Reviews of

The Oldest Gospel and the Formation of the Canonical Gospels

In Canon, Jordan Almanzar, Marcion, Matthias Klinghardt, New Testament, Peeters, Synoptic Gospels, Synoptic theories on December 23, 2022 at 12:21 pm

2022.12.13 | Matthias Klinghardt. The Oldest Gospel and the Formation of the Canonical Gospels. Biblical Tools and Studies 41; Leuven: Peeters, 2021.

Review by Jordan Almanzar, Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts.

Matthias Klinghardt’s study, The Oldest Gospel and the Formation of the Canonical Gospels, is a two-volume work in which he proposes Marcion’s Evangelion as the key to explaining origins of the canonical Gospels. The work was inspired by a certain disharmony Klinghardt sees in 19th-century scholarship existing between two discourses that largely took place in Germany: 1) the so-called synoptic problem and 2) the relationship of Marcion’s Evangelion to canonical Luke. These discourses developed simultaneously yet independently of one another, and Klinghardt seeks to not only bring them together, but to display the results of doing so.

The synoptic problem, which concerns itself with the relationship between the three most similar Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) is typically resolved by introducing an additional source. If one considers, for example, Mark as the oldest Gospel, each parallel found in Matthew or Luke is easily explained––Matthew and Luke drew from Mark. But there are many places where the two agree against Mark, and here is implied an additional source, or “Q” from the German Quelle. Originating in the 19th century, and continuing until today, this 2ST (two source theory) has been used broadly to explain the development of the Gospels. But one of its weaknesses has always been that “Q” is entirely hypothetical. It has to be inferred by the lack of similar material in Mark. Klinghardt believes that a better source is located in Marcion’s Evengelion, or *Ev, as he calls it. He says, “*Ev represents an additional and primary source for the Synoptic Gospels’ tradition history. Opposed to the hypothetically constructed source ‘Q’…the existence of *Ev is beyond all doubt” (187). Additionally, *Ev provides an important terminus a quo by being linked to the first and early second-century figure Marcion of Sinope.

While various and sometimes conflicting details were being worked out by scholars using the 2ST as a model, the other discourse was revolving around which came first, *Ev or Luke’s Gospel. The two texts are obviously related, with *Ev being a shorter version of Luke, or Luke being a longer version of *Ev. What complicates *Ev is that it must be recovered from citations made by Marcion’s most ardent detractors. These detractors were early Christian apologists who, in their writings, specified the differences between canonical Luke and *Ev. Since the 19th century, specialists have been examining these differences, and their findings have given rise to one fundamental question––did Luke change *Ev or did *Ev change Luke? Unfortunately, there has been no consensus surrounding the editorial direction of *Ev and Luke. Some argue that Marcion redacted Luke (Harnack and many others), some that both derive from common source (Gregory and BeDuhn), and still others believe that Luke is a revision of *Ev (Klinghardt and Vinzent). Due to this lack of consensus, the debate has confined *Ev exclusively to highly specialized Marcion studies, which is why it was never used as a source of the canonical Gospels. For Klinghardt, there is no more debate. The direction of influence is settled––Luke expanded *Ev. Moreover, Klinghardt sees *Ev as older than even Mark, or its proto-version, and he deems it the oldest written account about the life of Jesus. Working from this methodological position, Klinghardt offers a model of textual direction for each of the canonical Gospels that begins with *Ev. He dedicates a chapter each for asserting the following points:

  • Luke, as we have it in the canon, is an expanded redaction of *Ev which was its most important source, but it also relied on Mark, Matthew and John for its canonical revision
  • Mark is an expanded redaction of an earlier Mark which had *Ev as its primary source
  • Matthew is a compilation of *Ev and Mark
  • John used *Ev, Mark and Matthew

The only source directly shared by all four of the Gospels is *Ev. “*Ev is not only the common root from which all four canonical Gospels arose,” says Klinghardt, “[it] is the tree around which they thrived” (321). Each of the Gospels were ultimately based upon this primitive text that served as their core, Luke most directly, but the rest as well. Klinghardt maintains that *Ev was not written before the end of the 80s of the first century and that by the middle of the second century, it had been cast off by the emergence of a four-fold Gospel book.

Klinghardt’s book-length methodology––based as it is on the proposed editorial direction that *Ev precedes the canonical Gospels––is painstakingly applied to its reconstruction in the second part of his study. The headings for the three sections that comprise the second volume are appendices, indicating that the real work (the methodology) has already been accomplished, and the volume is intended to be used as reference material confirming the proposed methodology. For each attested pericope, following the order of canonical Luke, Klinghardt supplies a textual commentary and critical apparatus. The reconstruction itself spans over seven-hundred pages to establish the translation. Further reference material is provided by a list of attestations to *Ev made by the three main witnesses (Tertullian, Epiphanius and Adamantius), as well as references found in the “western text” along with other translations of Luke (Coptic, Ethiopic, Georgian, Armenian, Slavonic and Gothic) and a few additional Greek manuscripts. 

One of the more interesting results of Klinghardt’s study is his argumentation that the Gospel of Luke, presented as it is in the critical editions, often does not contain canonical Luke, but rather reveals the text of *Ev. And this holds true to some extent for each of the canonical Gospels. According to Klinghardt, “…the search for the oldest text does not lead to the canonical edition at all, but to a pre-canonical version” (384). Klinghardt asserts that there should be a recognition of the two texts (*Ev and the canonical Gospels), and that textual critics should be aware of a distinction between their historical aim, which unconsciously uncovers this pre-canonical text, and their theological aim, which must focus on a canonical text of the second century. Throwing *Ev into the mix of theories surrounding the emergence of the Gospels certainly affects the broader field of New Testament studies, and nowhere is this truer than for New Testament textual critics.

