Did The Gospel Writers Borrow From Each Other?

The idea that the Gospel writers borrowed from each other in order to write each of their narratives of Jesus, is a theory that is largely based upon a misunderstanding of the text. Even amongst New Testament scholars who really don’t study the text of the New Testament for purposes of learning what is being said, but for purposes of critical analysis, many do not really understand that the four Gospels show clear evidence of individual accounts.

Adequate Unanimity But Sufficient Variation To Eliminate Collaboration

When we examine the four gospels, we see that very often each of the writers have slightly different recollections of the same event. The accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, are not perfectly matched, for good reason. Genuine accounts that are written by multiple eyewitnesses, seldom have precisely the same details.

In the gospels, we see a genuine narrative of four honest men who have told the truth, according to their recollection. These minor differences in their accounts, are evidence of truth.

Evidence The Four Gospels Are Separate And Distinct Narratives

Courts of law frequently have to deal with multiple testimonies concerning witnesses. It is quite common to see these variations in the story, which does not affect the actual facts of the events. These minor differences are understood by a judge as necessary to a valid testimony and do not invalidate or detract from the material facts of the testimony.

One good example of these slight variations in the accounts of the four gospels that is alleged as a contradictory by critics of the Bible, is found in Jesus’ encounter with Bartimaeus. Notice that in each of the three accounts of this event, the men who are telling their story, use different ways of explaining where this event took place.

Blind Bartimaeus Healed

Matthew 20:29-34 Mark 10:46-52 Luke 18:35-43

29 And as they departed from Jericho, a great multitude followed him….

46 And they came to Jericho: and as he went out of Jericho with his disciples, a great number of people also followed…

35 And it came to pass, that as he was near Jericho, a certain blind man sat by the road begging

People who are of a certain disposition to criticize what they see as inconsistencies in the Bible, point out that this account of Blind Bartimaeus displays a contradiction of terms. If we read the four gospels independent of each other, we miss this subtlety. By reading all four gospels together at the same time, we see this variation of terms:

All three agree that this took place at or near Jericho. The event that we are primarily concerned with is the healing of Bartimaeus.

Matthew states that “ two blind men were sitting by the road…”

Mark states that “blind Bartimaeus, the son of Timaeus, sat by the side of the road, begging…”

Luke states that “a certain blind man sat by the road begging…”

Is it a contradiction that Matthew remembered two blind men, while Mark remembered only Bartimaeus? Luke remembered one blind man, but did not know his name?

If we were reading a myth, or a contrived story, we would not likely see such a variation in recollection. We would see three men who recorded the exact same story. The fact that we are able to read the same encounter with Bartimaeus, written by three different writers who were actually there and saw these events, is proven by the slight differences each writer records. What each man considered important, is what he describes. Matthew thought it was important to note two men. Mark was focussed only on the primary subject, Bartimaeus. Luke doesn’t name anyone.

This narrative which describes blind Bartimaeus and his healing by Jesus, demonstrates an effective tool that forensic experts use in determining whether written testimony is truthful or contrived. When we get to the chapter called “Forensic Evidence,” you will see this technique utilized by the FBI today, as we apply it to other alleged inconsistencies that people find in the Bible.

Differences In Statements Between Matthew And Luke Concerning Jesus As He Is Before The High Priest

This next example is one that a majority of people would never notice. In simply reading through the text of the New Testament, it is unlikely that you would ever see what I am about to show you. I notice artifacts in the scriptures like this because I study every word, sentence, and the structure of the text, intensely. Follow me now as I demonstrate for you one of the tools we can use to determine whether the New Testament is really a reliable, eyewitness narrative.

