Dependence of Mark upon Matthew (Continued)

5. Unsuccessful Markan Improvements

It should not be surprising that in some of the attempts by the writer of Mark to improve upon Matthew through use of altered text, he would not succeed. Here I present 8 instances of this.

Mk 2:26    Here the writer of Mark added a clause, relative to Matthew (Mt 12:4), in order to inform the reader who was the high priest in the days of David. Unfortunately, he selected Abiathar to be this high priest, while from 1 Sm 21 we know that he was Ahimelech. If Matthew had come after Mark, its writer would in all likelihood have corrected Mark by giving the correct name of the priest rather than by merely omitting Mark's clause.

Mk 6:20,26    Recall that the writer of Mark altered Matthew in Mk 6:20 so as to cause Herod to fear and respect John the Baptist as being righteous and holy, in explanation of why Herod was sad in ordering his beheading. Yet Mk 6:20 reads: "for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and kept him safe. When he heard him, he was much perplexed; and yet he heard him gladly." If Herod feared John, it could only have meant that he feared his popularity with the people. This would not have endeared John to him, nor would John's having told him he was an adulterer. And Herod certainly did not continue to keep John "safe." Thus the Markan improvement of Matthew here did not really succeed.

Mk 6:39-44    In this version of the feeding of the five thousand, a comparison against Matthew's version suggests that when the writer of Mark read of the "five thousand men, besides women and children" (Mt 14:21) it brought the Roman military to his mind. And to make it understandable that the 5000 could have been easily counted, he had Jesus command them, as if a military commander, to sit in companies of 50 and 100. This image of Jesus as commander was consistent with his redactions elsewhere that showed Jesus to be in charge and unafraid, as in Mk 11:16, where "he would not allow any one to carry anything through the temple." At the same time, it would lend a desired gentile slant to his behavior. The fact that in Mark the crowd would have been easily countable would then indicate this to be a successful Markan improvement over Matthew, except for one problem. Those who ate the bread were five thousand men. The great throng who partook of this repast, however, surely contained many women and children also. It is inconceivable that only the men ate the loaves and not also the hungry women and children. Thus Mark's restriction of the pericope to men, in analogy to companies within the military being made up just of men, caused his intended improvement over Matthew to fail. If it is supposed that the writer of Mark was merely being sexist here, and was not implying that the women and children present didn't eat too, then he is seen as having upgraded the Matthean miracle by having many more than 5,000 be fed.

Mk 9:14-29     In this pericope, paralleled by Mt 17:14-20, Mark gives a lengthier, more detailed account of the casting out of the demon from the man's son than does Matthew. However, two items within Mark's account indicate the event could scarcely have occurred as written. In the first, Jesus sees a crowd come running together (Mk 9:25a) even when the great crowd had already rushed right up to him and greeted him (Mk 9:14-15). The second is that this running together of a crowd within the great crowd caused Jesus to commence exorcising the unclean spirit. The Matthean account, though not (necessarily) genuine, exhibits neither of these improbabilities or incongruities. Yet the two accounts, being so similar and occurring in the same order within both gospels, obviously demonstrate that one account depends upon the other. In such a situation, if other differences between the two parallel accounts do not provide any irreversible indications of which account is primary and which is secondary, the likelihood is that the one that could more plausibly have actually occurred is primary. Thus Mark appears secondary here, with its author having had motivation to make alterations and add fictitious details to Matthew's account so that his own account would seem the more genuine one.

Another apparent addition by the writer of Mark to this pericope is "the house" Jesus and his disciples entered afterwards, while the incident was still fresh in their minds (Mk 9:28). There was no mention of any house having being available to them at that time. A further indication of editing by the writer of Mark is that Jesus, in answering the disciples' question of why they couldn't drive out the evil spirit, is supposed to have told his disciples, "This kind [of unclean spirit] cannot be driven out by anything but prayer" (Mk 9:29), which is a parallel to Mt 17:21. However, Jesus had not offered any prayer in driving out the demon, but instead had simply ordered it out. In Matthew, a more appropriate answer to the question is given (Mt 17:20), along with Mt 17:21; the writer of Mark omitted the more plausible reply (Mt 17:20) and retained the response (Mt 17:21) that was inappropriate for his altered text. These are further considerations that make it more likely that the writer of Mark had ineptly edited and altered Matthew's account rather than vice versa.

