The Cost of the Gospels and the Synoptic Problem

by Jimmy Akin

in Apologetics, Bible, Synoptic Problem

Synoptic EvangelistsThe question of how the costs producing the Gospels would have affected the choices that their authors made is almost totally ignored. We will seek to remedy this by looking at the cost that producing the Gospels would have had on the Synoptic problem.

Today, when there are ministries that give away Bibles for free, people completely take the idea of owning the Gospels for granted. But in the first century, books were fantastically expensive, including the Gospels.

How expensive?

Let’s do some back-of-the-envelope calculations.

(NOTE: See here for other parts of my exploration of the Synoptic Problem.)

 

Paul’s Letters

A helpful resource for estimating the cost of the Gospels is E. Randolph Richard’s book Paul and First-Century Letter Writing. He has some helpful estimates of the cost of Paul’s letters, and he explains the estimates in a way that lets us extend them to other works.

First, he offers a word of caution:

[O]ur data from the time of Paul is too thin to draw any conclusions about the cost Paul incurred in writing and sending letters. All estimates are filled with guesswork. Some scholars will say that any attempts to estimate Paul’s cost should be avoided altogether. Nevertheless, many today could not even venture a guess as to the cost. We often have a vague impression that the cost to write Paul’s letters was insignificant, and such an impression is misleading. For this reason, an educated guess is helpful (p. 165).

Richards then breaks down the price Paul would have had to pay into the cost of supplies and the cost of the labor.

 

The Cost of Supplies

Concerning supplies, Richards writes:

The secretary usually took the initial notes and prepared the first draft on tablets or washable papyrus notebooks. We may assume these materials were not charged to Paul. The dispatched copy was written on papyrus, as was the copy Paul retained. Paul would have been charged for the papyrus for both copies (pp. 165-166).

How much papyrus would be used would depend on whether the scribe wrote in large or small letters:

Some secretaries wrote with large letters; some wrote in a small, cramped hand. We, of course, have no idea the penmanship used by Paul’s secretary. Judging from the papyri, a medium hand was the most common (p. 166).

And Richards judges that the ink and pens used by the scribes were likely included in the overall service charge:

Ink (and the pen), I assume, was not a separate expense but was included in the secretary’s basic charges (p. 167).

 

The Cost of Labor

Concerning labor, Richards writes:

Unlike merely preparing a new copy of an existing work, secretarial costs for preparing a letter needed to include the cost of writing out all the drafts and revisions. Since we have no idea how many times Paul had a letter rewritten, I cannot estimate this very well. . . .

After the preparation of an initial draft, there was probably at least one revision. To err again on the side of caution, I have said that for most of his letters Paul paid for a minimum of the initial draft and one revision, both done on tablets or washable notebooks, then paid for a copy to be dispatched (with nice script on good papyrus) and a copy to be retained (p. 168).

This results in at least four probable labor charges:

  • The initial notes taken
  • One revision
  • A final version to keep
  • A final version to send

These would be approximately the same length (unless Paul radically changed the length of a letter in the revision phase), and so would be of approximately equal cost.

 

The Exchange Rate

Richards estimates the cost of supplies and labor for Paul’s letters in terms of the denar, an ancient unit of currency. To make this meaningful to a modern audience, he also gives a conversion of this into modern (2004) dollars.

So what’s the exchange rate?

Richards writes:

Attempting to convert ancient denars to U.S. currency is a difficult matter. Some scholars choose to use commodities like grain prices or gold prices, yet ancients held such commodities in different esteem than we do. Once again, to gain the same “emotional” equivalent for currency, we shall return to the “workers conversion rate” used in chapter three. An unskilled laborer in the time of Paul earned a half-denar per day, or $60 in today’s currency. Since the drachma had devaluated some during Paul’s time and to err again on the side of caution, an additional 10 percent was removed from Paul’s rate, settling on a conversion rate of one denar = $110 (p. 168).

 

The Cost of Romans

Applying his estimates to a specific book—Romans—Richards comes up with the following figures.

He estimates, based on Romans’ length, that the papyrus for each copy would have cost 5.44 denars and that the secretarial cost per copy would be 2.45 denars.

Assuming Paul wasn’t charged for the reusable media for the initial notes pass and the revision pass, Paul would have had to pay for two batches of papyrus—one for his archival copy of the letter and one for the copy sent to Rome. That would be a total cost of 10.88 denars.

Paul would have had to pay for four scribal charges (notes, revision, and the two copies), for a total of 9.8 denars.

Adding the supplies and labor costs together, Romans would have cost 20.68 denars.

Assuming the $110 exchange rate, in modern currency, that would be $2,275 dollars.

Even once the initial copies of Romans had been written, a single, new copy would cost 7.89 denars (5.44 for papyrus and 2.45 for labor), or approximately $868.

This is a far larger sum than most people today would suspect, and the numbers get even bigger when we look at the Gospels.

 

The Single-Copy Cost of the Gospels

How much would it have cost, in the ancient world, just to have a single copy of one of the Gospels made?

To estimate this, we can use the numbers that Richards provided for Romans and scale them up based on the size of the Gospels.

Although the number of words in ancient manuscripts is slightly different due to textual variants, the Greek text of Romans may be said to have 7,111 words, while the four Gospels have these figures:

  • Matthew: 18,345 words
  • Mark: 11,304 words
  • Luke: 19,482 words
  • John: 15,635 words

These figures would be slightly smaller if the longer ending (Mark. 16:9-20) were omitted from Mark’s total and the pericope adulterae (John 7:53-8:11) were omitted from John, but they will do for purposes of making rough cost estimates.

Dividing these figures by the length of Romans, we can derive the following percentages:

  • Matthew: 258%
  • Mark: 159%
  • Luke: 274%
  • John: 220%

That is to say, Matthew is 258% as long as Romans, and so forth.

