Beyond Tradition

"Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men." Colossians 2:8

Gospel Within a Gospel

 by Sean D. Harmon 

It's not at all implausible to speculate that their were scribes in Jesus' following who were taking shorthand of his sayings and even doings during his actual ministry (it's been theorized that Matthew, the tax collector and obvious shorthand record keeper, may have been one of these scribes), however, this idea is purely speculative and lies in face of the fact that the first century Jewish culture was an oral culture first, a literary culture second.[1] Most of what was initially written into text about Jesus and his ministry began orally. Jesus' doings, miracles, and his resurrection were oral proclamations, but this is always the case with historical events, even today in our modern mass media technological culture. The event occurs, or at least the proclamation of that event, eyewitness accounts are gathered, and then compiled into written documents. Only in this case of the gospel records, eyewitness accounts were gathered orally for many years, perhaps decades, before the written process took place. Now someone not familiar with the history of this culture might inevitably be disturbed by the traditional stories about Jesus being passed down orally for decades before they were actually recorded into texts, much like the telephone game where information starts with one individual, then passes to another, getting twisted and convoluted once it reaches the last person. However, the telephone game is not at all applicable to the ancient Semitic culture, and is an analogy usually brought up by amateurs, indelibly stuck in a modern technological environmental mode, bound by a completely different literary mindset, with very little knowledge of the history of the oral process. A more accurate comparison would be groups of people, instead of just one, relaying the message from one group to another, then having groups of monitors (rabbis in the case of the Jewish process -- Jewish apostles in the case of the Christian process) able to compare and validate their versions, which is a far cry from just one individual interpreting what was said by another. The telephone game is conceived by a modern lackadaisical, spoiled, and attention deficit culture that is encompassed with technological mass media able to store and instantly recall mass amounts of data, which simply cannot come to grips with this particular culture. J.P. Holding states…

"The assumptions of form criticism were that it was impossible to preserve more than just short vignettes in memory. Fieldwork studies in anthropology have debunked this notion, as a wide variety of cultures have been found to be able to preserve extended epics orally, some of these epics as long as 25 hours performed over several days. [253] Compared to that, remembering the words of Jesus would be a snap (Mark would be only 2 hours long)."[2]

This was a first century Mediterranean society without modern amenities like ballpoint pens, printing presses, televisions, radios, commuters, the Internet. Thus memorizing and orally preserving extensive oral accounts or teachings delivered to them by their religious founders were an essential part of this culture. Gregory A. Boyd states…

"Here, it is important to recognize the place that ancient Jewish educational practice gave to the memorization of both oral and written tradition... Reisner has done a thorough study both of educational practices within the first-century Judaism, as well as the evidence within the Gospels' tradition related to Jesus and his teaching methods. He has concluded - quite apart from a dependency on Rabbinic parallels - that memory of sacred teachings and traditions was a vital part of both Jewish life in general and Jesus' teaching program in particular."[3]

Holding also states…

"Oral recall was far more important in ancient societies, particularly Judaism, than we have commonly allowed for; and the techniques used for memorization by ancient societies as a whole have a remarkable similarity to techniques promulgated by today's "memory improvement" seminars we now pay exorbitant fees to attend…. Among the Jews, rabbis were encouraged to memorize entire books of the OT, indeed the whole OT, and all of Jewish education consisted of rote memory. Students were expected to remember the major events of narratives - although incidentals could be varied, if the main point was not affected."[4]

In the first century, before the destruction of the temple, typical Jewish boys were taught proficiency in rote learning of oral teaching,[5] and this is clearly evident by comparing Jesus' rabbinic methodology of teaching, frequently using mnemonic devices such as parables, puns, exaggerated metaphors, similes, and poetic beatitudes for easy remembrance and to aid his disciples and audience in retaining his teachings. Kenneth E. Bailey states

"In the former of these two works the details of the transmission of 'the Oral Torah' are set forth with care. The mnemonic techniques, condensations, use of written notes, techniques of repetition, are all documented with precision. Then, turning to the gospel tradition and early Christianity, the 'word of the Lord' is explained as a word passed on using the above-mentioned devices of the Jewish schools. Evidence from Luke and Paul is presented to demonstrate that Jesus taught his disciples like other rabbis and that the early church organized a 'college' of the apostles along Jewish lines. Evidence for this is found in the recitation formulas, the frequent references to 'the tradition' and 'the word of the Lord', and the importance of Jerusalem as a source from which the word proceeds."[6]

