The Gospels and Inspiration

By Garrett Best

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been blogging about literary relationships among the four Gospels. I wanted to conclude this series by reflecting on the implications this discussion has for how we think about the inspiration of the Scriptures.

God has chosen to give us four canonical Gospels in Scripture. In one sense, they are four separate Gospels, each with their own authors, who organized the material and wrote in their own style and in their own words. At the same time, these four Gospels are four witnesses to the one gospel of Jesus Christ. Through Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and only through these four do we have access to the one gospel of Jesus Christ.

There’s no getting around it. Matthew, Mark, and Luke are very similar to one another and John is different from the other three. I believe that the evidence suggests that Mark was the first Gospel to be written and Matthew and Luke both independently used Mark and another Gospel, referred to as Q, in order to write their Gospels. I believe this scenario best explains why the first three Gospels are so similar. It also partially explains why John’s Gospel is so different. John wasn’t copying from Mark and Q as were Matthew and Luke. John wasn’t drinking from the Synoptic Gospel koolaid.

I am sure there are Christians that feel that all this literary interdependence talk is just academic hogwash concocted by liberal scholars who don’t believe in the inspiration of the Scriptures in the first place. After all, why even talk literary relationships and a hypothetical Q document when the similarities among the Synoptics are due to their shared inspiration by the Holy Spirit? Couldn’t the similarities be explained because the Holy Spirit is truly the author of Matthew, Mark, and Luke? Well, yes and no.

Have we really thought through the implications of that question? If the similarities among the Gospels are due to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, what do the differences among the Gospels say about the Holy Spirit and inspiration? I don’t believe these are questions dreamed up in the ivory tower of the academy. These are the questions the text invites us to ask. Any reader of the first three Gospels would notice the remarkable similarities, and they would also notice that the Gospel of John is different. Why? And, what does all this mean about the inspiration of Scripture?

I believe that the Bible contains the inspired words of God and is the primary witness to the incarnated Word of God, Jesus the Christ. I believe when we read Scripture, we are reading the words that God has breathed. I believe and affirm that “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17) I believe in the inspiration of the Scriptures.

I think this affirmation is where the real questions begin. If Matthew and Luke contain the God-breathed words inspired by the Holy Spirit, why would Matthew and Luke need to copy Mark? Assuming the tradition that the author of Matthew is the Apostle Matthew, why would an Apostle need copy nearly 90% of the Gospel written by a non-Apostle, Mark? If Mark is moved by the Holy Spirit to speak, why is his Greek style inferior to the other Gospels? Wouldn’t the Holy Spirit speak in perfect Greek grammar and syntax? Why do Matthew and Luke have different orders of the three temptations given to Jesus in the wilderness? If the same Spirit is inspiring all four Gospel writers, why is John so different from the other three? And, these are just a few questions we might ask.

Maybe another way to look at it is, how much of the four Gospels is the Holy Spirit responsible for and how much of the Gospels is man responsible for? Asked another way, how much Matthew is behind Matthew’s Gospel? And, how much Holy Spirit is behind Matthew’s Gospel?

I love teaching the Gospels, but I find that sometimes Christians are troubled by these kinds of questions as if a threat is being posed to the inspiration of the Scriptures. I was teaching on the Gospel of John and throughout the class I continuously pointed out the uniqueness of John’s Gospel. I referred to the author as a “literary artist” who has crafted his own way of telling the gospel of Jesus. I have no problem saying the author “wrote” or “embedded certain motifs within” this Gospel and is responsible for the content. Several weeks into the class, someone approached me because they were concerned I might give the impression that the writer of John’s Gospel was more responsible for the content than the Holy Spirit. So, in what sense is John the author? And, in what sense is the Holy Spirit the author?

Any serious attempt to deal with this subject has to take two things seriously. First, it must take seriously the teaching of Scripture and the historic position of the Christian Church that the Scriptures are inspired by the Holy Spirit and are the very words of God. Secondly, it must take seriously the phenomenon of Scripture itself which includes the similarities and dissimilarities of the Gospels.

The introduction to Luke’s Gospel is significant:

Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught. (Luke 1:1-4)

If the historic tradition is correct then Luke is the author of this Gospel. Luke was not an original eyewitness of Jesus. He was a traveling companion of Paul (cf. Col. 4:14). In the introduction to Luke, he makes it clear that the information he has received comes from “eyewitnesses and ministers of the word.” Luke had to investigate. He had to “follow all things closely”. This means that in order to write the Gospel According to Luke, he wasn’t being fed what to write by the Holy Spirit. He also admits that he has organized the material. The introduction of Luke says that the author is responsible for investigating, collecting, organizing, and writing the material.

