Examining the Synoptic Gospel Problem

The Gospels in their most common understanding are the narrations of the life of Jesus of Nazareth. The word Gospel literally means “Good news” because that was after all what the authors and the early Church believed the story of Jesus was in its essence.

In fact the Gospel of, which the majority of scholars believe to be the earliest of the four Gospels, begins with “The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God.”[1] Moreover, the very first words of Jesus in Mark’s gospel are “The time has come. The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”

Though all four canonical gospels claim to present the true good news about Jesus, their own internal testimonies to the life and words of Jesus do not perfectly line up in the way that our “enlightened” minds might suspect that a “God-given” set of writings ought to.

What then can we know about the oral and literary formulation of the canonical gospels and why they might be written as they were?

All four Gospels tell a similar story about Jesus: He came from Nazareth; He was announced and baptized by John; He had twelve disciples and followers whom he taught many things; He performed a variety of healings; He made provocative and authoritative claims about his identity as both the Messiah and more[2]; He saw his life and his following as the apocalyptic culmination and turning point of Israel’s long history and God’s redemptive plan for both Israel and the world[3]; His disciple Judas betrayed him; He was crucified, raised from the dead and said He would return as the final judge. Beyond these general foundational agreements, numerous events are told in all four Gospels. All in all, though debated, there is a strong agreement among the four Gospels regarding who Jesus was, His historical context, and the theological significance of His life.

Though scholarship in the Gospels’ literary formulation increased in the 1700s with the advent of historical criticism, it has long been observed that of the four canonical Gospels, the first three, Matthew, Mark and Luke, share a commonality that is largely missing in the fourth Gospel of John.[4] This realization is usually split into two subjects, “The Synoptic Problem” and “The Question of John.” For sake of space along with my own continuing research, I will not be able to comment in depth about the Gospel of John, though I believe the historical insights of this paper are applicable to understanding John’s Gospel.

The Synoptic Problem

Figure 1: Approximate Synoptic Gospel Overlap

Figure 1: Approximate Synoptic Gospel Overlap

The first three Gospels have been called the “Synoptic Gospels” because they offer a similar picture of the events of Jesus’ life and can be viewed together, that is, synoptically. The “problem” lies in why Matthew, Mark, and Luke are so remarkably similar to each other and yet diverge in the ways that they do. Before proceeding further, it is worth stressing that the Gospel of Jesus was not a book that fell out of the sky but rather the fullness of the life and teachings of Jesus that were remembered and followed through praxes, oral and written traditions. Given that we know of no written Gospel before the canonical Gospels, what would have been important to the earliest followers of Jesus was not one or more Gospel books but the authoritative tradition about Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ and Son of God. Based on our knowledge of 1st century Jewish and Greco-Roman oral culture, Paul’s epistles, and direct statements such as in Luke 1:1-45, we know that Jesus traditions were carried on in mostly oral but also written sources in the early church and we can reasonably infer that these various sources shaped the four canonical Gospels.

The internal nature of the similarities between the Synoptic Gospels has further suggested to scholars that they have a special, specifically literary relationship, especially in comparison to John’s Gospel.

First, they share many of the same stories, sayings and accounts of Jesus and his followers. Scholars have estimated that over 85 percent of Mark’s Gospel is found in some form in Matthew, and over 50 percent is similarly shared with Luke. Nearly 60 percent of Matthew and 40 percent of Luke is shared by all three Gospels and is commonly labeled the Triple Tradition. Moreover Matthew and Luke share roughly 230 verses not found in Mark, known as the Double Tradition, which contain mostly sayings of Jesus.[6] What is left is, of course, material that is unique to either Matthew (~40% of Matthew) or Luke (~60% of Luke). Second, the wording found within this shared material is very similar, often with word for word agreement in Greek, a language that is much more open to a versatile word order than English. Even potentially more telling is when the Synoptics all agree on the precise wording of Old Testament citations, against the extant Hebrew and Greek Old Testament texts.[7] Third, the order of the stories (pericopes) in each Gospel, along with how each author presents his material in the narrative, suggests a shared or common influence. Finally, there are editorial or parenthetical comments found in multiple Gospels at exactly the same place, an example being the parenthetical statement in Matthew 24:15-16 and Mark 13:14, “(let the reader understand).”

Consider this short example showing very close literary agreement, even in the somewhat clumsy comment in the narrative that splits the saying of Jesus.

Matthew 9:6:
But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he then said to the paralytic—“Stand up, take your bed and go to your home.”

Mark 2:10-11:
But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the paralytic— “I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.”

Luke 5:24:
But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the one who was paralyzed—“I say to you, stand up and take your bed and go to your home.”

Perhaps a literary relationship between the Gospels is a surprise to you, sounding like an agenda to deconstruct the divine inspiration of the Holy Gospels. To this reaction, it should be noted that it is probable that even St. Augustine believed that the Synoptic Gospels were literally dependent on each other, having a knowledge, dependence and relationship to one another. He believed, as did most of the Church until the 18th century that Matthew wrote first, highlighting the Kingly nature of Jesus. He, then, originally believed that Mark, highlighting the human nature of Jesus, was dependent on Matthew for his composition, with Luke, highlighting the priestly nature of Jesus, following with knowledge of both of them. Later, after a long study of the Gospels that is manifested in his Harmony of the Gospels, Augustine concludes that it is more likely to him that Luke followed and depended on Matthew, and then Mark wrote with knowledge of and dependence on both Matthew and Luke.[8]

Though St. Augustine’s views are shared at least in part by some, there are numerous and contested theories about the literary relationship between the Gospels based on the cross examination of the texts and our growing knowledge of the role of oral tradition. There are hundreds of books written on the topic and so what follows is a brief overview of the major issues of debate within the four main theories of the Synoptic composition.[9]

Markan Priority

The hypothesis that Mark’s Gospel was the earliest Gospel has been a majority view since the late 19th century and is often heralded by its supporters as one of the established results of New Testament scholarship. Upon this belief much commentary and speculation has been made about the early development of the Jesus tradition. As shown in Figure 1, almost all of Mark’s material is found in Matthew and Luke, so the question becomes: if Mark was dependent on either of them, then why would he leave out so much material? In particular, why would he omit some important teachings found in the Sermon on the Mount, when Mark himself calls Jesus teacher twelve times and mentions his teaching nine times? Why would he leave out the Lord’s Prayer, surely a staple of early Christian communities? In a similar regard, many have argued that the small amount of material unique to Mark[10] and likely dropped by Matthew and Luke is vague and rather strange, including for example the flight of the naked youth during the arrest of Jesus (14:51-52), the somewhat odd saying about being “salted with fire” (9:48- 49), the time when Jesus is regarded as insane by his family (3:20-21), the very “earthy” healing miracles in which Jesus spits on a man’s eyes and heals him in two stages (8:22-26), or when Jesus heals the deaf mute man by putting his fingers into the man’s ears and then spits and touches his tongue (7:31-34).11 Quite reasonably, this “strange” material is a historian’s clue to authenticity and, in this case, primacy.

