Just a few days ago I walked out into the scrub pine “woods,” northeast of the airport on Nantucket, to view the wreckage of an airliner. Having refused what was at one point the last open seat on that ill-starred flight, I saw before me an amazing sight. The path of the plane’s three sets of wheels could be traced for a long distance. First, one of the wings had clipped off the top of a fence post, slicing off a “No Trespassing” sign, but leaving the bottom half intact. Then a ridge had tipped the plane, causing wreckage to fly. Straight ahead it cut a path through the low-growing tree tops, and beyond that, twisted metal and burst-open traveling bags were scattered abroad over the ground. In front of me was a large chunk of fuselage—a grisly, fire-gutted death-trap.

Numbered stakes had been driven into the ground and numbered tags had been tied to pieces everywhere. Critical surveyors had mapped the entire scene. Many of the details, of course, would never be known. But what was here was unmistakably clear. One could locate the open space where there had been a perfect three-point landing, and the spot where the first jolt had scattered wreckage; and one could also reconstruct other events of those few dread seconds in which so much had happened.

For 13 years the writer has been driving numbered stakes and hanging numbered tags over the field of the history of gospel criticism. It has been slow work, involving the study of inaccessible books, usually in German or Latin, with only a little help from English books. Source criticism was introduced into England as a fait accompli nearly 30 years after it had received rather final definition on the Continent. It was more admired in England than investigated or understood. To be sure, many things will never be known about the course of modern gospel study. But much can be unmistakably known if the history of such study is critically surveyed.

Our purpose in this article is to point out significant weaknesses in the development of the dominant form of modern critical study of the Gospels. The facts were obtained as follows:

Starting from form criticism, the popular view of the Gospels today, the writer began to work backwards. A single critical question was asked again and again at each of many points of investigation. Stated in its actual, inelegant form, the question was: “How did this fellow get this way?” Such inquiry resolved itself into three specific questions, namely: (1) How did things stand before this theory under study was propounded? (2) Where did this theory come from? (3) What reasons were given for accepting it? It is absolutely necessary to learn the answers to these three questions if one would understand a given theory or form a truly independent judgment on any view of the Gospels. Otherwise one remains shut up to acceptance or rejection of a given view simply because someone else accepts or rejects it.

Article continues below
Form Criticism Questioned

Now, if we start from form criticism in any of its forms (Bultmann’s, Dibelius’, Albertz’s, or Taylor’s), and work backwards, we discover that despite its present popularity, which seems to be growing into virtual idolatry, form criticism is a very delicate blossom. In fact, four distinct questions are critical for its continued existence.

The first is whether the method itself is valid. The essence of that method is literary analysis. Component parts of the Gospels are analyzed and classified according to literary forms. They are also assumed to have been produced originally in a purely literary activity. This means, for example, that just as one asks why someone should have written a certain fairy story, so a form critic asks why anyone should have written (that is, invented) a story about Jesus healing a blind man. Such is the initial question we must consider regarding form criticism: “Is its methods valid?”

Three additional questions remain, all closely connected with the Mark theory. These will prove either vital or fatal for form criticism because they concern its foundations. They concern not merely the petals of form criticism but its very roots.

The second question is this: “Has the work of analysis been applied to the right document?” The only way to be assured is to determine our earliest Gospel. If Mark was earliest, and was subsequently used by the compilers of Matthew and Luke, then doubtless the form critics have been digging in the right place. But if Mark is not the earliest Gospel and therefore not actually the primary source used by the writers of Matthew and Luke, then the conclusion is inescapable that scholars have applied a prodigious amount of ingenuity to the wrong document. If the Mark theory be not true, they ought instead to have been analyzing Matthew or Luke, whichever proved to be earliest.

Manipulation Of Scripture

The third question relates to the validity of two dissections of Mark (by W. Wrede and K. L. Schmidt) on which form criticism is based. Waiving the question whether Wrede and Schmidt dissected the wrong document, we here face the additional question: “Is a specific pre-form-critical literary analysis of Mark valid?” The analysis is based on a theory that Jesus never thought of himself as the Christ, and also on a theory that the editor-compiler of Mark invented a scheme according to which Jesus gradually revealed the secret of his Christhood. Then the writer, it is claimed, made that scheme the outline of our second Gospel. In other words, Wrede and Schmidt nailed over Mark’s Gospel a big sign reading: “No History Here!” Can this preliminary manipulation (manhandling) of Mark be justified?

