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.

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.”

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?

Mark 14:3-9 – The Anointing at Bethany

In Mark 14:3-9 Jesus is anointed by a woman at the home of Simon the Leper in Bethany. Since the story is framed by the betrayal of Judas, it is likely that Mark is intentionally contrasting the faith of the woman with Judas’ actions.

Annointing at Bethany

There are some source critical issues here – it is a very similar story to that of Luke 7:36-50 and John 12:1-8, so much so that the stories are often thought to be reflections of a single event. The name of the host in both stories and there are similarities. But there are some critical differences. Simon in Luke is a Pharisee in Galilee, here he is a leper in Bethany, a suburb of Jerusalem.

The identity of the woman is unknown in both Mark and Luke, but in Luke she is a sinful woman, there is no such implication in Mark. Additionally, the objections to the anointing came from Simon the Pharisee in Luke, questioning the possibility of Jesus being a prophet. Here in Mark the objection to the anointing comes from, “someone,” in Matthew it is one of the disciples Matthew, and in John 12 it comes from Judas, who wanted to sell the perfume in order to steal from the profits! To me, we have two similar, yet distinct stories.

Alabaster Perfume JarAnointings were common at the time of Passover (perhaps based on Psalm 23:5, 141:5), but this woman’s anointing may have had nothing to do with the coming Passover. The anointing may be an indication that Jesus is about to begin his messianic role (Messiah is Hebrew for “anointed one.”) On the other hand, it is possible that the anointing has more to do with the death and burial of Jesus. In this section Jesus is anointed before his burial since, in Mark 16, his body is buried without proper anointing (Evans, Mark 8:27-16:20, 359).

Perhaps the closest parallel between the story in Luke is the alabaster flask of perfume. According to Pliny the Elder, the best perfumes came in alabaster flasks, the neck of which would be broken to let the perfume out. Nothing was held back, it was all used to anoint Jesus. This is an extravagant act since the perfume as costly and it was entirely used on the Lord. The disciple who objected says that the money could have been given to the poor.  It is a tradition for Jews to give to the poor at the time of the Passover.

Jesus’ words sound harsh: “The poor you will always have…” While this may be an allusion to Deuteronomy 15:11, the important thing here is that Jesus is predicting his death, and telling his disciples that there is very little time left for them to serve their master before his is killed. What is remarkable is that when a time comes for the to serve (in the Garden, at the trials), they are either falling asleep or fleeing the temple guards). While they will have many more years to serve the poor, their time serving their Lord is nearly up.

What I find touching is that Jesus describes this act of worship as a “beautiful thing.” Her selfless act of sacrifice is the only anointing that the Anointed one actually receives in Mark.  But what is Mark’s point in telling this story where he does in his Gospel?  There are some obvious foreshadowing of the suffering of Jesus which follows, but are there some other implications of this woman’s actions which merit the the high praise Jesus gives her?

What is the Problem with Q?

The dominant view in over the last 150 years of New Testament scholarship is that Mark was written first, and that Matthew and Luke both used Mark as an outline from which they wrote their gospels.  This accounts for the narrative portions of the gospels.  But there is a great deal of material where both Matthew and Luke agree that is not in Mark.

In order to account for this common material, scholars have conjectured a document they call Q (from the German word Quelle, source).  This hypothetical document is used to explain the many sayings of Jesus that appear in Matthew and Luke, but not in Mark.  In this theory, both Matthew and Luke used two documents, hence the name “two source theory.”  Some scholars assume that this document must have existed in one form or another.  For example, G. N.  Stanton says that “we can be reasonably certain that Q existed as a written document” (650).  Yet scholars such as Thomas Edgar vehemently deny its existence.  Edgar states that “Q has never been seen nor is there any evidence that such a document ever existed” (147).

The existence of a “sayings” gospel is a possibility in the light of two pieces of circumstantial evidence.  The statement of Papias can be taken quite easily as a collection of sayings of Jesus were collected by Matthew first, rather than the gospel of Matthew.  A problem night be then that Papias does not know the Gospel of Matthew.   Second, the Gospel of Thomas, while not a particularly help source for historical studies, does show that the genre of a sayings gospel existed. Alas, circumstantial evidence is just.  Thomas is not Q and dates well after the first century.  What Papias says may be explained in several different ways which do not imply the existence of a Q-like source document.

There is something about the idea of a source document which makes evangelicals uneasy.  We do not want to accept the idea that Matthew and Luke were scholars and editors, assembling their gospels from sources.  Most conservatives would dismiss Q immediately because it is the product of Historical Criticism (as the essays in The Jesus Crisis do).  Did God inspire Matthew and Luke to edit their sources, or write their gospels?  For the conservative scholar, Q simply is not helpful since their emphasis is on the text as it appears in the Bible.

