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Did the Gospel authors make composite discourses? It's complicated

About a month ago I mentioned briefly in a post that I'm open to the idea that the Sermon on the Mount might be, at least in part, a composite discourse, but that I lean slightly in the direction of thinking the material in it was all uttered on that occasion. No, this doesn't even mean I lean slightly in the direction of thinking it was "recorded verbatim." That straw man is getting very old and tattered. Jesus may have been speaking in Aramaic in any event, and moderate, normal, recognizable paraphrase is quite likely when writing down what someone said, either from notes, human or written sources, or one's own memory.

Speaking of that straw man, I posted recently on Facebook (public post) about the fact that Craig A. Evans was dragging out old Mr. Straw again in a recent interview. He even said this:

My critics, and there aren’t too many, but there are a few out there, they say, "If it’s not tape-recorded, word-for-word, what Jesus said, then John is being false. You’re saying John isn’t true. John is misrepresenting Jesus." And that’s the kind of, I don’t know if you want to call it fundamentalism, or rigidity, that’s the part that I find problematic.

My name came up a few minutes later, and I was the only "critic" discussed in the entire interview. I told Dr. Evans four times in my debate with him in April (see transcript here) that I was not asking him about nor advocating a "verbatim tape recording" version of Jesus' words in the Gospels. Nor are there any other "critics" that I know of who "say" such a thing. This was pure straw manning. But I guess it's a useful trope to portray anyone as a rigid fundamentalist who criticizes you in a way that might be deemed "from the right."

Anyway, I mention that to clarify that even when I said that I "am more inclined" toward the view that the Sermon on the Mount is not a composite discourse, that didn't mean that I was inclined toward the view that it has been recorded verbatim. Indeed, the nearest parallel for much of its material in Luke (the "Sermon on a Level Place" in Luke 6:17-49) does not have the material that it does include right next to each other as it appears in Matthew, and does not have all of the Beatitudes.

My overall approach, which one might say is the idea that the gospels are "reportage," also does not mean that a reliable, reporting author could not have combined material topically in a reported sermon, some of which Jesus in fact uttered at a different time. Dr. Evans also tried to imply in the debate that I must have a problem with this (a point he brought up out of the blue), even though I had already in that debate repeatedly said that I did not. I had to remind him of this.

What I would say is that, if an author consciously compiled, and if he was a reliable reporter, he was not consciously attempting to give the impression (even in the "story world" of his document) that Jesus uttered that material at that time. He would have had to expect readers to know to expect some degree of "composite-ness" or "gathered-ness" in sermons. What I shall call below a "knowingly composite" discourse is not necessarily a "fictionalized composite discourse," though every fictionalized composite discourse is, of course, knowingly composed. Moreover, if a reliable, reporting author gives some sort of recognizable setting for the discourse, there should have been some discourse given at that time containing some of the material related; otherwise the entire incident is ahistorical. Further constraints would depend upon other indicators or time stamps that might occur in the particular text. If there were questions recorded from the crowd, these should be historical. If a saying of Jesus is said to be in response to some particular incident that happened at that time, that should be historical, if the author is not fictionalizing.

Nor would a reliably reporting author have been inventing the material based merely upon general theological extrapolation from Jesus' other teaching--an idea sometimes misleadingly characterized as "paraphrase," which it emphatically is not. The author would have had to have good reason to believe that Jesus taught these very teachings in an historically recognizable fashion at some time.

So there are historical constraints created by the notion that the Gospels are historical reportage, but they are not the constraints envisaged by literary device theorists and placed upon their opponents. These nuances and distinctions are frequently elided, even aggressively pushed aside, by the "literary device" school of thought.

All that being said, the question does arise: Why, in a given case, should we think that a given discourse is a composite? What is the evidence? And if so, how much of a composite is it? The evidence shouldn't just be, "The vast majority of scholars believe that the discourses in Matthew's Gospel are composite." This should go without saying: Scholars are supposed to be using evidence, and they sometimes don't evaluate it correctly or with sufficient nuance. Other people can look at that evidence for themselves. Even the term "composite" admits of a whole range of possibilities, as I'll discuss below.

There are additional distinctions to be made before looking at some of the passages in question. For example:

--There is a difference between an author who even loosely gives some kind of setting for a long sermon by Jesus, giving the impression that at least some of that material was taught at that time, and an author who is extremely vague about setting. The latter happens in Luke quite a lot, as I'll be noting often in this post. The latter is a simpler procedure, less open to misconstrual by readers, and more readily and reasonably interpreted as "gathering" material.

--How much did the author actually know or remember about when Jesus taught certain things in the discourse, and how do his intentions relate to what he knew? There is a difference between thinking, "I'm making an educated guess that he taught this at this time, but that may not be the case," or even, "I can't remember when he taught this, but it may well have been in this one long sermon he preached at such-and-such a time, so I'll include it there" and, on the other hand, thinking, "I know for a fact that he taught this at this completely different time, in a specific, different setting, but I'm going to eliminate that other setting in my report and gather the material into a big discourse thematically." The last of these has to satisfy a bigger burden of proof.

--How much of the material was actually uttered at a different time? Very little, half, most, etc.?

We will see that all of these points play into our analysis. Suppose that we call a discourse "knowingly composite" if the author knew that some of the material in it was uttered at a different time and erased the other context deliberately. Again, to be "knowingly composite" is not automatically to be "fictionally composite" (see above). We'll call it "casually composite" if the author was unsure when else it was uttered or was making an educated guess that it was uttered together with the other material in the discourse. Let's call it (statistically) "significantly composite" if at least half of the material in it was either knowingly or casually gathered.

With all of that in mind, let's take a look at two discourses in Matthew and at the alleged evidence that Matthew gathered material from other occasions and lumped it into these sermons.

I'm going to do a "spoiler" on my own post right here, so that readers with little time will know where I am going:

There are not sufficient grounds to hold with high confidence that any of the discourses in Matthew were both knowingly and significantly composite as just defined. It is entirely an open, reasonable position, based on the very messy evidence at our disposal, that none of them included material knowingly gathered by the author from definite other contexts and that, at most, only a small number of passages in them were even in fact uttered by Jesus in other contexts rather than in the discourse context where they are found in Matthew.

The evidence is so complicated that scholars should show humility and not dismiss as "fundamentalist" the idea that, say, the material on the Sermon on the Mount was all or almost all taught on one occasion rather than compiled.

