How Editorial Fatigue Shows That Matthew and Luke Copied Mark

Matthias Stom, The Evangelists St. Mark and St. Luke, 1635

Church taught me to read the Gospels separately while assuming they all told the same story. Higher criticism, however, has taught me to read the Gospels together while letting them speak for themselves. New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman calls this approach “horizontal reading” in Jesus Interrupted, one of the books that first got me interested in biblical studies. Naturally, it is something that successful Bible scholars have been doing for a long time.

One subject I haven’t written much about yet is the Synoptic Problem. By reading the canonical Gospels horizontally and comparing related passages, it is quite easy to see why scholars almost unanimously believe Mark was written first (i.e. Marcan Priority). I’d like to highlight the phenomenon of fatigue in particular and what it shows us about these texts.

(Please note that throughout this article, when I refer to the authors of the Gospels by name, it is an editorial convenience only, and not meant to imply that the names of their actual authors are known.)

A Very Brief Summary of the Synoptic Problem

Many of those who may have occasion to stumble onto this blog undoubtedly know all about the Synoptic Problem and Marcan Priority. For those who don’t, here is a very simple overview.

Critical scholars have long noted that the first three Gospels (the Synoptic Gospels) share most of their material in common and present it in mostly the same order. Sentences are often so similar that verbatim copying has obviously taken place, so it is clear that their relation is a literary one. The puzzle of just how this all happened is known as the Synoptic Problem.

For various reasons, it is now widely (almost universally) accepted that Mark, the shortest and simplest of the three, was written first; and that Matthew and Luke were written later, using Mark as their main source. For the majority of the material shared between the three Gospels (the “triple tradition”), it is easier to explain the similarities of Matthew and Luke with Mark as well as their differences if Mark is the original. In total, 97% of Mark is duplicated in Matthew, and 88% in Luke (Source:

A problem remains, however, with material contained in both Matthew and Luke that is not found in Mark — the so-called “double tradition”. The most widely held explanation here is the two-source theory, which states that Luke and Matthew were based on a lost collection of material called Q (from German Quelle, or “Source”) in addition to Mark. Other models dispense with Q and propose — for example — that Luke adapted both Mark and Matthew, or that Matthew adapted both Mark and Luke.

Giovanni Gerolamo Savoldo, Saint Matthew and the Angel, 1534

Giovanni Gerolamo Savoldo, Saint Matthew and the Angel, 1534 [Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art]

Identifying Fatigue in the Gospels

Some years ago, Michael Goulder (see bibliography below) noted that certain inconsistencies in Luke and Matthew were best explained as a result of what he called “editor’s fatigue”. The idea is that Matthew (or Luke) has Mark in front of him and is copying from it as he composes his own Gospel, making changes and additions as necessary. However, fatigue sets in the longer he’s at it, and he starts missing things. Words and phrases he would have changed had he been more alert get copied without alteration from Mark, producing inconsistencies in the final work we know as Matthew (or Luke).

A simple example given by Goulder (p. 35) can be found in Matthew 14, which is based on Mark 6. It is the pericope about John the Baptist’s death.

Mark 6

14 King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known.

22 When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.”

25 Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.”

26 The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her.

Matthew 14

1 At that time Herod the tetrarch heard reports about Jesus;

6–7 But when Herod’s birthday came, the daughter of Herodias danced before the company, and she pleased Herod so much that he promised on oath to grant her whatever she might ask.

8 Prompted by her mother, she said, “Give me the head of John the Baptist here on a platter.”

9 The king was grieved, yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he commanded it to be given.

The “Herod” in this story is Antipas, a son of Herod the Great who ruled Galilee and Perea as a client of Rome. He was not a king, but a prince of lower status known as a tetrarch. Technically speaking, the only Herod to have the title of king was Herod the Great, who ruled all of Judea and died some 40 years before this story takes place.

Matthew, being somewhat more knowledgeable about such things, changes “king” to “tetrarch” at the beginning of the pericope and omits some of Mark’s further uses of the word “king”. However, at verse 9, he lapses into calling Herod a “king” as in Mark.

(We may also note that the best manuscripts of Mark name Herodias as Herod’s [Antipas’s] daughter in 6:22. This is factually incorrect, and Matthew corrects this, calling her the “daughter of Herodias”. This is further evidence for Marcan priority but not an example of fatigue.)

