Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

The MOST Theological Collection: Free From All Error: Authorship, Inerrancy, Historicity of Scripture, Church Teaching, and Modern Scripture Scholars

"Chapter 19: New Testament Source Criticism "


Browse by Title
New Search
Table of Contents for this Work

Source criticism studies the sources used by the inspired writers. We saw in chapter 3 the chief instance of that in Old Testament source criticism, namely, the theory of the documents in the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament. We saw that Pope John Paul II, in a series of audiences, spoke favorably of the documentary theory without meaning to impose it on the Church.

The question of who is the author of an inspired book is not a question of faith but of history. Even if the sacred text itself identifies the author, we know, thanks to the genre principles, that we need not take it at face value. People then, not only used pen names, but often picked the names of famous persons. (Incidentally, this is a good reason for thinking that Luke and Mark wrote Luke and Mark. They were not famous enough that people would be likely to use their names as pen names.)

We saw too that the Technion study in Israel gives impressive evidence against the documentary theory. Quite a few scholars today are rejecting it. Some do so in the unsupported belief that the traditional data in Genesis is neither reliable nor much older than about 1500 B.C. (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob lived well before that date). Others reject the documentary theory because the reasons given in support of it are not at all conclusive.1

But now we are concerned with source criticism of the New Testament. By far the most important part of it is the Synoptic problem, since the most common solution to it, the two-source theory is used as a major basis in form criticism of the New Testament.

What sources were used by Matthew, Mark, and Luke? The problem is fascinating because of extensive agreements in wording and sequence of events-and also because of extensive disagreements.

Out of 661 verses in Mark, about 600 are substantially found also in Matthew. and about 350 in Luke. Further, Matthew and Luke have about 236 verses in common that are not found in Mark. Yet Matthew has about 330 verses that are not found in the other two.

To put it another way, we would speak of the triple or the double tradition. The triple consists of those parts common to all three, Matthew, Mark, and Luke; the double has those found in Matthew and Luke but not in Mark. The triple tradition is found in 330 verses out of 661 in Mark; in 330 out of 1,068 in Matthew, and in 330 out of 1,150 in Luke. The double tradition appears in 230 verses of Matthew and Luke.

Further, each of the three Gospels has verses special to itself (sometimes called simple tradition). Mark has 50 of these; Matthew has over 315; while Luke has over 500 special to himself.

We notice, too, that the three Gospels have the same order of events in many places, but not in all places: Matthew and Luke have the same sequence only when they both agree with Mark.

There are also claims, somewhat exaggerated, of very closely similar wording among the Synoptics. And there are "doublets," instances in which a Gospel gives the same saying twice, indicating copying from two sources. Clearly, we do have a problem explaining both the similarities and the differences.

A key question concerns the order in which the three Synoptics were written. Eusebius of Caesarea, the first Church historian, reports (History 6.14.5) that Clement of Alexandria, writing around 200 A.D., said that the Gospels with genealogies (Matthew and Luke) were written before the Gospels without genealogies ( Mark and John). However, Eusebius is citing a lost work purported to be by Clement, the Hypotyposeis, a work under suspicion of serious errors so untypical of Clement that one may wonder if the work was really by him. St. Augustine, writing two centuries later, around 400 A.D., in his De consensu Evangelistarum 1.2-3, thought the sequence was Matthew, Mark, Luke. Augustine added that he thought Mark epitomized Matthew. This second point-not his view on the order of composition-clashes with what Eusebius (History 3.39.15) also tells us Papias wrote, that Mark was the interpreter of Peter's preaching and, so, would not be summarizing Matthew. Papias, however, says nothing on the order of composition of the three Synoptics. Papias himself was very early. St. Irenaeus (Against Heresies 5.33.4), writing around 200 A.D., says that Papias was a companion of St. Polycarp, who had known the Apostle St. John personally. Irenaeus also gives the sequence as Matthew, Mark, Luke. The Muratorian Canon, dating probably from 170-190 A. D., explicitly makes Luke the third Gospel-though the first lines, which would have spoken of Matthew and Mark, are lost.

The testimony of early writers, then, does definitely say that the order is Matthew, Mark, and Luke. It should be noted that these witnesses seem to speak of the original Hebrew text of Matthew, which is lost, rather than of our present Greek text, whose sequence might be different.