We can now scale up the cost of supplies and labor for making a single copy of each Gospel. If a single copy of Romans cost 5.44 denars for papyrus (equivalent to $598) then the following would be the approximate papyrus costs for the Gospels:

  • Matthew: 14.03 denars ($1,543)
  • Mark: 8.65 denars ($952)
  • Luke: 14.90 denars ($1,639)
  • John: 11.96 denars ($1,316)

If a single copy of Romans cost 2.45 denars ($270) in labor then the following would be the approximate scribal costs for the Gospels:

  • Matthew: 6.32 denars ($695)
  • Mark: 3.89 denars ($428)
  • Luke: 6.71 denars ($738)
  • John: 5.39 denars ($593)

Adding the costs of supplies and labor together, the costs for a single, new copy of each of the Gospels would be as follows:

  • Matthew: 20.35 denars ($2,238)
  • Mark: 12.54 denars ($1,379)
  • Luke: 21.61 denars ($2,377)
  • John: 17.35 denars ($1,909)

These are impressive figures! And they are only the beginning. We still have to consider the costs of producing and launching the Gospels.

 

The Cost of Q

Today the most popular theory among scholars holds is known as the “Two-Document hypothesis.” It holds that Matthew and Luke drew upon two sources: the Gospel of Mark and another hypothetical, lost source known as Q.

The Q source is thought to be behind approximately 235 verses of Matthew and Luke.

Because we do not have any surviving copies, we do not know what its word count in Greek (or any other language) would have been.

However, using 235 verses as an initial guide, that would make it 22% the length of Matthew (which has 1,071 verses) and 20% the length of Luke (which 1,151 verses).

Converting this into a word count, we would expect Q to have between 3,978 and 4,025 words in its Greek text. We may thus estimate Q’s minimum length as around 4,000 Greek words—at a minimum.

We must add “at a minimum,” because we do not know how much of Q Matthew and Luke would have used. Modern scholars frequently propose that they used virtually all of it, since it has not survived to the present day, but we do not know this.

However, if we assume that the Two-Document hypothesis is true then we may have another clue to Q’s length, because we can look at the way Matthew and Luke would have treated Mark.

On this view, Matthew would have used approximately 600 verses of Mark’s 661, which means that he would have used 91% of it. If Mathew treated Q the same way, he would have used 91% of it, making Q 258 verses long—or 4,419 words in Greek (given the length of verses in Matthew).

On the other hand, Luke would have used approximately 365 verses of Mark’s 661, meaning he used 55% of Mark. If Luke treated Q the same way, he would have used 55% of it, making Q 427 verses long—or 7,227 words in Greek (given the length of verses in Luke).

It is certain that, if Q existed, it would have been at least slightly longer than the 235 proposed verses would indicate, corresponding to the 4,419 Greek words our Matthew-based estimate provides.

However, it is quite possible that it was longer. The fact is, we do not know how Matthew and Luke would have treated this source, and so for estimating purposes, we will split the difference and assume that Q would have been halfway between the two estimates, or 5,823 words in Greek, making it 82% the length of Romans’ 7,111 words.

Using this as an estimate, we can calculate the costs of producing a single copy of Q as follows:

  • Papyrus: 4.46 denars ($491)
  • Scribal labor: 2.01 denars ($221)
  • Total: 6.47 denars ($712)

Although Q is only a hypothetical source, these figures will play a role in our later reasoning.

 

Production Costs

Before one of the Gospels could be copied, it had to be written, and there were costs associated with doing that.

The starting point for estimating them is recognizing the stages with which production proceeded. In the broadest terms, these can be described as:

  1. Research (before writing)
  2. Drafting (first writing)
  3. Revision (polishing before the final version)

At the end of the revision process there would be a final document ready for copying.

This leaves us to consider the three stages.

 

The Research Stage

Before an Evangelist began writing his Gospel, he needed to gather his source material.

For the material in his memory, there would have been no cost.

The same may have been true for material he learned from oral sources—if he committed it to memory. However, if it was substantial enough that he committed it to writing, he would have needed to pay for this.

Even estimating the latter cost at zero (based on re-usable materials he may have already had), the degree of word-for-word agreement between the Synoptic Gospels suggests that some Evangelists had written sources before them.

Given the cost of writings in the ancient world, that means that the Evangelists may have incurred significant costs in simply gathering their materials.

What might these be?

The answer will depend on which view of the Synoptic Problem one prefers:

  • If one assumes Markan priority then Matthew and Luke would have had copies of Mark.
  • If one assumes Matthean priority then Mark and Luke would have had copies of Matthew.
  • On the Farrer hypothesis, Luke would have had Matthew
  • On the Wilke hypothesis, Matthew would have had Luke.
  • And on the Two-Document Hypothesis, Matthew and Luke would have had Q.

But would having these documents really have been research costs?

This depends on what the Evangelists did with them.

Even before the age of word processor cutting and pasting, it would be tempting for an author to purchase a copy of the sources he wanted to use, take a knife or scissors, cut out the passages he wished to copy, and then paste them into a notebook to provide an initial outline. But this would be based on the inexpensive copies that have only been available in the last few hundred years. An author in the ancient world could have been deterred from this course of action by cost alone.

What would an ancient author have chosen?

He might still have chosen the literal cut-and-paste option, though he might have chosen something else as well.

For example, he might have chosen to mark up his sources so that he could turn to the parts he wanted to copy. If he marked them up only lightly then the sources could have been fit for later use, but if he marked them up too much, this would not have been the case.

Alternately, he might have chosen not to mark his sources but to have specific passages from them copied—either to papyrus or to wax tablets or washable notebooks. In such cases, he might limit or avoid the supplies cost, but he could still have to pay the labor cost of the copying.

One might suppose that an Evangelist had copies of all of the sources he wanted to use in his personal library. However, only rich people could afford libraries, and it is also possible that, before the Evangelists decided to write, their knowledge of the other Gospels (and/or Q) were based on what they heard read in church.

This is likely since it is hardly plausible that the authors of the sources would have had free copies sent to all their likely successors. The Evangelists probably encountered the sources they later chose to use through their reading in church, and they probably obtained copies to use themselves.

The ultimate question is not whether the Evangelists paid for these copies themselves. They may or may not have. Patrons or the funds of a local congregation could have paid for them. But the had to be bought for the Evangelists to use them as sources, and that would have put a strain on the funds an Evangelist had available to him, whether they were his own funds or those of an associate or congregation.

Thus, even if an Evangelist did not intend to make copies of his sources unusable in the future, it is likely that a cost was incurred in obtaining them.

How much this would have been would depend on what scenario one proposes, but it is implausible to either estimate the cost as zero or as full price for all sources, since free and/or reusable copies may have been available.