Then the high priest stood up and said to Jesus, “Well, aren’t you going to answer these charges? What do you have to say for yourself?” But Jesus remained silent. Then the high priest said to him, “I demand in the name of the living God—tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.” Jesus replied, “You have said it. And in the future you will see the Son of Man seated in the place of power at God’s right hand and coming on the clouds of heaven.” Then the high priest tore his clothing to show his horror and said, “Blasphemy! Why do we need other witnesses? You have all heard his blasphemy. What is your verdict?” “Guilty!” they shouted. “He deserves to die!” Then they began to spit in Jesus’ face and beat him with their fists. And some slapped him, jeering, “Prophesy to us, you Messiah! Who hit you that time?” ~Matthew 26:62-68 (NLT)

This verse doesn’t make sense upon first examination. When these men began to beat Jesus in His face with their fists, and slap Him, they ask Jesus “who hit you that time?”

Understanding that they men who struck Jesus in His face are standing right in front of Him, why would they ask “who hit you?” This makes no sense to the reader until we also read Luke’s account of the same event:

They blindfolded him and said, “Prophesy to us! Who hit you that time?” ~Luke 22:64 (NLT)

Matthew left out the detail that Luke includes, that these men had blindfolded Jesus before they began to hit Him in the face, then asked “who hit you?” The reason these men asked this of Jesus was because He had claimed to be a prophet, who is able to know the future. Without Luke’s detail that Jesus was blindfolded, using Matthew alone, none of what is said about Jesus would be intelligible.

Without realizing, Matthew forgot to include the important detail that before these men had beat Jesus in His face, they blindfolded Him. Luke was a Greek Physician who is highly trained in recognizing specific details. Luke includes this fact that Jesus was blindfolded before they struck Him in the face and asked “who hit you?”

As a medical doctor, Luke knows that a man who is struck in the face while blindfolded, cannot see the punch coming. The human brain working with the eyes, has an involuntary reaction to objects approaching the head, by causing a sudden recoil of the head at the moment the object makes contact, in order to lessen the effects of the impact.

Because Jesus could not see the punches coming, the damage inflicted upon His face was much more severe than if He had been able to see the punches coming. Luke knew this and he felt it was important to include this detail for us.

We see this attribute of inclusive details for Luke in His Gospel and in the Book of Acts. Luke is a precise recorder of details and always tells the reader much more about what is taking place than Matthew, Mark, or John.

This omission was clearly unintentional and not realized by Matthew. This becomes a marker for us as the reader that these narratives are telling us the truth. In false written testimony, we do not see these unintentional errors. We find that liars make certain that their details agree so that they will not be exposed as liars.

This type of testimony where one person includes something that other witnesses leave out, is empirical evidence of genuine testimony. The witnesses didn’t realize they had done this, but we observe it 2,000 years later and it becomes for us, evidence that these men are telling the truth.

Using this type of method to scrutinize and evaluate the words that are written in the four Gospels, there is no question that what we are reading are the actual words that were spoken by Jesus.

Additional Details In Discrepancies

Another remarkable example of genuine testimony that is found in the four Gospels is in Matthew 26:7 where a woman is described by Matthew as bringing costly fragrant oil and pouring it on Jesus’ head.

A woman came to Him having an alabaster flask of very costly fragrant oil, and she poured it on His head as He sat at the table. ~Matthew 26:7

Luke also gives us an account of this event:

And behold, a woman in the city who was a sinner, when she knew that Jesus sat at the table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of fragrant oil. ~Luke 7:37

Neither Matthew nor Luke tells us who this woman was. When we read the narrative of John for this same event, we discover that the woman was Mary, sister of Martha and Lazarus.

There they made Him a supper; and Martha served, but Lazarus was one of those who sat at the table with Him. Then Mary took a pound of very costly oil of spikenard, anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped His feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the oil. ~John 12:2-3

Why did John include Mary’s name when Matthew and Luke did not? Perhaps it was because Mary’s love for Jesus was extreme. John remembered her deep devotion, an emotion he held in common with Mary.

This event was apparently engraved upon John’s memory and when he wrote his testimony of this event where Mary poured costly oil on Jesus’ head. John remembered who it was, while the others did not, or simply omitted her name by oversight. Matthew and Luke wrote their accounts of this event about 60 A.D. John wrote his, including Mary’s name, near 90 A.D.

