Confraternity Bible: New Testament and Supplemental Commentary

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Supplemental Commentary:


The Question.  To even a cursory reader of our first three Gospels their resemblances are immediately evident.  Nor are these resemblances due merely to that similarity which is natural in several treatments of the same subject.  On the contrary, there is often a likeness and even identity of order and detail of language which demands a much fuller explanation than simple sameness of theme.  The existence of these resemblances has been recognized since earliest Christian times and, in more recent centuries, the very name given to the Gospels of St. Matthew, St. Mark, and St. Luke expresses a general appreciation of the fact.  They are called the Synoptics, because they can be so arranged as to permit their respective accounts of the same Evangelical fact to be taken in with a single glance (synopsis).  It is this fact of resemblance, coupled with the no less obvious fact of some striking differences, which raises what is known as the "synoptic question."

A solid tradition almost as old as the books themselves tells us the order of their composition, an order which is still preserved in our modern New Testament.  St. Matthew wrote first; St. Mark wrote second; and St. Luke wrote third.  This same tradition tells us something else, however, which profoundly affects any conclusions that may ultimately be drawn from this first piece of information.  While St. Matthew did write first, the tradition says his Gospel was originally composed in Aramaic, the current language of the Jews.  It was not until some years later that it would have been translated into Greek, whether by Matthew himself or by some other inspired writer.  By that time, it may be supposed, St. Mark's Greek Gospel had already appeared.  Therefore, the order of composition of the Greek Gospels may have been (1) Mark, (2) Matthew, (3) Luke.  This sequence is generally accepted today by scholars and must be kept constantly in mind in any treatment of this question of the literary relationship of the Gospels.

Oral Theory.  Some scholars have answered the question of literary dependence with a blanket denial.  They say, and rightly, that the oral method of instruction was in particular honor among the Jews and that a stereotyped, oral gospel would doubtless have come into use shortly after the beginning of the Apostolic ministry.  St. Peter, for example, would surely have been called upon on many occasions to give his eye-witness account of the Master's life, and, like almost all story-tellers, he would in time have settled upon a fixed group of events and sayings for his narrative.  Many Palestinian teachers would have followed his "catechesis."  Then, when St. Matthew, St. Mark and St. Luke at length had begun their written accounts, they would have used this fixed oral source, each in his own way and independently of the others.

This explanation, however, seems to demand too much of the primitive oral gospel; it demands indeed that such an oral source be fixed not in the language of the Jews (Aramaic) but in the language of the Gospels (Greek), and that, furthermore, it be not the gospel of one Apostle but that of all the Apostles taken collectively.  The likelihood that either of these conditions was fulfilled is extremely small.  Finally, it is a striking fact that the most important words of Christ---on the Eucharist, for instance---differ considerably in the different Synoptics; yet, the oral theory demands an identity of language on much less important points.  As a matter of fact, this theory is not generally held today as a single solution; but it does stress a fact which must be noted, namely, that there was an oral gospel of a certain fixity.

Literary Interdependence.  If, then, the use of a common oral source is not sufficient explanation of the problem, the answer must be sought in the dependence of one Gospel on another, or on other documents.  There is no other possible solution.  But taking for granted the fact of such dependence, how can we determine what is its precise nature?  That St. Mark wrote the first Greek Gospel nearly all critics agree.  There is a graphic freshness, a vividness and strength which mark it as an original work.  It is a Gospel of action, not of long discourses.  Like St. Peter preaching at Caesarea (Acts 10) it begins with the baptism of John.  Though it is the shortest of the three Synoptics, it is rich in detail, something not characteristic of works dependent on other writings.  Its theology has a more primitive note than that found in St. Matthew or St. Luke.  For instance, St. Mark (3, 1-6), recounting one of Christ's tilts with the Pharisees, unqualifiedly attributes anger to our Lord, whereas St. Matthew (12, 9-14) and St. Luke (6, 6-11), telling the same story, refrain from any such attribution.  Again, St. Mark (6, 5 f) tells us that Christ "could not work any miracle" at Nazareth, while St. Matthew (13, 58) much more carefully tells us that "because of their unbelief, he did not work many miracles there."

