Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Christianity and Old Testament Law, Part II

In Part I of this series, we saw that Christian tradition has long rejected the need for Christians to follow Old Testament Law. This tradition goes back a long way; indeed, all the way back to the mid-1st century and the Apostle Paul. We looked briefly at what exactly this Law is – called by various names, it was the complete set of legal, cultural, and religious codes outlined in Jewish scriptures, called the Old Testament by Christians.

We also saw, however, that Jesus – as depicted in the Gospel tradition – seems to have strongly affirmed adherence to Jewish Law. Indeed, most scholars today agree that Jesus is best understood as a 1st century Jewish male living in the Jewish homeland and working and teaching within Judaism and its practices. We looked at several pieces of Gospel text that confirm this portrait, including an eye-raising teaching from the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus explicitly denies that his purpose was to “abolish” Jewish Law. In this passage, Jesus instead affirms that his followers are expected to follow Old Testament Law down to the letter, so that their adherence to the Law surpasses even that of the Pharisees, who were famous in Jesus’s day for their commitment to these traditions.


Christian apologists frequently explain that God’s Law from the Old Testament was given to and for God’s chosen people, the Jews. The “Law of Christ,” however, was given for all people, and superseded the earlier, uniquely Jewish, Law. In this understanding, Jewish Law was the original “path of salvation,” but was provided only to Jews. The Law of Christ, however, replaced the old ways, providing a new “path of salvation” and given to all people, not just Jews.

Apologists will additionally argue that while Jesus’s earthly message was directed at Jews, God used Paul to expand Jesus’s “mission field” and bring the message to Gentiles. Paul himself makes this argument, stating that the message was “for the Jew first, but also for the Greek [i.e. ‘non-Jew’]”.

Thus, even though Jesus came only to Jews, his mission was just the beginning. Paul came along next, almost like a “part two,” to continue God’s plan and expand the message to non-Jews. Paul understood Jesus’s death and resurrection as the ultimate atonement for human sin, and thus argued that the Law of Moses was no longer necessary for salvation. It had been replaced by the Law of Christ, a phrase Paul himself uses at least twice in his letters, and which involves faith in the atoning nature of Jesus’s death and resurrection. In Romans, Paul also states categorically that: “Christ is the end of the Law.”

This would work well as an explanation of Christian rejection of Old Testament Law if not for that pesky, absolutist statement of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount. Let’s look at it again:
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.
As we saw in Part I, Jesus makes it clear in this statement that Jewish laws and customs – the Old Testament Law of Moses – is not simply for Jews. After all, this is a statement recorded in Christian scripture for Christian readers by a Christian evangelist. Nor is the Law only valid for a short period of time, until Paul comes along in a few decades. No, according to Jesus, the Law is forever, and he specifically and explicitly counters the notion that his purpose is to “abolish the Law or the Prophets” (as Paul asserts in Romans). In fact, Jesus says, one cannot enter the kingdom of God unless one not only adheres to the Law, but adheres even better and more stringently and more loyally than the Pharisees, who were famous for their righteousness.


So how are Christians to understand this passage? How can we reconcile Jesus’s words with our own Christian practice in the modern world? To begin with, let me make one thing clear: I don’t believe the historical Jesus made this statement, and there are several reasons I can give to support this.

First, the teaching that Jesus contradicts – that is, the suggestion that he has come to “abolish the Law and the Prophets” – is a post-Easter, early Christian problem. In fact, it was specifically a problem related to Paul’s mission to the Gentiles, which occurred, quite obviously, after Jesus’s death. It was not a problem, or an accusation, that would have existed during Jesus’s life. Thus, there would have been no reason for him to address a problem that didn’t exist.

Secondly, in addition to countering the notion that he has come to “abolish” the Law, Jesus also ominously states that any person who breaks the commandments, and teaches others to do the same (think of Paul and his followers), is excluded from the kingdom of heaven. This is clearly a case of the writer of Matthew attacking notions begun by Paul that Jewish laws and customs didn’t have to be followed.

Finally, scholars and theologians have recognized for centuries that Matthew’s Gospel is the most “Jewish” of all the Gospels of the New Testament. There can be no question that the writer of Matthew was a Jewish Christian writing to a Jewish Christian audience. His readers were concerned about the growing tendency among Gentile Christians to throw away Mosaic Law. Thus, this writer put a statement on the lips of Jesus to directly and explicitly address that problem.

In the end, it seems unlikely to me that the historical Jesus ever actually uttered this statement.


Despite my historical conclusion about Matthew’s use of this quote, there may be a nugget of authentic Jesus material in this saying. In particular, I am referring to the second sentence in the statement: “I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.” This particular saying comes from the Q Gospel – in other words, it is also present, in a slightly different form, in Luke. From chapter 16: “It is easier for heaven and earth to disappear than for the least stroke of a pen to drop out of the Law.”

