My main academic project for my sabbatical is on oral tradition in early Christianity, and what is involved in taking seriously the fact that, even though all we have are literary remains, these are products of a primarily oral environment, and even when a literary relationship can be shown to exist, orality ought not to be ignored.
Mark 13 is a great case for illustrating Matthew’s literary dependence on Mark. Not only is there extensive verbatim agreement over the course of the chapter’s material, but at one point there is even agreement on an editorial comment, “Let the reader understand”. Had these been understood as words stemming from Jesus, we would have expected the more common “He who has ears to hear, let him hear”.
This close agreement of Matthew with his source should not give a historian confidence in Mark’s material, but cause for concern. It is an axiom of historical study that independent attestation at times provides grounds for greater confidence in the authenticity of material under consideration. Matthew’s close agreement here, in comparison with other stories and sayings where the agreement is less precise, may suggest that Matthew did not already have knowledge of the material he encountered here.
To put it another way, the material found in Mark 13 was not circulating so widely by oral means, even after the writing of Mark’s Gospel, as to be known to the author of Matthew. There is other material where the agreement is less substantial, and in those cases Matthew, when composing his own work, may well have had a story read to him from Mark, in whole or in part, and then included in his own Gospel the version he [i.e. Matthew] already knew.
Close substantial verbatim agreement does not merely indicate literary dependence. It also should raise the historian’s suspicion that the material was not widely known, and thus could only be included in the later author’s literary work by direct copying/recitation. As studies of orality and the composition of ancient literature progress, it will likely increasingly seem that, where some might naively think that we have two or three witnesses in the Gospels to the same material and thus grounds for greater confidence, in fact the opposite will prove to be the case, and those points of strongest evidence for copying will be placed under serious doubt, as material that was not widely known independently of the reading of the written source that includes it.
The reverse argument cannot be made simply – wide divergence of wording in telling the same story may indicate a less direct use of Mark as a literary source, rather than independent memory. And of course, precise agreement only raises the suspicion that Matthew may not have already encountered the material previously; it cannot prove this to be the case.
Interestingly enough, historians have long had suspicions about Mark 13, believing it to be at best an artificially-constructed composite piece woven from separate material, if not in some or even many places composed by the Gospel’s author. And so it may be that rethinking the relationship between orality and literature, and between the literary interdependence of the Synoptic Gospels and historical-critical investigations, may not radically change our understanding of the material. But it has the potential to do so, and it is thus important to reconsider well-worn subjects in light of our increased understanding of these foundational matters of orality and the methods of composition used by ancient authors.