Order of the Gospels
Order of the Gospels

Order of the Gospels

Ferrer Theory

The Farrer hypothesis (also known as the Farrer-Goulder-Goodacre hypothesis) is the theory that the Gospel of Mark was written first, followed by the Gospel of Matthew and then the author of the Gospel of Luke used both Mark and Matthew as source material. This was advocated by English biblical scholars including Austin Farrer, who wrote On Dispensing With Q in 1955[2], and by other scholars including Michael Golder and Mark Goodacre.[3] The Farrer theory has the advantage of simplicity, as there is no need for hypothetical source “Q” to be created by academics. Advocates of the Farrer theory provide strong evidence that Luke used both the previous gospels (Mark and Matthew) and that Matthew predates Luke.[4]

Farrer Diagram

 The insistence on a missing source “Q” stems largely from an assumption that the author of Luke would not have excluded so much of Matthew if he had access to it as a source. However, the author of Luke recognized that there were many narratives before him. His prologue suggests the need, based on his close review of the witnesses, to provide an orderly account for the purposes of providing certainty about the things taught. This implies is that Luke excludes much of Matthew because Matthew largely got things wrong. Another objection to the Farrer Theory is that Luke is more abbreviated in some passages than Matthew and therefore Luke reflects a more primitive text. However if Luke intends to provide a concise and orderly account, it is more likely the case that Luke edited out “the fluff” from the passages in Matthew based on what he believed was most creditable and substantiated attestation of the evidence within his possession. The author of Luke’s expresses this motivation in his prologue:

Luke 1:1-4 (ESV)1 Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, 2 just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, 3 it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4 that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.

 Primary arguments for believing that the author of Luke had access to both Mark and Matthew prior to authoring Luke are as follows:

  • If Luke had read Matthew, the question that Q answers does not arise (the Q hypothesis was formed to answer the question of where Matthew and Luke got their common material based on the assumption that they did not know of each other’s gospels).
  • We have no evidence from early Christian writings that anything like Q ever existed.
  • When scholars have attempted to reconstruct Q from the common elements of Matthew and Luke, the result does not look like a gospel and would lack narrative accounts of Jesus’ death and resurrection while including narrative accounts of about John the Baptist, Jesus’ baptism and temptation in the wilderness, and his healing of a centurion’s servant. The theoretical Q would not entirely be a sayings gospel but would be critically deficient as a narrative.
  • The most notable argument for the Farrer hypothesis is that there are many passages where the text of Matthew and Luke agree in making small changes to that of Mark (what is called the double tradition). This would follow naturally if Luke was using Matthew and Mark, but is hard to explain if he is using Mark and Q. Streeter divides these into six groups and finds separate hypotheses for each.
  • Farrer comments that “[h]is argument finds its strength in the fewness of the instances for which any one hypothesis needs to be invoked; but the opposing counsel will unkindly point out that the diminution of the instances for each hypothesis is in exact proportion to the multiplication of the hypotheses themselves. One cannot say that Dr. Streeter’s plea [for “Q”] is incapable of being sustained, but one must concede that it is a plea against apparent evidence”.

Again, The implication that the author of Luke had a copy of Matthew when writing Luke is that the material in Matthew must have deviated from the sound testimony of eyewitnesses and ministers of the word and that some of the material omitted from Matthew must have been erroneous

[1] Gundry, R.H. (1994). Matthew: A Commentary on His Handbook for a Mixed Church under Persecution (Second Edition). Grand Rapids, MI: William B Eerdmans Publishing Company

[2] Austin M. Farrer, On Dispensing with Q, in D. E. Nineham (ed.), Studies in the Gospels: Essays in Memory of R. H. Lightfoot, Oxford: Blackwell, 1955, pp. 55-88,

[3] Wikipedia contributors, “Farrer hypothesis,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Farrer_hypothesis&oldid=980915501 (accessed October 9, 2020).

[4] Michael Goulder’s summary of the hypothesis in “Is Q a Juggernaut?”, Journal of Biblical Literature 115 (1996): 667-81, reproduced at http://www.markgoodacre.org/Q/goulder.htm