Sources for the Gospels
Without the Gospels, little would be known of the way Jesus lived and taught. Although there are a few references to Jesus in the writings of ancient Greek and Latin historians such as Tacitus, Pliny and Josephus, the only sources of consequence for his life and teachings are the letters and tractates of the New Testament.
A Jewish Book
Our information about Jesus thus depends upon the writings of members of a first-century Jewish sect. All the original members of this sect were Jews, as were almost all the writers of the New Testament. Although its earliest known form is in the Greek language, the New Testament is a thoroughly Jewish book. It is full of ideas, idioms, and thought and language forms that are so completely Semitic that Christians reading from the Old Testament to the New Testament have invariably felt that they were continuing a single story.
Even the non-Jewish writer Luke, author of the longest account of the life of Jesus in the New Testament and the only apostolic history in this collection (The Acts of the Apostles), fills his works with quotations from the highly Semitic sayings of Jesus and the preaching of Jewish apostles.
The earliest “books” of the New Testament are not the Gospels, but the letters of Paul and, possibly, the epistle of Jesus’ brother James. These letters do not present even a minimal account of Jesus’ life. Rather, they contain appeals to early Greek-speaking Christians, of both Jewish and pagan background, to follow more closely the example of “the Lord.” The rare references to the historical life of Jesus are introduced only to enforce a point. Nevertheless, these biographical references are brought in so casually as to be considered of great importance by historians, and it would be possible to construct a small Life of Jesus from them.
Paul wrote that Jesus was a man “born of woman,” a descendant of Abraham and of the family of David, that he lived under the Torah, ate a last meal at Passover with his disciples to whom he distributed bread and wine, inviting them to repeat that rite in remembering him, was buried but was raised to life by God his Father, and later seen by many of his disciples and once “by more than five hundred brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living.”
These references suggest that Paul was well acquainted with the main facts and teachings of Jesus as they are recorded in the Gospels. However, it appears that the Gospels, as they now stand in Greek, cannot have been written prior to about 60 A.D., by which time most if not all of Paul’s letters had been circulated among the Greek churches. Yet there is strong evidence that written records of Jesus’ life and teachings predate even Paul’s earliest letters. It seems that the authors of the canonical Gospels were using Greek written sources that had themselves descended from a Greek translation of an original Hebrew Life of Jesus.
The dates of the Gospels are the subject of much speculation among scholars. Since it seems clear that the writer of the Gospel of John used Matthew, Mark and Luke in writing his own book, it often has been supposed that John was composed as late as the second century A.D. Much recent scholarship would prefer a date as early as 75-80 A.D., which suggests that the three earlier Gospels could have been written before 70 A.D. For my suggested dating of the Synoptic Gospels and their sources, see David Bivin, “Discovering Longer Gospel Stories.”
These books are called “Gospels” perhaps because the Apostle Paul used the Greek word εὐαγγέλιον (evangelion, good news) to describe the message he and other evangelists preached to Jews and Greeks throughout the Roman world. He defined this evangel in his first letter to the Corinthians by stating that “the Messiah died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, was buried, was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve….” (1 Cor. 15:3-5).
It is likely that Paul coined the specific sense of the word evangelion—good news to men—from the Greek form of Isaiah 61:1, “…the Spirit of the LORD has anointed me εὐαγγελίσασθαι [evangelisasthai, to bring good news) to the poor…,” which also was the quotation with which Jesus announced his ministry in the synagogue of Nazareth (Luke 4:18).
In any case, the word evangelion which, due to Anglo-Saxon usage we translate into English as “gospel,” was used by the writer of the Gospel of Mark in the first sentence of his book: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus the Messiah.” This set the pattern for early Greek-speaking believers to label the four canonical accounts of Jesus’ life, “The Gospel according to Matthew,” “The Gospel according to Mark,” etc. Eventually, the four collectively were called “the Gospels.”
