Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Synoptic Problem and some Solutions...

I seem to have circled around the issue of 'The Synoptic Problem' on this blog for a year or two, without actually devoting a whole post to it. Given that my thinking about the Synoptic Problem led directly to to my current way of thinking about Life, the Universe and Everything (to be explained in a forthcoming post, which is taking a long time to write), I feel I should write something. So here goes, using the Feynman Problem Solving Algorithm:
  1. write down the problem
  2. think very hard
  3. write down the answer
The Problem Defined

So, some of you might be wondering what the Synoptic Problem actually is. Basically, the issue is this: There is a relationship between the three 'synoptic' gospels. There are some similarities in structure, order, content, and even word use. The question is which, if any came first? Is one (or more) of them directly dependent on one (or more) of the others? If so, which?

If you were to split up each of the three synoptic gospels into its constituent 'pericopes' (that's per-ih-co-pay not perry-cope; its the technical term scholars use for the individual, stand alone, stories or sayings that make up the gospels) and compare notes between the gospels you would find the following:
  • There is an awful lot of overlap between all three gospels. The stuff that's in all three is (not surprisingly) known as 'Triple Tradition' material.
  • There is quite a lot that is common to Matthew and Luke, but is not in Mark. This stuff is called 'Double Tradition' material.
  • There is not much at all that is unique to Mark. So little that scholars don't really have a name for it. Lets call it 'Special Mark' material.
  • There is more stuff that is unique to Matthew. Scholars generally call this stuff the 'M' material.
  • There is also a lot of stuff that is unique to Luke. This is commonly called 'L'.
  • There are also some places where Mark and Matthew agree, but Luke has no equivalent.
  • Likewise there are a few (but not many) places where Mark and Luke agree, but Matthew has no equivalent.
Look, somebody from the internet has helpfully drawn a diagram of this:

As far as I can tell, this issue has been keeping a good few theologians awake at night for the best part of four centuries now, so I'm not sure that any solutions I come to here will be final or definitive... but that's no reason not to try! Here goes...

The Proposed Solutions

As far as I can tell, there are basically four proposed solutions to the problem, there may be others, but they are generally just slight modifications from one of the main four. The solutions are:
  1. Independent inspiration (i.e. there is no problem)
  2. The Griesbach hypothesis (Markan posteriority)
  3. The two source hypothesis (Markan priority, plus the Q source)
  4. The Farrer hypothesis (Markan priority, but no Q)
So here's my thoughts on each of these possibilities.

Independent Inspiration

This view is really that there is no Synoptic Problem. The three Gospels (and indeed the gospel of John) were all inspired by God, and the evangelists wrote them down, independent of each other. Any similarities in the text of the gospels is entirely due to God and nothing to do with the men who wrote them down.

I suppose that's a fair belief, but it is a belief which is imposed onto the texts themselves, certainly not one that emerges from any study of the texts. It raises the question of what sort of God would word-for-word inspire the gospels such that in some places there is an exact wording match between Matthew and Mark, while in other places the gospels directly contradict each other, and in others the meaning is left confused and confusing?

I personally don't think this reasoning is particularly compelling. Given the apparent human character of much of the writing in these gospels, I think it is entirely justified to look for a 'human' solution to the synoptic problem. That's not to say there was no inspiration, only to say that if there was inspiration, then it was channeled through human actions.

The Greisbach hypothesis

This is the oldest solution to the problem. It basically proposes that Matthew and Luke produced their gospels first, and independently, and that Mark came along later and combined the two into one - shorter - document, by chopping out all the material that was unique to one or other, and only retaining the material which was common to both.

Of course, if you look at the pie charts above, you'll see that it can't have been that simple. 21% of Mark has no parallel in Luke, so if this theory worked, then Mark must have included some M material and got the Special Mark material from somewhere else. In other words, Mark had more sources than just the two Gospels and he had some means of selection other than just the material of overlap.

There are a few other problems with this theory. For me, the two compelling reasons not to believe that this is the way things were are the quality of the writing and the good stuff that Mark would have apparently thrown out. By quality of writing, I mean that there are passages in Mark and Matthew that are remarkably similar, except in that Matthew has better and more 'polished' use of Greek grammar, etc. Meanwhile Mark's version of the same story is expressed in clumsy wording. It makes no sense that Mark, when he was copying from Matthew, would introduce so many mistakes, yet it makes perfect sense, that if Matthew was copying from Mark, he would improve the text. Then there are things like the beatitudes and the Lord's prayer. There are versions of both in Matthew and Luke, but not in Mark. The Greisbach hypothesis assumes that Mark threw out such classic passages because of only minor variations between the texts. And instead of these classics, Mark introduces a small number of unique but weird things like the guy who runs away naked in the Garden of Gethsemane.

