Canon Matters—Mark 8 VS Matthew 16

Canon Matters—Mark 8 VS Matthew 16 February 20, 2020
CC 2.0 image by Vessel Wenter, modified with text, via Flickr (Peter holding the keys)

Canon or canon within the Canon?—Why the difference between Mark 8 and Matthew 16 matters!

Today’s Gospel reading, dated about 70 CE, offers us Catholics a front-row seat to see how the Gospels evolved. It also helps us to understand better something we take for granted, namely, the biblical canon. This is the official list of sacred documents that make up the library that the Church believes to be inspired (i.e., the Bible). Let’s read today’s Gospel, and then compare it with another version of the same story from a different Gospel, but one more augmented, embellished, more evolved.

Mark 8:27-33
Jesus and his disciples set out for the villages of Caesarea Philippi.
Along the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”
They said in reply, “John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others one of the prophets.”
And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?”
Peter said to him in reply, “You are the Christ.”
Then he warned them not to tell anyone about him.

He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and rise after three days. He spoke this openly.

Then Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.
At this he turned around and, looking at his disciples, rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”

Changes Get Made

Now let’s look at the version of this story from “Matthew,” the version far more familiar and favored by Catholics. It is dated around 85 CE. Note the augmentations in red

Matthew 16:13-23
When Jesus went into the region of Caesarea Philippi he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”
They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”
Simon Peter said in reply, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
Jesus said to him in reply, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my sky vault Father. And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my ekklesia, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of sky vault. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in sky vault; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in sky vault.”
Then he strictly ordered his disciples to tell no one that he was the Messiah.

From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly from the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised.
Then Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you.”
He turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”

Different Versions of the Same Story

That pericope above from “Matthew” has many things not found in the same story from “Mark.” From where did these extras come? Certainly not from tape recorders and video footage. Almost all scholars accept that “Matthew” was composed after “Mark” and depended onMark.” That means without “Mark,” the document called “Matthew” could not exist. But “Matthew” also couldn’t exist without other sources from which its author borrowed.

Canon and Chronology
Fellow Dying Inmate / All rights reserved

So because of this, Matthew 16 is based on Mark 8. Matthew 16 is an augmentation of Mark 8.

Official Church Teaching and the Sayings of Jesus

The Catholic Church, in official documents, has acknowledged these “Stages” or “Levels” of development in the Gospel materials. The Church doesn’t just “do the teaching”—it gets informed by critical scholarship. Informed by this scholarship, it acknowledges there has been development. According to Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, or Dei Verbum (§19), the Pontifical Biblical Commission’s, Instruction on the Historical Truth of the Gospels” (§6-9), and the Universal Catechism (no. 126), the Gospels emerged through a three-stage process of development—

  1. Stage One—These are the original words and deeds of Jesus.
  2. Stage Two—The oral proclamation of the Apostles and disciples (including catechesis, narratives, testimonies, hymns, doxologies, and prayers).
  3. Stage Three—This would be the Gospel documents themselves.

Understanding the Gospels means understanding these stages. Quite often they all are on display in the same Gospel passage:

“Upon this Rock…”

Consider, for example, the Jesus-saying in the Gospel called “Matthew”—

Matthew 16:18
[Jesus said] “And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my ekklesia, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.”

Although this may alarm quite a few prooftexting Catholic fundamentalists, as alleged Jesus-sayings go, this particular verse isn’t difficult for biblical scholars like Dr. Richard Rohrbaugh and friends. The historical Jesus could never have said this for several reasons. We explored all this in an earlier post.

You don’t need to be a scholar to see this. If you just read Matthew 16:13-23 and the earlier Mark 8:27-33 on which it depends as literature, it should be apparent to you. Do that and only a psychological block could prevent you from seeing that “Matthew” has obviously augmented, embellished, and added details to a Markan story that earlier author never intended. What details? Details such as Jesus praising Peter for his confession, bestowing on Peter the keys to theocracy, the word ekklesia or assembly for “Jesus group,” and authoritative binding and loosing.

Be at Peace, Catholics!

By the way, don’t sweat Catholics! None of this makes illegitimate the later evolution of the Petrine Ministry and the papacy! It does not demolish the continuity (within development!) of the Church stemming out from the first century Jesus Movement. But it does expose fundamentalist Catholics proof-texting triumphalism (think EWTN, National Catholic Register, Taylor Marshall, Scott Hahn, and on and on). A proof-text without context is a pretext. Citing verses is fine, so long as it’s done in context, but never proof-texting! Stop proof-texting!

