August 18, 2008

Rethinking Matthew's Notes

We can't trust Eusebius. But fortunately, we don't need Papias. We have the Gospels. The internal evidence shows Matthew is the most likely suspect by far to have kept some journals about what Jesus did and said during his ministry. The rest is logical extrapolation. IF Matthew took notes, WHAT would most likely have happened next? How would Mark and Luke make use of Matthew's notes? And finally, when and why did Matthew decide to revise his collection of writings into a mature literary composition? My own working hypothesis is already on record.

This is realistic thought experimentation. This is logistical plausibility, reconstructed in chronological sequence. This is natural consequences, strictly postulated. This is practical analysis. In other words, this is good common sense!

This is what would have probably happened... IF... IF Matthew took first-hand notes, live, during Jesus' ministry. But don't take my word for it. You tell me. Start from that premise, and what do YOU think would have happened?

Remember, Matthew was alive, in Israel, for about 30 years after the cross. He was in Israel when Mark wrote. He was in Israel when Luke began writing. These are basic facts, not extra assumptions, no matter how much people overlook TIME and object permanence in the New Testament.

Admittedly, we can't prove this hypothesis. But it works. It works far better than that silly "Q" mess. And it's based on what we DO have. I don't care that it's not provable. Praise the Lord! We don't have to claim certainty over such a nonessential area as Gospel Origins (aka, "Source Theory"). BUT... BUT... BUT...

But since we DO have this effective, common sense, plausible hypothesis, we should state it as such. I can't believe it strongly enough to fight over it. But I can believe it until God himself reveals something better. It fits. It's beautiful. It's simple. And it just makes perfect sense.

For the moment, I still think this is pretty close to exactly what happened. :)


James F. McGrath said...

I think you (1) base too much on the church's tradition about Matthean authorship of that Gospel, which is itself problematic; (2) you posit a scenario for which you need to demonstrate relevant historical parallels, i.e. other instances of students taking notes and later incorporating them into their literary works about their teacher/master; and (3) jump too quickly from "this could have happened" to "this is the most plausible scenario".

If Matthew indeed took notes and these are reflected in the "Q" material in Matthew, how do you account for Luke's significant changes to them not just in order but in wording and content?

Also, I wonder what you imagine Matthew writing on, and with, as Jesus spoke.

As someone who has spent a lot of time pondering this subject, I can understand why one might find flaws in much scholarship on "Q". But I don't think shortcomings - particularly in the absence of a more plausible hypothesis - justify calling it a "silly mess".

Bill Heroman said...

James, I'm honored and grateful. Thanks so very, very much for your insightful challenges.

I must first acknowledge this is all merely a beginning. And I know the authorship and textual issues DO matter. I'm surprised to hear you say parallels are *necessary*, but I'll consider that more anon. There's a LOT that I know I don't know... yet. And please note my only basis for jumping to "most plausible scenario" is based on the one big "IF" in my post, and that "scenario" actually involves all three synoptic gospels, which I posted on July 1st.

Re: tools. I think Matthew picked up whatever record keeping materials he used as a tax contractor and started with those, buying new materials along the way. I think Matthew's notes predated any "sayings gospels" such as Q, but Mark was economical and Luke selective. Then Matthew used his own notes plus some new material he'd gotten on Jesus' early life.

Re: variants. I basically follow Johnson Cheney on a lot of the "significant changes", (I assume you mean supposedly variant events, not just variant wordings). See my post Some Things Happened Twice".

Re: Q.The absence of a more plausible hypothesis doesn't make a flawed one any more certain, and therefore treating Q as an actual, extant document is, by definition, absurd. :) And "mess" is b/c I think it's driving us needlessly off base. But I think my hypothesis may actually be more plausible and could become, in time - with much more work - more acceptable to scholars. That is, IF, of course, we make one or two assumptions. :) And that's the most I've ever tried to claim. But how many assumptions does Q require? Yet Q is a text-centered theory, and mine is not.

