Solving the jigsaw puzzle

"Almost every piece of literature has some structure, some organic form that the reader can discern."
J.L.Bailey and L.D. Vander Broek, "Literary forms in the New Testament" (SPCK, 1992, p.13)


Before taking a serious interest in the synoptic problem I had been testing out my page hypothesis, which involved an investigation into the structures of all the major New Testament archetypes (for which see: from pages to archetypes and codices).  What struck me more and more as this investigation proceeded was how well-structured these documents were. This had an important, if largely subconscious, effect on my efforts at assembling the logia sayings. For it prepared me to expect a neat, coherent and well-structured document.


The procedure for assembling the logia sayings will be presented here in an idealized form as a series of logical steps. In practice the development of my own understanding of the logia was not so straightforward, and unlike in the presentation here, the list of logia sayings was not completely finalized before I started to investigate their order.

The scope of the logia

In the page 'Pericopes wrongly assigned to Q' I argued that Luke took from Matthew some of the material usually allocated to Q. This included the following pericopes: Mt 3:7-12; 4:1-11; 8:5-13; 11:2-19; 20-23; 25-27; 12:22-32; 43-45; 22:1-10; 23:37-39; 24:45-51; 25:14-30. The remaining double tradition material was by default assigned to the logia. The non-doublet sayings in this remaining material can be shown to be stylistically and theologically consistent with the source doublets presented on the previous page. We can therefore be confident that they belonged to the logia.

In addition to the four doublet sayings not in the double tradition, there are several other non-doublet sayings which Q scholars do not normally assign to Q, but which probably belonged to the logia.

Other pericopes from outside the Double Tradition

The reasons for assigning each of these to the logia will be explained individually on the page "A commentary on the sayings of Jesus".

Structural clues to the order of the sayings

We now have all the pieces of our jigsaw puzzle. This is a useful analogy as long as we make allowance for the differences. A real jigsaw is normally designed so that each piece can only be properly fitted into its correct position. In the construction of the logia, the clues are not so clear-cut. However there are multiple clues. The first clue is the relative positions of the sayings in Matthew and/or Luke. For one or the other, or even both, may have kept to the original order in any small sample of the sayings. Was the order of the original sayings closer to their order as presented in Matthew, or to their order as presented in Luke? Q theorists invariably prefer the Lukan order. Their argument is that the five discourses in Matthew (representing the five books of the Torah) appear to constitute an artificial structure incorporating the bulk of the sayings, whereas the Lukan order has no obvious artificial structure and therefore must be more original. But this argument is hopelessly flawed. To transfer the opaqueness of the Lukan order backwards in time and attribute it to the author of the sayings source, merely moves the problem from one place to another and doesn’t solve anything. Surely the editor of a relatively small collection of sayings would be less likely to create an opaque order than the editor of the largest gospel who had to handle multiple sources.

In Mt 5-7, 10 and 23-24 we have three groupings which look as if they could have been based on sections in the original source: entering the kingdom, mission, and (loosely speaking) judgement respectively. Even Luke appears to reflect the first of these sections (Lk 6:20-49). So it looks as if our source had at least three sections. Of Matthew’s five discourses, one is sometimes labelled “On Church Administration” (17:24-18:35). This section (i.e. the framework, not necessarily all the contents) looks like an addition largely mirroring the later perspective of the Church. So at this stage we should probably expect a source divided into three or four sections.

Another major clue emerged when the sayings were first listed. There seemed to be several natural pairs. For instance there are two sayings about lamps ('Lighting a lamp' and 'Eye as lamp'), two about trees ('Good tree' and 'Mulberry tree'), two about treasure ('Good treasure' and 'Treasure in heaven'), two which mention measures ('Do not judge' and 'Mustard & yeast'). If it is correct that the woes should be taken as seven separate sayings, there are in the collection two about cups ('Cup of water' and 'Clean cup'), two about crops ('Harvest' and 'Tithe mint'), two about endurance ('Hated by all' and 'Burdens'), and two which mention greetings ('Mission instructions' and 'Craving respect'). This set of four pairs is particularly significant because they all represent connections between the section on mission and the section on judgement. If the sections on mission and judgement were connected by paired sayings, then we can reasonably expect that the section on entering the kingdom was connected to an as yet untitled section by paired sayings.

How many sayings were in the sayings source? The pairings lead us to the answer. For in Lk 10:1 where Luke introduces a set of mission sayings, he writes "After this, the Lord appointed a further seventy-two [1]  and sent them on ahead in pairs .....". This number has no obvious significance in the narrative. But it does make sense as a hint [2]  at the number of sayings in a source whose sayings were arranged in pairs, and some of which he was about to take from the source, translate from Aramaic, and incorporate into his gospel.

