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Marcion's Gospel and the Synoptic Problem

It may be helpful to familiarize yourself with the Conclusions of the analysis of Marcion's Gospel of the Lord [Mcg] on this site before continuing with this page.

As described in The Synoptic Problem, much of the text of the gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke is very similar, and in some places identical, in either two or all three of these gospels, and for this reason they are collectively referred to as the Synoptic (or ‘seeing together’) Gospels, or just the ‘synoptics.’ Marcion's Gospel of the Lord is obviously related to the synoptics, appearing to be a shorter version of Luke, and the generally accepted explanation for this is that Marcion edited Luke, removing text that did not suit his theology. However, there is no known evidence (save for the acknowledged biased opinions of Tertullian, Epiphanius, and others) that Marcion actually created Mcg, and there is nothing in the content of either Mcg or Luke that could not instead be explained by Luke being an expanded version of Mcg. If so, then it is conceivable that if Mcg is earlier than Luke, then it either is, or is based on something that is, also earlier than Matthew. Consequently, if we compare the text of Mcg with that of Luke only, and make decisions regarding its origin on that basis, we are ignoring the parallel (i.e. obviously closely related, but not necessarily identical) text in Mark and Matthew, and so it is important to compare Mcg with the other synoptics as well.

There is currently (Sep 2015) no agreed solution to the synoptic problem, and perhaps the most significant issue on which agreement has not yet been reached is that in some places the text of Matthew appears to pre-date that in Luke, while in others text in Luke appears to pre-date text in Matthew. Of the two possible solutions that can be considered the 'front-runners,' one (the Mark-Q theory) requires the use of an additional hypothetical source, usually known as Q, to solve this and other issues regarding Matthew and Luke. However, as Mcg is an additional known (not hypothetical) source that is clearly related to Luke, it is worth investigating whether the text of Mcg could provide all the 'explanatory power' for which Q was originally created, and so effectively replace Q in synoptic solutions.

As we know that Mcg is basically an old, shorter, version of Luke, it is important to know whether or not the text in Mcg is more primitive than (i.e. pre-dates) the parallel text in either Matthew or Luke itself. If Luke is more primitive than Mcg then it is likely that Mcg is an edited version of Luke. However, if Mcg is more primitive than Luke then there are a number of possibilities, depending on the relationship between Mcg and Matthew. If Matthew is more primitive than Mcg then it is unlikely that Mcg can add anything to the synoptic problem. However, if Matthew is not more primitive than Mcg we need to look at the agreements (or disagreements) among Mcg, Matthew, and Luke: If Mcg is more primitive than Matthew we have added to the evidence that Mcg is also earlier than Luke. This is also the case in places where Mcg and Mt have the same text, and both are more primitive than Luke. In both these latter cases Mcg could be a source for Matthew as well as for Luke.

When investigating the synoptic problem some ‘sections’ of text in the synoptics are given particular names, based on how the synoptics overlap, or do not. Although these names are not universal, they are common enough that they will be used here as well:

  • Triple Tradition: Material common to all three synoptics, i.e. in Mark, Matthew, and Luke;
  • Double Tradition: Material common to Matthew and Luke, but not in Mark;
  • Sondergut Luke: Material unique to Luke;
  • Sondergut Matthew: Material unique to Matthew.
  • For these purposes one additional grouping may also be useful, and this is the material common to Mark and Luke but not Matthew, which will be termed the Mark/Luke Double Tradition.

In order to investigate the relationships between Mark, Matthew, Luke, and Mcg, we need to look at all the Triple and Double Tradition material (everything in both Matthew and Luke). Additionally, although neither Sondergut Luke nor the Mark/Luke Double tradition text contain anything from Matthew (by definition), it may also turn out that this material can provide extra information. Because neither Tertullian nor Epiphanius mention the complete text of either Luke or Mcg we cannot identify all the Triple and Double Tradition material that they saw, and even in those places where we can, the text they give may not contain direct quotes. In addition, much of the Triple and Double Tradition material does not show any clear signs of directionality, and as a result, we may be very limited in our ability to determine the directionality between text in Mcg and the synoptics. Nevertheless, it is worth trying. For example:

  • If Mcg predates Luke, then it might also predate Matthew. If so, then investigating the directionalty betwen text in Matthew, Luke, and Mcg may tell us their chronological order.
  • If Marcion edited Luke, why would he have excluded so much Double or Triple Tradition text, i.e. text that was never in Mark in the first place? Why not just start with Mark, and add to that instead?
For a full discussion of these and other related issues see Marcion's Gospel and Matthew and Is Marcion's Gospel Based on Mark? respectively, the conclusions of which are given below.


In the pages referred to above the results of the analyses of the relationships between Marcion's Gospel and both Mark and Matthew are clear: There are many places where:
  • Mcg has a demonstrably earlier or more 'primitive' reading than Matthew; or
  • Mcg appears to be the source of a reading in Matthew that is not in Luke; or
  • aLuke (the author of Luke) appears to have conflated readings from both Mcg and Matthew.
There is also the rather stunning fact that, with the exception of one name (Bethany), everything that is generally believed (on the basis of Markan priority) to be material that aLuke took from Mark, he could have equally have taken from Mcg instead, and perhaps he may never have actually seen Mark itself. These points all provide support for the view that not only is Mcg earlier than Luke, but that it is also earlier than Matthew, and that both aMatthew and aLuke knew and used either Mcg, or perhaps a very similar Greek document from which Mcg (perhaps an Old Latin translation) was developed. 

The evidence points to Mcg having been created by combining something consisting largely of edited versions (close to the Lukan parallels) of verses in Mark (excluding The Great Omission) with some parts of the text that we refer to as sondergut Luke. It appears that the only synoptic gospel on which Mcg depends is Mark, and that Mcg could be considered to be an ‘intermediate’ form, part way between Mark and what we see as Luke today. Despite the prevailing opinion that Mcg is a later, edited version of Luke, in all respects the known text of Mcg instead meets the criteria for an early version of Luke. This strongly suggests that Mcg is at least very closely related to a pre-Matthew version of Luke (Early Luke) as described in MwEL: A New Synoptic Hypothesis