Chapter 7: The Gospels

A Historical Introduction to the New Testament
by Robert M. Grant

Chapter 7: The Gospels

Before discussing the individual gospels we should say something about their use in the early Christian Church and about their literary character or characters. We may suggest that two of the evangelists refer to books analogous to their own and that a third almost certainly knows another. (1) At the beginning of the Gospel of Luke we read of ‘many’ who have undertaken to draw up an account of the matters accomplished among Christians, in accordance with traditions received from eyewitnesses. Among the ‘many’ is presumably the author of the Gospel of Mark, for as we shall see (Chapter 10), Mark was the principal source followed by Luke. Luke’s statement implies that Mark was not an eye-witness but received his information from eye-witnesses. (2) At the end of the Gospel of John (20:30) we read that ‘Jesus performed many other signs. . . which are not recorded in this book.’ This statement may imply the existence of other books in which the ‘other signs’ were recorded. (3) The principal source followed by the author of Matthew was the Gospel of Mark; Matthew is therefore obviously a witness to Mark’s prior existence.

Within the other New Testament writings there seems to be only one reference to a gospel. This occurs in I Timothy 5:18, where quotations from Deuteronomy 25:4 and Luke 10:7 are introduced by the expression, ‘the scripture says’. It would appear that the saying of Jesus is to be found in a book and that the book is regarded as scripture.

In the writings of the Apostolic Fathers (see Chapter 16) there are fairly clear references to written gospels (Matthew in the Didache and in Barnabas). A certain Papias, bishop (?) of Hierapolis in Phrygia towards the beginning of the second century, discussed at least two of the gospels in his Exegeses of the Dominical Oracles, of which only fragments survive. In his preface he stated that he valued oral traditions more highly than books; then he proceeded to discuss books in the light of traditions.

(1) Quoting ‘the elder’, probably ‘the elder John’ whom he mentions elsewhere, Papias describes the origin of the Gospel of Mark. It is an accurate account of the Lord’s words and deeds, though neither ‘in order’ nor complete. Mark derived his information from the teaching and preaching of Peter, for whom he had served as ‘interpreter’. This statement implies that the order of Mark has been compared with some other order, probably that of John (since the order of Matthew and Luke is much the same as Mark’s). It has sometimes been thought that the picture of Mark’s relation to Peter is based on I Peter 5:13 (‘Mark my son’), since Eusebius says that Papias knew I Peter; but there is no valid reason for supposing that both Papias and I Peter are not reflecting early Roman tradition.

(2) In regard to Matthew, Papias reported that he ‘compiled the oracles in the Hebrew language; but each person translated them as he was able.’ The statement shows that early in the second century there were several Greek versions of something regarded as Matthew’s collection of ‘oracles’ (Old Testament proof texts?); one of them may have been the apocryphal gospel of the Hebrews, which Eusebius says contained some materials which Papias used. It is conceivable that he regarded both ‘Hebrews’ and our Gospel of Matthew as translations of an apostolic document. His view may reflect analysis of the Old Testament quotations in Matthew, some of which are much closer to the Hebrew than to the Greek Septuagint.

(3) A so-called ‘anti-Marcionite prologue’ to the Gospel of John states that John dictated his gospel to Papias himself; but this highly garbled document is not likely to give us any trustworthy information about either Papias or John. Modern study of the prologue places it in the fourth century, or even later.( See E. Gutwenger, ‘The Anti-Marcionite Prologues’, Theological Studies 7 (1946), 393-409; R. C. Heard, ‘The Old Gospel Prologues’, Journal of Theological Studies, N.S. 6 (1955), 1-16.)

From Papias, then, we derive some information, possibly correct, about the origin of Mark’s gospel and of some of the materials in Matthew. The trouble with this information lies in our own inability to assess it properly. How reliable was Papias? How reliable were his informants? The only way we can tell is to check what he says with the gospels themselves and to see to what extent our analysis confirms his statements. This method means, of course, that our primary sources of evidence lie in the gospels, not in what Papias says about them.

