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Stanislav Mikhailov ©
Gospels According to Mark and Matthew Compared
Study Essay*


To an eye that is not keen enough, the matter of comparison of the two Gospels may seem something unworthy and, moreover, close to impossible. Indeed, one who ventures only briefly into the context and story of the first two Gospels will be probably unable to extract somewhat significant differences: the Gospels employ similar lexicon, they describe similar if not identical events, and they use similar parables and paradoxes.
However, the differences are striking. A reader who is not trying merely to enhance his or her cultural background, but rather hopes to penetrate the gnosis at least to some extent will most likely face a never-ending sequence of questions: why, if Gospel according to Mark was written before the Gospel of Matthew, it is placed second in the New Testament (and this question is not as mundane as it may seem)? Why are the Gospels repeatedly attributed to people who, as we now know almost certainly, had never written them and, furthermore, had never even had at their disposal knowledge sufficient for that revolutionary affair? Or, had Jesus Christ described in the Gospels ever existed at all?
One could probably make up similar questions for an infinite number of times, and I am certainly not going to pursue this, although interesting, but not relevant to our topic, subject. Nevertheless some, if not all, of these inquiries will undoubtedly arise in our further research, which I am going to take through the following stages: first, explore the roots of the Gospels, and second, undertake the textual analysis itself on the basis of Gethsemane Gardens scene and (partially) the Arrest of Jesus.
The brief overview of current situation around Gospels, which follows, may seem somewhat lengthy, but without knowing or at least agreeing on the priorities of the Gospels we can hardly advance much further.

The Authorship of the Gospels
Gospel According to Matthew

Of many different ways of tackling a particular subject available to a researcher, we can at present appreciate the following: the contextual method, that is, a method which suggests that before studying the text itself we first study the historical and cultural context of the events that took place. In this case, then, a matter of particular importance to us is the authorship of both Gospels, because we would expect a very accurate account of the events from a person who supposedly belonged to the group of Christ's apostles. Then, comparing the Gospel of Mark to the Gospel of Matthew, one would deduce by the very author's name that Matthew's depiction must be more exact and precise since he was one of the apostles. This inference in itself may not be wrong, but nowadays we have serious reasons to doubt that it was indeed the Jewish tax collector Matthew who wrote the Gospel.
Prior to recent times, it was a widespread and hardly argued belief that the Gospel was originally written in Aramaic and only then was translated into Greek. According to certain, though probably not completely unbiased, sources (Z. Kosidowski, "The Legendry of the Evangelists"), more up-to-date accounts certify that the Gospel was rather written in koine Greek (that is, the same language in which the Gospel of St. Mark was written), which the author considers an almost (we still cannot say for sure) invariable proof of the fact that the authorship of the Gospel of Matthew has been wronged. We have all reasons to believe that koine Greek in its literary form was not among the assets of original Matthew, likely a Jew from Palestine where Aramaic tongue was spoken. Moreover, all arguments that used to be presented in support of the view that Matthew the apostle wrote the Gospel are currently perceived with much greater skepticism:
"The opinion that the Gospel according to Matthew is an account of an eye-witness has rooted in the church around mid-II C.E. Papias, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Eusebius and other religious writers of the time all stood to that point. /.../ From the contents of the Gospel immediately follows that the author was a Jew; indeed, only a Jew could navigate so fluently in all the difficult notions and traditions connected with Judaism. Besides that, he masterfully employs the terminology of the Old Testament and is undoubtedly well acquainted with the judgmental procedures of that time, because he is able to distinguish between an ordinary court and the Sanhedrin. Following this path of identification, these writers then conclude that Matthew must have been a Palestinian. In their opinion, only a person who was born in Palestine and lived there for many years could be that familiar with the customs and mentality of the local folk, and, what's more important, could estimate so accurately the distances between settlements. Matthew knew, for instance, that there was a customs office in the vicinity of Capernaum. He was also fluent in interpreting very complicated money ratios of that time./…/
But even an allowing researcher easily sees the weakness of these arguments. The number of Jews familiar with the terminology of the Old Testament was measured in thousands or probably tens of thousands. Also, the customs office argument seems ridiculous: any Jew from a nearby settlement would have to know where it is, because all of them had to pay taxes. Likewise, it is not at all special for the author to know the geography of Palestine so well. Even the Diaspora Jews had to come to Jerusalem to pray in the temples, which would provide for a profound knowledge of the road network."
Z. Kosidowski then points out that Matthew, or, rather, the person who actually wrote the Gospel, must have also been such a Diaspora Jew, a person rather remotely, if at all, connected to Christ, proving it by the fact that otherwise the Gospel would have contained more precise biographic details, would have "recreated the atmosphere of intimate interaction between the disciple and his beloved teacher." This probably is not quite applicable to Matthew, who doubles, for instance, his account of how Jesus fed the multiplicities of people and how Jesus told Pharisees off.
Not to be dependent on one particular source, it should be noted that Kosidowski seems somewhat preoccupied with his point of view and admits not even a marginal probability of being wrong. I would like to turn therefore for a formal definition to the Catholic Encyclopedia Volume X , which clearly states that at present no conclusion can be drawn with complete certainty about the original language of the Gospel. My personal view is that without any additional evidence it will be impossible to ascertain what the actual language of the Gospel was. One can easily encounter points of view that are indeed very deviant from what one may have come to believe (e.g., John M. Rist, "On the Independence of Matthew and Mark": the author looks at several hypotheses in turn, among them: that St. Mark and St. Matthew may have used certain passages from Aramaic version of St. Matthew's Gospel, which, then, implies a different author of either of these two; that Mark and Matthew share a common source but are independent of each other).

