The Synoptic Problem

The “Synoptic Problem” can be summarized in two questions. Why are the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke so similar? Given the similarities, why are there differences among those three Gospels?

Until 1786, the Church was almost unanimous in believing that the four Gospels were written in the order used in the New Testament. Since that time, attention has veered to the possibility that Mark’s Gospel is the oldest and that both Matthew and Luke used him as a source. Mark’s Gospel is the shortest of the three. Moreover, ninety percent of Mark’s material is also found in Matthew, and fifty-five percent of Mark’s material is also found in Luke. Mark uses more Aramaic words than Matthew or Luke. (Aramaic is the language Jesus would have spoken with family and friends, but the New Testament is written in Greek.) His writing style is generally considered rougher than the others, causing some students of the Bible to infer that Matthew and Luke used Mark’s Gospel as a source but cleaned up his writing in their own books.

We know that Luke’s Gospel was not the first written. Luke reports from the very beginning of his book, “Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us.” Luke goes on to affirm that he has investigated what Jesus said and did. Luke must have interviewed eyewitnesses of Jesus–probably including Mary, the mother of Jesus. Luke’s account of the birth and childhood of Jesus appears to bear the imprint of Mary’s memories. Given that information, is it more likely that Matthew copied Mark or that Mark copied Matthew? Or is there another explanation that fits the facts in a better way?

Matthew was an apostle. He saw and heard Jesus and spent time learning from him. Mark was not an apostle. Early Christian writers say that his Gospel was based on the preaching of Peter. Matthew’s Gospel is written with Jewish believers in mind. Matthew assumes knowledge of the Old Testament and of first century Jewish practices. Mark and Luke both explain those practices. The Church began among Jews but soon grew to include Gentiles. Given that information, it seems likely that Matthew’s Gospel was written before Mark and Luke wrote.

Why, then, are the books so similar? Instead of insisting that Matthew and Luke copied Mark, some scholars say that the three Gospels had a common source. It did not have to be a written source. The apostles learned from Jesus and then went out preaching about Jesus. Quite likely they had a mutually accepted outline and even a way of describing various events that kept their message unified as they shared it with many listeners.

The common source of the three Gospels, then, is an oral tradition rather than a written document. This explains Luke’s statement that “many” worked to “draw up an account”–not many accounts, but one account. When Matthew preached about Jesus, and when Peter preached about Jesus, and when James and John and Thomas and Phillip preached about Jesus, their accounts were the same because they worked together to create a single story, a shared memory, which would encourage unity in the growing Church.

Why, then, are their differences among the Gospels? Matthew was a tax collector–a numbers man. He divides the ancestry of Jesus into three sets of fourteen. He divides the teachings of Jesus into five groupings, perhaps reflecting the five books of Moses. Writing for Jewish believers in Jesus, he frequently quotes the Old Testament and does not bother to explain Jewish customs. Yet his descriptions are terse and to the point.

Peter was a fisherman trained by Jesus to be an apostle. His natural style of preaching the same message tended to be more vivid, but also rougher, than Matthew’s writing. He skips over the teaching portions of the message (except for the parables) and produces a lively, active account.

Luke was a physician who traveled with Paul. Luke interviewed eyewitnesses, but he probably heard repeatedly the same oral tradition developed by the apostles. He arranges the teachings of Jesus differently from Matthew–but that is no problem, because Jesus probably taught the same messages repeatedly to different crowds. Luke said more than Matthew or Mark about the women who traveled with Jesus and the apostles. He also reported the parables of Jesus with the strongest characters–the prodigal son and his father, and the good Samaritan.

Jesus is completely God and at the same time completely human. In a similar way, the Bible is completely God’s Word and yet was completely written by humans. As the Word of God, inspired by the Holy Spirit, we can accept the Bible to be trustworthy and true. As the writing of humans, we can study it like any other human document, noting different styles among the authors, and even speculating about the sources of their information. As one of my professors used to say, “The Bible is more than literature, which means it is not less than literature.” J.


7 thoughts on “The Synoptic Problem

  1. Very interesting. Filled in a few holes in my knowledge. Thank you. I did not realize that folks use to think the books were written in the order that we see them in the Bible, but that makes sense. I have heard people speculate about a document they label “Q” as being a common source. Nevertheless, since modern scholars seem cocksure that Mark was written first, they are probably wrong. Speculation is not evidence.

    I have heard it said, and it makes sense to me, that the Gospels present Jesus from from four different perspectives. Matthew saw Jesus as the King. Mark (Peter) saw Jesus as the Servant. Luke saw Jesus as his Savior. John saw Jesus as God.

    Therefore, I tend to think the “Synoptic Problem” is that a King, a Servant, and a Savior is something that a man can be. The “Synoptic Problem” is a reminder that to save us God humbled himself to become man. John’s Gospel is distinct — stands out — because this Gospel unmistakably shows us Jesus was God, that only God can be God. Whereas Matthew, Mark (Peter), and Luke saw the God in the man, John saw only God. John underlines what is critical for us to remember. Even when God became a man, He remained what we are not, God. As a our King, our Servant, and our Savior, Jesus — God — did what we could not do for ourselves, He cleansed us of sin.

    The rest of the New Testament speaks of Jesus as God. From the other books we learn the meaning of what Jesus did for us and how we should respond. Now that God has saved us, what must we do to accept His sacrifice on our behalf? Acts shows us what the early church did. Romans provides the theological explanation of our redemption. 1st and 2nd Corinthians shows some of the practical problems the Apostle Paul confronted and what he taught to strengthen the faith of the Christians in Corinth. And so forth.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I like your thoughts about the four points of view of Jesus and about the Gospel’s relationship with the books that follow them in the New Testament.
      I was taught in college about Q. It’s laughable to think that anyone would be convinced that the teachings found in Matthew and in Luke must have come from some written document used differently by the two writers–as if in his years of teaching Jesus never repeated himself to different audiences.
      The earliest witness to the order of the Gospels was a preacher named Papias, who is quoted by both Irenaeus and by Eusebius. Papias lived within a hundred years of Jesus and the apostles and may have known the apostle John. He said that Matthew wrote the earliest Gospel and that he did so in (either) the Hebrew language or the Hebrew style.
      Interesting stuff! J.


      • @Salvageable

        I am in the process of reading Peter Kreeft’s and Ronald K. Tacelli’s Handbook of Christian Apologetics Paperback. Kreeft does not think much of the way many modern scholars pretend to understand the Bible better than scholars and believers who live much closer to the time when the New Testament was written.

        I have reached the point where I believe it is almost useless to read books about history. To understand the past, we must read what people living at the time actually wrote. I suppose I will have to look up Papias.


  2. Your paragraph (third from bottom) that begins with “Peter was a fisherman…” Are you intending that paragraph to account for Mark’s writing? I think so because you said before that Mark probably followed Peter. But I’m unclear

    Liked by 1 person

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