If your faith hangs by the thread of a proof-text, you have a weak faith. Is it even faith at all?—don’t confuse faith with rationalism.

Canon and Stupidity

There’s lots of reasons our pews are emptying. We often look quite stupid. Nobody wants to be with stupid, folks. Stupid, by the way, is misuse of intelligence, not its lack. Many secular people in our society view the Church as stupid. They see the Bible, the sacred and normative library of the Church, as a relic of the past. They see it as a hate-filled document used perennially to spread fundamentalist agendas and culture wars.

We shouldn’t dismiss our fellow terminally ill brothers and sisters who are leaving the Church. To an extent, they are correct. The one’s staying and running things often don’t know what the hell they’re doing.

On the other hand are Christian fundamentalists, Catholic fundamentalists among them. They react to the secular perspectives, such as those held by people leaving churches. How? In a pastorally sensitive way with active listening? Nope. Get hard and demonize those who “abandon ship”? Yep. Let’s go far right!

So whereas before people might debate as to the literal inerrancy of the Bible, and what exactly that meant, these days fundamentalists take it as an absolute essential. To them, you simply cannot be Christian if you disagree.

“I AM RIGHT!” is the Canon of Various Christian Fundamentalisms

Ever more rigid, ungiving, and hard becomes theological orthodoxy! Fundamentalists are culture warriors desperately holding on to what they ignorantly believe had to be the faith and Bible of the early Church. In every religious tradition fundamentalists believe that they alone have the pure and true faith of their ancient believing ancestors. Catholic fundamentalists are no different.

But biblical literalism is not much older than three centuries. Biblical literalism was a reaction to the Enlightenment. No Enlightenment? No biblical literalism. And without biblical literalism, there can be no biblical fundamentalism, whether Protestant or Catholic. All biblical fundamentalism is just about a century old! How easy it is to demonstrate that all Christian fundamentalists are simply wrong when they claim that their absurd beliefs represent those of the earliest followers of Jesus.

But don’t expect fundamentalists to be able to see this. It’s not a lack of intelligence but rather its misuse that muffles and blots out sound reason. Fundamentalism is a psychological condition. Argue patiently and kindly though you try, they just can’t see it. After all, they are the only true Christians. And you, the non-fundamentalist Christian? You are the fake. Worse, you are the disease seeking to contaminate them.

The Impossibility of Bible Christians

Many Fundamentalists celebrate going to “Bible Churches” and being “Bible Christians.” This is ridiculous. What Christian uses the whole Bible, the whole canon? Listen—whenever a Christian tells you that they are a “Bible Christian,” know for certain that cannot be. That’s true when Catholic fundamentalists claim this also chiming in with “Catholics are the true Bible Christians!” No one uses the whole canon!

Dr. Richard Rohrbaugh, Context Group scholar and Presbyterian, invites his students to go sometime to a U.S. “Bible Church” fellowship. Even weekly attendees in such places will never hear a sermon from the book of Amos on social justice, says Rohrbaugh. Indeed, many there equate social justice with communism!

All Christians more or less accept the canon of Scriptures, the Church’s official list of sacred and inspired books. Officially all Christian traditions agree at least to the same 66 books (including the same 27 that make up our common New Testament). The Council of Trent (DS 1501-5) reacted to the Reformers and provided the final magisterial definition of the canon—Catholics have a Bible with 73 books.

But in reality we don’t use them. Not really. Sure, in our Common Lectionary a little something from all of these books gets read once in a while. But you won’t be getting any homilies on Nahum or Obadiah. Thank God for that, by the way.

Canon within the CANON

Although all Christians profess to having a much larger canon of Scripture, the actual books they use for their purposes is really much shorter. This set of books that really get used fashions the hermeneutical lens through which all other Scriptures are contextualized and understood. This unofficial list of sacred texts and themes for different Christian individuals and sects is referred to by some as “the canon within the Canon.”

Creating “canons within the Canon” is common. And it is a huge problem, also. Sadly, we Catholics and other Christian groups rarely talk about it. But we go on doing it.

Rohrbaugh explains that it is so easy to accommodate prior theological agendas with your preferred “canon within the Canon.” All the while verbally affirming the whole Bible, you can practically dump whatever you don’t care for, whatever doesn’t serve your agenda. From there you can craft a self-serving theology that makes your tradition tops, even the best of the best! One that is congenial to your particular values and goals. You call your reading the Word of God, but you’ve crippled it from ever criticizing your Jesus group!  That’s cheap grace for everyone in your clubhouse!