Caravaggio, The Beheading of St. John the Baptist, 1608

Caravaggio, The Beheading of St. John the Baptist, 1608

Editorial Fatigue as a Pillar of Marcan Priority

New Testament scholar Mark Goodacre seized upon Goulder’s notion of fatigue and showed that it might be the strongest internal evidence we have for confirming Marcan priority. In a 1998 paper and a subsequent monograph, he identified numerous compelling examples of this phenomenon (using the term “editorial fatigue”) that resulted from Matthew and Luke copying Mark.

The aforementioned passage about John the Baptist’s death has a second example of fatigue that Goodacre noticed. Compare the following:

Mark 6

19–20 And Herodias had a grudge against [John], and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him.

After Herodias asks Herod to kill John:

26 The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her.

Matthew 14

5 Though Herod wanted to put [John] to death, he feared the crowd, because they regarded him as a prophet.

After Herodias’s daughter asks Herod to kill John:

9 The king was grieved, yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he commanded it to be given.

In Mark, it is Herod’s wife Herodias who hates John and wants him dead, while Herod himself likes John and protects him. He is therefore grieved when, after making a foolish promise, he has to kill John.

Matthew changes the story so that it is Herod who wants to kill John. Here, it makes little sense for Herod to grieve when he carries out what he had desired all along; yet because of editorial fatigue, Matthew has copied Mark’s statement that the “king” was “grieved”.

In fact, I would go further than Goodacre and suggest that the whole sub-plot with Herodias’s daughter is an example of fatigue. Herodias’s manipulation of her daughter and Herod’s rash oath in order to achieve John the Baptist’s death is unnecessary if, as Matthew says, it was Herod himself who wanted John dead.

PIeter Bruegel the Elder, Landscape with the Parable of the Sower, 1557

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Landscape with the Parable of the Sower, 1557

An Example from Luke

One of my favourite examples of editorial fatigue in Luke can be found in the Parable of the Sower. I call it my favourite because I must have encountered the parable dozens of times in church, Sunday school, and personal reading, yet never noticed its oddities. Let’s take a close look at the parable, which is found in Mark 4 / Luke 8 / Matthew 13.

Mark’s Version (Mark 4)

The telling of the parable (vv. 4–8) The interpretation (vv. 15–20)
A. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up. (v. 4) A. When they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them. (v. 15)
B-1. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and it sprang up quickly, since it had no depth of soil. (v. 5) B-1. And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: when they hear the word, they immediately receive it with joy. (v. 16)
B-2. And when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away. (v. 6) B-2. But they have no root, and endure only for a while; then, when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away. (v. 17)
C. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. (v. 7) C. And others are those sown among the thorns: these are the ones who hear the word, but the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things come in and choke the word, and it yields nothing. (vv. 18–19)
D. Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold. (v. 8) D. And these are the ones sown on the good soil: they hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirty and sixty and a hundredfold. (v. 20)

See how deliberately Mark has structured his parable. Each element in the parable’s telling has a corresponding interpretation that Jesus gives afterward. Nothing is superfluous.

Luke’s retelling is about 50% word-for-word identical to Mark’s. However, he changes a few things in the parable’s telling. Then he forgets some of his changes in the interpretation:

Luke’s Version (Luke 8)
Blue text = Lucan additions and changes
Red text = Examples of fatigue

The telling of the parable (vv. 5–8) The interpretation (vv. 12–15)
A. …and as he sowed, some fell on the path and was trampled on, and the birds of the air ate it up. (v. 5)  A. The ones on the path are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved. (v. 12)
B-1. B-1. The ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy. (v. 13a)
B-2. Some fell on the rock; and as it grew up, it withered for lack of moisture. (v. 6) B-2. But these have no root; they believe only for a while and in a time of testing fall away. (v. 13b)
C. Some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew with it and choked it. (v. 7) C. As for what fell among the thorns, these are the ones who hear; but as they go on their way, they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature. (v. 14)
D. Some fell into good soil, and when it grew, it produced a hundredfold. (v. 8) D. But as for that in the good soil, these are the ones who, when they hear the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patient endurance. (v. 15)

There are at least three problems resulting from fatigue (Goodacre 2001, p. 74f):

  1. Luke omits the part of the parable where the seed sprang up quickly because it lacked depth of soil. However, he still provides an interpretation for that part of the parable!
  2. Where Mark’s seed on the rock withered “because it had no root”, Luke changes the reason to be that “it withered for lack of moisture”. However, his interpretation addresses Mark’s original version — that it withered because it had no root. His interpretation does not address the lack of moisture.
  3. Luke removes Mark’s reference to the sun the scorched the seed on the rocky ground, yet he provides an interpretation for it: the “testing” that causes people to fall away.
James Tissot, The Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes (La multiplicité des pains), 1886-1896

James Tissot, The Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes (La multiplicité des pains), 1886-1896 [Source: Brooklyn Museum]

Luke and the Feeding of the Five Thousand

In case you’re still not convinced, here’s another example from Goodacre: the Feeding of the Five Thousand (Mark 6:30–44 / Matt. 14:13–21 / Luke 9:10–17).

