BRAINWAVES REPORT BW/011
ALTERNATIVE APPROACHES TO THE GOSPELS 
THE ALTERNATIVE TO Q
The modern counter to Q orthodoxy began with Farrer (1955), who held that the non-Markan passages which are
common to Luke and Matthew are to be explained not by shared dependence on Q but simply by Luke's use of
Matthew. Q therefore fails by Occam's Razor, the principle that 'entities are not to be multiplied beyond what is
necessary.' This has been the bone of contention ever since. Farrer's lead has since been followed by such as
Goulder, Goodacre and Wenham.
Against it is the very different order of Matthaean material when it appears in Luke. Whereas Luke has clearly been
working through Mark from beginning to end, his use of Matthew is far more jumbled. As a general principle, identity
of order is considered strong evidence of a literary relationship between two documents, as against, say, oral
tradition. So Luke's apparently haphazard use of material found in Matthew could be seen as evidence that he was
not working from Matthew's text. To this can be replied that while Luke was working from a physical copy of Mark in
front of him, his use of Matthew was from memory; so considerations of order are irrelevant.
(Incidentally, for Luke to have worked from two source scrolls while writing on a third, as the Q hypothesis
maintains, in an age when there was no writing desk, would have been well nigh impossible. Consider handling
three rolls of wallpaper at once!)
Verse by verse comparisons using parallel synopses prove little. See Parker (1997) who points out that in many
cases we do not have a good enough text to be sure of any unique original: there has been too much assimilation
between one gospel and another in the interim. And the variation in readings within a single gospel can often be
greater than that between parallel readings of the same passage in different gospels. These documents have a
history which cannot be swept aside.
On the other hand a very strong case for the priority of Mark can be made in terms of pericope order, and here the
modern consensus is likely to be right.
THE CHALLENGE TO FORM CRITICISM
There is today the beginnings of a revolt against the form-critical paradigm of gospel formation which has held sway
for decades. Not least, form criticism behaves as though gospel sections and sayings - pericopae - somehow
evolved and were passed on orally in a vacuum, without identifiable people to pass them on, owing their shape to
the communities whose needs they were supposed to serve. A strong challenge to this is posed by Richard
Bauckham (2006), who like Earle Ellis (1999) sees the rounded, modular form which pericopae seem to have
assumed by the time they were first recorded as the result of frequent repetition by the eyewitness apostolic circle in
the very earliest years of the Church.
In addition, the reigning paradigm postulates with form criticism a long gap between the resurrection and the writing
of the first gospels. So Mark is commonly dated just before or not long after the fall of Jerusalem in 70. This would
be after the deaths of both Peter and Paul in Rome under Nero in c.67, and so at least 35 years after the crucifixion
on 3 April 33. Q is then postulated (without a shred of historical support) to fill the gap. Matthew, Luke and John are
then supposed to follow at ten year intervals (again, without any historical evidence beyond judgements of such
things as the tone of Jesus' diatribes against the Pharisees, which are supposed to indicate a time when the Church
and rabbinic Judaism were falling apart). Such dates are more comfortable for those who import an a priori and
wholly unhistorical belief that Jesus could not have prophesied the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the
Temple. They also suggest that plenty of forgetting and distortion could have crept in during the intervening forty
year gap. So if we want to find the 'historical Jesus', we have to embark on a quest for Him as we certainly won't
find more than a few traces in the gospels!
All this runs wholly counter to the powerful and unanimous witness of the early Church that Mark wrote from Rome
which he first visited with Peter in the reign of Claudius (41-54). Since Claudius expelled 'the Jews' (whether all or
just the prominent ones; see Acts 18:2) in 49/50, and both Peter and Mark appear to have been elsewhere in 46-49
(eg in Jerusalem Acts 12:25 (46) and 15:6 (Council of Jerusalem, late 48)), we can with Edmundson and his
successors (Robinson (1976), qualified, and Wenham (1992)) place Mark's Gospel with some confidence c.45.
Equally, there are passages in Matthew (27:8 and perhaps 28:15) which indicate that Jerusalem was still standing
when they were penned. And as I have argued elsewhere, the complete failure of all three synopticists to distinguish
Jesus' prophecy of the fall of Jerusalem from that of the end times is strong evidence that by the time of writing
neither had occurred. Equally, from Hemer (1989), Moberly (1993) and many others there is an overwhelming case
that Acts, which postdates Luke, was completed very soon after it ends in 62. This brackets all the synoptics
between 45 and 62. This interval of just twelve years between the crucifixion and the penning of the first narrative
gospel - less than the lifetime of the internet to date - removes the entire platform upon which form critcism rests. So
if you are looking for the authentic Jesus of Nazareth, you will find him first of all in the Gospel of Mark and those
which followed it. A similar conclusion may be drawn from C.S. Lewis' literary-critical assault on Bultmann and his
colleagues in his masterful posthumous essay, 'Fern-seed and Elephants' in the book of that name (1975); also
from Sherwin-White's discussion of historiographic method in (1963, 186-93).
