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by Curtis Mitch

The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are the foundational documents of historic Christianity. Most of what is known about the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth is known from these four books. Interlaced with their factual information about Christ is also the faith of the Church, the conviction that Jesus was the Messiah of ancient expectation and the eternal Son of God come in the flesh.

It is no surprise, then, that Christian tradition gives the four Gospels pride of place among the books of Sacred Scripture. They are placed first in the collection of New Testament writings, much as the five books of Moses, being the formative religious texts of Israel, stand at the head of the Old Testament. Without the Gospels, the Church would lack not only crucial information about her divine Founder but a vital source of strength and inspiration for her mission in the world.

Authority of the Gospels   Because the Gospels give us unique access to the words and deeds of Jesus, they possess the very highest authority. The Church acknowledges this in various ways, most obviously in the liturgy, where the Gospels are held aloft in procession, perfumed with incense, and proclaimed as the word of God. Selections from all parts of the Scriptures are represented in the Church's lectionary, but the Gospel reading is always featured as the highpoint of the Liturgy of the Word. The belief is that Jesus is made present to his people in word and sacrament, both in the inspired accounts of the evangelists and in the consecrated elements of the Eucharist.

The authority of the Gospels is ultimately grounded in their divine inspiration, as is the case with all the books of the Bible. However, in addition to this theological conviction, the Church also maintains the historical conviction that the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John bear witness to the preaching of the apostles. As recently as Vatican II, this teaching was reaffirmed with clarity and emphasis: "The Church has always and everywhere maintained, and continues to maintain, the apostolic origin of the four Gospels" (Dei Verbum 18). Unlike the many apocryphal gospels that proliferated in the second and third centuries, the four canonical Gospels come directly from the apostolic age. They express in written form what the apostles were preaching and teaching about Jesus in the earliest decades of Christian history.

Numerous ancient writers contend that the four Gospels represent the authority of four apostles of Christ. Virtually everyone in earliest times held that the first and the fourth Gospels were penned by the apostles Matthew (the tax collector) and John (the son of Zebedee), both of whom were companions and eyewitnesses of Jesus during his historical ministry (Mt 9:9; 10:2-3; Mk 1:19-20; Jn 19:35). The situation is different in the case of the second and third Gospels, which primitive testimony ascribes to two apostolic associates, Mark (also called John; see Acts 15:37) and Luke (the physician; Col 4:14). These individuals were not personal companions of Jesus but worked in close collaboration with the apostles Peter and Paul (see Col 4:11, 14; 2 Tim 4:11; 1 Pet 5:13). So whereas the Gospels of Matthew and John are apostolic writings in the strict sense, the Gospels of Mark and Luke are said to embody the apostolic witness of Peter and Paul, respectively.

One of the great strengths of these traditions of authorship is their unanimity. It is remarkable that there are no rival claims either disputing the apostolic origin of the four Gospels or purporting to identify different individuals as responsible for writing them. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are consistently named as the Gospel writers throughout Christian antiquity.1 Indeed, there is no variation at all in the ancient Greek manuscripts with respect to the names that appear in the headings of the four Gospels ("The Gospel according to Matthew", "The Gospel according to Mark", etc.).

Scholars often assert that the Gospels initially circulated without titles and that only around A.D. 125 were they supplied with superscriptions giving the names of the evangelists. But this claim, while theoretically possible, is historically unlikely. First of all, every extant Gospel text with a surviving title page includes a superscription with the name of the evangelist as given by tradition. If untitled Gospels ever existed, none has survived to confirm the assertion. Second, given the need to tag and identify books stored in church libraries and archives, there is reason to suppose that the Gospels were quickly supplied with some kind of heading (perhaps standardized into a common format at a later point) around the time of their publication. Such a need would be felt as soon as two or more Gospels were in circulation within the Christian community. Third, there was need to verify the authority of works read in the Christian liturgy alongside the books of the Old Testament. Since many produced written accounts about Jesus in the first century (see Lk 1:1), identifying the evangelist was one way to ensure that a given book was an authentic expression of apostolic testimony. In the end, no other scenario satisfactorily explains how the titles of the four Gospels were consistently used from the second century onward.2 In all probability, the names of the four evangelists represent a tradition that goes back to the first century.

