How Dependable are the Books of Matthew and Luke?

Are the four gospels dependable? Or are they simply the result of generations of flawed oral transmission? I discussed this question previously and determined that the gospels are much more dependable than implied by the idea of flawed oral transmission.

Another question on the reliability of the gospels has to do with when they were written. There are advocates for both extremely early dates and for extremely late dates. I even saw a claim that the gospels were written hundreds of years after the death of Jesus, which is impossible because passages from the gospels were referenced and quoted by the early Church Fathers long before that.

Another source I read said that Mark was written very soon after the death of Jesus, which is equally unlikely. These extremes usually come from biased agendas about the gospels.

The Dating of Mark, Matthew, and Luke

Generally accepted dates by some scholars for the gospels are Mark (70 AD), Matthew (85–90 AD), Luke (85–90 AD).

Some advocates for earlier dates for Matthew and Luke point out that they do not mention the deaths of Peter, Paul, or James—all of whom were killed before 70 AD. But I don’t think this is a good argument because the gospels are about the life of Jesus and do not cover later history as the book of Acts does.

However, I suggest that the dating of Mark to 70 AD is in error.

Some scholars date Mark, Matthew, and Luke at 70 AD or later because that is the year the Romans destroyed the Temple, and since these gospels mention Jesus’ comment that the day would come when not one stone of the Temple would be left on another (Mark 13; Matthew 24; and Luke 21), they conclude that the gospels were describing the Roman destruction and therefore were written after that destruction.

Mark 13 reads:

As Jesus was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!”

“Do you see all these great buildings?” replied Jesus. “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”

As I mentioned last time, I think Jesus was observant enough to see how things would turn out for Jerusalem if the Jews continued their aggressive resistance to Rome, so a much earlier date for Mark is possible. However, Matthew and Luke elaborate on Mark’s passage in such a way that it well might indicate a later date for those gospels.

On the other hand, in his introduction to Acts Luke writes that he had already written his gospel. Acts 1 says:

In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach.

Consider that the last thing the Book of Acts mentions is that Paul was under house arrest in Rome for two years and then released about 62 AD. Acts 28 states:

For two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him. He proclaimed the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ—with all boldness and without hindrance!

If Luke completed the Book of Acts later than 70 AD, after Paul’s martyrdom around 64 AD, it is odd that he did not mention the death of Paul in the Book of Acts.

So if the gospel was written before Acts, it seems that it would have been written before Paul’s death about 64 AD. And the gospel would have been written even earlier that. This evidence seems to point to an earlier date for Luke than does Luke’s elaboration on Jesus’ discussion of the destruction of the Temple. It is difficult to determine which is the stronger evidence.

Shared Components of Matthew and Luke

mark matthew luke q

Scholars are almost unanimous that Matthew and Luke have a variety of sources, two of which are identifiable in both of them. The first common source is the Gospel of Mark, which we have already discussed, and the second is a written collection of Jesus’ saying (referred to as ‘Q’), which is used by both gospels. Obviously, both of these sources are older than either Matthew or Luke.

We have discussed the date of Mark previously. Regarding the date of ‘Q’, scholars such as James M. Robinson and Helmut Koester suggest that collections of sayings of Jesus represent the earliest Christian materials. The fact that Matthew’s and Luke’s use of ‘Q’ is often word-for-word would indicate that ‘Q’ was a written source, so ‘Q’ could be very early, indeed.

Both Matthew and Luke had other sources as well, and it cannot be determined whether the sources were written or oral, or, if they were written, how early the sources might have been written down. So it seems that parts of Matthew and Luke are much earlier than compositions of the books themselves.

The idea that their sources were from a long period of flawed oral transmission is a mere assumption. We know that some sources were written, and some of the other sources might have been written—we have no way of knowing. But the certainty some have that the gospels are based on long histories of flawed oral tradition is unsupported.

There is One More Aspect to Consider

If the four gospels are based on various lines of flawed oral tradition, then it seems there should be much more variation among them than there is. And yet, the overall reports of Jesus’ teaching and actions portray a rather consistent portrait of Jesus and his character. What we see is essentially one story of Jesus—not four.

But, even so, we need not assert (or expect) that the reports of Jesus are precisely accurate or his sayings word-for-word. Will talk about that next time.



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14 Responses to How Dependable are the Books of Matthew and Luke?

  1. One explanation I’ve read for Luke not mentioning Paul’s martyrdom is that his main purpose in writing Acts was to show how the gospel had indeed reached “all the world” as Jesus had instructed. He chose to deliberately end it on the triumphant note of Paul’s unhindered preaching, so as not to distract from his main message.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. newtonfinn says:

    Might it be more accurate to say that we see essentially one story of Jesus, not THREE? While I’ve always suspected that John contains unique and interesting material about the historical Jesus (mini-parables and stand-alone sayings, for example, editorially embedded in longer discourses), does the reader of John wind up with a picture of Jesus substantially similar to the portrait painted in varying ways by Mark, Matthew, and Luke? For John, as opposed to the Synoptics, I have always assumed a rather late date of authorship, which would help to explain this apparent disconnect. Are there good reasons for me–and others who think like me–to reassess our opinions in this regard?

    Liked by 3 people

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Good question, Newton. I think that the Jesus presented by John is substantially the same as the Jesus presented by the other gospels. He has the same character, the same overall emphasis, and many of the same stories and situations.

