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The Synoptic Problem and “Bias”: A Rejoinder to Glenn Miller


I feel that the discussion between Miller and me has finally narrowed to the point where we can begin to engage each other in a meaningful way. Yet, the discerning reader has no doubt noticed that we still seem separated by an enormous gulf. Why is this? The answer is that each of us uses very different methodologies in our approach to the gospel narratives. I think it would help if I were to discuss this point before addressing the synoptic problem.

Miller approaches the Bible primarily from a proof-text methodology. The proof-text method assumes that the Bible is the revealed word of God. As such, Christian faith and theological problems are settled by direct appeal to what is written in the Bible-and the Bible is the authentic source of all truth. For instance, if we want to know what the mysterious phrase in the gospels ho huios tou anthropou means, we can comb the various passages in the Septuagint to find a definitive answer. The proof-text method is affirming because it does not approach the text from a critical perspective, preferring instead to give the text the complete benefit of the doubt. For example, the believer who begins her morning by reading the Bible assumes that it is universally valid for all problems of faith. She is not seeking to ask, “did it really happen that way?” but rather she is attempting to find guidance for her life from the wisdom contained in Scripture. She may read the parable of the Prodigal Son in order to cope with a very real problem, perhaps a son or daughter has run away from home, or just to understand the story. While it is not the historian’s task to read the Bible this way, this is still a legitimate way for the believer to read the Bible and the proof-text method should be respected by everyone who has an interest in these discussions. I would not think to ridicule Glenn Miller or any believer for finding spiritual guidance in the Scriptures.

Less sophisticated believers than Miller take the proof-text method a step further and consider the Bible to be literal and inerrant, that is, perfect and without contradiction or error. Inerrancy confuses metaphorical truth with historical fact. It is based primarily on an untenable superstition, akin to idolatry, which holds the letter of the text higher than its spirit. Inerrantists feel that the Bible must be internally consistent and free of historical errors, for if it were not, it would be “unreliable” and could not guide or instruct believers in the faith. Yet, is the woman who finds comfort in reading the story of the Prodigal Son somehow cheated if it should turn out that Jesus did not really say it? I should think not. The story has enormous meaning regardless of whether Jesus originally said it or Luke made it up. The inerrantist forgets about the spirit of the text in his haste to worship the words themselves. I also think that commentators who are obsessed with “proving” biblical contradictions are just as confused as their inerrantist counterparts. Contradictions in the Bible take nothing away from Christianity. As I have continually argued, the gospels are expressions of faith that communicate the belief that God has acted through Christ to bring about salvation to the world. An expression of faith cannot be “true” or “false.” It just is. If I say, “I believe in the indominability of the human spirit,” I am not making a truth claim but expressing a certain attitude about the world. The contradictionist, like the inerrantist, forgets that meaning and faith does not rest upon the words themselves.

Miller’s second enterprise is one of apologetics, the desire to preserve church teaching against critical inquiry. In this regard, conclusions must be shaped to conform to that teaching. It cannot be, for instance, that the evangelical apologist will ever conclude that the historical Jesus did not do and say everything exactly as the gospel narratives relate. I hope that no one misunderstands me, however. I have deep respect for Miller’s apologetical stance. He stands at the end of a respected tradition stretching back to the evangelists themselves. After all, the gospels writers took materials that they had inherited and, by casting them into fictional narratives, they wrote an apology for Jesus as well. However, I am not engaged in apologetics. As I have said, I assume nothing, least of all that the Bible is the revealed word of God. I approach the NT texts from a historical-critical methodology. The historical-critical method is an Enlightenment development that has proved enormously fruitful in understanding ancient texts. It is not an affirming methodology like the proof-text method, but rather a critical apparatus used to engage rigorously with a text. The historian reads a text against the grain in order to “shake it up” and learn more about that text. The historical-critical method takes nothing for granted. It pokes and prods in order to uncover some little bit of interesting fact that might lead to a greater understanding of a text’s overall purpose. The historian looks at something Paul wrote in one of his letters and asks, “Could it have happened that way? What is the Apostle not telling us?” Thus, rather than accepting a religious proof-text as the divinely-inspired word of God, historians assume that the biblical texts are the product of human beings, written with specific purposes in mind. Religious belief is bracketed out of consideration from the outset.

It is important to realize that the critical study of the NT texts requires that a commentator possess the freedom to arrive at conclusions that do not necessarily (although they might) agree with church teaching. It is wrong to think that the critical researcher is a priori biased against this teaching, and therefore, will never conclude to something in agreement with the church. For my part, I am more than willing to grant that many of the sayings in the gospels originate with the historical Jesus. However, I honestly do not know which sayings are more likely to have come from his mouth and which are more likely to be the product of later church tradition. Those who claim that all of the sayings in the gospels originate with the historical Jesus are not taking the critical study of the NT seriously. Unless we wish to opt out of the discussion altogether and accept everything as authentic and divine, we need to use the critical tools of modern scholarship when reading the gospels. Thus, a critical methodology is crucial for studying the NT texts in order to develop criteria for deciding authenticity.

It is this removal of the texts from the sacred to the secular that most disturbs evangelical commentators. I can understand this concern. However, the modern worldview no longer tolerates the insulation of Scripture from critical inquiry. When Miller and his allies cast aspersions and heap insults upon those who do not agree with their conclusions, we must recognize that the Archemedian point from which they stand to denounce modern scholarship is itself being called into question. The proof-text method of interpretation, in which the Bible is insulated from critical inquiry, is no longer viewed as tenable by modern scholarship.

So if the reader is confused as to why two obviously passionate and intelligent writers such as Miller and myself come to radically opposing views, he or she need look no further than to the methodologies that we each employ. I do not at all apologize for the proven historical-critical method and I do not imagine for one moment that Miller feels it necessary to apologize for his proof-text approach. But I do place a great deal more trust in the historical-critical method so I ask that the reader indulge me as I continue to use it. In the end, I think that common sense will show that the historical-critical method has a great deal more to offer than the proof-text approach.

The historical-critical method of inquiry has led to two conclusions about the gospels:

  1. The early church was motivated primarily by theology, not history in the modern sense of the word; therefore, words ascribed to Jesus in the post-Easter situation were treated with equal authority to those words originating from the historical Jesus himself.
  2. The gospels derive from, and are themselves a part of, a developing oral tradition within the ancient Jewish-Christian community; hence, they do not necessarily report the authentic words and deeds of the historical Jesus.

An example of the first tenet would be the Apostle Paul’s tendency to use post-Easter teachings from his revelation of the risen Christ rather than the historical Jesus. The second tenet is supported by such things as the junior Synoptists redaction of Mark or the variations to the canonical form of the words of Jesus found in the Church Fathers’ writings. It would be absurd for me to reinvent the wheel and present a defense of these pillars of biblical scholarship. They have been painstakingly uncovered, elucidated, and form the basis of all modern critical research for both conservatives and liberals alike. If Miller desires to refute them, then his argument is not with me but with mainline scholarship itself. For my part, I shall assume the truth of these tenets in my discussion.

The Synoptic Problem

There is one fact with which everyone is in agreement: the Synoptists, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, relate to one another closely in both narrative order and wording. This fact is not in dispute. What is in dispute is the explanation for why it is that the first three gospels can be “seen together” in this way. The curious relationship between the synoptic gospels constitutes the essence of the synoptic problem.