Thus we disagree entirely with the near unanimous view of the commentators who hold that Paul was writing his
epistles long before Mark wrote his Gospel; or indeed that Mark did not write until Paul was actually dead. Certainly
that is not what most of us would have concluded if we had in front of us Mark's breathless, rough-and-ready
narrative on the one hand, and the sophistication of Paul's theology on the other. Equally, it follows from the
conventional view that not one of the thousands of Christian martyrs who perished in the Neronian persecutions of
64-5 onwards had ever seen a gospel page or heard one preached from. Why did they bother?
Further, the model of Streeter's and others, according to which the gospels originated in four basically isolated
communities with little contact between, is vitiated by the brilliant communications system which held together the
Roman Empire. Consider the rapid traffic up and down the Egnatian Way across the north of Greece which is
presupposed by Phil 2:19-30 and 4:14-19; the long list of Paul's personal friends in Rom 16:3-16 at a time when
Paul had never even been to Rome; and the frequent movements between churches of Priscilla and Aquila: from
Rome to Corinth (49-50, Acts 18:2); domiciled in Ephesus (52, Acts 18:26) still in Ephesus (55, 1 Cor 15:19); back in
Rome (57; Romans 16:3); and finally in Ephesus again (66, 2 Tim 4:19). This would seem to undermine Streeter's
conclusion that Matthew's Gospel originated in Antioch, for which he produces no historical evidence.
RELATIONSHIP OF JOHN TO THE SYNOPTICS
The early Church historian Eusebius tells us that
(1) John had access to the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. He endorsed them 'but said there was only
lacking to the narrative the account of what was done by Christ at first and at the beginning of his narrative.'
(Ecclesiastical History III.xxix.7).
(2) He taught that Mark wrote 'accurately but not however in order' (akribos ... ou mentoi taxei) (EH
So John wrote in part to correct some false impressions given by Mark and his two successors. This accounts for
many of the differences between John and the Synoptics. John was not writing from scratch. He assumed his
readers would be familiar with his predecessors, and therefore does not go out of his way to repeat their stories (an
exception is the feeding of the five thousand and the walking on the water in chapter 6, which serves as
representative of Jesus' Galilean ministry). Instead he deliberately concentrates on areas where he sees the
Markan account as deficient.
Two areas stand out. First, the start of Jesus' ministry. Mark has Jesus bursting into Galilee, almost out of nowhere,
preaching the good news, on the arrest of the Baptist (1:14). The same event in John (4:44-5) actually follows a
highly successful preliminary mission to Jerusalem and Judaea of which Mark knows nothing. John's comment 'Now
Jesus himself had pointed out that a prophet has no honour in his own country' (4:44 cf. Mk 6:4) is in my judgement
an implicit criticism of Mark. Had Jesus actually begun His public ministry in Galilee - that is, His own home territory
- as Mark would have it, He would have risked rejection and aborting his mission altogether. Instead, Jesus first
makes His name in the south, returning home in triumph to Galilee as the 'local boy made good.'
Next, Mark, who we are expressly told (EH III.xxxix.15) had not himself followed Jesus, had in John's view a limited
understanding of the chronological sequence of Jesus' ministry. This is hardly surprising given the Early Fathers'
belief that Mark was recording the preaching of Peter in Rome. Peter will have spoken about individual episodes
rather than sequentially. So it is left to John, who as an apostle had accompanied Jesus throughout His ministry, to
supply the chronological skeleton, which he does by regularly identifying the feasts which Jesus attended in
Jerusalem. Mark knows only of one visit by Jesus to Jerusalem, the final one which ended with His death and
resurrection. So all the Jerusalem material about which Peter preached he crammed in there. On one point, as I see
it (following Robinson(1984)), John corrects Mark: the cleansing of the Temple which Mark places at the start of
Passion Week (11:12-19) but which John (2:12-22) reassigns to Jesus' initial mission of which Mark is unaware.
