And he could do no mighty work there, except that he laid his hands upon a few sick people and healed them", a passage that reads differently in Matthew 13.58 where Jesus "did not do many deeds of power there, because of their unbelief". The Markan Jesus is a more human Jesus, a more earthly and realistic Jesus, and it is reasonable to imagine Matthew (and Luke) amending and omitting what was before them. And Christian history has, on the whole, been much more strongly influenced by their picture of Jesus than by Mark’s.

Could Mark have added this material to Matthew and Luke? Of course he could. Perhaps he was eager to correct the more reverential picture of Matthew and Luke, thus in a sense "re-primitivising" the tradition. The question, however, is whether this view, on which Mark adds only a small number of archaising traditions at the expense of much congenial material in Matthew and Luke, is more plausible than the alternative possibility, that these incidents are ones omitted by Matthew and Luke in accordance with their general redactional policies. Most would feel that Markan Priority makes better sense of the data than does Markan Posteriority.

It might be added that in this category as in several of the others we consistently run into difficulties over the question of Mark’s profile. For if Mark’s purpose is to include in his Gospel those stories to which his predecessors bear concurrent testimony, then we find ourselves asking what it is about these stories, the Blind Man of Bethsaida and the Deaf Mute, that is so important that they beg to be added. If, on the other hand, Mark is eager to add material that he considers of interest, without concern over the united testimony of his predecessors, why does so little else make it into the Gospel? Is it that Mark did not know of any other useful stories?


The material unique to Mark makes better sense as material omitted by Matthew and Luke than it does as material added by Mark.


(c) The Place of Oral Tradition

This problem is illustrated and so compounded further by questions over the place of oral tradition in Christian origins. On the assumption that Matthew is writing first, there appears to be a wealth of material available to him. Similarly for Luke, on the assumption that he has used only Matthew, there appears to be a large amount of additional tradition available. Then, however, when Mark writes, as we have seen, there seems to be a striking lack of additional material available to the author. All he adds is a small handful of stories, none of which is particularly striking. And he adds virtually no fresh sayings material at all. Those who believe that Mark came third therefore have to make sense of a situation in which Mark stands out from much of early Christianity. For after Mark, in the early second century, Papias reports that he prefers what he calls "the living voice" to the written word. And the recent discovery (in 1945) of the Gospel of Thomas, which features a good deal of material independent of the Synoptics apparently gleaned from oral tradition would seem to confirm further that oral tradition did not die a death somewhere in the late first century. Why does Mark apparently rely on this oral tradition so little? Were the stories of the Blind Man of Bethsaida and the Deaf Mute the best he could manage?

This troubling situation is intensified by a striking feature of Mark’s style. For of all the (canonical) Gospels, Mark’s is the most blatantly colloquial, the most "oral" in nature. His Gospel often sounds like it is directly dependent on oral traditions, with its lively pace (and immediately . . .), its present tenses (and Jesus says . . .), its love of visual detail ("the green grass", Mark 6.39; "he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion", 4.38) and its abrupt ending (16.8). It is perhaps for these reasons, as well as for reasons of length, that Mark has been the Gospel that has lent itself most readily in modern times to oral performance. In other words, it would be odd if the most "oral" of the Synoptic Gospels turned out also to be the third Gospel, dependent almost entirely (save for a handful of verses) on two much more literary predecessors, both of whom, like those who also came later, apparently had rich access to oral traditions of Jesus’ actions and sayings.



If Mark has only added the material that is unique to him, then his Gospel becomes an anomaly in early Christianity, with relatively little contact with oral tradition in comparison with Matthew, Luke, Thomas and others.


(d) The Relationship Between Omissions and Additions

The question of Mark’s alleged omissions and additions can be most clearly focused by asking about the relationship between them. Does a consistent or coherent picture of Mark the redactor emerge when we consider his Gospel from the perspective of the Griesbach Theory, on which Mark utilises Matthew and Luke?

As we have seen, Mark, on this theory, apparently adds material that would have been in any case uncongenial to Matthew and Luke (Blind Man of Bethsaida, etc.), material that seems an odd selection from what, one presumes, would have been available to him from his oral tradition. These few additions are balanced by the omission of congenial material like the Lord’s Prayer, for which Mark has an obvious context into which it might have been slotted. The picture that is emerging does not seem to favour the posteriority of Mark. But this negative judgment is compounded still further by noticing that on the Griesbach Theory, Mark’s tendencies pull very much in opposite directions.