What this means is that God was not interested in human stenographers. However inspiration works, Luke was not merely a typewriter for the Holy Spirit. God chose to preserve the message of the Gospel through the investigations, words, vocabularies, styles, organizational methods, and themes of four holy men.

Accepting a theory of interdependence of the Gospels does not deny the inspiration of the Scriptures. It does deny that the Scriptures were dictated through the Holy Spirit to their human authors. It means that Matthew had a very significant role in the material contained in the Gospel According to Matthew. We do not lessen God’s role when we emphasize Matthew’s. Instead, we honor the process that God has chosen. Matthew is responsible for the content of Matthew’s Gospel, and at the same time, Matthew’s words are the words of God.

I find a similar analogy in the mystery of the incarnation of Jesus. How is Jesus fully God and fully man? I affirm it, but don’t fully understand it. When we de-emphasize the humanity of Christ, we are left with a divine Son who cannot sympathize with or redeem our humanity. When we de-emphasize the divinity of Christ, we are left with a good, moral teacher who has no real authority over our lives. So it is with the inspiration of the Scriptures. When we over-emphasize the role of the Holy Spirit, we are left with humans that are merely stenographers. When we over-emphasize the role of the writers, we have a wonderful book written by men which are not the words of God. The Gospels are both fully human and fully divine. They are the words of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John which are the very words of God. This is a tension I am quite satisfied living with.

Why Is The Gospel of John So Different From The Others? (Pt. 2)

By Garrett Best

Since John was written, believers and unbelievers have pondered why John’s Gospel is so different from the other three. I explored a few of the differences in the last post if you missed it.

In this post, I’m going to attempt to explore a few of the complexities involved in the discussion of why John is so dissimilar from the other Gospels.

Did John Know The Synoptics?

This has been a very debated topic. If John was aware of the Synoptic Gospels, then he has intentionally given a very unique presentation. If John was unaware of the Synoptics, then this might explain why his presentation was so different. He didn’t have access to them to use as sources.

Was John independent of or dependent on the Synoptics? There are heavy hitters on both sides of the dependence/independence debate. Recently, Richard Bauckham has argued that John was written as a complement to the Gospel of Mark and that John expected the readers of John to be familiar with Mark (“John for Readers of Mark” in The Gospels for All Christians, pg. 147-71).

In 1972, C.K. Barrett argued that John was dependent on the Synoptics. Barrett points out that no one really believes John was dependent on Matthew; however, there are cases to be made for John’s use of Luke and/or Mark. Consider these parallels between John and Luke:

  • Mary and Martha of Bethany (Jn. 11:1-12:8; Lk. 10:38-42)
  • High priest Annas (Jn. 18:13, 24; Lk. 3:2; Acts 4:6)
  • The entrance of Satan into Judas (Jn. 13:2, 27; Lk. 22:3)
  • Predictions of Peter’s denials at the Last Supper (Jn. 13:38; Lk. 22:34)
  • The servant of the high priest who lost his ear at the arrest (Jn. 18:10; Lk. 22:50)
  • Two angels at the tomb (Jn. 20:12; Lk. 24:4)

Barrett believed there are even stronger arguments for John’s knowledge of Mark. Barrett even believed that John was intentionally correcting Mark’s account at certain points, such as the timing of Jesus’ ministry in relation to the ministry of John the Baptist (Jn. 3:24; Mk. 1:14-5) and the identity of the person who carried the cross of Jesus (Jn. 19:17; Mk. 15:21). There are also parallel sayings between John and Mark:

  • Jesus’ prediction to destroy the temple and raise it in three days (Jn. 2:19; Mk. 15:48)
  • Jesus statement that a prophet has no honor in his own country (Jn. 4:43-44; Mk. 6:4)
  • Jesus teaching that those who love their life will lose it (Jn. 12:25; Mk. 8:34-35)

Frans Neirynck has argued that the parallels in the crucifixion and resurrection accounts argue for dependence (“John and the Synoptics: The Empty Tomb Stories,” NTS 30 (1984): 161-87).

While Bauckham, Barrett, and Nierynck should not be dismissed lightly, the parallels and similarities between John and the Synoptics hardly prove dependence. They merely point to the fact that John was using traditions that interlocked with the Synoptic traditions. Over 90% of Mark is found in Matthew and Luke which points toward literary dependence. No more than 10% of John parallels the Synoptics which is not a strong case for literary dependence. One troubling tendency of those like Barrett who have argued for literary dependence is that they must see all of the differences in John from the other three as deliberate “corrections” to the Synoptic Gospels. Thus, John has been seen as a polemical correction to the Synoptics by many of those who have argued for literary dependence.

