CatholicAnswersLogoIn this episode of Catholic Answers Live (9/16/14), Jimmy answers the following questions:

  • How to describe the relationship between faith and reason?
  • Did the priest used to break the host during the words of institution?
  • How do Protestants defend divorce and remarriage in light of what Scripture says?
  • Can priests “reach down into hell” and save souls? Can we pray for the damned?
  • Was Judas in mortal sin? Did Jesus offer Communion to Judas? If so, why did he do so when the Church today doesn’t offer Communion to those in mortal sin?
  • A Lutheran caller asks why he couldn’t receive Communion from an extraordinary minister when he was in the hospital?
  • Who is going to be resurrected—and why?
  • What is the Church’s teaching on predestination? What is Jimmy’s personal opinion?
  • What translations are approved by the Catholic Church? What makes them approved? Can I read translations that aren’t approved?
  • If the gates of heaven were closed before Jesus’ death and Resurrection, where did Moses and Elijah go?
  • What happens to those who never knew about Christ and who were never baptized?

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In this episode we review and analyse episode 3 of season 8, entitled ‘Robot of Sherwood’. The Doctor and Clara travel to 1190 to meet Robin Hood. Why is the Doctor so cynical? What are the robots up to? And why are the references to the ‘Promised Land’ so disturbing to the Doctor?

Join Jimmy Akin, Fr. Cory Sticha, Dom Bettinelli and Fr. Roderick for discussion, analysis and informed speculation!

Links for this episode:

Check out Stephanie Zimmer’s podcast TV Rewind, Jimmy Akin’s blog Let’s Watch Doctor Who and Dom Bettinelli & Fr. Roderick’s podcast Secrets of Star Wars!

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Visualizing Q

by Jimmy Akin

in Apologetics, Bible

q-narrative-vs-sayings - CopyThere are 235 verses in Matthew that are paralleled in Luke but not in Mark or John.

This number represents more than a fifth of Matthew and Luke, and so some scholars have proposed that there was a written source—called Q—that both Evangelists drew upon, though it is now lost.

There are, of course, other possibilities. One is that Matthew simply used Luke; another is that Luke used Matthew.

It is possible that they both used a lost written source for this material, but there are reasons to question this.

A while back, I blogged about one such reason.

Now I’d like to use a visual means of making the same point and to advance it further.


The Basic Argument

The argument I made before was based on one posed by New Testament scholar Mark Goodacre (see his book The Case Against Q: Studies in Markan Priority and the Synoptic Problem, 170-185).

Scholars who advocate the existence of Q frequently state that it was a “sayings gospel,” because the material in it largely consists of sayings of Jesus.

They then place it in the same category as other sayings collections, like the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas.

But Goodacre points out that, if it existed, Q would not have been simply a collection of sayings. Instead, it has narrative passages (passages that recount events rather than simply sayings).

Q thus would not parallel Thomas or other ancient sayings collections.


Visualizing the Phenomenon

In my previous post, I listed a number of narrative elements that Goodacre identified in the Q material.

Now I would like to visualize the way that this material shifts back and forth between narrative and sayings.

To do this, I used a copy of The Critical Edition of Q: A Synopsis Including the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, Mark and Thomas With English, German and French Translations of Q and … & Historical Commentary on the Bible), edited by James Robinson, Paul Hoffmann, and John Kloppenborg.

Several years ago, this trio of scholars led an international team that attempted to establish the original text of Q, in its original order, to the extent that this can be done by present scholarship.

The Critical Edition of Q is a useful text for studies of the Synoptic Problem because it is a consensus text that does not rest on the work of any single scholar. As a result, it can be used as a neutral reference point for testing hypotheses about Q, because the question of whether a single scholar has biased the selection of texts in favor of his hypothesis does not arise.

The scholars who produced The Critical Edition of Q identified 92 passages that they think were or likely were in Q.

I typed these passages into a spreadsheet and then classified them based on whether they involved significant narrative elements, sayings, or something that could be regarded either way.

I also counted the number of verses in each passage and assigned a color to the three categories, as follows:

  • Red: Narrative
  • Orange: Mixed
  • Yellow: Saying

For something to classify as more than just a saying, it had to involve more than just a note that Jesus responded to something that someone said. The reason is that in the Gospel of Thomas Jesus occasionally responds to things that people said, and I wanted to show that Q involves narrative elements that go beyond those found in the Gospel of Thomas.

Using these classifications, I then created an image consisting of colored bars whose widths are based on the number of verses in these sections.

This is the image that resulted . . .


An Image of Q?


