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Thomas, the Synoptic Gospels, and Q

A number of readers have asked about Thomas’s relation to the Synoptic Gospels and the famous Q source —  that is, the lost source that both Matthew and Luke used for many of their sayings of Jesus not found in Mark (called Q from the German word Quelle, which means “source”).  Here is what I say about those issues in my textbook on the New Testament

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 Thomas and the Q Source.         The Gospel of Thomas, with its list of the sayings of Jesus (but no narratives) reminds many scholars of the Q source. Some have maintained that Q was also composed entirely of the sayings of Jesus and that the community for whom it was written was not concerned about Jesus’ activities and experiences, including his death on the cross. If they are right, then something like Thomas’s community was already in existence prior to the writing of the New Testament Gospels.

Many other scholars, on the other hand, have their doubts. For one thing, it is not true that Q contained no narratives. As we have seen, two of them survive: the temptation of Jesus and the healing of the centurion’s son. How many others did Q narrate? Unfortunately, despite the extravagant claims of some scholars, we simply cannot know. Even more unfortunately, we cannot know whether the Q source contained a Passion narrative, even though scholars commonly claim that it did not. The reality is that our only access to Q is through the agreements of Matthew and Luke in stories not found in Mark. True, Matthew and Luke do not agree in their Passion narratives when they differ from Mark. Does this mean that Q did not have a Passion narrative? Not necessarily. It could mean that when either Matthew or Luke differs from Mark in the Passion narrative, one account was taken from Q and the other was drawn from Mark. Or it could mean that Matthew or Luke, or both, occasionally utilized their other traditions (M and L, respectively) for their account of Jesus’ Passion, rather than Q.

There is at least one stark difference between Q and Thomas, which relates directly to the beliefs of the communities that preserved them. We have seen that Thomas denies the future coming of the Son of Man in judgment upon the earth; this futuristic hope, however, is an important theme in Q. Some scholars have argued that Q sayings like Luke 12:8–9 (Matt 10:32–33), which speaks of the day of judgment when the Son of Man arrives, were not in the original version of Q but were only added later. Their reason for thinking so, however, is that they believe that the original version of Q was not apocalyptic in its orientation: any apocalyptic ideas would therefore not have been original to it. As you might surmise, this leads to a kind of circular reasoning, no less curious for being so common: if Q was like Thomas, it cannot have had apocalyptic sayings; if we remove the apocalyptic sayings from Q, it is like Thomas; therefore, Q was originally like Thomas.

 

The Older Sayings of the Gospel of Thomas

If the Gospel of Thomas was written independently of the Synoptics, what does one make of the sayings of Jesus that they have in common but in slightly different forms? Is it possible that Thomas may preserve an older form of some of these sayings that is closer to the way in which Jesus delivered them? It is generally conceded that this is at least theoretically possible.

How do we know when a saying is older? We will consider this issue at greater length in Chapter 15. Here let me point out one controversial criterion that some researchers have used. If there are two different forms of a saying, these scholars claim, then the one that is simpler and more direct is more likely to be older. The logic behind this criterion is that sayings are generally embellished and expanded in the retelling.

Not everyone agrees with this criterion, but it at least deserves some consideration. What happens when it is applied to the sayings found in both Thomas and the Synoptics? Sometimes the form found in Thomas can lay claim to being older. Consider the following examples.

 

Thomas

The disciples said to Jesus, “Tell us, what is the Kingdom of Heaven like?” He said to them, “It is like a mustard seed, smaller than all seeds. But when it falls on plowed ground, it puts forth a large shrub and becomes a shelter for the birds of heaven.” (Gosp. Thom. 20)

And he said, “The man is like a wise fisherman who threw his net into the sea. He drew it up from the sea; it was full of small fish. The fisherman found among them a large, good fish. He threw all the small fish back into the sea; with no trouble he chose the large fish. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” (Gosp. Thom. 8)

Jesus said, “If a blind man leads a blind man, the two of them fall into a pit.” (Gosp. Thom. 34)

The Synoptics

He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” (Mark 4:30–32)

[Jesus said,] “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matt 13:47–50)

He also told them a parable: “Can a blind person guide a blind person? Will not both fall into a pit?” (Luke 6:39; the version in Matt 15:14 is somewhat longer)

 

Conclusion: The Date of Thomas and Its Traditions.              Although we cannot know whether a source like Thomas existed during the first century, there are good reasons for thinking that Thomas itself did not. The most obvious is that the alternative understandings that lie behind so many of Thomas’s sayings cannot be documented as existing prior to the second century.