On the other hand, Percival Gardner-Smith and C.H. Dodd have been the most prominent advocates of independence. Gardner-Smith argued in the 1930s that there were very few verbal similarities between John and the Synoptics. Where there were similarities, it could very easily be due to common knowledge of the Jesus tradition rather than literary dependence.

C.H. Dodd argued the case for independence more strongly in the 1960s. Dodd moved very carefully through every possible similarity between John and the Synoptics. He believed that the material in John was largely derived from oral tradition. Dodd asked whether “the coincidences of language or content go beyond what might be reasonably expected in works having behind them the general tradition of the early Church…” (Historical Tradition in the Fourth Gospel, 9). In other words, where John does appear similar to the Synoptics, it is not due to dependence, but rather to the fact that John independently made use of the same “general tradition” that was being passed on in the early church.

Gardner-Smith and Dodd were arguing in the 20th century when the form critical methods of Rudolph Bultmann still dominated and they had a heavy emphasis on oral traditions. The form critical methods of Bultmann have been largely abandoned and so while the works of Gardner-Smith and Dodd are still valuable, they place an overdue emphasis on oral traditions. The other fallacy in their work is that they seem to define “dependence” as literary dependence. This is a major assumption because dependence might come in several different forms including orality, memory, or performance.

Mutual Influence or “Interlocking Traditions”

Various scholars have tried to bypass the impasse of the dependence/independence debate.

Leon Morris has argued argued that John interlocks with Matthew, Mark, and Luke at various points. In several places, John provides material that explains the portrait given in the Synoptics. Morris points out that Jesus is crucified in the Synoptics because he is accused of having said “I will destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days” (Mk. 14:58; 15:29; Matt. 26:60-61; 27:40). However, there is no report in the Synoptics of Jesus having said this. There is a tradition in John of Jesus having made this claim (Jn. 2:19-21). This is an example where it is likely that John provides material that explains the picture found in the Synoptics (Studies in the Fourth Gospel, 61-62).

John portrays Jesus as spending much time in Jerusalem before his final week. This helps explain why the religious leaders were so hell bound on having Jesus crucified in the Synoptics. John’s account explains why the antagonism ramped up so quickly. Jesus had already clashed with them several times in Jerusalem making them look bad on their own turf.

Don Carson believes John may have known (and even read) Mark or Luke, but that John still decided to write his own Gospel. Andreas Köstenberger believes that John was aware of the Synoptic materials and drew upon the same eyewitness testimony as Mark and Luke, but has made a deliberately creative reworking of the material in order to make the message relevant in a new context. John’s purpose statement (20:31) necessitated that he transposed his own presentation over Mark and possibly Luke to create a new presentation of the Jesus tradition.

My Own Conclusion

Are you confused? Good. There’s no conclusive answer to the Johannine Question. Almost no two scholars say the same thing about John’s relationship to the Synoptics.

My own opinion is that John was aware of at least one of the Synoptic Gospels (probably Mark and maybe Luke). I reached this conclusion because of Richard Bauckham’s arguments in “For Whom Were the Gospels Written?” in The Gospels for All Christians, 1998, pg.s 9-48. While I think Bauckham may overstate his case at times, his basic thesis is instructive. Bauckham uses evidence from the first and second centuries to argue that the Christians were a tight knit community that had a high level of mobility and communication. The evidence we have in the New Testament shows that Christians were highly mobile (i.e. missionary journeys of Paul). This means that literature produced in the first century would have spread rather quickly. This explains why Matthew and Luke would’ve been able to take advantage of Mark’s Gospel. Mark spread quickly.

If scholars are right about the Gospel of John, the Gospel was the last to be written at the end of the first century in Ephesus. Given Bauckham’s thesis, it would have been impossible for John to live in a major city like Ephesus without being aware of one or more of the Synoptics, especially Mark, at the end of the first century.

I opine that John was aware of the Synoptics (most likely Mark), but intentionally provided his own account. His own presentation of Jesus incorporates decades of reflection upon the meaning and significance of Jesus. This means that while John is similar to the Synoptics in many ways and most likely knew of at least one of the Synoptic Gospels, he did not feel constrained by the other presentations.

If we believe John was written last sometime at the end of the first century, then John would have had nearly 60 years to reflect on the significance of Jesus and his teaching. John’s Gospel would be the product of decades of reflection and guidance by the Holy Spirit to understand the truths Jesus taught. It is also quite possible that John’s Gospel was an attempt to contextualize the gospel message in a style that would reach his particular audience. Because of the extended teaching portions, the memorable teachings like the “I AM” statements, some scholars have surmised that the distinct style is due to early Christian preaching. They believe that Gospel of John was basically an early sermon put down in writing. There may be something to that theory.

