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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: Which Written Records about Jesus Are Trustworthy?

Don Stewart :: Did the Gospel Writers Use Previous Written Documents to Compile Their Accounts?

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Did the Gospel Writers Use Previous Written Documents to Compile Their Accounts? (The Synoptic Problem and the Q Source)

Which Written Records about Jesus Are Trustworthy? – Question 11

One of the most complex problems confronting those who make a study of the four gospels is the determination of the relationship between them. There is much material common to them but there are also differences.

Many questions arise. What is the order in which the four gospels were written? Were the gospels based upon earlier written sources? Is it possible that one or more of the gospels was originally written in a language other than Greek? Did Matthew and Luke use Mark when they composed their gospel? Was there an earlier written source that is behind some of the material in the gospels? These issues are part of what is called the “synoptic problem.”

Some Understanding of the Issues Is Necessary

Our desire here is to provide basic overview of this issue. It is important that each student of Scripture have at least some acquaintance with these questions. However, any detailed explanation is beyond the scope of what we are trying to do.

The Synoptic Problem Explained

The synoptic problem can be summarized as follows. The first three gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke are called the “synoptic gospels.” This comes from two Greek words which mean, “to see together.” The word was used to explain how these gospels can be arranged, harmonized section by section, and viewed together.

When the first three gospels are looked at together a number of things become obvious. The accounts in Matthew, Mark, and Luke have striking resemblances. The wording is exactly the same, or nearly the same, in many passages. However, minor differences also continually appear between these three gospels. How can we account for these resemblances and differences in Matthew, Mark and Luke? This is the synoptic problem.

There Are Many Theories to Explain What We Find

In gospel studies, there have been a number of theories that have attempted to account for the resemblances as well as the differences between the first three gospels, the synoptic gospels. We can list them as follows.

Option 1: The Gospels Are Totally Independent of Each Other

This first option sees each gospel as completely independent of the other two. In other words, there is no literary relationship between them whatsoever. The literary resemblances can be attributed to the gospel writers all drawing on the same oral tradition about Jesus. The oral tradition was so fixed at an early date that the gospel writers often would have the same word for word description of what Jesus said and did, or at least a description that was very similar. According to this point of view, there was no written source used by any of the gospel writers.

Option 2: The Gospels Have Some Literary Dependence

Others believe the resemblances between the first three gospels cannot be accounted for by oral transmission alone. They see some type of literary dependence as necessary because of the way the gospels now stand. This being the case, there are a number of theories of literary dependence which have arisen which try to explain the agreements between the gospels. In doing so, they also try to determine the order in which these works were originally written. The most popular are as follows.

Mark Was Written First

The most popular theory in our present day, to explain the similarities and differences among the first three gospels, assumes Mark was the first gospel written and that the other gospels writers, Matthew and Luke, made use of Mark when they composed their gospel.

In addition, they also had another written source which basically consisted of Jesus’ sayings. This source is usually known as “Q” from the German word quelle meaning “source.” Apart from Mark and the Q source, both Matthew and Luke incorporated material in their gospel that was unique to them. For simplicity sake, the material Matthew used is called “M” and the material Luke used is called “L.”

Matthew Was Written First

While the idea that Mark was written first is the most dominant view today, it is not without its detractors. A minority of scholars believe that Matthew was written first and that Luke used Matthew to compose his gospel. Mark, instead of being the first gospel written, was actually written after Matthew and Luke. This theory holds that Mark’s Gospel is a combination of Matthew and Luke. This theory has no need for any “Q” source.

This theory is consistent with the ancient evidence. The unanimous testimony of the early church was that Matthew wrote first. There is also strong evidence that Luke wrote after Matthew and used his gospel is putting together his own account. Mark, which records the preaching of Simon Peter, was written after both Matthew and Luke. It is said that Peter used both of these works to put together his messages which was incorporated by Mark into a written document.

Other Theories and Other Versions

There are many other theories, which are not as popular as these two, which attempt to explain the relationship between the first three gospels. In addition, even these popular theories are found in many versions. This all adds further complications to this issue.

Observations on the Synoptic Problem

The synoptic problem is indeed complicated. We will only make a few simple observations concerning this difficult issue.