Miller argues that the synoptic problem is not a “very relevant argument to the issue of bias” and “simply cannot provide any data as to the issue of ‘bias leading to distortion’ on the part of the NT authors.” First, let me reiterate that “bias” is an unfortunate word. It is not very neutral in the way that another term like “redactor” or “editor” might be. I understand bias to be any omission or redaction on the part of a gospel writer for the purpose of furthering a specific theological interpretation. I shall point out numerous examples of this in my discussion of the synoptic problem.

Having said that, I think Miller fails to appreciate just how profound the synoptic problem is with respect to whether or not the evangelists were “biased” in their presentation of the gospel message. The synoptic problem is more than just an interesting exercise or amusing academic puzzle. For if the junior Synoptists were independent of each other and a shared common source, the synoptic problem still lies before us. We are no closer to explaining how the gospels parallel each other in Greek word-for-word across dozens of passages even though Jesus did not speak Greek. However, if one or both of the junior Synoptists are directly dependent upon Mark, then we must explain why they embellish, omit, and redact his narrative. To be aware of Mark, yet add extra material to his account in several significant places, reveals an authorial freedom that suggests material in the oral and written traditions was not as venerated as we moderns tend to think. I might add that this applies, not just to Markan priority, but to Matthean priority as well. For if Saint Augustine was right and Mark really did abbreviate Matthew, then we are left to wonder why Mark felt free to omit, among other things, the infancy narrative and the Sermon on the Mount. This is an aspect of the dilemma that forms the very basis of the charge that the evangelists were biased in their presentation of the gospel narrative. If one evangelist was aware of another, then his omissions and redactions of the other reveal the inherent bias that he has toward his subject. It is the very nature of bias that one would prefer to include some material at the expense of other material. Where does that leave us? Well, on the one hand, if dependency is rejected and the synoptists are thought to be independent writers, the problem remains unsolved and we have gone nowhere. On the other hand, if dependency is assumed, then it must also be admitted that the Synoptists arranged and composed their narratives for specific theological purposes.

Additionally, how we go about solving the synoptic problem has a tremendous effect on the picture of Jesus that emerges from the gospel material. The portrait of Jesus in Luke is significantly different from Mark, which is, in turn, different from Thomas or Q. Therefore, we must take the synoptic problem seriously if we care at all about gaining an insight into who the historical Jesus might have been.

In his discussion, Miller correctly identifies my position. I do see the evangelists as “creative editors” who did not necessarily consider all of their sources (written or oral) as divinely inspired and so felt quite free to craft their narratives by arranging material, omitting it, or if need be, creating new material from wholecloth in order to suite their theological purposes. I still maintain this position and will show numerous examples of intentional arrangement in this paper. In this paper, I will attempt once again to lay out an even more vigorous defense of the two-source theory. I think it best explains the relationship between the synoptic gospels.


It is very difficult to determine exactly what Miller’s position is in his discussion of the synoptic problem, however. Against my view, he seems to support the idea that gospel differences can be explained as either (1) “simple variances due to eyewitness factors” or “stylistic preferences” on the part of the gospel writer; or (2) “non-ideological disagreements.” If either of these positions are plausible, Miller thinks that my argument is less probable. Unfortunately, Miller does not explain what an “eyewitness factor” is and how exactly this factor might lead to a simple variant between the Synoptists. Nor is it very clear why he suggests that disagreements can be explained by preferences in style of presentation. In neither case does he provide an example. Surely it can be seen, just in the disparate versions of the infancy and passion narratives alone, that the Synoptists’ disagreements go beyond mere stylistic preference?

Along these lines, Miller suggests defensively that differences might also be nothing more than non-ideological disagreements. This assumes, of course, that the gospel writers were very clear about matters of ideology. But what might an ideological disagreement be like in the context of the first-century Jesus movement? The evangelists themselves did not share a universal idea of what was essential or inessential to the faith. Even after the gospels were written, the history of ancient Christianity clearly attests to the fact that no single consensus emerged at such an early stage in the development of the church. To elevate the written gospels to the lofty status that they enjoy today would be a mistake. It is clear from Papias’s testimony as well as I Clement that early Christians did not consider the written gospels to be more authoritative than the material still circulating in the oral tradition. Although Mark’s gospel is believed to have been written for the Romans, Clement of Rome and Ignatius make no mention of it in their writings. Further, after the fall of Jerusalem the church was no longer led from a single location. The surviving communities had to decide for themselves which writings were ecclesiastical, and therefore, authoritative and profitable for teaching.

Well into the second century, apocryphal gospels were still used in Alexandria and elsewhere and considered authoritative alongside the canonical gospels. Clement of Alexandria used the Gospels of the Hebrews and Egyptians, Jude, and the Apocalypse of Peter as well as the Shepherd of Hermas, Barnabas, and the Didache. Justin Martyr tells us that the “Memoirs of the Apostles,” perhaps referring to Matthew and Luke, were being used for liturgical purposes in Rome. However, Justin did not consider them to be Holy Scripture and freely adapted and revised them to create a single harmony. His student Tatian will later create the Diatessaron, a harmony that omitted and redacted material from the four gospels and which was very popular, circulating widely in the West as well as in Syria. This demonstrates that even at this late date the gospels were still not afforded the same inerrant status as the Hebrew scriptures. The fact is the various communities were free to develop the material about Jesus depending upon their needs. The Gospel of John, for instance, thrived in Alexandria among the Mandaean Gnostics for many decades before it came to be circulated outside of that city and eventually canonized. The fact that we have many different extant gospels, both canonical and noncanonical, emphasizing different aspects of Jesus’ teaching, demonstrates that no clear ideology had yet emerged from the various primitive communities. To suggest that one gospel is more authoritative than another, simply because it represents the teachings of the church today, is nothing more than an arbitrary decision based on a normative prejudice. The external evidence is very clear: the written gospels were profitable for teaching but not considered more authoritative than the thriving oral tradition circulating among the ancient communities during the first two hundred years.

Elaine Pagels in The Gnostic Gospels, convincingly demonstrates that the battle between Gnostics and Catholics during the first two hundred years of the Jesus movement revolved around one important ideological disagreement. The Gnostics argued that the “true church” promoted a qualitative and egalitarian relationship among its members while the catholic “heretics” identified themselves with ecclesiastical hierarchy through the bishop. The Gnostics directly challenged bishopric authority, anticipating the Protestant Reformation, by insisting that the individual Christian could commune directly with God without the intercessory role of the church. The Gnostic gospel Apocalypse of Peter advances this idea by writing:

“those who are from the life . . . having been enlightened,’ discriminate for themselves between what is true and false. Belonging to ‘the remnant . . . summoned to knowledge [gnosis],’ they neither attempt to dominate others nor do they subject themselves to the bishops and deacons, those ‘waterless canals.’ Instead they participate in ‘the wisdom of the brotherhood that really exists . . . the spiritual fellowship with those united in communion’ (Pagels 106).