Once again, I emphasize (so there is no excuse for misunderstanding): What I have just said about the evidence concerning composite discourses in Matthew is not necessitated by a "reportage" model, nor does it involve at all a requirement of "verbatim, tape-recorded, transcription." But this meta-level proposition about what lies within the range of reasonable possibilities is the conclusion I have drawn from studying the evidence on the ground. The study I have done on this subject will show the importance of not repeating unthinkingly the so-called "settled results of scholarship" or implying that anyone who disagrees with them must be uninformed or incompetent.

The Sermon on the Mount and the Commissioning Discourse to the twelve disciples present the two strongest cases for composite discourse in Matthew. The other three discourses usually listed in Matthew (or four more, if one treats the woes to the Pharisees as separate) have far less material that even appears elsewhere in other Synoptic Gospels. This is especially true of the parables in Matthew 13. Matthew's Olivet discourse in chapters 24-25 is longer than Mark's or Luke's, but the only passage that I have been able to find that even appears in a different place in another Gospel is the parable of the talents, which is placed with almost uncharacteristic firmness by Luke in chapter 19 when the disciples are approaching Jerusalem.

For sheer quantity of material allegedly "placed" elsewhere by the other Gospel authors, the Sermon on the Mount is the easy winner, with the Commissioning Discourse in Matthew 10 coming in second.

In case the reader is wondering why I'm talking about material found elsewhere in other gospels, I should mention that that is the main reason given for thinking that Matthew has created composite discourses. The chief idea is that, since we find so much material in (e.g.) the Sermon on the Mount scattered elsewhere in Luke (most of it is in Luke, a little in Mark) rather than uttered in a given discourse, then probably it was initially found only in sayings, either in definite other contexts or scattered about and uttered at all sorts of different, unknown times, and that Matthew literarily collected this material to form a discourse. Most of the material found elsewhere is what is know as "Q material," that is, material common both to Luke and to Matthew but not found in Mark. Here is a fairly clear statement of the argument, together with a useful list of parallel passages elsewhere in Luke:

The “sermon” is clearly a compilation of the sayings of Jesus by the evangelist, rather than something spoken by Jesus on a single occasion. The parallel material in Luke (hence, Q material) is found at different places. Luke’s “Sermon on the Plain” (Luke 6:17–49) does contain parallels to Matt 5:1–12, 38–48 and 7:1–5, 12, 16–21, 24–27. But other material is sprinkled throughout Luke (cf. 5:13 in Luke 14:34–35; 5:14 in Luke 11:33; 5:18 in Luke 16:17; 5:25–26 in Luke 12:57–59; 5:31–32 in Luke 16:18; 6:9–13 in Luke 11:2–4; 6:19–21 in Luke 12:33–34; 6:21–23 in Luke 11:34–36; 6:24 in Luke 16:13; 6:25–34 in Luke 12:22–32; 7:7–11 in Luke 11:9–13; 7:13–14 in Luke 13:23–24; and 7:22–23 in Luke 13:25–27).

While it is possible that the sermon is in part a compilation, the "clearly" is open to challenge, and that is my point in this post.

I don't intend to spend much time on the question of whether Luke's "Sermon on a Level Place" (not best translated as "plain") in chapter 6 is the same occasion or a different one from Matthew's. They could be the same occasion, with Luke merely giving a portion of the material given in Matthew. There certainly are level places in conjunction with hill country found in Galilee, so the topographical indications are not in any necessary contradiction. There is a pretty vigorous debate about whether this represents one occasion or two, but an important point to note is this: Luke and Matthew both have a goodly "chunk" of the same material which they both present in one place in their gospels. This hardly constitutes an argument that this material was not presented by Jesus at one time but was rather scattered around at completely different times. If anything, one could say that Luke and Matthew agree in putting at least this much material, roughly speaking, together. If there were a Q and all of the material found in Matthew 5-7 were scattered about in Q or in no way gathered together in Q, and if Luke and Matthew both got it from Q, it would be quite a coincidence that they both put such a big chunk of it in one place.

Moving on from the material included in Luke in the "Sermon on the Level Place," we need to ask what the value is of the argument from the other material that is "sprinkled throughout Luke." Does that mean that this material was uttered by Jesus on scattered occasions and knowingly gathered together by Matthew into a composite discourse?

One way to get to that conclusion would be to assume that Matthew had no other access to the time and occasion when this material was taught than what he found in Q and also that it was scattered in Q. But this conjunctive proposition is much more than we can say. Even if one accepts the hypothesis of a real Q, how in the world do we know whether this material was scattered or gathered in Q? We certainly do not have it. Moreover, if the author of Matthew either was an apostle himself or had access to eyewitnesses, he may have had ways of knowing when Jesus taught certain things other than simply by copying Jesus' teaching from a written source document. (I should add that the story of the calling of Matthew/Levi is related after the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew's Gospel and before the Sermon on the Level Place in Luke's, but the chronology of these sections is somewhat unclear in the two gospels, especially when compared with the parallel material in Mark.)

So it simply isn't enough to say that there is material scattered in Luke and together in Matthew and to conclude from this that Matthew must have gathered together material into a discourse when it was definitely uttered on other occasions.

To get into the details more, I suggest that we ask whether there is material found in the Sermon on the Mount that is found in at least a weakly competing setting in Luke or another Gospel. What do I mean by "at least a weakly competing setting"? I mean something like this: The other Gospel presents some section of teaching found in a discourse in Matthew but appears prima facie to present a different setting for Jesus' teaching of that material. This setting should have some sort of describable characteristics that would make it difficult to construe as the setting of a long sermon on a mountain at a (relatively) early point in Jesus' ministry. And "being related in later chapters of Luke" is not enough to satisfy this criterion, as we shall see. If a section occurs in at least a weakly competing setting, then one would have various options. One might think that Matthew either casually (without being sure himself that it was uttered on a different occasion) or knowingly gathered it together when it fact it was taught at a different time. One might think that Luke or Mark mistakenly placed this material at a different time. Or one might think that Jesus taught it on more than one occasion. This last is an option that scholars ought to be far more open to than they often are, especially since many teachers and speakers give the same talks on multiple occasions. (I repeat myself quite often in interviews on undesigned coincidences.) And the duplicate teaching option becomes even more likely when the saying in question is very short. If one is strongly opposed to thinking that Jesus taught the same material twice, or if one doesn't want to think that "too often," then one might think that the appearance of a lot of different sayings from the Sermon on the Mount in at least weakly competing settings in the other Synoptic Gospels provides a cumulative case that Matthew was gathering up materials for the Sermon on the Mount that were actually uttered in other settings.

