Matthew, Mark and Luke together are called the synoptic ("same eye") gospels. This is due to the close relationship between the three, as all three tell many of the same stories, often in the same way and with the same words. Of the 661 verses in Mark, Matthew reproduces 606 of them and Luke reproduces 320 of them. Of the 55 verses in Mark but not Matthew, 31 are present in Luke.[William Barclay, The Gospel of Mark, pp. 2-3] One clear example of the connection between the gospels is the story of the man who was sick of the palsy (Mark 2:1-12, Matt 9:1-8 and Luke 5:17-26). The accounts are so similar that even a little parenthesis -"he said top the paralytic"- occurs in all three accounts in exactly the same place. This article focuses primarily on Mark and Luke, so we will set Matthew aside for now and focus on those two gospels.
There are three fundamental observations about the synoptic gospels that all seem true, but on the surface, they are not consistent and at least one of them must be false. These observations are:
Of the three observations, Observation #1, dating Luke before 63 A.D., is probably rejected more than the others. Yet this date for Luke should be quite obvious. Luke was written before Acts, based on Acts 1:1-3, with Luke calling his gospel his “former account”. Acts takes the story of Paul up through Paul’s voyage to Rome, where he awaits trial before Caesar in 62 A.D. The story of Acts then stops, leading the reader hanging as to what happens to Paul. Furthermore, Acts gives no hint of any knowledge of the major events that would take place within the decade. Some of these events are the execution of James, the brother of Jesus and head of the Jerusalem church, the burning of Rome by Nero and the subsequent persecution of the Christians (Acts presents Christianity as being on mostly good terms with Roman government officials), and most of all, the Roman-Judean war of 66-70 A.D., ending with the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. One is left with the distinct impression that Acts doesn’t mention the results of Paul’s trial or any of these other events simply because they had not happened at the time the book was written. Working backward, it seems that Luke, who was Paul’s traveling companion, was left with little to do for two years while Paul was imprisoned in Caesarea from around 59-61 A.D. He apparently used this time to research the story of Jesus, interviewing some of the eyewitnesses, and eventually produced the gospel of Luke around 61-63 A.D. This is a realistic, straightforward conclusion that fits Occam’s razor. It would probably be accepted with little dissent, were it not for the belief that it seems logically impossible to believe all three of our fundamental observations, and the other two have very strong evidence indeed.
We have already seen how there is a clear connection between the three synoptic gospels. We should now endeavor to explain why Mark is usually understood to be written first. Volumes have been written on the subject, so we will limit ourselves to a brief explanation. First, Mark is the shortest of the three gospels, and in ancient literature modifications tend to produce longer accounts rather than abbreviated accounts. Second, Mark's sayings are the most "difficult", while in the parallel passages in Matthew and Luke, they read more easily. For example, all three synoptic gospels describe Jesus being rejected in his own home town of Nazareth, but Mark includes the difficult phrase, "He could do no miracle there...", (Mark 6:5) which sounds a little like saying Jesus was incapable. Matthew softens the statement, making it "And He did not do many miracles there because of their unbelief" (Matt 13:58), and Luke leaves it out completely. Third, the Greek language used in the book of Luke is very advanced, as would be expected from a well-educated native Greek speaker (Luke, the doctor), while the Greek of Mark is much simpler and shows many marks of Semitic influence, as would be expected from a native Aramaic/Hebrew speaker (Mark) who used Greek as a second language. It is more likely that Luke took the simpler Greek from Mark and refined it than that Mark took the advanced Greek of Luke and made it less so.
