The Gospels of Mark and Matthew in the context of the early church


Cook, Sarah L.. (2018) The Gospels of Mark and Matthew in the context of the early church [Thesis].
AuthorsCook, Sarah L.
Qualification nameDoctor of Philosophy (PhD)

The New Testament is witness to disagreement in the early church about whether Gentile converts to the good news needed to abide by the ritualistic aspects of the Jewish Torah. One view, advocated by Paul, was that Gentiles did not need to adhere to these aspects of the Law. Another view, promoted by James and Peter in the Jerusalem Church, held that the Torah had not been moved aside with Jesus’ ministry. As such, there were different views in the early church about what an appropriate Gentile mission should entail, and this tension is seen at the Council of Jerusalem (Acts. 15:1-21; Gal. 2:1-10), the Incident at Antioch (Gal. 2:11-14), the Crisis at Galatia (Gal. 1:1-24), as well as at other times in Paul’s missionary career (Phil. 3:2-6). The premise of this study is that this early church disagreement was not resolved during Paul’s lifetime but continued into the late first century and is reflected in the Gospels of Mark and Matthew.

Mark’s advocacy for a Law-free Gentile mission is seen in the Markan Jesus’ active efforts to take the gospel to Gentiles (Mark 4:35-5:20; 6:45-52; 7:24-8:9; 8:13-9:29), in his stories that promote such an undertaking (Mark 7:24-30; 8:1-9), and in his liberal attitude towards the Torah (Mark 2:23-3:6; 7:15, 19b). Matthew, while using Mark’s Law-free Gospel, promotes a Law-abiding Gospel. This is seen in his insistence that the Torah is eternally binding (Matt. 5:17-19), in his final commission where Gentiles are welcomed into this Law-abiding gospel (Matt. 28:16-20), and in the changes he makes to some Markan stories (Matt. 15:1-20 cf. Mark 7:1-23).

These evangelists’ different positions can also be seen in how they represent the leaders of the Law-abiding movement, namely the disciples and family of Jesus. Mark portrays the disciples as steadily becoming more and more foolish as the Gospel goes on, and culminates in their betrayal, desertion, and denial of him (Mark 14:43-72). His portrayal of the family of Jesus is particularly poor, where he writes that Jesus rejects them (Mark 3:31-35), cannot work around them (Mark 6:16), and implies that they are guilty of the unforgivable sin (Mark 3:19b-30). Matthew keeps the basic narrative structure of the disciples’ portrayal in Mark, but tones down the criticism they are given, explicitly gives them responsibility in the future church (Matt. 16:17-19; 18:18; 19:28; 28:19-20), and adds a resurrection narrative where they are reconciled with the risen Jesus (Matt. 28:16-20). He also considerably refines the portrait of Jesus’ family, adding an infancy narrative where they are portrayed very positively (Matt. 1:18-2:23). These different portrayals, viewed through the context of the early church, likely reflect each author’s different views of these figures’ promotion of a Law-abiding Gentile mission.

The final part of this study looks at recent questions about the relationship between these Gospels and Paul. In addressing the idea that Mark was influenced by Paul, it is seen that while Mark and Paul share a few key controversial points in common – namely promotion of a Law-free gospel and tension with the Jerusalem Church – there is no indication that Mark received these ideas from Paul. Instead, it is more likely that Mark and Paul were two independently Law-free Christian movements. On the question of whether Matthew was consciously criticising Paul, it is seen that while Matthew at places can be said to criticise a general Law-free theology (Matt. 5:17-19; 7:21-23) there is nothing specifically Pauline in his critique. In both cases then, it is seen that the Law-free movement was bigger than Paul, and that both Gospels could have been reacting to different Law-free movements in the first century church. While in retrospect Mark can be said to align more closely to Paul, and Matthew can be said to stand in tension with him, there is no evidence that either evangelist was consciously doing so.

Mark and Matthew then, can be seen to strongly reflect different sides of the continuing debates in the early church about the relevance of the ritualistic aspects of the Torah for Gentiles, and studying both Gospels together in this context demonstrates how pervasive this debate was in the first Christian century.

PublisherACU Research Bank
Digital Object Identifier (DOI)
Research GroupSchool of Theology
Final version
Publication dates28 Mar 2018
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