The Gospels – Just Recycled Material?
Similarities between certain passages of one Gospel found in another, sometimes word for word, are eyebrow-raising characteristics. These characteristics fuel 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. On full display in the synoptic Gospels is the distinctive Jewish literary practice of grouping content by topic instead of chronologically.
In literary circles of Antiquity, written materials were considered communal property available to be freely used by other literati with or without citations. The Synoptics use of a common source or sources is actually a reflection of legitimate writing protocol of the times. An excellent point of comparison are the major Jewish works written during the same era – Josephus, the Talmud Mishnah, and other New Testament books.
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. 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.
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 Talmud. Josephus wrote that he used expert sources “for the proof of what I say” in support of his writings.
Jewish literary works used quotations as a means to cite sources in a time before footnotes or endnotes came into existence. 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.
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. 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.
Unique qualities found through simple literary analysis are obvious at the beginning of each Gospel. 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.
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.”
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. Nearly 50% of the verses in Luke are not common to either Matthew or Mark. Slightly less than 40% of the content of Mark is not shared by Matthew and Luke while nearly 8% of Mark is completely unique content.
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!
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. Only 5-7 of the parables are common to all three Synoptics. 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.
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 literary authenticity?
Updated August 17, 2022.
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