Did Matthew copy Mark or the other way round? Clearly the accounts in both gospels are closely related. In many places, they are identical. One must have copied from the other.

To determine which came first, we must look closely at the significant differences. In each case we must ask which author created the difference by adding or subtracting from the source he was using. This involves weighing probabilities. Certainty may elude us. This might seem a very fragile basis on which to reconstruct the life of Jesus, but it is just the sort of judgment we must make all the time in ordering our lives.

Sometimes the judgment is not too difficult. Compare Mark 14:32 with Matthew 26:36, the introduction to the story. Mark says, “they come.” Matthew says, “Jesus comes with them.” Mark is vague. One has to know that “they” includes Jesus, who is never explicitly mentioned.

In the same verses, Mark has Jesus saying to his disciples, “Sit here,” while Matthew has, “Sit in this place.” The word “here” in Mark is somewhat confusing because it gives the impression that Jesus was to stay close to the disciples, whereas in the next verse he moves away. In Matthew, the disciples are told to “sit in this place until, going away, I will pray there.”

Both the vagueness of “they come” and the slight confusion caused by “sit here” in Mark’s account are rectified in Matthew. Here Jesus is mentioned by name, and Jesus’ move away is announced.

Did Matthew solve a problem by changing Mark, or did Mark create a problem by changing Matthew? The choice is an easy one. Matthew was smoothing out Mark.

Now let’s compare Mark 14:33 with Matthew 26:37, where Jesus’ subjective state is described. Mark says he is “distraught and troubled”; Matthew says “sorrowful and troubled.” It is more likely that Matthew changed “distraught” to “sorrowful” to conform with what Jesus says of himself, “My soul is very sorrowful.”

The next comparison involves what happens to Jesus. In Mark Jesus collapses, “falling on the earth” (14:35) in an uncontrolled reaction to severe stress. In Matthew Jesus is “falling on his face” (26:39). This is the classical Jewish posture of prayer, as in Genesis 17:3: “Abram fell on his face” (see also Judges 13:20). Again, our choice is easy. It is most improbable that Mark would defame Jesus by transforming the controlled gesture (prayer) of an entirely self-possessed person into an uncontrolled reaction (despair), whereas it is very likely that Matthew would attempt to improve the image of Jesus by substituting a controlled reaction for an uncontrolled one.

Now let’s look at Jesus’ prayer. Matthew’s version (26:39) is much shorter than Mark’s (14:35–36). Our first reaction might be to think that Mark had expanded Matthew.1 Yet if we look closely at Mark, we immediately notice two internal contradictions. First, Jesus prays that “if it is possible the hour might pass” (Mark 14:35). This “if” contrasts with the certitude in the next verse, in which Jesus says, “All things are possible…Take away this cup” (Mark 14:36). Second, in these two verses the object of Jesus’ prayer shifts from “the hour” to “this cup.” These contradictions in Mark are eliminated by Matthew: “If it is possible, let this cup pass from me” (Matthew 26:39). This simplification then enables Matthew to create a second prayer, in 26:42, which has no parallel in Mark 14:39.

Matthew’s version of events at Gethsemane includes not only two prayers, but also a reference, in 26:44, to a third prayer, in which Jesus says “the same word.” The first two prayers of Jesus in Matthew exhibit Jesus’ increasing degree of acceptance of his Father’s will. In the first (26:39) Jesus still thinks he might be allowed to escape his fate (“If it is possible…”), but nonetheless submits to his Father’s will. In the second prayer (36:42), this hope has been abandoned (“If it is not possible…”); his submission is complete. If Mark had had this text before him, he would not have changed it.

Mark 14:37 also might have caused some confusion for an early audience. In this passage, Jesus says to Peter, “Simon, are you sleeping?” Only someone familiar with the gospels would know that Simon and Peter were one and the same person (“He gave the name Peter to Simon” [Mark 3:16]). This minor difficulty is compounded by the pointlessness of his question. We have just been told that Jesus found all the disciples sleeping (Mark 14:37).

As we would expect, Matthew takes care of these difficulties, this time by omitting both the name Simon and the pointless question (Matthew 26:40).2

In Mark 14:40, we are told that Jesus found the disciples sleeping. This is immediately followed with the somewhat incongruous statement that “they did not know what they should answer him.” If the disciples were asleep, how did they know that Jesus had returned? And why would they reply when Jesus had said nothing?3 And why would they be troubled over what to answer when they were asleep? Matthew wisely omitted “and they did not know what to answer him” (Matthew 26:43).

Mark 14:41 contains an enigmatic and seemingly meaningless statement without context: “The money is paid” (apechei, in Greek). Scholars fiercely dispute the meaning of this Greek word. Matthew omits it, doubtless because he could not understand it either.4

A final bit of confusion or tension appears in Mark 14:41, in which Jesus says that “the hour has come,” implying that his arrest is imminent. In the next verse, however, Jesus says that “the one who gives me over [Judas]” has not yet arrived; he has only “come near.” Matthew solves this problem by using the same verb, “to come near,” both of the hour and of Judas (Matthew 26:45–46).