We will split the difference and assume that the research costs for each Evangelist would have been 50% of the single copy cost for whatever sources he had in front of him, or the following:

  • Matthew: 10.18 denars ($1,120)
  • Mark: 6.27 denars ($690)
  • Luke: 10.81 denars ($1,189)
  • Q: 3.24 denars ($356)

We can then convert these to research costs for various Synoptic hypotheses as follows:

 

Matthean Priority Hypotheses

  • Augustinian Hypothesis
    • Mark had Matthew: 10.18 denars ($1,120)
    • Luke had Matthew and Mark: 16.45 denars ($1,810)
  • Griesbach and Orchard Hypotheses
    • Luke had Matthew: 10.18 denars ($1,120)
    • Mark had Matthew and Luke: 20.99 denars ($2,309)

 

Markan Priority Hypotheses

  • Two-Document Hypothesis
    • Matthew had Mark and Q: 9.51 denars ($1,046)
    • Luke had Mark and Q: 9.51 denars ($1,046)
  • Farrer Hypothesis
    • Matthew had Mark: 6.27 denars ($690)
    • Luke had Matthew and Mark: 16.45 denars ($1,180)
  • Wilke Hypothesis
    • Luke had Mark: 6.27 denars ($690)
    • Matthew had Mark and Luke: 17.08 denars ($1,879)

 

The Drafting Stage

After the Evangelists had shouldered the research costs, they still needed to prepare an initial draft of their own Gospels. This also would have incurred costs.

In his book on Paul’s letters, Richards proposes that the initial drafts would have been written on reusable materials such as wax tablets or washable notebooks and that, because they were reusable, Paul would not have been charged for the materials on which his letters were drafted.

Such materials were used in the ancient world, and Richards was attempting to provide conservative cost estimates, but it is difficult to suppose that works the length of a Gospel would have been written on such materials, and that all of the Evangelists would have used them.

Still, to provide conservative estimates, we will assume that the Evangelists would have had to pay—on average—only half the supply costs of making an initial version of their works on papyrus. This would lead to the following costs:

  • Matthew: 7.02 denars ($772)
  • Mark: 4.32 denars ($475)
  • Luke: 7.45 denars ($820)

Similarly, an Evangelist could have saved costs by doing all of the scribal work himself—if he was literate, which is likely (illiterates did not author entire books). However, even major literary figures used paid scribes to help them with their drafting, and it is likely that at least some of the Evangelists did. To allow for this possibility, we will assume that they paid half of the ordinarily expected scribal costs, resulting in the following figures:

  • Matthew: 3.16 denars ($348)
  • Mark: 1.95 denars ($215)
  • Luke: 3.36 denars ($370)

Adding the halved supply and scribal costs together, we get the following as conservative estimates for drafting costs:

  • Matthew: 10.18 denars ($1,120)
  • Mark: 6.27 denars ($690)
  • Luke: 10.81 denars ($1,189)

 

The Revision Stage

Even after the Evangelists had an initial draft of their Gospels in hand, they would have polished them before releasing them to the world.

What would this have cost?

It is very easy to suppose that at this stage a copy of the Gospels would have been prepared on papyrus, rather than reusable materials like wax tablets or washable notebooks. I know that if I were writing, I would have wanted a “dress rehearsal” copy made on materials worthy of public release.

However, given the high cost of such materials, ancient authors—particularly cash-poor ones like the Evangelists—may have been willing to make do with reusable materials.

Similarly, they may have been willing to make do with their own—or with freely donated—scribal efforts in making a revision copy.

We will therefore assume that the cost of making a single revision would be equal to the cost of an initial draft, as follows:

  • Matthew: 10.18 denars ($1,120)
  • Mark: 6.27 denars ($690)
  • Luke: 10.81 denars ($1,189)

Of course, there is nothing to say that an Evangelist would have been happy with a single revision. He may have wanted two or more. On the other hand, even if he did want further changes after the initial revision, they may not have required the making of a whole new copy but merely periodic “spot edits” that did not substantially increase the overall revision costs.

While the revision costs could easily have been higher, in the interest of making conservative estimates, we will assume only the revision costs proposed above.

 

Drafting and Revision Costs

Between paying for an initial draft and a single revision—each of which we estimated at half the cost of a regular copy—we arrive at the following totals. Slight differences are due to rounding in the above numbers; the numbers that follow are the more precise:

  • Matthew: 20.35 denars ($2,238)
  • Mark: 12.54 denars ($1,379)
  • Luke: 21.61 denars ($2,377)

 

Total Pre-Production Costs

We can now add the costs of all the pre-final stages (research, drafting, and revision) to estimate what each Evangelist would have paid under each theory of Synoptic origins:

Matthean Priority Hypotheses

  • Augustinian Hypothesis
    • Matthew’s costs: 20.35 denars ($2,238)
    • Mark’s costs: 22.72 denars ($2,499)
    • Luke’s costs: 38.06 denars ($4,187)
  • Griesbach and Orchard Hypotheses
    • Matthew’s costs: 20.35 denars ($2,238)
    • Mark’s costs: 33.53 denars ($3,688)
    • Luke’s costs: 31.79 denars ($3,497)

 

Markan Priority Hypotheses

  • Two-Document Hypothesis
    • Matthew’s costs: 29.86 denars ($3,284)
    • Mark’s costs: 12.54 denars ($1,379)
    • Luke’s costs: 31.12 denars ($3,423)
  • Farrer Hypothesis
    • Matthew’s costs: 26.62 denars ($2,928)
    • Mark’s costs: 12.54 denars ($1,379)
    • Luke’s costs: 38.06 denars ($4,187)
  • Wilke Hypothesis
    • Matthew’s costs: 37.43 denars ($4,117)
    • Mark’s costs: 12.54 denars ($1,379)
    • Luke’s costs: 27.88 denars ($3,067)

 

The Launch Stage

The research, drafting, and revision phases would have brought an Evangelist to the point where he was ready to have final copies of his Gospel made, but how many would he need?

That would depend on his purposes.

According to the view that the Gospels circulated for a long time only in individual, widely-separated communities, the answer might be that he would need only one. Thus Matthew would need a single copy of his Gospel for his church, Mark would need one for his, and so on.