Gospel According to Mark

Interestingly enough, the authorship of the oldest Gospel is seemingly debated much less than that of the book which Ernest Renan called "the greatest book of all times", the Gospel of Matthew. This should be probably explained by the fact that Mark is not commonly considered to be one of the apostles. Also, as we have sufficient evidence to be assured that the historical priority is given to Mark, one would hope to encounter a far less entangled mystery (in comparison to Matthew) here.
Therefore, I will assume that the Gospel of St. Matthew is partially based on the Gospel of St. Mark.

The Gethsemane Prayer
The prayer of Jesus in the Gardens of Gethsemane is considered by many (Tolbert, Stock, Ehrman, etc.) to be the climax of the Gospels, not a climax of action, but rather a most intense psychological point. No matter which Gospel of the two we are looking at, it is easy to see that both authors prefer to describe Jesus as a person beyond earthly doubts and maelstroms. Although St. Matthew, it seems, tends to emphasize the divinity of Christ and simultaneously to stress his human substance, Jesus is always inevitably omniscient and omnipotent. Now in the Gethsemane scene, Jesus Christ for the first time unveils his drama. Father Augustine Stock in his book The Method and Message of Matthew offers an interesting interpretation of the scene in the Gethsemane:
"'Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples: 'Sit here while I go yonder and pray'.
This may be an allusion to the instruction Abraham gave to his young men when he arrived at the place for the sacrifice of his son Isaac: 'Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there' (Gen 22:5). The sacrifice of Isaac as a spectacular story of Biblical faith was a motif of later Jewish theology, and Matthew may invoke it here as he prepares to demonstrate the extraordinary faith of God's Son. In contrast to the story of Abraham and Isaac, Jesus is both offerer and victim, an example of faith more striking than any Biblical precedent."
Indeed, this may be the only place in the Gospel where human weakness in Jesus upsets his divine strength. This, I think, is the culmination of the development of faith throughout ages: the Lord tests his own Son for loyalty, for His ability to follow the chosen path and to accept "the cup". In the depiction of this particular scene, the two Evangelists agree to a large extent, but nevertheless Matthew introduces more emphasis to his narrative. In Mt 26:39 Jesus says: "My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt", and in Mk 14:36, we find: "Abba, father, all things are possible to thee; remove this cup from me; yet not what I will, but what thou wilt". Note, first, the Aramaic word "Abba" replaced by a more personal "My Father" in Mt, next, in Mt the phrase itself is constructed so as to appear more emotional, more intimate. "Matthew reports the whole of Jesus' prayer in direct address, rendering Mark's Aramaic 'Abba' with a touching 'My Father'. <…> Drinking a cup could, in particular, be a symbol of undergoing suffering or punishment". In general, though, this intimacy may have two purposes to it: firstly, the human aspect of Jesus' nature is revealed, but secondly, his connection to God becomes completely clear and unmistakable: Jesus is His Son. This is a proof of the point many scholars make: unlike Mark, Matthew actually persists in his portrayal of Jesus' heavenly origin that is beyond human nature to fully understand (although, on the other hand, it's Matthew who, contrary to Mark, describes apostles as people who actually understood Christ). This episode is furthermore strengthened in Mt 26:42, which Mark lacks: again Jesus addresses God in the same manner, with the same passionate "My Father". This passage is omitted in Mark, and thus, we have reasons to believe that Matthew indeed wanted to accentuate the ties between Jesus and God (this fragment is absent in both Luke and John).
Still, even in Mark we encounter an unprecedented degree of intensity and passion. "So seldom has the Gospel described Jesus' own emotions <…> that the piling up of adjectives by both the narrator and Jesus himself creates a potent gravity: 'greatly disturbed and troubled' (14:33), 'very sorrowful, even to death' (14:34). The seriousness of Jesus' situation and the reality of his pain are unmistakably emphasized by the implied author as background both for his private prayer and for the disciples' nadir" . Moreover, we can safely add that Mark's usual brevity and sharpness of style here add to the cumulative effect of the narrative, which makes us feel how Jesus is further alienated from his disciples (Mary Ann Tolbert also suggests that point of view).
