Lucan Muddles, Editorial Fatigue, and Q

“. . . it’s best to concede that Luke’s mind is not exact.”
– Michael Goulder

My father was sometimes inexact in how he expressed himself, which caused my mother to frequently advise her children to “Take a Dutchman as he means, not as he says.” We would do well to apply this principle to the evangelists as well as to those who trace their heritage to the Netherlands.

The Gospels are inexact at times, too. When something doesn’t seem to make sense, most of us tend to blame our imperfect knowledge of the text. Maybe the translator made a mistake, or maybe one of the ancient copyists made a mistake, or maybe the author assumed his readers would have background knowledge that we no longer have. But sometimes the key to making sense of a text is to recognize that the evangelists were human too. They made mistakes. They made quite a few mistakes. Luke in particular made so many mistakes that Michael Goulder coined the term “Lucan muddle” to describe them. (The examples in this series of posts com mostly from a book that may be considered his magnum opus, and which is cited at the end of the post.)

This does not imply any disrespect to Luke as an evangelist. It does imply recognition of Luke’s humanity in the sense that he was good at some things and not others. He was good at storytelling; he was not so good at making sure that the facts related in one part of his story were always consistent with facts related in other parts of his story. That being the case, Luke himself would have wanted us to understand his mistakes rather than gloss over them, because doing that is a way of “taking the evangelist as he means, not as he writes.”

This is the first post in a series about how Lucan muddles create difficulties for the two-source hypothesis. According to the two-source hypothesis, Mark wrote first, followed by Matthew and Luke, neither of whom was aware of the other’s Gospel. Therefore, passages in Matthew and Luke that are nearly word-for-word identical but are not found in Mark are assumed to come from a now-lost written source used by both Mark and Luke. Scholars have named this lost source Q. A few scholars doubt that anything like Q ever existed. Most of the doubters (of whom I am one) see the sequence as: Mark wrote first, then Matthew wrote using Mark as a source, then Luke wrote using Mark and Matthew as sources.

This is the first post in a series. In a later post I’ll explain why the presence of certain kinds of Lucan muddles, and the absence of corresponding Matthean muddles creates problems for those who believe in Q. But first I want to clarify what a muddle is by offering some examples that have nothing to do with Mark, Matthew, or the two-source hypothesis.


The first muddle comes early in the book. Zechariah is struck dumb because he doubts the prophecy that he will become the father of John the Baptist in his old age. Then when the time comes to name the child, his relatives use sign language to ask him what the child’s name should be – but Zechariah is only supposed to be dumb, not deaf.

And the angel answered him, “I am Gabriel, who stand in the presence of God; and I was sent to speak to you, and to bring you this good news. And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things come to pass, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.” . . .
And on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child; and they would have named him Zechariah after his father, but his mother said, “Not so; he shall be called John.” And they said to her, “None of your kindred is called by this name.” And they made signs to his father, inquiring what he would have him called. And he asked for a writing tablet, and wrote, “His name is John.” (Luke 1:19-20, 59-63)

Lucan muddles are often like this: fairly trivial, they don’t spoil the story line, and you wouldn’t even notice unless you were reading the text very closely.

Death Without Harm

In a particularly striking example, Jesus warns his disciples that some of them will be killed, then immediately thereafter promises that not a hair on their heads shall be harmed:

You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and kinsmen and friends, and some of you they will put to death; you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But not a hair of your head will perish. (Luke 21:16-18)

Here too, it’s not hard to find a reconciliation, as Goulder observes: “He means ‘But you will come to no (ultimate) harm in God’s hands’: but that is not unfortunately what he has said.” (1989, 709)

Confusing the 12 and the 70

In another Last Supper remark, Jesus asks his 12 disciples, “When I sent you out with no purse or bag or sandals, did you lack anything?” (Luke 22:35) to which they answer, “Nothing.” But it wasn’t the 12 he sent out with no purse or bag or sandals, it was the “seventy others”:

After this the Lord appointed seventy others, and sent them on ahead of him, two by two, into every town and place where he himself was about to come. And he said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; pray therefore the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. Go your way; behold, I send you out as lambs in the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and salute no one on the road. . . .” (Luke 10:1-4)

Arrogant Benefactors

Sometimes when Luke crosses his wires it is simply impossible to determine what it was he really meant to say, or why he said what he did say. At the last supper Jesus has to deal with a dispute among the disciples about who is the greatest. He cites the behavior of “the kings of the Gentiles” as an example not to follow; he advises his disciples to serve others rather than try to command others as Gentile kings do. In this context, adding a remark about the Gentile leaders being known as “benefactors” doesn’t fit:

And he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. (Luke 22:25-26)

It is far from clear here why it would be a bad thing for the disciples to be called benefactors – the Greek εὐεργέται simply means “those who do good,” like the etymological meaning of its English translation. In any case, the phrase doesn’t make sense in a context where the emphasis is on the Gentiles’ arrogance.

Questioning the Judge

At Jesus’ trial we find a muddle that is not so much a case of internal inconsistency as it is an unrealistic portrayal of a historical situation. Jesus is being questioned by his judges, and one of his responses presumes that he is in the position of questioning them:

When day came, the assembly of the elders of the people gathered together, both chief priests and scribes; and they led him away to their council, and they said, “If you are the Christ, tell us.” But he said to them, “If I tell you, you will not believe; and if I ask you, you will not answer. But from now on the Son of man shall be seated at the right hand of the power of God.”

The phrase “if I ask you, you will not answer” doesn’t make sense; as Goulder points out, “Judges do not expect to be cross-questioned in trials.” (1989, 112-13)

These are just a few representative instances out of a large number of muddles in Luke. In many cases it is possible to imagine a reconciliation, of course. But as Goulder puts it , “the evangelist makes us work” to do so, in ways that a more careful author would not (1989, 461). The Parable of the Good Samaritan

Another example occurs in the passage where Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan. A lawyer asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” in order to clarify the Law’s command to “love your neighbor as yourself.” The lawyer is asking who the Law commands him to act decently toward. But the parable and its concluding rhetorical question, the “neighbor” is the lawyer himself, not the person whom he is supposed to treat well. The three different people that the lawyer gets to choose from to define the meaning of “neighbor” are not in the role of neighbor in the original question but in the role of the person commanded to act. The story as a whole gets the basic “do good to anyone who needs it” message across, but the parable and its conclusion don’t fit the original question:

But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” . . .
Jesus replied, “. . . Which of these three, do you think, proved neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed mercy on him.” And Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:29, 36)

Some commentators have tried to explain this as making some subtle theological point, but as Goulder points out, it is best interpreted as “simply a straightforward instance of Lucan muddle” like so many other such instances. (1989, 490)

Where recognizing muddles really makes a difference for interpreting the gospels is when they occur because of the ways in which Luke has copied material from his sources, in which case the phenomenon is often called “editorial fatigue.” In my next post I’ll start to explain some of those.

The references are to this book:

Goulder, Michael. 1989. Luke: A New Paradigm. Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press. The opening quotation is from p.103.


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