An alternative trajectory for Mark, Matthew and Luke?

Was the Gospel of Mark, far from being the first basic Jesus narrative (Mack), albeit still the first of our canonical gospels, actually responsible for removing the resurrection appearance scene from an earlier version of the story? Were Matthew and Luke later attempts to harmonize the two narratives?

The first question arises from the following:

The Gospel of Peter and the works of Justin Martyr strongly indicate the existence of a gospel narrative that was both:

  1. independent of Mark (Crossan); and
  2. derived from some of the same raw materials that were also used by Mark.
Although Justin Martyr knew some form of our canonical gospels he clearly knew of other gospel narratives as well. For an overview of Justin's gospel narrative compared with canonical and noncanonical gospels check the comparative table. This table shows that Justin's passion narrative was more than a retelling of Matthew and Luke spiced occasionally with a few points from apocryphal gospels. Justin's passion account does suggest more than this: it differs in fundamental ways from the canonical version. But the point is not the contents of both Justin's account and Gospel of Peter for their own sake, but for what they indicate about the existence of a narrative that may be earlier than the one found in our canonical gospels.

Evidence for an alternative gospel narrative:

  1. Both GPeter and Justin appear to have in common a resurrection appearance to the 12 disciples. (GPt14(59-60)) hints at a coming resurrection appearance but the text breaks off; 1Ap39,50,67 DT42,53,106)
  2. Neither GPeter nor Justin Martyr appear to know anything about a Judas element in the narrative. Both speak of all 12, not just 11, being together after the resurrection of Jesus. Spong, Weeden, et al. have argued that Mark invented Judas.
  3. Both GPeter and Justin Martyr speak of Jesus being crucified by the Jews themselves, and their king Herod, albeit "under" (the jurisdiction of) Pilate. Mark has the Jews handing Jesus over to Pilate as they push for his crucifixion by the Romans, just as Mark's Jesus himself foretold (10:33). (GPt1-3(1-9) 1Ap13 DT14,32,64,97,98,85,103,104,118)
  4. Both GPeter and Justin Martyr make special reference to the nails piercing Jesus on the cross (GPt6(21) DT97,104), a point absent from Mark.
  5. Both GPeter and Justin Martyr have those mocking Jesus on the cross ridicule his claim to have been "The Son of God" (GPt3(6) DT101). Mark avoids such identifications of Jesus (the Messianic Secret), and only after Jesus dies does the centurion ambiguously say that Jesus is the Son of God. (Matthew also speaks of the crowd mocking: "If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross" and Justin writes: "He said he was the Son of God; let him come down." Yet nowhere in Matthew does Jesus tell the people that he was the Son of God. Justin appears to be drawing on a source other than Matthew for "He said he was the Son of God".)
  6. Justin Martyr speaks of the disciples fleeing from Jesus at or after his crucifixion, not beforehand, and GPeter similarly tells us that the disciples went into hiding when or after Jesus was crucified. (1Ap50 DT53 GPt7(26)). Mark and the gospels that followed him of course has the disciples flee at Jesus' arrest so that they are no longer anywhere in sight by the time of the crucifixion.
  7. Contra Mark and the other canonical gospels, both GPeter and Justin do not have any of Jesus' acquaintances with him on the cross, not even the women who later came to his tomb (GPt7,12,14(26,50,59) 1Ap50 DT53).
  8. Both GPeter and Justin appear to link the destruction of Jerusalem directly and immediately with the crucifixion of Jesus (GPt7(25) DT25,51,52). More on the possible significance of this below.
  9. Both the GPeter and Justin treat the 12 disciples with significant respect. So do Matthew, Luke and John. But if Mark came before these then it may be crucial that this gospel unrelentingly denigrates the 12 (Weeden).
Priority of this narrative?
This is not to suggest that Justin Martyr was using GPeter. That may be a possibility but there are also somewhat important differences between them. The point is that the details they have in common strongly indicate the existence of an alternative narrative of Jesus that did not mutate from Mark. Both appear to be drawing ultimately on a narrative that is in places significantly different from the one we find in Mark and that appears to have evolved separately from a source that was originally shared with Mark.

