The Sources of the Gospels
A historical genre does not necessarily guarantee historical accuracy or reliability. Nor did the evangelists or their first readers engage in historical analysis. Their aim was to confirm Christian faith (Lk 1.4; Jn 20.31 ). Scholars generally agree that the Gospels were written forty to sixty years after the death of Jesus. They thus do not present an eyewitness or contemporary account of Jesus’ life and teaching. Even the language has changed. Though Greek had become the common language used between groups whose primary languages were different in the eastern Roman Empire, and inscriptions and fragments of Greek translations of the Hebrew Bible show that Greek was used even among Jews within Judea, Jesus, his disciples, and the crowds would have spoken Aramaic. Despite scholarly efforts to detect an underlying Aramaic original for Mark or Matthew, it is probable that all the evangelists wrote in the common (“koine”) Greek of their day. Further, the vast majority of Hebrew Bible citations in the New Testament follow the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible (the Septuagint).
Large sections of Matthew, Mark, and Luke repeat the stories about and sayings of Jesus in nearly identical words. Hence these three Gospels are referred to as the “Synoptic” Gospels (from Gk synoptikos, “viewed together”). At the linguistic level, both Luke and Matthew improve on Mark's style, smoothing out inelegant expressions and repetitions. Luke eliminates Mark's characteristic use of parataxis (one short phrase following another without indicating how they are related) by employing balancing particles and subordinate clauses. Matthew follows Mark's outline, though the insertion of considerable sections of discourse material may obscure that relationship for the casual reader. Luke knows most of Mark but has no parallels to Mk 6.45–8.26 ; whether Luke chose to omit this section or had a different version of Mark remains unclear. Detailed analysis of the traditions shared by Matthew, Mark, and Luke provides strong support for the view that Mark was the earliest Gospel. But, given its rough, draft‐like composition, both Matthew and Luke revised it extensively.
Further study of additional material shared by Matthew and Luke shows a number of close verbal parallels in passages such as the temptation of Jesus (Mt 4.2–11; Lk 4.2–13 ), the Beatitudes (Lk 6.20–23; Mt 5.3,4,6,11–12 ), the parable of the lost sheep (Lk 15.4–7; Mt 18.12–14 ), and the Lord's Prayer (Lk 11.2–4; Mt 6.9–13 ). These parallels include various types of sayings, controversy stories, and parables. Scholars have hypothesized that a collection of such material must have been circulating in the early churches, and have designated it with the symbol “Q,” from the German Quelle (“source”). In 1945, a library of religious treatises in Coptic was discovered near Nag Hammadi in Egypt. They included just such a “sayings book,” the Gospel of Thomas. Subsequently, sayings from a variant tradition of this Gospel in Greek were identified among Greek papyri. The Gospel of Thomas is not “Q”: Some of its sayings and parables appear to have been taken from the Synoptic Gospels rather than from earlier oral tradition. But its discovery provides evidence that such sayings collections existed.
Scholars presume that the Gospel writers may have had other such notebook‐like collections of items such as parables and miracle stories. Presumably additional items, such as genealogies, hymnic prayers, and legends in the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke, were not created by the evangelists but come from earlier tradition. Similarly, some of the material found only in Matthew or in Luke is not likely to be the author's creation. The following diagram shows the understanding shared by a majority of scholars about the sources and literary relationships of the Synoptic Gospels.
There may also have been an earlier narrative of the passion and death of Jesus; some scholars think that most of Mark's narrative came from such a source, while others maintain that there is no evidence for such an account. The origin of the story of Jesus’ passion is unclear, and some details may have been based on biblical descriptions of the suffering righteous one.
While the Synoptic Gospels have a close relationship based on the literary relationships between them, the Fourth Gospel, the Gospel of John, presents a much greater puzzle. Its chronology of Jesus’ ministry is quite different from that of the Synoptics, as are many narrative details. Jesus spends three years preaching, during which he journeys between Galilee and Jerusalem; in the Synoptic Gospels he visits Jerusalem only once, at the end of a ministry that apparently lasted less than a year. The episode denouncing the sellers in the Temple, which enrages the religious authorities and leads to his death in the Synoptics, occurs near the beginning of the three‐year ministry in John (Jn 2.13–22 ). John claims that Jesus’ popularity with Jerusalem crowds after he dramatically restored Lazarus to life awakened political fears for the safety of the nation (Jn 11.45–57; 12.9–11 ). John's account of the passion also differs markedly: There is no agony. Conscious of his unity with the Father and the cross as his exaltation and return to pre‐existent glory, Jesus controls all the events; he engages Pilate, the Roman governor, in an ironic discussion of kingship; and John has a disciple‐witness, a resident of Jerusalem, who does not flee with the others. Is this unnamed “disciple whom Jesus loved” (Jn 21.7,20; cf. 19.26; 20.2 ) a symbolic creation of the Evangelist? Some scholars think so; others suggest that he was a historical individual, the source of much of the Fourth Gospel's unique tradition and theology, as the text alleges ( 19.35; 21.24 ). What led the author of the Gospel of John to compose such a unique variant on an outline of Jesus’ life that still has a recognizable similarity to Mark (and in some instances to Luke)? Some scholars use the parallels as indications of a shorter sketch of Jesus’ life known to both authors. Others suggest that the Gospel of Mark, and perhaps also Luke, were already circulating in the Evangelist's area. He assumes that readers know some other account of Jesus’ life and teaching, and formulates a different version of who Jesus is and what he taught based on the insight that Jesus of Nazareth was not just a miracle‐worker, a prophet, or a charismatic Jewish teacher, but the incarnate Son of God. That claim constitutes the flash point between Jesus and the Jewish authorities throughout the narrative.
Readers may approach every Gospel in a similar way. The Evangelists did more than compile a notebook of traditions about Jesus. Rather, each shaped the narrative to emphasize particular features of Jesus and his teaching. What are the special characteristics of Jesus and of his followers in each Evangelist's presentation of Jesus and of those who follow Jesus?