This is not to deny, however, that individual sayings found in Thomas may go back to Jesus himself. Indeed, as we will see later, all of the sayings in Thomas, and in every other source, canonical and noncanonical, must be judged as theoretically going back to Jesus. Moreover, there are grounds for thinking that some of the 114 sayings of this particular Gospel, especially some of the parables, are preserved in an older form than in the canonical Gospels, that is, they may be more like what Jesus actually said.

 

 


Jesus’ Twin Brother, Thomas
Thomas: The Most Important Gospel Outside the New Testament

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Comments

  1. Robert
    Robert  August 31, 2018

    Gosp. Thom. 8 is shorter, but only because it has been de-apocalypticized and in place of the removed apocalyptic element (separating the good fish from the bad fish in the final judgemnt), the point of another saying (the pearl of great price) has been tacked on. Not a good example of a supposedly more original version! Do not you yourself believe that an apocalyptic version of the saying is more likely to be earlier?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 2, 2018

      Yup, I agree. I actually don’t think any of the three is more likely authentic.

      • Robert
        Robert  September 3, 2018

        “Yup, I agree. I actually don’t think any of the three is more likely authentic.”

        Then you still have not addressed the issue raised in your previous post. Your response at the time was, “See today’s post!” But now you admit it is not relevant to the issue.

        Being a long-term, patient blog subscriber, I’ll happily give you yet another opportunity to respond. Here’s your previous statement about the burden of proof followed by my gentle yet unanswered and persistent critique:

        “It does not appear that the Gospel of Thomasactually used the Synoptic Gospels to formulate its own sayings of Jesus. As we have seen, the burden of proof in such matters is on the one who claims that an author used another document as a source. The surest indicators of reliance upon a source are detailed and extensive verbal parallels, but this is precisely what we do not find with the Gospel of Thomas and the Synoptics. There are many similar sayings but few extensive verbal correspondences.”

        Such would be an acceptable burden of proof only for someone who might like to claim that Thomas’ wording of the similar statements of Jesus is slavishly dependent upon any of the synoptic gospels in a word-for-word manner. The lack thereof certainly does not and cannot logically rule out the possibility or likelihood that the author of the gospel of Thomas or prior tradents were not at least indirectly dependent upon post-synoptic tradition or that the final composer did not freely adopt and adapt such traditions creatively. Slavish dependence and complete and utter independence are opposite extremes on a continuum and not binary black and white options. Thus if a Jesus-Quester wants to appeal to the independence of the gospels of Thomas or of John from the post-synoptic tradition as independent attestation for her or his historical reconstruction, surely they should not shirk responsibility for assuming this burden of proof. Surely this burdenless judgment of independent attestation is the weakest point in the argumentation of many Jesus Questors. Or do you think there is a yet weaker element in your Leben Jesu Forschung methodology?

        • Bart
          Bart  September 3, 2018

          I don’t rule out the *possibility* that Thomas used the Synoptics. I’m asking about what establishes *probability*. And for me, the one who makes a claim (of dependence, in this case), bears the burden of proof, and the only sure proof is verbatim agreement, which is precisely what is lacking.

          • Robert
            Robert  September 3, 2018

            “… And for me, the one who makes a claim (of dependence, in this case), bears the burden of proof, and the only sure proof is verbatim agreement, which is precisely what is lacking.”

            Either may be true for one arguing for or against literary dependence, but the Jesus Questor is making a more elaborate claim, namely independent attestation which necessarily rules out even indirect dependence. That is a claim that cannot excuse itself from any burden of proof or burden of probability.

          • Bart
            Bart  September 4, 2018

            Yup, it’s all a matter of probabilities, and there’s no reliable way to get there statistically.

          • Robert
            Robert  September 4, 2018

            “Yup, it’s all a matter of probabilities, and there’s no reliable way to get there statistically.”

            Then it is unfair sleight of hand to merely assert that the burden of proof must be assumed for the contrary position. You’re merely asserting a position (multiple attestation without even indirect dependence), for which you admit the probability cannot be determined.