But the fascinating thing is this: There is a surprising scarcity of material found in the Sermon on the Mount that occurs in even a weakly competing setting in other Gospels! You might wonder how that can be, given the long list in the quotation above.

The answer is that many of those references in Luke are to places where Luke is extremely vague about setting--so vague that it would be unjustified to call the setting even weakly competing. Let me give a couple of examples. Consider Matthew 5:13:

You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has become tasteless, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled under foot by men.

Compare Luke 5:34-35:

Therefore, salt is good; but if even salt has become tasteless, with what will it be seasoned? It is useless either for the soil or for the manure pile; it is thrown out.

The slight wording differences could be a result of normal paraphrase by either or both authors, or they could indicate different occasions. But what is the setting in Luke? Not much. If you back up to the nearest "setting" indicator, you get this, in Luke 14:25,

"Now large crowds were going along with Him; and He turned and said to them,..."

followed immediately by a verse that is somewhat similar to Matthew 10:37.

One might argue that Luke 14 occurs in the large middle section of Luke, after he has said in Luke 9:51 that Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem. But it would certainly be "pushing it" to argue that that section is laid out in chronological order, and many of the chapters in it are clearly just "sayings" sections (chapters 15 through the beginning of chapter 17 are particularly noteworthy in this respect). Nor does Luke claim that this particular saying about salt was given while Jesus was journeying to Jerusalem. If anyone looks like he is not giving Jesus' teaching a definite setting, it is Luke rather than Matthew.

And a substantial number of the parallels to the Sermon on the Mount fall into this category: Luke 11:33, Luke 12:57-58, Luke 16:17, and more.

Now, it might be argued that this means that neither Luke nor Matthew knew when these sayings were uttered and that they choose to deal with this "Q material" in different ways. I am not saying that that is impossible, though that would still leave open the possibility of a "casually composite" discourse in Matthew--that is, that he did not definitely know that the teaching was given at a different time and may have been making an informed guess that it was taught in conjunction with the other material.

But it is important to bear in mind that there is nothing authoritative about Luke's "scattered" and unset recordings as opposed to Matthew's even relatively loose setting of these sayings in the Sermon on the Mount. It is not as though Luke is somehow "right" that they were uttered in a scattered fashion so that Matthew must be "going against" Luke in order to gather them up. A "gathering" Matthew is not more likely a priori than a "scattering" Luke. If Jesus did not repeat these sayings, the Gospel that gives them some potential setting, even a loose one within a long discourse (Matthew), is plausibly giving us more precise information than the Gospel that doesn't even attempt to do so (Luke). It would be downright epistemically backwards to think that Matthew must have gathered because that would be a more "literary" theory than the idea that Jesus did teach these various sayings all at one time in a mountainous region but that Luke, being for whatever reason less confident about the setting of some of them, didn't bother recording much of a setting at all. The more "literary" theory is by no means the better theory.

The relative lack of setting in Luke does, I must admit, give us some reason to think that perhaps Luke was not working directly with Matthew in the form that we currently have it. For if he were, he would have to have some reason for not simply copying the Sermon on the Mount more or less as-is if he wished to use that material in his own Gospel. This reflection does give some "aid and comfort" to the idea that Luke (though not necessarily Matthew) was working with some kind of "sayings" document that did not look like the present version of Matthew--perhaps an earlier version of Matthew, as some think "Q" may have been. But that is all conjectural. (I said the evidence was messy, didn't I?)

The main point here is that many of the scattered sayings listed do not occur even in weakly competing settings in Luke, which greatly lessens their value in an argument that Matthew must have gathered (either casually or knowingly) material that was said by Jesus at different times and compiled it into a longer discourse.

We have only a very few sayings in the Sermon on the Mount that occur in even weakly competing settings in the other Synoptic Gospels. These are:

--The Lord's Prayer: This occurs in Matthew 6:9-13 as part of a set of instructions about how to do various things. When you give to the needy, do this and don't do that; when you fast, do this and don't do that; when you pray, do this and don't do that. It occurs in Luke 11:2-4. Luke does not have the surrounding teaching that Matthew has. In Matthew, Jesus teaches just before about how not to pray to be seen of men and not to pile up empty repetitions, and he concludes by emphasizing the importance of forgiveness.

The weakly competing setting arises from the fact that in Luke, Jesus' disciples find him praying and, when he is finished, they ask him to teach them to pray. This does not sound like the middle of a sermon.

It's entirely possible that Jesus used the Lord's Prayer both privately and publicly to teach about prayer, so this is an entirely viable option. But for those who try to avoid thinking that Jesus taught things twice, that might seem to be a problem. Notice, though, that once we have only a small number of teachings in even weakly competing settings, the burden of thinking that Jesus taught approximately the same thing twice (and not even in all the same words) becomes much lessened, and it becomes even more obviously relevant to note that teachers often do teach the same thing more than once.

Brief digression: It is difficult for the layman who doesn't interact with NT scholars much to realize just how much scorn is heaped upon suggestions that something similar happened twice, that Jesus taught the same thing twice, and so forth. While occasionally scholars will give lip service to this possibility, in practice they try to avoid it like the plague, and in dialogue one will find one's ideas caricatured if one suggests anything like this in "too many" places where the scholar himself is not inclined to agree. The trained NT scholar, or his follower, will rather quickly start saying things like, "Oh, so do you also think Peter denied Jesus six times? Do you also think Jairus's daughter died twice?" and so forth.The most strained duplicating harmonizations are not distinguished from perfectly reasonable uses of the idea that vaguely similar events happen more than once in real life and that teachers teach the same material on repeated occasions. This kind of peer pressure can distort one's judgement.

--Another small section of the Sermon on the Mount that occurs in a weakly competing setting in Luke includes the injunction to enter at the narrow gate and a warning about knocking at a door and being told to depart, because the Master of the house never knew you. These verses occur in Luke 13:24-27. Somewhat similar verses occur in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 7:13-14, and 7:21-23. I must stress in this case, though, that the wording is notably different. For example, Luke's version emphasizes that those crying out to enter will say that they ate and drank with the Master of the house, while Matthew's emphasizes that they prophesied and did mighty works in his name. Matthew's verses about the narrow way emphasize that the way is broad that leads to destruction, while Luke doesn't mention this. While all of this could be reconcilable as normal variations in reportage if we knew that this was the same occasion, it is at least as easily explained or better explained as Jesus' own variants of his own teaching on different occasions.