The universal (catholic) viewpoint of the dominant community in Rome emerged over time along with the gradual formation of the canon. Catholicism did not come together all at once following the immediate situation after the passion. The eventual triumph of Catholic Christianity resulted more from a superior organizational structure than anything else. The Gnostic Christians’ emphasis on individual wisdom and direct communion with Christ fractionalized the movement into intimate groups who were unable to compete with the coalescing power of the hierarchical Catholic Church. Even so, some Church Fathers who embraced Catholicism early in their career came to reject it later. Tertullian identified himself as a catholic against the Gnostics, whom he called “heretics,” but late in life Tertullian rejected orthodox teaching and embraced Montanism. Hippolytus was the bishop of Rome for seven years from 223-230 CE. He broke from Catholicism after a wrongly imprisoned (thus martyred) deacon named Calixtus, whom Hippolytus discovered was not a martyr at all but was imprisoned because he had embezzled money entrusted to him, was nevertheless elected bishop of the church in Rome even after Hippolytus publicly raised the accusation against him. Tertullian and Hippolytus came to reject Catholicism as the “true church.” The history of Christianity clearly indicates that the movement was diverse in its early period of formation and that no clear universal teaching was yet in place. It is only in the fifth century, after the Church in Rome gains political power under the Emperor Constantine, that a single dominant voice speaks for all of Christendom.

Triple Tradition Material

Miller argues that there are at least three theories that can resolve the triple tradition material shared by each synoptist: (1) Eyewitness Theory; (2) Oral Tradition Theory; and (3) Literary Dependence Theory. The Eyewitness Theory suggests that all three synoptists based their narratives on firsthand eyewitness accounts. The Oral Tradition Theory suggests that all three synoptists drew upon the strands of material then circulating in the oral tradition. Last, the Literary Dependence Theory suggests that some of the evangelists procured a great deal of their common material either from another evangelist, another external written source, or a combination of both.

Concerning these three theories, it is necessary to point out something crucial to the discussion. The Eyewitness Theory reduces to the Oral Tradition Theory. Of the three synopticists, only one, Matthew, is named after a disciple of Jesus. Thus, only one of the writers can be considered to be an eyewitness to the historical Jesus. The other two must rely upon second- or third-hand accounts. In the case of Matthew’s gospel, we do not know whether his gospel was in fact written by him. The name is merely a convention that derives from church tradition in the second century when the Church Father Papias speaks of the logia written in Hebrew by Matthew. But the canonical Matthew we possess was written in Greek, not Hebrew. Also, there is no reason to think that this logia is even a written gospel rather than a reference to the oral tradition itself. Some have assumed that the gospel we now know as Matthew was written by Matthew the tax collector and disciple of Jesus mentioned in Matthew 9:9 and 10:3. However, Mark’s gospel does not mention a tax collector named Matthew, but instead mentions “Levi the son of Alphaeus” (2:14). Some other less-reliable Markan manuscripts substitute “James” for “Levi,” and Luke’s parallel agrees with canonical Mark in that the tax collector’s name is Levi (5:27). However, as I have argued in depth elsewhere (and will do so again here), since Matthew depends upon Mark’s gospel it is highly improbable that Jesus’ disciple Matthew wrote the gospel that now bears his name. This is strengthened when we realize, as I shall demonstrate later, that Matthew relies upon Mark for the narrative sequence of events in the life of Jesus. If Matthew’s gospel were written by an eyewitness, we should not expect such literary dependence.

Like Matthew, the name “Mark” also comes from second-century church tradition. Mark might have been the “John Mark” of Acts 15:37-39 (and elsewhere) or the follower of Peter mentioned in 1 Peter 5:13. There is no way to tell because the writer did not leave any indication of his or her identity on the manuscript. Thus, like Matthew’s gospel, Mark’s writer is anonymous. In any case, we have good reason to believe that Mark’s narrative is not based on eyewitness testimony either. Even if we assume that Mark was Peter’s hermeneutes, this does not imply that Peter dictated events word-for-word to Mark. Papias defends Mark against a presbyter who argued that Mark had misinterpreted certain events in his gospel:

Mark was the interpreter of Peter and wrote down accurately, though not in order, that which he remembered of what was said or done by the Lord. He had, of course, neither heard the Lord nor did he follow him, but later, as I said, Peter. The latter adapted his teaching to the needs of the moment, but not as if he wanted to make a compilation of the Lord’s sayings, so that Mark made no mistake when he wrote down some things as he remembered them.

The first thing to notice in this passage is the sequence of events. Papias tells us that Mark did not follow Jesus, but rather he followed Peter. Unfortunately, Papias does not tell us what happened to Peter. Presumably, Peter had died, leaving the task to Mark to write down “that which he remembered” of Peter’s teachings. Mark did not write down everything that Peter taught, but rather “some things as he remembered them.” Apparently, some contemporaries of Papias took exception with Mark’s accuracy since Papias feels the need to come to Mark’s defense, suggesting that Mark “made no mistake” in his recollection of Peter’s teachings even though he did not write them down in order.

The anonymous author of Luke was not a disciple either, but church tradition places the name “Luke” with the beloved physician of Col. 4:14. In his prologue Luke alludes to the oral tradition as the source of his material. He writes that others have compiled narratives based on those things “as they were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers [huperetai] of the word” (1:2). From this we can safely conclude that Luke is at least a second generation Christian.

Therefore, since the anonymous authors of the synoptic gospels based their narratives, not on firsthand experience, but on oral tradition, presbyters, or others who knew a disciple, there is no support for the Eyewitness Theory. We are left with two of Miller’s working theories: the Oral Tradition Theory and the Literary Dependence Theory.

Oral Tradition Transmission

Of course, as Miller notes, these two theories are not at all incompatible with each other. In fact, given the preference and popularity of the oral tradition in the first two centuries of the cult, it is inconceivable that an evangelist based his gospel solely on written sources. Luke hints at the materials that he was aware of in his prologue:

Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us, just as they were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus” (1:1-4).

We learn that others before Luke attempted to write a narrative. The fact that Luke finds it necessary to supplement their work with another narrative suggests that Luke finds their attempts lacking somehow. Perhaps he was not satisfied with the order of the stories in these narratives, since he tells his benefactor that his is an “orderly narrative.” The point is that Luke is aware of these prior written narratives and is himself not writing from a vacuum. Additionally, like all first-century Christians he is also aware of the stories told within the thriving oral tradition by various presbyters who were close to one or more of the disciples.

Miller desires to see all of Jesus’ words as preserved word-for-word in the canonical gospels only because he wishes to counter those who suggest that the evangelists changed or put words in Jesus’ mouth. However, this wish is not supported by the gospels themselves. I mentioned that the historical Jesus was an itinerant teacher, therefore, he repeated his sayings over and over again to many different audiences. This practice preserves the gist of a saying, that is, its essence or punchline, and in no way preserves word-for-word similarity. For example, a woman running for Congressional office may have a very simple message for voters while she is on the campaign trail. Suppose that her message is that she wishes to raise taxes to pay for more school teachers, which will, in turn, reduce class sizes and promote a better learning environment for students. Her stump speech will probably revolve around a simple catchy slogan such as “we need to invest in our children.” This slogan will take various forms: “investment in our children is important” or “we need to invest in our future” or perhaps even “invest in our children for the future.” In each of these cases, the essence of the slogan is discernable in its various forms. We see this phenomenon occur in the sayings of the historical Jesus as well. As an oral teacher Jesus relied upon short, quick phrases that could be filled out into longer discourse as the teacher found appropriate. Thus we have such memorable lines as “Treat people the way you want them to treat you,” “Can one blind person guide another?” and “those who will be first are last, and those who will be last are first.” The internal evidence preserves various forms of these single one-line slogans. For example, Matthew 23:27 reads, “You scholars and Pharisees, you imposters! Damn you! You are like whitewashed tombs: on the outside they look beautiful, but inside they are full of dead bones and every kind of decay.” But Luke’s parallel reads, “Damn you! You are like unmarked graves that people walk on without realizing it” (11:44). Hippolytus was aware of another version that read, “You are whitewashed tombs filled within with dead men’s bones.” Like the various forms of the politician’s slogan, this saying has a discernable essence behind its various written forms. No one of them can be said to be the authentic words of Jesus, but rather all of them capture the bare gist of things Jesus often said.

