This essay aims to examine the Synoptic problem. We begin by defining the problem, and looking at some of the evidence for the peculiarities that exist among the Synoptic Gospels. Flowing on from this we look at the development of the problem in church history, as well as the major theoretical approaches to its solution.
The search for the best solution is analogous to solving a crime. While the objective is clear, the evidence at times may point down two very different paths. The one may place emphasis on witness and testimony of people close to the case; the second may be primarily concerned with forensic evidence. As time progresses and further evidence is uncovered, new light is shed and the existing evidence reexamined and reweighted.
We conclude by giving our assessment of which solution fits the evidence best and offer some grounds upon which such a judgment has been made.
The Nature of the Synoptic problem
The synoptic problem refers to the similarities found in the three Gospels; Matthew, Mark and Luke. Much of Mark is reproduced in the other two, and there is a high degree of agreement between the three when it comes to the order of events and how they are presented, including the wording and quotations used.
“Now to be sure, the Gospels must not be forced, anachronistically, to measure up to conventions for writing history or biography. Instead they must be evaluated by the standards of their day.”
Solving the Synoptic problem has proved something akin in theological circles to untying the Gordian knot. At the heart of Synoptic problem lies the issue of primacy. How did the Gospels come to be written? Which gospel came first?
The need for clarity became all the more apparent after the production of a Gospel synopsis. . This highlighted the close relationship between the Gospels. Sanders and Davies state;
“Matthew Mark and Luke are remarkably alike. There are examples from medieval literature of works which agree as closely, but from ancient literature no other examples of such close similarity are known.”
“Only 30 verses in Mark lack a parallel in Matthew or Luke.”
The very fact that there are four Gospels begs the question; “How do we account for both the similarities and the differences between them?”
Comparing the Gospels: Similarities and Differences
Gospel Peculiarities Coincidences
Mark 7% 93%
Matthew 4% 58%
Luke 59% 41%
John 92% 8%
Figure one gives rough percentages of the similarities and peculiarities of each Gospel. At the two extremes are the Gospel of John and the Gospel of Mark, with Matthew and Luke sharing more of the middle ground.
As to Chronology Luke deviates from the chronology of Mark only four times, while Matthew diverts from Marks order only in a “twofold way”
A brief history of the problem
Early exploration: Origen, Papias and Augustine
The testimony of the early church fathers is one of the keenest sources of academic discussion, with theologians giving either more or less weight to their role.
Origen, the first to truly confront the full weight of the synoptic problem adds two noteworthy comments relevant to this discussion. He maintains that Matthew was written first and that Mark was written second as a record of the Simon Peter’s experiences.
Carmignac, one of those responsible for the translation of the Dead Sea scrolls states of Origen;
“We cannot absolutely reject a tradition so ancient (from the time of the hearers of the Apostles), so stable (no discordant voice) and so universal (from the Indies to Gaul).”
As Carmignac alluded to Origen was not alone in viewing Matthew as the first gospel written. Augustine was one of the first to be struck by the similarities as he attempted to produce a harmony of Gospel accounts.
They “are believed to have written in the order which follows: first Matthew, then Mark, thirdly Luke, lastly John”
“However the evangelists may each have reported some matters which are not recorded by the others, it would be hard to prove that any question involving a real discrepancy arises out of these.”
Of Augustine Blomberg writes; “The priority of the Gospel of Matthew for Augustine seems to have been based at least as much on its greater popularity in the church, which in turn stemmed from its fuller accounts of Jesus’ teaching, than to any historical information he had about the order of writing.”