Why Is The Gospel of John So Different From The Others?

By Garrett Best

If you’ve been following my latest series of posts, you know I’ve been exploring possible solutions to the Synoptic Problem. The Synoptic Problem can be summarized like this: Why are Matthew, Mark, and Luke so similar and yet different at the same time. Scholars theorize that the reason those three Gospels are so similar is because they are using the same written sources to write their Gospels. The most convincing solution to the Synoptic Problem is called the two-source hypothesis. Mark was the first Gospel to be written and was used by Matthew and Luke. In addition, Matthew and Luke used another source, termed Q. The similarities among these three Gospels is attributed to their common use of the same two sources, Mark and Q.

But, what about the Gospel of John? The Gospel of John is certainly one of the most beloved of the four Gospels. In many ways, it is very similar to the Synoptic Gospels. It is about Jesus. It tells of his ministry, contains his teaching to the disciples and crowds, and calls for faith in him as the Son of God. The Gospel culminates in his death, burial, and resurrection. John contains some similar material to the Synoptics; yet despite these similarities, when I’m reading John I can’t help but feel that I have ventured into new and strange territory. John is clearly different from other three.

This quandary is usually referred to as the Johannine Question. Why is John so different from the three Synoptic Gospels?

Consider a few examples:

  • While the Synoptics picture most of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee with his final week climaxing in Jerusalem, John pictures Jesus spending the majority of his time in Judea (2:1-19; 4:43-54; 5; 6:1; 7-8; 10).
  • The Synoptics present the cleansing of the temple as the final straw for the Jews in Jerusalem. The Jews move quickly to have Jesus murdered after overturning the tables in the temple courts. The cleansing of the temple happens in the final week of Jesus’ life in the Synoptics (Mk. 11:15-18; 21:12-13; Lk. 19:45-47). In John, the cleansing of the temple occurs at the beginning of his ministry (Jn. 2:13-22). In John, the raising of Lazarus from the dead is the last straw with the religious leaders (Jn. 11:47-53; 12:9-10). The climactic miracle in John (the raising of Lazarus) doesn’t even occur in the Synoptics. How can an event that significant not even appear in the Synoptics?!
  • The style of Jesus’ preaching and message in John is very different. In John, Jesus sounds more like the author of the letters of John than the Jesus of the Synoptics. In John, Jesus speaks in long, thematic speeches. When you compare Jesus speeches in John (like John 10) to say, the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, there is a marked difference in the way Jesus speaks and the content he presents. He uses a series of “I AM” statements. He talks about the Father-Son relationship. In the Synoptics, Jesus main message is about the kingdom of God. The phrase “kingdom of God occurs over 30 times in the Gospel of Luke, and only twice in John when Jesus speaks with Nicodemus (3:3, 5). In John, Jesus preaches about “eternal life”, not the “kingdom of God”. The word “life” occurs over 40 times in John and only 13 times in the Gospel of Luke.
  • Much of the material found in the Synoptics is absent from John. There is no birth narrative, no parables, no exorcisms, no tax collectors, no temptation by Satan, no transfiguration, no institution of the Lord’s Supper, no prediction of the destruction of Jerusalem, no baptism of Jesus, et. al.
  • John contains unique material nowhere to be found in the Synoptics. His unique material includes Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, the woman at the well, turning water to wine, healing the crippled man at the pool of Siloam, healing the man born blind, raising of Lazarus, the foot washing episode, all the material in the Farewell Discourse, Jesus high priestly prayer, post-resurrection appearances to the disciples, Jesus as the “word” and “lamb of God”, to name a few.

These differences raise a host of questions, and Christians have pondered these mysteries since the Gospel was written. Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-215) believed that John was written as a “spiritual Gospel” while the other three were to be taken more literally. Clement wrote, “But that John, last of all, conscious that the outward facts had been set forth in the Gospels, urged by his disciples, and divinely moved by the Spirit, composed a spiritual Gospel.” (reported in Eusebius, Hist. Eccl. 6.14.7) Origen (c. 185-253) believed that there were irreconcilable differences between John and the Synoptics. He sought to relieve the tensions by uncovering the deeper, spiritual sense of John’s meaning through a symbolic rather than literal interpretation. For the majority of Christian history, John has been looked at as being a “spiritual Gospel” that supplemented the more historical presentation of the Synoptics. Whereas the Synoptics supply the church with a more literal history of Jesus’ life and ministry, John provides the church with a deeper, spiritual message.

