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.

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.

Lack of SourceThe 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.”

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?

16 thoughts on “What is Source Criticism?

  1. Is there anything to fear? What a question! What thoughts arise to a simple mind when difficult questions are asked say by a legally trained person in the way that the story of the sliced ear was decomposed by Larry Behrendt recently. What’s left to me when all the questions are asked and I have no response nor any fuller and better questions? I wonder these days if I will ever take comfort from the NT again. I find myself looking for rhetoric rather than testimony to see if there is any juice left in the decomposed story. Why should Matthew care about the adjective good even if it was abused? Is there no good? Was Matthew a Calvinist? God forbid! Even God applied the attribute good to the creation? So why should not the man created in God’s image, the male and female, the complete human, not be called good. (Even though the work of the sixth day is never called good by itself. There’s another argument for evolution, BTW – we live in the sixth day – who will make it into the Sabbath?)

    Plenty to fear in this aged mind.

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  2. Source criticism is a very unique way to study the bible in order to find the source of the text. This type of criticism is prevalent because of the ‘problem’ in the synoptic gospels. This problem entails the connections between Matthew, Mark and Luke and how they slightly differ in word selection. I personally think that Mark was the first source used because of the fact in our text that says, “Mark contains 93% of the information in Matthew and Luke”. This statistic is hard to read over and truly makes me think that Mark was the source used for Matthew and Luke. Thinking this, there is still possible fears of probing into the origins of the Gospels using this method. For example, it would be easy to get caught up in the sources that the actual message would be overlooked.

    I agree that source criticism “is important because it establishes continuity between oral teaching of Jesus and the written Gospels”. This proves that the source of the Gospels wasn’t a tale, but true words that were written down and put together in the Gospel we read today. I think there is a lot of things that we can take away from this method because there are always things to discover if we dive deeper in the text. Romans 15:4 says, “For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope”. According to this, all scripture is for our learning so I think we should study it from all different angles and perspectives in order to get a better understanding. Although there are some dangers to methods like this, with the right attitude I think there is a lot we could gain from source criticism.

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  3. I have found in my own life that it is really easy to become complacent about reading the Bible and pushing myself to understand it further. I think one of the ways that we as Christians can grow spiritually is to challenge and find out where what we are reading comes from and why. A good parallel to this is simply reading something on the internet and believe it as truth. Well, if there is no proof behind it, or even if there is, how do we know it is true? If we do not challenge those facts, we could move on and continually have false information implanted in our minds. If we use this kind of thinking for the way we dig in scripture and base our beliefs off of it, then we might go our whole lives on false information or a misconception.
    This might seem a bit over dramatic, but at the same time it is a habit that we should not be lazy about. Criticizing scripture is just one way to get a larger and more in depth view of what went on during that time period.
    What we can see from 2 Timothy 3:16 is “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness,”. We should understand that Scripture is true, but there is no harm in trying to find out why it is true. Or where it comes from. The time and place of events, who wrote it, and a different way of looking at what is being said.
    Overall, pushing scripture and trying our best to understand all perspectives on scripture is what we should do in order to grow with a well rounded knowledge of the Bible. Like a musician learning a music piece for a recital or concert, they do not just skim over the music and get the rough idea or feel for the song. They have to know the song forwards and backwards and all by memory. Every single dynamic change and the overall feel for the song. We music approach learning and understanding scripture with the same intentions to truly grasp what the Scriptures are saying.

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  4. Source criticism is used a lot today. So many people are concerned about giving credit to where it is due. In this case it is about having accurate information. Everybody debates about the bible because the bible has so many ambiguous statements that need extra interpretation. I know that I have a hard time distinguishing between what is the truth and what is a lie., and also believing how the message wouldn’t get messed up through oral teachings. Obviously everything in the bible is true, but it is hard to know the full meaning behind a phrase, and each word that is changed can change the meaning of a passage. I really like the statement about the importance of using source criticism. The bible is the inspired Word of God, and He is the ultimate source. It’s not always something to believe when there are many different ways that God used other people to carry out His work.