In regards to the healings, it is worth noting that in chapter 9 of John’s Gospel Jesus similarly heals a blind man with mud and the response of the crowd in Mark to the “earthy” healing that “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak”, is a beautiful fulfillment of Isaiah 35’s advent of God. As a whole it is argued that the problem of omissions is only a problem if you presuppose that the Gospels, like evolutionary theory, had to grow by incremental gain. Perhaps Mark intentionally wrote a shortened version that contained the most essential parts of both Matthew and Luke, so as to be used for an evangelic reading in one sitting, taking about one hour.[12] Commentaries on Mark usually highlight its quick, but structured escalation towards the cross, taking little more than enough time to reveal the identity of Jesus the Messiah to the reader, even using the word “immediately” 39 times as Jesus is constantly on the move. Accordingly, it is possible that Mark purposefully removed some teaching sections, and avoided inconsistencies, such as in the genealogies of Matthew and Luke, while still giving a sufficient witness to Jesus’s Kingdom message.

On a more detailed level, it appears to many scholars that Mark’s language, clarity and grammar are often improved upon by Matthew and Luke. Thus Mark, as a “rougher,” simpler, or more primitive source, points to its primacy and better preservation of the ancient eyewitness tradition, which Matthew and Luke would have edited, revised and enlarged. One common example is when, according to Mark 1:12, “the Spirit kicked/drove/cast [ekballo] out Jesus into the wilderness” where He fasted and was tempted for 40 days. The verb ekballo is used by Mark 16 times, 10 times for driving/ casting out demons, with the other 6 also in somewhat negative contexts.[13] Matthew and Luke similarly use the word ekballo 48 times between them, but in this shared story it is argued that Mark’s wording is improved by both in their similar, and more dignifying, words for “leading out” [anago and ago]. Alternatively, if Mark wrote after, utilizing Matthew and Luke, why would Mark pass up these options for the verb? Though this example does point towards Markan priority, it should not be overlooked that it is possible that Mark was simply more comfortable with the verb ekballo, given that he never uses the other verbs. Possibly testifying to this, Mark uses the verb 30 verses later towards someone that Jesus had compassion to. In Mark 1:43 when “moved with compassion” Jesus healed the leper then “drove him [ekballo] away at once.” Finally from a theological perspective, though it may be un-dignifying for Jesus to be “kicked out” into the wilderness by the Spirit, the reality is that inherent to the incarnation, Jesus gave up his right to dignity.

Moving to thematic content, it is sometimes put forth comparatively that “whereas Mark thought that Jesus had kept his identity a secret, John thought that Jesus proclaimed openly and often who he was.”[14] Though it is true that John is generally different in dwelling mainly on illuminating stories of Jesus, this comparison when arguing for Markan priority is misleading because it is suggestive that the Jesus tradition was continuously and radically changed between the first Gospel of Mark and last Gospel of John. In reality, Jesus is consistently both secret and open about his identity in all of the three synoptic Gospels.[15]

Similarly, it is often argued that in Mark’s Gospel the disciples are less dignified because of their ignorance and lack of faith.[16] As an example, in Mark 9:30-32, Jesus predicts his own death a second time (He predicts it at least 3 times in each of the 3 synoptics). “But [the disciples] did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.” In the parallel account of Matthew 17:22-23, the disciples apparently did understand and “were greatly distressed.” It is first worth noting, however, that in Luke’s parallel account (assumed to be written after Matthew and also making use of Mark) Luke also has the disciples not understanding (9:43-45). Further, in the first prediction all three agree that Peter, the chief disciple, was ignorant enough to rebuke Jesus, receiving for his genius the accusation of “Satan” from Jesus. Then in the final prediction, it is only Luke that maintains that the disciples did not understand (Mark 10:33–34, Matthew 20:17–19, Luke 18:31-34).

A second example of the disciples differing levels of ignorance is when, in Mark 4:13-14, after Jesus tells the parable of the sower and seed, he explains the parable to them and then criticizes them for not understanding the parable. Comparatively, in Matthew 13:18-23 it is argued that Jesus “repeated the same parable but with no hint that the disciples did not understand.”[17] First, it would seem that Jesus explaining the parable to them is a hint that they did not understand on the first pass. Second, within the same chapter of Matthew (vs. 31-43) the disciples display their ignorance again by coming to Jesus to ask him to explain the parable about Jesus as the Son of Man who will judge the world.

A third story for comparison is when Jesus calms the storm. The anxious disciples in Mark 4:35-41 are chided by Jesus with “have you no faith?”, but in Matthew Jesus (supposedly gently) says “you of little faith.”[18] Though the latter saying has a bend towards being more understanding, with better prospects of faith for the disciples, it must be noted that Matthew uses the saying “little faith” four times[19] and could have desired it to suit his literary preferences along with any theological motives. Mark, on the other hand, never uses the saying. Next, similar to the examples above, in the parallel account of Luke 8:22- 25, though perhaps with more of a sense of misplaced faith, Jesus also asks where their faith is. Finally, in all three Synoptics a question is left to the reader as the disciples are “filled with great awe and [say] to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

A final example comes after Jesus had fed the 5,000 and then the next morning walks on the water out to the disciples during a storm. In Matthew’s Gospel the disciples fall down and worship Jesus as the storm calms. However, in Mark, the disciples are awestruck and Mark adds commentary that “they still did not understand about the loaves.” Though this saying may be a bit cryptic on a quick pass, and seems to warrant removal by Matthew, contextually it is probable that the author seems to want the reader to understand (whether or not the disciples did) that Jesus is Lord over creation, as He demonstrated with the loaves and now, again, by walking on the water and calming the storm.

To sum up,the disciples are often dumb in Mark, but they are also dumb in Matthew and Luke. Perhaps they are dumber in Mark, that is reasonable, but to present them as anything like polar opposites is misleading.

As a last the last piece of thematic evidence for Mark’s priority, it is often put forward that Mark has a lower Christology than the others and thus reflects an earlier, more “grounded” Christian perspective on the divine nature of Jesus. Though it may be true that, in general, Mark places more emphasis on the humanity of Jesus, as even St. Augustine put forward[20], this point is often exaggerated to suggest that the earlier forms of Christianity had a much lower, even in some extremes lacking, view of the divinity of Jesus.[21]

It should be noted that Jesus is quite human in all of the Gospels, which should not be too surprising considering the definition of the incarnation, that God assumed for himself a human nature. Second, though it is certainly possible that Matthew or Luke might have desired to clear up any confusion in Mark’s Gospel about the divinity of Jesus, many of the comparative examples put forward are disingenuous in their methods and, ultimately, their conclusions.