Despite its long acceptance in scholarly circles, this view is completely implausible. As Richard Bauckham and his co-authors demonstrate in their outstanding book The Gospels for All Christians, the first century churches were in constant communication, and the idea that the individual Gospels would have remained isolated in particular churches for any period is nonsense. Instead, their authors would have been writing for a general audience, not just one church.

Further, writing a Gospel was hard work and—as we’ve seen—it was very costly! Nobody would undertake this labor and expense just to have a single copy out there.

Authors are rewarded for their efforts by having their works circulated, and this was even more the case in the age before royalties, because seeing their works circulated was all the reward that they got! (Unless they were in the business of personally selling their works, which is unlikely in the case of the Evangelists.)

By investing the time and money to create a new book, an author was lighting a new literary lamp in the world, and as someone once said, men do not light a lamp and put it under a bushel but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. Authors thus wanted their light to shine before men and—in the case of the Evangelists—they wanted it to do so that men might see their good work and give glory to their Father in heaven.

This leads to a further consideration, which is that the Evangelists knew they were writing Scripture. Consequently, they would have viewed it as their obligation to share these new holy books with the broader Christian community.

It is therefore a given that the Evangelists would have foreseen a launch stage as part of their overall project. For this stage, a number of copies would have been made to provide their Gospels their initial distribution.

How many copies would that be?

 

Personal Copies

Whatever else they were, the Evangelists were authors, and authors keep copies of their books. You are not going to spend the time, effort, and money to write one and then not have your own copy. Each of the Evangelists thus would have planned on keeping one of the initial copies for himself.

If there was an individual patron underwriting the production of the Gospel—as was likely the case with Luke’s Theophilus—then the patron would be certain to have at least one copy for his own.

 

Local Congregational Copies

It’s also certain that a copy would have been made for the local congregation where the Evangelist was ministering at the time.

If there were multiple congregations in his current city then he could well have planned on a copy for each one of them, particularly if the funds of each congregation were being tapped to underwrite the project.

Even if local congregations weren’t underwriting the project as a whole, it is plausible that each local congregation would have wanted and/or expected a copy, and somebody would have needed to pay for them.

As the lengthy process of Gospel composition was underway, word would have spread among the congregations about what was in the works, and they may have volunteered to pay for their own copy, even if they didn’t feel in a position to contribute further funds to the project.

They thus might have raised funds from within their congregation and given them to the Evangelist when he was ready to have scribes set to work doing the initial run. Whether they paid for their own copies or someone else did, it is very possible that they would have had their copies made in the initial batch.

Even if their copies weren’t part of the initial batch, the Evangelist could foresee that each local congregation would likely want a copy in the very near future. He also would want them to have a copy, for the reasons discussed above, and he would take this into account when planning the scope of the project, regardless of who was paying.

How many local congregational copies would have been needed? This would depend on the size of the church in which he was ministering. If he was ministering in a large city with a sizable Christian population, as would be likely given the funding needed to underwrite a Gospel project, it could have a sizable number of congregations.

Do we have any indication what the number would be?

Mark’s Gospel is associated with Rome by patristic testimony, and the end of Acts suggests that this book, and Luke’s Gospel, was written in Rome c. A.D. 60. Fortunately, we have an indicator of the number of Roman congregations in the mid-first century.

At the end of his letter to the Romans, St. Paul has an extensive set of greetings (Rom. 16:3-15). Given the sensitivity of the letter, it is likely that Paul made this list of greetings as complete as he could.

It is also likely, since Paul had not yet visited Rome (Rom. 1:10), that he composed this list with the assistance of Tertius, who was his scribe for this letter (Rom. 16:22), who was likely a Roman Christian visiting Paul since—unlike in any other letter—the scribe greets the recipients and does so without further introducing himself, suggesting that they already knew him.

Analyzing Paul’s set of greetings for what they reveal about the structure of the Christian community in Rome c. A.D. 54 (when Romans was written), we find that it likely consisted of at least five plausible congregations:

  1. Prisca and Aquila and the church in their house (Rom. 16:3-5)
  2. Those who belong to the family of Aristobulus (Rom. 16:10).
  3. Those in the Lord who belong to the family of Narcissus (Rom. 16:11).
  4. Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas, “and the brethren who are with them” (Rom. 16:14).
  5. Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas, “and all the saints who are with them” (Rom. 16:15).

Paul also greets additional individuals who are not explicitly named as belonging to these groups. They may have been part of them or they may have belonged to additional congregations.

At this point, the clarity of our data fails us, but it is likely that at the time Mark and Luke were written, Rome contained at least five congregations, suggesting that each of these Gospel projects would have included at least five local congregational copies.

If a Gospel were penned in Jerusalem then the number of congregations could have been much higher, given the number of Christians that Luke suggests were living there; see Acts 2:41, 4:4. However, Luke also indicates that those numbers dwindled early on due to persecution (Acts 8:1), and even if they were rebuilt when the persecution ended, they would have taken another hit in the Jewish War of the A.D. 60s, when it is reported that the Christian community fled to Pella (Eusebius, Church History 3:5:3).

The only Gospel even possibly penned at Jerusalem would be Matthew, though the evidence for this is weak and conjectural, and the level of Gentile interest that Matthew displays may indicate an origin elsewhere.

However, given the early prominence of the Jerusalem church, it is one place that an Evangelist would be advised to have a copy of his new Gospel sent.

 

Strategic Copies

Any author wanting to give his Gospel a good launch would have wanted to send copies to the major Christian centers that would have been receptive to it, trusting that from there it would have been copied and distributed elsewhere.

This parallels the practice of modern authors and publishers sending review copies of a book to major reviewers and influencers in the literary community.

It is not to be expected that he would send a copy to each congregation in major Christian centers. That would have been too expensive. But it s likely that he would have sent at least one copy to such centers, and particularly to an influencer within that community who he knew about.

How many such communities were there?

Acts and the other books of the New Testament suggest at least the following:

  • Jerusalem
  • Antioch in Syria
  • Corinth
  • Ephesus
  • Rome

If each Evangelist was writing from one of these cities, we may suppose that he sent copies to at least the other four in order to give his work a proper launch.

 

Total Copies

What do we find if we add together the likely number of personal copies, local congregational copies, and strategic copies?

