Overview of the Synoptic Problem

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Should one fully read the opening four Gospels of the New Testament, he or she can find many similar patterns of literature and themes affording much attention to detail and study. This is what someone such as Merriam Webster would define as the “Synoptic Gospels”. So, what are and how can we explain the differences and similarities among synoptic authors Matthew, Mark, Luke, and the gospel, John? Which Book was written first? To what extent did the Evangelists depend on oral tradition, written sources, or each other? The phenomenon and mystery of these similar but unique Synoptic Gospels has for centuries challenged some of the best minds of academia and the church, stirring up much scholarly controversy; baffling many New Testament Survey students.

To completely understand the similarities and differences between these Synoptic Gospels we must first be acquainted with the authors of them; we ought to discern the background of their life, academic qualifications, experiences, literature styles, and occupations. We must also ask the questions: Who? What? When? Where? Why? How?

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The first very important question I’d like to pose is: Who? Who were these author’s that challenged our hearts and minds and taught us Jesus’ life, ministries, and importance?

The foremost book of the New Testament is Matthew. It was written by the author, Matthew, to illustrate clearly that the “King” has arrived. Matthew, a Jew, was very literate. He was a despised tax collector who later changed his life and lived completely for Jesus and became one of His’ twelve disciples. Matthew directed this Gospel to his fellow Jews c.60-65 A.D. to prove that Jesus is the Messiah and to explain God’s kingdom that He holds in store for all of man.

The Jews waited for a leader who had been promised centuries before by prophets. They believed that this leader-the Messiah (“anointed one”)-would rescue them from their Roman oppressors and establish a new kingdom. As their king, he would rule the world with justice. However, many Jews overlooked prophecies that also spoke of this king as a suffering servant who would be rejected and killed. It is no wonder, then, that few recognized Jesus as the Messiah. “How could this humble carpenter’s son from Nazareth be their king,” they thought. But Jesus was the King of all the earth, and it was Matthew (Levi) who took it upon himself (but not alone) to spread the word.

Matthew used about 1475 words, 137 of which are words used by him alone of all the New Testament writers. Of these latter 76 are classical; 15 were introduced for the first time by Matthew, or at least he was the first writer in whom they were discovered; 8 words were employed for the first time by Matthew and Mark, and 15 others by Matthew and another New Testament writer. It is probable that, at the time of the Evangelist, all these words were in current use. Matthew’s Gospel contains many peculiar expressions that help to give decided colour to his style. Thus, he employs thirty-four times the expression basileia ton ouranon; this is never found in Mark and Luke, who, in parallel passages, replace it by basileia tou thou, which also occurs four times in Matthew. Matthew begins his account by giving Jesus’ genealogy. He then tells of Jesus’ birth and early years, including the escape to Egypt from the murderous Herod and their return to Nazareth. As you read this Gospel, Matthew’s message sounds clearly: Jesus is the Christ, the King of kings and Lord of lords.

The message of Mark was written c.55-65 A.D. and was probably the first Gospel to be written. It was printed to encourage Roman Christians to live closer and steadier to God and to prove beyond a doubt that Jesus is Messiah. He sought to reveal the true person, work, and teachings of Jesus Christ. Mark presents a rapid succession of vivid pictures of Jesus in action-His true identity revealed by what He does, not necessarily by what He says. It is Jesus on the move.

Omitting the birth of Jesus, Mark begins with John the Baptist’s preaching. Then, moves quickly Jesus’ baptism, temptation in the desert, and call of the disciples. Mark takes us directly into Jesus’ public ministry. Events moved rapidly toward a climax. The Last Supper, the betrayal, the crucifixion, and the resurrection are dramatically portrayed, along with more examples of Jesus’ teachings. Through Mark’s unique style of writing, we view Jesus-moving, serving, sacrificing, and saving.

Every birth is a miracle, and every child is a gift from God. But nearly twenty centuries ago, there was the miracle of miracles. A baby was born, but He was the Son of God. The Gospels tell of this birth, but Dr. Luke, as though he were the attending physician, provides most of the details surrounding this occasion. With divine Father and human mother, Jesus entered history-God in the flesh.

It is generally held that Luke was a native of Antioch. Luke was not a Jew. Paul separates him from those of the circumcision (Col. iv, 14), and his style proves that he was a Greek. Hence he cannot be identified with Lucius the prophet of Acts, xiii, 1, nor with Lucius of Rom., xvi, 21, who was cognatus of St. Paul. As a doctor, Luke was a man of science, and as a Greek and Gentile Christian (the only known Gentile author in the New Testament), he was a man of detail. St. Paul calls him “the most dear physician” (Col., iv, 14). This avocation implied a liberal education, and his medical training is evidenced by his choice of medical language. It is not surprising then, that he begins by outlining his extensive research and explaining that he is reporting the facts (Luke 1:1-4). Luke also was a close friend and traveling companion of Paul, so he could interview the other disciples, had access to other historical accounts, and was an eyewitness to the birth and growth of the early church. His Gospel, Luke, and book of Acts are reliable, historical documents and make up at least 25% of the New Testament. The book of Luke is the most comprehensive Gospel in the Bible and is very broad in vocabulary and diction, which show that Luke was truly well educated.

