Why Study The Synoptic Problem?

One is tempted to argue that the whole issue is hopelessly confused and it is best to approach the gospels as they are written and not really worry about the differences.  While this is a noble sentiment, it leaves the question of differences unanswered.  There are differences that we must account for in some way, either by a dependence theory (2 source, 4 source, etc.) or an independence theory.  In his excellent introduction to the Synoptic Problem, Mark Goodacre suggests several reasons students of the Gospels should think through the Synoptic Problem.

Synoptic Meme

Historical and Apologetic Reasons.   The order of the writing of the gospels is valuable simply because it is an historical question that is at the very roots of the Christian story.  It is sometimes thought that the earliest Gospel is the more “primitive”, before the later theological layers were added. Therefore it we read Mark, or Q, we are reading the earliest strata of Christian thinking.  While this has some merit, it is not true that the later gospels are somehow less valuable than the earlier for the sole reason that the demonstrate theological development.  It is obviously true that John is more theologically nuanced that Mark, but that does not mean that John is necessarily creating stories and making Jesus say and do things that he did not say or do.

There is an apologetic value to this form of research.  It is sometimes objected that the Gospels contradict one another, therefore they are to be entirely doubted.  Rather than contradictions, the synoptic variations are to be explained by a literary relationship that can be tracked through the three gospels and in then in to later texts. It is not as though we have to make up crazy explanations for obvious contradictions, the parallels are quite close, just to sort of thing you would expect if there was a literary relationship.

Theological Reasons. It is possible to track the development of thinking about Jesus, who he was and claimed to be over the four gospels.  What did Jesus do on the cross?  What did he think would happen when he died?  What is the importance of the resurrection?   This is aided greatly by the synoptic tradition.  For example, Mark has the least to say about the resurrection, Matthew and Luke quite a bit more, John clearly the most.

Goodacre uses the Lord’s Supper as an additional example of this theological development.  There are four versions of the words spoken by Jesus when he passes the cup, in each of the three synoptic gospels and 1 Corinthians (Mt. 26:27-28, Mk. 14:23-24, Lk. 22:20, 1 Cor 11:25). Historically speaking, Paul is the earliest of the four, only Paul and Luke use the words “new covenant” – a theologically loaded word.  Why is that not in Mark or Matthew?  Were there multiple versions of the Lord’s Supper liturgy with slight variations?  Would a Jewish community be more likely to understand the “new covenant” than a Gentile?  Would Mark be likely to not use the phrase if he were writing to Rome?  Is there a relationship between Paul and the writer of Luke?

The evangelical scholar must approach these issues with the assumption that if there was dependence on sources, that dependence was under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.  If Matthew used Mark, he did so in a way that was superintended by the Holy Spirit and can in no way be seen as malicious (i.e., Matthew changed the words of Jesus for some theological reason.)   There is nothing about the various solutions to the Synoptic problem that is essentially “against” the authority of scripture or the inspiration or inerrancy of the New Testament documents.

By ignoring the problem and pretending that it does not exist does not help evangelicalism in dealing with criticisms of inspiration.  We must be able to explain the data in a way that actually enhances the doctrine of inspiration and glorifies God for the rather remarkable collection of documents we have describing the life and ministry of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Bibliography:  Mark Goodacre, The Synoptic Problem (Sheffield: Sheffield Press, 2001), 24-32.

26 thoughts on “Why Study The Synoptic Problem?

  1. I have to admit that before this class, I have neither considered the synoptic gospel problem nor the issue of a historical Jesus. How often do Christ followers question inspiration? I mean how could you, when the Bible is so clear about its own authority (2 Timothy 3:16; 2 Peter 1:20-21). I have always taken granted the authority of Jesus and the gospels, as most of us would probably admit. I am beginning to understand the importance of critically examining these assumptions.

    I agree, “evangelical scholar must approach these issues with the assumption that if there was dependence on sources, that dependence was under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.” This concept ties directly with the previous posts argument about the opportunity rather than problem of synoptic gospels. “With all the attention to diversity, one can lose sight of the substantial amount of agreement among the three Synoptics” (Blomberg 106). Attention must be placed on understanding the “literary interrelationship of the synoptic gospels as Griesbach restated in the late 1700s.