If Mark is the third evangelist to write and not the first, then we need to find a way of making sense of two features of his Gospel. First, he has a tendency, on occasions, to add clarificatory material to his sources in Matthew and Luke, as here for example:

Matt. 9.10 Mark 2.15 Luke 5.29
And as he sat at table in
the house, behold,
tax collectors
and sinners came and sat
down with Jesus and his
And as he sat at table in
his house,
tax collectors
and sinners were sitting
with Jesus and his
disciples; for there were
many who followed him.

And Levi made him a
great feast in his house;
and there was a large
company of tax collectors
and others sitting at table
with them.

Mark does the same thing often, adding little explanatory clauses like this. At 11.13, for example, the narrator says: "When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs". Or at 16.4, we hear: "And looking up, they saw that the stone was rolled back, for it was very large." Or right at the beginning of the Gospel Mark explains that Jesus "saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea for they were fishermen" (1.16).

The adding of these somewhat redundant clarificatory clauses would appear to witness to an evangelist who is eager to spell things out very carefully for the reader. This looks like someone who, on the assumption of the Griesbach hypothesis, is editing Matthew and Luke to draw out what often appears to be transparently obvious. It is striking, therefore, that elsewhere Mark again on the assumption of his use of Matthew and Luke appears to be doing precisely the opposite thing, and making his sources more enigmatic, more darkly ironic, especially in the Passion Narrative.

One thinks, for example, of the following passage, in which there is a subtlety about Mark’s account that is lacking in Matthew and Luke:

Matt. 26.67-8 Mark 14.65 Luke 22.63-64
Then they spat in

his face, and struck him;
and some slapped him,
"Prophesy to us, Christ!
Who is the one who smote you?"
And some began to spit on him,

and to cover his face,
and to strike him,
and to say to him,
And the men who were holding
him mocked him, beating him,

and having covered his face,

they asked him saying,
Who is the one who smote you?"

Mark’s account here has a wonderful, dark dramatic irony, an irony that we can only perceive when we view this passage in context. People are spitting on Jesus, striking him and saying "Prophesy!", little realising that they are in the act of fulfilling Jesus’ own prophecy of 10.34, "they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him . . .". Likewise, as this action is going on, Peter is in the act of fulfilling the prophecy of 14.30 ("this day, this very night, before the cock crows twice . . .").

In Matthew and Luke there is none of this irony, and the mocking charge to "Prophesy" is explicated by means of a clarificatory question, "Who is it who smote you?" (Matt. 26.68 & Luke 22.64), the "prophesying" relating now purely to the issue of second sight. This makes good sense on the assumption of Markan Priority but less sense on the Griesbach Theory, for which Mark avoids the concurrent testimony of Matthew and Luke and subtly creates a more darkly ironic scene. The latter is of course possible, but it is at variance with the view of Mark that we pick up elsewhere from his addition of somewhat banal clarificatory elements. There is an interesting, apparently inconsistent combination of subtlety in omission and editing with the more banal and redundant kind of clarificatory addition.

The difficulty, in short, for the Griesbach Theory in dealing with Mark’s alleged omissions and additions is that so many contrasting features of Mark are placed into such very sharp relief. Mark is a fascinating Gospel, in some ways mysterious, in other ways banal, often prosaic, frequently profound. Is it more likely that this is a work of brutish genius, the first attempt to write a "gospel of Jesus Christ" (1.1) by imposing a narrative on disparate traditional materials, or is this the complex product of contradictory elements in a redactional procedure, utilising Matthew and Luke, that is rarely easy to fathom? Often, on the theory that Mark wrote third, there seems to be a deliberate rejection of the concurrent testimony of Matthew and Luke that on the Griesbach theory he is supposed to value, in order simply to add almost redundant clarificatory clauses, something that appears to be contradicted by his very careful and subtle work elsewhere. In this category, Markan Priority is the preferable option.



If one assumes Markan Posteriority, the relationship between the supposed omissions and additions does not make for a coherent picture of Markan redaction. The addition of banal clarificatory additions is not consonant with the generally enigmatic, ironic tone of Mark’s Gospel. It is more likely that Mark was the first Gospel to be written, a work of brutish genius, which was subsequently explicated by both Matthew and Luke.

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