Another strength of the tradition of Gospel authorship is its unlikelihood as guesswork. Some would argue that the titles and traditions linked with the Gospels are historically unreliable. But if the Gospels were initially disseminated as anonymous works, and only decades later ideas about their origin began to crystallize and take hold throughout the Christian community, then we are left with a situation that is very difficult to explain. Not only are the names of the evangelists unanimously attested in the second century, but one is hard-pressed to account for why these names and not others were chosen and universally agreed upon. The apostle John may be thought an obvious choice to credit with a Gospel, given the extent of his influence in early Christianity. By why attribute the other Gospels to figures such as Matthew, Mark, and Luke? Even though Matthew was one of the Twelve, he appears only a few times in the New Testament and never in such a way that later generations would conclude that he was a figure of towering importance. Even more, it is unlikely that a Gospel addressed to readers from a Jewish background would be attributed to a tax collector, since tax collectors were generally despised by Jews as morally corrupt, ritually unclean, and politically traitorous. The problem is even more acute in the case of Mark and Luke, neither of whom was an apostle and neither of whom appears in the writings of the New Testament as a prominent authority figure in the earliest Christian community. If churchmen in the second century were merely speculating about the authorship of the Gospels, one might reasonably expect them to have preferred more illustrious personalities such as Peter or Paul. At the very least, one would expect more than one opinion to have made itself heard in the annals of Christian history.

Canon of the Gospels Christianity recognizes and reveres four Gospels, no more and no less. Only the texts of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are accepted as inspired witnesses to the life of Jesus and to what he accomplished for our salvation. These four writings stand as four pillars supporting the Church's faith and proclamation for all time.

In contrast, several heresies that sprouted up in the second century A.D. made the mistake of reducing or expanding the Church's fourfold Gospel collection. Some went astray by seizing upon a single Gospel to the neglect or outright rejection of the others. For example, it is said that the Ebionites made exclusive use of (some form of) Matthew. Likewise, Marcion and his band of followers acknowledged none but a mutilated and downsized version of Luke. Others moved in the opposite direction by composing spurious gospels to stand alongside the canonical Gospels. This was the fault of various Gnostic communities, who produced an array of pseudo-gospels in the second and third centuries, none of which has a serious claim to preserve eyewitness testimony from the first century.

Even within the Church it was necessary to safeguard the integrity of the fourfold Gospel. This need was first felt when Tatian, a student of St. Justin Martyr, compiled the Diatessaron, a work in which the four Gospels were woven together into a single, continuous narrative of the life and ministry of Jesus (ca. A.D. 170). Even this pious attempt to harmonize the Gospel accounts was deemed unacceptable by the Church. The integrity of the four Gospels as four distinct witnesses to Jesus Christ was not to be compromised.

The evidence of early Christian writings suggests that the authority of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John was widely acknowledged by the middle of the second century. By this time it was already an established custom to read the Gospels, called "the memoirs of the apostles", alongside the books of the Old Testament in the Church's liturgy (see St. Justin Martyr, First Apology 67). Indeed, it is probable that the canon of the four Gospels was the first part of the New Testament canon to become a universal tradition in the Church. Doubts lingered about the authenticity of several biblical books during the early centuries, and the New Testament canon of twenty-seven books was not ratified by regional synods until the late fourth and early fifth centuries. But the collection of Gospels deemed worthy of liturgical proclamation and instruction was a settled matter long before that.

So established was the fourfold Gospel canon by the late second century that writers such as St. Irenaeus were beginning to reflect on its theological significance (A.D. 180). For him, the Church's acceptance of four Gospels signified that the good news was to spread forth in all directions—to the four winds, as it were (Against Heresies 3, 11, 8). Irenaeus also correlated the four living creatures in Rev 4:6-7 with the four evangelists: Matthew, he said, was represented by the man, Mark by the eagle, Luke by the ox, and John by the lion (Against Heresies 3, 11, 8). Later this tradition would develop and change. So, for example, St. Jerome would see Matthew as the man, Mark as the lion, Luke as the ox, and John as the eagle (Against Jovinianus 1, 26), whereas St. Augustine preferred to see Matthew as the lion, Mark as the man, Luke as the ox, and John as the eagle (Harmony of the Gospels 1, 6, 9). However the correlation is made, the belief is that each book in the collection of four Gospels has a unique message that highlights a different dimension of the mystery of Christ.

