A Case of Plagiarism: Did Matthew Duplicate Mark’s Gospel?

The contemporary understanding of ancient writing practices has been placed under litmus test, with the main defendants being Matthew and Mark, the presumed writers of the first two canonical gospels. Supposing that Mark is the primary source of Matthew, my study examines the question: Does Matthew’s redaction of Mark and the latter’s supposedly ‘plagiarism’ rhyme with the conventional writing practices in the first and second century?

There are four canonical gospels in the Christian bible – the Gospels according to Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John. Since there are other gospel writings, which are termed as Apocrypha, the four gospels’ canonicity gives them an expanded authority as divinely inspired texts. The term “gospel” refers to a collection of writings from a larger early Christian body of literature that narrates the words and deeds of a historical man named Jesus of Nazareth, whose miraculous conception defies scientific explanations. To accomplish his ministry, Jesus summons the Twelve and names them apostles. He faced significant opposition, culminating in his betrayal, trial, crucifixion, and death on the cross. Just like his birth, after three days, he miraculously resurrected from the dead. The close, literal similarities of the first three gospels –Mark, Matthew, and Luke (John’s Gospel portrays a different writing style)–are cumulatively termed as the 'synoptic problem' because of a similar narrative pattern, stories, and identical wording.
The close similarities of Mark, Matthew, and Luke trigger the question of authorship in the first and second centuries. This study sets to account whether the gospels’ authors knew each other’s writings or there was initially a common source material. If Matthew used Mark as his primary source, one must address plagiarism since Matthew does not acknowledge any of his sources. Failure to acknowledge his sources, given the contemporary emphasis on plagiarism, seems a non-issue in the first- and second-century scholarship. The current issues notwithstanding, the obvious interest in identifying the gospels’ authors, since in the earlier manuscripts there are no names ascribed, is hotly contested. The names of the gospels are a later addition. It is also important to remember that the gospels had intended audiences. Thus, the nature of the audiences might have influenced the evangelists’ interest in particular stories.
The above observations provoke my interest in studying the gospels first and second century set up. I have scaled down my research to Matthew and Mark, especially the last three chapters (Matt 26-28 // Mark 14-16). The Passion and Resurrection Narratives (PRNs) are classic examples of Matthew’s redaction expertise. A casual study of Matthew and Mark through the principles of textual criticism reveals Mark’s priority. Matthew’s apocalyptic dramatization of the narratives at the cross and tomb informs about his time's apocalyptic climate. The death and the resurrection of Jesus are apocalyptic events.
Often portrayed as the most pro-Jewish of the gospels, Matthew’s relationship with the pro-Gentile Mark as his primary source requires explanation. While the prominent position in explaining the Mark-Matthew relationship upholds Markan priority, other problems emerge from this conclusion. For instance, how Matthew ‘used’ as well as whether he intended to ‘replace’ or to ‘continue’ the tradition of Mark remain contested in redaction criticism. In effect, it is not enough to claim that Matthew ‘used’ Mark. Important for this study is to consider why Matthew integrated so much material from Mark and ignored others. Besides, the study asks if Matthew had other sources at his disposal. After Matthew’s Gospel (A New Edition) is in place, is Mark still relevant?

The departure point is the Passion and Resurrection Narratives (PRN; Matt 26-28; Mark 14-16). The following reasons necessitate the choice of the PRN as a case study for this research. First, the PRN is matched by an unusually high degree of homogeneity in the gospel literature. Approximately four-fifths of Matthew’s PRNs is identical in vocabulary and content with its Markan counterpart. Second, while four-fifth of the Matthean material is traced in Mark, one must account for the differences between the PRNs of Matthew and Mark. It would be beneficial to the scholarly community to notice what peculiar nuance or viewpoint distinguishes Matthew PRNs from Mark’s. Third, although Matthew’s PRN resembles that of Mark than in any other section in the gospel, he consciously deviates by adding his material, omits Markan text, and rearranges his sources, raising interpretative difficulties. Fourth, after Jesus’ resurrection, there was initially the lack of reliable textual evidence since Mark ends at 16:8. This scarcity explains Matthew’s possible access to other privileged traditions. Fifth, Matthew’s use of Mark reveals some appealing and intriguing literary, contextual, and theological themes that have been overlooked. It is sometimes argued that the few changes that Matthew makes effect little particular emphasis on his narrative. However, a microanalysis of Matthew’s redaction reveals a desire for independence and liberty in the narrative. Matthew deliberately supplements his source, imposing a very specific perspective to further his theological orientation. Finally, Mark’s narrative lacks detailed accounts of the appearances of Jesus while they are present in Matthew. This hint either at Matthew’s possible access to other privileged sources or a creative ability to construct the last 12 verses (Matt 28,9-20).

