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 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?


[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.”

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Turn of Events – a Resurrection?

In a matter of moments, the Roman-Jewish legally imposed chain of custody over the body of Jesus of Nazareth was broken. What happened? For the more than 2000 years, the incident that occurred at dawn on Sunday, the third day of Passover, has been debated countless times. Believers say it was a Resurrection; skeptics have proposed many Resurrection conspiracy theories to explain how the body simply vanished.

Anyone trying to steal the body would encounter an armed Roman-Jewish military squad, the koustodia. Further, the tomb was sealed in the presence of the Roman authorities and the Jewish leadership to ensure that didn’t happen.

The case of the Resurrection on or about sunrise of Nissan 17 enters the final phase in the sequence of events preceded by the trial, crucifixion and burial of Jesus of Nazareth. Mark attributes a significant number of eight verses and Matthew seven verses to describe the first series of events. Luke paraphrased it this way:

LK 24:1  “Now on the first day of the week, very early in the morning, they, and certain other women with them, came to the tomb bringing the spices which they had prepared.” (NKJV)

Predawn finds Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of Jose, Salome, and Joanna fretting about who would roll away the stone set in place on Friday evening by Joseph of Arimathea. Three conclusions can be drawn:  the women expected to find the dead body of Jesus; they were not accompanied by either Joseph or Nicodemus nor any of the Disciples, and they were unaware of the koustodia guarding the sealed tomb.

At this juncture, there are now two named Jewish council members, four named women from Galilee, the Jewish leadership declaration to Pilate, his Roman government decision, and the koustodia guards – all were witnesses to the fact that the body of Jesus was in the tomb leading up to dawn of Sunday morning.

Calm and quiet quickly took a dramatic turn when Matthew describes that a great earthquake struck. At this moment the four women and the koustodia saw the stone being rolled away from the entrance to the tomb:

MT 28:2-4 “And behold, there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door, and sat on it. His countenance was like lightning, and his clothing as white as snow. And the guards shook for fear of him, and became like dead men.” (NKJV)

Witness accounts gathered by the authors of Matthew and Mark describe the individual responsible for opening the tomb as an “angel” or a young man wearing a wrap-around, brilliant white robe. Shortly thereafter, Luke’s report describes two husband-aged men in dazzling apparel.[i]These two angelic beings point out to the witnesses that the tomb is empty.

Seasoned Roman-Jewish military soldiers and the women of Galilee were paralyzed with fear by the traumatic sequence of a great earthquake, the angelic being who rolled away the stone and his extraordinary announcement. Incapacitated, they watched and listened as the events at the tomb unfolded.

Some may ask how it can be known the koustodia witnessed the event? Simply by their actions and their own report. Reactions of witnesses to a traumatic event are indications of what was going through their minds. The hardcore military squad reacted in the same manner as the four women.

Matthew reports the chaotic scene where people were scattering in three directions. Mark reports the petrified and dumbstruck women didn’t say a word and ran from the tomb. Luke said they were “terrified.”[ii]

Headed for the location of the disciples were the women while the koustodia split up, some diverting to go tell the Jewish chief priests what they had seen, the others to destinations unknown. Unbecoming behavior by the koustodia is telling – what could have happened that would cause professional soldiers to abandon their posts? 

Whether Roman soldiers or Temple Guards, both were fierce, experienced warriors. In Wars, Josephus described Jews in hand-to-hand combat defending the Temple against the Romans, each side at times taking heavy casualties.[iii] In a few battles, the Jewish defenders actually won the day.  Reputation of Roman soldier discipline is legendary. Temple Guards were especially trained to stay awake all night – falling asleep on-duty could result in being set on fire by superiors.[iv]

Direct reports from the koustodia rang true with the chief priests based on their own reaction to the information. It posed an unexpected turn of events for the chief priests who quickly assembled the elders of the Jewish council (likely including Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea) to deal with their new problem.

Irony of ironies. The Jewish leadership who had implored Pilate to secure the tomb is the very same group who was now compelled to find a way to explain an inexplicable breach in their own Roman-Jewish security measures…something they had witnessed being put in place less than 24 hours earlier. Matthew describes what they decided to do:

MT 28:1? “You are to say, ‘His disciples came at night and stole his body while we were asleep.’

