[This piece is a continuation of Comment 22,
and follows my analysis of Literary Dependence of
the Synoptics. ]
How I understand the formation of the Synoptic Gospels
[dated June 22, 1998]
"Well, then, smarty pants...how do YOU think the gospels were
generated with all those similarities and differences?"
Good question, and although I don't have to answer to maintain my position
in the Bias article (under debate with James
Still), I will try to state what I think happened, and briefly sketch out
what evidence and/or arguments I consider to support this.
I will divide my remarks into these categories:
An overview list of the basics that I have to work with (to explain)
A description of the main explanatory factors for limited verbal identity
A description of the main explanatory factors for limited pericope order
A Note on the Explanatory Power of theories of Gospel Formation
A description of how the sequence of events or process of Synoptic gospel
formation might have occurred.
First, what is the surface phenomena of the text and historical
data of the situation that I have to work to with?:
There is a high level of consistency in the reported words of Jesus
There is a high level of consistency in technical terminology (almost 'liturgical'
There are pockets of verbal identity and pockets of pericope sequence
There is substantial identity of sense in passages of rather disparate
Even in obvious parallel passages with a high correspondence of sense,
there is often a high degree of surface differences/discrepancies
The 'early, wide, and undisputed' testimony of the Church Fathers concerning
the authorship of the gospels
The likely collaborative efforts involved in early church leadership
The need for early 'standards' in new-convert teaching practice
The very obvious LACK of literary dependence on one another
The overarching understanding of the apostolic commission as that of scribal
Second, the main explanation for the verbal identity/dissimilarity
of the text is (1) that it derived from eyewitnesses, since
this is indeed the character of eyewitness testimony; and (2) that it originated
from multiple 'similar' events (not multiple accounts of the same
The factors that illumine this are:
A shared community life would have given rise to a shared preference
for certain words, and flexibility in others:
"Since Christian communities had various and diverse connections among
one another, one must suppose that, in short order, a common Christian
basic vocabulary emerged. In other words, the phraseology of faith,
so to speak, of one group might be taken over quickly by another. This
process is observable on the mission field today." [NT:ITSP:165]
The memories of the followers of Jesus were quite good, and this is manifest
(oddly enough) in the preservation of surface discrepancies:
""J. Vansina speaks of 'the known tendency of the mind in memory to
construct a coherent discourse.' The untrained memory tends to level
the contradictions. This tendency makes likely that tensions and irregularities
should have been eliminated, had the transmission been without any control
whatsoever from qualified transmitters." [HI:JTOT:341]
Many of the surface variants are found in the very variances among
repeatable events, such as sermons of an itinerant band:
"Although divergences in formulation and differences in individual
statement can be explained by allowing for the various perspectives of
eyewitnesses, there are still divergences to be accounted for in comparable
pericopes for which the explanation of eyewitness perspective falls short.
An example is the beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:3-12) on
the one hand, and in the Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6:20-26), on the other.
Another example would be the parable of the royal wedding (Matt. 22:1-14),
on the one hand, and the great banquet (Luke 14:15-24), on the other. Are
we not forced in these instances to posit the reworking of a written exemplar
or at least the reshaping of a tradition? Surely both elements in these
so-called doublets are not somehow equally original, are they?...In
order to answer this question correctly, one should not forget that someone
who has a message to proclaim, and who proclaims it itinerantly in various
places, will likely not proclaim it in just one form everywhere he speaks.
He will rather vary the message in view of the specific situations of
the various settings and persons he addresses. The itinerant nature
of Jesus' speaking ministry should in itself prepare us to expect differing
versions. Besides, there is no reason why he should not have performed
the same kind of miracle more than once." [NT:ITSP:167-168]
Verbal agreements are generally concentrated in the areas we
most expect them-the memorized and protected words of Jesus, and the
semi-fixed OT quotes:
"the Synoptics exhibit the highest level of agreement precisely
when they quote Jesus' words or the Old Testament, as we have already
The words and deeds of Jesus were so striking and life-changing, that memory
of these were not that difficult:
"Memory includes a personal relationship and intensifies to the extent
that this relationship has significance for the one who remembers. Things
of little importance are readily forgotten; but we graphically recall something
that engages the heart. Both the quantity and the quality of recollection
depend on the personal relationship to what is remembered. Eyewitnesses
to Jesus' words and deed would be expected to possess graphic memories."
Fixity in the word formulations and even pericope order would
develop quickly, as memories were activated beginning on Day One of
"Intensity and thoroughness of memory are also conditioned by activation.
