Merits of the Three-Source Theory

"If I have seen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants."
Isaac Newton

1. It retains the advantages of the Two-Source Theory.

  1. Comparison of the synoptic gospels reveals many examples of very similar wording. These can only be satisfactorily explained by a theory which posits that the synoptic authors copied from each other and/or from common written document(s).
  2. It reflects the scholarly consensus that both Matthew and Luke based their gospels on the earlier gospel of Mark.
  3. By positing that Matthew and Luke both made use of a written sayings source, it explains the observation that in some cases the Matthean version of a saying appears to be more primitive, whereas in other cases it is the Lukan version which appears to be more primitive.
  4. At least 30 duplicate sayings ('doublets') in Matthew or Luke can best be explained as resulting from overlaps between Mark and this sayings source.
  5. It rightly ignores the Gospel of John, for it is generally agreed that this gospel was written after the other three, and therefore it could not have been a source for any of them.

2. It solves the problems left unanswered by the Two-Source Theory.

The 3ST has three significant advantages. Firstly in the Triple Tradition, providing the simplest explanation for the minor agreements. Secondly in the non-aphoristic part of the Double Tradition (which includes all the narrative material), explaining its Matthean style and contexts. Thirdly in the collection of sayings, most of which are now seen to have been reproduced in Matthew and Luke to form only the remainder of the Double Tradition, thus enabling us to explain the true genre, attestation, coherence and historical background of the collection.

It explains the 'minor agreements' between Matthew and Luke against Mark

The similarity in wording between Mark and Luke in the Triple Tradition suggests that Luke must have had his copy of Mark open in front of him when he was editing Markan material. So it is not beyond the bounds of plausibility to suggest that he also had his copy of Matthew open in front of him at the same time. Given this scenario it is easy to see how Luke could have taken advantage of some of Matthew's often stylistically motivated minor changes to the older text of Mark. Thus the Three-Source Theory can readily explain how the many 'minor agreements' between Matthew and Luke came about.

It explains why the text of Luke includes phrases characteristic of Matthew's style

The phrases include "you brood of vipers" (Mt 3:7 // Lk 3:7, c.f. Mt 12:34; 23:33), "weeping and gnashing of teeth" (Mt 8:12 // Lk 13:28, c.f. Mt 13:42,50; 22:13; 24:51; 25:30), the combination of law and prophets (Mt 11:13 // Lk 16:16, c.f. Mt 5:17; 7:12; 22:40), and ανθρωπος + a noun (Mt 11:19 // Lk 7:34, c.f. 13:52; 18:23; 20:1; 21:33; 22:2). The 3ST can account for each of these four parallels as resulting from Luke's use of Matthew. All the other examples of these phrases (listed after each 'c.f.' above) occur in redactional texts in Matthew. [1]

It solves the problem of missing contexts

For example the phrase: "If you are the Son of God ..." (Mt 4:3 // Lk 4:3) makes perfect sense in its context in Matthew, only a few lines after Jesus has been declared to be "my [God's] beloved Son" (Mt 3:17). In Q the equivalent context is at best uncertain and at worst absent altogether. Also the miracle summary in Mt 11:5 looks as if it was designed to match the healings of the blind (9:27ff.), the lame (8:5ff., 9:1ff.), the lepers (8:1ff), the dumb [2] (9:32ff.), and the raising of the dead (9:18ff.). Because it has a parallel in Lk 7:22 the summary appears in Q, but there it has no such explanatory context. The logical conclusion arising from the 3ST is that the summary in Lk 7:22 was copied from Mt 11:5, and that the verse originated in the context of the previously related healings.

It solves the problem of genre

Q has no parallel in Jewish or Christian literature. But the sayings collection as reconstructed here really is of the same genre as the extant Gospel of Thomas, i.e. consisting exclusively of sayings attributed to Jesus.

It solves the conundrum of Q's lack of attestation

According to the 2ST, virtually all of Q was copied by both Matthew and Luke, and yet the Fathers of the early Church made no mention of Q. This is very surprising. In the 3ST, Q is replaced by a sayings collection which matches the description of the 'logia' given by Papias (see Papias' LOGIA).