Btw, I'd love to bookmark a future discussion of Evolution and Q, regarding theoretical assumptions, 'cause I know you're into that. But I normally never get into Darwin at all. 'Not that there's anything wrong with that!' ;)

Thanks again so very, very much, good doctor! I hope I don't sound defensive and I know your objections still hold much weight. Again, this is a beginning. So I dearly hope I might look forward to more of your thoughts in reply. :)

Namaste. ;)

James F. McGrath said...

I think parallels are important, since positing something that was not yet possible (not necessarily as far fetched as Matthew using a tape recorder, but ball-point pens and a notebook are not much better) certainly weakens a hypothesis.

I'm not sure that, just because there were shortcomings in the understanding that Galileo had of the solar system, it didn't represent an improvement on the Ptolemaic view that was there before! :) In the same way, that the Q hypothesis has weaknesses doesn't mean one should discard it when one has nothing better to put in its place. (That approach does sound a bit like the anti-evolutionists' approach, pointing out alleged weaknesses in the theory of evolution, as though that somehow meant that the theory is not the best theory available or that they have a better one! :)

I hope you will visit Mark Goodacre's blog and web site, if you aren't already familiar with it. Lots of scholarly anti-Q resources!

Thanks for keeping the conversation going!

Bill Heroman said...

?!? ball point p...

Oh. I said "live". Heh.

Well, I don't know. Somehow, I'll bet tax collectors had a way of using portable ink wells to keep accounts on their journeys. But maybe not for more than modifying a pre-made list. Hmm. Howabout "Matthew made notes often during their travels."? (More on this point later.)

Spot on with Evolution & Q. But I was thinking of the "best theory available" argument itself seems to draw so many adherents. Honestly, I'll never argue against it, but my biggest shock has always been "Aren't scientists supposed to be skeptics?" Yet none seem to admit that, technically, Evolution requires a leap of faith. Just sayin s'all. :)

I have checked out Mark G's site(s), though not all of it/them. And I've got (sadly) cold bookmarks in one of his Q books right now.

And yes, thanks so much for conversation! As I said elsewhere today, I could be dogmatic all alone, but I'm hoping the biblioblogosphere gets a bit more interactive on certain topics...

Anonymous said...

What role do we give Matthew's supposed note-taking in light his obsessive desire to place Jesus whole life into a Midrashic context of "Old Testament" vignettes? One could claim that teh author of Matthew was casting actual events in a midrashic light but too many seem to be stitched from whole cloth, ie, the exile in Egypt and the fate of Judas.

BTW, anyone have a good theory on the source of the "Jeremiah" quote referenced in Matt 27:9-10. The original Mashup?

Anonymous said...

Bill, you said: "Somehow, I'll bet tax collectors had a way of using portable ink wells to keep accounts on their journeys."

That sentence alone kinda proves that you are well out of your league here.

First of all, as James pointed out, it is highly dubious that anyone named Matthew did write this book, or if someone by that name composed it, it was the apostle.

But let's say he did for the point of argument. You have no idea what a tax collector would keep on his person, or whether that could be used for writing long sentences. You have no idea what kind of materials could be used to record thoughts jotted down, even if the person had ink that would not be spilled by someone living life as an itinerant wanderer in an ancient society devoid of plastic containers.

What's more, if Matthew the apostle was no longer acting as a tax collector, what would have compelled him to carry implements of the profession? He (or someone) would have had to physically carry every possession everywhere. I'm sure that would compel a person to travel light. And there is no evidence that Jesus and his apostles thought they needed to leave a written record for future generations because they clearly expected the world to end within the span of their ministry.

Bottom line is that if horses had wings and a big horn on their foreheads, they would be flying unicorns. But unicorns don't exist and just imagining a scenario in which we might possibly have an accurate recording of the life of Jesus doesn't make it so.

Q has an awful lot of textual evidence behind it, not to mention logic. I was a believer for decades and used to think Q was stupid, but that was before I allowed myself to think rationally about it. After a while, I could no longer stomach the contorted and implausible explanations required to believe the christian point of view.


Bill Heroman said...