          • Bart
            Bart  September 6, 2018

            I”m not sure you’re understanding my position. Whoever asserts a view bears the burden of proof. Ed Sanders convinced me of that. (Also: multiple attestation *has* to be of independent sources, or else it is not actually multiple)

          • Robert
            Robert  September 6, 2018

            “I”m not sure you’re understanding my position. Whoever asserts a view bears the burden of proof. Ed Sanders convinced me of that. (Also: multiple attestation *has* to be of independent sources, or else it is not actually multiple)”

            So you accept the burden of proof (or the burden of probability) for holding that the gospels of Thomas or John were not even indirectly dependent upon any of the synoptic gospels. Great! Where is your argumentation to support these claims? I have only seen you (and Sanders and Meier) pointing to arguments against direct and slavish literary dependence.

          • Bart
            Bart  September 7, 2018

            No, you can’t prove a negative, only a positive. The normal assumption is that two books (whether in 85 CE or 1985 CE) are independent of one another unless proven otherwise. Think plagiarism. It can only be proved, not disproved (in 99.99% of the cases)

          • Robert
            Robert  September 7, 2018

            “No, you can’t prove a negative, only a positive. The normal assumption is that two books (whether in 85 CE or 1985 CE) are independent of one another unless proven otherwise. Think plagiarism. It can only be proved, not disproved (in 99.99% of the cases)”

            In my opinion the “normal assumption” should not be a claim of “independent attestation,” but maybe I’m just more skeptical than you. And I would not claim that the burden of proof rests with a contrary position.

            See p 142 of your NT Introduction:

            “Or—to put the burden of proof in its proper place—why should someone think that John used the Synoptics as sources when they do not have extensive verbatim agreements, even in the stories that they happen to share?”

          • Bart
            Bart  September 9, 2018

            Exactly my point. Burden or proof is someone who wants to claim dependence.

      • Robert
        Robert  September 7, 2018

        ETA: … In my opinion the “normal assumption” should not be a claim of “independent attestation,” but maybe I’m just more skeptical than you. And I would not claim that the burden of proof rests with a contrary position, especially when there are additional mediating positions between two extreme poles. Slavish direct literary dependence and independent attestation are not the only options, and just because the former cannot be proved does not mean one should assume the latter.

        • Bart
          Bart  September 9, 2018

          Really? If two people write books you normally assume they depend on each other???

          • Robert
            Robert  September 9, 2018

            “Really? If two people write books you normally assume they depend on each other???”

            Of course not, but that’s a ridiculous comparison. If I read earlier and later texts of two different peripatetic philosophers, and both texts include an identical citation from a text of Plato and apply it to the life of Aristotle in the same way, and this use of the text of Plato is found nowhere else in the peripatetic tradition, I should certainly consider that the teaching of the later peripatetic might have been influenced by the teaching of the earlier peripatetic without automatically assuming that the later peripatetic had zero knowledge of the earlier peripatetic’s teachings.

            Thus Isa 40,3 being applied to John the Baptist by all three synoptics and John could be part of earlier traditional Christian teaching or one should also consider the possibility that Mark’s idea of applying the text of Isa 40,3 to John the Baptist at the very beginning of his gospel might have become known to other writers of Christian gospels after him. Consider also that Mark and John also begin their gospels with the word ἀρχή, both include the importance of John the Baptist’s witness to Jesus at the beginning of their gospels, both use Jesus’ ἐγώ εἰμι confession in climactic blasphemous ways, and then add up all of the other many similarities between their two gospels, which are many too numerous to list here (see, eg, the works of CK Barrett, Maurits Sabbe, Frans Neiyrnck, Gilbert Van Belle, Peter Judge, Paul Anderson) and it becomes progressively less likely that there was not even indirect dependence of the gospel of John on the earlier, very influential gospel of Mark. Did ‘John’ decide to write a gospel about the life of Jesus without even knowing anything at all about or from the earlier gospels? It is, of course, possible, but does it really allow one to simply assume that he did not? Of course not. Hence the enormous amount of scholarship devoted to the ongoing debate even about the question of direct dependence.

            Many of the Jesus Questers, yourself included, merely make a passing reference to the debate about direct dependence, side against the direct dependence without entering into the mass of details involved in the source critical arguments, and then also assume the lack of even indirect dependence.