Formation of the Gospels   The Gospels stand as the outcome of a historical process that unfolded over the course of many years. Understanding the formation of the Gospels thus requires some awareness of the stages, literary and preliterary, that led to their composition. These formative stages began with Jesus, extended through the ministry of the apostles, and culminated with the evangelists writing out their inspired accounts. The Pontifical Biblical Commission underlined the importance of these stages in 1964 in its "Instruction on the Historical Truth of the Gospels" (Sancta Mater Ecclesia 7-9). A summary of these follows.

(1) Stage I begins with the person of Jesus, who conveyed his teaching to a handpicked group of disciples known as the apostles. Though he often addressed the crowds in general, he made the apostles his constant companions and invested himself in their formation. To them he revealed the deepest mystery of his identity through his preaching, private instruction, and the performance of miracles. He also provided them with a constant example of prayer and a life of heroic sacrifice.

(2) Stage II covers the ministry of the apostles, who were both commissioned and uniquely qualified to bear witness to all that Jesus had said and done. Illumined by the Spirit, they possessed a true understanding of the mystery of Christ and were empowered by the grace of God to testify on his behalf. Through oral proclamation, they made known the purpose of his dying and rising as well as the significance of his living among men. The faith of the apostles did not obscure their memory but rather helped to keep the remembrance of these events alive. Their testimony to Jesus was proclaimed in various forms, including narratives of his life, catechetical instructions, prayers, and hymns.

(3) Stage III is the writing of the Gospels as lasting monuments of the apostolic witness to Jesus. The four evangelists composed these written records in order to provide an authentic record of the Lord's sayings and doings and to instruct the faithful in the elements of Christian doctrine and morals. To this end they selected episodes from the life of Jesus that most served their purpose, they synthesized these traditions on occasion, and they wrote with the situation of their readers in mind. Most importantly, the Church believes and teaches that the writers of the four Gospels set down their narratives under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

Genre of the Gospels   Scholarship has long wrestled with the question: What kind of books are the four Gospels? Some scholars consider them an example of midrash, a form of homiletic exposition in which texts of the Old Testament are applied to new situations in the life of God's people. Others classify them as aretalogies, in which Jesus appears as a heroic "divine man" who performs superhuman feats. Still others see them as literary dramas that weave together comic and tragic motifs along lines developed by the classical playwrights. Additional attempts at genre analysis have identified the Gospels as apocalypses, as historical monographs, and as a form of folk literature known as cult legends. Many twentieth-century scholars, owing to the considerable influence of form criticism, declared the Gospels sui generis—unique, one of a kind, in a class by themselves.

Not until the late twentieth century did a more promising avenue open for a literary classification of the Gospels. Thanks to ongoing historical and literary research, an increasing number of scholars are now claiming that the Gospels are a species of Greco-Roman biography. These were not like many modern biographies, which tend to concentrate on a person's appearance, habits, personality type, psychological development, etc. These works, known in the Hellenistic world as "lives" (Greek bioi or Latin vitae), did not so much analyze their subjects abstractly as display their character through a narration of their significant words and actions. Prominent biographies of this type were written by Greek authors such as Xenophon and Plutarch, by Roman authors such as Tacitus and Suetonius, and by Hellenistic Jewish authors such as Philo of Alexandria.

Characteristic of these Greco-Roman "lives" are the following features: they focus attention on a single individual; they are broadly chronological but sometimes arrange their materials topically or thematically; and oftentimes only one period of the subject's life dominates the presentation. The subjects of biographical writing tended to be figures of renown and influence—statesmen, philosophers, military men, literary figures, and the like. Most importantly, the greatness of the biographical subject is revealed through heroic acts of virtue and memorable words of wisdom. Several biographies even undertake a careful examination of the subject's death and the circumstances surrounding it.