One of the most important of these fluid short sayings is the Lord’s Prayer, perhaps the most important words of Jesus remembered in the Christian faith. Yet, it too was not memorized and preserved word-for-word as Miller would have it, but rather the essence of the saying is preserved in various forms. The two junior Synoptists preserve the saying as:

Eipen de autois. hotan proseuchesthe, legete. Pater,

hagiastheto to onoma sou.

elthato he basileia sou.


ton arton hemon ton epiousion didou hemin
to kath hemeran.

kai aphes hemin tas hamartias hemon,

kai gar autoi aphiomen panti opheilonti hemin.

kai me eisenegkeis hemas eis peirasmon.

(Lk. 11:2-4)

Houtos oun proseuchesthe humeis.

Pater hemon ho en tois ouranois,

hagiastheto to onoma sou.

elthato he basileia sou. genetheto to thelema sou hos en ouranoi kai epi ges.

ton arton hemon ton epiousion dos hemin semeron.


kai aphes hemin ta opheilemata hemon,

hos kai hemeis aphekamen tois opheiletais hemon.

kai me eisenegkeis hemas eis peirasmon,

alla hrusai hemas apo tou ponerou. ean gar aphete tois anthropois ta paraptomata auton, aphesei kai humin ho pater humon ho ouranios. ean de me aphete tois anthropois, oude ho pater humon aphesei ta paraptomata humon.

(Mt. 6:9-15)

While Luke’s version is much more economical, the word stem agreements (denoted in black) between them contains the essence of the saying. For example both Matthew and Luke agree that Jesus taught to pray using Pater but Mathew adds an additional salutation, hemon ho en tois ouranois, that is missing from Luke. Here is the Scholar’s Version of the Lord’s Prayer:

He said to them, “When you pray, you should say:

Your name be revered.

Impose your imperial rule.


Provide us with the bread we need day by day.

Forgive our sins, since we too

Forgive everyone in debt to us.

And please don’t subject us to test after test.”

(Lk. 11:2-4)

Instead you should pray like this:

Our Father in the heavens,

your name be revered.

Impose your imperial rule,

enact your will on earth as you have in heaven.

Provide us with the bread we need for the day.

Forgive our debts

To the extent that we have

forgiven those in debt to us.

And please don’t subject us to test after test,

but rescue us from the evil one.

For if you forgive others their failures and offenses, your heavenly Father will also forgive yours. And if you don’t forgive the failures and mistakes of others, your Father won’t forgive yours.

(Mt. 6:9-15)

While there are important differences in these two versions of the Lord’s Prayer that I will not go into here, I do wish to emphasize the striking similarities. Both Synoptists agree that Jesus taught to pray to God using the name “Father,” to rever his name, to impose the “imperial rule,” to provide our daily bread, to forgive us to the extent that we forgive others, and to spare us from “test after test.” The pericope does not agree word-for-word throughout but the essence of the saying can still be discerned. We get a sense of what Jesus must have originally said by comparing these two passages against each other as well as their variants. Mark preserves only a single line of the saying:

“And when you stand up to pray, if you are holding anything against anyone, forgive them, so your Father in heaven may forgive your misdeeds” (11:25).

Although this line contains some of the essence of the saying, its differences probably indicate that it derived from a different tradition than the common source that the junior Synoptists used. This saying is paralleled somewhat in another place in Luke, with the very short, “Don’t pass judgment, and you won’t be judged” (6:37), which interestingly is reduced still further to the imperative statement, “Do not pass judgment!” in the noncanonical Gospel of Mary. Thus we cannot place too much emphasis on the written words themselves at the expense of the story’s bare essence as it circulated in its various forms in the oral tradition. We do not know the exact words of Jesus-indeed, since he repeated them time and time again in different ways as the teaching situation demanded, it would be foolish to fixate on only one codified form-but we can infer the gist of his meaning by looking at what the sayings all share in common. Of course, neither evangelist really knew when and under what circumstances Jesus delivered these sayings. But there is nothing wrong with what Matthew and Luke did in providing a fictional setting for Jesus. We must remember that, as an iterant rural preacher, the historical Jesus was likely to have repeated the same aphorisms and parables over and over again to many different audiences in many different contexts and settings. Jesus himself probably never told the same story exactly the same way twice. The oral tradition preserved these short sayings in their various forms, which thrived in the primitive Jesus movement after his death until certain sayings eventually came to be written down. Further, it is likely that Jesus used them over and over again to expand upon something important to those for whom he preached. It is misguided to ask whether Jesus taught the Lord’s Prayer while on top of a mountain or instead on the road to Jerusalem. He probably taught it dozens of times, but since a written narrative is a far more permanent medium than story telling, the evangelists chose one geographical setting for Jesus in order to provide a suitable backdrop for his saying. That might be the best that can be said. The essence of the historical Jesus is there, but only as a shadow of the later church traditions about him.

Given the fluidity of the sayings in their various forms, when we come across instances where the Synoptists preserve word-for-word agreement, we should sit up and take notice. Why is it that, given the variations of sayings such as the Lord’s Prayer in the oral tradition, Matthew and Luke come to share word-for-word agreement in fifty or so pericopae not found in Mark? Linnemann suggests that word-for-word agreement between the Synoptists are explained by the rote memorization techniques between rabbis and pupils in the ancient world. She writes, “Jesus’ disciples, who sat at his feet and were sent out in his name for three years’ time, could have preserved such reminiscences, which assumed varied shapes in the telling, by memory.” If Linnemann’s theory were correct, we should expect word-for-word agreement in Jesus’ core teachings, only general agreement in the broad details of the narrative events, and little, if any, memory of the teachings of John the Baptist, another teacher altogether. Yet, the narrative divurgences and word-for-word agreements do not support this theory. The Lord’s Prayer is only loosely preserved while the Baptist’s teachings (e.g., Lk. 3:7-9; Mt. 3:7-10) are paralleled word-for-word between Matthew and Luke. Linnemann’s hypothesis is an ad hoc modification to the evangelical belief that the gospels preserve the exact words of Jesus. But we have seen that the oral tradition did not preserve Jesus’ teaching word-for-word; thus, we must take some form of literary dependency seriously when it comes to double tradition material.

Literary Dependence

There are places where the Synoptists seem to rely upon one of their own who is prior, another source such as Q or a proto-Matthew, and upon sayings that can only come from the oral tradition. In the end, any theory that seeks to solve the synoptic problem must take into account that both oral and written materials were used by the evangelists in composing their gospels. Earlier I had demonstrated that Miller’s Eyewitness Theory reduces to his Oral Tradition Theory. Now, I am suggesting that the Oral Tradition Theory and the Literary Dependence Theory are both not only compatible, but completely necessary for a full explanation of gospel origins.

