Tuesday, September 20, 2022

Comparing the Synoptics

It is established beyond any reasonable doubt that the synoptic gospels — Matthew, Mark and Luke — show evidence of agreement that cannot be completely explained by the fact that they are all thought to have been written within a few years of each other by men who were members of the same religious community and had shared experiences to relate. I am neither a Greek nor a Hebrew scholar, but I can certainly read what the experts have written on the subject and note their positions on the likelihood of a common source document (or documents) for the three synoptics.

My full-time secular job has made me reasonably competent at doing document comparisons in Microsoft Word, so I thought it might be fun to take one of the few accounts common to all the gospels, and compare each gospel to each of the others to see how much of the writing shows indications of common source material.

Entertaining Myself

This was really just for my own entertainment more than anything else. I recognize the limitations of the document comparison process in terms of how Word displays the differences between two texts, as well as the limited value of doing a comparison from the English translation rather than from the original languages. (It helps to take all text samples from the same translation, trusting that the translators have been consistent in their approach throughout.) Despite these obvious limitations, there are things a document comparison will show you in the few seconds it takes to create that would take you hours and hours to notice if you were to place the accounts side by side and eyeball them. (I’ve done that too.)

To do my comparison I wanted a selection of text common to all three synoptics that was not too lengthy to work with. I also wanted an account that occurs in John’s gospel to test against the others; all scholars agree John’s gospel is very different from Matthew’s, Mark’s and Luke’s in many ways. You will probably not be surprised to find this proved a difficult combination of requirements. There is only one miracle common to all four gospels, and that’s the account of the feeding of the 5,000. I won’t include the full results here as they would bore you to tears, but here are a couple of examples of what a quick Word comparison produced. (Excuse the low-res fuzziness, but my interest is primarily in showing the amount of red text compared to black text in a form that will load quickly.)

Two Synoptics Compared

Here’s Matthew compared to Mark:

The black text shows what the two compared accounts have in common. The underlined and strikethrough red text shows the differences.

Two More Synoptics Compared

And here’s Mark’s account compared to Luke’s:

In both cases above, the strikethrough text comes from the first document and the underlined text from the second.

Differences and Similarities

Now, the average person looking at these two examples would probably say, “Wow, there’s lots of red.” Very true. There are many differences between the three accounts in terms of word choice and the details each writer chose to emphasize. This is to be expected wherever you have several witnesses talking about the same subject, especially when each account has been independently translated from another language, sometimes more than once. However, you can see the accounts also have many words in common (black text), which is also to be expected. In Greek, as in any other language, there are only so many ways to say “five loaves and two fish”, “five thousand men”, “two hundred denarii”, “sit down on the grass”, “looked up to heaven” and “gave thanks”. These and other small details all the accounts have in common, and we are not surprised to find them expressed identically. That’s totally normal.

What we might not expect to find, and clearly do, are full sentences in common, like “And they all ate and were satisfied”, or long strings of text-in-common like “And taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven and said a blessing.” If I were a schoolteacher marking essays, a few such examples would have me running to the principal with concerns about how my students are either plagiarizing from their peers or else nicking material verbatim from a common source.

Plagiarism and Common Sources

Of course, common material in the gospel accounts is not plagiarism, and none of this should concern Christians who believe in the inspiration of scripture in the slightest. None of the gospel writers ever claimed everything he wrote was original, and the accepted first century conventions for quotations and references were nowhere near as stringent as today. For one thing, quotation marks didn’t even exist in first century Greek. So all of this is just fine. But what it does make very clear is that Matthew, Mark and Luke incorporated a fair bit of the same material. Whether those phrases and sentences came from the earliest of the three gospel writers (which is disputed, naturally) or from elsewhere is not only irrelevant but impossible to determine with any certainty. You will find arguments for “Luke copied Matthew”, “Matthew and Luke copied Mark” and “Matthew, Mark and Luke copied a now-lost gospel we call ‘Q’ ”, as well as many other hypotheses.

The scriptures themselves hint at the presence of non-canonical written sources of information about the life of the Lord Jesus. Luke starts his gospel with this: “Many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us.” Even if Luke copied Matthew and/or Mark, two is not “many” (John wrote decades later, so Luke didn’t have him in mind), and Mark was not, to the best of our knowledge, an eyewitness of everything we find in his gospel. So there were more narratives, and we have never seen them and never will. While Jesus walked and talked and preached and healed, pens were surely scribbling away, even if we assume many of the Twelve were too busy to preserve much. When Luke wrote his “orderly account” for Theophilus, he as much as says he relied on these written sources. It is unlikely all the witnesses from whom Luke gathered his information were still alive in the sixth and seventh decades of the first century. So then, it is quite probable Mark, Luke and Matthew all had occasion to refer to the same written accounts. It is not necessary to imagine these were fully-developed gospels in a similar form to the ones we have received.

Inspired and Unbreakable

Further, while the gospels we have show evidence of material in common so plain even Bill Gates could find it, this is not a new phenomenon in scripture. Kings and Chronicles cover much of the same material, sometimes in the same language, as do Ezra and the non-canonical Esdras. There are numerous references in the Old Testament scriptures to extra-canonical documents we no longer possess from which the historians of the OT evidently took their facts and figures. What we regard as “inspired” and what the Lord Jesus held up as unbreakable are not the source documents, which came from the pens and quills of ancient historians and their editors, who were probably varying degrees of devout, let alone the account of one writer of scripture over another. Rather, we regard as inspired the Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic texts accepted as authoritative by the Lord Jesus and his apostles in their day.

Matthew, Mark and Luke wrote to different audiences with different purposes in view. They did not all tell their stories precisely the same way, but any careful perusal of their accounts shows them to be complementary rather than contradictory. The presence of common source material in the first three gospels actually creates a strong argument for presuming the accuracy of the many statements made by each writer that differ from gospel to gospel, rather than trying to pit them against each other looking for conflicts. It shows there was a standing knowledge base about the life of the Lord Jesus passed on by a significant number of witnesses. These men and women would surely have registered their dissent from any purported “gospel” that contained obvious errors and departures from the well-known facts. Instead, these writings from the mid-first century were accepted and preserved by the early church and have come down to us in their present form from so many different copies, manuscripts and sources that we can have great confidence in their reliability.

The Synoptics vs. John

But having introduced you to a couple of Word comparisons of the feeding of the 5,000 from the synoptic gospels, let me finish up by showing you Matthew compared to John:

How about them apples? The results are the same whether we compare John’s account of the feeding of the 5,000 to Matthew’s, Mark’s or Luke’s. Evidently John (at least in this instance) used almost nothing from the synoptics or their common source. There are single words and phrases in common (which this comparison fails to show), but the differences between the two passages are so extensive that Word cannot cope with them. I have seen this before with Word where the documents compared are wildly different: even if there are a few words and phrases in common, it simply deletes the first text sample being compared and replaces it with the second. I suspect you could do this with almost any story in John that occurs in one or more of the synoptics and get similar results.

The marvel of it is that John is telling the very same story as Matthew, Mark and Luke. He accords with them in every significant detail. But John has much more to say about the feeding of the 5,000 than the synoptic writers, probably for a variety of reasons. I’d like to take a look at a few of those things tomorrow.

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