          • Bart
            Bart  September 10, 2018

            Then if you do assume independence, the burden of proof would have to be on the person who wanted to claim dependence, for any two books. That’s all I’m arguing. I would never have to bear the burden of proof if I wanted to claim that Silas Marner was independent of David Copperfield.

      • Robert
        Robert  September 9, 2018

        It seems that you are contradicting yourself.

        A: “Exactly my point. Burden or proof is someone who wants to claim dependence.”

        B: “Whoever asserts a view bears the burden of proof. Ed Sanders convinced me of that.”

        Then why don’t you assume the burden of proof when you assert the claim of independent attestation?

        You admit that it cannot be proven (can’t prove a negative, not even indirect dependence), admit that it is merely a ‘normal assumption’, but that is hardly a reason to merely claim that the burden of proof is on the other side or any of the intermediate positions.

        • Bart
          Bart  September 10, 2018

          Because independence is always the given unless proven otherwise.

  2. Avatar
    ask21771  August 31, 2018

    Why are bronze and iron on the list of items in revelation 18:12

  3. talmoore
    talmoore  August 31, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman, I must say that, if Thomas were composed in the 2nd century, I find it very hard to believe that the composer was totally unfamiliar with at least one of the synoptic gospels. I mean, isn’t it at least odd that Thomas only has parallels with the synoptics but not with, for example, any of the Johannine literature?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 2, 2018

      Not necessarily. The Johannine community does not appear to have made big inroads generally, whereas the streams of tradition that are found in the Synoptics affected large numbers of communities; that’s not the same as saying that three particular Gospels were read in those communities, but that the sayings of Jesus that found there way, say, into Mark, Q, M, and L communities also found their way into the Thomas community. It could obvoiulsy go either way.

      • NulliusInVerba
        NulliusInVerba  September 3, 2018

        Professor, do you think that the “sayings” might have functioned as a sort of pre-Christology among the various communities and that the narratives came later in order to flesh out a more complete Christology (that is: Jesus as Christ as God). I’m wondering if the sayings were originally held to be an ethical code with the exaltation of Jesus coming later as a consequence of faith.

        • Bart
          Bart  September 3, 2018

          I think the historical sayings of the histoircal Jesus were not Christologically oriented, but I also think soon after his death some of his followers claimed he got raised, and that led to the christologization of some of hte sayings.

  4. Avatar
    fishician  August 31, 2018

    It’s pretty clear to me, even from the Gospels alone, that early Christians were willing to edit the stories and sayings, either adding to or deleting or altering, as necessary for their purposes. At what point did the Christians decide that the “Scriptures” are immutable and perfect and could not be tinkered with? (Or was that ever the view, outside of modern fundamentalists? The Catholics seem to believe the church has priority over the Bible, e.g.)

    • Bart
      Bart  September 2, 2018

      Early on — by the third century, anyway — there were Christians who took very seriously the precise words of the text (Origen, e.g.); but they ideas of completely inerrancy found in fundamentalist circles today are teh result of debates starting at the end of the 19th century.

  5. Avatar
    James Chalmers  August 31, 2018

    “Thomas may preserve an older form of some of these sayings that is closer to the way in which Jesus delivered them.”
    From what edition of/commentary on Thomas am I most likely to learn which sayings of Thomas are closer to Jesus?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 2, 2018

      I don’t know of a source that gives a full analysis like this. Maybe someone else on the blog does? John Dominic Crossan’s book, The Historical Jesus, gives all the sayings of Thomas that he thinks are original or close to original with Jesus, but it’s in the context of looking at all the sources, not just Thomas.

  6. Liam Foley
    Liam Foley  August 31, 2018

    This has been fascinating. Is it plausible that the author of Thomas was aware of the Synoptics, or at least Q, but because he was writing for a different audience and therefore had a different agenda, the author only included sayings from the Synoptics or Q that were Germaine to his agenda?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 2, 2018

      Yup, that’s possible. It’s debated among scholars. I tend to think not.

  7. Avatar
    godspell  August 31, 2018

    With those sayings you compare, only the middle one is significantly different–the one about the fisherman.