Activation of memory occurs:
There seemed to be quite a fixity of verbal memory in the early church,
to the point that a congregation could criticize a preacher for making
substitutions! Linnemann cites this story [NT:ITSP:184]:
"...in the sermon about the account of a lame man being lowered through
the roof on a bed or pallet [Mark 2.4-9]..., the preacher substituted a
more literary Greek word (skimpous) for the original word (krabbotos)
used by Jesus in Mark's Gospel. Immediately one of his hearers called out:
'Are you superior to the one who said krabbotos?'...In any case,
there was very strong control in this instance over the words Jesus
used. That is how it most likely was from the beginning."
through the desire to recall
through exchange with others
through being queried by those who do not share it
through a willingness to relate to a memory, even when no one asks [NT:ITSP:183]
The very closeness in dates and geographical distribution of the authors
for the synoptics argues for independent authorship (and hence, divergences
"The formation of both Mark and Luke are related to the deaths of
Peter and Paul. There is no compelling reason for a long span of time to
have passed. One can safely assume that these Gospels were written between
64 and 66. The most ancient Christian accounts leave no room, therefore,
for the assumption that the Gospels were copied from each other. The time
span between them is much too short to allow this. According to higher
criticism at least ten years must be allowed to make the alleged literary
dependence possible. That is all the more true in light of the other ancient
accounts that locate the origin of the Gospels in various locales: Matthew
in Judea, Luke in Achaia, Mark in Rome." [NT:ITSP:190]
The character of the gospel of Luke looks less like borrowing, and
more like the confident teaching of an experienced teacher. He would
have used his own formulations, just as a modern preacher/teacher likes
his or her paraphrases:
"It may be better to think of him as an experienced teacher who had
for years taught Theophilus and his kind the sort of things that we find
in his gospel, the likenesses between the synoptic gospels being accounted
for mainly by their common origin in the apostolic preaching. Thus what
Luke wrote is fundamentally what he was accustomed to teach...But
it cannot be too strongly stated that one evangelist's knowledge of
the work of another does not necessarily mean that his work is a modification
of the other." [RMML:20]
To give an example of the precision of the quoted words within a
narrative, while the wording of the surrounding narrative is radically
different, we may note the passage in which Jesus is before Pilate and
Herod, Luke 23:2-16[RMML:36]:
"Here Pilate's five-word question and Jesus' two-word reply in verse
3 are identical in Mark and Luke, but the other fourteen verses are quite
The Gospel of Matthew looks very early and very Jewish:
"It [Matthew] looks early and Palestinian, reflecting a terrible
clash between Jesus and the religious authorities, rather than a post-70
clash between church and synagogue." [RMML:88]
"In its beginnings Christianity was a wholly Jewish movement and it
seems natural that the gospel most evidently designed for Jewish readers
should be early. Matthew is an apologetic showing that Jesus was the
Messiah...hence its constant appeal to the fulfillment of the scriptures.
It is insistent on the sharpness of Jesus' conflict with the Pharisees,
a topic which would have been far more relevant to the churches in Palestine,
which had to live cheek by jowl with so many of them, than for the churches
in the Gentile world...Some of the apologetic (e.g. the account of the
suicide of Judas and the account of the guard at the tomb) seems of no
great theological significance, yet of particular interest to those
who frequented Jerusalem" [RMML:95]
The patristic data about the Matthean authorship of Matthew is quite
uniform and quite strong:
"The fathers are almost unanimous in asserting that Matthew the
tax-collector was the author, writing first, for Hebrews in the Hebrew
language: Papias (c. 60-130), Irenaeus (c. 130-200), Pantaenus (died
c.190), Origen (c. 185-254), Eusebius (c. 260-340), Ephiphanius (c. 315-403),
Cyril of Jerusalem (c. 315-86) and others write in this vein...Though unrivalled,
the tradition has been discounted on various grounds, particularly on the
supposed unreliability of Papias, from whom some would derive the whole
tradition. But Papias is very early, having had direct contact with two
of Jesus' actual followers. It is quite unsafe to assume that all the
later writers got an incorrect tradition from him and had never hear the
correct story." [RMML:116]
"But the fact remains that there is no alternative tradition about
the authorship of Matthew's gospel, as there is in the case of Hebrews,
nor was there doubt of its apostolic authorship, as there was in the case,
for instance, of 2 Peter." [RMML:128]
The early church data supports Matthean priority and a Petrine (eyewitness)
origin for Mark, giving rise to some of the surface phenomena characteristics:
"The patristic tradition...may be summarized in two propositions:
a) The apostle Matthew was the first to write a gospel, which he wrote
for Hebrews in the Hebrew tongue; b) The second gospel, by Mark, was
a record of the teaching of the apostle Peter as given in Rome." [RMML:89]
It is interesting to note the dynamics of the origination of Mark.
It was NOT designed to supplant any other gospels, nor was it done for
'local preferences' reasons; it was as a 'memoir.'