Lastly, the alleged discrepancy between John and the Synoptics over the day of the crucifixion seems to me to
vanish if we assume that Jesus celebrated the Passover a day early, on Thursday evening. All accounts agree that
He was crucified on the Friday, the Day of Preparation for the Passover, which itself fell that year (33) on the
Barnett, Paul (2005) The Birth of Christianity: The First Twenty Years, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. Useful but diluted
by his unsupported insistence on a forty year gap between Jesus and Mark.
Bauckham, Richard (2006) Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, Grand Rapids:
Eerdmans. A powerful alternative to the dogmas of form criticism which concentrates instead on the
individuals concerned, by a top-ranking Cambridge professor.
Drury, John (1976) Tradition and Design in Luke's Gospel, London: Darton, Longman and Todd. How Luke edited
Matthew and Mark but not Q.
Edmundson, G. (1913) The Church in Rome in the First Century: An Examination of Various Controverted
Questions Relating to its History, Chronology, Literature and Traditions, Bampton Lectures, London:
Longmans, Green and Co. A brilliant but largely unrecognised model of the historical approach to the New
Testament, even if now in need of an update. It includes the original case for dating Mark to 45.
Ellis, E. Earle (1999) The Making of the New Testament Documents, Leiden: Brill. Probably the best single volume
Farrer, A.M. (1955) 'On Dispensing with Q', in Nineham, D.E. (1955), 55-88. Reproduced by Mark Goodacre
(05/11/02) [online]. Available from http://www.ntgateway.com/Q/farrer.htm. Foundation of the modern case
against Q, still unrefuted after much debate.
Hemer, Colin J. (1989) The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History (Gempf, Conrad H., ed.) Tübingen:
J.C.B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck). The definitive account.
Lewis, C.S. (1975) Fern-seed and Elephants and other essays on Christianity, Glasgow, Fontana. Posthumous. The
final essay offers a brilliant critique of modern gospel criticism by one who as a professor of English
Literature was both a prominent literary critic and an author.
Moberly, Robert B. (1993) 'When was Acts Planned and Shaped?', Evangelical Quarterly 65:1, 5-26. Answer: 62 or
Nineham, D.E. (ed.) (1955) Studies in the Gospels: Essays in Memory of R.H. Lightfoot, Oxford: Blackwell. Original
location of Farrer (1955).
Ogg, George (1940) The Chronology of the Public Ministry of Jesus, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Ogg, George (1968) The Chronology of the Life of Paul, London: Epworth. Unsurpassed.
Ogg, G. (1980) 'Chronology of the New Testament', in Douglas et. al. (1980), The Illustrated Bible Dictionary, 3
Parts, London: Inter-Varsity Press, I.277-83. Probably the easiest place to find his views today.
Parker, D.C. (1997) The Living Text of the Gospels, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Best introduction to
the textual criticism of the gospels.
Petrie, Stewart (1959) '"Q" is Only What You Make it', NovT 3, 28-33. Lighthearted but devastating.
Reicke, Bo (1968) The New Testament Era: The World of the Bible from 500 B.C. to A.D. 100, London: Black, ET
(Green, David E.) of Neutestamentliche Zeitgeschichte, Berlin: Töpelmann (1964). Good solid historical
Robinson, John A.T. (1976) Redating the New Testament, London: SCM Press. Rediscovers Edmundson.
Famously - and mostly credibly - dates the entire NT before 70. A milestone.
Robinson, John A.T. (1984) '"His witness is true": A test of the Johannine claim', in Bammel and Moule (1984), 453-
76. The historical worth of John.
Sherwin-White, A.N. (1963) Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament, The Sarum Lectures 1960-
1961, Oxford: Clarendon Press. Critique of the methodology of form criticism by a top ranking Oxford
Professor of Roman History.
Steinmueller, John E. (1943) A Companion to Scripture Studies, Vol. III, Special Introduction to the New Testament,
New York: Wagner. Excellent source for references from the Early Fathers coupled with a balanced,
conservative discussion of the issues. Very Roman Catholic.
Vermes, Geza (1983) Jesus the Jew: A Historian's Reading of the Gospels, 2nd edition, London: SCM Press. Jesus
through the eyes of an eminent and sympathetic Jewish scholar.
Wenham, John (1992) Redating Matthew, Mark and Luke, Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press. Follows in the
historical tradition of Edmundson and Robinson. (Proposes Matthew-Mark-Luke, no Q).
© Martin Mosse,
This paper summarises many of the arguments in Martin Mosse, The Three Gospels: New Testament History
Introduced by the Synoptic Problem (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2007).