  • Personal copies would have totaled at least 1 or 2, depending on whether the Evangelist had a patron underwriting his project.
  • Local congregational copies could have been as low as 1 but were more likely around 5, given the size of the communities that the Evangelists were likely writing from.
  • Strategic copies would likely have been at least 4, excluding the major Christian center from which the Evangelist was writing.

Adding these figures together, we arrive at a total between 6 and 11 copies at a minimum.

For purposes of proceeding with a conservative number of copies, we will assume that each Evangelist envisioned at least 8 copies of his work ([6 + 11] / 2, rounding down) being made in its initial or near-initial run of copies.

 

Control Estimates

Do we have any other works that can provide us with controls on the estimated number of copies the Gospel authors would have wanted to make?

We do, and they are in the New Testament.

The Gospels—and, by extension, Acts—are what we are considering, but that still leaves us with other examples to consider.

They are not found in the letters of Paul. With the likely exception of Ephesians, Paul’s letters were not initially circulated to multiple communities.

Instead, for every letter except Ephesians, Paul likely had two final copies made—one of which he retained for his records and another that he had sent. One or the other of these then became the basis of his letter as it appeared in his collected letters in the New Testament.

Some of Paul’s letters are written to specific individuals (1 Tim. 1:2, 2 Tim. 1:2, Tit. 1:4, Philem. 1). Other New Testament letters are written to specific individuals (3 John 1) or specific congregations (2 John 1).

None of these likely had more than two initial copies made—one of which was the author’s archival copy and the other of which was sent.

Some New Testament letters are written to an unquantifiable audience (Heb. 1:1, cf. 13:23-24, Jas. 1:1, 2 Peter 1:1, 1 John 1:1, Jude 1).

If we exclude the above, that leaves us with two works that we can tell were initially sent to more than one community: 1 Peter and Revelation.

The introduction to 1 Peter reads:

Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To the exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia (1 Peter 1:1).

The naming five destination locations suggests that this letter had at least six initial copies, counting one for Peter’s records.

Similarly, the book of Revelation is directed to be sent from John (Rev. 1:1, 4, 9, 22:8) to the Christian communities in seven Asian cities. We read that John heard:

Write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus and to Smyrna and to Pergamum and to Thyatira and to Sardis and to Philadelphia and to Laodicea (Rev. 1:11; cf. 1:4).

One authorial copy plus one copy for each of the churches in these cities totals eight copies.

Both 1 Peter and Revelation were substantially shorter than a Gospel. 1 Peter is 1,684 Greek words long (15% the length of Mark), while Revelation is 9,852 Greek words long (87% the length of Mark).

The shorter length of these two works would have made it easier to have multiple copies of them made, but the fact that Mark was a Gospel would have made it more important for copies of it to be made.

Consequently the fact that there were likely at least 6-8 of these works made serves to confirm the idea that an average of at least 8 copies of the Gospels were made in their initial (or near-initial) run of copies.

 

Final Costs

That being the case, even after the research, drafting, and revision stages of the Gospels were completed, the Evangelists likely would have expected another 8 final copies to be made, totaling the following costs:

  • Matthew: 162.80 denars ($17,904)
  • Mark: 100.32 denars ($11,032)
  • Luke: 172.88 denars ($19,016)

These figures represent the costs of the launch phase of the Gospels.

 

Total Gospel Project Costs

We are now in a position to determine what the overall project costs would have been to each Evangelist including all three pre-final phases (research, drafting, revision) and the launch phase. The numbers are as follows:

 

Matthean Priority Hypotheses

  • Augustinian Hypothesis
    • Matthew’s costs: 183.15 denars ($20,147)
    • Mark’s costs: 123.04 denars ($13,534)
    • Luke’s costs: 210.94 denars ($23,203)
  • Griesbach and Orchard Hypotheses
    • Matthew’s costs: 183.15 denars ($20,147)
    • Mark’s costs: 133.85 denars ($14,724)
    • Luke’s costs: 204.67 denars ($22,514)

 

Markan Priority Hypotheses

  • Two-Document Hypothesis
    • Matthew’s costs: 192.66 denars ($21,193)
    • Mark’s costs: 112.86 denars ($12,415)
    • Luke’s costs: 204.00 denars ($22,440)
  • Farrer Hypothesis
    • Matthew’s costs: 189.42 denars ($20,836)
    • Mark’s costs: 112.86 denars ($12,415)
    • Luke’s costs: 210.94 denars ($23,203)
  • Wilke Hypothesis
    • Matthew’s costs: 200.23 denars ($22,025)
    • Mark’s costs: 112.86 denars ($12,415)
    • Luke’s costs: 200.76 denars ($22,084)

 

As discussed above, these numbers are conservative. In all likelihood, the costs were higher.

Also, these do not include postal costs for the strategic copies of the Gospels. Personal copies and local congregational copies would likely have no such costs, but sending the strategic copies across the Empire could. This is not necessarily the case, though, as the major Christian centers were in regular communication with each other, and the strategic copies might have been sent with trusted travellers already headed to the key destinations. In the interests of conservatism, therefore, we will assume that the strategic copies were mailed for free.

This leads us to another major question . . .

 

Would It Be Worth It?

Each Evangelist thought that his Gospel had something important to offer the Christian world; otherwise, he would not have bothered writing and publishing it.

The value he saw in his Gospel made him willing to undertake the time, effort, and cost of producing it. (Unless we assume he was an egomaniac who just wanted to have a Gospel attributed to his name. However, this is unlikely. If building his name was a major concern for an Evangelist, he would have put his name in his work, and none of the Evangelists did.)

This means that we have a new way of testing Synoptic hypotheses: We can examine the relationship between the value that an Evangelist would have seen his work as having and the costs he would have shouldered (personally or through fundraising) in producing it.

For the first Synoptic Evangelist to write, the value in producing a Gospel would be obvious: Reducing the basic story of Jesus’s life and teachings to writing. But for the subsequent Evangelists, this task had already been done. The value that the subsequent Evangelists would have seen in producing new Gospels thus would be something else.