Insofar as the Gospels appear to stand within the literary category of ancient biography, there is good reason to suppose that the Gospels were written with historiographical intent. In other words, adoption of the biographical genre implies that the evangelists aimed to tell us about the historical life and accomplishments of Jesus. The basis of such a presentation would rest on personal recollections, whether their own or someone else's (see Lk 1: 1-4; Jn 19:35). This being so, the Gospel writers were free to interpret the significance of Jesus for their readers, but they would not have felt free to invent stories and sayings of Jesus out of whole cloth, nor would they have knowingly falsified or distorted the facts about his life as they knew them from experience or had received them through the most ancient channels of tradition. Ancient authors, no less than modern ones, knew the difference between history and historical fiction.

Finally, in addition to being historiographical works, the Gospels are also evangelical works. That is to say, they also aim to produce faith in their readers. This is made explicit in the Gospel of John, where the evangelist addresses his audience with the words: "Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name" (Jn 20:30-31). Most agree that this purpose behind the Gospel of John lies behind the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) as well. If anything is unique about the Gospels in comparison with Greco-Roman biographies, then, it is their aim to make believers out of their readers. Other ancient biographies held up their subjects as objects of admiration and imitation. The Gospels do likewise, but they go beyond this by making Jesus an object of religious faith and by inviting readers into a personal relationship with him.

Historicity of the Gospels   The Church has always affirmed the historicity of the Gospels. None of the four accounts can be reduced to a form of fictional writing in which realistic narratives serve merely as allegories of the life of the early Church or as vehicles to impart religious teaching in concrete and memorable ways. On the contrary, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John report about real events of the past and about real people who had a part in them. This is not to deny them the theological and spiritual richness that is theirs. It is only to insist, in concert with Vatican II, that the Gospels tell us what Jesus "really did and taught" for our salvation (Dei Verbum 19).

For the historian, the reliability of the Gospels means that their stories are generally accurate in bearing witness to Jesus and his times. The historian might admit the presence of slight errors and minor misstatements of fact, while concluding that the overall presentation of the main events is a trustworthy description of history. For the Church, however, the historical reliability of the Gospels means something more than this. Since the Bible is inspired by God, it can never be said that its human authors assert as true anything that is untrue, whether the affirmation be made about doctrine, morals, or the events of history. Of course, careful study is needed to ascertain the intention of the author, lest we mistake a non-historical narrative such as a parable for a historical one. And even historical narratives have a theological relevance and purpose behind them. But where an author's intent to record history can be established, the factual accuracy of the account is guaranteed as part of the mystery of divine inspiration. The Pontifical Biblical Commission reaffirmed this point in 1964, when it said that the four Gospels were written under the inspiration of the Spirit, who "preserved their authors immune from all error" (Sancta Mater Ecclesia 11). By implication, this is also the meaning of Vatican II's Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation when it states that "everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held as asserted by the Holy Spirit" (Dei Verbum 11).

What, then, are we to make of the apparent mistakes and contradictions that appear in the Gospels? It can hardly be denied that numerous difficulties face the interpreter who would try to reconcile the four Gospels in detail. There are several places where a story in one Gospel seems to conflict with the same story as told in another. Sometimes the words of Jesus recorded in one Gospel seem to disagree with his words recorded in another. And occasionally the evangelists make historical claims that contradict the testimony of secular sources regarding the events and circumstances of the period.

The Church's approach to resolving such discrepancies has never been to compromise her belief in the divine inspiration and the historical truthfulness of the Gospels. Her faith is firmly maintained in spite of the difficulties that confront us. In practical terms, this means that interpretation proceeds with the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture in mind, and it falls to the Church's scholars to find ways to alleviate tensions and to reconcile discordant accounts to the best of their ability (see Leo XIII, Providentissimus Deus 45; Pius XII, Divino Afflante Spiritu 46). The attempt to harmonize the Gospels will not always produce satisfactory results. Nevertheless, it is good to remember that numerous difficult passages of the Bible have been clarified over time thanks to the efforts of scholars toiling to vindicate the truthfulness of Scripture. As for those problematic passages still in need of a solution, there are several considerations to keep in mind when one stumbles across apparent contradictions and inconsistencies in the Gospels.

