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According to many scholars, Matthew and Luke based their Gospels principally on two sources: Mark and a now-lost source dubbed “Q.”

The reason for the latter is that Matthew and Luke contain about 235 verses that are not paralleled in Mark. This amounts to about a fifth of each of their Gospels, which is too much for the 235 verses to be due to random chance.

This means the material could have been picked up in one of three ways: (1) Matthew got it from Luke, (2) Luke got it from Matthew, or (3) they both got it from a lost source.

Many scholars dismiss the first two options without serious thought, but sometimes the following argument is used to support the third option: If Matthew knew Luke or vice-versa, we would expect him to include material from the other Gospel that he doesn’t contain. This argument is made particularly concerning material found in the Infancy and Resurrection Narratives.

We’ve already looked at the argument based on the Infancy Narratives (here), and now we will look at the argument based on the Resurrection Narratives.

To do this, we first need to look at the contents of the two narratives.

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


Matthew’s Resurrection Narrative

Beginning just after the point where Jesus is buried, the material in Matthew’s Resurrection Narrative may be divided (with an eye toward how it differs from Luke’s narrative) like this:

a)    Securing the Tomb (27:62-66)

b)   The Women Visit the Tomb (28:1-7)

c)    The Women Leave to Tell the Disciples (28:8)

d)   The Women Encounter Jesus (28:9-10)

e)    The Report of the Guards (28:11-15)

f)     The Disciples Encounter Jesus in Galilee (28:16-17)

g)    Jesus’ Final Instructions (28:18-20)

This material amounts to a total of 25 verses.


Luke’s Resurrection Narrative

Beginning just after the point where Jesus is buried, the material in Luke’s Resurrection Narrative may be divided (with an eye toward how it differs from Matthew’s narrative) like this:

a)    The Women Visit the Tomb (24:1-8)

b)   The Women Leave to Tell the Disciples (28:9-11)

c)    Peter Visits the Tomb (24:12)

d)   Encounter on the Road to Emmaus (24:13-35)

e)    Jesus Appears to the Eleven (24:36-49)

f)     The Ascension (24:50-53).

This material amounts to a total of 53 verses.


Evaluating the Alternatives

To see whether the Resurrection Narratives provide evidence that Matthew and Luke did not know each other’s Gospels, we need to look at both alternative hypotheses—that Luke knew Matthew and that Matthew knew Luke. We will cover both in the sections below.

First, though, we need to make a point that was explored at more length in the paper on the Infancy Narratives (here), which is that on either alternative, the Evangelist in question was expanding Mark with only select bits of the other Synoptic.

On the hypothesis that Mark wrote first, to put the matter concisely, Matthew used about 90% of the verses in Mark, while Luke used 55% of it. This means that Matthew had a strong preference for using material from Mark, while Luke had only a weak preference for it.

The key question, for our purposes, is what Matthew and Luke would have done with each other’s Gospels.

If Luke used Matthew then he included about 235 verses from it, which amounts to 20% of all of Matthew or 50% of Matthew if you ignore the parts of it that came from Mark.

If Matthew used Luke then, again, he included about 235 verses from it, which amounts to 20% of all of Luke or 30% of Luke if you ignore the parts of it that came from Mark.

In either case, one Evangelist was cherry-picking the other—selecting only those bits he thought would be of particular value for his audience. Neither had a default decision in favor of including a particular verse from the other. If Luke was using Matthew, it was a 50-50 tossup whether he would include a given verse unique to Matthew, and if Matthew was using Luke then the odds were 70% that he would skip a particular verse unique to Luke.

This is important because it reveals something about how we should evaluate the way one Evangelist would have used material found in the Resurrection Narrative of the other: Mathematically speaking, the burden of proof is not on a person to show why either Evangelist chose to skip material he would have seen in the other’s Gospel. (Indeed, in the case of Matthew, there would be a mathematical burden to show why he would include material found in Luke’s Resurrection Narrative.)

This does not mean there can’t be particular pieces of content that an Evangelist would have found so compelling that he should have used them if he was aware of them. But we need to argue why such content would have been so compelling to the Evangelist, not just assume that it would have been, given the numbers.


If Luke Used Matthew

Considering the case that Luke might have used Matthew, Robert H. Stein, who writes:

Why would he [Luke] have omitted . . . the story of the guards at the tomb (Matt. 27:62-66) and their report (Matt. 28:11-15); the unique Matthean material concerning the resurrection (Matt. 28:9-10, 16-20); and so on? (The Synoptic Problem, 102).

How much weight does Stein’s argument have?

It is worth noting that he only poses it as a series of bare questions about why Luke wouldn’t have included certain things from Matthew. He doesn’t provide any arguments why Luke should have included these things.

As a result, his argument does not have a great deal of force. It would have force if Luke had a strong default decision in favor of including material from Matthew, but we have seen that he did not. It was tossup in any particular case.

So let’s look at the seven pericopes (designated a-g) that Luke would have had before him if he was selecting material from Matthew. Given the material they contained, are there particular reasons Luke would have wanted to use them?


The Guards

Two of the pericopes—(a) and (e)—are a matched set. They deal with the guards that were set over the tomb and what they had to say when it was found empty. Including one without the other would have made no sense, so Luke would have been in an “in for a penny, in for a pound” situation.

He thus would have needed to include material based on Matthew 27:62-66 and 28:11-15. Luke would also have needed to include an additional verse (Matt. 28:4), which deals with the guards fainting, even though it is in the midst of pericope (b). That’s a total of 11 verses.

Would this material have been particularly interesting to Luke?

It does have some interest. For one who has confidence in the Gospel material, it closes off an alternative explanation to the resurrection (i.e., that the body was stolen). Matthew indicates that this alternative explanation had some currency in the Jewish community (Matt. 28:15).

However, Luke was not writing for a member of the Jewish community (given the strong Gentile interest of his Gospel and the Greek name or title Theophilus for the man of whom he was principally writing and who was possibly the patron funding the writing of the Gospel; cf. Luke 1:3, Acts 1:1).

Luke would have had less interest in rebutting an alternative explanation common among non-Christian Jews, particularly if Theophilus would not have come into contact with it. In that case, even raising the question of whether the body could have been stolen might have raised doubts and been seen as contrary to his purpose of showing Theophilus “the truth concerning the things of which you have been informed” (Luke 1:4).

It also would have meant lengthening his Gospel—already the longest of the four—by 11 verses or a significant fraction of that (if he abbreviated the material). That’s not a huge amount, but it is also not nothing, and, given that Luke only includes half of the uniquely Matthean verses, it would not be particularly surprising that he omitted these.


The Women

Another three of our Matthean pericopes—(b), (c), and (d)—concern the women who visited Jesus’ tomb. This material represents Matthew 28:1-10.

One verse of this (Matt. 28:4) is where the guards faint and can be pulled out of the total as belonging with the above topic.

The remaining 9 verses are ones where Luke simply chose to use the Markan version over the Matthean one. Of these, Matthew 28:1-8 (except 28:4) represent material that is found in the shorter ending of Mark, which means we only have two verses—Matthew 28:9-10—that Luke would have chosen to omit from what he saw in Mark.

These two verses read as follows:

And behold, Jesus met them and said, “Hail!” And they came up and took hold of his feet and worshiped him.

Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brethren to go to Galilee, and there they will see me” (Matt. 29:9-10).

These verses contain two notable things:

  1. A brief resurrection encounter
  2. A directive to the disciples to go to Galilee

We would expect Luke to include the first in his Gospel only if he were determined to include even the briefest, least-described post-resurrection encounter.

However, we know that this is not the case. He has his own resurrection encounters that he wants to narrate at much longer length (Luke 24:13-53), and he omits multiple encounters in the Pauline tradition with which he would have been familiar (1 Cor. 15:5-7).

Therefore, given his tossup attitude toward Matthean material, it is not surprising that he would have omitted the extremely brief encounter that Matthew describes between Jesus and the women.

This leaves us with the directive to go to Galilee, which is dealt with below.



The final two pericopes we identified—(f) and (g)—contain the final five verses of Matthew (Matt. 28:16-20).

In Matthew, all of this is indicated as taking place in Galilee (Matt. 28:16). This corresponds to Mark 16:7, where Jesus tells the women to instruct the disciples to go to Galilee, where they will see him (as he previously indicated in Mark 14:28).

In this case, Matthew seems to simply be following Mark, but is there reason to think that Luke wouldn’t?

Mark Goodacre writes:

[W]hat author, whose second volume plots events “beginning from Jerusalem” (Luke 24:47; cf. Acts 1:8) could plausibly have included an account of an announcement in Galilee? (The Case Against Q, 58).

This is an important point. Luke has already established that “repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Luke 24:47) and that the disciples should “be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8)—a structure which governs the book of Acts.

Furthermore, Luke omits the two Markan references to the disciples seeing the risen Jesus in Galilee.

In view of this, it is easy to see how Luke would have wanted to end his Gospel with material in which Jesus addressed the apostles in the area of Jerusalem in Judea—not in Galilee.

Given his tendency to only include half of the uniquely Matthean verses, it is easy to see how he could have skipped the entirety of Matthew’s last five, Galilee-centered verses.

But did he do so entirely? Goodacre writes:

It is worth asking what in Matthew’s Great Commission (Matt 28:16-20) would have been most likely to have appealed to Luke, and whether we can see any signs of it at the end of Luke’s Gospel. Perhaps the most Lukan-friendly elements here in Matthew would be Jesus’ universalistic commission . . . (“Go, therefore, making disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” Matt 28:19). And it is exactly this element in the commission that is echoed in Luke’s own version of it . . . (“proclaiming in his name repentance and forgiveness of sins to all the nations,” Luke 24:47). To speak, then, of Luke omitting this material won’t do. A clear echo of Matthew’s resurrection story is present in Luke, and it is striking that the echo is at the most Luke-friendly juncture, the command to disciple (Matthew) or preach (Luke) to all the nations” (The Case Against Q, 58).

The close juxtaposition of the exhortation to do things “in the [divine] name” for “all the nations” is a noteworthy indicator that one of these Evangelists worked with the other in front of him at the end of his Gospel.

Since the same juxtaposition could have been created independently, due to narrative forces in the text, this is not certain, but it is probable.

Given Luke’s tossup approach to uniquely Matthean material, it could easily indicate that Luke used Matthew.

Or it could indicate the reverse . . .


If Matthew Used Luke

Matthew and Mark

If Matthew had Luke’s Gospel in front of him when he composed his own then the first pericope—(a), Matt. 24:1-8—is easy to account for, since it would have been Matthew’s rewriting of Mark 16:1-8.

In fact, Matthew’s use of Mark may have continued beyond this point if there was an original, longer ending to Mark and if Matthew had access to it. At the point where Mark’s narrative cuts off in the shorter ending, the women have just been instructed to tell the disciples that Jesus will see them in Galilee (Mark 16:7), as he previously indicated (Mark 14:28).

Both of these verses are paralleled in Matthew, who also has the women instructed to tell the disciples to see Jesus in Galilee (Matt. 28:7), as Jesus previously indicated (Matt. 26:32).

Given these instructions, the narrative in both Mark and Matthew would naturally go on to indicate that the women told the disciples, who then had an encounter with Jesus in Galilee.

That is, in fact, what we find in Matthew (Matt. 28:8, 16-20). The only additions to this are the report of the guards (Matt. 28:11-15) and a brief encounter with Jesus as the women are going to tell the disciples, in which they meet the risen Lord, worship him, and are again instructed to tell the disciples to meet him in Galilee (Matt. 28:9-10).

Given the absence of the placing of the guards in Mark, the account of their report would be something Matthew would have supplied, but the brief meeting with the women is something that could have been present in an original, lost ending of Mark.

We therefore should consider the possibility that Matthew’s Resurrection Narrative is essentially an edited version of Mark’s original ending with the addition of the material involving the guards.

If so, Matthew simply continued his practice of including virtually everything in Mark and supplementing it with only selected bits of Luke. (Also, this possibility would mean that the reference to the disciples doing things “in the [divine] name” for “all the nations” may have been in Mark’s original ending, in which case Luke could have picked it up from there rather than from Matthew.)

But suppose this is not the case. Suppose that Mark’s original, longer ending (if there was one) had already been lost by the time Matthew wrote, and so his use of Mark stopped at Matthew 28:8. How compelling would Matthew have found the remaining material in Luke’s Resurrection Narrative?


The Women

Luke has a brief account of what the women did after they left the tomb (Luke 24:9-11). In this account, the women tell the disciples what happened (v. 9), several of the women are identified by name (v. 10), and they are not initially believed (v. 11).

None of this would have been particularly compelling to Matthew. He has already indicated that the women went to tell the disciples (Matt. 28:8), he has already named some of the women (Matt. 28:1), and he elsewhere notes the doubts of the disciples (and in an even more startling place; Matt. 28:17).



Luke also indicates (Luke 24:12) that Peter ran to the tomb and found it empty.

Given Matthew’s interest in Peter—as illustrated by his inclusion of the “You are Peter” tradition (Matt. 16:17-19)—we might expect him to include this from Luke.

However, Matthew’s interest in Peter can be overestimated. He wasn’t uniquely interested in Peter in a way Luke and John weren’t, as both of them include parallels that make the same basic point as the “You are Peter” tradition (Luke 22:31-32, John 21:15-17).

More decisively, we can show that Matthew was not interested in highlighting Peter in his Resurrection Narrative. We know this because he omitted a reference to Peter that was in front of him in Mark. The instruction the angel gave the women there was, “Go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee” (Mark 16:7), but Matthew edits this to, “Go quickly and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead, and behold, he is going before you to Galilee” (Matt. 28:7).