Were the early church fathers correct? What accounts for the overall difference in the presentation of John from the Synoptics? Did John know of the Synoptic Gospels? Did he write dependent on or independent of them?

Unfortunately, that’s too much to try to tackle in this post, so stay tuned for part 2.

Did Luke Use Matthew? (Dispensing With Q?)

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.



What Is Q And Why Is Q Important?

By Garrett Best

This is the third post in a series of posts on why it is that Matthew, Mark, and Luke are so similar. In the first post, I presented a brief summary of the evidence that has led scholars to conclude that there is literary relationship between the three Synoptic Gospels. Someone is copying someone. In the second post, I laid out the dominant scholarly position that Mark was the first Gospel to be written and Matthew and Luke both used Mark in order to write their own Gospels.

In this post, I’d like to talk about the Q document. Most of the material that Matthew and Luke share can be explained by their use of Mark. Since they were both copying from Mark, it makes sense they would have much in common. However, Matthew and Luke have about 235 verses in common which are not found in Mark. That’s close to 20% of the material in Matthew and Luke. How do you explain this phenomenon?

Since most of the material Matthew and Luke share can be explained in terms of their copying a written Mark, how do you think scholars explain these shared 235 verses? As you might expect, scholars believe there was another document which Matthew and Luke both used in addition to Mark which helps explain this 20% of shared material. Since this document no longer exists, scholars refer to it as “Q”. Scholars use the letter “Q” from the German word Quelle which means “source” to designate this hypothetical source.

A few are so convinced that Q existed as a written document, there have been commentaries produced on the Q document. Commentaries! That means these scholars believe they can actually go verse-by-verse and tell you what was originally in Q. For example, in 2005, HT Fleddermann authored Q. A Reconstruction and Commentary. John Kloppenborg Verbin wrote a book entitled Excavating Q which goes so far as to posit that Q was mostly likely written in the 50s and 60s in lower Galilee by a group of village scribes in low social standing who were iconoclastic against the Galileean religious scene and saw themselves as a renewal movement. Wow! That’s a lot to say about a hypothetical community behind a hypothetical document. John Meier said it best, “Q is a hypothetical document whose exact extension, wording, originating community, strata, and stages of redaction cannot be known.” (Meier, A Marginal Jew, 2001, 2:178)

With that qualification in mind, many scholars are convinced that there was some kind of source lying behind the 235 verses shared by Matthew and Luke. Although they believe Q existed as a written document, they are not as positive as scholars like Fleddermann or Kloppenborg Verbin that it is possible to reconstruct it. Nonetheless, I will briefly summarize the two main reasons why scholars believe Matthew and Luke used Q.

Evidence for the Existence of Q:

  1. The Argument from Wording- Many verses in Matthew and Luke are extremely similar. They share almost exact wording. For example, in Mt. 6:24 and Lk. 16:13, twenty-seven of the twenty-eight Greek words are the same. In Mt. 7:7-8 and Lk. 11:9-10, all twenty-four words are identical and in the same order. In Matthew 11:21-23 and Lk. 10:12-15, forty-three of the forty-nine words are parallel. This is beyond coincidence if we remember that Jesus was mostly likely speaking in Aramaic and the Gospels are the Greek translations of his original teachings. The similarity of word order is also impressive given that there are multiple ways to express the same thought in Greek. Identical translations into Greek and identical sentence structures are unlikely and point to the need for a theory of literary dependence.
  2. The Argument from Doublets- In my opinion, this is the strongest argument in favor of Luke and Matthew using both Mark, and another source, Q. Consider these examples:
  3. In Mark 8:34 Jesus says, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” This is parallel in Matt. 16:24 and Lk. 9:23. Given what we already have seen, this makes sense if Matthew and Luke are using Mark to write their Gospels, especially since the saying is connected to the confession of Peter in all three Gospels. Matthew is copying Mark in Matt. 16:24 and Luke is copying Mark in Lk. 9:23. However, the same saying occurs again in Matt. 10:38 and Lk. 14:27 that has no parallel in Mark. This means that Q also had the same saying of Jesus. Thus, Matthew was copying Mark in Matt. 16:24 and Q in Matt. 10:38. Luke was copying Mark in Lk. 9:23 and Q in Lk. 14:27. This is what is referred to as a doublet. Doublets are two forms of the same saying, one which appears in Mark and the other which occurs in Q.
    • In addition to the doublets shared by both Matthew and Luke, there are also unique doublets that only appear in Matthew or Luke. For example, the accusation against Jesus which occurs in Mark 3:22 that “by the prince of demons he casts out demons” is used by Matthew in Matt. 9:34. However, the same accusation occurs in another story that is not in Mark. The same accusation is made in a different context in Matt. 12:24 and Lk. 11:15. We would then explain the saying in Matt. 9:34 because Matthew is copying from Mark 3:22. However, the saying occurs again in Matt. 12:24 and is paralleled in Lk. 11:15. Thus, this would be an instance of the same saying occurring twice in Matthew, one from Mark (Matt. 9:34) and the other from Q (Matt. 12:24).
    • There are dozens of examples of this phenomenon. If Matthew and Luke used both Mark and Q, then one can see why these doublets exist. A doublet occurs because one of the sayings comes from Mark and the other from Q. The doublets are examples of where Mark and Q contain similar material. Since Matthew and Luke used both Mark and Q, sometimes the similarity of material shows up as doublets in their respective Gospels.

