The So-Called Synoptic Problem
Blaine Robison, M.A.
Published 12 December 2011; Revised 1 May 2018
Sources: Unless otherwise indicated Scripture quotations are taken from the New American Standard Bible (1995 Updated edition). Bibliographic data for sources cited may be found at the end of the article.
Terminology: In order to emphasize the Jewish nature of the apostolic canon and its central figure I use the terms Tanakh (Old Testament), Besekh (New Testament), Yeshua (Jesus), Messiah (Christ) and Besorah/Besorot (gospel/Gospels).
Even the most casual reader of Matthew, Mark and Luke, identified herein as the "Synoptic Narratives," recognize that there is considerable similarity in the content and chronology of events, as well as similarity in style and wording. (Actually, this should be expected since the apostles composed their works with Jewish Greek.) Conversely, there are significant differences in content, sometimes with two narratives containing material not found in the third narrative. Christian scholars have dubbed this phenomenon as "the synoptic problem." To explain this apparent similarity a variety of solutions have been suggested.
Solution #1: Oral tradition
Each author wrote independently and derived the substance, not from written sources, but from oral narratives of the sayings and activities of Yeshua. The strengths of this view are:
1. Jewish Sages forbid disciples of a rabbi writing down his words (Bivin 33). Oral transmission was the preeminent method of preserving a rabbi's teaching and oral transmission relied on memorization and repetition. The accuracy of oral transmission is emphasized in a quote by Jerome (AD 342-420) who lived in Bethlehem and learned Hebrew from local residents. He said that "there doesn't exist any Jewish child who doesn't know by heart the history from Adam to Zerubbabel" (Bivin 6).
2. The parallel stories and sayings in the narratives indicate that Yeshua gave the same message multiple times. This would follow typical rabbinic style making it easier for disciples to memorize his words. The Dead Sea Scrolls indicate that Israelites employed repetition for purposes of emphasis (Archer 93).
3. There are examples of oral narratives in Acts and the Epistles summarizing sayings and doings of Yeshua: (1) Peter’s Pentecost sermon (Acts 2) and his sermon to Cornelius (Acts 10); (2) Paul’s reference as to what he had received from Yeshua (1Cor 11:23).
4. Differences can be explained by the translation of the Hebrew oral narratives into Greek, the use of Jewish Greek and subsequent copying errors.
Varughese claims that, "Oral tradition alone cannot adequately account for such identical wording in the Greek text of the three Gospels, since originally the stories would have been told in Aramaic, the language of Yeshua and the disciples. … There must have been some sort of relationship between the written texts of the three Gospels" (85). This is a logical fallacy. Besides Yeshua and the disciples spoke Hebrew. In any event, oral tradition can certainly account for it, as Luke does point to such narratives in existence when he wrote his narrative (Luke 1:2) and the Mishnah written about AD 200 was based on the oral tradition of the Sages.
Solution #2: Mutual dependency
This view holds that one narrative was written first and the others copied the portions they have in common. Augustine was the first to suggest this view. Scholars who take this approach cannot agree on which narrative came first. Some vote for Matthew (Irenaeus), some for Mark (favored by most modern Christian scholars) and some for Luke (so Lindsey 19-20; Santala 52-56). The strength of this view is that it gives a logical basis for the order of the episodes in the narratives. The weaknesses of this view are:
1. There are no apostolic claims of dependency and this position would destroy the originality of the two authors who copied from the third. When Yeshua or the apostles quote from Scripture (the Tanakh) they say, "it is written" or the prophet says or the Lord says, etc. There is no statement in any of the narratives of the writer saying, "Matthew said," or "Mark said," or "Luke said." Even Luke when commenting on the narrative he received (Luke 1:2) offers no indication that he actually quoted from this source.
2. There is no certainty about which book was written first, second and so on, although the record of Clement of Alexandria gives the most definitive information on the order of writing. Without the original autographs and some other independent source to verify, the mutual dependency position remains purely subjective.
3. Statistical studies conducted on the Synoptic Narratives and reported in the theological journals concluded that dependency could not be proven (see Dyer and Ellis). In fact, the Greek text of many of the common passages do not copy exactly the parallel passages. Dependency as generally assumed should result in duplication.
4. If Matthew copied from Luke, why should he have created so different an order of events, or have omitted so much material that the latter contains?
5. The claim of mutual dependency does not explain why out of 53 parables total in the four books, 38 are unique to one book: 12 are unique to Matthew, 2 are unique to Mark, 20 are unique to Luke, and 3 unique to John. In addition, 4 parables are unique to Matthew and Luke, and only 11 may be found in all three of the Synoptic Narratives.
6. The claim of dependency on Mark does not explain how Mark's fondness for the adjective euthus, "immediately," which occurs 40 times in his book, is not replicated in the other narratives: five times in Matthew, one time in Luke and three times in John.
