Did the Gospel Writers Copy Each Other?
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The Uniqueness of John
According to the early church fathers, John was the last gospel to be written. However, it differs completely from the others in its overall presentation and content, focussing much more on private conversations and only relating a few selected miracles. Most of these are unique to John, reinforcing the view that it was not available when Matthew, Mark or Luke were written.
The wide divergence from the other gospels might seem strange, but for the following:
- As the writer comments (John 21:25), the combined materials of all the gospels represent only a very small portion of Jesus’ total ministry; so there is no particular reason why John should use the same examples.
- It explicitly claims to be personal recollections of the disciple who was closest to Jesus at the last supper (John 21:20). Other factors identify him as John, who with Peter and James formed an inner circle of disciples (c.f. Mark 5:37, 9:2, 14:33); so he was particularly well placed to report the type of dialogue on which he concentrates.
- The main purpose of John is to explain who Jesus really is and how a personal faith in Him brings eternal life (John 20:31). This has strongly influenced the choice and presentation of material.
Although this diversity leaves no basis for saying John embellished earlier accounts, scholars used to dispute its authenticity by claiming that many of its theological concepts were not formulated until the second-century. This objection has now been discredited by the discovery of passages in the Dead Sea Scrolls that show such concepts were indeed current at the time of Christ (though they do not contain any material that John seems to have copied).
The Synoptic Question
On the other hand, textual analysis of Matthew, Mark and Luke show large portions so strikingly similar, not only in content but even the language used, that it is generally agreed they have drawn upon common source material, either oral or written: hence these three are generally referred to as the ‘synoptic’ gospels.
Opinions have differed, however, as to the nature of this interrelationship. In the rest of this page we will examine the claim that they built upon and embellished one another’s work. Afterwards we will go on to consider the suggestion that all three gospels drew on an older source or sources, including the theory of the lost document known as ‘Q’.
Do the Synoptic Authors Mention One Another’s Work?
Luke’s introduction to his Gospel states:
‘Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eye-witnesses and servants of the word.’ Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.’
However, although Luke openly acknowledges the existence of other records of Jesus’ life, he makes no specific mention of the gospels of Mark or Matthew. In fact, despite the similarities, there is no direct reference in the gospels to any of the others.
Could Mark Be the Source?
Because Mark is the shortest of the gospels, and most of its material is also found in Matthew and Luke, it has often been suggested that Mark was written first and the other two used Mark as a source. There are two major objections to this viewpoint, however:
- As noted elsewhere, two of the early church fathers, Papias and Irenaus, state that Matthew’s gospel preceded Mark’s and was originally written in Aramaic or Hebrew (though no copy of this original version now survives). Sceptics discount their testimony as ‘biased’; but on historical grounds their closeness to the original sources means their evidence should be taken very seriously.
- Despite the extensive similarities, there are surprising differences between Mark and the other gospels. Some passages appear in both Matthew and Luke, but not in Mark. There are also curious omissions of material found in Mark (e.g. Mark 6:45-8:26; nicknamed the ‘great omission’, because it’s so hard to explain why Luke would knowingly have excluded it from his gospel). And, although most of the material in Mark also appears in Matthew, even here there are unexpected omissions, such as Mk 4:26-9, 7:31-7 and 8:22-6, as well as textual differences. In fact, as may be noted, some of the material from these passages appears in neither.
Striking differences between Matthew and Luke make it highly improbable that either had seen the other’s gospel at the time of writing. For example, the two nativity accounts almost seem to contradict one another in places.
Had either been aware of the other’s work, it is unlikely that no attempt would have been made to harmonise the two.
Matthew and Luke both contain many parables, plus accounts of some miracles, that do not appear in the other. But where material is common to both, it is usually also found in Mark; which implies that the similarities are due to underlying source material to which all three writers had access, rather than to one copying from the other.
In short, no matter which way one tries to construct a supposed dependency of one gospel on another there are problems. There are passages that appear in Mark and Luke (but not Matthew), Matthew and Luke (but not Mark) and Matthew and Mark (but not Luke).
Consequently, the majority of scholars now favour the view that all three gospels are based on earlier sources.