It is likely that John had read the texts of Matthew and Luke, and remembered who this woman was. By John including Mary’s name into His Gospel, which he wrote after the others, we can understand that this is proof that all four Gospels are truthful and not contrived. We can also use this as evidence that Matthew and Luke must have written their Gospels before John.

This might seem like a vague and unimportant difference, but for a person who is trained in fraud detection for written testimony, this is empirical evidence of genuine testimony. By this example of John including a minor detail in adding Mary’s name, while the other Gospel writers did not, we understand that these differences in testimony validate the Gospels as genuine accounts.

I challenge you to read through a portion of text that is found in three or all four of the Gospels and carefully compare exactly what each writer is saying. You will see the same narrative, but with slightly different statements that either add or omit certain details. These details do not change the story, but they do tell us that we are reading four separate accounts by four separate writers who all saw the same events.

The writers of the four Gospels claim that they are eyewitnesses of all they wrote. We see in the text that Jesus called these four men to be His witnesses and they were with Him during his entire three and one half years of ministry. These men say in the text that they saw Jesus perform miracles, but didn’t believe He was God or Messiah at first. They say that it was only after they saw Jesus crucified and then alive three days later, that they were convince by the physical evidence of His risen body that He is God and Messiah.

This is what eyewitness testimony is all about.

People see events in past history. They write about what they saw. These documents are circulated. If the events were true, many thousands of documents are copied and further distributed. After 2,000 years, we have the historical artifacts of what these men saw; the surviving 24,593 manuscript copies. Events that are myth, are soon discovered as myths and they do not have 24,000 surviving manuscript copies, 2,000 years later.

There are many places in the narratives of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, which retain slight differences in their descriptions. These are clear evidence of truthful testimony. You will learn many details like this throughout this book that will help you understand how much evidence there is in the New Testament narratives that can be used to validate these texts as truthful.

Examining Current Theories For The Alleged “Synoptic Problem”

The first three books of the New Testament, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, are frequently referred to as the Synoptic Gospels. Described in this manner due to their similarities to each other, while different from John’s Gospel. For some critics, these similarities are so close that a great controversy and debate has ensued. The result of this disagreement is commonly referred to as The Synoptic Problem.”

It is my view that scholars themselves created this problem due to a lack of understanding in precisely what has been written. In examination of these three Gospels, we find precisely what we would expect from three independent sources: There is adequate unanimity between these Gospel witnesses to demonstrate corroboration, but sufficient variation to eliminate collaboration.

All three Gospel authors wrote independent accounts. The differences are explained by simple forensic investigation which reveals that in genuine testimony which is truthful, multiple witnesses write a majority of the same accounts, with additions and omissions separate from the others. These differences are in accordance with individual memory and independent priority. The existence of these differences in recollection are precisely what forensic experts look for in written testimony in order to confirm truthful accounts.

All that has ensued with these various theories is what could be expected when so many opinions of men creep into an analysis of God’s word, confusion. By simply reading the text of all four Gospels, no theory is necessary. There are similarities in the synoptic Gospels when the writers are recounting the actual words of Jesus, or an event that a particular Gospel writer thought was significant. Other writers either added their own details, or omitted the details other writers included because they were either not as important as other details, or not remembered at the time of writing.

If the writers had copied from each other, it is likely that we would find a nearly identical account in all the Gospels. A significant marker of individuality, while maintaining corroborating accounts, demonstrates the independent memories of each Gospel writer.

The Following Are Traditional Definitions For Each Of the Alleged Theories For The Synoptic Problem

Mark’s Gospel is the shortest of the three, while large sections are also found in Matthew and Luke. Analysis suggests that Matthew and Luke share over two hundred verses that are not found in Mark. These similarities are found in their subject matter, precise words, and the order of specific events. When critics find these similarities in all three of the Synoptic Gospels, they refer to these as the triple tradition. Critics refer to the material only found in Matthew and Luke as the  double tradition, also known as Q. Text that is distinctively located in Matthew is described as the M tradition. Text found uniquely in Luke is described as the L tradition.