Miller’s exposition as a whole is a useful illustration of his own “Wittgenstein’s Net” parable (which probably derives from Wittgenstein’s discussion of Newtonian mechanics in the sixth section of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus). The net parable as Miller relates it, describes a case where two men use a net with a two-inch square mesh to pull fish from a lake. After pulling up the net, the men measure the length of every fish that they had caught, concluding that there are no fish of less than two inches in length in the lake. The point here is that the form an investigation takes also determines its outcome. We see this phenomenon in Miller’s rebuttal to my argument. Miller relies almost solely upon two fundamentalist commentators, Eta Linnemann (Is There a Synoptic Problem?) and John Wenham (Redating Matthew, Mark and Luke). This is the same Eta Linnemann who wrote an article for Bible Review (August 1995; 19-23, 42-43) in which she questions the religious convictions of other scholars with whom she disagrees, strangely accusing them of “despising God’s word,” and even pronouncing Paul’s curse of Galatians 1:9 upon them!

Dependency upon Mark or a sayings source by Matthew and Luke does not preclude the likelihood that each also drew upon material from the oral tradition. Miller needlessly casts the issue in dichotomous terms: either one must support literary dependency or one must “fall back” on an oral transmission theory. Miller writes that many “scholars have abandoned the position of any literary dependence, with some of them falling back to the vaguer ‘oral tradition’ models.” This dichotomy falsely assumes that those who support the two-source hypothesis are still stalled in the literaturkritisch method of the nineteenth century, which did tend to overemphasize the total literary dependency of the Synoptists either upon each other or earlier written traditions such as the Urmarkus. These older theories, advanced notably by Lachmann, assumed wrongly that the synoptic texts came from previous texts that, in turn, owed their existence to rabbinic-pupil dictations of the historical Jesus to his disciples. At the time, since Life of Jesus research dominated the field, many implicitly supposed that the gospels contained a core eyewitness account of the actual words and deeds of Jesus. For this reason, who can blame such scholars for their overreliance upon literary dependency? After all, they were standing in the shadows of giants like Augustine and Griesbach who had previously advocated strong forms of literary dependency. Indeed, Miller himself has advocated this literaturkritisch viewpoint of gospel formation elsewhere. However, Miller has now changed his mind, arguing that the “evangelical scholar” should deny literary dependency and look toward pure oral transmission theories.

In any case, given the tremendous importance and priority the oral tradition enjoyed over the written gospels in the first two centuries, it is strange to think that any commentator of the past fifty years advocates the strawman position that Miller portrays. Such a notion ignores the tremendous importance that Papias and other early Church Fathers in the first two centuries placed upon the thriving oral tradition. Are we to believe, for example, that Luke’s travel narrative in the central section had to come from some extant written source or else he made the entire thing up? Miller has wrongly cast the debate in terms of those who believe exclusively in an oral tradition theory of synoptic transmission versus those who believe exclusively in a literary dependence theory of synoptic transmission. However, I have elsewhere emphasized the importance of the kerygma in gospel formation. William Wrede’s watershed work on the Messianic Secret and Julius Wellhausen’s insight into the influence of the kerygma upon the primitive synoptic transmission still informs modern critical opinion of the synoptic gospels. In fact, the whole enterprise of the form critics under Bultmann, who analyzed individual pericopae for their Sitz im Leben, discovered that Mark’s gospel owed its stories to a thriving oral tradition rather than a prior Urmarkus theory. So I am very confused by Miller’s analysis. On the one hand, he has vigorously opposed me in the past for embracing the findings of the form critics who tended to reject the overreliance upon literary dependency in favor of oral traditions that survived within the community. Yet, now he seems to favor what he earlier rejected, suggesting with Linnemann that the “evangelical scholar” is one who denies all literary dependence in favor of depency upon oral traditions passed down from the early Christian communities. I suspect that this change of heart owes more to the expediency of the immediate argument rather than to any serious methodological conclusion.

Miller engages in a brief exposition of Wenham, who finds that “some kind of interdependence” is probable between Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Linnemann, however, decides that there is little evidence of narrative agreement, thus interdependence is improbable. Miller presents an exposition of Linnemann’s reasons for concluding that, since there are too few narrative agreements in the triple tradition, literary dependence is unwarranted. Miller’s reading of Linnemann is that if agreement in order is said to support Markan priority, then divergences must be said to militate against Markan priority. Linnemann finds that of Mark’s 115 sections, only 58 appear in the same sequence in the triple tradition; thus, one-half of Mark’s pericopae are repeated out of sequence by the so-called junior Synoptists. Thus, Linnemann attacks the very basis for the supposition that one of the Synoptists provided the narrative framework for one or both of the others. Just how tenable is Linnemann’s argument and ought we place the high level of confidence in her that Miller does? I shall show that we should not. The easiest way to demonstrate this is to examine carefully the Markan narrative framework against a junior Synoptist to look for counterexamples of agreement. Since Augustine and Griesbach believed that Mark redacted Matthew, and the Q theorists believe that Matthew redacted Mark, I shall compare Matthew and Mark to test for agreement in order.

Let me begin by breaking Mark down into six logical units: (a) The Galilean Section to the Sending Out of the Twelve (1:1-6:6); (b) The Sending Out of the Twelve to the Judean Section (6:7-9:50); (c) The Journey to Jerusalem (10); (d) The Days in Jerusalem (11-13:4); (e) The Synoptic Apocalypse (13:5-37); and (f) The Passion Narrative and Last Supper (14-16:8). My analysis of the Galilean Section is based on Kümmel’s research in his Introduction. The Galilean Section’s pericopae can be broken down as follows:


The pericopae in bold indicate disagreements in sequence. Specifically, the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law (1:29-34), the woman with the menstrual flow sandwiched between Jarius’ Daughter (5:21-43), the Calling of the Twelve (3:13-19), Calming of the Storm (4:35-41), and the Gerasene Demoniac (5:1-20) are out of sequence between Matthew and Mark. However, upon closer inspection it can be seen that there are only two divergences: a gathering by Matthew of works of wonder, and a reorganization of the gathering and sending out of the disciples.

If Matthew redacted Mark, he did so in two blocks, each containing two pericopae: (1) the block at 8:14-17, 23-24, and (2) the block at 9:18-26; 10:1-4. In both divergences it can be seen why Matthew would choose to rearrange Mark’s material. The healings of Mark 1:29-34 and 4:35-41, together with the exorcism at 5:1-20, form part of Matthew’s miracle cycle following the Sermon on the Mount (5-7). In this way, Matthew’s narrative follows an intentional order. Jesus first is baptized, then delivers his teaching, and backs up that teaching with healings, an exorcism, and miracles. Mark’s narrative is awkward regarding the calling and sending out the twelve (3:13-19; 6:6-13). He tells us first that Jesus goes up on a mountain “and summons those he wanted, and they come to him. He formed a group of twelve to be his companions, and to be sent out to speak, and to have authority to drive out demons” (3:13-15). After a discourse of parables, a miracle, exorcism, and healings, Jesus then “summoned the twelve and started sending them out in pairs giving them authority over unclean spirits” (6:7). It is obvious that 6:7 is a doublet of 3:15 since kai echein exousian ekballein ta daimonia parallels kai ediou autois exousian ton pneumaton ton akatharton. It is far more difficult to explain this doublet as an intentional splitting up of Matthew 10:1-5 than it is to see that it is an inheritance of two versions of a single story in the oral tradition. Matthew recognizes that this is so and reorganized the doublet, seeking to smooth it out into a single narrative.

