The Historical Reliability of the Gospels - Lesson 9

Composition of the Synoptic Gospels

Discussion of the literary dependence among the gospels, formally known as the “Synoptic Problem.” Argues that Mark was the first written source, and Matthew and Luke borrow from him, from a common document (“Q”) and used their own material.

Craig Blomberg
The Historical Reliability of the Gospels
Lesson 9
Watching Now
Composition of the Synoptic Gospels


A. Verbatim parallelism in Greek translation

B. Includes parenthetical comments

C. Order of episodes that are not in chronological order

D. Luke 1:1–4


A. Mark is the oldest source

B. Matthew and Luke relied on Mark

C. Matthew and Luke also used another source (“Q”; c. 235 verses, almost all teachings)

D. Matthew and Luke also use unique material (“M”; “L”)


A. Markan priority

1. Most vivid

2. Grammar is awkward

3. Most embarrassing details

4. Shortest with most detailed passages

5. If not first, why was it written at all?

6. Highest percentage of “Aramaisms”

7. Why omit most of the sermons and parables in Matthew?

8. See consistent patterns of change

B. Q, M, and L

1. Matthew and Luke don’t line up if they were first

2. Example of modern copying


A. Not exact repetition throughout

B. Enough commonality to suggest there were checks and balances

  • An introduction to the common myths that challenged the historicity of the gospel message. Some of the myths have no connection to any historical evidence (e.g., the Da Vinci Code), recently discovered “evidence” is often distorted (Dead Sea Scrolls and Gnostic literature), and Blomberg concludes that we should be initially skeptical of new findings.

  • How did Christians arrive at the canon of 27 authoritative documents that were from God and therefore foundational for Christian belief and living? Blomberg looks at hints from the New Testament itself, the citations and writings of the Apostolic Fathers, third century discussions, and the final ratification of the canon in the fourth century. None of our four Gospels were ever questioned, and no other gospel was put forward as equally authoritative.

  • Looks at the apocryphal and gnostic gospels. They show an interest in the infancy and final days of Jesus, but are of no historical value. There are gnostic gospels (mostly fragmentary) that are more esoteric, philosophical speculation, and Blomberg reads sections from the Gospel of Thomas.

  • Are the copies of the Greek New Testament accurate? Are the variations among the manuscripts so significant that we can no longer trust them? What about the two paragraphs that some Bibles say are not authentic? This discussion is called “Textual Criticism.”

  • Are the translations of the Bible reliable? Do they faithfully convey the meaning of the Greek? Why are they different and do they disagree on the essentials of the Christian faith?

  • Nothing covered so far guarantees that what the Gospel writers said is true. How do historians make assessments about reliability of claims made in ancient works? How do we know who wrote a document, when did they write it, and were they in a context in which they could know what actually happened?

  • There was a 30 — 40 year gap between the events of the Gospels and the writing of the Gospels. Can we trust the accounts of Jesus’ life as they were told during this time period. Were the Gospel writers even interested in preserving history? Were they in a position to do so?

  • Three recent areas of study encourage us to accept the reliability of oral tradition. They are studies in the nature of an oral culture, how the Gospels follow an informal controlled tradition, and the effect of social memory.

  • Discussion of the literary dependence among the gospels, formally known as the “Synoptic Problem.” Argues that Mark was the first written source, and Matthew and Luke borrow from him, from a common document (“Q”) and used their own material.

  • What kind of books are we dealing with? Different kinds of literature will be analyzed differently in terms of reliability. If it is fiction, we will analyze it a certain way. How should we read the Gospels?

  • While archaeology can’t prove certain things, it can corroborate many of the details of the Gospels and should encourage us to look forward to even more discoveries. Blomberg looks at Jesus’ imagery, the sites he traveled, the results of recent discoveries, and the weight of artifacts encouraging us to trust the Bible.

  • There is a belief that any and all Christian evidence is tainted, and so only non-Christian evidence should be investigated. Not only is this falacious (“silly and nonsensical”), and there is non-Christian evidence that tells us a surprising lot about Jesus.