The reason for the weakly competing setting is that Luke leads right into the teaching on the narrow gate by saying that someone asked Jesus if only few would be saved during a time when he was teaching "as he made his way to Jerusalem," and this was his answer. Here it is not simply that the saying occurs in that general middle section of Luke. Rather, Luke apparently makes a tighter connection. However you slice it, and whichever journey to Jerusalem this might have been, that doesn't look like what's going on if he is sitting on a Galilean hillside teaching the crowds in the Sermon on the Mount. (See here for a discussion of Luke's long middle section where Jesus is "journeying to Jerusalem.")

And for competing settings, that's it! This hardly provides a strong case for the conclusion that the Sermon on the Mount is a significantly, knowingly composite discourse.

I want to address one other passage that Matthew is alleged to have gathered together into the Sermon on the Mount. This is the teaching on divorce in Luke 16:18. One could simply point out that Luke gives no clear setting here. But it might then be replied that Mark does give a clear setting in Mark 10:11, which looks a lot like Luke 16:18, and that in Mark Jesus is teaching his disciples in a house in the region of Judea and the Transjordan after answering a question posed by the Pharisees, which doesn't at all look like the Sermon on the Mount. Doesn't this count as at least a weakly competing setting?

The answer is no, and for an interesting reason: Matthew also has the same sequence of events that Mark has, in a completely different place in his own Gospel, in Matthew 19:1-9. The setting is chronologically, geographically, and interpersonally the same as that in Mark 10. In other words, the brief teaching on divorce in the Sermon on the Mount is already repeated within Matthew itself. It does not compete with a different setting in a different Synoptic Gospel, making it look like a gathered up part of a compilation. Rather, Matthew all by itself gives the impression, on the face of it, that Jesus taught on this subject more than once--more briefly perhaps in the sermon and at more length in response to questioning, probably several years later.

All of this messy evidence bespeaks the texture of the real life and teaching of a peripatetic rabbi. And where, in all of it, is the space for contemptuous dismissal of the slightest doubt that the Sermon on the Mount is a highly composed compilation on Matthew's part?

Let's continue the exercise to one more discourse--this time the commissioning of the twelve in Matthew 10. Here is Craig A. Evans himself on that topic:

Matthew 10:5–15 is prefaced by Matthew’s version of the calling of the twelve apostles (cf. Matt 10:1–4). He has developed a discourse on the missionary theme (Matt 10:5–42) by pulling together related materials from Mark (especially Mark 3:13–19; 6:7–13; 13:9–13; 8:34–35) and Q (as seen in Luke 6:40; 12:1–12, 48, 49–53). This discourse is preparation for the much shorter, confessional Great Commission in Matt 28:18–20. The discourse begins with a charge to the newly appointed apostles to go to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” (vv. 5–15). The apostles are to proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God (or heaven) and are to heal and exorcise. But the discourse goes on to warn the disciples of being dragged before Gentiles while offering assurance that they will know what to say when the time comes (vv. 16–23). The tensions between these two parts of the discourse are obvious, indicating its composite nature. The discourse concludes with words of encouragement (vv. 24–33), warnings of conflict (vv. 34–39), and promises of reward (vv. 40–42). These disparate materials were uttered on different occasions and have been assembled and edited by the evangelist, so that he may clarify important principles of Christian mission. Cambridge Bible Commentary on Matthew, pp. 217-218

Well, that looks impressive. Let's see what it comes to.

Of the Markan material Evans lists, only one passage is in a weakly competing setting. Here's what the rest from Mark comes to: Mark 3:13-19 is the list of the names of the twelve disciples and prefaces the commissioning discourse in Matthew 10. It is not part of it. It makes sense to give the list of the names in conjunction with the commissioning discourse, and these are not the words of Jesus. This passage is the sheerest list-padding. Mark 6:7-13 is the parallel passage in Mark! It is Mark's own account of Jesus' commissioning of the twelve, at the same point in Mark's narrative. Hence it is hardly evidence for the composite nature of Matthew 10.

Mark 13:12-13, about the brother delivering the brother unto death, is verbally very close to Matthew 10:21, and Mark 13 would be a weakly competing context, because it is Mark's Olivet Discourse, at a completely different point in Jesus' ministry. But here there is something curious: Matthew himself repeats similar conceptual material in his own Olivet Discourse, Matthew 24:10-13. There Jesus says, "At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other," which parallels the brother delivering the brother to death. And Matthew 10:22 is almost identical to Matthew 24:13 ("And you will be hated by all for my name's sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved"). The Matthew 24 context is the parallel passage to Mark 13. So, here again, we have some evidence in Matthew alone that Jesus taught the same material twice.

On Mark 8:34-35 I call a definite foul. Those verses say,

And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it.

This occurs in a passage in Mark after Peter has confessed Christ and Jesus has begun to foretell his own death.

The apparent parallel Evans wishes to allege in the Commissioning Discourse is Matthew 10:38-39,

And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.

What Evans does not mention is that this actually is not the real parallel in Matthew to the Mark passage, because Matthew has this same saying twice, including in the very same context that Mark has it--namely, toward the end of Jesus' life, just after Peter's confession and just after Jesus has begun to foretell his death. Matthew 16:24-25 says,

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.

And the succeeding verses even continue with the famous, "What shall it profit a man...," etc., just as in Mark. That is the place, if anyplace, where Matthew is following Mark 8, not Matthew 10; and again, the occurrence of a similar saying of Jesus on two occasions in Matthew itself is evidence that he did in fact teach it twice, not that Matthew moved it around to make a composite discourse.

What about the Lukan verses Evans lists? Luke 6:40 (found in the “Sermon on the Level Place”) is merely an isolated saying that the servant is not above his Master. John alone gives us reason to believe that Jesus uttered this saying on more than one occasion and was indeed quite fond of it, for Jesus repeats it twice in the Farewell Discourse alone (John 13:16, 15:20)! Hence its appearance in Luke’s “sermon on the level place” is not good evidence that Matthew took it from "Q material" and wove it into the commission to the twelve, having no reason whatsoever to think it was uttered at that time.

