According to a view that St. Augustine proposed when he began his Harmony of the Gospels, Mark was the second Gospel to be written, and it was basically an abridgement of Matthew.
Luke then wrote third, and John last.
This idea is known as the “Augustinian hypothesis.”
Despite its historical popularity, there are several reasons to think that it is incorrect.
St. Augustine wrote:
Mark follows him [Matthew] closely, and looks like his attendant and epitomizer.
For in his narrative he gives nothing in concert with John apart from the others: by himself separately, he has little to record; in conjunction with Luke, as distinguished from the rest, he has still less; but in concord with Matthew, he has a very large number of passages.
Much, too, he narrates in words almost numerically and identically the same as those used by Matthew, where the agreement is either with that evangelist alone, or with him in connection with the rest [Harmony of the Gospels, I:2:4].
Augustine thus argued that Mark followed Matthew (he was “his attendant”) and that he shortened Matthew (he was his “epitomizer”). He therefore offers two arguments for his proposal:
1) Mark has a great deal of material in common with Matthew compared to Luke and John.
2) Mark’s wording is very similar to that of Matthew compared to Luke and John.
The Argument from Parallels
It’s quite true that Mark’s Gospel has a great deal in common with Matthew’s Gospel.
It is commonly estimated that 90% of the material found in Mark is also found in Matthew (B. F. Streeter, The Four Gospels, 160). Nine out of ten verses in Mark are paralleled in Matthew!
There are more parallels between Mark and Matthew than in any two other pairings of Gospels, so there does seem to be a special relationship between the two.
Augustine could be correct, then, that Mark took Matthew’s Gospel and abridged it, but it could also be the other way around: Matthew could have taken Mark’s Gospel, used nine tenths of it, and then added traditions from other sources.
Like many arguments concerning the Synoptic Problem, this one is reversible. Either Gospel could be using the other, so more evidence is needed to decide the question.
The Argument from Language
A problem for Augustine’s argument based on similarity of language is that, even if he is right that Mark’s language is most similar to Matthew’s, the argument would be reversible.
Just as with the previous argument, such similarity of language could be explained either by Mark using Matthew or by Matthew using Mark.
We still need to look for more evidence.
Matthew the Eyewitness
Some have argued that if, as traditionally has been held, Matthew was the author of the Gospel that bears his name then he would have been unlikely to use the Gospel of Mark.
It is pointed out that Matthew was an eyewitness of Jesus’ ministry, whereas Mark was not. Would an eyewitness really base his Gospel on one written by non-eyewitness?
Some have suggested that the answer is no, he would not be likely to do that. Therefore, since there is a relationship between Matthew’s and Mark’s Gospels, this relationship is better explained if Mark—the non-eyewitness—used Matthew’s Gospel rather than the other way around.
How good is this argument?
One could challenge it by arguing that Matthew didn’t write the Gospel attributed to him, but I support the traditional authorship view, so I don’t have an interest in going that route.
I do, however, think the argument is open to serious critique.
First, each of the Gospels uses material that the author was not an eyewitness of. None of them are simply memoirs of what someone experience when they were with Jesus.
This demonstrates that the Evangelists were not averse to describing events that they did not witness and for which they had to rely on sources.
Second, Matthew’s Gospel indicates that he was not among Jesus’ first disciples. That group was recruited in chapter 4, but Matthew doesn’t appear until chapter 9.
While Matthew likely heard the content of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7) multiple times during his time with Jesus, he is dependent on others for what happened before he joined Jesus’ band of disciples.
Third, the issue is not whether a text was written by an eyewitness but whether it is accurate.
If Matthew thought that Mark’s Gospel was accurate then he could use it as a source whether it was written by an eyewitness or not. Indeed, he could have found that Mark corresponded well with his own memories of Jesus’ ministry and used it as a source.
Fourth, the earliest evidence we have—evidence that dates from the first century figure known as John the Presbyter (who may or may not be the same as John the Apostle)—indicates that Mark was based on the preaching of Peter, and Peter was an eyewitness.
Indeed, Peter was an even more authoritative eyewitness than Matthew (cf. Matt. 16:18). He was also one of Jesus’ first disciples and had been with Jesus longer than Matthew.
The view that Mark’s Gospel was based on Peter’s preaching was present in the first century, and for precisely this reason Matthew might have chosen to use it as one of his sources.
Furthermore, according to Acts, Matthew and Peter seem to have spent more than a decade living and preaching in Jerusalem after the ministry of Jesus. Matthew thus would have heard Peter’s preaching on many occasions and would have been able to recognize Mark as an accurate record of it.
My Own Experience
I can also speak from my own experience, here.