  • Now that we have seen some of the criteria that historians use to judge the reliability of an ancient document, we will use those same criteria on the apocryphal and gnostic gospels. Blomberg uses the twelve criteria of historical reliability.

  • What is the resulting picture that we find of Jesus? For those who find only a small portion of the Gospels reliable, their picture of Jesus that results from the  limited sections of the gospels will be somewhat different from those who find a large portion as reliable.

  • Why do so many different scholars have such different views of Jesus? There actually is more similarity than at first is expected, but the differences are due to things such as scholar’s presuppositions. What then are the criteria for accepting a historical document as authentic?

  • Given the criteria established for historical reliability, which portions of the Synoptics have the strongest claim to being authentic?

  • Considering all the questions raised about the quest for who Jesus is, what can we know for sure? What is the core of the gospel tradition that does not require faith?

  • We have been looking at topics pertaining to the general trustworthiness of the Gospels. Now it is time to look at specific issues that might question the reliability of the Synoptics. Does looking at a cross section of the “apparent contradictions” give us more confidence?

  • Continuing the purpose of the previous chapter, Blomberg looks at specific harmonization problems between the Synoptics and the Gospel of John.

  • Looks at the overall features of John, arguing that they show the gospel to be a reliable witness to Jesus.

  • Now that we have looked at the issues of John’s reliability in general, Blomberg starts working through individual passages that have raised questions for some people. The question is whether or not Jon’s teaching dovetails with teaching in the Synoptics. Much of the issue has to do with presuppositions and the burden of proof, and the evidence Blomberg cites is often when John’s teaching finds a connection with Synoptic teaching or with historical data.

  • This quest was due to a new emphasis on the historical reliability of John. Some events in John have a greater claim to authenticity by liberal critics. Blomberg then looks at a theme throughout John of Jesus as the Purifier, which parallels the Synoptics account of Jesus healing people, making the unclean clean. This too argues for a greater part of John's gospel being historically reliable.

  • Paul discloses quite a bit of information about the historical Jesus in his letters. His letters come from the 50’s and early 60’s, before the gospels were probably written, so he is an independent witness as to whom Jesus was based on a reliable oral tradition.

  • Blomberg summarizes the previous lecture and continues by pointing out the similarities of key themes between Jesus and Paul. Instead of seeing differences between Jesus and Paul, these themes actually show how similar they are. Blomberg concludes by explaining why Paul does not make more allusions to Jesus.

  • Miracles are natural and expected if in fact God exists. But does he exist? If a person begins with atheistic presuppositions, then miracles are impossible and those portions of the Bible unreliable. This is not a detailed discussion of the topic but a quick summary of the arguments.

  • Do miracles outside of the Bible that parallel biblical miracles call into question the veracity of the latter? The fact of the matter is that they were different and often later than Jesus’ miracles.

  • Can we believe that Jesus was born of a virgin? If not, then this part of the gospel story is not reliable. Blomberg covers general issues and specific problems, and then positive support for the virginal conception.

  • What led a band of defeated followers of a failed Messianic claimant begin to preach him as Lord and God? If the resurrection is fiction, then the belief of the early church still needs to be explained. Alternate explanations fail to impress; and there is evidence for a bodily resurrection.

  • Does a defense of biblical reliability lead to any new insights about Jesus himself? Or does it simply bring us back to the status quo of historical Christian orthodoxy? Have our churches been preaching a balanced picture of the Bible, or have they been selective?

  • Blomberg summarizes the main points he has been making.

An in-depth look at the charges against the historicity of the gospels, and the evangelical answers.