Luke 12:1-12 certainly contains segments that look similar to several sections of the discourse in Matthew 10. But, as in the Sermon on the Mount, it is Luke who is vague as to time. Luke begins,

Under these circumstances [lit. "in these"], after so many thousands of people had gathered together that they were stepping on one another, He began saying to His disciples first of all...

followed immediately by a saying about the leaven of the Pharisees that does not occur at all in Matthew 10. This is not a good candidate for a competing setting.

Luke 12:49-53 is indeed similar to Matthew 10:34ff, but by this point Luke seems to have gone into collected teachings of Jesus to his disciples.

The only thing that appears in even a weakly competing setting is Matthew 10:17-20, similar to Mark 13:9-11. This is about being handed over to courts and synagogues and not thinking ahead what you shall say. There is no parallel in Matthew's own Olivet Discourse, and obviously Mark's Olivet Discourse is not parallel to the commissioning of the twelve. An interesting point here is that Luke actually has this material twice--in both Luke 12:11-12 and in Luke's Olivet Discourse in Luke 21:12-15. Does this mean that Luke himself had reason to believe that Jesus said it twice? Or could Luke have been basing that impression on finding it in two different settings in Matthew and Mark? It's hard to say, but it's interesting that Luke, at least, seems to have found nothing strange about including the same material in two different places.

Evans appears to base his case for a composite discourse in Matthew 10 not only on the appearance of some of the material elsewhere in other Gospels but also on what he sees as the disparate nature of the material in Matthew 10 itself, which he seems to think gives that discourse a lack of unity. He goes so far as to mention the "tensions" within it, though not going on at length about what these are. Perhaps the idea is that some of the materials given to the disciples in Matthew 10 appear to refer to events that would not happen on the very mission of the twelve on which Jesus is then sending them but later on, when the church was launched and under persecution, when there were conflicts within families about following Christ, and so forth. But since we don’t have a clear competing context for most of these utterances in any event, we don’t actually know that Jesus would not have foretold later conflicts and persecutions as part of an initial charge to the disciples. The most we can say is that the prediction and injunction about being flogged and standing before governors and kings and not thinking what you shall say fits somewhat better in the Olivet Discourse than we might be disposed to feel that it fits in the commissioning discourse.

In the case of this one brief set of verses, Matthew might have included it in the commissioning discourse on the basis of testimony, impression, or guesswork, but perhaps it was instead taught later as part of the Olivet Discourse. And that's it.

Once again, the argument for the significantly compiled nature of the commissioning discourse in Matthew 10 leaves something to be desired. It's not that such a thing as a partially composite discourse at this point in Matthew is impossible, merely that it is not so strongly supported that any other idea has a very low probability. It appears to be fashion that has ratcheted up the perceptions of scholars to the point that one is deemed merely ignorant if one has the slightest inclination in any other direction.

Fashion in scholarship is a strange thing, and there are times when it needs to be resisted. The literary device theorists wish to take their followers into a world driven far too much by scholarly consensus, and the priorities of that world are questionable. In that world, if evangelical scholars seriously doubt that Jesus uttered the "I am" sayings in John in an historically recognizable fashion, what is the reaction supposed to be? Not so much as an eyebrow is to be raised. Raising eyebrows shows one to be among the unenlightened. The reaction is supposed to be one of mingled agreement and obfuscation. The word "paraphrase" is to be applied to the theory in question. It is to be bolstered by weak arguments and talk about how virtually "all Johannine scholars" agree that John made changes to "the Jesus tradition." Anyone who does raise an eyebrow is to be dismissed as a theologically motivated diehard who thinks we must have the words of Jesus verbatim in the Gospels. And then, having assured ourselves of our own scholarly superiority, we are to move on and teach more people to doubt that Jesus uttered the "I am" sayings in an historically recognizable fashion. That's the proper reaction to that suggestion.

In contrast, if an "outsider" suggests that perhaps Jesus uttered most or all of the material in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew on a single occasion, though acknowledging that it is also possible that it is partly composite--now that's a scandal. Ridiculous. A sign of ignorance, rigidity, and lack of knowledge.

I strongly suggest to the reader that those evaluations are skewed and distorted. If you are noticing this approach in those around you, feel free to question it and to opt out.

Comments (19)

Have you considered turning these blog posts into a book of sorts on the historical reliability of the gospels?

I'm actually working on two books. One is to counter the literary device views. The other will be specifically on the reliability of John's gospel. At some point I may have to slow down in my posting of blog posts in order to focus on book writing (which isn't exactly the same thing, either in research or in style).

The comments by Dr Evans, if the context is correct, are rather pathetic and telling. Even though English bishops who have been dead for over a century are not supposed to have seen Star Wars, having what I consider a sane, reasonable view of the gospels today feels like being in the Death Star trash compactor, where the walls on all sides are closing in around you. Unfortunately those walls which used to represent liberal scholarhips are from "our side" or the more "conservative" (or whatever label one wants to you) wing of NT scholarship. I'm at the stage where my position (= McGrew's essentially) is dismissed as some lunatic fringe position.

Fashion in scholarship is a strange thing, and there are times when it needs to be resisted. The literary device theorists wish to take their followers into a world driven far too much by scholarly consensus, and the priorities of that world are questionable. In that world, if evangelical scholars seriously doubt that Jesus uttered the "I am" sayings in John in an historically recognizable fashion, what is the reaction supposed to be? Not so much as an eyebrow is to be raised. Raising eyebrows shows one to be among the unenlightened. The reaction is supposed to be one of mingled agreement and obfuscation. The word "paraphrase" is to be applied to the theory in question. It is to be bolstered by weak arguments and talk about how virtually "all Johannine scholars" agree that John made changes to "the Jesus tradition." Anyone who does raise an eyebrow is to be dismissed as a theologically motivated diehard who thinks we must have the words of Jesus verbatim in the Gospels. And then, having assured ourselves of our own scholarly superiority, we are to move on and teach more people to doubt that Jesus uttered the "I am" sayings in an historically recognizable fashion. That's the proper reaction to that suggestion.

(I see another McGrewsory poster coming up, perhaps a panoramic shot of the Grand Canyon or something.)