In the ancient, pre-copyright age, authors borrowed much more freely from each other than they do today.
This was particularly so in anonymous works, which both Matthew’s and Mark’s Gospels were in the sense that their names are not recorded in the text itself.
If Matthew came across Mark’s Gospel and realized that it presented the core of the story of Jesus in much the way he would present it then he would have been inclined to use it as a laborsaving means.
Why reinvent the wheel? Why not use what’s already there, supplement it, and polish it?
This is an experience I have had many times. For over twenty years, I have worked in an educational ministry that publishes a lot of resources, often without bylines.
In this informal, collaborative environment, I have had the occasion many times to take text originally written by someone else, apply it to a new purpose, and modify it accordingly.
I don’t do that for books, articles, or blog posts that are meant to be copyrighted and published under my name. Modern rules about copyright and plagiarism apply to those.
But there is another class of materials (e.g., materials the ministry publishes without a byline or that are attributed to “staff”) where those rules do not apply, and different internal authors may freely borrow from one another.
If I was producing such a text, and a prior text of the same category was available that did much of what I wanted the new text to do, I would not hesitate to use its language—extracting, expanding, abridging, and editing it to fit the new purpose.
This environment is much like the one that seems to have prevailed among the Synoptic Evangelists—where they were all united in the common purpose of telling the story of Jesus and questions of authorial “ownership” of their texts was secondary.
Since Matthew was not producing a memoir but a biography, he was willing to use sources to describe things that he didn’t see. Given that, he likely would have been willing to use sources to describe things he did witness—rather than insisting on deliberately starting from scratch to describe them.
Based on my own experience, I have no difficulty imagining Matthew taking Mark’s Gospel in hand and saying, “This does much of what I want. I’ll use it as a base text and expand and modify it to suit the purposes I want my own Gospel to fulfill.”
The argument that Matthew would not have used Mark because Mark was not an eyewitness thus strikes me as very weak.
Mark the Epitomizer?
Augustine said that “Mark follows him [Matthew] closely, and looks like his attendant and epitomizer” (Latin, Marcus eum subsecutus, tanquam pedissequus et breviator ejus videtur).
Many moderns may be puzzled by the meaning of this, because for us the term “epitome” is usually understood to mean an outstanding example of something (e.g., “John was the epitome of a Southern gentleman”).
In the ancient world, though, an epitome was something else: It was a shortened version of a literary work—something like the Reader’s Digest “condensed” books that were popular some time ago.
If you’re too young to remember those then think of the book summaries published by CliffNotes or SparkNotes, though those aren’t as close a parallel.
Epitomes allowed ancient readers to get the gist of a work of literature without having to read the whole thing, which could often be quite long.
By saying that Mark “looks like” Matthew’s epitomizer, Augustine means that Mark appears to have made a condensed version of Matthew.
A New Opportunity
The idea that Mark is an epitome of Matthew opens up a new way to shed light on our question because it allows us to ask: “If Mark is an epitome of Matthew, does it fit the model of other ancient epitomes or not?”
If Mark works like other ancient epitomes then it would strengthen Augustine’s case.
On the other hand, if Mark does not work like other ancient epitomes then it would weaken it.
It is clear that Mark looks like an epitome of Matthew in two respects:
- It is shorter than the original.
- It parallels much of the substance of the original rather than just a part or a few parts of it.
In every other way, though, Mark does not look like an epitome of Matthew.
This is perhaps why Augustine uses somewhat cautious language, saying that Mark “looks like” Matthew’s epitomizer rather than fully asserting it. Augustine may realize that Mark didn’t fit the model of other ancient epitomes.
In 2001, Robert Derrenbacker published a fascinating doctoral thesis entitled Ancient Compositional Practices and the Synoptic Problem (online here). He has a very helpful discussion of ancient epitomes and how they worked (see, esp., pp. 79-86).
One of the things that Derrenbacker brings out is the fact that ancient epitomes tended to be abridgements of much longer works.
For example, 2 Maccabees is an abridgement of a five-volume history by Jason of Cyrene (2 Macc. 2:23). This means that 2 Maccabees, which originally fit in a single scroll, was a condensation of a work that originally filled five scrolls.
Another thing Derrenbacker brings out is that ancient epitomizers didn’t just shorten works. That’s something they could do simply by deleting sections of the work. Instead, they also tightened up individual sections—or pericopes (per-ih-ko-PEEs)—of the works.
Thus, in the case of a historical or biographical epitome, they would recount incidents found in the original book but use fewer words to tell the story.
This was one of their key tools in making the epitome shorter than the original since it allowed them to save space without losing substance.