The Gospel of Luke was written c.60 A.D. Like Matthew, Luke begins his self- titled book with the birth of Jesus. It starts with angels appearing to Zechariah and then to Mary, telling them of the upcoming births of their sons. From Zechariah and Elizabeth would come John the Baptist, who would prepare the way for Christ and Mary. Mary would conceive the Holy Spirit and bear Jesus, the Son of God.

Luke affirms Jesus’ divinity, but the real emphasis of his book is to show Jesus’ humanity-Jesus, the Son of God, is also the Son of Man. Luke gives a glimpse of Jesus’ life all the way until His death. But Luke’s Gospel does not end in complete sadness. It concludes with the thrilling account of Jesus’ resurrection of the dead, His appearance to the disciples, and His promise to send the Holy Spirit. His scriptures are beautifully written and are an accurate account of the life of Jesus, Son of God and Son of Man.

Unlike the preceding books told before, John’s self-titled Gospel is not a life of Christ; it is a powerful argument for the incarnation, a conclusive demonstration that Jesus was, and is, the very heaven-sent Son of God and the only source of eternal life. Also distinctive, 90% of the material written is unique nor does it contain a genealogy or any record of Jesus’ birth, childhood, temptation, transfiguration, appointment of the disciples, nor any accounts of Jesus’ parables, ascension, or Great Commission. It was written c.85-90 A.D. for New Christians and non-Christians.

John discloses Christ’s identity with his very first words, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.” (1:1, 2); and the rest of the book continues the theme. In every chapter, Jesus’ deity is revealed.

Another important aspect is the question to understanding the origin of these books and their theme is the query: When? Scholars round the world compare and contrast the books of these authors and study the wording used to get a general idea of when the books were written in comparison to each other. When careful study of all 4 of these Gospels is taken, one would begin to recognize the astonishing similarities they share. Which poses the question “In what order were the Gospels written?” On the face of it the synoptic apocalypse makes a date before 70 probable for all three gospels. Most scholars adopt a date after 70 A.D. for at least Matthew and Luke. With this in mind, we can begin to understand that at least two of the four Synoptic authors possibly wrote these books within the same 40-year span.

This is where the “synoptic problem” was introduced. It is an investigation into the existence and nature of the literary interrelationship among the first three “synoptic” gospels. Matthew, Mark, and Luke are called the synoptic gospels, in contrast with John, because they can readily be arranged in a three-column harmony called a “synopsis.” Unlike John, the synoptic gospels share a great number of parallel accounts and parables, arranged in mostly the same order, and told with many of the same words. Any proposed solution to the synoptic problem, therefore, must account for these literary similarities among the authors, not so much in terms of their factual content, but in the selection of that content, the arrangement of the material, and wording of the parallels. This is the cornerstone of historical critical scholarship of the gospels. The triple tradition is material that is common to all three of the Synoptic Gospels. Almost all of Mark’s content is found in Matthew, and about two-thirds of Mark is found in Luke. The triple tradition largely consists of narrative material (miracles, healings, and the passion) but also contains some sayings material.

Some people question, however, if there is even a synoptic problem at all. It has recently been asked in the title of a provocative and controversial book by Eta Linnemann, (1992), who faults many textbooks for assuming that the interrelationship among the synoptic gospels is documentary rather than oral before establishing that proposition.

These are questions that may never be completely answered by humans in the flesh, but later on in Heaven. The words written in the Bible must be dissected carefully, however, so that we may get a better understanding of the meaning of their writings. Such as your example you so used in class about the “bank” and how it may be interpreted many ways, so are the Words of God. Yet, scholars and literates may not always be correct. That’s why God leaves it to us to determine the meaning of the Bible. Amen, and God bless you.

Wenham 1992
John Wenham, Redating Matthew, Mark & Luke: A Fresh Assault on the Synoptic Problem (Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity, 1992).

Robertson 1992
A.T. Robertson, M.A., D.D., LL.D., LITT.D, A Harmony of the Gospels for
Students of the Life of Christ (Harper & Row, Publishers, Incorporated, 1992)

Stevens and Burton 1932
William Arnold Stevens and Ernest De Witt Burton, A Harmony of the Gospels for Historical Study (Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1932)

Stonehouse 1963
Ned B. Stonehouse, Origins of the Synoptic Gospels, (William B. Eerdmans
Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1963)

Heim 1947
Ralph D. Heim, A Harmony of the Gospels for Students (Fortress Press,
Philadelphia, 1947)

Linnemann 1992, ET 1992
Eta Linnemann, English trans. by Robert W. Yarbrough, Is There a Synoptic Problem: Rethinking the Literary Dependence of the First Three Gospels (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 1992).

Appleton 1910
Robert Appleton, The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume IX (Robert Appleton
Company, 1910)

Koester 1990
Helmut Koester, Ancient Christian Gospels: Their History and Development (Philadelphia: Trinity Press Int’l, 1990).

Farmer 1994
William R. Farmer, The Gospel of Jesus: The Pastoral Relevance of the Synoptic Problem (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster/John Knox, 1994).

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Overview of the Synoptic Problem. (2018, Sep 09). Retrieved from


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