Unfortunately, readers not accustomed to the primary issue of editorial direction between *Ev and Luke may not know for over four-hundred pages the sweeping implications of what Klinghardt is proposing. Yet this editorial direction is the heart of his efforts within this work. He calls it, “…elementary for my entire analysis,” and further states that, “it constitutes this study’s actual aim” (410). Moreover, the reconstruction of *Ev is to Klinghardt simply not the principal concern but rather an inevitable byproduct of the theory he is espousing––namely, that *Ev is a primary source for the synoptic problem.

Addressing criticisms against the original German publication of this work, Klinghardt avers: “*Ev-priority remains the singularly decisive foundation also for the Gospel’s tradition history” (438). He recognizes that no true progress can be made until a reconstructed *Ev is firmly established as the original gospel. Yet, I am not aware that his particular reconstruction has won the approval of Marcion scholars to the point of being deemed the historical, primary source he wishes to bring to bear on the synoptic problem.

In volume one’s epilogue, Klinghardt becomes engrossed in the mimetic cycle of defending his reconstruction––his byproduct of a broader theory––and is unwittingly bogged down by criticisms of Marcion scholars who are enamored by the critical details issued against the original German version. As a response to one such scholar, and rather than address them all, he says, “The devil is certainly not ‘in the details’ of the reconstruction…but in the fundamental perspective we take on the Marcionite Gospel and in the role we attribute to it in the Gospels’ tradition history” (427). Klinghardt does not want to focus on the details of his reconstruction, but he cannot escape the desires of his readership to analyze his particular *Ev.

With this in mind, the work seems to have been written in nearly reverse order. “The Oldest Gospel” is not fully seen until the second volume while the “Formation of the Canonical Gospels” is the core of the first volume. This structure makes it easy for the reader, or critic, to miss entirely the significance of what Klinghardt is proposing. The two discourses––synoptic problem and *Ev/Luke––have been combined in the mind of Klinghardt, which allows him to use *Ev’s proposed role as instigator of the Gospels to validate its proto-gospel status. But he is ahead of both his readers and his critics on that point.  

The work provides enough analytical evidence to convince the uninitiated, or at least those open to *Ev-priority, of its value. But the fact remains that Klinghardt represents only one faction of a three-party system: 1) those who believe Marcion redacted Luke, 2) those who believe Marcion and Luke used a common source, 3) those who, like Klinghardt, believe Luke expanded *Ev. If one cannot be convinced that *Ev is older than Luke, its role as a source for the synoptic problem is meaningless. But if we assume with Klinghardt that *Ev is older than all the Gospels and played a role in creating them, what was the motivation for the four separate accounts––specifically, why did the canon makers not incorporate just one Gospel, but four? Aside from Luke, why develop three additional replacements for what had been the original gospel? Klinghardt says, “While *Ev is the indispensable source for *Mark, it is not a literary point of reference. The comparison of the two oldest Gospel manuscripts makes evident that *Mark was not supposed to be read next to *Ev” (381). The disagreements between Mark and *Ev indicate, for Klinghardt, a motive of replacement. But if Luke was primarily concerned with “correcting” or “taming” *Ev by his expansion, why then the need of another source for the life of Jesus, especially if its literary point of reference is not even the gospel that supposedly loomed so large, or even loomed alone, in the first century? Why the double-maneuver, producing an outside source (Mark) and also expanding the original (Luke)? And if Mark was a replacement, why did Luke survive at all, even in its expanded form? These questions are not satisfactorily addressed.

Klinghardt suggests that *Matthew’s origins were motivated by supplementation of *Mark. *Matthew’s purpose was three-fold: 1) to fill narrative voids from *Mark, 2) to clarify its ambivalences, 3) to illuminate those allusions which readers of Mark had to decode themselves. According to Klinghardt, this could be an indication that *Matthew and *Mark were to be read in parallel. Perhaps. But Klinghardt does not answer, if Matthew was to Mark what Luke was to *Ev, why did Mark survive while *Ev did not? If Matthew was an expansion of Mark, what is the use of Mark?

John’s origins are, of course, more speculative. *John, suggests Klinghardt, may have had the function of concluding the four-fold Gospel with what he calls, “correlating coherence objectives” (382). Klinghardt bases *John’s textual relationship to *Ev on Lukan-Johannine agreements in the Passion and Easter traditions of those texts. The well-known correlations of Luke/John are complicated by Klinghardt’s need to distinguish between *Ev and canonical Luke. He affirms, “The bulk of the Lukan-Johannine agreements against Mark/Matthew goes back to their common existence in *Ev” (294). In this way, Klinghardt can claim that John was dependent, albeit only here, upon *Ev.

Even so, throughout both volumes, Klinghardt is deeper than most in the history of the manuscripts as well as in the research surrounding them. His survey of 19th-century Gospel scholarship is by itself worthy of admiration. In creating this work, Klinghardt has stood on the shoulders of giants, but also has come down to forge his own path (vii-viii). He has offered a challenging thesis to the world of scholarship. For all our praise of cross-disciplinary research, rare do we find a proposal, so obvious after having been stated, that combines two related issues in such a way as to potentially reshape our thinking on first and second-century Christianity. Klinghardt is the first I am aware of to recommend *Ev as a solution to the synoptic problem. His model is refreshing in that many of the problems surrounding the 2ST are eliminated by *Ev-priority. Whether his theory will be adopted by others who can carry it to even more precise conclusions, addressing the questions above, will be determined by the future. Klinghardt’s thesis awaits validation, and it is hoped that it can break the chains of Marcion specialists and be tested by experts in Gospel history.

Jordan Almanzar
Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts
jalmanzar [ at ]


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