Here’s Jimmy! 2

J.D.G. (Jimmy) Dunn’s newest book, Jesus, Paul, and the Gospels, is nothing short of an introduction to his seminal theories and proposals, and we looked at one of those proposals Monday and a second one today. Today’s concerns what happened between Jesus and the first written Gospels.

The problem can be put this way: When we open up our Bibles to one of the Gospels and see red letters for the words of Jesus we make the (unfortunate and unhistorical) jump to this idea: these words are verbatim quotations of what Jesus said — just like that. Beside the fact that two or more Gospels often diverge, sometimes dramatically, on the specific words, verbatim quotations were not the way of the ancient world. A good example: Did Jesus say “poor” or “poor in spirit”? Did Peter say “You are the Messiah” or the “Messiah, the Son of the living God”?

How do you explain variations in the Gospels? Do you think red letter editions give a false impression of what the sayings of Jesus are?

Well, anyone who has examined a Synopsis of the Gospels knows these problems. The evidence is two-fold and it very simple: sometimes the Gospel accounts are nearly identical, as if they are copying one another, and other times they are telling the same story or same saying but there are notable differences. Lots of them.

The standard explanation of this “Synoptic Problem” is something I call the Oxford Hypothesis or The Four Document Hypothesis. Mark was first, Matthew and Luke copied from Mark; Matthew and Luke also copied from a hypothetical source called “Q” — and this explains when Matthew and Luke are nearly identical but both diverge from Mark.

Jimmy Dunn’s big theory is that this doesn’t explain enough. Instead of literary model wherein authors borrow from written documents, Jimmy suggests we should see the whole thing from the angle of an oral culture and an oral traditioning process. He does admit that Matthew and Luke used Mark, and has some form of a Q hypothesis. But he doesn’t think they explain enough.No one questions the general possibility of his theory, it is the proof that is hard.

What characterizes oral memory and oral tradition is both stability and diversity, the same yet different. It recalls what is important but gives the oral traditioner freedom in expressing what is inconsequential. Jimmy further thinks when the tradition was written out (and this didn’t happen all at once or only one time) they writers/redactors had the same freedom to adapt and adopt the oral traditioners had. This explains the passages where the Gospels differ so much but still tell the same story or report the same saying.

Yes, there was an originating event or saying of Jesus, and that event or saying had an impact on the audience, but the traditions were varied from the beginning. There wasn’t just one tradition; there wasn’t just one way to tell the story or report the event or saying. Variety and flexibility obtained from the beginning.

This means “authentic” takes on new meaning. And I agree with him that it was a living tradition and not a fixed tradition. And I agree that Evangelists operated as did the oral traditioners. But there are questions… what are yours?

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Blessed Economist

    I agree with Mr Dunn about the Q theory being to simplistic. If Luke was researching Jesus, he would have talked with lots of people who knew Jesus. He would have got stories from all over the place, some oral and some written. There is no reason why he would rely on one two sources. He would meet some of the people that Mathew had drawn on, so they might have drawn similar material from several different common sources.

    Something that is often left out is that Jesus taught frequently, often daily, for three years. He would have taught the same basic stuff over and over again to different people in different places. Many of the people he met would be similar to those he encountered before. We cannot assume that always taught with exactly the same words. No doubt he varied his teaching to keep it fresh. Different reporters might be referring back to a different incidence of the same teaching.

    Likewise with the people he encountered. He may have dealt with many people who seem to be similar, but not the same, so we should not assume that those that are slight different are always the same incident. Of course some events are clearly the same, especially around the time of his death, so this does not explain all differences between gospels.

  • Scot McKnight

    Blessed Economist, I don’t think anyone questions that Jesus repeated himself and probably had variations in different settings. That’s not really the same question that the Synoptic Problem is asking, which instead is more along this line: Where did Matthew or Luke get their stuff?

    Here’s something that still has to be explained: over and over there are parallels between Matthew and Luke, which are not in Mark, that are nearly identical. The likelihood of literary dependence is not only very high, but compelling. [Some, of course, think either Matthew or Luke copied one another, but that's a different species of the same animal.] Thus, there is literary dependence here… the question then is the extent of Q, or the number of passages that are best explained by the Q hypothesis. And there are some variations that may best be explained by an oral hypothesis than literary dependence, but repetition doesn’t explain enough of it. There’s dependence between Matthew and Luke — either on a common source or on one another.

  • Dru Dodson

    My current questions are around the distinctive functions/audiences of each Gospel. I get why we lump 3 of the Gospels together as Synoptics. Shared source material and similarity in approach and tone as compared to John. But that almost feels like a “category mistake” when it comes time to read them.

    Jewish culture at the time was text-centered and oral-transmitted, yes? A deep respect for the text and a commitment to hover around it constantly, but a rich tradition of oral argument, teaching and adaptation.