As an example, it is commonly posited that Matthew, in Matthew 19:16-30, changes the question of the rich young ruler in Mark 10:17-27 to avoid Jesus’s response “why do you call me good…only God is good?” Similarly, though Jesus in Mark’s account of the healing of the bleeding woman asks “who touched me?”, in Matthew “Jesus immediately knows who it is.”[22] However, on one level, both of these responses in Mark could be read as one of many of Jesus’s rhetorical responses meant to draw at the heart of the correspondent, to which Matthew wished to avoid confusion. The main issue is that it is not mentioned that Luke, usually believed, as in this case, to have written after Matthew, agrees with Mark in both of these instances, thereby nullifying the suggestion from these cases that the Jesus tradition was continually redacted to make Jesus assume an ever higher Christology.[23]

Finally, one has to only read the first few verses of Mark to notice his application of the return of God to Israel, from Isaiah 40 and Malachi 3, to that of Jesus.[24] Looking across the entire Gospels, as a numeric comparison of “high Christology” passages, I have found that Mark has about 15 such accounts in comparison to Matthew’s 26 and Luke’s 21.

Though Matthew and Luke are about the same length with Mark being about 60% in length, it is reasonable to say that Matthew has the highest Christology.[25] Though a development in the Christology of Jesus can be a popular argument of skeptics, it is noteworthy that Bart Ehrman changed his view about that matter; from Jesus being only divine in John’s Gospel, to at least concluding that Jesus is divine in all four Gospels, even if in “different” ways.[26]

As the examples have shown, Luke is usually in agreement with Mark in the more “difficult” reading and is often noted for his interest in historical details, together suggesting that he was very interested in objectivity. Accordingly, to the extent that one is willing to trust the author Luke, the beginning chapters of Acts (written by the same author as a sequel to his Gospel) give witness to how the disciples formulated the Christology of Jesus soon after his resurrection. The change of heart and understanding of the disciples, along with their “Christological” presentations, arguably have the ring of veracity in how they make sense of the death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah in a much more primitive way than one finds, for example, in Paul’s writings.

In conclusion to Markan priority, though I find it plausible based on the evidence that Mark could have been written first, I find many of the supposed insights to be overly speculative and hasty to scandalize any evidence to suggest that Jesus is wholly different between the Gospels. This is of course interesting for a popular audience but is ultimately unsubstantiated, as proven by Ehrman’s change in position (even if slow) on the divinity of Jesus in the Gospels, and Lynch’s summarizing statements of the chapter from which came the critiqued references above, affirming what we can know about Jesus, covering nearly all of Christian belief.[27]

The Double Tradition

The standard literary arguments for the Double Tradition, or overlap of about 220-235[28] verses between Matthew and Luke (but not Mark), are that either Luke used both Matthew and Mark as two of his sources, or that Matthew and Luke both independently used a source called “Q” in addition to their use of Mark. Q stands for the German word Quelle, meaning “source,” and the idea was originally proposed by Johann Eichhorn, in 1794, to account for the unique overlap in material of Matthew and Luke which are mainly sayings of Jesus, including for example many of the sayings from the Sermon on the Mount. Hypothetically, this source would have been a very early collection of sayings of Jesus, which, as will be explained in the section about cultures of oral tradition, would be expected for communities that treasured a past teacher’s teachings.

As the first type of evidence usually presented, the following two examples from Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount material show near word for word agreement in Greek. The saying found in Matthew 6:24 and Luke 16:13: “No one/slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth,” has 27 words of the Greek identical, with the only difference being the first noun for one/slave.

A second example highlights the puzzle within the overlap. Matthew 7:7-8 and Luke 11:9-10 agree word for word with the saying of Jesus: “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.” However, they differ slightly in the follow-up remark by Jesus about the Father giving good gifts to his children. The order of the request for the fish is interchanged, two of the nouns are changed (bread/egg, stone/scorpion), and the Father gives “good things” in Matthew but gives “the Holy Spirit” in Luke, consistent with Luke’s relatively strong emphasis on the Spirit.

Some further examples are the teaching of John the Baptist where there is only one word different out of 76 (Matthew 3:7-10, Luke 3:7-9); and in Matthew 11:21-23 and Luke 10:13-15, 43 of the 49 words of Jesus’s warning to Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum are the same.

Another piece of evidence for Q are the doublet sayings.[29] These are two very similar sayings, found in either Matthew, Luke, or both, one in close agreement with Mark and another supposedly coming from Q.

Take for example the saying of Jesus: “If anyone wants to be my disciple they must take up their cross and follow me, For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” This, or a saying very similar to it, is found once in its “Markan” version in Mark 8:34, Matthew 16:24, and Luke 9:23, and another time in its Q version in Matthew 10:38 and Luke 14:27.

A second example is when Jesus says that “no sign will be given to this generation except the sign of Jonah.” This time only Matthew shares the “Markan” version of the pericope, though Mark does not include the phrase “except the sign of Jonah.” (Mark 8:11-12, Matthew 16:1-2) Matthew and Luke then include another version of the saying in Matthew 12:38-42 and Luke 11:29-32, potentially from an actual different event.

Rejecters of Q, however, argue that these agreements are much tighter in agreement in the Double Tradition (i.e. they point to direct copying) than in comparison to the Triple Tradition, where it is assumed that Matthew and Luke both drew independently from Mark as a common source. That is, based of their use of Mark, their supposed use of Q would be too close to Q and therefore inconsistent of them as authors.

It is within the Triple Tradition when there is only one version of a story that the so called minor or major agreements between Matthew and Luke against Mark present the greatest internal textual difficulty for the Q hypothesis. The number and nature of these agreements are seen as either a minor or major phenomena depending on one’s position on Q. Scholars who see no need for Q point to more than 1000 occurrences where Matthew and Luke agree in adding or omitting from Mark, raising doubts that Matthew and Luke could have edited Mark’s Gospel independently in the same way. Scholars in defense of Q would admit to at least 200 such occurrences.[30]

Consider two examples within one passage where Mark is understood as the middle term, with Matthew and Luke deviating in a similar way against Mark. Though the passages are nearly the same in content, Matthew and Luke both add the bolded phrases “From now on” and “who is it that struck you?”

Matthew 26:67-68
tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.” Jesus said to him, “You have said so. But I tell you, From now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.” Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, “He has blasphemed! Why do we still need witnesses? You have now heard his blasphemy. What is your verdict?” They answered, “He deserves death.” Then they spat in his face and struck him; and some slapped him, saying, “Prophesy to us, you Messiah! Who is it that struck you?

Mark 14:62-65:
“Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” Jesus said, “I am; and ‘you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power,’ and ‘coming with the clouds of heaven.’” Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, “Why do we still need witnesses? You have heard his blasphemy! What is your decision?” All of them condemned him as deserving death. Some began to spit on him, to blindfold him, and to strike him, saying to him, “Prophesy!” The guards also took him over and beat him.