If scholars are right about the Q Gospel – and I think they are – then it was a collection of sayings attributed to Jesus that was first written down around the year 50 C.E. – contemporary with the letters of Paul. Used by Luke and Matthew when they wrote their Gospels, it predates the Gospel of Mark – the earliest Gospel in the New Testament – by as many as twenty years. If my own theory is correct, this Q Gospel may have originally been known as the Gospel of Matthew (with our own Gospel of Matthew being an extension of it), written in Aramaic, and composed by the disciple of Jesus known to history as Matthew or Levi.

Regardless of my own pet theory, if the mainstream ideas about the Q Gospel are correct, then this saying may have historical reliability, simply by virtue of being among the earliest written material attributed to Jesus.

Thus, if Jesus did make this statement – that not the least “stroke of a pen” will ever disappear from the Law – then there is something there to be considered for the modern follower of Jesus. What might Jesus have meant with such a statement? It’s clear that Matthew took it to mean that the Law was for all Christians for all time. But Luke had a different perspective and placed it in a different narrative context. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus says:
The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John. Since that time, the good news of the kingdom of God is being preached, and everyone is forcing his way into it. It is easier for heaven and earth to disappear than for the least stroke of a pen to drop out of the Law.
Luke’s own perspective on this quote seems to be a negative one. The Law was valid until John the Baptizer – Jesus’s mentor. Since then, the kingdom of God has been preached. Presumably for Luke, as it was for Paul, the “kingdom of God” is an alternative to the Law and the Prophets. Indeed, it is replacing the Law and the Prophets. Thus, Jesus laments how difficult and slow this change has been – it is easier for the universe to disappear than for people to give up their adherence to the old ways. In this regard, the statement is reminiscent of another famous quip by Jesus: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

So which way was it? Did Jesus mean this statement positively, as asserted by Matthew, or did Jesus make this statement as a lament about how long it takes people to break old habits? My feeling is that Matthew’s perspective is closer to the truth. Luke’s perspective reflects Christianity of the late 1st century – Christians were breaking away from Judaism, but most Jews refused to give up the old ways and turn to God’s new way. Thus, I think Matthew probably retains the original spirit of the Q material, whereas Luke redacted it towards the negative. Instead of “heaven and earth” disappearing before the Law is abolished (as in Matthew), it is now “easier for heaven and earth to disappear” than it is for the old ideas to give way to the new. This is a distinct reflection of late 1st century Gentile Christianity, and not the early 1st century Jewish Jesus.


So we’re left with the same problem. It is historically probable that Jesus said something akin to the quote recorded by Matthew. If we accept this as true, how does this impact our own Christian lives? Should we be following Jewish customs and traditions? Should we not be planting two different seeds in the same field? Should we not be blending cotton and linen? Should we be eating only kosher foods? Should we, in short, be Jewish Christians?

I wish I could provide some valuable and profound theological insight here. I really wish I could. But I honestly don’t have any very good answers. Jesus was a Jew, living in the Jewish homeland, preaching and teaching within the bounds of 1st century Judaism. He taught his followers that Jewish laws and customs were part of God’s eternal plan for humanity. His earliest followers believed ardently that Christianity and Judaism could not and should not be separated.

For those of us who aim to follow Jesus on the Way of personal and spiritual transformation of ourselves and our world, this is a perspective worth pondering.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Christianity and Old Testament Law, Part I

One of the oldest traditions in Christianity is the belief that Jewish laws and customs are not binding upon followers of Christ. When Jesus died, the argument goes, he rendered Mosaic Law irrelevant. Salvation, then, comes from belief in Jesus’s death and resurrection, and not from following the rules and regulations of the Old Testament.

This tradition goes back to the earliest days of Christianity, and the basic formulation was developed by Paul and taught amongst the congregations he founded throughout the eastern half of the Roman Empire. Today, not only are Paul’s letters used to support this notion, but even words attributed to Jesus can be called upon to undergird the tradition.

What exactly are these commandments, and why don’t Christians follow them?


First, it is necessary to clear the air on what is meant by common phrases such as “Jewish Law,” “Mosaic Law,” “The Law and the Prophets,” or sometimes just “the Law.” All of these phrases mean the same thing, but there seems to be a lot of confusion in many circles about exactly what they refer to.

Jewish Law came in two parts, and it included far more than simply legal codes dictating criminal and civil offenses. To be sure, Jewish Law included these things, but it also included rules and regulations dictating daily behavior and customs of the Jewish people. It included things such as how to make clothes, how to plant fields and how to raise cattle, how to treat others in relationships, how to prepare food, how to structure family life, and so on. Of course, it also detailed the sacrificial system of ancient Judaism. In short, it was a complete system of legal, religious, and cultural codes for living as a Jew in the ancient world.