Yet another ancient source, “Papias states that Mark was the interpreter of Peter and regards his Gospel as based on the witness of Peter.” Papias is also quoted as saying that Marks primary concern was not chronological order. This links the Markan account directly with the Apostles, and bodes well for any theories which would place it as an early account. It also gives credence to the fact that both Matthew and Luke’s chronology varies slightly from Mark’s. (Luke 1:13)
There are few theologians today who would not accept that there was a period of time in which stories of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection were spread by word of mouth, through the teaching of the apostles, and from discussions of the events of his life.(Mk 16:20,Matt 28:19)
Paul Barnett writes; “In response to the critical question, how do we span the forty or so years between Jesus and Mark’s written text? We note various theories of memorized oral transmission.”
Dunn argues that the prevailing emphasis on Q tends to limit and narrow the work being done in synoptic study, and argues for the merits of an oral based approach to reenergize Biblical scholarship.
Historically, and certainly in the middle ages, adherents to the oral tradition went a step further however and declared that the gospel accounts themselves were all independent accounts based solely on the oral tradition. Form criticism and later source criticism as well as a close analysis of Gospel synopses have shown this hypothesis to be false.
Following the Renaissance in Italy and the continued momentum of scientific discovery, the modern approach to the synoptic problem emphasized the literary interdependence of the Gospels upon each other.
“ that this parallelism , of varying degrees of closeness , must be accounted for by their literary interdependence is nowadays almost universally accepted by scholars.”
The Griesbach Hypothesis
The theory which gave Matthew priority, followed by Luke and then reduced by Mark was advocated by J.J. Griesbach in 1789, but “was first proposed by H. Owen in 1764.”
This theory has seen resurgence in more modern times through the eloquent argumentation of Farmer.
“He has maintained that when the evidence is set out against the background of a careful examination the text, together with a careful examination of internal structures, the proposition that the order of the gospels was Matthew-Luke-Mark becomes persuasive.”
The theory has as its advantage that it agrees with both tradition and early Church fathers. It also offers some explanation of the redundancies found in Mark’s account. It maintains that the redundancies are as a result of copying from more than one source, and leaving both descriptions in.
As a theory Griesbach’s hypothesis is the most serious contender of the prevailing two source hypothesis.
Lessing (1788) believed that the Gospels had originated from more primitive sources, which he called Urevangelum, which no longer exist He believed that a shorter version of this was used by Mark to write his Gospel. There is some evidence that Mark’s Gospel went through stages in its composition and later redaction.
Schleiermacher (1817) hypothesised that the disciples “had taken notes of Jesus’ words and deeds” these were collected together and collated and from these the Gospel accounts are to have arisen. Stein continues “This “fragmentary hypothesis” never received much support.”
It would not adequately explain the extent of collaboration among the Synoptics, nor account for their distinctives.
Holtzmann’s two source hypothesis
Holtzmann, picking up on work done by Weisse hypothesizes that Mark produces his Gospel from the eyewitness account of Simon Peter. The other synoptic evangelists then used Mark as the basis for their own accounts, together with a document which relates the teachings of Jesus. This hypothetical document was at first called “Quelle”, German for source, later abbreviated to Q.
At first impression, one is struck by the shortness of Marks Gospel. It contains significantly fewer verses than Luke or Mark, this alone tends to make one think that Marks gospel may have been the forerunner of the others.
Additionally when Matthew and Luke differ from Mark there is marked similarity between them. Redditt writes that while Mathew and Mark may differ from Luke, and Luke and Mark differ from Matthew, it is very rare if ever that Luke and Mathew differ against Mark. This lends itself to the suggestion that Mark is primary and the others secondary.
The very fact of Matthew and Luke agreeing against Mark has been seized upon by proponents of Griesbach, however Stein points out that there may be several explanations which would fit the evidence from a Markan perspective.
Mark’s Gospel, while being the shortest is noted for its detail, which is more what one would expect had one of the other Gospel accounts copied him
Mark’s gospel is notable for its poorer Greek. Scholars hypothesize that it is far more likely that Mark’s poorer Greek be changed than for the better Greek in Matthew and Luke than for them to have been copied and exchanged for the poorer Greek of Mark.
