Markan Priority without Q, support from Mark 4 and parrallels

The synoptic problem-the explanation of the literary relationship between Matthew, Mark, and Luke1-is intractable, despite (or perhaps because of) the efforts of brilliant men on all sides of the debate.2

Of the numerous possible relationships among the synoptics3 three are seriously defended by scholars today: (1) The Two-Source Theory, (2) The Farrer Hypothesis, and (3) the Griesbach Theory. The Two-Source Theory is that Mark wrote first, Matthew used Mark, Luke used Mark, but Matthew and Luke were unknown to each other. The Farrer (sometimes Farrer-Goulder or Farrer-Goodacre) Hypothesis is that Mark wrote first, Matthew used Mark, and Luke used both Mark and Matthew.4 The Griesbach Theory is that Matthew wrote first, Mark used Matthew, and Luke used both Matthew and Mark.5

The prima facie most unlikely of the three theories is the Two-Source Theory, i.e.: Matthew and Luke’s dependence on Mark but independence of each other. How does one explain the Matthew-Luke double tradition, including frequent verbatim overlap, between Matthew and Luke if one presupposes, ex nihilo, mutual independence?6 One presumes, ex nihilo, a document, “Q”,7 important enough for two canonical gospels to be independently reliant on it, but not important enough to be preserved for posterity or be mentioned by either Apostolic or Church Fathers.8

The most powerful response in favor of the Q/Two-Source theory is the supposed literary superiority of Matthew. Why, advocates of the theory ask, would Luke butcher Matthew’s superior composition?9 Possible arguments that redactions and remixes are not always artistically superior, or that differences in purpose, theological emphases, and audience trump style are minimized by Q-Theorists. I will show that Luke conceivably could have butchered Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount and other discourses, given that he has butchered Mark’s discourse on Parables, or Sermon by the Sea. Mark’s parable chapter and Matthew and Luke’s parallels also testify to Markan priority, and to Luke’s knowledge of Matthean additions to Mark.

To summarize Mark 4:1-34 addresses three points in favor of the Farrer Hypothesis:

  1. Contra Griesbach and for Markan Priority.
  2. Contra Q Theorists claim that Farrer-Luke treated his two sources, Matthew and Mark, differently.
  3. Contra Q Theorists claim that Luke is ignorant of Matthew’s additions to Mark, i.e., the Minor and Major Agreements of Matthew and Luke against Mark.

Markan Priority

While Griesbachians would claim that Mark 4 supports Matthean priority and Markan posteriority,10 the Farrer Hypothesis is in agreement with the Two-Source theory regarding Markan priority. However the classic arguments for Markan priority: Mark’s fresh vivid style, redundant phrases, bad greek, and theological difficulties can be turned on their head by Griesbachians.11

An argument novel to the Farrer Hypothesis tradition and most developed by Goodacre is not subject to such turnabout, however. Goodacre highlights the pattern of “editorial fatigue,”12 i.e., the inability of a redactor of an earlier source to sustain omissions, substitutions, transpositions, and other editorial choices throughout a passage, thus betraying his use of the earlier manuscript in composing his own.

The Parable of the Sower and its interpretation in Mark 4 and Luke’s parallels are an interesting example in favor of Markan priority.13 By having a paired parable and explanation any redactor would have to be careful to consistently preserve any editorial changes made through both the parable and the interpretation.14 Goodacre notes that three times Luke omits portions of the Markan parable but he nonetheless interprets these portions after he has failed to include them.

First: Luke fails to mention the seed that fell onto rocky soil and “sprang up quickly because it had not depth of earth” (Mark 4:5; Luke 8:6). However, he does include the interpretation that “those who when they hear, with joy they receive the word” (Mark 4:16; Luke 8:16).

Second: In Luke 8:6 the seed that “withered for lack of moisture” is different from Mark 4:6 which notes that the withering is for lack of root. However, in Luke 8:13 (cf. Mark 4:17) Luke reverts to the Markan interpretation “and these have no root; they believe for a while.”

Third: Luke 8:6 lacks the scorching sun reference of Mark which is interpreted as “trouble of persecution.” However, Luke does include the “temptation,” which he later interprets as the scorching sun (Luke 8:13).

Goodacre’s editorial fatigue analysis is a handy tool in the quiver of arguments for Markan priority–which is too often taken for granted and not argued–that doesn’t suffer from being commutative.