Dr. Craig Blomberg

Historical Reliability of the Gospels


Composition of the Synoptic Gospels

Lesson Transcript


[00:00:00] This is a class on the historical reliability of the New Testament Gospels. This is segment number nine entitled The Composition of the Synoptic Gospels. We've been talking about oral tradition. We also mentioned in the last segment that there are almost certainly was some kind of literary dependance among the gospels. That thought is perhaps a new one to some listeners. It raises questions if God's spirit inspired. Guided superintended the process of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John Pudding. Pen to papyrus. Do we dilute something by talking about written documents in part being copied and reused by other writers? I don't believe that we do. But it does mean that we need to address at the outset and something that gospel scholars and commentators have come to call the synoptic problem. And that is what is the relationship between Matthew, Mark and Luke? Given that all it takes is picking up a gospel harmony or synopsis that prints in parallel columns the same episodes from the life of Christ as they are told in more than one account. And we see that in many cases the wording is extremely similar. Far more so than. Any teacher would ever allow two students to submit. Without assuming there was collusion of some kind. And yet, on the other hand. Significant differences and freedom in retelling the story. We talked about how the oral tradition could contribute to some of that, but there is more that probably cannot be accounted for. Segments of verbatim. Parallelism. Consecutive wording. And synonyms. Words from the same root suggesting one gospel must have copied from another one. Or two gospels may have used a common source. At some point someone may say, Well. God could have chosen to inspire each writer with that precise collection of the same wording.


[00:03:09] And it's true. He could have. It's interesting, however, that the parallelism is not simply in the Hebrew or Aramaic of Jesus original words. In fact, as we've noted before, we don't have. An existing gospel in a Semitic language, in Hebrew or in Aramaic. What we have are Greek texts, translations of Jesus words, and yet the parallelism is in translation. If you studied a modern language, you know that if two people independently try to translate somebody's words from one language into another, there will be variation. Unless there is some form of literary dependance, and that dependance extends even to tangential parenthetical comments. Jesus Teaching on the Mount of Olives. Is interrupted by the parenthetical comment and Matthew and Mark alike. Let the reader understand. I hope you did. It's one of the more cryptic parts of the Gospels, the way Matthew and Mark both tell the story of the paralyzed man let down through the roof is that Jesus begins saying what he has to say, and then the narrators interrupt at the same point with the aside, he said to the paralyzed man. This doesn't happen coincidentally or independently. Episodes that are not arranged in chronological order wind up being the same in parallel gospels. But the clinching argument, it seems to me, is Luke's own description of what he understands himself to have been doing as a gospel writer. We use this example in looking at differences among translations earlier. But let's read it again the opening for Versus of Luke. Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us. Just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Luke acknowledges that there were other existing accounts.


[00:05:51] That he is aware of them and presumably aware of their contents, that they have to do with the same topic about Jesus and the gospel events. And that he has interviewed eyewitnesses and people he calls servants of the word a fairly technical term for individuals certified and authorized in early Christian circles as accurate. Transmitters of information about Jesus. Versus three and four. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, the kind of language historians regularly included in their prologs. I too, decided to write an orderly account for you, despite the new American Standard version, saying that in consecutive order, the term in the Greek simply means an order, a logical order of some kind. Sometimes it's consecutive, sometimes it's topical. But he writes it for his patron, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things that you have been taught. Here, in a nutshell, is inspired biblical support for the understanding that the gospel writers used previous sources written and oral reliable oral tradition written documents, and then put their own stamp and their own selection and their own sequence in ways that they felt would be most helpful and most convincing. So what was the relationship? Among the three so-called synoptic gospels that can so frequently be put in a synopsis, an expression that means that together look, because they are so similar and yet have at times some striking differences, the view that is by far the most widely accepted among scholars, not the only one, but certainly the dominant one, is one that begins with the gospel of Mark as the oldest source, probably written no later than the sixties, maybe even some would say in the late fifties. Mark is the shortest of all of the gospels.


