History in the Bible Podcast

Relationships Between the Gospels

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Ideas about the relationships between the four gospels have changed over time. Be sure to check out my excellent detailed synchronisation of the gospels.

Traditional Theory of St Augustine

The traditional view dates to the time of St Augustine. He wrote shortly after Christianity was made the state religion, and when the western Roman empire was falling to pieces.

Matthew, one of the apostles, wrote his gospel first. Then Mark, companion to St Peter, wrote a rather bad abridgement, full of appalling Greek and missing many of the good bits. Luke, companion to St Paul, used both of these for his own work.

Finally, the apostle John wrote his gospel last, to correct the theological inadequacies of the other three gospels.

Traditional Theory of the Relationships Between the Gospels

Challenges to the Traditional Theory

The traditional theory was only challenged in the late Enlightenment. The German theology professor Johann Jakob Griesbach was the first to note that the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke were closely related. He named them synoptic gospels, from the Greek same view. He believed that Mark was the last written gospel, and had used both Luke and Matthew as sources. That never really got off the ground.

What became very clear, though, was that the gospel of John was radically different from the other three.

Nineteenth Century Challenges to the Traditional Theory

Modern Consensus: Introducing Q

In the 1860s the German theologian Heinrich Julius Holtzmann proposed that Mark was the first gospel, and that Matthew and Luke used another independent source for their own books. German scholars began calling this source Q, from the German quelle, source. The classical statement of the theory was made by the British cleric Burnett Hillman Streeter in the 1920s.

The overwhelming modern consensus is that Mark is the earliest of the synoptic gospels. Matthew and Luke independently used Mark, together the mysterious Q. Q is defined as the material that Matthew and Luke have in common.

Matthew and Luke also have their own special sources.

The gospel of John is a product a whole school based somewhere in Asia Minor, a school unfamiliar with the synoptics.

Modern consensus of the gospel relationships

Denying Q

In the early 21st century, various scholars proposed theories that denied that Matthew and Luke used Q as a source as well as mark. They made the excellent point that we have exactly zero evidence for the existence of Q; either as a document, or an oral tradition, or even quotations from the early fathers. Not one scrap of parchment.

The Farrer Theory: Luke Used Matthew

In the 1950s, the English cleric and academic Austin Farrer argued that Q was a fanciful fiction. Luke copied Matthew. No need for Q! As a corollary, it holds that the Johannine community certainly knew the synoptic gospels. This notion has found particular favour amongst British scholars.

The Farrer Theory: No Q, and Luke Used Matthew

The Garrow Theory: Matthew Used Luke

Garrow has suggested a twist on the Farrer theory. He accepts that Matthew and Luke had a common source apart from Matthew. He believes that source is the Didache, a very early Christian document recovered only in the late 19th century. This, he believes, is actually the long-lost Q! He throws in an extra twist by reversing Goodacre and arguing that Matthew used Luke. This idea is definitely fringe at the moment. You can follow the fun at Goodacre's blog.

The Garrow Theory: No Q, and Matthew Used Luke


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