What is Source Criticism?


Source Criticism and Form Criticism both attempt to get behind the text of the gospels in order to understand how the written Gospels were formed. As the name implies, Source Criticism seeks to identify the sources the Gospel writers used when they wrote their gospels. For the most part, the Synoptic Gospels are treated separate from John, since Source Criticism is easier to do when studying the Synoptic Gospels since they are so similar in content and order.

The Synoptic Problem

Source Criticism is necessary because of what has become known as the “Synoptic Problem.” There are many parallel passages between Matthew, Mark and Luke. Sometimes the wording is identical, sometimes it is very similar, but there are some examples of very different wording.

The baptism of Jesus is an example of a problem passage where one of the gospel writers appears to have changed the one of the others.  In Mark 1:10 and Luke 3:22 the voice from Heaven addresses Jesus saying “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”  But in Matthew 3:17 the voice addresses John the Baptist (or the crowd) saying “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”  Clearly this is a singular event, only occurring one time in Jesus ministry.  How are we to account for this apparent change by Matthew?

Another difficult passage is Matthew 19:17, Mark 10:18 and Luke 18:19. Each of these parallels describer the same event.  In Mark and Luke, a rich young ruler comes to Jesus says “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  In Matthew, the “Good Teacher” is simply “Teacher” and the question is “What good thing must I do to get eternal life?” One of the two writers reports the question in a different form although they do not change the essential point of the question. Perhaps Matthew’s motivation is to avoid the potentially awkward problem of Jesus not wanting to be called “good.”

Possible Solutions

One possibility is Matthew wrote his gospel first, Luke used Matthew to write his gospel, then Mark wrote last, reducing the two longer gospels by removing some of the longer sermons found in Matthew and Luke (the Sermon on the Mount, for example). Alternatively, Mark could have written first, Matthew used Mark’s general outline and supplemented it with long sermons by Jesus. Luke then used Matthew as his main source, supplementing it with his own material.

A second possibility is Mark wrote first, and Matthew and Luke wrote more or less at the same time, using Mark’s Gospel as an outline. They supplemented Mark’s Gospel with sayings of Jesus drawn from another source. This would account for the general outline of Mark present in both Matthew and Luke as well as the common body of Jesus sayings in Matthew and Luke. Scholars called this “sayings source” Q, short for the German word Quelle, source. (I will have a bit more on this source in the next post). This two-source hypothesis is sometimes supplemented with two additional sources, the material unique to Matthew (M) and Luke (L), such as the Birth Narratives.

A third (less likely) possibility is complete independence. The Gospel writers did not know each other and collected similar material. There only appears to have been some literary dependence because the material all comes from the same common source.

Any one of these solutions (or the bewildering number of variations on them) are at least possible and there is no “liberal or conservative” answer here. What is a problem for some beginning Gospels students is the point of the exercise. What does it really matter if we read Matthew or Mark as the earliest Gospel? Does it really matter if Matthew used Mark and Q to write his Gospel? Sometimes Source Criticism seems like a pointless exercise.

I would suggest that Source Criticism is important because it establishes continuity between oral teachings of Jesus and the written Gospels. If there was some sort of a sayings source, it stands between Jesus’ original words and the gospel of Matthew. Source Criticism also reduces the possibility of early Christians simply creating words to put in Jesus’ mouth. Source criticism also helps illuminate the theological interests of the Gospel writer.

Is there anything to fear from probing into the origins of the Gospels using the methods of Source Criticism? Or maybe a better question, is there anything to gain from Source Criticism?