The method of Source Criticism

      Since the time of Spinoza many different methods of analyzing Biblical texts have evolved grouped together as various types of what has been called the ‘historical-critical method' (although in modern times new forms of analysis have evolved which are considered not to be part of the traditional historical-critical methodology). Source criticism involves attempting to identify the sources which a particular author may have relied upon in composing a certain document. This methodology has particular application in any analysis of documents in the Church Testament. For example, it is apparent that Luke used the book of Samuel as a source in composing his polemical birth narrative. The gospel of Matthew includes almost all the verses from Mark's gospel (with a few notable exclusions) and while Matthew reorders the material in Mark's gospel in the former half of the manuscript, from about chapter 14 onwards the Gospel of Matthew reproduces Mark's arrangement. Where Matthew introduces new material (interrupting Mark's narrative) the gospel always returns to pick up on the following verse in Mark's gospel. Often Matthew reproduces the actual wording of Mark's Gospel. Such a close correspondence both on the ‘micro-scale' (word for word correspondence) and on the ‘macro-scale' (parallelism in structure) could not have happened by coincidence and is a strong indicator that Matthew was familiar with the gospel of Mark, and thus Mark is one of the primary sources of Matthew's version.

      Similarly, Luke incorporates about half the verses in Mark's gospel, and also incorporates material found in Matthew's gospel, and includes some interesting and revealing editorial revisions to some of the material in Matthew, indicating that Luke was familiar with Matthew. (For an example of this sort of thing, you can make note of how in Luke the parable of the Roman Centurion, found in Matthew, is edited in Luke's version to include a few verses which ‘harmonize' the Gentile Centurion parable with the ‘begging Gentile dog' parable also found in Matthew's gospel.) Once again such an obvious attempt at harmonizing the inconsistencies in Matthew's gospel is a clear indication that Luke was familiar with Matthew. The Gospel of Matthew also shows signs of redaction at a later period than the time of the original composition, and thus this tells us that Mark's gospel was written first, and then was used as a source for Matthew's version, and then some time passed, Matthew's gospel was edited and revised, introducing doctrinal inconsistencies in the process, and then after this time the Gospel of Luke was written as the last of what are known as the Synoptic Gospels that were canonized.

      Texts in the earlier Jewish tradition also consist of sources, and one way to identify that sources do in fact exist is first to note that authors of manuscripts such as Kings and Chronicles refer to source documents which no longer exist. In addition we can make note of separate sources in the book of Samuel (the story of David and Goliath consists of two different sources which have been cut into pieces and then edited together, and similarly the stories of Samuel contain contradictions and inconsistencies that indicate multiple sources - in this case a source strongly in favor of the monarchy and centralization of authority in one national governing body, and another conflicting source against the monarchy and in favor of preserving both the judges and tribal independence.) In the letters in the canon there is a source relationship existing between Colossians and Ephesians and between the letter known as Second Peter and the letter known as Jude. In both cases one document was used as a source document for the second (or it could be remotely possible that in both cases a third unknown source document was copied by two authors).

      The problem of sources then takes two forms, and in the Synoptic Problem (the relationship between the three Synoptic gospels) is a good example of texts where the source critical problem consists of identifying obvious source relationships between texts, and in example of documents such as Samuel the problem consists of identifying possible sources within a single document where the original source no longer exists (and thus can only be theoretically reconstructed based on the clues presented by an analysis of the sources as far as they can be identified and reconstructed).

