Another Synoptic Puzzle: Luke’s Great Omission

It’s been a while since I wrote anything about the Synoptic Problem, so I thought I would take a closer look at a well-known issue: Luke’s Great Omission.

It is almost universally recognized that Luke’s Gospel copies closely from Mark, rewriting (with various modifications) the great majority of Mark’s pericopes and keeping them generally in the same order. However, a disruption occurs after Mark’s story of the feeding of the five thousand, as Luke seemingly skips everything from Mark 6:45 to 8:26. Then, from 8:27 onward, Luke resumes his faithful copying of Mark. Scholars cheekily call this jump Luke’s “Great Omission” as a play on the words “Great Commission”.

The parts of Mark that Luke skips over here include Jesus walking on the sea, several healing stories, the discourse on purity and defilement, the feeding of the four thousand, and the people’s demand for signs from heaven. Based on a typical synopsis of the Gospels, the relationship between Mark and Luke looks something like this:

Great Omission 1

(My starting point for the diagram above was chosen arbitrarily to demonstrate Luke’s consistency leading up to the Great Omission.) Bible scholars have proposed a number of reasons to explain why Luke did this. However, a closer look at Luke’s text might let us rule some of them out.

Proposal #1: Luke possessed an incomplete copy of Mark.

B.H. Streeter, in his seminal book The Four Gospels, suggests that this portion of Mark was missing from the manuscript that the author of Luke possessed. He writes:

…the absence from Luke of the equivalent of Mk. vi.45–viii.26 is, prima facie, evidence that at any rate the greater part of this section was absent from his copy of Mark, although it was indubitably present in that used by Matthew. (Streeter 1924, p. 172)

We are to imagine, then, that Luke had either an early, incomplete version of Mark¹ or else a completed version with that section torn out (or, if it was in codex form, a page was missing).

S.G. Wilson, in his book Luke and the Law, agrees that this is the preferred explanation.

…it is hard to find a plausible explanation for the omission of such a large block of continuous material. The notion of deliberate omission would be initially more plausible if the pericopes had been scattered throughout Mark but, as things stand, accidental omission is the simplest and neatest explanation. (Wilson 1984, p. 52)

However, Belgian scholar Frans Neirynck in 1990 described this explanation as “now generally abandoned” — for good reason, as we shall soon see.

Proposal #2: Luke objected to the portion of Mark he skipped.

The view that Luke deliberately chose to omit this material is more widely held by scholars², but there is less agreement on the reason for Luke’s objections. Here are a few reasons I found in the literature.

Avoidance of doublets — Some scholars think that Luke simply found this portion of Mark to be redundant and of little value. The feeding of the four thousand is so similar to the feeding of the five thousand that many consider it to be a mere variant of the same tradition. Jesus walking on the sea and quelling the storm (Mk 6:45-52) could also be seen as a doublet of Jesus’ earlier calming of the sea (Mk 4:35-41 / Lk 8:22-25). However, this argument doesn’t really apply to the other pericopes.

A different geographical focus — Many have noticed that Luke’s omission eliminates Jesus’ journey out of Galilee to Tyre (Mk 7:24), Sidon, and the Decapolis (Mk 7:31). Similarly, the mention of Caesarea Philippi (Mk 8:27) is omitted from the Lukan parallel (Lk 9:18-20), as is Jesus’ return to Galilee (Mk 9:30 / Lk 9:43). Joseph Fitzmyer, in his commentary on Luke, champions the view that Luke wants to avoid this detour in Gentile-land:

[Luke’s] depiction of Jesus as preoccupied with Jerusalem as a city of destiny and his concern to move Jesus resolutely toward it result in the omission of geographical designations and certain episodes that are explicitly located in Mark. Here the principle is probably a desire not to distract the reader’s attention from Jerusalem. This seems to be the main reason for the Big Omission³…. (p. 94)

Luke is scarcely unaware of disciples or followers of Jesus in areas to the north of Galilee…but he studiously avoids any reference to a ministry of Jesus in such territory. (p. 166)

The omission of the feeding of the four thousand might also fit this theory, since Mark appears to intend the first feeding miracle to target Jews (hence the twelve baskets of leftovers, representing the twelve tribes) and the second to target Gentiles.

