The Gospel Writers Caught Copying their Homework Assignment

Like most people reared in the Christian tradition, I spent my formative years thinking that the New Testament gospels were four independent written accounts of the events surrounding the ministry and crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. I was mistaken. Contrary to popular tradition, the gospels were not written independent of each other. The evidence points to there being a direct literary connection between the gospels, in particular the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke – known collectively as the Synoptic Gospels. The consensus scholarly view, known as “Markan priority,” is that Mark’s gospel was written first, and Matthew and Luke heavily copied from Mark (indeed rewriting Mark’s gospel) to create their own versions. I mean that literally – the evangelists who wrote the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke each had a copy of Mark’s gospel in front of them and cribbed from it as they composed their own texts. Furthermore, I intend to demonstrate this in the article. I know, I know… a big claim. But stay tuned.

Before delving into those details, take note of some interesting tidbits about the textual relationship between the Synoptic gospels. Approximately 610 of Mark’s 678 total verses appear in Matthew and Luke, often with the exact same vocabulary, wording sequence, and grammar. In fact, there are more than 30 separate passages from Mark’s gospel that appear as word-for-word strings in Matthew and/or Luke. This is peculiar because unlike English, word order is not essential in Greek grammar, so there’s no grammatical rule necessitating the verbatim identical Greek prose observed between those three gospels.

Adding to the peculiarity is that Matthew and Luke often differ from each other in sequence or in narrative arrangement – but only when it concerns subject matter that is absent from Mark’s gospel. When Matthew and Luke convey a story that is not in common with Mark, they typically disagree with each other. But whenever Matthew and Luke are in agreement on narrative arrangement and sequence, then it is ALWAYS when they are in agreement with Mark as well. Similarly, Matthew and Luke never agree against Mark on sequence and narrative arrangement. To put this another way: in the narratives common to all three, Matthew and Luke agree only when they agree with Mark; when they both diverge from Mark, they both go in different directions from each other as well – suggesting that Mark served as a common literary source that both Matthew and Luke relied on. 

There are more than a dozen other compelling reasons that combine to show that Matthew and Luke copied from Mark. But I will focus only on one here – the phenomenon of “editorial fatigue” observed in the gospels.

So, what is editorial fatigue? It’s a term coined by New Testament scholar Mark Goodacre and is a phenomenon that we’re all familiar with. According to Goodacre, “editorial fatigue will inevitably occur when a writer is heavily dependent on another’s work. In cribbing the same story from his predecessor, a writer makes changes in the early stages which he is unable to sustain throughout. Similar to continuity errors from clumsy edits in movies and television, examples of fatigue will be unconscious mistakes, small errors of detail which naturally arise in the course of constructing a literary (as opposed to a historical) narrative. They are interesting because they can betray an author’s hand, most particularly in revealing to us the identity of his sources.”[1] Indeed, well-trained teachers and professors are adept in noticing editorial fatigue for purposes of identifying plagiarism or cheating.

The clearest way to explain the phenomenon is to provide an illustration. Let’s consider the popular story of the feeding of the five thousand (see the chart below).

Mark’s account of the feeding of the five thousand is internally consistent. On the other hand, Luke’s version is not internally consistent. The contextual continuity in Luke breaks down because of his editorial lapses when cribbing from Mark, as I will illustrate. The author of Luke is copying from Mark’s gospel as a template, but Luke deviates from Mark at the beginning of the story to place Jesus and the twelve in the bustling town of Bethsaida – instead of a deserted land in the middle of nowhere (which is the context in Mark).

Luke loses track of the editorial changes he made to the location of Mark’s story. He apparently forgot that he changed the location to the new setting of Bethsaida. So, when Luke’s author resumed copying Mark’s version, using nearly the exact same Greek words and phrasing as Mark, Luke had a brain fart and inadvertently retained Mark’s original context of being in a desolate or deserted place (see Luke 9:12). By the way, the Greek word used by both Mark and Luke is erémos (ἔρημος), which means “desolate” or “wilderness” or “deserted place.” It is the same word the gospels use in reference to Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness prior to his ministry (Mark 1:13; Matt. 4:1), as well as the word used to describe the reclusive whereabouts of the wilderness-dwelling John the Baptist.

