Are the Gospels Merely Recycled Material?

Eyebrow-raising Gospel characteristics are the similarities between certain passages of one Gospel found in another, sometimes word for word. It fuels the conspiracy theories saying this is evidence of Christian collaborators making up a Messiah story.

Matthew, Mark and Luke – called the Synoptic Gospels – contain “parallel passages” where content similarities typically appear.[i] On full display is the distinctive Jewish literary practice of grouping content by topic instead of chronologically.[ii]

Most authorities agree the Gospel of John is an authentic eyewitness account written independently of the Synoptic Gospels and as such serves as a calibration source.[iii]Writing he did not intend to cover all the things Jesus had done, still some critics use John’s omission of events found in the other three Gospels to challenge its credibility.[iv]

Are the Synoptic Gospels merely recycled material? An excellent point of comparison are the major Jewish works written during the same era – Josephus, the Talmud Mishnah, and other New Testament books.[v]

In literary circles of Antiquity, written materials were considered communal property available to be freely used by other literati with or without citations.[vi] The Synoptics use of common source or sources is a reflection of legitimate writing protocol of the times.[vii]

Luke’s author openly acknowledged using “handed down” information, a practice common to Jewish and other cultures. Rabbi sages “handed down” oral interpretations of the Law over many generations until committed to writing in the Mishnah.[viii] Josephus wrote that he used expert sources “for the proof of what I say” in support of his writings.[ix]

Jewish literary works used quotations as a means to cite sources in a time before footnotes or endnotes came into existence.[x] Throughout the New Testament quotations of the Jewish Scripture Septuagint translation can be seen preceded by the phrase “it is written.” Quoting was a practice also used in the Talmud and by Josephus.[xi]

Literary authenticity and integrity, Josephus wrote, could be achieved by following the role model of Moses who took unexciting legal topics and made them meaningful and understandable while not adding or taking anything away.[xii]  Moses took the source material of God’s Law handed down to him at Mt. Sinai and committed it to writing while interweaving it with factual, interesting Hebrew stories thereby producing a distinct literary work.[xiii]

Unique qualities found through simple literary analysis are obvious at the beginning of each Gospel.[xiv] Matthew, written for a Jewish audience, starts the genealogy of Jesus with Abraham. Luke, written to a Gentile audience, worked the genealogy of Jesus backward to Adam.[xv]

Mark begins by immediately declaring Jesus to be the Son of God, then ties a prophecy to his introduction of John the Baptist. John’s well-known opening says “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”[xvi]

Quantifying the differences through deeper literary analysis, over 35% of the content of Matthew is unique to the Synoptics – not found in Mark or Luke.[xvii] Nearly 50% of the verses in Luke are not common to either Matthew or Mark.[xviii] Slightly less than 40% of the content of Mark is not shared by Matthew and Luke while nearly 8% of Mark is unique content.[xix]

A fascinating characteristic of authenticity is demonstrated through miracles and parables. Contrary to popular perceptions, they have less in common among the Gospels than they have in common.

Of the 35 miracles recorded in the Gospels, only one is common to all four – the feeding of the 5000. One of the most, if not the most, famous miracle is Jesus walking on water and it does not appear in Luke![xx]

Only 10 miracles, less than a third, are common to all three Synoptics. Almost half, 16 in all, are uniquely reported by a given author – 3 by Matthew, 2 by Mark, 5 by Luke and 6 by John.

Parables can be tricky to quantify (was it an illustration or a parable?) so the lists vary somewhere in the range of 30.[xxi] Only 5-7 of the parables are common to all three Synoptics.[xxii] Instead, about 70% of the parables are unique to either Matthew or Luke alone –  Matthew with 10-12 and 15-17 by Luke. One parable is exclusive to Mark while John does not recount any.[xxiii]

Gospel authors produced literary works about Jesus of Nazareth that are distinctive yet corroborating. Are the Gospels no more than recycled information or do they meet the standard of authenticity?


