Many scholars and students of the Bible have observed how
similar the gospels are to each other in the episodes they narrate and in the
sayings of Jesus they report. These scholars and students have also noticed
how the very same passages are also starkly different from each other in
Over the last three hundred years, the world of Biblical
scholarship has exercised its collective mind in solving the riddle of why the
gospels are so similar and yet so different. The result of this laborious
scholarly enquiry has resulted in the discovery that Matthew and Luke were
dependent upon Mark and an additional source, termed “Q”, as the basis for
their own gospels.
The two source hypothesis is generally accepted as the
fundamental solution to the synoptic problem. It remains the majority position
within contemporary New Testament scholarship.
The late protestant evangelical scholar F. F. Bruce
“The conclusion usually and I think rightly drawn
from their comparative study is that the Gospel of Mark or something very
similar like it, served as a source for the Gospels of Matthew and Luke…”
Mark’s gospel has been dated between 65-70 C.E. There
is a general consensus on this dating, agreed upon by conservatives as well as
skeptics, and found in most introductions to the New Testament.
F. F. Bruce corroborating this dating writes:
“Mark probably wrote his gospel in the first
instance, for the Christians of Rome, in the aftermath of the persecution which
overtook them without warning under Nero, as a sequel to the great fire in
July, AD 64”.
When studying these gospels, it is quite apparent that
Mark is more primitive in style, theology and diction. More importantly, in
Mark’s gospel the human Jesus stands out more visibly than the later gospels. Scholars
argue that the depiction of Jesus in Mark represents a far more historical and
In Mark’s gospel, there are a plethora of passages which
describe Jesus as a mere human being. Such passages would later on become
stumbling blocks in the way of weak believers, traditions which “ran against
the grain”, and were therefore omitted from the later gospels.
When one scrutinizes the same narratives of Jesus
reported in Mark and Matthew, one quickly realizes that the latter has altered
Mark’s gospel due to an increasing feeling of reverence for the person of
Christ. Passages which show the inability, weakness and humanness of Jesus
were omitted by Matthew and replaced with a much better Christology.
Of course, not all of the changes were Christological in
nature. Factual inaccuracies, grammatical mistakes and other minor errors were
also omitted by Matthew and Luke. Matthew’s redaction of Mark often appears at
first to involve incidental details, but a closer study reveals that it is part
of a consistent and thoroughgoing redevelopment of Mark.
Through the passing of time, there was a clear change in
Christology from the earlier gospel to the later ones. The development was
from lesser to greater. There was an enhancing of feelings of reverence and an
increase in the position and status of Jesus.
Bruce Metzger, the premier New Testament textual critic,
“Matthew and Luke suppress or weaken references in
Mark to such human emotions of Jesus as grief and anger and amazement as well
as Jesus’ unrequited love; they also omit Mark’s statement that Jesus’ friends
thought he was beside himself”.
He explains further, that:
“The later gospels omit what might imply that Jesus
was unable to accomplish what he willed…and also omit questions asked by Jesus
which might be taken to imply his ignorance.”
Metzger continues further by enumerating instances where
Matthew and Luke soften Mark’s statements which might minimize the majesty of
Jesus and replaced it with illustrations of a more alluring and authoritative
In the story of the fig tree as found in Mark, the
disciples did not notice the withering of the tree until next morning. For
Matthew, this seemed less dramatic and unimpressive, and hence in his narrative
the tree withered at once, leaving the disciples in shock and amazement.
Matthew and Luke were adamant in changing the words of
Jesus. They wanted to make Jesus say what they wanted people to believe,
“reflecting a later stage of theological understanding than that in Mark.”
(Metzger, pg 83)
It seems quite clear that during both the pre and post
gospel stages of the gospel traditions transmission, the available material was
molded, filtered and changed in direct correlation to the Christological
convictions of those who handled the traditions.
It is important to stress that this is not a case of the
evangelists’ mere differing in emphasis; rather there are numerous occasions
when the later gospel writers go out of their way to modify and alter the
Therefore, if we wish to come close to the historical
Jesus in the gospels, it is a good starting point to compare the stories in the
various gospels, to discern where the story has altered.