The differences found between GPeter/Justin and Mark show no evidence of being revisions of each other in the way Matthew, Luke and John appear to be revisions of Mark. The common building blocks of the different narratives (e.g. Joseph asking Pilate for the body of Jesus; the desertion of the disciples, etc.) lack any ideological or theological point of the sort that suggests a dialogue between the two basic narratives. These common narrative building blocks merely appear in a different sequence to create different plot functions for themselves. This suggests storyline traditions at such variance that they defy any likelihood that they arose as a result of merely confused memories in the retelling (Crossan).

Origin of Mark?
Those Christians claiming the authority of all or some of the 12, whether proto-gnostic or proto-orthodox, naturally had authenticating stories of the resurrected Jesus appearing to those favoured founders.

But if Mark was opposing all who claimed authority from the 12 (as we arguably find in Paul and later in Marcion) then a resurrection scene to them would surely run against the grain of this very point.

Further, Mark does show signs of being a more developed and hence later story than the basic narrative outline behind the one found in GPeter and Justin Martyr. With Mark we have the complexities of one of the disciples betraying Jesus and two trials of Jesus; in Justin and GPeter there is no apparent split in the 12 and it is the Jews, their judges and king Herod who condemn and crucify Jesus, Pilate merely allowing it under his jurisdiction. One would normally assume the more complex plot is later than the simpler. (GPeter does have more descriptive detail such as the name of the centurion guarding the tomb but the simpler basic plot structure indicates the original story is earlier than Mark's. Justin does say that Jesus was silent before Pilate (DT103,104) but whenever he speaks of the trial and condemnation and crucifixion of Jesus it is always "under Pilate" and by the Jews. GPeter and numerous noncanonical details by Justin warn us against reading any one story item through the canonical construct by default.)

Although Mark lacks a resurrection appearance at the tomb he does speak of a delayed "resurrection appearance" to the high priest (14:62) and the entire world (13:26 c.f.13:21). Mark 13, the Little Apocalypse, gives him room for this. The available evidence suggests that neither the GPeter nor Justin Martyr knew of anything like this long prophecy of Jesus. In the GPeter the Jews who have just crucified Jesus and witnessed the sun turn dark at noon suddenly cry out in fear that judgment has come and the time for Jerusalem to be destroyed. That does not sit with an earlier prophecy in the narrative predicting the destruction of Jerusalem only much later. Justin is more direct. Following hard on the execution of Christ Jerusalem was captured by Rome and the land lay waste, thus fulfilling the an old prophecy that the Jews would only have a king or prophet of their own until the Messiah had come. Herod who crucified Christ, Justin explains, was that last king of Judea before that Roman conquest.

Is it plausible that Mark was written to oppose the authority being claimed by allegiance to the 12 apostles and that this prompted his changes to the basic story that we know from GPeter and Justin? Changes like:

  1. Moving the teaching of the eucharist to "before" the death of Jesus (See * below). Compare Justin's claim that it was introduced by Jesus to the 12 after his resurrection (note 1Ap65-67 where he concludes that these sacraments were taught by Jesus after his resurrection). Mark's audience could thus claim this rite came from Jesus himself without the embarrassment of having to rely on a post-resurrection transmission of the teaching via the 12.
  2. Introducing a betrayer and a denier among the disciples thus abolishing the credibility of the 12.
  3. Removing any privilege of a resurrection scene from the 12 and introducing the promise of this to the future time of judgment on all. The pre-post-resurrection scene granted the apostles at the transfiguration actually served the purpose of condemning the apostles for their subsequent failures. Further, the idea of a Jesus who is absent and not destined to appear until the second coming is consistent with other apparent theological agendas of Mark (Kelber; C.f. also 1:32-38?).
Mark, Matthew and Luke
The author of Mark also delayed the fall of Jerusalem perhaps simply because she knew her history and dates better and/or for any number of other reasons that can be discussed separately. Matthew may have attempted some sort of harmonization between the two narratives on this point by having the Jews pronounce doom on themselves in more general terms. In place of "Woe for our sins: the judgement hath drawn nigh, and the end of Jerusalem" (GPt7(25)) he wrote "His blood be upon us and upon our children" (27:25). He also allowed for "some" disciples doubting when they saw the resurrected Jesus (28:17) and in opposition to the GPeter that dramatized the guilt of the Jews by their refusal to wash their hands he added the detail of Pilate washing his (27:24).