Let us look at the remaining five logical units of Mark all at once. I do this for an important reason that will be seen shortly:

To the Judean Section
Journey to Jerusalem
The Days In Jerusalem
The Synoptic Apocalypse
Passion and Last Supper

There are no divergences from Mark’s order by Matthew (or from Matthew’s order by Mark) in the remaining five logical units. All four divergences occur only in the Galilean Period. This phenomenon is by no means confined to Matthew and Mark. Lachmann found that after Mark 6:7, Luke and Mark also largely agree in narrative sequence. Kümmel finds only four instances in the Galilean Period in which Luke diverges from Mark, divergences which, like Matthew’s, are easily explained in light of Luke’s Sermon on the Plain interpolation at 6:20-49.

Markan Priority

Often, it is said that agreement does not, in and of itself, prove Markan priority since Mark may well have followed one of the others. This is true. However, when we see instances where Matthew betrays knowledge of Mark’s gospel, this agrees strongly with Markan priority. In a previous paper, I had outlined a few cases where Matthew reveals his knowledge of Mark’s gospel. Let me summarize two of those cases now.

In the Healing of the Paralytic (Mk. 2:1-12; Mt. 9:1-8), Mark alone tells us that some men carrying the paralytic could not get near Jesus and so dug a hole in the mud roof to lower the paralytic down to Jesus. Then, “when Jesus saw their faith (tan pesten auton) he heals the paralytic. Matthew omits the crucial context of the crowd and the mens’ digging through the roof, yet retains Mark’s phraseology tan pesten auton, thus betraying knowledge of Mark’s story even though he omitted it in his own version. Matthew is also aware of Mark’s version of the Death of John (Mk. 6:17-29; Mt. 14:3-12). Mark tells us that Herod feared John but imprisoned him anyway because Herodias, his wife, had a grudge against John. Herodias wanted to kill John but Herod “kept him safe” against her and “heard him gladly” when John taught. When Herodias’s daughter tricks Herod and demands John’s head on a platter, Herod “was exceedingly sorry” but did as the girl asked because of his promise. Matthew heavily redacts Mark’s version of the story, omitting everything about Herod’s respect and fear for John, instead telling us that Herod “wanted to put him to death.” Yet, when Herodias’s daughter asks for John’s head, Matthew repeats Mark’s phraseology and writes “the king [baseleus] was sorry, but because of his oath and his guests” he beheads John anyway. Of course, from 14:1, Matthew knows full well that Herod was not a king but a tetrarch. In borrowing the story from Mark, he forgets this fact and repeats Mark’s error.

Where are we then? In the triple tradition there are very few instances in which the narrative sequence of pericopae are not shared by at least two Synoptists, and in all but a few minor cases, Matthew or Luke support Mark’s narrative sequence. Further, we have seen two cases in which Matthew betrays knowledge of Mark’s gospel. Thus, there is no support whatsoever for Linneman’s argument that there exists no agreement in narrative sequence within the triple tradition. Based on Linnemann’s analysis, Miller concludes:

“the LD hypothesis [literary dependence], although a reasonable explanation for the similarities in order, is rendered useless by its abject inability to account for the manifold differences in order and sequence in the Synoptics.”

Or put simpler: interdependence is reasonable given similarities in order but unreasonable given differences in order. Such an internally contradictory conclusion offers us nothing very useful, however. Given the remarkable agreement in sequence within the triple tradition the evidence very much supports Markan priority and literary dependence upon Mark by the two junior Synoptists.

Sayings Source

Linnemann’s argument against Q rests upon the notion that Q passages must possess “identity in actual wording,” so that if there is insufficient identity in wording then the Q gospel can be safely dismissed as a “liberal” conjecture. Not surprisingly, Linnemann cites John Wenham’s book above asher source for the argument. The existence of Q does not stand or fall upon the literal wording of the individual pericopae, but rather the Q hypothesis derives its strength from the broader explanation it provides for the entire relationship between all three synoptic gospels. Like Wittgenstein’s net, Miller’s narrow use of these two sources determines the conclusion that there exists “a significant erosion” of support for the two-source hypothesis, “losing ground and adherents daily” as he puts it. Miller quotes Zondervan’s Introduction favorably by writing, “the two-source theory has been [appropriately] dethroned [from] the status of being an ‘assured [result] of scholarship’.” Of course, never have I seen any NT scholar describe the Two-Source (or any other) theory as an “assured result” although critics like Farmer often complain, rightly so, that its dominance seems to marginalize competing theories. Since Miller seems only to have looked at a few fundamentalist commentators, it is no surprise when he concludes that adherents are quickly abandoning the two-source theory.

The internal evidence shows convincingly that Linnemann is wrong. Her analysis fails to explain the curious phenomenon of doublets in the triple tradition. Doublets are a repeat of the same story in a gospel so that the saying appears to be part of the double tradition and triple tradition simultaneously. The existence of doublets in the junior Synoptists, which are shared by Mark, argues strongly for the existence of the Q gospel because they indicate places where material is paralleled from Mark and another source. One interesting example is the Purpose of Parables in Luke 8:16-18. The verse 8:16 is paralleled in Mark 4:21. However there is a curious doublet at Luke 11:33 in the Great Interpolation that is paralleled in Matthew 5:15. Likewise, 8:17 is redacted from Mark 4:22, but the doublet at 12:2, paralleled in Matthew 10:26, betrays a source other than Mark for the same saying. Last, Luke 8:18, from Mark 4:25 has a doublet in 19:26. In this passage Matthew also contains a doublet, the parallel to Mark at 13:12 and a saying from another source at 25:29. The only realistic solution to the doublets in the Synoptics is the existence of a Q source, which Matthew and Luke were both aware of and used in addition to Mark’s gospel.

Material found only in the double tradition argues strongly in favor of a written sayings source as well. Consider John’s Preaching of Repentance in Luke 3:7-9, paralleled in Matthew 3:7-10. Words in blue denote text unique to the evangelist while those words in black denote words shared between the two evangelists:

Elegen oun tois ekporeuomenois ochlois baptisthenai hupo autou.

gennemata echidnon, tis hupedeixen humin phugein apo tes mellouses orges? poiesate oun karpous axious tes metanoias. kai me arxesthe legein en heautois. Patera exomen ton Abraam. lego gar humin hoti dunatai ho theos ek ton lithon touton egeirai tekna toi Abraam. ede de kai he axine pros ten hrizan ton dendron keitai.

pan oun dendron me poioun karpon kalon ekkoptetai kai eis pur balletai. (Lk. 3:7-9)
Idon de pollous ton Pharisaion kai Saddoukaion erchomenous epi to baptisma eipen autois.

gennemata echidnon, tis hupedeixen humin phugein apo tes mellouses orges? poiesate oun karpous axious tes metanoias, kai me dozete legein en heautois. patera exomen ton Abraam. lego gar humin hoti dunatai ho theos ek ton lithon touton egeirai tekna toi Abraam. ede de he

axine pros ten hrizan ton dendron keitai.

pan oun dendron me poioun karpon kalon ekkoptetai kai eis pur balletai. (Mt. 3:7-10)

Notice that in this saying the Baptist’s taunt gennemata echidnon is first prefaced by a short narrative. Interestingly, each Synoptist crafts his introduction to direct John’s attack against a different target. Luke tells us that John addresses an ochlois while Matthew has John speak only to the Pharisees and Sadducees (the pronoun autois referring back to ton Pharisaion kai Saddoukaion.) If Luke were redacting Matthew’s gospel we would have to ask ourselves why he removed the polemic against the Pharisees and Sadducees. A simpler explanation is that Luke and Matthew are unaware of each other’s use of this saying and have written their own introductory narrative for the saying. We learn something of the motives of each Synoptist by comparing the two prefaces:

He [John] would say to the crowds that came out to get baptized by him,


“You brood of vipers!”