Clement of Alexandria, preserved in Eusebius Ecc. Hist. 6.14.6f,
recorded an ancient tradition "that the Gospel of Mark came into being
in this manner: When Peter had publicly preached the word at Rome, and
by the Spirit had proclaimed the Gospel, those present, who were
many, exhorted Mark, as one who had followed him for a long time and
remembered what had been spoken, to make a record of what was said;
and that he did this, and distributed the Gospel among those that asked
him. And that when the matter came to Peter's knowledge he neither strongly
forbade it nor urged it forward."
Eusebius also points out that Peter ratified Mark's gospel: "[Peter's
followers] besought Mark, whose Gospel is extant, seeing that he
was Peter's follower, to leave them a written statement of the teaching
given them verbally, nor did they cease until they had persuaded him,
and so became the cause of the Scripture called the Gospel according to
Mark. And they say that the Apostle, knowing by the revelation of the spirit
to him what had been done, was pleased at their zeal, and ratified the
scripture for study in the churches." [Ecc. Hist. 2.15.1ff]
The phenomena of Mark is fully in line with patristic evidence, and this
manner of Mark's origination explains why his style seems so little like
that of Matthew and Luke. Although it too reflects an eyewitness (Peter),
its surface phenomena is far different from theirs, due to delivery style
(i.e., oral speaking as the base) and Peter's preaching emphases.
"We have already noted Streeter's judgement that 'Mark reads like
a shorthand account of a story by an impromptu speaker'. This is
certainly the impression gained by many readers. Although Mark is not
bad Greek, it is a very informal, unliterary sort of Greek, such as one
might expect from an oral discourse. He eschews almost entirely the
periods beloved of the great prose writers, preferring parataxis and the
frequent use of kai. His addiction to euthus and the historic
present, the number of anacolutha and parenthesis, his fondness for vivid
detail, his tautological expressions, all comport well with the picture
of a dynamic speaker. It is of course possible that all these characteristics
are the product of lively traditional material worked up by the author's
literary skill. But the patristic tradition of its Petrine origin is a
simpler hypothesis, and it gives greater credit to Mark as one anxious
to hand on the apostolic teaching faithfully." [RMML:96]
The Church Fathers understood the relationship of Mark to the eyewitness
Peter, and pointed out that it was NOT Mark's gospel that was 'orderly':
"Eusebius quotes Papias, who in turn quotes John the Presbyter (=
John the Apostle?), who says that Mark became Peter's interpreter and
wrote accurately all that he remembered of the things said or done
by the Lord. 'Interpreter' probably means, not that Mark translated Peter's
Aramaic words into Greek, but that as a catechist he expounded Peter's
teaching. Eusebius contrasts the orderly arrangement of Matthew with
the less structured oral teaching of Peter." [RMML:136]
The very content and style of Mark strongly support the Petrine background
of his gospel, especially in the vivid details that betray an eyewitness
"As far as content is concerned, almost the whole gospel deals
with events at which Peter was actually present and the remainder with
events (such as the crucifixion and the visit to the tomb) at which close
associates were present. As far as the book's manner of presentation is
concerned, much of it reads either like the oral reminiscences of an
eyewitness or as the narrative of an excellent story-teller. J B. Orchard
has argued that Mark's gospel was a record of discourse delivered by Peter
in Rome, taken down in shorthand at the time. This, however, is too simplistic
a description of the gospel. Though it often seems to recall the spoken
words, it does not actually read like a series of discourse." [RMML:179]
"In 1: 16-20 the use of the amphiblastron, the circular fishing-
net which is used from the beach; Jesus speaking to those on the beach
and calling to those in the boat; the presence of the hired servants. In
1:41 Jesus emotionally moved, in 1:45 his sternness, in 3:5 his anger.
In 2:2, 'There was no longer room for them, not even about the door'; in
3:34, 'looking round on those seated in a circle round him'. In 4:2 there
are vivid details (this time also noted by Matthew): 'he got into a boat
and sat in it on the sea; and the whole crowd was beside the sea on the
land'; in 4:36, 38 Mark mentions the presence of other boats, and how Jesus
was in the stern, sleeping on the cushion; in 5:35f Jesus 'overhears' (or
perhaps 'ignores') the 'Why bother the Teacher?' - the whole narrative
leading up to the Aramaic command Talitha cumi is marvellously vivid.
So with the feeding of the five thousand in 6:30-44 with all its detail
and the narrator's impressionistic sumposia sumposia and prasiai
prasiai. In 6:48 Jesus 'would have passed them by' seems like the
recollection of an eyewitness. The healing of the deaf man who had
an impediment in his speech in 7:31-37, with the touching, the anointing
with saliva, the groaning, the Aramaic Ephphatha, the charge to
tell no one and the subsequent disobedience, has the same characteristics.
And so we could go on traversing well-known ground to the end of the book."
