Originally appeared in The Theosophical Review 28 (June 1901):
by G. R. S. Mead
The question of "tendency" in the Synoptic writers is of first
importance, for, as Professor Schmiedel says, "tendencies of one kind or
another" are acknowledged by even the most conservative critics.
Especially to be noticed is Mt.'s repeated appeals to Jews to prove from
the O.T. the Messiahship of the Christ, prefaced by the words "in order
that it might be fulfilled as it is written." Equally remarkable is the
polemic carried on in Mt. against the Scribes and Pharisees; while in Lk.,
in striking contrast to Mt., many of these speeches are addressed to the
people in general. This and numerous other points show that Lk. had
Gentile interests in view. But what is the special tendency of Mk.? From
the small number of discourses of Jesus incorporated by Mk., it is
concluded that he attaches less importance to the teaching than to the
person of Jesus. We would rather say that the peculiarity of Mk. (or
rather of the "embedded" document in Mk.) is the story of a designed
Further, "each evangelist in his own way is influenced by, and seeks by
his narrative to serve, the apologetic interest"; already much was
disputed. Another strong tendency, manifested by all three writers, is the
political—"the desire to make the Roman authority as little responsible as
possible for the death of Jesus."
Now, as we have seen in our last paper, the traditional view regards Lk.
as being of a specifically Pauline character, but this "widely accepted
view" can be maintained "only in a very limited sense."
It is true that in Lk. we find the rejection of the Jewish nation, but
beyond this general position, no distinctly Pauline doctrine; on the other
hand Lk. preserves and favours a distinctly Ebionitic tradition. The poor
are blessed simply because of their poverty, the rich condemned simply
because of their riches; other sayings and parables also breathe the same
atmosphere. Now the Ebionim (or Poor Men) were the most ignorant of the
earliest followers of the public teaching, who, it would seem, saw in the
Master a sort of socialist leader; for we cannot really believe that He
taught so crude and immoral a doctrine as here represented. The Ebionim
formed one wing of the Judaising party with whom Paul contended. It is,
therefore, exceedingly difficult to understand why if Lk. were a follower
of Paul, he should have selected part of the most pronounced tradition of
the opposing party to incorporate in his Gospel.
But more important than any special tendencies which may be detected in
the individual writers, there is to be noticed a common tendency to set
forth a document that should serve the interest of a nascent catholicity,
that is to say, a view that might be accepted generally.
Passing next to a review of the principal hypotheses which have been
put forward as tentative solutions of the synoptical problem, Professor
Schmiedel characterises the very simple hypothesis of "a primitive gospel
handed down solely by oral tradition"—so that eventually there came
to be formed a "fixed type of narrative" in Aramaic, the vernacular tongue
of the contemporaries of Jesus—as an "asylum ignorantiae,"
contradicting all the facts of criticism, if it be held to account for all
the facts. Nevertheless the hypothesis of oral tradition, or rather oral
traditions, as one of the factors to be taken into account, must be held
to contain "an essential element of truth."
The next most simple hypothesis is that of borrowing, where we
have to "put aside all idea of any other written sources than the
canonical, and must keep out of account as far as possible the idea of any
oral sources." Of the six imaginable orders only three continue to be
seriously argued for: Mt., Mk., Lk.; Mk., Mt., Lk.; Mk.,Lk., Mt. It is,
however, to be remarked "that every assertion, no matter how evident, as
to the priority of one evangelist and the posteriority of another in any
given passage will be found to have been turned the other way round by
quite a number of scholars of repute."
Summing up the evidence, Professor Schmiedel concludes that "the
borrowing hypothesis, unless with the assistance of other assumptions, is
unworkable." The result of this investigation into the labours of
criticism seems to us to indicate that the three Synoptic writers were
contemporaries and familiar with one another's design, but did not borrow
one from another, the "borrowing" was from other written sources of which
they made use.
We next come to the hypothesis of a single original written gospel;
this is open to the same objection as a single original oral tradition,
only that "it explains the agreements in our gospels better, their
divergences in the same proportion worse."
The next hypothesis to be considered is that Mt. and Lk. use an
original Mk., that is to say a Mk. in one and the same form, but different
from the one we now possess.