Luke 22:63-64
Now the men who were holding Jesus began to mock him and beat him; they also blindfolded him and kept asking him, “Prophesy! Who is it that struck you?” They kept heaping many other insults on him…They said, “If you are the Messiah, tell us.” He replied, “If I tell you, you will not believe; and if I question you, you will not answer. But from now on the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the power of God.” All of them asked, “Are you, then, the Son of God?” He said to them, “You say that I am.” Then they said, “What further testimony do we need? We have heard it ourselves from his own lips!”

In the first case, Jesus’s response to Caiaphas is a conflation of Psalm 110:1 and Daniel 7:13. Though both passages are about exaltation, and not a literal future Parousia (descent to earth), and would be read and understood as such as part of Jewish apocalyptic literature, Mark uses the future tense verb for “you will see”. He does this arguably in prediction of the resurrection when Jesus is believed to have been vindicated by God and given (once again after accomplishing his mission) the authority to share God’s throne. Though Matthew shares this future tense verb, he, along with Luke, adds the clause “from now on,” most likely to articulate that this prediction of Jesus was being actively fulfilled in his life, death and resurrection and not a future Parousia.[31]

Secondly, both Matthew and Luke add the question “Who is it that struck you?”. As another piece of evidence for Luke’s knowledge of Matthew, some argue that Luke added the detail of Jesus being blindfolded after inferring it from the soldiers’ taunting question in Matthew. Though possible, it is unlikely that Matthew and Luke would have both independently added both of these statements.

In response, supporters of Q maintain that though it is not a perfect hypothesis, it is possible that the minor/major agreements could also be a combination of overlap between Mark and Q, or a variant, non-extant reading of Mark from which Matthew and Luke worked, along with scribal harmonization to the texts. Though variant, non-extant versions and scribal harmonization are certainly possible in some instances, these are most often not tenable explanations for the agreements against Mark, as the former is purely hypothetical, and for the latter, the ancient manuscripts are similar enough within their variants to not be suggestive of harmonization.[32]

There are, however, cases where Mark-Q overlap makes pretty good sense.[33] The four very similar, but different, versions of the Eucharistic words of Jesus provide a good example of the reality of overlap between multiple written and oral traditions of Jesus found in the Gospels. In this case, most scholars would argue that Matthew follows Mark with Luke differing on so many details that it stems from another source such as Q (more on this example later).

While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the (new) covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”

Mark 14:22-25
While they were eating, he took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. He said to them, “This is my blood of the (new) covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly I tell you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.”

Luke 22:18-20
Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he said, “Take this and divide it among yourselves; for I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.

1 Corinthians 11:23-25
For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is (broken) for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”

If, however, Q is dismissed on the account that Luke made use of Matthew, such a position has to answer why Luke would have chopped up Matthew’s well-structured five teaching discourses[34], or, for example, separate Jesus’s saying to the centurion that “I have not found such faith in all of Israel” from his statement about those “coming from the east and the west to the kingdom” when Luke has a relatively strong focus on the gentile mission.[35] Further, why would Luke deviate in such things as the Lord’s Prayer, sayings from the Sermon on the Mount (like the two mentioned at the beginning of this section) or the Eucharistic liturgy?

It is very possible that Luke relocated Matthew’s material to locations that he deemed more appropriate in his structuring. While in specific instances, he may have preferred another, possible local and older oral tradition, such as how Luke agreed with Mark against Matthew in the story of the rich young ruler noted previously. We can be quite certain that in any case, both Matthew and Luke had access to more than one source besides Q and/or Mark; Luke not only has a lot of unique material but even states as much in his opening verses.

Q is hypothetical because there is no external evidence of any kind for its existence; no textual witnesses, no fragments, no patristic citation. Its existence is wholly dependent on the seeming need to account for the shared material in Matthew and Luke. Critics of Q find it hard to imagine that such a respected written source would have no witnesses from the early Church, who would have certainly treasured it. In summary, the existence of Q means that Luke did not need to have Matthew’s Gospel to account for their overlap because they could have both derived from Q.

A particular point of emphasis put on Q by some is the possibility that it did not include a passion and resurrection account, perhaps meaning that the early Christian community responsible for Q did not value these events as much as later Christian orthodoxy would. Of course just because Mark has a passion account does not mean that Luke and Matthew used his account as their only source. In addition to the potential Mark/Q overlap in the previous example of the violent interrogation during Jesus’s passion, as mentioned and shown in detail below, the most important Eucharistic prayer of Jesus is slightly different in the synoptic Gospels (and even Paul’s version) suggesting independent traditions, most likely being used within liturgy from very early on. External to and preceding the Gospels, we do of course have Paul’s writings which theologize the events of Jesus’s passion, and on multiple occasions he appears to recite early Christian creeds that give preeminence to these events.[36] Further, because of the numerous predictions by Jesus of his death and resurrection in all the Gospels, it is generally accepted that Jesus did see his death as important, making it reasonable that the early church followed suit.

Finally, as a group that took their name after their Messiah, it is only conceivable that they believed that their Messiah accomplished something of great significance. Like Jesus, plenty of other would-be Messiahs around the time of the first century had come and gone without overthrowing the powers of injustice and bringing peace. Just as each of their movements dematerialized, there would be no reason for the early Christians to do otherwise without the rationale of the resurrection, argued by many to be a hallucination of sorts[37], in the wake of the cross. Ultimately, among supporters of Q, not only is there disagreement about its inclusion of a passion account, but for almost everything about it, from what it contained to the community behind it.[38]

Although the Q hypothesis, and even more so Markan priority, have long been the majority view of NT scholarship, there is since the mid-20th century, as most recently observed at the Oxford conference on the Synoptic Problem, a growing number of scholars who are moving away from both of these positions. It necessarily follows that credible exegesis, commentaries and textbooks for introductory classes should no longer categorically assume a particular source hypothesis as absolute.[39]

External Evidence

Based on the external evidence of Papias, Bishop of Hierapolis, from the beginning of the 2nd century, and then followed by Irenaeus in the mid to late 2nd century, it has long been traditionally accepted that Mark wrote his Gospel based on the preaching of Peter, probably after Peter was martyred. Given the distinguished position that Peter and the Church of Rome had, it is reasonable that the other Gospels would have readily made use of Mark’s Gospel. According to the same witnesses, we are told that Matthew wrote a Gospel in the Hebrew dialect, most probably Aramaic, with Irenaeus saying it was written while Peter and Paul were founding the Church in Rome and therefore before Mark wrote.[40] Because the Gospel of Matthew was almost certainly composed in Greek, it is probable that the author of the Greek Gospel of Matthew used the disciple Matthew’s Aramaic text, possibly along with Mark’s text. This proposition also makes sense of the fact that most ancient opinions were that Matthew wrote first, with debate over when Mark and Luke (believed to be the traveling companion of Paul) wrote.[41] In this sense, although Mark would have been finally composed first as many argue, the material unique to Matthew and at least parts of the Double and Triple Tradition would have been composed first. A hypothesis of this sort resembles the Hebrew/Aramaic Ur-Gospel Theory.[42] Alternatively, many argue that the Greek Matthew is a complete translation of the original. They note that Jerome even claimed to have seen the original Aramaic Matthew in the library of Pamphilus the Martyr; Eusebius wrote in c. 325 that Pantaerus found a copy of the Gospel of Matthew written in Hebrew in India; and even in c. 376, Epiphanius wrote that there was “no doubt” that a sect in Palestine still used the original Hebrew text “just as it was originally written.”[43]