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[i]  Smith, Ben C. “Gospel manuscripts.” <> Gloag, Paton J.  Introduction to the Synoptic Gospels. Page 5. < “Synoptic Gospels.” < “The Book of Matthew.” Quartz Hill School of Theology. Mareghni, Pamela. “Different Approaches to Literary Criticism.” < >
[ii] Reed, Annette Yoshiko.  Pseudepigraphy, Authorship, and ‘The Bible’ in Late Antiquity. Pages 478 – 489. <>  Last accessed 9 May 2014.  Gloag, Introduction to the Synoptic Gospels.  Pages 9, 23-38. <>
[iii]  “Gospel of John.”  <>  “The Book of John.”  Quartz Hill School of Theology.> Smith, Barry D. “The Gospel of John.”  <
[iv] John 20:30.
[v] “Josephus, Flavius.”  <>  Maimonides, Moses.  Mishneh Torah. “Introduction to Mishneh Torah.”  <>   A Translation of the Treatise Chagigah from the Babylonian Talmud.  Glossary:  “Mishnah.:  Ed. A. W. Streane.  <>  Segal, Eliezer.  A Page from the Babylonian Talmud.  “The Mishnah” and “The Gemara (Talmud).” <>  Spiro, Ken.  “History Crash Course #39: The Talmud.” 4 Aug. 2001.  <>   Valentine, Carol A. “The Structure of the Talmud Files.” <>  Chase, Jeffrey S. “The Gutenberg Printing Press.” <>
 [vi] Josephus, Flavius.  Against Apion.  Book I. <>   “Custom Cheating and Plagiarism essay paper writing service.” <>  Cummings, Michael J. “Did Shakespeare Plagiarize?” <>
[vii]  Gloag, Introduction to the Synoptic Gospels. Pages 50-51. 
[viii] Maimonides, Moses.  Mishneh Torah.  <>   Chase. “The Gutenberg Printing Press.”  Josephus.  Against Apion. Book I, #6-7.
[ix]  Josephus. Against Apion. Book I.
[x] Pearse, Roger, ed.  “Tacitus and his manuscripts.”  <>  “Septuagint.”  Mercer Dictionary of the Bible. <>
[xi] Josephus.  Against Apion. Book I.  Reed.  Pseudepigraphy, Authorship, and ‘The Bible’ in Late Antiquity.  Chase. “The Gutenberg Printing Press.” Fausset, Andrew R.  “New Testament.”  Fausset Bible Dictionary. <>  Irenaeus of Lyons.  Against Heresies. Book III. Chapter XXI.3, also XXI.2.  <>  “Septuagint.” 2014.  <>  Josephus, Flavius.  Antiquities of the Jews. Book XII, Chapter II.1-6, 13-1.  < Babylonian Talmud.   Rodkinson translation. Book 4, Tracts Megilla Chapter I.  <>  Benner, Jeff A. “Isaiah Scroll and the Masoretic Text.” <>  Lundberg, Marilyn J. “The Leningrad Codex. <>   “Septuagint.”  Encyclopædia Britannica. <>
[xii] Josephus.  Antiquities of the Jew. “Preface” #3
[xiii] Carr, A.  The Gospel According to Matthew, Volume I.  Page XIX.  <,%20The%20Gospel%20According%20to%20St.%20Matthew&f=false>
[xiv]  “The Four Gospels.” <
[xv]  Irenaeus. Against Heresies. Book III.  Chapters I, IX, XXI.   “New Testament.” Jewish Encyclopedia.  <>  Gloag, Introduction to the Synoptic Gospels. Pages ix, 39.
 [xvii] “Matthew.”  Easton’s 1897 Bible Dictionary.  <>  “Gospel of Matthew.”  <>  Carr. The Gospel Accouding to Matthew, Volume I.  Pages XVIII – XIX.  Gloag, Introduction to the Synoptic Gospels.  Pages 32-33.
[xviii] “Luke, Gospel according to.”  Easton’s Bible Dictionary.  <>
[xix] “Mark, Gospel according to.”  Easton’s Bible Dictionary.  <>  Swete, Henry Barclay.  The Gospel According to St. Mark, The Greek Text with Notes and Indices.  Pages XIX, LXXIV.<>  
[xx]  “Luke.”  Easton’s Bible Dictionary.   Ryrie. Charles C., ed.  Ryrie Study Bible.  “The Miracles of Jesus.” 1978. Aune, Eilif Osten. “Synoptic Gospels.” <
[xxi] Sween, Don and Nancy.  “Parable.”  n.d. <
[xxii] “Parables” Easton’s Bible Dictionary.  <> “Luke, Gospel according to.”  Easton’s Bible Dictionary.  “Parables.”  International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. <> Ryrie. “The Miracles of Jesus.”  Aune.  “Synoptic Gospels.” 
[xxiii]  Smith, B. D. “The Gospel of John”, F. 5.3.3.  Sween.  “Parable.” Swete. The Gospel According to St. Mark, The Greek Text with Notes and Indices.  Pages LXXIV, 83.  “Luke, Gospel according to.”  Easton’s Bible Dictionary. “Parable.” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia.  Ryrie. “The Parables of Jesus.”

