As Craig Blomberg observes in his Jesus and the Gospels, “the vast majority of careful students of the Gospels” assume that there is some sort of literary relationship between the first three gospels (97). Usually this is described as the “Synoptic Problem,” but I wonder if it is really a “problem.” Why do “careful students of the Gospels” agree on a literary relationship?
There are two main reasons for this decision.
1. Similarity in the Material of the Gospels.
The majority of the texts containing material in the Synoptic Gospels are similar. R. H. Stein identifies four areas of similarity:
- Similar Wording. In many of the synoptic parallels, there is often a nearly exact similarity of words in parallel passages. Even where the order of the words differ, the same words are often used (Matt 19:13-15, Mark 10:13-16, Luke 18:15-17; Matt 24:4-8, Mark 13:5-8, Luke 21:8-11).
- Similar Order of Events. The general outline of the three synoptic gospels is identical. While a few events are in a different order, the general outline is the same. Note the order of the events in Matthew 16:13-20:34, Mark 8:27-10:52, and Luke 9:1-18 / 18:15-43.
- Identical Parenthetical Material. In Matthew 24:15 and Mark 13:14 there appear to be words added by the author as an aside to the words of Jesus. This verse is the most impressive evidence for some sort of literary dependence. The words, “let the reader understand” are repeated verbatim in both Mark and Matthew, imply that one of the writers used the other as a source for the sayings, or that a third source lies in the background.
- Similar Biblical Quotations. In the case of Biblical Quotations the texts match up between the Synoptic Gospels, but are not based on the LXX or any known Old Testament text. In Mark 1:2, Matthew 3:3, Luke 3:4, there is a quotation of the prophet Isaiah that does not conform to either the Greek translation of the Old Testament (LXX) and the Hebrew Bible.
2. Apparent Contradictions in the Material of the Gospels.
There are a few sections of the synoptic gospels which are described singular events, yet vary in significant details. The baptism of Jesus is an example of a problem passage where one of the gospel writers appears to have changed the one of the others. In Mark 1:10 and Luke 3:22 the voice from Heaven addresses Jesus saying “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” But in Matthew 3:17 the voice addresses John the Baptist (or the crowd) saying “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” Clearly this is a singular event, only occurring one time in Jesus ministry. How are we to account for this apparent change by Matthew?
Examples of both categories could be multiplied, although there are not as many apparent contradictions as there are agreements. From these observations is seems obvious that the writers of the synoptic Gospels drew on similar resources but were free to use those resources creatively. All three know the story of the baptism of Jesus, Matthew was able to report the words from Heaven differently for some reason.
For me, the reason that Matthew is different is interesting. For example, if he was working with a copy of Mark, what motivated him to include Peter getting out of the boat (Matt 14:28-30)?
Is there really a Synoptic Problem?
Perhaps it sounds trite, but I do not see a problem as much as I see an opportunity. We have three creative, theological minds (Matthew Mark and Luke) presenting their understanding of the events of Jesus’ life and teaching. That the vary tells me that there was no single authoritative document which told the story of Jesus until these three gospels were complete. But that they are so similar tells me that there was little tolerance for creation of stories and sayings of Jesus. In fact, there are very good reasons to devote some energy toward the synoptic problem.
It is true that Matthew has stories which are unique, or Luke has parables which do not appear in Matthew. But for the most part, the Synoptic Problem is not that these are three different gospels, but rather that these are three similar gospels, written within a short time of each other.
Bibliography: R. H. Stein, “Synoptic Problem,” in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (ed. Joel B. Green and Scot McKnight; Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1992), 784-85.