We can begin with two pieces of information provided by Papias, an early second century Christian bishop from Hierapolis in the Roman province of Asia. According to Eusebius, Papias wrote five books containing the recollections of the Christian elders he had known. While these five books have not survived, we have a couple of fragments preserved by Eusebius in his Ecclesiastical History. One of Papias’ sources was the man known to history as John the Elder. The Elder told Papias what he knew about the writing of Mark’s Gospel. He said that it was based on Peter’s preaching. In this regard, Papias is reported to have written:
The Elder also said this, “Mark, being the interpreter of Peter, whatsoever he remembered he wrote accurately, but not however in the relative order that these things were spoken or done by our Lord. For he neither heard the Lord, nor followed him, but afterwards, as I said, he was with Peter, who did not make a complete (or ordered) account of the Lord’s logia, but taught according to the needs (of the people). So Mark did nothing wrong in writing down single matters as he remembered them, for he gave special attention to one thing, of not passing by anything he heard, and not falsifying anything in these matters.”
It is possible that John the Elder had in mind Mark’s ordering of the early stories in his gospel. In this context, one can imagine Peter putting together a number of stories in order to show rising resistance to Jesus’ authority. These are found in Mark 1:35-3:6, in this order:
- First preaching tour in Galilee – everyone is seeking for Jesus
- Jesus cleanses a leper – leper commanded to show himself to the priest
- A paralytic healed, but also forgiven – the scribes object to the forgiveness
- Levi the tax collector is called – the scribes complain that Jesus eats with sinners
- Jesus explains that his disciples do not fast because he is the bridegroom, thus indicating his claim to a special status
- The disciples eat on the Sabbath, and Jesus explains that he is lord of the Sabbath
- Jesus heals on the Sabbath – the Pharisees and the Herodians plot his death
Mark was a very frequently used Roman name, being one of about fifteen personal names (praenomen) used to identify a male child within a given Roman family. Nevertheless, there is no reason to doubt that the traditional view that Papias was referring to the author of our second gospel, since the early Church was not flooded with men known by these names. (We have a Gaius, Lucius, Publius and Titus.) Indeed, the Mark of the New Testament appears to have played a central role in the early Church, and even the fact that he was invited on the first missionary journey with Barnabas and Paul can be joined together with the Elder’s testimony to suggest that Mark had already acquired a good knowledge of the stories about Jesus from Peter, thus giving him a specific role in this missionary enterprise, and reason for his inclusion beyond his personal connection with Barnabas.
Gospel of Matthew
Papias’ report concerning Matthew’s logia is much briefer than his report on Mark's work:
Matthew set in order (wrote a treatise consisting of) the logia (“divine oracles”) in the Hebrew dialect, and each interpreted them, as he was able.
A contrast is suggested here between Matthew’s logia, which were said to be “set in order,” and Mark’s work, which was not necessarily set in order. Since the Gospel of Mark does not seem to be particularly “out of order,” one imagines that John the Elder’s comment was in relation to a specific problem, or problems, that had been raised in relation to the Gospel of Mark, as already explained.
However, the textual evidence shows that our canonical Gospel of Matthew is not Matthew's logia. The Gospel of Matthew has one main clear indication that it was not originally written in the Hebrew dialect (Aramaic as it is called in modern linguistics), namely the extensive borrowings in that work from the Greek of the Gospel of Mark. Yet it is possible to "discover" Matthew's logia by a process that begins by removing the elements in the Gospel of Matthew that have been clearly taken from the Gospel of Mark.
The parts of the Gospel of Matthew that have been taken from the Gospel of Mark can be relatively easily identified. For example, if we compare Mark 14:26-31 with Matt. 26:30-35, we can see that one account has been borrowed from the other, namely the writer of the Gospel of Matthew has borrowed from the Gospel of Mark. This degree of borrowing can be seen in the citation given below, with the text that has not been carried over to the Gospel of Matthew being highlighted, and the bracketed items being the text that is only found in the Gospel of Matthew.
Mark 14:26: Singing a hymn, they went out into the Mount of Olives. 27 And Jesus said to them, “All will be scandalised [in this night], as it is written, ‘Strike the shepherd, and the sheep [of the shepherd] will be scattered.’ 28 But after I am raised up, I will go before you into Galilee.”