If you want to see the results of my study as an image in spreadsheet form, click here.

Here, in sequence, is what the colored bars represent.

Bar 1 (red): This bar, at the left of the image, represents 24 verses that are all at the beginning of Q and that have narrative elements. This section includes the ministry of John the Baptist, the Baptism of Jesus, the Temptation, and a reference to Jesus going to “Nazara.”

Bar 2 (yellow): This represents 26 verses of sayings material. The material is found in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew and the Sermon on the Plain in Luke.

Bar 3 (red): This represents 6 verses. It contains the story of the Healing of the Centurion’s Servant.

Bar 4 (orange): This represents 19 verses. It includes the question that John the Baptist sends to Jesus by his disciples, Jesus testimony about John, the reaction of the people to Jesus’ testimony, and Jesus discussion of the present generation in light of the way John and he have been treated. It also includes Jesus’ interactions with several individuals who end up not following him.

I classified this material as “mixed” because you could look at it either as involving significant narrative elements or simply as sayings with minimal narrative elements.

While it consists principally of sayings, the John the Baptist material involves the coming and going of John’s disciples, which can be considered narrative. It also harks back to Jesus’ earlier interaction with John, in which John identified Jesus as a major figure in God’s plan. Now John asks if he was correct in that assessment, making this a continuation of the previous encounter—and thus part of a larger, overarching story about Jesus and John.

Finally, the interactions of Jesus with the people who don’t end up following him could be considered narrative.

I think that there is a good case for classifying this material—or at least the material involving John the Baptist—as narrative, but since it is principally in the form of sayings, I left it orange.

Bar 5 (yellow): This represents 11 verses in which Jesus gives the disciples instructions about a preaching mission that they are to go on—how to conduct themselves, what to bring, etc.

This material is all sayings, so I left it yellow, but I think it could justifiably be colored orange or even red, because the instructions that Jesus gives the disciples about their mission suggests that they went on such a mission and later returned from it, just as we read in Luke 10:17.

If Q contained material about the departure or return of the disciples then this would create forward movement, narratively speaking, and earn an orange or red classification.

Bar 6 (orange): This represents 3 verses in which Jesus pronounces woe on various towns in Galilee.

I classified this as orange because, although it is in the saying form, it implies visits to the named towns in which Jesus encountered opposition, and Q could have contained prior references to Jesus encountering such opposition.

Even if it didn’t, the references to these towns imply visits and thus situate Jesus’ activities in a geographical way that takes us beyond abstract philosophical/theological sayings.

Bar 7 (yellow): This represents 147 verses that consist of sayings without significant narrative elements.



You may or may not agree with my classifications. Indeed, I think that some of them—particularly some elements in Bars 4-6—could be classified differently.

However, even if we assume the classification most favorable to Q, where everything that is not red should be classified as yellow, something very interesting emerges.

It isn’t only that Q switches between narrative and sayings material, as Goodacre pointed out. It’s that Q switches between them in a very noteworthy way.

If only Bars 1 and 3 are classified as involving significant narrative elements and everything else is classified as sayings then:

  • Q would begin with clearly narrative material (John the Baptist and the beginning of Jesus’ ministry).
  • It would switch to a major sayings collection that is clearly presented as a unit in Matthew and Luke (the Sermon on the Mount/Plain).
  • It would revert to a narrative for a single story (the Healing of the Centurion’s Servant).
  • Then it would switch back to an extremely long series of sayings.
  • Finally, it would end without returning to the kind of narrative framework that it began with.

This is very unlike what we see in ancient sayings collections like Thomas, Proverbs, or Sirach.


Matters Get Worse for Q?

Things get even worse for Q if some of the material is classified differently.

If Bars 4-6 are classified as narrative, if only some parts of them are, or if we allow a mixed “narrative/sayings” classification then we have an even more complex picture that deviates even further from the idea that Q is a “sayings gospel.”



If we attempt to visualize Q in terms of the narrative and sayings elements that it would have included, we find that it switches back and forth between them in a way that is not like other ancient sayings collections.

This gives us more reason to see the hypothetical, lost Q as a unique document and thus as one that was less likely to exist, in view of the fact that we do not have ancient parallels for it.

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Pope Francis waves to crowds as he arrives to his inauguration mass on 19 March 2013.This version of The Weekly Francis covers material released in the last week from 7 to 13 September 2014.