This matches my own personal experience. During my 20s and 30s I studies this sort of thing intensely and made it a point to discuss things with others who held other points of view. Most of the time, the form of argument was to give an aire of superiority, as if their side had transcended the knuckle-dragging Pabst-chugging wife-beating trailer park world of fundamentalism. The condescension is the argument itself. The name-dropping led me to look up those scholars, who in turn dropped other names or had vague appeals to consensus. When I actually did find something resembling an argument, it was really nothing more than an appeal to philosophical a priori positions, e.g. miracles can't occur, the gospels couldn't possibly be history, Jesus could not have possibly been God Incarnate. The smug, the snark, the condescension that I got in those decades would've been bearable if there were actually solid evidential-based arguments given. (I think that is why I come off as somewhat cranky in these comments at times.)

Lest anybody think that I'm caricaturing, I am most definitely not. Any argument against my positions that I see today is ultimately traceable back to the 17th/18th century philosophical arguments and debates. It is rather liberating to see the principle that there is nothing new under the sun validated (once again). Sad to see people who would or should be close to our position straw-manning Dr McGrew's positions.

Rant over.

The comments by Dr Evans, if the context is correct, are rather pathetic and telling.

I spared the readers of the main post the later condescending bits from Dr. Evans in the same interview to the effect (this is only a slight paraphrase) that "Lydia is a smart lady and knows math and smart things like that and I'm not saying she's wrong about everything. I even endorsed one of her books. But it could be that she doesn't actually have the training in the field."

"Lydia is a smart lady and knows math and smart things like that and I'm not saying she's wrong about everything. I even endorsed one of her books. But it could be that she doesn't actually have the training in the field."

Smart lady or no, I see nothing of substance in the claim that you don't "actually have training in the field". So what? Arguments fall or stand on the basis of evidence and rigor, not whether one has a laminated guild membership card. We've seen that people with the membership card sometimes can't make simple arguments or respond effectively to the sort of arguments a well-read layman makes.

Here's something rather mildly interesting: A month or two ago Esteemed Husband predicted that one response of the literary device school would be to dismiss my work on the grounds that I'm "using math" and that this in some vague way doesn't apply to New Testament studies.

So he called it.

The silliness of this is amusing on many levels. First of all, I've always considered myself a mathophobe, so on a purely human level my being dismissed as a mathy type, removed from the understanding of an historical field, is rolling-on-the-floor-laughing territory. Second of all, I have never used any equations whatsoever in the discussion of these matters, though I have used concepts like independence, which New Testament scholars themselves use. (Or try to use.) They can't have their cake and eat it too. They can't talk about what is more probable than what, or whether two sources are independent, and then reject the input of someone who knows a good bit about probability and independence on the grounds that that person just knows about "math," which is irrelevant. Third, as you say, all of my arguments are out there and can be evaluated on the merits. The credentialism is getting truly pathetic. Thus far, my English degree has been used against me--one person can scarcely refer to me without adding, "With a PhD in English," as if a high-level terminal degree in literature were positively a *disqualifying* credential for discussing...literary devices. And now my knowledge of probability theory is being treated as somehow making me ivory-towered and unconnected, when in fact all of my arguments have depended upon the application of common sense.

But of course they want to have it both ways: I'm too intellectual and too naive, all at the same time. Well, I suppose such a person is imaginable--someone who is removed from the real world in his professional life and then credulous when he encounters scams or bad ideas in real-world matters. But I think one can read my arguments and decide whether anything I say falls remotely into this category. Throwing around labels and condescension hardly amounts to a detailed engagement demonstrating anything of the kind.

Now the o.p., that's what detailed engagement with the data looks like.

Greetings, all. I’m drawn to this site because it relates to a project of my own in the Gospels, but I have a comment I’d like to make. I’m neither a troll, nor a son of a troll, but calendar issues seem not to be discussed much in the posts I have read here. If that is so (and it may not be), it seems a pity not to address calendar issues, Passovers in particular.
It seems to me that the Gospel materials could be disaggregated by Passovers: Passovers only occur once a year, if (as written, at least) Jesus began with a Temple Cleansing in conjunction with a Passover, and if he died during a Passover, the rest of the material falls between these two points, grouped by intervening Passovers. At least, the issue of the calendar bears upon whether or not a given context is strongly competing or weakly competing context: disjunction by Passover would be weighty, not weak.
There are different ways to detect a Passover: overt mention (the term “Passover”, John 2.16, 6.4, 12.1), seasonal indicators (springtime, such as the disciples eating springtime grain while passing through the fields in Luke 6.1ff, etc, the new-green grass of Mark 6.39), reference to the immense crowds associated with Passover festivals (Luke 12.1 ‘tens of thousands), events taking place within a few weeks of Passover (Matt 17.24-27, the temple-tax incident); then there’s John 4.35 “Are you not saying ‘There are still four months, then comes the harvest’?”, as if Passover really were four months off.
So, for example, one might say that, going by the calendar, the centurion incident in Matt 8 occurs prior to the Passover signaled by Luke 6, while the centurion incident in Luke 7 occurs after that same Passover incident. That would lead to examining each incident individually to weigh its value as is, in situ. Concern over how one writer looked this way and that to size up competing contexts (particularly in other gospels) would take second place; first place would belong to what the writer was constructing in his own materials.

I'm certainly very interested in references to the Passover in the gospels, and for example one of my undesigned coincidences in Hidden in Plain View concerns John's statement that the time of Passover was near at the feeding of the five thousand and that Mark mentions the "green grass."

Indicators of spring *might* not all be equally agreed upon (or other seasonal indicators). For example, it can be debated whether, when Jesus said that about "four months until harvest" he actually meant that it really was four months until harvest at that time or was merely quoting a phrase. Indeed, in that passage in John 4 there are *competing* seasonal cues, and one must choose which one to weigh more heavily. Jesus says that they should lift up their heads for the fields are white already to harvest. Grain was indeed grown on the slopes of Mt. Gerizim, so was he indicating that the time was an actual harvest time and that they could see the fields ready for harvest? Some have said so and indeed taken this as an example of Jesus' use of object lesson in the immediate surrounding and John's knowledge of the topography. But his own saying makes a contrast between that an "four months until harvest," so it is not both. Which one do we take to be literal? Or do we take neither to be literal and both just to be metaphoric in the context (which is possible)?