Having deliberately omitted a reference to Peter from Mark’s Resurrection Narrative, Matthew would hardly have been likely to include Luke’s reference to Peter’s inconsequential visit to the empty tomb.


The Road to Emmaus

The encounter on the road to Emmaus is a favorite—a heartwarming story that illustrates Jesus’ playful and mysterious sides—but would Matthew have found it compelling enough to take into his Resurrection Narrative?

Probably not.

First, the story is very lengthy, comprising a full 23 verses (Luke 24:13-35), making it just two verses shorter than Matthew’s entire Resurrection Narrative! Having included parallels to 90% of Mark, Matthew finds space at a premium, and the story would need to have significant value for him to include it.

Second, no major doctrines or disciples are involved. In fact, one of the disciples is entirely unnamed, and the other (Cleopas) is someone we know very little about. If Matthew has just omitted a reference to Peter—the rock on which Jesus said he would build his Church—then he is scarcely likely to find this an essential story.

Third, and most importantly, the encounter at Emmaus occurs just outside Jerusalem—not in Galilee, where Matthew’s narrative has three times indicated Jesus will see the disciples (Matt. 26:32, 28:7, 10).

Consequently, it is easy to see why Matthew would leave his default decision to omit material from Luke in place for this event.


Jesus Appears to the Eleven

The account of the Emmaus encounter leads directly into an appearance that Jesus makes to the Eleven, and there are several reasons why Matthew would not have viewed this material as fitting his purposes.

First, the encounter takes place in Jerusalem, and Matthew has set his face to go to Galilee to meet the resurrected Christ.

Second, a good bit of the encounter deals with Jesus letting the disciples handle him and eating fish in front of them to prove he is not a ghost (Luke 24:36-43)—points Matthew easily could have considered unnecessary to make given the space they take.

Third, Luke is recording traditions that set up the readers for the book of Acts, with its preaching of the Gospel “beginning from Jerusalem” (Luke 24:47), whereas Matthew is headed to Galilee.

Fourth, in Luke Jesus specifically tells the disciples, “stay in the city, until you are clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49). This would directly fly in the face of the trip to Galilee that Matthew is planning.

One part of the narrative that would be congenial to Matthew’s purposes would be the general evangelistic instruction to do things “in the [divine] name” for “all the nations”—and this is reflected in Matthew (28:19), so Matthew may have been influenced by Luke’s text here.


The Ascension

The final part of Luke’s Resurrection Narrative is a brief account of the Ascension. This is such a compelling event that we might expect Matthew to pick it up from Luke, but this expectation is mistaken.

Matthew would not have been dependent on Luke for knowledge of the Ascension. It’s not like he would have read it for the first time in Luke’s Gospel and thought, “Oh, wow! You mean Jesus ascended into heaven? That’s awesome! I have to let my readers know about that!”

Knowledge of the Ascension was widespread—indeed, universal—in the early Christian community, and is referred to elsewhere in the New Testament (cf. John 20:17, Rom. 8:34, Eph. 1:20, Col. 3:1, Heb. 1:3, 1 Peter 3:22, etc.).

Knowledge of the Ascension was an essential part of the Christian message. If Jesus had been raised from the dead, where was he now? Not walking the streets of Jerusalem or Capernaum.

And if Matthew is scrupulous about showing that Jesus’ body could not have been stolen, he certainly understood—and expected his readers to understand—that Jesus’ body was not to be found anywhere on earth, alive or otherwise.

His decision not to include the Ascension was therefore a deliberate choice, influenced in part by the fact that the tradition that Jesus ascended was universally known—and, undoubtedly, also influenced by the fact that it was recorded as taking place in the vicinity of Jerusalem (Luke 24:50-53) rather than Matthew’s destination of Galilee.



We thus do not see the Resurrection Narratives providing compelling evidence that Matthew and Luke must have worked independently.

There are no compelling reasons why Luke would have included material found in Matthew’s narrative—and there are reasons why he definitely would not have included some of it.

The matter is even stronger if Matthew used Luke’s Gospel. Not only does he have a strong preference against picking up most Lukan material, but the contents of Luke’s Resurrection Narrative are particularly ill-suited to his purposes.

We do, however, see some indication that one Evangelist may have used the other, given the way both Gospels end with Jesus urging the apostles to do things “in the [divine] name” for “all the nations.” Unless both Evangelists are using a now-lost ending to Mark, this points toward one using the other.

The Resurrection Narratives thus do not give us reason to think that there was a lost Q source.

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nativityIn this paper we will look at what the Infancy Narratives in Matthew and Luke may tell us about the way these Gospels were composed. Specifically: We will look at an argument (described more fully here) that the two Infancy Narratives are so different that Matthew and Luke did not know each others’ Gospels.

This claim has broader implications for the way the Gospels were composed, because Matthew and Luke have about 235 verses that parallel each other but that do not have parallels in Mark or John.

We will call these 235 verses “the double tradition,” because it is found in two of the four Gospels.

If Matthew did not know Luke and Luke did not know Matthew, where did the material in the double tradition come from? It represents substantial amount of material that totals more than a fifth of both Gospels, which seems to be too much to attribute to random chance. The most likely answer, therefore, would be that both Matthew and Luke used a now-lost source that scholars have named “Q.”

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


Verse-by-Verse Parallels

To appreciate the force of this argument, let’s look at the kind of parallels that we find in the double tradition. It consists both of stories and sayings.

Here’s part of a story that both Gospels have a version of.


And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”

But he answered, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God’” (4:3-4).


The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.”

And Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone’” (4:3-4).

Here is some sayings material that they each have a version of.


“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. . . .

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. . . .

“Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account” (5:3-4, 6, 11).


And he lifted up his eyes on his disciples, and said: “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.

“Blessed are you that hunger now, for you shall be satisfied.

“Blessed are you that weep now, for you shall laugh.

“Blessed are you when men hate you, and when they exclude you and revile you, and cast out your name as evil, on account of the Son of man!” (6:20-22).

In both the story and the sayings material, the phrasing found in each Gospel is a bit different, but the material is in parallel on a verse-by-verse level—Matthew 4:3-4 corresponds directly with Luke 4:3-4, and Matthew 5:3-4, 6, and 11 parallel Luke 6:20-22.

Although there are differences in phrasing and order, it is generally possible to match up the double tradition material in this manner throughout Matthew and Luke.


Authorial Conservatism

The way the double tradition material can be paralleled verse-by-verse is striking, and it didn’t have to be that way. One Evangelist could have used the other as a source but so completely rewritten the material that such verse-by-verse parallels wouldn’t appear or would be much less common.

In fact, some might argue that this is what the Evangelist John did—that he took certain stories and sayings from the Synoptic tradition and wrote them in such a different manner that the connection is rarely obvious.

It has been claimed, for example, that his account of the healing of the official’s son (John 4:46-54) is a different telling of the healing of the centurion’s servant (Matt. 8:5-13, Luke 7:1-10; note that in Matt. 8:5 the centurion asks for the healing of his pais—which in Greek can mean either “boy” or “servant”).

Similarly, it has been argued that John’s discourses convey the teachings of Jesus in a paraphrased, literary way that makes specific verse-by-verse parallels to the Synoptics uncommon (though they do exist; e.g., Matt. 10:24, Luke 6:40, John 13:16, 15:20).

The fact verse-by-verse parallels appear in the double tradition, over and over through Matthew and Luke, indicates a form of authorial conservatism: Phrasing and order might be tweaked, but the material still clearly hangs together on the levels of verses and blocks of texts.

Wherever the double tradition came from, it was treated with significant conservatism by Matthew and/or Luke, and that could lead us to expect the same for how one author would treat the Infancy Narrative of the other..


No Verse-by Verse Parallels

The striking thing is that there are no verse-by-verse parallels in the Infancy Narratives—at least no obvious ones as in the previous section.

This can be seen by comparing the verses in which Matthew and Luke describe the one event they definitely both record—the birth of Jesus:


[B]ut [Joseph] knew her not until she had borne a son; and he called his name Jesus (1:25).


And she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn (2:7).

These verses both describe the same event, but they relate it in very different ways that are utterly unlike the kind of parallels we find in the double tradition.


Lack of Parallels on the Pericope Level

The same thing is true when we compare the Infancy Narratives on the level of blocks of text, or what scholars call pericopes (per-IH-ko-PEES). While the material can be divided different ways, here is one way of looking at it.


  • Jesus’ birth announced to Joseph (1:18-25)
  • The arrival of the magi (2:1-12)
  • The flight to Egypt (2:13-15)
  • The slaughter of the innocents (2:16-18)
  • The return from Egypt (2:19-23)


  • John the Baptist’s birth announced to Zechariah (1:5-25)
  • Jesus’ birth announced to Mary (1:26-38)
  • Mary visits Elizabeth (1:39-56)
  • The birth of John the Baptist (1:57-80)
  • The birth of Jesus (2:1-7)
  • The arrival of the shepherds (2:8-20)
  • The circumcision and presentation in the temple (2:21-38)
  • Return to Nazareth (2:39-40)
  • The finding in the temple (2:41-52)

Again, the material is very different, and not just in matters of phrasing or organization. Though both narratives deal with the birth and childhood of Jesus, the topics covered in the two are strikingly different.


Two Alternatives

These lack of verse-by-verse parallels and the lack of pericope parallels suggest one of two things:

  1. Matthew and Luke didn’t know each others’ Gospels and wrote independently.
  2. One did know the other’s Gospel but chose to treat its Infancy Narrative very differently.

We may concede an initial advantage to the first hypothesis since, if one Gospel is dependent on the other, its author obviously thought highly of the work he had in front of him.

If Luke used Matthew then he thought highly enough of the material in Matthew to take a fifth of it into his own Gospel. We might expect him to do the same with Matthew’s Infancy Narrative.

Exactly the same would be true if Matthew used Luke: He used a fifth of Luke’s material, so we might expect him to do the same with Luke’s Infancy Narrative.

This initial advantage is far from insuperable, however. An author does not have to slavishly follow the same procedure in handling each part of his sources. It is perfectly possible for an author to see sufficient value in some parts of his source to include them but not enough value for his purposes to include other parts.

Indeed, we have a control case in Luke’s “Great Omission.” This is a section of Mark’s Gospel that runs approximately 75 verses, from Mark 6:47 to 8:27a. Although Luke borrows a great deal of material from elsewhere in Mark, he simply leaps over this section, apparently because he didn’t think it had sufficient value for his purposes.

This shows that Luke is quite capable of omitting large sections of his sources. In fact, at 75 verses, the Great Omission is more than twice as long as Matthew’s Infancy Narrative, which is only 31 verses. Luke was thus capable of omitting sections of his sources much longer than Matthew’s Infancy Narrative.

In view of this, we can overcome the initial advantage of the independence hypothesis if we can show that there are significant reasons why Matthew or Luke would have treated the other’s Infancy Narrative differently than the material in the double tradition.

Are there such reasons?


The Question of Length

One reason which is easy for moderns to miss entirely, or to dramatically undervalue, is the question of length. In the ancient world, books were amazingly expensive to produce.

There were multi-volume works, such as Tacitus’s Histories and Annals, which together comprised thirty books. However, only the rich could afford to author or own such collections.

As a result, epitomes (abridgments) were very popular in the ancient world. They allowed people to get the gist of a longer work without having to pay the staggering cost to own it. Because epitomes were so popular, they often survived the ages when the original, unabridged works did not.

A well known example is 2 Maccabees, which is an abridgement of a five-volume work by Jason of Cyrene (2 Macc. 2:23). The epitome of this larger work has survived and is in our Bibles today, but the original has perished.

This illustrates the price pressure on ancient authors to keep their works short. If you wanted only the rich to have your work, multi-volume collections were fine, but if you wanted a broader audience—which the Evangelists would have (see Richard Bauckham, ed., The Gospels for All Christians)—then you needed to keep your work to a single volume.

Indeed, there was even price pressure for single-volume works to be shorter rather than longer, since it cost more to author and copy longer ones. Authors of such works needed to find the right balance between content and length, delivering the highest value content for their purposes in the shortest space possible.

This is likely a factor in the popularity of the different Gospels in the ancient world. Using numbers given by Larry W. Hurtado (The Earliest Christian Artifacts, ch. 1), here are the four Gospels ranked from shortest to longest, with the number of surviving manuscripts from the second and third centuries, which is one of our best indicators of how popular they were at the time:

  • Mark (1 copy)
  • John (16 copies)
  • Matthew (12 copies)
  • Luke (7 copies)

Even allowing for randomness or “noise” in the number of the copies that have survived, Matthew and John—the Evangelists who wrote middling-size Gospels—seem to have found the sweet spot for the ancient audience, delivering the right combination of high value content and brevity.

Matthew (1071 verses) provided a broad and well-organized representation of the Synoptic tradition, being richer in content than Mark (661 verses with the shorter ending, 678 verses with the longer ending) and both briefer and less expensive than Luke (1151 verses). John (879 verses) was on the short side and provided a wealth of material not found in the Synoptics. It’s no surprise that these proved to be the most popular Gospels in the ancient world.

The full force of the length consideration isn’t felt until you try figuring out just how expensive authoring and copying such works was. While it is intrinsically difficult to do cross-cultural price comparisons, such efforts have been made.