The first aspect of this Jewish Law consisted of written laws and customs. Most came from the Torah – that is, the first five books of the Christian Old Testament, also called the Pentateuch, and believed by the ancient Jews to have been given by Moses. By the time of Jesus, Jewish scripture included a lot more than just these five books. There were also texts detailing Jewish history, books of poetry, proverbs, and literature, and books of prophecy. Some Jewish sects, both then and know, followed only the Torah. Mainstream Judaism, however, regarded these other traditional Jewish texts as scripture, and this is where familiar New Testament phrases such as “the Law and the Prophets” come from. The Law was the Torah; the Prophets were the books of prophecy such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, and a dozen others.

In addition to this written aspect of Jewish Law – those codes and customs outlined in Jewish scripture – there was also an oral aspect that consisted of the interpretation of these codes and customs. This interpretive aspect of Jewish Law was well established in oral form by the time of Jesus, but did not achieve codification in written form until several centuries after the time of Jesus. Collectively called the Talmud, these interpretative traditions were the hallmark of the Pharisees, an influential group of 1st century Jews whose practices and traditions became the basis of Rabbinical Judaism, which has been the most common form of Judaism for nearly two millennia.

These two aspects of Jewish religious and cultural customs – Torah and Talmud, the instructions of Moses and the rabbinical interpretation of those instructions – constitute what is meant by phrases such as “Jewish Law.”


For most of Christian history, Christians have disregarded Jewish Law, both the written Law of Moses and the rabbinical interpretation of that Law. It is perhaps easy to see why Christians have never given much thought to the interpretative side of Jewish Law. In the Gospels, Jesus himself is frequently depicted at odds with the Pharisees – the experts of interpretation – and consistently insults and degrades them, even as he disagrees with them in their interpretations. While much of the antagonism in the Gospels between Jesus and the Pharisees is a reflection of the antagonism between Christians and Jews of the late 1st century, there is little doubt that Jesus had run-ins during his life with the Pharisees, whom he saw as collaborators with Roman imperial domination. As a rural Galilean, the Pharisees would have seen Jesus as a rabble-rouser and fiery revolutionary, while Jesus, for his part, would have seen the Pharisees as pretentious, so-called “experts” who were more concerned with their scholarship than with real people in real life. One might compare this situation to a Pentecostal preacher from rural Alabama meeting a group of Reformed theologians from Oxford.

But in addition to dismissing the interpretive traditions of the Pharisees and their later rabbinical successors, Christians have also long rejected the written Law of the Old Testament – the set of laws and customs ostensibly given by God to his chosen people.

As we saw above, this rejection of written Mosaic Law comes largely from the influence of the apostle Paul.

Paul was one of the earliest and certainly most influential Christians. Though he never followed or even knew of Jesus during Jesus’ life, he was converted to Christianity within a few years of Jesus’ death, after a vision of the resurrected Christ.

The Apostle Paul

Very early on, he seems to have begun to jettison his old ways within Judaism, and by about 50 C.E., a major conflict arose between Paul and the leaders of the Christian community in Jerusalem.

To put it briefly, the Jerusalem community in the time of Paul was the center of Christendom. It was to Paul’s era what Rome is today to Catholics. This community was supported by many of Jesus’ disciples (such as Peter and John), and led by Jesus’ brother, James. To these Christian leaders, Christianity was essentially a sect within Judaism. It was not a different religion from Judaism, but was instead a new form of Jewish practice. These Jewish Christians believed very strongly that Christianity should remain part of Judaism – in other words, Jewish traditions and customs were still very much a part of their religious practice.

Paul, on the other hand, believed that Jesus’s resurrection had effectively done away with these traditions, and following Jewish Law was no longer necessary. If pressed on the matter, I’m sure Paul would have agreed that if someone wanted to follow Jewish customs, they were certainly entitled to do so, but his argument was that these customs were no longer necessary for salvation. Instead, salvation came through faith in Jesus’ death and resurrection, which Paul saw as the ultimate and final atonement for human sin. Since Jesus made himself the ultimate sacrifice, humans could now be forgiven and thus saved, with or without adherence to the Law of Moses.

Needless to say, the Church in Jerusalem did not take Paul’s ideas very well. As described in the book of Acts, and also discussed by Paul himself in Galatians, things came to a head when Paul visited Jerusalem in about 50 C.E. The Jerusalem leaders attempted to reach a compromise with Paul, and agreed that while Paul’s converts did not need to become circumcised (which, in the ancient world, was the “official” way that someone became Jewish), they did need to follow Jewish dietary customs. Specifically, according to Acts, they were to refrain from eating food sacrificed to idols, food from strangled animals, and any food with blood in it.