The value they would have seen in their Gospels would have been in what they did that was new—i.e., what the first Evangelist (or the previous Evangelists) had not done. Each later Evangelist would have had certain goals he wanted his Gospel to achieve which previous ones had not achieved. Such goals might include:

  • Rewriting existing material in a better style
  • Organizing the material in a new way
  • Including new material not previously written in a Gospel

It would be difficult to quantify the first two of these goals, but the third is easily quantifiable. Depending on which Synoptic hypothesis is being proposed, it is a straightforward matter to calculate the amount of material that would have been original in each Gospel.

A. N. Honoré provides the following breakdown of the number of Greek words in the Synoptic Gospels that belong to particular traditions:

Tradition Matthew Mark Luke
Triple 8,336 8,630 7,884
Matthew & Mark 1,764 2,034
Matthew & Luke 4,461 4,476
Mark & Luke 357 274
Single 3,704 307 6,726
Total 18,265 11,328 19,360

(Source: “A Statistical Study of the Synoptic Problem,” Novum Testamentum, 10 [Apr.-Jul., 1968], 96.)

We can convert this information for our purposes as follows, listing the total number of words in a Gospel, the number that would have been derived from the Gospels the Evangelist purportedly drew upon (counting Q as a hypothetical Gospel), and the number of words that would have been original to his Gospel:

 

Matthean Priority Hypotheses

  • Augustinian Hypothesis
    • Matthew:
      • Total words: 18,265
      • Derived words: 0
      • Original words: 18,265
    • Mark:
      • Total words: 11,328
      • Derived words: 10,664 (from Matthew)
      • Original words: 664
    • Luke:
      • Total words: 19,360
      • Derived words: 12,634 (7,884 from Matthew and/or Mark; 4,476 from Matthew; 274 from Mark)
      • Original words: 6,726
    • Griesbach and Orchard Hypotheses
      • Matthew:
        • Total words: 18,265
        • Derived words: 0
        • Original words: 18,265
      • Mark:
        • Total words: 11,328
        • Derived words: 11,021 (8,630 from Matthew and/or Luke; 2,034 from Matthew; 357 from Luke)
        • Original words: 307
      • Luke:
        • Total words: 19,360
        • Derived words: 12,360 (from Matthew)
        • Original words: 7,000

 

Markan Priority Hypotheses

  • Two-Document Hypothesis
    • Matthew:
      • Total words: 18,265
      • Derived words: 14,561 (10,100 from Mark; 4,461 from Q)
      • Original words: 3,704
    • Mark:
      • Total words: 11,328
      • Derived words: 0
      • Original words: 11,328
    • Luke:
      • Total words: 19,360
      • Derived words: 12,634 (8,158 from Mark; 4,476 from Q)
      • Original words: 6,726
    • Farrer Hypothesis
      • Matthew:
        • Total words: 18,265
        • Derived words: 10,100 (from Mark)
        • Original words: 8,165
      • Mark:
        • Total words: 11,328
        • Derived words: 0
        • Original words: 11,328
      • Luke:
        • Total words: 19,360
        • Derived words: 12,634 (7,884 from Matthew and/or Mark; 4,476 from Matthew, 274 from Mark)
        • Original words: 6,726
      • Wilke Hypothesis
        • Matthew:
          • Total words: 18,265
          • Derived words: 14,561 (8,335 from Mark and/or Luke; 1,764 from Mark; 4,461 from Luke)
          • Original words: 3,704
        • Mark:
          • Total words: 11,328
          • Derived words: 0
          • Original words: 11,328
        • Luke:
          • Total words: 19,360
          • Derived words: 12,634 (from Mark)
          • Original words: 6,726

 

The Cost of Originality

Using these theories of Synoptic origins, we can now take the costs of producing the Gospels and divide them by the number of original words they contain. This will give us a measure of the costs that he would have been willing to bear to get that new material in Gospel form.

This measure is only useful to the extent that providing the new material was one of the Evangelist’s goals. It is to be immediately pointed out that getting new material into Gospel form was not the Evangelists’ only goal, but doing the calculation will shed useful light on the question of Synoptic origins, as we will see.

Taking the costs associated with each Gospel and dividing by the number of original words in it, we get the following results:

 

Matthean Priority Hypotheses

  • Augustinian Hypothesis
    • Matthew:
      • Matthew’s costs: 183.15 denars ($20,147)
      • Original words: 18,265
      • Cost per word: 0.01 denars ($1.10)
    • Mark:
      • Mark’s costs: 123.04 denars ($13,534)
      • Original words: 664
      • Cost per word: 0.19 denars ($20.38)
    • Luke:
      • Luke’s costs: 210.94 denars ($23,203)
      • Original words: 6,726
      • Cost per word: 0.03 denars ($3.45)
    • Griesbach and Orchard Hypotheses
      • Matthew:
        • Matthew’s costs: 183.15 denars ($20,147)
        • Original words: 18,265
        • Cost per word: 0.01 denars ($1.10)
      • Mark:
        • Mark’s costs: 133.85 denars ($14,724)
        • Original words: 307
        • Cost per word: 0.44 denars ($47.96)
      • Luke:
        • Luke’s costs: 204.67 denars ($22,514)
        • Original words: 7,000
        • Cost per word: 0.03 denars ($3.22)

 

Markan Priority Hypotheses

  • Two-Document Hypothesis
    • Matthew:
      • Matthew’s costs: 192.66 denars ($21,193)
      • Original words: 3,704
      • Cost per word: 0.05 denars ($5.72)
    • Mark:
      • Mark’s costs: 112.86 denars ($12,415)
      • Original words: 11,328
      • Cost per word: 0.01 denars ($1.10)
    • Luke:
      • Luke’s costs: 204.00 denars ($22,440)
      • Original words: 6,726
      • Cost per word: 0.03 denars ($3.34)
    • Farrer Hypothesis
      • Matthew:
        • Matthew’s costs: 189.42 denars ($20,836)
        • Original words: 8,165
        • Cost per word: 0.02 denars ($2.55)
      • Mark:
        • Mark’s costs: 112.86 denars ($12,415)
        • Original words: 11,328
        • Cost per word: 0.01 denars ($1.10)
      • Luke:
        • Luke’s costs: 210.94 denars ($23,203)
        • Original words: 6,726
        • Cost per word: 0.03 denars ($3.45)
      • Wilke Hypothesis
        • Matthew:
          • Matthew’s costs: 200.23 denars ($22,025)
          • Original words: 3,704
          • Cost per word: 0.06 denars ($5.95)
        • Mark:
          • Mark’s costs: 112.86 denars ($12,415)
          • Original words: 11,328
          • Cost per word: 0.01 denars ($1.10)
        • Luke:
          • Luke’s costs: 200.76 denars ($22,084)
          • Original words: 6,726
          • Cost per word: 0.03 denars ($3.28)