Everyone has a Canon within the CANON

Fact: all Christian groups, whether they realize it or not, relate to Scripture through their own particular “canon within the Canon.” Many Bible readers interpret unclear Scripture passages with help from those verses that are, to them, obvious and clear in meaning. But it’s funny because to another Christian informed by a different tradition that “clear” and “obvious” passage is the opposite!

Latin Rite Catholics have their “canon within the Canon”—Matthew 16:13-20, John 21, and the Pastorals (1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus). The Reformed create theirs as well—Romans 1—9. Lutherans create theirs around “justification by faith.” Dispensationalists create their “canon within the Canon”—Revelation, especially its seven letters to seven Jesus groups, and on Daniel. For Pentecostals it’s Acts. For Eastern Christians it tends to be those documents associated with “John.” The canon within the Canon is, in reality, the TRUE canon we Christians follow. There are many limits to a merely verbal orthodoxy.

Biblical scholarship also cannot shake preconceptual baggage and commitments, and so also, “canons within the Canon”! Only Gospel Development Stage One material was the “canon within the Canon” for 19th century Liberal Protestants. During World War I times, many theologians focused on the kerygma (proclaimed message) as their “canon within the Canon.”

Our canons usually reflect our cultural values. They reinforce theological addictions. Should a preacher or priest have a theological obsession, you can bet the sermons or homilies will reflect a particular “canon within the Canon.”

Seeing Clearly

Once we step back from looking at our New Testament through the lens of our comfortable and congenial “canons within the Canon,” it becomes apparent that this library presents diverse and conflicting views about Christian essentials. One could argue that orthodoxy—Christianity!—itself must be founded on a canon within the Canon. Messy inspirations, indeed!

Some read Paul with enjoyment, and think they know him. Marcion of Sinope and Valentinus of Phragonis were like this. Because Marcion championed his recontextualized Paul, Justin Martyr wouldn’t touch Paul’s wrritings with a ten foot pole—and even today, Bible readers dislike Paul. Still others admire “John” or rather what they think he is saying but for very different reasons, as different as the Greek Orthodox Church is from Campus Crusade for Christ (CRU). Christians seem as diverse today as were the earliest Jesus groups.

The baggage of your ecclesiological perspective will determine how you read and understand Scripture. Go look in the New Testament for support of your favorite theological position. Do you see how you have chosen some books, and some verses within those books, as more important than others, or even most important of all? You have made these “super-verses” into a prism through which all other Scriptural information must be strained, where everything else streams from and washes back toward. So for many Catholics, the late-comer Matthew 16:13-20 outweighs the lesser known Mark 8:27-33, without which the Matthean version could not exist. Why? Bias and baggage.

Back to Mark 8

Coming back to today’s Gospel passage, much can be inferred when we compare it to the more elaborate and familiar (for Catholics) Matthew 16. Knowing that neither Gospel is presenting a 21st century fact-precise biographical photograph does invalidates neither the Petrine Ministry of the Church nor the Papacy which evolved out from it. But it blows out of the water Catholic fundamentalist triumphalism based around “Thou art Peter…”


Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!


TRENDING AT PATHEOS Catholic
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Tom Hanson

    A fine piece of work, this. And I am serious, not being ironic. My self and many others would certainly say you are probably too early about the first gospel datings being around 70 CE, but you are also certainly in the ballpark, especially about pre-sayings of Jesus in more standard Christianity than the Gnostic aspects of the “Gospel of Thomas.” That “Thomas”used Mark has been well known for a long time: This is true not because it was found in the Nag Hammadi trove, though a manuscript of it certainly was found there. In modern times the Gospel of Thomas had been found and translated much earlier (found 1890s–Oxyrhynchus papyri). At any rate, all this means that proto-orthodox Christianity probably came before Gnostic Christianity. Which for good historians of Christianity is an important thing.

  • Eric S Giunta

    Anyone who actually bothers to acquaint themselves with a broad swathe of Biblical scholars — and yes, I mean real Biblical scholars (i.e., men and women with terminal degrees in the field) knows that it is not, in fact, obvious at all that the historical Jesus did not say the words attributed to him in Matthew 16:18. Historical-critical scholars are all over the map on that one, as they are on virtually all questions pertaining to Biblical interpretation. This entire blog is a caricature of historical-critical interpretation of the Bible. Call it the dumb man’s Biblical criticism.

