An alternative to Markan priority

By Dennis Barton

There has been a long debate regarding the order in which the Gospels were written and, while the Markan priority theory is popular, it is not proven. Bernard Orchard OSB was firmly opposed to it. He was the general editor of A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture (1953), a founder member of the World Catholic Biblical Federation and editor of the Catholic edition of the RSV bible. But his greatest achievement was to discover why Mark’s Gospel was written in poor grammatical Greek and thereby offer an alternative to the Markan theory. Due to his death in 2006, Orchard’s findings were not developed and publicised at the time. But now known as The Clementine Gospel Tradition, (TCGT), they have survived and may be summarised as follows:-

The Apostle Matthew wrote his Gospel for Jewish Christians to read at the breaking of bread.  It illustrated the fulfilment of the Jewish prophesies and was in thematic form. Matthew or a colleague translated it into Greek. Luke then wrote his Gospel in Greek for the Gentiles. It was in chronological form. Not being an eyewitness companion of Jesus, he needed an Apostle to endorse what he had written. So when Luke arrived in Rome he asked Peter to do this. Peter agreed to give a public talk (or series of talks) in which he conflated verses from Matthew and Luke, where they were parallel to one another. In this manner Peter endorsed Luke’s Gospel, while Peter’s secretary, Mark, used Greek shorthand to record Peter’s words. Not being a native Greek speaker or an academic, Peter spoke in koine (common) Greek. So Mark’s shorthand recorded Peter’s poor grammatical Greek and his memory slips regarding Scripture. At first Orchard presumed shorthand had been used. And in 1991 the Baptist historian, E. R. Richards, confirmed that Greek shorthand was frequently used at that time to record public meetings.

Orchard’s explanation of why Mark’s Gospel was in poor Greek challenged the basic presumptions and claims of the Markan priority theory. But any theory claiming to show how the Gospels were produced should be consistent with the information provided by the earliest historians. The disparity of the Markan theory with the historical evidence is one reason why it has not been universally accepted. So let us compare Orchard’s scenario with the historical records.                                    

Eusibius (c 260-340) was the main historian of early Christianity. He reproduced extracts from The Outlines by Clement of Alexandria (c 150-215). Clement had been the senior lay teacher in the diocese of Alexandria established by Mark.     He wrote:

To such [a degree] did the flame of true piety illuminate the minds of Peter’s hearers that not being satisfied adequately with having just one hearing, … begged Mark …whose Gospel it is reputed to be …to bequeath to them also in writing the record of the teaching handed to them by word, nor did they let up before convincing the man; and by this means they became the cause of the Gospel writing that is said to be ‘according to Mark’.

And they say that when the Apostle learnt what had happened, through the revelation of the Spirit being pleased with the enthusiasm of the men, he authorised the writing for reading in the churches.

Eusebius added that bishop Papias (c 60 – 139) of Hierapolis bore joint witness with Clement to this.   Eusebius continued:

Clement states a tradition of the earliest presbyters about the order of the gospels, and it has this form. He used to say that the earlier-written of the gospels were those containing the genealogies, but that according to Mark had this formation. Peter having preached the Word publicly in Rome and proclaimed the Gospel by the Spirit, the many who had been present begged Mark, as one who had followed him for a long time and recollected what had been said, to record what had been spoken; and he did so, handing over the Gospel to those who had asked for it. And when Peter had got to know about it, he exerted no pressure either to forbid it or to promote it. [Emphasis added]

These quotations show two editions were issued, one quickly for Peter’s audience and a second for the churches. Archaeologists have found copies of two editions, which are distinguished from each other by one omitting the last 12 verses. Scholars have been puzzled by these verses because they are in a different style from the rest. But when we view them as Peter’s answers to questions posed at the end of his talk, they come to life.

