Parallel Texts in Matthew, Mark & Luke

1. True Kin
Matt 12:46-50 // Mark 3:31-35 // Luke 8:19-21

  context     Greek synopsis     English synopsis     analysis     source hypotheses     variants 

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Form: Pronouncement Story or Chreia

This story sketches an incident that ends with a dramatic saying of Jesus. The situation is described with just the minimum details needed to set up Jesus' words. There are no names of characters or descriptions of the setting that reflect eye-witness reminiscence. None of the accounts mentions the outcome of the incident. Everything stops with Jesus' pronouncement.

Here the synoptic gospels present three performances of the same basic script, a script designed to let Jesus have the last word. Note the patterns of extensive verbal agreement in each narrator's blocking of the incident. The logical structure of the story is practically the same in each case. The only differences are stylistic (verb form, synonyms, transitional words, omission or repetition of phrases like "mother & brothers").

The logical skeleton of this pericope is:

  • Jesus' biological kin stood outside his inner circle.

  • [Jesus was told this].

  • [Jesus questioned the identity of his kin].

  • Jesus defined his kin by theological rather than biological relationships.

As the texts of Matthew & Luke show, either of the two middle elements could be dropped without disrupting the basic logic of the story.

Surprisingly, however, there is wide variation in the three versions of Jesus' lines. This is not an instance of Jesus saying the same thing on different occasions but, rather, of divergent reports of Jesus' words on the same occasion. 

If these stories varied in structure or significant details, the variation in Jesus' pronouncement could be attributed to faulty recollection of different witnesses. But since the logical structure of the pericope is identical in all three gospels, one has to conclude that the writers are repeating the same story & that at least two of them have deliberately edited the punch line.

Location in Texts

This story about kinship is a self-contained unit that could be told anywhere, since there are no clues in the narrative to indicate where or when it happened. Yet, all three synoptic writers present it right next to a block of material focused on the problem of understanding Jesus' parables:

  • in Matthew & Mark it comes just before the parable segment;

  • in Luke it comes just after.

[For precise place in the gospel sequences see Gospel Outlines, lines 93 & 118].

There are no internal logical links between the story of Jesus' kin & the parable segment. So the connection between these pericopes is not likely to be a coincidence in the oral memory of writers working independently. Rather, it is one clue among many pieces of evidence that these gospels shared a written source. If that source is not some unknown lost document, then two of these texts are based on the third.

Wording: Mark as Middle Ground

Ancient writers had no concept of copyright. So they often plagiarized material from other texts without bothering to credit the source. Careful comparison of the patterns of agreement & disagreement in wording uncovers important clues as to who copied from whom.

In the case of this chreia regarding Jesus' kin, note four things:

  • The bulk of the wording is duplicated in at least two texts (blue & teal type).

  • Except for the oft-repeated phrase "mother & brothers," there is practically no wording shared by all three texts (blue type). [That would still be the case if Matt 12:47 was in the original version of Matthew, which is unlikely].

  • The pattern of verbal agreement between texts varies.

  • One whole verse is in Mark & Luke but probably not Matthew.

  • One whole verse is in Matthew & Mark but not Luke.

  • In the focusing statement Matthew shares one verbal clause with Mark ("stand outside"), while Luke shares another ("came").

  • In Jesus' climactic pronouncement, Matthew & Mark agree in every detail except the name Jesus used to designate the deity, while that is the only word in which Luke & Mark agree (except for the recurrent phrase "mother & brothers").

  • Matthew & Luke agree in wording only when they also agree with Mark (blue type). [Since Matt 12:47 is probably a later editor's attempt to harmonize Matthew with the other synoptics, the word "standing" cannot be used as evidence of agreement between the original texts of Matthew & Luke].

Therefore, the text of Mark is the middle term in the relationship between the texts of Matthew & Luke.  Without Mark, Matthew & Luke would have practically no wording in common except the repeated reference to "mother & brothers." The only elements that Matthew & Luke's versions of this story share are:

  • the logical structure of the narrative, &

  • one oft-repeated stock phrase.

Such a pattern usually points to a common oral source rather than to literary dependence of one text on another. So, without Mark, this passage alone does not demonstrate a literary link between Matthew & Luke. But with Mark in the middle a literary link becomes obvious.

Style: Transitions

Note the differences in the wording each synoptic writer uses to introduce this story. Transitions between pericopes are the creation of the person who combined them & reveal much about that author's characteristic style. Matthew opens with a temporal clause that leads the reader gradually from one scene to another. Mark & Luke have only vague single word links that make the reader jump from one scene to the next . 

Mark's opening word is the simple coordinating conjunction "and" (Greek: καὶ), which is usually used to add one item to another to form a string of parallel elements (as in "mother and brothers"). This is Mark's favorite transition word to link scenes (more than 70 times in 16 chapters; compared with about 30 times each in the longer gospels of Matthew & Luke). Mark also regularly used it to link action statements (5 times in this pericope alone). Frequent dependence upon "and" to establish logical links between clauses may be acceptable in oral story telling, but it is not good literary style in Greek any more than in English. [In Hebrew or Aramaic literature, however, such use of "and" is common. So the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible regularly used καὶ to represent the Hebrew word va ("and") in linking parallel statements.]

Mark's style is colloquial, Matthew's & Luke's more formal. Matthew & Luke wrote good Greek. They did not generally use "and" to link actions. Instead they preferred subordinate clauses, which is a more elegant, literate method of joining action statements. But note: in this pericope, at least, Luke never used the same transitions as either Matthew or Mark. [The Greek word behind Luke's conjunctions printed here in square brackets (Luke 8:20) is not καὶ but δε, a more subtle flexible conjunction preferred in polished Greek literary works].

  context     Greek synopsis     English synopsis     analysis     source hypotheses     variants 
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last revised 28 February 2023

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