from: ChristianForums.com thread (2007)
Last Updated: Jan. 02, 2008
What is the "Synoptic Problem"?
Many Christians are bewildered by the complexity of the so-called "Synoptic Problem".
Briefly stated, the first three gospels (Matthew, Mark, & Luke) contain largely the same material, in the same order. In fact, many sections share almost a word-for-word match in these gospels. In contrast, John's Gospel is quite different in both content and expression. So the first three gospels are called the "Synoptic Gospels" ("syn - optic" meaning 'same eye-view').
The Evangelists Rely upon Each Other
On the one hand, the matching between the Synoptic gospels is far too extensive to be mere coincidence. (Even eyewitnesses don't copy each other's figures of speech.) On the other hand, the Synoptic gospels often differ significantly in their recounting of incidents and speechs.
It seems obvious that sometimes they either copied one another or some unknown previous document, and at other times attempted to 'correct', enlarge or suppliment certain stories.
The "inspiration of the Holy Spirit" alone is also inadequate to fully describe or explain the situation. For if they were meant to be identical, then which evangelist should be taken as most accurate where they differ? And why have three or more gospels at all? Why not just have only one gospel?
The partial answer is that these gospels were addressed to specific audiences, were composed in different times and places, and were written to meet the changing needs of the different Christian communities they served. (Originally the gospels circulated as separate books.)
Studying the Synoptic Problem is Important
But if as Christians we admit this, then it is also important to study those gospels, to illuminate the meaning and context behind their similarities and differences.
Establishing the order in which the gospels were written, and who copied who, is what the Synoptic Problem is all about.
We do this to help assist in establishing the truth of the gospels, their date of composition, and the history of the early church.
Some critics and so-called scholars may have alterior motives in studying the Synoptic Problem, but that should not discourage us from pursuing the truth in the historical circumstance and story behind the gospels.
The Berean Christians (Acts 17:11) searched the Old Testament to see if Paul spoke the truth. In the O.T. we are told that:
'It is the priviledge of kings to search out a mystery.' (Prov. 25:2)
Christians need not fear the truth about the gospels, and Jesus Himself in the gospels tells us that whatever is said privately will eventually be shouted from the housetops.
As we have said, some critics have used the Synoptic Problem to attack the New Testament.
But when we actually examine the way that NT writers used their sources, we find that they were very careful to respect those sources, copying meticulously the words where they knew them to be accurate in both order and content.
Luke is a case in point.
After about 200 years of analysis and theories concerning the Synoptic Problem, one of the more modest and reliable results of the study has been that Luke used sources. In fact Luke used Mark as one source, and as the basis for his own gospel.
From the Christian point of view, there is nothing wrong with this. Paul, James, Peter, and even Jesus all quote previous Holy Scripture.
And more importantly, the Apostles and even Jesus also correct, expand and interpret O.T. Scripture, to bring out its meaning and intent more clearly. This is part of the legitimate duty of a prophet, or even a teacher of Holy Scripture.
So when we see Luke virtually reproducing all of Mark and supplimenting this with another significant body of Jesus' sayings from His earthly ministry, we understand exactly what Luke is doing.
He wants to make a more complete and enlightening gospel, and provide fellow Christians with important and valuable teaching from the Lord.
And Luke doesn't do this secretly, or to gain personal credit.
In the first 4 verses Luke explains his plan in advance:
Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to set forth in order a declaration of those things which are most surely believed among us,
Even as they delivered them unto us, which from the beginning were eyewitnesses, and ministers of the word;
It seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write unto thee in order, most excellent Theophilus,
That thou mightest know the certainty of those things, wherein thou hast been instructed.
So Luke intends the Christian reader to understand that he has used previous written sources, but used them honestly and faithfully in composing his "super-gospel", or simply his more complete gospel.
In the modern era we often take for granted the progressive revelation that is Christianity. We are handed a complete Bible or an entire New Testament ready-made, along with a 2000 year history of doctrinal debate.
The earliest Christians however were no so fortunate in this area. There was no printed New Testament for them to use.
Of course many of them would have been eyewitnesses of the public ministry of Jesus. Others would have the benefit of teachers such as Paul, and it is likely that from the beginning literate followers would have carefully collected Jesus' sayings.
Still others, converted scribes and priests such as Nicodemus would have made accounts of political and religious events and provided them to the Christian community. Even illiterate followers like the man born blind would have been able to give testimony of his experiences that would be recorded by others.
Still, the literature of the NT was a progressive revelation, spanning nearly 70 years from the early 30's to the end of the 1st century A.D.
These documents were written and accumulated gradually over time, as the early Christians faced and dealt with various practical issues and doctrinal questions.
We are not subscribing to any 'theory of evolution of religion'.
But the Christian revelation was nonetheless a progressive one that unfolded over a significant period of time, as teachers confronting various situations under guidance of the Holy Spirit were given insight and revelation.
In fact, if we were to rearrange the New Testament in true chronological order, it would appear very different than its usual topical arrangement of today.
The chronological order would be something like:
Paul's letters, and Jacob's letter,
The Didache, various sermons,
Clement, Hermas, etc.
This chronological arrangement however, does give us some insight into the sources various writers had available and used in composing their works.
It also helps to provide a sensible and rational history of the background and purposes of each evangelist.
