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
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
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.