Hi, Scott. You have an interesting blog. So sorry to hear you're from Alabama, though. Geaux Tigers! ;)

I'm no expert on midrash per se, but you can read the brainstorming posts I did on just that question during June. Basically, I think Matt's notes began as simple record keeping and stayed that way for nearly 3 decades... UNTIL Matthew saw Mark & Luke's gospels AND felt his own strong opposition to the growing trend towards 'christless christianity' in Israel, which I believe increased after 50 AD. So the 'obsessive' drive and the creative compositional tactics were things that arose in Matthew long after he finished taking notes.

That's my view in short. If you want the long version, see my June archives. And the July 1st post (link above) sums up my synoptic theory: 1) Matt's Notes, 2) Mark, 3) Luke, 4) Matthew.

Now, then, if you'd also point me to some material on midrashic vignettes, etc, I'd be very grateful. Even if you are from Birmingham! ;)

Bill Heroman said...

pf - if you'll kindly tell me who you are and what league you're in, I might consider working harder to get into it. :)

I actually respect your p.o.v. here. I'd also appreciate your thoughts on my recent post, "Proof is Relative". I can generate arguments for plausibility and you can generate arguments for skepticism and neither of us can prove much - let alone convince each other.

If you think my premeses are dubious, I appreciate that. But unless you can prove them false, you've not refuted my logic. But I'm kind of naieve here - I wish believers and non-believers could just say, "I agree conditionally, but I doubt your conditions." Or something like that.

Yes, I stand on faith. And part of what I'm doing is attempting to boil down precisely how many "assumptions" are necessary for certain conclusions. I'd welcome your continued interaction, if you'd care to discuss my logic a bit more objectively.

Faith and Doubt are cousins. And Reason is a useful tool. But Reason is not my personal God.

Anonymous said...

Brother Bill....
This is just an over all 'general' statement, and it might just be one that only you and a handful of others get.....

But...."stuff" matters,... eh?

Anonymous said...


Do you want my name and phone number? I'm a 40something-YO from the northeast, was a journalist for 25 years, mostly writing about Wall Street, won a bunch of national awards, and recently joined a big corporation. I was a serious christian for decades (still attend a conservative church), who studied biblical history as a way to understand the scripture better, but wound up becoming jaded.

I can't disprove your theory because there is nothing to it. I can't disprove that Jesus wore three-piece suits or was a space alien, but there is no evidence of those things. You're just making stuff up. There is nothing wrong with that in the context of a blog, but until you have some positive evidence, it's no more than a fleeting thought.

Maybe someone followed Jesus with a tape recorder. I know the technology didn't exist, but God could do anything, right? So there's the proof.

As for the more general stuff, look at all the scriptural problems. Just in the goepels alone, you have all the differences about the birth stories, the geneaologies, the differences in the timelines and details of stories, the different passion stories, different stories about who found the body and what they did and where they first met Jesus, why Jesus talks so different in the synoptics and John, why the Trinity and his pre-existence was never even clearly stated (or even hinted at except in John) and on and on.

Each one of these issues has an orthodox explanation. Each explanation can be accepted. But juggling each explanation on so many things becomes a house of crads after a while. It doesn't make sense.

The explanation to me that makes the most sense, that doesn't require juggling of a million contradictory pieces, is that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet who expected the world to end in accordance with Hebrew scripture, and he turned out to be wrong.


Quixie said...

You are basing your entire house of cards on one single flimsy card, dude.

Do you know why Marcan priority is accepted today by all but the most obstinately motivated (the consensus is almost unanimous in the academy, if you didn't know)?

Marcan priority is demonstrable.

(sound of cards falling . . .)

You can still believe that Matthew was "there" if you want to, but then you must answer this question:

"If Matthew was "there", then why did he quote Mark (which, again, is demonstrably prior to Matthew, which in addition is demonstrably dependent on Mark) almost in its entirety in his memoirs—even verbatim?

Your idea is cute as a rumination, but it falls limply off the cliff if pushed further than that.

Moreover, even if Marcan priority was untrue (which it IS—did I mention that it is demonstrable yet? ;) . . . you still have the problem that McG points out regarding parallels in antiquity. And I'm afraid that listing historians you 'think-might-have-been' engaging in "journalism" doesn't cut it. You must demonstrate (there's that word again!!!) by comparison the parallels between these men's work and the author of GMatt's in order to have any kind of bite to your hypothesis.

peace be with you


Quixie said...


