Questions Answered

For August 2013

  • Is there another theory of the origin of the Synoptic Gospels besides Marcan (or “Markan”) priority?
  • How important is the ceremony in the liturgy?  


 Authors of the Synoptic Gospels: Saints Matthew, Mark, and Luke.

Question: Is there another theory of the origin of the Synoptic Gospels besides Marcan (or “Markan”) priority? If so, what is its origin, and what would it be?

Answer:  A number of years ago, there was an important book published, entitled: The Order of the Synoptics, by Bernard Orchard and Harold Riley (Peeters: 1988, ISBN 0-86554-222-8). In this book, the authors took up various contemporary issues caused by the historical and critical methods of studying Holy Scripture. Concerning the problem of the origin of the Synoptic Gospels, they applied these methods to seek to criticize Marcan priority (whether Mark’s Gospel was written first), and defend the traditional order always attributed to the origin of these Gospels from the time of the Fathers of the Church. After examining two other theories of the dating of these gospels, the authors conclude: “The third option, the one which we shall be presenting in this part, leaves the date of Mark, where the majority of scholars would place it, around the year 65, with Luke and Matthew correspondingly earlier, that is, Matthew before 45 and Luke not later than 61.” (Bernard Orchard and Harold Riley, The Order of the Synoptics, 232). Their reasoning, based on ancient sources for this, is very interesting and deserves to be considered.

The ancient sources connect Matthew to the Jewish mission, which is the most immediate manifestation of the Synoptics after the Ascension of Christ. This is shown in the fact that Matthew is so oriented to explaining things like the Jewish law and the Sermon on the Mount, which is a quite evident attempt to present the “new” law of Christ. Matthew also presumes that those who are hearing it are already familiar with many Jewish customs. The infancy narratives are presented from the standpoint of Joseph and his family, as the Jews did not accept the testimony of women as authoritative.

Luke was the companion of Paul on his missionary journeys, so his Gospel is written for the Gentile mission. Many Jewish customs and terms had to be explained as these were not familiar to the Gentiles. Moreover, Luke is generally considered to be a part of Luke/Acts which ends with the spread of the Gospel to Rome. In the infancy narratives, Luke views these from the standpoint of Mary as the Gentiles did accept the testimony of women.

Mark wrote the latest version of the Synoptics, which is the shortest version. Mark was both the companion and the scribe for Peter.  According to ancient manuscripts, Peter spent some time in Rome before his martyrdom, evangelizing the household of Caesar. The most ancient account we have of the compositions of Mark (also called “Eusebius”) comes from Clement of Alexandria who taught that Mark’s Gospel was a compilation from “public discourses or lectures given by Peter himself to a Roman audience, which … contained a number of ‘Caesar’s knights’” (Orchard and Riley, Order, 263).  Presumably, this consisted of a comparison of Matthew’s Gospel and Luke’s Gospel, based on Peter’s own personal testimony: “…the fact that over 90 percent of Mark’s writing comes from Matthew’s and/or Luke’s writings could imply that Mark’s objective must have been, in some sense, to compare the two Gospels with each other” (Orchard and Riley, Order, 265).

These lectures were so valuable to the community that they were formally published after Peter’s death. This explains, among other things, why there are no infancy narratives in Mark’s Gospel.  Peter was not present. Because of its seemingly abrupt ending, Mark’s Gospel would have come into existence in two stages: one informally, during the lifetime of Peter, and the other afterwards, published by Mark, who added a twelve-verse ending to resolve the problem of his Gospel’s abrupt end.

There are many theories concerning the origin and order of the Synoptic Gospels. Marcan priority is only one of them. Even though it has acquired an almost canonical authority among scripture scholars, it is not the only one. And, it certainly is not the one which corresponds best with the historical evidence of ancient manuscripts, which, though they are several hundred years after apostolic times, are certainly much closer to this period than modern scholars.


Question: I will be 76 years old this fall. I have reached the conclusion that all of the pomp and circumstances that are exhibited in the post-Vatican II Mass are nothing but ceremonial trappings to satisfy the masses. I cannot understand why there is so much portrayed. How important is the ceremony in the liturgy? I find myself sitting and being very critical until the consecration, at which time I focus. This priest we have now LOVES incense. He incenses the altar before Mass, the ambo before the Gospel, and then pontificates “ad infinitum”! Help. It’s driving me crazy!

