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With all due respect… (part 2)

Last week I posted this blog (which you can check out here) about a comment made on tv about who wrote the gospels and whether they themselves were eyewitnesses or not.

In that blog we briefly explore just some of the evidence pointing to why there are solid reasons (from both inside and outside of the gospels) to believe that they are in fact written by eyewitnesses (in the case of Matthew and John), or friends and ministry partners of eye-witnesses (in the case of Mark and Luke).

Since then I’ve been asked the question: so, why then do some scholars doubt that the gospels were written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John?

I love questions, and that’s a really great question, and I’d like to take a quick moment to address it here.


“Q” and A…

Throughout the 1800s a group of scholars began exploring the question of why there is so much in Matthew, Mark and Luke that is so similar (indeed, there are a few passages that are word for word the same). These three gospels contain so much similar material that they have earned the name: The Synoptics (literally meaning: the same eye!).

Over time a theory began to form that there actually another source that they used, which was a collection of the sayings of Jesus. This other “lost” gospel they named “Q” from the German word: “Quelle” which means “Source.”

The theory gained popularity and allowed for later dates for the composition of the gospel to be suggested, pushing them outside of the generation of the original eye-witnesses and Apostles. For others, it created room for doubt – if the gospels had another source, why has it been ignored, hidden or even suppressed?


“What’s the matter with Q?”

So, if the gospel writers did have access to another source of Jesus’ teachings, and used that in the writing of their own gospels – is that a major problem? On one level, not at all – and even that alone doesn’t exclude the possibility that it was Matthew, Mark, and Luke that did so! (Remember that Luke admits to consulting other sources in wanting to compile a thoroughly investigated Gospel!)

However, if this “Q” Gospel did exist, and survived long enough to be widely available for Matthew, Mark and Luke to have access to it – (remember that they were writing in different decades and in different places) where is it today? Even scholars who adopt this theory struggle to account for the fact that not one single copy has been found, not even a potential fragment of one. Anywhere. Ever.

Also, it’s really odd that none of the Early Church Fathers make any reference in their own writings to this other source of Jesus’ teachings either. Ever.

There is not one single fragment of it – anywhere in the world.

There is not one single mention of it – by anyone living at the time. Ever.

There is simply no evidence for it.

It’s a neat theory, a clever idea. You might even call it an educated guess, but without any supporting evidence it is nothing more than that.


If not “Q” then what?

So, why then are Matthew, Mark and Luke “synoptic”? How come they’re so similar in places?

There’s a few others theories that I think have more evidence to support them:

Number One: The Strong Oral Tradition 

In First Century Israel, important moments of a family’s, town’s or tribe’s story were kept alive not by writing them down, but word was spread mouth-to-mouth. This ‘oral tradition’ (which stretches back over thousands of years) was a way of remembering key dates and important details should the town’s elders have to be brought in over legal disputes, or to be retold at big family celebrations.

It seems far more likely that Matthew, Mark and Luke are so similar in places because of the way in which the story of Jesus was kept alive and spread around broadly by this highly relied upon spoken tradition.

As more and more copies of the gospels are unearthed, recent scholarship is suggesting that the gospels were written much earlier than previously thought (Mark possibly only thirty years after Jesus’ earthly lifetime!) – and not a million miles away from the events they describe either! It seems highly plausible that the stories of Jesus were shared throughout the land by people used to recounting details in an almost verbatim (word for word) manner, and this inspired and informed Matthew, Mark and Luke in the creation of their gospels.

This news about Jesus spread throughout Judea and the surrounding country.

LUKE 7.17

(And just one time of many that this is mentioned!!)


Number Two: They used each other’s writings as sources

Another plausible suggestion for their similarities (which was first suggested by Augustine and then later developed by other scholars right up to the present day) was that Matthew used Mark as a structural basis for his gospel adding in his own personal experiences and the stories of other eye-witnesses, and that Luke used both Matthew and Mark, but sharing his own highly researched accounts too.

There are a number of biblical scholars (Austin Farrer, Michael Goulder, Mark Goodacre, John Wenham, Eta Linnemann, James Edwards, Pier Franco Beatrice) who find this a far more plausible explanation.


Number Three: A Far Greater Source

Finally, when it comes to the question of authorship, the Bible is clear that there is really only one source:

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.

2 TIMOTHY 3.16

The Bible is called God’s Word for a reason – He inspired it: it is God-breathed, and as such contains His story, His thoughts, His promises, His authority.


On the excellent Bible Course, Rev. Andrew Ollerton asks the question: who build St. Paul’s Cathedral? Of course, most people will give the answer: Sir Christopher Wren… but where as Christopher Wren is the Cathedral’s architect he didn’t personally lay one single brick. His was the inspiration behind it, but others did the work of construction.

So it is with the Bible – God didn’t physically put quill to parchment to write the Bible – nor did He force the writer’s hand to move… but He inspired it so that it’s power and truth might be miraculously preserved and shared all over the world.

Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things. For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.

2 PETER 1.20-21

As the New Testament was being written the Holy Spirit was inspiring, prompting, ‘carrying along’ those that wrote it to construct what God had breathed into being – a living testament, the ‘power of God for salvation for everyone who believes’. (Romans 1.16).


Should we really be surprised that the gospels, written about similar events, by people living at similar times, and in similar places, and inspired by one architect should be so similar?


Thanks so much for the question! I love questions, and I’d this to be a place where can engage deeply about the things that matter most. If you have a question, please do send it in and we can try to explore the Bible’s answer together.


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