The Canonical Gospels
I will discuss the Fellows of the Jesus Seminar and how they came to their conclusions in the next section. As I discuss the composition of the canonical gospels in this section, it would be appropriate to mention the Jesus Seminar’s overall findings: the determination of how many of the 1,500 variations of the 500 sayings and 387 variations of the 176 acts attributed to Jesus in the canon and Thomas probably or certainly go back to him. The Fellows considered about half of the sayings in Thomas to be either something containing ideas that Jesus might have had (gray), probably said (pink), or certainly said (red), and nearly a third fell into the probable/certain (pink/red) range. These percentages are much higher—about twice as high—than the results for Mark, Matthew and Luke. The results for the Gospel of John were extremely low. The combined pink and red tally for the sayings in all five gospels was 18%, and for the acts of Jesus it was slightly lower—16%.
The main reason for these low results is that, even though the gospels were first composed in the second half of the first century, the physical evidence of their existence that we have in our possession today is no earlier than the late second century. Most of the evidence is dated much later than that. The Seminar’s analysis of the content of these gospels suggests that the following scenario took place. After approximately fifteen to twenty years of oral transmission (30—50 C.E.), the first sayings gospels, Thomas and the theoretical Sayings Gospel Q, were composed based on the elements of that oral tradition. During the 70s C.E., Mark provided the framing stories and connective tissue to create the first narrative gospel. While Matthew and Luke are thought to have had access to some as-yet-unknown independent sources, scholars believe that their gospels were composed in the 90s C.E. by combining the sayings in Q with the stories in Mark. The Gospel of John was composed early in the second century.
What happened during the time gap between the original composition of the written gospels (50—110 C.E.) and the dates for most of the papyrus fragments that have been discovered—more than a century later and in some cases even later than that—is the problem. During this gap the gospels were copied, revised and added to several times before reaching the state in which we know them today. That process of change is crucial. It needs to be underscored here and again below, in the section on the findings of the Jesus Seminar. It is therefore not surprising that less than 20% of the sayings and acts attributed to Jesus in the gospels that we have today are considered to probably or certainly go back to him. In fact, given the complicated and uncertain nature of the unfolding tradition, I consider this a good result. We are probably lucky to have one hundred
The Synoptic Gospels
The word synoptic is derived from the Greek syn, “together,” and optic, “seen.” The gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke are known as the synoptic gospels because they include many of the same stories, a common view not present in the lengthy monologues and elaborate dialogues in the Gospel of John. In the synoptic gospels Jesus speaks in short one-liners, couplets and parables which sometimes appear in short dialogues. The bedrock teachings of Jesus preserved in the synoptics are his parables, and they are completely absent in John. As Funk and Hoover recall of the Seminar’s examination of John, “The Jesus Seminar was unable to find a single saying they could with certainty trace back to the historical Jesus.”
The “synoptic problem” refers to the literary relationships between the gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke. The parallel content, narrative arrangement and sentence structure of these gospels can only be accounted for by literary interdependence. Furthermore, setting the three gospels next to each other line-by-line reveals that about two thirds of Matthew and Luke are taken from two sources: Mark and the Sayings Gospel Q. This conclusion is known as the “double tradition” or the “two-source theory.” Finally, modern scholars have also been able to show that Matthew and Luke each had access to at least one other independent source, which, like Q, is no longer extant. For convenience, these additional sources are labeled “M” and “L;” when added to Mark and Q. Taken together these texts are referred to as the “four-source theory” for the origin of the material in Matthew and Luke.