In Layman’s Terms: “L”

In the prologue to Luke’s Gospel, the Evangelist writes, “Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you…” (Luke 1:1-3).  This verse provides explicit biblical evidence for what is an implicit characteristic of the Gospels: namely, that the Gospels are dependent on earlier sources.

Luke’s Gospel, like the others, displays a clear use of sources. Almost all NT scholars believe that Luke used Mark’s Gospel as one of his sources. The great majority of scholars believe that Luke also used a document called Q (not to be confused with the James Bond character). Q describes the material shared by Matthew and Luke that is not also found in Mark. However, a great deal of the Third Gospel is unique to Luke (that is, it is not derived from Mark or Q). The three major units of material unique to Luke are his infancy narrative, the so-called “journey to Jerusalem” (comprising much of chapters 10-19, including such famous parables of the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan), and the Lukan resurrection appearances. Because of special issues involved with the infancy and resurrection materials, when scholars speak of “L” they most often refer to the stories of Jesus’ earthly ministry that are unique to Luke’s Gospel.

There are as many theories about the origin and character of “L” as there are biblical scholars. Like its Matthean counterpart (“M,” also not a 007 character), this source has received considerably less attention than the notorious Q. But there do appear to be enough similarities within the L material (and enough sufficient differences from Luke’s redaction of Mark and Q) to posit a single source. For a couple good works on this issue, see Kim Paffenroth, The Story of Jesus according to L, JSNTSupp 147 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997) and D. M. Parrott, “The Dishonest Steward (Luke 16.1-8a) and Luke’s Special Parable Collection,” NTS 37 (1991): 499-515.

So what is “L”? As a result of my research, I currently hold a view similar to Mark Goodacre’s: the combination of both non-Lukan and Lukan features in some of the L tradition suggests that Luke has reworked an existing source (likely oral tradition circulating in Palestine) to add his own distinctive touch. And this original “L” source, I contend, contained an early version of the pericope adulterae.

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About krhughes14

Smyrna, Georgia
This entry was posted in New Testament and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to In Layman’s Terms: “L”

  1. Tim Reichmuth says:

    Or maybe the historical settings for the Gospels are real and each writer of an individual Gospel relied either on his own observation (Matthew and John)) or other eyewitness accounts, (Mark from Peter. Luke from multiple eyewitnesses), which would account for the common material. Not only would this account for the common material or ‘Quelle’ but the unique material such as ‘L’ or ‘M’. David Black’s “Why Four Gospels?” articulates this position quite well. Finally, if Q or L are just a list of Jesus sayings without context then we know even less about the historical Jesus than we thought!

    • krhughes14 says:

      The problem with this alternative is that the common material (e.g., Mark in Matt or Luke) is so precisely replicated across the sources (down to the word level across several consecutive verses) that it’s almost impossible to escape some sort of literary dependence. Note that literary dependence does not imply that historical settings aren’t real or that each Evangelist isn’t bringing in his own sources. As I’ve argued in my NovT piece, I do think the L material contains early Palestinian memory of Jesus and contains narrative context (as in the early form of the pericope adulterae). Given your interest in “eyewitness accounts,” the best book on the subject is Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (2008, Eerdmans).

  2. Tim Reichmuth says:

    Thanks, always interested in an opportunity to gain new insight.

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