None of the Gospels contains the name of its author, and we are dependent upon second-century Christian tradition for the names of the writers. However, in view of the tendency of Greek-speaking Christians of this period to attribute apostolic authorship to early books, it is significant that neither the Gospel of Mark nor the Gospel of Luke bears an apostolic name. This is one of several reasons for believing that Luke was in fact the author of the New Testament works attributed to him, and a good case can be made for the authenticity of the tradition concerning Mark (sometimes called John Mark, cf. Acts 12:25).
Many scholars consider it impossible to prove the second-century tradition that the Apostle Matthew wrote the Gospel that bears his name. The situation is the same regarding John’s Gospel. Modern writers usually use the names Matthew, Mark, Luke and John for the books themselves and the traditional authors without necessarily implying that they accept the tradition.
The order of these Gospels in the earliest manuscripts says something about their individual popularity in the second and third centuries A.D. Usually the order is Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, as in modern usage. However, one also finds the order Matthew, Luke, John and Mark, which may indicate the popularity of Matthew and the unpopularity of Mark’s Gospel, which was said by second-century Greek believers to be “out of order.”
The order of the Gospels and the identity of their authors is of much less importance than the study of what they actually say. Here the first tools are a knowledge of Koine Greek, the usual Greek of the period, an understanding of textual transmission, an ability to use Old and New Testament Hebrew and Greek concordances and lexicons and, not least of all, a close acquaintance with rabbinic literature in its Hebrew and Aramaic originals.
Early Gospel Texts
Two important Gospel scholars of the early modern period were Jacob Wetstein and John Lightfoot. Their research highlighted the Hebrew and Greek linguistic influences in the Gospels. Wetstein published Novum Testamentum Graecum in 1752, while Lightfoot published Horae Hebraicae et Talmudicae even earlier, in 1684. Both works contain material from rabbinic literature illustrating passages of the Gospels. After these books appeared, many scholars became convinced that the Synoptic Gospels are versions of a Greek translation of a Semitic story.
Although Wetstein had an interest in variant texts of the New Testament, it was only much later that scholars began serious attempts to define the earliest Greek text. The Gospels posed particular problems in this regard, for ancient copyists tended to confuse the text of one Gospel with that of another. Additionally, at least in Mark’s case, a copyist appears to have been unhappy with Mark’s wording and decided to correct his text with the deliberate use of phrases from Matthew and Luke.
Despite these problems, a definition of the New Testament text was brilliantly achieved in 1882 by two English scholars, B. F. Westcott and F. J. A. Hort. While today a small group of textual critics continues to work on isolated problems, it generally is assumed that the Greek text of the New Testament is the best preserved of any ancient book.
Form and Content
More difficult, and much more critical, is the problem of the relationship of the four Gospels. The Synoptic Gospels were always seen to be closely related in form and content. In modern times the three often have been printed in books with parallel columns to make them easier to compare. Such a book is called a synopsis, from a Greek word meaning “seen together.”
All of the Gospels have stories, sentences and phrases in common, yet they also differ from one another in large and small ways. For the past 150 years scholars have been trying to determine what these similarities and differences mean, and whether they reflect an even earlier text. The similarities are so exact as to suggest a definite interdependence, but the differences are so great that it seems certain editorial changes were made.
One problem was largely solved in ancient times. It was seen that the Gospel of John is organized so differently and contains so many inserted explanations that it cannot be treated as the relatively straightforward story one finds in Matthew, Mark and Luke. John’s work, therefore, was called a “spiritual” Gospel and said to date from a later period.
John represented Jesus as saying things like, “For the Father loves the Son…,” “The Son can do…only what he sees the Father doing,” “The Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son.” It was clear from the almost complete absence of such terminology in the Synoptic Gospels that John paraphrased Jesus’ words with expressions not customary in Jesus’ speech, but chosen to emphasize Jesus’ consciousness of God as his Father.
The Gospel of John is a beautiful poetic meditation on the meaning of Jesus’ life. It borrows the form of previous Gospels and many of their words and phrases, reorganizing them while proliferating expressions and ideas that normally appear only once or twice in Matthew, Mark and Luke.