General Audiences


Daily Homilies (fervorinos)

Papal Tweets

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CatholicAnswersLogoIn this episode of Catholic Answers Live, Jimmy takes on the following questions:

  • What did Pope Francis mean when he said that he would like “a poor church for the poor”?
  • How can anybody be a saint if we are all sinful?
  • Can a priest say the ordinary form of the Mass facing East or facing the altar rather than the people?
  • Where did the idea that either the man born blind or his parents had sinned?
  • How to obtain an annulment?
  • What happened to the people who rose from the dead at the time of the Crucifixion?
  • What does it mean when the Apostles’ Creed says that Jesus descended into hell?
  • What does it mean when Hebrews says that Jesus learned obedience through suffering?
  • How to respond to “None is righteous, no not one”?
  • How to respond to the claim that humans are equal to all other species?
  • What does St. Paul mean in 1 Corinthians 8 when he talks about us using our knowledge to tear down our brethren rather than build them up?
  • Why is there a difference between documentary process and formal process annulments?

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Prayer Request

by Jimmy Akin

in +Religion

I have a prayer request for my newborn niece.

I just received a text from my sister, Jennifer, asking for prayers for her new baby girl, Ronin Rose, who was recently born at 28 weeks and who has been doing well but is experiencing some problems common to preemies.

My sister writes:

Will you please pray for Ronin? She has an infection, likely pneumonia, and is on antibiotics and an oscillator (the big ventilator) to help push fluid out of her lungs. Her lung x-ray was clearer than this mornings but is cloudy. I’m too exhausted to talk, but I wanted to reach out to you and ask if you’d pray for her and her doctors and nurses.

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intothedalek-1024x576In this episode we review and analyse episode 2 of season 8, entitled ‘Into the Dalek’. The Doctor enters the innards of his arch enemy in an attempt to save its life… and its soul. But what about the soul of the Doctor himself? Join Jimmy Akin, Stephanie Zimmer, Fr. Cory Sticha, Dom Bettinelli and Fr. Roderick for discussion, analysis and informed speculation!

Links for this episode:

Check out Stephanie Zimmer’s podcast TV Rewind, Jimmy Akin’s blog Let’s Watch Doctor Who and Dom Bettinelli & Fr. Roderick’s podcast Secrets of Star Wars!

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lukeSt. Luke begins the second chapter of his Gospel with a chronological note about when Jesus was born: writing:

In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled.

This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria [Luke 2:1-2].

This passage has been subject to a lot of criticism, because Luke has already linked the birth of Jesus to reign of Herod the Great (Luke 1:5), and Quirinius did not become governor of Syria until years afterwards.


What Happened When?

Precisely when Herod’s reign ended is a matter of dispute. Historically, the most common view—which is also in accordance with the Church Fathers—is that Herod died in 1 B.C.

Just over a hundred years ago, however, a German scholar named Emil Schürer argued that Herod died in 4 B.C., and this became the most popular view in the 20th century.

More recent scholarship, however, has supported the idea that Schürer was wrong and that the traditional date of 1 B.C. is correct.

After Herod’s death, his kingdom was divided, and his son Archelaus became the ruler of Judaea (Matt. 2:22).

Archelaus, however, was a terrible ruler, and in A.D. 6 he was removed from office by the Romans and banished to what is now France.

In his place, a Roman prefect was appointed to govern the province, which is why Pontius Pilate—rather than one of the descendants of Herod the Great—was ruling Judaea at the time of Jesus’ adult ministry.

According to the Jewish historian Josephus, Quirinius (aka Cyrenius) was sent to govern Syria after the banishment of Archelaus. He also took a tax census of Judaea at this time and made an accounting of Archelaus’s finances (Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 18:1:1).


The Sequence

From the above, the overall sequence of events is clear:

  1. Herod the Great dies (1 B.C. or 4 B.C.)
  2. Archelaus becomes his successor in Judaea
  3. Archelaus is deposed
  4. Quirinius does his census (A.D. 6)

Given that sequence, if Luke identified Jesus’ birth with a census conducted in A.D. 6 then we would have an implicit contradiction with Luke 1, which links Jesus’ birth to the reign of Herod the Great, and an even clearer contradiction with Matthew 2, which is explicit about the fact that Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the Great.


Finding a Solution

Scholars have proposed a number of solutions to this. There isn’t space to review them all here, but I’d like to look at one of them.

In his book Who Was Jesus? the former Anglican bishop N. T Wright states:

The question of Quirinius and his census is an old chestnut, requiring a good knowledge of Greek. It depends on the meaning of the word protos, which usually means ‘first’.

Thus most translations of Luke 2.2 read ‘this was the first [protos] census, when Quirinius was governor of Syria’, or something like that.

