Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Gospel of Mark is Wrong—and other Quibbles!

Perhaps I should say Mark is clearly incorrect in at least two places, and that fact has been known since the late second century.  Jerome (4th/5th century) in a letter (57.9) cites the writings of early critics of Christianity (Celsus, On the True Doctrine [late 2nd century], Porphyry, Against the Christians [3rd/4th century], and Julian, Against the Galilaeans [fourth century] ) on a number of errors, which according to Jerome these critics of Mark called "falsifications."  Probably many of my readers will be unfamiliar with the two errors I describe here, but they are well known to most historians of Christian origins.
Jerome calls Celsus, Porphyry, and Julian "impious men," but he does not deny the errors.  One well known error is Mark's citation (Mark 1:1-3) of a passage supposedly from Isaiah, but which turns out to be a collage of Malachi 3:1 and Isaiah 40:3.  A second error is even more glaring.  In Mark 2:25-26 Jesus cites the actions of David who "entered the house of God when Abiathar was High Priest."  When this event happened, however, actually Ahimelech was high priest (1 Samuel 21:1-6); Abiathar was his son and met David only after the bread incident in the house of God (1 Samuel 22:20-23).
            Jerome in response to the first error simply solicits the indulgence of the reader for Mark's error, and for the second he argued that the evangelists were more concerned with the sense of Old Testament passages than with giving the literal words (Letter 57.9).  Matthew and Luke correct Mark's errors in the following ways: Matthew (3:3) and Luke (3:4-6) correct Mark by eliminating the words of Malachi and then the reference to Isaiah (40:3) is correct—Luke also adds more material (40:3-5) to the Isaiah quotation.  Both Matthew and Luke also correct Mark's historical error in naming the wrong high priest by simply eliminating Mark's erroneous phrase: "when Abiathar was high priest" (Matt 12:4; Luke 6:3).
            Strictly speaking, the ascription of Mark 1:1-3 to Isaiah is wrong, for the passage contains statements from both Malachi and Isaiah.  Strictly speaking, David took the dedicated bread from the altar when Ahimelech was high priest; so Mark was wrong when he says the incident took place when Abiathar was high priest.
            What do these obvious errors suggest about Mark's reporting of his narrative of the public career of Jesus?  Perhaps nothing!  But since we have no way of verifying his narrative and its details, we should take it very seriously when we catch him in an error.  These obvious errors suggest that we should read the gospel closely and not give Mark a pass when other questionable statements are reported in his account.  For example, Mark egregiously exaggerates in reporting that John, the baptizer, baptized "all the county of Judea and all the people of Jerusalem" (Mark 1:5) and exaggerates again at Mark 1:33 in reporting that the "whole city was gathered at the door."  Mark is simply not reporting responsibly in these instances.  Accuracy in historical detail is not in itself a signature of historical narrative, but inaccuracy in historical detail is a clear warning of the possible historical unreliability of the narrative.
            Questions can also be raised about some of the sources of the narratives Mark reports—specifically with respect to how Mark knows about things he reports.  Here are two narratives that are clearly challengeable as historical narration.  How does Mark know the precise words of the conversation he reports in the story of Jesus in the high priest's home (Mark 14:53-72)?  His only likely source is Peter who was not present, but was out in the courtyard of the high priest's home, and not privy to what was happening inside the house (Mark 14:54, 66).
In Mark's story about the beheading of John the Baptist (Mark 6:14-29) Mark has used the narrative technique of time compression to create the fanciful story about the dance of Herodias' daughter and her dramatic request for the head of the Baptist in front of Herod's guests (Mark 6:24-25).  Mark situates the narrative in the Galilee area (Mark 6:1, 14, 21, 45); so the banquet for "his courtiers, officers, and leading men of Galilee" took place at his palace in Tiberias.  According to Josephus (Antiquities  18.5.2), however, John the Baptist was imprisoned and beheaded in the fortress at Machaerus  located in modern Jordan (at that time Nabatea) a number of miles east of the Dead Sea and at a level near its mid-point.  Mark's compression of time (6:25-27: "with haste," "at once," "immediately") forces the reader to understand that John the Baptist was near at hand, and hence his beheading takes place while the dinner party was continuing—a much more dramatic story than sending a soldier of the guard on a long trip to Machaerus for the head!  And, of course, there is always the question of how Mark knew the precise words of the conversations during the party—was it actually oral tradition or simply Mark's imaginative recreation, or simply whole cloth invention?
Such problems suggest that Mark is not early Christian history; rather it has all the earmarks of historical fiction—that is to say, much of the gospel is due to Mark's imagination and inventive recreation.
What are your thoughts?
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University


  1. The Matthean account of the beheading-of-John episode (Mt 14:3-12), is more consistent than that of Mark. However, in Matthew both Herod and his wife, Herodias, wished to have John the Baptist done away with. But after she had prompted her daughter to ask Herod for John's head at the banquet, Herod is said to have been sorry but went ahead and ordered the execution anyway. Mark makes it seem more plausible that Herod would be sorry, in that Mark portrays Herod as believing that John was a righteous and holy man whom he would gladly hear speak (Mk 6:20).
    However, a person does not, realistically speaking, go and listen to a man talk if he fears him and if his preaching seems perplexing, and do it gladly. And it is totally illogical that Herod would have John beheaded, vow or no vow, if he himself believed the man to be righteous and holy, was keeping him safe, and gladly heard him speak (Mk 6:20). If he had felt that way about John, he certainly would not have had him beheaded, or even jailed in the first place! This has got to be called a gross inconsistency on the part of the writer of Mark. But if this writer were following Matthew (as the early church fathers claimed), and noticed that Herod was supposedly sorry, then it can make some sense that he was trying to improve upon Matthew and insert some reasons why Herod was sorry. However, by these redactions the writer of Mark only made the episode even more inconsistent than in Matthew.