      Source criticism has a long history, and is one of the foundational methodologies of the historical critical method. Spinoza's preliminary analysis of the Bible was an early form of this method combined with elements of what would now be termed ‘redaction criticism' (a study of how the documents were edited and came to their final form). The early conclusions of the source critics of the Jewish Testament, which were widely accepted until recent times, became known as the Documentary Hypothesis, the contribution of Wellhausen. The theory postulated four separate sources, the ‘J' document (or Yahwist) document and the ‘E' (or ‘Elohim') document, the ‘D' or Deuteronomist source (found, of course in Deuteronomy, but also to be found in redactional additions, during or after the exile, to the historical books of Kings, usually in the form of ‘D' type polemics intended to ‘correct' the earlier belief in the Divine Protection of the Jewish people by adding commentary on the subject of ‘sin' and ‘punishment' to bring the earlier and more optimistic traditions into line with the experience of conquest and exile while still maintaining the earlier faith in God), and a fourth source, ‘P' or the Priestly source consisted of ritual laws and various retelling of parables from the perspective of the Levitical priesthood.

      The story of Noah's Ark is a good example of the combining of two of these sources, one Priestly and incorporating later notions of ‘clean and unclean' animals and the ritual of sacrifice. The ‘P' source in the Ark story uses the term God while the J source uses the term Yahweh. When the terms are separated two separate and internally consistent accounts emerge, each a full flood story in its own right. The separate versions use their own unique terminology in the original Hebrew. In the ‘P' version of the story the flood lasts over a year while in the Yahwist version the flood lasts the more familiar ‘forty days and nights'. In one version a raven (officially an ‘unclean' bird) is sent out, and in the other version it is a dove (officially one of the ‘cleanest' birds, according to the Priestly point of view).

      One of the major differences that emerge when comparing ‘P' and ‘J' versions of stories is the anthropomorphic descriptions of the deity characteristic of Yahwist documents. This emerges in the flood story in such details as ‘regret' over the flood. The opening chapter of Genesis (the first creation) referred to the Elohim, and the story of Eden was a ‘J' (or Yahwist) source. The God of the First Creation myth is in control and awe inspiring in the Priestly source, while in the Yahwist source we find such things as a God who must go looking for Adam and Eve, or who appears to chat with Abraham and then suggests a trip to Sodom, you know, just to check out the rumors and see if everything was really as bad as the stories going around. Yahweh is often frustrated, often at wits end, and frequently surprised, not always knowing what is going on. (This distinction between the High Theology of the Priestly source and the low theology of a Yahwist source is a tradition you will find carried on here on this web site - I don't call this site ‘A Witness to Yahweh' without a reason. My protests against High Theology and the corresponding High Christology of Priestly documents such as Romans or John are not based upon a simple desire to be a ‘copy cat' Yahwist, but rather I am truly a Yahwist at heart, and the logical and philosophical contradictions and inconsistencies in the over hyped High Theology of the priestly documents of the church are the real sources of my protest and critique. There is a cruelty at the heart of High Priestly Theology which sparks the desire to protest in the heart of any true Yahwist like myself, and so I find myself remaining in this tradition for that reason. But I digress...)

      The Documentary Hypothesis is still one of the dominant source theories to explain the Jewish Testament, but it has been subject to increasing criticism in modern times, and I would think justifiably so. The main objection to the hypothesis is that it is to over simplified, and that the identification of the original sources is more complex than the division into ‘J', ‘E', ‘D', or ‘P' would allow. There are also sources within sources. For example, an examination of the Jewish texts would reveal variant Yahwist sources. In some sources Yahweh is a war God. In others, notably found in schools of thought in Jewish prophecy, the wrath of Yahweh burns against armies (an anti-war source). The priests of Leviticus used the term ‘Yahweh' and insisted that Yahweh demanded animal sacrifices when the people came up out of Egypt, and in Jeremiah, the prophet, speaking in the name of YAHWEH, insists that the people were not commanded to bring animal sacrifices. While there are classic examples of source analysis that fit neatly into the model proposed by the earlier Documentary Hypothesis (the creation stories, the stories of Noah and the Ark are truly classic examples) there are also sources that are harder to identify and there are ideological differences that exist within what might be purported to be schools of thought and thus individual sources.