Oral Tradition

Although the Synoptic problem is usually put forth as a primarily literary problem, more recent advances in our knowledge of oral traditions have made scholars start to shift the emphasis given to the role of oral memory and traditions in their views of the Synoptic overlaps and differences.[44] The current reality is that most scholars agree that oral tradition is behind the Gospels in a not insignificant way.[45]

As a society that is fully embedded in printed media, it is easy to underestimate how good memory can be in a culture that not only does not have written media, but also places a strong emphasis on oral traditions and recitations. We know that in Hellenistic Roman education it was important to be fluid in quoting the sayings of famous men.[46] Similarly, in Jewish pedagogy there was the binding instruction to teach the laws continually so that they would be written on the tablets of one’s heart[47], from which we get the saying “learning by heart.” We know from Josephus that, in addition to learning how to read and write, Jewish boys would learn long passages of scripture, hymns and wisdom sayings by heart.[48]

Taking into account that Jesus was even considered a rabbi or teacher, let alone believed to be the Messiah endowed with divine authority, it would have been customary for his disciples (literally learners) to both commit his teachings to memory and teach them to others. As a teacher, Jesus would be expected to use various rhetorical and mnemonic devices to help make his content memorable. This is, in fact, what we find in the Gospels. In order to impress his teachings on his hearers, Jesus, in addition to often repeating himself as He traveled as an itinerant teacher, used rhetorical features such as overstatement, hyperbolic speech, puns, similes, proverbs, riddles, paradoxes, Meshalim (Hebrew poetic structure), rhetorical questions, and, of course, parables that have vivid narrative and imagery. One can even speak of a “Jesus idiolect” that is the characteristic speech of Jesus and very arguably the one originator of the tradition. According to Reisner, “about 80 percent of the independent word units in the Synoptic tradition are rather short and arranged in different forms of parallelismus membrorum (poetic parallelism), the foremost model of Old Testament and Jewish poetry, which includes synonymous, antithetical, synthetic, and climactic” parallelism.[49] One such example, observed already, is the statement:

If anyone would follow Me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me.

Evidence of the ongoing oral tradition within the formulation of the Gospels is found in the statements by Papias that Matthew “set in order the logia (sayings) in a Hebrew dialect” and “Peter…[who] constructed his teachings according to chreia” [which are concise anecdotes of either a saying, action, or both].

Beyond just delivering teachings, Jesus instituted multiple praxes for his growing community to enact. These would complement his teachings, making it altogether a lived tradition rather than just a collection of esoteric wisdom. As inherent to his basic message to “follow Him,” his life was meant to be followed with praxes and actions that pointed to the Kingdom. He even sent his twelve disciples, along with 70 others, at one point in his ministry, to preach and enact the good news of the Kingdom[50], in what can be seen as almost a “trial-run” for after He left.

As witness to these praxes, very early on in the New Testament letters and other early Christian writings, we find references to imitating Jesus and the praxes He instituted, such as sharing meals, baptizing, celebrating the Eucharist, healing, praying, washing feet, feeding the poor, exorcism and itinerant preaching. Though there is much more to say for the role of oral tradition and collective memory, the majority of scholars would still reject the tradition hypothesis that asserts that each Gospel was written independently based on purely eyewitness testimony and/or oral tradition because it does not adequately account for the apparent literary dependences. There is, however, recognition by most scholars that oral tradition continued to influence the written text such that there may have been proto versions that were later edited and enlarged, potentially like Matthew’s Aramaic version mentioned previously.[51]

The Genre of the Gospels

Debates over the literary and oral foundations of the Gospel are certainly important. Perhaps as a Christian you are taken aback that the Gospel writers would have the literary and interpretive freedom to redact and conflate a story or saying of Jesus, especially when taken from one of the other Gospels. A more conservative Protestant understanding might prefer (at least sometimes rightfully) to attribute alleged contradictions between accounts to either different events or the normal difference between two essentially similar, but still different, eye-witness accounts.[52]

Regardless of the solution to the “Synoptic Problem,” we can look to the contemporary genre of Greco-Roman biography to shed some light on why the author may have formulated his Gospel writing in the way that he did. The Gospels are normally classified by scholars as Greco-Roman biography rather than Jewish biography for several reasons, some of which are:[53]

  • Attention is focused on a main character rather than on an era, event, or government, as in a history.
  • Stories, logia, anecdotes, and speeches are combined to form a narrative, not necessarily in chronological sequence.
  • We learn something of the main character’s ancestry and then move rapidly along to the inauguration of his public life.
  • Lives of philosophers and teachers are usually “arranged topically around collections of material to display their ideas and teachings.”
  • The main subject’s character is illuminated through his words and deeds as a model for readers either to emulate or to avoid.

Of essence, the objective of Greco-Roman biography was to reveal a literary portrait of the character through the person’s sayings and deeds.

Differing from modern biography, which is a product of the 19th century, ancient biographical conventions provided authors a license to depart from the degree of precision in reporting that many of us prefer today. Importantly, any such “elaborations” would serve to make a historical point or illuminate the qualities of the main character in a manner that rendered them clearer. The historian and biographer were free to do this, since their accounts would be “true enough.”[54]

Within education programs, compositional textbooks instructed aspiring rhetoricians and writers to paraphrase texts using a number of techniques such as addition to clarify, intensify or expound upon certain points; omission for brevity; substituting a different term, usually a synonym; altering the inflection of a word (e.g. singular to plural); creating a dialogue from a speech or teaching; and changing a question to a statement or a command.[55] We know that the chreia type sayings, which Papias said Peter had used, could be restated in multiple ways for emphasizing different portions of the saying, with the purpose of preserving and applying a master’s teaching to possibly new settings, without disingenuous invention.[56] In comparison, narration could be both “language descriptive of things that happened or as though they had happened.”[57] Even though there was a substantial amount of flexibility involved when reconstructing speeches or narrative, with the imagination of the writer welcomed, the retelling would be credible and suitable to the speaker’s audience and occasion.