Let us look at two examples. As the ‘he’ in verse 9, of chapter 16 of Mark’s Gospel, does not refer to the young man in the previous verse 5, one would have expected to read ‘Jesus’. But if the name of the Lord had been mentioned in a question, the use of ‘he’ would be correct. Matthew 28.1-10 says Mary Magdalene was the first to see Jesus, and Luke 24.10 confirmed this. But Luke 8.2 also mentioned a woman with the same or similar name. It was a Mary who is called Magdalene, who had been possessed by seven devils.  Someone asked if this was the same person. Peter replies that it was, and confirms Luke’s statement that it was she who told the Apostles (Mark 16. 9-10).

In Adumbrationes, an earlier work, Clement had commented on 1 Peter 5.13:

Mark, the follower of Peter, while Peter was publicly preaching the Gospel in Rome before some of Caesar’s knights and producing many testimonies about Christ, being begged by them that they should be able to record what was said, wrote the Gospel which is called the Gospel of Mark from the things said by Peter – just as Luke is recognised as the pen that wrote the Acts of the Apostles and as the translator of the Letter of Paul to the Hebrews.

As Mark was not composing a Gospel, but making an exact record in shorthand of Peter’s words, he didn’t correct Peter’s memory slips regarding Scripture. (Mark 1.2 and 2.26). In the following passage by Papias we learn that it was normal, [earlier in Palestine,] for Mark not to edit Peter’s words.

And this the Presbyter used to say: Mark, being the recorder of Peter, wrote accurately but not in order whatever he [Peter] remembered of the things said or done by the Lord; for he [Mark] had neither heard the Lord not followed him, but later, as I said, Peter, who used to make the teachings according to the chreias, [maxims and anecdotes] but not making as it were a systematic composition of the Lord’s sayings; so that Mark did not err at all when he wrote certain things just as he [Peter] had recalled. For he had but one intention, not to leave out anything he had heard, nor falsify anything in them. … Matthew composed the sayings in Hebrew style, but each recorded them as he was able’.

Papias is defending Mark’s shorthand text and comparing it to difficulties found in the reports of Matthew’s preaching. Presumably because Aramaic shorthand was less developed.

From the above extracts we learn that the Synoptic Gospels were composed in the Matthew – Luke – Mark order, while being published in the Matthew – Mark(1) – Luke – Mark(2) order.  This would lead to libraries cataloguing them in varying sequences and so causing preachers to quote from them in different orders. For example, while Clement of Alexandria spoke of them in order of composition, his student Origen referred to them in their order of publication.

So Orchard’s scenario is consistent with that recorded by the ancient historians. In the 4th century, Pope Damasus commissioned Jerome to translate the bible into Latin and to standardise its usage. In the West the Gospels were usually listed according to honour: Matthew- John- Mark – Luke. But in the East Jerome found the order of Matthew- Mark – Luke more popular and to standardise usage he adopted that order. But Jerome didn’t claim it was the order in which the Gospels had been composed. In his book On Illustrious Men, he described Luke’s life before that of Mark. He also accepted that.

Mark wrote a short gospel at the request of the brethren in Rome embodying what he had heard Peter tell and Peter approved it to be issued to the church.

It is of interest that some Eastern churches still use the Matthew-Luke-Mark sequence in their liturgical year. Jerome said he had seen Hebrew copies of Matthew’s Gospel at Caesarea and Beraen. He tells us that the Jewish philosopher, Philo, described Mark as being learned. This contradicts those who claim Mark was unable to write good Greek. Augustine of Hippo, writing at same time as Jerome, reported in his first book that the order of dignity was, Matthew-John-Mark-Luke (the first three involved an Apostle). He then added, ‘it was said the order of writing’ had been: Matthew- Mark-Luke- John. This could have been the order they had been received and filed in the library at Hippo. However, in verses 10 and 11 of his fourth book, he wrote regarding Mark’s theology:         

Mark …either … goes with Matthew … or more probably goes in step with both. Or, although he agrees with Matthew in many things, yet in some things he agrees more with Luke.