      In the documents of the Church canon the most important source critical problem has always been the study of the Synoptic problem, described briefly above, and the source relationship that exists between the three Synoptic gospels. Early on the explanation that was most accepted, and still has great acceptance, came to be known as the Two Source Hypothesis, the most famous proponent of which was H.J. Holtzmann in the middle of the nineteenth century. According to this theory Mark's gospel was written first (a point I do not dispute, since there are obvious signs, alluded to above, that this was the case). Mark then became the first primary source of both Matthew and Luke, both of whom also had access to a second source which is known as ‘Q' (something I dispute). The relationship that exists so strongly between Matthew and Mark could then be explained as a dependance of Matthew upon Mark, which is obvious, and then the relationship that exists between Luke and Matthew can be explained by the fact that both Luke and Matthew had access to this supposed ‘Q' document. This is the generally held theory which is held to be a solution to the Synoptic problem. Material peculiar to Matthew or Luke (a small amount of the total) can then be assigned to ‘M' or ‘L', sources peculiar to each evangelist.

      The Griesbach hypothesis has been enjoying something of a revival (Matthew and Luke were written first and then Mark was written last using both of these as sources). Now the literary dependence of Matthew on Mark seems obvious to me, and there is a certain logic to some of Matthew's editing of Mark's parables that indicate a familiarity (and thus priority of Mark). For example, the parable of the withered fig tree in Mark's gospel is used as one of those polemical brackets (a chiasmus) enclosing the attack on the temple system (the temple enclosing the symbols of a pigeon, sacrificed for menstruating, sitting beside money, needed to buy such pigeons from the Pharisees, labeled a band of thieves in the parable. The fig tree is cursed, the temple is cursed, and then in the closing parentheses of the chiasmus the fig tree is shown withered and dead. The polemical nature of such an arrangement is obvious.) Now in Matthew's version the fig tree parable is made into a single unit and dies immediately when it is cursed, thus becoming not a symbol of the cursing of the temple, as in Mark's chiasmus, but rather a parable about cursing fig trees, something anyone could do if they had faith, and thus rather stupid. Then, unbelievably, after doing the violent attack on the temple Matthew's account will have Christ teaching in the temple (the problem then was not the system itself, but rather pigeons should be sold outside the temple, or so it would seem). This sort of dilution of Mark's chiasmus is typical of Matthew's gospel where such things as the cursing of the clean and unclean foods in Mark's gospel is watered down to become a problem with ritual hand washing. Such dilution suggests familiarity.

      Matthew also does a hop, skip and a jump over the parables involving spitting and mixing mud and then making a number of attempts at healing. Healing is instantaneous in Matthew's gospel. In the story of the menstruating woman, in Mark's version, Christ does not know who touched him, and this is also excised from Matthew's account. Consideration of such things and so many other minor alterations to Mark's account ( a few words here, a line there, always in keeping with that same ideological slant of the Matthew gospel) well all this suggests strongly that Matthew was aware of Mark's account. The fact that Matthew follows Mark step by step from chapter 14 onwards is also a strong indication that someone was familiar with someone, since such literary correspondence, even word for word correspondence never happens by coincidence. The first si chapters of Mark's gospel contain chiasmus containing a particularly strong attack on the Torah, and the fact that this material appears in the first thirteen chapters of Matthew's gospel like a chopped up tossed salad hardly seems coincidental either, and given that this also fits into the general overall pattern of revisions fitting that peculiar ideological slant of the Matthew gospel also indicates priority of Mark. As well, it is more typical that ‘low Christology' and ‘low theology' such as what is found in Mark precedes the high mythology and higher Christology of such later mythology laden documents as Matthew or even more so the Gospel of John. It would be remarkable to start high and then sink low, and a comparative study of religion strongly suggests that Mark would have been first just for that reason alone as religions the world over incorporate ever more fantastic elements of myth and legend as time goes by and never become increasingly simple.