Luke’s Treatment of Mark

As mentioned previously the omissions, compressions, and transpositions that Farrer-Luke undertook on Matthew, especially on the Sermon on the Mount, are held unlikely by Two-Source theorists on aesthetic merit.15 The implicit charge is that Farrer-Luke is inconsistent in his treatment of sources.16

Considering Luke’s preface his order (or radical reordering) of sources should not surprise us since he was unsatisfied with the ordering of other Gospel accounts.17

Different treatment of sources is, however, not so hard to fathom when the nature of the sources also differ. Luke’s reordering of sayings material is inherently more likely than would be his reordering of narrative material. Given that Mark is notably a narrative source for Luke and Matthew is a sayings source we should not expect Luke to treat them identically.18

Our chapter of focus, Mark 4, shows us in those cases Luke treats Mark and Matthew the same when they are a sayings source.

Luke regularly shortens Mark’s discourses, retaining some material, omitting other material, and relocating the rest. Turning to Luke’s alleged use of Matthew, we find the same behaviour. Matthew 5-7 is treated in the same way that Mark 4 is treated; some is retained, some is omitted, and the rest is distributed. The scale is different but the redactional procedure is the same… Luke’s attitude is consistent and thus prima facie coherent.19

Given Luke’s compression and rearranging of Mark’s shorter discourse, is it not therefore plausible that he would treat Matthew’s discourses, which are even longer, similarly?20 The weight of the argument against Luke’s editing of Matthew’s magnificent composition, The Sermon on the Mount, is further weakened by the “Rag Bag” nature of the latter part of the composition.21 When we compare Farrer-Luke’s treatment of Mark’s parable chapter and Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount we see that his editorial procedure is consistent.22

Minor and Major Agreements of Matthew and Luke against Mark

It will now turn out that the two-source hypotheis has two Achilles’ heels. The first is the minor agreements between Matthew and Luke in the triple tradition, the second, the ‘Mark-Q overlaps’.23

Q-theorists maintain that agreements, of whatever degree, between Matthew and Luke against Mark are too limited in number or coincidental in nature to suppose that Luke is aware of Matthew’s gospel.24

Verbatim agreements in Greek between Matthew and Luke against Mark are problematic for Q theorists, and they are demonstrated in parallels of Mark 4.25 Agreements in order between Matthew and Luke against Mark are problematic for Q theorists, and they are demonstrated in parallels of Mark 4.26

The proposition that this is problematic is supported by Mann, a Griesbach Theorist, who notes that literary dependence that can be explained by extant works should be is a canon of literary criticism.27

The power of these arguments is lessened by a great deal of debate framing and semantics by Q-theorists. Rather than admitting to Major Agreements between Matthew and Luke against Mark in the triple tradition, they broaden the definition of “Q material” from the Matthew-Luke double tradition to include portions of the triple tradition. These are portions that support the Farrer hypothesis, and Luke’s apparent knowledge of Matthean additions to Markan pericopae. Q theorists have thus framed the debate so passages where Luke is clearly aware of Matthew are off limits.28

On the Mustard Seed, Tuckett claims that an “unpicking” process of redaction would have to have been followed by Farrer-Luke and it is much more likely that Q-Luke followed Q and Q-Matthew conflated Mark and Q.29 Here, Tuckett claims that this sort of “unpicking” is unprecedented, however whether Streeter-Matthew or Farrer-Luke is more consistent with ancient editorial practices is debated.30


“The Q hypothesis is not, of itself, a probable hypothesis. It is simply the sole alternative to the supposition that St. Luke had not read St. Matthew.”31

The Two-Source theory is wholly dependent on the presumption that it is implausible that Luke read Matthew. As we have argued: Farrer-Luke treats source material coherently by type, the conspicuous minor32 and major agreements between Luke and Matthew against Mark, and the contortions that Q-Theorists must go through to explain away or dismiss contrary evidence demonstrate Luke’s knowledge of Matthew is inherently plausible. Further as we have seen with Goodacre’s ‘editorial fatigue’–which also testifies to Luke’s use of Matthew–Markan priority, contra Griesbach, is the most likely explanation.

While I can offer no argumentation from fundamentals, history and experience have shown that when forming explanations you are better off when you explain the most facts with the fewest hypotheticals. When judging between two competing theories that cover the facts equally well, the simplest theory is most likely to be correct.

Parabolic Coda

Until Copernicus, because no one wanted to contradict Aristotle, everyone maintained that the earth was at the center of the universe.

There are problems with this hypothesis, it doesn’t accurately predict the motion of the heavenly bodies. Thus, the geocentric theory accrued complications, to explain why the planets appear to slow down and go backwards, and at different rates, while the sun and moon don’t.

As the cruft of complicating hypothesis developed there were always exceptions that were difficult to explain from this framework. Someone always stepped in with a fresh auxiliary to buttress the theory that the earth is at the center of the universe. Further unaccountable exceptions to the model’s predictions were always found.