29 Peter said to him, “Even if all are scandalised, I will not [I will never be scandalised].”
30 Jesus said to him, “Truly I say to you, “Today, this night, before the rooster crows twice, you will deny me three times.”
31 But he [Peter] said vehemently, “Even if it is necessary for me to die with you, I will not deny you.” In like manner [Similarly], said all the others [the disciples].
Even though there are some differences, the verbal identity between these two works is very striking. This degree of similarity can only be attributed to borrowing, since two different authors will never use such similar words to describe the same event. Indeed, every telling of an anecodote from the viewpoint of an eyewitness involves some condensing of the account of the original experience, and each teller of the story will emphasise those things that he or she considers most important, and will use the word order they consider to represent the most appropriate way of expressing his or her own ideas.
For example, we can look at the account of the same event in the Gospel of Luke, which was based on similar material, but also has significant differences, showing that Luke had access to another report, beyond that found in the Gospel of Mark:
Luke 22:31: “Simon, Simon, behold Satan has earnestly entreated to sift you as wheat [Amos 9:9], 32 but I requested concerning you that your faith will not fail, and when you have turned, support your brothers.”
33 He said to him, “Lord, I am prepared to go with you to prison and to death.”
34 But he said, “I tell you, Peter, a rooster will not crow today before you will deny knowing me three times.”
Here we can see a normal situation, of different accounts that we can consider were based on two eyewitness reports, wherein the actual details are quite different. Even though it appears that each eyewitness has drawn out the elements that he or she wanted to highlight, yet the same overall meaning is carried forward in both reports.
Since we can establish that the Gospel of Matthew includes elements that have been drawn from the Gospel of Mark, it becomes feasible to remove those elements. After doing this, we discover that we are left with a coherent account. Therefore, it is not a giant logical leap to conclude that the Gospel of Matthew was primarily based upon joining together two works. One of these we know to have been the Gospel of Mark; based on Papias' report we can deduce that the other work was Matthew's logia, a work originally written in Aramaic, but later translated into Greek, and then incorporated in the Gospel of Matthew.
Sometimes both Matthew's logia and the Gospel of Mark discussed the same topic. Where this happened, it appears that he writer of the Gospel of Matthew has interleaved the respective contributions. This results in the same things being said twice, but in a different form. For example, Jesus’ taught that whoever receives him receives the one who sent him (Matt. 10:40-41). It is likely that Matthew’s logia originally said:
Matt. 10:40 “The one who receives you receives me, and the one who receives me receives the one who sent me. 41 The one who receives a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and the one who receives a righteous man in the name of a righteous man will receive a righteous man’s reward.”
Adding to this, the author of the Gospel of Matthew has appended a similar teaching, found in a quite different context, from the Gospel of Mark:
Matt. 10:42 “Whoever gives a cup of cold water to drink to one of these little ones only in the name of a disciple, truly I tell you, on no account will that person lose his or her reward.”
In the Gospel of Matthew there is no indication of who is meant by “these little ones” (leaving this reference up in the air) but the meaning can be found in the Gospel of Mark, with this verses apparently having been built up from two verses from the one dialogue in that gospel, dealing with the question, “Who is the greatest?”
Mark 9:37 “Whoever receives one of such children [he had a child in his arms] in my name receives me.”
Mark 9:41 “Whoever gives you a cup of water on account of your name, that you are of me, truly, I tell you that in no way will that person lose his or her reward.”
There are many examples of this kind of borrowing and interleaving, so that we can conclude that the author of the Gospel of Matthew has attempted to include as much as possible in his work, within the physical constraints of the maximum practical length of a papyrus scroll. This author appears to have been reluctant to omit anything that he could profitably include from either source. This is why the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Mark are so alike, combining two works and condensing and bringing the majority of the Gospel of Mark over into it, and one assumes including even more of the substance of Matthew’s logia.
On the basis of the argument presented here, the Gospel of Matthew can be considered to be a harmony, primarily consisting of Matthew’s logia and the Gospel of Mark. This is particularly interesting from a historical perspective because it means that we can independently date Matthew's logia. Based upon on its apparent citation in 1 Thess. and 2 Thess., we can date it to AD ca. 50, which makes it one of the earliest New Testament works, and very early account of Jesus' teachings.