If this matter is heard before the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” So they took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story is told among the Jews to this day.”(NET)

Bribes are only used to cover up an undesirable truth or to promote a deception. The council even promised to appease Pilate if the koustodia’s dereliction of duty became an issue confirming the guards were ultimately under the Roman authority of Pilate.

Meanwhile, the women of Galilee arrived at the location of some of the disciples. John’s eyewitness Gospel joins the description of events at this point with Mary Magdalene’s excited announcement to the disciples. He quotes Mary Magdalene blurting it out:

JN 20:2 “They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!” (NET) 

Mary’s excited utterance is truth telling. An “excited utterance” is such a compelling statement of truth, it is considered under United States Federal Law to be an exception to the legal hearsay rule. Because the “excited utterance” is made spontaneously under the influence of a startling event before the witness has had an opportunity for reflection; it is, therefore, considered to be a truthful exclamation.[v] 

Both the koustodia and the women reported the same event to two different parties how the chain of custody over the body of Jesus was broken. Each party reacted differently to the information, but neither party called the reports false.

One group chose to investigate the empty tomb and found more evidence inside. The Jewish council had the basis for a legal complaint to Rome to challenge the broken chain of custody, but instead chose a cover-up option. Pilate was silent, too, and took no action. Why?  The turn of events – a Resurrection?


NET = NET Bible translation; NKJV = New King James Version translation.

Gospel Resurrection account: Matthew 28, Mark 16; Luke 24, John 20.

 [i] Greek text. Matthew 28:2, aggelos and katabaino. Mark 16:5, neaniskos, periballo, and stole. Luke 24:4, astrapto and esthesis.
[iii] Josephus. Wars of the Jews. Book VI, Chapter IV.4-6; Book VI, Chapter I.1. “Temple, Administration and Service of.” JewishEncylcopedia.com> 
[iv] Talmud Mishna Middot. The Sefaria Library. < “The Temple Guards and Their Mystical Meaning.” <>
[v] “Excited Utterance.”  Cornell University Law School. <>  and “Federal Rules of Evidence Article VIII.  Rule 803.  Exceptions to the Rule Against Hearsay.”  <

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Chain of Custody – Could the Body of Jesus Have Been Stolen?

Oldest of the challenges against the Resurrection is the charge that the crucified body of Jesus of Nazareth was stolen from the tomb. Standing in strong opposition is the chain of custody over the evidence jointly established by the Roman government and the Jewish council.

Procurator Pilate granted the mutilated body to Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent member of the Jewish council. He along with Nicodemus, another prominent Jewish council member, took it to Joseph’s own unused tomb for burial.

The pair quickly prepared the body for burial witnessed by women from Galilee, two identified by name – Mary the mother of Joseph or Jose and Mary Magdalene.[ii] Joseph then rolled a stone in front of the tomb entrance – confirmation by the two Jewish Council members that Jesus was dead.

What did or didn’t happen between the time Jesus was laid in the tomb at dusk on Friday, Nissan 15, until the following Sabbath morning, Nissan 16, is a complete gap in the timeline of the Gospels. It offers an opening for skeptics to say the body was stolen from the tomb that first night, although not the same alleged theft in the timeline described by Matthew before sunrise Sunday morning.

Those who most certainly would not have wanted to be corroborating witnesses became just that. The Jewish leadership declared to the Roman government that the body of Jesus was still in the tomb Saturday morning, Nissan 15… 

MT 27:62-64 The next day (which is after the day of preparation) the chief priests and the Pharisees assembled before Pilate and said, “Sir, we remember that while that deceiver was still alive he said, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ So give orders to secure the tomb until the third day. Otherwise his disciples may come and steal his body and say to the people, ‘He has been raised from the dead,’ and the last deception will be worse than the first.”(NET)

Top level Jewish leadership approached Rome’s jurisdictional authority of Judea – Pilate – to state their concern implying it could also be a problem for him. As a Roman Procurator whose governing capacity included serving as a judge, Pilate had to weigh the truthfulness of their claim as well as the potential political consequences.