This is just a brief snapshot of a very detailed discussion. The priority of Mark is as close to certainty as we can get to knowing anything about the relationship of the Synoptic Gospels to one another. If Mark was written first, and Matthew and Luke used Mark to write their Gospels, it becomes easy to explain why the material shared by Matthew, Mark, and Luke is so similar.

You still have not explained the over 200 verses that only Matthew and Luke have in common. If they both used Mark to write their Gospels, why is it difficult to think they used another document available at the time? If you compare the material in these 200 verses, the majority of its content is sayings and teachings of Jesus. We know that there were collections of sayings of Jesus that existed in the first century like the Gospel of Thomas. It is not at all unreasonable that Matthew and Luke both used a collection of sayings like this in addition to using Mark.

At the end of the day, unless Q were to be discovered in an arid desert somewhere, all discussions of Q are hypothetical. All we can say is that there most likely was another source used by Matthew and Luke in addition to Mark that consisted of a collection of sayings and teachings of Jesus which we now refer to as Q.

Which Gospel was Written First?

By Garrett Best

In the last post, I presented a brief snapshot of the evidence that suggests there is a literary relationship between Matthew, Mark, and Luke. There are so many similarities between those three Gospels that they have been termed the Synoptic (“seen together”) Gospels. In this post, I’d like to look at the evidence for which of these three Gospels was written first. I’m going to start with the consensus of scholarship on the Synoptic Gospels and then work backwards to provide the evidence that supports this consensus.

Consensus of Scholarship: The Gospel According to Mark was written first sometime in the 50s-60s A.D. Later, the writers of Matthew and Luke independently used the material in Mark’s Gospel to write their respective Gospels. In addition to Mark, scholars believe that Matthew and Luke both used another gospel which is now lost, called “Q”.

In this post, I only plan to tackle the evidence for why Mark was most likely written first. In the next post, I’ll lay out the evidence for the existence of another gospel called Q.

Arguments for the Priority of Mark

  1. The Argument from Length- Mark’s Gospel is the shortest of the three with 661 verses. Matthew has 1,068 verses and Luke 1,149 verses. Since there is a literary relationship among these three, either Mark has shortened Matthew and/or Luke, or Matthew and Luke have taken Mark’s shorter Gospel and built upon it. Of the words in Mark, 97% have a parallel in Matthew and 88% have a parallel in Luke. Is it more likely that Matthew and Luke added material to Mark or that Mark omitted material from Matthew and Luke. It seems difficult to explain why Mark would omit so much of the teaching material of Jesus if he had been using Matthew and/or Luke. Why would Mark omit the accounts of Jesus’ birth, the Sermon on the Mount, most of Jesus’ teaching material, the Lord’s prayer, etc.? To scholars, it seems more likely that Matthew added that material to Mark’s shorter Gospel presentation than Mark removing all that great teaching material from Matthew.
  2. The Argument from Greek Style- Greek scholars have noted that Mark’s vocabulary, style, and sentence construction is inferior to that of Matthew and Luke. While there are multiple ways of demonstrating this, I want to focus on Mark’s redundancies and excessive use of the Greek adverb “euthus”. Mark’s Gospel contains numerous redundancies:
    • “that evening, at sundown” (1:32)
    • “and immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean.” (1:42)
    • “Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting and people came and said to him, Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast” (2:18)
    • “Have you never read what David did, when he was in need and was hungry,” (2:25)

    And, these are just a few examples from the first two chapters. Scholars have estimated that there are over 200 instances of redundancy in Mark. In the majority of these instances, Matthew and Luke have edited or removed these redundancies. If Mark used the other Gospels, then you would have to assume that Mark added these redundancies. It is easier to believe that Matthew and Luke have removed these redundancies in order to improve the Greek syntax of the source they were using, Mark.

