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A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth

The synoptic puzzle meets my word processor

There are various theories about how the different accounts of Christ's life are related. The questions pursued include these: Which authors had access to to which materials? Which account is earliest? Detailed and computer-based comparisons add some weight to the theory that the similarities between Matthew and Mark may trace to a common source document older than Mark.

Comparisons of the gospels started long ago as a tedious manual process of comparing texts line by line. But these days there are other tools to help with such a comparison. Even my word processor contains basic tools to compare different versions of documents and show modifications and matches. I used Microsoft Word.

So what happens when you compare the Greek texts of Matthew and Mark in a standard word processor? First, you find that the the computer cannot successfully compare the documents as a whole. They are too different for a comparison at the level of the whole document. There is so much additional material in Matthew as compared to Mark that the word processor stopped the comparison without identifying any matched sections. To get a comparison from the word processor, it was necessary to separate the documents into individual accounts -- for example, the parable of the sower or the death of John the Baptist -- and then compare them. Comparing two documents the size of Matthew and Mark, account by account, is no quick task even with a word processor.

Here is an example of a comparison between Matthew and Mark. The text below is a comparison of the accounts of the discussion "whose son is the Messiah?".

ΚΑΙ ΑΠΟΚΡΙΘΕΙΣΣΥΝΗΓΜΕΝΩΝ ΔΕ ΤΩΝ ΦΑΡΙΣΑΙΩΝ ΕΠΗΡΩΤΗΣΕΝ ΑΥΤΟΥΣ Ο ΙΗΣΟΥΣ ΕΛΕΓΕΝ ΔΙΔΑΣΚΩΝ ΕΝ ΤΩ ΙΕΡΩ ΠΩΣ ΛΕΓΩΝ ΤΙ ΥΜΙΝ ΔΟΚΕΙ ΠΕΡΙ ΤΟΥ ΧΡΙΣΤΟΥ; ΤΙΝΟΣ ΥΙΟΣ ΕΣΤΙΝ; ΛΕΓΟΥΣΙΝ ΟΙ ΓΡΑΜΜΑΤΕΙΣ ΟΤΙ Ο ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ ΥΙΟΣ ΔΑΥΙΔ ΕΣΤΙΝ; ΑΥΤΟΣΑΥΤΩ ΤΟΥ ΔΑΥΙΔ ΛΕΓΕΙ ΑΥΤΟΙΣ ΠΩΣ ΟΥΝ ΔΑΥΙΔ ΕΙΠΕΝ ΕΝ ΤΩ ΠΝΕΥΜΑΤΙ ΤΩ ΑΓΙΩΚΑΛΕΙ ΑΥΤΟΝ ΚΥΡΙΟΝ ΛΕΓΩΝ ΕΙΠΕΝ ΚΥΡΙΟΣ ΤΩ ΚΥΡΙΩ ΜΟΥ ΚΑΘΟΥ ΕΚ ΔΕΞΙΩΝ ΜΟΥ ΕΩΣ ΑΝ ΘΩ ΤΟΥΣ ΕΧΘΡΟΥΣ ΣΟΥ ΥΠΟΚΑΤΩ ΤΩΝ ΠΟΔΩΝ ΣΟΥ ΑΥΤΟΣ; ΕΙ ΟΥΝ ΔΑΥΙΔ ΛΕΓΕΙΚΑΛΕΙ ΑΥΤΟΝ ΚΥΡΙΟΝ ΚΑΙ ΠΟΘΕΝΠΩΣ ΥΙΟΣ ΑΥΤΟΥ ΕΣΤΙΝ ΥΙΟΣ; ΚΑΙ Ο ΠΟΛΥΣ ΟΧΛΟΣ ΗΚΟΥΕΝ ΑΥΤΟΥ ΗΔΕΩΣ; ΚΑΙ ΟΥΔΕΙΣ ΕΔΥΝΑΤΟ ΑΠΟΚΡΙΘΗΝΑΙ ΑΥΤΩ ΛΟΓΟΝ ΟΥΔΕ ΕΤΟΛΜΗΣΕΝ ΤΙΣ ΑΠ ΕΚΕΙΝΗΣ ΤΗΣ ΗΜΕΡΑΣ ΕΠΕΡΩΤΗΣΑΙ ΑΥΤΟΝ ΟΥΚΕΤΙ

This account is chosen mainly for brevity and does not completely illustrate the interesting points that become more apparent in longer accounts, but it shows a few of the things which come to light through such a comparison:

First, notice the black text. This is material that matches, word-for-word, in the Greek texts of Matthew and Mark.

Second, notice the blue text. This is material that is in Matthew, but not in Mark. In the comparisons of the various accounts, this falls into two groups: material that is also in Mark but in somewhat different words, and material that is not in Mark at all. Both kinds of material are expected based on the popular current theory about the documents' relationship, the theory that Matthew copied Mark.

