How the Gospel of Matthew ‘improves’ the Gospel of Mark

Historians of the New Testament usually date Matthew’s gospel to around 80-85 AD. Like Mark, the work is anonymous. The anonymous author of ‘Matthew’ (the title The Gospel According to Matthew was added later in the second century) used Mark as a source, correcting, editing and adding to it as he saw fit. This suggests that for Matthew, Mark was far from being the inerrant Word of God, and was a text to be revised and improved. These changes Matthew made can tell us a great deal about his understanding of Jesus and how it differs from Mark.

The title ‘Son of God’ is absolutely central for Matthew’s Christology, and is his most important designation for Jesus. I have already mentioned how Matthew added the title ‘the Son of God’ to Peter’s confession of Jesus’ identity (cf. Mark 8:29 with Matthew 16:16). There are multiple such ‘enhancements‘ strengthening Matthew’s portrait of Jesus as God’s Son.

Matthew in chapters 1 & 2 of his gospel adds to Mark an account of Jesus’ birth of the virgin Mary (Luke too has a nativity narrative which contradicts Matthew in numerous details – see final paragraph below*). The story is of the divine origin of Jesus, not just as son of David but as Son of God, conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit. Luke 1: 28-36:

And Gabriel came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’ But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.’

This is the moment of Jesus being ‘begotten’ as Son, or to put it another way, the creation of Jesus to be the Son of God. As Professor Raymond Brown comments, there is in Matthew ‘no suggestion of an incarnation whereby a figure who was previously with God takes on human flesh’. (p. 141 in Brown, The Birth of the Messiah: a Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in Matthew and Luke, Chapman 1977).

Another significant ‘improvement’ occurs when Matthew reverses Mark’s negative portrayal of the disciples as dim-witted and hard of heart and has them openly ‘worshiping’ Jesus. Compare the story in Mark 6:47-52 with Matthew’s improved version in 14:33. Here is a fine example of a mutation in Christology:

Our earliest gospel Mark in 6:47-52 says:

When evening came, the boat was out on the lake, and he was alone on the land. When he saw that they were straining at the oars against an adverse wind, he came towards them early in the morning, walking on the lake. He intended to pass them by. But when they saw him walking on the lake, they thought it was a ghost and cried out; for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’ Then he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.’

Compare Matthew’s ‘improved’ version of Mark in 14:33:

‘When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshipped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’’

A further augmentation in Christology can be seen if we return to Mark’s story of the centurion confessing Jesus as ‘the Son of God’ (or ‘a son of God’) in 15:39. The story is told rather differently in Matthew. The centurion utters his words at the foot of Jesus’ cross (in both gospels) but then in Matthew the confession is not so much a response to the death of Jesus itself, but rather to the most cataclysmic miracle in the gospels: the earth splits open, tombs are opened and the bodies of the dead walk around and are seen alive by many people in Jerusalem, 27:51-53:

At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many.

This event is only mentioned in Matthew, no other gospel writer seemingly knew of it and contemporary historians knew nothing of it, including the historian Josephus who was from Jerusalem and alive at that time! So from Mark’s stark story of Jesus alleged death on a cross, we move to a different world where Jesus’ death now takes on a cosmic dimension, an apocalyptic upheaval in nature and the beginnings of the general resurrection of the dead itself! It is surely inconceivable that an event so sensational and of such magnitude would not be noticed by historians of the day such as Josephus, and the failure of any other Christian sources to mention it suggests that Matthew has produced a fictional narrative.

* Roman Catholic scholar Rev Professor Raymond Brown — in his impressive work Birth of the Messiah comments:

“This leads us to the observation that the two narratives are not only different—they are contrary to each other in a number of details. According to Luke 1:26 and 2:39 Mary lives in Nazareth, and so the census of Augustus is invoked to explain how the child was born in Bethlehem, away from home. In Matthew there is no hint of a coming to Bethlehem, for Joseph and Mary are in a house at Bethlehem where seemingly Jesus was born (2:11). The only journey that Matthew has to explain is why the family went to Nazareth when they came from Egypt instead of returning to their native Bethlehem (2:22-23). A second difficulty is that Luke tells us that the family returned peaceably to Nazareth after the birth at Bethlehem (2:22,39); this is irreconcilable with Matthew’s implication (2:16) that the child was almost two years old when the family fled from Bethlehem to Egypt and even older when the family came back from Egypt and moved to Nazareth. Of the options mentioned before we made the detailed comparison of the two narratives, one must be ruled out, i.e., that both accounts are completely historical.”

Brown, Birth of the Messiah, p.46


Extract from my book Jesus as Western Scholars See Him, pp 21-24.

Categories: Christology, Gospels, Jesus, New Testament scholarship

3 replies

  1. These short articles, yet with very significant content are really priceless. Thank you for sharing!

  2. Very beneficial, Barak Allaahu feekum Paul!

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