Article continues below

A fourth question would remain were form critics successfully to run the gantlet of the first three. Scholars writing in favor of the Mark theory about a century ago were extolling the features of Mark which seemed explicable only as statements of an eyewitness of the events narrated. The supposed lack of eyewitness qualities in Matthew and the alleged abundance of them in Mark originally led scholars to claim greater originality and priority for Mark. Then form critics come along. They deny the validity of the concept of eyewitness accounts in the Gospels. In so doing, they have also denied the foundation of the “proof” that Mark is our earliest Gospel. Yet they proceed to analyze Mark, which they would not be analyzing at all but for the fact that an earlier generation of scholars had “proved” Mark earliest by claiming that indubitable signs of its originality and priority lay in the eyewitness qualities of its narratives. The question, therefore, is: Do logic and scientific integrity give the form critics any right to use their method on Mark, assuming it to be our one primary source, before they have established its priority on a new and different basis? Though one were to grant the validity of their method, and its use on the right document, and their propriety of building on the work of Wrede and Schmidt, this fourth question remains.

The Mortal Blow

An adverse answer to any of the four questions would deal a mortal blow to form criticism. Three of the questions are so dependent upon the Mark theory that should that theory ever come to be rejected, then a triple wound would accrue to form criticism. Enough has been said to show the critical importance of the Mark theory. Following its general adoption, nearly all later scholarship has been built upon it; most of the earlier study preceding it will be found to culminate in it. Most important for any historian or theologian, therefore, is its truth or falsity. The minister who cares about the factual undergirdings of his message will also have a vital interest in settling this question correctly.

Article continues below

Misleading statements have become widespread in many published works. For example, T. W. Manson says: “Nine-tenths of Mark is transcribed in Matthew.…” My own investigations had shown 40.6 per cent of the words of Mark to be the same as those in Matthew, with no indication whether they had been copied by the writer of Matthew, or had found their way from Matthew into Mark. From 40 per cent to 90 per cent makes quite a discrepancy! It is common today to find published statements which begin: “Since nine-tenths of Mark had been incorporated into Matthew,” and so forth. My investigation showed that Manson had quoted Streeter, using the latter’s statement loosely and carelessly. But that was not all. Streeter got his information from Hawkins, whom he misunderstood. Indeed, he drew a demonstrably impossible conclusion from Hawkin’s statements; Hawkin’s statistics could never yield Streeter’s conclusions. In this way a jump from 40 to 90 per cent of Mark was alleged to be incorporated into Matthew.

Even so, why did everyone insist that Mark had been taken up into Matthew, instead of vice versa? This situation led me carefully to investigate the Mark theory.

Origin Of The Theory

When was the Mark theory originated? Who first propounded and advocated it? The earliest origin usually claimed in 1835. By 1865 it appeared assured of its present dominant position. Investigation of the intervening 30 years enables one to discover and study the circumstances in which it became dominant and the reasons alleged for the probability of its validity.

When I asked: “What converted scholars to the Mark theory?” I expected in my naivete to find that someone had studied the data exhaustively and had written a thorough book, which had convinced others and produced virtual unanimity in favor of the Mark hypothesis. Instead, I discovered that the question had been settled during the late fifties and early sixties of the last century, in a controversy where the real issues had never received consideration.

Advocates And Propagation

Space limits preclude a detailed tracing of the factors that brought Mark into favor, from Koppe and Storrs through Lachmann, Wilke, and Weisse, and thence down to the times of Holtzmann, Meyer, Ritschl, Weiss, and others. I can only give some principal facts. First, who advocated the Mark theory? Add or subtract a few names, and the answer is: Lachmann, Weisse, Wilke, Ewald, Reuss, Thiersch, Tobler, Ritschl, Meyer, Plitt, Weiss, Wittichen, Holtzmann, Mitzig, B. Bauer, Volkmar. Some helped originate and launch the view; others were influential in turning the tide in its favor. Two almost alone secured its wide and abiding propagation into the future, namely, Holtzmann and Meyer. Meyer’s influence worked through his famed commentaries, circulated in a fabulous number of editions and translations up to the present day—when the English translation will soon be reprinted. Holtzmann’s influence worked through widely circulated books and through his long eminence and high repute as a teacher. His first book (1863) was especially convincing. E. A. Abbott, in the 9th edition (1879) of Encyclopaedia Britannica, wrote: “the work which most approximates to a proof of the originality of the tradition contained in Mark is Holtzmann’s Die Synoptischen Evangelien, &c., 1863.…” As late as 1893 and after, young Albert Schweitzer at Strasbourg University was awed by the great scientific scholar who had established the Mark hypothesis, and he instinctively singled him out as the one teacher whom it would be impertinent to disagree with openly. B. Weiss was also a potent influence through long years, both in his own right and as Meyer’s posthumous editor. The critical years seem to have been 1861–1865, when Meyer had just swung over to the Mark theory, Holtzmann’s book appeared, and Weiss was vigorously advocating the new view.

