Two Source Hypothesis  

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The prevailing solution to the synoptic problem for the past century among scholars trained in literary criticism of the gospels. Simply put, the thesis is that the gospels of Matthew & Luke are independent compositions, each based on two earlier texts: Mark & Q.

(1) The basic premise is the priority of Mark. Mark is identified as the source of the narrative structure of the other two synoptics because of observable patterns of parallels in the wording & sequence of all three gospels.

  • Sometimes the same wording & sequence of material is found in Matthew, Luke & Mark.

  • Sometimes Matthew & Mark agree in sequence and/or wording of passages, while Luke differs.

  • Sometimes Luke & Mark have the same sequence and/or wording of passages, while Matthew differs.

  • But the texts of Matthew & Luke almost never agree in both wording & sequence except for material found also in Mark.

In passage after passage Mark is demonstrably the middle term in any narrative agreement between the synoptic gospels. Thus, the first premise of the two source hypothesis is that Matthew & Luke each followed the text of Mark as their primary narrative source.

(2) The second premise of this hypothesis is that Matthew & Luke edited Mark independently. If Luke knew Matthew's work (or vice versa), he deliberately did not adopt that author's revision of Mark's text. This conclusion is also based on observable patterns in these gospels.

  • Mark introduces Jesus as an adult; Matthew begins with Jesus' conception & birth (Matt 1-2). Luke also has stories of Jesus' conception & birth (Luke 1-2), but these are not the accounts found in Matthew.

  • The earliest mss. of Mark end with an empty tomb (Mark 16:8); Matthew adds two resurrection appearances of Jesus (Matt 28). Luke also reports resurrection appearances (Luke 23), but not those in Matthew.

  • Matthew often presents an expanded version of passages in Mark's narrative that makes these incidents less problematic for Christians (e.g., Jesus' baptism, testing by Satan, his explanation of parables & silencing of Peter). In only one case (the testing) does Luke present a parallel to the non-Markan wording in Matthew. Otherwise, Luke regularly echoes Mark's version, problems & all.

  • Matthew has 5 large blocks of teaching material most of which is not found in Mark. While Luke has parallels to much of this material, he never presents it in Matthew's format & location in the narrative. Instead of Matthew's sermon on the mount (Matt 5-7), the longest integrated complex of Jesus' sayings in the synoptic gospels, Luke presents a much briefer sermon on the plain (Luke 6). Yet many of the sayings that Matthew presents as an integral part of the sermon (such as the Lord's prayer) are scattered across later chapters of Luke. Instead of Matthew's expansion (Matt 24) of Mark's version of Jesus' apocalyptic warnings (Mark 13), Luke presents two speeches (Luke 17 & 21). In other words, Luke's presentation of Jesus' teaching is less organized than Matthew's. If Luke got this material from Matthew, he would have deliberately destroyed the logical connections that Matthew drew.

Since the hypothesis that Luke used Matthew presents more redactional problems than it solves, most synoptic specialists conclude that it is more likely that he did not.

(3) The third premise of the two source hypothesis is a necessary logical corollary of the first two. If Matthew & Luke each copied material from Mark but not from each other, then the only way to explain the blocks of non-Markan sayings that Matthew & Luke have in common is to conclude that they got it from a second source. For the past century scholars have referred to that source as Q. While the contents of Q may be reconstructed from the non-Markan parallels in Matthew & Luke, no separate ms. of this sayings source has yet been found. Thus, Q is a hypothetical text. Yet as a working hypothesis, most gospel scholars consider Q more plausible than the only viable alternatives: the priority of Matthew and/or Luke's use of Matthew.

The Two Source hypothesis cannot be traced to a single mind. Rather it is the product of more than a century of research and scholarly debate. C. H. Weisse was first to formulate it. Others have refined it. B. H. Streeter was the most influential 20th c. proponent.

Other On-line Resources:

  • Two Source Hypothesis - Stephen C. Carlson reviews the history & critiques the "weak points" of the current prevailing synoptic source theory.

  • A Four Document Hypothesis - Chapter 9 of Burnett Hillman Streeter's The Four Gospels (1924), tracing material common to Matthew & Luke to either Mark or Q and passages unique to each to special sources M & L (posted by kata Pi).

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last revised 06 November 2018


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