Bethsaida, however, was a significant boating and fishing hub near where the mouth of the Jordan River flowed into the Sea of Galilee (note: Bethsaida translates as “house of fish”). This city was anything but desolate or wilderness. Bethsaida was close to the shore and was a highly developed and expanded town under Philip the tetrarch, who died in 34 CE.  During the time of Jesus, Bethsaida was comparable in size to other prominent lakeside towns such as Capernaum and Tiberius. Ancient Jewish historian Josephus reports that Philip was so taken with Bethsaida that he dubbed the town “Julias” after the daughter of the Roman emperor and designated the location as his future burial site. Bethsaida was at its height at exactly the time Jesus is reported to have been engaged in ministry. Bethsaida was not some obscure Podunk hamlet, let alone a desolate wilderness. Given that the town was a well-traveled fishing haven (literally named “house of fish”), finding food there would not have been a concern, and there would be no imperative for the disciples to send the people away to trek for towns/villages in pursuit of something to eat.  This is what we call a “plot hole” in literary narratives.

For Luke to repeat Mark’s statement that the disciples wanted to send the crowd away to the surrounding towns and villages due to them being in “a desolate place” at a late hour makes no sense whatsoever in Luke – as Bethsaida was anything but a deserted land. However, this point of re-emphasis in Mark’s version makes perfect sense in context, as Mark introduces the narrative by pointing out that that Jesus and the crowd were in desolate place to begin with.

This is smoking gun evidence that: 1) Mark was a source text that Luke utilized; 2) Luke indeed copied and cribbed from Mark’s gospel; 3) Luke altered the narrative details in Mark to instead locate the events of the feeding of the multitude at Bethsaida; and 4) Luke lost his narrative continuity and accidentally kept some of the residual details from Mark’s original context, whereas those residual details did not fit with the changes that Luke made to his version of the story (thus betraying Luke’s hand).

If you have worked with form documents or templates at your job, then without doubt you have encountered this yourself. Rather than create an independent document from scratch, you instead find a pre-created form to utilize. Now you can simply make editorial changes to meet your personal/professional objectives (e.g., replacing client or party names, making pricing adjustments, changing product names, etc). However, you might occasionally overlook some things in the form document and accidentally fail to catch the prior client’s name once or twice – so it shows up in the new document you created intended for a different recipient. Or, you might have inadvertently missed the previous pricing or product names from the form you’re relying on. Because of editing lapses in the moment, most times we won’t even notice the error until after the fact (which is why having a proofreader is important). This editing lapse is precisely what is observed with Luke’s copying from Mark.

There are numerous other examples of editorial fatigue in the Synoptic gospels. Most require in depth side-by-side comparison. Perhaps I can give treatment to them another time. But for the sake of simple illustration, consider this brief example from Matthew and Mark.  In Matthew 24:15, he forgot to take out the parenthetical sidenote “(let the reader understand)” of Mark 13:14, whereas Luke (21:20) had the presence of mind this time to remove it. Look up these verses yourself; it kind of makes you chuckle to see it.

When we tell a story independently, we each have our own way of conveying the intended message. When Mark makes the parenthetical remark “(let the reader understand)” in Mk. 13:14, he is adding his personal sidebar to the reader – it’s an aside from the content or purported statements being quoted in the underlying story. Parenthetical material are things clearly written from the author’s personal voice and not imbedded in the story itself. Thus, when we see the exact same parenthetical note appear in the exact same place in multiple gospels, Occam’s Razor strongly suggests that one author was copying the other. All told, it is quite the untenable view to hold that the three Synoptic gospels were composed completely independent from each other.

We are just skimming the surface on this fascinating topic. The better our understanding of the processes and manner in which the New Testament authors composed their texts, the better our overall grasp of the attendant content. More to come!


[1] Mark Goodacre, “Fatigue in the Synoptics”, The Journal of New Testament Studies 44 (1998), p. 46.

2 thoughts on “The Gospel Writers Caught Copying their Homework Assignment

  1. Hmm. “Caught copying their homework assignment” and “cribbing from” make for good attention-grabbing writing. It is much more interesting that plain old “Matthew and Luke used Mark as one of their sources”.
    As for the editorial fatigue, Mark Goodacre is an excellent scholar. There is lots to be learnt by listening to his NTPod podcasts, particularly the ones before there was a bit of a hiatus. I thoroughly recommend them.
    However, I am not (yet?) convinced by his claims of editorial fatigue. He (and you) may be right, but I don’t think it is proven, at least from the two examples you gave, Doston. The one about Bethsaida is plausibly otherwise explained as Bethsaida being given as just Matthew being more specific about which part of Galilee (or adjoining areas) the feeding of the 5000 men took place at. When someone asks me where I was born, I normally say, “Norwich”, but it was actually a shortish distance away. Matthew, himself, says there were surrounding villages, so he was not intending to say that they were in a desert. I gather that the actual location of Bethsaida is not definitely known, so I would hesitate to claim that there is no location that fits both Matthew’s and Mark’s account.
    As for your second example, your claim about “let the reader understand”, just doesn’t follow.