Weisse upon whom Holtzmann based much of his work stated; “The very Hebraisms of our gospel [of Mark] are...a tell-tale indication of his independence & originality. On the one hand, it is possible to label this characteristic as awkwardness and clumsiness.... On the other hand, ...[it] conveys the impression of a fresh naturalness and an unpretentious spontaneity, which distinguishes Mark's presentation most markedly from all other gospel accounts...”
This would also explain the lack of Mark’s characteristic redundancies appearing in the other two Gospels. Such errors are more likely to be removed than copied.
This “documentary theory, while plausible, has one or two weaknesses…One may say with regard to Q that no trace of this hypothetical document has ever been recovered. Even those who advocate the documentary hypothesis admit that it was not a Gospel.”
While acknowledging the skepticism some interpreters feel at working with reconstructed source documents such as Q, Benjamin Sommer argues that to not examine these documents is being disrespectful to the text.
The two source hypothesis was expanded by Streeter to include M for those documents unique to Matthew and L for those unique to Luke. It is seldom considered as anything more than an expansion “modification of the two source theory”. What Streeter’s “The four Gospels, a study of Origins” did accomplish was galvanize support for the two source theory.
The two source theory has received some criticism lately principally from two camps, those advocating the Griesbach hypothesis and those who are concerned that claims about Q have become “extravagant.”
Redaction criticism is “the branch of study which seeks to identify earlier traditions in a writer’s text.”
The very fact that there are four Gospels begs the question; “How do we account for differences between them?” It is this question which drives redaction criticism.
Following a general (albeit not unanimous) consensus on the Markan priority of the two source hypothesis redaction criticism (redactiongeschichte) emerged. This focused primarily on the distinctives each evangelist brought to the text, how it was modified, what was included or excluded.
By its nature redaction criticism of the gospels is significantly influenced by the nuances of the synoptic debate. Guthrie draws attention to this when he states;
“The majority of work in this field has been conducted on the assumption that Matthew and Luke used Mark and Q…Yet recent questions about the validity of the theory of Markan priority must cast some doubts about the results of much redaction criticism.”
“The Gospels were seen as unsophisticated writings…but this perception changed with the rise of redaction criticism, which rediscovered the evangelists as theological interpreters of the Jesus tradition.”
Conclusion: The clearest solution
We began by examining the nature of the problem. Following this we have examined the course of the debate over the synoptic problem, beginning at early observations of the church fathers, and paying closer attention to modern theories concerning the formulation of the Gospel.We conclude now by asserting that the two source hypothesis, given the evidence, while the worst solution except for all the others that have been tried is the most credible.
“The two source hypothesis provides the best overall explanation for the relationships among the Synoptic Gospels.” Cason et al go on to caution that we should approach Holtzmann’s work as a working theory rather than a fait accompli. While there is broad agreement within theological circles concerning the two source hypothesis, there is by no means consensus.
“The foregoing considerations have been regarded by the great majority of scholars as sufficient to establish the theory. In fact it is generally treated as one assured result of criticism. Hypotheses regarding Matthew and Luke’s gospels almost invariably proceed from the assumption that both have used Mark as a source.”
Bultmann points to the influence of Wredes work on the messianic secret in Mark as proof that the optimism of the supposed unraveling of the synoptic problem can blind us to the rich tapestry of the gospel we are critiquing.
There is still much to be done, and caution in our approach to the scriptures is prudent. If we are to appreciate the scriptures as we study over it, we must recognize that we are simultaneously under it.
Alston, William. Historical criticism and the Synoptic Gospels. Scripture and hermeneutics series.Volume 4 Behind the Text; History and Biblical Interpretation. Ed Bartholemew, Craig, Evans, Stephen, Healy, Mary, Murray, Rae.(2003. Grand Rapids. Paternoster).
Augustine Harmony of the Gospels, Book 1 Chapter two http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1602102.htm accessed 04/10/2010
Augustine. Harmony of the Evangelists, Book IV, X.II quoted in Ewell, Walther and Yarbrough, Robert. Encountering the New Testament, A Historical and Theological Survey.(1998. Grand Rapids. Michigan. Baker.)