Paul seems to have accepted this compromise, then immediately gone back to the missionary field and ignored it. Time and again in his letters, Paul insists that “all food is clean,” and even goes so far as to suggest that eating food sacrificed to idols is permissible, because idols are not real, they are simply inanimate objects. The only exception to this rule, for Paul, is when someone’s dietary habits may cause problems for someone else. In other words, if a Christian is eating with another Christian, and the second Christian believes strongly in the difference between “clean” and “unclean” food, then the first Christian should respect that belief and only eat “clean” food when they are eating with that person. Otherwise, “all food is clean” and permissible to eat.

In time, after Paul’s death and the deaths of James, Peter, and the other early Christian leaders, Christianity slowly became more and more of a non-Jewish religion. After the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. by the Romans, there was no longer a Jewish-Christian community in Jerusalem, and the center of Christendom shifted first to Alexandria in Egypt, and later, of course, to Rome. This led, during the last few decades of the 1st century, to a painful separation between Christianity and Judaism, a separation that is reflected in the Gospels, which were written around this time. By the start of the 2nd century, Christianity was essentially a non-Jewish religion, and Paul’s viewpoint won the day.

One example of this is reflected in the letter of 1 Timothy, a letter forged in Paul’s name in the late 1st century. The writer is discussing false Christian teachers, which he calls “hypocritical liars,” and he states that they teach people to “abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving.” The writer goes on to say: “For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving.” So much for the views of James and Peter that some foods are unclean.

Christians from that time to now have left Jewish Law and Jewish customs behind them.


We have looked at what Jewish Law was, and we have also seen why Christians don’t follow Jewish Law. Even though the earliest Christians – the followers of Jesus and their converts – seem to have adhered strongly to Jewish norms and customs, and seem to have believed, at least early on, that one needed to become Jewish in order to be Christian, Paul challenged all that and spread the gospel of Jesus to non-Jews, leading Christianity to an eventual separation from Judaism all together. It became, by the end of the 1st century, a non-Jewish religion that did not adhere to Jewish laws and customs.

But since Jesus is the heart and soul of Christianity, one might wonder what Jesus himself had to say on this matter. For many Christians (and for institutional Christianity in general) Jesus was not just a prophet, but the Son of God, even God himself in human form. For Christians, then, one would expect Jesus’s words to carry significant weight.

Many folks may be surprised to discover that Jesus seems to have strongly affirmed adherence to Jewish Law. Consider, for instance, Matthew 23, where Jesus states: “The teachers of the Law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’s seat. You must obey them and do everything they tell you.” He goes on to encourage his listeners not to be hypocritical like the Pharisees, but he affirms that their teaching of the Law is sound and his listeners should follow it. For Jesus in this passage, the problem with the Pharisees is not their reliance on Jewish Law, but on the fact that they are hypocrites who don’t really follow it.

Consider also a story repeated in Mark, Matthew, and Luke, where Jesus heals a man with leprosy. Afterwards, he instructs the man to go to the temple to be ritually purified and to “offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded.” Clearly he found these customs to be necessary.

In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, provided by Luke, Jesus tells of a beggar named Lazarus who always had to eat the scraps from the table of a rich man.

The Rich Man and Lazarus, by Leandro Bassano

The rich man lived the high life and consistently ignored the plight of Lazarus. In time, both men died, with the rich man going to hell, and Lazarus going “to the bosom of Abraham.” The rich man begs Abraham to let Lazarus return to earth to warn his brothers about the dangers of luxurious living. Abraham responds that the rich man’s brothers “have Moses and the Prophets” and that they should “listen to them.” Abraham goes on to say that if the rich man’s brothers won’t listen to Moses, then neither will they listen to someone who is raised from the dead (i.e. Lazarus). Jesus, through this parable, is affirming the salvific nature of Mosaic Law.

In a story related in Matthew and Mark, Jesus is approached by a Gentile who wants him to heal her daughter. Jesus flatly refuses to do so, stating that he has come only “to the lost sheep of Israel” and that it is not right to take “the children’s bread” (that is, Jesus’s teachings) and “toss it to the dogs” (that is, unclean Gentiles). The woman persists, however, and Jesus finally agrees to heal her daughter. But he does it from a distance; he does not go to the woman’s unclean, Gentile house.

A similar story is found in both Matthew and Luke. Here, the Gentile is a Roman centurion, and the sick person is his servant. Jesus agrees to heal the servant, but, as with the story from Matthew, he does not go to the centurion’s house, and instead heals the servant from afar.