Since Peter was familiar with Matthew (perhaps as 'head teacher' or collaborative
author?), some of it would of course show up in Peter's preaching (and
consequently in Mark). But some of its more Jewish nuances need not
be preserved in the setting in Rome:
"If Matthew was the first approved record of this teaching it is natural
that it should be strong in its Jewish and Palestinian matter, with stress
on Messiahship, the fulfillment of prophecy and Jesus' conflict with the
Pharisees. When this tradition was taken to a Gentile environment one
would expect to see a great reduction in the Jewish emphasis and one would
expect something very like Mark to be the staple content of Peter's instruction.
One would expect to see Mark true to the sense of Matthew, with here and
there additional details and clarifications. And this is very much what
we appear to have. Mark gives, for instance, a fuller and clear account
of the death of the Baptist....and he provides explanations of things Jewish
which Matthew's original hearers would not have needed..." [RMML:101]
The early church believed that Luke was the brother of 2 Cor 8.18, and
had written his famous gospel before 55 ad!:
"Suffice it to say that the belief that he [the 'brother whose
praise is in the gospel' of 2 Cor 8.18, and perhaps an author of a gospel]
was Luke is found in the great scholars of the early church:
Origen, Eusebius, Ephraem, Chrysostom and Jerome; it is found in the subscriptions
added to the epistle in the Byzantine-text tradition, and it has been retained
in certain liturgies to this day." [RMML:186]
The data from titles (from Hengel) I have discussed earlier in the
series; there was very early attribution of the gospels to the traditional
authors-without there being an authority to impose this belief structure.
So, the identity and divergences of the verbal data can be understood
(at a high level) as the product of eyewitnesses to shared and communal
events, from the character of the events themselves, and from customary
teaching practices by a shared teaching community.
Third, the pockets of shared sequences can be understood
Let's look at each of these:
related to the initial order of written "preaching", as recorded in Matthew
related to the chronological order in the memory of Peter
related to the early order in catecist teaching
related to the fixity in early liturgical use
different emphasis on sequence: Mark vs. Matthew vs. Luke
collaborative discussions within the apostolic band
preservation in order due to the rabbinical model
variances in order due to teaching flexibility, interests and needs
One: Related to the initial order of written "preaching" as recorded
Although it is reasonable to assume that Matthew incorporated early
teaching sequences into his gospel, later teaching praxis would have certainly
been influenced somewhat by his gospel. In other words, the presence of
an authoritative 'textbook' would have influenced the oral 'performance'
dynamics and order (at least somewhat) of later teaching ministries, such
as Peter in Rome, and Luke. This would have tended to preserve sequence
order somewhat (at least in sub-units that the teachers had to work with),
without demanding that ALL TEACHING--regardless of setting, need, ability,
etc--look exactly like the Gospel of Matthew!
Two: Related to the chronological order in the memory of Peter
Linnemann notes that alternate explanations MUST be considered, especially
those that deal with history:
"Similar narrative sequence thus can be attributed to either of two
causes: (1) transmission through a common literary source; (2) the nature
and progression of events described." [NT:ITSP:83]
And indeed, the elements in Mark support this:
"If however, Mark is changing Matthew's order a simple hypothesis
will explain it. The whole sequence of events (if they actually happened)
would have formed a memorable period in Peter's life-the call of the four
fishermen, the healing in his synagogue at Capernaum, the cure of his wife's
mother after services, the great crowds arriving after sunset when the
sabbath was over, Peter's following Jesus after his early rising for prayer,
and his recollection of Jesus' new resolve to take his disciples on a preaching
tour throughout Galilee. It is only necessary to suppose that Mark is
relating this section in chronological order to explain the rearrangement."
Three: Related to the early order in catecist teaching
Since some of the order would have been 'created' at the first preaching
and teaching of the material (some pre-Easter, some within weeks of Pentecost)
within a shared (and growing) community, there is no reason to assume
that this order would not have structured somewhat the literary products
of those very teachers. In other words, they wrote what they felt would
accomplish their literary aims, but used the order of how they personally
taught when there was no good reason to change it.
We do know that the synoptic data was taught VERY effectively in the
early church, as can be seen by Paul's
familiarity and extensive usage of it in his pre-Gospel epistles (although
we cannot know much about the issue of order from Paul's usage, of course).
Four: Related to the fixity in early liturgical use
Some of the literary sequences may be simply a reflection of early
worship 'reading sequences'. Although we do not know much about early liturgical
practice in the pre-50 AD church, we can assume after the synagogue model
that there were lectionary and reading-sequences in worship services. We
DO believe that the Lord's Supper passage as found in 1 Cor 11 was very,
very early, with Pesch arguing that Mark's version was 'standardized' in
Jerusalem FULLY within 5 years of the Crucifixion [GAG:106-148].