    In Thomas’ version, there’s no implied punishment for not being a big fish. (I mean, if you were a fish, wouldn’t you want to be thrown back?)

    In Matthew’s version (Matthew being filled with rage at all who fail to see the light), the small fry are not going back into the sea, but into a furnace of fire (technically, it’s the ones the fisherman keeps who get cooked, but Matthew isn’t always so good with metaphors).

    And this makes sense, because the community Thomas sprang from were not looking to convert everyone. Those who have ears will hear, and they fully expect most people will prove earless (which only further substantiates how special they are for grasping the true meaning of Jesus’ teachings.)

    Matthew’s message is basically join or die, and he believes everybody is capable of knowing the truth, so those who don’t join up are being willful and perverse, or are led astray by their faithless leaders (the Jewish authorities, for example).

    I do think in this case Thomas is closer to what Jesus said, because I don’t think Jesus was talking so much about punishment as separation–the goats must no longer be allowed to persecute and corrupt the sheep. Or in this metaphor, the small fish must not keep the larger ones from fulfilling their destiny of joining the Kingdom.

  8. Avatar
    alexc  September 1, 2018

    Bart,

    Should I read “birds of heaven” and “birds of the air” as being equivalent in meaning, or is there a theological difference?

    Thanks.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 2, 2018

      Not that I see.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  September 2, 2018

      The words for both “heaven” and “sky” (or “air”) in Aramaic (and Hebrew) are the same word: shamayyin שמין (heb. shamayyim שמים). So either translation from a Semitic original is possible. Moreover, the two meanings were not thought of in ancient times as necessarily distinct as they are to us now, so the original meaning likely did not have any theological distinction. But in modern times, with the advent of the non-geocentric notion of the universe, we are more apt to make a distinction between “heaven” and “sky”.

  9. Avatar
    paul c  September 1, 2018

    Dr. E.,

    Assuming that Q did exist, do you have reason to think that it remained only in oral tradition, or, rather, was it eventually memorialized?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 2, 2018

      I think it was a written text — otherwise it wouldn’t be found verbatim the same in two disparate sources. I doubt if it was ever memorized.

    • Avatar
      paul c  September 3, 2018

      “Memorialize”, as to put in writing. I should have been clearer.

  10. Avatar
    forthfading  September 1, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman,

    I have a question that is off topic….sorry, but you’ve answered my questions about Thomas at the moment.

    You have mentioned a few times since I’ve been a member that your graduate studies was spent with people preparing to be scholars, teachers, preachers, minsters, etc. since it was a seminary.

    I am curious to how someone goes through the level of high academic rigor at a seminary and still be a preacher or pastor. It seems that it could diminish their perspective on the value of scripture and historical reliability of the texts.

    Thanks

    • Bart
      Bart  September 2, 2018

      What happens is that the thoughtful students develop a more sophisticated thoelogical understanding of what it means for the Bible to be “inspired” — fundamentalism is only one extreme option, one that most Christians throughout history have never held.

  11. Avatar
    chrispope  September 2, 2018

    Bart (if I may be so familiar):
    One of my favourite pieces on the blog is your post from 13 July 2015 titled ‘Earliest Christian Diversity’ on the work of Destro and Pesce. I find it fascinating and thought-provoking whenever I re-read it. It’s like new information hidden in plain sight..
    Did you ever do any follow-up research or expansion on this topic? (Sorry if you did and I missed it.)
    Keep up the good work!

    • Bart
      Bart  September 2, 2018

      No, I’m afraid not. But thanks for the tip: I think I”ll repost that one!

  12. Avatar
    dankoh  September 2, 2018

    I suggest that Gos. Thom. may have been written (or edited) around the time people began to accept that the Parousia was not going to happen (at least not any time soon), in other words, around the end of the first century/early years of the second. I am struck by the number of times the text says that if you do this, or if you understand that, “you will not taste death.” And particularly 113(4), that God’s kingdom is [already?] spread out on earth.

    In more cynical words, if you get the magic formula right, you will live forever, but you will do so here on Earth. Is that in line with your reading of it?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 3, 2018

      I do think that it is anti-apocalyptic, and thereofre a later development. But parousia hope faded at different times and different places, so there was not a linear development.