It is very evident that Mt. and Lk. do not use our Mk., though they use
much material contained in our Mk.; but we could never understand why this
phenomenon could be explained by postulating an original Mk. There is
certainly in Mk. an "embedded" document; but the embedded document, so far
from being an original Mk., is used freely in common by Mt. and Mk. and Lk.,
and may, therefore, be said to be equally embedded in all three. Whether
this embedded document can be the Mark-gospel of Papias is impossible to
determine, but our Mk. is in all probability not Papias's Mk., though the
misunderstood statement of Papias probably brought about its christening.
We pass next to the theory of the Logia (spoken of by Papias) as
a probable source for Mt. and Lk., that is to say of the common material
(discourses and parables) used by Mt. and Lk., but not found in Mk., for
in this they cannot be said to borrow from each other, seeing that in
addition to general agreement "the passages exhibit quite characteristic
Now it is first of all quite conjectural whether by Logia Papias meant
simply Sayings or Sayings mixed with Acts-narrative. In the second place,
although Professor Schmiedel thinks that Papias was acquainted with our
canonical Mt., there is absolutely no proof of this, and, on the contrary,
Papias's statement as to his Matthew makes it as certain as anything can
be in this vexed question that it was not our Mt., for the
Logia-collection of his Matthew was a single document and written
in Hebrew. It is absolutely certain that our Mt. as it stands was not
written in Hebrew, though some of its sources may possibly have been
originally written in the classical language of the Jews (Hebrew), or
in the vernacular (Aramaic). But upon this point there is a great
divergence of critical opinion.
Indeed in this connection nothing can be proved as to Papias's
Matthew-Logia; all that is stated at present is that demonstrably there
was another source common to Mt. and Lk. besides the source common to all
three Synoptists. This so-called theory of two sources, we are told,
"ranks among those results of Gospel criticism which have met with most
But the more advanced critics are not satisfied with the assumption of
only one source for the matter common to Mt. and Lk. but absent in Mk.,
for the divergences between them are so great, that if there were only one
source, then one or other of these evangelists, or both, must have treated
the source with "drastic freedom." This is especially evidenced by the
Ebionitic tinge of the Logia in Lk. A close consideration of this
phenomenon leads to the conclusion that other sources, at any rate as far
as Lk. is concerned, have to be postulated.
Moreover the "original Mk." or the "embedded document" theory no longer
stands in its original simplicity; for sources are being searched for in
this and not without success, and the belief is fast gaining ground that
in Mt. 24, Mk. 13, and Lk. 21, for instance, there are the remains of an
ancient fragment of an apocalyptic character. The passage is quite alien
from Jesus' teaching as recorded elsewhere, but closely related to other
apocalypses of the time. "It will, accordingly, not be unsafe to assume
that an apocalypse which originally had a separate existence has here been
put into the mouth of Jesus." This fragment is known to criticism as the
Other minor sources, also, have been conjectured, of which we may
specially mention Scholten's so-called anonymous Gospel found in certain
passages of Mt. and Lk., and the book which is held to be cited by Lk.
under the title of "Wisdom."
The parallels also adduced by Seydel from the life of the Buddha "are
in many places very striking, at least so far as the story of the
childhood of Jesus is concerned, and his proof that the Buddhistic sources
are older than the Christian must be regarded as irrefragable."
We do not, however, believe that in this matter there was any outward
borrowing or use of any written or oral sources, but that the outer
similarities were produced from inner causes.
