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:
(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)
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- I don’t know why Fitzmyer insists on calling it the “Big Omission”, which no one else does.
- B.H. Streeter, The Four Gospels: A Study of Origins, Treating of the Manuscript Tradition, Sources, Authorship, & Dates, 1924.
- S.G. Wilson, Luke and the Law, 1984.
- Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke I–IX, 1982.
- Michael Pettem, “Luke’s Great Omission and His View of the Law”, NTS 42, 1996.
- Frans Neirynck, “Synoptic Problem”, in The New Jerome Bible Commentary, 1990.
- Hans Conzelmann, The Theology of St. Luke, 1982.
- Elizabeth V. Dowling, “To the Ends of the Earth: Attitudes to Gentiles in Luke-Acts”, in Attitudes to Gentiles in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity, 2013.