In today’s academic world, we are constantly reminded that we must do our own original work, if you don’t give credit where credit is due, that’s called plagiarism.
This practice of protecting intellectual property, however, is a relatively modern concern. In fact, the Gospel writers used each others words quite freely.
It seems most likely to me that Mark was written first as an attempt to recount the Gospel of Jesus from the companion of the Apostle Peter. After this I believe that Luke (the companion, and I think relative, of Paul) took-up the task to affirm Mark’s Gospel and also to bring out more detail and so he investigated matters thoroughly and produced Luke (and Acts) presenting almost 60% new material (when comparing Mark to Luke). After the Gospel of Luke was written, I believe that some in the church began to distance themselves from their Jewish heritage and began to teach (erroneously) that Jewish Christians should have nothing to do with Jewish practice. I think this is hinted at in Acts 21 (and other places). Matthew (or Levi) then wrote the Gospel of Matthew for the specific audience of the Jerusalem church and James’ (the brother of Jesus) ministry to affirm that Christianity is very Jewish, with Jesus as the fulfillment of the OT.
As you can see from the diagram, the Gospels share, often times verbatim, a lot of language. The Gospels were written by men, who were divinely inspired, but did not take “dictation” from words given to them. Even though the occasional word here or there might be similar just by happenstance, when you have whole phrases and blocks of text that agree in vocabulary, word order, word for word, it’s relatively easy to see literary dependance, or what we might call “copy-n-paste.” Philo of Alexandrea says it this way (Vita Mosis 2.38):
And yet who is there who does not know that every language, and the Greek language above all others, is rich in a variety of words, and that it is possible to vary a sentence and to paraphrase the same idea, so as to set it forth in a great variety of manners, adapting many different forms of expression to it at different times.*
So when we look at the NT it is fairly easy to see how they “borrowed” from each other. This should not bother us at all, in fact, it shows that they all believed the same message. There were not many Kinko’s locations in the ancient world, so if Luke wanted his reader to understand Mark, he would have had to include it in his writing to ensure they saw it.
We see this even in today’s world in Charles Caleb Colton’s saying “Imitation is the sincerest [form] of flattery.” It wasn’t that the Gospel writers were trying to “take credit” for the writings of the other evangelists, it’s simply that they wanted the message to go out, why “reinvent the wheel” so to speak.
It is beautiful to see how each of the Gospel writers gives us the same picture of Jesus, and yet presents new elements that give us a multi-facsited and clearer image of our Lord. These are not modern journalistic biographies of a popular figure, they are Greco-Roman Biographies (Bios – see Mike Licona’s book “The Resurrection of Jesus“) of the founder of Christianity, the Son of God Himself, and they should be read as such.
Divinely inspired, inerrant, foundational documents for God’s people to believe in His son…
* Philo, o. A., & Yonge, C. D. (1996, c1993). The works of Philo : Complete and unabridged (494). Peabody: Hendrickson.
Greek: καίτοι τίς οὐκ οἶδεν, ὅτι πᾶσα μὲν διάλεκτος, ἡ δʼ Ἑλληνικὴ διαφερόντως, ὀνομάτων πλουτεῖ, καὶ ταὐτὸν ἐνθύμημα οἷόν τε μεταφράζοντα καὶ παραφράζοντα σχηματίσαι πολλαχῶς, ἄλλοτε ἄλλας ἐφαρμόζοντα λέξεις
Borgen, P., Fuglseth, K., & Skarsten, R. (2005). The Works of Philo : Greek Text with Morphology (Mos II 38). Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.