History of Truth, The Truth about God and Religions

Dr. Adel Elsaie

Source: History of Truth

6.4 Sources of the Gospels

The Two Sources Theory

The Four Sources Theory

According to the commentators of the Ecumenical translation of the Bible, the Gospels appeared to be "disjointed", with a plan that lacks continuity "with seemingly insuperable contradictions". It is important to refer to their authority because the consequences of their evaluation of this subject are extremely serious. It is also important to examine the religious history of the time when the Gospels were written. This should cast some light on the development of Christianity to a state that Jesus himself would condemn.

The Fathers of the Church approached the problem of sources in a very simplistic way. In the early centuries of Christianity, the only source available was the Gospel of Matthew, the first complete manuscript. The problem of sources only concerned Mark and Luke, because John constituted a completely separate case. St. Augustine claimed that Matthew had inspired Mark, who appeared second in the order of the Bible. He further considered that Luke, who came third, had used data from both.

The experts in critical examinations at this period were able to estimate the degree of corroboration between the Gospels, and find a large number of verses that are common to two or three synoptic. Today, the commentators of the Ecumenical translation of the Bible provide the following figures:

♦ Verses common to all three synoptic 330

♦ Verses common to Mark and Matthew 178

♦ Verses common to Mark and Luke 100

♦ Verses common to Matthew and Luke 230

The verses unique to each of the first three Gospels are as follows: Matthew 330, Mark 53, and Luke 500. The fact that each Evangelist has his own exclusive stories raises serious Questions. Why did each of the Evangelists not know about important events that were supposed to be public knowledge? Or did the Evangelists know those events and decided not to include them in their Gospels? It is hard to believe that the Evangelists did not know those stories. And if this is the case, why did they decide not to include those stories?

For eighteen centuries, no new issues were being raised on the sources of the Gospels. Every Christian was accepting the tradition of the authenticity and the idea of the divine inspiration of the Gospels. It was not until modern times that it was realized that each Evangelist compiled his own specific writings guided by his own personal view. Great weight was attached to actual collection of material of the narratives. Each Gospel came from oral traditions of the communities on one hand, and from a common written Aramaic source that has not been discovered on the other hand. This written source could have formed from one source, or have been composed from many fragments of different traditions used by each Evangelist to compile his own Gospel.

The Two Sources Theory

Intensive studies in the nineteenth century have led to theories that seem reasonable. The first of these theories is the Two Sources Theory presented by Holtzmann in 1863. According to this theory, Q and Mark are the common sources of Matthew and Luke. Q is short for the German word "Quelle" that means "source." Mark may have inspired Matthew and Luke on one hand, and by "Q" which has since been lost. Matthew and Luke each had, as well, his own source. Scholars’ criticism of this theory are based on the following points:

♦ Mark’s work, used by both Matthew and Luke, was probably not the author’s Gospel, but based upon an earlier version.

♦ The Two Sources Theory does not lay enough emphasis on the oral tradition. This appeared to be of major importance, because it alone preserved Jesus’ words and the description of his mission for thirty or forty years until the first Gospel was compiled. During that time, each of the Evangelists was the spokesman of the Christian community that supplied him with the oral tradition.

The Four Sources Theory

The latest studies in biblical criticism of the sources of the Gospels have clearly shown an even more complicated compilation process of the Gospels. A book by Benoit and Boismard, both professors at the Biblical School at Jerusalem, called "Synopsis of the Four Gospels," 1972-1973, stresses the evolution of the Gospels in stages parallel to the evolution of tradition. Benoit presents introduction to Boismard’s part of the book in the following terms:

♦ "The wording and form of description that result from a long evolution of tradition are not as authentic as in the original. Some readers of this book (The New Testament) will perhaps be surprised or embarrassed to learn that certain of Jesus’ sayings, parables, or predictions of his destiny were not expressed in the way we read them today, but were altered and adapted by those who transmitted them to us. This may come as a source of amazement and even scandal to those not used to this kind of historical investigation."

The alterations and adaptations to the Gospels made by those who transmitted them to us were done in a way that Boismard explains by a highly complex diagram. It is a development of the Two Sources Theory, and is a product of examination and comparison of the Gospels that is impossible to summarize here. Those readers who are interested in obtaining further details should consult the original work in that book.

Four basic documents: A, B, C, and Q represent the original sources of the Gospel:

♦ Document A comes from a Judeo-Christian source. Matthew and Mark were inspired by it.

♦ Document B is a reinterpretation of document A, for use of Churches in originally pagan communities. All Evangelists were inspired by it with the exception of Matthew.

♦ Document C inspired Mark, Luke, and John.

♦ Document Q constitutes the majority of sources common to Matthew and Luke. It is the common document in the Two Sources Theory, referred to earlier.

None of these basic documents led to the production of the Gospels that we know today. Between them and the final version lay intermediate versions: intermediate Matthew, intermediate Mark, intermediate Luke, and intermediate John. These four intermediate documents were to lead to the final versions of the four Gospels. These four basic documents A, B, C, and Q of the New Testament are similar to the four basic documents of the Old Testament J, E, P, and D.

The results of this scriptural research are extremely important. They show how the texts of the Gospels "not only have a history, but also a pre-history," to use Boismard’s expression. This means that before the appearance of the final versions, they underwent alterations and adaptations at the intermediate document level. Thus, it is now possible to explain, for example, how a well-known story from Jesus’ life, such as the miracle of catching the fish, is shown in Luke to be an event that happened during his life, and in John to be one of his appearances after resurrection.

The conclusion to be drawn from the above is that when we read the Gospels, we can no longer be at all certain that we are reading Jesus’ words or learning about his life. Benoit attempted to comfort the readers of the Gospels: "If the reader is obliged in more than one case to give up the notion of hearing Jesus’ voice directly, he still hears the voice of the Church and he relies upon it as the divinely appointed interpreter of the Master who long ago spoke to us on earth and who now speaks to us in his glory."

How can anyone reconcile this scholarly statement of the adulteration of the Gospels with the phrase used in the dogmatic constitution on Divine Revelation by the Second Vatican Council assuring us to the contrary, i.e. the faithful transmission of Jesus’ words:

"These four Gospels, which it (the Church) unhesitatingly confirms are historically authentic, faithfully transmit what Jesus, Son of God, actually did and taught during his life among men for their eternal salvation, until the day when he was taken up into the heaven."

It is quite clear that the work of the Biblical School of Jerusalem flatly contradicts the Council’s declaration.

[Next] [Table of Contents ]