Lukan Priority?

Picking up on the last post concerning claims about an original Semitic Gospel narrative, I want to examine one facet of the related “Synoptic Problem,” the apparent textual relationship between Matthew, Mark, and Luke.

Regarding the Semitic Gospel, most ancient testimony to its existence seems to link it to Matthew. By contrast, some modern scholars have noted that the quotations of the Gospel of the Nazoreans—a now-lost text sometimes taken to be the closest thing to that supposed Semitic Gospel—actually resemble Luke more closely than Matthew, and this brings us right into the thick of the Synoptic Problem.

Basically, the standard solution to the Synoptic Problem posits that Matthew and Luke both came from combining Mark and another source mostly composed of Jesus’ sayings called “Q” (from German Quelle, “source”).

In addition to Mark and Q, Matthew and Luke each bring in their own special material in certain places, labeled M and L respectively. Some observers have noted, for instance, that Luke’s unique L material closely parallels Aramaic literature from the Dead Sea Scrolls.[1] So far, so good.

Critics of this standard reconstruction will point out, however, that (much like the Semitic Gospel) we don’t actually have the Q document—this despite the fact that entire books have been written presupposing its existence and history. Of what we have, the closest thing to Q is probably the later Gospel of Thomas, which basically amounts to a string of sayings and aphorisms attributed to Jesus. So that’s one problem for the standard Two-Source Hypothesis.

A second and very different snag: Matthew and Luke sometimes seem to offer a closer version of each other’s text/narrative than Mark, even where there is common material between all three. Assuming Markan Priority, we’d expect Mark to be somewhere between Matthew and Luke in such passages. That the longer two synoptics resemble each other in some places more than they resemble Mark suggests they are not both relying on Mark as the common source. This phenomenon is sometimes called the “minor agreements” of Matthew and Luke, but some scholars complain that these minor agreements are anything but “minor.”

This isn’t the only inconvenient fact pattern for Markan Priority. For an example of a different kind of hurdle, look at these three passages:

But Peter put them all outside, and knelt down and prayed; and turning to the body he said, “Tabitha, arise.” And she opened her eyes, and when she saw Peter she sat up. (Acts 9:40 ESV)

And they laughed at him, knowing that she was dead. But taking her by the hand he called, saying, “Child, arise.” And her spirit returned, and she got up at once. And he directed that something should be given her to eat. (Luke 8:53–5 ESV)

And they laughed at him. But he put them all outside and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him and went in where the child was. Taking her by the hand he said to her, “Talitha cumi,” which means, “Little girl, I say to you, arise.” And immediately the girl got up and began walking (for she was twelve years of age), and they were immediately overcome with amazement. (Mark 5:40­–2 ESV)

Nota bene: both tradition and modern scholarly opinion has the author of Luke and the author of Acts to the be the same person. In the gospel passages quoted above, Mark 5 and Luke 8 are obviously telling the same story. Meanwhile, even most conservative scholars are going to see more than a coincidence here in how closely the language of Acts 9 parallels the synoptic story of Jesus raising Jairus’ daughter. That is to say, it looks very much as if there’s a lot of literary mimicking. Now, going off Markan Priority, we’d likely assume something like this: Acts 9 is mimicking Luke 8, which is mimicking Mark 5. Surely, that’s what’s happening, right?

Wrong. In Greek and English alike, the structure and verbiage of Acts and Mark are actually slightly closer than Acts and Luke (e.g., “putting them outside”), despite the fact that the latter pair were written by the very same author. Thus, if the point for the author of Luke-Acts was to draw a sharp parallel between Jesus and Peter, one would think he’d have made the juxtaposition using his own gospel, not Mark. This resonance between Acts and Mark is even more obvious in the Peshitta, the later Syriac (i.e., Syrian dialect of Aramaic) translation of the Bible. How would Peter have said, “Tabitha, get up” in Aramaic? Tabitha qumi (ܛܒܝܬܐ ܩܘܡܝ), which is only one letter off from what Jesus says in Mark 5: Talitha qumi (ܛܠܝܬܐ ܩܘܡܝ). These close similarities are unlikely to be an accident; again, one source is clearly playing off another. With Markan Priority, we would expect this resonance to include the very same story of raising the girl in Luke, but the Lukan redactor would seem to have saved this nearly verbatim quotation from Mark for a much later albeit similar story.

Without delving into his whole thesis, this and other difficult-to-explain editorial decisions led Robert Lindsey to posit Lukan Priority: Mark knew Luke’s work and not the other way around.[2] In his words, Mark was the sort of reader-editor “who can survey a passage or series of passages, note all kinds of words that are the same or nearly the same in meaning or form, find connections between them which most people would today find far-fetched, and then re-build and re-design a basic story with the help of these expressions chosen from distant contexts.”[3] In the example above with resurrection scenes, then, Mark might have been playing a kind of midrashic game with Aramaic, reading Peter’s language back onto Jesus’ story. Lindsey came to this thesis back in the early 1970s, while producing a new Hebrew translation of the New Testament, where his interest was piqued after finding Luke translated into Hebrew much more easily than Mark. He explains his theories in his very lengthy introduction to that translation, which is worth reading for those interested in this topic. From what I gather, however, it remains very much a minority position.

The Priority of Luke: An Exposition of Robert Lindsey's Solution to the  Synoptic Problem | Online
A rough sketch of Lindsey’s theory

  1. George J. Brooke, “Aramaic Traditions from the Qumran Caves and the Palestinian Sources for Part of Luke’s Special Material,” in Vision, Narrative, and Wisdom in the Aramaic Texts from Qumran, ed. Melissa Sayyad Bach et al., vol. 131, Essays from the Copenhagen Symposium, 14–15 August, 2017 (Brill, 2020), 203–20.
  2. Robert Lisle Lindsey, A Hebrew Translation of the Gospel of Mark, Second Edition (Jerusalem: Dugith Publishers, 1973).
  3. Lindsay, 36.


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