    So I’m wondering if the different communities each Gospel writer is addressing are shaping each author’s strategy AND the textual particulars, as they all hover faithfully around core source materials?

    So we should quit expecting the “Synoptics” to be the same, as if they were witnesses at the same trial? Which is what I mean by “category mistake”. Realize this is YOUR wheelhouse, Scot!

  • Billy Kangas

    I am curious about if you think this synoptic problem is something that we can every really get a handle on. It seems like no matter how you slice it you come out with unexplained occurrences. I for one think the four source theory is too limited. For example I recently wrote a little e-book on the Parable of the wicked tenants:

    Although most people view this as a “Mark” source text for the most part, some argue that Luke was actually the first version of this parable. One of the main reasons to belive this is that there is a Hebrewism in Luke at verse 11 (Prosetheto followed by and infinitive). Although this can’t prove Luke was first it does offer something that seems to, by including this, prove that Luke is not simply a conflation of Mark.

    On the other side there are some things that are not included in Matthew that are hard to imagine him dropping if he used Luke or Mark as a source. For example he does not use the word “beloved” to describe the son, which is difficult to imagine him leaving out, since the evangelist includes it in the baptism account as well as the transfiguration. There is also a marked absence of the word “last” when describing the sending of the son, which doesn’t fit with the theory that Matthew was developing the narrative.

    The Gospels are filled with examples like these…


    Can all of this simply devolve into a way of readying some of the Bible as less reliable then others?

  • Wm

    How does ‘copying’ from one another and/or writing down the particular ‘oral tradition’ of ones’ community, equate to divinely inspired, inerrant scripture? A ‘rich oral tradition’ isn’t synonymous with ‘Spirit given’. Divinely inspired plagiarism with some degree of poetic license at best? What is it that the average believer should believe before he/she ceases to believe?

  • Billy Kangas

    @WM – My take on it is pretty simple. The church recognized it as inspired, and Jesus gave the spirit to the Church. I put a lot of stock in the idea that God would not allow his church to fall into great error on this for centuries.

    We don’t call scripture “inspired” because the authors used quality sources, “Rich oral tradition” , or even because the author knew an apostle (or was an apostle)

    We call scripture inspired because as the Church, empowered by the Holy Spirit, recognized it as such as they lived with it. For the church of the living God is the pillar and foundation of the truth.

  • Dn4sty


    Inerrancy doesn’t make or break someone’s faith. I don’t think the Bible is inerrant. Also who is to to say that God wasn’t leading those who had the oral tradition in someway. It’s false distinction to say that the oral tradition isn’t synonomous with Spirit given. Oral tradition can be inspired. I have no idea where you are at in your thinking about scripture, inerrancy, inspiration, etc…, but do not give up on faith because of the obstacle.

  • scotmcknight

    Wm, read Luke 1:1-4, where Luke tells us point-blank that he investigated the traditions about Jesus and used them to compose his Gospel. Where authors got material, or how they got their material is part of the process. It appears to me that you have a conservative approach to Scripture, so I’d recommend you read EJ Young’s famous Thy Word is Truth who discusses in places the process of how Scripture came to be written.

  • Scot McKnight

    Dru, yes, the context shapes both what was remembered, what was included, what was edited, etc…

    Billy, the fundamental requirement here is to underline a Synopsis in 3-4 colors in the original Greek. There is no way around this, and once it is done the full complexity emerges: there is so much profound similarity that one has to posit some copying; there is enough dissimilarity to make us think there are other factors at work. Nothing simple will solve it.

    Here’s a major issue: the order of events is so similar between Gospels one has to think of dependence.

  • Chris Donato

    Reminds me of the old 19th-century rhyming doggerel:

    The bishops all have sworn to shed their blood
    To prove ‘tis true the hare doth chew the cud.
    O bishops, doctors and divines, beware—
    Weak is the faith that hangs upon a hare.

    Bauckham’s theory on eyewitnesses scratches my itch: The “period between the ‘historical’ Jesus and the Gospels was actually spanned, not by anonymous community transmission, but by the continuing presence and testimony of eyewitnesses, who remained the authoritative sources of their traditions until their deaths” (Jesus and the Eyewitnesses).

    In other words, there was never a time between Jesus and the writing of any of the Gospels that rested merely on oral memory and oral tradition (like, e.g., folklore). Personal links, checks and balances, as opposed to anchorless Q communities. To my knowledge, Dunn doesn’t disagree.

    But I’m not denying literary dependence (or freedom in appropriating a given story for a particular context), even if Bauckham makes too little of it. I think it’s pretty clear that, e.g., Luke borrowed from Matthew. And this was totally normal, from what I understand, in the ancient world.

