Why Would the Eyewitness Matthew Borrow So Much Information from the Non-Eyewitness Mark?


Excerpt of article by Matthew Ferguson, doctoral candidate in Classics:

The disciple Matthew was allegedly [according to tradition] an eyewitness of Jesus. John Mark, on the other hand, who is the traditional author of the Gospel of Mark, was neither an eyewitness of Jesus nor a disciple, but merely a later attendant of Peter. And yet the author of Matthew copies from 80% of the verses in Mark. Why would Matthew, an alleged eyewitness, need to borrow from as much as 80% of the material of Mark, a non-eyewitness? As the Oxford Annotated Bible (p. 1746) concludes, “[T]he fact that the evangelist was so reliant upon Mark and a collection of Jesus’ sayings (“Q”) seems to point to a later, unknown, author.”

Apologists will often posit dubious assumptions to explain away this problem with the disciple Matthew, an alleged eyewitness, borrowing the bulk of his text from a non-eyewitness. For example, [Craig] Blomberg in The Case for Christ (p. 28) speculates:

It only makes sense if Mark was indeed basing his account on the recollections of the eyewitness Peter … it would make sense for Matthew, even though he was an eyewitness, to rely on Peter’s version of events as transmitted through Mark.

To begin with, nowhere in the Gospel of Mark does the author ever claim that he based his account on the recollections of Peter (Blomberg is splicing this detail with a later dubious claim by the church father Papias, to be discussed below). The author of Mark never names any eyewitness from whom he gathered information.

But what is further problematic for Blomberg’s assumption is that his description of how the author of Matthew used Mark is way off. The author of Matthew does not “rely” on Mark rather than redact Mark to change important details from the earlier gospel. As scholar J. C. Fenton (The Gospel of St. Matthew, p. 12) explains, “the changes which he makes in Mark’s way of telling the story are not those corrections which an eyewitness might make in the account of one who was not an eyewitness.” Instead, many of the changes that Matthew makes to Mark are to correct misunderstandings of the Jewish scriptures. For example, in Mark 1:2-3 the author misquotes the Book of Isaiah by including a verse from Malachi 3:1 in addition to Isaiah 40:3. As scholar Pheme Perkins (Introduction to the Synoptic Gospels, p. 177) points out, “Matthew corrects the citation” in Matthew 3:3 by removing the verse from Malachi and only including Isaiah 40:3.

There are also other instances where Matthew adds Jewish elements that Mark overlooks. For example:

  • Mark 9:4 names Elijah before Moses. Instead, Matthew 17:3 puts Moses before Elijah, since Moses is a more important figure to Jews than Elijah.
  • Mark 11:10 refers to the kingdom of “our father” David. Ancient Jews would not have referred to “our father” David, however, since the father of the nation was Abraham, or possibly Jacob, who was renamed Israel. As such, not all Jews were sons of David. Instead, Matthew 21:9 does not refer to “our father” David.

These are subtle differences, but what they demonstrate is that the author of Matthew was not “relying” on Peter via Mark, but was redacting the earlier gospel to make it more consistent with Jewish scripture and teachings! This makes no sense at all for Blomberg’s hypothesis. Matthew is described as a tax collector (a profession that made one a social outcast from the Jewish religious community). Peter, in contrast, is described as a Galilean Jew who was Jesus’ chief disciple. Why would Matthew redact the recollections of Peter via the writings of his attendant in order to make them more consistent with Jewish scripture and teachings?

Tyre and Sidon

Instead, many scholars argue that the anonymous author of Mark was more likely an unknown Gentile living in the Jewish Diaspora outside of Palestine. This is strengthened by the fact that Mark uses Greek translations to quote from the Old Testament. Likewise, the author is unaware of many features of Palestinian geography. Just for one brief example: in Mark7:31 Jesus is described as having traveled out of Tyre through Sidon (north of Tyre) to the Sea of Galilee (south of Tyre). In the words of scholar Hugh Anderson in The Gospel of Mark (p. 192), this would be like “travelling from Cornwall to London by way of Manchester.” These discrepancies make little sense if the author of Mark was a traveling attendant of Peter, an Aramaic-speaking native of Galilee.[13]

Instead, scholars recognize that the author of Matthew was actually an ethnic Jew (probably a Greek-speaking and educated Jew, who was living in Antioch). As someone more familiar with Jewish teachings, he redacted Mark to correct many of the non-Jewish elements in the earlier gospel. This again makes little sense if the author of Matthew was actually Matthew the tax collector, whose profession would have ostracized him from the Jewish community. Instead, scholars recognize that the later authorial attributions of both of these works are most likely wrong.[14] In fact, even conservative New Testament scholars like Bruce Metzger (The New Testament, p. 97) have agreed:

In the case of the first Gospel, the apostle Matthew can scarcely be the final author; for why should one who presumably had been an eyewitness of much that he records depend … upon the account given by Mark, who had not been an eyewitness?

And Christian scholar Raymond Brown (An Introduction to the New Testament, pp. 159-160) likewise acknowledges:

That the author of the Greek Gospel was John Mark, a (presumably Aramaic-speaking) Jew of Jerusalem who had early become a Christian, is hard to reconcile with the impression that it does not seem to be a translation from Aramaic, that it seems to depend on oral traditions (and perhaps already shaped sources) received in Greek, and that it seems confused about Palestinian geography.




End of post.

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