We should now turn our attention to when the book of Mark, as we have it today, was written. As early as the time of the church fathers, it has been accepted that Mark was addressed to the church in Rome, and that it was written at a time when the church there was under persecution. This best fits the time of the persecution launched against the Christians by Nero after Rome burned in 64 A.D. The text of Mark supports this. Aramaic phrases in Mark are included but always translated for the reader (Mark 3:17, 5:41, 7:11, 7:34, 14:36, 15:34, etc.), indicating that the reader would not be expected to understand the Aramaic. This implies an audience outside of Judea. On the other hand, “Latinisms”, or words which are of Latin rather than Greek origin, are present in Mark and they are not translated (as in Mark 12:42 - "quadrans" for "cent", and Mark 15:16 - “Praetorium”). Mark also mentions names of members of the Roman church (Mark 15:21 Rufus and Alexander – compare Rom 16:13). Mark is known to have been in Rome after Paul was imprisoned based on Col 4:10 and Philemon 24. That the gospel was written to a church under persecution can be seen from the way the stories in the gospel are told. For example, Mark has a most unusual and seemingly abrupt ending in Mark 16:8 (Mark 16:9-20 is generally agreed to not be part of the original gospel). The angel at the empty tomb commands the women to "go and tell", but in 16:8 "they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid." That is the end, and it is a challenge to the persecuted church - will you obey, or are you afraid? This means the gospel of Mark was written at a point in time when Mark was in Rome, and when the church there was undergoing persecution. This would be after the ending of the book of Acts.
I believe that the solution to this dilemma lies in our understanding of the development of the Gospel of Mark. This is Observation #3 on our list. Observation #1, that Luke was written a little prior to 63 A.D., I believe to be correct with no need for any clarification. Observation #2 will need to be slightly clarified in a way we will describe shortly.
Many students, as they begin to learn about the Bible, are instinctively surprised to hear that at least 30 years passed between the death and resurrection of Jesus and the writing of the earliest gospel. They reluctantly accept the instruction of more experienced teachers who assure them that yes, there was such a gap in time, and provide plausible reasons why such a gap developed. However, the initial intuition of the students has strong merit and should not be set aside so quickly. The Jewish community of the first century A.D., where the Christian faith was born, had a nearly 100% rate of literacy among its men. Furthermore, the Jewish faith was heavily rooted in the written word. It is frankly inconceivable that the early church would follow Jesus and his teachings to the death, yet not bother to write those teachings down. Luke says that many others had written these things down (Luke 1:1). It is most probable that some attempt was made to write down the story of Jesus within just a few years (surely less than five) of his life. If the gospel of Mark was such an attempt, we should now consider how such an account would develop in an early church environment.
John Mark, the author of Mark, was a youth or very young man at the time of the crucifixion. Apparently a resident of Jerusalem, he would not have been an eyewitness to much of the story, although he may be the youth of Mark 14:51-52 who ran away naked from the arrest scene. The early church apparently met often in his home in Jerusalem, and it is there that Mark learned from the original disciples the stories and teachings he includes in his gospel. Now how would a very young man like Mark get his account accepted by the early church? In short, there would be revisions. Mark would write the story as he heard it, then Peter or one of the other disciples would read it. He would say something like, "This is great, Mark, I'm glad you're writing this down, it will really help the church. But you know, I think you should add the account of how John the Baptist died - people who weren't here will want to know what happened to him." Mark would then include that account in his next revision of the gospel. It is likely that the early church would be very particular about accuracy, and Mark's first or second revision would get quite a few "redlines." This idea of multiple revisions of Mark may not jive with our usual idea of the inspiration of scripture, especially because identifying the autograph (what the church considers the original inspired copy) may be elusive, but the end result would likely be a highly accurate account.
The idea of revisions also accounts for differences between the synoptic gospels. Most theories of the development of the synoptic gospels that place Mark first in time explain well the similarities between the gospels, but struggle to explain the differences. As an example, in Matthew and Luke (and John) the cock crows after Peter denies Jesus, but in Mark the cock crows twice, once after the first denial and a second time after the third (Mark 14:30, 14:68 [KJV] and 14:72). It is very difficult to explain why both Matthew and Luke would change two crows to one, but with revisions of Mark, it makes sense. Peter said something to Mark along the lines of: "I suppose everybody is going to keep telling that story about my denying the Lord, but as long as you are including it too, you might as well know that the cock actually crowed twice...". Luke used an earlier revision of Mark with just one crow. A later revision made for the Roman church has the two crow update. Mark didn't live much longer after producing the Roman revision of his gospel (tradition has him martyred in 67 or 68 A.D.), so the Roman revision may have been his last one, and the one we still use today.
In summary, I believe Mark wrote his gospel multiple times, making corrections and additions as appropriate, and in the case of the Roman revision (the gospel of Mark that we have today), adopting the message to address the Roman church in particular. Luke used an earlier revision of Mark, one without the Roman references.