    That’s not to say that there are not intellectually respectable reasons to take the position “Fellow Dying Inmate” is here taking, but there are also intellectually respectable reasons to take any number of other positions. Biblical scholars are not all in agreement with regard to Markan priority, for instance, and even those who are do not generally take the simplistic position that Markan theology is always and inveitably more primitive than that of the other Evangelists or that it always and inevitably represents a closer approximation to the words and deeds of the historical Jesus than the other accounts.

    This paragraph in particular is representative of Fellow Dying Inmate’s poor logical reasoning skills:

    “If you just read Matthew 16:13-23 and the earlier Mark 8:27-33 on which it depends as literature, it should be apparent to you. Do that and only a psychological block could prevent you from seeing that ‘Matthew’ has obviously augmented, embellished, and added details to a Markan story that earlier author never intended. What details? Details such as Jesus praising Peter for his confession, bestowing on Peter the keys to theocracy, the word ekklesia or assembly for ‘Jesus group,’ and authoritative binding and loosing.”

    No, actually, this is not “obvious” at all. There are any number of possible explanations as to why we have two distinct accounts of the same event here. It is just as plausible that Mark has abridged, simplified, and subtracted details from the Matthean or even his own tradition — in fact, that Mark’s Gospel is itself intentionally a concise telling of Jesus’ story. There could be any number of reasons why Mark knows full well that Simon was named “Peter” by Jesus, and *why* he was given this name by Him, but simply saw no need to commit those details to this particular surviving text of his. The possibilities are literally endless, and there simply is no logical reason to assume that Mark intended to commit to writing — let alone this particular text of his that managed to survive — literally everything he knew about Jesus.

    This applies to other Biblical authors as well. For instance, it’s one thing to observe that nowhere in Paul’s extant writings does he evince knowledge of Jesus’ virginal conception and birth; it is another entirely — indeed, it is a non-sequitor — to deduce from this that Paul was ignorant of Jesus’ virginal conception. The one simply does not follow from the other, not unless we take for granted some perverse, ersatz historical-critical version of sola scriptura, according to which we would expect those of Paul’s writings — or indeed, even the entire corpus of his writings, supposing they had all survived — to comprise a comprehensive account of everything he knew of the historical Jesus.

    I fear that this blog will only serve to reinforce real fundamentalistic reticence toward historical-critical scholarship. Readers ought to be aware that real historical-critical scholars are almost always a lot more humble and tentative in their claims than Fellow Dying Inmate is. They’re almost never dogmatic in their tone, and will give due credit to their numerous colleagues who disagree with them.

    To give just one example: In their still highly-regarded historical-critical commentary on Matthew, published by Yale University Press, C.S. Mann and the late William F. Albright aver that “[i]t is hard to know what kind of thinking, other than confessional presupposition, justifies the tendency of some commentators to dismiss [Matthew 16:18] as mot authentic. A Messiah without a Messianic Community would have been unthinkable to any Jew, and how precisely one Jewish group (at least) thought of that Community has been brought sharply into focus by the Qumran literature. The [Septuagint] used ‘ekklesia’ to translate words which denoted an assembly of any character, and it is a word which invariably translated Hebrew equivalents from the stem ‘qhl.’ . . . The word used by Jesus may have been ‘kenishta,’ which in the Syriac versions is used for both ‘ekklesia’ and ‘synagoge.'” {The Anchor Bible, “Matthew”}

    In their own commentaries, John P. Meier (who is authoring a commentary on Matthew, soon to be published by Yale as well) and others posit that the resurrected Jesus spoke these words to Peter in His special appearance to Him after His resurrection. (See Meier’s “Vision of Matthew.”) None of these are “fundamentalist” writers.

    Finally, I find Fellow Dying Inmate’s weaponization of select magisterial texts against phantom “fundamentalists” — i.e., orthodox Catholics who subscribe to the Church’s defined dogmas and to classical metaphysics — extremely rich, given his flagrant dissent from these texts’ other and more substantive teachings (e.g., on inspiration and inerrancy).

    There’s nothing wrong with a lay student being familiar with only one or two preferred authors, and for him to present these authors’ theories and arguments for others’ consideration. But it’s intellectually dishonest, and uncharitable, to employ these insights as a pretext for demeaning and defaming fellow believers who are either ignorant of your preferred writers or who have informed opinions of their own. A sincere seeker after objective truth should be humble and tentative when he puts forward highly debatable hypotheses on complex matters, and if he is a professed Catholic he ought to be a humble, deferential, and intellectually curious about the Church’s tradition — Why the Church teaches as she does, practices what she does, allows or promotes the kind of piety she does — knowing that it’s his place to learn from what the Church does and teaches, not to lord over it as judge,