For example, E. Randolph Richards estimates that it would have cost Paul around $2,275 to produce Romans and have one copy to mail and one to retain for his records (Paul and First-Century Letter Writing, 169). Romans contains 433 verses, and if we scale that up for the Gospels, we get these figures:

  • Mark: $3,562
  • John: $4,618
  • Matthew: $5,627
  • Luke: $6,047

The production prices would have been even more if (as is likely) the Evangelists had more than one initial copy of their work prepared for distribution, and the costs could have been multiple times the sums involved in making a single personal copy and a single copy for distribution.

In view of these prices, it’s easy to see the motivation the Evangelists had to keep their Gospels short—partly for the sake of their own pocket books but also for the sake of their readers. The longer they wrote, the fewer people would be able to afford their works and the fewer souls would benefit.

Length is likely the consideration responsible for Luke’s “Great Omission.” This is suggested by a look at its contents:

  • Walking on the Water (6:45-52)
  • People Flock to Jesus (6:53-56)
  • The Hand-Washing Controversy (7:1-23)
  • The Syro-Phoenician Woman (7:24-31)
  • Healing a Deaf Man (7:32-37)
  • Feeding the Four Thousand (8:1-9)
  • Interpreting the Time (8:10-13)
  • “Beware the Leaven” (8:14-21)
  • Healing a Blind Man (8:22-26)

The material in this section is not particularly “low value” in and of itself, but it is largely material of the same kind we find elsewhere in Mark (and Luke).

When space is at a premium—and it would be especially for Luke as the author of the longest Gospel—one only needs so many accounts of healings, exorcisms, and multiplications of loaves. It’s easy to see how Luke could have reviewed this section of Mark and decided to skip forward since he was already planning on including parallels to much of this.

This gets us back to the question of how Matthew and Luke selected the material that they did include.


How Matthew and Luke Used Mark

If Mark wrote first then it’s clear that both Matthew and Luke used his Gospel to obtain their general outline. In a sense, they both start with Mark and then supplement it.

They do this in different ways, however. Ninety percent of the verses of Mark are paralleled in Matthew, but only fifty-five percent are paralleled in Luke (B. H. Streeter, The Four Gospels, 160).

Matthew thus had a stronger preference for using material from Mark than Luke did. Matthew’s default position was to include material from Mark unless there was a particular reason not to do so (as there apparently was in the case of ten percent of Markan material).

For Luke, there was a general preference to use material from Mark, but it wasn’t nearly as strong, as he was willing to let forty-five percent of the verses in Mark go without parallel.


How Matthew and Luke Used Their Source for the Double Tradition

It is sometimes argued that virtually all of the Q source must be preserved in Matthew and Luke since the original document is lost. If Q contained much material that wasn’t picked up by the Evangelists, why wasn’t it copied enough to survive?

This argument might be strengthened by an appeal to Matthew, who used ninety percent of Mark. If that’s how he handled Mark, wouldn’t he handle Q the same way?

There are easy rejoinders to this.

First, the idea that Matthew would have treated both his sources the same way is a weak assumption. He may have seen much more value in Mark than in Q and thus only preserved part of Q.

Second, there is the example of Luke, who used only fifty-five percent of Mark. If that’s how Luke treated Mark then we might expect him to treat Q in the same way. This is the flip side of the weak assumption that Matthew would have treated both sources the same.

Third, the only method we have of “identifying” Q material is the fact that it appears in both Matthew and Luke. It’s sheer speculation how the two authors would have treated a Q source, and without knowing how both of them would have treated it, we can’t infer anything with confidence about how much of it they would have used.

Fourth, the argument that if Q contained substantial additional material then it would have survived is weak.

Jesus ministered with his disciples for more than three years, and the Gospels taken together represent only a fraction of the things he said and did. This point is expressly made by John (hyperbolically) at the end of his Gospel:

But there are also many other things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written (John 21:25).

Memory of the majority of things that Jesus did has perished, and we can’t assume that Q would be an exception to this. The vast majority of documents from the ancient world—Christian ones included—are now lost, and the fact that an individual one survived is the exception rather than the rule.

Finally, all of the above assumes that there even was a Q. But suppose there wasn’t? What would that tell us about how Matthew and Luke handled their source for the double tradition?

The answer is straightforward.

If Luke picked up the double tradition material from Matthew then, in addition to selecting a little more than half of Mark for inclusion in his Gospel, he also took 235 verses from Matthew that he thought fit his purposes well. Most of these were taken from Matthew’s large discourses, but since Luke (apparently, on this theory) has less patience for large discourses, he put them at other locations in his Gospel.

On the other hand, if Matthew picked up the double tradition material from Luke then, after making the basic decision to use as much of Mark as possible, he went through Luke and selected 235 verses that he thought were valuable enough for his purposes to include, while still keeping his Gospel a reasonable length. He then integrated most of these verses into his five large discourses.

In either case, one Evangelist selected 235 verses—or about a fifth—of the other Gospel for inclusion in his own. To put the matter another way, one Evangelist “cherry-picked” the other—in the positive sense of selecting the best items for his purposes (not the negative sense of suppressing things he disagreed with).

One can also look at this another way, which results in somewhat different ratios.

Matthew contains 470 verses that are not paralleled in Mark. If Luke used approximately 235 of those then he would have used fifty percent of what remained of Matthew when we take away the Markan material.

Similarly, Luke contains 785 verses that are not paralleled in Mark. If Matthew used approximately 235 of those then he would have used thirty percent of what remained of Luke when we take away the Markan material.

In both cases, the Evangelist would not have a default position in favor of using material from the other Gospel. In Luke’s case, it would be a fifty-fifty tossup as to whether he used material from Matthew, while in Matthew’s case there would be a seventy percent chance he would skip material from Luke.

Whichever way one looks at the cherry-picking, it has implications for our evaluation of how each would have treated the other’s Infancy Narrative.


The Formulas They Would Have Used

One implication is that we can see the formulas that the two Evangelists would have used in composing their Gospels:


  • About 365 verses from Mark (55% of the total)
  • About 235 verses from Matthew (20% of the total; 50% without Markan material)
  • About 550 verses from other sources


  • About 600 verses from Mark (90% of the total)
  • About 235 verses from Luke (20% of the total; 30% without Markan material)
  • About 230 verses from other sources

In both cases, the procedure would have been to produce a shortened version of Mark, supplemented by select material from other sources, one of which was the other Synoptic.

In view of the limited amount that would have been drawn from the other Synoptic, the numerical burden does not fall on the Q skeptic to show why the Evangelist omitted certain material.

The burden would fall on the Q skeptic if there was a bias in favor of including material, but there isn’t. In Luke’s it’s a tossup whether he would include a particular Matthean verse, and in Matthew the odds are that he would not include a particular Lukan verse.

Of course, this looks at the question from a numerical point of view rather than a content point of view. One could still argue that the content of a particular verse would be so compelling that the an Evangelist would have used it, but this has to be argued rather than assumed, and the above numbers indicate the freedom to skip material that both Evangelists would have felt.

(Note: One could argue with the numbers above if one could show that Matthew borrowed a significant amount of material from Luke even though the same material was also found in Mark, or that Luke borrowed a significant amount of material from Matthew even though it was also found in Mark. Determining which version of a verse an Evangelist used—the one found in Mark or the one found in the other Evangelist—would require a significant amount of work that I do not presently have leisure for. The results also would be quite debatable, and they would not change much, since the Evangelist would know that the material was found in both of his sources, making it somewhat arbitrary which version he used. He still would be using only fifty or thirty percent of the remaining verses.)


The Psychology of Cherry Picking

Today, when our knowledge of Jesus is filtered almost exclusively through the four canonical Gospels, every bit of Jesus tradition takes on added value.

Imagine how exciting it would be to have a new story or saying from Jesus that we knew for a fact was accurate. It would be mind blowing!

If we put ourselves in the position of one of the original Evangelists writing a Gospel, it’s easy to imagine that we would include every scrap of Jesus tradition we knew. How could we not? Forget cost and length considerations! To do otherwise would be to risk losing a Jesus tradition for future generations forever!

But the Evangelists were not in the position we are. They had access, orally or otherwise, to many Jesus traditions that have now perished, and—except for John—they may not have had an expectation that there would be future generations. They may have thought that the world would be ending soon and that the memory of the many unwritten things that Jesus said and did would be preserved until the end.

There was therefore less pressure on them to include every Jesus tradition they knew, and this made it possible for them to cherry pick their sources without the debilitating fear that we today would have of losing traditions.

This pressure was also lessened by the fact that later Evangelists knew what the earlier ones had written. They knew that the material was already “out there” in print—that those Jesus traditions had already been preserved in writing. They therefore had less of a psychological need to include every tradition they knew.

Furthermore, as the statement from the end of John’s Gospel intimates, there was a vast pool of Jesus traditions that was still preserved in living memory. The practical realities of book writing, and the corresponding realities of evangelization through books, meant that they had to be selective in what they included.

As Martin Hengel points out regarding Luke (in this case concerning Paul, but the same applies concerning Jesus):

[W]e cannot even claim without further ado, as is the habit of so many scholars today, that Luke only knew what he reported about the early period of Christianity. He certainly knew a good deal more than he put down; when he is silent about something, there are usually special reasons for it. Only by this strict limitation of his material can he ‘put his heroes in the right perspective’ (Earliest Christianity, 36, emphasis added).

The same was true regarding the other Evangelists: They all knew a good deal more than they wrote, and we should not assume that they didn’t know a tradition just because they didn’t record it. The better question is usually why they chose to include a tradition rather than why they chose to omit one.

The assumption that an Evangelist did not know a Jesus tradition just because he doesn’t mention it is absurd given the way the later Evangelists (Matthew, Luke, and John) treated Mark in the composition of their own Gospels. None of them—not even Matthew—preserves every Jesus tradition that Mark does, yet they each knew the Jesus traditions in Mark and deliberately omitted some, in greater or lesser degrees.

When we add to this the facts that there was an even broader pool of Jesus traditions to which the Evangelists had access, and that they were writing under strong pressure to keep their Gospels short, the assumption that silence implies ignorance is more absurd still.

This puts us in a position to look directly at the choices Matthew and Luke would have made regarding the Infancy Narratives.

Both Matthew and Luke wanted to include material about Jesus birth and early life, as is obvious from the fact they included Infancy Narratives. But are there reasons why they wouldn’t use extracts from each others’ narratives the way they would have the double tradition material?

There are, and we’ll look at them from the viewpoint of each Evangelist.


If Luke Used Matthew

Matthew’s Infancy Narrative is only 31 verses. If Luke had chosen to include them, his Gospel would have grown to 1182 verses, representing an expansion of under three percent.

That’s not a big expansion, but it’s also not nothing. Considerations of length could have played some role—but a minor one—in Luke’s decision to omit Matthew’s Infancy Narrative.

What if we consider the content of Matthew’s narrative?

Basically, it consists of two stories. The first deal’s with Joseph learning of Mary’s pregnancy and his reaction (1:18-25) and the second deals with the arrival of the magi and the series of events it sets in motion (2:1-23). This could make it somewhat difficult for Luke to excerpt Matthew without including the whole of one or both stories.

Faced with that choice, he presumably would not have a great deal of interest in recording the first story. Internal indications in Luke strongly suggest that Mary herself was one of his sources (either directly or at a close remove; see Luke 2:19, 51), and he was especially interested in presenting the traditions derived from her.

It could have been difficult to pull away and re-show the situation from Joseph’s perspective, particularly without disrupting the literary rhythms he was establishing with the parallels between John the Baptist’s birth and Jesus’ birth.

Also, given Joseph’s initial intention to divorce Mary (Matt. 1:19), including him in the narrative could cause him to appear in an undesirable, negative light due to comparisons with Zechariah, who initially did not believe (Luke 1:18-20, cf. 1:45).

Regarding the second story, much of it could not be easily excerpted—the flight to Egypt, the slaughter of the innocents, and the return from Egypt to Nazareth make no sense without a discussion of the magi.

Luke could have offered an abbreviated account of the magi’s visit without going into the events their arrival caused. Indeed, some have thought he should have done so given his interest in Gentiles. Robert H. Stein writes:

Why would Luke have omitted such material as the coming of the wise men (Matt. 2:1-12)? Would not the presence of such Gentiles at the birth of Jesus have been meaningful for Luke’s Gentile-oriented Gospel? (The Synoptic Problem, 102).

Stein misspeaks, because the magi did not come at Jesus’ birth. They came up to two years after his birth (Matt. 2:16), and that of itself could provide Luke with a disincentive to mention the visit. Given his interest in providing an orderly narrative (Luke 1:3), he would have needed to indicate a lengthy stay in Bethlehem, which may have been more chronology than he wanted to go into.

Further, he already had the story of the shepherds’ visit, and they were there the night of Jesus’ birth. This tradition presumably came from Mary herself, and Luke was keen to include the traditions he had from her. If he wanted to include that story, he may have considered the visit of the magi less important to record. He would have needed to indicate that the shepherds came and then, a year or two later, the magi arrived.

We have already seen how he recorded the Feeding of the Five Thousand (Luke 9:10-17) but he omits its sequel, the Feeding of the Four Thousand (Mark 8:1-9). In the same way he may have wished to include the initial visit of the shepherds but considered this sufficient to show the miraculous arrival of witnesses, without a need to include the event’s delayed sequel.

Finally, some have argued that Luke may have had other reasons to omit the account. Mark Goodacre writes:

Luke is the only writer other than Matthew in the New Testament to give us a hint of his view of the magi and it is negative—a certain Simon Magus is one of the villains in Acts of the Apostles (8:9-24). Moreover, at least since Conzelmann scholars have been sensitive to Luke’s apparent reticence to have Jesus coming into contact with Gentiles in the Gospel. One only has to witness the lengths to which Luke has gone to keep the Centurion out of Jesus’ sight to see the point (Matt 8:5-13 // Luke 7:1-11) (The Case Against Q, 56).

