Gary Greenberg's blog on biblical studies and related matters

The Case for a Proto-Gospel and Standard Source Criticism Theory

In order to follow my series of blog posts on The Case for a Proto-Gospel, it will be helpful to understand the basic principles of current gospel source criticism and where I introduce some new ideas that enhance our understanding of gospel origins.

We call Mark, Luke and Matthew the “Synoptic Gospels” because if you read them along side of each other you find numerous instances where all three gospels seem to be telling the same story, often using many of the same words, and these shared stories frequently followed in the same sequential order. This suggests that there is some sort of literary relationship among the three gospels involving at least one written source. Figuring out what that relationship is what scholars call “the Synoptic Problem.”

Further analysis shows that in most instances where two of the three gospels agree against the third gospel as to either words used or sequential order, scholars find that either Mark and Matthew agree against Luke or Mark and Luke agree against Matthew. This suggests that Mark is probably the hub gospel and the other two use Mark as a source. However, there a few “minor” instances where Matthew and Luke agree against Mark.

Nevertheless, it is almost universally accepted among NT scholars that Mark is the first gospel to have been written, probably sometime between Years 60–75 of the first century and that Matthew (in Years 80–90) and Luke (in Years 90-110) made substantial use of Mark in composing their own gospels. Scholars refer to these three-gospel agreements as the “Triple Tradition.”

Raymond Brown noted that there are 661 verses in Mark, 1,068 in Matthew, and 1,149 in Luke.[i] He estimated that 80 percent of Mark’s verses have parallels in Matthew and 65 percent have parallels in Luke.[ii] This means that half of Matthew and over one-third of Luke draw upon Mark as a source. Since Mark has no birth narrative, and if we don’t count the lengthy ones in Matthew and Luke, the percentage of Mark present in the other two gospels becomes significantly higher.

In addition to Matthew and Luke making use of Mark, scholars have also observed that there are several passages in Matthew and Luke that look alike but are not present in Mark. With only slightly less unanimity than for Markan priority, most scholars believe that Matthew and Luke, independently of each other, made use of a now written lost source that has been nicknamed “Q” (from the German word quelle, meaning “source.”) This has led to a field of Q studies that tries to recreate this lost gospel based on the traces in Matthew and Luke. Scholars who follow this thesis refer to the use of Mark and Q by Matthew and Luke as the “two sources” theory.

In recent years, however, a growing group of NT scholars, led by Mark Goodacre, has argued against the Q thesis, contending that Luke knew Matthew, and used him as a source, which explains why they agree with each other on so many passages in  both gospels. It also explains why Matthew and Luke might on a few occasions agree with each other against Mark. Like simply preferred Matthew’s version of an event to Mark’s.

This brings us to John, whose gospel looks nothing like the synoptic gospels. There are few stories that look alike and few places where similar words are used. Nevertheless, John does know bits and pieces of several stories that appear in the synoptic gospels. This knowledge of synoptic material, scholars contend, arises from oral traditions that John may have been familiar with. While Johannine scholars have a number of inconsistent theories about how John composed his gospel and what sources he used, few, if any, scholars  believe that John had any knowledge of any written version of any of the synoptic gospels. This is where The Case for a Proto-Gospel: Recovering the Common Written Source Behind Mark and John breaks new ground.

The primary thesis of The Case for a Proto-Gospel is that Mark had a written source for most of his biographical stories about Jesus and that John knew Mark’s written source (but not Mark itself.) Mark made a number of small changes here and there to his source material but didn’t stray too far away. John, on the other hand, found the Markan source profoundly theologically offensive in its portrayal of Jesus, the “true” gospel message, and other matters. and set out to rewrite the earlier source such that it reflected his own understandings.

John used the structural framework of the earlier narrative as his narrative template, but rewrote the stories that he found offensive, often in ways that made it difficult to see how he relied on the Markan narrative for his source material. Occasionally, he found it necessary to move stories or passages within a story into different sequential locations in order to promote his theological structure. We’ll look at examples of this practice in some of the subsequent blog posts in this series.

In addition, The Case for a Proto-Gospel, argues that Luke also knew the Markan source used by John and that on occasion he preferred the source version of the story to Mark’s version of the story but for the most part used Mark as his primary source.

In sum, then, Mark had a written source. John and Luke knew the written source. Luke also knew Mark. Matthew did not know Mark’s source but his use of Mark as a source assures that his gospel’s account of Jesus has its roots in Mark’s source. I should emphasize, that I make no claim that Mark’s written source is Q and I accept Markan priority and that Matthew and Luke both used Mark. As to Q itself, I take no sides in the debate. As do some scholars, I take Q only to mean material present in both Matthew and Luke but not in Mark.


[i] Brown, Raymond E., Introduction to the New Testament, (New York: Doubleday, 1997), 111.

[ii] Brown, Raymond E., Introduction to the New Testament, (New York: Doubleday, 1997),111.


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