Theological objections — Some scholars have proposed that these Markan pericopes were incompatible with Luke’s theology. A prime example is that of Canadian theologian Michael Pettem, who argued in a 1996 paper that Luke believed — contrary to Mark — that the Mosaic law remained in force for the Jews. Therefore, he could not keep Markan material in which Jesus was shown to dismiss Jewish cleanliness practices (Mk 7:1-23). However, Pettem fails to explain to my satisfaction why the rest of the material had to be omitted, and he relies too heavily (in my opinion) on his certainty that Luke and Acts share the same author. (See Pettem 1996 in the bibliography below.)

Many scholars combine several of these reasons to explain the omitted pericopes one by one. However, Wilson rightly points out how unlikely it is that almost every pericope Luke objects to for varying reasons should happen to occur together in the same sequence.

Proposal #3: Luke omitted this part of Mark for structural reasons.

According to the late German theologian Hans Conzelmann, Luke wanted the miracle of the feeding to culminate with the secret revelation that Jesus was the Messiah. Therefore, it made sense to shorten this section and have Jesus ask Peter immediately after the feeding, “Who do the people say that I am?” Luke was also trying to rework the Messianic Secret motif of Mark into a public relations strategy by Jesus to ensure that the Passion took place as intended.

It is clear that the Feeding, the Confession, the Prediction of the Passion and the Transfiguration form a complete cycle, to which Luke assigns a prominent function in his whole structure. The geographical approximation of these incidents, whatever the cause of it may be, produces a series of Christological statements which Luke harmonizes one with the other by altering his sources and introducing variations of Marcan motifs. 

[…] In Luke’s context the people are the same as those at the Feeding. Therefore the sayings in vv. 23 ff. stand in strong contrast to the ״glory״ that was seen in the miracle, and in this way the correct understanding of miracle is made plain. In Mark the distinction between disciples and people seems to depend on the theory of the secret, which does not exist in this form for Luke. … In ix, 21 Luke bases the command of secrecy on the inevitability of the Passion, whereas in Mark the secret is a matter of fundamental principle. (Conzelmann 1982, p. 56)

Jesus multiplies the loaves and fish, Jesus Mafa, 1973

Jesus Multiplies the Loaves and Fish, Jesus Mafa, 1973

Is the Great Omission really an omission?

It would benefit us to look briefly at the omitted pericopes to see if the assumption that Luke ignored them is correct. After all, even though the general narrative structure of Luke follows Mark, he still shifts around the order of Markan material quite a bit and freely rewords things as needed. In fact, an article for the New Jerome Bible Commentary, the aforementioned Frans Neirynck showed that much of this “omitted” material could be found elsewhere in Luke, and I’ve found a few more examples on my own.

Mk 6.49-52 — Jesus walking on the sea
As noted earlier, this pericope is somewhat redundant, for Luke has already included the earlier lake-calming episode. However, Luke borrows three elements from this pericope: (1) the mention of Bethsaida, which Luke moves to the feeding story in 9:10, (2) Jesus going up a mountain to pray, which now appears in Lk 6:12, and (3) Jesus being mistaken for a ghost by his disciples, which occurs in Lk 24:36-39.

Mk 7.1-23 — The traditions of the elders
Two elements from this passage show up elsewhere in Luke. First, the observation by the Pharisees that the disciples don’t wash their hands is found in Lk 11:37-38, where a Pharisee observes that Jesus doesn’t wash his hands. Second, Jesus’ teaching that evil comes from within a man, and not from outside, appears in Lk 6:45.

