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On the Order of the Gospels

It is my belief that a chronological approach is best for understanding the meaning of a text. God is a God of order, and he is fully aware that present understanding is based upon prior understanding. That is why I spent so much time explicating the Old Testament first. But though it is clear that the teaching of Jesus is prior to that of his followers, it is not clear to many exactly what Jesus said to his followers (as opposed to what they said he said) or what sayings Jesus said first. I am committed, after all, to the fact that the Scripture is harmonious, and, therefore, it should not matter where one starts in order to find consistent teaching on a given subject.567

I hold to the view that the Gospel accounts do present to us the teachings of Jesus that no Gospel writer presumed to put ideas into the mouth of Christ that he did not verbalize in his lifetime on earth. I do not deny that Gospel writers redacted material in order to produce a condensed and logical presentation; nor do I wish to insist upon words, phrases, or verses found in the translations for which there is insufficient textual support.568 But I presume that Jesus did speak (though in Aramaic) the equivalent of the words as presented unless there is an overriding textual reason for believing otherwise.

I have several other commitments that I think less significant in the discussion at hand, but rather than let readers guess where I stand, I will set them forth with only a brief word of defense:

1. I accept the traditional view of the authorship of the Gospels. I do not think that the higher criticism has presented any compelling reason for believing that other writers are responsible for them.569

2. I hold to the priority of Matthew rather than Mark. I agree with R. Thomas that most arguments in favor of Marcan priority can be used with equal or better result to affirm Matthean priority.570 I further suspect that Matthew wrote first a “journal” of the sayings of Jesus (the elusive Q), which he used to construct his not-strictly-chronological Gospel, a work designed as a discipleship training manual (cf. Matt. 28:19 f.).571

Luke, the historian, wrote next, restoring the chronological order, using Matthew’s journal (Q) and other elements from his own research, namely, testimony from the others in the apostolic band.

Mark wrote third, condensing their work. I am not saying that Mark is necessarily shorter in the parallel passages, but that he leaves out whole subjects (like the disciplinary section Matthew includes prior to the divorce dialogue in chap. 18) included in one or both of the other Synoptics. Mark’s focus seems to be upon the powerful evangelistic ministry of Christ, who appears in Mark’s document as a triumphant general-destroying the forces of the Devil. This adds to the doctrinal thrust of the book, which, I think, emphasizes the person and power of Jesus. I believe that this emphasis is intended to encourage converts as to the ability of the Master to help them conquer the problems of their world. Mark, as well, may have used Matthew’s Journal (Q) in the construction of his Gospel.

John wrote last, seeking to preserve omitted acts and teaching of which he was a witness—ordering his material around an apologetical theme. Q was discarded, as both its order and contents were fully preserved in the existing Gospels.572

The real issue, I suppose, is not which recorder wrote first, but whether or not the sayings of Jesus recorded by them are all relevant to our discussion. I am not seeking here to open the question of whether or not the writer of Matthew interposed the “exception clause” on top of Jesus’ teaching in order to accommodate the more liberal practice of the early Church. Those who argue for this point often hypostatize (create) Matthean and Marcan traditions that are seen to be at variance with each other, the Marcan being more strict and the Matthean being more liberal. I find absolutely no historical evidence for belief in such a liberal trend in the Church, especially in the area to which we presume the Gospel of Matthew was directed (i.e., Antioch in Syria), nor for the view that a Marcan tradition utilized and conformed to Essene influences in the Jerusalem area.

It might be argued that the Matthean “liberalization” of Mark is based upon the fact that Mark was written at a late date to a stage at which the Church was no longer able to sustain the purist teachings of Jesus.573 But this view has little to commend it. In the first place, it presupposes that Matthew wrote after Mark, the very point at issue. Second, it is not clear from what historical evidence, except the very verses in question, the “Matthean Church” period was unable to bear the absolute prohibition supposed to exist in Mark. After all, the more liberal dating of Matthew and Mark does not encompass the great hiatus one suspects would be needed for such liberalization.

As for the Essene connection with Mark, the best one can say for such an argument is that the Marcan material looks similar to the previously written Essene material, but in the face of zero evidence that the Marcan writer was dependent on, or even familiar with, the Essene material, I am forced to conclude that this often repeated theory is simply a post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy. I do not count as significant the possibility that Jesus’ relation with the isolated Essene communities was mediated by John the Baptist. It is conjecture whether John had any significant contact with those communities, and it is compounded conjecture that Jesus ever communicated with John about Essene divorce teachings. The Biblical text, which is, after all, about the only historical data we have to go on, gives no incontrovertible evidence of Jesus’ familiarity with Essene teachings or presence.

The upshot of these convictions and conclusions is the order of treatment found in the book. Even if my views of chronology could be shown to be in error, I believe that the argument of the book would still ring true. But the presented order seems to fit best with the views mentioned.


567   Presuming of course that there is not a dispensational change that has occurred between different biblical pronouncements.

568   I hold to the results of “lower” textual criticism, but not to those of “the higher criticism.”

569   Cf. Donald Guthrie’s New Testament Introduction (Downers Grove, 111.: Inter-Varsity Press, 1965).

570   Cf. Robert Thomas, “Source Criticism,” in A Harmony of the Gospels (Chicago: Moody, 1978), pp. 274-79.

571   If I am correct in this conclusion, then focusing one’s attention upon Matthew—rather than Mark or Luke—to learn about how disciples should act in the trying situation of a troubled marriage is the correct procedure.

572   It seems to me that the foregoing schema is the most reasonable presuming the correctness of note 1 above.

573   D. R. Catchpole, “Synoptic Divorce Material,” pp. 92-127; R. H. Stein, “‘Is It Harmful for a Man to Divorce His Wife?’” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 22 (1979):115-21; H. Reisser, Dictionary of New Testament Theology, 1:500.

Related Topics: Gospels