  2. Why do you think Christianity has survived through so much trauma and strife in its early life (Nero and other persecution). It is because the early church had a message that is and was true. Why would a book (Gospels and Epistles) have so many different authors that all talk about the same teachings. According to Blomburg there are “661 verses in Mark, 500 recur in Matthew in Parallel and 350 recur in Luke which is a substantial agreement (97).” It is interesting that this parallelism encompasses the retelling of what Christ did as well as quotes. For the apparent differences in perspectives and quotes we should be able to defend (through apologetics) to show how the differences in reality that prove that the Gospels were inspired by the Holy Spirit through the pens of the people of His choice. “There is nothing about the various solutions to the Synoptic problem that is essentially “against” the authority of scripture or the inspiration or inerrancy of the New Testament documents.” (Goodacre). I think this the most important thing to keep in mind in this study.

  3. Before reading this chapter, I never really thought about the Synoptic problem. I knew of the arguments and of the claims, but I never really saw it as that big of a deal. As stated in the blog post by P. Long, the answers to these questions hold apologetic value. To know the answers to the Synoptic problem would prove that the Gospels do not in fact contradict each other, but compliment each other whether it is from copying of another Gospel or the use of outside sources such as the ‘Q’ document. I like that Anna pointed out 2 Timothy 3:16 because as a Christian I believe that all scripture is God-breathed and useful, which would deny any claim that the Gospels are contradicting each other and should therefore be doubted.

    It is also important to study this problem because to know exactly how and when they were created could shorten the time in which they were written after Christ’s death (Blomberg 104). If the document Q was in fact used, then it would probably be dated in the 40s or 50s which would decrease the time in which the information would be passed around by word of mouth. There is less chance that any of the information would be skewed with a decreased time in between the death of Jesus and the writings of the Gospels.

    • I agree with Andrew when he says that the Gospels “do not in fact contradict each other, but compliment each other.” When you look at the Gospels in the sense that they contradict then negative views are implied and the message seems to disintegrate, for me, anyways. I believe there is value in knowing about the synoptic problem and studying it while making sure that you stay with your faith and stick with your belief. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to question to gain knowledge because we need to understand a primary part in scripture.

  4. For me, the synoptic problem would be so much easier to just say “it doesnt matter, the Bible is inspired” and keep it at that. But it is true, the synoptic problem should be discussed even if it is frustrating. One of the bigger reasons that we should study the synoptic problem in the historical point of view is to answer some of the skeptical questions about the historical Jesus. If we just focus on the theological and accept the gospel in blind faith that it is inspired without giving any defense to why or how we know then how do we expect others to believe us. If all we have in agreement is that Jesus lived and died then we will have problems when we start filling everything in.

    Christianity is never supposed to be a faith that accepts things without thinking. God desires us to use our heads and be able to give a reason for our faith. “But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander” (1 Peter 3:15 16).

    • Absolutely Brent! I verbally said “amen” after reading your post. To bring back one of my favorite metaphors…the trampoline [and yes, I am a fan of Rob Bell’s metaphor].

      One of my frustrations with the studying of synoptic problem however, is that, from a historical standpoint, it appears as if those who have or come from a Christian background automatically become discredited. “By ignoring the problem and pretending that it does not exist does not help evangelicalism in dealing with criticisms of inspiration. We must be able to explain the data in a way that actually enhances the doctrine of inspiration and glorifies God for the rather remarkable collection of documents we have describing the life and ministry of our Lord Jesus Christ.” – Plong. I love the goal of studying issues like this, that in hopes of having an answer for the faith we believe in. Obviously, at the end of all things, no amount of reasoning we do will bring anyone to Christ, except when He draws those to Himself. I think it’s also important to note that God uses things like this to draw His own to Himself. From an individual standpoint, my [or I guess you could say our] hope in the studying of anything is to know Christ, the power of Resurrection, and to share in His sufferings.