Here, too, one will hardly find a great discrepancy between the two Evangelists, which is quite interesting: it has been repeatedly mentioned by different scholars that Mark (unlike Matthew, whose goal was seemingly the opposite) never allows the reader to assume that the disciples understood Christ or were loyal to him to an extent at least sufficient not to run away at the sight of his seizure. But here, both St. Mark and St. Matthew describe the episode similarly: "And he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, 'So, could you not watch with me one hour?'" (Mt. 26:40), "And he came and found them sleeping, and he said to Peter, 'Simon, are you asleep? Could you not watch one hour?'" (Mk. 14:37). Why does Jesus address Peter, of all the disciples? The answer seems quite transparent: because it was Peter whom Jesus thought to be most loyal and most faithful (hence his nickname: Peter, meaning Rock) . When Jesus saw that in his human anguish not even Peter could support him, he realized in an instant that all has been lost, his human body and human fear have been sacrificed to his divine goal. Thrice he comes, and thrice he finds them sleeping. "Their last chance has passed. Jesus pronounces the verdict in one word <…>: ?p?cei" . The word ?p?cei is Greek for "paid in full". This very moment in both Gospels is the moment of "split", it is here that God abandons Jesus to test his earthly faith, and it seems to me interesting in this context to examine the last words of the Gethsemane episode.
Norman Perrin, a quite influential scholar in Markan studies , assumes that Mark has used the name "Son of Man" to correct the previously used "Son of God": "but then [Mark - S.M.] 'corrected' it as he moved through his gospel-story by drawing on the title the Son of Man to picture Jesus as a figure of authority who must nevertheless suffer and die but who will also rise and come again at the end of time" . Kingsbury argues that this is not the case with Mark, and I support his point of view. It is interesting indeed that both Matthew and Mark use almost the same words: "Behold, the hour is at hand, and the Son of man is betrayed into the hands of sinners" (Mt. 26:46) and "It is enough; the hour has come; the Son of man is betrayed into the hands of sinners" (Mk. 14:41). As I have noted previously, Matthew likes to highlight that Jesus is the Son of God (Mt. 7:21, 10:32, 11:25, 26:22, 26:29, etc.), so why would he suddenly call him Son of Man here? Well, it is clear that this particular verse is borrowed either from Mark or from any hypothetical common source. But nevertheless Matthew could have well modified it. Probably, then, there are several justifications of the usage of this name here: first, these two terms are somewhat confused in the Gospel of Matthew and, in general, their usage is much debated in the scientific world. Second, Matthew must have thought it impossible for the heavenly persona of Christ to be seized by guards of flesh and blood, and hence he uses the epithet "Son of Man". This is relevant if we assume that St. Matthew knew of no particular reason to preserve the original (i.e., Markan) name. However, if we admit that "Son of Man" came to Matthew directly from Mark, we have to turn to Mark's Gospel. T. A. Burkill suggested that since this title appears three times in the Gospel of Mark (14:61, 13.26, 8:38), it must be an additional illustration of Mark's predilection for triads (Jesus' Transfiguration with the two prophets, his three beloved disciples, his three prayers and three return, and the three denials of Peter, etc.) It is also necessary to mention that "Son of Man" is an eschatological entity, a cosmic judge of the last day, and simultaneously someone with earthly origins. This name in Mt. 26:45 and in Mk. 14:41 may be an additional confirmation of a point of view I communicated earlier, the hypothesis of the 'split': the Son of God has made the decision, it is now for the Son of Man to suffer it through.
The conflict of Jesus and his disciples, then, is influenced by the fact that Judas, he who embodies all the sins of the humankind being the one who betrayed the God, is one of his followers, too. It is a deeply symbolic and moving act that Jesus should be betrayed with a kiss, something most intimate and even sacred. A. Stock holds that the kiss must be understood in a purely pejorative context, and if we assume that point of view, we may lose a prominent interpretation of this act: that even the enemies of Lord yield to his transcendental power of love. Finally, I would like to point out a small inconsistency: Stock quotes Mt. 26:50 (note that this particular fragment is missing in Mark) as follows: "Jesus said to him, 'Friend, do what you are here to do'." On the contrary, other sources read: "Jesus said to him: 'Friend, why are you here?'" The latter words probably seem quite strange because Jesus certainly knew why Judas was there since he himself predicted the betrayal, whereas the former Jesus' "invitation" supports my view of this episode: Jesus knows what is to befall him, and he has already forgiven Judas… or has he?