(1) Biblical scholars have long recognized that the Gospels do not always present the story of Jesus in strict chronological order. Certainly the main outline of his life, ministry, and final days is kept intact. In this sense, the story line is broadly chronological. But some of the short episodes within this larger framework are moved around and repositioned according to the aim of each evangelist. Thus, one notices that episodes sharing a common theme are sometimes grouped together, as are sayings that touch upon a related topic of discussion.

The freedom to rearrange sayings and stories in a non-chronological sequence does not mean that the essential historicity of the Gospels is compromised. This is something that ancient biographers and historians were accustomed to doing in their writings. Besides, it is important to remember that the evangelists, in addition to preserving the memory of Jesus' words and deeds, were also preachers of the good news. Their aims and interests as authors were evangelical and catechetical as well as historiographical. One result is that chronology is sometimes subordinate to theology in the narrative depiction of Jesus' life. Such adaptations of chronology can be explained by the Gospel writers' use of the literary techniques of their age to communicate the historical truth about Jesus.

(2) An examination of parallel passages shows that the four Gospels frequently record the words of Jesus in different ways. This is not surprising, since Jesus delivered much of his teaching in Aramaic, whereas the Gospels record his sayings in Greek. No doubt some variations in wording were bound to arise in the process of translation from one language to another. Also, it sometimes appears that the evangelists offer an interpretive paraphrase of Jesus' sayings in order to highlight a particular theme or teaching they deem especially relevant to their readers. The Gospel authors can thus clarify the meaning of a saying, or even place a certain emphasis on this detail or that, all the while preserving the substance of what Jesus said on the occasion.

Although this procedure may strike us as questionable, given our modern preference for exact quotation, the best historians of the ancient world typically allowed a measure of freedom in recording spoken discourse. They permitted an author to paraphrase, abbreviate, or even bring out the meaning of a person's words, so long as the original sense of the words was faithfully conveyed. Still, this was a liberty that operated within strict limits. The historian's aim was not always to preserve the exact words of a saying but rather the speaker's intended meaning.

With respect to the Gospels, it can be said that the evangelists preserved the authentic voice of Jesus, even though their reports are not always verbatim transcripts of his exact words. The Pontifical Biblical Commission has acknowledged this by saying that the authors of the Gospels employed "different words to express what he said, not keeping to the very letter, but nevertheless preserving the sense" (Sancta Mater Ecclesia 9). So the essence of Jesus' message is accurately expressed in the Gospels even though there are variations in the way each evangelist wrote it down.

(3) When it comes to reconciling Gospel accounts of the same event, it is important to distinguish between contradictory testimony and complementary testimony. One is dealing with contradictory testimony when two reports of a single occurrence are in direct conflict and cannot be reconciled. For example, if one author places an individual at a specific time and location, and another author places the same individual at a different location but at the exact same time, then it must be presumed that at least one of the witnesses is either lying or mistaken. Both cannot be true at the same time.

On the other hand, complementary testimony is non-contradictory. If two authors describe an individual engaged in two different activities at the same time and place, we need not conclude that either is lying or mistaken, for the situation may be more complex. Suppose one witness says that Jesus was "teaching" at sunrise, while another witness claims that he was "walking" to Jerusalem at that time. Neither of these activities makes the other impossible or even unlikely, for Jesus could have been doing both at the same time. Being complementary rather than contradictory testimony, both reports can be taken as an accurate description of reality. The challenge is to piece together a coherent picture of what took place in all its complexity.

(4) Attempts to reconcile disparate Gospel accounts must reckon with the fact that all historical writing is necessarily selective and incomplete. No one can record everything that takes place at a given moment in time, so a complete history of any event is strictly impossible. By the same token, a partial history of any given event is not thereby a falsification of the facts. An nonexhaustive report, mentioning certain details while omitting others, is not at all the same as an inaccurate report. Of course, it is sometimes the case that excluding facts can lead to a distorted or misleading account of events. But this is not always or necessarily so. Some facts may not be pertinent to the purposes of a particular author's account of an event, so excluding those facts does not falsify the account.