Solution #3: Documentary hypothesis
This view builds on the mutual dependency solution and suggests that the apostolic authors used some independent written sources. This theory holds the greatest sway in Christian scholarly circles. This theory assumes the priority of Mark and an unknown document identified as "Q" (for Quelle or "source"). Other scholars in this camp have proposed two additional sources labeled "L" for a hypothetical Luke source and "M" for a hypothetical Matthew source. Personally, I find no strengths in this position. Its weaknesses are:
1. This hypothesis creates more problems than it solves. No "Q" MS has ever been found. Documentarians evade biblical passages that contradict their position.
2. This approach makes the authors merely editors compiling materials from various sources and arranging it to present a particular historical-theological view of the life and teachings of Yeshua. The Documentarians imply that the authors were incapable of writing a book without plagiarizing other books for their material.
3. This complicated approach to writing the narratives seems like an unwieldy method for God to use who is inspiring the whole process. Put another way, why would the God who created the universe out of nothing resort to such a haphazard process to produce the record of His son’s ministry?
4. The hypothesis is subjective in the extreme and has the same weaknesses as the mutual dependency theory. It contains circular reasoning, which upholds divine inspiration while advocating a rationalistic basis for composition.
5. This hypothesis is a slippery slope. It can only lead to suggesting more "sources" as the narratives are carved up seeking the original words of Yeshua.
6. The Documentarians essentially reject the historical testimony of the church fathers on the authorship of the narratives, who were much closer to the events. This theory could even be labeled as anti-Jewish because it rejects the Jewish authorship of the books and makes them the product of the second century Gentile Church.
7. This position is the same as the hypothesis of multiple sources for the Pentateuch. The Documentarians have assumed that scholars living thousands of years after the event can (largely on the basis of philosophical theories) more reliably reconstruct the way things really happened than could the ancient authors themselves.
Evangelicals who rely on this hypothesis are naïve if they think they can have this liberal position and inspiration of the Scriptures, too.
Solution #4: Independent authorship
Each author wrote independently and with his own purpose (cf. Matt 1:1; Mark 1:1; Luke 1:1-4; John 20:30-31; 21:24-25). See my article Witnesses of the Good News for a discussion of the composition of each of the apostolic narratives. Irenaeus (AD 120-202) listed the order of narratives that became accepted for the canon from which one might infer an order of composition.
"2. Matthew published his Gospel among the Hebrews in their own language, while Peter and Paul were preaching and founding the church in Rome. 3. After their departure Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, also transmitted to us in writing those things which Peter had preached; and Luke, the attendant of Paul, recorded in a book the Gospel which Paul had declared. 4. Afterwards John, the disciple of the Lord, who also reclined on his bosom, published his Gospel, while staying at Ephesus in Asia." Eusebius, Book V, §8.
The record of Irenaeus quoted above suggests the sequence of writing and makes it clear that the narratives were written within the lifetimes of the authors. In the first century context, "published" and "transmitted" are synonymous terms. The qualification of Luke's narrative that it was that which "Paul declared" probably refers to Luke-Acts as a single work. Clement of Alexandria (AD 150-215) also addressed the matter of sequence:
"6. The Gospels containing the genealogies, he says, were written first. The Gospel according to Mark had this occasion. As Peter had preached the Word publicly at Rome, and declared the Gospel by the Spirit, many who were present requested that Mark, who had followed him for a long time and remembered his sayings, should write them out. And having composed the Gospel he gave it to those who had requested it. 7. When Peter learned of this, he neither directly forbade nor encouraged it. But, last of all, John, perceiving that the external facts had been made plain in the Gospel, being urged by his friends, and inspired by the Spirit, composed a spiritual Gospel." (Eusebius, Book VI, §14.6-7)
Yeshua told his disciples, "The Holy Spirit … will … bring to your remembrance all that I said to you" (John 14:26). Each of the Evangelists with divine inspiration and their own personal remembrance left an accurate record of Yeshua's life and teaching. A combination of oral tradition and independent authorship is the most sensible explanation of the current text of the narratives. Therefore, there is no problem to be solved.
Archer: Gleason L. Archer, A Survey of Old Testament Introduction. Moody Bible Institute, 2007.
Bivin: David Bivin, New Light on the Difficult Words of Yeshua: Insights from His Jewish Context. En-Gedi Resource Center, 2007.
Dyer: Charles H. Dyer, "Do the Synoptics Depend on Each Other?" Bibliotheca Sacra 138 (551); 230-245.
Ellis: E. Earle Ellis, "Dating the New Testament." New Testament Studies 26 (4): 487-502.
Eusebius: Eusebius (c. AD 263 – 339), Church History.
Santala: Risto Santala, The Messiah in the New Testament in the Light of Rabbinical Writings. Trans. William Kinnaird. Keren Ahvah Meshihit, 1992. Online.
Varughese: Alex Varughese, ed., Discovering the New Testament: Community and Faith. Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 2005.
Copyright © 2011-2018 Blaine Robison. All rights reserved.