Mk 7:24-30 — The healing of the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter
As I pointed out in an earlier article, the colocation of hunger, dogs, and eating crumbs from the table finds its way into Luke’s parable of Lazarus and the rich man, which better expresses Luke’s perspective on Jew-Gentile relations. The motif of the woman returning to find her child healed remotely is applied to the healing of the Centurion’s servant (Lk 7:10). And Elizabeth Dowling argues that Luke’s Samaritan leper (Lk 17:11-19) is meant to fill the same boundary-crossing role as Mark’s Syrophoenician woman. (Dowling 2013, pp. 196-197)

Mk 8:11-13 — No sign for this generation
The demand by the Pharisees for a sign from heaven to test Jesus is used by Luke in 11:16 and 11:53-54. Jesus’ reply that no sign will be given to this generation is transformed into Luke’s “sign of Jonah” teaching in 11:29.

Mk. 8:14-21 — The leaven of the Pharisees and of Herod
This pericope was certainly reused by Luke in his mention of the leaven of the Pharisees in 12:1.

Mk 6:53-56, 7:31-37, and 8:22-26 — Healing the sick, the deaf mute, and the blind man
In my opinion, Luke has condensed all these miracle stories into a briefer mention of Jesus healing the sick and giving sight to the blind in 7:21-22.

I am convinced from these examples that the majority of Mark’s material in the so-called Great Omission was not actually omitted by Luke after all. In my view, this rules out Streeter’s theory of a defective manuscript and casts doubt on some of the other explanations. Conzelmann’s approach, rather, seems the most likely to be correct. In short, Luke wanted to connect Jesus’ secret teachings about the Passion to his public miracles, which necessitated skipping a portion of Mark. However, he reused as much of that material as he could in other parts of his Gospel.

In the end, the following diagram is a better example of how Luke made use of Mark:

Great Omission 2

Footnotes

  1. This hypothetical early version of Mark is often given the title Ur-Markus. The theory that Luke used an earlier version of Mark is generally credited to Bussmann, Synoptische Studien (3 volumes, 1925–31). That book is not available to me.
  2. This view is generally credited to Vincent Taylor, Behind the Third Gospel: A Study of the Proto-Luke Hypothesis, 1926. That book is not available to me.
  3. I don’t know why Fitzmyer insists on calling it the “Big Omission”, which no one else does.

Bibliography

9 thoughts on “Another Synoptic Puzzle: Luke’s Great Omission

  1. > and he relies too heavily (in my opinion) on his certainty that Luke and Acts share the same author

    I’d love to hear more on this! Most introductory NT books take for granted that they share an author, and I haven’t encountered a really good book or paper that claims otherwise. However, the Acts Seminar Report concludes that Acts was probably written after 120 CE, which is many decades after typical dates for the authorship of Luke, so I’ve often wondered if that could lead some to see a different author (and thus pseudonymous authorship) for Acts. Do you have more information on this?

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    • There are obvious differences between Luke and Acts. Acts is much more like John in having comedy baddies called “the Jews” running around. There are various inconsistencies between the ascension accounts. Acts 1.5 seems to quote Mark’s baptism story, not Luke’s.

      There are also major stylistic differences that really don’t come across in translation. Luke has no quibbles with following εγένετο δε (and it came to pass) with another finite verb; Acts in its fancier Greek prefers the infinitive. Luke shies away from the verb of saying έφη (quoth he) — he reacts it out of Mark, and even where it does appear in critical editions, the text is not secure (typically at least Codex Bezae will read ειπεν, he said) — but Acts just loves έφη.

      If it weren’t for people reading the Theophilus dedication at the front of Acts as Gospel truth (rather than clever pseudepigraphy), I doubt that the Luke-Acts theory would be as current as it is.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the question. James Dowden gave a great response, and I haven’t done enough systematic study to make a really solid case. However, there are a number of factors that make me doubt common authorship.

      1. I think Marcion’s Evangelion was an early version of Luke, and it obviously wasn’t written by the author of Acts.
      2. The post-resurrection events of Luke contradict those of Acts.
      3. I think the first few chapters of Luke, including the dedication, are a later addition by another author who was responsible for combining Luke with Acts.
      4. The late dating of Acts (as you note) and its relative obscurity among early commentators make it unlikely that it circulated together with Luke early on.