Five: Different emphasis on sequence: Mark vs. Matthew vs. Luke
I have noted above that the Church Fathers held that Matthew was more
'orderly' that Mark (in presentation, not necessarily chronology), and
that Mark would have been perhaps closer to the Petrine chronology of his
most 'memorable' moments. Luke is sometimes understood (on the basis of
1.3b "orderly") as giving a chronological sequence, but this is not a required
understanding of that word by any means (Bock, in Baker Commentary Series,
in loc., discusses the dominant 8 views of 'orderly' and opts for a mixture
of geographical and salvation-history order). None of them claim to present
an absolute order, but rather to arrange blocks of material in keeping
with either literary aims (e.g., Luke), or source-emphases (e.g., Mark
relating Peter's teaching order).
Six: Collaborative discussions within the apostolic band
We have discussed at numerous places in this series that the early
teaching leadership seemed to provide 'checks and balances' on the teaching
content (in keeping with its understanding of the tradition-transmission
scribal responsibilities that it had). Accordingly, there could very easily
have been early discussions (pre-Matthew) as to what pericopes were best
'keep together' and where complete flexibility was okay. The general
principle of 'let every thing be established by two to three witnesses'
(Deut 19.15) had been extended to church 'authority' decisions (Matt 18.15-20;
2 Cor 13.1; 1 Tim 5.19). The issuance of authoritative teaching documents
would certainly have fallen under this requirement of 'group approval'
(as indeed both our intra-textual evidences and our patristic testimony
Seven: Preservation (perhaps even of order) due to the rabbinical model
The scribal/semi-rabbinical model of the teaching paradigm of the
apostolic band (examined elsewhere) would have tended to perpetuate (and
even 'fix') the order of some of the stories--as taught by the apostles.
The standard New Testament word for 'authoritative tradition' is paradidomi
(cf. I Cor 15.1-2), and Jesus uses this word to describe the revelation
of the Father to the Son in Matt 11.27! The chain begins with the Father,
goes to Jesus, then to the apostles, and then to subsequent groups of disciples
(Matt 28.16-20), who continue to perpetuate the teachings of Jesus--NOT
the teachings of the Apostles per se.
Rabbinical praxis did NOT let the disciple 'change' the teaching of
his master, nor even let him ADD to the teaching. Byskog gives a couple
of statements from the Rabbinics that illustrate this principle: "The baraita in b. 'Erub. 54b--the locus classicus for the
oral transmission--gives the impression that from Moses and onwards the
pupils must learn to repeat the statements of their teachers orally and
word by word" [HI:JTOT:157]
"The rabbinic literature discusses the circumstances under which qualified
pupils were allowed to give their own halakhic judgements while their master
was still alive: the person who taught his own halakhah in front of
his own teacher was normally liable to death; or he could give the
halakhah, but only within proper distances from the teacher's residence"
[HI:JTOT:158; notice how Jesus' "always with you" of Matthew 28.16-20 would
have, under this model, severely restricted the modification and 'free
creation' of new material!]
Although this would apply mainly to content, there is no reason to restrict
it to that.
First-century Judaism affords us several examples of what are called
"testimonia": verses strung together as a block of 'proof-texts'.
We see these in Qumran (e.g., 4Qtestim), the latter rabbinic literature
(many, many places), in Jesus' words in Matthew 21.42, and Paul in Romans
9.33. This represents a sequence of texts that are keep together, organized
by some theme. The limited sequences of pericopes in the NT may function
in the similar way.
Additionally, it should be pointed out that Jewish midrash often had
an "order" connecting the topic under discussion and a proof text (on the
surface, VERY unrelated to the topic!), that escapes modern interpreters.
But we do know that there was a logic under-girding the link, as evidenced
by numerous clear examples in the midrash. For an in-depth discussion of
this invisible order, consult Jacobs in [NT:TMP]. What this would mean
for our study is that our inability to find the 'connecting link' within
a sub-unit would not allow us to conclude that a link was not present.
This rabbinical model predicts both a uniformity in small chunks of
material, but variance in order in larger assemblages of that order.
Eight: Variances in order due to teaching flexibility, interests and
This is a rather obvious influence, and one that would go a long way
in explaining WHY we have variance and similarity in order. As a teacher
(sometimes) myself, I have my favorite passages and themes and order of
presentation, and we know the early church leaders were no different. One
can easily see this in the simple literary patterns discovered by narrative
and rhetorical criticism studies. "Mix and Match" is the standard fare
for teachers, and there is no reason to assume the early church was any
So the identity/dissimilarity of order and sequences in pericopes can be
understood as due to: tendencies to preserve the teaching order of the
early leaders, standard teaching needs for flexibility, underlying ordering
themes, and differing emphases on order.
Fourth: A Note on the Explanatory Power of theories of Gospel
When I first began investigating this issue of Literary Dependence,
the 2SH vs 2GH theories, and the Eyewitness work of Linnemann, the first
thing I noticed was a 'precision problem'.
The 'precision problem' could be described as the difficulty/impossibility
of predicting the minute details of a large body of text, from some
limited set of initial assumptions/hypotheses.