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  5. I think that source criticism may be necessary and overall good. I think that looking into those verses with the words just being slightly changed is good for us to look at, I think stepping back and trying to dissect what is being said and who is saying it, asking these questions are very good for us to determine what the truth is. I do not think we can just get stuck in the thinking that there is a specific one right answer for certain questions, when in reality it is probably just an opinion. We just need to do our best to read the Scripture for what it is truly saying, studying the Word and learning the background is what will help us with that, but even then it seems someone can argue something different.

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  6. I think the only thing we have to fear in source criticism is if it were to begin to cause division or dissension. As one of those “beginning Gospel students,” I do sometimes struggle to see the point of this exercise. I really understand and have enjoyed other forms of Gospel criticism. Historical criticism, for example, makes sense to help us understand what Jesus truly meant in his day, as opposed to how we may interpret it today. I understand, as N.T. Wright has been emphasizing in the first few chapters of The Challenge of Jesus, that we can often times miss something that would have been obvious to the people of that time period. It may be tough for us to recognize that the parable of the Prodigal Son actually implied pretty clearly to the people of the day that the Kingdom of God was upon them.

    However, source criticism still seems less important to me. What difference does it really make who wrote first? I think it is interesting to study and think about, but it is hard for me to understand how source criticism should have any large implications to my Gospel study.

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  7. I believe that whether or not someone is fearful of probing into the history of the Gospels depends on their purpose of searching. If they are searching for persuasive reasons, if they can’t find proof then it’s not real, then yes than I believe than it can be fearful. Their faith in Jesus is not built on a strong foundation and will be taken away in the waves and winds of the world, Ephesians 4:14. But if one is digging into the history out of interest and the final destination of their research held no weight to their belief in Jesus, than I don’t believe that fear would be relevant. Before I read the article above I was skeptical about all the focus on criticism, but there was a sentence that changed my perspective, “Source criticism also helps illuminate the theological interests of the Gospel writer” (P Long). It brings to light the relationship that the Gospel writers had, and it allows readers to read different portions of the Gospel through different sets of eyes. Source criticism is used to, “determine their relationship to one another” (Strauss 50). I believe that the Gospels are written differently for a unique purpose. Source criticism opens up another realm into understanding the differences of the Gospels.

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  8. Will someone please explain to me how the sermon on the mount would have been remembered verbatim by someone in the audience when it was preached. Lastly do none of these writers not realise that the Christ to the gospels never existed but was invented n the years following Paul’s spiritual Christ which was never a real being.

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    • I am not sure anyone would claim it was “remembered verbatim by someone in the audience when it was preached.” That is an overly simplistic view that cannot be supported by facts. But there is clearly an oral tradition that predates the Gospel writers and appears in a variety of sources. You seem ignorant about how speeches were reported int he ancient world, whether Jesus or a Roman orator.

      You need to read this post (and the three which follow it) reviewing Francis Watson’s Gospel Writing (Eerdmans, 2013) and another reviewing James Dunn’s collection of essays on oral tradition. Obviously you ought to read the books themselves, but this is a good start. These two scholars are far from conservative fundamentalists and will give you a nice overview about how oral tradition works.

      https://readingacts.com/2013/08/09/book-review-francis-watson-gospel-writing-a-canonical-perspective-part-1/

      https://readingacts.com/2013/12/06/book-review-james-dunn-the-oral-gospel-tradition/

      “do none of these writers not realise that the Christ to the gospels never existed but was invented n the years following Paul’s spiritual Christ which was never a real being.”

      None of this is true, and your statement is an assumption that cannot be proven by using legitimate methods of historical research.

