Synoptic Problem  

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The question of the relationship & sources of the gospels of Matthew, Mark & Luke. Even a casual comparison of the contents of these works points to one or more basic sources. The Synoptic Problem is the challenge confronting any student of the gospels: find a working hypothesis that is adequate to account for all the similarities & differences in these 3 compositions.

The assumption that gospels preserve the memoirs of separate apostles does not explain the patterns of agreement & divergence in the contents of Matthew, Mark & Luke. Three reporters covering the same events might make the same observations. But reports by independent eyewitnesses are expected to differ in organization & style, since these depend on the individual memory & verbal skills of each author.

A substantial amount of similarly worded material in 2 texts is a clear signal of a common source. Either one author has plagiarized from the other or both are echoing someone else. The question is: who is copying from whom?

  • Contents: The synoptics vary considerably in length from Mark (the shortest) to Luke (the longest).

 Separate   Matt   Mark   Luke 
 verses 1068 661 1098
 scenes 117 95 120
 sayings* 225 80 182

*distinct units other than dialog dependent on story

Yet the bulk of the synoptic material is repeated by at least two works. Note that the preponderance of parallel passages between Matthew & Luke is in sayings, while Matthew has more scenes in common with Mark.

 Repeated   Mt+Mk+Lk   Mt+Mk   Mk+Lk   Mt+Lk 
 verses 232* 454* 350* 450**
 scenes 59 77 67 64
 sayings 60 77 62 137

*=Markan count
** =Lukan count

Note also the material presented by 2 gospels that is omitted by the third . Though Matthew omits fewer lines found in the other synoptics, note that Mark omits the fewest scenes & the most sayings.

 Omitted   by Luke   by Matt   by Mark 
 verses 222 118 218
 scenes 18 8 5
 sayings 17 2 77

Mark presents most of the narrative common to the synoptics but less than half of the aphorisms & parables ascribed to Jesus by both Matthew & Luke. Any literary source theory must account for Mark's failure to present such a large proportion of Jesus sayings.

A survey of material unique to each gospel shows that (aside from sayings) the core of the common synoptic tradition is preserved in Mark. Matthew & Luke have only 5 brief scenes in common that have no parallel in Mark [4th column].

 Unique   to Matt   to Mark   to Luke   to Mt + Lk 
 verses 396 89 530 218
 scenes 35 10 48 5
 sayings 38 1 39 77
  • Order: Sequence is even more important than quantity of material in establishing literary dependence between texts. Given decent memories, any number of authors could reproduce many of the sayings & stories that they have heard in similar wording. But like any search engine, the human memory recalls most items by motif & keywords rather than the order in which these items were learned. Except in cases of inevitable cause/effect, events are rarely recalled in the sequence in which they actually occurred.

    Without some built-in logical markers, stories & sayings can be repeated in almost any sequence. While dramatic openings, climaxes & conclusions may be easy to recall, details in between are hard to keep straight. For the randomness of aural memory increases with the passage of time. This is particularly evident in the memorization of long stories or speeches.

    Thus, the clearest evidence of literary dependence among the synoptic gospels is the fact that Matthew, Mark & Luke present the material they have in common in the same basic sequence from Jesus' baptism thru his burial. The outline common to all 3 synoptics is:

    • John the Baptist's appearance & message
    • Jesus baptized
    • Jesus tested
    • Jesus preaches in Galilee
    • Cures & exorcisms
    • Social controversies (meals & sabbath observance)
    • Interpretation of parables
    • 5000 fed
    • Peter identifies Jesus as Messiah
    • Jesus' death & disciples' persecution predicted
    • Jesus transformed
    • Exorcism
    • 2nd prediction of Jesus' fate
    • Jesus goes to Judea
    • Jesus summons children
    • Call to abandon possessions & follow Jesus
    • 3rd prediction of Jesus' fate.
    • Blind cured
    • Jesus enters Jerusalem
    • Temple purged
    • Jesus questioned by Jerusalem authorities
    • Destruction of temple predicted
    • Judas Iscariot cooperates with temple authorities
    • Jesus celebrates Passover meal
    • Jesus arrested at Gethsemane
    • Trial by Sanhedrin
    • Peter denies Jesus
    • Trial by Pontius Pilate
    • Crucifixion
    • Burial by Joseph of Arimathea
    • Women discover empty tomb (told to report to disciples).

    At many points in this outline each author has inserted material that is not reported there by the other two.

    If one limits comparison of sequence to a pair of gospels at a time an even more significant pattern appears. The agreement in the outlines of Matthew & Mark, on the one hand, and Mark & Luke, on the other, is about twice as extensive as the sequence common to all three. But there is no agreement in the order of Matthew & Luke apart from the sequence each shares with Mark. The non-Markan sayings common to Matthew & Luke are presented at different points in their narratives, except for two passages:

    • oracles of John the Baptist
    • a trio of dialogues between Jesus & the devil.

    In both cases Mark presents a briefer version of the same scene.

    Thus, any synoptic source theory must account for three characteristics of the gospel outlines:

    • Matthew & Luke each have double the material in Mark's order as each other's.
    • Matthew & Luke agree in sequence only where they also agree with Mark.
    • Matthew & Luke include almost 75 of the same non-Markan sayings at different points in their gospels.

    [For detailed comparison of these patterns see Gospel Outlines.]

  • Style: The third factor that needs to be accounted for by any source theory is the literary style of each gospel. The vocabulary and grammar of an original narrative represent a particular author's personal style of story-telling. A text copied by another scribe, on the other hand, will contain only minimal traces of the second writer's personal style. While the synoptic writers are authors in their own right, two factors place their compositions between these extremes of free creation and mechanical reproduction:

    • the synoptic gospels record stories & sayings formed by earlier oral tradition; and

    • at least two of these texts are revisions of one or more written sources.

    Compilers weave originally separate strands of material from different sources into larger literary complexes. Thus, the transitions between passages in each gospel reflect the logic & style typical of that particular writer. Compilations of oral sources often retain the informal style of orality in the seams of a written text.

    Editors of literary works, on the other hand, tend to polish their sources to make the text read more smoothly. Editing generally improves grammar, reduces redundant wording, bridges narrative gaps & resolves logical problems.

    The gospel of Mark is the least polished & most oral of the synoptics. Matthew invariably has better grammar & smoother literary transitions between passages. Luke writes the most literate Greek in the NT. Yet, in reporting the same passage, Luke's wording is almost always closer to Mark than to Matthew. While Luke's transitions between scenes & sayings rely on more sophisticated rhetoric than Mark's they are never the same as the transitions in Matthew.

To remain viable any hypothesis of the relationship of the synoptic gospels must account for these patterns of parallels & divergences.

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last revised 20 December 2019


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