The various arguments of 2SH versus 2GH were focused on what to me seemed
like an impossible task, approaching somewhat the complexity of chaotic
systems in math/physics. To try and construct a theory that explained every
single modification of an alleged prior text or source (at least
13,000 changes, as we have noticed!) seemed wildly "out of reach"!
It became clearer and clearer, as the various authorities admitted the
reversibility of the arguments and the large number of 'weaknesses' of
each theory, that somehow the approach to the problem was flawed.
The rather detailed results discovered by Linnemann merely showed the magnitude
of the problem. How in the world could any theory predict--at the level
of verbal forms and the interwoven order of hundreds of vivid pericopes--the
"explosion" we call the New Testament?!
The abject failure of Gospel criticism to predict, via unfolding
of general principles, something that is half-orderly and half-disorderly(!)
is completely understandable, but should have tipped scholarship off that
something was wrong. Remember, a significant number of modern scholars
have abandoned this form-criticism-based approached and returned to analyzing
the texts as literary wholes. They have realized both the hopelessness
of explaining the minutia of the text as well as the speculative character
of so much of that work.
The approach I delineated above fares no better in the details, but
deliberately does not attempt it either. It seems clear to me that
the literary and theological vortex that produced the variegated character
of the NT will only be able to be understood at a more general and conceptual
level, and as such, will at best be able to predict broad patterns (not
atomistic word choices and word order) in the NT data. To get much more
precise than that would be like trying to predict weather patterns or non-linear
So, in attempting to explain a specific change or sequence order, or
a verbal difference, my approach will argue that this task is not achievable--by
the very nature of the data--and that attempts by LD and some Oral Tradition
adherents will simply fail because of 'over-precision' and the "small sample
sizes" that NT scholars must work with.
My approach (not original with me, of course) explains the presence
of identify/similarity/divergence, without explaining the specific
patterns in the text of specific identities/similarities/divergences.
And I think the data of the text demonstrates that the specifics cannot
be predicted from the generic rules and postulated sources.
Fifth: A description of how the sequence of events or process
of Synoptic gospel formation might have occurred.
Let me sketch out a process and event-sequence that might be a reasonable
approximation of gospel formation. (Most of the data to support the various
pieces are given in earlier Comments in this series.)
The above sequence of events seems to fit the data of the texts, explicit
statements in the texts, what we know about early church history, what
the Church Fathers wrote about this issue, what we know about teaching/writing
in first-century Judaism, and about general church practices.
During the earthly life of Jesus, the disciples were consciously following
a scribal/teaching model, in which student notes, practice teaching trips
(after which they reported 'what they had taught'--cf. Mark 6.30), memorization,
scribal images, and massive repetition would have been dominant.
After the Passion, the Risen Christ would have continued instructing His
disciples (cf. Luke 24.27), and emphasized the global nature and teaching
character of their ministry (Matt 28.16-20).
Beginning at Pentecost, the public preaching of the Apostles would have
NOT included much synoptic-like detail of the life of Christ, but rather
divine approval and recognition of His messiahship and eschatological character.
But for new believers, whose ethical imperative was to 'walk as He walked',
there would have been consistent instruction of the teachings (both ethical
and Christological--cf. Matt 16.21) passed on by Jesus to His disciples
during His lifetime. This process would have quickly developed into the
same type of scribal/teaching/rabbinic models that Jesus had used with
HIS first followers. This would have quickly exerted some additional structuring
of the material for student use, and use of notes etc. The main function
of the apostolate was apparently this 'ministry of the word' (Acts 6),
and this was a group/collegiate function (Acts 1.22).
The very presence of Diaspora Jewry from the first day of the Church on,
would have prompted early Greek-versions of the gospel and the Gospel-materials.
Since it is likely that Christ used Greek on occasion, as would have some
of His followers, this would have provided some impetus to linguistic fixity
of certain sections of the material. There were "Hellenistic" synagogues
in Jerusalem at the time (cf. Acts 6.9) in which the gospel proclamation
would have been in Greek from the start.
With the conversion of many priests (Acts 6.7), the opportunity to realize
the large-scale teaching ministry (as per the instruction of Matthew 28.16ff)
would have been a major impetus to creation of the first written Gospel-that
of Matthew in Hebrew, c.35-42 AD. [The priests were responsible in Tanakh/OT
for teaching the Law of Moses. This would have been a natural carry-over
into the era of the New Moses.] This document would be used for evangelism
within Judea, and also contained mild seeds of apologetic for the obvious
'universalism' that was being manifested in the early church.
