The Synoptic Problem: Part II

Part II

Redactional Fatigue 

In Part I we covered what scholars mean by “The Synoptic Problem” and laid out the data we’re dealing with, namely the Triple Tradition (TT) material, where Markan priority was explained in a little detail. From here on we will be detailing the more intricate and important evidence for Markan priority, i.e. Mark was the first gospel and both Matthew and Luke coped, often verbatim, from Mark.

Just briefly, many are happy to point to contradictions or errors in the bible usually in an attempt to argue against a form of the doctrines of inerrancy and inspiration. Personally, this is just too simplistic an approach. Sure there are errors, contradictions and discrepancies in a book that has potentially more than sixty different authors, writing over approximately a nine-hundred year period. Given these circumstances we should expect such problems to arise! Though one of the first things I noticed when I began my university level study of the bible was how important explanations were. It is never enough to just point to an issue in the bible. Any kind of critical approach to the bible should have explanatory power and that is precisely what Markan Priority has. We have already seen how authors make subtle changes to a passage drastically altering its meaning. It does make more sense that later authors would soften a harder reading. I cannot see Mark changing Jesus’ ability to perform miracles from “did not do miracles there [here he chooses not to do them]” to ”could do no miracle there [here Jesus chooses not to do miracles there.]“ Can these differences tell us anything about the author and his views? Can they tell us anything about the type of work the gospels are? This is where the literary science of redaction criticism becomes key. This is the study of how texts were edited and what this might imply. Redaction criticism is only possible because we have one of the sources Matthew and Luke used, Mark.

One of my favourite pieces of evidence demonstrating Markan Priority comes from what scholars call Redactional (editorial) Fatigue. That is, an author makes characteristic changes to the beginning of the story being copied from, and as they continue to copy it through, they accidentally lapse back into the wording of the original story creating little conflicts between the two texts. For example:

In the abbreviated Matthean parallel of the death of John the Baptist (Mark 6) Matthew makes a minor correction to an earlier part in the Markan plot. Mark speaks about Herod Antipas as “Herod the King” and Matthew’s correction, that is true, is that Herod wasn’t a king at all. He was a tetrarch, a ruler of a quarter, he ruled with his step-brothers Philip and Archelaus. This is backed by other 1st century historians such as Josephus (Antiquities XVII, 8:1). Half way through the story Matthew lapses into the Markan wording of the story and begins referring to Herod as the king again! So this is an example of Redactional Fatigue. In the same story in Mark, Herod marries Philip’s wife, Herodias and John the Baptist scolds Herod for this explaining that “it’s not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” This angers Herodias who evidently wanted to be with Herod. In the story she develops a grudge against John and wants him killed. But Herod feared John because he was righteous and holy so Herod protects John from the wrath of Herodias. So come Herod’s birthday, Herodias’ daughter dances for Herod and greatly pleases him so Herod boldly proclaims to her “ask me whatever you wish and I will give it.” She seizes her opportunity on advice of her mother and asks for John’s head and it says in Mark that Herod “the king was deeply grieved.” How does this compare to Matthew’s version? Herodias no longer plays the key role in the lead up to John’s death like we find in Mark. In Matthew it’s Herod who wants John the Baptist to be killed. Herod has John arrested for telling him he shouldn’t marry his brother’s wife and we’re told Herod wanted to kill John but feared the crowd because they thought of John as a prophet. Remember in Mark? Herod didn’t want to kill John because he was righteous man! But what’s so bizarre is that Herod in Matthew still ends up grieving over the death of John! There’s no reason for him to grieve because in Matthew’s account Herod always wanted John to be killed. So Matthew makes a little adjustment at the beginning of Mark’s story and through all the abbreviating he inadvertently lapses into the wording of Mark’s account.

We also have the story of Jesus cleansing a leper in Mark 1. Right away Jesus says “see that you say nothing to anyone, but go show yourself to the priest.” This command from Jesus fits in with what we know about Mark and the messianic secret. In the Matthean parallel in Chapter 8, this story is relocated in the chronology of Jesus’ life to just after the Sermon on the Mount which. Here Jesus is depicted preaching to great crowds who follow him wherever he goes. But Matthew keeps the statement where Jesus says, “see that you say nothing to anyone, but go show yourself to the priest.” But all these people just witnessed it! So what’s happened is through the story Matthew has again lapsed into the wording of his source and hasn’t noticed that he has created this little conflict.

This isn’t just a characteristic of Matthew. We also see this fatigue in Luke’s copying of Mark. In Luke 9 we find the story of the feeding of the 5000. Right at the beginning of the story Luke relocates the feeding to a major city called Bethsaida. What’s so bizarre is that Luke includes the bit in the middle of the story in Mark (chapter 6) where he has the disciples saying “This place is desolate and it is already quite late; send them away so that they may go into the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.” This doesn’t really make sense if they’re already in a major city as Luke tells us!

The solution has been obvious all along. Matthew and Luke, copying from Mark, make minor changes to Mark’s story and later accidentally lapse back into the wording of Mark creating a little conflict.


Mark Goodacre, “Fatigue in the Synoptics”, New Testament Studies 44 (1998): 45-58

A. M. Farrer, “On Dispensing with Q” in D. E. Nineham, ed., Studies in the Gospels: Essays in Memory of R. H. Lightfoot (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1955).

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