"which it IS" . . . should read . . . "which it is NOT"


Bill Heroman said...


Thanks for the interest. Since you're easily the smartest 252 year old carnival barker I've ever met, I'd appreciate your feedback on the actual theory in full. (Did you check my links?)

"House of Cards" is an interesting metaphor for conditional syllogisms, but I'm not sure you've correctly identified my basic premis or not.

My actual hypothesis was posted on July 1st. This whole conversation got started on the heels of me revisiting that post, which you really ought to read.

I'm assuming Marcan priority, except that Mark used Matt's notes... which is to say [in answer to your question] that Matthew copied Mark because Mark had already copied Matt's notes to begin with. But Matthew's Gospel was based on the original notes plus some new material, plus Matthew had seen Mark and met with Luke.

Doubt it if you like. Demand more, and I'll do what I can (eventually). But the logic is sound. The hypothesis is plausible.

The basic premis isn't Marcan priority. The basic premis is that Matthew took notes.

Anonymous said...


I just read your original post, and there is not a single shred of evidence for your theory. None, nada, nothing. Anything is possible, but it is wholly unlikely.

The theory flies in the face of anything logical. "Matthew" took notes, "Mark" decades later turned it into a book and then "Matthew" rewrote "Mark's" book?

You just have to face Occam's razor: the simpler explanation is more likely. The author of the gospel attributed to Matthew sat down with the book attributed to Mark and one or more other books, and re-arranged them in a way to fit his point of view.

There is no good reason to think Matthew was written by an actual apostle of Jesus. If he knew Jesus personally, the author of "Matthew" would not have been limited to rewriting his own notes and other material in the public domain. He would likely have asserted his name in the text, seeing that that was an important point of authority and credibility. It's not even likely that the Matthew (also known as Levi) listed as an apostle was an actual "tax collector," in the same way Jesus was not a "carpenter."

But I digress. Wandering teachers in the first century almost certainly did not have note-taking followers.

Again, there is nothing wrong with speculating on a blog, it is even fun to think out loud, but you seem to think you have stumbled upon something real. I have had theories pop into my mind when reading historical books, but I wouldn't presume that they were anything more than my fevered ruminations about topics in which I am not an expert.

All the best,


Bill Heroman said...

PF, I thank you for reading the post. Truly, I appreciate that. It continues to amaze me that unbelievers and skeptics show such a greater depth of interest than believers, but I guess it shouldn't. In a way it makes perfect sense.

I never claimed to have any evidence, but I think you're incorrect to say my theory's illogical. If you focus on text, the Q theory may be the simplest. But I am attempting to find the simplest explanation by focusing on events, albeit reconstructed ones.

I won't argue about what's "likely" or "unlikely". We obviously have different opinions about that. But if you're really interested in logic, then "likely" doesn't have much to do with it.

You're also right, it's fun to speculate, which - by definition - is absolutely what a hypothesis sets out to do.

Seeya around...

Anonymous said...


Things that are more logical are vastly more likely to be true. How could it be otherwise?

That said, I wish you could be in one of my Sunday School classes, rather than the mass of people who have no original thoughts.

Just one more thing -- I'm not a skeptic who started thinking about these things to debunk them. I was a serious Christian all my life. I memorized the sermon on the mount in high school rather than get drunk, I attended and graduated a Christian college, married a Christian woman and have attended conservative Christian churches for four decades. I have written for Christian publications, preached sermons in churches.

I began studying history because I wanted to better understand the scripture, I thought the meaning would become clearer. But as I said, what became clear was that the books of the Bible don't agree with each other, not because we haven't yet figured out how to connect them, but because the authors have different views of god and theology.

I have in the past made arguments like the one you made -- once wrote a scathing letter to BAR criticizing Marcus Borg for not being orthodox -- but over time the weight of trying to believe so many contradictory things that you have to believe to think the scripture is all true just was too much for me.

All the best,


Bill Heroman said...

pf - now I'm intrigued.

What do you believe today?

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