It is noteworthy to point out that these are the only two healings attributed to Jesus from afar. They are also the only two healings of Gentiles attributed to Jesus. In the Gospel tradition, Jesus keeps away from Gentiles, because he viewed them as unclean, which was consistent with a Jewish worldview.

Finally, there is a passage from Matthew where Jesus explicitly talks about adherence to Jewish Law and customs:
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.
It is hard to imagine how Jesus could be more explicit. “Until heaven and earth disappear” – that is, until the end of time – the Law of Moses is valid. Unless your righteousness – that is, your adherence to God’s commandments – exceeds even the righteousness of the Pharisees, who are famous for their strict adherence to the Law, you will not see God’s kingdom.


This final passage from Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount is a difficult one to reconcile in light of traditional Christian practice. As we saw above, from the time of Paul, Christians began rejecting Jewish laws and customs, and by the beginning of the 2nd century, virtually no Christian followed any of the laws of Moses, except those that they found particularly important. This is true even today, as many Christians revere the Ten Commandments, but handily reject countless other mandates from the Old Testament.

As we have seen, Jesus was a Jewish man, living in the Jewish homeland, and teaching and preaching within the worldview of 1st century Judaism. In the Gospel of Matthew in particular, Jesus is fiercely loyal to Jewish laws and customs, and explicitly states that these commandments are valid for all time – indeed, “until heaven and earth disappear.”

In Part II of this series, we will look much more closely at this passage from Matthew and consider how we might reconcile it with modern Christian practice.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

The Synoptic Problem, the Q Gospel, and the Aramaic Gospel of Matthew

Perhaps no other textual issue in Christian scholarship has been discussed and debated more over the years than the sources used by the writers of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The discussion, frequently called “the Synoptic Problem,” began in the late 18th century, and continues today in the 21st.

Why is this a problem? To begin with, these three Gospels are very similar in content, sometimes relating stories word-for-word between all three Gospels. In addition to containing many of the same stories, a lot of the literary structure of these three Gospels is similar. This is why they are called “Synoptic” – from the Greek word “syn,” meaning “together,” and “opsis,” meaning “to see” – they can be “seen together” because of their literary and grammatical similarities.

Secondly, while all three Gospels have material in common (often called the “Triple Tradition”), there is a significant amount of material found only in Luke and Matthew, but not in Mark (this is called the “Double Tradition”).

Finally, there is material in all three Gospels that is unique to each Gospel. In other words, there are stories found only in Mark, stories found only in Matthew, and stories found only in Luke.

This, then, is the nature of the “problem.” How can all these various textual traditions be explained?

Problem or not, why is this such an important issue? Why does it matter? Quite simply, because it makes such a dramatic impact on conclusions historians can draw about the life of Jesus and the rise of early Christianity. Knowing when they were written, and how they came to be in the forms we have them today, is vitally important to understanding the traditions handed down to us by the first generations of believers, and by Jesus himself.


Until the rise of modern New Testament scholarship in the 19th century, virtually everyone agreed that Matthew was the earliest Gospel, followed by Mark and Luke. This is why they follow in that order in our Bibles – Matthew, Mark, Luke.

But beginning in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, scholars and historians studying the texts of the New Testament began to see new patterns that had gone unnoticed, and frankly unlooked for, prior to that time. Since these inaugural studies, three theories have come forward as likely candidates to explain the way these three Gospels are connected.

The first theory goes along with Church tradition of Matthean primacy (i.e. Matthew was written first), but suggests that Luke came second, followed by Mark. According to this theory, Luke used Matthew as a source, which explains why there is so much material common between them. Mark, on the other hand, used both previous Gospels as source material. Since Mark is so much shorter than the other two, this theory supposes that Mark was written as a sort of handbook version of the longer, more detailed Gospels that preceded it.

The second theory denies this Matthean primacy and instead asserts that Mark was written first. Matthew came second, using Mark as a primary source, and repeating almost 90% of Mark’s contents. By this theory’s assertion, Luke was last of the bunch, also using Mark as a source but not using Matthew. Instead, the material common between Matthew and Luke, and which is not found in Mark (the “Double Tradition” referred to above), comes from a source no longer in existence, which these scholars have called the Q Gospel (“Q” being short for the German word “quelle,” which means “source”). Thus, Matthew and Luke both used Mark and Q as source material, but were independent of one another.

Finally, the third theory takes themes from both the previous two. It agrees that Mark was written first, and that Matthew came second and used Mark as a source. However, it is skeptical of the existence of the Q Gospel, and instead asserts that Luke used both Mark and Matthew as sources. So this theory agrees with Theory 2 on the Triple Tradition – Matthew and Luke both used Mark as a source – but agrees with Theory 1 on the Double Tradition – Luke also used Matthew as a source.

