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Evidence that the Synoptics Are Copying (one another? other sources?)

In yesterday’s post, when talking about the one-time existence of Q, I indicated that scholars have long recognized that there must be some kind of literary relationship among Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the Synoptic Gospels, since they have so many similarities: they tell many of the same stories, often in the same sequence, and sometimes – lots of times – in the very same words.  That is to say, someone must be copying someone else, or they are all using the same written sources.

Some of my students have trouble seeing that if two documents are word-for-word the same, one must be copying the other (or they both are copying a third source).  Older adults don’t seem to have any problem seeing that, right off the bat.  But younger adults need to be convinced.  And so I do a little experiment with them that more or less proves it.  I do this every year in my New Testament class, which normally has 200-300 students in it.

I come to class a minute or two late to make sure everyone is there, and then I start fiddling around – I take off my jacket, take my books out of my bag, check the computer hook up, take a drink, put my coat back on, rummage around some more in my bag, and so on.  Students wonder why I’m not starting the lecture.   And then I tell them that I want everyone to take out a pen and a piece of paper.  They think I’m going to be giving them a pop quiz.  Nope.   I ask everyone in the class to write down everything they’ve seen me do since I came into the room.

After three or four minutes…


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Q and The Gospel of Thomas
The Lost Q Source



  1. Avatar
    Jeffrey  March 17, 2015

    [Nomenclature: I’m going to use /”Matthew”/ with quotes to refer to the gospel, and /Matthew/ without quotes to refer to the author of “Matthew”. The same with /Luke/ and /”Luke”/. And Q, L, and M as you’ve described above. By the way is there some standard nomenclature for this?]

    What is the reason for believing that Luke didn’t just use “Matthew” instead of there being a Q. That is, why not suppose that Luke had both L and “Matthew”? (Note that if the answer is to read the other blog posts in the series, I will be happy to accept that. I seem to have dropped in in the middle.)

    I’m not doubting or disputing the existence (once upon a time) of Q; I’m just curious about the kinds of evidence and reasoning that supports this.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 18, 2015

      Yes, I’ll probably have to deal with this on the blog….

  2. Avatar
    walid  March 18, 2015

    Greetings all

    The theme behind the ‘Ordthodox Corruption of Scriptuire’ by prof Ehrman is to show that some people had what they considered to be ‘good’ reasons to modify scriptures to fit a preconvieved concept.
    Again I will quote professor Ehrman when he called it: ‘pious fraud’.

    Right, why can’t M and L be Matthew and Luke’s personal pious fraud which was, let’s say what the community wanted to hear rather than what the writer/writers wanted to include.

    This may easily be shown if we consider Matthew’s use of the prophecy fullfilment entries.
    People wanted to see the old testament being renacted, fine, let’s make Jesus walk with a copy of the TNK, and do in the future what has been written in the past with a ‘this was done to fulfill the scripture’ phrase inserted every page.

    It’s also obvious in Mark 8:27
    27 Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, “Who do people say I am?”
    when compared to Matthew 16:13 13
    When Jesus came into the region of Caesarea Philippi, He asked His disciples, saying, “Who do men say that I, {{{the Son of Man}}}, am?”

    Here the ‘son of man’ phrase is certainly M as it is in Mark so it’s not Q, and not in Luke see 9:18, so that’s plain M.
    I looked at it from many angles and can’t see the difference between this and larger chunks such as the ‘slaughter of the innocents’ anecdote, (required to prove Moses similitude) and the Egypt bit, (Jews’ past) or any other.

    My question is:
    Prof Ehrman
    How do you explain the existence of M and L when we all know they modified it for personal purposes?
    Please refer to your argument of the Lukan Jesus versus the Markan Jesus.
    You will see that Luke’s agenda had a calm collected jesus whereas Mark’s was not.
    So surely rather than making a new source, why not just call it “Evangelists’ personal preferences’ source.


  3. Avatar
    HistoricalChristianity  March 18, 2015

    Has anyone considered the possibility that M and L are, respectively, the authors themselves? They synthesized the accounts in pure bios narrative style?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 18, 2015

      Yes indeed, it’s possible. But it would mean they’re just makin’ things up….

  4. Avatar
    Andrew  March 18, 2015

    Dr Ehrman, why do you (or scholars generally) think there were M and L sources and not just those two authors writing from their imagination to make a theological point to their respective target audiences?


    • Bart
      Bart  March 18, 2015

      It’s largely because the “shape” and “form” of the stories in M and L are like those that were circulating orally and so appear to have been shaped in the oral tradition.

  5. Avatar
    stevepurtell  March 18, 2015

    I have a similar question to Jeffery. I found Dr. Mark Goodacre’s “Case against Q” quite compelling. Can you describe where his argument is flawed?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 19, 2015

      I’ve talked with Mark about maybe having a back-and-forth on the blog. But if we do it, it won’t be any time soon — we’re both too swamped with other commitments to invest the time in it. I read Case Against Q very carefully when it came out, and didn’t find it totally convincing — but to explain why at length would require me to read it again, just as carefully. I’m afraid right now I just don’t have the hours I would need to pull that off. Sorry!

      • Avatar
        Art  March 23, 2015

        Count me in as one who would be very interested in a face-off between you and Mark Goodacre on Q. I’ve always found his arguments against Q to be compelling, and would love to see/hear/read two heavyweights battle it out on this topic.

  6. Avatar
    jrhislb  March 19, 2015

    “If you think it’s a miracle, then you have a different problem on your hands.”

    I do not know what form miracles usually take so I can as easily believe that a miracle would generate texts that are similar but not identical as that it would generate identical texts.

    But I definitely do not think it is a possibility worth taking seriously when doing historical research, any more than we would take seriously the possibility that Jesus really rose from the dead.

  7. Rick
    Rick  March 20, 2015

    Along the line of your class example, there is another one used addressing hearsay. You send out 6 people, bringing them back one at a time. To the first one you read a detailed description of a traffic accident. Then bring in number two and number one has to tell him/her everything as best they can. Then two to three and so on until number five usually tells number six “there was a wreck”.

  8. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  March 20, 2015

    “It’s a miracle.” How funny!

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