First was the declaration that the corpse of Jesus was lying in a tomb that Saturday morning. Unusual from a Roman perspective, not one of the Jews. Rome had little regard for crucified victims according toJosephus; however, Rome did allow the Jews’ custom to bury their crucified dead:[iii]

“Nay, they proceeded to that degree of impiety, as to cast away their dead bodies without burial, although the Jews used to take so much care of the burial of men, that they took down those that were condemned and crucified , and buried them before the going down of the sun.”[iv]

Pilate most likely considered other factors, too. False witness in the Roman Empire was a capital offense so how likely was it they would risk lying? [v]What if the corpse had already been stolen and then it turned up later? That would be the last thing the Jewish leaders would want to have happen making the validity of their declaration even stronger.

Weighing the credibility and truthfulness of their testimony and concluding they were telling the truth that the body of Jesus was still in the tomb, an irritated Pilate issued a terse decision:

MT 27:65-66 “Pilate said to them, “You have a guard; go, make it as secure as you know how.” And they went and made the grave secure, and along with the guard they set a seal on the stone.”(NASB) 

Pilate issued what was, in essence, a Roman court order to station koustodia, a company of guards, at the tomb and secure it they best way they knew how. Together, the chief priests, Pharisees and the koustodia placed a seal on the tomb as an additional security measure.

Pilate’s Roman authority was required to deploy the koustodia making them accountable to him; however, because some of the guards later ran to the chief priests after the events at the tomb on Sunday morning, it suggests at least some koustodia also had a form of accountability to the Jewish council. Was there such a thing as a Roman-Jewish military squad?

Josephus described a “seal” process involving a combined Jewish-Roman military style squad led by a “Roman captain of the temple guards.” The Roman captain, who resided in the Tower of Antonia adjacent to the Temple, was assigned to a contingent of armed Temple guards.[vi]

It was this Roman captain’s role to match his seal ring with a matching seal ring possessed by the Temple leadership to verify the integrity of the seal, in this case, used to secure the Chief Priest’s vestments worn at the Jewish festal sacrifices. This seal process was temporarily in place only from the death of King Herod until Vitellius became  president of Syria in 35 AD – the period of years virtually coinciding with the lifetime of Jesus of Nazareth.[vii]

Placed at the scene of the tomb holding the body of Jesus or Nazareth that Sabbath morning are the contingent of chief priests and Pharisees (probably including stealth followers, Joseph and Nicodemus) to witness the seal being placed on the tomb and the posting of the koustodia. Jewish leadership left with full confidence the sealed tomb would remain secure for three days following his crucifixion alleviating their anxiety that someone might steal the body of Jesus.[viii]

Archenemies of Jesus obtained a Roman judgement confirming that the chain of custody over the body of Jesus was legally in tact from the Roman crucifixion, to his burial, until the incredible events at the tomb at sunrise Sunday morning. With an unbroken chain of custody over the body of Jesus, what is the possibility his body was stolen?


NET = NetBible translation; NASB = New American Standard Bible translation
Gospel references: Matthew 27-28, Mark 15, Luke 23, John 19.

[i] Pearce, Jonathan MS. “Matthew and the guards at the tomb.” 2012. < rel=”nofollow”> “Gospel Disproof #38: The guards at the tomb.” 2014. < rel=”nofollow”>
[ii]  Edersheim, Alfred.  The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. Book V. 1883. n.d. <>
[iii] Josephus, Flavius.  Antiquities of the Jews. Book IV, Chapter VIII;
Google Books. n.d. <
[iv] Josephus.  Wars. Book IV, Chapter V.
[v] Jahnige, Joan. “The Roman Legal System.” KET Distance Learning. 2017.>  Adams, John Paul. “The Twelve Tables.” 2009. California State University – Northridge. <>
[vi] Josephus.  Antiquities. Book XV, Chapter XI; Book XX, Chapter I.  Wars.  Book II, Chapter XVII; Book V, Chapter VI.
[vii] Josephus.  Antiquities. Book XV, Chapter XI; Book XX, Chapter I.  Smith William. Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities. 1857. “L. Vitellius” (#5); “C. Cassius Longinus” (#18), and “L. Cassius Longinus” (#19). n.d. <>  Smith, Mahlon H.  “Lucius Vitellius.” 2008.   <>  “Lucius Vitellius.” Ed. Jona Lendering.  20John Simkin14.  <>
[viii] “koustodia”, G2892l (Strong) “#2892 κουστωδία koustodia;” “strategos <4755> and “speira <4686>” Lexicon-Concordance Online Bible.  n.d.  <>

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