Article continues below

The victory of the Mark theory arose in the historical context of a specific controversy. The view then dominant was that of Baur and the Tubingen School. They had adopted Griesbach’s old theory that Mark was the latest of the three Gospels, patched together out of alternating phrases and scraps of words drawn from Matthew and Luke. The question at issue was strictly in relation to Mark. Was it last or first? The reader must not suppose that this was a general question, defective merely because it ignored the possibility that Mark may have been the second earliest Gospel. This defect was grave enough. But the real fault lay in an assumption that the discrediting of Griesbach’s artificial theory would automatically establish the Mark theory. The earliest “proof” of the Mark theory in the English language is not a proof of that theory at all. It is a short discussion, three pages long, which shows the absurd suppositions of the Griesbach theory.

Article continues below

The context and terms of the debate against Baur’s modification of the Griesbach theory quite positively insured the defeat of the old view and the automatic victory of the Mark theory regardless of its real merits or defects. For example, Matthew never stood a chance. It was simply taken for granted by advocates of the Mark theory that Matthew was not authentic, nor apostolic, nor early. Holtzmann tells us that he assumes this and takes it e concessu, that is, as something everybody concedes. Meyer tells us that Matthew being ruled out, and Luke never being considered a real possibility, Mark, therefore, by simple elimination, must be considered the earliest. Now it is true that the other side, the Tubingen School, defended Matthew as the earliest Gospel. But they also roundly denied that it had any value. They dated it between 130 and 134 A.D., 100 years after the ascension. It was certainly unauthentic, and written long after the death of Matthew the tax-collector. If we had asked them what historical value Matthew had, they would have replied: “As history it is valueless, except as it testifies to Jewish tendencies current in some churches 90 or 100 years after the death of Jesus.” Investigation discloses no genuine effort to determine the relative merits and rights of Matthew and Mark to consideration as our earliest Gospel.

Actually, the advocates of the Mark theory were taking away three authentic Gospels from the churches and giving them one in return. But in the specific context of the struggle, which made their theory dominant, the impression arose that they were presenting the churches with one genuine Gospel in place of three unauthentic ones.

Plagiarism Assumed

In trying to ascertain the real mind of the scholars, I first sensed vaguely, and soon recognized unmistakably, that all the writers involved took for granted that the only possible explanation of similarities in the three Gospels was due to borrowing or copying in Greek. This assumption was openly confessed and given an appropriate name: the plagiarism hypothesis (Benutzungshypothese). Now this means that we are not really dealing with basic studies of the synoptic problem at all. On purely theoretical grounds, numerous possibilities were ruled out. What of the possibility of an Aramaic original of Matthew, which nearly all ancient writers mention? Why rule out the possibility of kinds and degrees of interdependence which would not require a denial of the authenticity of the Gospels—that is, which would acknowledge the Gospels as three sufficiently independent, and therefore independently attested and authenticated, accounts of Jesus’ works and words by the real Matthew, Mark, and Luke?

Article continues below

The plagiarism theory has imposed an unduly constricted set of limitations on the study of the Gospels. Actually, the theory of copying in Greek is positively detrimental. For when tested by the concrete data, it hinders us from seeing the full extent and range of the facts of agreement. Specifically, Matthew and Mark have 1,500 odd items of inexact agreement and synonymous resemblance. Such data create problems for the theory of copying in Greek. On it they must be explained as differences. However, on a theory that an Aramaic Matthew was in Peter’s hands at Rome we can very well account for everything. The Greek agreements would arise when the Aramaic Matthew was translated into Greek by someone, and when Peter’s preaching based on Matthew was rendered into Greek in Mark. The average exact agreement in Greek is even less than two and one-half words long. Such exact agreements do not require a theory of copying in Greek. As soon as we give up the plagiarism theory, while the extent of resemblance between Matthew and Mark is actually enlarged by 1,500 odd items, we also secure the immense theoretical advantage of not having to explain 1,500 items as changes deliberately introduced into a Greek text.