From the textual analysis that has been undertaken and on the basis of material I have collected, I can draw the following conclusions about the two Gospels in question:
  1. It appears that, indeed, Matthew's Gospel has been to a large extent based on the Gospel of Mark (although certain points are still unclear to me), and moreover, in the most prominent fragments the two Gospels agree almost exactly.
  2. At present, scholarly interest still revolves around much the same points as it used to decades ago due to absence of sufficient materials, sources, and due to the lack of clarity in many linguistic issues (consider, for instance, the notorious fragment of a remark of Papias, quoted by Eusebius with regard to St. Matthew's Gospel: "ta logia sunetaxato". It is still unclear what exactly was meant by the subject (logia) and the action (sunetaxato), although this phrase dates back to the second century C.E.! This illustrates quite accurately that, as it was mentioned on one of theological forums, we are dealing with probabilities rather than facts).
  3. It is still difficult, due to reasons described above, to speak of any goals of both Matthew and Mark; however, I think (and I tried to demonstrate that) that their approach to the material is completely different: Mark strives for the accuracy in his account, for brevity and clarity, whereas Matthew may confuse some episodes and create contradictions, but he also makes his narrative more artful and elaborate.

  1. Aland, K., ed. Synopsis of the Four Gospels. United Bible Societies, 1982.
  2. Burkill, T. A. New Light on the Earliest Gospel: Seven Markan Studies. Ithaca: Cornell University, 1972
  3. Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume X. Robert Appleton Company, 1911. Kevin Knight: Online Edition, 1999
  4. Ehrman, Bart D. New Testament: A Historical Introduction to Early Christian Writings. Oxford: Oxford University, 2000
  5. Kingsbury, J.D. The Christology of Mark's Gospel. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983.
  6. Kosidowski, Z. The Legendry of the Evangelists. Warsaw: Iskry, 1964. In Russian
  7. Perrin, N. Christology of Mark. Quoted by Kingsbury, J. D.
  8. Rist, John M. On the independence of Matthew and Mark. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978
  9. Stock, Augustine. The Method and Message of Matthew. Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1994
  10. Tolbert, M. A. Sowing the Gospel. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989

This essay used The Holy Bible as its primary reference (Revised Standard Version. New York: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1953).
* Cм. также эссе С.Михайлова: ** Фреска "Поцелуй Иуды" выполнена итальянским художником Джотто ди Бондоне (Giotto di Bondone (1267-1337). El fresco) See also in Russian:
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