Horrors of Death By Crucifixion

Jesus of Nazareth was crucified and died on the cross according to all four Gospels. In contradiction, some opposing theories say that even if he was crucified, Jesus did not actually die on the cross. [i] If Jesus did not die by crucifixion, it disqualifies the Gospel claim that on the third day after his death, he was resurrected. Understanding the Roman crucifixion process can help determine the truth.

The capital death penalty by crucifixion during the time Judea was governed by the Roman Empire followed a well-honed process. Crucifixion can be described in no less than graphic terms. As a matter of fact, the word “excruciating” is derived from the word “crucify” or “crux” meaning cross.[ii]

Cicero andJosephusdepictions of crucifixion have been corroborated through scientific examination.[iii]Doctorate and PhD level research in the fields of forensics, pathology and medicine on Roman scourging and crucifixion articulates the horrific consequences to the victim.[iv]

First, the victim was flogged or scourged by a multi-tipped whip containing fragments of metal or bone intended to rip the flesh of the victim. It inflicted terrible pain and weakened the victim through loss of blood causing severe dehydration and thirst, induced shock and could even lead to death before the actual crucifixion.

Next, it is believed the condemned were often forced to carry their own patibulum (crossbeams) weighing about 75 to 125 pounds down the long trek to a conspicuous public place of execution outside the city walls. There awaited upright posts or stipes left in place, as historical evidence suggests, because of the frequency of use and scarcity of wood. 

Once at the execution site, the fated souls were stripped of clothing by the execution detail, forced down onto the ground in their open wounds, and affixed to the patibulum by nails possibly along with ropes. The patibulum was then fitted onto the upright stipes where the job was finished by nailing the feet to the stipes.

Crucifixion victims, shredded by flogging, were left to endure a humiliating and slow death suffering from severe dehydration, exposure and unspeakable pain. The consequence of hanging by extended arms added excruciating pain to the act of breathing with each breath pulling at the nail wounds driven through nerves in the wrists and having to push up full body weight on nailed feet.

Hypothermia would have added to the misery with the average 59° April temperature in Jerusalem, ranging from an average low of 49°F to a high of 70°F. The Gospels report that the crucifixion of Jesus began at 9:00am which was shortly after reaching the nightly low temperature. Exposure was compounded by wind chill, moisture from blood and sweat, and the severe injuries inflicted by scourging and being nailed to the cross.[v]

On top of the physical torture was the mental torment by the humiliation of being stripped of clothing and hanging from the cross at a high traffic location as a spectacle for staring passers-by who, along with the Roman soldiers, shouted insults at the victim. Hanging defenseless and fully exposed on the cross, the sufferer was subject to becoming living carrion for scavenging birds.

Victims most likely died from hypovolemic shock (blood circulation complications) or a combination of other factors. [vi] Death was believed to be hastened by breaking the legs of the victim such as mentioned in the Gospel accounts of the two thieves crucified with Jesus.

Roman judicial crucifixions were overseen by an execution squad made up of a centurion, exactor mortis, and four soldiers known as a quaternion.[vii] The centurion was in charge of the execution and responsible for reporting back to the governing authority that the execution had been completed.[viii] Failure to complete his duty could have dire consequences – survival of a crucifixion victim was not an option.[ix]

Archeological evidence of a crucifixion was found in an ancient cemetery excavated in 1968 by Vassilios Tzaferis of the Israel Department of Antiquities.[x] Pottery shards in the tomb dated to the period that followed King Herod’s dynasty up to 70 AD. One adult male’s remains were identified by anthropologists to have died by crucifixion, his heel bone pierced by a bent 4.5 inch nail.

