Herodias with the head of
John the Baptist.

Fatigue in the Synoptics?

© Copyright 2001 Joseph Francis Alward  

Allegations that the author of the gospel of Matthew borrowed and modified Mark’s story about the beheading of John the Baptist are refuted in this article.


Many biblical scholars believe that Mark was the first to record the life of Jesus, and that later gospel writers merely adapted for their own needs the stories that Mark had written.  In this article, we address the claims by one researcher that Matthew borrowed some of Mark’s stories, adapted them slightly and clumsily introduced inconsistencies in the stories.  We will focus on just one of these stories.



The Beheading of John the Baptist



One of the alleged inconsistencies concerns itself with the sorrow, or grief, (Greek, lupeo) felt by Herod at having to execute John the Baptist.  Before we consider this, we’ll look at a pair of other examples of expressions of sorrow in Matthew’s gospel.


In the first example, Jesus tells a rich man that he must give up his possessions if he wishes to enter the kingdom of heaven.  The thought of having to do that which he did not want to do brings the man sorrow:


21 Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me. 22 But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful (lupeo): for he had great possessions. (Matthew 19:21-22 KJV)



In the second example, Jesus is at Gethsemane, expressing sorrow at the thought of the agony he would soon experience:


38 Then saith he unto them, My soul is exceeding sorrowful (perilupos) even unto death (Matthew 26:38 KJV)



In each of the two examples above, sorrow (lupeo), or extreme sorrow (perilupos), is the emotion felt by men at the thought of having to do something they did not wish to do:  The rich man had to give up his possessions, and Jesus had to obey the Lord and be crucified.  In the next example, we will see Herod experiencing sorrow (lupeo), too, at having to do something he didn’t want to do.




3 For Herod had laid hold on John, and bound him, and put him in prison for Herodias' sake, his brother Philip's wife. 4 For John said unto him, It is not lawful for thee to have her. 5 And when he would have put him to death, he feared the multitude, because they counted him as a prophet. 6 But when Herod's birthday was kept, the daughter of Herodias danced before them, and pleased Herod. 7 Whereupon he promised with an oath to give her whatsoever she would ask. 8 And she, being before instructed of her mother, said, Give me here John Baptist's head in a charger. 9 And the king was sorry (lupeo): nevertheless for the oath's sake, and them which sat with him at meat, he commanded it to be given her. 10 And he sent, and beheaded John in the prison. 11 And his head was brought in a charger, and given to the damsel: and she brought it to her mother.  (Matthew 14:3-11 KJV)





We see above that Herod would have had John killed if it hadn’t been for John’s followers, whom he feared.  When Herod is forced by his oath to Herodias’ daughter to do the very thing he didn’t want to do--kill John the Baptist, Herod naturally feels the same grief that the rich man and Jesus felt when they, too, had to do something they didn’t want to do.



At least one biblical scholar, however, doesn’t agree with this.  In his web article, “Fatigue in the Synoptics” 1, Mark Goodacre 2 thinks that Matthew’s grief is inexplicable.  He writes,


“[W]hen Matthew…speaks of the king's grief…it makes no sense at all. Matthew had told us, after all, that 'Herod wanted to put him to death' (14.5).” 3



Goodacre attributes what he thinks is senselessness in Matthew’s story to “fatigue.” Describing “fatigue,” Goodacre writes,



“Editorial fatigue is a phenomenon that will inevitably occur when a writer is heavily dependent on another's work. In telling the same story as his predecessor, a writer makes changes in the early stages which he is unable to sustain throughout. Like continuity errors in film and television, examples of fatigue will be unconscious mistakes, small errors of detail which naturally arise in the course of constructing a narrative. They are interesting because they can betray an author's hand, most particularly in revealing to us the identity of his sources.” 4




Goodacre believes that Matthew modified Mark’s story about a Herod who respected John, enjoyed listening to him, never once wished him dead, and was very sorrowful at having to put his to death.   According to him, Matthew changed the first part of Mark’s story in which Mark had Herod liking John, and replaced that with Herod wanting to kill John, but being too afraid to do it.  Unfortunately--according to Goodacre--Matthew clumsily kept as part of his story Mark’s part about Herod’s sorrow, which he thinks “makes no sense at all.”


What doesn’t make sense is Goodacre’s failure to make any reference at all to an obvious and perfectly plausible reason for Herod’s grief in Matthew:  Herod felt grief in Matthew because he was being forced to do something he didn’t want to do--kill John and thereby risk incurring the wrath of the multitude.  Goodacre not only didn’t rebut the opposition’s main evidence in this case, he didn’t even acknowledge its existence.  One is therefore unsure whether Goodacre just wasn’t aware of the counter argument, or whether he did know about it but chose to ignore it. 


One final comment on this notion of  “fatigue” as it applies to the beheading story:  Goodacre noted that an author’s work exhibits fatigue when he “makes changes in the early stages which he is unable to sustain throughout.” Thus, Goodacre seems to ask us to believe that Matthew just didn’t have the energy or intellect to “sustain” him until he reached Verse 9, where he was--according to Goodacre--contradicting what he had written just five verses earlier in Verse 5. 


How likely is this?



1.  Originally appearing in New Testament Studies, 44 (1998), pp. 45-58.

2.  Dr. Mark Goodacre, Department of Theology, University of Birmingham,  Birmingham B15 2TT,  United Kingdom.


3.  “Fatigue in the Synoptics”, p. 47.


4.  Ibid., p. 46.