When he [John] saw that many of the Pharisees and Sadducees were coming for baptism, he said to them,

“You brood of vipers!”

Luke’s John chastises the entire crowd and there is no mention of the presence of Pharisees and Sadducees; yet, Matthew’s John singles out the Jewish religious leaders for a polemic and excludes the larger crowds from this attack. This is no stylistic flourish or trivial disagreement. Luke has John reprimand the entire crowd, while Matthew takes the opportunity to deliver a specific polemic against the Jewish religious leaders, whom Matthew writes into the story for this specific purpose. (We saw this in 23:27 when Matthew compared the Pharisees to whitewashed tombs as well.) As the reader can see by examining the two versions, this observation is not the result of some mysterious psychoanalysis, but is the direct result of a careful and critical reading of the texts. Why then, if Luke and Matthew do not hesitate to disagree on their preface do they then proceed to agree word-for-word on the Baptist’s words? The common sense solution is that each is using a common source, probably written, between them. If each Synoptist received this story from the oral tradition, we should expect to see subtle as well as overt alterations to the material as a result of the necessity for oral and aural structural requirements just as we saw in the Lord’s Prayer.

Achtemeier points out something that Miller, Linnemann, and Wenham have also insisted, namely, late Western antiquity was “a culture of high residual orality” and as such the written word was far less important than the aural clue or the formulaic inclusio of a story (JBL 109/1 [1990] 3-27). Due to the needs of an orally-transmitted story, we should not expect to see word-for-word agreement between the two Synoptists in this pericope, but rather we should see variations between the two versions. For example, Matthew’s doublet to this pericope reads, “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (7:19). The fact that we do see word-for-word agreement suggests some kind of literary dependency.

It might be that from the beginning the oral tradition preserved only a short phrasing to the effect that “John was baptizing.” If so, a presbyter telling and retelling the story might begin by saying, “they were coming to be baptized” or “a crowd came to John for baptism one day” or any of a number of variations to the essence of this phrase. For example, in his Against Heresies, Epiphanius reports another variation that made its way into the Gospel of the Ebionites that read, “John was baptizing and Pharisees went out to him and were baptized, and all Jerusalem” (30.13.6). These are the sorts of normal variations thriving in the oral tradition, which we should expect to see in the Baptist’s saying on repentance as well. The fact that Matthew and Luke agree word-for-word should alert us to a phenomenon very different from shared oral material. Alternatively, the saying might have had no introduction at all in the oral tradition save for a short “John said” such as in the wisdom sayings of the Gospel of Thomas. If this is so, it would then have fell to the junior Synoptists to create from scratch the introductory narrative that we find in the canonical gospels.

The case for dependence upon a common written source by Matthew and Luke does not rise and fall with a single pericope, however. The case for a Sayings Source is cumulative given the fifty or so shared sayings (and two narratives) not found in the triple tradition in which the junior Synoptists agree word-for-word. Consider this next example, that of the Baptist’s Question in Luke 7:18-23 and paralleled in Matthew 11:2-6:

Kai apengelan Ioannei hoi mathetai autou peri panton touton. kai proskalesamenos duo tinas ton matheton autou ho Ioannes epempsen pros ton kurion legon.

su ei ho erchomenos, he allon prosdokomen? paragenomenoi de pros auton hoi andres eipan. Ioannes ho baptistes apesteilen hemas pros se legon. su ei ho erchomenos, e allon prosdokomen? en ekeinei tei horai etherapeusen pollous apo noson kai mastigon kai pneumaton poneron, kai tuphlois pollois echaristato blepein.

kai apokritheis eipen autois.

poreuthentes apangeilate Ioannai ha eidete

kai ekousate. tuphloi anablepousin, choloi peripatousin, nekroi egeirontai, ptochoi euangelizontai. kai makarios estin hos ean me skandalisthai en emoi. (Lk. 7:18-23)
Ho de Ioannes akousas en toi desmoterioi ta herga tou Christou,

pempsas dia ton matheton autou eipen autoi.


su ei ho erchomenos, he heteron prosdokomen?

kai apokritheis ho Iesous eipen autois. poreuthentes apangeilate Ioannai ha akouete kai blepete. tuphloi anablepousin kai choloi peripatousin, nekroi egeirontai kai ptochoi euangelizontai. kai makarios estin hos ean me skandalisthai en emoi. (Mt. 11:2-6)

In this pericope, found just after Luke’s Sermon on the Plain and sandwiched between the sending out of the twelve disciples and before their return in Matthew, we find a similar situation to the previous pericope. The words of John and Jesus are preserved very well in near word-for-word agreement. But the introductory narrative is very different. Matthew’s narrative shocks us by mentioning in passing that John is en toi desmotorioi, forgetting that he will not tell us until Chapter 14 the story of how John came to be imprisoned. Luke told us early on in 3:19-21a that Herod “shut up John in prison” in order to remove John from the scene when it came time for Jesus to be baptized. So Luke does not need to mention here that John is in prison. Luke is very specific in saying that two disciples were called by John, while Matthew does not tell us how many disciples John sent to Jesus. The point here is that each Synoptist must again in their own way introduce the sayings that they have received.

However, John’s question, as well as Jesus’ reply, are agreed upon word-for-word between the two Synoptists except in a few places where stylistic choice can be granted. (Matthew uses the adverbial kai much more frequently to separate his clauses while Luke relies upon the natural pauses created between noun phrases.) This is not a situation where the agreement is due to Jesus’ use of memorization techniques to preserve his teaching. Rather, an imprisoned teacher sends his disciples to ask Jesus a simple question. It is far more believable that the Baptist’s question was preserved in writing before Matthew and Luke wrote their gospels, and that it came into the double tradition from that source.

The Nature of Discipleship:

kai poreuomenon auton en tai hodoi eipen

tis pros auton.

akoloutheso soi hopou ean aperchai. kai eipen autoi ho Iesous. hai alopekes pholeous echousin kai ta peteina tou ouranou kataskenoseis, ho de huios tou anthropou ouk echei pou ten kephalen klinai. eipen de pros eteron. akolouthei moi. ho de eipen.

epitrepson moi proton apelthonti thapsai ton patera mou. Eipen de autoi.


aphes tous nekrous thapsai tous heauton nekrous, su de apelthon diangelleten basileian tou theou. (Lk. 9:57-60)

kai proselthon eis grammateus eipen autoi. Didaskale,

akoloutheso soi hopou ean aperchai. kai legei autoi ho Iesous. hai alopekes pholeous echousin kai ta peteina tou ouranou kataskenoseis, ho de huios tou anthropou ouk echei pou ten kephalen klinai. heteros de ton matheton eipen autoi. kurie,


epitrepson moi proton apelthein kai thapsai ton patera mou. ho de Iesous legei autoi. akolouthei moi, kai

aphes tous nekrous thapsai tous heauton nekrous.