But "the synoptical problem is so complicated, that but few students,
if any, will now be found who believe a solution possible by means of any
one of the hypotheses described above, without other aids. The need for
combining several of them is felt more and more." Professor Schmiedel then
proceeds to give some interesting "graphic representations," or diagrams,
of some of these combinations, which are not too complicated, as put
forward by some of the best known critics, and then proceeds to test their
sufficiency to explain the problem, finding that they all break down on
He then proceeds to an investigation of the very complicated subject of
"sources of sources." This investigation points to so many new phenomena
to be taken into consideration, that it practically puts out of court most
of the hypotheses hitherto put forward as to origin, and leads to
far-reaching consequences. We cannot, therefore, do better than append
some of the most striking inferences which Professor Schmiedel draws from
the present position of advanced gospel criticism:
"The first impression one derives from the new situation created is,
that by it the solution of the synoptical problem, which appeared after so
much toil to have been brought so near, seems suddenly removed to an
immeasurable distance. For science, however, it is not altogether amiss,
if from time to time it is compelled to dispense with the lights it had
previously considered clear enough, and to accustom itself to a new
investigation of its objects in the dark. Possibly it may then find that
it has got rid of certain false appearances under which things had
formerly been viewed. In this particular instance, it finds itself no
longer under compulsion to assign a given passage to no other source than
either the logia, or to original Mk., or to some other of the few sources
with which it had hitherto been accustomed to deal. The great danger of
any hypothesis lies in this, that it sets up a number of quite general
propositions on the basis of a limited number of observations, and then
has to find these propositions justified, come what may.
"On the other hand, signs have for some considerable time not been
wanting that scholars were on the way to recognition of the new situation
just described"—as, for instance, the hypothesis of a Proto-, Deutero-,
Trito-Mk., and the like. And even those critics who are satisfied with the
simpler hypotheses have to reckon with the probability " that writings
like original Mk., or the logia, whether in the course of transcription,
or at the hands of individual owners, may have received additions or
alterations whenever any one believed himself to be acquainted with a
better tradition upon any point. The possibility is taken into account, in
like manner, that canonical Mk. in particular does not lie before us in
the form in which it lay before those who came immediately after him;
possible corruptions of the text, glosses and the like, have to be
considered. Another element in the reckoning is that already our oldest
MSS. of the gospels have latent in them many examples of transference from
the text of one gospel into that of another, examples similar to those
which we can quite distinctly observe in many instances when the T.R. [our
present received text] is confronted with these same witnesses. . .
"Lastly, scholars are beginning to remember that the evangelists did
not need to draw their material from books alone." There was a large mass
of oral tradition and legend floating about which they could each utilise
according to their pleasure. From this most interesting and instructive
sketch of the present position of the synoptical problem we pass to the
consideration of the credibility of the Synoptics.
At the outset Professor Schmiedel laments the unscientific way in which
this question is for the most part handled. "Thus, many still think
themselves entitled to accept as historically true everything written in
the gospels which cannot be shown by explicit testimony to be false.
Others pay deference at least to the opinion that a narrative gains in
credibility if found in all three gospels (as if in such a case all were
not drawing from one source); and with very few exceptions all critics
fall into the very grave error of immediately accepting a thing as true as
soon as they have found themselves able to trace it to a 'source.' "
From such fallacies we have to free ourselves in the outset of any
independent historical investigation. Two opposite points of view should
guide us in treating the leading points in the synoptic gospels. "On the
one hand, we must set on one side everything which for any reason, arising
either from the substance or from literary criticism, has to be regarded
as doubtful or wrong; on the other hand, one must make search for all such
data as, from the nature of their contents, cannot possibly on any account
be regarded as inventions."
According to this canon of judgment the two great facts that we are
bound to recognise are that Jesus had compassion on the multitude and
taught with authority.
On the other hand, the chronological frame-work "must be classed among
the most untrustworthy elements in the gospels"; nor is the case any
better with the order of the narratives.
Again "the alleged situations in which the recorded utterances of Jesus
were spoken can by no means be implicitly accepted."
As to places, "in the case of an eye-witness the recollection of an
event associates itself readily with that of a definite place"; this is
not borne out by our gospels. As for persons, "neither the names of the
women at the cross, nor the names of the twelve disciples, are given in
two places alike."
Again, "several of the reported sayings of Jesus clearly bear the
impress of a time he did not live to see."