But in the Greek of the time, as the standard major Greek lexicons point out, the word protos came sometimes to be used to mean ‘before’, when followed (as this is) by the genitive case (p. 89).

The genitive case is a grammatical feature in Greek. It is often used to indicate possession (as in “Jesus’ disciples”) or origin (as in “Jesus of Nazareth”). Wright, however, is pointing to a special use of the genitive when it follows the word protos and protos ends up meaning “before.” He writes:

A good example is in John 1.15, where John the Baptist says of Jesus ‘he was before me’, with the Greek being again protos followed by the genitive of ‘me’.

In a footnote, Wright continues:

The phrase is repeated in John 1.30; compare also 15.18, where Jesus says ‘the world hated me before [it hated] you’, where again the Greek is protos with the genitive.

Other references, in biblical and non-biblical literature of the period, may be found in the Greek Lexicon of Liddell and Scott (Oxford: OUP, 1940), p. 1535, and the Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament of W . Bauer, revised and edited by Arndt, Gingrich and Danker (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), pp. 725f. 19 .

 This solution has been advanced by various scholars, including, interestingly, William Temple in his Readings in St John’s Gospel (London: Macmillan, 1945), p. 17; cf. most recently John Nolland, Luke 1–9: 20 (Dallas: Word Books, 1989), pp. 101f.


Wright’s Solution

Wright then explains how this can relate to the enrollment of Quirinius:

I suggest, therefore, that actually the most natural reading of the verse is: “This census took place before the time when Quirinius was governor of Syria.”

He also notes:

This solves an otherwise odd problem: why should Luke say that Quirinius’ census was the first? Which later ones was he thinking of?

This reading, of course, does not resolve all the difficulties. We don’t know, from other sources, of a census earlier than Quirinius’. But there are a great many things that we don’t know in ancient history.

There are huge gaps in our records all over the place. Only those who imagine that one can study history by looking up back copies of the London Times or the Washington Post in a convenient library can make the mistake of arguing from silence in matters relating to the first century.

My guess is that Luke knew a tradition in which Jesus was born during some sort of census, and that Luke knew as well as we do that it couldn’t have been the one conducted under Quirinius, because by then Jesus was about ten years old. That is why he wrote that the census was the one before that conducted by Quirinius.


An Objection

An objection that some have raised about this solution is why, on this theory, Luke would bother mentioning Quirinius’s census.

Think about it for a moment: It can sound a little strange to say, “This census took place before the time when Quirinius was governor of Syria.”

Why would Luke do that?

There are at least three reasons . . .


Avoiding Confusion

The census of Quirinius was famous enough that Luke’s audience would have heard of it—otherwise he wouldn’t have bothered mentioning it.

Given that it was well known, Luke would have wanted to avoid people confusing it with the enrollment during which Jesus was born.

He would especially want to avoid confusion in light of what he had established about King Herod . . .


Herod’s Death

Previously, in Luke 1:5, the Evangelist established that John the Baptist was conceived by his mother Elizabeth during the reign of Herod the Great.

Then, in 1:26 and 36, he established that Gabriel announced the conception of Jesus “in the sixth month” (i.e., what we would call the fifth month) of Elizabeth’s pregnancy.

This means that Jesus would have been conceived much too early to have been born during Quirinius’s census.

Since Luke has already established this, it gives him a reason—when he records the fact that Jesus was born in connection with an enrollment—that it was not the famous census of Quirinius. It was an earlier one, in keeping with the timeframe Luke has already established.

But there is another reason why Luke would want to point this out . . .


In the Fifteenth Year of Tiberius Caesar

Luke 2 begins with a time cue that connects the birth of Jesus to the reign of Augustus Caesar. Luke 3 begins with an even more elaborate time cue linking the beginning of Jesus’ adult ministry to the reign of Augustus’s successor, Tiberius.

Luke writes:

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, in the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness [Luke 3:1-2].

The fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar is what we would call A.D. 28/29.

After John’s ministry begins, Jesus quickly comes and is baptized, thus beginning his own ministry.

When that happens, Luke informs us:

Jesus, when he began his ministry, was about thirty years of age [Luke 3:23].

If you back up 30 years from A.D. 28/29 (remembering that there is no “year 0” so you skip from A.D. 1 directly to 1 B.C.), you land in 2/3 B.C., which is the year that the early Church Fathers overwhelmingly assign Jesus’ birth to.

People back then knew when Tiberius reigned, and they could do the math as well as we. In fact, since they were used to dating years in terms of the emperor’s reign, they would realize even more quickly than we the year in which Luke 3 indicates Jesus was born.

