Did the gospel writers borrow material from one another?
Dozens of books and hundreds of ThD’s have been written on the subject of
the sources of the gospels. Much of this is pure speculation–often an
unfounded, biased attack on the veracity of the New Testament. It is
fashionable to mention a supposed document Q, possibly in Aramaic, which
was the source document from which the synoptic gospel writers (Matthew,
Mark and Luke) drew their material.
Despite the fact that many biased critics have used claims about the
sources of the New Testament to discredit the authenticity of the gospel
writers, the question of sources is still a legitimate area of inquiry for
the serious student of the Bible. Which gospel was written first? Did
Matthew have a copy of Mark in front of him as he wrote, and did he use it
as a source for his material? Even if the existence of document Q is
unsubstantiated, what, if any, written records of the sayings and acts of
Jesus were in existence before the gospel accounts were written down? All
of these are legitimate questions. The answers may provide us with some
insight as to why Luke included or excluded certain specific events in the
Life of Jesus and so forth.
When one reads the gospels, one can discover hints as to who wrote first,
and who borrowed from whom. Logically, one might thing that Mark, being
the shortest and most succinct of the writers may have recorded his gospel
first, but many commentators believe Matthew wrote first. I believe it
would be fair to say that no one will ever resolve beyond a reasonable
doubt the question of sources or who wrote first. Therefore, although it
may be helpful and interesting to think about why Luke does or does not
include a certain detail, and whether he had Matthew as a source, in the
end you will be left with some guess work and nothing really solid you can
hang your hat on.
As to plagiarism, it would definitely not be immoral if Mark lifted
certain passages straight out of Matthew–if he “plagiarized” Matthew. It
is not as if the had copyright laws back then in the modern sense. Mark
certainly did not make a profit from his little book. Having said that,
the evidence is that all four gospel authors wrote essentially independent
accounts of the life and sayings of Jesus. There are an almost innumerable
number of examples in which Matthew, Mark and Luke describe the same event
in radically different ways. That is not to say that their accounts
contradict. Their accounts appear to be truly independent eye-witness or
second hand reports of the same events.
Let me use one example. When James and John came to ask Jesus for the
right and left hand place with him in heaven, Mark describes them going
directly to Jesus to make the request (Mark 10:35-45). When Matthew
records the same event, he has their mother making the request. (Matthew
20:20-28). In Matthew’s account James and John are waiting in the wings,
and are confronted by Jesus. Most likely, Mark is simplifying the account,
not bothering to mention the role of their mother, as clearly in the
bottom line, it was James and John doing the requesting, even if they hid
behind their mother. The point is this. These accounts do not contradict
each other, rather they show signs of two different witnesses reporting
the same event from their own independent perspective.
Did Luke do some borrowing from Matthew? Possibly. Would it really matter
a lot if he did? The fact is, however, that on the whole all four gospels
show clear evidence that they are more or less completely independent
accounts of the same general events in the life of the most amazing man
who ever lived–Jesus Christ of Nazareth.
John Oakes, PhD