A second major impetus to creation of a "Full written Document" of the
gospel would have been the dispersion of the church after the stoning of
Stephen in Acts 8. The apostles stayed in Jerusalem, but the rest of the
church (including the converted priests of Acts 6.7) was dispersed throughout
Judea and Samaria. Their evangelistic successes lead to visits from the
apostles to 'ratify' the new churches (e.g., Samaria in Acts 8.14). This
need to make sure the exploding church stayed true to the Teacher's words
and intentions would have prompted a written and easily distributed document--the
Gospel of Mathew. Since many of the recipients would have been Jews, of
varying language bases, it would seem reasonable to assume that Matthew
was written in BOTH languages at the same time.
This Gospel of Matthew was written in Hebrew, by the former tax-collector,
who would have had excellent writing skills (he would have been able to
write his gospel in BOTH Hebrew and Greek). Where Matthew would NOT have
been strong on would have been the OT fulfillment motifs of which he is
very concerned in his gospel. In addition to the obvious teaching of Jesus
on these (since He was constantly teaching them about these fulfillment
themes), Matthew conceivably could have interacted with Paul during the
latter's post-conversion trip to Jerusalem in Acts 9.26-30. The fact that
Paul had immediately upon conversion begun 'proving' the Messiahship of
Jesus (Acts 9.20-22), and consistently used similar proof-text approaches
in his epistles provides a ready source of such information to Matthew.
And, this exchange would also explain the
large and close dependence of Paul upon synoptic details (a la Matthew)
in his epistles.
Indeed, the Gospel of Matthew in Hebrew still shows up in the Nazarene
communities (of Galilee) in the end of the first century.
Some of the material would have been codified VERY before this time by
liturgical use. For example, the passion narrative would have been used
immediately, in the first 'breaking of bread' [Indeed, Pesch made a strong
case for this to be in its final LITERARY form within 5 years of the Crucifixion.]
And much of the material would have been codified very early by teaching
Since the church leadership was very community-oriented and collaborative
in their work, the first gospel, would have been a joint product, probably
commissioned to the 'most literate' member of the team-the ex-Tax Collector
Matthew. As such, this document would have become the teaching-guide (esp.
in the area of pericope order) for apostolic ministry. This document would
also have been the first one 'left behind' in newly founded churches (which
explains why it is the most quoted among the gospels in the early church).
As a collaborative work, it would have exerted some influence on later
preaching-especially the later preaching of Peter at Rome. This would account
for both similarities and dissimilarities between Peter's preaching (as
recorded by Mark) and the Matthean formulation. Peter was likely a major
player in the very authorship of this gospel.
Since there is a strong tradition that the apostles were dispersed from
Jerusalem twelve years after the ascension (circa 33+12=45 AD), this would
place the Gospel of Matthew between 33 and 42 AD. Eusebius dates Matthew
in 41 [RMML:241]. Since it was written in Hebrew first, but seems also
to be aimed at loyal Diaspora Jewry (who at this time looked carefully
at issues in the homeland), it is likely that it was translated into Greek
very, very early. And this may account for the predominance of the Greek
form of the gospel in our early records.
The fact that Paul can refer/use a large number of details from the synoptics
in spite of his main teaching coming from the dispersed church(!), shows
that the transmission process was very, very accurate during this period!
There is a strong tradition that Peter preached in Rome in 42 AD with Mark
[RMML:146-172]. This would mean that he and Mark had a copy of Matthew
with them in Rome. Peter's preaching would have been close to parts of
Matthew (since he was collaborator in its composition earlier), but the
different mix of Jew/Gentile and differing social/geographical context
would have required some changes (e.g., less Palestinian elements), as
we see in the gospel of Mark.
The Roman church, with its fingers and influences spread throughout the
Empire, wanted the preaching of Peter recorded for ITS missionary needs,
and requested Mark to record the teaching of Peter for this purpose. They
were familiar with the Gospel of Matthew, of course, but its more localized
and Jerusalem-oriented details were less relevant to their evangelistic
needs. But the teaching of Peter was perfect for it, and so Mark wrote
and Peter ratified the Gospel of Mark around 44-46 AD.
Mark, as a student of both great apostles Peter and Paul, wrote up the
preaching of Peter (as per request) and used some of the theological vocabulary
and images from his other teacher Paul (see Acts 12.25; see Dungan ABD,
s.v. "Two-Gospel Hypothesis"), and this document was approved by the church
leadership as well. This scenario would place Mark's gospel in the 45 AD
time range (before he evangelizes Egypt beginning in 50 AD).
Mark does show some evidence of having Matthew in front of him, in a couple
of 'abbreviation passages' involving omission of more Palestinian details
[Mark 4.2; 4.33-34; 12.38; cf. RMML:98-100], and seems to be aware of Lucan
wording at spots (probably through Paul's knowledge of the synoptic data,
as opposed to knowledge of a literary source--which probably was not written
at the time).
Luke investigated eyewitnesses-not necessarily 'written sources'.