      It is characteristic of the source critical problem that given two variant readings of certain texts where an obvious literary relationship exists, the question becomes to decide the probability that the change went from ‘A' to ‘B' or in the opposite direction from ‘B' to ‘A'. When the Matthew gospel is examined next to the Gospel of Mark it seems most likely for the sorts of reasons outlined above that the changes were made from Mark (‘A' in this case) to Matthew ('B') and not vice versa, and thus Mark was first, and Mark was a source for Matthew. (That a literary relationship exists is indisputable in this case, so the source critical problem consists of determining which gospel was first and thus the source for the second.)

      The Gospel of Mark is a protest document. If it was written last then certain sayings become radical protests against the emerging doctrines of salvation and high Christology in the churches. For example when asked ‘Good teacher how can I be saved' (the Big Question for Christians, is it not) Mark has Christ reply, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good except God. You know the commandments.' Absent here are notions, such as those found in John or the Book of Romans, that you are saved by ‘believing in Jesus' who, as we know was sinless and perfectly good, just like God really. Now the arguments I have heard in favor of the Griesbach hypothesis (Mark written last) are unconvincing to me for the reasons outlined above. For example, one support for the theory states that Mark used Matthew and Luke as sources keeping only that material common to both, which one way to explain the situation. Mark would then have had to arrange this common material into the Chiasmus which are the defining feature of the gospel of Mark, radically changing the meaning of the material in the process, which makes one wonder why he would have bothered restricting himself to material common to Matthew and Luke in the first place, especially when it would turn out to be the case that Mark was going to write a fervent attack on the belief system of the church in any case. Nevertheless, the low Christology in the gospel of Mark can sometimes seem, in retrospect, like an attack on the emerging theology of the church, although it seems reasonable when considering the history of religion, that the low Christology of Mark is simply that, early, low Christology, and it just seems to be an attack on the church when we consider what came later. But I mention it, because the only time I have ever considered that "Mark was written later than the other gospels' is when considering what can seem like ‘attacks' as described above.

      Similarly Mark's gospel contains an attack on the family of Christ (they tried to have him locked up in what passed for a lunatic asylum in those days, they were not his mother and his brothers, because those who did the will of God were his family, and they had such powerful unbelief that they literally sucked him dry of all his powers), This could seem like an attack on the fairy tales of the nativity found in Matthew and Luke, and thus becomes evidence for the late date of the composition of Mark, a truly radical protest document. This hostility toward the family of Yeshua in Mark's gospel then makes sense, because it is enigmatic. Consideration of these matters has made me consider that perhaps Mark was written later. However Matthew once again seems to be editing Mark (according to Mark, enigmatically, Yeshua could not do any miracles because of their unbelief and was rendered powerless, while in typical form for the Higher Christology of the Gospel of Matthew, he would not do any miracles in Nazareth. This is par for the course for Matthew and this sort of subtle editing of Mark is a recurring feature, so, as tantalizing as it is to consider Mark last, and very very radical, it would seem that this sort of radicalism is just a curious literary artifact given the way the church departed from the low Christology of Mark. Naturally Mark would appear ‘radical' given that context, and Matthew's higher Christology would come later, as is typical, and thus Matthew's editing makes sense in that context.)

      As well early manuscripts of Mark have no passion narrative, and the earliest copies of Mark in the opening verse read, ‘The story of Yeshua Messiah' and then in later times the phrase was added ‘the son of God'. That a scribe would have ‘forgotten' to copy the all important phrase ‘the son of God' in these earlier manuscripts is unthinkable, and that Mark was subject to editing to bring the book into line with Matthew is also obvious (especially when considering the Syro- Phoenician dog parable edited into Mark's account in the most incongruous manner.) This editing by the church fathers only complicates a source analysis of the documents, it goes without saying, but discussion of this matter falls more into the category of redaction criticism than source criticism.

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Related pages:

The Synoptic problem - the two source hypothesis and the 'Q' document

The Gospel of Matthew - Commetary Index

A commentary on Mark's Gospel

The Christ Myth - a collection of links

Romans - Commentary Index - Links to Yahwist critique of High Christology

Samuel, David and Goliath - introduction to the source traditions of Samuel

Genesis Commentary Index

Multiple sources in Joshua

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