Just take a look at the extent of the Torah, or the Mosaic law, which Jews had to follow on a daily basis, and you'll get an idea why this was especially essential to their expertise, which was far more extensive than just the Ten Commandments, and expanded across five Old testament books -- Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. This also needs to be considered within the perspective of eyewitness accounts. If we're under the presupposition of people telling and retelling fables and legends that never happened, then it's easy to question the reliability and accuracy of transmission, but people who are telling and retelling eyewitness accounts, then this is a completely different scenario. There is no doubt that about ten, twenty, thirty, even fifty years post-911, the event will still be vividly ingrained within the consciousness of every eyewitness, and undoubtedly will be for the rest of their lives, and if you were to pick twenty people, having them retell the event, very little accuracy would be lost in their recollection of that event.

Textual-dependency, the basics

Probably the first thing one notices about the synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke is how similar they are to each other, particularly in structure, yet have notable differences, particularly in the way they're structured, and especially how vastly different all three of them are compared to the gospel of John. Thus the theory of textual-dependency was born around the 18th century, possibly earlier, or that at least one gospel was used as a source reference by the other two (a few favoring Matthew as the source, but the majority favoring Mark). As a result of this idea, inevitably comes the argument that the authors freely redacted the accounts themselves as they transcribed it from one text to another, which is one way -- and really the only way, based on the presupposition of textual-dependency -- to explain both the similarities and variations between the duplicated accounts and how they're uniquely structured. In other words, if we presuppose textual-dependency, it might stand to reason that if the authors were in fact referencing their works, the accounts would have gelled even more than they do, particularly where stark inconsistencies are concerned, since consistencies in the record would seem somewhat impractical towards the effectiveness of evangelism, and being that the objective would have naturally been to get as close to their sacred tradition as they possibly could. Yet most scholars seem to uphold this textual-dependency theory, particularly Markan priority, as fact, because the similarities are too stark not to have been interdependent works (we'll definitely discuss this further in another article). Nonetheless, the duplicated traditions in Matthew, Mark, and Luke are stark, at times verbatim and word for word, and whether textual-dependency is fact or not is up for unending debate. But if the accounts we have in each gospel actually reflect an accumulation of four independent oral traditions, then the Markan/Matthean priority theories would in fact be false, and thus would be an exhibition of the incredible efficiency of ancient oral methodology, despite some of the variations.

The synoptics

These similarities and differences in the synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke is known as the synoptic problem, and though there are many theories to explain this, they are just that… theories. Therefore, in spite of what some want to believe, nothing is written in stone. As we just mentioned, the predominant textual-dependency view is that the duplicated accounts in Matthew and Luke were both based on the "earliest" gospel, Mark, because not only is Mark the shortest of the gospels (an assumption of "shorter means first"), but about 90% of the texts of Mark are found in Matthew, and over 80% of Mark found in Luke, which is often times similarly structured in all three, following an almost verbatim course in some cases. They share the same basic outline of Jesus’ ministry: sayings, allegories, parables, baptism, temptation, ministry in Galilee, miracles, transfiguration, triumphal entry into Jerusalem, cleansing of the temple, Last Supper, arrest, trial, and crucifixion.

The Q source
But if that wasn't theoretical enough, Matthew and Luke also include a lot of similar material, especially parables and sayings that are not found in Mark. This suggests a hypothetical "Q" source, which is another necessary theory to tie Markan priority together. In other words, it's theorized that Matthew and Luke not only had Mark's gospel as a reference, but may have had another textual source, which they both oddly had access to that either Mark did not or chose, for whatever reason, not to use.