      • “one of my favorite metaphors…the trampoline” – I was going to call you out for stealing from Rob Bell….to you think that the “synoptic problem” is a spring on the trampoline, or a leg of the trampoline, without which the whole thing collapses? If it turns out that Matthew created the parable of the Wedding Banquet, is the Christian faith fundamentally damaged?

  5. I think that one important thing to look at when reading and observing the synoptic Gospels is the ties that run through the differences in writing styles and order. Blomberg says, “the parallelism between two Gospels is often verbatim for entire clauses or sentences and, even more commonly, identical.” (97) Another important aspect he points out is, “this verbal parallelism occurs in Greek.” (98) Two other commonalities that are pointed out are “parenthetical comments or explanatory asides added by a particular author” and “the parallelism also involves the order of episodes that are not linked together chronologically.” (98) Despite the differences in each author’s writing styles and order, there are unmistakable parallels that very clearly tie them together.

  6. I think that we should learn about the difference in the Gospels so that we know about them and try to understand them. Is is possible that the reason they have differences in them is because the author is writting to a different group of readers? So, maybe that is the reason for difference in the synoptic Gospels. There are different things you would write to different people. Some people might not gain from one writers work, but gain a lot form a different authors writting.

  7. I agree with the first sentence in this post. One is tempted to argue that the whole issue is hopelessly confused and it is best to approach the gospels as they are written and not really worry about the differences. We shouldn’t really be focused on what they have different but as they are written. This is something that’s really good for me because it gives me a push to want to know more about the gospels and look into them more and find if there are any problems or if it was meant to be that way. There are many parallels in the three books but many people think it is a problem but personally I do not think that at all.

  8. With, as Blomberg stated, a “search for historical Jesus resurging” it is no wonder that issues such the coherency of the Synoptic Gospels are being studied and that Christians are having to explain the authority of Scripture in this context (79). We need to be able to explain to the questioning world how criticism of the Synoptic Gospels fits with the belief in the authority of Scripture being truly inspired by God himself (81). In fact this kind of study should be encouraged. If we truly believe in the truth of the Scriptures we should not be shy or afraid of looking at them critically and asking tough questions. Asking these questions and noticing apparent discrepancies does not mean that we can’t also believe in the authority and absolute truth of the Word of God.

    • Personally… i find much wrong theologically with the trampoline metaphor (as far as I understand it at least… i might need to be brought up to speed as to its meaning now but from what i understand it to be, it’s shaky theology at best). That being said, I feel that tackling head on the “Synoptic Problem” incredibly important and very interesting. I love history (although not enough to be considered a history buff) and this truly does apply to the Gospels. Andrew stole my thunder by taking the passage that Blomberg writes about the speculated writings of the “Q” document and it’s potential dating should it exist and be found. However, my last argument on my other post still stands. Writing or not, oral tradition was extremely popular and a very reliable means of record keeping in the time around Jesus. Any writings would only strengthen our modern minds in its reliability and would confirm the oral tradition as effective.

  9. So this may or may not be offensive and completely ridiculous, but I am going to throw it out there anyways.
    This reminds me of the game telephone. The game where the person in the beginning of the line will think of a phrase, and then whisper in the persons ear next to them, and it continues down the line until the last person hears it and says it out loud. More often than not, the last person says something completely different than what was originally said.
    Now I am not saying that today we are getting a completely different message then what God intended, God got out exactly what He wanted us to hear. I am just stating that it seems to me that no matter what, these men were just men. They had regular jobs, lived on the earth and sinned just as we do; so their stories are going to be faltered by their way of life and upbringing.
    It is important for us as studiers of the gospels today to take this into consideration.

  10. Plong, it won’t let me reply to your comment, so I’m writing it down here. AND I thought I was giving him credit for his [Rob Bell’s] metaphor, but I’ll just say it again… Rob Bell’s metaphor about the trampoline is one of my favorite metaphors…capturing this idea.

