What did the Gospel writers know?

Some Bible scholars are quick to say that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John simply didn't know a particular tradition about Jesus. How likely is this?
Some Bible scholars are quick to say that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John simply didn't know a particular tradition about Jesus. How likely is this? (photo: Register Files)

Some biblical scholars are too quick to say that, because a particular Gospel doesn’t include a given story or saying of Jesus, the Evangelist who wrote it must not have known about it.


What would cause a person to think this?


The Infodump Hypothesis

One thing that might motivate such a view is the idea that the Gospels represent total infodumps of everything that a particular Evangelist knew about Jesus.

But if that were the case then they wouldn’t ready the way that they do.

They hang together as narratives and display too much literary artistry for that.

If they were frantic attempts to record everything the author knew about Jesus, there would be too many stray, half-formed things that don’t fit into their literary structures.

They also would be much longer than they are.



There would have simply been Too Much Information about Jesus for the Evangelists to put in the Gospels.

They had to make choices.

This would particularly be the case if Matthew and John were, indeed, eyewitnesses of Jesus’ ministry. They would have known lots about Jesus—far more than could be fit into a small book like a Gospel. Such authors would be forced to omit things they know about Jesus.

Even non-eyewitness authors (like Luke and, at least for the most part, Mark) were in contact with eyewitnesses and had access to lots of information about him.

The oral preaching of Jesus that preceded the writing of the Gospels was extensive, and the original eyewitnesses were still there and able to be implored: “Tell me more about Jesus!”

It is inescapable that the Evangelists would have known things about Jesus, either from their own experience of his ministry, from speaking with eyewitnesses, or from information that was in common circulation about him, that they did not put in the Gospels.


The Agrapha of Jesus

We even have examples of what may be authentic sayings of Jesus that weren’t recorded in the Gospels. They are known as “agrapha” (Greek, “unwritten ones”), and they are for the most part found in the writings of the Church Fathers, who attributed them to Jesus despite their not being in the Gospels.

One—however—isn’t found in the Church Fathers but in the New Testament. This agraphon is found in the book of Acts, where St. Paul says:

In all things I have shown you that by so toiling one must help the weak, remembering the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive’” [Acts 20:35]

Luke obviously knew this saying of Jesus. It’s right there in Acts. But he didn’t choose to put it in his Gospel.

How many other things did Luke know about Jesus that he didn’t put in his Gospel?


Deliberate Concision

We also have evidence that the Evangelists were writing with deliberate concision—they were trying to keep things brief.

This is evidenced in Matthew, who regularly gives shorter versions of stories found in Mark and Luke—thus allowing him to pack material in his Gospel that isn’t found in either one of them.

It’s even more clear in John, who makes the fact explicit that he is leaving out things he knows about Jesus:

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book [John 20:30].

He even displays what may be a slight bit of frustration as an eyewitness who has been asked a little too often for comprehensive information about Jesus:

This is the disciple who is bearing witness to these things, and who has written these things; and we know that his testimony is true.

But there are also many other things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written [John 21:24-25].

So right there we have an explicit statement that John knew things about Jesus he chose not to record.

The same is true of the other Evangelists.

Why would anyone think otherwise?



One reason might be that there has been some misconceptions about the Gospels that have been floating around biblical scholarship in recent years.

One is the idea that the Gospels were written at very late dates by people who had little connection with (and thus little knowledge of) the events that they record.

This has been ably refuted by many scholars, including John A. T. Robinson in his classic work Redating the New Testament.

Another misconception is that the Gospels were written for isolated “communities,” each of which possessed only one Gospel, and only in much later times did they come to be circulated among Christians more broadly.

This is false, as has been demonstrated in Richard Bauckham’s excellent The Gospels for All Christians: Rethinking the Gospel Audiences (New Testament Studies) (see also Martin Hengel’s, The Four Gospels and the One Gospel of Jesus Christ).

These two misconceptions are part of what could drive a reflexive recourse to something like the infodump hypothesis.

It’s much easier to see the Evangelists as trying to say everything they know about Jesus if they were individuals writing at late dates, who had little contact with eyewitnesses, and who lived in isolated communities that did not freely exchange information (like Gospels) with each other.

But there had to be some exchange of information, as even people who are quick to think that an Evangelist didn’t know something end up admitting.


Borrowing from Each Other

There are very few (almost no) scholars who think that the Evangelists wrote completely independently of each other.

The Gospels—and particularly Matthew, Mark, and Luke—contain too much material that overlaps.

The vast majority of scholars holds that the Evangelists (after the first) were aware of the work of one or more of their predecessors and, in some cases, used them as sources for their own Gospels.

That means that the Gospels weren’t locked away in isolated communities. They were being circulated.

But no Evangelist includes everything that a previous Gospel does.

That means that, whatever order you think the Gospels were written in, the later Evangelists chose not to include material they knew about.



Supplementing Each Other

One reason is that they seem to be supplementing each other.

This is most clear in the case of John, who deliberately follows a different path than the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), which tell the story of Jesus in much the same way.

It is easy to see John thinking, “We don’t need another Gospel that re-treads that same ground. I’m going to approach this a different way.”

He thus viewed his role as supplementing the synoptics, and he points out that he is deliberately leaving out many things.

The same thing would have been true, to a lesser extent, of the other Evangelists: Those who were aware of their predecessors were not interested in simply copying what had been done before.

They had contributions that they felt could be made to the Christian community by including new material and reorganizing and reworking previous material.

