Sunday, December 27, 2020

One Tiny Adverb and the Synoptic Problem

The synoptic problem, simply stated, is how does one describe the relationship between Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The consensus of New Testament scholarship is that a literary relationship exists between them, and that Mark was written first and then was used independently as a source by Matthew and Luke.1 An adverb is a word that modifies a verb, adjective, or other adverb by describing degree or manner. A characteristic, or signature expression in Mark is εὐθύς (euthus), a word that Mark uses forty-one times. On the other hand, this word is only used in Matthew five times and in Luke once. Euthus, classified as an adverb in Greek, is generally translated as immediately or at once.

Since euthus appears so few times in Matthew and Luke, one might conclude that they did not use Mark as a source. One could argue that since Luke uses none of the Markan instances of euthus, and since his one use of euthus (6:49) appears in a story that does not appear in Mark, Luke could not have acquired the word from Mark. Matthew's use of euthus corresponds to Mark's use in the following five instances: Matt 3:16 (Mk 1:10); 13:20 (Mk 4:16); Matt 13:21 (Mk 4:17); Matt 14:27 (Mk 6:50); Matt 21:3 (Mk 11:3). If Matthew and Luke used Mark as a source, the probability is that this Markan expression should have occurred more often in Matthew and Luke. Is there a reason why that might not have happened based on the consensus view for explaining the relationship between the three gospels? To check my data using Mark as the key for checking the uses in the other two gospels, it will be easier if one uses a gospel synopsis that provides the parallel passages between the three gospels side by side.2

By comparing Matthew to the Markan passages containing euthus, here is what I found:

1.  In one instance Matthew reads tote (at that time, then, thereupon) not euthus.

2.  In several instances Matthew reads eutheōs (at once, immediately), which the Greek lexicon describes as a more common expression than euthus.

3.  Matthew omits the entire passage in which euthus appears.

4.  Matthew omits the word euthus.

5.  Matthew omits the verse in which euthus appears.

6.  Matthew abbreviates the sentence and omits euthus.

7.  Matthew expands the sentence and omits euthus.

Here is what I found in Luke:

1.  Luke writes the sentence differently and omits euthus.

2.  Luke omits the entire passage in which euthus appears.

3.  Luke omits the word euthus.

4.  Luke omits the verse in which euthus appears.

5.  Luke's text is different and omits euthus.

6.  Luke reads eutheōs instead of euthus.

7.  Luke's text is different and uses paraxrēma (at once, immediately). This word is found in the New Testament only in Luke and Acts, which are both written by the same author.

8.  Luke reads paraxrēma.

In my view this data seems to support the idea that Matthew and Luke have edited Mark rather than attesting to Mark's revision of Matthew and Luke.

            A possible reason for the avoidance of euthus by Matthew and Luke may be found in what the Greek lexicon3 calls a weakening of euthus to a meaning of then or so then. The lexicon offers the following examples of this weakened use in Mark 1:21, 23, 29. In these verses the word euthus becomes little more than a correlative particle indicating a sequential relationship between preceding and following material, much as Matthew saw in Mark when s/he replaces euthus in Mark 1:10 (=Matt 3:16) with tote.4

Why does the literary relationship between Matthew, Mark, and Luke matter? Because the literary sequence of these three texts establishes the history of the early Christian movement in the first century. With Mark as the earliest gospel and John as the latest, the historical process moves in a logical manner. Displacing Mark from the position of first gospel in effect renders Mark a reactionary gospel that rejects much of the early Christian tradition. For example, if Mark had Matthew and Luke in front of him when s/he wrote, s/he deliberately rejected the birth narratives and the special Matthean and Lukan parables tradition (some 18 parables that appear only in Matthew and Luke). Mark also rejected the sermons on the mount (Matthew) and plain (Luke) and the special sayings tradition that Matthew and Luke share (such as the Lord's Prayer, for example).

How do you see the relationship between Matthew, Mark, and Luke?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1On the synoptic problem, see Hedrick, When History and Faith Collide. Studying Jesus (Wipf & Stock, reprint 2013), 76-109.

2Here are the appearances of euthus in Mark: 1:10, 12, 18, 20, 21, 23, 28, 29, 30, 42, 43; 2:8, 12; 3:6; 4:5, 15, 16, 17, 29; 5:2, 29, 30, 42 (bis); 6:25, 27, 45, 50, 54; 7:25; 8:10; 9:15, 20, 24; 10:52; 11:2, 3; 14:43, 45, 72; 15:1.

3F. W. Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (3rd ed.; Chicago, 2000), 406.

4Compare the translations of Mark 1:21, 23, 29 in New Revised Standard Version and the Revised English Bible.


  1. I guess I had always thought (received knowledge) that Mark was first and that the others relied on him... On euthus: is there any evidence for a more general distinction in its usage? for instance, is it more commonly used adverbially in certain regions or periods than in others? I guess what I'm wondering is whether avoidance of euthus is more an issue of personal style than an index of a relationship between the gospels...

  2. As a long time newspaper writer and now a magazine columnist, I can tell you that I generally dislike editors because, while they sometimes correct a mistake, they more often change meaning by making unnecessary changes. It is interesting to see, if we assume that both Matthew and Luke are editing Mark, the degree to which they are correcting what I have been told was basically bad grammar and when they seem to be redirecting the meaning. Not to draw a one to one relationship, but the evangelists were not merely editors, they were preachers and, I can tell you from both observation and personal experience, there are almost no boundaries to how much a preacher will edit a good story to suit our own purposes.

  3. The relationship between the synoptics could have to do with the individual style and purposes of the author, as the architect of his text. I see the use of “euthus” as one of several ways Mark used to make his story come alive to those who heard it. Matt, while telling the same basic tale, had an added motive of concretely (or literally) connecting his story to Judaism (“fulfilling” what was spoken by the prophets) and also in providing sets of instructions to adherents (for instance chapters 5-7, 10, 18, and the parables). “Immediacy” wasn’t as important. One of his unique features, also, was “domain of heaven” as opposed to “domain of God.” That would also seem to take some of the need for “immediacy” from the scenario, if the domain of God was up in the sky, as opposed to on Earth. There were a couple of versions of Luke floating around in the second century (according to the heresiologists), but the canonical one has a very brief introduction that invites the reader to see the book as “history,” thus “immediately” was not as relevant. His use of “paraxrēma” is far less than Mark’s “euthus” or Matthew’s “tote.” It seems (from memory), Josephus was fond of the phrase “About this time,” or a similar phrase. That is more ambiguous than “immediately,” but could be seen as more specific than “then.”

    I don’t see sequence of the books as particularly important in developmental historicity, since the distance between the publication, from what I have read is around forty years, and one is not certain where each was written, who the audiences were or who the authors were. Would the author, for instance, in Alexandria, have the same view as one in Caesarea Philippi or Rome? I doubt a linear development. I suspect location and audience were more important than order written in shaping the use of Mark by other gospeleers.
    Dennis Dean Carpenter
    Dahlonega, Ga.

  4. Hi Charlie,

    Your last paragraph provides sufficient reason, by far, to think that Mark preceded Matthew and Luke.

    If one insists on the maverick category for Mark, an interesting study might be a detailed comparison of how Mark and John interpreted the Jesus Story. Does such a study exist?

    Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

    1. Good afternoon Gene,
      I don't know off the top of my head of a definitive study "of how Mark and John interpreted the Jesus Story," although there are many comparative studies of Mark and John.