Personally, I’m more inclined to see Matthew as omitting mention of the centurion’s agents as a way of keeping his narrative of the event uncluttered, but there are still sufficient reasons why, if Luke had Matthew’s Gospel in front of him, he could have decided not to include the material in Matthew’s Infancy Narrative.

Now let’s look at the possibility that Matthew used Luke.


If Matthew Used Luke

The consideration of space would have weighed heavily on Matthew if he used Luke’s Gospel in producing his own. Luke’s infancy narrative is 128 verses long. For Matthew to include it would lengthen his Gospel to 1199 verses, making it the longest Gospel and increasing its volume by twelve percent!

If Matthew had Luke in front of him, he likely wanted to produce something shorter than Luke (since he did), and going even longer would be something he would resist.

Another way of looking at this is by the proportionate length of the Infancy Narratives. Matthew’s is 31 verses long, while Luke’s is 128 verses long. This means that Luke’s Infancy Narrative is more than four times as long as Matthew’s! It’s easy to see how Matthew might have wanted to keep his Infancy Narrative shorter and not devote a large fraction of his whole Gospel to it (as Luke did, with his Infancy Narrative amounting to eleven percent of his whole Gospel).

Further, in keeping with his fundamental choice to only include select material from Luke (twenty percent of it), it is easy to imagine him sticking with his default choice to omit Lukan material when it came to that Gospel’s Infancy Narrative and not lift pericopes from it.

This is particularly the case when we look at the content of Luke’s Infancy Narrative.

First, much of it is taken up with speeches, such as Gabriel’s announcement of John’s birth (1:13-17), Gabriel’s announcement of Jesus’ birth (1:28-33), Mary’s canticle (1:46-55), Zechariah’s canticle (1:68-79), the angels’ announcement to the shepherds (2:10-14), and Simeon’s speech (2:29-35).

Second, much of the material isn’t about Jesus’ birth at all but John the Baptist’s.

Third, the material about John the Baptist’s birth is interwoven with the material about Jesus’ birth in a way that would make it difficult to pull them apart. Much of Gabriel’s appearance to Mary and all Mary’s visit to Elizabeth only make sense if read in light of the John the Baptist birth narrative.

Fourth, Luke spends time narrating how Mary and Joseph did perfectly ordinary things for Jesus that any Jewish parents would do for their firstborn son (2:21-24).

Fifth, Luke relates minor incidents like the encounter with the prophetess Anna (who isn’t even quoted; 2:36-38) and the finding in the temple (2:41-51). As heartwarming as these are, they are not high-priority items, as illustrated by their omission by the other three Gospels.

If you pull out these elements, there is basically nothing left of Luke’s Infancy Narrative, so it is easy to see how a space-pressed Matthew could have looked at Luke 1 and 2 and decided to stick with his default decision to omit rather than include. He has his own traditions about Jesus’ birth that he wants to record, he can relate the important facts about Jesus birth (see the next section) without excerpting Luke, and he knows Luke’s traditions have already been preserved in writing.


Common Elements

Thus far we’ve been looking at the Infancy Narratives through the lens of what is different between them. If not balanced, this can lead to a false impression, because the two narratives also have multiple points in common.

In his book The Birth of the Messiah, Raymond E. Brown notes eleven points shared by the two narratives:

a)        The parents to be are Mary and Joseph who are legally engaged or married, but have not yet come to live together or have [sic] sexual relations (Matt 1:18; Luke 1:27, 34).

b)        Joseph is of Davidic descent (Matt 1:16, 20; Luke 1:27, 32; 2:4).

c)         There is an angelic announcement of the forthcoming birth of the child (Matt 1:20–23; Luke 1:30–35).

d)        The conception of the child by Mary is not through intercourse with her husband (Matt 1:20, 23, 25; Luke 1:34).

e)        The conception is through the Holy Spirit (Matt 1:18, 20; Luke 1:35).

f)         There is a directive from the angel that the child is to be named Jesus (Matt 1:21; Luke 1:31).

g)        An angel states that Jesus is to be Savior (Matt 1:21; Luke 2:11).

h)        The birth of the child takes place after the parents have come to live together (Matt 1:24–25; Luke 2:5–6).

i)         The birth takes place at Bethlehem (Matt 2:1; Luke 2:4–6).

j)         The birth is chronologically related to the reign (days) of Herod the Great (Matt 2:1; Luke 1:5).

k)        The child is reared at Nazareth (Matt 2:23; Luke 2:39) (pp., 34-35).

What accounts for this material? In his book, Brown makes the following argument:

Since it is generally agreed among scholars that Matthew and Luke wrote independently of each other, without knowing the other’s work, agreement between the two infancy narratives would suggest the existence of a common infancy tradition earlier than either evangelist’s work—a tradition that would have a claim to greater antiquity and thus weigh on the plus side of the historical scale (p. 34).

Brown’s argument assumes that Matthew and Luke wrote independently of each other. Since that is what we are reconsidering, it’s logical to reject this premise and see what the results might be: If one Evangelist had the other’s Gospel in front of him, could that be responsible for these similarities?

It’s difficult to imagine Matthew or Luke being totally dependent on the other for his knowledge of traditions about Jesus’ birth. Such traditions were already out there in the Christian community, and they are reflected elsewhere in the New Testament. For example:

  • Jesus is descended from David (Mark 10:47, John 7:42, Rom. 1:3, 2 Tim. 2:8, Rev. 5:5, 22:16, etc.).
  • Jesus is from Bethlehem (John 7:42).
  • Jesus is “of Nazareth” (Mark 1:9, John 1:45, Acts 2:22, etc.).

It’s difficult to imagine an individual well-informed enough and motivated enough to write a Gospel including an Infancy Narrative not to have done his own research into the question of what happened at Jesus’ birth. Therefore, even if one Evangelist used the other, it’s unlikely that he drew all of the common elements from the other.

It is more likely that each Evangelist knew some or all of the common elements from his own sources and that he included them because they communicated things he wanted his readers to know about Jesus.

However, even if both Evangelists had their own sources for each of the common elements, this does not mean that they worked with no knowledge of the other Evangelist. As Goodacre points out regarding the possibility that Luke knew Matthew:

[K]nowledge of a source is not the same as direct use of a source, and one of the key questions is whether there are any signs of Luke’s knowledge of Matthew in the Birth Narrative. After all, Luke may well have been inspired by Matthew’s account to write his own somewhat different account. If this possibility is taken seriously, the focus shifts away from the lack of extensive parallels between Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2 toward the more nuanced question of evidence for Luke’s knowledge of Matthew. In other words, rather than looking at the obvious points of divergence between the accounts, we might ask whether any of the points of contact are sufficiently marked to suggest that Luke may have known Matthew [op. cit., 56].

The same is true of the possibility that Matthew used Luke.

So: Are there indications that one Evangelist knew the other?


Indications of Knowledge?

Goodacre writes:

Though it is not often appreciated, there are indeed signs that Luke knows Matthew’s Birth Narrative. Not only do they agree on matters unique to the two of them within the New Testament, like Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, the name of Jesus’ father (Joseph) and, most importantly, the Virginal Conception, they even share words in common, including the following key sentence:

Matt 1:21

teksetai de huion kai kaleseis to onoma autou Iēsoun.

She will give birth to a son and you shall call him Jesus.

Luke 1:31

kai teksē huion kai kaleseis to onoma autou Iēsoun.

You will give birth to a son and you shall call him Jesus (op. cit., 56-57).

The initial items that Goodacre mentions could be explained other ways. The belief that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem was widely held, and it even is mentioned in John (7:42), so this was out there in the Christian community. Similarly, anyone within living memory of Jesus’ birth would have been able to find out the names of his parents. And the Virgin Birth is so striking an event that it would have been widely noted in Christian circles.

What about the word-for-word passage that the two share in common? This is certainly not the only time that heaven has directed a child to be given a particular name. In fact, we saw the same thing earlier in Luke, when Gabriel told Zechariah what to name John the Baptist (Luke 1:13).

The same thing has precedents in the Old Testament (e.g., Is. 8:3, Hos. 1:4, 6, 9). Particularly notable are Genesis 16:11, 17:19 and Isaiah 7:14, which in the Septuagint read as follows:

Genesis 16:11

su en gastri ekheis, kai teksē huion, kai kaleseis to onoma autou Ismaēl.

you are with child, and shall bear a son; you shall call his name Ishmael.

Genesis 17:19

hē gunē sou teksetai soi huion kai kaleseis to onoma autou Isaak.

your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac.

Isaiah 7:14

hē parthenos en gastri lēpsetai, kai teksetai huion, kai kaleseis to onoma autou Emmanouēl.

a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.

These are so similar to what we find in Matthew and Luke that it is reasonable to conclude, with Joseph A. Fitzmyer, that:

The message to Mary is couched in rather stereotyped OT phraseology for announcing the conception and birth of an extraordinary child (The Gospel According to Luke (1-9), 346).

Rather than evidence of one Evangelist borrowing this phrasing from the other, it is just as likely that they were borrowing from the Old Testament.

That’s particularly the case with Matthew, who in the next two verses indicates the origin of the angel’s phraseology, stating that the angel’s message was a fulfillment of Isaiah 7:14 (“All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel,” Matt. 1:22-23).

While Luke could have been influenced by Matthew to use this kind of phraseology in his Gospel, the phraseology itself is too common for this to be relied upon. Luke easily could have written independently of Matthew and come up with the same phrasing from the Old Testament parallels.


Mirror Elements

If the above parallels between the Infancy Narratives are not persuasive, do any exist that are?

I think so. Brown notes that some of the common elements in the Infancy Narratives appear in different forms:

For example, while both Gospels have Jesus’ birth announced by angels, in Matthew the angel speaks to Joseph but in Luke the angel speaks to Mary (op. cit., 34).

This is not the only element of its kind. We may note several elements Brown does not record that mirror each other, in addition to the initial one:

1)        Angels speak to both of Jesus’ parents—Joseph in Matthew and Mary in Luke (Matt 1:20–23; Luke 1:30–35).

2)        The birth of Jesus is attended by celestial phenomena—a star in Matthew and a host of angels in Luke (Matt 2:2, 7, 9, 10; Luke 2:9-15).

3)        These celestial phenomena were observed by others, who were motivated to visit the child and his parents (Matt 2:1-12; Luke 2:15-20).

4)        The child’s visitors were of different social statuses (shepherds being of low education and rank and magi being of high education and rank).

5)        The child’s visitors were of different ethnicities (the shepherds being Jews and the magi being Gentiles).

Stepping outside the narrow bounds of the Infancy Narratives, we also may also add:

6)        Both Gospels include genealogies of Jesus but they are strikingly different in multiple respects (see below).

The way Matthew and Luke mirror each other on these points suggests that one was writing in response to the other. The question is: Why?

One reason might be supplemental intent—that is, one Evangelist knew the other had preserved one set of traditions in writing, and he wanted to preserve additional ones. This kind of intent is demonstrable elsewhere in the Gospels, as when John intentionally supplements Mark (see Richard Bauckham, “John for Readers of Mark,” The Gospels for All Christians; see also here).

However, the way the elements mirror each other suggests that more than just supplemental intent was at work. It has long been noted that:

  • Matthew’s narrative focuses almost exclusively on Joseph, while Luke’s focuses almost exclusively on Mary
  • Matthew accentuates Jesus’ regal dimension (his genealogy records Jesus’ descent from Solomon and the line of kings that followed him, King Herod being threatened by Jesus’ birth, and the visit of foreign dignitaries seeking to honor the new king) while Luke presents Jesus as a man of the common people (his genealogy records Jesus’ descent from Nathan, Mary praising God for his deeds on behalf of the lowly, and the visit of humble shepherds)

These are significant clues to why one Evangelist may have wanted to respond to the other. The question is: Who was responding to whom?

If Luke was responding to Matthew then he may have found the latter’s emphasis on Joseph and Jesus’ regal dimension not fully to his taste. He then balanced it by using the traditions he had regarding Mary and by bringing out the dimension of God’s compassion through Jesus on the lowly.

If Matthew was responding to Luke then he may have felt that Luke omitted information and themes which would have been important for his audience of Jewish Christians. He may have felt that Luke’s overwhelming emphasis on Mary and his populist themes needed to be balanced for a Jewish audience with an emphasis on Joseph, through whom Jesus would have had legal claim to the Davidic monarchy. He similarly may have felt that the regal aspect of Jesus needed further emphasis, and the traditions he had at his disposal allowed him to accomplish both of these goals.


A Word About the Genealogies

Having mentioned the genealogies of Jesus (Matt. 1:1-17, Luke 3:23-38), it is appropriate to say a few words about them, though they are only ambiguously grouped with the Infancy Narratives. (Matthew’s genealogy could be conceived of either as separate or as part of his Infancy Narrative, while Luke’s is found outside his Infancy Narrative, in his account of Jesus’ ministry.)

Given the well-known differences between these genealogies, including the fact that they trace Jesus’ descent through different lines, many have seen the two as evidence of the independence of Matthew and Luke. Thus Stein writes:

[I]f Luke had before him Matthew’s birth account and genealogy, one wonders if he would not have sought in some way to ‘harmonize’ the one we have in his Gospel with the Matthean version (The Synoptic Problem, 102, emphasis added).

Once again, there are plausible reasons why one Evangelist would choose to include a different genealogy than the one he saw the other using.