In observing how Matthew proceeds side by side with Mark, the study invites a careful observation of the literary style: omission, additions, amendments, and continuity. The literary and redaction analysis does not stop at mere comparisons. Behind Matthew and Mark’s narrative, their resemblance and divergence, the study researches additional information of the primitive forms of tradition, oral or written, brief or more uncomplicated stories, which might have circulated before a ‘book’ was published. And since the redaction analysis of passion and resurrection must be situated within Matthew’s gospel’s broader literary world, a review of ancient authors and parallel materials will be undertaken. Once a connection is established, one can postulate that Matthew employs his creativity to explain, clarify, enrich, transmit, and shape his inherited tradition in line with the conventional writings of his time.
To demonstrate the uniqueness of Matthew’s narration of PRNs, a summation of evidence through the redaction-critical technique will be applied. In this method, I shall consider the exegetical similarities and the differences between Matthew’s and Mark’s PRNs before proceeding with the possible interpretation and construction of a probable audience for the evangelist. It is expected that the evidence will unravel a narrative pattern of words, phrases, and content that will distinctively place Matthew and Mark in their befitting places. In observing how Matthew proceeds side by side with Mark, the study invites a careful observation of the literary style: omission, additions, amendments, and continuity. The literary and redaction analysis does not stop at mere comparisons. Behind the narrative of Matthew and Mark, their resemblance and divergence, the study researches on additional information from earlier literature, oral or written, which might have circulated before the text as we have it (the Gospel of Matthew) was ‘published’. Two examples demonstrate the methodology.

The Description of Judas Iscariot

Judas Iscariot is one of Jesus’ apostles. He schemed to betray Jesus and, in return for economic remuneration. So, Judas saw in Jesus a source of wealth. After Judas betrayed Jesus and received his payment, specifically thirty pieces of silver (only Matthew reports the sum), the author creates significant suspense to the reader of knowing about what becomes of Judas. Mark does not report the aftermath of Judas’ action.
On the other hand, Matthew follows Judas and reports about Judas’ remorse and shame. He returns the money to the religious authorities and commits suicide. Thus, if Matthew is relying on Mark, where did he get this unique story (Matt 27:3-10) that does not appear in any other gospel? While Matthew fulfils an important quest about the aftermath of Judas’ action that Mark seems to have underestimated, he poses further interpretational difficulties about the possible source of the story and its probable meaning to his audience.

The Events at Jesus’ Death and Burial

Among the evangelists, Matthew significantly dramatizes the death and resurrection of Jesus by introducing apocalyptic imageries. He recounts an earthquake at the cross (Matt 27:51.54) and the tomb (Matt 28:2.4) and the appearance of the angel of the Lord, who descends from heaven. The preliminary observations through linguistic and thematic cords at the death and resurrection of Jesus justify a unified study of the two events. First, the redaction through the introduction of apocalyptic features is uniquely Matthean (Matt 27:51-54, 28:2-4; cf. Mark 15:38-39, 16:2-5; Luke 23:46-48, 24:1-5; John 19:30, 20:1). Second, the passion predictions all speak of Jesus’ death and resurrection (Matt 16:21; cf. 17:23, 20:18-19). Third, the two events begin with καὶ ἰδοὺ indicating an important event is about to happen (Matt 27:51, 28:2). Fourth, the shaking of the earth is reported in both narratives (Matt 27:51, 28:2). Fifth, thematic connections, such as death (Matt 27:50, 28:4; of Jesus and guards respectively), resurrection (Matt 27:52, 28:6), and the reference to the city/Jerusalem (Matt 27:53, 28:11), are noted. Taken together, the above suggests that for Matthew, the death and resurrection of Jesus are one single event, unlike Mark, who narrates as if there are two independent events. The study must account for Matthew’s redaction and suggest possible theological interpretations.
The above two examples provide a glimpse of the gymnastics of this study. It is hoped that, in the end, a statement on Matthew’s relationship with the Gospel of Mark will be provided, leading to a statement as to whether Matthew plagiarised Mark, if he intended to supplant his primary source, and what becomes of Mark after a new improved edition of the life of Jesus is in place.

Primary Texts

Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature
Novum Testamentum Graece
Synopsis Quatuor Evangeliorum

(George Njeri)

33-portrait-njeriGeorge Njeri, aus Kenia, studiert seit 2016 an der katholisch-theologischen Fakultät der Universität Innsbruck. Im Jahr 2018 schloss er mit einer Lizentiatsarbeit (Titel: Surprise on the Day of Judgement in Matt 25:31-46 and in 1 Enoch 1-36) ab. George ist ein Ordensmann und gehört der Gesellschaft Jesus (den Jesuiten) an. 2018 wurde er zum Priester geweiht. Er arbeitet auch als Seelsorger in der Jesuitenkirche am Karl-Rahner-Platz. In seinem Dissertationsprojekt im Bereich der Passion und Auferstehung Jesu befasst er sich mit Matthäus Überarbeitung des Markusevangeliums. Die zentrale Frage, mit der er sich befasst, lautet: In welchem Verhältnis steht die Geschichte der Passion und Auferstehung bei Matthäus zum Evangelium von Markus?

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