Most people who read the canonical gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) assume that they reflect a single level of historical activity; that is, the average reader generally assumes the gospels reflect eyewitness reports about the sayings and doings of Jesus. Hence they pay close attention to what Jesus said and did in the particular gospel they are reading. Nevertheless a simple comparison of the differences between these three gospels reveals that they are scarcely synonymous reports. Their conflicts cannot reasonably be resolved by searching the narrated events about Jesus to achieve an explanation that allows all the reports to be “correct.” For example, one cannot convincingly argue that their differences can be explained on the basis that no two eye witnesses see or hear exactly the same thing. The differences and contradictions range from minor to dramatic disagreements in extensive detail (compare, for example, the disagreements in their accounts of the first Easter morning, Mark 16:1-8; Matt 28:1-8; Luke 24:1-12).
There are actually multi-historical levels at play in the gospels. Level one consists of narratives about the sayings and doings of Jesus. Theoretically these took place during the career of Jesus around 26-36 CE. Level two is the later historical level of the individual gospel writer and that writer’s distinctive narrative and theological views about the events surrounding the career of Jesus. Around 70 CE Mark (the earliest gospel writer) in constructing his* narrative relied on oral reports about Jesus’ activities. Mark decided the precise wording of his narrative, what stories to use among those that came his way, the sequence of events in the narrative, and the form and content of the sayings of Jesus. Hence, the gospel represents Mark’s distinctive view of what Jesus said and did some forty years or so earlier. Mark’s account is colored by his personal theology and theological prejudices. He knew no historical outline of the public career of Jesus but imposed his own plan on the disassociated reports of which he was informed. Level three is located in the later time periods of Matthew and Luke (twenty to thirty years or so after Mark). These two writers used and edited several sets of earlier, apparently written, sources: Mark, Q, M and L, as well as oral tradition.
Here is a case on point from Baptist Bible study several weeks ago. Mark narrates two miracle stories (7:25-37: the healing of a deaf mute and the Syrophoenician Woman) that cast Jesus in a poor light. When Jesus heals the deaf mute, rather than healing with a word, he utilizes what appear to be magical gestures—“he put his finger into his ears and spat and touched his tongue, and looking up into heaven he sighed and said to him ‘Ephpatha,’ that is be opened” (Mark 7:33-34). Luke does not use this story and Matthew replaces it with a general story of his own composition (lacking specifics) of Jesus healing multitudes rather than a specific deaf mute (Matt 15:29-31).
Luke does not use Mark’s story about the Syrophoenician woman in which Jesus tells her: “Let the children first be fed for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs” (7:27). The statement reflects negatively on Jesus by suggesting that he had a prejudicial preference for Israelites and harbored a negative attitude toward this Gentile woman, only healing her daughter because of her witty retort (Mark 7:29). Matthew, on the other hand, includes the story, including part of Jesus’ offensive statement to the woman in Mark (Matt 15:26). Matthew also puts another offensive saying on Jesus’ lips: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt 15:24). This statement has the effect of showing Jesus won over by the woman’s intense supplication to him (Matt 15:22) and hence in Matthew Jesus praises her great faith (Matt 15:28), neither of which appear in Mark’s story. One can only wonder why Matthew decided to use the story but double down on the negative attitudes reflected by Jesus that offend later Christian sensitivities. Luke, on the other hand, reflects the mission of Jesus as clearly including Gentiles (Luke 2:32; 4:25-27), and his second book (Acts) features Paul, the great missionary to the Gentiles (Rom 11:13; Gal 2:8-9; Rom 1:5). This may help explain why Luke does not use Mark’s story of the Syrophoenician woman.
There is a fourth historical level that is only accessible to readers of Greek who have some knowledge of textual criticism. Virtually all of our New Testament manuscripts are third century and later. Later copyists made changes as seemed to them theologically right, or to correct a perceived error in the text, or for other reasons. For example, Mark 1:2 is wrong in how he introduces a particular quotation (Mark 1:2-3). He writes: “As it is written in Isaiah the prophet.” The quotation, however, is a composite of Mal 3:1 and Isa 40:3 and some later copyists catching the error changed the text to read: “As it is written in the prophets.”
If you want to know what is actually going on in a gospel, purchase a Synopsis of the Four Gospels** and always read one gospel in the light of the other four. From my perspective the canonical gospels give us more reliable information about the origins of the early Christian movements in general, than about the historical Jesus in particular.
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University
*The male pronoun is used only for convenience. For my argument that the Gospel of Mark may possibly have had a female author see: Hedrick, “Narrator and Story in the Gospel of Mark: Hermeneia and Paradosis,” Perspectives in Religious Studies 14.3 (1987), 239-258, particularly the section on the gender of narrators (253-57).
**Available in English text only or in Greek-English from the United Bible Societies edited by Kurt Aland.