(5) Measuring the truth of the Gospels against other historical records of antiquity is a delicate and difficult matter. Whether from new archeological finds or from literary monuments long possessed, historical data sometimes present biblical interpreters with conflicting testimony about the past. These are the difficulties that often make headlines, with skeptics claiming that the story of the Bible (or the Catholic Church's interpretation of it) has been disproved by the facts of history.

Sensationalists who make such claims tend to overlook two important points. First, the facts of a given case are always bound up with one's interpretation of those facts. The objective evidence of historical and archeological study requires a subjective assessment of that evidence. The same is true with biblical interpretation. As a result, some of the contradictions said to exist between the Gospels and other ancient sources are, on closer inspection, more apparent than real. That is because some (or all) of the relevant evidence may have been given a faulty interpretation. Second, many interpreters are guilty of a methodological bias against the veracity of Scripture. Thus, when a contradiction is found between a Gospel passage and another historical document, the latter is often given the benefit of the doubt while the biblical testimony is declared erroneous. At the very least, it should be kept in mind that ancient writers, being fallible human beings, were prone to make mistakes and to experience slips of the memory, just as we are today. Only the Scriptures can be treated as absolutely reliable when properly interpreted.

(6) Finally, it must be said that humility and patience are called for when dealing with problematic passages in the Gospels. Humility is always essential when handling Scripture, for it is the inspired witness to God's love for us and the revealed record of his will for our lives. It is not our business to stand in judgment over the written word; rather, it is the word that stands in judgment over us. Likewise, patience is needed when wrestling with interpretive challenges and working toward solutions. Difficulties are not in the Bible by some oversight of God's Providence. They are opportunities to submit our minds to the mystery of his revelation and to trust that all things find their answer in him.

Relationship among the Synoptic Gospels   One of the great enigmas of biblical scholarship concerns the relationship among the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. For the first eighteen centuries of Christian history, theologians made every effort to harmonize these Gospels with each other and with the Gospel of John in order to defend their testimony against charges of inconsistency and internal contradiction. Modern times, however, have witnessed a shift in focus, with much research now devoted to investigating the sources utilized by the evangelists and the probable sequence in which their Gospels were composed.

Today the effort to understand the relationship among the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke is known as the Synoptic Problem. These three Gospels are called "synoptic" because their contents, order, language, and narrative structures are remarkably similar, making it easy to arrange the Gospel texts in parallel columns and examine them side-by-side (the Greek synopsis means "view together"). The "problem" is how to explain the similarities and differences among them. The first question is whether a dependence on oral tradition can sufficiently explain these phenomena, or whether it is more likely that Matthew, Mark, and Luke are interrelated at a literary level. Most scholars maintain that a literary relationship best explains why the Synoptic Gospels are so similar. Thus, studies of the Synoptic Problem typically seek to determine which of the three Synoptic Gospels was written first, second, and third, and which evangelist(s) relied on the work of his predecessor(s).

Proposing a reasonable solution to the Synoptic Problem requires a painstaking analysis of the internal data of the Gospels, an evaluation of the external testimony of Christian tradition, and a convincing explanation of how the Gospels came together to reach their final form. Numerous solutions have been put forward to explain the Synoptic Problem, but four main proposals have attracted most of the attention among scholars over the last two centuries.

(1) The Augustinian Hypothesis. The first detailed examination of Gospel parallels was undertaken at the turn of the fifth century by St. Augustine, who maintained that the order of the Gospels in the canon (Matthew-Mark-Luke-John) represents the order of Gospel composition (Harmony of the Gospels 3, 1, 2). On this paradigm, Matthew wrote his Gospel first, then Mark wrote an epitome or summary of Matthew, and then Luke wrote his Gospel by combining elements of Matthew and Mark with further traditions he had collected. Few scholars favor the hypothesis today, yet this was the dominant view of Christian scholarship until the nineteenth century.