Remains of the olive wood cross were still attached to the nail between the bend and the heel bone as well as a remnant of the acacia or pistacia wooden plaque between the head of the nail and outside of the heel bone. The lower leg bones had been broken by a sharp blow.

Forensic, pathology, and medical research on Roman crucifixion; antiquity historical references; an archeological discovery with anthropology research validated by Israeli antiquity authorities all remarkably corroborate the circumstances of the crucifixion details in the Gospel accounts.

How believable are the Gospel reports that Jesus of Nazareth died by means of crucifixion on the cross?

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Gospel accounts of the crucifixion of Jesus:  Matthew 27:26-56; Mark 15:15-41; Luke 23:20-49; John 19:1-35.

[i] Shah, Zia.  “Jesus did not die on the cross!” For Christians, To be Born Again in Islam!  2012.  < rel=”nofollow”>  Quran 4:157, Pickthall translation.  < >  Hill, Kate, “The Physical Death of Jesus Christ: The “Swoon Theory” and the Medical Response.” 2015. Providence College.  <>  Samuelsson, Gunnar.  Crucifixion in Antiquity.  2011.  Tübingen, Germany:  Mohr Siebeck.  <”nofollow”>
[ii] “excruciating.”  2017.  <>   “crucifixion.”  Merriam-Webster.  2017 <>
[iii] Cicero. Secondary Orations Against Verres, Book 5, Chapter LXVI.   Zias, Joe.  “Crucifixion in Antiquity – The Anthropological Evidence.” 2009. <>  Josephus, Flavius.  The Life of Flavius Josephus. #75. Google Books. n.d.  <
[iv] “Flagellation.” Ed. Greg Mulhauser. PhD. n.d. <>  Zugibe, Frederick T., PhD.  “Turin Lecture:  Forensic and Clinical Knowledge of the Practice of Crucifixion.”  E-Forensic Medicine. 2005. <>  Cilliers, L. & Retief F. P.  “The history and pathology of crucifixion”, U.S. National Library of Medicine|National Institute of Health.  Dec;93(12):938-41.  <>   Maslen and Mitchell, “Medical theories on the cause of death in crucifixion.” Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine.  2006. <
[v] “Weather in April in Jerusalem.” <>   “Jerusalem.” <>   McCullough, Lynne, M.D. and Arora, Sanjay, M.D. 2004 Dec 15.> .  Li, James, M.D. “Hypothermia.” Sep 09, 2016. <
[vi]  Cilliers & Retief.  “The history and pathology of crucifixion.”  Zugibe. “Turin Lecture – Forensic and Clinical Knowledge of the Practice of Crucifixion.”  Maslen and Mitchell. “Medical theories on the cause of death in crucifixion.” Alchin, Linda.  “Roman Crucifixion.”  Tribunes and Triumphs.  2008.  <>   Zias.  “Crucifixion in Antiquity – The Anthropological Evidence.”  Champlain, Edward.  Nero. 2009.  Google Books.  <>   Zugibe. “Turin Lecture – Forensic and Clinical Knowledge of the Practice of Crucifixion.”  Zias. “Crucifixion in Antiquity – The Anthropological Evidence.”  Geberth, Vernon J.  “State Sponsored Torture in Rome: A Forensic Inquiry and Medicolegal Analysis of the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ.” 2012. <
[vii]  Zugibe. “Turin Lecture – Forensic and Clinical Knowledge of the Practice of Crucifixion.”
[viii] Santala, Risto.  The Messiah In The New Testament In The Light Of Rabbinical Writings. Trans. William Kinnaird. “Jesus Before The Representatives of the Roman State.”  1993.  <>   Swete, Henry Barclay.  The Gospel According to St. Mark, The Greek Text with Notes and Indices. 1902.  Google Books.  <
[ix] Seneca, Lucius Annaeus. “Seneca’s Essays Volume I.”  Moral Essays. Book III. “To Novatus on Anger+.” Book I.  The Stoic Legacy to the Renaissance.  <>   Josephus, Flavius.  Wars of the Jews.  Book VI, Chapter IV,  Chapter VII.  Google Books. n.d. <>  
[x] Shanks, Hershel.  “Crucifixion Bone Fragment, 21 CE.”  The Center for Online Judaic Studies. 2004.  <>