Thus, on Wright’s theory, Luke would have an additional motive to make sure there was no confusion about Jesus being born during the famous census of Quirinius.

Think about it from Luke’s point of view: After years of gathering his research, he’s now drafting his Gospel, and, when he reaches Luke 2, he includes a time cue for the birth of Jesus during an enrollment ordered by Augustus.

He already knows, however, that he is planning on beginning Luke 3 with a time cue identifying the beginning of John the Baptist’s ministry and that he’s going to give Jesus’ approximate age at the time of his own ministry’s commencement.

Since the later time cues he’s planning to give point to a date earlier than the famous census of Quirinius, Luke would want to head off any potential confusion by stressing that this happened before that census, in keeping with the implications of Luke 3.

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Synoptic EvangelistsThree of the Gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—are very similar to each other when compared to the fourth Gospel, John. They tell the story of Jesus in very similar ways, frequently including the same stories and sayings and often using exactly the same words.

That’s why these three are known as the “synoptic” Gospels—because they offer a “shared view” of Jesus’ life (Greek, sun = “together” + opsis “seeing”).

They are so similar that scholars have tried to figure out why. This is known as “the synoptic problem.”

In the last two centuries, there has been an enormous amount written about the subject, and we can’t hope to more than scratch the surface here. We will, however, look at some of the more popular solutions to the synoptic problem.


Is There a Problem at All?

diagram oral sourcesIt’s tempting to ask whether there even is a problem to be solved. Relying on eyewitness evidence and oral tradition, couldn’t Matthew, Mark, and Luke have written independently of each other? Couldn’t they include the stories and sayings that they do just because Jesus did and said those things?

This view is known as the Independence hypothesis, and it is the position that most people hold, at least before they start looking closely at the issue.

Despite its appeal, the Independence hypothesis has not won many advocates among scholars in recent years. Part of the reason is the Gospel of John. It is missing many of the familiar stories and sayings found in the other three, and it has a great deal of new material not found in them.

What’s more, John indicates that there was an even larger pool of material about Jesus to select from. At the end of his Gospel, he writes: “There are also many other things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25).

That means we have to ask the question of why Matthew, Mark, and Luke chose the material that they did. It isn’t that they were recording everything Jesus said and did. They could have picked different stories and sayings, like John. If they wrote independently of each other, why did they make so many of the same choices?

It is commonly estimated that 90% of the material found in Mark is also found in Matthew (B. F. Streeter, The Four Gospels, 160). Nine out of ten verses in Mark are paralleled in Matthew! That seems to be too large an amount of material in common for it to just be random chance. It suggests a common source.


An Oral Gospel?

What could that source be? One possibility is that it was an oral equivalent of a Gospel.

People relied on and trained their memories to a greater extent in the past, and it is not impossible that the early Church developed a standard way of recounting the ministry and passion of Jesus—a cycle of stories and sayings that were memorized in a definite order, rather than just as a pool of traditions. If so, they had the oral equivalent of a Gospel, and the Synoptic Evangelists could have drawn on this for the material they share in common.

Most scholars have not favored this viewpoint. Memorizing such a Gospel would have been quite an achievement—particularly without a written text to work from—and it is not clear that the early Christian community had enough people willing to perform the feat. Further, we have no record of people in the first century attempting this, and we have no record among the Church Fathers of the Synoptics being based on such a source.


A Lost Gospel?

diagram lost gospelMost scholars think that the similarities among the Synoptics are due to a common written source. The question is: Do we still have this source?

Some have suggested that we don’t—that the common source behind the Synoptics was a now-lost “proto-Gospel” that each drew upon.

Luke tells us that, in his day, “many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us” (Luke 1:1). It is possible that the three Evangelists used one of these prior narratives in composing their own Gospels.

But we should be careful about claiming that there was a single, written source that explains the similarities among the Synoptics.

This view invokes a hypothetical source, and Occam’s Razor indicates that we shouldn’t propose hypothetical sources beyond what is necessary to account for the data. Otherwise, the problem will become nightmarishly complex. (Indeed, one web site devoted to the synoptic problem——listed 1,488 solutions! That number is made possible by freely proposing hypothetical sources for which we do not have clear evidence.)

Rather than proposing hypothetical, lost documents, we should at least initially try to explain the material in the Synoptic Gospels by appealing to documents that we know existed: Matthew, Mark, and Luke.


Who’s on First?

It’s possible to explain the shared material in the Synoptics by proposing that one of them is the common source. In other words, one of the Evangelists wrote first and the other two borrowed from him.