Support for the Augustinian order of composition is claimed on several grounds. (a) Before the time of St. Augustine, this sequence was asserted by Origen of Alexandria (cited in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 6, 25, 3-6) and seemingly also by St. Irenaeus (Against Heresies 3, 1, 1). Likewise, the most common arrangement to appear in the ancient codices (large volumes in which the Gospels were bound together under one cover) was Matthew-Mark-Luke-John. (b) Early Christian writings that say nothing about the order of Mark and Luke are nevertheless unanimous in claiming that Matthew was the first Gospel to be written. (c) It has been said that the Jewishness of Matthew's Gospel favors its priority in the sequence of Gospel composition. In other words, it is difficult to imagine that a Gospel written for Gentiles (such as Mark or Luke) would have appeared before one that addressed the needs of Jewish Christians living in Israel. Historically, the Church's mission in Palestine was well underway before its mission to the Gentiles even began. (d) Several passages in Matthew, noted for their pronounced Semitic features, arguably represent the most primitive form of the tradition about Jesus preserved in the Gospels. One example is the exchange between Jesus and Peter in Mt 16:17-19, a passage that exhibits antithetical parallelism, Aramaic wordplay, and traditional Jewish idioms. The parallel passages in Mark and Luke are much abbreviated, apparently eliminating these Semitic features to make the exchange more intelligible to a Gentile readership. (e) Though most modern scholars think Mark was written before Matthew and that Matthew made an effort to resolve ambiguities that he found in Mark, there are places where the opposite sequence appears to be more probable. Perhaps the most obvious example is Jesus' response to Caiaphas regarding his messianic identity. It is hard to believe that Mark preserves the original wording of the reply when he records Jesus saying "I am" (Mk 14:62) and that Matthew later changed this to read "You have said so" (Mt 26:64). In all likelihood, Matthew has preserved the actual wording of Jesus' affirmation, and it was Mark who paraphrased his response to bring out its meaning more clearly.

(2) The Two-Gospel Hypothesis. This solution to the Synoptic Problem proposes the order Matthew-Luke-Mark. The claim is that Matthew wrote first, that Luke wrote second, drawing upon Matthew and other sources, and that Mark wrote third, producing an abridged conflation of Matthew and Luke. The Two-Gospel hypothesis was originally known as the Griesbach hypothesis

after the scholar who developed it in the late eighteenth century, Johann Griesbach. The Two-Gospel hypothesis remains a minority view today, but it has enjoyed a surge of academic interest beginning in the latter part of the twentieth century.

Supporters of this hypothesis argue their case along several lines. (a) The universal tradition that Matthew wrote first is claimed in its favor, as is a statement from St. Clement of Alexandria (quoted in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 6, 14, 5-7), who says that the two Gospels having genealogies, namely Matthew and Luke, were "written first" (though the verb in question can also mean "published openly"). (b) Those arguments which support the priority of Matthew to Mark (noted above as c, d, and e) also offer support for this view. (c) Placing Mark third is said to account best for the fact that his Gospel parallels Matthew and Luke when Matthew and Luke run parallel to each other and that Mark typically runs parallel either to Matthew or Luke in places where Matthew and Luke diverge from one another. Thus, as a matter of compositional policy, Mark almost never departs from his predecessors when they agree, nor does he go his own way when his predecessors lack parallel accounts, for he always follows one or the other. (d) Proponents note that literary features characteristic of Mark's Gospel occur with far less frequency in Matthew and Luke (e.g., the use of the historical present tense to describe past events and the widespread use of adverbs such as euthus, "immediately", and palin, "again"). It is easier to explain this phenomenon if Mark is placed third rather than first or second in the order of composition. (e) Luke is said to have made several passes through Matthew's Gospel, each time gathering up material that he wished to arrange and present in a different way. Many of the sayings of Jesus found in both Matthew and Luke were not repeated a third time by Mark, who wished to focus more on the Lord's actions than on his teachings.

(3) The Two-Source Hypothesis. This solution maintains that Mark's Gospel was the first to be written and that Matthew and Luke made independent use of Mark as their primary source of information about the life of Jesus. In addition, because Matthew and Luke have roughly 230 verses of material in common that are not found in Mark, many scholars contend that a second source document, comprised mainly of Jesus' sayings, was also utilized by Matthew and Luke (called Q, an abbreviation for the German Quelle, meaning "source"). Though no Q document has survived from antiquity, it is argued that the substance of Q can be reconstructed from the material shared by Matthew and Luke but absent from Mark. Along with the source documents Mark and Q, Matthew and Luke allegedly had other traditions at their disposal as well, usually designated M and L. Developed in the nineteenth century and further refined in the twentieth, the Two-Source hypothesis (also known as the Marcan priority or Oxford hypothesis) is the most widely accepted solution to the Synoptic Problem in modern scholarship.

