Okay, before we go any farther, we all need to practice our detective voice. Here are three lines from the great movie/book, The Maltese Falcon. Once you can say each one of these lines with the proper snarl, then you are ready to read the rest of the post. We will start off with an easy one. Sam Spade says to Effie, his secretary:

“You’re a good man, sister.”

 Sam Spade says to the tough guy, Joel Cairo (played by Peter Lorre):

“When you’re slapped, you’ll take it and like it.”

And last, as the police are carting away the bad guys, the chief detective asks Spade what that black statue of a falcon is and Spade sums it all up with this great line:

The stuff that dreams are made of.”

Okay, having now graduated from detective school, we are ready for today’s mystery. We walk into a room, and there on the table are four gospels! How did they come to be?  Now, being good detectives, other questions come immediately to mind. Questions like these:

  • Why are there four gospels?
  • How did the gospel authors get the material about Jesus that they included in their works?
  • Why are the three gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) so eerily similar at points?
  • Why, at other times, are they so very different?
  • Did the gospel authors use any written sources?
  • What was the role of the authors themselves?

Now, it is not enough to say that God inspired his authors to write these books and that’s all that needs to be said. There are changes. There are choices. There are similarities. There are differences. How do we explain these? How do we explain the process behind our three gospels? And there was a (very human) process. Look at Luke 1:1-4 (I’ll help with some added formatting).

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 eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.

Luke says there were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. That’s stage one. There were eyewitnesses. And these eyewitnesses handed down to “us” oral accounts of their experience(s) with Jesus. But there is a second stage, some of these eyewitnesses or servants had undertaken to draw up an account of Jesus.  Before the gospels, there were already some written accounts about Jesus in circulation. And then, Luke, in stage three, put pen to paper, but only after carefully investigating these sources himself; and out of all of this, he creates an “orderly account.” And I am going to guess that all the gospel authors could say the same thing. They investigated. They listened to sources. They read these accounts. They remembered (in the case of Matthew and John, at least), and they wrote down what they believed was an “orderly account” for their audiences. It’s like in the game of Clue. We still don’t know how it happened or where, but we know the “killer” (aka, the author) used eyewitnesses and written sources. I think it was in the Library with Colonel Mustard, but it is too early to tell.

But wait, there is more! When we look at the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke), it also becomes clear that two of them are using (read also, cheating off of, copying from, plagiarizing from or carefully following) whichever gospel was written first (I’ll jump the gun and just say it, “J’accuse Matthew and Luke”). There is really no other way to explain this:

Mark 13:14:

“When you see ‘the abomination that causes desolation’ standing where it does not belong—let the reader understand—then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains.

And Matthew 14:15:

“So when you see standing in the holy place ‘the abomination that causes desolation,’ spoken of through the prophet Daniel—let the reader understand—”

Any good detective will realize that Matthew could not direct a parenthetical remark to “the reader” at the exact same spot as Mark unless Matthew was indeed using Mark as a source. And that is just one example of the many that could be cited that show clear evidence of synoptic interdependence.

But there is more evidence to consider. You know what they say about statistics, but nevertheless. Based on the RSV (note: all the verse numbers are approximate here because modern textual criticism working with the best and earliest manuscripts have found some verses found in the Textus Receptus manuscript family were later insertions and not part of the original text):

  • Mark has roughly 661 verses.
  • Of those 661 verses, Matthew reproduces around 600 of them and Luke 320 of them.
  • Of the 55 Markan verses not found in Matthew, Luke has 24.
  • Therefore, there remains only 31 verses of Mark whose substance is not found in Matthew or Luke (that’s rather staggering: only 3% of Mark’s gospel is unique to him!).

Time to call in an expert witness. DA Carson, in his Introduction to The New Testament (written by Carson, Moo, Morris), writes: “Given Mark, it is easy to see why Matthew was written; given Matthew, it is hard to see why Mark was needed.”

The idea that both Matthew and Luke use Mark’s gospel as their primary source and outline is supported by these clues (Sam Spade is going to be so proud of you for seeing these things!):

  • The greater probability that Matthew and Luke have expanded Mark rather than Mark abbreviating those two gospels.
  • Matthew and Luke never agree in their order of events against Mark.
  • Matthew and Luke sometimes seem to “improve” Mark.
    (Look at how Matthew “cleans up” Mark 1:32. Mark says: “That evening after sunset the people brought to Jesus all the sick and demon-possessed.” But Matthew 8:16 says, “When evening came, many who were demon-possessed were brought to him. . .”)
  • Mark’s narrative seems to be the freshest (Note Mark’s depiction that Jesus directed to people to sit down on the green grass in Mark 6:39).