Mark vs. the Epitomes
When we compare the Gospel of Mark with the kind of epitomes used in the ancient world, we find that it is dramatically different on both of the counts just mentioned.
Matthew has 18,345 words in the Greek New Testament, while Mark has 11,304. This means that Matthew is only 1.6 times as long as Mark. (Put another way, Mark is 62% as long as Matthew.)
Contrast that to the original work of Jason of Cyrene, which was at least 5 times longer than 2 Maccabees.
Furthermore, Matthew was itself a fairly short work that could fit inside a single scroll. Given its word count, it could be read out loud in less than two hours.
Matthew was thus not the kind of work that called for an epitome. It was too short for that.
And it certainly didn’t call for an epitome that was 62% the length of the original. That’s not a great deal of space savings, and so there wouldn’t have been a great deal of demand for such a work.
Another striking way in which Mark does not look like an epitome of Matthew is the fact that the individual pericopes within it don’t tend to be shorter than the parallels in Matthew. Instead, they tend to be longer.
B. H. Streeter notes:
For example, the number of words employed by Mark to tell the stories of the Gadarene Demoniac, Jairus’ Daughter, and the Feeding of the Five Thousand are respectively 325, 374 and 235; Matthew contrives to tell them in 136, 135 and 157 words [The Four Gospels, 158].
So Mark typically uses more words to tell a given story about Jesus than Matthew does.
But that is not what ancient epitomizers did. As we said, they tended to tighten up stories and use fewer words to recount them because this was a key tool in making an epitome: It allowed the author to save space while retaining substance.
The fact that Mark does the opposite would make him unlike any other epitomizer in the ancient world, and thus we have evidence that he wasn’t epitomizing.
Instead, the fact that Matthew uses fewer words to tell the same stories as Mark suggests that Matthew was producing an expanded edition of Mark—keeping 90% of the substance but tightening up the stories for reasons of style and perhaps to make room for all the additional material he wanted to include.
This brings us to the question of editorial choices the Evangelists made about what material to include.
Important Material Cut Out?
If Mark is an epitome of Matthew then we must ask the question of why he omitted the particular parts of Matthew that he did.
Doing so surely saved space, but he could have achieved the same goal by omitting other parts of Matthew—so why did he skip the ones that he did?
Here’s a list of the pericopes of Matthew that Matthew would have had to leave out:
- The Genealogy of Jesus (Matt. 1:1-17)
- The Birth of Jesus (Matt. 1:18-25)
- The Slaughter of the Innocents (Matt. 2:1-23)
- The Beatitudes (Matt. 4:23-5:12)
- The Value of the Law (Matt. 5:17-20)
- Teaching About Killing and Anger (Matt. 5:21-24)
- Make Peace with Your Accuser (Matt. 5:25-26)
- Teaching on Adultery and Lust (Matt. 5:27-30)
- Teaching on Divorce and Adultery (Matt. 5:31-32)
- Teaching on Swearing (Matt. 5:33-37)
- “Love Your Enemies” (Matt. 5:38-48)
- Piety Before Men and Alms (Matt. 6:1-4)
- Piety Before Men and Prayer (Matt. 6:5-8)
- The Lord’s Prayer (Matt. 6:9-15)
- Piety Before Men and Fasting (Matt. 6:16-18)
- “Treasure in Heaven” (Matt. 6:19-21)
- “The Lamp of Your Body” (Matt. 6:22-23)
- “You Cannot Serve God and Mammon” (Matt. 6:24)
- “Do Not Be Anxious About Your Life” (Matt. 6:25-34)
- “Judge Not, Lest Ye Be Judged” (Matt. 7:1-5)
- Pearls Before Swine (Matt. 7:06)
- “Ask, Seek, Knock” (Matt. 7:7-11)
- The Golden Rule (Matt. 7:12)
- The Narrow Gate(Matt. 7:13-14)
- “No Good Tree Bears Bad Fruit” (Matt. 7:15-20)
- Putting Jesus’ Teaching into Action (Matt. 7:21-27)
- The Centurion’s Servant (Matt. 8:5-13)
- Excuses for Not Following Jesus (Matt. 8:18-22)
- Healing Two Blind Men (Matt. 9:27-31)
- Exorcizing a Mute Demoniac (Matt. 9:32-34)
- “The Harvest is Plentiful” (Matt. 9:35-38)
- Fear and Comfort (Matt. 10:26-33)
- Jesus Brings Division (Matt. 10:34-36)
- The Cost of Discipleship (Matt. 10:37-11:1)
- A Question from John the Baptist (Matt. 11:2-19)
- Woe to Unrepentant Cities (Matt. 11:20-24)
- Hidden from the Wise (Matt. 11:25-30)
- “By Your Words You Will be Justified” (Matt. 12:33-37)
- “The Sign of Jonah” (Matt. 12:38-42)
- The Unclean Spirit Returns (Matt. 12:43-45)
- The Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds (Matt. 13:24-30)
- The Parable of the Leaven (Matt. 13:33)
