early Christian history, interpreters have been convinced that that
two of these authors used the work of the third as a basic source for
constructing their gospels. Papias, bishop of Hieropolis in Asia Minor
in the early 2nd c. CE, claimed that he had heard that Matthew wrote
first & that this work had been interpreted by others. This report
was picked up & without being checked was simply echoed by other
early Christian writers as if it were gospel truth. It seemed to make
sense, since Matthew was a name that was found on lists of Jesus'
disciples in these three gospels, while the names of Mark & Luke
were not among known associates of Jesus. Thus, when the New
Testament was formed, the gospel of Matthew was put first. Later
Christian writers, such as Origen & Augustine, like
most modern readers, simply assumed that the gospels were written in the order in
which they appear in the New Testament. So, the similarities between
the first three gospels were explained as the result of first Mark
& then Luke having plagiarized material from Matthew.
the middle of the 18th c., however, it became evident to some German scholars
that this traditional explanation of the evident literary relationship between
Matthew, Mark & Luke made it difficult to explain the actual contents
of these gospels. For, if Mark was dependent on Matthew,
then he simply discarded much of Matthew's information about Jesus -- not just
little details, but important large blocks of material such as the stories of
Jesus' background & birth, the sermon on the Mount & the resurrection
appearances. Moreover, Mark's Greek was less polished than Matthew's &
many Markan passages posed more logical & theological difficulties than
did parallel sections in Matthew.
difficulties became more obvious to scholars after 1766, when J. J. Griesbach designed a
gospel synopsis in which parallel portions of Matthew, Mark & Luke
were printed in adjoining columns. The popularity of Griesbach's work for
studying & comparing the texts of Matthew, Mark & Luke led scholars to
call these three gospels "the synoptics." Thereafter, the problem of
explaining the relationship of the contents of Matthew, Mark & Luke was
dubbed: "the synoptic problem."
1782 one of Griesbach's former students, J. B. Koppe, published a work that
challenged the traditional claim that Mark was a condensation of Matthew's
gospel. He pointed out that Mark often differed from Matthew but was often
closer to Luke in both wording & narrative sequence. Conversely, Luke's
order & wording often had more in common with Mark than Matthew. Since
both Mark & Luke agreed at points where they differed from Matthew, Koppe
concluded that Matthew was not the primary source of the material
common to all three gospels.
research convinced even Griesbach that Mark was not simply a shorter version
of Matthew. But in order to salvage the traditional view that Matthew was the
earliest gospel, Griesbach suggested that Luke first radically revised the material
in Matthew & that Mark then wrote a summary of the material on which both
Matthew & Luke agreed. This theory kept Matthew first, but inverted
the traditional notion of the order of the composition of Mark & Luke.
direction of further study of the synoptic problem, however, lay with
scholars who granted Koppe's argument that Mark was independent of Matthew but
still viewed Luke as dependent on Mark. By the beginning of the 19th c.
several scholars were suggesting that Mark was the earliest gospel, which was
edited by both Matthew & Luke. The fact that Matthew & Luke
offered different revisions of Mark indicated that they had worked
independently of each other, without knowledge of each other's work. At least
it was obvious that each chose not to use the other's revisions of most
passages in Mark.
problem posed by the theory that Mark was the basic source of agreements
between Matthew & Luke, however, was how to account for the substantial
amount of non-Markan sayings material that was common to the other two
synoptics. Since most of these sayings had no equivalent in Mark, Matthew
& Luke must have gotten them from some other source. The primary problem
with thinking that Luke took these sayings from Matthew was that he almost
invariably put these sayings at different points in Mark's narrative outline
than Matthew had. But some scholars remembered that Papias had said that
the earliest gospel was a compilation of the sayings (logia) of
Jesus. This was certainly not a good description of any of the extant
synoptic gospels. But it was a perfect description of the type of
material that both Matthew & Luke had added to Mark's narrative. Thus, in
1838 C. H. Weisse proposed that Matthew & Luke were based on two
documents: Mark & some sayings source (Redenquelle) that was no
longer extant as a distinct document. This theory became known as the
"Two Document" or "Two Source" hypothesis. In an
1890 essay another German scholar, J. Weiss, designated the document from
which Matthew & Luke drew the non-Markan material that they shared
"Q" (from the German word for "source": Quelle).
acceptance of the Two Source hypothesis by most leading synoptic scholars in
the 20th c. has made it the basis of most gospel analysis for the past
century. But this scholarly consensus has not been unanimous. In 1955 a
British scholar, A. M. Farrer, proposed that one could dispense with the Q
hypothesis simply by arguing that Luke revised both Mark & Matthew.
Then in 1964, an American scholar, W. R. Farmer, revived Griesbach's theory that
Mark condensed Matthew & Luke. Today, the updated Griesbach theory -- which has
been dubbed "the Two Gospel hypothesis" -- is probably the chief
rival to the Two Source hypothesis among American scholars who question the
existence of Q. In Europe, however, -- & England in particular -- there are more
supporters of Farrer's thesis.
Still, as we enter a new
century, some form of the Two Source
hypothesis continues to be preferred by an overwhelming majority of critically
trained New Testament scholars as the theory
that is best able to resolve the synoptic problem. Although the Jesus
Seminar did not formally endorse any single theory of the relationship between
Matthew, Mark & Luke, the fact that the Two Source hypothesis was
presupposed by most Fellows in their own analysis of gospel texts inevitably
made it the common frame of reference for most of the Seminar's debate about
the sayings & deeds of Jesus.
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