I myself would be disinclined to take (as I think you may be suggesting) the appearance of a seasonal indicator or Passover and the appearance of an incident before or after that as creating a "strong context" *in and of itself*. I give more weight to overt than to indirect indicators, for example. And John is more overt and in that sense more chronological (in my opinion) than the other four Gospels. Indeed, it's an irony that critics will sometimes wrench John into narrating non-chronologically in places where he is very overt. In contrast, the chronology of the synoptics is famously messy to try to work out. Just one example of this is the placement of the healing of Peter's mother-in-law in relation to other events and to Jesus' visits to Capernaum. It remains a mystery to this day why Matthew, if he had access to Mark, moved that event out of its original order to a later point in his narrative. Or vice versa, for that matter, if Mark had access to Matthew. It seems a pointless movement in either event and, if taken as an actual chronological indicator, would create chronological discrepancies between them in several different ways.

I do *not* think that the healing of the centurion's servant in Matthew 8 and the one in Luke 7 are different events. (I don't know if that is what you are indicating.) Nor do I think there is a chronological disparity merely from the mention of grain in Luke 6 prior to the healing. Heck, we have enough apparent discrepancy issues to deal with with that incident (which seems to me to be definitely the same incident), because of the centurion's either coming to Jesus personally or not doing so, without introducing an unnecessary chronological difficulty in addition.

I do, however, think that the healing of the royal official's son in John 4:46ff is a completely separate incident from the healing of the centurion's servant in the synoptics, based on many clues, including the events of the healing itself.

You will see me talking about chronology, including festivals, from time to time in answering particular alleged contradictions or alleged "literary devices" (which are usually related to alleged contradictions). But you will also find me being somewhat tentative about the chronology of certain parts of the synoptic Gospels in particular, because I think that is warranted by the data. But I do attempt harmonization when that is possible and plausible. For example, in the post I link above concerning Luke 9:51, I harmonize Luke and John by hypothesizing that this was Jesus' journey for the Feast of Tabernacles described in John 7 and that the curious emphasis upon his being "received up" in Luke, despite his wandering around so much afterwards in Luke (!) arises from the fact that he was leaving Galilee for the last time in his ministry prior to his death and that he gave his disciples the impression that this was very ominous and that his death was potentially imminent, though it did not take place for about six more months.

I would take it a not only plausible, but very nearly a necessary facet of Jesus' ministry that he repeated himself ALL THE TIME.

First, he was a great teacher. I don't mean that he was a highly acclaimed person (a "great" person) who was a teacher, he was great at teaching: he had large crowds listening to him for very extended periods, sometimes large blocks of the day. Nobody who is incapable of keeping their attention - indeed, keeping them spellbound - is going to have a crowd staying around for multiple hours at a stretch.

And it is well known that great teachers repeat themselves. It is (now) part of the training for teachers that they are taught to repeat themselves. Indeed, they are taught two versions of "repeating yourself": on the one hand, for critical points that must be memorized, the teacher is supposed to repeat them verbatim, and then engage in training methods where they get the student to "repeat after me" in one way or another, so that the words as given strike home in his (the student's) memory. And then, for important other points where verbatim memory is not essential, the teacher is taught to use varied repetition, i.e. to go back over the same concept in slightly different words, or with slightly different examples, or with slightly different metaphors, maybe once focusing on visual cues ("the green grass") and another time focusing on auditory or olefactory cues, because students come in all flavors and learn in different ways. The "spiral method" is, effectively, one version of this. (This, by the way, is an excellent answer not only to different gospel writers putting "the same words" in Jesus' mouth at different times, and in the different Gospel writers putting ALMOST the same words in his mouth at different times with slight variations: very likely BOTH are historically accurate.)

Now, maybe Jesus didn't have FORMAL training as a teacher, but so what? Even if you ignore the point that he is God, it is apparent that he had a native understanding of how to grab the crowd's attention, keep it, and make a lasting impression - enough so that people remembered what he said, decades later. And some of his extended discourses illustrate clear grasp of rhetorical concepts and methods to get his ideas across. It is impossible to conceive of him as a bumbling amateur.

Finally, he taught MANY different times to large groups, all over the region. For hours at a stretch. It is not just implausible, but downright idiotic to propose that when he had a large crowd in the hills of Galilee, and another crowd on the shores of the sea, and another large crowd in Jerusalem, that he did not employ very considerable overlap in his extended speeches. HOW COULD HE NOT? Of course he repeated himself: he had a new group to whom he was conveying his message. Every one of those NT scholars who teach or write articles have repeated themselves to different audiences or in different contexts. Why can they do it and not Jesus?

Thanks for pointing out the “green grass” Passover reference in your book Hidden in Plain View, and for the labor you invested in writing your book.

As for the harvest reference in John 4.35: some parameters to go by would include (a) there is no attested example of ‘there are yet four months and (then) the harvest’ as a proverb, (b) ‘yet’ wouldn’t suit a proverb but fits better with a contemporaneous situation, (c) in Palestine the interval between sowing and harvesting is six months, not four, (parameters a-c from Hoehner’s Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ, p.57); (d) ‘you say’ is direct address, and not an indirect ‘they say’, and (e) a temporally restricted present (you are saying) is apropos when addressing nearby, attentive individuals.

In other words, Jesus observes that the disciples are already talking about the next Passover harvest celebration, a celebration that is still four long months away. They’ve been traveling with him around Judea since Passover the previous year, and now eight months later, for some reason, they are in Samaritan territory whose religious traditions are, to be blunt, depressing for faithful Jews. ‘Why wait until Passover to celebrate salvation when you can celebrate now?’ he says. ‘Look around, the fields around us are white and ready to harvest, so to say.’

At least this explanation works for me. It also explains why John 5.1 doesn’t need to identify the ‘feast’ there further: far from being a crux interpretum, John 5.1’s ‘feast’ is simply the feast expected after reading John 4.35.

Similarly, while it may be tedious, the chronology of the synoptics may be more powerful than messy, even in the case of the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law. It’s OK to let the playing out of events be the equivalent of ‘original order’.

Also, as for your handling of Luke 9.51, I appreciate your common-sense sympathy toward harmonization. I myself see Luke 9:51 as falling within the four weeks or so (cf. Hoehner's Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ, p.54) between the Temple Tax incident (Matt 17.24-27) and Passover that year. One can account for the 35 pairs of emissaries sent as his advance team in every city and village as his intention to be traveling and visiting long after this Passover season is over. Once Jesus arrives at Martha’s place in Bethany just outside Jerusalem, Martha anxiously prepares her own “last supper” for Jesus. There is no final confrontation that Passover, but there are tens of thousands of celebrants still out and about (Luke 12.1). Then comes the suggestion of another year’s mission (Luke 13.6-9), after which comes the six months or so that you referred to.