The M and L source

Now hold your horses, because there's more. Not only are there similarities in Matthew, Mark, and Luke (suggesting Markan priority)… similarities in Matthew and Luke, not found in Mark (suggesting a hypothetical Q source)…
but there are things in Matthew not found in any of the other two, and this is known as the "M source." Likewise, there are things in Luke not found in the other two, which is known as the "L source." Now we won't spend a lot of time here because all this is purely hypothetical, based on circumstantial and suppositional evidence at best (mainly on how these duplicated accounts are structured in each gospel against the other). No traces of any of these hypothetical sources have survived, and every gospel manuscript copy that is found or dug up, from the oldest to the latest, even fragments, is fully structured and formed as it is today, therefore there is no archaeological evidence supporting the existence of these external source "layers" within, nor is there any attestation from the church fathers that these sources ever existed. Therefore, based on the evidence (or lack thereof), there is obviously nothing against the idea that these were just oral traditions, taught by different apostles, and well preserved in different communities, thus, instead of the three gospels sharing one as a source gospel with other extraneous sources on the side, the four gospels represent four independent traditions that followed a similar and common oral outline, with other independent oral traditions layered in.

Yet, because the basic form of Markan priority-Q doesn't come without unsolved problems, there are other complex theoretical variations of textual-dependency (not to mention variable complex theories of the Markan priority-Q theory itself), suggesting that Matthew was written first, Mark copied Matthew, and Luke used Mark and Matthew, or Mark used both Matthew and Luke instead, and there are suppositional hints and clues that compliment the latter. An example is the fact that Mark excluded mention of Joseph, Jesus' father in law, from his work, and the speculation here is that since Mark chose not to include the Nativity story (virgin birth) that is found in Matthew and Luke, he left out Joseph all together as well, lest his readers got the wrong impression that Joseph was Jesus' biological father. Another example supporting Mark as the third gospel who used Matthew and Luke is the order of duplication. Bernard Orchard and Harold Riley make a very strong case for this, in that at every point where Matthew, Mark, and Luke follow each other, when Matthew ceases to follow Mark's order, whether for a short or longer period, Luke continues to follow Mark; and wherever Luke ceases to follow Mark's order, Matthew in turn continues to follow Mark. The only way this consistent systematic swapping could have been achieved, outside of an astounding coincidence, is if Matthew and Luke collaborated together and decided that every time one of them diverged from Mark's order, the other would stick to the order. Other than that, the only logical way this can be resolved is that Mark copied Matthew and Luke, and when he did not like the divergence in Matthew's gospel, he stuck with Luke's order, and vice versa.[7]


The synoptic problem

There are just as many possibilities as there are problems no matter what textual-dependency theory we choose. For example, assuming Markan priority is correct (that Matthew and Luke copied Mark), just looking at the first two stories in all three -- baptism and the temptation -- both the accounts are briefly mentioned in Mark, yet Matthew and Luke expound on the stories in much more detail than Mark, which are similar to each other, suggesting Matthean priority instead. Yet if Luke used Matthew, why does Luke's Nativity story suggest a totally unique version to Matthew's Nativity story? Another textual-dependency theory to date that solves this problem seems to follow the Matthew, Luke, Mark order, but instead posits a proto-Matthew [Q source?]), which was written in Hebrew/Aramaic. This proto-Matthew followed a common outline, possibly used as an oral outline as well. Luke used this Matthean source, followed by Mark who used this source and Luke together. There is also possible external evidence of this, based on Papias' controversial statement (discussed in more detail here: The Genesis) about Matthew being written in his own Semitic tongue, while "everyone interpreted as he was able."[8] Following the course of this theory, perhaps Matthew then wrote another gospel version in Greek afterward, using his own proto-draft as an outline, which became the gospel we know today (it certainly would not be unreasonable to speculate that since they had literary skills to write a gospel, they wrote more material than just one gospel in their lifetime).

Hence the synoptic problem. And this is just an example of this ongoing conundrum. So, as we stated, and though the latter theory (proto-Matthew) seems the most viable and logical theory, no theory is written in stone. Though each theory has its evidence supporting it, no theory comes without problems against it. Though the Markan priority-Q-M-L hypothetical scenario used to be the widely accepted theory, this seems to be changing with modern scholars stepping outside the box of conventional conformity and who are taking note of the intrinsic problems this theory presents. Some of Markan priority's most devout proponents, who still push it along with evidence they argue as "irrefutable" (which is demonstrably false), have even modified the theory in various ways to try and make it work around the problems it presents, and there is no doubt that it is often taken for granted by these proponents, with a whole slew of other biblical criticisms and arguments dangerously built on these inconclusive premises, in addition to the very shaky premise that "Mark is the earliest."