There Is No Consensus among Bible-Believing Scholars on This Issue

Today, there are Bible-believers that hold to each of the theories we have listed, as well as other viewpoints which we have not given. We must emphasize that there is no consensus as to which theory is correct. Each has its advocates who make, what they believe, are solid arguments for their position. Every one of these theories has their strengths and weaknesses. Indeed it seems that none is without its problems. This being the case, there is no “Christian” position on this issue. Consequently, we need to be careful to assume there is only one particular way in which this matter can be resolved.

Q Is Only a Hypothesis

While people speak of a “Q” document as though its existence is certain, we must remember that it is only a hypothetical document. There are credible, if not convincing, theories of the composition of the first three gospels that have no need for any such written work. Thus, we must be careful how much we assume about this alleged document that no one has ever seen, no one in the ancient world admitted to its existence, and many find no need of today to account for the gospels in their present form.

There is something else. Unfortunately, some liberal scholars use this hypothetical Q document to argue that the original Jesus was a non-supernatural Jesus. They have supposedly discovered the earliest of the Q sayings in which Jesus was a mere human teacher, not a miracle worker, or the Son of God. The sad thing is that they have convinced a number of people that this is where the evidence leads us. Yet, it has been shown by others, that even if Q did exist, which we do not know for certain, it still portrays a supernatural Jesus who performed miracles and made divine claims about Himself. The supernatural Jesus is still with us with or without Q.

There have indeed been abuses by those who argue for some type of written source behind Matthew and Luke. However, it is not impossible that a list or Jesus’ sayings did circulate in some written form at an early date. We cannot, and we should not, rule out this possibility ahead of time. What we should rule out, is the way in which some scholars take this hypothetical document, put together a hypothetical history of it, and then deny everything sacred that the New Testament teaches about Jesus. This is neither a rational nor scholarly thing to do.

However, having said that, it must be pointed out that the early church unanimously taught that Matthew was the first gospel written. This evidence should not be ignored because these people would be in a position to know the order in which the gospels were composed. With this continuous testimony that we have from these church leaders, it seems like Q is unnecessary. While the idea that Matthew was written first is still in the minority among present-day New Testament, specialists, it seems for a number of reasons to be the best way to understand the totality of the evidence.

The Gospels, as They Now Stand, Are God’s Holy Word

Whatever the eventual solution may be concerning the synoptic problem, the important thing is for us to understand that the end result is God’s divinely inspired, inerrant Word to the human race. The important thing is to read and study the gospels as we now have them.

While there is a place for trying to solve the synoptic problem, we should not spend all of our time and effort trying to determine how they came to be in their present form. God has given these works to us so that we can study and learn from them as they are now written. This is where we should place our energies.

Summary – Question 11
Did the Gospel Writers Use Previous Written Documents to Compile Their Accounts? (The Synoptic Problem and the Q Source)

One of the continuing issues in the study of the gospels is the relationship between the first three gospels. Which one was written first? Matthew, Mark and Luke have much in common but there are also many differences between them. A number of theories attempt to account for the gospels as we now find them.

Some believe the differences and agreements can be accounted for by factors which do not assume that there were previously written documents. Common oral tradition is cited to account for the word for word agreements. It is argued that many of Jesus’ words and deeds were put into a fixed form early in the history of the church. This is why we find word for word agreement in many cases.

Others, however, believe the agreements are too precise without assuming some sort of literary dependence. The most popular theory is that Mark was written first and that Matthew and Luke use Mark in composition of their gospels. Material found in both Matthew and Luke, but not found in Mark, is supposedly from a written source called “Q.” The material unique to Matthew is called “M” while the material unique to Luke is termed “L.”

However, many others think, as the early church unanimously thought, that Matthew was the first gospel written. Luke came next in order and then Mark. This takes away any need for a Q source. Bible believing scholars have different perspectives on this issue. However, there is no real reason to doubt the ancient testimony and thus assume Matthew was the first gospel written.

The key is to study the gospels as they now stand instead of attempting to determine which one was written first, and who may, or may not, have copied whom. Indeed, the all-knowing and all-powerful God of the Bible has allowed these four documents to come down to us in the fixed form that we now find them. This is how He wants us to study them as we now find them. This is what we should be doing.

What about All the Contradictions in the Gospel Accounts? ← Prior Section
Did the Early Church Invent Some, if Not All, of the Sayings of Jesus? Next Section →
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