Probabilities About the Gospels

Before turning directly to the gospels we may well consider a few general factors which are related to the question of their date. We have already looked at what evidence there is within the New Testament which bears on this question. Now we turn to consider some points which have to do with the life of the Christian Church and the apostles.

First of all, it must be admitted that we cannot prove that the gospels were not written at a very early time. The fact that some, if not all, early Christians expected the imminent return of Jesus does not prove that they cannot have written down their memories of his words and deeds. Rabbinic insistence upon not writing down the oral law provides no parallel, since we know that disciples of the rabbis sometimes did write it down; furthermore, apocalyptic literature, though secret, was by definition written, and from the discoveries at Qumran we know that much more was written than might have been supposed. On the other hand, the earlier New Testament documents, such as the Pauline epistles, make no reference to any gospel writings, and in them there is a fairly strong insistence upon the value of oral tradition (I Cor. 11:23; 15:3). Moreover, the synoptic gospels seem to be based, fairly often, directly on oral tradition, especially at points where sayings have been linked by verbal association for the purpose of memorization. Such a procedure is characteristic of oral transmission, not of copying from written documents. These facts suggest that the gospels. while relatively early in date, are likely to come from the second generation of Christians rather than from the first.

What conspicuous historical events may have provided occasions for the writing down of the oral tradition? Two events immediately suggest themselves: (1) the persecution of Roman Christians in the year 64, when some of the leading apostles were probably put to death (we may also mention the death of James the Lord’s brother in 62), and (2) the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70, when the Church came to be more fully conscious of its mission to the gentile world. Of these two the more important was probably the death of some of the apostles. Since the Church’s proclamation of the significance of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus was based upon the memories of eye-witnesses to these events (cf. I Cor. 15:5-8; Acts 1:21-2), when those eye-witnesses grew old or died it was obviously necessary to commit their narratives to writing. We do not know how old the apostles were at the time of the crucifixion; perhaps some of them were no more than twenty or so; but by the sixties of the first century the life-expectancy of any of them cannot have been great. Given a combination of these factors, we should assume that gospel-writing would begin no later than the time of the persecution under Nero.

Another point, however, must be considered. Our gospels lay almost no emphasis upon eye-witness testimony. Mark and Matthew never do so. Luke mentions eye-witnesses as sources in his prologue but thereafter in his gospel never speaks of them. John refers to eye-witnesses very sporadically (1:14; 19:35; 21:24). The gospels testify primarily to the faith and the memories of the communities out of which they came, not to the historical reliability of their authors. In many respects the synoptic gospels (though not John) resemble folk literature more than the creations of individual artists. What this fact means is either that the evangelists were not interested in historical reliability or that they took it for granted and, in writing their books, proceeded to develop the implications of memories assumed to be trustworthy. The latter conclusion seems to be justified in view of the insistence on historical reliability expressed by Paul, by Luke, and by John. The evangelists made use of historical memories in order to set forth the significance of those memories. As the author of II Peter claims, the apostles did not proclaim the power and presence of their Lord by relying on myths such as those employed by rhetoricians (1:16).(See the important discussion, from a somewhat different viewpoint, by D.E. Nineham in Journal of Theological Studies 9 (1958), 13-25; 243-52; 11 [1960], 253-64.)

The gospels, then, originated fairly soon after the middle of the first century. They were created by and for believers who were concerned with the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and tried to interpret the meaning of this chain of events. It may be that the gospel form did not come into existence before Hellenistic communities (Rome, Antioch, Ephesus) had made Palestinian traditions their own, though the notion that Matthew wrote something in Hebrew may point towards an earlier origin for some, at least, of the traditions found in this gospel. Whether Hebrew or Greek, the gospels originated in relation to (1) the apostolic preaching and teaching, concerned not only with the events of Jesus’ life but also with what he taught, (2) the continuing worship of the Christian communities and especially the Lord’s Supper, in which his death was proclaimed until he would return (I Cor. 11.26), and (3) the living memories of those who had been with him during his ministry.