(Mt. 8:19-22)

This pericope is an example not unlike our first one except that in addition to a prologue, Luke either adds an epilogue or he preserves the original wording and Matthew removes the epilogue. In addition each evangelist makes some modifications to the saying itself. But look carefully at the structure of this saying and you can see an underlying two-part formula of statement and response. Someone (a scribe in Matthew and an anonymous man in Luke) states “I will follow you wherever you go” (akoloutheso soi hopou ean aperchai) to which Jesus responds with the analogy of foxes and dens. Since ho de huios tou anthropou has literally nowhere to lay down and rest, the would-be disciple must accept the fact that he too will be without a home. The point of this response is to emphasize that it will not be easy to follow Jesus. Mark gives us an interpretation of what following Jesus entails when he has Jesus say, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mk. 8:34). For Mark, to follow Jesus is to embrace persecution.

In the second part, an anonymous man (in Luke) or a disciple (in Matthew) states, “Let me first go bury my father” (epitrepson moi proton apelthonti thapsai ton patera mou). To appreciate just how radical Jesus’ response to “let the dead bury their dead” is, we must realize that in the ancient world no taboo was considered more forbidden than that of failing to bury one’s own father. A son’s first and solemn duty was to bury his dead father; everything else must be dropped to discharge this duty. Not only does the failure to bury one’s dead bring divine punishment upon the dead person’s relatives, but civil law in all Greek states closely regulated and punished those who failed to conduct the burial rituals correctly. Jesus’ response to ignore the duty of burial would have been as shocking to his fellow Jews and pagans as it would be for us today if someone advocated flag-burning, draft-dodging, and income-tax avoidance all at the same time. It is difficult for us moderns to fully appreciate just how radical Jesus’s teaching really was because the normative view that has deified and encased him tends to obscure his radicality.

With respect to the specific issue of the word-for-word agreement in this pericope, we see yet again that the junior Synoptists have felt quite free to tinker around the edges even as they preserve the exact words of Jesus and his interlocutors. As before, we are faced with two possible explanations: (1) the pericope actually occurred as written and comes from the pen of an eyewitness (Matthew) or from a second-hand source who is taking dictation from an eyewitness (Luke); or (2) the authors of Matthew and Luke are sharing a common written source, thus accounting for the word-for-word agreement. The first explanation is problematic and can be dismissed. The pericope is presented as a “slice” out of the life of the historical Jesus. It is a narrative in situ, almost spontaneous, dealing with an event that ended as quickly as it started and came to be written down only because Matthew remembered it well. Yet, this does not explain how Luke came to write down the exact words that Matthew wrote. We are not dealing with Linnemann’s situation in which the rabbi uses rote memorization to teach his disciples. This pericope captures a narrative event that passes as quickly as it occurs. Surely Luke’s sources could not have remembered the spontaneous event word-for-word in exact agreement with Matthew? Even evangelicals reject this suggestion, as when for instance they point out that four bystanders on a corner who witness an accident will recount the details in broad agreement while differing on many details. We would certainly not expect eyewitnesses to remember the exchange word-for-word, but rather we would expect them to get only the bare gist of what was overheard. In this case, the agreement is too perfect. It is not very intuitive to think that Matthew’s sources and Luke’s sources would have preserved the story in exact agreeement in dialog, yet so divergent in narrative.

Therefore, the second explanation is far more plausible. One either copied from the other or both are dependent on a third written source. We have seen that dialog is preserved word-for-word; yet, circumstances, context, characters, and settings rarely agree. This pericope is not the result of memorization or eyewitness account, but rather according to the two-source theory is the result of a common shared source between the two gospel writers. While both preserve their source’s dialog word-for-word, Luke adds two anonymous men to the statement-response formula to set Jesus up for his radical teaching. It does not really matter who these interlocutors are, since the teaching or the “punchline” of the saying is what is important. Matthew, on the other hand, thinks it important enough to mention that one man is a scribe and the other man one of Jesus’ disciples. This shows bias on the part of the evangelists. When they have no guidance from their source, each Synoptist does not hesitate to make things up in order to fill out the narrative of his gospel.

Miller cites Wenham to make the point that Luke used Matthew’s gospel and “made systematic, intelligible, and respectful use” of Matthew’s gospel. It is very unlikely that Luke knew of Matthew’s gospel, however, as I have shown. Why, for instance, would Luke take snippets first from Matthew 23:4, then 23:29-36, and finally 23:13 to create the Heavy Burdens saying at 11:46-52? It is far more parsimonious to imagine that Matthew took the original form of the Q saying, best preserved in Luke, and redacted it for his own purposes. This is also the case with the Exclusion of the Kingdom in Luke 13:25-29, which is paralleled in Matthew in two out-of-sequence places, 25:10b-12 and 7:22-23. However, such form-critical considerations are nothing compared to a holistic reading of the two gospels. Luke’s infancy and passion narratives are clearly not a redaction of Matthew. Also, if Luke knew Matthew’s gospel, that meant that he purposefully disassembled Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, placing a few sayings in his own Sermon on the Plain, many others in his second interpolation to Mark, and leaving others out altogether. And as Streeter has shown in his Four Gospels, material following the Temptation (Lk. 4:13; Mt. 4:1-11) contains not a single instance in which the junior Synoptists agree in inserting sayings at the same point in Mark’s sequence. Surely if Luke knew Matthew (or Matthew knew Luke) we should at least see some agreement in double tradition order between the two evangelists. Yet, despite their disagreement in order, the junior Synoptists agree word-for-word in quite a few sayings not found in Mark, that is, double tradition material. This can best be explained by the existence of an independent sayings source Q that both Matthew and Luke made use of when redacting their own gospels.

Regarding the curious “migration” of scholars away from literary dependence and toward pure oral transmission theories, I must say that this is nothing more than wishful thinking on Miller’s part. If such a wild idea were true, we should be able to find at least one article in the Journal for Biblical Literature, Harvard Theological Review, or even the popular magazine Bible Review, to attest to such a phenomenon. In the absence of such evidence, I can only speculate that Miller is merely trying to generate advance support and momentum for such a thing should it ever occur. This belongs to the realm of public relations and spin doctoring, however, and not to critical scholarship. Miller had also argued that literary dependence was untenable and, based on his exposition of Linnemann, suggested that any similarities between the Synoptics are the result of eyewitness testimony stemming from memorized teaching preserved in the oral tradition. I have demonstrated that this theory suffers when the internal evidence is carefully examined. In instances like the Lord’s Prayer where we should expect word-for-word agreement, we find none; yet, in cases where we should not expect such agreement, such as the Baptist’s teaching and historical-narrative events, we do find word-for-word agreement. This argues strongly for literary dependency. While the two-source theory is not perfect, it best explains the synoptic problem. In the end, there is still good reason to think that the Gospel of Mark is the middle term between the junior Synoptists and that the latter made use of the Q gospel, an external written sayings source. Regarding “bias,” or better “editorial prejudice,” I have previously shown and continue to demonstrate in this paper that the gospel writers had a theological agenda and shaped their material to fit that agenda.

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