Are the Synoptic Gospels Interdependent? Part 2

Post Author: Bill Pratt

In part 1 we looked at Professor of New Testament Daniel Wallace’s first two arguments for the interdependence of the synoptic gospels (the first three gospels).  Now we pick up with his third and fourth arguments.

The third argument is the agreement in parenthetical material.  Wallace quotes Robert H. Stein, who wrote, “One of the most persuasive arguments for the literary interdependence of the synoptic Gospels is the presence of identical parenthetical material, for it is highly unlikely that two or three writers would by coincidence insert into their accounts exactly the same editorial comment at exactly the same place.”

Wallace gives examples of these parenthetical statements:

One of the most striking of these demonstrates, beyond the shadow of a doubt, the use of written documents: “When you see the desolating sacrilege . . . (let the reader understand) . . . ” (Matt 24:15/Mark 13:14).  It is obvious that this editorial comment could not be due to a common oral heritage, for it does not say, “let the hearer understand.” Compare also Matt 9:6/Mark 2:10/Luke 5:24; Matt 27:18/Mark 15:10.

The fourth argument is Luke’s preface:

Luke begins his gospel in a manner similar to ancient historians: “Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative . . . it seemed good to me also . . . to write an orderly account for you . . . .”  In the least this implies two things: (1) Luke was aware of written (and oral) sources based on eyewitness accounts; (2) Luke used some of these sources in the composition of his gospel.

Wallace again quotes Robert Stein to summarize what conclusions come from these four arguments:

We shall see later that before the Gospels were written there did exist a period in which the gospel materials were passed on orally, and it is clear that this oral tradition influenced not only the first of our synoptic Gospels but the subsequent ones as well.  As an explanation for the general agreement between Matthew-Mark-Luke, however, such an explanation is quite inadequate. There are several reasons for this.

For one the exactness of the wording between the synoptic Gospels is better explained by the use of written sources than oral ones.  Second, the parenthetical comments that these Gospels have in common are hardly explainable by means of oral tradition.  This is especially true of Matthew 24:15 and Mark 13:14, which addresses the readers of these works! Third and most important, the extensive agreement in the memorization of the gospel traditions by both missionary preachers and laypeople is conceded by all, it is most doubtful that this involved the memorization of a whole gospel account in a specific order.  Memorizing individual pericopes, parables, and sayings, and even small collections of such material, is one thing, but memorizing a whole Gospel of such material is something else. The large extensive agreement in order between the synoptic Gospels is best explained by the use of a common literary source.  Finally, as has already been pointed out, whereas Luke 1:2 does refer to an oral period in which the gospel materials were transmitted, Luke explicitly mentions his own investigation of written sources.

  • It is obvious that this editorial comment could not be due to a common oral heritage, for it does not say, “let the hearer understand.”

    Really? Is it really such a intellectual leap to suppose that someone might change “hearer” to “reader” when reducing an oral tradition to writing? I am persuaded that they synoptic gospels are interdependent, but this argument seems particularly weak to me.

  • VinnyJH,

    But coupled with the parenthetical statement being in the exact same spot in the pericope, I think Dr. Wallace makes a strong point. Oral tradition becomes messy and convoluted when recalling events—it tends to get them slightly out of order, or intersperses differing details. (Think of the two creation stories or the two flood stories, and how they are both similar, yet differing.)

    Here, the interjections remain firmly fixed (even verbatim) in more than one pericope, demonstrating a much strong tendency to be copying written documents, rather than passing down oral tradition.

  • Dagoods,

    I absolutely agree that being in the same spot is compelling evidence of interdependence and compelling evidence that the latter two are working from a written source. I just don’t understand what the big deal is about changing “hearer” to “reader.” Does Wallace think that this is proof that the author of Mark wasn’t relying on an oral tradition as his source?

  • VinnyJH,

    I suspect Dr. Wallace is countering the notion both Mark and Matthew obtained the same statements from oral tradition regarding what Jesus said. Dr. Wallace is noting Mark adds editorial comment of his own to Jesus’ statement, and Matthew copies Marks’ statement.

    The difference between:

    1) Jesus said, “When you see the Abomination of Desolation (let the reader understand) then those in Judea should flee.” and

    2) Jesus said, “When you see the Abomination of Desolation…” (let the reader understand) “…then those in Judea should flee.”

    In the first instance, it makes no sense for Jesus to tell people (and then the oral tradition continues), “let the reader understand” because he was speaking to people. In the second, we realize “let the reader understand” is an editorial comment by Mark—not something Jesus actually said.

    Raising the juicy issue as to how much in Mark is editorialization?

  • Dagoods,

    Sometimes Mark puts those little admonitions directly in Jesus’ mouth, e.g.,“Whoever has ears to hear, let him hear.” Mark 4:9. Maybe it really was common practice in the oral tradition to throw those little asides in periodically.

  • Steve Adair

    Firstly, the verses in Matthew and Mark are not actually identical, and so we cannot assert that that parenthesis is in “exactly the same” position, although I understand that I am being pedantic. However, “let the reader understand” is strongly associated with the phrase “Abomination that causes desolation” and it is very easy to assume that there was always an association between this phrase and “let the hearer/reader understand” – its almost like a “nudge, nudge, wink, wink, we know what this means” kind of situation.
    The point is, there is no proof, real demonstration or even strong argument here for a common written source. At best this is one more tiny piece of evidence that shows some form of interdependence between Matthew and Mark. Whether this be oral or written cannot be determined from this evidence, but must be based on the full body of evidence.