Synoptic Problem


I thought I would give an abbreviated version of my solution to the synoptic problem.


1. In theory, dictation by God could explain extensive verbal similarity, but then what do we do with the not so similar and downright different?  It defies any reason.  And since there is no faith problem with using sources (biblical authors sometimes quote or mention sources), it is just far more reasonable to think sources were involved.  God's dictation, while theoretically possible, seems a vastly unsatisfactory answer.


2. Also, the four witnesses on four corners of an intersection doesn't work very well at all either. 


a. Mark and Luke were not eyewitnesses.


b. As you look below you will find that the verbal similarities are too close at some points to be explained by the eyewitness approach.  The gospels are in Greek, not Aramaic.  The similarities are not just over the words of Jesus but in the story framing and even at times story summaries.


Example 1:

Matthew 17:1: "And aft'r days six takes the Jesus the Peter and James and John the brother of him and he brings them into a mountain high by themselves..."


Mark 9:2: "And after days six takes the Jesus the Peter and the James and the John and he brings them into a mountain high by themselves alone..."


Even eyewitness reports aren't that similar, and oral traditions aren't either unless they have reached a very standardized form. One gospel is either using the other as a written source at this point or they are both using a common source.


Example 2:

Matthew 3:7-8: "Brood of vipers, who showed to you to flee from the coming wrath? Make therefore fruit worthy of the repentance."


Luke 3:7-8: "Brood of vipers, who showed to you to flee from the coming wrath? Make therefore fruits worthy of the repentance."


3. The above examples should make it clear that either the gospels are using each other as literary sources or are using common sources or some combination of these.  Also, by any account we must include oral tradition as a factor in the equation.


4. Mark is by far the common denominator between Matthew and Luke.  This suggests either that Mark is a basic source (majority) or that Mark is written last using both Matthew and Luke (Griesbach, Farmer).


Example 3:

Matthew 12:15-16: "Now the Jesus, having known, withdrew from there. And followed him crowds many and he healed them all and he commanded them that they not visible him make..."


Mark 3:7: "And the Jesus with the disciples of him withdrew to the sea, and great multitude from the Galilee followed and from the Judea and from Jerusalem and from the Idumea and across the Jordan and around Tyre and Sidon a multitude great... and much he commands them that they not him visible make..."


Luke 6:17: "and crowd much of disciples of him and crowd much of the people from all the Judea and Jerusalem and the region around Tyre and Sidon..."


In this last example we find that sometimes Matthew and Mark agree and sometimes Luke and Mark agree. In no particular instance do Matthew and Luke agree against Mark (although it can also happen sometimes).


The fact that all three gospels summarize Jesus ministry with verbal similarities at the same basic point in the story (i.e., right or soon after the sabbath controversy story of Matthew 12:9-14; Mark 3:1-6; Luke 6:6-11) points to common literary sources.


5. Mark's Greek is more Jewish and not as "good" Greek as either Matthew or Luke.  It makes much more sense to say that Matthew and Luke have "purtied" Mark's Greek than that Mark deliberately messed their Greek up.  In my opinion, this makes Mark by far the most likely source behind Matthew and Luke.


Mark also has more Aramaic words than Matthew or Luke, and Mark is less theologically cautious than Matthew or Luke.


By the way, it soon becomes clear that the gospel writers had no squabbles with rewording Jesus' teaching or slightly rearranging the order of things.  Matthew, for example, has two in several places where Mark only has one (demoniacs, blind men, donkeys).  We apparently impose our squabbles into the text when we insist these stories be precisely historical. 


6. But if Mark is the core source behind Matthew and Luke, then we must explain the common verbal material between Matthew and Luke, as in example 2 above.


One suggestion is the Goulder-Goodacre approach that sees Mark first, Matthew second and then Luke using both of these.


But do we really think that Luke looked at Matthew's sermons and said, "Hey, I want to split up this Sermon on the Mount material and partition it to the wind."  And where then did Matthew get the material in the first place?


At this point we might note that the earliest tradition about Matthew is that he wrote the sayings of Jesus in Aramaic.  This is not our current Matthew, which is in Greek.  We face the strong possibility that the current Matthew is based in some way on the original Aramaic gospel of Matthew, while not the same exact gospel.  In particular, it is difficult to explain why the disciple Matthew would use Mark as a source since he was an eyewitness and Mark wasn't?  Also, if the disciple Matthew's Greek was this good, why did he use Mark whose Greek was inferior? 


We conclude it unlikely that the disciple Matthew put the Gospel of Matthew into its current Greek form (it is, after all, anonymous.  It nowhere gives us its author's name).  However, since I take ancient traditions seriously, I have a hunch that the Aramaic Matthew, a collection of Jesus' sayings, stands beside Mark as a primary source in some way behind our current Greek gospel of Matthew.


7. You will notice that we have just described something like what scholars have long referred to as "Q," a hypothetical source primarily of sayings material found in Matthew and Luke but not Mark.



I am now ready to describe my current answer to the synoptic problem:


1. Jesus said and did many things.  Multiple oral traditions arose during his earthly ministry.  Stories were told and retold in the villages of Galilee.


2. These stories no doubt existed in groups of related stories: things Jesus said about the kingdom, miracles Jesus did, etc...  The most important of these oral traditions was no doubt the story of the events leading up to his crucifixion.


3. At some point, Matthew starts collecting the sayings of Jesus in Aramaic.  There's nothing to keep this collection from being somewhat fluid.  In particular, we might expect it to expand over time.  Some of these may make their way even into Mark. 


4. Probably the passion narrative was written down at a fairly early time.


5. Mark (or whoever--it's technically anonymous) writes the first gospel, perhaps not long after the death of Peter (so Papias), just before or just after the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70.


6. There are no doubt Greek translations of Matthew's sayings collections, which may vary in scope (Papias says people translated them as they were able; Luke mentions many before him having undertaken to write gospels).


7. Some scribe in the vicinity of Antioch, within a decade after the destruction of Jerusalem, uses Mark as a skeleton, adds a birth and resurrection narrative, and then collects Matthew's sayings into five large sermons, meant to imitate the five books of Moses.  This is the grand expansion of Aramaic Matthew into Greek and so this gospel is known by its most authoritative source: Matthew.


8. At some later point, someone starts with Mark again as well as one of the Greek translations of the original Matthew.  This author feels a little less tied to the order of things in Mark, but may actually give the material from original Matthew more in the order it appeared there.  We call this gospel Luke, again technically anonymous.


But the "we" passages of Acts push us to see this author as a sometimes travelling companion of Paul (although there are other explanations as well).  But we should not thereby assume that this person felt bound to historical precision in the relaying of events.  From what little we know of his use of sources, Luke-Acts felt free to rearrange and recast material to make valid theological points and also to present the story in an efficient and pleasing way.


My solution as of the 12th of March, 2006