We should therefore not be surprised when the Evangelists employ compositional devices similar to those used by ancient biographers. In fact, we should be surprised if they did not. In a similar way to modern itinerate speakers, preachers, professors and storytelling among friends, they wanted to tell a story in a manner that entertained, provided moral guidance, emphasized points they regarded as important, and painted a portrait of an important person. If they had to adapt some details on occasion, it was permissible. Such adapting was not intended to distort the truth but to communicate it more effectively.[58]

An example for comparison are Plutarch’s famous biographies of ancient characters written near the beginning of the 2nd century. In his book, Why are there Differences in the Gospels?: What We Can Learn From Ancient Biography, Michael Licona identified 36 pericopes that Plutarch narrates in two or more of the nine Lives and notes how Plutarch “compresses stories, conflates them, transfers what one character said to the lips of a different person, inverts the order of events, rounds numbers, simplifies, adds peripheral details, and displaces a story or an element of a story from its original context; all of which to make a point that was generally accurate even if not technically precise.”[59]

Viewing the Gospels as part of Greco-Roman biography, rather than as completely in their own category, permits a large majority of the differences between the Gospel accounts to quite easily be appreciated and/or resolved in light of the literary conventions of ancient biography and history writing. Through editing, rearranging, re-contextualizing, and sometimes paraphrasing, the evangelists interpreted and applied the Jesus tradition. As Licona says, “This may require a paradigm shift for some. But for anyone who wears glasses some adjustment is necessary. But a truly high view of Gospels as holy writ requires us to accept and respect them as God has given them to us rather than force them into a frame shaped by how we think he should have.”[60]

Having said all this, let’s look back at the example of the Eucharist presented before, this time including John’s Gospel into the mix. For sake of the example, let’s assume the majority position that Matthew wrote using Mark, Luke had knowledge of Mark and Paul and, in this case, is following a separate tradition of Paul. John then possibly, though not necessarily, had knowledge of all four in his writing.

As characteristic of Gospel comparisons in general, John is the most different with five major differences. First, he is the only one to narrate that Jesus washed the disciple’s feet. Second, though all four Gospels have Jesus tell his disciples that one of them eating with him will betray him, in John, Jesus quotes Psalm 41:9 that “The one eating my bread has lifted up his heel against me.” Third, while Luke and Paul omit the revealing saying, “The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me,” in Matthew and Mark this statement is made to all the disciples, though it is apparently only heard by John the Beloved Disciple (and possibly Judas) in John’s Gospel. Though some would argue that the dating can be consistent, it appears, at least superficially, that John has changed the day of the Last Supper to occur before the Feast of the Passover, or a day earlier than the Synoptics. Assuming so much, this can be explained most easily as John making a clear theological connection between “Jesus the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” with the sacrifice of the Passover lambs. Finally, John does not include Jesus’s Eucharistic words, though he does have Jesus saying nearly the same thing, with added elaboration, earlier in a different setting of John 6.

Though the two supposed sources of the tradition may be literarily independent, Luke had knowledge of Mark, but agrees with Paul, and against Matthew and Mark, in both the ordering of sayings, and being altogether extended in length. Luke has Jesus informing his disciples of his betrayal, his saying that he will not drink the fruit of the vine again until anew in the Kingdom of God, and his administering of the Eucharist, in opposite order to how they are narrated in Matthew/Mark.

As another difference between the two traditions, and suggestive of possible substitution by Luke, Mark and Matthew have Jesus say “For the Son of Man goes as it is written of him,” while Luke has “For the Son of Man goes as it has been determined.”

Finally, in Paul and Luke the word “new” is included to designate the covenant Jesus was embodying, but in Matthew and Mark there is mixed manuscript evidence for it, suggesting that the word was likely added in some of the manuscripts of Matthew and Mark. Jesus’s mention of covenant within the context of his Kingdom ministry made the reference to Jeremiah 31-32 implicit without the need for the word “new,” yet it is likely that the word could have been added to make the reference more explicit and agree with Luke. As such, it is probable that Matthew and Mark are witness to the more accurate saying, without the word new.

Looking now within the two traditions, the differences between Paul and Luke are minuscule, with Luke adding “given” (for you) and relocating “my” from before the verb “give,” to after it. Luke also omits the verb to-be (estin), alters the syntax of “in my blood”, and adds “which is poured out for you” for clarification and to parallel “my body, which is given for you”. Finally, Luke omits from Paul “Do this as often as you drink in remembrance of me”.

Though Mark and Matthew are nearly word for word the same, Matthew adds to Mark that they should not only take the bread but eat it, which is only implied in Mark. Similarly, in Mark it says that all the disciples drank from the cup, while in Matthew Jesus explicitly tells them to “Drink it, all of you.” While in Mark, Jesus says his blood will be poured out “for many,” Matthew clarifies and adds that it will be poured out “for many for the forgiveness of sins.” Finally, Matthew substitutes “the Kingdom of my Father” for Mark’s “the kingdom of God,” which is a common redaction of Matthew, who as a Jewish writer, replacing the word God with Heaven, or Father as in this case.

Importantly, though the authors had liberty to use the oral and written sources known to them, contrary to some overly-reductionist criticism, the evidence appears to show that the Gospel authors did not create theology to suit the specific communities in which they lived in the latter half of the first century. Many of the debates within the early Christian movement, particularly those stemming from the Pauline circle, are entirely absent from the Gospels: the intricacies of justification by grace through faith, circumcision, the role of women in the church, speaking in tongues, baptism, clarity on the status of Gentiles, criteria of apostleship and church structure, Jesus’s exact divine/human identity, free will, and food sacrificed to idols. All of these could have been written on the lips of Jesus, and their absence should be a firm rebuke against the idea (put forth most (in)famously by the Jesus Seminar) that the words and stories of the Gospels were invented to address the theological needs of the 40s, 50s, and 60s AD.

As a practical point of comparison, when comparing the Lives of Plutarch, Licona was not able to make a Synopsis[61] of Plutarch’s writing in the same way as it is done in the Gospels because Plutarch used these writing devices much more freely than what we find in the Gospels.[62]

Finally, it should be realized that we can only talk about these differences between the Synoptics because we have a very good idea of what the original text actually was.[63] If the text was much more fluid due to scribal redaction or harmonization, there would be no point in comparing the Gospels to understand their formulation. Our manuscript collection from across large distances and many “families of text” allows scholars to filter out harmonization and local variations to the point where it is believed by most scholars that what we have is very close to the original writing.

The Gospels are perhaps the most studied, analyzed and celebrated piece of literature ever written. They were indeed written by humans, sometimes sharp and craggy, other times elegant, and throughout heart piercing. Indeed, it is the wonderful reality that not only has God determined to redeem the world from its pain and our sin, but to do so through his image-bearing human creatures. The good news of the Gospel is that by God’s outstretched arm, and his desire to work through our humanity, God has spearheaded this redemption through the incarnation of Jesus.