Pope Leo XIII, in his Providentissimus Deus, 1893, made a valuable observation. "Unfortunately," said Leo, "and with damage to religion, there has arisen a method, dignified by the name of higher criticism, in which the origin, integrity, and authority of each book [of Scripture] is judged by only internal reasons. On the contrary it is clear that in questions of history, such as the origin and transmission) of books, the testimonies of history have more weight than other: things, and that these testimonies should be sought out and examined as studiously as possible; but that the internal reasons are in general not of such weight that they should be used except for a confirmatory argument."

When Leo XIII wrote these words, they would have met with a cold reception. But today, when many prominent scholars are attacking the historical-critical method, and seeing that its almost exclusive reliance on internal evidence has led to inconclusive results today, his words are coming true. We need to keep them in mind, especially in examining the Synoptic problem.

Numerous solutions to the problem have been proposed. For our purpose, we can reduce the choices to a few general types. Proponents of the oral-catechesis theory think that teaching on the words and deeds of Jesus was given in a more or less fixed, stereotyped form, both in Aramaic and in Greek. Matthew would represent the form current in Palestine; Mark, that in Rome; Luke, the form at Antioch or in the Pauline churches. This theory has not met with much favor. It makes the Evangelists mere recorders rather than real authors. One serious weakness of this theory is that it cannot account for the fact that some things-the Our Father and the words of institution of the Eucharist for example-are found in varied forms.

Another theory proposes mutual dependence of the Evangelists. The simplest form of this theory says that one Gospel is the source of the others, or that two are the source of the third. Few hold this simple view today.

A more refined view says that an Aramaic or Hebrew Matthew came first and that various complete or incomplete Greek translations were made from it. Meanwhile, oral tradition was evolving. Then Mark used one of these translations plus the preaching of Peter at Rome. Luke used Mark and also a Greek version of Matthew.

A variation on this theme is the theory that Luke used Matthew and that Mark used both Matthew and Luke. This was first proposed in 1764 by an Englishman named Owen. It is better known from the work of J. Griesbach, in 1783, which today is strongly defended by William R. Farmer (The Synoptic Problem, Western North Carolina Press, 1976, and Hans-Herbert Stoldt History and Criticism of the Markan Hypothesis, tr. D. L. Niewyk, Mercer University Press, p1980). This theory would explain both the triple and the double tradition. The special agreements of Matthew and Luke would stem from Luke's use of Matthew. The similarity of order between Matthew and Mark would come from Mark's following of the outline of Matthew except at times where Mark chose to follow Luke. The chief difficulty is to explain why Mark would have omitted so much material from his sources. There is also an objection concerning the sequence of incidents: the Gospels of Matthew and Luke agree in order only when they both also agree with Mark.

That Mark wrote first is almost universally accepted today as is the dependence of Luke on Mark. Less generally accepted, but still widely held, is the view that Matthew depends on Mark. Some dispute this last point strongly, insisting that Matthew came first.

The third type of solution is the two-source theory. According to it, Mark wrote first, using oral tradition. But at almost the same time there arose a sayings source called Q (for German Quelle, "source"). Many think this Q had only sayings, no narrative matter, and add that this is the Logia, or sayings of Jesus, which Papias spoke of as written by Matthew. Much agreement in wording in the discourse material common to Matthew and Luke is said to support the existence of Q, as does the presence of doublets, sayings given twice in a Gospel. One would have come from Mark, one from Q.

We cannot offer a definitive solution-no one can. But some things can be said. There really are remarkable similarities in wording, but the wording is not identical in many instances. The best way to see this for oneself is to make point-by-point, word-by-word comparisons between parallel passages in the Gospels. To be fair, we might suggest an incident in which the similarities are specially strong. An example of this is the healing of a leper as reported in Matthew 8:2-4, Mark 1:40-45, and Luke 5:12-16. By far the easiest way to study these texts is to get a volume that prints the four Gospels in parallel columns. One of the best is by Kurt Aland, Synopsis Quattuor Evangeliorum, Stuttgart, 1978. This has the texts in Greek. There is also an English edition, Synopsis of the Four Gospels, Greek-English Edition of Synopsis Quattuor Evangeliorum, United Bible Societies, 1979.

The case of the so-called doublets is not as clear as some claim. For example, in chapter 9 of his Gospel, Luke reports a trial mission of the twelve; at the start of chapter 10, he reports: "After this the Lord appointed seventy others, and sent them on ahead of him...." (emphasis added). Clearly we could have, not a pure duplication, but two different incidents. As a traveling speaker, Jesus would be very apt to say the same thing in more than one place, with some variations. (A convenient list of "doublets" is found in Stoldt, cited above, on pp. 174- 175.) So this argument is not really convincing, yet many consider it a chief proof of the two-source theory.

