by Don R. Camp

Was there a source the gospel writers used?

Everyone who reads the gospels notices the similarity among the first three, Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  Scholars use the term synoptic to describe that similarity. The term means that they share the same point of view and pattern of organization. And that may mean that they share the same source.

          Look at the story of Jesus' calling  of Matthew in Matthew 9:9-13; Mark 2:13-17; and Luke 5:27-32. Except for minor differences they look very much alike. In other passages, the shared stories are even more similar, being word for word the same, even in the Greek text. How did that happen?

      There are two possibilities suggested today. One possibility is that one of the Gospels was used by the other two writers as a source for the stories and words of Jesus and the basic organization of the story. In other words, the writers of two of the Gospels copied from the source Gospel. That Gospel is often today thought to have been Mark. The hypothesis is called the Marcan priority.  This proposal is based on the fact that almost all of Mark is used in one or another or both of the other two Gospels and that the other synoptic Gospels follow the organization of Mark. It would follow then, in their minds, that the other two writers drew upon Mark for the sayings of Jesus and the organization of the narrative of his life.

      The problem is that Matthew and Luke share little stories that are not in Mark. That observation has led some scholars to suggest a second source which Matthew and Luke used but Mark did not. This is called the two-source hypothesis. There is also the idea that there were three sources, and that brings us to the second possibility.

      The second possibility is that there was a source that included the sayings of Jesus and was written prior to the writing of any of the Gospels; Matthew, Mark, and Luke each drew from that source, though none of the Gospel writers used all of the material available in that source. Sometimes that source is called Q, which stands for source.

      The idea of a source does make sense. Luke, at the beginning of his gospel, makes reference to the sources he used (1:1-4). He says his sources were "those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word." That sounds like Luke was relying on the accounts, either oral or written, of the Apostles and perhaps others. That is an intriguing idea, and I'll come back to that later. But we can imagine that there were many stories of Jesus, both passed on orally and then in time written down. We have some of these preserved for us. Some appear because of their similarity to be based on one or another of the four biblical Gospels, but there also seem to be some sayings and acts of Jesus that come from another source or sources, perhaps an original source.

      A second reason for concluding there was an original source for the Gospels is that the words of Jesus are not at all like the narrative framework provided by the Gospel writers.  Jesus' words bear strong indicators in all of the Gospels of distinctly Hebrew tropes and schemes called Hebraisms. These have not been reworked into the Greek idiom as a modern translator might  but are literal translations into Greek from a Hebrew original source. In contrast, the narrative framework such as the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke and the narrative of the baptism in Mark as well as all the other narrative matrix that fill out the stories appears to be written originally in Greek by fluent Greek speaking writers. (Both Matthew and Luke are written in very good Greek. Mark less so.) That suggests there was a source outside the Gospels for the sayings of Jesus.

What are the clues that point us to the source?

      We read in Acts 2:42 that from the earliest days of the church the new disciples gathered to hear the “teaching of the Apostles.” That phrase in Greek is ta didache and means the body of truth taught by the Apostles. Though we are not told specifically in Acts what those stories and teachings (called logia) were, it is expected that they were the stories and sayings of Jesus. Those stories were quickly framed, we can imagine, as easily memorized and repeatable pieces. These became the “Bible” for the early church.  At first they were probably orally transmitted, which was common in a culture where only a few could read or would have available anything to read. But they may eventually have been written as well. Certainly, they were finally written down by the Gospel writers. If they were written down by multiple scribes at different times and places, it is entirely possible that slight variations of wording would become part of the written pericopae. That is why the synoptic Gospels have so many stories in common and why many of those stories are so similar in content as well as language, though not always word for word the same.

      That body of original oral and written material is what Luke refers to in the early verses of his Gospel as the accounts of  "those who were eyewitnesses and servants of the word." They were the teachings of the Apostles.

      None of the Gospel writers used all of the available source material, and each writer arranged the material to suit his rhetorical purpose. (Strictly speaking, the gospels are not biographies. They are tracts arguing for Jesus as the Messiah or Jesus as the son of God.) Matthew wrote for a Jewish audience. Mark and Luke to a Greek and Roman audience. And each had a unique message. Matthew's was that Jesus was the Messiah expected by the Jews. Mark's was that Jesus was the "good news" for all men. Luke emphasized Jesus' humanity and compassion for people and wrote for a Greek audience for whom that human connection would be appealing.

      Each of the Gospel writers also includes material unique to his Gospel. Mathew, for example, included a long section, the twenty-third chapter, of "woes" directed at the Pharisees. The passage bears the marks of direct quotes of a Hebrew original just like the other passages of Jesus' sayings.  But there is nothing similar to Matthew 23  in the other two Gospels.

      Each of the Gospel writers also customized their narrative to fit his target audience. Mark added explanations of Jewish customs and translations of some Hebrew terms for his non-Jewish readers who would not understand the cultural context or the Hebrew language.  Matthew added many quotes from the Hebrew scriptures, quotes that would be significant for his Jewish audience but less so for the audiences of Luke and Mark. 

    And Matthew alone of the three personalized some of what he used when he wrote. For instance, whereas all three of the synoptic writers included the story of the calling of the tax collector Levi, only the writer of Matthew used Matthew as the name or notes that it was at Matthew the tax collector's house where Jesus had supper with the group of tax collectors who were Matthew's friends.  And only Matthew included in the list of the twelve Apostles that Matthew was the tax collector.

    (That by the way is a good argument for the Matthean authorship of the Gospel. No other writer would have been likely to have referred to a respected Apostle as a tax collector and sinner.)

      The core of the story of Matthew's (Levi's) calling and the list of the Apostles, however, are the same in all three Gospels. And that holds true for all of the shared stories. The only conclusion possible is that they had a common source and that the source was not one of the Gospels. That shared source is best identified as the teachings of the Apostles.

      It seems that Q, for which many have been looking, has been hiding in plain sight - in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Q is simply the teachings of the Apostles collected and taught in the early days of the church.