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  2. You keep cranking out the great posts Paul. Speaking of Marcion, I think this is the reason for the Great Omission. Fer example:

    Mark 6:45 – 52

    http://www.errancywiki.com/index.php?title=Mark_6

    “45 And straightway he constrained his disciples to enter into the boat, and to go before [him] unto the other side to Bethsaida, while he himself sendeth the multitude away.
    46 And after he had taken leave of them, he departed into the mountain to pray.
    47 And when even was come, the boat was in the midst of the sea, and he alone on the land.
    48 And seeing them distressed in rowing, for the wind was contrary unto them, about the fourth watch of the night he cometh unto them, walking on the sea; and he would have passed by them:
    49 but they, when they saw him walking on the sea, supposed that it was a GHOST, and cried out;
    50 for they all saw him, and were troubled. But he straightway spake with them, and saith unto them, Be of good cheer: it is I; be not afraid.”
    51 And he went up unto them into the boat; and the wind ceased: and they were sore amazed in themselves;
    52 for they understood not concerning the loaves, but their heart was hardened.”

    This would have been a proof text for Marcion (his disciples saw him as a ghost). As you observe “Luke” moves this to 24:

    http://www.errancywiki.com/index.php?title=Luke_24

    “36 And as they spake these things, he himself stood in the midst of them, and saith unto them, Peace [be] unto you.
    37 But they were terrified and affrighted, and supposed that they beheld a SPIRIT.
    38 And he said unto them, Why are ye troubled? and wherefore do questionings arise in your heart?
    39 See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye behold me having.
    40 And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet.
    41 And while they still disbelieved for joy, and wondered, he said unto them, Have ye here anything to eat?
    42 And they gave him a piece of a broiled fish.
    43 And he took it, and ate before them.”

    “Luke” takes what was a proof text for Marcion and turns it into an explicit denial that Jesus was a spirit (the fish he ate was CarpElnum). Note the double whammy for Marcion. Orthodox Luke discredits the Marcion version proof-text as the edited one and creates a text with an orthodox proof-text with the same offending word. This is like the Yankees signing a major free agent, but not just from any team. From the big rival Sox. Good Literary Criticism evidence that Marcion Luke was first.

    So what’s up with the low Japanese vaccination rate? Seems like that’s something they would be good at.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the comment, Joe. It’s an interesting approach, but Marcion’s Evangelion apparently went straight from the feeding of the five thousand to Christ’s revelation as the Messiah, just like canonical Luke. Maybe I’ve misunderstood you.

      Regarding Japan: at first it was the government dragging its feet on vaccine trials and approvals, but now, it’s mainly a supply issue, as the shipments have almost run out.

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  3. I’ve seen statistics such as Matthew containing about 95% of Mark while Luke contains about 70% of Mark (numbers might not be correct, but they are what I remember seeing). How much of Mark does Luke use if you don’t include the chapters from the Great Omission?

    Is there a good introductory book or resource that discusses the Synoptics and how they are related from a scholarly viewpoint?

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    • Yeah, it’s a good question. The numbers differ a bit on what you count as copying. Do you count by word or verse? How about transposed material? Do alternate grammatical tenses/cases of the same word count? And so on. Streeter, for example, counted that Luke reproduced 350 of Mark’s 661 verses, meaning he copied 53% of Mark’s actual words. Streeter did not count the 74 Markan verses of the Great Omission as being used by Luke. But as my article above shows, much of those 74 verses was actually reused by Luke out of order and in a different context. In the end, I think there are only a handful of verses in Mark that don’t get used by Matthew and Luke.

      As for introductory reading, Streeter’s 1924 book is a good read since it basically set the groundwork for modern Synoptic research. Since it’s old, you can find it online for free. Another good book with introductory material is Mark Goodacre’s book The Synoptic Puzzle: A Way Through the Maze, which he allows people to download for free.

      http://www.markgoodacre.org/maze/

      Note that Goodacre espouses the theory that Luke copied from Matthew as well as Mark, which I personally disagree with. Nevertheless, it’s a worthwhile read.

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  4. Thanks, I’ll take a look at the Goodacre book. Since we are talking about the synoptics, what’s your opinion of the ending of Mark?

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