You could explain the 90% of Mark that is paralleled in Matthew either by saying Mark wrote the first Gospel and Matthew borrowed from him or that Matthew wrote first and Mark did the borrowing.

You don’t need a hypothetical source to account for the material. You just need to identify which was the first one written.

On this, there are two major views: One holds that Matthew wrote first and the other that Mark did. Virtually no one in Church history has claimed that Luke wrote first.

The idea that Matthew wrote first is known as “Matthean priority,” and it was the most popular view in most of Church history. The alternative view, that Mark wrote first, is known as “Markan priority,” and it is the most popular view today.


The Augustinian Hypothesis

diagram augustinian hypothesisFor much of Church history, the standard theory of how the Gospel were composed is that Matthew wrote first, Mark then did an abbreviated version of Matthew, while adding a small amount of material of his own. Finally, Luke wrote.

This view takes its name from St. Augustine (354-430).

At the beginning of his Harmony of the Gospels, Augustine took the position that the Gospels were written in this order, though a statement that he made later in the work has led some to think that he may have revised his view or become less sure about the order.


The Griesbach Hypothesis

diagram griesbach hypothesisAnother view, known as the Griesbach hypothesis, agrees that Matthew wrote first, but it holds that Luke wrote second and that Mark wrote last, making his Gospel a combination and abridgement of the first two. (Mark is quite a bit shorter than either Matthew or Luke.)

The view is named after Johann Jakob Griesbach (1745-1812), the German scholar who proposed it.

This is the second most popular view among biblical scholars today. (We will discuss the most popular one shortly.) The best-known advocate of this theory in recent years was William Farmer (1921-2000).


The Farrer Hypothesis

diagram farrer hypothesisIf you hold that Matthew wrote first then the Augustinian and Griesbach hypotheses are the two obvious options. But what if you hold that Mark wrote first? Again, there are two options that don’t involve hypothetical documents.

The first is known as the Farrer hypothesis. According to it, Mark wrote first, then Matthew used and expanded on Mark, and finally Luke drew from and abridged the first two, while adding some new material from his own sources.

This view is named after the English scholar Austin Farrer (1904-1968), who proposed it. It is popular principally among British scholars.


The Wilke Hypothesis

diagram wilke hypothesisThe other obvious view based on the idea that Mark wrote first is known as the Wilke hypothesis. According to this view, Mark wrote the initial Gospel, Luke wrote next drawing partly on Mark and partly on his own sources, and then Matthew wrote last, drawing on both Mark and Luke.

This theory is named after the German scholar Christian Gottlob Wilke (1786-1854), who was also a convert to the Catholic Church from Lutheranism.

The Wilke hypothesis has received a surprisingly small amount of attention in recent literature, with many authors gliding over it in a sentence or failing to mention it altogether. Despite that, it has been attracting renewed attention in the last few years, with a number of new advocates. Among them was German scholar Martin Hengel (1926-2006), who proposed a version of it.


The Two-Source Hypothesis

diagram two-source hypothesisBy far the most common theory today is the “Two-Source hypothesis.” According to this view, Mark wrote first and then Matthew and Luke used him independently of each other.

This would account for why both Matthew and Luke have certain material in common with Mark, but it would not account for why they have certain material in common with each other.

There are around 235 verses in Matthew that are paralleled in Luke, and many scholars have proposed a common source for this material. They have dubbed this source “Q.” It is often claimed that this is short for the German word Quelle, which means “source,” but this is not certain.

The view is known as the “Two-Source hypothesis” because it holds that Matthew and Luke used two major sources: Mark and Q.

Note that the idea of a Q source (which might have been written or oral) is only needed if you assume that Matthew and Luke wrote independently of each other. If you hold one of the views mentioned above, you don’t need to propose a Q source. For example, Luke could have drawn all of the so-called “Q material” directly from Matthew under the Augustinian, Griesbach, or Farrer hypotheses. Alternately, Matthew could have taken all of this material directly from Luke under the Wilke hypothesis.

The Two-Source theory was first proposed in 1838 by the German scholar Christian Hermann Weisse (1801-1861) and was elaborated by various others—most notably by the English scholar B. H. Streeter (1874-1937).

In 1911 and 1912, the Pontifical Biblical Commission issued a pair of decrees that insisted Catholic biblical scholars were to teach that Matthew wrote first, thus ruling out the Two-Source hypothesis.

These decrees were disciplinary and provisional, and they were ultimately superseded. The Two-Source view then became dominant among Catholic scholars.

