Matthew, Mark, Luke, & Kid Rock:  A Primer on Gospel Sources

Welcome to Vacation Bible School:  Gospel Edition!  

VBS at Daily Theology runs from July 1 – August 1. We’ll be posting twice a week about the gospels in theology, the liturgy, the classroom, and at home. 

Evangelist depictions from Homiletic and Pastoral Review.  Kid Rock photo adapted from Eva Rinaldi.        Click image for photo source details.

We’ll get to Kid Rock in a minute.

Each Advent, as a new liturgical year starts, Catholics begin to cycle through one of the synoptic gospels:  Mark, Matthew, and Luke.  The term “synoptic” means to “see together,” and refers to the fact that when laid out side by side, there are striking parallels between these three gospels.

If these three guys were in my class, we’d be having a serious conversation about plagiarism and academic honesty.

What we may miss from the pews is both a sense of what these three gospels share and of the revisions and additions that Matthew and Luke made to Mark, which most biblical scholars believe to be the earliest gospel.  Were these revisions and additions just the result of Matthew and Luke doing a little biblical freestyle?  Perhaps in some cases, though scholars have also developed theories about the various sources the three gospels used, and how those sources may have been employed to craft gospels that are, in the words of many an undergrad, “similar and yet different.”

I have two intentions in this post.  First, for those who are unfamiliar I’ll present the source theory for the synoptic gospels that is most mainstream among bible scholars.  Second, I’ll share one technique I’ve used to make this theory more relevant in the classroom.

Where do they come up with this stuff? 

While the New Testament early bird is the apostle Paul (writing from around the early 50s CE), Mark’s gospel was composed sometime around 70 CE.  If Jesus’ death occurred c. 33 CE, what were people reading (or hearing) in the meantime?  First off, the Hebrew scriptures remained deeply important.  Second, Paul’s letters were floating about and being exchanged between churches.  Third, there may be other written materials that have been lost to time, or have yet to be discovered (the dream of many a biblical Indiana Jones).

The author of Mark’s gospel probably relied heavily on the stories of Jesus passed down among his followers, shared during worship, and reflected on in light of his community’s daily life of faith.  Since Mark is the earliest written gospel that we still have today, it’s hard to tell exactly how these oral stories of Jesus and communal reflections on the “good news” were affected by being written down.  While Mark’s Greek isn’t thought to be that great, the narrative he constructs from these stories is fast-paced, compelling, and rhetorically strong.  Stay tuned for more on Mark as VBS continues!

The Synoptic Problem

“The synoptic problem” is the conundrum of how to explain the similarities between Mark, Matthew, and Luke as well as their differences.  How did that happen?  Here’s where the sources get more complex.  In a number of places, Matthew and Luke “agree” with Mark—that is, in some places they copy Mark’s text word for word (or close to it).  If Mark is the earliest written gospel, then it seems as though Matthew and Luke had access to a copy of Mark, and used it as one of their sources.

Perhaps the passages where all three synoptic gospels agree point to a convergence of oral traditions among the various communities for whom these three gospels were first written, and so Matthew and Luke recognized those stories in written form in Mark’s gospel.  In many places, Mark is copied almost word for word, but some seemingly small “tweaks” are made to the text that can deeply alter the story’s meaning.

For example, in Mark 5: 1-20 we have the story of healing the Gerasene demoniac, Matthew repeats a good portion of that story in 8: 28-34, but with two demoniacs healed.  Apparently, quantity is a measure of quality for Matthew.  So is speed.  In Mark 11: 12-25, Jesus curses a fig tree one morning, and the disciples notice the next day that it has withered; in Matthew 21: 18-22, the fig tree withers at once (Matthew’s Jesus is the one to call when your yard is overrun by dandelions).

Why is Matthew making these changes to Mark?  Is Matthew concerned that Jesus isn’t powerful enough in Mark’s gospel?  And what reasons are there for that concern?  Questions like these provide job security for biblical scholars.