Though I believe the Gospels are an intersection of heaven and earth, the Gospels as a text are only the introduction to the word of God who became flesh and dwelt among us. As I have learned, knowing Jesus, and even knowing about Jesus, requires much more than reading the Gospels. Just as he called his disciples, he beckons us to follow him daily, to see him in the least of these. Just as they were slow to understand his power and the depth of his love, having to set aside their own ideas of power and ambition, so I find it with myself, constantly being challenged to trust and love more.

I do not know the answer to the Synoptic Problem or the Question of John. What I have come to know is that the Gospels contain the words of life, and life to its fullest. The joy of the Gospel, both believed and lived out, is incomparable to anything else I have experienced. As such I invite you, whether for the first time or the hundredth time, to be challenged by the words of the Gospels, experience this joy, and believe the good news.



1 All scripture references are from the New Revised Standard Version.

2 I have attempted to compile a listing of passages within the Synoptic Gospels where I believe Jesus in some way associated himself with the Yahweh, the covenantal God of Israel, who is the creator and sovereign King of the universe. goo.gl/vUB9Ck

3 See my article in the MIT et Spiritus Spring 2016 issue, “The Gospel in the First Century” on page 16: http://mitetspiritus.org/issue1_spring2016. pdf, or I suggest Jesus and the Victory of God, or, for a shorter book, The Challenge of Jesus, both by NT Wright.

4 For example, Clement of Alexandria, in the late 2nd century, argued that “John, perceiving that the external facts had been made plain in the Gospel [the Synoptic accounts], being urged by his friends, and inspired by the Spirit, composed a spiritual Gospel.” Although most orthodox Christians accepted John, including it fully in Gospel harmonies, liturgy and writings, the conservative presbyter Gaius of Rome near the beginning of the 3rd century rejected the Gospel of John because he found it to “contradict…the recognized witnesses”, especially in chronology. St. Augustine in the 4th century discusses in his Harmony of the Gospels the commonality between the synoptics.

5 “Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.”

6 Stanley E. Porter and Bryan R. Dyer, The Synoptic Problem: Four Views, pg 7; Michael F. Bird, The Gospel of the Lord: How the Early Church Wrote the Story of Jesus, pg. 127

7 In the citation from Isaiah 40, all three Synoptics have “make his paths straight”, rather than “make straight the paths of our God.” Though less likely, it is possible that the synoptic version is based on an Aramaic targumic tradition, a Hebrew midrash, or even a loose Greek paraphrase from a source otherwise unknown to us. I suppose it is also possible that all three synoptics authors were reluctant to immediately and explicitly designate Jesus as our God, preferring instead to make the reference implicit.

8 St. Augustine, Harmony of the Gospels 1.2.3-6; 1.3.6; 1.6.9; 4:10.11; David Peabody, The Synoptic Problem, Four Views, pg 87.

9 The four primary views held by scholars are the Griesbach-Farmer-Two Gospel Hypothesis (Matthew wrote first, Luke used Matthew and then Mark used both), The Two-(Four)-Source Theory (Mark wrote first, Matthew and Luke then wrote using Mark and another source, Q), Common Oral Tradition (the Gospels originated from distinct communities and oral traditions and had proto-versions) and The Farrer-Goulder-Goodacre Theory (Mark wrote first, then Matthew used Mark, then Luke used Matthew).

10 Mark 1:1; 2:27; 3:20-21; 4:26-29; 7:2-4,32-37; 8:22-26; 9:29, 48-49; 13:33-37; 14:51-52

11 Craig A. Evans, The Synoptic Problem: Four Views, pg 35.

12 David Peabody, Ibid, pg 148-149.

13 Craig A. Evans, Ibid, pg 29. Apart from casting out demons, it is used in Mark for Jesus’s action in casting out the money changers (11:15), the son who is murdered and cast out of the vineyard in the parable of the tenants (12:8), Jesus driving out the healed leper (1:43), casting out of the house those who laughed at him for proclaiming that a little girl who had died was not actually dead before healing her (5:40), and the metaphorical and hyperbolic saying of casting out an eye that causes one to sin (9:47).

14 Joseph H. Lynch, Early Christianity: A Brief History, pg. 9

15 As a few examples of Jesus’s secrecy about his Messianic identity and healings are Luke 4:33- 34; 8:56; 9:21 and Matthew 9:27-31; 12:15-21. Apart from Jesus’s public ministry of healing and teaching, he also sent out the twelve disciples at one point to proclaim the kingdom of God, an implicit reference to his Messianic identity (Mark 6:6-13, Matthew 10:1-15, Luke 13:18-19).

16 Craig A. Evans, The Synoptic Problem, Four Views, pg 32. Joseph H. Lynch, Early Christianity, A Brief History, pg 8

17 Ibid, pg 8

18 Ibid, pg 8, Craig A. Evans, The Synoptic Problem, Four Views, pg. 32

19 David Peabody, Ibid, pg 145.

20 Augustine, Harmony of the Gospels 4:10.11; 1.2.3-6; 1.3.6; 1.6.9

21 Bart Ehrman, Jesus Interrupted, pg 79; 141; 254.

22 Joseph H. Lynch, Early Christianity: A Brief History, pg 8, See Mark 5:25-29 and Matthew 9:20-22

23 Ibid, pg 8. The final example for the lower Christology in Mark given by Lynch is the passage in which Jesus is not able to perform any miracle in his hometown. The issue with this example is that the passage is inadequately quoted as “he could work no miracle there” when the text reads “he could not do any miracle there, except lay his hands on few sick people and heal them. And he was amazed at their lack of faith.” Yes, Jesus is apparently limited in some way by the people’s faith, but not nearly as much as the textbook would lead you to believe.

24 This quotation from Isaiah 40 and Malachi 3 is shared by all four Gospels, showing its importance in understanding the contextual ministry of Jesus and John the Baptist.

25 I have documented and explained my counting in this viewable document: goo.gl/vUB9Ck

26 See Ehrman’s blog post on his changed position: https://ehrmanblog.org/jesus-as-god-in-thesynoptics- for-members/ Though Ehrman still has a tendency to focus on differences, it is a good step for him to acknowledge that Jesus is divine, at least in some way, in all of the Gospels.