  13. Avatar
    madmargie  September 3, 2018

    I have a retired Methodist minister friend who tried to teach his congregations the material he learned at seminary and every time he did that, he was moved to another congregation.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 3, 2018

      Yes, there are better ways of doing this than others, and sometimes no way works.

  14. Avatar
    mathman  September 3, 2018

    Hi, Dr. Ehrman. Correct me if I am wrong, but it appears clearly that the later the narratives of the texts were, for example the gospel of john that is our latest gospel, the more “miraculous” the stories are. If this is the case, then we can certainly not trust the Gospel of Thomas as this clearly correlates more with the “esoteric” elements found in the later texts. I mean, the earliest texts were not esoteric. So the Gnostic versions could not have been the originals. If that makes sense. Did I understand it wrong? They must therefore be forgeries and could not be the original words.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 3, 2018

      Yes, something like that — although there are not any “miracle” stories in Thomas. But the sayings do not sound like those of a rabbi in the 20s in Palestine.

  15. Robert
    Robert  September 10, 2018

    “… I would never have to bear the burden of proof if I wanted to claim that Silas Marner was independent of David Copperfield.”

    Oh yes you would and you would be roundly ridiculed! Mary Ann Evan’s had her works sent to Dickens and they exchanged letters, with him even wondering if she was perhaps a woman (despite the George Eliot pseudepigraphy) years before she wrote Silas Marner.

    http://theamericanreader.com/18-january-1858-charles-dickens-to-george-eliot/

    • Bart
      Bart  September 12, 2018

      I’m talking about *literary* independence. Big difference.

      • Robert
        Robert  September 12, 2018

        “I’m talking about *literary* independence. Big difference.”

        That is precisely the problem. I have been trying to get you to realize that your arguments against direct literary dependence have absolutely no impact on the question of indirect dependence. You cannot just say one cannot prove direct literary dependence, therefore I can assume there was no indirect dependence therefore there is independent attestation and the burden of proof is on anyone who does not accept my assumptions.

        • Bart
          Bart  September 13, 2018

          You don’t need to convince me of that. I’ve never thought otherwise! But if you want to argue for indirect dependence, you need to prove it. History is a matter of probabilities. Since in general, two books from antiquity are more probably independent in general (directly or indirectly) then if you think the opposite is the case in any particular instance (say, John and Q), then you need to give reasons for thinking so.

          • Robert
            Robert  September 13, 2018

            “But if you want to argue for indirect dependence, you need to prove it. History is a matter of probabilities. Since in general, two books from antiquity are more probably independent in general (directly or indirectly) then if you think the opposite is the case in any particular instance (say, John and Q), then you need to give reasons for thinking so.”

            No less so, the one who wants to assert independent attestation. I think Neirynck and his colleagues have indeed made an excellent case for direct dependence (and redactional independence) of the gospel of John on one or more of the synoptics. But even if one is not convinced of direct dependence, it is much more problematic to pretend complete independence, ie, ruling out even indirect dependence. No on has made a good case for this.

          • Bart
            Bart  September 14, 2018

            You already agreed that the *assumption* is independence of any two books (say, Huckleberry Finn and Phineas Finn). You don’t have to prove an assumption, but its exceptions.

  16. Robert
    Robert  September 14, 2018

    “You already agreed that the *assumption* is independence of any two books (say, Huckleberry Finn and Phineas Finn). You don’t have to prove an assumption, but its exceptions.”

    No, I did not agree to this assumption. I did agree that one should not automatically assume direct literary dependence or even indirect nonliterary dependence. Because one does not assume one extreme, that does not justify the assumption of it’s polar opposite extreme.

    One needs to look at the historical and cultural situation of each author to try and make a determination of their likely influences. In context, one should not automatically assume that the gospel of Mark had no influence, not even indirect nonliterary influence on the author of another gospel, writing some 30-40 years later, when both were part of a relatively new social movement numbering maybe 7-10,000 people, and when the latter writing shows some remarkable similarities to the earlier gospel, especially when we know that this earlier gospel had already proven itself influential within this new social movement, inspiring two other gospels to be written.