Barnett, Paul Finding the Historical Christ. (2009. Cambridge. Eerdmans) pg 107
Blomberg, Craig.The Historical Reliability of the Gospels.(1987 Leicester Inter-Varsity Press)
Bock, Darrell. Studying the Historical Jesus; a guide to sources and methods (Grand Rapids, Michigan. Apollos/Baker Academic.2002.)
Bultmann, Rudolf. History of the Synoptic Tradition. (1963 Peabody Massachusetts. Hendrickson Publishers)
Carmingnac, Jean. The Birth of the Synoptics.(1987. Chicago.Franciscan herald press) translated from the French La naisance des evangiles Synoptiques OEIL Paris by Wrenn, Michael.
Carson, D.A. Moo, Douglas and Morris, Leon An Introduction to the New Testament (Leicester, Apollos,1999)
Cross. A.R. Genres of the New Testament. Dictionary of New Testament Background. Ed Evans, Craig and Porter, Stanley. (2000. Downers Grove, Illinois. Inter-Varsity Press)
Dungan, David. A History of the Synoptic Problem; The canon, the text, the composition and the interpretation of the Gospels. ( 1999. New York. Random House)
Dungan, David. A History of the Synoptic Problem; The canon, the text, the composition and the interpretation of the Gospels. (1999. New York. Random House)
Dunn, James Altering the default setting: Re-envisaging the Early transmission of the Jesus Tradition New Testament Studies. (Volume 49. Number 2. April 2003. Cambridge University Press)
Enns, Paul.The Moody Hanbook of Theology, revised and expanded edition. (2008.Chicago. Moody publishers)
Farmer, William. The Synoptic Gospel. http://books.google.com.au/books?hl=en&lr=&id=hdQqF-9hZ00C&oi=fnd&pg=PA1&dq=synoptic+problem&ots=hreW8PdYO-&sig=zoOKlTRu5XSHW6z2c_f14qbBu7s#v=onepage&q&f=false pg 2
Guthrie, Donald. New Testament Introduction, revised edition. (1990. Downers Grove, Illinois Apollos.)
Kümmel, Werner. Introduction to the New Testament, revised edition. (1975 London. Abingdon press).
Reddit, Paul, Source Criticism Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible ed Vanhoozer, K. (2005 Grand rapids , Michigan Baker/SPCK)
Sanders, E. and Davies, Margaret. Studying the Synoptic Gospels. (1989.London SCM) pg 51.
Sommer, Benjamin.The source critic and the religious interpreter.(Interpretation, A journal of Bible and Theology. The ministry of Exegesis.Volume 60. Number 1. January 2006.Richmond Virginia) pg 9-20.
Soulen, Richard and Soulen R.Kendall. Handbook of Biblical Criticism. Third edition. (Louisville Kentucky Westminster John Knox.2001).
Soulen, Richard and Soulen R.Kendall. Handbook of Biblical Criticism. Third edition. (Louisville Kentucky Westminster John Knox.2001).
Source unknown attributed to the London Institute of Contemporary Christianity.
Stein, R. Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. ed Green, Joel, Mcnight, Scot, Marshall, Howard. (1992.Downers Grove. InterVarsity Press)
Tenney, Merril New Testament Survey (1961 London. Eerdmans/IVF)
The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church second edition ed Cross. F.L and Livingstone E.A.(1974. London. Oxford University Press)
Tuckett, Christopher. Reading the New Testament: Methods of Interpretation.( Philadelphia: Fortress Press. 1987)
Weisse, Chrisitian accessed electronically 10/10/2010 http://virtualreligion.net/primer/weisse.html
Westacott, F in Enns, Paul.The Moody Handbook of Theology, revised and expanded edition. (2008.Chicago. Moody publishers)