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Jesus Traditions

Contents of Jesus Traditions

Material in red = Mark .. in blue =   Q   .. in green = Special Matthew .. in fuchsia = Special Luke



Considering the importance of Jesus for the Christian faith, and indeed for much of Western civilization, it is regrettable that he is not easily accessible, even through the gospels, which are our principal and most reliable sources. Scholarly caution encourages us to recognize the limitations of these sources, without forcing answers where evidence is not available. (Click on Perspective for further discussion of issues of this sort.) Especially, we recognize that we have no primary source materials going back to Jesus, as we have for Paul. Our knowledge of the Jesus of history comes almost exclusively from the gospels, which in their written form are dependent upon traditions which circulated orally, which in turn are dependent upon recollections of people who recounted what he had done and said.

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Sources for the Study of Jesus

Of the four gospels, the first three are known as synoptic gospels: Matthew, Mark and Luke. Because of their extensive similarities, they may be arranged in parallel columns and “viewed together,” hence, syn-optic. (A convenient edition is The Gospel Parallels, published by Nelson.) Together with their similarities, they also exhibit marked differences. The synoptic problem is how, given these similarities and differences, we may explain the relationship between Matthew, Mark and Luke.


The Fourth Gospel, or the Gospel of John, as it is usually called, is distinctive in its style, its theological perspective, and its selection of Jesus traditions. Located on the cutting edge of New Testament theology, and enjoying a unique place in nurturing Christian spirituality, it deserves a fuller treatment than can be given in the present discussion. While the Gospel of John shows some similarities with one or another of the synoptic gospels, the differences are considerable, both in form and content.  If we go our way without recourse to this gospel, we do so because it is probably in part derivative, employing existing gospels, though exercising rather generous freedom in the way it uses them; and because we have doubts whether it had access to better or earlier sources.


The Two Document Hypothesis

The prevailing solution to the synoptic problem is the two document hypothesis, which traces the composition of the synoptic gospels to two written sources, Mark and  Q .

  1. According to this theory, Mark is the earliest of the gospels, written 65-70 A.D., and was used by the authors of Matthew and Luke as the narrative framework for their gospels. The priority of Mark explains those passages where there is agreement between Matthew, Mark and Luke; see the parable of the Sower in Mark 4:1-9 || Matthew 13:1-9 || Luke 8:4-8, for an example of the use of Mark by Matthew and Luke. There is evidence that the two later gospels have improved upon the grammar and diction of Mark, and have “improved” on Mark where the earlier gospel might have given an unflattering impression of Jesus; see Mark 10:18 || Matthew 19:16-17. Another good example of the improvement of Mark by Matthew and Luke is their omission of Mark 3:19-21, which might have given the reader the impression that Jesus was out of his mind!

  2. But there are also passages where material is found in Matthew and Luke but not in Mark; so this material common to Matthew and Luke, but not in Mark, is traced to a second source, Q. We are fortunate to have one of the written sources, Mark; but Q, our other written source, remains a hypothetical source; see the parable of the Lost Sheep in Matthew 18:12-13 || Luke 15:4-6, for an example of the use of Q by Matthew and Luke.


Thus, the Gospel of Matthew, written 80-90, used two sources, Mark and Q, in addition to whatever other written or oral sources the author had available (Special Matthew). Likewise, the Gospel of Luke, written 80-90, used Mark and Q, in addition to whatever other written or oral sources that author had available (Special Luke). (If one inquires where Mark and Q got their material from, the answer is to be sought in the process of oral transmission, discussed below. At the same time, one cannot exclude the possibility that Mark and the compiler of Q had the benefit of direct contact with apostles themselves.)

In the synoptic table below (and throughout this web), red designates the source Mark; blue, the source Q; green, Matthew’s special source; and purple, Luke’s special source.


Matthew (A.D. 80-90)

Mark (A.D. 65-70)

Luke (A.D. 80-90)




Matthew 19:13-14

  13 Then children were brought to him that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples rebuked the people; 14but Jesus said, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.”

Mark 10:13-14

  13And they were bringing children to him, that he might touch them; and the disciples rebuked them. 14But when Jesus saw it he was indignant, and said to them, “Let the children come to me, do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of God.”

Luke 18:15-16

  15Now they were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them; and when the disciples saw it they rebuked them. 16But Jesus called them to him, saying, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of God.”




Matthew 12:28

  “But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.”

[lacking in Mark]




Luke 11:20

  “But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.”


Special Matthew



Matthew 13:44

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.”


Special Luke







Luke 17:20-21

20Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; 21nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is !’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.”


Authorship of the Synoptic Gospels

The gospels circulated originally as anonymous works. The familiar titles, According to Matthew, According to Mark, and According to Luke, were not a part of the original Greek text. Attributing the gospels to apostles or to their presumed associates would have provided apostolic authority for these works. In the case of the Gospel of Mark, the traditional attribution is possible, though there are as many arguments against authorship by John Mark of Jerusalem as there are arguments for.

In the case of the Gospel of Luke, the traditional attribution to Luke, a presumed companion of Paul, is unlikely, especially when one considers that the book of Acts, a companion volume coming from the same author, disagrees with the letters of Paul in fundamental ways—click on Authorship; click also on Acts as a Source (1) and Acts as a Source (3).

In the case of the Gospel of Matthew, the traditional ascription of the book to Matthew, one of the twelve apostles, is improbable, not only because the author was obliged to use sources such as Mark (the author of which was not one of the Twelve), but also because the author knows the Jewish Bible for the most part in the Greek translation of the Hebrew, called the Septuagint


Revised July 24, 2003


Contents of Jesus Traditions


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New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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