 

This information might be more conveniently summarized as follows, listing only the dollar-per-word estimate and putting the Gospels in the proposed order of composition:

 

Matthean Priority Hypotheses

  • Augustinian Hypothesis
    • Matthew: $1.10
    • Mark: $20.38
    • Luke: $3.45
  • Griesbach and Orchard Hypotheses
    • Matthew: $1.10
    • Luke: $3.22
    • Mark: $47.96

 

Markan Priority Hypotheses

  • Two-Document Hypothesis
    • Mark: $1.10
    • Matthew: $5.72 / Luke: $3.34
  • Farrer Hypothesis
    • Mark: $1.10
    • Matthew: $2.55
    • Luke: $3.45
  • Wilke Hypothesis
    • Mark: $1.10
    • Luke: $3.28
    • Matthew: $5.95

 

Observations

An Overall Pattern

An obvious pattern that emerges is that the first Evangelist to write got the most “bang for his buck,” paying the equivalent of a little more than $1 for each original word he wrote.

This is what you would expect. For the first Evangelist to set pen to papyrus, all of his words would have been in Gospel form for the first time, and so his cost per original word would be lowest. The later Evangelists following the Synoptic format would have higher per-original-word costs since fewer of their words would be original.

According to most of the hypotheses, the cost then rose for the second Evangelist, and then rose again for the third.

This pattern is probable but not guaranteed. The second Evangelist to write could have used a high ratio of his predecessor’s work and included little new material, making his per-original-word cost higher than the third Evangelist to write. Thus the Augustinian hypothesis is an exception, whereby Mark’s costs are higher than Luke’s, even though Mark would be the second Evangelist to write on this view. (The Two-Document hypothesis is also something of an exception since it proposes that Matthew and Luke were written independently and either could have come before the other).

Still, the pattern of rising costs with each new Synoptic Evangelist is what you would expect if their authors were trying to achieve these goals:

  1. use the Synoptic format (i.e., the same general approach to telling the story of Jesus),
  2. incorporate material from their predecessor(s),
  3. introduce new material, and
  4. keep their Gospels to a certain general length.

To use the Synoptic format (goal 1), an Evangelist would have had to include a substantial amount of material or he would be telling the story of Jesus in a substantially different and non-Synoptic way. If he also kept his Gospel at a certain length (goal 4) then the major free play would have been between goals 2 and 3.

Thus, the more an Evangelist wanted to incorporate material from his predecessors (goal 2), the less room he would have had to incorporate new material (goal 3). As the number of predecessors increased, the less space there would have been for new material without violating one of the four goals.

Thus, as the number of Synoptic Gospels increased, the cost-per-original-word ratio would have tended to increase, as in most of the hypotheses above.

 

Beyond the Synoptic Gospels

The increasing cost of having something original to say in a Synoptic Gospel is likely part of why we have only three such Gospels. If someone contemplated writing a fourth Gospel in this format, he would have been confronted by the limitations of what can be done with this format.

Matthew, Mark, and Luke had already explored what could be done with different approaches to style and organization of material. They had also put a great deal of Jesus tradition into Gospel form.

What would a person with additional Jesus tradition have seen his options as being?

It would depend on how many traditions he had. As the first century wore on, fewer and fewer eyewitnesses were around, and though many had passed on some of what they knew to others, this was not going to be kept in living memory forever, and many of the higher value traditions were already in the Synoptic Gospels. The march of time meant that fewer original traditions would be available with each passing decade.

If a prospective Evangelist had only a few Jesus traditions, they might not be of sufficient value to undertake writing a whole new Gospel, given the costs. While we today would love to have any additional Jesus tradition, a first century tradent could decide that it wasn’t worth writing a whole new Gospel just to have a few additional stories of healings or an extra few sayings in Gospel form.

He might conclude this even if he had a few more valuable Jesus traditions. After all, the world might be ending soon, the Jesus traditions were already out there orally, our prospective Evangelist could himself repeat them orally, and if he wrote a new Synoptic Gospel that was basically a remix of Matthew, Mark, and Luke with a few extra traditions thrown in then he could be accused of too closely aping previous authors and wasting everybody’s time. Besides, writing a new Gospel was very expensive, and it just wouldn’t be worth it for getting a few extra traditions in Gospel form.

If he was really determined to put his traditions in writing, a person in this situation might write something much shorter than a Gospel. If anyone did that, though, it hasn’t survived—presumably because a small collection of Jesus traditions wasn’t seen as valuable enough to be regularly copied and thus preserved.

On the other hand, if a person had a large number of Jesus traditions that he considered worth preserving in a Gospel, he might write a very long Gospel—perhaps a multi-volume one—but that would put it out of the price range of all but the rich, and it would serve the Christian community better to make the work shorter and thus more affordable.

The obvious alternative would be to write a Gospel that did not incorporate large amounts of material from the Synoptic Gospels—to make a different kind of Gospel. This is what John did. Indeed, his Gospel appears to be a deliberate attempt to supplement the Synoptics tradition, and particularly Mark, without copying the Synoptic format (see Richard Bauckham, “John for Readers of Mark” in The Gospels for All Christians).

Many later efforts, such as the Gospel of Thomas and various Gnostic Gospels, did the same thing—apparently concluding that the basic story of Jesus had already been adequately told by the canonical Gospels, including the Synoptics.

Some groups apparently produced edited versions of one of the Synoptics (Marcion did so with Luke, and there were apparently edited versions of Matthew in use among some Jewish Christians). However, the creation of these Gospels seems to have been driven by sectarian concerns, and they were not accepted by the broader Christian community, which seems to have thought that the possibilities of the Synoptic tradition had been sufficiently explored and that producing new, slightly different Gospels on this model wasn’t sufficiently valuable given those that already existed.

This leads us to a consideration of the individual Synoptic hypotheses proposed above.

 

Matthean vs. Markan Priority

The most basic division is between the hypotheses that propose Matthean priority and those that propose Markan priority.