These factors are perhaps equally important. Sometimes the liturgical origin of the gospels has been emphasized almost to the exclusion of other considerations, but it must be recalled that while Paul does recall the story of the Last Supper in setting forth regulations for the conduct of the Lord’s Supper, he does not state that the story had been recited, or was to be recited, at the Lord’s Supper in Corinth; and he does not mention the Supper in any of his letters but I Corinthians. What is clear from his mention of the Last Supper is the fact that the story was told in a context. He reminds the Corinthians of what the Lord Jesus did and said ‘on the night when he was betrayed.’ This point suggests that well before the year 50 at least the Passion Narrative (Mark 14:15 and parallels) was told as a continuous story. On the other hand, it may be that we should not try to infer too much from what Paul reports. He also possesses a fairly detailed list of resurrection appearances (I Cor. 15), and it is extremely hard to reconcile with the resurrection stories in the gospels.

It has sometimes been argued that the general outline of the synoptic gospels, and especially that of Mark, can be proved historically reliable because of the rough outlines to be found in some of the early Christian sermons in Acts. This point is hard to establish with any degree of certainty because (1) we know that Luke used Mark, and (2) we know that Luke was accustomed to compose speeches (whether he used earlier sources or not) in order to provide discourses he regarded as suitable for various occasions. The second point does not prove that the Marcan outline is unreliable, but it suggests that we are not in a position to say whether it is or not -- especially since the outline provided by John is so different. It should be added that one of the few points on which Papias insists is that Mark was not written ‘in order’. Since he seems to have known the Gospel of John, he probably means that Mark’s chronology seems wrong to him.

Essentially the primary proof of the correctness, or at least the literary adequacy, of Mark’s outline lies in the fact that it commended itself, with minor changes, to Matthew and Luke. This point leads us to consider the interrelations of the synoptic gospels, since it is impossible to consider them separately without first trying to see why they are as similar as they are. Several theories in regard to the resemblances and the differences have been set forth. In antiquity, once the tradition that Matthew wrote first had become established, the other two had to be explained in terms of the first. Origen, for example, claimed that the Spirit gave each evangelist a perfect memory; the deviations of Mark and Luke from Matthew were due to theological purposes, often highly subtle in nature. Augustine took another line: according to him, Mark simply abbreviated Matthew. In the nineteenth century, however, it came to be generally held that Mark wrote first and that both Matthew and Luke made use of his book, along with another common source which each of them arranged differently.

The proof of the priority of Mark, often regarded as almost mathematical in nature, is not really mathematical. Briefly stated, it is this. The sequence in which Matthew and Luke write ~ their gospels is never the same unless Mark is in agreement with them; and where Mark is in agreement with them their sequence is always the same. We can put the argument in tabular form:

Matthew Mark Luke

A -- D



D -- A

It still remains possible, however, that Mark abbreviated Matthew and that Luke changed Matthew’s order. Therefore other considerations have to be taken into account. Where Matthew and Luke are parallel to Mark it can be argued that, generally speaking, they differ from Mark in ways (usually different) that suggest that both of them have tried to improve the style or the thought of their common source.

Several examples may serve to illustrate this process.

Mark 10:27-18 Matthew 19:16-17

And as he was setting out on And behold,

His journey, a man ran up and one came up to him,

knelt before him and asked saying,

him, Good teacher, Teacher,

what must I do to inherit what good deed must I do,

eternal life? And Jesus said to have eternal life? And he

to him, said to him,

Why do you call me good? Why do you ask me about

No one is good but God what is good? One there is

Alone. Who is good.

(2) In Mark 10.35 -- 45 the sons of Zebedee askJesus for the right to sit on his right and left in his ‘glory’. In Matthew 20.20 -- 8 their mother makes the request for them, but Jesus replies, exactly as in Mark, ‘You do not know what you are asking’; in both instances the ‘you’ is plural.