The Plot Thickens

There’s a second important part of the synoptic problem:  Sometimes Matthew and Luke “agree” with each other on a passage that is not found in Mark.  This has led many scholars to hypothesize that there must be a second written source, known as Q (from quelle, which is “source” is German).  Since these passages where Matthew and Luke agree tend to be focused on teachings rather than actions or miracles, it’s possible that if Q existed it was not another gospel, but was instead a collection of Jesus’ sayings.  A copy of Q has never been discovered, though scholars have tried to recreate it based on the places where Matthew and Luke agree with each other closely on a passage not found Mark, such as the Beatitudes and Lord’s Prayer.

Dancing By Myself

Finally, Matthew and Luke each have stories that only occur in their own gospels.  For example, Matthew tells of Joseph’s dream, the slaughter of innocents, and the flight into Egypt.  Luke recounts the conception of John the Baptist, the annunciation, and visitation.  Matthew’s birth narrative includes three wise men; Luke gives us angels and shepherds.  It seems likely that these stories were part of the oral traditions known to the separate audiences for whom these two gospels were written originally.

Teaching the Synoptic Problem

Helping undergraduates grasp the relevance of the synoptic problem is one of the gateways for gaining some critical distance from “the gospels” as a lump group of texts.  That critical distance from their assumptions lets students begin to encounter the individual voices of the evangelists, discover the different contributions each makes to our understanding of Christ, and enter into the questions and insights of the early Christian communities.  When we lose the unique facets of any of these voices, we miss out on another way of coming to understand God, others, and ourselves via scripture.  While the synoptic gospels have common features they are not the same—and perhaps that not a bad way of thinking about some things within the church more broadly.

Yet in the classroom my claim about the diversity of the gospels’ sources and its impact remains abstract for students until we have time to dig into each gospel individually.   In the meantime, music comes to the rescue in order to build a bridge between the rich mix of sources that make up the gospels and students’ own experiences.

We begin building that bridge by listening to “Sweet Home Alabama” from Lynyrd Skynyrd, a song immediately recognizable to most students (2).

Then we transition into a tune they don’t know as well:  Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London.”  This gets mixed reactions. There’s something familiar about opening bars of the song, but students are not quite sure why.

Finally, we shift to a mashup of the two songs:  Kid Rock’s “All Summer Long” (3).

Just as Matthew uses Mark and Q, “All Summer Long” relies on two sources.  Kid Rock’s recording adds lyrics and, presumably, some chords.  Those additions, which aren’t part of either “Sweet Home Alabama” or “Werewolves of London,” are analogous to material from Matthew’s community that wouldn’t be found in either Mark or Q (and therefore aren’t present in Luke either).

Working through this analogy with the students helps the synoptic problem “click,” and opens the door to look more closely for the unique aspects of Matthew’s gospel (and later, Luke).

VBS continues on Thursday when Brad Rothrock will address the question:  The synoptics and sources—so what?

(1)   Dei Verbum 11.

(2)   In using this song as a teaching tool, it’s important to be aware of disputes over the meaning and impact of its lyrics.  Lynyrd Skynyrd composed “Sweet Home Alabama” as a response to Neil Young’s “Southern Man” and “Alabama,” which the band read as an indictment of all white southerners during the often violent struggle for civil rights during the 1960-70s.  Some interpreters believe this is Lynyrd Skynyrd’s anthem upholding racism and the “southern way,” or at least that the song that has been received that way within popular culture and politics.  Others point to interviews with band members that describe the lyrics not as rebuttal of those striving for civil rights, but rather of northern stereotypes of white southerners.  See a brief synopsis here.  The song itself can be a teaching tool about the importance of exegesis in historical context; racism; effective histories of texts; and popular art and social justice.

(3)   In my opinion, illustrating the synoptic problem is this song’s sole raison d’etre.