In Mark, the familiar story of the five loaves and two fishes that miraculously feed 5,000 people is set in a deserted place (some translations say “wilderness”):

 And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. (Mark 6:32)

In Luke, the scene is moved to “a city called Bethsaida”:

He took [the apostles] with him and withdrew privately to a city called Bethsaida. (Luke 9:10)

In Mark, Jesus’ miracle is necessitated by the remoteness of the location:

When it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now very late; send them away so that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy something for themselves to eat.” (Mark 6:35–36)

At the same point in Luke’s version, he forgets the new setting of Bethsaida and repeats Mark’s statement that it a “deserted place” — using the same Greek words Mark does.

The day was drawing to a close, and the twelve came to him and said, “Send the crowd away, so that they may go into the surrounding villages and countryside, to lodge and get provisions; for we are here in a deserted place.” (Luke 9:12)

Bethsaida was a significant city by the mouth of the Jordan River that underwent expansion and development under Philip the tetrarch, who died 34 CE. It was not some one-horse hamlet, let alone a deserted wilderness (ABD, “Beth-Saida”). Goodacre (1998, p. 51) remarks:

The adjective used by both Mark and Luke is ἐρημός, lonely, desolate, abandoned. Clearly it is nonsense to say ‘we are here in a desolate place’ when in the Lucan setting they are not. After all, if the crowd were in a city, they would not need to go to the surrounding villages and countryside to find food and lodging. Further, since in Bethsaida food and lodging ought to be close to hand, Luke’s comment that the day was drawing to a close lacks any relevance and, consequently, the feeding lacks the immediate motive that it has in Mark.

Vasily Polenov, He is guilty of death, 1906

Vasily Polenov, He Is Guilty of Death, 1906

Jesus and the Disappearing Witnesses

I want to throw in another example I have noticed, though it isn’t among the many given by Goodacre. Instead, it comes from an observation made by G.A. Wells (1989).

In Jesus’ trial as depicted in Mark 14, the Sanhedrin and high priest bring witnesses to testify against Jesus, but they run into trouble because the testimonies are “false” and contradict each other. But after the high priest asks Jesus directly if he is the Messiah and Jesus answers in the affirmative (or prevaricates; there is a manuscript issue here), the high priest declares that the witnesses are no longer needed.

They took Jesus to the high priest; and all the chief priests, the elders, and the scribes were assembled. […] Now the chief priests and the whole council were looking for testimony against Jesus to put him to death; but they found none. For many bore false witness against him, and their witness did not agree. (Mark 14:53, 55–56)

And the high priest tore his garments, and said, “Why do we still need witnesses? You have heard his blasphemy.” (Mark 14:63–64a)

In Luke’s version, the high priest is not present, and no witnesses are called. No false or contradictory testimony impedes the trial. It is somewhat odd, then, that that the council declares, using the same Greek words as Mark, that they have no further need of witnesses:

When it was day, the ruling body of elders of the people gathered, both the chief priests and the scribes, and they brought him into their council… Then all of them said, “Are you, then, the Son of God?” And he said to them, “You are saying that I am.” They replied, “Why do we still need witnesses? For we ourselves have heard it from his own mouth.” (Luke 22:66, 70–71)

The council’s reference to witnesses is obviously a remnant from Mark’s version, even though it does not fit very well in Luke’s revised account of the trial.

Can Fatigue Shed Light on Other Synoptic Theories?

In theory, editorial fatigue could clarify other literary relations if suitable instances were found. Goodacre, for example, is a proponent of the minority Farrer Hypothesis, which eliminates Q and suggests that the double tradition — material found in Matthew and Luke but not in Mark — was originally written by Matthew and then adapted by Luke, who used both Mark and Matthew as sources. He has found a few examples of what he thinks are fatigue from Luke copying Matthew (1998 p. 54f). Of course, his examples — if valid — could also be the result of fatigue from Luke copying Q. The case becomes somewhat stronger if no examples of fatigue from Matthew copying the hypothetical Q can be found. Whether Goodacre’s examples are solid or not is something to examine in another article.