    Bell sets up a metaphor where faith is a trampoline, and the springs “aren’t God…aren’t Jesus… [they] are statements and beliefs about our faith that help give words to the depths that we are experiencing in our jumping. I would call these the doctrines of our faith.”

    That’s a great question. This isn’t a Rob Bell issue, and I think it’s pretty fair to say that ALL metaphors break down at some point. In regards to whether or not they are springs versus legs of the trampoline… I think that it does challenge the Christian faith INCREDIBLY. With the general consensus of the Church Fathers assuming that Matthew, Mark, Luke were extremely similar because both Mark and Luke draw from Matthew [Blomberg 78], and given the fact that the Church Fathers debated and put these 4 gospels because they represented Jesus in the best possible way with… for lack of a better phrase least amount of differences, it challenges our belief that all scripture is God breathed. I guess however even if Matthew made up the parable of the Wedding Banquet, we could still argue that it is God breathed and profitable, however it would lead to the question of “how many more parables, or stories in the bible are made up as well?”

    And just to clarify, the whole purpose of the trampoline metaphor is that honest doubt [questions] and intellectual investigation [such as synoptic problems] are important to forming a deep, “to the core” faith.

    • I am with Anna, I too never thought about the Synoptic Gospels being an issue or the historical Jesus. In my paper I used (2 Timothy 3:16) as my “old” way of thinking, not that I don’t still agree with it, now I think more about what I am reading. This class is really making me stretch outside of my normal understandings and beliefs of the bible and really making me think. Before I just read and believed everything that was said no questions asked, where now I see myself reading something and thinking ok now how can I back this up? I like many of us in the class never thought when reading, where did their sources come from? I am now understanding the importance of where the sources came from and why we even need to rely on sources.
      I am not going to lie I completely agree with the first sentence of this post”One is tempted to argue that the whole issue is hopelessly confused and it is best to approach the gospels as they are written and not really worry about the differences.” However, now I am trying to expand my knowledge and be able to defend my beliefs and knowing all this information truly helps.

  11. I really like what Andrew and David already said here. We can always read through the gospels and think there is significant differences between the two. The truth of the matter is, the gospels are the same thing just written by different authors. “the parallelism between two Gospels is often verbatim for entire clauses or sentences and, even more commonly, identical” (Blomberg 97.) With this is mind it is hard for us to believe that the gospels do nothing other than parallel each other in different ways. I like what Brant had to say when he mentioned that we will run into problems if all we do is accept the fact that Jesus lived, he died, and he rose again. God knows we are going to have doubts. it is not like we are to have our faith in God without any logical thinking behind what we do in fact believe. I feel like 2 Timothy 3:16 spells it all out when it talks about the Bible being inspired by God.

  12. Thanks for discussing that section of my book, Philip. It’s refreshing to know that people are reading it and particularly encouraging to hear that people are thinking seriously about the Synoptic Problem.

  13. What does “inspired by the Holy Spirit” mean?

    Luke and Paul use the phrase “new covenant” in their description of the institution of the Lord’s Supper. That’s an authorial decision. Did the Holy Spirit speak to them? Did the Spirit control their thoughts as they made this decision?

    Now let’s complicate things by pointing out that Luke has a copy of the Gospel of Mark in front of him (without “new covenant”), but he is also familiar with Paul’s version of the saying (with “new covenant”). He chooses one version over the other. What exactly is the contribution of the Holy Spirit to Luke’s choice between variant versions of the saying? How exactly does the Holy Spirit make His contribution?

    Several commenters have stated that the Evangelists say the same thing. But that’s not true. Presumably — if the Gospels are inspired by the Holy Spirit — the Spirit accepts a degree of difference in the sayings.

    “Difference” does not necessarily equal “contradiction”. In the instance we are discussing, I accept that we are talking about emphasis, or different ways of tailoring a message to a target audience. But at some point, when difference becomes great enough, it does in fact become contradiction.

