Is the Shortest Way to Jesus Really the Best Way?

A few weeks ago, I caught myself reading Helmut Koester’s important book “Anicent Christian Gospels” (1990). After having read the Gospel of Philip, I was confused enough (both academically and as a Christian) to feel compelled to surround myself with literature concerning ‘apocryphal’ gospels and the like. Although this reaction didn’t necessarily ease my confusion (it only gets worse after a certain point [for me that point was differentiating between different forms of Gnosticism without enough source material, but for you it might be the intricate relationship between the Gospel of Thomas and the different layers of Q]), it did wake me up to some harsh exegetical realities.

It seems to me that the unspoken rule behind the majority of theories surrounding (suffocating?) the relationship between the canonical Gospels, “Q”, and Thomas is that the shortest text is the most original. As if ancient authors were incapable of summarizing, as if they had some sort of innate need to expand on everything they copied – as if the first person to write about an event or a Jesus saying was always the most succinct. I don’t know about you, but if I witnessed a crucified guy stepping out of a grave dressed as a gardener (there must have been some reason Mary confused her ‘Rabbouni’ with a carer of plants) I would find it hard to organize my thoughts to the point where I could produce a succinct theological statement about it. I’m not saying that any of the texts in question were written by an eye-witness (I don’t want to be disowned by the academic community), I’m trying to use a hyperbolic example to illustrate that the assumption that the shortest text is the oldest might be what some would refer to as a logical fallacy. In many cases it seems that theological statements tend to get more stylized and succinct as time passes, when the need for them to be institutionalized and cohesion-producing emerges.

Reading Koester’s arguments concerning the relationship between the canonical Gospels, “Q”, and Thomas was a uniquely frustrating experience for me (probably because I feel so strongly about “Q”). It seemed to me that the main argument supporting the claim that “Q”, a text which we have not found and which might not even be entirely textual (yes, the differentiation between textual and oral Q is a real thing), was more faithfully copied by Luke than by Matthew, is that Luke is often more succinct than Matthew. The same logic is applied when comparing Thomas to the canonical Gospels (something which is somehow even more frustrating than the above-mentioned). Back to Luke and Matthew: the Sermon on the Mount (Plain) is often used as an example, and it’s easy to see why. It looks as though Matthew expands very evenly on the Lukan version. But, I repeat my earlier musing: could it not just as well be the case that Luke is very evenly summarizing Matthew’s version? Just for fun, I decided to go through my lovely little book of Gospel Parallels (a godsend on boring train rides, even though it does tend to produce some perplexed stares from fellow travellers) to see if there were any examples of the reverse. Turns out I found one on the very first page I opened. If one compares Matt 6:22-23 with Luke 11:34-36, it seems to me that Luke is very clearly expanding on and explaining what exactly Matt means when he (excuse the generic masculine) writes “if then the light inside you is darkness, how great is the darkness”. Thus, even if I, by some nineteenth-century liberalistic miracle (oxymoron intended), decided to accept the theory that the shortest version is the oldest, I would still be left with the disconcerting realization that Luke sometimes expands on Matt anyway. The shortest way to Jesus isn’t always as straight as it sometimes appears in scholarly literature; there are a lot of confusing twists and turns on the way even here.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that the longest version necessarily has to be the oldest. I’m just saying that the assumption that the shortest version is the oldest is an empty assumption – empty of force and function, unrelated to how things tend to work outside the safe embrace of a university office.

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8 Responses to Is the Shortest Way to Jesus Really the Best Way?

  1. Thanks for blogging about this. I think, on the one hand, that you are right that “shorter is earlier” is not an absolute rule. On the other hand, I think it applies very well in some instances that we can look at. When Matthew has additional wording in comparison with Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, or Mark 13, it seems most likely that Matthew is expanding on source material, does it not? That seems more likely than that Mark took something like Matthew’s “standing in the holy place, as spoken of by the prophet Daniel” and made it less clear, and yet still said “Let the reader understand.” Doesn’t that seem to you much less likely than the reverse?


    • rebeccarunesson says:

      Thanks! I agree that there are instances where it seems that the shortest version is indeed the most original, but, to my mind, the fact that there are cases where the opposite seems to be more likely means that the method in itself loses its function. I think that new methodologies need to be developed/the ones already developed (which would those be?) need to be used more, because how are we supposed to trust a method that doesn’t hold consistently – does it even qualify as a method anymore?


      • Well, I hope no one has the impression that methods in the study of ancient literature bring hard and fast rules to which there are no exceptions. Scholars identify tendencies which can be observed, and if a tendency is extremely common and well-documented, then we will likely apply that in cases where the evidence is unclear. But obviously even if the general tendency was for authors to expand on their sources, no scholar would seriously suggest that authors never shortened their source material. They would, on the other hand, probably offer a more developed case if they were arguing that an author was doing something that was either generally unlikely, or a departure from their usual practice.

        Texts are the products of human beings, not laws of physics, and so I hope that people don’t get the impression, when we talk about criteria or methods or principles, that we are suggesting that one can always assume that authors behaved a particular way. They are simply generalizations about tendencies and what was common either in general or in a particular author’s work.


  2. Aren’t Koester and others making an argument about tendencies and probabilities and not (as Professor McGrath notes) “absolute rules”? I’ve been at this for about 40 years and have only recently become acquainted with studies such as Goodacre’s The Case Against Q (so much the worse for me!). But, like you, I’m intrigued by the possibility that Q may never have existed. I’m happy to see that you are willing to challenge the “assured results” of prior scholarship. Keep up the good work!


  3. rebeccarunesson says:

    Thanks for your very encouraging comment! To my mind, Koester et al. don’t come out and say that they are attempting to posit some sort of absolute rule, but, one may ask the oneself: if the consequences of their analysis always points in the same direction, isn’t the rule in practice used as an absolute?


  4. John Garrett Bolton says:

    Some further food for thought, Rebecca. There are cases where ancient works were epitomes (or abbreviations) of larger works. For instance, 2 Maccabees is just such a work:

    “The story of Judas Maccabeus . . . has been set forth by Jason of Cyrene in five volumes, we shall attempt to condense into a single book. For considering the flood of statistics involved and the difficulty there is for those who wish to enter upon the narratives of history because of the mass of material, we have aimed to please those who wish to read, to make it easy for those who are inclined to memorize, and to profit all readers. For us who have undertaken the toil of abbreviating, it is no light matter but calls for sweat and loss of sleep, just as it is not easy for one who prepares a banquet and seeks the benefit of others. Nevertheless, to secure the gratitude of many we will gladly endure the uncomfortable toil, leaving the responsibility for exact details to the compiler, while devoting our effort to arriving at the outlines of the condensation. For as the master builder of a new house must be concerned with the whole construction, while the one who undertakes its painting and decoration has to consider only what is suitable for its adornment, such in my judgment is the case with us. It is the duty of the original historian to occupy the ground, to discuss matters from every side, and to take trouble with details, but the one who recasts the narrative should be allowed to strive for brevity of expression and to forego exhaustive treatment.” 2 Macc 2:19–31.

    I suspect that proponents of 2GH (Two-Gospel or Griesbach Hypothesis) and the Büsching Hypothesis (if there are any) have something like the epitomization or abbreviation of Matthew and Luke in mind. Whether their arguments are in the end sustainable is another question, but there are precedents for practice nonetheless.


    • rebeccarunesson says:

      Very interesting John! Nice to know that there are concrete examples supporting the fact that ancient writers were capable of summarizing ( of course, I don’t mean to say that they weren’t also capable of expanding, because I still believe in Markan priority, just that maybe we should be more careful in our assumptions).


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