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  9. To be honest, my head was swimming after reading about the Synoptic Problem and all the various forms of criticism. I found the parallel of knowing your source on the internet, written in a comment from Ben in 2014, to really bring the point some clarity. We are constantly reminded to “know your source”. I find this especially true in the world we are living in 2020. Knowing the source your information is coming from is so important. Reading a post on Facebook from a random person does not hold the same validity as reading an article from a trusted news source.
    Strauss writes “at some point the early church began putting this material into various written forms for teaching and evangelism and to retain a faithful record of the word and actions of Jesus” (fig. 2.1 pg. 60). I find this helpful in answering your question of what can be gained from studying source criticism. Having an eyewitness to a story brings much more validity than simply word of mouth. Knowing that the writers of the Gospels began to write down the accounts during a time when eyewitness were alive gives an additional layer of truth to the Gospels. To this end, source criticism helps to understand why the Synoptic Gospels, written by different authors, contain certain exact similarities. Studying the many sources can also explain why some Gospels add (or leave out) details in the same account. Again, knowing your source is vitally important. Yet regardless of the 2-Source theory, 4-Source theory, or any other hypothesis, I know and believe the authors of each Gospel were inspired by God (2 Timothy 3:16) to write the accounts as they did. As Strauss states, “It is better to conclude that both the agreements and differences resulted when human authors edited their sources, guided and inspired by the Holy Spirit” (fig. 2.10, p.75).

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  10. I do believe that there is much to be gained from source criticism. Whenever we read an article or book, we check the sources that were used if we are skeptical of its credibility. This can normally determine whether or not its authenticity can be vouched for based on the sources that were used to create it. The Synoptic Gospels are very similar, and I believe that this vouches for their authenticity because of how much they agree on, especially in regard to the words of Jesus. I believe that the small differences in style and words also prove authenticity because it proves that they were written by different authors. Having three different sources from three different people which all almost completely agree is astounding. Having only one source that agrees with itself is suspicious. However, if the Synoptic Gospels were exactly alike, word-for-word, then what benefit would there be in including all of them in the Bible? There wouldn’t be. The fact that the events of Jesus’ life were written down three, if not four times, by four different people simply proves its significance. I believe that source criticism helps prove that the Synoptic Gospels are indeed true and trustworthy because of how carefully we “criticize” not only the texts themselves, but the texts behind the texts. In conclusion, I think there is much to be gained from source criticism since it shows the authenticity of the Synoptic Gospels and their importance in God’s word.

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  11. Source criticism within the synoptic gospels often tries to make you believe that there are wide varieties of differences between the three texts. I do not see where this is true. Yes, I will admit there are differences but the ones provided in the passage and that I have read are only minor. In the passage the author uses the example of Mark 1:10, Luke 3:22 and Matthew 3:17. Mark 1:10 and Luke 3:22 state along the lines of, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased,” while Matthew 3:17 states, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” While they are not completely the same the overall message is clearly similar. Another example of this would be Matthew 5:3 and Luke 6:20. Matthew 5:3 states, “The poor in spirit are blessed,” whereas Luke 6:20 states, “You who are poor are blessed.” Again we see different wording but overall the same message displayed. The source criticism in the synoptic gospels may show differences, but for the most part, they are only minor differences. We must be careful when analyzing the gospel, this is true. However, as far as I see, they are the same.

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  12. One thing that I have gained form source criticism is the reassurance of the gospel. There isn’t just one telling of the gospel but 4. The fact that three of those gospels are so similar helps to determine the validity of the story they are telling. Sometimes I think that source critics get too caught up in the technicalities of who said what first, when I think a more important take away is that they are all telling the same story, and the story remains relatively the same even if outside sources were used. However, I think knowing who said what first can help us gain a better understanding of why these authors wrote the way they wrote.

    One of the cautions of source criticism that I took from Strauss is that source criticism can tend to gloss over the importance and validity of oral traditions and eyewitness testimonies (2020). Source criticism can tend to focus too much on the idea of finding other written sources that these authors must have used, for example source Q or “Quelle” (2020). When it is important to remember that some of these sources the authors used, could very well have been word of mouth sources. Just like the other forms of criticism, source criticism has its good attributes and it’s negative attributes, but when we are aware of what to do and not to do when studying source criticism, we are able to do it in a more correct manner.

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  13. Yes, I believe there are advantages to using source criticism. One of which is that we do not just go from oral traditions of Jesus’ life to our now written gospels. If that were the case it would leave room for a few more problems. It is important to note the steps it took to get to the written Gospels as they are or at least to the point of the original manuscripts of the gospels. When we find these written sources used by the gospel writers it helps solidify their stories and what they were telling us about Jesus. Now one could argue that the written sources that came directly from the oral traditions and stories have some flaws, is source criticism useful there too then?

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