As to the important question of miracles, even the stoutest believer in
miracle must have some doubt as to the accuracy of the accounts. After
adducing the evidence, as he does in every case for every one of his
assertions, Professor Schmiedel writes: "Taken as a whole the facts
brought forward in the immediately preceding paragraphs show only too
clearly with what lack of concern for historical precision the evangelists
write. The conclusion is inevitable that even the one evangelist whose
story in any particular case involves less of the supernatural than that
of the others, is still very far from being entitled on that account to
claim implicit acceptance of his narrative. Just in the same degree in
which those who came after him have gone beyond him, it is easily
conceivable that he himself may have gone beyond those who went before
As to the very contradictory accounts of the resurrection, the
controlling view of the whole matter is the fact "that in no description
of any appearances of the risen Lord did Paul perceive anything by which
they were distinguished from his own, received at Damascus." As to the
conclusion of Mk. 16, 9-20, it is admittedly not genuine, and should it be
found that, according to the lately discovered Armenian superscription to
this appendix, it was written by Aristion, "a very unfavourable light
would be thrown on this 'disciple of the Lord,' " as Papias calls him.
We come next to what Professor Schmiedel considers absolutely credible
passages as to Jesus.
There are five passages about Jesus in general, and four on the
miracles of Jesus, which the Professor takes as the "foundation pillars
for a truly scientific life." The first five are as follows: "Why callest
thou me good? none is good save God only"; that blasphemy against the "son
of man" can be forgiven; that his relatives held him to be beside himself;
"Of that day and of that hour knoweth no one, not even the angels in
heaven, neither the Son but the Father"; and "My God, my God, why hast
thou forsaken me?"
Professor Schmiedel thinks that these passages prove "not only that in
the person of Jesus we have to do with a completely human being, and that
the divine is to be sought in him only in the form in which it is capable
of being found in man; they also prove that he really did exist, and that
the gospels contain some absolutely trustworthy facts concerning him."
The four selected passages from the miracles are as follows: Jesus
emphatically refused to work a "sign" before the eyes of his
contemporaries; Jesus was able to do no mighty work (save healing a few
sick folk) in Nazareth and marvelled at the unbelief of the people; the
feeding of the 4,000 and 5,000 is to be interpreted spiritually, for Jesus
refers to this in a rebuke to the disciples concerning their little
understanding ("How is it that ye do not perceive that I spake not to you
concerning bread?"); so also in the answer to the Baptist that "the
blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, and the
poor have the gospel preached to them," the same spiritual sense is
On these selected passages Professor Schmiedel bases his view of Jesus;
but if we are not content with so limited a view of miracle-possibility,
and would accept miracles of healing as well, then "it is permissable for
us to regard as historical only those of the class which even at the
present day physicians are able to effect by psychical methods—as, more
especially, cures of mental maladies."
But even if we grant (as we are quite willing to do) that the origin of
some miraculous narratives is to be traced to figurative speech and of
others to the influence of O.T. prophetical passages, we are no more
prepared to seek their whole origin in misunderstood metaphor or
interpretations of prophecy than to call mythology merely a disease of
language. Nor are we prepared to admit Professor Schmiedel's selection of
test-passages as the "foundation-pillars of a truly scientific
life" of Jesus, unless by "scientific" we are to understand solely the
present limited field of scientific research, which notoriously has
nothing to tell us of the soul and its possibilities. But it is just the
facts of the soul (its nature and powers) which constitute the facts of
religion, and which alone can throw any real light on the inner side of
the origins, or explain the standpoint of the writers of the Gospels. It
is here, then, that the "higher criticism" breaks down; it is invaluable
in its own domain, but it is as yet utterly incapable of explaining the
inner side—the most important side—of the evolution of Christianity.
Professor Schmiedel applies his view of Jesus also as a test of the
Sayings, and after pointing out the historical and critical difficulties
which surround every other class of sayings, continues: "It is when the
purely religious-ethical utterances of Jesus come under consideration that
we are most advantageously placed. Here especially applies the maxim that
we may accept as credible everything that harmonises with the idea of
Jesus which has been derived from what we have called the 'foundation
pillars' and is not otherwise open to fatal objection."
It must be confessed that this is a poor result of all our
investigations, to reduce the grandiose conception of the Master to such
bourgeois proportions. It is almost as paltry as the "cher
maitre" of Renan. Still this is the general tone of mind of the
present advanced critic, and so long as he will look at the "facts about
religion" solely through the eyes of modern scientific limitations so long
will he exclude many of the most important "facts of religion."