On the other hand, British New Testament scholar Alan Garrow has been developing the Matthew Conflator Hypothesis — that Luke used Mark and Matthew used both Luke and Mark, again dispensing with Q (for the most part). While this view has even fewer adherents than the Farrer Hypothesis, Garrow has posted a very compelling series of videos that summarize his case (which are a must-see!). I’m close to being convinced, and I’d be interested to know if any relevant examples of fatigue can be found.


  • Michael Goulder, Midrash and Lection in Matthew, 1974.
  • Mark Goodacre, “Fatigue in the Synoptics”, New Testament Studies 44 (1998).
  • Mark Goodacre, The Synoptic Problem: A Way Through the Maze, 2001.
  • G. A. Wells, Who Was Jesus? A Critique of the New Testament Record, 1989.

10 thoughts on “How Editorial Fatigue Shows That Matthew and Luke Copied Mark

  1. Great stuff. I became aware of fatigue via Goodacre and hadn’t seen the witnesses one before.

    There was a time a couple years ago where I was captivated by the synoptic problem. I think my favorite resource was Ben C. Smith’s Text Excavation site which sadly now appears to be dead and can only be accessed via the WaybackMachine. It presented most of the pericopes side-by-side in Greek and English with Carlson’s color highlighting to show the difference. Would you happen to know if that project has been sustained or moved somewhere else? I’m tempted to grab the site off the archive and host it myself.

    Regardless, I eventually landed on a sort of modified Farrier hypothesis, where the “Matthew” that Luke used was an early version that was missing the nativity and other pro-Nazorean redactions. I hypothesize that this proto-Matthew was a combination of Mark and the logia that Papias referenced – where perhaps Mark was Greek and the logia was Aramaic. The “all Greek” combination is then Luke’s source and both the Aramaic and Greek combinations serve as the basis for the Jewish-Christian gospels, where the “Gospel of the Nazoreans” is a close sibling of what we now call Matthew. In my exuberance I summarized this idea and sent it to Goodacre and Allison, both of whom were gracious enough to actually reply and suggest that it was a reasonable hypothesis but needed a more exhaustive analysis. I would love to do that some time but I really don’t have the background nor the resources for it. Have you ever come across a scholarly treatment that presents anything like what I’ve described here?


    • Thanks for the comment, Travis. I wasn’t aware of the Text Excavation site. It looks really useful, and I think we need something like that online. If I had time, it would be fun to create an even more comprehensive version with the Gospel of Thomas, patristic quotations, and so on.

      I tend to agree that a really complete Synoptic solution is going to have to account for earlier versions of Matthew and/or Luke (particularly Marcion’s Evangelion). I haven’t encountered anything specifically like you suggest, but I’m not familiar with most of the voluminous literature out there. (That’s why I’ve mostly ignored the Synoptic Problem so far.)

      I’ve been mulling something in the other direction… a Proto-Luke (that the Evangelion was based on) that Matthew used à la Garrow’s MCH, with canonical Luke possibly using some of Matthew. I’ll have a better idea of whether this works or not after finishing BeDuhn’s “The First New Testament”.


      • I never questioned the assumption that Marcion was a shameless editor and that this explains the differences in his gospel. I’ll have to take a closer look. Larry Hurtado’s most recent blog post is an interesting and relevant discussion of a Marcion-priority theory. Check it out if you haven’t already.


  2. Thanks Paul for a fascinating article. I have been reading Raymond E. Browns introduction to the New Testament. He described Luke as ‘a sloppy editor’.

    For years I had been puzzled by the differences such as Matthew saying ‘blessed are the poor in Spirit’ and Luke ‘Blessed are the poor’. The difference in wording changes the meaning materially. Most Bible teachers seem to get around this conflict by ignoring Luke’s version.

    James Tabor mounts an interesting argument that Luke tried to combine two separate accounts in his version of the last supper. In chapter 22: 14-23 Tabor points out the odd reference to Jesus taking the cup twice:


  3. Is it possible that, rather than fatigue, some differences were caused because later gospels were recreated from memory? Perhaps those authors couldn’t obtain or use a written copy of gMark?


    • That would be possible in the case of, say, the Gospel of Thomas, which has many of the sayings and parables found in Luke, but paraphrases them instead of verbatim quotes.

      When the content matches word-for-word like Matthew and Luke so often do when using Mark, only literary copying really explains it.


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