    Should we assume that ‘John’, without any knowledge whatsoever of the first examples of this literary genre (writings about the life of Jesus, John the Baptist, Jesus’ miraculous deeds and his teachings and his followers, miraculous feeding of a multitude, walking on water, conflict in the Jewish temple and with Judean authorities, his death and resurrection) independently decided to also write such a gospel? If I saw such similarities in Huckleberry Finn and Phineas Finn, I would not automatically assume one had absolutely no influence whatsoever on the other.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 16, 2018

      Why do I have a sinking feeling we are not going to see eye to eye on this? Well, let me shift. What do you think is evidence of “independence” apart from *lack” of evidence for dependence?

      • Robert
        Robert  September 16, 2018

        “What do you think is evidence of “independence” apart from *lack” of evidence for dependence?”

        Apart from a lack of evidence for dependence, I can only say less evidence for dependence. In other words, if the parallels between two texts were fewer (or less striking), the liklihood of some kind of dependence (literary or indirect) would be less.

        But as long as a fairly good case for direct literary dependence can be made by scholars of the calibre of Frans Neirynck and colleagues, it seems hard to rule out the much lower bar of some kind of indirect dependence with any relatively high degree of confidence.

        The probability of ‘Mark’ and ‘John’ totally independently of each other deciding to write a ‘gospel’ about Jesus is further limited by the number known gospels circulating at the time. As far as we know, Mark was the first to write a gospel. Matthew and Luke were certainly influenced by Mark’s gospel before deciding to write their own gospels. How many other hypothetical non-synoptic gospels do you want to presuppose to make it more likely that John might decide to also write a gospel of his own without there being any kind if direct or indirect influence of any of the only three gospels we know of? Other than Mark, Matthew, and Luke, how many other totally independent gospels were being written around this time? If none, and we do not know of any other totally independent gospels written around this time, it really would be a stunning coincidence for Mark and John to independently decide to write gospels with so many similarities.

        • Bart
          Bart  September 17, 2018

          Right — that’s pretty much my point. There can be evidence for dependence, but the “evidence” for independence is only the inability to make an argument for dependence.

          Luke says he had “many” predecessors. I’d assume that would be more than one or two, unless he’s just being rhetorical. But my guess is that both he and his readers knew of others. John would not have to have read and depended on Mark in order to know that there were such things as Gospels out there and then deciding, himself, to produce one.

          • Robert
            Robert  September 17, 2018

            “Right — that’s pretty much my point. There can be evidence for dependence, but the “evidence” for independence is only the inability to make an argument for dependence.”

            And since good arguments have been made even for direct dependence, one should not assume the lack of even indirect dependence and thus independent attestation. At the very least one should argue against the better arguments for dependence. But thus has not really been done in my opinion. I’ve already mentioned how and why D Moody Smith’s response to Neirynck is insufficient. Do you have a better reference?

            “Luke says he had “many” predecessors. I’d assume that would be more than one or two, unless he’s just being rhetorical. But my guess is that both he and his readers knew of others. John would not have to have read and depended on Mark in order to know that there were such things as Gospels out there and then deciding, himself, to produce one.”

            But do you also want to just assume that all of these unknown ‘many’ gospels were completely independent upon any of the synoptics and that John also was completely independent of all if these many unknown gospels? How far will one go to avoid the burden of proof?

          • Bart
            Bart  September 19, 2018

            Yes, that’s right. An argument has to be made for dependence. And I’ve never found those arguments convincing. As to the ealrier many: again, one would need to know what evidence there is. Of the early sources we do know about, Mark, Q, M, L, John — they all appear independent, yes.

  17. Robert
    Robert  September 19, 2018

    “Yes, that’s right. An argument has to be made for dependence. And I’ve never found those arguments convincing. As to the ealrier many: again, one would need to know what evidence there is. Of the early sources we do know about, Mark, Q, M, L, John — they all appear independent, yes.”

    So no better response to Neirynck than that of D Moody Smith? While you may not be convinced, surely some counterarguments should be supplied. And remember this only pertains to the much higher bar of direct, literary, “controlling” dependence of John upon the synoptics.

    I would not quite equate Q with a gospel, and your assumption (and that of other Questers) that Q is independent of Mark never engages Fleddermann’s commentary on Q which considers them complementary, ie, that Mark possessed Q. That is his explanation of the Mk-Q overlaps as well as his lack of need to include it. I don’t agree with this minority opinion, ‘though it is shared by other impressive exegetes (eg, Lambrecht), but obviously the overlaps prevent us from considering Mk and Q to be completely independent and we must always engage with the similarities.

