"Remember, I am with you always to the end of the age" (Mt 28:20)


St. Bartholomew and Why Markan Priority is an Important Issue

Bartholomew in Milan by Marco d'Agrate in the 16th century.
According to the Golden Legend, written during the 13th century,
Bartholomew earned his grisly martyrdom (skinned alive)
for converting a king in India.
Today is the Feast of St. Bartholomew [Aramaic], one of the twelve apostles, who is identified as Nathanael [Hebrew, “gift of God”] in John’s Gospel. In my research on his life, what stands out to me is that we have an early evidence of Matthew’s Gospel being the first to be written among the synoptic gospels. When I was still studying theology, it was already generally accepted without question that Mark was the first gospel to be written. This view is contrary to the Catholic Church's long standing view, found in history and tradition across 1700 years, which holds that, not only is Matthew's the earliest to be written, but that most likely it was authored by the apostle Matthew himself. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, this general consensus was challenged by new scientific studies made by modern scholars. They support the position of 'Markan Priority' which claims that Mark’s was written first. 'What's in it for us?' one may ask. I used to say, 'For one it doesn’t make any difference which Gospel came first as along as we believe that the writers faithfully stuck with what Jesus Christ taught.' That was in the past.

Almost all schools teach nowadays the Markan Priority without being aware of the very serious repercussions. The Sacred Scriptures are the gold-mines of the Christian faith and every interpretation must be tested thoroughly like "A crucible for silver and a furnace for gold" (Pro 17:3). The decision of which Gospel was written first cannot change overnight for it needs to depend on the facts, not just on what is scientifically convenient. I always recognise that as rational beings entrusted to safeguard the Word we must be responsible and very discerning in looking at various points of view. There are convincing arguments on the two hypotheses which, to me, are not so difficult to understand. I learned through the life of the apostle Bartholomew that he once brought an original copy of the Gospel of Matthew, written originally in Hebrew, on his mission to India.

Hebrew, Aramaic, Common Greek, Latin
In the movie, The Passion Of Christ, by Mel Gibson, Jesus and His disciples spoke Old Aramaic consistent with the daily language used by most Jews at the time. On the other hand, Hebrew was spoken by the Jewish authorities for religious use only. Aramaic and Hebrew came from the same family. The historical Jesus probably did not speak Latin. However, for Greek, i.e., the lingua franca through much of the eastern Roman world, Jesus could have picked up a few words from traders. Was the first gospel written in Hebrew or Aramaic? Or were there two versions? It is an open case still especially for the gospel of Matthew. Nonetheless, it was necessary for the gospels to be translated when the Jews in the Diaspora forget their Hebrew. The succeeding gospels, like Luke, Mark and John, were written in Koine Greek, or common Greek which accounts for the "bad" Greek of Mark. One scholar holds that if we maintain the Markan Priority then Mark's author must have had a Hebrew or Aramaic version. It is a possibility. Without doubt, several words and phrases in Aramaic were incorporated despite the usage of Koine Greek.

Repercussions Of The Markan Priority
First repercussion, if Mark’s gospel was written first then it is very unlikely that Matthew’s gospel was written by the Apostle Matthew. It is like telling that the first gospel ever written was penned either by a community that came after the apostles have already died, or by an individual who was a non-apostle. And today, many are questioning whether or not the gospels are accurate accounts of what Jesus said and did. For the past 1700 years, we held on to the gospel of Matthew as an eye-witness testimony. That assertion matters a big deal which some people would be willing to die defending it.

St. Augustine writes that he would not accept the New Testament as the Word of God if it were not for the Church telling him that it was so. The Church, by virtue of the testimony of the early church fathers and the ancient tradition they left behind, decided which books belonged in the Bible (latter 4th century). The early church fathers were the authoritative witnesses behind the Church's claim that Matthew the Apostle wrote the first gospel. We are stuck in a catch-22 dilemma or a chicken and egg situation if the gospel of Matthew from which the Church traditionally grounds herself, i.e., Matthew 16:18-19, is put into question. To relegate the writing of the Gospel of Matthew to a later period detached from the eye-witness accounts of the apostles and that its author largely copied from Mark or from another source called "Q," hence, the Two-source theory that corroborates the Markan Priority, bolsters the opinion that Matthew, i.e., "And I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven" [cf. Mt. 16:18-19], were put into Jesus’ mouth and were not really Jesus’ words. No wonder those who dissent from the Church's teachings and tradition do not permit others to dissent on their claim of Markan Priority.

Indeed, accepting the Markan Priority could be a costly venture for we now have to dismiss a lion's share of the early Church Father’s testimony, [e.g., quoting St. Irenaeus Eusebius wrote, “Now Matthew published among the Hebrews a written gospel also in their own tongue” EH. 5: 8, 2]. Without doubt Hebrew language was very much in use at the time, contrary to some who say it was a dead language. Luke, in Acts 21:40 and 22:2 reports Paul using it. Another formidable proof comes from ‘The Dead Sea Scrolls’ [JC 65].

Allow me to quote an excerpt from "Letters from Lake Como: Explorations on Technology and the Human written by a German Catholic priest, in the 20th century, Romano Guardini (17 February 1885–1 October 1968). He gives a poignant view of looking at the present reality in and outside the Church.
[...] To me it is as if a terrible machine were crushing our inheritance between the stones. We are becoming poor, very poor. What is not wholly genuine in itself and in our own soul is going to pieces. And yet it has to be so. Perhaps it is only in this way that we can arrive at what is truly essential.
[...] From a literary point of view I am not up to this. I wish I did not feel these things so strongly. Nevertheless, I must continue. Walter Rathenau has written a terrifying book, Die neue Gesellschaft. In it he speaks of the new incursion of people from below. The destruction this will cause is incalculable because so many of those who are surging up have so little by way of legacy that what repels us as trash seems glorious and attractive to them. I am not hitting at such people. I feel only guilt relating to them. What I have in view is simply the destruction caused by the masses. I realize that what is emerging might have something different in it. The mass culture of our day might also bear some other name, and something great might emerge from it later. But devastation is the present situation. Can we live in it? [...]
I remember the revolutionary discovery of Galileo Galilei that the earth revolves around the sun and not the other way around. Galileo is now hailed as the Father of Modern Science and the Catholic Church has apologised for having condemned his research work in the past. But the case of which of the four Gospels was written first is not a closed case in the same way as that of Galileo's heliocentrism. The Two-source theory is just one among many others including those that will follow and which will definitely be more prodigious. Fr. JM Manzano, SJ


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