How the Gospel Writers Worked
The basic literary method used in the Synoptic Gospels was to string together a series of stories about Jesus. It is the same literary method followed in the Hebrew narratives of the Old Testament, although some modern scholars deny this and insist that the Gospel form is unique. However the similarity of narrative technique between the Old Testament and the Synoptic Gospels is clearly apparent.
The Gospels present a chronological progression from the birth or appearance of Jesus until his death and resurrection. This is typical of Hebrew narrative biography. If there are occasional remarks inserted by an author to explain a word or phrase, it is done inconspicuously. Indeed, the Hebrew narrative form imposed special limitations on the writers of the Gospels who sometimes wished to add comments of their own.
As in the Old Testament narratives, the Synoptic Gospels used laconic expressions of time and place in story openings. For example one reads about Elijah, “And he arose and went to Zarephath” (1 Kings 17:10), and likewise about Jesus that “he arose…and went to a desert place” (Mark 1:35). The prodigal son “arose and went” to his father (Luke 15:20), and Mary “arose…and went…to a city of Judah” (Luke 1:39).
Following Hebraic custom, few adjectives and adverbs are used, and direct conversation is the rule. Hebrew idioms abound, and the juxtaposition of nouns such as “furnace [of] fire,” “storm [of] wind,” “birds [of] the sky,” “lilies [of] the field,” “poor [of] spirit” and “kingdom [of] heaven” also is reminiscent of the Hebrew Bible.
Laying the Groundwork
Luke stated in the prologue to his Gospel that many written accounts of Jesus’ life were in circulation. Did Matthew, Mark or Luke make use of these accounts in writing their works? Did they make use of each other’s accounts? Assuming that the Synoptic Gospels derive from an earlier version or versions of the biography of Jesus, the Synoptic Problem must be dealt with if one wishes to arrive at a more accurate understanding of Jesus’ biography.
Before dealing in detail with the various aspects of the Synoptic Problem, we must lay the groundwork by introducing some basic synoptic concepts and terminology.
This term is used to refer to a book in which the first three Gospels are arranged in parallel columns to make it easier to compare their texts. The stories of each Gospel are printed in the order in which they appear in that Gospel, with parallels when they exist from the other two Gospels. When Matthew, Mark and/or Luke do not agree on the order of a particular story, the pericope is printed a second or third time in a synopsis.
The so-called Synoptic Problem relates to the order in which Matthew, Mark and Luke were written, and the literary sources used by each.
Each of the Synoptic Gospels not only have certain pericopae not found in the other two, but their narratives overlap at various points in content, structure, vocabulary and word order. In some places one writer seems to have exerted a direct or indirect influence upon one or both of the others, while at other places the writers seem to have been drawing upon one or more non-canonical sources.
The Synoptic Problem is complex, and generations of New Testament scholars have grappled with it without reaching a satisfactory and universally agreed upon solution.
A pericope (plural: pericopae), one of the divisions of a synopsis, is the technical term for a gospel story unit or episode. Albert Huck divided his Synopsis of the First Three Gospels into into 271 pericopae—253 numbered pericopae and 18 unnumbered pericopae. Kurt Aland divided his Synopsis Quattuor Evangeliorum into 367 pericopae. Often a pericope does not comprise a whole story, but only an isolated saying or short summary. Huck’s Pericopae Number 37, for instance, is just a single verse, Matthew 7:6. An example of a short summary is Huck’s Pericopae Number 230, Luke 21:37-38.
Use of the same words, sometimes implying the same forms or sequence of words.
Uniformity of story order, the appearance of pericopae in the same order in two or more of the Synoptic Gospels.
The seventy-seven stories that are found in all three Synoptic Gospels.
The forty-two stories (e.g., the “Beatitudes”) that are found only in Matthew and Luke. The term “Double Tradition” refers specifically to the Matthean-Lukan Double Tradition story units, although there also are fifteen stories (e.g., the “Feeding of the Four Thousand”) shared only by Matthew and Mark, and three stories (e.g., the “Widow’s Gift”) shared only by Luke and Mark.