Supporters claim that several observations are best accounted for by the Two-Source hypothesis. (a) Mark writes in a rough and heavily Semitic Greek, whereas Matthew and Luke write in a much smoother and more idiomatic Greek. Given this phenomenon, it is more likely that Matthew and Luke polished and improved the language of Mark than that Mark diminished the more elegant diction of his sources. (b) Statistical analysis indicates that more than 80 percent of Mark's Gospel is paralleled in Matthew, and more than 50 percent is paralleled in Luke. It is thus easier to account for Matthew and Luke writing after Mark, since they had so much more to say, than to envision Mark summarizing what was already stated in Matthew and Luke. (c) Advocates argue that one can readily explain why Matthew and Luke made editorial adjustments to material taken from Mark (called "redactions"), but it is not so clear why Mark would have changed material drawn from Matthew and Luke. Especially mysterious is Mark's omission of the infancy narratives along with much of the teaching of Jesus that appears in Matthew and Luke. (d) Proponents hold that Matthew and Luke either omitted or clarified certain details about Jesus that readers of Mark would likely find embarrassing, confusing, or hard to explain (see, e.g., Mk 6:5; 10:18). According to the argument, it is difficult to explain why Mark would have introduced these features into his Gospel if he were following Matthew and possibly Luke.

(4) The Farrer Hypothesis. Still another solution proposes the order Mark-Matthew-Luke. This view accepts the priority of Mark as the first written Gospel but dispenses with the hypothetical Q document as unnecessary. Instead of Matthew and Luke independently borrowing material from Mark and Q, supporters hold that Matthew relied upon Mark (and other traditions), while Luke, writing third, made use of Mark in establishing the chronological backbone of his Gospel and then inserted sayings and episodes about Jesus taken from Matthew. This solution to the Synoptic Problem takes its name from the twentieth-century scholar who pioneered it (Austin Farrer) and claims a moderate following among Gospel specialists today.

Supporters of the Mark-Matthew-Luke sequence argue their case along the following lines. (a) The arguments made by Two-Source theorists for Mark writing first are accepted by this hypothesis as well (noted above as a, b, c, and d). (b) On this paradigm, the material that Luke allegedly copied from Q is more likely to have come from Matthew. In fact, the narrative elements that are typically included in Q are found in Luke in the same order in which they appear in Matthew 3-11, which differs somewhat from Mark (e.g., the appearance of John the Baptist at the Jordan, the Baptism of Jesus, the three temptations of Jesus in the wilderness, the healing of the centurion's son, the messengers sent to Jesus from the Baptist). (c) Oftentimes Matthew and Luke agree with one another over against Mark in places where all three Gospels record the same episode. For instance, in the parable of the Mustard Seed, Luke's version agrees with Matthew's in four descriptive details that are entirely absent from Mark (compare Mt 13:31-32 and Lk 13:18-19 with Mk 4:30-32). Positing the existence of Q is unnecessary if one allows that Luke simply acquired these details from Matthew. (d) There are sayings in Luke's Passion narrative that are identical to those found in Matthew's Passion narrative (e.g., "Who is it that struck you?" in Mt 26:68 and Lk 22:64). This is significant because such sayings do not appear in Mark, and scholars are universally agreed that Q, if it existed, had no Passion narrative. Thus it appears that Luke was familiar with Matthew's Gospel and made use of it in the composition of his own Gospel.

In the end, it is fair to say that the Synoptic Problem remains a problem. No solution, ancient or modern, has yet provided a satisfactory explanation of the total evidence. This may never be achieved. Nevertheless, our interpretation of the Gospels must ultimately focus on the inspired texts as the Church has received and canonized them, regardless of what sources may have been utilized in their composition.

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