    What exactly would the Holy Spirit do if Luke was about to contradict Matthew (e.g. the accounts of Judas’s death in Matthew and Acts)? Does Luke have the freedom to express himself as he sees fit? If not, how does the Holy Spirit prevent him from doing so?

  14. “if Luke was about to contradict Matthew….how does the Holy Spirit prevent him from doing so?”

    Well then, that is the real problem for an evangelical who wants to dabble in the Dark Arts, er, the Synoptic Problem. I liked Goodacre’s example (new covenant added in Luke) since it is an easy way into the problem. I think that Luke had Mark in front of him and he chose to make the change for some reason. On the one hand, it could have been as you say, he knew Paul and / or the current practice of the church. On the other hand, he may have been thinking about Jer 31 at the time, and made an allusion to the new covenant more explicit in his version of the story. Either way, Luke is “doing research” and “being creative” at the same time.

    How the Spirit functions is a mystery to me. My view is that that there was some sort of guidance of the thought process, but it was not particularly overt. In fact, from Luke’s perspective, I am not sure he would know that he was being guided to do good research and write a compelling version of the life of Jesus. Generally speaking, the synoptic problem is less about the differences than the similarities. Why didn’t Matthew and Luke change more than they did?

    In the end, for me, there is not much difference between Luke as an “Inspired Author” and Luke as a “Darn Good Theologian and Writer” except that I choose to believe Luke is authoritative for doctrine and practice, as opposed to other writers who are also excellent theologians and writers.

    Judas’ death is more troubling, since as you say there is a pretty dig difference in the way he dies. There is similarity (it was Judas, he felt remorseful after his betrayal, and he did himself in). There have been quite a few suggestions, I do not know if I am happy with any of them.

  15. Christians should not be surprised that authors of some of the books in the New Testament “plagiarized” the writings of other New Testament authors, ie, the authors of Matthew and Luke copying huge chunks of Mark, often word for word, into their own gospels.

    This habit is not new in the Bible. There is evidence that Old Testament writers did the exact same thing. An example: the entire chapters of II Kings 19 and Isaiah 37 are almost word for word identical!

    If the Bible is the inspired Word of God, why would God have the author of one inspired book of the Bible copy almost word for word large sections, sometimes entire chapters, from another inspired book of the Bible? Is that how divine inspiration works?

    So should we simply accept this “word for word copying” as the will of the Almighty, accepting it blindly by faith, continuing to insist that God wrote the Bible, or should we consider the overwhelming evidence that the books of the Bible are human works of literature, no more divinely inspired than any other work of fallible human authors?

  16. Who is the writer of this excellent article. I would like to cite you.

    • Assuming your are not a spam-bot, I am the author of all the articles on this blog. I also recommend Mark Goodacre on the Synoptic Problem (I cited him and he left a response above).

  17. When we are studying the gospels we need to look at the verses themselves and the meaning for the culture at that time. We also need to understand and study the gospels together, comparing the words written and unwritten to understand the story told. Each of the authors writes and tells of Jesus’ life a little differently, some include more detail and others brush over specific storylines. There are many questions to point out in regard to how the gospels were written. We look at the words, but also the writers and when they took place and the relationship they may have with each other. These elements can shed light on the differences and allow us to understand the time period better. We can also look at it and think through how the Holy Spirit worked in the hearts of these authors to write the way they did and understand it could have come from beyond themselves. This is a contradiction many individuals bring up to criticize the Bible, it is important to be able to understand this problem ourselves and defend it. Personally, I think this issue is one we cannot fully comprehend right now as it fulfills a bigger purpose that we cannot see. We do need to understand it so we can understand the arguments of others and gentle refute them.

  18. I would agree, we have to confront this “problem”, the synoptic problem to a certain degree. We cannot ignore it and if the evangelical community wants to be taken seriously, we need to know how to deal with it. But, why do we have to deal with it in a way that the non-evangelical community would like us to deal with it? I think the fact that these narratives are still God breathed and inspired by the Holy Spirit. Of course, there are going to be similarities but also differences. Just because the text is inspired does not mean God takes away the memories and literary creativity of the author.

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