If Luke knew Matthew’s Gospel then several things may have leapt out at him regarding its genealogy: (1) It only goes back to Abraham (Matt. 1:1, 17), (2) it omits multiple generations in order to fit a scheme of three, fourteen-generation blocks (Matt. 1:17), (3) it’s right up at the front of the Gospel (Matt. 1:1-17), and (4) it shows Jesus descending from David through Solomon and the line of kings down to Jeconiah (Matt. 1:6-12).

Luke thus may have chosen to include his genealogy to balance each of these: Thus (1) he took his genealogy all the way back to Adam, to make explicit the parallels between Jesus and Adam as sons of God in unique ways (Luke 3:38; cf. Rom. 5:14, 1 Cor. 15:22, 45, 47), (2) he included a fuller list of the generations that is not compressed the way Matthew’s is (though it may be seen as eleven blocks of seven generations; see Richard Bauckham, Jude and the Relatives of Jesus in Early Christianity, 318-321), (3) he placed his genealogy later in the Gospel so that it would not provide the abrupt, contextless start for his Gentile readers that Matthew’s placement of the genealogy right at the front of his Gospel would have, and (4) he recorded Jesus’ descent from David through his son Nathan (Luke 3:31), thus avoiding the line of kings terminating in Jeconiah.

The last deserves special comment. Jeremiah had pronounced a curse upon Jeconiah (aka Coniah, Jehoiachin), indicating that his sons would not be king after him:

As I live, says the Lord, though Coniah the son of Jehoiakim, king of Judah, were the signet ring on my right hand, yet I would tear you off. . . . Thus says the Lord: ‘Write this man down as childless, a man who shall not succeed in his days; for none of his offspring shall succeed in sitting on the throne of David, and ruling again in Judah’” (Jer. 22:24, 30).

Because of the flexibility of the Old Testament concept of “son,” it could be questioned whether the prophecy applied to Jeconiah’s immediate sons or to all of his male descendants, in which case none of them would have a claim to being the Messianic son of David (at least not due to their descent from Jeconiah).

Whether the Messiah could be a son of Jeconiah is disputed in Judaism today, and it may well have been in Jesus’ day.

If so, Luke might have included his genealogy to make it clear that Jesus’ claim as Messiah did not rest merely on his descent from David through Jeconiah; he had a claim to being a son of David and thus a potential candidate for Messiah apart from this.

Or the problem may not have been just Jeconiah, but the entire line of kings from Solomon to David. Bauckham writes:

[I]n the Old Testament prophetic tradition, which both condemned the kings of Judah and expected a renewal of the Davidic monarchy, under a righteous king in the future, the dominant expectation was for a new Davidic king who was not descended from David through the royal line of the kings of Judah. This expectation is classically embodied in Isaiah 11:1: ‘There shall come forth a shoot (ḥōṭer) from the stump of Jesse, and a branch (nēṣer) shall grow out of his roots’ (RSV). The image is of a tree chopped down to a stump. A new shoot grows up from the roots (see Job 14:7–9 for the image). The natural meaning is that the tree of the royal house of David will be cut down in judgment, and the ideal king of the future will be derived, not from the royal line of the kings of Judah, but from the origins of the dynasty, indicated by the reference to Jesse. He will represent, as it were, a fresh start, taken, like David himself, from non-royal stock. If he is a descendant of David at all, then he will have to come of a line of David’s descendants other than the royal line through Solomon and the kings of Judah.

That this is the correct interpretation of Isaiah 11:1 is confirmed by the similar implication of Micah 5:2 (Hebrew 5:1):

But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah,
who are little to be among the clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to be ruler in Israel,
whose origin is from of old, from ancient days (RSV).

The new king is to be born not in the royal palace in Jerusalem, but in insignificant Bethlehem, where David’s line began. He will derive not from the royal line of the kings of Judah, but from the ancient origins of the line, from the beginnings of David’s dynasty. Again there is doubtless the intention of going back behind the corruption of the kings of Judah and making a fresh start, comparable with God’s original choice of David himself (Jude and the Relatives of Jesus in Early Christianity, 334-335).

In fact, there appears to have been a tradition that the Messiah would be a descendant of Nathan in particular (Bauckham, op. cit., 347-354).

For each of these reasons, if Luke had Matthew’s Gospel in front of him, he may have been prompted to include his own genealogy, making the descent from Nathan rather than the line of kings ending in Jeconiah clear.

On the other hand, if Matthew had Luke’s Gospel in front of him, several things also would have jumped out about its genealogy: (1) It’s in a very non-traditional, reverse order, (2) it ends in Adam, (3) it’s in a very unexpected place, and (4) it skips entirely the line of kings after David.

Matthew then would have included his own genealogy to balance these: (1) A reverse-order genealogy was extremely unusual for a Jewish genealogy, and Matthew may well have wanted to give his Jewish Christian readers a more standard presentation of the Messiah’s lineage, (2) he may have wanted to relate the Messiah more clearly to the people of Israel and its great historic events (Abraham, David, the Babylonian Exile), compared to the universalist, Lukan genealogy linking the Messiah to the dawn of the whole human race, (3) he may have wanted to put his genealogy of Jesus before his account of the birth, which better reflects the placement of genealogies in the Old Testament and which avoids Luke’s highly unusual placement of Jesus’ genealogy after his baptism, and, finally, (4) for those unfamiliar with or unconvinced by the prophetic interpretations above (a group that may, in fact, have been a majority among ordinary people; “Of course the Messiah is a descendant of the line of Davidic kings! He’s the royal Son of David!”), Matthew may have wanted to make it clear that Jesus did have a claim to being the Messiah via descent through Solomon and the line of Davidic kings.

The fact the two genealogies trace Jesus’ descent from different sons of David is likely explained by ambiguity in Jesus’ day regarding precisely how the Messiah would be descended from David. Indeed, the fact that people had different opinions about this is likely why Jesus’ family (among others) preserved the memory of its descent through both lines—and why the Evangelists felt the need to present both to their audiences.

In view of each of the factors listed above, for both Evangelists the point deliberately would have been not to present the lineage of the Messiah in the same way as the Gospel he had in front of him but to present it in a different way.


Overall Design

A final indication that Matthew and Luke were not writing independently is that they both came up with such similar overall designs for their Gospels. This goes beyond the Infancy Narratives and the genealogies, but it also includes them and so is relevant here.

Both Evangelists saw a promising foundation in Mark, but they wanted to expand it in order to reach particular audiences. The fact that they both expanded it in the same way suggests that one may have been prompted by the work done by the other.

One of the expansions they made was to include post-Resurrection narratives that went beyond the shorter ending of Mark. If Mark originally ended without such appearances or if its original ending had already been lost, then it is easy to understand why they did so. This would be a natural expansion that their audiences would have wanted—as illustrated by the fact that post-Resurrection appearances are also found in John (20:11-21:23), in the longer ending of Mark (16:9-19), and even outside the Gospels in Paul (1 Cor. 15:5-8).

What’s more significant is the fact that they both included Infancy Narratives, and narratives of the kind they did. Considering the possibility that Luke used Matthew, Goodacre writes:

The theory that Luke could not have known Matthew because he does not copy wholesale from his Birth Narrative is not, therefore, especially convincing. Indeed like many arguments for Q, reflection on the evidence can lead in quite the opposite direction, in favor of Luke’s familiarity with Matthew. Perhaps Matthew’s Birth Narrative gave Luke the idea of writing a Birth Narrative of his own; perhaps it was the catalyst for Luke’s identical decision to preface Mark’s Gospel with an account featuring both prenatal (Matt 1 // Luke 1) and postnatal (Matt 2 // Luke 2) stories about Jesus. Because many readers are so familiar with the Birth Narratives, it is easy to assume that prefacing a Gospel with a Birth Narrative is a natural step to take, but neither Mark nor John thought that it was such an obvious thing to do and, all things considered, the presence of a Birth Narrative in Luke is probably a sign that Luke knows Matthew (op. cit., 57).

Or it is a sign that Matthew knew Luke.

In the same way, one Evangelist may have prompted the other to include a genealogy—something no other author of the New Testament chose to do.

The overall design of Matthew and Luke—the fact that they decided to expand on Mark in such similar ways—can thus be seen as further evidence that they were not writing independently.



The argument that the differences in the Infancy Narratives of Matthew and Luke show that they were writing independently of each other is utterly unconvincing.

It rests on the premises that the two Evangelists must have been ignorant of what they did not mention or that one would have found quoting material from the other’s Infancy Narrative irresistible.

Both of these premises are false. As their handling of Mark reveals, Matthew and Luke demonstrably left out Jesus traditions that they were aware of, and there are sound reasons why both could have chosen to omit the material found in the other’s Infancy Narrative. Chief among these reasons are the then-pressing need to save space (particularly for Matthew) and the need to serve the respective Jewish and Gentile audiences they were trying to reach.

Indeed, serving the needs of these audiences is likely the reason why multiple elements of the Infancy Narratives mirror each other, which would not be expected if the accounts were independent. This applies also to the twin genealogies of Jesus, whose inclusion in the New Testament is otherwise very perplexing.

These considerations—as well as the fact that they both chose to compose Gospels that expanded Mark using the same overall design—provide a compelling alternative to the Q hypothesis that must be taken seriously.

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q-redThere is a clear literary relationship between three of the Gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke.

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

The question of how they are related is known as the Synoptic Problem, and you can read my discussions of it here.


Which Evangelist Wrote First?

Through much of Church history, the dominant view has been that Matthew’s Gospel was the first to be written and that Mark either abbreviated Matthew or that Mark combined and abbreviated both Matthew and Luke.

After careful study, I would argue that neither of these proposals fits the evidence. Mark did not abbreviate Matthew (see here), nor did he combine and abbreviate Matthew and Luke (see here). Further, the earliest testimony we have—likely from one of the other authors of the New Testament—indicates that Mark wrote first (see here and here).

I therefore conclude that modern scholars are most likely correct when they argue that Mark wrote his Gospel first and Matthew and Luke used it as sources.

I am skeptical, however, of the claim of many modern scholars that Matthew and Luke also used another, now-lost, source known as Q (from the German word Quelle = “source,” though see F. F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?, ch. 4, fn. 9).


Kinds of Material Found in the Synoptic Gospels

The fundamental reason that scholars propose the existence of a lost Q source is that the material in Matthew and Luke falls into one of four categories:

a)    Material that Matthew and Luke have in common with Mark

b)   Material that Matthew and Luke have in common with each other and that is not found in Mark.

c)    Material that Matthew alone has.

d)   Material that Luke alone has.

On the view that Matthew and Luke used Mark as a source, we can assume that both Evangelists derived the category (a) material from Mark.

The category (c) material, which is uniquely found in Matthew, must have come from sources unique to Matthew, and the same would be true for the category (d) material that is uniquely found in Luke.

But what about the category (b) material—the material in both Matthew and Luke that couldn’t have come from Mark, because it isn’t in Mark?


Explanations for the Material in the Synoptic Gospels

Scholars seem capable of proposing a limitless number of complex, convoluted ways that this material can be explained—involving a tangle of hypothetical sources and lost editions of the Gospels—but Occam’s Razor suggests that we not turn to these unless simpler explanations fail.

This makes our job easier because there are four, and only four, simple explanations for the category (b) material:

  1. Matthew and Luke got it from a hodgepodge of different sources, and it happened to end up in both Gospels by chance
  2. Matthew and Luke both got it (or most of it) from a common source, which is now lost
  3. Luke got it from Matthew
  4. Matthew got it from Luke

If the material that Matthew and Luke have uniquely in common amounted to only a few verses—perhaps a few sayings or stories of Jesus—then we might chalk this up to chance.

The difficulty with this view is that there is rather a lot of material in category (b): It amounts to around 235 verses, which is 22% of the verses in Matthew (1071 verses in total) and more than 20% of the verses in Luke (1151 verses in total). In both cases, the category (b) material amounts to more than a fifth of the respective Gospels.

This seems like too much material to attribute to random chance.

That points us to the possibilities that there is a lost source (dubbed Q), that Luke got the material from Matthew, or that Matthew got the material from Luke.

Why do modern scholars prefer the first of these proposals?

To some extent, it may be because of peer pressure. Around a hundred years ago, scholars began to prefer the first proposal—the Q hypothesis—and there was a snowball effect. They saw their peers adopting this proposal, and they naturally adopted it, too.

This tendency is sometimes called the bandwagon effect, and it is a known phenomenon in human psychology. However, that doesn’t mean that it is more likely to lead to the truth. Objectively, one still needs reasons to prefer the proposal favored by the majority to the alternative proposals.

So: Are there reasons to prefer the Q hypothesis to the alternatives that Luke got the material from Matthew or visa versa?


Christ’s Infancy and Resurrection

One way of trying to answer the question is to go through Matthew and Luke in minute detail—looking at the Greek text of individual verses to see what they tell us about the possibility that each of the proposals is correct.

This is an important task, but it requires a close reading of the Greek texts which is not easily accessible to the average reader. Many of the individual data points are also quite technical and debatable.

My preference here is to look at larger elements of the text which are found even in translations of the original language, such as modern English Bibles.

Even if we here put aside the details of individual verses, it is clear that there are certain passages in Matthew and Luke that could serve as tests for how the Synoptic Gospels were written.

These are the Infancy Narratives, which deal with Jesus’ birth and infancy (Matt. 1:8-2:23, Luke 1:5-52) and the Resurrection Narratives (Matt. 28:1-20, Luke 24:1-53).

The argument is that these two sections are so different from each other that Matthew and Luke did not know each other’s Gospels. In other words, if Luke knew Matthew (or visa versa) then he would not have written his Infancy Narrative or his Resurrection Narrative so differently from the other Gospel. They would have been more similar to each other.