St. Luke on St. Mark.  Likewise, all critics (except those few who hold exclusively to a common oral source) are agreed that St. Mark's Gospel is a source of St. Luke's.  The resemblances found in all three Synoptics are most striking in the case of these two, and there seems to be no sufficient explanation other than that of literary dependence.  Nor are the divergencies such as to make this dependence unlikely.  St. Luke does make considerable additions, notably the "great interpolation" (Luke 9, 51---18, 14) and the "lesser interpolation" (Luke 6, 20---8, 3), together with his Infancy narrative; but these and other smaller bits of new information are usually fitted into the Marcan framework without disturbing its order.  Certain transpositions of incidents can be accounted for by didactic reasons or by fuller information.  Lastly, his omissions are quite in keeping with what we know of the author and his purpose.  Out of his abundant material he would select typical cases of our Lord's activity and avoid repeating similar anecdotes.  Furthermore, having in mind an audience different from that of St. Mark, he would be led naturally to the omission of such things as might be suitable for Jewish readers but quite incomprehensible and sometimes offensive to those of Gentile background.  An example of this is found in his failure to recount our Lord's long journey to Tyre and Sidon and his return through the Decapolis, a trip over ground unfamiliar to Greeks and one marked by an incident in which Gentiles are compared to dogs.  In this same section St. Mark gives an account of the second multiplication of the loaves, easily omitted by St. Luke on the grounds that it provided no new instruction.  The resemblances give a solid positive argument which the divergencies do not invalidate.

St. Luke reproduces about three-fourths of St. Mark's Gospel but this does not mean necessarily that he borrowed all of that from his predecessor.  He might well have used the oral gospel, and, in any case, his additions prove his use of some other good and abundant source.  The precise extent of his dependence on the Gospel of St. Mark cannot be determined.  We can only conclude from a comparison of the two Gospels that he was influenced by the order of St. Mark, by his selection of material, by his ideas, and by his wording in those parts where they go together over the Public Life.

St. Matthew on St. Mark.  Turning now to the Gospel of St. Matthew, we find that its resemblance to the Gospel of St. Mark, at least in order and wording points clearly to some dependence of one upon the other.  The Greek Gospel of St. Matthew contains over nine-tenths of Mark's material, dealt with in the same way and in very nearly the same language.  The comparatively primitive quality of St. Mark's writing indicates the priority of his work; and a comparison of the two does nothing to shake that assurance but rather adds to it.  To give but one instance: St. Matthew (8, 16), after reporting the cure of St. Peter's mother-in-law, tells us that the people waited till evening to bring their sick to Christ.  Under the circumstances this waiting is strange, and the fact of St. Matthew's stating it without explanation is also strange.  On the hypothesis, however, that he borrowed the incident (at least, the language of it) from St. Mark, the thing is easily understood; for St. Mark's account tells us that it was the Sabbath, a detail which St. Matthew simply neglected to carry over into his Gospel.

It would be a great mistake, however, to think that in the case of every parallel between these two Gospels only dependence of St. Matthew on the work of St. Mark can account for the resemblances.  It must be remembered that the Aramaic Gospel of St. Matthew was written even before St. Mark's account.  Furthermore, tradition makes it certain, according to the Biblical Commission, that the Aramaic and Greek of St. Matthew are substantially identical.  Therefore, we may not hold that the Greek Gospel of St. Matthew incorporated any considerable amount of material which was not already contained in the Aramaic.  Then, too, as in the case of St. Luke's Gospel, there is no reason to believe that this Greek Gospel of St. Matthew did not profit from the same sources as did St. Mark's.  The literary dependence on St. Mark's Gospel need only be such as to account for the sameness of order, the common Greek wording and formulas of transition, and perhaps a small amount of common subject matter.

St. Luke on St. Matthew.  We have considered the Gospels of St. Luke and St. Matthew in connection with that of St. Mark.  What now of their relation with each other?  Some very good scholars have held that St. Luke borrowed from St. Matthew.  For instance, Dom Butler in The Harvard Theological Review for October, 1939, devotes a long and very instructive study to this question; and he concludes that in the two hundred places in which St. Matthew and St. Luke are parallel, and not dependent on St. Mark, the resemblance or identity may best be explained by the dependence of St. Luke on St. Matthew.  The usual objection to this position is well known; the differences between the Infancy Gospels, the Resurrection narratives, the reporting of the Sermon on the Mount, etc.  Father Butler suggests that while St. Luke used St. Matthew's Gospel, he did so only after his own Gospel was nearing completion.  The learned Benedictine reminds us that good historical method requires that we avoid creating an hypothetical common source for St. Matthew and St. Luke if we can get along without it.

"Q."  Those who think such a source necessary call it "Q" (from the German Quelle, "source").  This "Q" is not so objectionable as it used to be when it was thought of as one of the two documents (St. Mark was the other) which accounted for St. Matthew and St. Luke.  Many who formerly postulated such a document do not now speak of a Two Source theory; they speak of four or of many sources, realizing that both St. Matthew and St. Luke had abundant information apart from that which came to them from St. Mark and "Q".  But even if "Q" is less objectionable than it used to be, there does not appear to be sufficient reason to admit its existence.  There is no insuperable objection to the simpler view that St. Luke utilized the Gospel of St. Matthew.

Wendell S. Reilly, S.S.