This was acknowledged by Benedict XVI, before he became pope and while he was himself the head of the Pontifical Biblical Commission. In an address to the commission, he noted that the Two-Source theory is “accepted today by almost everyone” (Joseph Ratzinger, On the 100th Anniversary of the Pontifical Biblical Commission).

Upon coming into office, Pope Francis wrote a letter to an Italian newspaper that indicated that he, personally, adheres to the idea that Mark wrote first:

“I would say that we must face Jesus in the concrete roughness of his story, as above all told to us by the most ancient of the Gospels, the one according to Mark” (“Pope Francisco writes to La Repubblica: ‘An open dialogue with non-believers,’” La Repubblica, Sept. 11, 2013; online at

Pope Francis did not indicate whether he also believes there to have been a Q source—and letters to newspapers do not count as acts of the papal Magisterium—but this does indicate the degree of acceptance that Markan priority has achieved in Catholic circles.


How Certain Can We Be?

By the mid-twentieth century, the Two-Source hypothesis had achieved such dominance that it was often presented as one of “the assured results of modern scholarship” (to use a common phrase).

This began to change, with a notable number of scholars challenging it and with even its advocates making more modest claims on its behalf.

For example, Joseph Fitzmyer—an advocate of the Two-Source hypothesis—famously said:

“The history of Synoptic research reveals that the problem is practically insoluble. As I see the matter, we cannot hope for a definitive and certain solution to it, since the data for its solution are scarcely adequate or available to us” (“The Priority of Mark and the ‘Q’ Source in Luke,” Jesus: Man’s Hope, 1:132).

Advocates of other views have often agreed that the best we can achieve is a probable solution, not a certain one.

This is because the data we have is limited and often difficult to assess. Basically, it comes in two forms: external and internal.

External data consists of what we can learn about the Synoptic Gospels from outside sources, such as the Church Fathers. Internal data consists of what we can learn by comparing the Synoptic Gospels with each other. Both kinds can be difficult to assess.


Mixed Messages

The external data can be difficult because, although the Augustinian hypothesis eventually became the majority view and remained so for a long time, the Church Fathers do not all agree, particularly in the period before Augustine.

This can be seen by looking at what they have to say about Mark. According to Augustine, Mark was the second Gospel to be written, after Matthew and before Luke. He wrote: “Mark follows [Matthew] closely, and looks like his attendant and epitomizer” (Harmony of the Gospels I:2[4]).

But Clement of Alexandria, Mark’s late-second century successor as bishop of Alexandria, held Mark was written third—after both Matthew and Luke, for he said the Gospels with the genealogies (Matthew and Luke) were written first (Eusebius, Church History 6:14:6-7). This would be in keeping with the Griesbach hypothesis.

The earliest statement we have comes from the early second century historian Papias, who in turn quotes a first century figure known as “John the Presbyter” or “John the Elder” (Greek, presbuteros = “elder”). This figure was a disciple of Jesus. He is sometimes identified with John son of Zebedee, but a careful reading of Papias indicates that he may have been a separate individual (see Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, ch.s 2, 9, 16).

According to John the Presbyter,

“Mark, having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately, though not in order, whatsoever he remembered of the things said or done by Christ. For he neither heard the Lord nor followed him, but afterward, as I said, he followed Peter, who adapted his teaching to the needs of his hearers, but with no intention of giving a connected account of the Lord’s discourses, so that Mark committed no error while he thus wrote some things as he remembered them. For he was careful of one thing, not to omit any of the things which he had heard, and not to state any of them falsely” (Eusebius, Church History 3:39:15).

Since John the Presbyter is a first century source and a witness of Jesus’ ministry, his testimony regarding Mark’s composition has great weight.

It was also held by many in the early Church (see Jerome, Lives of Illustrious Men 9 and 18) and by a number of modern scholars (including Richard Bauckham, Martin Hengel, and Benedict XVI) that John the Presbyter had a hand in writing at least some of the Johannine literature in the New Testament, especially 2 and 3 John, which are addressed as being from “the Presbyter/Elder” (2 John 1, 3 John 1; see Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth 1:224-227 for his view of John the Presbyter’s role in the origin of the Johannine books).

If this is true then his testimony regarding the origin of Mark’s Gospel would have even greater weight. It would represent the testimony of one of the other authors of the New Testament! (The same would be true if John the Presbyter were identified with John son of Zebedee.)

Either way, if Mark’s Gospel is based on his memory of things Peter preached and if 90% of Mark is in Matthew then it would seem that Mark wrote first and Matthew borrowed from him. It would seem hard to say that Mark is based on Peter’s preaching if 90% of it came from Matthew.