Among modern scholars, only a fraction still adheres to Theory 1. Virtually nobody in the modern academy supposes Matthew was written first. Similarly, in recent years, Theory 3 has become less and less prominent. As of today, it’s fair to say that the majority of Biblical scholars accept Theory 2 – that Mark came first, Matthew and Luke used Mark as a source, and that Matthew and Luke also used a second source in common, called Q, which is no longer in existence. There are still some prominent scholars who are skeptical of Q, but it appears that the thrust of modern scholarship is moving towards Q, not away from it.


So what, exactly, is the Q Gospel?

As noted above, scholars are virtually unanimous in their agreement that the writers of Matthew and Luke used Mark’s text as a primary source. Thus, whenever we find the same story in all three Gospels, we know that Matthew and Luke got the story from Mark.

However, as also noted above, there are a significant number of stories found in both Matthew and Luke, but not in Mark. These stories are frequently the same, word for word, in both Gospels. If Matthew and Luke didn’t get the stories from Mark, then where, exactly, did the stories come from? Not oral tradition, because two authors writing from oral tradition would not give the same word for word accounts. Instead, we have the Q Gospel. As the theory goes, this was an early Gospel containing mostly sayings of Jesus, available to Matthew and Luke, but now lost to history.

There is a lot of evidence to support the 1st century existence of this document. First of all, since we know Matthew and Luke used Mark as a source, it is not unreasonable to assume they used other written sources too. Luke, in fact, implies just this thing when, at the beginning of his Gospel, he tells us explicitly that he has combed through all the available writings about Jesus in creating his own text.

Secondly, by looking at all the stories from this hypothesized text, one can begin to analyze it critically. For instance, the majority of the stories in Q are apocalyptically-oriented. This is a distinct literary and theological style, thus implying strongly that we are dealing with an actual third written source, rather than simply one author copying the other (in this case, Luke copying Matthew). Almost all of the apocalyptic language in Matthew comes from this common material. If Luke had been copying Matthew, what are the chances that it was only Matthew’s apocalyptically-oriented sayings that Luke copied?

To make this point a bit clearer, consider the following analogy:

Suppose there is a pair of lovers whose love story has been told by several different writers. Some of those writers depicted the story as uplifting and inspirational, while others depicted the story as a tragedy.

Writer A decides to write his own version. His account is mostly uplifting and inspirational, but he has a few scenes that are quite depressing and tragic.

Writer B also decides to write his own version. His account, like writer A’s, is mostly uplifting and inspirational, but he also has a few depressing scenes.

In analyzing these two accounts, one discovers that in the tragic, depressing scenes, both writers tell virtually the same story, word for word. But in all the other scenes, the writers use different language and tell their stories in their own unique words.

Given that you know Writers A and B both used earlier sources for their own version of the story, and given that you know those sources vary in how they tell the story, how would you analyze the sources each writer used? Would you assume that Writer B copied Writer A, but only on the depressing, tragic scenes, or would you simply assume that both Writer A and Writer B used the same earlier source, a source that was mostly tragic and depressing, for the word-for-word scenes in question?

Clearly, the most likely answer is the second one: Writers A and B shared a source. That source is clearly a version of the story that is tragic and depressing, and since both writers used this source, this explains why they have some tragic, depressing scenes, and those scenes are repeated almost word for word. This also explains why their other material is told differently – it’s told differently because Writer B was not copying Writer A.

This is the case for the Q material. It has a literary and theological theme – namely apocalypticism – which is obvious to anyone who reads the material. Outside of this material, Luke and Matthew tell their stories of Jesus differently from one another (with the obvious exception of the material they both got from Mark). Since everything else is different between these two texts, and since the word-for-word material has a verifiable theological theme that is not generally found elsewhere in Matthew and Luke, it seems clear that this material is coming from an actual third source, and not simply from Luke copying Matthew.

Third, in hypothesizing this Q document, scholars were essentially creating a whole new category of early Christian gospel – now called “sayings gospels.” At the time, in the 19th century, there was no evidence to suggest any such gospel style had ever existed. Yet, in 1945, just such a gospel was discovered – now widely known as the Gospel of Thomas. Thomas is not the lost Q Gospel, but it is a sayings gospel, proving that the genre existed in early Christianity.

Fourth, most scholars believe that Matthew and Luke were written closely together in time: Matthew perhaps around 85 C.E., and Luke around 90 C.E. If these dates are right, it is hard to imagine that Luke could have had access to Matthew’s Gospel. Texts simply didn’t get spread around that quickly in the ancient world. Even if these dates are wrong by 100%, meaning ten years between them, that still doesn’t seem like enough time for Luke to be familiar with Matthew’s text.