Answer: It is understandable that since the reform of the liturgy during Vatican II, many find their liturgical experience very difficult. Your reaction seems strange as people usually criticize the post-Vatican II liturgy for not being ceremonial enough. In fact, in the new liturgy, there is the principle of graduated solemnity, which states that one should not use incense every day, for instance, and other such ceremonial additions. If, however, one means that they do not like any Mass which is more than just the basic essence of the celebration, that is a different matter. When it comes to determining how much solemnity there should be, there is no real answer to your question. However, the question itself leads to several important clarifications about the liturgy.

It is true that there are only certain parts of the ritual which are essential for a valid Mass. These have been determined to be the offertory, consecration, and communion. For people used to evaluating their participation at Mass simply from the point of view of obligation, these suffice.  Because of the missionary nature of the Church, and in response to problems with religious persecution in such places as Ireland, these essential elements were emphasized. After all, when one must attend Mass in secret with fear of arrest, the essential elements are all that are necessary.

The Vatican Council believed that this “reduction to essentials” mentality had seriously compromised the richness of the experience of the Mass. The minimalist tendency is, in no sense, based on an understanding of the fullness of the liturgy: what is celebrated in the liturgy is a transcendent event, a union with the worship of the Church in Heaven in the risen and ascended Christ. Since human beings are worshipping, the senses are intimately involved. In fact, Catholicism is the only religion which makes so much of the importance of “sense knowledge” in relation to intellectual truth, even the truths of faith.

Protestants generally undervalue, if not outright deny, the importance of the senses, as well as ritual actions in worship. Luther had great difficulty with the whole concept of sacramentalism, and though there are many Protestant sects which have a higher or lower ritual experience in what sacraments they acknowledge, this is logically inconsistent with the idea that one can go direct to God without any intermediaries. The mediatorship of the flesh of Christ is central, and all the artistic and ritual expressions of the liturgy are based on that fact. Human beings need ritual because it is an attempt to express the most infinite and sublime mysteries in the most sensual and ordinary things.

Things like incense, vestments, art, and music are attempts to bring the eternal into the present time, and are most fitting to the human experience. So important are these human aids to worship, that David McCullough recounts in his biography of John Adams, the second president of the United States, that George Washington and John Adams attended a Mass in Philadelphia during the Continental Congress. Adams wrote at length about his experience to his wife Abigail, as it was so different from his experience of Protestant worship. He wondered that the Reformation could have ever succeeded as the incense and chanting were so calculated to appeal to mankind in general. He found the whole experience “‘aweful and affecting’—the word ‘aweful’ then meaning full of awe, or ‘that which strikes with awe, or fills with reverence.’” (John Adams, David McCullough, 84).  It is this experience that the post-Vatican II liturgy sought to recapture from a dangerous and legalistic reductionism.

Fr. Brian Mullady, OP About Fr. Brian Mullady, OP

Fr. Brian T. Mullady, OP, entered the Dominican Order in 1966 and was ordained in 1972. He has been a parish priest, high school teacher, retreat master, mission preacher, and university professor. He has had seven series on EWTN and is the author of two books and numerous articles, including his regular column in HPR, “Questions Answered.”

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Fr. Brian T. Mullady, O.P.
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Portland, OR 97232
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  1. Avatar Glenn Groh says:

    I appreciate that the New Mass is in English, but it also has limitations. Before Vatican II, I could follow (pray) the Latin Mass by the priest using the St. Joseph’s Missal. Since the New Mass has some many variations in the Preface, the Eucharistic Prayers, etc. (including the Dominican Rite of our parish) there is no Missal that allows me to pray the Mass (trying to listen, is not praying). I say “trying”, since with many priest do not speak distinctly enough, that I understand every word. Prayer requires thought. When you pray to God, you are speaking from your thoughts. No thoughts no prayer. So, I believe the New Mass essentially benefits the priests, not the laity.
    A second thought, the homily. Many times the priest’s homily is on a particular Saint (especially the Dominicans – our parish). That’s fine, but after we leave Church, we will rarely remember the life of that Saint. Rarely are the homilies on applying the readings to the laity’s needs or possible a lack of understanding. Priest hear confessions, and therefore should clearly know what the laity’s problems are. Further, those who go to confession are probably better spiritually than those who do not. Address the needs of the laity!!!

  2. Avatar Martin B. Drew says:

    Yes, the current and present English mass is well written and the celebrant has excellent rubrics. Also the celebrant or deacon is directed to give the homily from the scripture readings. Here in the diocese of Dallas that is done. Incense is used only on Solemnities or by a bishop at an ordination of a priest or bishop. It seems that careful perusal of the directions of Paul VI and Pius XII on lliturgy could be done