What are the ‘M’ and ‘L’ Sources?

I’ve been writing about the Gospels, and last week I wrote about the Q Source Hypothesis (a.k.a. Document Q). The Q Source Hypothesis proposes the Gospel of Mark was written first, and the Gospels of Matthew and Luke used Mark as a primary source, while also using the hypothetical source Q for material common to both Matthew and Luke, but not Mark.

My article this week will be short, as I’m just including this for completeness. There is material in Matthew which is not in the other Gospels, and material in Luke not in the other Gospels. The authors had to get this material from somewhere, and people have given names to these sources. It probably won’t be surprising these sources are called ‘M’ and ‘L’, respectively (although since the material in Matthew and Luke but not in Mark is called ‘Q’, maybe it should be surprising). Exactly what these sources are is unknown, and it’s likely each of these names actually include several sources.

There are about 300 verses unique to Matthew which are attributed to the source called M. Source M certainly includes the memories of the Apostle Matthew, since he was an eyewitness to many of the events in Jesus’s ministry. Jesus had an inner circle, consisting of Peter, James and John, so it’s probable some of their discussions with Matthew are part of M, particularly in places where Matthew wasn’t with them.

Luke has about 550 verses attributed to the L source. Luke wasn’t a disciple or Apostle of Jesus, so the Gospel of Luke isn’t primarily based on a single eyewitness account, as the other Gospels are, but it is based on research of multiple sources.1. Some skeptics claim the Gospels are unreliable because the Apostles would have forgotten what Jesus taught long before the Gospels were written, but since Luke “carefully investigated” we can be confident he is accurately reporting the events he wrote about.

Regardless of which Gospel was written first, or whether there was a Q source, each of the Gospel authors undoubtedly had sources the other Gospel writers didn’t have access to. Matthew and John were written by Jesus’s disciples, and they each would have had unique memories and conversations. The names modern scholars use to distinguish the sources isn’t important to most Christians, because we know the Holy Spirit guided all of them.

Footnotes

  1. Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught. (Luke 1:1-4 NIV)

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