      The books of Mark, Matthew, and Luke share more similarities in detail, of course. Much of the reason for this is that Matthew and Luke actually seem to have incorporated a lot of Mark’s gospel into theirs–including the overall outline of events. This is why they are called the synoptic gospels; the ‘see together’.

      Liked by 3 people

    • tonycutty says:

      In a lot of ways, the ‘independence’ of the Gospel of John actually confirms the general authenticity of the Jesus story, in broad terms at least. Birth, miracles, some sayings and teachings, death by crucifixion, Resurrection. It could be argued that since Matthew and Luke were based on earlier records (plus other evidence too), then they are based on Mark and Q and are not fully independent. Whereas, for John, the very different style, and the different stories, but with common features as listed above, strongly suggest that in fact the Jesus story is broadly true. Not that I need to be convinced, of course, but I think it’s an interesting point.

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  3. scraffiti says:

    Hi Tim, I’ve not been on for a while. For some theologians John is hugely problematic and even considered mystic in its origins. Written at the end of the first century which arguably means events have passed from living memory, written by an unknown writer and in a language that Jesus would not have spoken. It is regarded to have been edited a few times and been added to in later years, for example, ‘In the beginning was..’ and the story of the woman taken in adultery are known to be later additions. Nicodemus is regarded to be a fictitious character among others. It may well be independent but can we regard it that highly?

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Hi Sraffiti, it is good to hear from you! I know the Gospel of John has developments not found in the other gospels like the more philosophical turn and emphasis on the son of God, but I guess I am a bit more optimistic about the genuineness of the general story of Jesus than some.

      I know the story of the adulteress was added later, but I have never heard or read that the story of Nicodemus and Jesus in chapter 3 was suspect. Do you happen to have any references on that?

      Thanks! It is good to hear from you.


  4. Phillip Johns says:

    Hey Tim, To be honest I have devoured a library of books over the past couple of years and the RAM processing power of my poor brain goes into meltdown when I try to remember where I read what. However, to answer your question, the reference is in John Selby Spong’s book: The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic.
    Here is a pasted in synopsis from Harper Collins: ‘John Shelby Spong, bestselling author and popular proponent of a modern, scholarly and authentic Christianity, argues that this last gospel to be written was misinterpreted by the framers of the fourth-century creeds to be a literal account of the life of Jesus when in fact it is a literary, interpretive retelling of the events in Jesus’ life through the medium of fictional characters, from Nicodemus and Lazarus to the “Beloved Disciple.” The Fourth Gospel was designed first to place Jesus into the context of the Jewish scriptures, then to place him into the worship patterns of the synagogue and finally to allow him to be viewed through the lens of a popular form of first-century Jewish mysticism. The result of this intriguing study is not only to recapture the original message of this gospel, but also to provide us today with a radical new dimension to the claim that in the humanity of Jesus the reality of God has been met and engaged’.
    Spong may not be one of your favourite authors but personally I’m not much into personalities when seeking truth or at least new insight. For my part, John has always been the book that bigs Jesus up like no other – I am the way, the truth.., I am the vine.., I and the Father are one.., I am the light of the world.., I am the door.., I am the good shepherd.., I am this and I am that! I have no idea whether Jesus said all these things about himself but the fact that the John was written so late is a cause for a lot of doubt and that Spong might be on to something. Please forgive the English spelling!

    Liked by 3 people

    • newtonfinn says:

      Phillip: I, too, think that Bishop Spong has some remarkable insights into the gospels (especially John) and the Christian faith. His “Jesus for the Non-Religious” made an impact upon me and seems to be in sync, in many respects, with much of the thinking expressed on “Jesus Without Baggage.” Where Spong and I part company (and I believe this to be true for Tim as well), is his over-secularization of the gospel message, to the point where it is refashioned to fit into a kind of scientific materialism, now itself an outmoded Newtonian viewpoint in the midst of a mysterious Quantum world. A while back, Jefferson and other Deists did much the same thing as Spong in throwing out all things miraculous and stripping Jesus of any aspect of divinity. While Christians have widely diverged in their understandings of this “divinity,” it seems that an essential component of Christian faith, what distinguishes it from secular humanism or a more general theism, is the allegiance to Jesus as a unique manifestation and ultimate revelation of a very personal God (Abba). Schweitzer observes that Jesus comes to us without a name that can fully capture him, but with the unmistakable power and authority to command and draw followers, to fish for and catch men and women. Perhaps “being caught in Jesus’ net” is the most elemental and inclusive definition of what it means to be a Christian. At least it works for me.

      Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Scraffiti, thanks for these additional thoughts. You are right that Spong is not among my favorite writers, but even such writers have good things to say. I have read two of his books and plan to read more in the future. At this point, I have not read anybody else that supports Spong’s opinions on the gospel of John as you have described. But I do recognize that the gospel of John contains theological agenda.


  5. michaeleeast says:

    Tim, I like the theory that Mark was written in Rome from the recollections of Peter before his execution. Do we have a date for Peter’s execution? The other document of interest is the Gospel of Thomas which contains many of the sayings of Jesus which appear in Matthew and Luke. Do they appear in Mark as well? Are they word for word? Or are the recollections merely similar? Interesting material to study.

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Michael, I don’t recall how many sayings in Thomas are thought to be from Q or whether those same sayings are found in Mark. And I don’t think they are word for word. Peter’s death is generally accepted as around 64 AD in conjunction with the Christian persecutions in Rome by Nero.


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