However, some advocates of the Griesbach hypothesis have proposed that Peter gave a series of lectures based on Matthew and Luke and that Mark had these lectures transcribed (so Dom Bernard Orchard, David Alan Black). In this way, Mark could be based on Peter’s preaching and still have so much of its material taken from Matthew.

This, however, does not seem to correspond to what John the Presbyter says: He states that Mark “wrote down accurately, though not in order, whatsoever he remembered of the things said or done by Christ” based on Peter’s preaching, “with no intent of giving a connected account of the Lord’s discourses.” The stress is placed on Mark’s after-the-fact memory of Peter’s preaching, not on the transcription of a set of lectures.


Internal Evidence

If the external evidence can be difficult to assess, so can the internal evidence that scholars have gleaned by comparing Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The literature on the subject is vast, often brain-crushingly detailed, and frequently the arguments don’t prove what they’re supposed to.

For example, one argument B. H. Streeter proposed for Mark being the first Gospel is that its literary quality is not as high as Matthew or Luke. This is true, and it is especially clear in the Greek text. The claim is that Mark reads like a first attempt at a Gospel and that Matthew and Luke then expanded on and polished the material, producing Gospels of higher literary quality.

This argument has weight, but it is not conclusive. It is possible that Mark could have decided to do an abbreviated Gospel, and—in his retelling of the material—he revealed that he was not as accomplished an author.

Another argument is based on the fact that the Synoptics often present the same stories and sayings in a different order. Streeter argued that, when this happens, either Matthew tends to follow Mark’s order or Luke does. Matthew and Luke virtually never agree with each other against Mark’s sequence. This suggested to him that Matthew and Luke were using Mark as a source but occasionally changed the sequence in which they presented material.

Unfortunately, this argument—like many—is reversible. As later scholars pointed out, the same phenomenon can be explained if Mark was compiling his material from Matthew and Luke. At any given point, it would have been natural for Mark to follow Matthew’s order or Luke’s order, but he couldn’t do both when they were different.

The difficulty in finding conclusive arguments—based on internal or external evidence—has convinced many scholars that we simply can’t have conclusive proof. The best we can hope for is a probable solution, and some scholars don’t even hold out that hope and think the matter is unknowable.

This leads to a final question.


How Important Is the Synoptic Problem?

The answer will depend on your perspective. For some scholars, the subject is crucially important. This is particularly the case for those engaged in “the search for the historical Jesus.” These scholars tend to think that the true Jesus—“the Jesus of history”—has been obscured by successive layers of tradition and dogma and so been transformed into “the Christ of faith.”

For them, finding the truth about Jesus involves peeling away and discarding the layers of tradition, and if you want to do that then it matters very much which Gospel was first and whether lost sources like Q were being used. You need to identify the earliest material you can so that you can dismiss later material as saying something about the Church rather than about Jesus.

This is why it’s important for apologists to know about the Synoptic problem. Regardless which solution (if any) one thinks persuasive, apologists need to be able to interact with the kind of arguments involved. Otherwise, they will be unprepared to deal with those who use the relationships among the Synoptics to discredit them.

From the perspective of faith, the matter is much less urgent. Knowing how the Synoptic Gospels were composed can help shed light on particular passages, but it is not necessary for a basic understanding of Jesus and his message. From a faith perspective, the Gospels are inspired by the Holy Spirit and are reliable records of Jesus’ life and teachings.

In other words, the Jesus of history is the Christ of faith.

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CatholicAnswersLogoIn this episode of Catholic Answers Live, Jimmy takes on the following questions:

  • Can we “interpret Scripture with Scripture”?
  • What does the word “desuetude” mean and how does it relate to women’s head coverings?
  • Can we wear pictures of people other than saints?
  • Is leaving candy before a statue of Baby Jesus okay or is that idolatry?
  • Is the Church contradicting Scripture with its teaching that the use of force in legitimate defense is okay?
  • Do we grow in our relationship with God in heaven?
  • Can Latin Catholics attend the Melkite rite?
  • Is the ice bucket challenge a Satanic ritual? Do you have to mean for a ritual to be Satanic for it to actually be Satanic?
  • What does a former Catholic who has been attending a non-Catholic church need to do to return to the Faith?
  • Thomas Aquinas’s arguments may prove the existence of God, but how do you prove the existence of the God of the Bible?
  • How does it work when a person has enough evidence for the existence of God but they choose not to convert?
  • How to deal with religious compulsions? Are they sinful?

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