[00:08:36] Considerably. Matthew. And Luke almost certainly. Not certainly, but I think almost certainly. Relied on Mark's text. We're aware of what he wrote, followed his wording when they had no reason to change it, but felt free to abbreviate, to expand, to add other information, to weave together what they knew from their own experience and from other sources so that Matthew and Luke are each about half again, as long as Mark and less than 10% of Mark's gospel does not reappear in either Matthew or Luke or both. But because Matthew and Luke are about half again, as long we still have to account for what they contain, that's not found in Mark and one of the most intriguing features. Is that about 235 verses, admittedly not a scientific unit of measurement. Some are short, some are long. Are closely enough alike to suggest. The same saying or. Episode from Christ's life. Unique to Matthew and Luke together. But not in March. Was there some other source? Perhaps lost forever that Matthew and Luke relied on. And because the first group of scholars to consistently propose this lived in Germany in the 19th century, and the German word for source is Kavala. This has come to be known as the Q hypothesis. Nothing related to James Bond. There still is other material in Matthew and Luke not found in any other gospel and scholars often use as just neutral abbreviations. The letter M for Matthew's unique episodes. The letter L for Luke's. What makes Q more fascinating is that those roughly 235 verses in common to Matthew and Luke, but not found in Mark are almost all teachings of Jesus. Short sayings, longer parables, teaching of in-between length, one or two narratives, but mostly teachings. And we know from other examples from the ancient world that famous philosophers disciples would gather together the most influential and memorable teachings.


[00:12:10] There is a document, the lives of the eminent philosophers written by a second century Greek writer Diogenes Laertius, that in many of his brief biographies there will be a collected section that lists some of the most famous teachings of that philosopher we saw in an earlier segment. There is a later Gnostic, quote unquote gospel called The Gospel of Thomas, but it's nothing more than 114 sayings attributed to Jesus. Many of them are not historical, we suggested, but it shows that that literary form of a collection of sayings was known today. It would be put on a DVD and it would have been called The Best of Jesus. But that wasn't the way things went in the ancient world. That is a hypothetical reconstruction of. Perhaps the most likely way the Gospels were put together. But we shouldn't accept each part of it as equally probable. Mark in priority has an overwhelming likelihood of being true. Q Somewhat less so, but. If I were a betting person, I would say slightly more likely than not. M and L, some have suggested were written documents, but they may well be oral traditions, some combination of the two. And since Matthew is one of the apostles, M could in his case, stand for memory. What are some of the arguments that backed up these convictions? Mark is frequently said to be the most vivid of the gospels where they run parallel. We read in the feeding of the 5000, for example only and mark that the grass was green. Springtime. If you're in Israel, the only time the grass is consistently green. We read that. People came to him in one instance after sunset or that 300 denarii I. Would be the cost of feeding a large crowd.


[00:14:52] Details that don't seem to be theologically motivated, but seem to suggest the memory of somebody closely in contact with the original events. Marx is also the most rugged and awkward. Of styles of the three Synoptic writers. Matthew's grammar is better, Luke's better still, not surprisingly, since he was the one Gentile author Marx. Reads like somebody who had learned Greek as a second language, which probably was true. And. Get smoothed out. In the other Synaptics mark has the most number of potentially embarrassing or misleading details that can be explained, but but have to be explained in Mark's account of Jesus preaching in his home town of Nazareth. It says he could do very few miracles there because of their unbelief. Jesus power was limited, limited by fallible human belief. Matthew changes that, too. He did no miracles there. Because of their own. Not that he couldn't. Somewhat more interestingly. Marx is the shortest gospel. And yet where? His passages run parallel to Matthew and Luke. Frequently. More often than not, his are the most detailed accounts. So that he has fewer total episodes from the life of Jesus. But says more. Much more often than Matthew and Luke do. Imagine if Mark were not written first what this would mean. It would mean that he knew a lot of what was contained in either Matthew or Luke or both. Chose to omit a lot of it. But then the passages he did decide to record, he waxed eloquent on. Now, I'm sure somewhere in the history of the world there has been someone a bridging longer works who has functioned that way. But we don't know of anybody in the ancient world who did. And there were a lot of historians who epitomized who abbreviated long Greek and Roman writers works.