    . By this reckoning, the “compression” error in Mark followed from the same error in Matthew, which its writer incurred while redacting his source.

    1. Good Morning Jim!
      You have redirected the discussion from the issue: is Mark history or fiction, to the issue of which gospel was written first--Matthew or Mark? If you will take your gospel synopsis (everyone should have a gospel synopsis) and scan through it noting the lengths of the narratives in the material common to Matthew, Mark, and Luke, you will be struck by the fact that in almost every instance Mark is longer than the other two gospels--Matthew and Luke are usually shorter. On the usual theory of gospel origins Matthew and Luke abbreviate Mark's gospel, and correct Mark, while adding material Mark does not have (such as birth narratives, more parables, resurrection appearances, etc.). Under your theory of Matthew's priority, however, you will have to argue that Mark expands the material it shares with a shorter Matthew and Luke, while ignoring birth narratives, parables, and resurrection appearances, among other things. In fact under your theory Mark only adds about 40 verses or so to his gospel that the other two gospels do not have, prompting the question why did Mark even bother to write? The priority of Matthew solution to gospel relationships is simply unconvincing to most NT scholars who worry with the problem. In fact in your explanation you conclude that "Mark only made the episode even more inconsistent than Matthew." You have noted one reason (but stated differently) that most people prefer Mark's priority: it is easier to imagine Matthew eliminating confusion from Mark's narrative by abbreviating and correcting it than trying to conceive of Mark deliberately introducing confusion into Matthew's narrative by lengthening it. Readers interested in this issue can find a discussion of Matthean and Markan priority in Hedrick, "When History and Faith Collide," 76-92. And for a demonstration of the editing of Mark by Matthew and Luke see John C. Hawkins, "Horae Synopticae. Contributions to the Study of the Synoptic Problem" (Oxford,1909, reprint 1968), particularly pp. 114-53.

  2. "it has all the earmarks of historical fiction—that is to say, much of the gospel is due to Mark's imagination and inventive recreation." Absolutely. I try to get students to imagine Mark as a play written to be staged or a movie script intended to be filmed for the silver screen. There are surely whispers of historical reality here and there, but mostly it's imaginative, artistic storytelling, told with great poetic license, intended primarily to provoke the imagination of the audience.

    BTW, I think you'll want to locate Machaerus east of the Dead Sea, not west.

    Bob Fowler

  3. Aargh! You are right of course. The change is made. I am directionally challenged and always got lost on the Army's compass course!
    Thanks Bob!

  4. Hi Charlie,
    Regarding the Gospel priority problem, I’ll have to be very brief here, there’s so much to it. You did mention one aspect that supports Matthean priority: in material common to both Mark and Matthew, Mark’s text is usually somewhat longer. This is typical of the redactor who is improving upon or correcting or for other reasons altering the text of his source. However, that Mark is much shorter than Matthew requires only that the writer of Mark had a few reasons why he preferred to dispense with large chunks of Matthew. Well, these are easy to come by, and I’ll just refer you to:

    where MAH stands for modified Augustinian hypothesis. The
    sorriest of these reasons is that the writer of Mark, in Rome, was anti-Jewish (rather like Marcion later). Consistent with this, is his tendency to abbreviate out Judaistic sections disproportionately. (He didn’t even want to emphasize Jesus’ Jewish heritage or mention Joseph.) By placing Mark ahead of (a Hebraic) Matthew, it is much less clear that the writer of Mark was anti-Jewish. Therefore, NT scholarship much prefers to say that the early church fathers were somehow wrong in the order of appearance of the Gospels. (One can see that the need to uphold orthodoxy can account for their belief that the Gospels were written by their namesakes.) Even before the Holocaust, this unspoken preference for placing Mark first is understandable.
    Even consensual scholarship places Luke after Mark, with which I concur, and if correct, Mark being a shorter Gospel than Luke says nothing about the editorial behavior of the writer of Mark.

    I had hoped that I could get you to see that (IF Mark came after Matthew) , Matthew’s incongruity of having Herod be sorry to execute John could explain the writer of Mark’s redactive “improvement” over Matthew of supplying reasons why Herod was sorry. I did not succeed!.

  5. Good rainy afternoon Jim,
    I am more convinced by the argument of Keith F. Nickle, "The Synoptic Gospels. An Introduction" (John Knox, 1980), 80-82. Nickle specifically uses this story about the death of Herod, which is shared by Mark and Matthew, in an argument for the priority of Mark. What you observed: that in Matthew Herod was sorry to kill John in Nickle's argument becomes an obvious instance Markan priority. Check out his rationale and let's discuss it off the blog line.