But because they knew that the previous Gospels were already out there in the Christian community, they didn’t feel the need to include everything that their predecessors had recorded.

They could comfortably leave out some material because it was already recorded in a Gospel being circulated among the churches.

And there is another reason they would leave material out.


Literary Goals

Each Evangelist has certain goals that he is interested in pursuing.

For example, Matthew is very interested in portraying Jesus as the successor to King David. He is interested in showing how Jesus recapitulates the history of Israel, and so there are passages in his Gospel that recapitulate Moses as a baby, the Exodus, the crossing of the Jordan, and the giving of the Law on the mountain (to name a few).

In order to pursue his literary goals, each Evangelist had to make choices about what he would include and what he wouldn’t. That something that every author has to do.

One literary goal that the Evangelists had was to write works of a certain length in Greek—between 11,000 words (Mark, the shortest) and 18,000 words (Luke, the longest)—and that goal alone would force them to make choices about what to include.

The more ambitious their other literary goals were, the more they would have to leave out of what their predecessors had already recorded and put into circulation.


Not Omniscient

Of course, the Evangelists were not omniscient. They didn’t know everything about Jesus.

It certainly could happen that an Evangelist did not record a particular story or saying of Jesus because he didn’t know it.

That would be particularly the case for Evangelists who weren’t eyewitnesses, but even those who saw Jesus’ ministry for themselves weren’t with him every minute and didn’t notice every single thing that others did.

So it can be suggested that, in a particular case, a given Evangelist may not have included something because he wasn’t aware of it, but this can’t be asserted simply because he doesn’t mention it.

There are too many other reasons why he might not mention it.


Developing a Test

So how could we tell if that was the case?

It’s not easy.

A starting point would be something that we would find surprising—something that we would think Christians would be interested in.

In fact, it’s that first moment of surprise and consternation—“Why didn’t he mention this?”—that serves as our first clue on the question.

But it’s only a first clue, and it’s informed by our modern sensibilities of what ought to be included—what we would think needs to be in a Gospel.

It’s imperative, though, that we check our assumptions on this question against the situation in the first century.


Literary Goals: Part II

In particular, its imperative that we check our assumptions against the known, first century perspective of the Evangelist himself.

This is best known—and often only knowable—by looking at his literary goals: What is this Evangelist trying to do? What is he interested in?

Unfortunately, this is a slippery question, and scholars constantly debate it.

There are some trends in the Evangelists that seem unmistakable, but there are many minor ones where it is hard to discern what an Evangelist was trying to do.

Because of the limitation of our knowledge, it’s often difficult to say with confidence why a given Evangelist made the choices he did.

Keeping that in mind, we shouldn’t be quick to say, “He didn’t know about this.” We should instead consider the possibility that he didn’t mention something because it didn’t fit his literary goals.


An Example

For example, only two of the Gospels—Matthew and Luke—include accounts of how Jesus was born.

Now, this is undoubtedly of interest to people. In fact, in the second century there was more than one apocryphal gospel written to fill in even more detail about Jesus’ birth and childhood.

But that did not mean that the two Evangelists who don’t record Jesus’ childhood—Mark and John—did not know anything about it.

Just because a subject will be of interest to people doesn’t mean that it fit with their literary goals.

John, for example, seems to be supplementing the synoptic Gospels, and he may have omitted Christ’s childhood because he knew it was already recorded and in circulation in the synoptics.

Furthermore, he can be viewed as providing a kind of “uber-infancy narrative” by taking the story of Jesus all the way back to the beginning of Creation (“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”; John 1:1).

Mark, for his part, starts his Gospel at the beginning of Jesus’ adult ministry, which is a good jumping-on point. If you’re trying to write a short, 11,000-word account of a great man’s deeds, it’s okay to start when the main action starts.

You don’t have to go back and cover his childhood.


A Minimum Test

It seems to me that, in order to assert with any degree of confidence that a particular Evangelist did not know of a particular story or saying of Jesus, you would have to have a clear knowledge of his literary goals.

But several conditions would need to be met.

First, if you knew that he had a particular, clear literary goal that would be furthered by including the material, then it might be reasonable to say that he may not have known about it if he didn’t include it. Even then, though, it seems to me that there are other conditions that would need to be satisfied.

Second, the material would have to significantly further his literary goal. If he’d already made his point several other ways, and one additional example wouldn’t add that much or be that much more compelling, he could well omit it.

Third, if he was not the first Evangelist to pen a Gospel, the material would have to be so compelling toward achieving his literary goals that he would regard it as “must-include” material, even given the fact that it was found in other Gospels. If he knew that the material was already in another Gospel that was in circulation, he would have less reason to include it in his own.

Finally, the material in question could be added without conflicting with another of his literary goals—including keeping his Gospel to a reasonable length. For example, if the material is so extensive that he would have had to write a dramatically longer gospel, then it might conflict with his length-maintaining goal.


The Bottom Line

It thus seems to me that to assert with any degree of confidence that an Evangelist did not know a particular tradition about Jesus that the following conditions must be met:

1. It would have to further a clear literary goal of his.
2. It would have to contribute to his literary goal in a significant way.
3. It would have to contribute to this goal in a compelling way if he knew that the material was already included in another Gospel that was in circulation.
4. It would have to not conflict with other well-established literary goals, including keeping his Gospel to a certain length.


It is my sense that these four conditions will not often be met.

If they’re not, we should not claim that a particular Evangelist did not know a particular Jesus tradition.

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