The next conclusion about the structure of the collection is that it must have had four sections, in order to achieve the pairings in the way described. The section on entering the kingdom (c.f. Mt 5-7 and Lk 6:20-49) was obviously the first, and for brevity we can label it section A. It will be convenient to label the section on mission (c.f. Mt 10) as section B. The section on judgement (c.f. Mt 23-24) was obviously the last. We'll call it section D. This leaves a section we'll call C, whose theme has yet to be named. We have already established that the sayings in what we now call section B were probably paired with the sayings in what we now call section D, and that it is also likely that the sayings in sections A and C were similarly paired. Thus there must have been the same number of sayings in sections A and C, and in sections B and D. It is tempting to assume that there must have been the same number of sayings in each of the four sections, but this is a step too far, as will be seen below.

Completing the jigsaw

The way to tackle a jigsaw puzzle is to start with the easiest pieces. The easiest sayings to order were probably the woes in section D. Clearly the lengthy 'Memorials' should be last in the list as in Matthew, just as the longest blessing is the last beatitude in both Matthew and Luke. But Luke has 'Hinder entrance' as the last woe. The simplest hypothesis is that Luke kept the original order apart from one change. 'Hinder entrance', with its thematic mention of the kingdom (Mt 23:13), was originally first, and Luke moved it to the end in order to leave 'Clean cup' in first place to blend in with his context of a meal with Pharisees. The parallels with section B then determined the order of its first seven mission sayings, and we arrive at the following placements:  

id section B parallel section D id
B1 Following Jesus kingdom of God Hinder entrance D1
B2 Cup of water cup Clean cup D2
B3 Harvest crops Tithe mint D3
B4 Mission instructionss greeting(s) Craving respect D4
B5 Lambs among wolves danger Unmarked graves D5
B6 Hated by all endurance Burdens D6
B7 Through all Israel towns Memorials D7

Apart from 'Cup of water', these mission sayings are in the same order as they are in Matthew. Then in an extraordinary match which lends considerable support to the analysis, the remaining mission-related sayings in their Matthean order turned out to have one-to-one parallels with the expectation-of-the-end sayings in their order in Matthew chapter 24, and D8 is linked to D7 by the mention of “prophets” (true in D7 and false in D8).

id section B parallel section D id
B8 Help in testifying declarations False prophets D8
B9 Bold confession inner rooms Hearsay D9
B10 A sword division from above Lightning D10
B11 My disciple sign(s) of death Vultures D11
B12 Losing one's life loss In Noah's time D12
B13 Welcome reception Taken or left D13
B14 For or against no taking it easy Keep awake D14

(The signs of death are the cross in B11 and the corpse in D11.)

These two groups of sections look very much like the two halves of sections B and D, so we can reasonably conclude that sections B and D each had 14 sayings. On the basis of earlier observations relating to parallels and to the total, we can conclude that sections A and C must each have had 22 sayings (22+22+14+14=72). Given that section A probably started with 'Beatitudes' and ended with 'Rock or sand', it is reasonable to assume that all the logia sayings in the rather short Sermon on the Plain came from section A. This helps to decide which of the remaining sayings came from section A and which from section C. Another reasonable assumption if it works out well (and it does) is that all the logia sayings in Matthew chapter 5, starting with the beatitudes and ending in a climax with the command to be perfect, had been retained in the correct consecutive sequence. Making use of parallels, this leads to the following placements:

id section A parallel section C id
A1 Beatitudes kingdom (of God) Kingdom come! C1
A2 Salt rejection Called or chosen C2
A3 Lighting a lamp lamp Eye as lamp C3
A4 Law primacy of divine law Caesar or God C4
A5 Your accuser judge(ment) Request for a sign C5
A6 Hand & eye eyes What you see C6
A7 Divorce woman Womb C7
A8 Love your enemies concern for others Forgiveness C8

Taking as consecutive 'Blind guide' (Lk 6:39) and 'Teacher/disciple' (Lk 6:40) in the Lukan sermon (and therefore probably in section A rather than section C), also taking as consecutive 'Ruler/servant' (Mt 23:11) and 'Humble exalted' (Mt 23:12), leads to the following placements given the appropriate parallels and ‘wronging a disciple’ as a link between C8 and C9:

id section A parallel section C id
A9 Blind guide bad guidance Millstone C9
A10 Teacher/disciple master/underling Ruler/servant C10
A11 Be like a child humility Humble exalted C11