The order that is shared by fifty-nine of the seventy-seven Triple Tradition pericopae.
The 400 or so instances within the Triple Tradition where Matthew and Luke exhibit verbal agreement not shared by Mark. Matthew and Luke rarely agree with each other verbally at length in Triple Tradition, and these minor agreements consist of the addition of only a word or short phrase that is not found in Mark’s parallel passage.
Most scholars recognize only these 400 minor agreements of addition. However, Matthew and Luke agree in other minor ways against Mark. Approximately 140 times they agree against Mark on the form of a word, some 140 times in giving a synonym (e.g., “the devil” against Mark’s “Satan” [Mark 1:13]; “Herod the tetrarch” against Mark’s “King Herod” [Mark 6:14]), and about 70 times in inverting the order of words.
One also could include as minor agreements several hundred instances where Matthew and Luke agree to omit material found in Mark in parallel passages. For instance, both Matthew and Luke omit the word “twice” opposite Mark 14:30. What did Jesus originally say? Did he say that Peter would deny him three times before the rooster crowed twice, as Mark records, or that Peter would deny him three times before the rooster crowed once, as Matthew and Luke record (Matt. 26:34; Luke 22:34)?
None of the Synoptic Gospels mentions the name of its author. The tradition that Matthew wrote the first Gospel, Mark the second and Luke the third dates from the late second century A.D. Most modern gospel scholars have assumed that the first account written was Mark. However, I believe there is evidence to suggest a different conclusion.
Similarity in Wording
Approximately two-thirds of the Synoptic Gospels’ 214 story units, or pericopae, are found in more than one of the Gospels. This shared material not only is similar in content, but also in many instances shows word-for-word agreement. Such literary dependence is too extensive and complex to suppose that the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke are independent accounts of eyewitnesses. The Gospel writers must have based their accounts upon at least one shared, written text.
The writers of Matthew, Mark and Luke were not authors so much as editors, and apparently very little of their texts was composed by them. The similarity of stories and wording among the Synoptic Gospels indicates that the writers were editing a shared source or sources, and/or editing each other’s work. It is as if three different writers were editing the same news story fed to them by the Associated Press.
The identification of the non-canonical sources shared by the writers of the Synoptic Gospels, and the nature of the Synoptic Gospels’ interdependence, is the heart of what scholars call “the Synoptic Problem.”
One of the interesting things about the Synoptic Gospels is their interdependence. Although there are many differences, there also are many striking similarities.
For example, when Matthew, Mark and Luke recounted Jesus’ response to the rich man (Matt. 19:23; Mark 10:23; Luke 18:24), they all agreed on the use of the word δυσκόλως (dūskolōs, hardly, with difficulty), a word that is never used elsewhere in the New Testament. Similarly, in the story of the paralyzed man (Matt. 9:6; Mark 2:10; Luke 5:24), each of the synoptists divided Jesus’ discourse at exactly the same place with the phrase, “he said to the paralytic.”
This interconnectedness also can be seen in the order of story units. According to Albert Huck’s arrangement (Synopsis of the First Three Gospels), Matthew, Mark and Luke have seventy-eight story units in common (for instance, the Rich Young Ruler story, Matt. 19:16-30 = Mark 10:17-31 = Luke 18:18-30). Scholars refer to these story units as the “Triple Tradition.” Fifty-nine of these units are in the same order in all three Gospels.
On the other hand, Matthew and Luke share forty-two story units (counted according to Matthean story order) that are not found in Mark (for instance, the Parable of the Talents: Matt. 25:14-30 = Luke 19:11-27). Collectively, these forty-two Matthean-Lukan stories are known as the “Double Tradition.” Except for one story (Matt. 3:7-10 = Luke 3:7-9) that comes at the beginning of their Gospels, Matthew and Luke never agree to place stories that are unique to their Gospels in the same order.