It solves the problem of the incoherence of Q as currently defined

The odd mixture of a few isolated narratives with many sayings is now discarded, as is the pollution of Jesus' sayings with those of John the Baptist. Furthermore the detailed division of the material into multiple layers, the specialists' reaction to a mixed bag of material supposed to have been a real document, can now be consigned to the refuse heap of abandoned hypotheses. [3] For the logia was highly coherent from both literary and theological perspectives, and its neat structure of paired poetical sayings would have inhibited any substantial modification to the text.

It resolves the mystery of the origin of Q

Q is widely supposed to have originated in Galilee. But there is no reliable evidence for the continuation of the Jesus movement in Galilee in the four decades following the crucifixion. Not a single follower of Jesus belonging to that location and time period can be named. In the 3ST, Q is replaced by an Aramaic collection of the sayings of Jesus produced in Jerusalem by his first followers (named in Galatians and Acts), then later selectively edited, translated into Greek (with the occasional mistranslation! [4] ), and merged distinctively by each synoptic author into his gospel account.

3. It has support from statistical analysis.

  1. A professor at Bern University has provided in-depth analysis (in German). [5]
  2. A statistical study of the synoptic gospels (D.Gentile)
  3. Inglis on the NT - Conclusions

4. It is a combination of its main rival theories.

As can be seen from the source relationship diagrams below [6], the Three-Source Theory involves an elegant combination of the predominant Two-Source Theory, and the Farrer Theory for which Michael Goulder argued so forcefully for 30 years.

Two-Source Theory Three-Source Theory Farrer Theory
2SH diagram 3SH diagram Farrer diagram

5. Yet its explanatory power turns out to be significantly better than the combined explanatory power of the two rival theories.

For it brings to light the coherent historically-attested logia, recorded by an apostle in the language of Jesus and in the known setting of the Jesus movement in Jerusalem. The logia thus constitutes not only a credible and historically-attested apostolic witness to the sayings of the historical Jesus, but also a firm link between the original followers of Jesus and the synoptic gospel writers. Both are conspicuously absent from the two rival theories.

The diagram below provides an insight into the relative explanatory power of the three theories.
The 2ST readily explains the phenomena in purple [7] and blue. [8]
The FT readily explains the phenomena in purple and red. [8]
The 3ST readily explains the phenomena in purple, blue, red and green. [9]

3ST explanatory features

Therefore the Three-Source Theory
solves the Synoptic Problem!

Notes for this page

1. With regard to these typically Matthean phrases, the additional instances have not been taken directly from any known source. Of these additional instances, eight would have been considered for inclusion in Q (those in Mt 12:34 & 23:33; 22:13, 24:51 & 25:30; 5:17 & 7:12; 22:2) yet Q scholars do not include any of them, in spite of having been forced by the Q hypothesis to assign to Q the single instance in each case which has a parallel in Luke.
2. This is the only mismatch between the summary and the related healings, for the summary involves the deaf hearing where we would expect it to refer to the dumb speaking. However the difference is less apparent in the original Greek, for κωφος  can mean either deaf or dumb.
3. Q supporters have been unaware that the Double Tradition (on which the hypothetical Q was based) had two components: the set of logia which both Matthew and Luke chose to include in their gospels, and the set of pericopes which Luke chose to include from Matthew. These choices were only finalized when Luke was written. In other words the Q envisaged, for instance, in "The Critical Edition of Q" (published in 2000) had not even been imagined, let alone established in a papyrus document, at the time when Matthew wrote his gospel!
4. See especially the notes on sayings A2, A15, D2 and D7 on the following page:
      Notes on the Sayings of Jesus
5. R.Morgenthaler "Statistische Synopse" (Gotthelf Verlag, Zürich, 1971)
6. There is evidence that the first edition of Luke lacked the birth narratives, i.e. Luke 1:5-2:52. (For example, they are inappropriately placed before the genealogy; the formal language of 3:1 ff. follows more naturally after 1:4.) But the presence or the absence of a second edition can be held together with any of the three theories. So for simplicity the diagrams here show only a single edition of Luke.
7. For details of the phenomena in purple, see Flaws in the 2ST (exception to): note 1. Markan priority ...
8. For details of the phenomena in blue and red, see Luke used Matthew and a sayings source
9. With regard to the phenomena in green, sayings blocks are described on the page referred to above; for details of Semitic traits and translation errors, see Notes on the Sayings of Jesus and for an explanation of what Papias said about the logia, see Papias' LOGIA