A version of this argument is implicitly offered by Robert H. Stein, who writes:

One final argument that can be listed against the theory that Luke used the Gospel of Matthew as a source is the lack of M [i.e., category (c)] material in Luke. (The same type of argument can also be made for Matthew’s not having used Luke, i.e., the lack of any L [i.e., category (d)] material in Matthew.) . . . Why would Luke have omitted such material as the coming of the wise men (Matt. 2:1-12)? Would not the presence of such Gentiles at the birth of Jesus have been meaningful for Luke’s Gentile-oriented Gospel? Why would he have omitted the flight to Egypt and return to Nazareth (Matt. 2:13-23); the story of the guards at the tomb (Matt. 27:62-66) and their report (Matt. 28:11-15); the unique Matthean material concerning the resurrection (Matt. 28:9-10, 16-20); and so on? Added to this is the observation that if Luke had before him Matthew’s birth account and genealogy, one wonders if he would not have sought in some way to ‘harmonize’ the one we have in his Gospel with the Matthean version (The Synoptic Problem, 102).

I say that Stein’s version of the argument is implicit, because he does not note that each of his examples is drawn from either the Infancy Narratives or the Resurrection Narratives (a point made by Mark Goodacre; The Case Against Q, 55).

An argument from the Infancy and Resurrection Narratives is legitimate in principle. If one Evangelist used the other then we would expect there to be traces of that in his presentation of Christ’s infancy and resurrection. If we find no such traces then that suggests Matthew and Luke wrote independently. And, in that case, the material they have in common would most probably be attributed to a lost source (Q).

However, before adopting this conclusion, we need to ask whether the two narratives are really so different from each other, whether they can be explained by Luke using Matthew or Matthew using Luke, or whether there are reasons why one Evangelist would avoid using the other in these parts of his Gospel.

This we will do in the next two posts.

Up next . . .

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Saint-Matthew_This post presents the results of a test I recently did in my ongoing look at the Synoptic Problem.

In what follows, I will be testing the claim that if Matthew used Mark, he abbreviated the material he found in Mark. Note the “if,” because it’s important. I am not here arguing that he did use Mark. That’s a topic to be discussed elsewhere.

Here goes . . .


The Issue at Hand

An important perception among biblical scholars is that, if Matthew drew material from the Gospel of Mark, he seems to have abbreviated this material.

The presumable reason for this would be to allow Matthew to have space to fit in all the other material he wanted to add to Mark and still keep his own Gospel the size of a single volume (either a single scroll or a single codex).

In The Four Gospels, B. H. Streeter gives several examples of how Matthew (apparently) shortened different sections or pericopes (per-IH-ko-PEES) of Mark. He notes how Matthew’s versions have fewer words in Greek than the corresponding pericopes in Mark.

However, in his book The Tendencies of the Synoptic Tradition, E. P. Sanders claimed that Matthew does not consistently shorten material from Mark. If you look at all the pericopes Matthew and Mark have in common, they’re fairly even in terms of overall word count. Matthew’s total word count for these pericopes is slightly shorter than Mark’s, but not by much, and most of the difference is grouped in just a handful of pericopes (see The Tendencies of the Synoptic Tradition, 82-87).

This, however, doesn’t strike me as the optimal test: Doing a straight pericope-to-pericope test could be misleading, since Matthew adds material from his own sources to pericopes.

For example, in the account of the Testing in the Wilderness, Mark has only a brief note that the event took place, but he doesn’t describe it in detail. Matthew does; he has the three “temptations” that the devil presents Christ with.

A better test, it occurred to me, would be to eliminate Matthew’s additions (like the three temptations) and see if we find that he shortened what remains.

Unfortunately, Sanders didn’t do this kind of test. Also unfortunately, I don’t know anybody else who has done this kind of test, either.


Why This Is Important

In Synoptic Problem studies, a good deal hinges on whether Matthew would have abbreviated the material he took from Mark, because that gives us a clue to the order of the two Gospels.

It’s much more likely, given the way ancient authors worked, that Matthew would have consistently tightened up Mark’s text than for Mark to consistently expand Matthew’s text in a sentence-by-sentence manner.

Therefore, if Matthew’s material looks like a tightened up version of Mark’s, Mark probably wrote first.

In view of the importance of the question at hand, I wanted to find the answer.

Fortunately, I realized that I had the tools available to do the test myself.


The Tools

Some time ago I began developing a synopsis of the four Gospels that presents both the English and the Greek text of each one in parallel columns.

(It’s not yet published, since I’m still adding new features to it, but I hope to publish it in the future.)

To develop this synopsis, I loaded the Greek and English text into a spreadsheet (Microsoft Excel) and matched the text up verse-by-verse. (Of course, the verse divisions, like the pericope divisions scholars use, are not in the original text, but they are useful.)

The advantage of having the material in a spreadsheet is that I’m able to sort and manipulate the synopsis in various ways that can’t be done with a synopsis printed on paper.

These sorting capabilities, I realized, would let me do the kind of test I wanted to do on Matthew and Mark. Using Excel, it shouldn’t be difficult to isolate the material needed from the two Gospels and then do a word count on the Greek text.

Excel doesn’t have a good word count tool (that I know of), but Microsoft Word does. (N.B. Although Greek has diacritical marks which could, in some character encodings, cause Word to think there were more words than there are, this would have applied to both texts equally and the overall result would remain valid. However, I verified that I was not using one of those character encodings so the word count should be accurate.)

Therefore, all I had to do was isolate the relevant material, paste the Greek text into Word, and see what the resulting word count was.

So I did the test.


Pass 1 of the Test

To isolate the relevant material, I took the following steps:

  1. I made a copy of the spreadsheet so I could manipulate it without harming the original.
  2. I struck all material related to Luke and John.
  3. I struck the longer ending of Mark (since it likely was not original and not what Matthew had in front of him).
  4. I struck all the pericopes in Mark that have no parallel in Matthew (allowing a pericope-to-pericope comparison)
  5. I struck all of the verses that Matthew contained which have no parallels in Mark. This represents the additions that Matthew would have made to Mark (thus allowing a more refined pericope-to-pericope test than the one Sanders did).
  6. I then pasted the resulting Greek text from both Gospels into Word.


  • Matthew: 8,114 words
  • Mark: 10,542 words

If Matthew used Mark, it would seem that he abbreviated the pericopes he used by 2,428 words or 23%, dropping almost one in four words.


Pass 2 of the Test

Although the above results should be the best way to look at the problem, a potential objection occurred to me: The above selection of material includes verses in Mark that Matthew would have omitted entirely.

It seems to me that these verses should be counted in the test (as in Pass 1). There is nothing to say that, in selecting material from Mark, Matthew couldn’t delete entire verses within a pericope. Indeed, the evidence indicates that he would have.

However, just to go the extra mile (to bend a phrase from Matthew 5:41), I decided to do a second pass of the test, eliminating the verses in Mark that had no parallel in Matthew (even though the pericopes that contained them did have a parallel in Matthew).

My prediction, if Matthew was shortening Mark, was that the Matthew material would still contain fewer words (since Matthew was tightening things up within verses as well as by deleting verses) though the result would be less pronounced.


  • Matthew: 8,114 words
  • Mark: 8,569 words

Thus if we compare just the verses that have direct parallels in both Gospels, it would seem that Matthew abbreviated these verses by 455 words or 5%, dropping about one word in twenty as he tightened up the text (aside from the whole verses he dropped).


Summary Thus Far

On both versions of the test, the data supports the conclusion that if Matthew used Mark, he abbreviated the material he took from it.

This is particularly clear on the better version of the test (Pass 1), but also true on the “go the extra mile” version of the test (Pass 2).

The difference in the results of the two passes indicates that Matthew would have done much of his abbreviation by dropping the contents of entire verses, while also tightening up the contents of the verses he retained.

The versions of the test that I did are a pair of rough-and-ready assessments that depended significantly on computers. A more refined, human-based, and scholarly version of this test could be performed in the future, but the results are likely to be the same in substance.


Verses Matthew Would Have Added to Mark’s Pericopes

Let’s complete our look at the issue by examining the verses that Matthew would have added to the pericopes he shares with Mark.

If the hypothesis is correct that Matthew abbreviated what he took from Mark to help make room for the additional information he wanted to add to his Gospel, we should find that most of the verses he added within these pericopes should be independently-sourced, value-added verses, providing new information rather than just restating what should be obvious or paraphrasing Mark in a somewhat wordier way.

By my count, there are 149 such verses. They are listed below, and you can see what they say by hovering your mouse over the individual verse citations.


Prophetic Fulfillments

Matthew is very interested in showing that Jesus fulfilled Old Testament prophecy.

As a result, it is not surprising that he would have added notes regarding how Jesus did so to pericopes he found in Mark. By my count, there would be 16 verses of this material:

  1. Matt. 4:14
  2. Matt. 4:15
  3. Matt. 4:16
  4. Matt. 8:17
  5. Matt. 12:17
  6. Matt. 12:18
  7. Matt. 12:19
  8. Matt. 12:20
  9. Matt. 12:21
  10. Matt. 13:14
  11. Matt. 13:15
  12. Matt. 13:35
  13. Matt. 21:4
  14. Matt. 21:5
  15. Matt. 27:9
  16. Matt. 27:10

For Matthew, these prophetic fulfillment notices counted as value-added content for the audience he was trying to reach, which particularly included Jewish Christians who would be specially interested in how Jesus fulfilled Old Testament prophecy.


Double Tradition (“Q”) Material

Additional value-added material is found in what is known as the “double tradition.”

This material also was seen as valuable by the Evangelist Luke, who also included it in his Gospel (hence “double tradition,” because it is found in two Gospels).

One question is where this material came from. Did Luke get it from Matthew? Did Matthew get it from Luke? Or did they both get it from a now lost source? Many modern scholars think the latter, and they have dubbed the proposed, lost source “Q.”

There are about 235 verses of the double tradition material in Matthew and Luke, but only some of them occur in the pericopes that Matthew would have taken from Mark.

To establish which ones, I compared these pericopes with the verses attributed to the double tradition in the International Q Project’s work, The Critical Edition of Q (Robinson, Hoffmann, Kloppenborg, ed.s). This may be deemed a neutral source in that it was not formulated with respect to the hypothesis we are presently testing.

By this reckoning, Matthew would have added about 42 verses of double tradition material to the pericopes he used from Mark:

  1. Matt. 3:7
  2. Matt. 3:8
  3. Matt. 3:9
  4. Matt. 3:10
  5. Matt. 3:12
  6. Matt. 4:3
  7. Matt. 4:4
  8. Matt. 4:5
  9. Matt. 4:6
  10. Matt. 4:7
  11. Matt. 4:8
  12. Matt. 4:9
  13. Matt. 4:10
  14. Matt. 4:13
  15. Matt. 5:13
  16. Matt. 10:6
  17. Matt. 10:7
  18. Matt. 10:8
  19. Matt. 10:15
  20. Matt. 10:16
  21. Matt. 10:19
  22. Matt. 10:24
  23. Matt. 10:25
  24. Matt. 12:27
  25. Matt. 12:28
  26. Matt. 12:30
  27. Matt. 12:32
  28. Matt. 13:16
  29. Matt. 13:17
  30. Matt. 15:14
  31. Matt. 16:3*
  32. Matt. 18:6
  33. Matt. 18:7
  34. Matt. 21:32*
  35. Matt. 24:26
  36. Matt. 24:27
  37. Matt. 24:28
  38. Matt. 24:37
  39. Matt. 24:38
  40. Matt. 24:39
  41. Matt. 24:40
  42. Matt. 24:41

(* The International Q Project lists these two verses as possibly but not definitely being part of Q in their estimation.)

Between this material and the prophetic fulfillments, so far 58 of the 149 verses that Matthew added to Markan pericopes would be independently-sourced and value-added.


Other New Traditions

Of course, the Old Testament and the double tradition were not Matthew’s only sources besides his proposed use of Mark. In addition to the above, there are at least 47 verses in which Matthew seems to have drawn on additional material from his own sources (eyewitness memory or otherwise):

  1. Matt. 5:14
  2. Matt. 5:16
  3. Matt. 10:12
  4. Matt. 10:13
  5. Matt. 10:17
  6. Matt. 10:18
  7. Matt. 10:20
  8. Matt. 10:21
  9. Matt. 10:22
  10. Matt. 10:23
  11. Matt. 12:7
  12. Matt. 12:11
  13. Matt. 12:12
  14. Matt. 12:22
  15. Matt. 13:12
  16. Matt. 14:28
  17. Matt. 14:29
  18. Matt. 14:30
  19. Matt. 14:31
  20. Matt. 15:12
  21. Matt. 15:13
  22. Matt. 16:2 (* This verse is plausibly grouped with a possible double tradition or “Q” saying in Matt. 16:3; otherwise the two verses would both belong to this list.)
  23. Matt. 16:17
  24. Matt. 16:18
  25. Matt. 16:19
  26. Matt. 18:10
  27. Matt. 19:10
  28. Matt. 19:11
  29. Matt. 19:12
  30. Matt. 21:28
  31. Matt. 21:29
  32. Matt. 21:30
  33. Matt. 21:31
  34. Matt. 24:10
  35. Matt. 24:11
  36. Matt. 24:12
  37. Matt. 26:52
  38. Matt. 27:3
  39. Matt. 27:4
  40. Matt. 27:5
  41. Matt. 27:6
  42. Matt. 27:7
  43. Matt. 27:8
  44. Matt. 27:19
  45. Matt. 27:52
  46. Matt. 27:53
  47. Matt. 28:4

Adding these verses to the preceding, 105 of the 149 verses that Matthew added to Markan pericopes would seem to be independently-sourced, value-added material for him.