- The Parable of the Weeds Explained (Matt. 13:34-43)
- The Parable of the Treasure in the Field (Matt. 13:44)
- The Parable of the Precious Pearl (Matt. 13:45-46)
- The Parable of the Net Thrown into the Sea (Matt. 13:47-52)
- Does Jesus Pay the Tax? (Matt. 17:24-27)
- The Parable of the Lost Sheep (Matt. 18:12-14)
- Forgiving the Brother Who Sins (Matt. 18:15-22)
- The Parable of Unforgiving Debtor (Matt. 18:23-35)
- The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard (Matt. 20:1-16)
- Jesus in the Temple (Matt. 21:14-17)
- The Parable of the Banquet (Matt. 22:1-14)
- Woe to the Scribes and Pharisees (Matt. 23:1-36)
- “Your House Is Forsaken” (Matt. 23:37-39)
- “The Son of Man Is Coming at an Unexpected Hour” (Matt. 24:42-51)
- The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins (Matt. 25:1-13)
- The Parable of the Talents/Pounds (Matt. 25:14-30)
- The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Matt. 25:31-46)
- Securing the Tomb (Matt. 27:62-66)
- Explaining the Empty Tomb (Matt. 28:11-15)
One can imagine Mark omitting material he considered to be of lesser importance, but that does not seem to be a description of much of the material in this list.
Mark would have deleted everything concerning the genealogy, birth, and early life of Jesus, the Sermon on the Mount, and most of Jesus’ parables, as well as other notable passages.
While we might suppose he would omit some of the items above for space reasons, some are simply too important—in contrast to what Mark retained—to suppose that this is the answer.
For example, is the Lord’s Prayer—which he would have omitted—really less important than the encounter with the Syrophoenician woman or the healing of the man with the withered hand—both of which he would have chosen to retain?
Unimportant Material Added?
On the epitome hypothesis, Mark didn’t just omit material from Matthew. He also added new material of his own:
- Exorcising an Unclean Spirit in the Synagogue (Mark 1:23-28)
- Departure from Capernaum (Mark 1:35-39)
- Jesus Teaches by the Sea (Mark 2:13)
- Jesus’ Family Hears (Mark 3:20-21)
- The Kingdom Like Seed (Mark 4:26-29)
- Healing a Deaf Man (Mark 7:32-37)
- Healing a Blind Man (Mark 8:22-26)
- The Unauthorized Exorcist (Mark 9:38-41)
- Visiting the Temple (Mark 11:11)
- The Widow’s Mite (Mark 12:41-44)
- Jesus Appears to Two Disciples (Mark 16:12-13)
Again: Is this material of sufficient value to warrant omitting much of the material he would have excluded?
Is the Lord’s Prayer really less important than Mark’s note about Jesus departing Capernaum or his family hearing about what was happening with Jesus before they show up?
Is it worth omitting the bulk of Jesus’ teachings as found in Matthew in order to add material that largely concerns additional stories about healing and exorcism and that duplicate other, similar accounts?
By contrast, if Matthew used Mark then, given the minor importance and largely duplicative nature of this material, it is easy to see how Matthew could have omitted it in interests of space (so he could add all Jesus’ teaching material) rather than the other way around.
An Unsuccessful Epitome?
One of the things that Derrenbacker brings out in his discussion of epitomes is that they tended to replace the works that they abridged.
Very often the epitome was more popular than the original, and so more copies of it were made than of the original. This allowed the epitome to survive the ages while the original perished.
A case in point is 2 Maccabees. We have this epitome, but Jason of Cyrene’s original, five-volume history is lost.
The reason for this phenomenon is that the epitomes were of more value to the ancient audiences than the original. It was a case of “less is more”:
- The epitomes took much less time to read and absorb, while still allowing the reader to get the gist of the original.
- Also, being shorter, they were much cheaper in an age in which books had to be hand written and so were much more costly than today’s printing technology makes possible.
But what value did Mark think he would be adding for the reader by producing an epitome of Matthew?
He wasn’t giving them extra value in terms of dramatic space savings. And he wasn’t giving them extra value in terms of new material. The handful of minor, reduplicative stories he would have added would scarcely offset the loss of the huge bulk of teaching material in Matthew that he would have had to set aside.
This lack of added value—both in terms of space and content—would have set Mark up to be an unsuccessful epitome.