Having said that the Gospels were probably not the first documents actually written by Christians, we don't want to suggest that they are somehow 'secondary' or less important than other documents, such as Paul's letters.
All Documents Presuppose Earlier Traditions
Although the earliest surviving written documents are probably things like the letters of Paul and James, Peter, and John, these documents presuppose other careful records of the earthly ministry of Jesus and His teaching.
In many cases, the early letters (written in the 40s), like other documents, appear themselves to quote very early Christian documents now lost, such as catechisms, prayers, prophecies, and translations of Old Testament material made expressly for Christian use.
Furthermore, these letters presuppose the Gospel story, even though they don't document all the specific details. This was not really their purpose, and it is likely that early Christians maintained alongside these letters other documents such as those described by Luke (cf. Luke 1:1-4), which recorded the gospel story and the teachings of Jesus in various forms and formats.
Paul seems to refer to early catechisms and baptism rituals and traditions (e.g. 1st Cor. 11:23-25, Rom. 1:2-6), and James appears to quote early Christian prophecies (e.g., James 5:1-6). Thus in some sense ALL early Christian documents are 'secondary', being partly based upon earlier teaching and traditions (written or oral).
Composite Documents are not Secondary Documents
But in another sense, none of the documents is really 'secondary' at all. Each is an original authentic document issued by a charismatic Apostle or council of Apostles, or respected and beloved Christian writer, and is rightfully believed to be inspired by the Holy Spirit, and written under the guidance of same.
Naturally Composed and Produced
This guidance by the Holy Spirit didn't mean that the Apostles could forgo meetings and discussions, or that they could not use previous work by their predecessors and fellow-workers in the gospel. It seems obvious that the Apostles lived and worked like ordinary (Godly) men, preaching, reasoning, and sharing their insights.
So it is natural that we should find ALL the written documents, not just the gospels, would carry on previous work, and include earlier material, which they knew to be reliable and produced by Godly fellow-workers.
Gospels Remain Primary Documents for Christianity
The Gospels maintain their primacy for this very reason: That they continue the unbroken teaching and tradition reaching straight back to Jesus' earthly ministry, even before the crucifixion.
We (Christians in the modern era) have a lot more realistic and knowledgeable view of the Gospels today, partly because we have had such a long time to live with them, and gather those insights.
Eyewitness Testimony Intact
Though we acknowledge that Gospel writers also relied upon other eyewitnesses, one another, and the living Christian communities in which they lived, we still have confidence in their integrity and accuracy regarding many historical facts and details.
In fact, the Gospels by their very nature remain 'eyewitness accounts', or rather collections of eyewitness accounts.
Their interdependances and their dependance upon other living eyewitnesses in their own time, along with their obvious approval by the early Christian community at large, are one of the strongest arguments in favour of their accuracy and integrity.
We state all this, so that when we examine some of the details regarding this interdependance, our fellow Christians can be assured that the 'eyewitness testimony' aspect of the Gospels is not undermined, but in fact enhanced by our new more detailed and realistic knowledge of their formation.
Obviously Luke used Mark and at least one other source, in composing his new more comprehensive gospel.
He may have relied upon a lost document (such as the proposed 'Sayings Source', the alleged "Q") or simply compiled or combined eyewitness testimony he received orally from others (or even both).
Matthew and Luke
When we turn to Matthew, we find again a very similar document: an attempt to write an expanded, more comprehensive gospel, dependant also upon Mark and at least one other source.
In fact, a large amount of the material in Matthew has direct parallels in Luke, even down to the actual wording. Even the so-called "Special Matthew" material (sections found only in Matthew) have remarkable parallels to and can be aligned with remaining sections of Luke!
This suggests a strong and close relationship between the two gospels, and that one had obvious knowledge of the other.
The main differences between Luke and Matthew regarding the NON-Markan sections are not so much in the content but in the ARRANGEMENT of this content, although there are also significant substitutions as well. Most of the material in Luke is reproduced in Matthew, in a slightly different form and context.
One gospel writer has extensively rearranged the content of the other. Put another way: Matthew not only reproduces 90% of Mark, but he also appears to reproduce 80-90% of Luke as well!
From a modern perspective, the correspondence between Matthew and Luke is probably the greatest and most extensive case of 'plagarism' in ancient times! Of course modern values and standards cannot be imposed upon these ancient writers.
From their perspective (and ours!), the Holy Scriptures, the word of the Lord, could not be 'copyrighted', but was a message to all men, and therefore also the rightful property of all men.
These writers did nothing wrong in making use of prior work, and certainly had the mandate from their respective communities to proceed.
Matthew, Luke and Other Sources
Yet unlike the case regarding Mark, in which it is rather simply demonstrated "who copied who", the question of the interdependance of Luke and Matthew is more complicated and controversial.
Of course neither evangelist provided detailed footnotes or cited sources, but produced new cloth by extensive combining and rearranging of their sources. Only Luke acknowledges even in a general way his use of prior materials (Luke 1:1-4).
So it is up to us, the 'schoolmasters', to determine both "who copied who", and also what other sources they have drawn from.
In fact, both Luke and Matthew have appeared to draw from several obvious sources:
The Gospel of John, (& possibly John's letters),
The Letter of James (Jacob),
Knowing that both Luke and Matthew have used these other sources, as well as examining the unique material each provides, will allow us to determine the chronological order in which the gospels were written, and also who must have 'copied' (or made use of) who.