Conservative Christians have always been skeptical of the Markan priority hypothesis, mainly because of the stink of higher criticism that resonates from it. Liberal Christians and particularly critics and skeptics have obviously sponsored it with much more gusto, mainly because of the 21st century literary modern mind so far removed from the consciousness of an oral culture, and also because skeptics often argue that the content in these hypothetical sources, especially Q (argued as the earliest source), portrays Jesus as more of a human philosopher, with sayings that are non-supernatural or non-divine, which gives way to the form criticism theory. In other words, they hypothesize that the "earliest tradition" (Q source), dating before Mark, the "earliest gospel," was not based on Jesus as divine Son of God, but added into the traditions over time as this theology evolved -- or better yet, the theology in the gospels, which evolved over time, simply over-layers these earlier non-supernatural sub-sources. Yet even though this is pure speculation and nothing more, and not very accurate speculation at that, this is just one among many examples of critical arguments carelessly propped up by the presupposition of Markan priority. There is a reason why we approach unproven theories cautiously, because this can give way to misinterpretations or interpretations based on subjective and bias analysis, and once again, the natural tendency to carelessly and dangerously stack unproven theories on top of other theories. In fact, other scholars argue that these hypothetical sources, including Q, indeed contain elements of supernaturalism, or Jesus as deity and apocalyptic prophet who also has conversations with God and Satan, including miracles, supernatural events, and self-proclamations of divine authority spoken by Jesus himself. Point is, neither opinion is right or wrong since not only can
textual-dependency itself not be proven as fact, but whether Q even existed, and if it did, what it contained exactly. And no one especially can prove what was not in Q, or that it is just limited to sayings only, or that it was even in fact written and not oral. In fact, who's to say that the M and L sources (accounts found only in either Matthew or Luke, which are more theological and supernatural in nature), was not also from Q, which were elements that Matthew and Luke simply chose to leave out that the other included? Arland Hultgren probably states it best…

"It is one thing to describe the theology of Q as a document; it is another to declare that the community's theology as a whole is represented by it; and it is still another to say that its theology is fully contained in it."[9]

So anyone claiming matter-of-factly that these sources were external source layers, and that they can break down exactly what these sources contained (and there have been quite a few scholars who have attempted this), and even derive at specific interpretations about first century Christian society from those findings, once again, is not only a rather pointless and insignificant endeavor, but an erroneous one, resulting in shoddy and speculative scholarship. The fact that the three synoptics are so similar, yet contain variations is actually good news for the apologist, despite the speculative interpretations, because this strongly suggests that the traditions taught by the apostles, which would have been the earliest traditions from eyewitnesses, were already being preserved well before 70 CE, which was the core source that connected all four, and this similarity reflects a controlled environment, as opposed to the later Christian works that popped up in the second century and later that have very few, if any, similarities not only with the canon gospels, but between each other.

Get the full scoop on textual-dependency here, or click here to go back home


Source References

1. James D. G. Dunn, Jesus Remembered; 2003.

    Terence C. Mournet, Oral Tradition and Literary Dependency: Variability and Stability in the Synoptic Tradition and Q; 2005. 

    Yaakov Elman, I. Gershoni, Transmitting Jewish Traditions: Orality, Textuality, and Cultural Diffusion; 2000 (

    Also see Orality.

2. J. P. Holding, On the Reliability of Oral Tradition, citing Paul Eddy and Greg Boyd, The Jesus Legend; 2007 (

3. Gregory A. Boyd, Cynic Sage or Son of God, pp. 121-122; 1995.

4. Holding, ibid.

5. See Oral Torah.

6. Kenneth E. Bailey, Informal Controlled Oral Tradition and the Synoptic Gospels; 1995 (

7. Bernard Orchard, Harold Riley, The Order of the Synoptics: Why Three Synoptic Gospels?, pp.6-; 1987 

8. Papias as quoted by Eusebius, Church History, book 3, chap. 39:16 ( 

9. Arland Hultgren, The Rise of Normative Christianity, p. 37; 1994.