Mk 10:17-18    In the Matthean parallel, Jesus is asked what good deed must be done to inherit eternal life, and replies, "Why do you ask me about what is good? One there is who is good [or "one is the good"]. If you would enter life, keep the commandments" (Mt 19:17). This response is rather ambiguous; as pointed out in discussion of the Matthean verse "the good" was a rabbinic term for the Torah,[1] but many Gospel scholars are unaware of that, and quite likely the writer of Mark as a gentile was also unaware. Thus he attempted to improve upon the Matthean verse and remove its ambiguity. This he did by writing Jesus' response in authoritative terms as, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments..." Thus the ambiguity was removed, but the more serious problem was introduced of Jesus not being good.

Mk 11:3    In this verse the two disciples tell the caretakers of the colt that Jesus needs it and "will send it back here immediately." This extra clause is not in the Matthean parallel (Mt 21:2-3). It appears as a Markan improvement to Matthew so that Jesus could not be construed as stealing the property of others. However, nowhere later in Mark are the disciples mentioned as having returned the colt. This is another example of a Markan editorial improvement or alteration to Matthew that was not followed through -- "Markan fatigue."

Mk 11:13    Concerning the fig tree that Jesus is said to have cursed, the writer of Mark attempted to explain why, in the Matthean parallel of Mt 21:19, the fig tree had held no fruit. It was because "it was not the season for figs" (Mk 11:13b). Then Mark continues to follow Matthew and has Jesus curse the tree anyway for not having any figs. This was a gross error on the part of the writer of Mark, incurred during an attempted improvement over Matthew. It also fits into the category of "Markan fatigue."

The fact that Mark makes the tree-cursing miracle occur over an interval of a day instead of at once, as in Matthew, may have been to make the disciples' understandable amazement in Matthew (Mt 21:20) be uncalled for, if the tree had actually had a day in which to wither. In Matthew the disciples were portrayed as being of normal acuity in realizing that a tree should not be able to wither all at once, suddenly.)

Mk 14:65    Here we revisit the "cover-his-face and prophesy" verse. This was an attempted Markan improvement over Mt 27:68 that also disclosed Markan foreknowledge of the Matthean verse. By omitting Matthew's question "Who is it that struck you?" the writer of Mark at the same time bungled his improvement of the facial covering, for then both the "Prophesy!" command and the facial covering lack any raison d'être.

Mk 15:42-43    Here it states that it was the day before the sabbath (Day of Preparation), but that evening had either come or was about to come. The same Greek participle is used here as in Mk 14:17, where it indicated that evening had arrived, so that the next calendar day had begun and they could commence eating the Passover feast. Even if evening had not quite arrived in Mk 15:42, it would have taken a considerable amount of time for Joseph to go to Pilate, and for Pilate to send out a centurion to check on Jesus' death and report back. Before then, the sabbath would have arrived, on which Jews were forbidden to conduct business or travel. However, in Mk 15:43 Joseph is portrayed as a respected member of the council, thus one who must have followed the Jewish law. No such thing is stated in the Matthean p;arallel (Mt 27:57). Hence Joseph would not, or should not, have gone to Pilate at that time to conduct his business. Thus, the upgrading of Joseph's societal status by the writer of Mark, relative to Matthew, produced this particular bit of Markan "fatigue." In Matthew it is not a problem, because Joseph is not identified as being Jewish, but only as being rich (Mt 27:57).


1. Cope, Lamar, Matthew: A Scribe Trained for the Kingdom of Heaven (Washington, D.C.: Catholic Biblical Association of America, 1976), pp. 111-114.

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