One of the more telling arguments against that theory is the presence of the so-called minor agreements of Matthew and Luke against Mark. In some passages in which all three Synoptics report the same incident, there are significant agreements, yet Matthew and Luke agree in differing from Mark in small points. For example, in Matthew 21:1-9 and Luke 19:28-37, there are seventeen points in which these two agree in disagreeing with Mark 11:1-10.2

The point is, how can Matthew and Luke unite against Mark on these details if they both followed Mark, as the two-source theory claims?

In addition to the problem of the minor agreements just mentioned. there is impressive evidence against Marcan priority.

My article "Did St. Luke Imitate the Septuagint?" (Journal for the Study of the New Testament, vol. 15,1982, pp. 3041) presents numerous cases in which Luke employs a very odd Semitic structure that in no case at all is found in the parallel passages in Mark (see our chapter 12). So, if Luke copied Mark, why would he have added Semitisms that Mark, a native Semite, did not use? Similarly, as H. F. D. Sparks says. Luke's Gospel is notable for a "continual rephrasing of St. Mark: in order to add Semitisms."3 An example is found in the parable of the wicked husbandmen. In Mark's version (12:1-12), we find that after the first failure, the master "sent another slave." Still later, "he sent another." Luke's version (20:9-19) says, "And he added to send another servant.... And he added to send a third" (emphasis added). This is a pure Hebrew idiom, ysf. On the other hand, in a few places Mark has Hebraisms that Luke does not copy (Mark 6:39 and 8:12), even though everyone concedes that Luke is more inclined to Semitisms than Mark (see our discussion of this in chapter 12).

As M. Zerwick shows,4 Luke often uses an Aramaic pattern of a form of the verb to be plus a participle instead of an imperfect indicative. Luke has fifty percent of all such cases in the entire New Testament-thirty examples in his Gospel and twenty-four in Acts of the Apostles. Yet, where Mark does have this structure, Luke usually avoids it, though he uses it in places that are parallel to Mark but in which Mark does not have it.

In regard to adding or omitting details, a study by Leslie R. Keylock5 shows that Luke is more detailed than Mark forty-seven times, less so thirty-seven times; while Matthew is more precise than Mark fifty-eight times, less so fifty-four times. In all, there is quite a bit of impressive evidence against Marcan priority.

What does the Church say of the Synoptic problem? The Pontifical Biblical Commission, on June 26, 1912, after insisting on the Matthew-Mark-Luke sequence and the early dates for each, said that scholars are free to appeal to theories of oral or written tradition, or to the dependence of one Gospel on another, yet those scholars should "not easily embrace" the two-source theory. This judgment by the Commission led to a revision of the theory by many Catholic scholars, yet, substantially, it is still defended by very many. Interestingly, the 1964 instruction of the same Commission, "On the Historical Truth of the Gospel," did not mention the theory. Nor did Vatican II comment. The Commission's instruction will be examined in detail in the following chapters.

Our conclusion? We have a problem that is likely to remain unsolved until new evidence is developed. Yet it has been worthwhile to examine it for anyone who wants to know what is going on in Scripture studies today, since it is basic to form and redaction criticism, and so since so many scholars dogmatically persist in the erroneous judgment that Mark wrote first.


1 K. A. Kitchen, Ancient Orient and Old Testament (Downer's Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1966), pp. 112-134. On the claims that the traditions are not reliable, or early, see K. A. Kitchen, The Bible In Its World (Downer's Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1977).
2 A table of these is found in Bernard Orchard, Matthew, Luke and Mark (Manchester: Koinonia Press, 1976), pp. 86-87. A detailed analysis of the case is found in the work cited by Farmer, chapter 4. Lists can be found in the work by Stoldt, pp. 276-280 and 274-275.
3 "The Semitisms of St. Luke's Gospel," Journal of Theological Studies, Vol. 44 (1943), p. 130.
4 Graecitas Biblica, ed. 4 (Romae: Pontificium Institutum Biblicum, 1960), par. 361.
5 "Bultmann's Law of Increasing Distinctness," Current Issues in Biblical and Patristic Interpretation, ed. G. F. Hawthorne (Grand Rapids, Ml, 1975), pp. 196-210. Cf. also The Tendencies of the Synoptic Tradition, ed. E. P. Sanders (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1969).

To Most Collection home page