[00:17:53] But they did so relatively proportionately throughout, and an individual passage was shorter than its source as well. But not what we find in Mark. If Mark was not written first. What was the point? Since so little does not. Also appear with a lot more in either Matthew or Luke or both. And Mark has the highest incidence or percentage of what are called our isms terms in Greek that are simply transliterated from their underlying Aramaic like Banerjee's Sons of Thunder, like Tali Stark, whom. Little girl arise like carbon dedicated to God effort to be opened. And Abba Father. Seemingly putting him closest to the original tradition. And how would we explain? Mark admitting if he were not first. Most of all of the precious detailed sermons in Matthew, especially the Sermon on the Mount. Most not quite all of Matthew's parables. Or. If he were not first with respect to Luke. Omitting an even larger number of parables, including the best loved and best known of all, like the Prodigal son and the lost sheep. The Good Samaritan, many others. I'm sure there's a way to explain it, but it doesn't seem to be the most natural approach. And finally. If one assumes that Mark is first and compares the way, Matthew would then have changed Mark on that assumption and Luke would have edited Mark on that assumption. Consistent patterns of changes emerge, fitting in with theological emphases of each of these writers in their unparalleled material. Luke, the gospel writer who most emphasizes Jesus as Savior and as prophet and as fully human, with a concern for the outcasts of society and emphasizing teaching on prayer and on the Holy Spirit. Matthew With the most number of passages showing how Old Testament prophecy is fulfilled and pointing out Jesus as a teacher on mountaintops, much like Moses of old and showing how the Gospel began going uniquely to Jewish circles and only gradually to be spread to the Gentile world and the greatest number of conflicts unrelentingly so with the Jewish leadership and other distinctive.


[00:21:33] One does not discover the same kind of recurring patterns when one postulates a gospel other than Mark being first. And then assuming that the other two followed him. But what about this strange alphabet soup? Human Al. Q He asks with a question mark. We've already mentioned 235 verses and Matthew and Luke, but not founding Mark. Mostly sayings. Popular genre in the ancient world. But why not just assume Luke used Matthew directly? Or Matthew used Luke directly. Why not apply the same logic to this section of the Gospels that we did to the parallelism between Mark and Matthew and between Mark and Luke? And the answer is that if we go back through the list of characteristics that we just discussed that convinced most scholars that Marcus earliest. Matthew doesn't consistently line up as the earliest and Luke doesn't consistently line up as the earliest. If we imagine each of them translating from Ahmed when Jesus is speaking into Greek about half the time. Matthew looks like pretty literal translation. Greek. And the other half of the time he doesn't buy. Half the time. Luke looks like pretty literal translation. Grade can buy about half the time he doesn't. I suppose one could say that neither writer was consistent. Some of us aren't. There's nothing about style that is heavenly inspired. But on the other hand. It perhaps makes better sense to say each relied on a common source. I have had the experience. Fortunately, not often. Of receiving two student papers. And seeing large stretches of text identical. And I have suspected and confirmed direct borrowing one from the other. But more subtly and especially what happens more often today in an Internet age. Is each person independently borrowing from the same online source? Maybe not even knowing that they each have found the same thing.


[00:24:34] They just happened to use the same Google search. There's nothing wrong with doing that if you acknowledge your source. I'm thinking of cases where they didn't. In the ancient world, there were no plagiarism laws. These students would have flourished in that environment. But. This is part of the logic as to how scholars make these kinds of judgments. There is some homogeneity in terms of style and content of the left over parts unique to Matthew, the left over parts, unique to Luke, but not enough to give most scholars a strong degree of confidence that these represent unified written sources. They could well be composites of oral traditions, multiple written sources. And if Matthew, the converted tax collector and one of the inner core of 12 truly was the disciple who wrote the gospel of Matthew, whether in Hebrew or in Greek or both. M could stand for his memory. We have now looked at factors involving both our morality and literary dependance, and we find a convergence of conclusions. There is not exact verbatim repetition throughout. But by ancient standards, we should not have expected it. There is enough commonality, however, to suggest that the synoptic gospel writers were not simply playing fast and loose with tradition. There were checks and balances to give us. General confidence in the reliability of the tradition. We have yet to explore specific passages, specific apparent contradictions. But in terms of a general mindset and atmosphere and milieu. We are discovering strong reasons for coming a priori to the documents and suspecting that they were very carefully researched and accurately put together.