(~) The third example shows both Matthew and Luke apparently rewriting Mark:

Matthew 8.16 -- 17 Mark 1.32 -- 4 Luke 4.40-1

That evening That evening at sun- When the sun was

they brought to down they brought setting all those

him to him all who who had any sick

were sick or with various diseases

many possessed with possessed with brought them to

demons. demons. And the him.

whole city was

gathered together

about the door.

And he cast out And he healed many And he laid his

the spirits with a who were sick with hands on every one

word and healed all various diseases and of them and

who were sick, cast out many healed them. And

demons, demons also came

out of many,

crying, You are the

Son of God. And

he rebuked them,

and he would not and would not

allow the demons allow them to speak,

to speak, because they because they knew

him, that he was the


This was to fulfil

what was spoken

by the prophet

Isaiah ...

(The words in italic are the same in Greek.)

These examples could be multiplied, but they serve to show that both Matthew and Luke, at least in many instances, modified the materials they took from Mark. (For further discussion cf. B.H. Streeter. The Four Gospels,. 149-331.)

We have just observed a case in which Matthew and Luke seem to have made independent selections from Mark, and there are several others.

Matthew Mark Luke

the leprosy was the leprosy the leprosy

cleansed from him departed from him departed from him

(8.3) and [he] was (5.13)

cleansed (1.42)

for the sake of my for the sake of me for the sake of the

name (19.29) and the gospel kingdom of God

(10.29) (18.29)

immediately immediately entering (19.30)

(21.2) entering (11.2)

in this night today in this night today (22.34)

(24.34) (14.30)

It seems unlikely either that Matthew used Luke or that Luke used Matthew; the only possibilities seem to be that either (1) Mark used both Matthew and Luke (but the cumulative effect of the differences between Mark and the other two gospels suggests that this is not so), or (2) Matthew and Luke used Mark in different ways and for different purposes.

Q For Quelle

Matthew and Luke agree in order at points where they are following Mark. At other points they do not agree in order but have common materials. At such points their agreement is sometimes exact, sometimes a matter of common materials treated somewhat differently. Two explanations of these coincidences have been given. (1) Luke used Matthew but revised his materials. (2) Both Matthew and Luke made use of a common source, usually called Q from the German word ‘Quelle’, which means ‘source’. Sometimes the use of this symbol has led investigators to assume that there was a clearly definable document which could be recovered from Matthew and Luke, but further research has suggested that the limits of Q are much vaguer than had been supposed.

(1) It seems unlikely that Luke used Matthew, for the following reasons. (a) In Matthew many sayings of Jesus have been assembled into a collection called the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7); in Luke these sayings are scattered over a number of chapters, in different contexts. Would Luke have felt free to treat Matthew in this way? (b) Many sayings of Jesus are connected to one another by verbal association in both Matthew and Luke; but in about seventeen instances the word used for the association by Matthew differs from the word used by Luke. This point proves that both Matthew and Luke drew independently upon a common stock of oral tradition.(Th. Soiron, Die Logia Jesu [Munster, 1916], J. Jeremias in ZNW 29 [1930]) Other arguments have been advanced to support the independence of Luke from Matthew, but these two (especially the second) are the most convincing.

(2) On the other hand, the notion that there was a single written source to be designated as Q is also untenable, first because of the argument just advanced, and second because sometimes the resemblances are very close and at other times they are rather remote. In the latter case it is uncertain whether a common source is being used or not. When we speak of Q, then, we are referring to a conglomeration of sources, perhaps partly written (as in the accounts of the Baptist’s preaching and of the baptism and temptation of Jesus) but more often oral in origin. Perhaps the letter Q should be dropped; but it is convenient as a designation for non-Marcan materials common to Matthew and Luke -- nothing more.