Finally, there are so many massive differences between Luke and Matthew in other areas of their Gospels that it is almost unimaginable that Luke had Matthew’s text in front of him. Take, for instance, the stories of Jesus’ birth. Both agree Jesus was born to a virgin named Mary, that his earthly father was Joseph, and that he was born in Bethlehem, but that is where the similarities cease. Virtually every detail of the stories differs between these two texts. The same is true of Jesus’ resurrection accounts between the two Gospels. It is also true in some of the other stories, for instance in their vastly different accounts of how Judas Iscariot died, and even in the identities of Jesus’s twelve disciples. If Luke used Matthew as one of his sources, then either the “Matthew” he used was not the same as the Matthew we know today, or he simply believed that Matthew got a whole bunch of really important details totally and irreconcilably wrong – and yet he took him at face value on some of his material, particularly his apocalyptic material, and copied much of it word for word.

On this point, it’s also important to point out that while the Q material is frequently word-for-word between Luke and Matthew, Luke frequently places the sayings in different circumstances. For instance, Matthew’s famous Sermon on the Mount is Q material. However, in Luke, it’s not on a “mount” at all, but on a plain, and the sayings are in a different order and some aren’t there at all. This is but one example of many. Again, it seems that we are dealing with a lost gospel, one that provided a list of Jesus’ sayings, and Luke and Matthew both used those sayings, placing them in their own unique narrative contexts. If Luke was using Matthew, we should expect these Q sayings to be in a similar narrative context. But they simply aren’t in most cases.

In the end, it is my opinion that the evidence supporting Theory 2 – which includes the Q Gospel hypothesis – is persuasive and overwhelming. Mark came first. Matthew and Luke were written later, both independently using Mark as a source. They also had a second source in common, a list of sayings attributed to Jesus with very little narrative framework. They used these sayings differently, placing them in different narrative contexts, as one would expect in such a situation.


If you’ve followed my arguments up to now, you may realize that there are still some unanswered questions. What about the material that is unique in each Gospel? Where did those stories come from? Furthermore, how come sometimes Matthew and Luke’s Q material is virtually identical, but other times it varies dramatically in how it is told?

There are no clear answers to these questions, but I have formulated some theories aimed at clearing up the confusion.

Turning first to the question of unique material in each Gospel, it is ultimately impossible to explain where this material comes from. If Mark was written first, and did not use the Q Gospel as a source (and it does not appear that he knew of this Gospel), then his stories are all unique. We have no idea where he got his information. Church tradition says Mark was written by John Mark, a companion of Paul and later a secretary to Peter. Papias, an early 2nd century bishop in the region of modern Turkey, provides this information, saying that Mark wrote down all he remembered from his travels with Peter. This, of course, may or may not be accurate.

As for the unique material of Matthew and Luke, Matthew’s unique material is usually dubbed “M,” and Luke’s unique material is usually dubbed “L.” Of the two, Luke has by far the most unique material, comprising something like 40% of his Gospel. So what are these “L” and “M” sources? Again, we don’t know. Most assume the material came from oral tradition known to the individual writers. This is probably true, but it’s also possible that some of this material came from other actual texts that are no longer in existence. There is just no way to know. It’s even possible that some of this material came from Q, but since only one author quoted it, we can’t know it came from Q. We only know Q material when both Matthew and Luke repeat it.

Turning now to the second question, why is some Q material so similar between Matthew and Luke, and why is some of it so different?

Here, it is necessary to consider some clues from early Christian writers, primarily of the 2nd century. To put it simply, a lot of early Church fathers seemed to believe that the Gospel of Matthew was originally written in Hebrew (which, in context, probably meant Aramaic, the language of Jesus). This, in fact, seems to have been common knowledge in the 2nd and 3rd centuries – so common that Christian gospels of this era frequently connect the name “Matthew” with scribes – that is, with people who were writing down stories about Jesus. Consider the opening of the Gnostic text known as the Secret Book of Thomas: “The secret words that the savior spoke to Judas Thomas which I, Matthew, wrote down, while I was walking, listening to them speak with one another.”

As for the writings of Church fathers, consider the words of the aforementioned Papias, writing in the early part of the 2nd century: “Matthew put together the sayings [of the Lord] in the Hebrew language, and each one interpreted them as best he could.” Also, from Iranaeus, writing near the end of the 2nd century: “Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome and laying the foundations of the church.”