27 Joseph H. Lynch, Early Christianity: A Brief History, pg. 9,“It seems safe to say that he was a Jew from Galilee who, as an adult about thirty years old, began to preach that the Kingdom of God was near and that Jews should repent to prepare for the kingdom’s arrival. His preaching career was cut short, perhaps about one year or perhaps about three years. He was arrested at Jerusalem, tried before a Jewish court and a Roman official, and executed in about 29. His crime seems to have been political. The placard placed above his head on the cross described him as “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” His followers believed that on the third day after his death on the cross, he was raised from the dead and was alive again. They said that they talked and ate with him for forty days, after which he ascended into the heavens. They were sure that he was coming back soon to judge the world. They told stories about his as a healer, an exorcist, and a worker of wonders. They also talked about him as Messiah and Son of God. His earliest followers, all of them Jews, spread orally what they called the good news about Jesus. Some other Jews and some gentiles believed them. A disorderly, uncoordinated movement-the Jesus Movement began in the first century”

28 Michael Bird, The Gospel of The Lord: How the Early Church Wrote the Story of Jesus, pg. 162

29 Ibid, pg. 166, the author gives a total of 14 doublet examples. in the early 20th century. Jewish apocalyptic writing used cosmic language to give meaning to revolutionary socio-political events that had theological significance. Just as I believe Jesus was referencing the coming judgement on Jerusalem and his own vindication as King, the prophets used cataclysmic language to describe the fall of Babylon (Isaiah 13) or judgement on Israel (Daniel 8). For a detailed discussion on Jewish Apocalyptic literature, see NT Wright’s works, particularly Ch.10 “The Hope of Israel” and Part IV “The First Christian Century” of his book The New Testament and the People of God and Ch 8. “Stories of the Kingdom: Judgement and Vindication” from his book Jesus and the Victory of God.

30 David Peabody, The Synoptic Problem: Four Views, pg 81, Andreas Ennulat, Die “Minor Agreements”, Michael Bird, The Gospel of The Lord: How the Early Church Wrote the Story of Jesus, pg 175.

31 Although I believe that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet of the Kingdom of God, his words should be read within the light of the Jewish prophetic apocalyptic genre, rather than as literal prediction, such as imagined by Ehrman in Misquoting Jesus, pg 204, and Jesus Interpreted, pg 51 and others, most notably Albert Schweitzer.

32 Michael Bird, The Gospel of The Lord: How the Early Church Wrote the Story of Jesus, pg. 178

33 Some other good examples of pretty clear literary overlap in the Triple Tradition are the preaching of John the Baptist, the Baptism of Jesus, the temptation of Jesus, the Beelzebub controversy, the parable of the mustard seed, and the disciples’ mission, Ibid, pg. 181

34 The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), Commissioning of the Twelve (Matthew 10), Parables of the Kingdom (Matthew 13), the Discourse on the Church (Matthew 18), Olivet Discourse on the near (destruction of the temple) and future (end times) judgment (Matthew 23-25).

35 Matthew 8:5-13, Luke 7:1-10, Luke 13:28. Luke seems to choose independently from Matthew where these sayings of Q should go in his Gospel. Craig A. Evans, The Synoptic Problem, Four Views, pg 41. Within the same story, others would argue that the near verbatim agreement in the words of Jesus of Matthew 8:9-10 and Luke 7:8-9 point towards Luke’s use of Matthew. Mark Goodacre, Ibid, pg 137.

36 Some potential early Christian creeds are found in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4, Phil 2:6-11 and Col 1:15- 20.

37 For example, Bart Ehrman in Jesus, Interrupted, pg 190 and the respected E.P. Sanders argue that the disciples really had a “resurrection experience” even if it was a hallucination. I believe that Ehrman is generally correct, on pg 230 of Jesus, Interrupted, in explaining that the early Christians had to reconcile the idea of their Messiah dying with OT prophecy, because from what we know, no Jew considered the Messiah to only suffer. There is however Jewish speculation of a suffering, but still triumphant Messiah within the Two Messiah Theory. For more on this see N.T. Wright’s works, particularly The Challenge of Jesus, or, with more details, Jesus and the Victory of God.

38 Michael Bird, The Gospel of The Lord: How the Early Church Wrote the Story of Jesus, pg. 165-166.

39 Mark Goodacre, The Synoptic Problem: Four Views, pg 143. See also the short essay, The Ground is Shifting Slowly: Current Studies in the Synoptic Problem by Allan J. McNicol.

40 The quote by Papias is preserved by Eusebius in Church History, 3.39; Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.1. Clement of Alexandria, in the early 3rd century, also affirms that Matthew wrote first in Hebrew with Mark writing as a follower of Peter, though possibly while Peter was still alive, see Church History, 6.25.

41 Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.1. Eusebius, Church History 6:25, Clement of Alexandria is explicit that Luke was written 3rd. See also the Muratorian fragment, dated to about 170 AD giving the same witness.

42 Michael Bird, The Gospel of The Lord: How the Early Church Wrote the Story of Jesus, pg. 144.

43 Jerome, On Illustrious Men, Eusebius, Church History, 5.10.3, Epiphanius. Panarion, 29.9.4

44 See for example Jesus and the Eyewitnesses by Richard Bauckham, along with works by Rainer Riesner.

45 The Synoptic Problem: Four Views, pg. 114, 140, 161,167, 174.

46 See the statement by Quintilian, the famous Roman pedagogue, in the first century, found in Institutes of Oratory 1.1.35-36. See also Rainer Riesner, The Synoptic Problem: Four Views, pgs 94-95.

47 Deuteronomy 11:18-19; 6:4-8, Proverbs 3:3; 6:21; 7:3, Psalm 40:8; 119:11.

48 Josephus, Against Apion, 1.160; 2:204; 2.175.

49 Rainer Riesner, The Synoptic Problem: Four Views, pg. 100.

50 The mission of the twelve disciples is given in Mark 6:6-13, Matthew 10:1-15 and Luke 13:18-19, while it is only Luke that includes the sending of the additional 70, in Luke 10:1-24.

51 Ibid, pg. 106-107.

52 A good example of where the harmonization of eye-witness accounts is arguably merited is in the resurrection accounts. On the other hand, as a very extreme example to be avoided, in Andreas Osiander’s Harmoniae Evangelicae, published in 1537, he created one seamless gospel narrative by interpreting differing accounts of a similar incident as indicative of two (or more) separate events. So, for example, Jesus is presented as raising Jairus’s daughter twice, and Peter is portrayed as denying Jesus nine times instead of three.

53 These are some of the reasons given by Michael R. Licona in Why are there differences in the Gospels: What We Can Learn From Ancient Biography, pg 3.

54 Ibid, pg 5.

55 There are seven textbooks of progymnasmata or rhetoric that have survived from antiquity. The earliest is attributed to Theon of Alexandria, written in Greek sometime within the first century. Quintilian wrote Institutes of Oratory, in Latin in about 94 AD. See pg. 9 of Why are there differences in the Gospels: What We Can Learn From Ancient Biography.

56 Michael R. Licona, Ibid pgs 12-15.

57 Taken from the textbook by Theon. See Ibid, pg 11-14.

58 Ibid, pg 199.

59 Ibid, pg 198.

60 Ibid, pg 201.

61 Laying out the parallel versions side by side to compare similarities and differences, as done in the example passages of scripture in this article.

62 Ibid, pgs 199-200.

63 Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus, pg 58, 62, 177-180. Even though Ehrman can be quite critical of the text, he makes this conclusion.


Erik graduated in 2016 with a masters in Electrical Engineering. Outside of work he enjoys rugby, motorcycles, reading, and spending time with friends.

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