What do these materials consist of? Various scholars have given various lists, but a convenient summary, following the order of Matthew, has been provided by Julius Wellhausen in his Einleitung in die drei ersten Evangelien (1905). He lists the following passages:

M 3.1 – 12 the mission of John the Baptist L 3.1 -- 17

M 4.1 -- Il the baptism and temptation of Jesus L 4.1 -- 15

The Sermon on the Mount

M 5.1 -- 12 the Beatitudes L 6.20 -- 3

M 5.38 -- 48 counsels of perfection L 6.27 -- 36

M 6.19 -- 34 heavenly treasure; cares L 12.22 -- 34

M 7.1 -- 6 judge not L 6.37 -- 42

M 7.7 -- Il ask and you will receive L 11.9 -- 13

M 7.15 -- 27 false prophets; hearing and doing L 6.43 -- 9

M 8.5 -- 13 the centurion in Capernaum L. 7.1 -- 10

M 10.1 if. instructions to the apostles or to L 10.1 -- 12;

the seventy disciples 12.1 -- 12;

12.49 – 53

M 11.1 -- 19 about John the Baptist L 7.18 -- 35

M I 1.20 -- 4 woes on various cities L 10.13 -- IS

M 11.25 -- 30 the invitation of Jesus-Wisdom L 10.21 -- 4

M 12.22 -- 37 the question about Beelzebub L 11.14 -- 23

M 12.38 -- 42 the sign of Jonah L 11.29 -- 32

M 12.43 -- 5 the fate of the unclean spirit L 11.24 -- 6

M 22.1 -- 14 parable of the (wedding) banquet L 14.16 -- 24

M 23.13 -- 36 woes against Pharisees L 11.37 -- 52

M 24.1 if. apocalyptic predictions L 17.20-35

12.35 -- 46

M 25.14 -- 30 parable of the entrusted funds L 19.11 -- 27

In addition to these fairly extensive passages there are, of course, a good many isolated verses which occur in both Matthew and Luke, but the bulk of the common materials consists of the passages listed above. Perhaps Wellhausen included too much. At several points he has listed not merely verses common to the two gospels but others which seem to continue the thought expressed in one or the other of them.

What kinds of materials are included in this collection ? It is rather striking that it contains a beginning -- the mission of John the Baptist and the baptism and temptation of Jesus -- but no end, unless the apocalyptic predictions could be so regarded. It contains one story of healing and two parables. The rest of it consists of nothing but sayings of Jesus. For this reason it has sometimes been suggested that here we have ‘the earliest gospel’, a document composed during the lifetime of Jesus. But we have already indicated the reasons which prove that it was not a single document. It generally represents a part of the reservoir of oral tradition from which both Matthew and Luke drew some of their materials, though some of it may well have been available to them in written form.

Can it be determined whether Matthew or Luke reproduced his sources more accurately? Some scholars have believed that they could tell. For example, they regarded Luke 9:60 (‘go and proclaim the kingdom of God’) as later than Matthew 8:22 (‘follow me’), Luke 7:25 as later than Matthew 11:8 because of its better Greek style, and Luke 11:13 as later than Matthew 7:11 because Luke mentions the gift of the Holy Spirit. Such an analysis confuses the idiosyncrasy of an author with the date of his writing. Moreover, in many instances, according to the same scholars, the version of Luke is more ‘primitive’ than that of Matthew. The upshot of this kind of analysis seems to be that individual cases must be judged on their own merits, and that such judgements will depend on a general view of the development of early Christianity which does not yet exist, if it ever will.

