How to Write a Gospel: Borrow + Edit = Scripture

Woman Four Fingers

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Do the four Gospels of the New Testament accurately represent the historical ministry of Jesus? The case that they do would seem more plausible if the Gospels were authored by eyewitnesses of Jesus’s ministry, or at least by those closely connected to them.

The traditional view is that, in fact, the Gospels’ were authored by such people. As I suggested in my last post, it seems plausible to attribute the Gospel according to Mark (“Mark”) to a close associate of the Apostle Peter. Similarly, traditionalists hold that the Gospel according to Matthew (“Matthew”, or the “first Gospel”) was composed by one of Jesus’s original disciples, Matthew the tax collector, mentioned in Matthew 9:9 and 10:3Mark 3:18, Luke 6:15, and Acts 1:13.

In chapter 3 of How Jesus Became God, Bart Ehrman rejects this traditional view. He claims that the authors of the Gospels were Christians “of a later generation” who wrote after (or almost after) Jesus’s original disciples had died, thereby casting doubt on the connection between the Gospel accounts and the historical Jesus.

In this post, I continue a series in which I respond to Ehrman’s skeptical claims. (If you’d like to read from the beginning, the series starts here.) In my next post, I plan to defend the traditional view of the authorship of Matthew.

However, first I need to lay a little groundwork by explaining the dominant view of the literary relationships between the canonical Gospels, which I will do in this post. The Gospels are very similar in many ways, and yet they are so different…How should we explain those facts?

The “Synoptic” Gospels and the Four-Source Theory

Matthew, Mark, and Luke are often called the “Synoptic” Gospels, i.e., the Gospels that “see together.” The term is used of these three since they overlap so much in stories and sayings—often word-for-word. The similarity between these three contrasts sharply with the Gospel of John, which shares comparatively little material with the other three (more on John in a future post).

Given the overlap in content, people have puzzled for centuries over the relationship between the Synoptics: Was one of them used as a source for the others? If so, which one? And how many sources were involved in the writing of these three Gospels? The answers to these questions will matter in trying to identify the authors of Matthew and Luke.

These days, most (though not all) scholars hold the “Four-Source” theory, according to which Mark was written first and served as a source for the other two Synoptics, Matthew and Luke. This conjecture accounts for the significant portions of Matthew and Luke that reflect a word-for-word (or near word-for-word) verbal match with Mark.

For example, Matthew reproduces around 90 percent of Mark verbatim. Additionally, the few differences between Mark and Matthew in these matching sections are typically best explained by editing on the part of Matthew’s author (rather editing by Mark’s author), implying that the author of Matthew used Mark as a source (Hagner xlvii). Similarly for Luke.

Other Sources: Q, L, and M

The second source in the Four-Source theory is typically referred to as “Q,” from the German “quelle,” meaning “source.” Scholars understand Q as the source accounting for the significant verbal agreement (again, near word-for-word) between sections of Matthew and Luke that are not found in Mark. For example, the account of John the Baptist’s preaching of repentance is nearly identical in Matthew 3.7-10 and Luke 3.7-9, but is not replicated anywhere in Mark.

Scholars do not typically attribute this common material to the fact that the author of Matthew used Luke as a source (or vice versa) since those two Gospels are so different (Hagner xlvii-xlviii). Instead, they attribute the common material to a distinct source, “Q,” which is generally understood as an oral source, though it could have been written (e.g., Hagner xlviii)

Rounding out the “four sources,” two further sources are posited—”M” and “L”—to account for material that is unique to Matthew and Luke, respectively. For example, on this view, M includes the story of the visit of the wise men (Matthew 2), which is not found in Mark or Luke, and L includes the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32), which is not found in Mark or Matthew.

What about the Inspiration of Scripture?

Second Timothy 3:16 states, “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” Given that the New Testament did not yet exist at the time 2 Timothy was written (though many of its documents were circulating independently), the word “scripture” in this verse refers to the Hebrew Bible.

Nevertheless, the works of the New Testament gradually also came to have the status of scripture, and most Christians throughout history have understood the four canonical Gospels that way. To say that the Gospels are “inspired by God” and are “scripture” is to say that they are authoritative guides to Christian faith and practice.

Given the Gospels’ status as scripture, some Christians might worry that my sketch of the literary relationships between the Synoptic Gospels—involving, as it does, the borrowing and editing of sources—leaves no room for the inspiration of God. After all, copying and editing are pedestrian activities that don’t seem to account for the special status most Christians attribute to the Gospels.

However, I think this worry is founded on too narrow a view of what it is for a document to be “inspired by God.” The assumption underlying the worry seems to be that a document could only be inspired by God (in the sense of 2 Timothy 3:16) if it were a product of something like divine dictation.

Divine dictation may indeed be one mode by which scripture was written. For example, in Jeremiah 36:2, God says to the prophet, “Take a scroll and write on it all the words that I have spoken to you against Israel and Judah and all the nations.” Then, Jeremiah 36:4 says, “Jeremiah called Baruch son of Neriah, and Baruch wrote on a scroll at Jeremiah’s dictation all the words of the Lord that he had spoken to him.”

Granted, in a process like this, where God is dictating and the prophet Jeremiah (or his assistant, Baruch) is writing down the message on a scroll, it is pretty easy to see the divine origin of the message. But, must we limit the writing of scripture to a process like this?

I don’t think so. Why not think God could also work through the more ordinary human activities of copying and editing to bring us divinely-inspired documents? I see no good reason to reject this possibility. In fact, I find some encouragement in it: on occasion, God works through the ordinary things we human beings do to produce extraordinary results.

As we work out our theology, we need to be careful not to place unjustified limits on what God can and cannot do (or will and will not do). A lack of imagination in this regard can trap us in doctrinal dead ends.

What about Plagiarism?

As moderns, the Four-Source theory might also make us worry about plagiarism. When I was a graduate student and adjunct professor, I spent a lot of time grading papers. One of the things I looked for as I graded was sections that seemed to be pulled from other published sources without proper attribution—i.e., plagiarism.

Plagiarism is, of course, a big no-no in the modern academy. It is a form of stealing other people’s ideas, and in an undergraduate paper it evidences a failure to properly execute the assignment. Plagiarism, if caught, typically gets a student a failing grade and possibly suspension or expulsion from the university.

But, isn’t this just what Matthew and Luke are doing, according to the Four-Source theory—plagiarizing from Mark and other sources? And could that really be “divine inspiration” at work? In a sense, of course, the charge is correct: the Gospel writers are borrowing material from elsewhere, according to Four-Source theory. Nevertheless, I don’t think there is anything to worry about here.

First, ancient literary standards were not the same as modern ones. By borrowing and reshaping material in the production of the Gospels, the authors were not crossing any ethical boundaries of their day.

Second, and more importantly, it is not like Matthew and Luke were trying to take personal credit for the material borrowed from Mark or Q. After all, Matthew and Luke were written anonymously! Mark was also written anonymously, so it is unlikely that its author would feel affronted by the borrowing of his Gospel. Personal literary credit was not a priority for the authors of the Gospels.

Instead, their main focus seems to have been getting the accounts of Jesus and his message correct. And if doing so meant borrowing from other reliable sources, so be it. Viewed in this way, the practice of borrowing to compose the Gospels actually ought to be comforting for those concerned about the historicity of the Gospels: at the time, it was the best way to get at the truth about Jesus.

One thought on “How to Write a Gospel: Borrow + Edit = Scripture

  1. Pingback: Who Wrote the Gospel according to Matthew? | Aaron Mead | Writer

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