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.