Does it matter which of the Gospel writers wrote first?

Readers’ Perspective 1 Comment

Papias said Matthew wrote first. Someone else said Mark wrote first. Lindsey said Luke wrote first. Does it matter? Why can’t we just accept that the four gospel writers were four independent individual persons used by God to write one complete Gospel?

Response revised: 8 April 2012

Question from Pieter Kraay (Bishop’s Stortford, Herts., England) that was published in the “Readers’ Perspective” column of Jerusalem Perspective 50 (Jan.-Mar. 1996): 7.

Papias said Matthew wrote first. Someone else said Mark wrote first. Lindsey said Luke wrote first. Papias was probably right.

Does it matter? Why can’t we just accept that the four gospel writers were four independent individual persons used by God to write one complete Gospel? Why, oh why, do learned people love to waste precious time, money and paper on unimportant matters?

Jerusalem Perspective responds:

To be accurate, Lindsey believed that Jesus’ disciple Matthew wrote first; however, Lindsey also believed that the author of the “Gospel according to Matthew” was neither the disciple Matthew nor the Matthew to whom Papias referred. Although there is a church tradition—dating not earlier than 175 A.D.—that the disciple Matthew composed the first gospel, the Gospel of Matthew itself nowhere names its author. (See Joseph Frankovic, “Pieces to the Synoptic Puzzle: Papias and Luke 1:1–4,” Jerusalem Perspective 40 (Sept.-Oct. 1993): 12-13.)

For the importance of ascertaining which synoptic gospel was written first, see the Conclusion to Robert Lindsey’s “Unlocking the Synoptic Problem: Four Keys for Better Understanding Jesus,” Jerusalem Perspective 49 (Oct.-Dec. 1995): 16-17.

This article originally appeared in issue 50 of the Jerusalem Perspective magazine. Click on the image above to view a PDF of the original magazine article.

David Winter of Danbury, Essex, England wrote this response to Pieter Kraay’s letter:

In reply to the letter from my friend and neighbour Pastor Krayy, I remember being at the barber’s some years back with Dr. Bob Lindsey, and I said to him: “Bob, I’m just a simple Christian. Were is all this research getting us? What is the bottom line?”

“Well, David,” Bob replied, “among other things, we can say today that we have a far more accurate account in the Gospels of the life and teaching of Christ than the so-called ‘higher critics’ would ever have credited us with!”

Incidentally, Pastor Kraay’s church runs a Christian school which has just received high praise from government inspectors; they have classified it as one of the best schools in the country! All this learning—does it matter?

David Winter
This article originally appeared in issue 52 of the Jerusalem Perspective magazine. Click on the image above to view a PDF of the original magazine article.

Comments 1

  1. JP Staff Writer Post
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    JP denies the premise of your question, “Why can’t we just accept that the four gospel writers were four independent individual persons used by God to write one complete Gospel?” The four Gospel writers were not independent individuals, at least not three of them. There is ample evidence of a literary relationship between the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. In other words, it is clear from the way these Gospels are written that some of the writers recycled the work of some of the others. The word-for-word agreements and the corrections to grammar, details and sequence prove that this is so.

    The debate is, given the fact that the gospel writers are NOT independent, which of them wrote first, and which of them responded to the others? The answer to this question can matter a great deal because it can determine which is the more original version of the story and which is a later interpretation of it. For instance, whether Luke depended on Mark or whether Mark depended on Luke will determine how we read the story about how Jesus’ mother and siblings came to see him. In Mark Jesus says, “Who is my mother and brothers?” Then, looking around at those seated about him, Jesus says, “See my mother and brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:33-35). [By the way, Matthew corrects Mark’s grammar by writing, “Who is my mother and who are my brothers?” (Matt. 12:48). This correction is a good indication that Matthew relied on Mark.] On the other hand, in Luke Jesus says, “My mother and brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it” (Luke 8:21). If Mark’s version is deemed as the earliest, then Jesus’ words in both Mark and Luke are read as radical rejections of Jesus’ family. Jesus implies that his family members do not do God’s will, and therefore Jesus has little regard for them. But if Luke wrote first and Mark came later, then Luke’s version takes priority. When Luke’s version is released from Mark’s fetters, we find in Luke a loving and tender affirmation of Jesus’ family. “My mom is someone who hears God’s word and obeys. So are my siblings.” Mark’s version must then be interpreted through the lens of Luke: Mark is not a radical rejection of Jesus’ natural family but a radical extension of Jesus’ spiritual family. Anyone who obeys God’s will can be as close to Jesus as his own natural kin.

    This is only one small example of why it matters which of the Gospel writers wrote first. Getting the answer wrong can give readers a distorted and terrifying image of Jesus. Getting it right gives us the proper perspective.

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