Thus, if Papias and Iranaeus can be trusted (and Iranaeus, by the way, probably got his information from Papias), Matthew must have been written originally in Hebrew/Aramaic. There is a problem, here, however. As anyone familiar with the Gospel of Matthew will know, Matthew is not merely a list of “sayings” of Jesus, as Papias contends. It’s a whole biographical Gospel in narrative form. Is it possible that what we call the Gospel of Matthew was not the same text known by the same name in the 1st and 2nd centuries? In fact, this is a conclusion drawn by a lot of modern scholars. Many scholars, for instance, will refer to Matthew’s writer as “the editor of Matthew.” For these scholars, the original Matthew was a shorter version, mostly just sayings, that was later expanded into its present form.

What text from the first century do we know of that sounds like this proto-Matthew?

Well, the Q Gospel of course.


What will follow is my own reconstruction, based on several years of studying this topic. It is by no means the final word on the subject. However, I think it’s at least a possible, if not likely, scenario.

Around 30 C.E., Jesus died. Shortly thereafter, his disciples became convinced that he was still alive, risen from the dead and glorified to the right hand of God. They became “apostles” – preachers of the good news – and Christianity began to blossom and spread. A few years later, say around 35 C.E., a Jew named Paul was converted to Christianity after having a vision of Jesus. He made dramatic steps towards establishing Christian doctrine and beliefs, and he helped spread the story of Jesus beyond the Jewish homeland, into the Greek-speaking world.

Around 50 C.E., say about 20 years after Jesus’s death, one of his disciples decided to write down sayings he remembered of Jesus, fearing that the knowledge might be lost. He may not have been – and indeed probably was not – the first person to do this. In any case, the disciple in question was Matthew, also known as Levi. Levi had been a tax collector prior to following Jesus, and while this made him a pariah in Jewish society, it was a job that would only have been handled by someone of at least some financial means and likely some education. As such, he may have been the only literate disciple of Jesus.

In any case, he wrote down a list of sayings he remembered from Jesus. He wrote in Aramaic, which was his own language and the language of Jesus. This was not a Gospel in the traditional sense, but a list of sayings with very little narrative context. There was nothing in this text about Jesus’s birth, death, or resurrection. Instead, Jesus is shown as an apocalyptic prophet using typical rabbinical teaching techniques (one-liner quips and parables), as well as performing charismatic healings and exorcisms.

Called the Gospel of Matthew at the time, scholars now call this document Q, and it is no longer in existence.

Several decades later, around 70 C.E., Mark wrote his Gospel. He does not appear to be familiar with the Aramaic Gospel of Matthew. It is unclear where he got his information, though it may have come from the traditions passed on by Peter.

Perhaps around this same time, the Aramaic Gospel of Matthew was translated by another writer into Greek, the common written language of that era. This would have been done so that the Gospel could be read by those who did not speak Aramaic (which, after 70 C.E., included an increasing number of Christians). This Gospel was still in its “Q” form at the time.

Sometime later, perhaps in the mid-80’s C.E., another writer came along and decided to expand the Greek version of the Aramaic Gospel of Matthew. He was familiar with Mark and wanted to use Matthew’s stories to expand Mark. He wrote the text that we know today as the Gospel of Matthew, including all the sayings from the original Aramaic Gospel of Matthew, as well as the vast majority (over 90%) of Mark’s Gospel. He also added in some new material, drawn most likely from his knowledge of oral tradition. Despite writing in Greek, this man was Jewish, writing to a Jewish audience.

Some 5-10 years later, another writer, Luke, came along, using all the resources available to him. He did not have access to the new, longer, Greek version of the Gospel of Matthew, but he did have access to the Greek translation of the original Aramaic Gospel of Matthew. He also had Mark and probably other written and oral sources as well. He used a lot of Mark and all of the Greek translation of the Aramaic Gospel of Matthew. Sometimes he copied Mark and proto-Matthew (i.e. “Q”) word for word, but sometimes he changed the wording to suit his own purposes. It’s also possible that he was not using a Greek translation of proto-Matthew, but was instead translating it himself from the original Aramaic, which would explain why sometimes his translations are virtually identical to what we find in our modern Matthew, and other times they vary dramatically.

This, then, is my reconstruction. What we today call the lost Q Gospel was actually a sayings text written by the disciple Matthew, a few decades before Mark. Mark didn’t know this text. This Q Gospel/proto-Matthew was later translated into Greek and then expanded to include Mark’s information and some other oral traditions. Finally, Luke used both the Q Gospel/proto-Matthew text (either in Greek or Aramaic), and Mark, to compose his own account. He was not familiar with the longer version of Matthew that we know today.

If this speculative reconstruction is true, then the Q Gospel is significant as not only the earliest document detailing the life of Jesus, but also the only Christian writing in existence that was based on firsthand knowledge – namely the knowledge of Jesus’s disciple Matthew.