Possible Extrapolations

We now come to the most problematic of our categories, which consists of material that Matthew may have been able to extrapolate from what he had before him in Mark but that also could have derived from his own sources (including eyewitness memory or other testimony).

Much of this material deals with reactions, such as how different persons or groups reacted to what Jesus said and did.

If Matthew derived it from his own sources, then it would properly be grouped with the material in the other categories we have examined—particularly, the previous category, as independent material that Matthew saw as adding value to his narrative.

If he extrapolated the material from what he found in Mark, this also added value, but in a different way—for example, helping bring out the deeper significance of what happened in particular incidents in Jesus’ ministry.

It would not, however, represent the addition of new material to Markan pericopes in the way the previous three categories would have.

By my count, there are up to 37 verses that could belong to this category.

How many you think should belong to it will depend on how much freedom you think Matthew allowed himself to extrapolate from his sources.

My own feeling is that some of this material was likely derived from independent sources (meaning that, in the ideal, it should be reclassified into one of the above categories, particularly the previous one) but that some of it would have been extrapolated from Mark.

However, for purposes of testing our hypothesis that Matthew abbreviated Mark to include value-added material, I have been as generous as possible with the extrapolation hypothesis, thus erring on the side of Matthew extrapolating from Mark.

Here are the 37 verses:

  1. Matt. 3:2
  2. Matt. 3:14
  3. Matt. 3:15
  4. Matt. 9:26
  5. Matt. 12:5
  6. Matt. 12:6
  7. Matt. 12:23
  8. Matt. 15:23
  9. Matt. 15:24
  10. Matt. 15:25
  11. Matt. 15:31
  12. Matt. 16:12
  13. Matt. 16:27
  14. Matt. 17:6
  15. Matt. 17:7
  16. Matt. 17:13
  17. Matt. 18:3
  18. Matt. 18:4
  19. Matt. 21:10
  20. Matt. 21:11
  21. Matt. 21:20
  22. Matt. 21:43
  23. Matt. 21:46
  24. Matt. 22:33
  25. Matt. 22:38
  26. Matt. 22:40
  27. Matt. 22:46
  28. Matt. 26:25
  29. Matt. 26:44
  30. Matt. 26:50
  31. Matt. 26:53
  32. Matt. 27:21
  33. Matt. 27:25
  34. Matt. 27:26
  35. Matt. 27:43
  36. Matt. 28:2
  37. Matt. 28:3

Because of the ambiguous nature of this material, we cannot establish a definite number of verses that would have independently-sourced, value-added material.

If none of these verses were counted that way, we would still have 105 of 149 verses being independently-sourced, value-added material.

If all of them were counted that way then we would have 141 of 149 verses counted that way.

The truth is likely between these two figures.


Bridging Material

Our final category is what I am calling bridging material. These are verses that are likely extrapolated by Matthew to bridge one section of his narrative with another, based on what he had in front of him in Mark.

For example, Matthew 26:1 reads, “When Jesus had finished all these sayings, he said to his disciples. . . .” This bridges the end of the sayings discourse in Matthew 23-25 with the material that follows it in chapter 26. It is thus something Matthew likely derived neither from Mark (because it isn’t there) nor from other, independent sources but was extrapolated for literary purposes to bridge one section of his narrative with another.

By my reckoning, there are 7 such verses in the pericopes that Matthew would have taken from Mark:

  1. Matt. 8:1
  2. Matt. 13:18
  3. Matt. 14:18
  4. Matt. 15:29
  5. Matt. 22:34
  6. Matt. 26:1
  7. Matt. 27:36

With a high degree of probability, these represent verses that Matthew did not derive from independent sources but used to bridge material he found in Mark with other sections of his narrative.

They do not, however, affect the totals arrived at above: It would still appear that between 105 and 141 of the 149 verses that Matthew added to the Markan pericopes he used came from independent, value-adding sources.



While scholars might argue with the specific numbers offered above, it remains true that Matthew would have added between approximately 105 and 141 independently-sourced, value-added verses among the approximately 149 verses he would have added to the Markan pericopes he used.

In view of this, Matthew would not have extrapolated enough material from what he found in Mark to overturn the conclusion arrived in the first part of our test: It still appears that Matthew significantly shortened the material he found in Mark to include independently-sourced, value-added material.

Future research may change the numbers involved somewhat, but it is unlikely to change the fundamental conclusion.

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pope-francis2This version of The Weekly Francis covers material released in the last week from 19 November 2015 to 31 December 2015.


Daily Homilies (fervorinos)

General Audiences




Papal Tweets

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Lum and Abner was an Old Time Radio show that was kind of like a radio predecessor of The Andy Griffith Show.

It was about two homespun characters–Lum and Abner–who ran a general store in the town of Pine Ridge, Arkansas.

They had a series of comedic adventures with their fellow townspeople, as well as city slickers passing through Pine Ridge.

The series was very popular and ran from the 1930s to the 1950s. They made around 5,000 episodes, but only about a third of them survive.

One that does survive is the 1938 Christmas episode. It aired on December 23, 1938, and it’s an amazing 15 minutes of radio.

Taking a break from their usual comedy adventures, Lum and Abner do a heartfelt Christmas episode of a kind that would never be made for radio or television today. In fact, it’s guaranteed to be unlike any other Christmas episode you’ve ever heard.

One of the fascinating things about it is that the producers refuse to tell you exactly what is happening in this episode. They let you decide for yourself whether it’s all just a big coincidence, whether it’s incredibly timey-wimey, or whether it’s something even stranger.

So take a listen, and decide for yourself.

Use the video or podcast below or click this link if you’re reading by email:


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star-wars-charactersOne of the challenges J.J. Abrams and company had in making Star Wars: The Force Awakens was making things feel familiar, yet different.

That includes the main cast. Our new heroes needed to evoke Luke, Leia, and Han without being carbon copies of them.

The solution they opted for was to take the character traits of the original team and re-mix them.

(Minor spoilers ahead, but only minor ones.)

This was the same solution that Gene Roddenberry used when making Star Trek: The Next Generation—he took the character traits of the original cast of characters and shuffled and altered them. Thus:

  • Captain Kirk, the leader and action hero, got split into two characters (Picard and Riker)
  • Mr. Spock, the superintelligent alien who’s half-human and has limited telepathy, got split into three characters (Data, Worf, and Troi)
  • Dr. McCoy got turned into a series of women (Dr. Crusher, Dr. Pulaski, Dr. Crusher)

So how do the old Star Wars heroes get mapped onto the new ones?

I made the following table to explore that idea.

Not all elements of the table have the same weight, and some could be looked at more than one way, but I think they did a decent job of the remix.

A few observations:

  • Rey is the most complex of the characters, which is natural, because she is the main character. This, along with her complexity and a number of specifics, makes her most like Luke, though she has obvious elements from Leia and Han.
  • Reviewers immediately picked up on the fact that Poe Dameron is closest to Han Solo in terms of his personality, which makes him closest to Han, though he contains elements of Luke and Leia.
  • Finn’s connections with the original trio are the weakest (in substance, even if this isn’t reflected in the table). This means that he is the most original character of the bunch and may have the most potential to go interesting places as a character.

Doing character trait remixes is most important for the main characters.

In Next Gen, they needed to make sure that nobody was a carbon copy of Kirk or Spock, but after that it became less important to remix character elements.

In the same way, The Force Awakens needed to make sure nobody would be a carbon copy of Luke, Leia, or Han, but after that remixing didn’t matter as much. As a result, the characters in the supporting cast are easier to map onto their equivalents in the original trilogy:

  • R2-D2 becomes BB-8
  • Darth Vader becomes Kylo Ren
  • Emperor Palpatine becomes Supreme Leader Snoke
  • Grand Moff Tarkin becomes General Hux
  • Yoda is like Maz Kanada
  • Boba Fett is similar to Captain Phasma (a comparison the actress herself has made)

Your thoughts?

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popefrancisThis version of The Weekly Francis covers material released in the last week from 29 November 2015 to 14 December 2015.


General Audiences




Papal Tweets

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pope francis daily homilyIn a recent post, canonist Dr. Edward Peters offers some interesting reflections on a puzzling phenomenon: Why are there statements issued by the pope and by offices at the Vatican that are expressly flagged as being “non-magisterial”?

The Magisterium of the Church is its teaching office, which consists of the pope and the bishops of the world in union with him (CCC 85).

It can be surprising, therefore, when comments made by the pope or by Vatican offices deal with matters of faith and morals and yet are expressly identified as non-magisterial.

How does that work?

Dr. Peters seems skeptical that it does work. In his post, he seems to entertain the idea that such statements are magisterial, even if those who issue them do not recognize them as such. In other words, these acts have a magisterial character even if those making them did not have the intent to issue magisterial statements. He writes:

[T]he relationship between an intention behind, and the nature of, an act is complex; the lawyer in me knows that much. But lately, a rising number of persons seem to think that they can control the characterization of their act simply by declaring an intentionality for their act. That’s a very slippery slope. As a rule, I think an intention to perform an act is relevant to one’s responsibility for the act, but is not dispositive of the characterization of the act.

Consequently, he concludes:

Popes who make deliberate assertions about faith or morals in public remarks are contributing, in a small way, to the ordinary magisterium of the Church; dicasterial prelates who make deliberate assertions about faith or morals in materials published through the Holy See are contributing, in a small way, to the ordinary magisterium of the Church.

The view that Dr. Peters proposes is attractive in that it would make it very easy to determine whether an act is magisterial. It would not settle the question of what level of authority the magisterium was investing in an assertion, but it would make it clear that the assertion is backed by the Church’s teaching authority.

As attractive as the proposal may be, it is evidently not how officials in Rome view the matter. This is made clear by the number of statements we find coming from the relevant figures and documents that particular statements are not magisterial though they fit Dr. Peters’ criteria.

This also is not a new phenomenon. It goes back years. Although I have not done a thorough study of the question, I am aware of non-magisterial interventions (that touch on matters of faith or morals) from offices connected with the Holy See going back at least to the 1960s.

What I’d like to do here is look at some of the factors that, I suspect, are behind the decision to flag certain statements as non-magisterial and why these are more common today.


1) Binding Authority

At the root of the decision to flag statements as non-magisterial is the fact that magisterial statements are authoritative and bind the consciences of believers. This is true even when the Church’s infallibility is not being engaged. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

Divine assistance is also given to the successors of the apostles, teaching in communion with the successor of Peter, and, in a particular way, to the bishop of Rome, pastor of the whole Church, when, without arriving at an infallible definition and without pronouncing in a “definitive manner,” they propose in the exercise of the ordinary Magisterium a teaching that leads to better understanding of Revelation in matters of faith and morals.

To this ordinary teaching the faithful “are to adhere to it with religious assent” which, though distinct from the assent of faith, is nonetheless an extension of it (CCC 892).

Even the ordinary teaching of the Magisterium has binding authority—it calls for the faithful to adhere to it with “religious assent.”

Knowing that, put yourself in the position of a pope. The responsibilities of the papal office are amazingly daunting—even superhuman—and it is easy to see how a pope would blanch at the prospect of binding the consciences of the faithful every time he says anything about faith or morals in public.

People are going to come to the pope, publicly, with questions, and he’s not going to have the leisure to privately study, pray, meditate, and consult the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith about precisely how to formulate every answer.

Even without a question being posed to him, a pope may feel it would be helpful to propose an idea for the consideration of the faithful without binding them to believe it.

A classic example of this is the discussion of the fire of purgatory in Benedict XVI’s encyclical Spe Salvi, where he writes:

Some recent theologians are of the opinion that the fire which both burns and saves is Christ himself, the Judge and Savior. The encounter with him is the decisive act of judgment. Before his gaze all falsehood melts away. This encounter with him, as it burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves (Spe Salvi 47).

The question of what purgatory’s fire consists of has been a thorny one, with Medieval theologians pondering how what they took to be a physical fire could affect an immaterial soul. More recently, theologians including Fr. Joseph Ratzinger proposed that the fire is better understood as a symbol of a transforming encounter with Christ (see his book Eschatology).

In writing his encyclical, Benedict XVI apparently wanted to give the new proposal official recognition without requiring theologians and the faithful to reject other understandings of purgatorial fire. By proposing it as a theological opinion—rather than a Church teaching—he made it clear that this is a permitted and even a favored view but not the only one possible.

This example represents one way a pope can propose a theological idea without imposing it, but there are others—including making an explicit statement that a particular act is non-magisterial. Benedict XVI also did this in writing his series Jesus of Nazareth. In the introduction to the first volume of that work, he famously wrote:

It goes without saying that this book is in no way an exercise of the magisterium, but is solely an expression of my personal search “for the face of the Lord” (cf. Ps 27:8). Everyone is free, then, to contradict me. I would only ask my readers for that initial goodwill without which there can be no understanding.

In any event, popes—and, by extension, various departments at the Vatican—feel the need to be able to say things connected with faith and morals in public without binding the consciences of believers to accept them.

They want the freedom to be able to propose (even officially propose, as in Spe Salvi) without being forced to impose.


2) Broad Engagement

Magisterial officials could, of course, refrain from engaging on questions where they are not prepared to bind the consciences of the faithful. They could limit their public statements to only those matters where they want the faithful to give religious assent.

This can also be an attractive proposition. It would make it much easier for the faithful to determine what they are required to believe versus where they can have “a legitimate diversity of opinion” (to borrow a phrase from Cardinal Ratzinger).