Recently a significant study has been made of the assumptions and the problems involved in postulating the existence of a ‘sayings source’ such as Q, and of the methods to be followed in proving the hypothesis.(T.R. Rosché in JBL 79 [1960] 210-20.) (1) The ‘Q-hypothesis’ cannot be held unless the priority of Mark to Matthew be assumed. (2) In proceeding towards Q one must first investigate the ways in which Matthew and Luke used their extant source Mark. Such an investigation has four results: (a) Luke reproduced Mark’s sayings of Jesus more faithfully than Mark’s narrative material; (b) the changes Luke made in Marcan sayings are chiefly grammatical and stylistic; (c) Matthew too remained close to Mark’s sayings; (d) he changed their wording primarily for stylistic reasons but often preserved their order. (3) Both Matthew and Luke treated Mark’s sayings more respectfully than they did his narrative materials. (4) Since most of the materials found only in Matthew and Luke consist of sayings, it is necessary to see whether or not Matthew and Luke exhibit the same measure of agreement as that found in their treatment of sayings found in Mark. (5) If Matthew and Luke followed the same method in dealing with non-Marcan sayings that they followed in dealing with Marcan sayings, it could be expected that the same degree of agreement would exist in the second case as exists in the first; but it does not exist. (6) The only possible explanations are that (a) Matthew and Luke may not have treated the hypothetical source in the same way, or (b) there is no such source. There are objections to both (a) and (b); the first possibility does not explain why the treatments are different, while the second does not explain the close verbal correspondences in non-Marcan materials common to Matthew and Luke. This objection can be met, however, by reference to carefully memorized oral materials.

If, as seems to be the case in a few of the sayings, a play on Aramaic words underlies our present Greek text, it may be that the original Aramaic should be regarded as closer to the words of Jesus than the words we now possess. But it must be remembered that we do not actually possess such an Aramaic version and that the reconstructions which have been provided must necessarily remain hypothetical.

Our conclusion about Q, then, is that it is no less and no more than a convenient symbol to designate non-Marcan materials common to Matthew and Luke. Since it seems to have been partly written and partly oral, we should not imagine that we are dealing with a written source in any way comparable to Mark. Most of the so-called Q has no greater value than is to be assigned to any of the other materials, oral or written, upon which either Matthew or Luke drew in composing their gospels.


The Synoptic Problem

Enthusiasts for sources have rarely found a happier hunting-ground than when they dealt with the synoptic gospels. Unwilling, apparently, to admit the existence or the value of oral tradition, they have sought to reduce the complexity to be found in the interrelations of the synoptic gospels by using various diagrams to show how the later ones developed. In the early years of this century two types of diagrams were especially popular, the first among liberal Protestants, the second among Catholics.


The first diagram had the virtue, if it was a virtue, of simplicity; the second took account of Papias and patristic tradition, as well as of many of the facts to be found by analysing gospel interrelations. (Some scholars simply confused the issue by identifying Q with the ‘oracles’ compiled by Matthew according to Papias, and saying that Matthew compiled ‘sayings of Jesus’; but Papias’s word ‘logia’ is not the same as ‘logoi’, ‘sayings’.) About 1920 further symmetry was given the first diagram by expanding it to include special sources used by Matthew and by Luke.


 This attractive diagram really conveys no information beyond the fact that both Matthew and Luke used Mark and that, in addition, they have some materials which are common and others which are not common.

Around the same time another theory was devised to explain why, if one removed Marcan materials from Luke, so much remained and why that remainder looked so much like a gospel (the possibility that Luke might have rewritten his sources at some points and not at others was rejected). This theory postulated the existence of something called Proto-Luke, consisting of a document combined out of Q and L (both regarded as written). Proto-Luke, the earliest gospel, was then combined with Mark to make our present Gospel of Luke. The theory carries as much, and as little, conviction as any similar theory essentially based on the removal of part of a book to see what the remainder looks like.

Almost all analysis of this sort ultimately fails because it neglects the extent to which the evangelists were involved in the transmission of the Christian tradition as well as the extent to which they were free to arrange and rewrite their materials in ways which seemed meaningful to them and to the communities of which they were members. It may be that we can create useful hypotheses about the authentic early materials which the evangelists used. What we actually possess consists of the gospels which they wrote.( Statistical material in regard to the gospels and other New Testament books are derived primarily from R. Morganthaler, Statistik des neutestamentlichen Wortschatzes (Frankfurt, 1958).