In Triple Tradition, Matthew and Luke have only approximately twenty-five percent agreement in wording—in the seventy-eight story units shared with Mark, the wording of Matthew and Luke is rarely the same for more than two words. However, in Double Tradition, Matthew and Luke can reach over eighty percent agreement in wording.In the forty-two story units not shared with Mark, the wording of Matthew and Luke often is exactly the same for whole sentences and even paragraphs.
I call this correlation—high verbal identity but low story-order agreement in Double Tradition, and low verbal identity but high story-order agreement in Triple Tradition—the “Markan Cross-Factor” because, apparently, it is the presence of Mark that distinguishes Triple Tradition from Double Tradition. Mark stands between Matthew and Luke, causing much of the agreement and disagreement of story order and wording found in the Synoptic Gospels.
Who Wrote First?
Scholars have not agreed on which Gospel was written first, although some clues are available. It happens that Mark used quite a few words and phrases repeatedly—for example, the expression “and immediately” (kai evthūs). Mark said that at his baptism Jesus “came up out of the water and immediately saw the heavens opened” (Mark 1:10). In verse 12 Mark writes, “And immediately the Spirit drove him into the desert.” Mark used this expression in his Gospel more than forty times. Along with words like “again” (palin) and “often” (polla), Mark’s love of the expression “and immediately” shows a writer who enjoyed frequently repeating his favorite words and phrases.
Matthew’s Gospel generally shares these Markan expressions, usually in exactly the same context in which Mark used them. Luke, however, wrote as if he had never seen Mark’s special words. This may indicate that Luke wrote before Mark, and that Matthew wrote after Mark.
Similarity in Story Order
The Synoptic Gospels also show similarity by having a common story outline. Most of the seventy-eight pericopae shared by the three Gospels are presented in the same order, from the pericope about the preaching of John the Baptist to the pericope about the empty tomb.
Matthew and Luke inserted other stories into their common outline that have no parallel in Mark. Surprisingly, the forty-two stories shared by Matthew and Luke that have no parallel in Mark display an almost total lack of agreement on pericope order.
It was the observation of these two facts—agreement of pericope order in Triple Tradition but lack of agreement in Double Tradition—that led early nineteenth-century scholars to accept the theory of Markan Priority. According to this theory, Mark’s was the first Gospel to be written and is the document lying behind the Triple Tradition material. The source of the Double Tradition material was thought to be a conjectured, non-canonical document labeled “Q.”
The reasoning of these pioneering scholars was as follows: Double Tradition pericope order suggests that Matthew and Luke were writing independently of each other. Yet, in Triple Tradition Matthew and Luke generally agree with Mark’s pericope order and never agree together to break with that order. Therefore, Mark must have given Matthew and Luke their Triple Tradition pericope order, and so his account must have been written before theirs.
By the beginning of the twentieth century almost all New Testament scholars had accepted this approach, and today Markan Priority is still the most widely accepted solution to the Synoptic Problem.
However, it is impossible on the basis of pericope order alone to determine the order in which the Synoptic Gospels were written. Facts of pericope order are important, but they are not sufficient to tell us which Gospel was written first.
One also could interpret the pericope-order evidence as indicating that Mark used one of the other two Gospels, copying only part of that Gospel’s pericopae, and then was used as a source by the other Gospel. As in the theory of Markan Priority, Mark would still be viewed as the cause of the common pericope order in Triple Tradition, but instead of being first in order of writing, Mark would be second.
The Markan Cross-Factor
As already mentioned, there are two facts that make it necessary to suppose interdependence among the Synoptic Gospels. On the one hand, only the first of the forty-twocommon Matthean-Lukan Double Tradition pericopae can be said to be given the same place in pericope order. This suggests that Matthew and Luke did not use each other’s work. Had Matthew or Luke derived his Double Tradition stories from the other, it is difficult to imagine that so few of the forty-two would be in the same sequence.
On the other hand, fifty-nine of the seventy-eight Triple Tradition pericopae appear in the same general order in all three Gospels. This suggests that Matthew and Luke were influenced by Mark in arranging their Triple Tradition pericopae.