It would also mean shorter and fewer Vatican documents, and it would mean that the Holy See would not stray as far into questions of economics or ecology as it presently does.

To cite just one example, Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si’ contains large amounts of material that, properly speaking, are not matters of faith or morals but rather assessments of environmental science, economic matters, and so forth. All of this material would go if the Holy See chose to restrict itself to binding statements of faith and morals.

But this is easier said than done, because there is a fuzzy boundary between matters of faith and morals and those that are related to them (a fact noted by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; see section 24 of its 1990 instruction Donum Veritatis).

Further, in order to make statements on faith and morals understood, it is often necessary to set them in a context that refers to related but still distinct topics (e.g., how are you going to talk about the moral principles underlying economic systems without talking about economic systems themselves? Or how are you going to talk about the moral principles involved in reproductive technologies without talking about biology and technology?).

While it could strike a different balance than it has at present, the Magisterium could not fundamentally pull back from such matters without reconceptualizing its mission and sharply limiting its engagement with society.

This it has not chosen to do. In fact, there has never been a time in Church history when the Holy See and the Magisterium did not conduct a form of broad, societal engagement.

The Holy See’s present involvement with the United Nations is one manifestation of that. So were the papal states. So was Pope Leo I’s negotiation with Attila the Hun.

Even in the New Testament itself, we see the Magisterium presiding over charity relief efforts (Acts 6:1-6, 1 Tim. 5:16).

Of course, when the Corinthians wrote St. Paul for advice about marriage, he could have said, “I’m sorry, but I’m only going to tell you the points of faith and morals for which I have a specific command from the Lord,” but he didn’t. He also gave them pastoral advice which was not binding as matters of faith and morals (see 1 Cor. 7:1-40).

In fact, at one point he explicitly notes that he is going beyond what the Lord mandates and is offering his own opinion (1 Cor. 7:10)!

The fact is, officials of the Magisterium have always understood their mission as more than just articulating what the faithful must believe. Since the first century, they have understood it as involving broader engagement, including pastoral advice, theological speculation, and social/political questions (see also the writings of the Apostolic Fathers).

As long as this is the case—and there is no sign that it will change—it can be helpful for Magisterial officials to note when they are and aren’t trying to bind the consciences of the faithful through a magisterial act.


3) Global Awareness

The interconnectedness of the globe in the last few years has added new reason for members of the Magisterium to clarify when they are not invoking their authority.

In the fifth century, when Leo I was giving a daily homily, the only people who heard it were those in attendance. He may have had a scribe keep a copy of it in his personal archives, but it was not covered by global media and flashed around the world at the speed of light.

As a result, in the days before telecommunications, popes had much greater liberty to speak informally to their flock, as a local pastor, without having to engage their authority as the supreme pastor and teacher of all Christians.

Today, nobody who works at the Vatican can say anything without the potential for it to generate world headlines like, “Pope Says This!” or “Pope Condemns That!”—even if the pope had nothing to do with the remark.

Given the intense, global scrutiny of everything said at the Holy See, there is additional reason for clarifications about what is and is not binding on the consciences of believers.

This sheds light on the Holy See’s current practice regarding the fervorinos, or daily homilies, preached by Pope Francis at the Casa Santa Marta. The Holy See Press Office has indicated that these are not magisterial—one reason being that the pope would need to review, edit, and approve the texts after the fact, and he has determined that he has more pressing things to do.

It is easy to understand how Francis could desire the same freedom that every parish priest has—and that all of his pre-telecommunications predecessors had—to simply preach a homily without automatically binding the consciences of the faithful.



There is more that can be said about this fascinating subject, but it seems to me that we have identified three factors prompting the Holy See (and local bishops) to flag certain statements they issue as non-magisterial:

  • They want to be able to propose ideas without imposing them
  • They want to engage on a broad array of subjects, including ones that have a fuzzy boundary with matters of faith and morals
  • They are under greater scrutiny than ever in history, with a correspondingly greater risk of misunderstanding

All of these factors give them reason to make it clear when they are not binding the consciences of the faithful, and often saying “this is not a magisterial statement” is a useful way to do that.

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vatican-document-jewish-religionThe Holy See has released a new document dealing with the Jewish people, salvation, and evangelization.

Here are 9 things to know and share . . .


1) What is the new document?

It’s titled The Gifts and the Calling of God are Irrevocable (GCGI), and it was released by the Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews.

The title is a quotation from St. Paul, who refers to how the Jewish people “are beloved for the sake of their forefathers. For the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable” (Rom. 11:28-29).

The document itself commemorates the fiftieth anniversary of Vatican II’s decree Nostra Aetate, which dealt with the Church’s relations with other religions and, in particular, with Judaism.


2) What authority does the new document have?

The preface to the document states:

The text is not a magisterial document or doctrinal teaching of the Catholic Church, but is a reflection prepared by the Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews on current theological questions that have developed since the Second Vatican Council.

It therefore does not carry magisterial authority. Of course, when it repeats existing magisterial teaching, that is authoritative.

When it doesn’t, it offers insights into the Holy See’s current thinking. That includes the thinking of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which was involved in the drafting of the document and approved it before publication (as made clear at he press conference where the document was released).


3) What does the document contain?

It contains seven sections. The first surveys the history of Jewish-Catholic relations in the last fifty years, and the last deals with goals for the dialogue between the two communities (e.g., deeper understanding of each other, practical cooperation on social problems).

The middle sections deal with various theological questions.

Section 2 deals with the unique status of Jewish-Catholic dialogue. It makes the point that Christianity is rooted in Judaism, that Jesus and the first Christians were Jews, and that this means that the Church relates differently to Judaism than to any other world religion.

Section 3 deals with God’s revelation in the course of history and how it is viewed by the two communities. It notes, in particular, that for Jews the Torah (Genesis through Deuteronomy) is fundamental, while for Christians Jesus Christ is fundamental.

Section 4 deals with the relationship between the Old and New Testaments and between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant.

Section 5 deals with the universality of salvation in Christ and God’s unrevoked covenant with Israel.

Finally, section 6 deals with the Church’s mandate to evangelize in relation to Judaism.

In each of these sections there are a number of positive and encouraging points.


4) What are some of the positive and encouraging points?

There is too much material to unpack in detail, but some particular points of note deal with:

  • Supersessionism
  • The Old Covenant
  • Salvation
  • Evangelization


5) What is supersessionism, and what does the document say about it?

Supersessionism is the view that the Church has completely taken over the promises of God regarding Israel, so that today the Jewish people have no special status whatsoever.

The document notes that, although this view has been common in some periods of Church history, it is not the teaching of the Church.

In fact, the title of the document itself indicates a rejection of supersessionism: St. Paul’s point is that God still loves the Jewish people and they still have a special status before him, for he gave them gifts and a calling which are irrevocable.

Thus the document states:

The Church is called the new people of God (cf. “Nostra aetate”, No.4) but not in the sense that the people of God of Israel has ceased to exist (GCGI 23).


6) What does the document say about the Old Covenant?

It repeats established Church teaching that the covenant God made with Israel remains valid and has not been revoked.

Interestingly, it points out that this teaching was not articulated by Nostra Aetate but was first taught explicitly by St. John Paul II in 1980 (GCGI 39).

The document thus quotes the Catechism when it says:

The Old Covenant has never been revoked (CCC 121).

What, precisely, this means is something that the document does not explore fully. However, here is a helpful discussion by Cardinal Avery Dulles.


7) What does the document say about salvation?

In the last few years a view has been proposed that there are two paths to salvation, one for Jews and one for Christians. We each have a covenant with God, the reasoning goes, so these are means of saving grace for both of us. There is no need for Jews to become Christians or for Christians to proclaim Jesus to Jews. They have their own arrangements with God, which are quite sufficient for them.

As attractive as this view might be for letting one off the hook with respect to evangelization, particularly in light of the historical persecution of Jews by Christians in many places, it is utterly inconsistent with the biblical data.

Jesus wasn’t a gentile, and he did not die just for the sins of gentiles. He was a Jew, he died to redeem the Jewish people as well, and he made sure that the gospel was proclaimed first and foremost to the Jewish people in his own day. His first followers were Jews, and he told them, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me” (John 14:6).

Correspondingly, his Jewish followers understood that “there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).

The “two paths” view proceeds from a fundamentally mistaken understanding of the Christian message, made possible in part by severing Christianity from its Jewish roots and treating it in an ahistorical manner, as if it were purely a gentile phenomenon.

The good news is that the new document rejects the two paths view, both forcefully and repeatedly:

Therefore there are not two paths to salvation according to the expression “Jews hold to the Torah, Christians hold to Christ.” Christian faith proclaims that Christ’s work of salvation is universal and involves all mankind. God’s word is one single and undivided reality which takes concrete form in each respective historical context. . . .

Since God has never revoked his covenant with his people Israel, there cannot be different paths or approaches to God’s salvation. The theory that there may be two different paths to salvation, the Jewish path without Christ and the path with the Christ, whom Christians believe is Jesus of Nazareth, would in fact endanger the foundations of Christian faith. Confessing the universal and therefore also exclusive mediation of salvation through Jesus Christ belongs to the core of Christian faith. . . . [T]he Church and Judaism cannot be represented as “two parallel ways to salvation” . . .

[T]he Christian confession that there can be only one path to salvation . . .

There cannot be two ways of salvation, therefore, since Christ is also the Redeemer of the Jews in addition to the Gentiles (GCGI 25, 35, 36, 37).

One gets the sense that the authors of the document really wanted to nail the coffin shut on the two paths view, and this is heartening, for they are correct: The unique role of Jesus as the Savior of all mankind—Jews included—is fundamental to the Christian faith.


8) Does the document imply that non-Christian Jews cannot be saved?

No, and one would not expect it to. The Church acknowledges that salvation is possible for people who, through no fault of their own, do not embrace the Christian faith in this life. Thus Vatican II stated:

Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience (Lumen Gentium 16).

In such cases, because Christ is the Savior of all men, it is still through Jesus that these people are saved. They simply do not realize that in this life.

Consequently, it is not a surprise when the new document states:

From the Christian confession that there can be only one path to salvation, however, it does not in any way follow that the Jews are excluded from God’s salvation because they do not believe in Jesus Christ as the Messiah of Israel and the Son of God (GCGI 36).

What is a bit surprising is that, instead of pointing to the Church’s established teaching that people who do not embrace the Christian faith through no fault of their own can be saved, the document points to elements in St. Paul’s thought in an attempt to show that he would have recognized the possibility of salvation for non-Christian Jews.

This part of the document is not repeating existing Church teaching, and so it is open to question. Personally, I need to think through the argument they make to see how well it works.

It also says:

That the Jews are participants in God’s salvation is theologically unquestionable, but how that can be possible without confessing Christ explicitly, is and remains an unfathomable divine mystery.

The first part of that is true, but I am not sure what they mean by reference to it being an unfathomable mystery, unless they have in mind the mysterious way in which God applies his grace extra-sacramentally to all non-Christians who are saved.


9) What does the document say about evangelization?

It acknowledges that Christians have a duty to evangelize and that this includes Jewish people.

Many in the media and the blogosphere got this wrong (big surprise) and reported that the Holy See was saying that Christians should not evangelize Jews, but the document says otherwise.

The document did say that evangelizing Jewish people is a sensitive matter for multiple reasons, including the fact that for many Jews it seems to call into question their continued existence as a people and the fact that the history of Christian persecution of Jews, including the 20th century German Holocaust, hangs over the discussion.

It then draws a distinction between the Church supporting particular efforts directed to Jewish evangelization and the ordinary, organic efforts of individual Christians in sharing their faith with Jews.

Regarding the former, the document says:

In concrete terms this means that the Catholic Church neither conducts nor supports any specific institutional mission work directed towards Jews (GCGI 40).

The key word here is “institutional.” It’s saying that the Church doesn’t have a Pontifical Commission for the Conversion of Jews and that it does not provide support for independent institutions devoted to Jewish mission work (e.g., Catholic equivalents of Jews for Jesus).

The document goes on to say that “there is a principled rejection of an institutional Jewish mission.”

What principle they have in mind, I am not sure. One might understand why—for practical reasons—the Church does not have a dicastery of the Roman curia devoted to Jewish evangelization and not lend support to independent organizations doing this work.

For the Church to conduct or officially support institutional efforts at Jewish evangelization, in light of the history, could inflame Jewish sensibilities and serve as an impediment to the effective sharing of the gospel with Jewish individuals.

However, if they have something in mind beyond that, I am not sure what it is.

Despite the fact that the Church does not conduct institutional efforts directed to Jewish evangelization, the document acknowledges that Christians can and must share their faith with Jews, stating:

Christians are nonetheless called to bear witness to their faith in Jesus Christ also to Jews, although they should do so in a humble and sensitive manner, acknowledging that Jews are bearers of God’s Word, and particularly in view of the great tragedy of the Shoah [i.e., the Holocaust] (GCGI 40).

And thus membership in the Church is for Jewish as well as gentile believers in Christ:

Jesus . . . calls his Church from both Jews and Gentiles (cf. Eph 2:11-22) on the basis of faith in Christ and by means of baptism, through which there is incorporation into his Body which is the Church (GCGI 41).

It is and remains a qualitative definition of the Church of the New Covenant that it consists of Jews and Gentiles, even if the quantitative proportions of Jewish and Gentile Christians may initially give a different impression [GCGI 43]

Far from rejecting the idea that the gospel should be shared with Jesus’ own people, the new document calls for individuals Christians—Jewish and gentile—to share it with them, and in a loving and sensitive way.

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