    Mark uses the adverb “euthus” (“immediately”) excessively. He uses it over 40 times. Because everything happens “immediately” in Mark, you get the impression everyone is running around and everything happens very quickly. By comparison, Matthew only uses that adverb six times and Luke once. Beginning every new unit of material with “immediately” is not the best Greek style. What better explains this evidence? That Matthew and Luke have improved upon Mark’s poorer Greek style or that Mark has taken Matthew and Luke’s superior Greek style and diminished it?

  3. The Argument from Difficult Readings- Mark’s Gospel contains some of the more difficult passages to interpret. For example, what does it mean when Mark says that Jesus “could do no mighty work” (6:5) in Nazareth? By comparison, in Matthew Jesus “did not do mighty works” (13:58) there because of their unbelief. In Mark, Jesus looks at the Pharisees “with anger” (3:5); becomes “indignant” at the disciples (10:14); and in one healing story, it appears that Jesus is unable to heal a blind man on the first try (8:22-26). In the parallel accounts in Matthew, there is no mention of Jesus “anger”; being “indignant”; or the story of the faulty healing. Then, there’s the reference in Mark 2:26 to David eating the bread of the Presence when “Abiathar was high priest” when it appears Ahimelech, Abiathar’s father, was high priest at the time of this event. Matthew 12:1-8 contains the parallel story with no mention of Abiathar. In Mark 1:12, it says the Spirit “drove/expelled” Jesus out into the wilderness which is usually a very reserved for “expelling” or “casting out” demons. Matthew and Luke both say the Spirit “lead” him out to the wilderness. If you compare all of these difficult passages to their parallel in Matthew or Luke, these difficult passages have either been omitted or improved. It is not likely that Mark would have added these difficult readings to Matthew or Luke’s presentation thus making Mark’s presentation more primitive and unrefined.
  4. The Argument from Verbal Agreements- When you set Matthew, Mark, and Luke side by side and compare them, Matthew and Luke rarely agree against Mark. Matthew and Mark agree with one another many times against Luke. Luke and Mark agree with one another many times against Matthew. But, Matthew and Luke almost never agree against Mark. This means that Mark is the middle man. Either Mark was the first Gospel to be written and Matthew and Luke used Mark, or it means that Mark was written last as a conflation of Matthew and Luke. Given what we have seen already, of these two options, it is more likely that Mark was written first and Matthew and Luke both independently used Mark.
  5. The Argument from Order- Matthew and Luke both follow the basic order of Mark. When either Matthew or Luke depart from the order of Mark, the other usually follows Mark’s order. Luke and Matthew depart from the order of Mark in order to insert their unique material, mostly the teaching material of Jesus. An interesting example is Luke’s large block of teaching material which occurs in 9:51-18:14. This is where the majority of unique material in Luke occurs. Luke has been following Mark’s order up until this point but departs from Mark’s order at Mark 10:1 in order to insert all the material in Luke 9:51-18:14. Interestingly, when Luke finishes this block of unique material, he goes back to Mark’s order in Luke 18:15. It’s as if Luke chose to pause at Mark 10 to add most of his unique material and then picked right back up where he left off.

Scholars all agree that there is a literary relationship between the Synoptic Gospels. Someone is copying someone. Admittedly, all of the evidence presented above is circumstantial. There is no definitive way to prove that Mark wrote first and Matthew and Luke copied Mark. However, circumstantial evidence is evidence nonetheless. The evidence we have from the Synoptic Gospels points to the priority of Mark.

Did Matthew, Mark, and Luke Copy Each Other?

By Garrett Best

If you’ve ever read the first three Gospels in the New Testament, you don’t have to be a scholar to notice that Matthew, Mark, and Luke are similar to one another. In fact, Matthew, Mark, and Luke are so similar that they have been called the “Synoptic” Gospels which comes from a Greek word meaning “seen together”. Mark has a total of 661 verses and about 90% have some parallel in Matthew and about 65% of Mark’s verses are paralleled in Luke. In addition, there are about 230 verses that Luke and Matthew have in common that don’t appear in Mark.

Most scholars are convinced that the best explanation for these parallels is a literary relationship between Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The most likely scenario to explain the similarities between these three Gospels is that the writers used one another’s work in order to write their own. Someone copied someone.

There are four main reasons scholars believe that there is a literary relationship between Matthew, Mark, and Luke. I will introduce them briefly.