Third, notice the red text. This is material that is in Mark, but not in Matthew. It also contains two types of material: material that is also in Matthew but in somewhat different words, and material that is not in Matthew at all. The fact that some material is in different words is no real surprise. The fact that Mark should have content that is not found in Matthew is somewhat inconsistent with the theory that Matthew copied Mark, especially since material unique to Mark is a fairly common find when comparing the documents.

Examining the the texts closely, it's not hard to see why people devised the theory that Matthew copied Mark. It's plain that there must be some kind of relationship between the documents. Many accounts contain the same material in nearly the same words; it is not really plausible that this happened to such an extent by mere coincidence. Since there is so much material in Matthew that is not in Mark, Mark could not be based on Matthew. So, the theory went, Matthew must be based on Mark. If Matthew copied Mark, that would explain the accounts where Matthew has roughly the same material as Mark, and the accounts where Matthew has more material. It would explain the parts where account after account is in the same order from one document to the next. It would explain the parts where a word processor can easily find comparisons, words and even phrases that match exactly.

But the assumption that Matthew copied Mark may be too simple to explain all the facts. If Matthew copied Mark, then why are there accounts in Mark that are not found in Matthew? Why are there accounts, found in both, in which Mark has substantially more material than Matthew? Why are there even some accounts in which Mark has over twice as much material as the parallel account in Matthew? If Matthew's greater length as a whole is an argument that it is later, doesn't the same reasoning lead us to believe that shorter individual accounts in Matthew must be earlier than the corresponding longer accounts in Mark? There are sections where one account after another are found in the same order in both documents; if these are an argument that these documents are related, then what do we make of the number of sections where the accounts are in a noticeably different order? If the accounts which have closely-matching material are an argument for relatedness, then what about the places where the relationships are not particularly close or there are noticeable variances between the accounts?

For all the questions that arise, the documents clearly indicate some sort of relationship. The material shared by Matthew and Mark comprises roughly 74% of the material in Mark, with roughly 26% of the material in Mark not found in Matthew. The shared material likewise comprises roughly 42% of the material in Matthew, with roughly 58% of the material in Matthew not found in Mark. But the theory that Matthew copied Mark seems too simple to account for all of the facts. It seems more likely that Matthew, rather than working directly from Mark, worked from one or more older documents also available to Mark.

It would be tempting to suggest that the additional material in Mark is simply a later expansion of Mark, at least on the principle that the simplest theories should be tried first. But that theory seems to leave too many facts unexplained. For instance, some things suggest that there may be more than one older document involved. First, the accounts earlier in the documents -- before the account of John the Baptist's death -- are often in a different order from Matthew to Mark, but starting with the account of John the Baptist's death the accounts track each other fairly closely. Second, the same earlier accounts show a lower percentage of material from Mark that is also found in Matthew than the later accounts (roughly 67% from the earlier accounts, as compared to roughly 77% of the later accounts). Third, the same earlier accounts show noticeably less word-for-word matching in word-processor comparisons (roughly 29% from the earlier accounts, as compared to roughly 45% of the later accounts). From this, it seems likely that there was a single previous document that contained the later section beginning at or about the record of John the Baptist's death and continuing up to or about the account of the empty tomb. The material before John the Baptist's death suggests a more complicated relationship of the texts. There were likely previous written accounts, possibly several documents, for the material before John the Baptist's death. Going beyond this would be excessively speculative at this point.

Leaving aside the question of the number of earlier documents and their boundaries, what is more certain is the content of the earlier document or documents. Going back to the electronic comparisons, it's likely that the words and phrases which match exactly from Matthew to Mark reflect the content of the earlier material. In accounts where exact matches are frequent between the Greek of Matthew and Mark, it seems likely that any older document must also have been in Greek and that the matches reflect words and phrases which were the exact wording of the older document. In other sections, exact matches in the Greek documents are less frequent or even difficult to come by, despite the content being plainly parallel. In these instances where the meaning compares closely but the wording does not, there is basis to wonder whether the older document may have been in another language and whether Matthew and Mark have each preserved their own translations. The history of the people involved and the appearance of occasional words and phrases in Aramaic raise the question how much of the older material was in Aramaic.

Assimilating and analyzing this volume of material could easily take the space of a small book, and I do not intend to try the patience of this blog's readers any further right now. Even with the generalities that can be made about the different sections of the documents, there is still within each section some noticeable variation in how closely different accounts are related between Matthew and Mark. More analysis will need to be done on an account-by-account basis. Some preliminary details of the analysis are available here. Other information on this comparison will be posted here in this blog from time to time.

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