The
Synoptic Problem
Originally published in Speak as the Oracles, May 1987, Number 1 Vol. 12

The “higher critics” of the New Testament have posed what they refer to as the
Synoptic Problem. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are similar in many ways.
There are numerous accounts found in two out of the three, or all three of the Gospels.
For this reason the first three Gospels are referred to as the Synoptic Gospels (which
means “That they see together; this is, they present a common view of Jesus’
ministry”). The Gospel of John is not included in this group because of its divergence
in form and content from the other three.

The Synoptic Problem is: “If the three Synoptic Gospels are totally independent of each
other in origin and development, why do they resemble each other so closely, even to
exact verbal agreement in many places? If, on the other hand, they have a literary
relationship to each other, how can they be three independent witnesses to the deeds
and teaching of the Lord Jesus Christ? … As a concrete example of the kind of passage
that creates this problem one might take the healing of the leper described in Matthew
8:1-4; Mark 1:40-45; and Luke 5:12-16. All of them are narrating the same event, for
the action is alike in all three, and the conversation is almost identical verbally. Each is
introduced by a different sentice to fit the general context of the marrative, but the
words of Jesus are nearly the same.” [New Testament Survey; Merrill C. Tenney;
Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co.; 1961; pp. 133, 134].

Thus, Redaction Criticism (“the analysis of the editorial work of the writers”) and
Form Criticism (“the establishment of the oral tradtion behind the gospels”) were
called into play in order to make an explanation. It is referred to as a problem because
it supposedly deals a deadly blow to more traditional dates and origins of the Gospels,
and especially the concept of the inspiration of God.

According to the advocates the modern theory of Synopsis of Documentary Sources,
Mark is thought to be the earliest Gospel and the main source of information for the
writing of both Matthew and Luke. The concept feels that for a period of twenty years
and more following the death of Christ, oral traditions arose concerning Jesus of which
we have no record today. They were based on the historical Jesus, His sayings and
actions, but were embellished upon by the early evangelists. These formed the
“Kerygma” or gospel of the early days of Christianity.

As time went on these were supposed to have become periscopes (“independent units of
oral tradition characterized by certain forms or structures”). These periscopes, called
Proto-Mark (before Mark, used by the Gospel by that name), Q (for German quelle
meaning source), M (because it is used by Matthew), L (because it is used by Luke),
and the Narrative Source(s), served as the sources of information for the Gospels.

Matthew and Luke are alleged to have used Q for the material contained in both that is
similar yet divergent from Mark. John alone used the Narrative Source(s). Thus, on a
purely Rationalistic and Naturalistic ground, the Gospels are explained in opposition to
the theory of inspiration of God. It is important to notes that Robert A. Spivey and D.
Moody Smith, Jr. in Anatomy of the New Testament [MacMillan Pub. Co, Inc: New
York; 1974) make “imagination” a “primary” ingredient to understanding the Gospels
from this viewpoint. Indeed, imagination is needed, for the evidence is non-existent.
These “higher critics” place the Gospel of Mark as having been composed prior to the
destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., or shortly afterward. The Gospel of Matthew and
Luke are placed as being composed after 90 A.D.

Other theories of explanation of the Synoptic Problem by the “higher critics” include
the theory of Oral Tradition and the theory of Reciprocal Borrowing. The theory of
Oral Tradition says that the writers of the Gospels all heard the same stories, which had
been collected and crystallized into an Oral Tradition before the writing of the Gospels.
Thus, by constant repetition prior to the writings of Matthew, Mark and Luke, these
stories had taken the same form, although they had been different in the beginning,
according to the modern advocates of this theory. This theory lacks in evidence. It
cannot be shown where the original preaching and teaching of the apostles and early
evangelists differed. It ignores inspiration, and is an attempt to do away with inspiration.
The theory of Reciprocal Borrowing or Mutual Interdependence theorizes that two of
the Gospels (usually Matthew and Luke) copied from the third Gospel (usually Mark)
and then added their own stories to what they have copied. Then later copies copied
from each to the other. It differs from the Documentary Sources in that it does not
have any of the three utilizing outside documentary sources. However, this theory may
be able to explain some of the similarities; but, it is wholly lacking in dealing with the
differences and some of the similarities. It ignores inspiration.

Inspiration solves the Synoptic Problem. The similarities are due to the same source,
the Holy Spirit. As they wrote “in words which the Holy Ghost teacheth,” such a
similarity would be expected (1 Corinthians 2:13). Especially would such similarities
occur when a truthful and accurate account of the dialogue and action is being
recorded. If they did not agree, they would be false accounts. The differences are due to
the different approach to the subject by each writer. The main thrust of each Gospel
must be remembered: Matthew is written for the Jew; Mark was written for the Roman;
Luke was written for the Greek. In addressing different groups of people, it is to be
expected that there would be differences in approach.

The best solution to any problem is always God’s solution.
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