This unease is felt over a  broad spectrum of scholarship as well.  The essays in Questioning Q, for example, wonder if relying on the existence of a Sayings source has short-circuited the idea of the Gospel writers as creative writers who should be treated as authors, not editors of their books.
Both of these warnings are well intended.  It is true that documents which “count” are the synoptic Gospels as they appear on the page of the Bible.  If the writers used sources, that may not matter much for our interpretation of the words in Matthew, Mark and Luke.  I have always tried to get students to “stay within the world of the story” and read Matthew as Matthew, not as a parallel book to Luke.

Yet the evidence is there, and as I read it Matthew used Mark and a sayings source of some kind.  Luke likely also used Mark and a sayings source, although he could have also used Matthew.  For me, it is not correct to mis-characterize Matthew ans cut and pasting sources together to create his gospel.  Rather, if Matthew used courses, he was a scholar marshaling all of his resources to create a theological document which answered some questions about the person and nature of Jesus and the idea of discipleship after the resurrection.  There is nothing wrong with the idea that Matthew (or Mark) used sources, but too much emphasis on the sources will obscure the goal – a clear reading of the Gospels.


Thomas Edgar.  “Source Criticism: The Two Source Theory,” pages 132-157 in The Jesus Crisis (ed. Robert Thomas and F. David Farnell; Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1998).

Mark Goodacre, editor. Questioning Q: A Multidimensional Critique (Downer’s Grover, Inter-Varsity, 2004).

G. N.  Stanton.  “Q”, pages 644-650 in The Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (ed.  Joel B. Green and Scot McKnight;  Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity, 1992).

Critical Methods and the Evangelical

In my years teaching Gospels, I have found that the single most frustrating section of the course is section on Historical Criticism.  Usually students do not see the point of the discussion and would prefer to leave it to the professionals. My purpose here is to give a light summary and definition of three key critical methods and then assess the value of these methods for the evangelical.

The dangers of higher criticism

Source Criticism is the study of the use of literary sources by the Gospel writers including the order the in which the gospels were written and the use of hypothetical sources.  It seems somewhat obvious that there is a literary relationship between the three synoptic gospels – why does Matthew look a great deal like Mark?  Why are there verses that are word-for-word the same in Matthew and Luke?

Form Criticism is the study of the per-literary sources use in the Gospels with an emphasis on the forms which these elements appeared in the “life setting of the early church.”  This is more or less a step backwards from Source Criticism since Form critics asked what elements of tradition a writer might have had at his disposal as he created his gospel.  This method begins with the assumption that no one wrote down what Jesus said and did for a very long time but people circulated stories of what did and did orally.  This units were subject to the sorts of changes that affect any folklore, so the units develop until they were eventually collected into the gospels as we know them.  The Form Critic is interested in the earliest possible “form” of a story and determining what situation might have led to the development of the original story.

Redaction Criticism is the study of the way in which the Gospel writers used their sources.  The focus here is on how they edited the sources and the individual contributions of the writers to their sources, or better, the communities in which the gospel was developed.  A position on Source criticism must be taken:  who wrote first, Mark or Matthew?  Then a Redaction critic will study how Matthew adapted mark for his (new) church situation.

Can these methods be used by evangelical scholars who have a commitment to inspiration and inerrancy? I believe that they can, but judiciously.  First, there is a literary relationship between the three synoptic gospels.  To deny that seems to me to be purposely ignoring the obvious because you are afraid of what the explanation might be.  Second, if there is a literary relationship, then it is obvious that the gospel writers used at least one other gospel as a source, and may have had other sources as well.  Luke states this in his prologue, so I see no trouble in the observation that Matthew used Mark, or Luke used Matthew.  I see no problem with Matthew using a sayings document for that matter if such a thing existed.  Third, that there were orally transmitted stories about Jesus seems equally obvious. The existence of these stories is one of Luke’s motivations for writing an “orderly account.” And it is a fact that some of the stories grew to legendary and fanciful myths, as we find in the (much later) New Testament Apocrypha.

However, just because we can use these methods does not mean we should. It seems to me that every Bible reader has to have some basic idea of the literary relationship and an understanding that the writers were highly creative, Spirit-lead individuals who sought to explain who Jesus was in a way which impacted their community.  The problem comes when we get stuck on Source, Form, or Redaction Criticism to the point that we never actually read the text of the gospel with understanding.  These methods usually obscure and distract as much as the help us understand the words of the Gospels.