He would possibly have been familiar with the Gospel of Matthew (maybe
being one of the collaborators?), but brought in additional material from
other members of the extended apostolic circles (e.g., one of the 72 for
Luke 10; Mary for the infancy narratives). His gospel might have been at
the instigation of Paul and/or the Jerusalem council, as a teaching tool
for the Gentiles. His fame as the 'brother whose praise is in the gospel'-as
relates to the Gentile churches-supports this overall understanding.
Luke's gospel would have to have been written prior to 2 Cor 8.18, which
would make it before 55 AD. Since Luke was already famous
for this gospel by 55 AD, it was likely written some 5-10 years earlier.
It would have been circulated mostly by the Apostle to the Gentiles, and
indeed is quoted verbatim in 1 Tim 5.18.
Luke's gospel was written for the Gentiles 'from the ground up', and had
the backing of Paul's successful mission to the Gentiles. As such, it would
have been recognized as the premier tool for Gentile evangelism, quickly,
superseding Mark, which had also been written for that purpose, under the
request of the Roman Church. Luke would have written his gospel without
knowledge of Mark, but with knowledge of (but negligible literary dependence
on) Matthew. The data indicates that Luke was a master teacher in his own
right and would teach his favorite passages and themes, suitable to his
gentile students. Once the Roman church learned of Luke (and compared it
with Mark), they would have quickly adopted Luke for their evangelistic
and teaching ministries (as the usage in the Fathers shows).
But Mark was always recognized by the church as being apostolic, even though
it had been superseded so quickly in the needs of the expanding church.
I have stated earlier that theories of gospel formation are not generally
'issues of faith'. [They can be made into these, though, with a little
hard work and a liberal amount of presupposition...(grin)...] And the sketch
I present above is simply another attempt at making sense of the historical
What I will say, however, is that I expect the future of NT studies
to change. I would predict that within 20-30 years, the focus will be on
more holistic approaches, such as narrative, rhetorical, and "true" literary
criticism--after the pattern of OT studies.
The older Source Critical school of the OT was slowly discredited over
the past 50 years, largely by the control data of the ANE. Indeed, Rendtorff
could say in 1986 that it had "lost its general acceptance". But the vast
superstructure of scholarly 'results' about the dating of individual books
and themes that was based on it (e.g., the JEDP or Documentary Hypothesis)
is still around and in use (even if authors such as Blenkinsopp
apologize for using it)! What was once a solidly-grounded body of knowledge
is now a free-floating airship, without a tethered relationship to the
facts of history.
And its first cousin, OT Form Criticism, has run aground due to similar
factors. In the opening article by Paul House in Beyond Form Criticism
[BFC], "The Rise and Current Status of Literary Criticism of the Old Testament",
the same situation that seems to appear in NT studies is described
"Besides the influence of interdisciplinary trends, literary criticism
arose at least in part because of impasses in older ways of explaining
Scripture. Many thinkers concluded that historical criticism,
the standard means of biblical analysis, had almost run its course. Old
issues could either be reworked or new paths could be charted. Too, numerous
scholars began to recognize that some of the established approaches
divide and atomize texts. These methodologies obscure the unity of large
and small texts alike. Efforts to date, categorize, and scrutinize even
short passages had produced reorganized texts not all could appreciate.
An overemphasis on historical detail cost readers a proper understanding
of plot, theme, and character. Pre-textual matters subsumed textual issues."
And Gunn [BFC:412] can so far as to say back in 1987:
"Plainly things have changed. The study of narrative in the Hebrew
Bible has altered dramatically in the past ten years, at least as
far as professional biblical studies is concerned. That is now a truism.
Nor has there been any lack of commentators charting that change.
"So striking is the change, it has led me on more than one occasion
to suggest that 'literary criticism' was becoming, has become perhaps,
the new orthodoxy in biblical studies. But perhaps I enjoy overstating
the position and, in any case, the varieties of "literary approach," present
and foreseeable, look like having the potential to fracture any too neat
party line that might emerge to choke the reading of the Hebrew Bible.
"Nevertheless, I believe it is true to say that criticism of biblical
texts using the reading methods of contemporary critics of other bodies
of literature has, in a relatively short time, become entrenched among
the disciplines of the professional guild of biblical critics and will
not go away in a hurry. Inexorably the label 'literary criticism' is being
displaced as the label for 'source criticism' or 'source analysis,' a symbolic
"If the historical critics still dominate, the domination is fast
I noted in the first part of this response that
the same process was occurring in New Testament studies. Literary
documents are produced by authors, not by "communities". They have formal
properties (noted by Literary Criticism, generally involving Formalism).
And the literature of first-century Judaism--vast, vivid, and varied--will
increasingly exert its 'control data' influence on New Testament studies,
as it does today.
It is only in the context of internal literary factors (e.g., plot,
characters) and external literary contexts (e.g., Qumran, Pseudepigrapha,
Rabbinics) that the proper understanding of the gospel formation process
and intention will become clear.
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