These similarities and differences in pericope order have led most scholars to accept the theory of Markan Priority. However, it is likewise possible that Mark caused the common order not because his was the first Gospel written and was used by both Matthew and Luke, but because the author of Mark copied one of them and in turn was copied by the other.
There is another difference between the Double and Triple Traditions that can help us settle the issue of who wrote first. This difference was noticed by Markan priorists, but its significance seems to have been overlooked.
If the Theory of Markan Priority is correct, one would expect to find high verbal identity in Triple Tradition material where there is high identity in pericope order, because Matthew and Luke supposedly were copying from Mark. Likewise, one would expect to find low verbal identity in Double Tradition where there is low identity in pericope order, because Matthew and Luke were not copying from Mark. Yet in fact, one finds just the opposite. Verbal identity is high in Double Tradition stories, but low in Triple Tradition stories.
This would seem to contradict the conclusions of Markan priorists based on pericope-order evidence. The high verbal identity in the Double Tradition apparently indicates that either Matthew or Luke copied from the other, or that both copied from some common source such as the hypothetical Q. The low verbal identity in the Triple Tradition seems to indicate that Matthew and Luke did not both copy from Mark.
If Matthew and Luke sometimes copied faithfully from a common source as the Double Tradition pericopae seem to demonstrate, why did they not do the same when copying Mark? According to the widely accepted theory of Markan Priority, Mark is their source for the material they share with him. Why would Matthew and Luke have treated the vocabulary of the conjectured Q document with greater regard than Mark? The theory of Markan Priority provides no answer.
I believe the only satisfactory solution to this problem involves abandoning the theory of Markan Priority. It is preferable to suppose that Mark’s Gospel was written second, that Mark copied either Matthew or Luke, often rewording the text as he copied, and that Mark was then copied by the third synoptist. In this case, the verbal distance between Matthew and Luke would have been caused by the synonyms Mark introduced.
I have called the contrast between the Double and Triple Traditions in both pericope order and verbal identity the Markan Cross-Factor. One finds high verbal identity but low pericope-order agreement in Double Tradition, and low verbal identity but high pericope-order agreement in Triple Tradition. This correlation between Double and Triple Tradition strongly argues against Markan Priority. Both in pericope order and verbal identity it is apparently the presence of Mark that distinguishes Triple Tradition from Double Tradition. Mark stands between Matthew and Luke, causing agreement and non-agreement in pericope order, and most of the differences in wording found in the Synoptic Gospels.
Another weakness of Markan Priority is what are called the “minor agreements.” These are the 400 or so instances within the Triple Tradition pericopae where Matthew and Luke exhibit verbal agreement not shared by Mark. (See my A Hebrew Translation of the Gospel of Mark, 14-19.) It is hard to explain these instances if, as Markan priorists claim, Matthew and Luke were both dependent on Mark. There are too many such agreements to write them off as coincidence. Again, I find that the best explanation is that Mark was the second not the first of the Synoptic Gospels. The writer who was third in order copied Mark’s text, combining it with the source he shared with the first writer.
Editor’s note: For a discussion of whether it is possible to identify the first and third writers if one abandons a theory of Markan Priority in favor of simple linear interdependence between the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew→Mark→Luke, or Luke→Mark→Matthew), see Robert L. Lindsey, “Unlocking the Synoptic Problem: Four Keys for Better Understanding Jesus”; Lindsey,
A Hebrew Translation of the Gospel of Mark (2d; Jerusalem: Dugith Publishers, 1973), 9-65 (in the same volume, see the Foreword written by David Flusser, pp. 1-8); Lindsey,
A Comparative Greek Concordance of the Synoptic Gospels (3 vols.; Jerusalem: Dugith Publishers, 1985-1989), 1:V-XV; and “Book Review: Robert Lindsey’s A Comparative Greek Concordance of the Synoptic Gospels,” R. Steven Notley’s review of Lindsey’s synoptic concordance. — DB