'Golden rule', 'Disowned' and 'Rock or sand', in this order in Matthew, are all linked by the theme of doing what is right (for others, for God and for Jesus respectively). They are in the Sermon on the Mount as well as in the Sermon on the Plain and thus derive from section A. Appropriate parallels link them to 'More given', 'Thrones' and 'Last or first' respectively. We have already seen that 'Rock or sand' is likely to have been the last saying in section A, and that this section had 22 sayings. Therefore 'Rock or sand' can be labelled A22, and this determines the other identifications. The placements are confirmed by the position of 'Thrones' near the end of section C, so that "may your kingdom come" in C1 and "when God's kingdom comes" in C21 form a frame for the section.

id section A parallel section C id
A20 Golden rule ethical summary More given C20
A21 Disowned kingdom of God Thrones C21
A22 Rock or sand contrasting fates Last or first C22

Taking as consecutive in the logia 'Two gates' (Mt 7:13-14) and 'Good tree' (Mt 7:15-20), also 'Good tree' (Lk 6:43-44) and 'Good treasure' (Lk 6:45), and noting that good and evil are mentioned in the latter two sayings as well as in 'Ask then receive', leads to a sequence of four sayings. Two occur in Luke’s sermon and so the whole set is likely to derive from section A of the logia. 'Two masters', 'Mulberry tree', 'Treasure in heaven' and 'Life’s necessities' form clear parallels with the respective sayings in section A. Also 'Life’s necessities' and 'More given' are linked by “will be given”. So we end up with the following placements:

id section A parallel section C id
A16 Two gates two Two masters C16
A17 Good tree tree Mulberry tree C17
A18 Good treasure treasure Treasure in heaven C18
A19 Ask then receive depending on your Father Life's necessities C19

Each successive pair in the sequence 'Eye of needle', 'A log in your eye', 'Do not judge', 'Pearls to pigs' has a thematic link, namely hyperbole, criticizing others, and "do not..." respectively. The earlier decision to treat 'Sheep & coin' as a single unit in the logia is now confirmed by the picturesque parallel with 'Pearls to pigs' - both sayings deal with animals and valuables. Also 'Sheep & coin' is linked to 'Two masters' by the mention of numbers. These linkages together with the appropriate parallels lead to the following placements:

id section A parallel section C id
A12 Eye of needle kingdom of God Bystanders C12
A13 A log in your eye hypocrite(s) Weather signs C13
A14 Do not judge measure Mustard & yeast C14
A15 Pearls to pigs animal & valuable Sheep & coin C15

These placements are confirmed by the explicit mentions of earth and sky in C13 and C14 (also implicit in C12), together with the man plus woman link between C14 and C15. It is interesting that this leaves 'Eye of needle', with its discouragement of the rich, opening the second half of section A, just as “Blessed are the poor” opened the first half.

Having dealt with the order of the sayings within the four sections, we now need to consider the order of the sections themselves. Section A was clearly the first because it was widely used both in Matthew's Sermon on the Mount and in Luke's Sermon on the plain. Section D must have been last because it portrayed the coming of the Son of Man at the end times in a series of graphic images.

But was section B the second section in the logia as I had assumed because Matthew's mission discourse is clearly the second discourse in that gospel? There are two reasons why I now suspect that section C was in the second position in the logia, and section B was in the third position. Firstly, the parallels between sections A and C on the one hand, and sections B and D on the other, could have been made a little more obvious to the original readers if the original text had the sayings in section A near to those in section C, and the sayings in section B near to those in section D (perhaps by arranging the columns on the scroll in pairs, e.g. col 1 with A1-A6, col 2 with C1-C6, col 3 with A7-A13, col 4 with C7-13, etc.). Secondly I have now discovered that the catchword "words" linked A22 with C1 and the catchword "first" linked C14 with B1. The link between B14 and D1 is less certain. The word "against" (Greek: κατα) occurs in B14. The RSV of Mt 23:13 on which D1 is mainly based has "against" as a translation of the Greek: εμπροσθεν. This Greek word, as used in the phrase "in front of people" is a favourite of Matthew (Mt 5; Mk 0; Lk 1). It therefore seems quite plausible that Matthew might have been translating an Aramaic word meaning "against".

Thus the reader should bear in mind that the order of the logia sayings on a papyrus scroll may well have been in the order: sayings in sections A and C, then sayings in sections B and D.


1. The original text here referred to 72 (as in NEB and REB) and not 70 - see Kurt Aland's comment in
B. M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (United Bible Societies: London/New York, 1975) 151
2. The possibility of the number being a hint is indicated by the phrase "symbolic import" in
B. M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (United Bible Societies: London/New York, 1975) 150