    I don’t think that you consider M or L to be written gospels and I think we should not rule out the very real possibility that their are at least partly created by Matthew and Luke.

    So none of your examples take away from the coincidence of John completely independently deciding to also write a gospel in a number of ways remarkably similar to the only preceding gospels we know of, completely independently, without of any knowledge whatsoever of any of the prior synoptic gospels. In the face of this remarkable coincidence, you can merely assume that gospel writing was such a common independent phenomenon at that time that there must have been other completely independent gospels at that time that we do not know of. Certainly possible. But in no way justification for the otherwise entirely unsupported claim of independent attestation.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 20, 2018

      I”m not sure where you think I should have engaged with Neirynck or Fleddermann. I’ve never published any scholarly work on the Synoptic Problem, only general information for a broad readership, where I endorse the majority opinion, which seems most reasonable and persuasive to me.

      • Robert
        Robert  September 20, 2018

        “I”m not sure where you think I should have engaged with Neirynck or Fleddermann. I’ve never published any scholarly work on the Synoptic Problem, only general information for a broad readership, where I endorse the majority opinion, which seems most reasonable and persuasive to me.”

        I don’t, but somebody should. Even D Moody Smith admitted that the “the Gardner-Smith consensus is now significantly eroded.”

        • Bart
          Bart  September 21, 2018

          Really? I’m not up on such things. No one has responded?

          • Robert
            Robert  September 21, 2018

            “Really? I’m not up on such things. No one has responded?”

            Not effectively, at least not to my most admittedly limited knowledge. Even DA Carson, noting that there was “no longer any substantive consensus” had already been swayed away from Dodd and became a reluctant and cautious converted to CK Barrett’s position. Frans Neirynck, of most blessed memory, may be turning over in his grave at what I call la réapparition du Boismardisme in Paul N Anderson’s bioptic interfluentiality, but he would nonetheless be happy to point out that there is certainly influence of the synoptics on John in his theory.

  18. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  October 26, 2018

    I realize this is a blog about Christian antiquity, not epistemology, but what does it mean to say one cannot prove a negative? I think it is easily proven that the moon is not made of green cheese or, for a more down to earth example, that the mother of our children did not find them under cabbage leaves. How do those cases differ from the proof of a negative?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 26, 2018

      That’s not a question I’ve never asked myself. Maybe no one on the blog can’t answer it neither? (Seriously: let’s leave it to the logicians out there: anyone want to address it?)

  19. Avatar
    Kakuzato  August 4, 2019

    DR Ehrman

    If the canon of the NT was decided at 367 CE, and those 4 gospels especially were included, what made them so special back then? Other gospels existed around that time too. This one for example.
    Also, even if the copies of this that have been found would be dated around 100 CE, does it make the Gospel less valueable than John’s for example? if it’s assumed that his was written around 90 CE?

    Or is it’ just because 4 seems to be good number, because of “four corners of the world” or something?

    Or other gospels too, are they excluded just because there “can’t” be more than 4 gospels?

    Or did people think that the rest of the excluded gospels are heresy BEFORE thinking of 4 is good number, or they were heresy after excluding them?

    And I have a question about the Bible being the “word of God” too. What does it mean?
    And when it became “the word of God”? Also if they were circulating as oral traditon for at least 40-60 years before they were written down, then what? Like Chinese whispers/Thelephone game. Message doesn’t stay the same even for 10min.

    What I mean by this, is, that if there are thousands of manuscripts, are they word of God? They were written separately and not planned to become “the Bible”. If the saying refers to the manuscripts anyway, which ones?
    The originals? (whatever it means) Edited? Which languages? Are Hebrew and Greek versions alone that?
    If yes, it makes things more simple. But most of believers do not read those languages. If Translations are “The word of God” no matter which language, which translations then? All? Just some? Does the Word of God change every time someone makes a new translation?

    Thank you

    • Bart
      Bart  August 4, 2019

      It’s a very long story. The four we know today were widely accepted long before 367, already near the end of the second century. They were the most widely used Gospel accounts, and their views coincided with the understandings of the faith that were most widely held. So they were accepted as authoritative, and eventually canonized. I give a fuller explanation in my book Lost Christianities.

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