It is important to understand that even with these diverse differences in text in all three Gospels, they all share a commonality in the same narratives they are recounting. None of these differences changes the fundamental and important accounts of Jesus in coming to earth as God in the form of a man, performing miracles to prove His claim to be God, dying by crucifixion, and being raised from the dead. All four Gospel writers emphasize the importance of Jesus as the true Messiah, fulfilling all of the prophecies required for the Messiah. All four Gospels recount these same important events, defining them as credible, truthful independent narratives.

God does not restrict the individuality of persons who serve Him to write, speak, or serve in the same way that everyone else does. Those whom Jesus called to witness all that He said and did, had the freedom to write a narrative from the memory the Holy Spirit enabled them with (John 14:26). Each man wrote their accounts from the mind, personality, recollection, and abilities of each individual. These differences in memory, style of writing, additions or omissions of details, does not remove the inspiration of the text as coming from God, promised by Jesus before He went to the cross.

Possible Solutions For The Synoptic Problem

Because there is still a great deal of debate regarding the Synoptic Problem, the following theories are offered as ideas that scholars have proposed. It is important to understand that no one knows if any of these theories are correct. There is no person who can definitively state that any one of these ideas is the correct solution. It my opinion, as stated earlier, none of these ideas are necessary if we understand the text itself.

The Augustinian Theory:
This theory suggests that Matthew was the first Gospel that was written, followed by Mark, then Luke. This hypothesis describes the second and third Gospels as relying upon the previous Gospel(s) as their sources. Some scholars see a preservation of Matthean priority as essential due to certain statements that were voiced by some of the early church fathers. One statements originated from Augustine who said that the evangelists “have written in this order: first Matthew, then Mark, third Luke, and last John.”[1, 2]

The Griesbach Theory:
Similar to the Traditional Augustinian Theory, the Griesbach Theory also preserves a Matthean priority. Unlike the Augustinian theory, this Two-Gospel Hypothesis requires Luke as the second Gospel, followed by Mark as the third. In this theory, Luke would have used Matthew as a source, Mark would have used both Matthew and Luke as their sources. The Matthean priority obtains its support from the church fathers, stated by Clement of Alexandria who wrote that the Gospels and their genealogies found in Matthew and Luke, were written first.[3]

One point to consider in this theory is the difficulty it has with the Matthean priority. It is clear that Mark’s Gospel is the shortest with the majority of its text also found in Matthew and Luke. It is difficult to explain how the shortest Gospel is less than ten percent original, particularly when we understand Peter’s interpretation of these events through Mark. If Mark was truly a summary of Matthew and Luke, how do we account for the omission of important points that are observed in the other two Gospels, such as  the birth of Jesus and His Sermon on the Mount?

We find further difficulties in some of the earliest quotes that support a Matthean priority, stating that it was written in the Hebrew or Aramaic dialect first. As a result, these references do not require a Matthean priority in the Greek text, that would also allow the possibility for Markan or Lukan priority. Papias said: “Matthew gathered the sayings of Jesus in the Hebrew tongue, and each person translated them as he was able.”[4]

The Two-Source Theory:
This theory has become the most widely accepted conjecture amongst many New Testament scholars today. The reason for its popularity is that the two-source theory resolves the problems that originate with the Matthean priority, while also impeaching the problem of the double tradition. By the Two-Source Theory, priority is specified to Mark. The two-source theory states that both Matthew and Luke independently used Mark as their primary sources. Matthew reproduces most of its text from Mark, while Luke includes more than half of Mark’s text. By accessing Mark as a source, Matthew and Luke subsequently required Q as a common source.