Here we notice two distinctly different patterns in the cost-per-original-word ratio:

  • Under the assumption of Markan priority, the costs rise for each additional Evangelist, but they stay within an order of magnitude, with the final Evangelist’s ratio being a little more than five times that of the first Evangelist’s.
  • Under Matthean priority, however, the ratio for Mark is vastly higher than either of the other Synoptics. This holds whether Mark is viewed as the second Gospel written (the Augustinian hypothesis) or the third (the Griesbach and Orchard hypotheses). On the former, the Markan cost-to-original-word ratio is almost 20 times that of Matthew, and on the latter it is more than 40 times!

This leads to an important argument against Matthean priority, and it gives numerical expression to an intuition that many have had: Mark’s Gospel would not have been viewed as worth producing if Matthew (or Matthew and Luke) had already existed.

On the Augustinian hypothesis, Mark would contain only 664 words not derived from Matthew—equaling 5.8% of its length. On the Griesbach and Orchard hypotheses, it would contain a mere 307 words not taken from Matthew or Luke—equaling 2.7% of its length.

It is impossible to see how Mark could have viewed these words as so important that they would justify the costs associated with writing his Gospel (the equivalent of $13,524 on the Augustinian hypothesis and $14,724 on the Griesbach and Orchard hypotheses). Indeed, these words include only lesser value traditions.

Therefore, if Mark used Matthew, he would have had to have some other powerful reason to write his Gospel. Yet what this would be isn’t clear. Mark does not dramatically improve on Matthew’s style (Matthew’s style is better). Mark does not arrange the Jesus traditions in a markedly better way (again, Matthew’s arrangement is better). And the extra material Mark adds to Matthew is small and of lesser significance.

There appears to be no adequate reason for Mark to write—and pay the costs associated with his Gospel—if Matthew (or Matthew and Luke) already existed.

Further, unless Mark was independently wealthy (which we do not have evidence for), he would have needed to convince his backer(s) that he had enough that was new and worth saying to justify the costs of producing his Gospel. Yet what he could have argued in making his pitch is far from obvious.

We thus have a strong argument against Matthean priority. The existence of Mark is easier to explain if Mark wrote first and Matthew and Luke expanded it.

The survival of Mark is also easier to explain. Given the high single-copy costs of the Gospels, it is hard to see why people would pay for copies of Mark if Matthew (or Matthew and Luke) already existed. Without copies being paid for, though, Mark would not have survived.

But if Mark was the first Gospel written and had already established itself by the time Matthew and Luke appeared—including establishing a reputation as being Scripture—then it is easier to see why people would be willing to pay for copies and thus why it survived.

Even so, it would be less popular than Matthew and Luke, and so they would overtake it in the number of copies produced. This is what the number of surviving early manuscripts indicates (see Larry W. Hurtado, The Earliest Christian Artifacts, ch. 1). But its survival is more understandable if it was already viewed as Scripture before Matthew and Luke were penned.
The Markan Priority Hypotheses

Although our cost analysis gives us a strong argument against Matthean priority, it does not allow us to so easily distinguish among the Markan priority hypotheses.

The Farrer hypothesis has the lowest cost-to-original-word ratios ($1.10 for Mark, $2.55 for Matthew, and $3.45 for Luke). Both the Two-Document hypothesis and the Wilke hypothesis keep Luke in the $3 range ($3.34 and $3.23, respectively), but both put Matthew near $6 ($5.72 and $5.95, respectively).

This, however, is not a decisive difference. On the Two-Document hypothesis, Matthew wrote without knowing about Luke and thus could not have judged the worth of his Gospel—and the costs of undertaking it—in light of the existence of Luke.

On the Wilke hypothesis, Matthew used Luke but easily could have judged the costs he was shouldering to be worth it, given the other goals he had for his Gospel, which included an organizational scheme that many have preferred to Luke’s and focusing on themes that Luke does not emphasize (such as the regal dimension of Jesus’ Messiahship, Joseph’s role in in Christ’s early life, and a general orientation to Jewish Christians rather than Gentile ones).

An analysis of the costs of producing the Gospels thus can shed light on the Synoptic Problem but does not resolve all its aspects.

 

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{ 4 comments }

Suburbanbanshee January 31, 2016 at 7:38 pm

This study seems to represent papyrus as ridiculously expensive, when in fact it was cheap enough to use for all sorts of uses, and to be trashed in mass quantities. Labor costs were probably considerable, but Paul seems to have amanuenses who were members of the Church, and who probably worked for free or for costs. (Unless Paul took “the laborer is worthy of his hire” more seriously than a lot of pastors, which he might have done).

There is no allowance for volume discount on papyrus, or the huge numbers of (much shorter) letters produced by all levels of Roman society. People must have been buying the stuff in reams all the time. Military wives on the frontier at Hadrian’s Wall sent out papyrus invitations to their sons’ birthday parties, for goodness’ sake!

The listed prices seem more commensurate with parchment, frankly.

John Schuh January 31, 2016 at 9:36 pm

Of course the Gospels would have had to have been set down on parchment very quickly, in the interest of having a “hard” copy. As for “Q” , why could there not have been any number of “Qs? I am thinking about the way that the Quran was supposed to have been composed, by putting together snatches of something, maybe those written by his listeners,or maybe bits from Jewish or Christians sources.

Jimmy Akin February 1, 2016 at 2:08 pm

Sururbanbanshee: The costs of papyrus in this era are supported by multiple lines of evidence. You may wish to check out Richards’ book for more. Also, while it is true that ordinary people sent letters, they were only a single sheet of papyrus. With the semi-exception of Philemon, *all* of Paul’s letters were abnormally long for ancient letters. Romans was 58 times the length of a typical letter in word count, which is why it costs so much in papyrus. The only truly ordinary length letters in the New Testament are 2 and 3 John. Hope this helps!

Jimmy Akin February 1, 2016 at 2:11 pm

John Schuh: There undoubtedly were many oral and/or written sources that the Evangelists used. The discussion of Q in this piece is meant for purposes of evaluating a *particular* hypothetical source that many scholars have proposed. I include it here for purposes of completeness, though, personally, I am a skeptic that this source existed, as can be gleaned from some of my other writings on the subject: http://jimmyakin.com/2014/09/the-synoptic-problem.html

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