And, in fact, Mark’s Gospel was by far the least popular of the four Gospels in the early Church. One of the ways that we know this is by counting the number of early manuscripts of the Gospels that have survived.
Of the Gospel manuscripts that date to the second and third centuries a.d., there are 12 of Matthew, 7 of Luke, 16 of John, and only 1 of Mark! (Larry W. Hurtado, The Earliest Christian Artifacts, ch. 1). The fact that so few manuscripts of Mark have survived from this period compared to the others suggests that there were fewer copies of Mark in circulation.
Given that there are twelve ancient manuscripts of Matthew and only one of Mark, it is clear that Matthew was quite a bit more popular than Mark.
This means that Mark, if it was an epitome of Matthew, was a spectacularly unsuccessful one that did not, in the eyes of the ancient readers, add significant value over its original. Indeed, as the number of surviving manuscripts suggests, they saw it as quite a bit less valuable.
The Case Against the Augustinian Hypothesis
We have seen a number of reasons to be skeptical of St. Augustine’s proposal that Mark was the second Gospel written and that it was an epitome of Matthew:
- Both of the arguments that Augustine proposes are reversible and can support either the view that Mark used Matthew or that Matthew used Mark.
- The idea that Matthew wouldn’t use Mark because the latter was not an eyewitness is unconvincing.
- We have first century evidence, via John the Presbyter, that Mark was based on the preaching of Peter rather than on Matthew.
- Matthew is a long enough a work to need an epitome.
- Mark is not a major abridgment of Matthew, being 62% as long as the proposed original.
- By regularly using more words rather than fewer to recount the same stories, Mark would have been behaving very unlike ancient epitomizers and rejecting one of the key tools they used to make their abridgements.
- Much of the material Mark would have omitted seems more important than what he retained.
- The material that Mark would have added to Matthew seems much less important than the material he omitted.
- By adding so little value in terms of space savings and content, Mark would be a badly designed and unnecessary epitome which went on to be very unpopular.
In view of these facts, Augustine’s impression that Mark “looks like” Matthew’s epitomizer is true only in a very superficial sense. A closer examination of the matter suggests that Mark’s Gospel is not an epitome of Matthew.
Augustine’s Later Doubts?
In his initial discussion of the matter, Augustine used cautious language—only asserting that Mark “looks like” or “seems like” Matthew’s epitomizer.
He may have become even less confident of this idea as he worked on his Harmony of the Gospels, because there is a later passage that some scholars have taken as a modification of his initial view.
After having worked through and carefully compared the three Synoptics, Augustine makes this statement:
Mark . . . either appears to be preferentially the companion of Matthew, as he narrates a larger number of matters in unison with him than with the rest . . . or else, in accordance with the more probable account of the matter, he holds a course in conjunction with both [the other Synoptists]. For although he is at one with Matthew in the larger number of passages, he is nevertheless at one rather with Luke in some others [Harmony of the Gospels 4:10:11].
Here Augustine seems to make two proposals.
- The first seems to be a restatement of the view he expressed at the beginning of his harmony—that Mark accompanies or is “the companion of Matthew” as he writes his Gospel.
- The second acknowledges that as he writes his Gospel he “holds a course in conjunction with both” Matthew and Luke, though he follows the first more than the second.
This may mean that, after his close comparison of the Gospels, Augustine had reason to modify his view of Mark as an apparent epitome of Matthew and that he may have concluded that “the more probable account of the matter” was that Mark used both Matthew and Luke.
This would be consistent with the modern Griesbach Hypothesis, though we must be careful here, because Augustine is not fully clear in what he says.
By speaking of Mark accompanying and “holding a course” with the other two Synoptic Evangelists, he may simply be noting the parallels in sequence that occur between them, without supposing a particular theory of how they were composed.
If so, he would have arrived at the insight that many moderns have proposed—that Mark is the “middle term” between Matthew and Luke. This, however, can be explained in more than one way. The Griesbach Hypothesis is one proposal that makes Mark the middle term, but there are others.
Thus David Pearson, who wrote a key paper on this topic, cautioned:
The question of whether or not Augustine had two views of the order in which the gospels were composed just as he had two views of their mutual relationships must remain open [“Augustine and the Augustinian Hypothesis: A Reexamination of Augustine’s Thought in De consensu evangelistarum,” in New Synoptic Studies: The Cambridge Gospel Conference and Beyond (ed. William R. Farmer, Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1983) 37-64].
Regardless of whether Augustine later changed his view of the order in which the Gospels were composed, his initial proposal that Mark was an epitome of the Gospel of Matthew appears to be mistaken.