The general view just advanced has the advantage of being capable of being tested by analogy. We can compare the entire range of data from a synopsis of Matthew and Mark with the data from a synopsis of the A and B texts of Greek Judges, representing apparently two independent translations from Hebrew. Such comparison justifies rejection of the theory of copying in Greek. At the same time, it shows that Matthew and Mark do not exhibit the same strict adherence to an original document as do the A and B texts of Judges when compared to a Hebrew text. The data in some respects are strictly comparable, and in others radically divergent. Matthew and Mark show close correspondences other than the kind produced in the A and B texts of Judges by extreme loyalty to an original written document.

A bare statement of the data is given in the following table:

So much for the Mark theory and its undergirding plagiarism hypothesis.

As to the “Q” theory, it is a “sputnik,” a man-made satellite which the Mark theory hurls into orbit. No agreement has ever been reached on the original language of “Q,” or on its contents or on the arrangement, or on any specific feature of its provenance, time, place, or authorship. Unless and until the Mark theory has been first adopted, there exists no “problem” that requires “Q.” Reject the Mark theory, regard Matthew as the first Gospel produced, and the need for a “Q” hypothesis vanishes. The synoptic data do not create the problem that “Q” is intended to solve; the Mark theory creates it by its own inability to explain the data.

Article continues below

E. A. Abbott, the famed British scholar, has given an excellent evaluation of gospel studies prior to 1879:

The work of Dr. Holtzmann … is of great value; and so are Dr. Weiss’s Marcusevangelivm (1872) and Matthausevangelium (1876); but it is truly lamentable that nearly a century has passed in the accomplishment of so little. The reason is perhaps to be looked for (1) in the amount of personality that has been introduced into discussions of this kind; (2) in the haste with which theories have been erected upon the basis of single causes; (3) in the general absence of an attempt to classify and concentrate evidence; (4) in the failure to recognize the distinction between probabilities and certainties, and the amount of labor necessary to attain certainty; (5) most of all, in the absence of mechanical helps” (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 9th ed.).

Certain it is that the scholars who agreed in the general result, and who thus made the Mark theory dominant, could not agree on the means and reasoning by which they reached their conclusion. Holtzman spells this out in detail. And it is further certain that only one or two scholars considered it possible that our present Mark could have been used by the writers of Matthew and Luke. Nearly all, when they said “Mark,” meant another writing significantly different from our Mark. It is often said that we have Mark but we don’t have “Q.” Investigate the actual waitings of those who established the Mark theory. You will find that we don’t have Mark either.

The writer agrees fully with Abbott’s evaluation. He thinks that gospel studies have been on a flight that has landed in the woods, missing both the landing-strip and the airport as well. A new, comprehensive study of the Gospels is urgently needed. The really scientific study of the synoptic problem is ahead of us. Indeed, the preliminary isolation and statement of the data of the problem have yet to be achieved. On the positive side, study and work, in God’s providence, can lead to renewed conviction (on more solid foundations than ever) of the genuineness, authenticity, and early dates of our Matthew, Mark, and Luke.

Article continues below


Preacher In The Red


The congregation of the Foursquare Church in Shelton, Wash., was listening attentively to the announcements. I was urging all to attend the evening service, the sermon being on Jesus’ parable concerning the rich fool.

After a very brief preview of the content of the message I announced the topic: “A Fool and His Money Are Soon Parted!”

Then in the next breath I said, “Will the ushers please come forward and receive the offering.”—The Rev. RAYMOND L. Cox, Corvallis, Oregon.


A Protestant minister with a parish among a Roman Catholic population spends an exciting life, I can assure you.

One day the phone rang and a female voice said;

“Are you a father?”

“Of course I am; I have three kids.”


“Yes, three children.”

“Are you married?”


“Let me get it straight: you have three children, you are married and you are a father?”


“Shame on you!”

And bang! Down goes the receiver.—The Rev. NUNZIO TESTA, Grace Presbyterian Church, New York, N. Y.

For each report by a minister of the Gospel of an embarrassing moment in his life, CHRISTIANITY TODAY will pay $5 (upon publication). To be acceptable, anecdotes must narrate factually a personal experience, and must be previously unpublished. Contributions should not exceed 250 words, should be typed double-spaced, and bear the writer’s name and address. Upon acceptance, such contributions become the property of CHRISTIANITY TODAY. Letters should be addressed to: Preacher in the Red, CHRISTIANITY TODAY, 1014 Washington Building, Washington 5, D. C.

John H. Ludlum, Jr, is Minister of the Community Church on Hudson Avenue, Englewood, N. J. He holds the B.A. from Rutgers University, the B.D. from New Brunswick Theological Seminary, and the Ph. D. from Yale University (Department of Near Eastern Languages and Literatures). His doctoral studies included Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, as well as the Literature and Criticism of the Old and New Testaments.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.