  • Similarities in Wording 

This is especially significant if we remember that Jesus and his disciples most likely spoke Aramaic most of the time, and the Gospels are written in Greek. How do the Gospels end up with similar wording in the Greek translation of Jesus’ originally Aramaic words? And, even more impressively, with the Greek narration of Jesus’ deeds?

Read the story of Jesus healing Simon Peter’s mother-in-law in the Synoptic Gospels (Mk 1:29-34; Lk. 4:38-41; Mt. 8:14-17). All three accounts emphasize she was sick with a “fever”. Immediately after she is healed, she begins to “serve” Jesus. But, notice what comes next in all three accounts: “that evening at sundown” (Mk. 1:32); “that evening” (Mt. 8:16); “Now when the sun was setting” (Lk. 4:40). Such an odd detail to have in common. All three go on to narrate how many sick and demon possessed people were brought to Jesus and he healed them. Mark and Luke even are similar in narrating how Jesus rebuked the demons so that they wouldn’t reveal his identity because they knew he was the Christ. In all three accounts, there is a high degree of similarity in wording and details used to narrate the accounts. This is just one example of a phenomenon that occurs throughout. Scholars are convinced the similarities are too striking to be coincidence. Someone copied someone.

  • Similarities in Order

One of the striking features of the Synoptic Gospels is that for the most part, they put the same stories in the same order. For example, in Mark 2:1-3:6 there is a series of stories involving controversy over Jesus’ healing ministry and also his teaching. Note the order in Mark’s narrative: Jesus heals a paralytic, calls Levi to follow him, argues with the Pharisees over fasting, argues with Pharisees over the disciples picking grain on the Sabbath, and heals a man with a withered hand. Compare that order with Luke 5:17-6:11. They both contain the exact same order of stories. The same type of exact similarity of order occurs in the sequence of events happening on the night Jesus was betrayed in Jerusalem (Mk. 14:1-31; Matt. 26:1-35; Lk. 22:1-34).

When all the stories that all three Gospels share are set-by-side, they rarely disagree in order. The most likely way to explain this phenomenon is that one Gospel was written before the others which established the basic order of the story of Jesus and the other two Gospels utilized that basic outline in order to write their Gospels. Someone copied someone.

  • Similarities in Parenthetical Notes

“But when you see the abomination of desolation standing where he ought not to be (let the reader understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains.” (Mk. 13:14)

“So when you see the abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains.” (Matt. 24:15-16)

Did you notice the identical parenthetical comment “(let the reader understand)”? In your English translations, that note is put in parenthesis because Jesus didn’t say it. The narrator of the Gospel added it. What does it mean? Let the reader of Daniel understand? Let the reader of the Gospel understand? I think it’s more likely that the Gospel writers are referring to the person who would have delivered and read the Gospel aloud to the church. I think the Gospel writers expected the person delivering and reading the Gospel to the church to know something about this prophecy in Daniel in case the church had questions.

How else do you explain the exact same parenthetical note by the narrator in the exact same place in the text? Someone copied someone.

  • Similarities in Old Testament Quotations

The Synoptic Gospels quote Isaiah 40:3 to present the wilderness ministry of John the Baptist as a fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy. All three Gospels are using the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, the Septuagint, to quote the prophecy from Isaiah 40:3. The Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible follows the original Hebrew text. The last phrase of the Septuagint is:

εὐθείας ποιεῖτε τὰς τρίβους τοῦ θεοῦ ἡμῶν (“make straight the paths of our God“)

This is exactly how the original Hebrew reads: “make straight the paths of our God”. However, notice how Matthew, Mark, and Luke quote Isaiah 40:3.

εὐθείας ποιεῖτε τὰς τρίβους αὐτοῦ (“make his paths straight”)

make his paths straight,’” (Mk 1:3)

make his paths straight.’” (Matt. 3:3)

make his paths straight.” (Lk. 3:4)

Notice that neither Matthew, Mark, nor Luke quote Isaiah 40:3 precisely. Instead, all three have made an identical alteration to the Greek translation of Isaiah. Rather than saying “make straight the paths of our God“, they all three say “make his paths straight” with the identical Greek construction. All three provide the same revised quotation of Isaiah 40:3 which does not occur in the Masoretic Hebrew text or Greek Septuagint of that verse. How do you explain this kind of similarity? Someone copied someone.

Conclusion: Most scholars are convinced that the Synoptic Gospels are copying one another. It is difficult to explain the similarities in wording, similarities in order, similarities in parenthetical notes, and similarities in Old Testament quotations without positing some theory of literary dependence. So, who copied who? That will be the subject of the next post. Stay tuned.