This accrual culminated in Ptolemy’s formulation of the geocentric model which asserted that the earth was almost at the center of the universe and rotated once every day. All the heavenly bodies were attached to crystal spheres (deferents) that revolved around the earth, or the off-centered center-which was almost earth. The moon was closest followed by Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and the fixed stars.

Even this of course is too simple, so another complication is needed to account for apparent retrograde motion. Each heavenly body–except the sun, moon, and fixed stars–was attached to an epicycle, another crystal sphere attached to the deferent which revolved relative to the deferent in the opposite direction of the deferents revolutions around the earth. Ptolemy worked out the relative sizes and rates of revolution of the deferents and epicycles to make the system predictive of reality.

Ptolemy was successful. An astronomical clock based on his model, called an orrery, could predict the position of the lights in the sky on whatever date you wished.

There is a problem with Ptolemy’s model, despite it accounting for all the problem cases, it is wrong. By taking a false axiom, geocentrism, hypotheses must be multiplied–the epicycles within cycles, and off centered universes–to cover all the facts. Eventually a simpler theory, heliocentrism, that covered all the facts won the day, but only by throwing away false axioms.

Given that hypothetical source documents are not needed to explain the synoptic problem, we should dispense with Q.


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Drury, J. Tradition and Design in Luke’s Gospel: A Study in Early Christian Historiography. London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1976.

Farmer, W.R. The Synoptic Problem. Dilsboro, N.C.: Western North Carolina Press, 1964, 2nd ed. 1976.

Farrer, A.M. “On Dispensing with Q.” In Studies in the Gospels: Essays in Memory of R. H. Lightfoot, edited by D. E. Nineham, 55-88. Oxford: Blackwell, 1955.

___________. The Gospel According to Luke (I-IX). The Anchor Bible, vol. 28. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1981.

___________. The Gospel According to Luke (X-XXIV). The Anchor Bible, vol. 28A. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1985.

___________. The Gospel According to Luke (X-XXIV), The Anchor Bible, vol. 28A. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1985.

Goodacre, M. The Case Against Q: Studies in Markan Priority and the Synoptic Problem. Harrisburg, Pa: Trinity Press International, 2002.

___________. “Fatigue in the Synoptics.” New Testament Studies 44 (1998): 45-58.

___________. “A Monopoly on Marcan Priority? Fallacies at the Heart of Q.” In Society of Biblical Literature Seminar Papers 2000, 583-622. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2000.

___________. The Synoptic Problem: A Way Through the Maze. New York: Sheffield Academic Press, 2001.

Goulder, M. Luke: A New Paradigm, Journal for the Study of the New Testament Supplement Series 20. 2 vols. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1989.

Green, H.B. The Gospel According to Matthew. The New Clarendon Bible. Oxford: Clarendon, 1975.

Mann, C.S. Mark. The Anchor Bible, vol. 27. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1986.

McNicol, A.J. ed. Beyond the Q Impasse — Luke’s Use of Matthew: A Demonstration by the Research Team of the Institute for Gospel Studies. Valley Forge, Pa: Trinity Press International, 1996.

Neirynck, F. The Minor Agreements of Matthew and Luke Against Mark: With a Cumulative List. Leuven, Belgium: Leuven University Press, 1974.

Olson, K. “Unpicking on the Farrer Theory.” In Questioning Q: A Multidimensional Critique, edited by Mark Goodacre and Nicholas Perrin pp. 127-150. Downers Grove, Il: InterVarsity Press, 2004.

Orchard, B.J. The Order of the Synoptics: Why Three Synoptic Gospels? Macon, Ga: Mercer University Press, 1987.

Powery, E.B. “Q.” in The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, edited by Katherine Doob Sakenfeld, 4:697. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2009.

___________. “Synoptic Problem.” In The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, edited by Katherine Doob Sakenfeld, 5:429-434. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2009.

Sanders, E.P. and M. Davies. Studying the Synoptic Gospels. London: SCM, 1989.

Stanton, G.N. “Q.” In The Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, edited by Joel B. Green, 644-650. Downers Grove, Il: InterVarsity Press, 1992.

Stein, R.H. Studying the Synoptic Gospels: Origin and Interpretation. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001.

___________. “Synoptic Problem.” In The Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, edited by Joel B. Green, 784-792. Downers Grove, Il: InterVarsity Press, 1992.

Tuckett, C.M. “The Beatitudes: A Source-Critical  Study. With a Reply by M.D. Goulder.” In The Synoptic Problem and Q: Selected Studies from Novum Testamentum, 180-203. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 1999.

___________. Q and the History of Early Christianity: Studies on Q. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1996.

___________. The Revival of the Griesbach Hypothesis. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

___________. “Synoptic Problem.” In The Anchor Bible Dictionary, edited by David Noel Freedman, 5:263-270. New York: Doubleday, 1992.

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