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.
A BRIEF OVERVIEW
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.
THE Q GOSPEL
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.
THE ARAMAIC GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
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.
HOW IT MAY HAVE HAPPENED
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.