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Too Close for Comfort: The False Dilemma of Gospel Relatedness By Jonathan Brackens

How can the Gospels be too diverse to derive from oral tradition but too synonymous not to be derivatives of another? This is the argument Sanders and Davies (1989) and others present that leaves some lurching for answers; however, the proposition presents a false dilemma wherein one must choose between having—not four but—one “reliable” witness or no reliable witnesses. There, they suggest that the Gospels are too similar not to have derived from a redactor having at least one copy of another Gospel to work from. When presented with the oral tradition theory (i.e., that the gospel narrative was passed on orally until someone wrote it down, which was common back then), opponents suggest that the diversity within the Gospels is too great to reflect an oral tradition, like seen among the Hebrew scriptures. Yet, these are not our only choices.

Let’s critically review their argument: “New Testament scholars are collectively in a state of total bewilderment about the relationship between the Synoptic Gospels[’ creation] and early Christian oral tradition” (Derico, 2016: 31). Additionally, to date, “there is no evidence sufficient to confirm the… [kinds or amounts of] verbal similarities could not have been produced by reference to the oral tradition of the early church,” and that such “verbal similarity found in Synoptic [Gospel] parallels could not have been produced by exclusive reference to oral traditions, except for oral traditions produced by means of a formal program of rote memorization” (Derico, 2016: 21, 28, 30; See Hirshman, 2009: 7). That’s fine, because by the opponents’ own confession, the evidence suggests that the Gospel of Matthew, Luke, and John, could be a complete function of editing previously written accounts, purely from a version of oral tradition, or a hybrid of the two (See Derico, 2016: 30, 36). Which means we are not stuck with choosing between having one “reliable” witness or no reliable witnesses.

Any Christian oral tradition required that it accommodate early Christians’ diverse, ostracized, and illiterate populations; indeed, there’s no indication that it was a "formal program of rote memorization” (Derico, 2016: 28, 30). This accommodation resulted in written singularity of most events, names, words, but not necessarily order nor authorial intent. Furthermore, it is this concept that Derico shows that accounts for the Gospels relatedness; I believe the hybrid option is more likely (Derico, 2016 36).

Lastly, any argument that suggests the Gospel texts are too related to be formed without possessing a copy of at least one other Gospel, but not related enough to flow from oral tradition, presents a conglomerate logical fallacy wherein they present a false dilemma and affirm the consequent, suggesting that diversity cancels oral tradition while consonance discredits credible witness accounts. Notice that such an argument hinges on the degree of relatedness documents must have to be reliable or to be a function of oral tradition, while not offering a standard or requisite degree of relatedness. There's no logical or evidentiary reason why they are so related as to be copies but unrelated as to not have derived from some form of oral tradition. We are not daft.

Wrapping Up:

The argument that the Gospels are too similar not to be derived from using copies of each other, but too diverse to come from oral tradition, presents a false dilemma that ignores another possibility: that the Gospels were written based on a combination of oral tradition and written sources.


Marc Hirshman. The Stabilization of Rabbinic Culture, 100 CE-350 CE: Texts on Education and Their Late Antique Context. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009)

Ed Parish Sanders and Margaret Lloyd Davies. Studying the synoptic Gospels. SCM Press, (1989).

Travis Michael Derico. "Oral tradition and synoptic verbal agreement: evaluating the empirical evidence for literary dependence." Oral Tradition and Synoptic Verbal Agreement (2017): 1-378.

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