  • Scott Morizot

    I’m skeptical about the whole literary criticism approach when it comes to the Gospels myself. It’s based on the assumptions of a literate culture — which largely don’t apply to an oral culture — and disregards the historical evidence. The tradition of the Church is that Matthew was written first, Mark second, Luke third, and John last. I traced that tradition back and it’s very, very early and broadly reported in our surviving sources. It’s as historically strong as much of what we know about the ancient world and stronger than much of the evidence we use to construct a historical picture.

    There isn’t a shred of actual historical evidence that I’ve been able to find for asserting that Mark was written first. None. It’s simply based on the assumption that Matthew and Luke “must” have copied from it because they both have large sections that are pretty close to identical. The same assumption is behind the idea that Matthew or Luke “copied” from each other or a source like they mythical “Q”.

    The most likely explanation, in my opinion, is that the history about the order in which they were written is right and where they are identical (or nearly so) they are recording from the same oral tradition. In an oral culture (and we can see that today in some of the remaining oral cultures) when something is “traditioned” it is committed to memory and handed down essentially verbatim. Very long sections of I guess what we would call “oral text” can be and are preserved that way in oral cultures. Once something is a tradition, it is not freely changed. It’s hard for us to imagine or understand, but that’s largely because we have shaped our minds from an early age to work with texts, where tradition is handed down in writing. That formation changes the way our brains work.

    By the time the Gospels were written, traditions (and there were certainly more than one) about Jesus had had decades to take root. Heck, Matthew (the Apostle, not the Gospel) probably originated or helped originate one of the traditions. Texts served a number of purposes, but one of them was as a tool to help communicate oral tradition. But ancient texts of any complexity were such that you pretty much had to be taught (orally) the proper reading of them by someone who had similarly been taught. The gospels were written to assist the “handing over” of the oral tradition they captured. Each of them is unique and developed for different audiences and different purposes.

    The difference in the beatitudes (and other things) in Luke and Matthew are, I think, are pretty easy to explain. Jesus went around teaching which in the ancient world meant that he was covering more or less the same ground over and over and over again with different audiences and almost always using different versions since he was doing original teaching, not passing along an already established tradition. Different versions were captured in different oral traditions.

    Some of the other differences are also simple. Memory of directly experienced events is a tricky thing. There’s one type of memory I mentioned above which functions in an oral culture and allows things to “handed over” and “handed down” pretty much verbatim. But our memory of personal events is shaped by a lot of different things, even immediately after the event. That’s why eyewitness testimony is always a tricky thing. What did Peter say on the mountain? Other than identifying Jesus as the Messiah, who knows? And it’s probably not because they changed it around intentionally. Remember, that began the road toward the Crucifixion, so it’s pivotal to us, but it doesn’t seem like the disciples recognized its particular significance at the time. After everything that had happened, as they tried to communicate and teach many others in what must have seemed like an incredible flood of events, it’s easy for me to believe they simply remembered it differently. We can take knowledge gained after an event or from others and actually change what we think of as a memory. That’s why a witness can identify someone who committed a crime to the police, be absolutely certain they are right, and yet still be wrong. Their memory has been reshaped by any number of factors to contain that specific person.

  • Scott Morizot

    Hmmm. Short version. Yes there are dependencies, but they aren’t necessarily between the texts (or other undiscovered ones) but on different oral traditions. The literate culture conceit is that where the texts are identical the *must* have been copied from another text because oral tradition couldn’t preserve traditions more or less verbatim. That underlying assumption is flatly untrue and we know it’s untrue. Oral traditions, even very long ones, were and still are communicated in oral cultures at least as accurately as texts in the ancient world were copied.

    Take that assumption away and there’s no reason I can find to even believe Mark was written first.

  • scotmcknight

    Scott Morizot, do you know how many little theories you just required to explain what you explained? I’ve underlined a Synopsis in Greek; and I’ve taught passages in Greek for years, and I’ve read the literature on this one — and I’m not pulling rank here — and while we have to give room to complexity and not simplicities, things like two Gospels with the same incomplete sentence or oddities that aren’t common can’t simply be explained by oral theories. The standard textual critical observation that the simpler text is to be preferred would mean in many, many cases that Mark is prior; and the argument from the common order of events, when some connections are far from obvious, also favors a common Gospel between the Synoptics. And on top of this we can’t ignore Luke 1:1-4, or ancient witnesses to how things were written when using sources, etc., … I could go on, but this is a mighty complex problem and Jimmy Dunn’s oral thesis is not absent of an accompanying literary connection as well. He’s got some simplicity in a complexity.

    As for based on a literate culture … ach … Augustine already was talking about this. Yes, there are some points made in redaction criticism that are probably rooted in a literate culture, but Synoptic Problem scholars know both the oral tradition models and a literary model.

    Now if you’re pushing back against simplistic literary models (not the real scholarship on these issues), fine. But to discount the literary or to sweep it away with generalities won’t work. It’s too complex to opt for that.