Correctly Interpreting Q:

The letter Q is an abbreviation for the German word Quelle which means “source” or “spring.” In practice, Q may refer to different ideas. In one application, Q may be used to describe substantial first century documents. A second application may be its use to define several individual parts of diverse first century documents. Another application is in the oral tradition(s). Finally, Q is sometimes used in the double tradition material that is observed in both Matthew and Luke.

Because the Q document is an alleged document of hypothesis, there are several different conjectures in New Testament scholarship related to its criticism. I have had issues with the usage of such an idea because it cannot be validated and exists only in the hypothetical. This has become one of the primary tools used by liberal critics to prove ideas about the New Testament that are, as yet, unproven.

Amongst the conjectures for Q, is the idea that it antedates Matthew and Luke. In this regard, Q would be classified as a Sayings-Gospel. Different from the Gospels we do have, Q would not include Gospel narratives due to the existence of Q as a hypothesis and not a reality. I personally object to Q for the same reasons that I object to many of the unprovable assertions that are a part of New Testament Criticism today. These postulated ideas, give the unsuspecting layperson or student the idea that they are proven and reliable conclusions. They are not.

In debates with nearly 2,000 atheists I have heard the common claims of Q, late-dates for the writing of the Gospels, and the assertion that non-eye witnesses wrote the text. None of these are provable, but the majority of seminary students, and people who read the books and commentary written by liberal New Testament scholars, assume they are correct and proven.

Unlike the Gospels which are a part of the New Testament, Q would not contain narrative sections because the Q material in both Matthew and Luke are sometimes placed in different contexts. Q remains a hypothesis and until there is actual evidence to prove its reality, I for one, will not accept it as fact.

The Three-Source Theory:
The least popular of the synoptic problem solutions is the Three-Source Theory. This idea is similar to the Two-Source Theory, with the exception of one important point: Markan priority and the utilization of Q are both accessed, while the Three-Source Theory also adheres to a Matthean influence on Luke. This requires Mark as the first Gospel, then Matthew, and finally Luke. In this theory, Matthew and Luke are using the prior Gospel(s) as its source along with Q. Many scholars have difficulty with this idea due to the requirement of Luke in using text from Matthew, which is viewed as doubtful. This would impeach the idea of using Q in the first place.

The Four-Source Theory:
This is a unique theory that is centered on all the elements of the Two-Source Theory. The Four-Source Theory also makes use of Matthew and Luke independently using Mark and Q, with each Gospels accessing material that was unique to themselves. The text that we find used exclusively by Matthew is called M tradition, while Luke’s text is called L tradition. Understanding that this theory is simply a form of the Two-Source Theory, this has become a preferred solution for many scholars.

Farrer Theory (Mark without Q):
The final theory is called the Farrer Theory. As with the previous ideas described in this article, the Farrer Theory gives priority to Mark’s Gospel. In this theory, Matthew is the second Gospel that was written, followed by Luke. The Farrer Theory describes Matthew accessing the text of Mark, while Luke would have made use of Mark and Matthew. This theory does not require a theoretical Q due to there being no need to explain the triple and the double traditions from outside sources. A few of the primary advocates for this view are: A. M. Farrer, Mark Goodacre, J. H. Ropes, and M. D. Goulder. Some scholars see the Farrer Theory as a solid solution the the Synoptic Problem without the requirement of any hypothetical external texts.

The following are the resources available at this site which contain evidence to prove each of these important issues:

  1. When Were The Gospels Written?
  2. Were The Gospels Written By Eyewitnesses?
  3. Did The Gospel Writers Borrow From Each Other?
  4. Has The Text Of The New Testament Been Changed?
  5. Is The New Testament Filled With Errors?
  6. Were The Four Gospels Written Anonymously?
  7. The Body Of New Testament Evidence
  8. Are There Sources For Jesus Outside The New Testament?
  9. Is The New Testament A Valid Historical Narrative?
  10. Did Jesus Really Claim To Be God?
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