On Markan priority

This semester I'm teaching two sections of a course for freshmen of all majors on the Gospels. It's the professor's discretion to pick one of the Gospels to focus on for the majority of the semester, and while I flirted with the Gospel of John (before I learned that it had to be a Synoptic), I eventually chose Mark. I've now been teaching it, ever so slowly, for the last five weeks—and we're only through the beginning of chapter 9, having discussed the transfiguration today. (We've skipped ahead to a couple teachings, such as on marriage, but otherwise we're going chapter by chapter.) Next week we follow Jesus into Jerusalem for his triumphal entry and prophetic demonstration in the temple.

Reading and re-reading and teaching Mark has raised anew for me the question of Markan priority. I teach, following the overwhelming majority of New Testament scholars, that Mark was most likely the first Gospel written, and that both Matthew and Luke used Mark as a primary source. If I had to bet, that's still by far the choice I would go with.

Having said that...

Spend some time with Mark, and you'll notice just how expertly crafted it is; just how richly artistic and intentional its literary, structural, thematic, and theological features are. My sense is that at least part of the case made for Matthew and Luke's dependence on Mark is their "cleaning up" of Mark's roughness. Except that there is no reason in principle to take Mark's roughness as an accidental aspect of the Gospel, that is, to take it as a function of a hurried or rushed composition, unrelated to the purpose and stylistic substance of the work.

Because Mark's no-frills style is part and parcel of the subtle, sophisticated portrait of Jesus the Gospel offers to its readers. (One student compared the opening two dozen verses of the Gospel to a movie trailer: action, CUT, action, CUT, action, CUT—new scenes piling on top of one another with neither commentary nor context.) And the literary intentionality is undeniable: doubled episodes, intercalation, the messianic mystery, the triple repetition of Jesus's prediction of suffering in Jerusalem, the drum-beat refrain of the disciples' (most of all Peter's) absolute failure to understand Jesus, the allusions (centrally in the opening handful of verses) to Isaiah 40–55, the circumspect but exhaustive affirmation of Jesus's divine power and authority, the elusive and unsettling account of the resurrection, the irony of who it is that recognizes Jesus and who does not, the would-be angel's exhortation to the women (and so to the disciples, and so to the reader) to "return to Galilee" and to discover the living Jesus there—i.e., in the pages of the very same Gospel—etc., etc.

So what would have to be the case for Mark not to have been the first Gospel written? Matthew would probably have to be first instead, using his own materials (and perhaps something like "Q"), composed just before or after the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D.; and Mark, receiving Matthew's Gospel—let's say in Rome, only months or 1-2 years after Matthew's composition—gives us not just the cliff notes, but a much less explicit, a much less didactic, a much less prolix and embroidered Gospel, one emphasizing mystery, secrecy, failure, shame, suffering, and irony—perhaps under the influence of Paul or one of his coworkers, perhaps under the heightened pressures of persecution in the imperial capital, perhaps aiming for something both more concretely close to the ground of Palestine yet accessible to gentile Christians in south-central Europe unfamiliar with Jewish groups, conventions, and language in and around Galilee and Jerusalem, perhaps even a hear-it-in-a-single-sitting biography-Gospel for Pauline-like churches that lacked something so rich in narrative detail but for whom Matthew's Gospel would be too invested in intra-Jewish polemic and interpretive dispute over Torah to be existentially and spiritually significant.

Perhaps. It's a long shot. It's unlikely. I know I'm not the first one to suggest it. But it's a thought.


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