By Garrett Best
Matthew, Mark, and Luke have been called the Synoptic Gospels because they are very similar. In the last several posts, I’ve attempted to summarize very complex arguments to explain this phenomenon. Although there are various explanations for why these three Gospels are so similar, the dominant theory is referred to as the two-source hypothesis. According to the two-source hypothesis, Mark wrote first. Mark is the shortest of the three and is the roughest around the edges. Matthew and Luke were both aware of Mark and had a copy of Mark. Matthew and Luke used most of the stories and the basic framework of the Gospel of Mark to write their respective Gospels. In addition, Matthew and Luke share about 235 verses in common that are not found in Mark. Scholars believe that Matthew and Luke used a second source in addition to Mark. Since this second source is no longer extant, this source is referred to as Q from the German word Quelle meaning “source”.
Almost unanimously, scholars are convinced that Mark was the first Gospel to be written. Michael Bird has said, “In want of a solution to the Synoptic problem, Marcan priority seems to be the one nearly indubitable premise we can build on. While the subsequent scaffolding may not join Matthew and Luke in the right place and in the right order, the foundation of Marcan priority seems to hold firm.” (The Gospel of the Lord, 2014: 160) To be fair, William Farmer argued for the priority of Matthew in the 20th century, which ironically has been the main position held throughout Christian history; however, Farmer has mostly failed to convince and remains a minority voice crying in the wilderness.
Scholars are much less certain about the existence of the second source, Q, than they are of Marcan priority. Since no manuscripts of Q have survived, our knowledge of Q rests on our hypothetical reconstruction of the source from Matthew and Luke. In the last post, I presented the two most convincing reasons to believe Q was an actual written document which contained sayings of Jesus used by Matthew and Luke. However, there are a number of prominent scholars who believe Q is unnecessary. Austin Farrer, Michael Goulder, and Mark Goodacre are the most prominent opponents of Q. These scholars believe Luke used Matthew, and therefore, Q is unnecessary. In fact, this has sometimes been referred to as the “Farrer Hypothesis” since Farrer most strongly argued this position in the 1950s. This theory maintains that Matthew used Mark, and then Luke used both Mark and Matthew. This theory is at first attractive because it removes the need for a hypothetical document like Q. If Matthew and Luke share the 235 verses, couldn’t this be explained by Luke using Matthew?
The argument that Luke knew and used Matthew is problematic for several reasons:
- Matthew and Luke both used Mark. Matthew makes many changes to Mark’s Gospel. Luke almost never has the same revisions to Mark as Matthew does. If Luke used Matthew, you would expect Luke to retain some of the same changes as Matthew. If Luke did know Matthew, it is hard to explain why he would leave out so many of the good additions Matthew made to Mark.
- Luke almost never places the material that Matthew and Luke share (235 verses in common, or Q material) in the same context as Matthew. Most of the material the two Gospels share is the teachings of Jesus. Matthew organizes this material into major teaching blocks: the sermon on the mount (chps. 5-7); commissioning of the disciples (chp. 10); kingdom parables (chp. 13); teaching about kingdom ethics (chp. 18); woe oracles to the religious leaders (chp. 23); and teaching about the future destruction of Jerusalem (chp. 24-25). Luke, on the other hand, places this material in 6:20-8:3 and 9:51-18:14. Most of the material we find in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount ends up in Luke’s Sermon on the Plains and scattered in other locations. If Luke knew Matthew, why would Luke break up the wonderful sermons of Jesus?
- This is especially difficult when considering how meticulously Luke followed Mark’s order. When Luke incorporates material from Mark, he very rarely changes the order or context. Matthew, on the other hand, changes the order of Mark’s material frequently. If Luke knew Matthew, we would expect to see Matthew-Luke agreements in the order of Mark’s material. However, there are almost no examples of Matthew-Luke agreements of order against Mark.
- Luke shows a strong interest in keeping the original order of Mark’s material. If Luke did know Matthew, why does he change up the order of Matthew’s material so much? For example, why would he break up the Sermon on the Mount and scatter the teaching material in other contexts? How many sermon series have you heard on the Sermon on the Plains from Luke? How many sermon series have you heard on the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew? Even today, we recognize the superiority of Matthew’s organization of the teaching material of Jesus. Why would Luke, who was no inept writer, break up those masterpiece sermons? Given what we know about how Luke used Mark, it seems unlikely that he knew Matthew given that the material they share occurs in Luke in such different contexts. You would have to envision that Luke meticulously maintained the order of the Marcan material, but took the material he got from Matthew and scattered it out throughout the Gospel. It is possible perhaps, but that would be odd given what we know of how meticulously he used Mark’s material.
- Matthew and Luke both contain material that is unique to their Gospels which is not contained in either Mark or the hypothetical Q. The unique material of Matthew is usually designated by the letter M and the unique material of Luke by the letter L. If Luke used Matthew, why did Luke leave out so much of the M material?
- For example, why would Luke omit the coming of the magi from the East in the birth narrative (Matt. 2:1-12)? This is an especially interesting omission if Luke knew Matthew because of Luke’s special emphasis on the Gentile mission. Luke’s Gospel, more than the others, focuses on the spread of the Gospel to the Gentiles. Remember that Acts is the sequel to the Gospel of Luke. Acts narrates how the Gospel spread to the Gentiles. Why would Luke intentionally leave out these Gentile magi coming to worship Jesus at his birth given his emphasis on the Gentile mission?
- This type of question is relevant for all the M material. Why would Luke leave it out? Why leave out the M material concerning the arrest, trials, death, burial and resurrection?
Admittedly, the arguments presented above are not conclusive. They merely point to some of the difficulties one has to deal with if one believes Luke knew Matthew. This is why the Q source is more attractive to many scholars. The two source hypothesis (Mark and Q) accounts for the difficulties presented above. If Matthew and Luke used Q independently, then differences in order and context are not problems. It is not a problem that Luke does not incorporate any of the M material because Luke didn’t have access to Matthew when he wrote.
These arguments and theories are not dealing with certainties, but probabilities. It is certainly possible that Luke used Matthew, but based on the arguments presented above, it seems improbable that Luke knew Matthew. Thus, in my opinion, it is more probable that the 235 verses Matthew and Luke share in common are due to their independent use of another source, Q, that we no longer possess.
An interesting recent development is the theory put forward by Michael Bird in his 2014 book The Gospel of the Lord. Instead of having to choose between Q or Luke’s use of Matthew, he affirms them both. Bird believes that Mark wrote first, Matthew and Luke both used another source (Q), and at a later stage, Luke loosely used Matthew. I emphasize “loosely” because Bird does not believe Luke used Matthew as he used Mark. He does not believe Luke had a copy of Matthew sitting in front of him. He imagines a scenario where Luke may have heard Matthew read aloud once or twice and the words of Matthew sat in Luke’s “reminiscence”. He conjectures that “Luke’s use of Matthew was at a latent stage and sparing, perhaps even as a first revision to the Lucan text.” (187) I imagine that Bird will be accused of having his cake and eating it too. Instead of choosing between Q and Luke’s use of Matthew, he affirms both. In fact, John Poirier has referred to this as a “failure of nerve” to take a stand on one theory or another. (“The Q Hypothesis and the Role of Pre-Synoptic Sources in Nineteenth-Century Scholarship” pg. 17) Only time will tell how Bird’s thesis which he calls the Holtzmann-Gundry hypothesis (or three-source hypothesis) will be received by scholars.