Comparing notes -which Gospel came first?

The synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) all tell the account of Jesus being asked to come to a synagogue ruler’s house to heal/raise his daughter, along the way, Jesus is interrupted by a woman who reaches out to touch him and be healed from severe bleeding that had lasted for twelve years. The basic structure and content of the accounts is the same across the three gospels however there are some differences in detail. Specifically, Mark and Luke provide us with the name of the synagogue ruler (Jairus) and also tell us that the lady who touched Jesus had tried to see many doctors and been ripped off by them.

Now, we might expect non-contradictory differences of detail between the Gospel writers as each shares their own recollections (or those of their sources). However, over the years people have noticed something else going on with the text. It’s not just that the writers share the same stories with differences in detail but in their own words, rather, where the details are the same, the words used also seem to be very similar. It looks as though the Gospel writers are borrowing text from each other.  In fact, this is why we call them “Synoptic Gospels” -it means that we should read them together due to the similarities.

The possibility that some or all of the writers are borrowing from each other isn’t a problem. We know that this happened regularly in ancient times. Prior to modern printing methods, the idea that you had to include quotation marks and detailed footnotes wasn’t an issue either so that we should not see this as equivalent to our modern concept of plagiarism.

However, this has raised questions about the order in which the Gospels came to us. The traditional view is that Matthew wrote first, then Mark, Luke and John in the order that the Gospels are included in the New Testament. However, textual critics have come to a different view.  Whilst it is firmly established that Luke and John were written later, a theory was put forward in the 19th century that:

  • Mark as the simplest and shortest Gospel was probably the earliest Gospel
  • That Matthew and Luke used Mark alongside other sources to write their gospels.

These other sources became known as “Q” from the German word for source “Quelle.”  A lot of people envisaged this as an actual single, now lost document, in effect a 5th or proto-gospel. Primarily this was considered to be a collection of sayings with minimal narrative.

Now, there is nothing controversial in suggesting that Luke used other sources. He declares this point at the start of his Gospel. However, you will notice, more controversially that making Matthew dependent upon other sources suggests he wrote late and that whoever the “Matthew” is that actually wrote the Gospel, it is less likely that is the actual Matthew numbered among the 12 disciples.  So, this source theory seems to put distance between the Gospel writers and the eye witnesses to Jesus’ life.

In my opinion, the way the theory has been set out shows little understanding of how things work in real life. It sets out a very wooden, formulaic approach to writing, editing (and also remembering).  Furthermore, whilst the theory of Q and Marcan priority seems to offer a tidy answer to how our gospels came about, it doesn’t always seem to fit completely with the evidence we have in front of us. For example, in this case, we would expect Matthew to supply extra detail missing from Mark but in fact he does not. The process flows the other way.

Now, I have an alternative view.  What if instead of picturing the Gospel writers working in isolation from one another with just texts in front of them, we think of them as who they were, members of the church, with very recent shared memories. What would you expect to be happening? Well you would expect a bit of too and throw. You’d expect them to be sharing versions of their writing with one another and you’d expect them to be talking to one another.  Imagine the scene

Matthew: Hey guys – here’s my first draft of chapter 9.

Mark: That’s great Matt but do you remember all the doctors that it turns out the woman had seen.

Luke: That’s fantastic, I really love that detail

Matthew: Yeah I thought you would Luke.  It’s the sort of thing you like, you being a doctor and all.

Mark: I think I’ll include it in. I think the detail will help people see the authenticity of the account.

Matthew: That’s brilliant. Look forward to reading your version. I’m going to keep mine as it is though cos I really want people to focus on the way Jesus picked up on their faith.  I think the detail could distract people into discussions about GPs.

Luke: Brilliant -it will be good to have that focus on faith. It was so important for Jesus wasn’t it. I will mention the quack doctors though because I want to highlight Jesus as the true healer-saviour.

Mark: Me too. It’ll really mess with people in 2000 years time when it doesn’t fit their theory about which of us wrote first!

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