Mark Part Three Deep Dive
WHY DOES IT FEEL LIKE I’VE READ THIS ALL BEFORE? | NATHAN ROSS
If you’ve been following along with TYB over the past couple of years, or have personally read through the other gospels on your own, then you’ll surely think when going through the Book of Mark that you’ve read it all before. This is because Mark, along with the books of Matthew and Luke, make up the synoptic gospels. ‘Synoptic’ meaning ‘seen together,’ and are called so because they all share such similar material. John is the only gospel not included, as its content is so different to that found in these three.
In fact, as you can see from the diagram, 76% of Mark’s content is also found in Luke and Matthew, sharing up to 97% between the two of them. This leaves only 3% of Mark’s content unique to that book. This is why, when reading Mark, we feel like we’ve read it all before. Chances are, we have!
This leads us to our next question: why do Matthew, Mark and Luke all share such similar content? And what does this do to the authenticity of the gospel? Fear not, all will be explained in the remainder of this Deep Dive.
This issue brought up by the similarity of the gospels is now referred to as the ‘synoptic problem’ and has been explored since the time of the early church in the 4th Century AD. The early theories are all largely based on the idea that Matthew was the first written gospel, as declared by the early Church fathers such as Augustine. The traditional theory follows that, as Matthew was the first gospel, then Mark that was influenced by Matthew, and lastly Luke, influenced by both Matthew and Mark.
Note: this is where we get our current canonical order for the gospels.
The next major change to the theory came in around the 18th Century, when it was actually declared that Luke was the second gospel to be written, so the order of influence must be changed also. These two theories can be viewed as shown below.
In saying this, both these theories do have their downfalls. Firstly, it doesn't logically make sense that Mark, the shortest gospel, with the majority of its content found in Luke and Matthew, to simply be an abridgment of these other gospels, especially when it ignores major events such as the birth of Christ and the Sermon on the Mount. Secondly, if Mark was to be an edited version of Matthew and Luke, surely it would proceed that it would also be the most coherent. In actuality, in the original Greek text, Mark is the most colloquial and ungrammatical of all three. It appears that Matthew and Luke took upon the job of correcting Mark’s grammar and storytelling to create more sound and sensible gospel accounts.
This is where we arrive at the theory that is most commonly taken by New Testament scholars today. It starts of with the assumption that Mark was the first gospel account and influences both the writings of Matthew and Luke. Yet the question remains: where did Matthew and Luke receive the remainder of the content that is similar between the two? Out of this problem arises the solution that there must have been a fourth gospel account, tragically lost to us now, but an influencer of the other gospel accounts. This source has been named ‘Q’, based of the German word Quelle for ‘source’, and the theory itself has been aptly named the ‘two-source theory’, as depicted in the diagram below.
There are many theories regarding the nature of Q on its origins, content and authorship. It is still only a hypothetical document, yet plays a major role in uncovering the origins of the gospel accounts we have today.
Now, we arrive at our final conundrum: what does this mean to the authenticity of the gospel accounts? Can we truly read them as fact if they could all possibly just be recreations of the stories of one another? If so, what implications would this have for our faith?
Here is one way we can look at the situation: that all gospel accounts are mere fictional replications. But there is an alternate view at hand. Rather than degrading the quality of the gospel through the multiple similar accounts, it is better to view it as if the gospel has simply been increased in quality and quantity. The gospel account has been sent through a sieve of reliable historical recounts and solidified with additional content and eyewitness accounts. This synoptic problem in no way shakes our faith but rather adds depth and strength to all that our faith is built upon.