But not so fast. We’re overlooking something big. See, we can’t just pin this on Mark and say he is the cause of these other gospels. See, there are roughly 250 verses not found in Mark, that are found in Matthew and Luke. Worse, they are substantially the same! Don’t believe me? Just read Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem (“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets. . .”) in Matthew 23 and in Luke 13. They are incredibly similar! But here’s the kicker. This story is NOT in Mark! So, he has a clean alibi here. So, the big QUESTION here is how do we explain this interdependence? That’s the big “Q!”

If your detective hunch has told you that there must be another “source” out there that Matthew and Luke shared, go ahead and get yourself a great detective hat because you are ready to go professional. Now, any guesses what we should call this mysterious source? If you guessed “Q,” go to the head of the class. Now, unfortunately, Q doesn’t stand for question, but is the German word for source, but this Q Source does answer the question about material found in both Matthew and Luke, that is not found in Mark. But what does this Q source (Q document? Q oral tradition? Q material?) look like? It is composed of mostly of sayings of Jesus, but it also has a few narratives (e.g., John the Baptist, the temptation, etc.).

So, let’s strip Matthew down to his sources. Matthew has 1068 verses. If we remove the verses from Mark and we remove the verses that are parallel to Luke via Q, we end up with 320 unique verses to Matthew!  Let’s apply the same math to Luke. Luke has 1149 verses. If we remove the verses from Mark (roughly 320) and the verses that are also found in Matthew via Q, we end up with 580 unique verses in Luke.

So now, Mr. or Ms. Detective, what does that mean? Correct! Obviously, Matthew had his own source from which he created “his” 320 unique verses, and Luke had his source out of which he created his 580 unique verses (many of which are found between 9:51 and 19:44). And what do we call these sources? We call Matthew’s source (wait for it . . .), “M” and Luke’s source, “L” (how do you define a lack of creativity?). Now chances are really good that “M” is simply Matthew’s own personal recollections and memories gathered together with some traditions passed down to him from other eyewitnesses. You would have to think that the disciples knew Jesus’ words mattered so that when he said something significant, they would all immediately memorize it. These memories are a major part of what scholars call Matthew’s “M” source. And we already know that Luke worked from written sources and from his own personal investigation into the words and deeds of Jesus (on Luke’s business card it says, “Saint Luke, Private Investigations”). I am not sure that “M” was ever written down, but it is possible that “L” was.

Now, add some “when and where’s,” and we get this working hypothesis (working backwards):

  • Matthew wrote his gospel in Syria sometime between 65 and 70 AD (many scholars believe a date of 80-90 is more likely).
    NOTE: Besides his own notes and memories (“M”), he used Mark’s gospel as his base and followed Mark’s structure, and he used “Q.”

    • Mark was written in Rome around 55 AD.
    • “Q” was probably written in Palestine around 45 AD.
  • Luke wrote his gospel sometime around AD 62 in Rome. He also used Mark as his base and added some material from “Q” and included material from his own investigations. And we are thankful that he did because in his unique material we find the stories of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son!
  • And while Mark didn’t use “Q” or “M” or “L,” it seems likely that he built his gospel from the stories of Simon Peter (Peter figuratively calls Mark “his son,” testifying of their close relationship in 1 Peter 5:13).

It is clear, when you’re halfway through The Maltese Falcon, that Sam Spade is playing both sides against the middle and Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) doesn’t like it. He doesn’t trust Spade and wants some straight answers. And so, he accuses Spade of always having a smooth explanation ready. And Spade responds with a snarl: “What do you want me to do, learn to stutter?” That’s a great answer. It’s pure film noire detective speak. From the 2nd century on, people have been questioning how the gospels were composed. I think I’ve given you a rather smooth explanation. I could have stuttered here and there, but I don’t think that would have helped. Now, if you are still unsure about all of this, feel free to check it out for yourself (I highly recommend Carson, Moo, and Morris’ Introduction to the New Testament and Robert Stein’s The Synoptic Problem: An Introduction). And if you are still not sure, you can continue to fight this whole idea. But the case for understanding the gospels being composed just this way is pretty strong. In fact, if you deny it, it’s like a slap across the face; and in this case, “When you’re slapped, you’ll take it and like it.”

One last post on this topic next week: but don’t write it down. It’s about oral sources!