Monday, July 2, 2018

The Synoptic Problem

When you start reading the four gospels at anything beyond a surface level, you start to realize that Matthew, Mark, and Luke have a lot in common, and John is different. The first three are traditionally called the "synoptics" because they seem to see from a common perspective.

Given the human nature of the composition of biblical books -- they're not magically composed on golden tablets or dictated by angels, for example, but written by human authors striving to use all their God-given intellect and creativity and integrity and artistry to honor God through a useful human document -- we have to ask what exactly is the relationship in composition between Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Seems like it should be a pretty simple question.

In the earliest speculations about this question, the early church a hundred years or so after the composition of those three gospels said (sounding very much like they were citing an oral tradition that was handed down to them) that Matthew was the earliest of the three, and that he wrote with an eye to a Jewish audience. Mark was second and Luke followed shortly thereafter. John, all agreed, came quite a bit later.

Somewhere along the line, about two hundred years ago, scholars decided that because Mark was shortest and simplest, it must be the earliest. The idea of Matthew having been composed earliest got tossed out with yesterday's coffee grounds. It just makes sense, right? Mark, written in what reads like rather hasty Greek, condensed to 2/3 the length of Matthew, must have been earlier.

There's a problem, however, because Matthew and Luke have a lot of material in common that is not present in Mark. So if Mark is the earliest, there must be another source that we have never found. A German scholar gave this hypothetical source the name "Q," short for "quella" or source. Catchy. You can, in fact, buy copies of Q, but not because we found a manuscript. Rather, these "copies" have been theorized out of the commonality between Matthew and Luke that is not found in Mark, based on the theory that has completely dominated academic thinking about the gospels for the last couple centuries that Mark is earliest.

What if they're wrong? And what if those witnesses in the second century who said Matthew was earliest are, in fact, right? We've found papyrus fragments of Matthew that look as early as any piece of Mark we've found. Some scholars date the handwriting on those manuscripts to the 50's AD, though they are usually laughed out of academia because we KNOW Matthew was written later. Right?

As you might have guessed by now, I'm sympathetic to the view that Matthew is probably the first-written of the four gospels. A couple questions remain for anyone who takes my position. Even if you don't need to mess with pesky Q, you have to wonder why Mark might take a rich, fully developed gospel like Matthew and cut it down. You have to ask this from a larger perspective as well as within the specific stories. In fact, in a couple places, where Matthew has two -- two demon possessed men in Gadara, or two blind men in Jericho -- Mark goes with one. Why?

Without getting too far down into the weeds, I believe there are good answers. The bigger picture answer from my best research looks like Mark took something Matthew had written for a primarily Jewish audience in Antioch in Syria, and he condensed it down to create a tool to evangelize Greek-speaking Gentiles in Asia Minor, Greece, and even Rome. In that case, the simpler the better. And this idea might well explain that troubling "shorter ending" of Mark as well -- what better way to make a reader want to talk to someone who knew the end of the story?

In the end, this really doesn't matter. The four gospels provide a rich, full multivalent perspective on Jesus' life, ministry, death, and resurrection. They are complementary, though not identical. And since we are working our way through Luke, it's nice to see that he acknowledges that there are multiple written accounts out there before he takes pen in hand.

One of the other big questions that we won't try to solve here is whether these gospels were written before or after 70 AD when Jerusalem was sacked and the brand-new temple was destroyed, razed down to the platform. When we get into those parts of Luke that deal with those issues, we'll probably take another stab at that question.


  1. I read your blog religiously - Haha! - and enjoyed this scholarly post. I learned a lot!

  2. While I have mixed feelings about religion (!) I'm always grateful for faithful readers. Glad it was educational!