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    1. Thanks for your comment. I have several thoughts in response numbered 1 thru 6. Go straight to #6 to definitively end the debate. Or, you can read my response in its entirety to address all your points. (as an aside, the analysis regarding the feeding of the five thousand is between Mark and Luke, not Matthew)

      1. The title of my article was a personal choice to convey observations about the compositional process of the gospels in a way that is colloquially relatable. Yes, the title is a bit tongue in cheek. But, that’s fine.

      2. While we don’t know ‘everything’ about Bethsaida’s precise location, we have sufficient information from ancient sources to confidently conclude that Bethsaida was a significant Galilean municipality that was important to the economy of the area, and that it was noticeable to and appreciably invested in by the tetrarch rulers. So, even if Jesus and the twelve were “in the area” of Bethsaida (i.e., the events took place close enough to Bethsaida for Luke to associate their whereabouts with its geographical proximity), this would not be someplace to describe as “desolate” or “remote” or “wilderness” or “deserted.” Additionally, why not just send the people into Bethsaida right there for food, as opposed to sending the folks out to the countryside and other villages to find something to eat? That makes no sense in context. But it’s perfectly explained if Luke gaffed in his editing of Mark’s story.

      3. Despite there being some who question the exact location of Bethsaida, we have mounting information showing that Bethsaida was in very close geographic proximity to two other main Galilean towns – Capernaum and Chorazin. Thus, it appears that Bethsaida was situated in a cluster of well-known and traveled Galilean municipalities (not someplace to be described as desolate – even if only referring generally to the area). More on that in a moment.

      4. In separate events occurring days before the feeding of the five thousand, Mark 6:1 says Jesus went to his hometown (Nazareth). Luke 9 uses similar vocabulary and grammar to say Jesus and the twelve went to Bethsaida before feeding the multitude. Also, the Greek has a word to convey being geographically “near” someplace. That word is ἐγγύς or “eggus.” Luke himself uses it (e.g., Luke 19:11 “because he was near Jerusalem”; Acts 9:38 “since Lydia was nearby Joppa”). There are numerous other examples in the gospels and New Testament intended to convey being geographically near or around a place (but not within said place), and the word ἐγγύς is used. Based on the structure and vocabulary of Luke 9, and given other examples throughout the gospels and New Testament—it makes perfect sense to conclude that Luke is saying that the group “CAME TO BETHSAIDA”. Any other rendering is less parsimonious. Luke says that Jesus and the apostles went by boat to Bethsaida. Period.

      5. Adding to the points above, our sources and emerging archeological info indicate that Bethsaida was situated very close to the shore of the Sea of Galilee (approx 1 mile from shore). So, if Jesus and the disciples went by boat to their destination, and after exiting their boat the group stopped short of entering Bethsaida, the town was still just a rock’s throw from the lake’s shore. Again, not at all consistent with “desolate” or “wilderness” or “remote”.

      6. If you still insist that Luke means the group took a boat to a place “near” Bethsaida, as opposed to them going to Bethsaida, then this actually creates more problems than it resolves. A closer look at Mark’s narrative up ends this whole debate. In conclusion of the miracle of the fish & loaves, Mark 6:44-46 states, “And those who ate the loaves were five thousand men. Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go before him to the OTHER SIDE TO BETHSAIDA, while he dismissed the crowd. And after he had taken leave of them, he went up on the mountain to pray.”

      Mark is unambiguous here. The miracle could not have happened either in or even near Bethsaida because, as Mark points out, the town was on the clear other side of the Sea of Galilee — which was their destination after these events. So, if Luke is correct, then Mark is dead wrong. But if Mark is more correct, then Luke is dead wrong. Either way a contradiction in narrative. As it happens, Mark’s version of the story is more internally consistent. The parts of the lake opposite of Bethsaida are desolate and deserted, and more mountainous (note: Bethsaida was on a fertile plain).

      All of this information combines to bolster my original argument that Luke cribbed his material from Mark, made geographical changes whether intentionally or unintentional, then lapsed into editorial fatigue when his copied material created internal inconsistencies within his reworked narrative. As mentioned in the blog, there are numerous other examples — just chose the Feeding of the Five Thousand as a solid case study.

      What about my remarks on “let the reader understand” don’t you follow?

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