    The kind of question you would be asked in a Synoptic Problem session is this: How do you prove the multiple oral origins? Is there something in the text that proves it?

  • Scott Morizot

    Sorry, I realized I didn’t express my main point of disagreement well. I don’t have any objection at all to the idea that the later gospel writers were aware of and even used material from different gospels in addition to material taken directly from oral tradition. (Given that the faith was traditioned orally for decades before the first gospel was written, I can’t imagine there’s any disagreement that the oral traditions existed and we do know a lot about how that works.)

    My specific objection is the process that dates Mark first — an assumption on which a lot of the theories hinge. Maybe there’s a source for that belief apart from textual criticism itself, but I couldn’t find it. I researched that specific question once. I could probably dig it up and don’t recall all the specific ancient sources I found, but there was universal and very early agreement that Matthew was written first from historical sources that seemed perfectly credible to me — at least as credible as anything else we know from the ancient world. As far as I could dig up, the assertion that Mark was written first originated in the 19th century.

    That’s the piece of the puzzle that bugs me.

  • Matt Edwards

    I took a doctoral seminar on the Synoptic problem with Dr. Harold Hoehner. He convinced me that the Griesbach Hypothesis is scoffed at too quickly.

    We can’t understate the historical factors contributing to the rise to dominance of the Oxford hypothesis (one major one being that the Griesbach hypothesis was favored by pre-World-War-2 German scholars). Mark doesn’t have the birth narratives or the resurrection appearances, so placing it first allows you to posit that those were added later to promote a theological agenda. But when you look at the actual arguments used to promote the Oxford hypothesis over the Griesbach hypothesis, many of them are circular reasoning.

    I’ve done the coloring in Greek, and it’s hard to deny some kind of literary dependence when you look at the evidence. But determining the order and who copied whom is the harder second step. Also, comparing Luke’s account of the Last Supper with Paul’s recounting in 1 Corinthians 11 shows us just how much divergence there can be even within one tradition.

    So much scholarship is based on the Oxford hypothesis now that there is no going back. What do we do with the 581-page Hermeneia commentary on Q if we decide there was no Q? What do we do with the historical Jesus work that starts with the supposition that the unique material in Matthew and Luke is later and therefore suspect if we determine that Matthew was first?

    The thing I like best about James Dunn’s work is his emphasis on the Jesus remembered. He’s really the only Jesus we have access to.

  • John W Frye

    For those interested Scot McKnight has written a guide to reading the Synoptics titled *Interpreting the Synoptic Gospels* (Baker). If you think there are easy answers to the issues in this post and thread of comments, read Scot’s little book. It’s compact and crammed with thought about the topic at hand. Craig L. Blomberg writes, “It’s meaty, but concise.”

  • Dru Dodson

    Gotta ask this. I had the courses. One of them from Scot. Read some of the books – including Scot’s! IF the canon is the canon, recognized and named by the Spirit in the Church, and “inspirated” of God in the first place, THEN isn’t the Synoptic “problem” diagnostic of us and our hermeneutic and assumptions about the nature of scripture? Instead of a problem in the text, doesn’t this shout to us that we have got off on the wrong foot somewhere to come to these loggerheads? Could it prove more fruitful to revisit first things, first principles of the church, its scriptures, authorial intent, canonical intent etc?

  • Chris Donato

    Scott Morizot — are you getting at so-called “Aramaic primacy”?

  • Scott Morizot

    Chris, having never heard or read the phrase “Aramaic primacy” I wouldn’t have a clue if I’m getting at that or not. I am aware that many of the early references to Matthew also mention that he wrote in Hebrew or Aramaic, but we don’t have that version and if any of the other Gospel writers used Matthew, it seems more likely that they used the Greek translation. I don’t see any reason to disbelieve that Matthew may have originally written in Aramaic, but I’m not sure I would attach any particular importance to that fact, which the word “primacy” implies.

    No, I’m just not drinking the koolaid that modern textual criticism absent any actual historical evidence supporting their theory can somehow have more weight about which gospel was written first than the unanimous patristic witness — even among people as early and with as close a tie to the Apostles as St. Irenaeus of Lyons. I don’t buy that underlying assertion. I don’t find it credible. If they had a shred of actual evidence that Mark was written first beyond their own theories of composition or if there wasn’t a very strong and consistent historical witness to the contrary, I might think differently. But as it stands? Not so much.

  • Scott Morizot

    I’ll also note that St. Augustine is the only patristic writer (and a comparatively late one) who suggests any direct literary dependence. And he suggests that Mark may have used Matthew, not the reverse.

    And I’ll also note that I’m not particularly impressed by arguments about highlighting the Greek parallels in the texts. With some exceptions, like St. Augustine, the patristic fathers read and wrote in Greek. Yet somehow they didn’t seem to consider the parallels as denoting literary dependence. I guess we’re smarter than they were.