But to return to the safer ground of a further consideration of the
authors and dates of the Synoptic writings and their most important
sources. Professor Schmiedel is of the opinion that it was not till the
middle of the second century that the word "gospel" came to mean a book.
Linguistically considered, the traditional titles "Gospel according to
Matthew," etc., so far from meaning "the written Gospel of Matthew" (or
still less the " written Gospel based on communications by Matthew"), mean
simply "Gospel history in the form in which Matthew put it into writing,"
etc. The original writings bore no superscription at all.
Reviewing the evidence as to the attribution of the substance of the Lk.
document to Paul, Professor Schmiedel comes to the conclusion that "it is
only an expedient which the church fathers adopted to enable them to
assign a quasi-apostolic origin to the work of one who was not himself an
Equally so suspicion attaches to the statement that the gospel of Mk.
rested on communications of Peter. "In short, all that can be said to be
certain is this, that it is in vain to look to the church fathers for
trustworthy information on the subject of the origin of the gospels."
Moreover, as to whether the Mark of Papias was the author of "original
Mk.," this is a pure matter of opinion, for we do not possess original Mk.
"Should original Mk. have been written in Aramaic, then the author cannot
be held to be the author of canonical Mk." But we may suggest that there
is a high probability that the original common document in Mt., Mk. and Lk.
may have been written in Hebrew, and not Aramaic, and this irrespective of
the question of its sources.
As to the First Gospel, the authorship of the apostle Matthew "must be
given up" for many weighty reasons. "All the more strenuously is the
effort made to preserve for Matthew" the authorship of the Logia. But even
here there are many difficulties to contend with, as we have seen before.
As to dates. Certain passages strongly tend to establish an early date
for the Logia as found in Mt. By early date is meant prior to A.D. 70 (the
destruction of Jerusalem), the only means we have at all of establishing a
criterion. But even this claim for the early date of certain Logia
preserved by Mt. cannot be definitely established.
With regard to the story of the Magi, a Syriac writing ascribed to
Eusebius of Caesarea "makes the statement, which can hardly have been
invented, that this narrative, committed to writing in the interior of
Persia, was in 119 A.D., during the episcopate of Xystus of Rome, made
search for, discovered and written in the language of those who were
interested in it (that is to say in Greek)." Those who would assign an
earlier date to Mt. than 119 A.D. accordingly suppose the late addition of
an "appendix" referring to the Magi. But the simplest hypothesis we should
think, and the most natural one, is to make A.D. 119 the terminus a quo
of canonical Mt.
With regard to canonical Mk. we have no data whatever for fixing its
date, except the deduction from the contradictory results of critical
research on the borrowing-hypothesis, which to our mind clearly indicate
that the Synoptic writers were contemporaries.
As it is "quite certain" that the author of Lk. was also the author of
Acts, and as the author of Acts "cannot have been Luke, the companion of
Paul," Luke cannot have been the author of the Third Gospel.
Now, the author of Lk. is definitely proved to have been acquainted
with the writings of Josephus, and this would assign the superior limit,
terminus a quo, or earliest possible date of Lk., to 100 A.D. There
is, however, nothing certain in all this, and nothing to prevent a far
later date. In brief, in our opinion, the statement that all three
Synoptics were written somewhere in the reign of Hadrian (117-138 A.D.),
seems to be the safest conclusion.
Now, it is generally assumed that the credibility of the gospels would
be increased if they could be shown to have been written at an earlier
date, but this is a mistake. "Uncertainty on the chronological question by
no means carries with it any uncertainty in the judgment we are to form of
the gospels themselves. . . . Indeed, even if our gospels could be shown
to have been written from 50 A.D. onwards, or even earlier, we should not
be under any necessity to withdraw our conclusions as to their contents;
we should, on the contrary, only have to say that the indubitable
transformation in the original traditions had taken place much more
rapidly than we might have been ready to suppose."
Thus does Professor Schmiedel shatter the false hopes of those who
imagined that because Professor Harnack had recently modified his opinion
on some points of hypothetical document chronology, all the old positions
were restored to them intact!
Our next paper will be devoted to the Fourth Gospel.