With regard to Matthew being written first, The Clementine Gospel Tradition (TCGT) is in agreement with the unanimous witness of all the ancient historians. These include Papias, Justin, Irenaeus, Clement, Tertullian, Origen, the authors of the Anti-Marconite Prologues, Eusibius, Jerome, Augustine, the authors of the Monachian and Anti-Macionite prologues and the author of the Maratorian canon.

Papias was born ten years before the destruction of Jerusalem and lived as a priest and bishop throughout the period.  As bishop of Hieropolis, he was able to visit Rome and is likely to have met some of those who were present at Peter’s talk.

Critics have claimed it is not possible to translate Matthew’s Greek gospel back into Hebrew. Claude Tresmontant, who spent his life studying and translating Hebrew, wrote: The Hebrew Christ (English edition 1989). He explained how Hebrew used word-play as an aid to memorisation. In Matthew 3.9 we read ‘stones’ and ‘children’ which has no particular significance, yet in Hebrew it was: ha-banim and  banim. He showed how dots and dashes were used as aids to pronunciation and how these caused errors when being translated into Greek. Jean Carmignac spent 21 years translating the Book of Chronicles and the Dead Sea Scrolls.  His book The Birth of the Synoptics (1987) was translated by Mgr Michael J. Wrenn. He fully supported Tresmontant’s judgement that a Hebrew gospel was the source of our Greek gospel.

The development of The Clementine Gospel Tradition (TCGT) was due to the efforts of researchers with a wide range of backgrounds. It was Henry Owen, an Anglican vicar, who in 1754 proposed that Luke wrote before Mark.    John Chapman and Abbott Butler were both educated as Anglican clergy. William R. Farmer was a Methodist professor and through his book The Synoptic Problem (1976) he became the main proponent of the Matthew-Luke-Mark sequence in America. Harold Riley, an Anglican, and Bernard Orchard, a Catholic, co-authored The Order of the Synoptics (1987). Riley illustrated, with critical analysis and a Synoptic chart, how Peter quoted from Matthew and Luke in a Zigzag manner. He explained how Peter in his talk always went forward, never winding back the scrolls, and the significance of this. Much of Orchard’s contribution concerned the historical evidence.

Providentissimus Deus, issued by Pope Leo XIII in 1893 emphasised the importance of the historical evidence, but his mind was not completely closed to internal evidence. He established research institutions and the Pontifical Biblical Commission (PBC) to provide guidance. These were positive moves but, under his successor Pius X, the PBC in June 1912 pre-judged the findings of research by stating it was not permissible to hold the opinion that Luke’s Gospel was written before that of Mark. This stifled research into the theory of Owen, which would eventually solve the problem. Following the Vatican Council, the PBC was changed into a consultative body. People like Orchard became free to pursue the line of research which would eventually lead to the re-emergence of Owen’s theory as The Clementine Gospel Tradition. This tradition is consistent with paragraphs 7 and 8 of Dei Verbum. By speaking of ‘Apostles’ and ‘other apostolic men’, they make a distinction between eyewitnesses and those using secondary sources. This challenges the Markan priority assertion that all the authors of the synoptic gospels depended on secondary sources.

Bible experts have spent a century trying to solve the synoptic problem and recreating a supposed lost ‘Q’ document. Yet these difficulties, together with the presumption that Mark sat in a quiet office writing a gospel, were the creation of the Markan priority theory itself. What was needed was the discovery of why Mark’s gospel contained ‘poor’ Greek.

The Clementine Gospel Tradition resonates with modern internal analysis, the records of the ancient historians, Pope Leo XIII, Dei Verbum and Verbum Dei. Fuller information and referencing, concerning The Clementine Gospel Tradition, is available at:

This article was first published in The Pastoral Review, Vol 10, issue 4, July-August, 2014.  The Pastoral Review is a bi-monthly journal of Catholic theology with an emphasis on pastoral ministry. Address of The Pastoral Review: St Mary’s University, Twickenham, TW1 4SX, U. K.

28th September 2015