It’s interesting that Luke’s Gospel is vague on chronology. It is also vague on geography. Richard Bauckham has made the point that the vagueness on geography in Luke’s Gospel contrasts with the geographical precision in Acts. Suppose that we only had Acts and we were trying to explain the wealth of geographical detail. We might explain it by saying that Luke is a good writer of fiction. He has gone to a lot of trouble to create a detailed background for his story. But why would Luke do that for Acts and not his Gospel?

The mystery is solved when we realise that there are independent reasons for thinking Luke was personally involved in the story of Acts. Or perhaps we could imagine an alternative theory. Luke had a cunning plan. He could have been just as precise about the settings of events in his Gospel but he chose to be deliberately vague. He then went to a lot of trouble to research the background for Acts and then inserted the “We” passages to make it look as if he was personally involved and therefore had detailed knowledge of events.

I've often thought about that contrast between Luke and Acts but never put it together exactly like that--Luke's personal friendship with Paul in Acts. Very good point.

I have other fish, but just friendly word (I will

My Fighting Irish beat your Vbilt guys, hahaha ;-)

Seams and stitches. Scholars of a critical bent see the most minor of apparent discrepancies of grammar, syntax, or vocabulary as evidence of seams in either OT or NT text. And at every seam they see stitches where isolated traditions became composites. Maybe you can't see them, but those in the vaunted academy see them here, there, and everywhere.

Seams and stitches. Scholars of a critical bent see the most minor of apparent discrepancies of grammar, syntax, or vocabulary as evidence of seams in either OT or NT text. And at every seam they see stitches where isolated traditions became composites. Maybe you can't see them, but those in the vaunted academy see them here, there, and everywhere.

You have to publish or perish, which involves finding something on which to opine. The NT is a very small body of writing, and after almost two millenia, all the low-hanging and medium-hanging fruit has been plucked. Any original thought I have had (and there aren't that many) have long since been discovered or articulated by people centuries ago. My namesake has robbed me of many claims to discovering something profound.

Furthermore, there seems to be a perverse incentive that the more abstruse and opaque your theories, the deeper the thinker you are viewed to be. I've seen some critical theories advanced that are as complex as a Bach five-voice fugue, with the available evidence inversely proportional to the complexity.

There is, in all seriousness, a major lack of understanding of issues of complexity in what is proposed.

When looking into the evidence in the o.p., it occurred to me to wonder: "Why does scholar X think that this passage was originally uttered in a different context and then gathered up by Matthew rather than that it was uttered in the Sermon on the Mount and then vaguely placed at a different point in his Gospel by Luke?" I didn't bother to ask why they didn't think Jesus just taught it twice. That, I know, is anathema to scholars when they can at all avoid it.

But why not the other? And I had the thought that will not go away: Because that would be too simple. *Since* Luke is the one who doesn't give a context for it, it's considered *preferable* to think that the Gospel author who *does* give some kind of appearance of context for it (namely, Matthew) is the one who altered something rather than the author who appears even more unsure of the context. In other words, it's anti-simplicity.

*Since* Luke is the one who doesn't give a context for it, it's considered *preferable* to think that the Gospel author who *does* give some kind of appearance of context for it (namely, Matthew) is the one who altered something rather than the author who appears even more unsure of the context. In other words, it's anti-simplicity.

This preference for Luke over Matthew on this point could only make sense if the scholar already knew that Matthew could not possibly have access to resources that Luke did not have access to, and that Luke's account would have included the time/location/event information if it was in the resources he had. The former is utterly untenable as an hypothesis, and the latter is downright ridiculous. So, the preferential assumption is untenable and ridiculous.

But other than that it makes for good scholarship. At least it gets you published and a pat on the head for not making waves.

and that Luke's account would have included the time/location/event information if it was in the resources he had.

Or they might argue that Luke knew for a fact that the event occurred at some different time from the Sermon on the Mount but for some reason decided not to be more specific.

One possible scenario that would not require a preference for Luke over Matthew is that Luke spoke to someone who said something like, "Yes, I've read that part of Matthew, and I wasn't there at the time, but I remember that Jesus said something similar to x at some other time. I just don't remember where." That would be *one* way to explain but Luke did but would still leave open the possibility of repeated utterance.

I will never forget the time that I was in an e-mail exchange with a NT professor. He opined that Jesus was rejected only once at Nazareth and cleansed the Temple only once. In both of these cases I believed that there were two incidents. He said, "How often are you going to do that?"

It was a very revealing remark. I ought to have said, "As often as the evidence warrants." Or perhaps, "How often are you going to try to conflate two different incidents?"

Anyway, it showed the strength of the bent in the field against any duplication.

I will never forget the time that I was in an e-mail exchange with a NT professor. He opined that Jesus was rejected only once at Nazareth and cleansed the Temple only once. In both of these cases I believed that there were two incidents. He said, "How often are you going to do that?"

What an inane question, or, if meant in some rhetorical sense, what a lame attempt to keep you in your lane.

In principle, we should respect the work of NT scholarship, even if we disagree with its conclusions. But this assumes a collation and evaluation of actual evidence and points for/against a position, which is precisely what I fail to see in these glib dismissals. Morris' volume of studies on John has all sorts of footnotes showing scholarly just-so style handwaving. Having perused works of liberal scholarship from the late 19th century, I also see this glib "well everybody knows that X" appeal which is just a no-true-Scotsman fallacy writ large.

As a positive example of real scholarship (although not dealing with gospels), CEB Cranfield's two volume set on Romans from the mid-1970s is what immediately comes to mind. Cranfield presents patiently the major interpretive options and almost always weighs the evidence transparently for the reader. Even if he comes to a conclusion contrary to the reader, his conclusion still deserves respect because it has been achieved through evidential thinking, not through appeals to consensus nor rigid monomaniacal devotion to some abstract philosophical principle. Or, as another fine example, Guthrie's NT Intro book, which makes a fair presentation of questions of traditional authorship and presents the major arguments for/against. Finally, as a third example, many of Daniel Wallace's papers up at bible.org are solid too in how they think. I mention these to give some positive examples (since I've been so negative lately). Oh, and I should mention Bishop Lightfoot's studies on John and his replies to the author of Supernatural Religion.

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