Mark also tried to shift more blame onto the gentiles to make the crucifixion a joint Jew-Gentile project. Was the other story with its uncompromising blame of the Jews letting gentiles off the hook too easily? Did the theology of Mark implicate both Jews and Gentiles more equally in both blame and promises? In this sense he would have been closer to the thought of Paul (and Marcion at least for those who like to date Mark late and, with J.R.Hoffmann, Marcion early). Perhaps Luke attempted something of a harmonization here by readmitting the Jewish king Herod into the trial process? (Of course such a suggestion flies in the face of the general assumption that the canonical gospels originally tried to downplay the role of Rome in the crucifixion of Jesus, but that assumption does not consider a comparison of the canonical gospels with the Gospel of Peter.)

To sum up:
There was a narrative of Jesus in existence before the Gospel of Mark and that pre-Markan narrative evolved into the Gospel of Peter and was known in some form to Justin. This original gospel narrative:

  1. told of Jesus being condemned and crucified by the Jews and their king Herod in the time of Pilate,
  2. spoke of the 12 disciples collectively deserting as a result (no Judas),
  3. had the resurrected Jesus appearing to his disciples and instituting the eucharist and other church practices through the 12,
  4. let Pilate off relatively lightly compared with the blame placed on the Jews.

  The Gospel of Mark was written as a counter to this narrative:
  1. it added the second trial of Jesus by Pilate,
  2. added the story of Judas,
  3. removed the resurrection appearance of Jesus to the 12 (postponed till the final judgment), thus requiring the eucharist to be delivered before Jesus' death* (as per Paul?) and consistent with a broader theological agenda of Mark (Kelber),
  4. spread the blame more equally on Jews and gentiles (a la Paul and Marcion?).

  The Gospel of Mark was uncompromisingly contentious. The gospels of Matthew and Luke were more catholic and attempted to bring the two narratives together by:
  1. re-introducing Herod into the judgment scenes thus increasing the trial hearings of Jesus to 3,
  2. restoring the status of original apostles (resurrection appearance) by killing off just one of them (better that 1 should die for the sake of saving the whole idea of the 12),
  3. restored a post-resurrection appearance of Jesus to his disciples and converting the post resurrection eucharist scene into a scene of Jesus eating to prove his bodily resurrection and in place of instituting the church practices he opened their understanding to the scriptures,
  4. shifting a greater share of blame back onto the Jews and letting Pilate wash his hands (contra GPeter that emphasized guilt of Herod and Jews through their failure to wash hands).

If all of this is a plausible answer to the two questions asked at the beginning then the notorious ending of Mark (16:8) with its lack of a resurrection scene could find a comfortable explanation within the world of theological dialogue. This hypothesis also diminishes the uniqueness of the Gospel of Mark by finding a place for it within an evolutionary trajectory of early written gospels that takes into account what many critics now see as its considerable literary sophistication. It is more reasonable to place such a complex work with its many apparent innovations a little further along from the very beginning of the evolution of the written narrative gospels. Finally, might we not even find here a more satisfying explanation for the obscurity of the Gospel of Mark for so long and a preference for the Gospels of Matthew and Luke?


The idea that the eucharist was originally introduced as happening after the death of Jesus may not seem so strange if one considers the possibility that this rite began as a feast with the departed spirits of the dead, for which there is some evidence. Observe also the "raising" miracles of Jesus that concluded with a meal, such as Peter's mother-in-law but especially Jairus' daughter, and the feeding of the 5000 following the death of John the Baptist that prefigured the death of Jesus, and so forth. Paul's claim to have received the rite from Christ himself could well be taking a swipe at those who claimed to receive it ultimately from the 12. While Mark narrates the eucharist as being given to the 12 we know we will never hear anything positive of the 12 again and the reader can claim he has learned the rite from Christ himself in the gospel. (David Christensen adds via email correspondence: "Jerome mentioned a Eucharist after the Resurrection when he wrote of James: " " 'Bring a table and bread,' said the Lord." And immediately it is added, "He brought bread and blessed and brake and gave to James the Just and said to him, 'my brother, eat thy bread, for the son of man is risen from among those that sleep.' " " - On Ill. Men, 2. .... Some in the Eastern Church have taught that Christ instituted the Eucharist after the resurrection.")


Neil Godfrey