Peter M. Head,

Christology and the Synoptic Problem:

An argument for Markan priority

(SNTSMS 94; Cambridge: CUP, 1997; ISBN: 0521584884)



This book makes a major contribution to the ongoing debate about the synoptic problem, especially concerning the question of which gospel was written first. The scholarly consensus, developed over two hundred years of discussion, has favoured Markan priority and the dependence of both Matthew and Luke upon Mark. In an ongoing contemporary revival of the Griesbach hypothesis, some scholars have advocated the view that Mark used, conflated and abbreviated Matthew and Luke. The author explores the role played by arguments connected with christological development in support of both these views. Deploying a new comparative redaction-critical approach to the problem, Dr Head argues that the critical basis of the standard christological argument for Markan priority is insecure and based on anachronistic scholarly concerns. Nevertheless, in a through-going comparative reappraisal of the christological outlooks of Matthew and Mark the author finds decisive support for the hypothesis of Markan priority, arguing that Matthew was a developer rather than a corrector of Mark.



Ch. 1. Introduction and a history of research                                                                                     p. 1

Ch. 2. Method and approach                                                                                                                p. 28

Ch. 3. The rich young ruler (Matthew 19. 16-22; Mark 10. 17-22; Luke 18. 18-23)                        p. 49

Ch. 4. Jesus’s rejection at Nazareth (Matthew 13. 53-38; Mark 6. 1-6a)                                         p. 66

Ch. 5. Walking on water (Matthew 14. 22-33; Mark 6. 45-52)                                                           p. 84

Ch. 6. Arguments concerning Jesus’s emotions, ‘inability’ and questions                                  p. 97

Ch. 7. The worship of Jesus and the passion narratives                                                                  p. 126

Ch. 8. Christology and titles: Jesus as teacher and Lord                                                                  p. 148

Ch. 9. Jesus as Messiah                                                                                                                         p. 174

Ch. 10. Jesus as Son of God                                                                                                                  p. 187      

Ch. 11. Jesus as ‘the Son of Man’                                                                                                        p. 217

Ch. 12. The messianic secret                                                                                                                 p. 233

Ch. 13. Conclusion                                                                                                                                  p. 256

Bibliography                                                                                                                                        p. 263

Index.of passages                                                                                                                               p. 308

Select index of names and subjects                                                                                                 p. 335


Abstract of PhD (as published in Tyndale Bulletin in 1995)      4 page abstract


CUP page (general information and order button!): Christology and the Synoptic Problem at CUP


Amazon: USA or UK


Reviews:           C.F.D. Moule, JTS 49(1998), 739-41

                        C.M. Tuckett, Nov. Test. 41 (1999), 395-97.

                        H.T. Fleddermann, Biblica 79(1998), 425-29

PMH: This review offers a thorough summary of the book, its contents and general argument. Fleddermann says some nice things in his concluding paragraph:

‘Head’s study makes an important contribution to the on-going debate over the synoptic problem.’

‘Head’s book also shows a nice balance between the study of individual pericopes and overall themes. His discussion of the Walking on Water pericope could provide a model for the study of individual passages using the comparative redactioncritical approach; and his treatment of the christological titles dramatizes once again how each gospel writer’s overall theology and literary tendencies need to be brought to bear on discussions of the synoptic problem. Head’s book nudges the discussion forward.’ [I take this as a back-handed complement!]

                        D.A. Koch, TLZ 125 (2000), 404f.

                        M. Davies, Exp.T. 109(1997), 89

PMH: This brief (but early) review has a short summary of the argument of the book, without pronouncing a qualitative judgement on the work:

‘The great value of this study is that suggestions are clearly set out and readers can weigh them for themselves.’

The reviewer raises two important issues of criticism:

a) ‘The Matthean emphasis on Jesus’s Davidic messiahship, which is understood to reflect the Jewish scriptures and Second Temple Jewish expectations, is explained in terms of the (in my view, unlikely) supposition that Matthew was written in response to conversations with a neighbouring synagogue.’

PMH: This relates to a comment on p. 186 where I wrote that the evident influence of OT and Jewish ideas on Matthew is not necessarily evidence of Matthean priority, but is also compatible with ‘a subsequent reappropriation of Jewish and OT categories in a situation of dialogue or debate with the synagogue down the street. This situational hypothesis is necessary for Matthew’s redaction to be regarded as totally plausible.’

On reflection I think I would be inclined to agree with the reviewer. The idea did not play a major role in the actual argument of the book, but once it was addressed it should have been demonstrated properly rather than in a casual statement in the conclusion to a chapter. I am not at all certain that the final sentence I wrote (‘This situational hypothesis is necessary for Matthew’s redaction to be regarded as totally plausible.’) is really necessary, as the “reappropriation” might also be successfully envisaged in other settings as well (simply as arising internally to Matthew’s Christian movement as it sought to understand itself in relation to the OT). Subsequent work on Matthew’s use of the OT in the birth narratives suggests this may be closer to the truth.

b) ‘discerning “coherence” and “consistency” is an art not a science, and the question might have been raised and discussed whether we should actually expect either in any texts, but more especially if literary relations among the synoptics are more complicated than the two alternatives allow.’

PMH: This raises some questions too big to be tackled here. I picked issues that had substantial agreement among scholars of different types and an agreed statement emerging from the Jerusalem conference on 1984. On this basis the type of coherence and consistency of which I wrote is clearly laid out in chapter two. Granted that I have not addressed every one of the innumerable ‘more complicated’ synoptic theories, the degree of coherence that emerges in the study of Matthew’s Christology (on the 2SH) is nevertheless impressive and contrasts markedly with the perspective on Mark provided by the Griesbach Hypothesis. In the conclusion I reflect on whether advocates of the Griesbach Hypothesis might have to give up on the claim to coherence.


                        K. Brower, Ev. Q. 71(1999), 165-67

                        T. Gray, Churchman 112(1998), 278f.

                        A. Kostenberger, Faith and Mission, 15(1997), 76-78.

I don’t know this journal, but the review is available on the web: Kostenberger

Basically a positive summary of aspects of the book and the general argument. Sees the book as ‘making a major contribution’, but doesn’t really engage critically with it.


Other mentions (!):

Joel Marcus: ‘The Christological tendencies of the respective Gospels also provide a powerful argument in favor of Markan priority and against the Griesbach Hypothesis. In a well-reasoned monograph, Head (Christology) has shown that, in the Two-Source Hypothesis, one can come up with plausible reasons for Matthean editing of Markan passages that deal with Jesus’ identity, reasons that are consistent with other Matthean passages on the same subjects. The reverse, however, is not true: Markan Christological editing of Matthew in the Griesbach Hypothesis turns out to be implausible, since in this theory Mark omits themes that elsewhere are important to him (e.g. Jesus as “Lord” or the future Son of Man); nor does he replace them with consistent alternatives.’ (last of seven points in support of Markan priority from Mark 1-8: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (Anchor Bible; New York: Doubleday, 2000), p. 45.)


Let me know what you think: pmh15@cam.ac.uk