‘Special Mark’ material and Markan Priority

In comparison to the amount of material occurring uniquely in Matthew and uniquely in Luke (termed ‘Special Matthew’ and ‘Special Luke’ respectively), there is very little material unique to Mark.  Mark Goodacre has coined the term ‘Special Mark’ to label this category and places within it three key passages [1]:

Mark 7:33-36 After he took him aside, away from the crowd, Jesus put his fingers into the man’s ears. Then he spit and touched the man’s tongue.  He looked up to heaven and with a deep sigh said to him, “Ephphatha!” (which means, “be opened!”).  At this, the man’s ears were opened, his tongue was loosened and he began to speak plainly.  Jesus commanded them not to tell anyone.  But the more he did so, the more they kept talking about it.
Mark 8:22-26 They came to Bethsaida, and some people brought a blind man and begged Jesus to touch him.   He took the blind man by the hand and led him outside the village. When he had spit on the man’s eyes and put his hands on him, Jesus asked, “Do you see anything?”  He looked up and said, “I see people; they look like trees walking around.”  Once more Jesus put his hands on the man’s eyes. Then his eyes were opened, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly.  Jesus sent him home, saying, “Don’t even go into the village.”
Mark 14:51-52 A young man, wearing nothing but a linen garment, was following Jesus. When they seized him, he fled naked, leaving his garment behind.

It is generally accepted that these passages form a basic argument in favour of Markan priority.  This is because it is considerably more likely that Matthew and Luke omitted these passages while copying Mark than it is that Mark deliberately added these passages to a compilation of Matthew and Luke.

Indeed, it is fairly easy to imagine why Matthew and Luke would choose to omit Mark 7:33-36 and Mark 8:22-26.  First of all, the story of the healing of the blind man at Bethsaida includes the potentially embarrassing detail that Jesus initially failed to heal the man.  Instead, Jesus has to repeat his actions in order to bring about a complete cure.  Second, the very fact that both passages depict Jesus using a physical action in addition to addressing the person being healed would be disconcerting to many early Christians.  In the context of miracle working, actions such as spitting or touching were characteristic of the methods of magicians.  Magicians did not derive their power from a special relationship with God but rather through learning – becoming particularly skilled in certain physical techniques or through gaining knowledge of special incantations. [2]  Through this behaviour the magician was thought to be able to manipulate the ‘elements’ or cause agents in the spiritual realm to respond in a certain way.  A good example of this in the first century can be found in Josephus (Antiquities 8:46-9), who relates the story of a magician who exorcised demons with a special root using the skill and knowledge he learnt from Solomon’s teaching, without relying on his spiritual power or by calling on God:

… I have seen a certain man of my own country whose name was Eleazar, releasing people that were demonical in the presence of Vespasian, and his sons and his captains, and the whole multitude of his soldiers.  The manner of the cure was this: he put a ring that had a root of one of those sorts mentioned by Solomon to the nostrils of the demoniac, after which he drew out the demon through his nostrils; and when the man fell down immediately, he abjured him to return into him no more, making still mention of Solomon and reciting the incarnations which he composed.

A distinction between magicians and men of God is also found in Josephus in Antiquities 2:286, where he has Moses compare the miracles he performs through calling on God with the magic tricks performed by his Egyptian opponents:

…O King, I do not myself despise the wisdom of the Egyptians, but I say that what I do is so much superior to what these do by magic arts and tricks, as divine power exceeds the power of man: but I will demonstrate that what I do is not done by craft, or counterfeiting what is not really true, but that they appear by the providence and power of God.

The desire to disassociate Jesus’ miracles from the work of magicians is therefore understandable.  Early Christians believed Jesus’ miracles flowed from his unique and intimate relationship with God, epitomised in his use of the Aramaic word ‘Abba’.  Traditions that describe how Jesus relied on the methods of magicians undermine this claim by suggesting he was using knowledge or skill that was available to everybody.  Thus it is highly unlikely that Mark, writing third, would freely choose to add these stories to his gospel.  It is far more plausible that Matthew and Luke used Mark but omitted the miracle stories with physical components in order to emphasise a reliance on faith and Jesus’ connection with God.  Markan priority is the best solution for Mark 7:33-36 and Mark 8:22-26.

It is also easy to imagine why Matthew and Luke would omit the account of the fleeing of the young man in Mark 14:51-52.  The story is clearly rather strange and has no easily discernable meaning.  Even contemporary scholars are divided on how best to interpret the meaning of this passage.  The anonymous young man is not named anywhere else in the gospel.  Indeed, it is possible to remove this story and not disrupt the narrative at all.  And while it is easy to imagine why Matthew and Luke would omit the passage, it is difficult to see why Mark writing third should want to specifically add such an odd story, particularly when he would have omitted so much material far more sympathetic to his message.

It is clear that Markan priority is strongly suggested by the nature of the material in the ‘Special Mark’ category.  In my next blog post, I have developed an additional argument for Markan priority based upon Mark 14:51-52.


1. Goodacre, Mark, The Synoptic Problem: A way through the maze (2001), T&T Clark International, p59

2. Sanders, EP, The Historical Figure of Jesus (1993), Penguin Books, p141

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One response to “‘Special Mark’ material and Markan Priority

  1. Pingback: An explanation of the young man in Mark 14:51-52 | bibleLAD·

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