Ripped from: SCRIPTING JESUS: The Gospels in Rewrite, 2010, L. Michael White, HarperOne, pp.10-13
It has long been recognized that the Gospel of John is rather different in outline and content from the first three Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke. These three have greater similarities in outline and materials and have often been called the “Synoptics,” because they may be “seen together,” or side by side, and are similar. Even so, there are some noticeable differences. We find, for example, that key events vary as we move from one Gospel to the next even among the Synoptics. Both Matthew and Luke contain a “sermon” with beatitudes (Matt 5:2-7:29; Luke 6:17-49), but they occur in different settings. Matthew’s version is over three times longer (a total of 111 verses) than Luke’s (a scant 32 verses), while Mark does not contain this episode at all. Then when we look at the narratives that surround these different sequences, we discover that the cause-and-effect relationships for the course of Jesus’s career—particularly as they lead up to his death—vary significantly from Gospel to Gospel.
The Synoptic Problem asks the question this way: How can it be that these three Gospels have so much material in common, even verbatim in some instances, but still have episodes moved around or new and distinctive material added? To answer this question, we must conclude that there were some common sources lying behind the written Gospels, but that the various Gospel authors compiled their accounts with some flexibility by stitching these source materials together in different ways. There are then two key components to this process: first, the oral circulation of stories about Jesus prior to any written accounts; second, the artistry of the individual Gospel authors, each one combining and reworking older source traditions in new ways.
By far the most widely accepted theory of synoptic relationships is called the “Two-Source Hypothesis.” It assumes that Mark was the first of the New Testament Gospels to be written down, based on a variety of oral traditions that had been transmitted separately. Thus, Mark, written in Greek, was the first “Gospel” in the sense of an attempt to write a narrative “Life” of Jesus. Sometime later, the authors of Mathew and Luke used Mark as a source, but did so independently of one another. This fact helps account for the fact that Mathew and Luke have much of the same material, but it is repositioned within their respective narratives.
It also seems that the Matthean and Lukan authors had access to other sources, oral traditions not used by Mark. Some of these were probably unique, but others could be common to both Matthew and Luke. One of these in particular seems to be a large group of some 250 verses of Jesus’s teachings. It includes such famous passages as the Beatitudes, the Lord’s Prayer and the parable of the lost sheep, none of which are found in Mark. These days, it is usually called “Q” (from German Quelle, meaning “source”) or sometimes the “Synoptic Sayings Source,” and it is usually dated by scholars between 50 and 70 CE. The Two-Source Hypothesis thus proposes that Mark and Q were the two main sources used by Matthew and Luke. Both Matthew and Luke used Mark as the basic outline, but each one modified it by reordering episodes and inserting Q materials in distinctive ways. Thus, each of the three synoptic Gospels is a distinctive construction of both oral and written traditions. Each one is an expression of faith, while trying to preserve the memory and message of Jesus in new and changing circumstances.
In the final analysis all the current scholarly theories regarding the composition of the Synoptics, even the more conservative, assume four major characteristics to the development of the Gospel tradition:
- There was a vibrant and influential oral tradition about what Jesus said and did and that the Passion narrative was its earliest core
- These independent oral traditions were circulated within and among individual Christian communities, where they were given context and meaning in the worship life of the community.
- Transmission of these source traditions, whether in oral or written form, to other communities allowed for retelling and reconfiguration to fit new needs and situations.
- The order, themes and content of the individual Gospels reflect the local context of their respective authors and communities as an expression of their faith in Jesus in the light of their cultural background and social experience.
In other words, the Gospels as we now have them are not direct or neutral accounts of Jesus. Nor do they claim to be. They do not operate under modern conceptions of writing history, nor were there “four guys on a street corner.” Instead, they are early attempts to weave the various materials, whether oral or written, into a narrative about Jesus for a particular audience in a particular context.
Each of the Gospels thus tells the story in a different way. That means more than merely rearranging certain episodes or adding new sayings here and there. The different ordering and the narrative shaping that occur in each Gospel give new shades of meaning to the teachings, interpret causes and effects in the death of Jesus, and explore themes about faith, discipleship and community. Changing the order and wording of such episodes usually reflects a distinctive understanding of Jesus’s life, teachings, and death on the part of the Gospel author, who was far more interested in the theological significance carried by the story than in historical accuracy. Dramatic scenes, pathos and irony, even humorous interludes reflect a dynamic interaction between storyteller and audience. There were already stock characters and patterns of storytelling from which they could draw, in new and changing combinations. Each Gospel thus becomes a different “script” for how the part of Jesus is to be acted and how his life is to be played out, all the while focused on exploring the changing textures of faith.