As far as I can tell, the solutions to the synoptic problem which start with Mark make much more sense.

The Two Source Hypothesis

This is the most widely held solution to the problem. Basically, it assumes that Mark's gospel came first ('Markan Priority') and was used by both Matthew and Luke when they came to write their gospels, perhaps some decades later. Additionally, this theory supposes Matthew and Luke had access to a second document, generally known as 'Q', which is now lost, and that they both used Mark and Q to compile their gospels.

Numerous theses and books have been written about Q, with some people holding that it must have been a written document, some holding that it must have been largely oral tradition, some insisting that it must have been a written document, based on oral tradition, etc. There have even been several studies looking at the development of Q, and identifying various 'strata' in the hypothetical Q document and such like. Which is all very impressive for a book which doesn't exist and is only inferred by studying other texts.

The theory goes that Q had no narrative order, it was just a collection of sayings with no nativity and no passion narratives. This explains why Matthew and Luke's order of events are in good agreement when they also agree with Mark, but why their Q material is in completely different order to each other.

My favourite Q studies are the ones which discuss the Mark-Q overlaps. Which is interesting, as - by definition - Q is the stuff that is in Matthew and Luke but not in Mark. But you can study anything, it doesn't have to be real... (it just has to be funded!)

Anyway, there are good and sound reasons for holding that Matthew and Luke used Mark as the backbone of their gospels, and added material from one or two other sources, which may have included Q.

By the way, sometimes the two source hypothesis is called the 'Four Source' hypothesis - referring to Mark, Q, M and L. but aside from that, the theory is exactly the same, as far as I can tell.

The Farrer hypothesis

Finally, we come to the Farrer hypothesis. This also supposes Markan priority, but does away with the need for Q. Basically the theory is that Matthew used Mark and some other material to write his gospel, and Luke used both Mark and Matthew, plus some other material, to write his gospel.

Using Occam's Razor, this theory is probably the most compelling as it only requires three sources, Mark, M and L, without the need for Q. Most of the problems associated with this theory (for example, why would Luke break up the sermon on the mount and spread it around his gospel at apparently random points) can be explained using plausible reasoning. That's not to say that any of the reasoning is completely compelling, but at least it is plausible.

The Final Solution

And so we come to the point - what do I find to be the best solution to the problem? Well, having read quite a lot and listened to a lot of podcasts and lectures on the topic, I am completely convinced that Mark's gospel came first, and that both Matthew and Luke used Mark as the basis for their own gospels. Thus I disregard the Greisbach hypothesis and the independent inspiration theory.

Beyond that, I am unsure. It is clear that both Matthew and Luke had access to a supply of material other than Mark's gospel. It wouldn't be particularly surprising to find that Matthew and Luke both had access to one collection of sayings that we call Q. Then again, it wouldn't be that surprising if Luke also had access to Matthew - he does start off his gospel saying 'Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us' (Luke 1v1), so it is clear that he has access to more than two gospels or proto-gospels which he used to compile his own gospel.

The implications of all this...

Actually, I don't really care if there was or wasn't a Q. For me, the most important thing to have come out of me wrestling with the synoptic problem is the realisation that both Matthew and Luke disagreed with Mark and changed his gospel to fit their purposes and beliefs. There are places in Mark where Jesus behaves in a human manner or shows evidence of limitations (e.g. Mark 6v5 where Jesus 'could do no mighty work') which Matthew or Luke rewrites (e.g. Matthew 13v58 where Jesus 'did not do' any mighty works). This one observations blows the whole case for inspiration out of the water - if Mark was inspired, then Matthew and Luke were not, and vice versa. The rewrites of Mark by the other two demonstrate that these books were written by people with human agendas, who were quite happy to change details in their sources to make the stories fit with their own beliefs. We know they did this with Mark, we can only assume that they did this with their other sources as well!

So where does this leave us? It leaves us with three different accounts of three different Jesuses, at least two of which (and we can assume the third likewise) have been modified by the writers to make the character and message of Jesus conform to their own beliefs. Thus, if the real Jesus said or did something that the authors didn't like then this will have been changed, modified or omitted.

Its not that the gospel writers believed in Jesus and tried to conform themselves to his image, it appears that they took Jesus and made him conform to their image! Thus, our only route of access to the real Jesus who walked the roads of Galilee (NB, not the 'historical Jesus' - that's a different concept altogether) is forever broken.

This brings us back to the popular question WWJD? Because of the above I now believe that we cannot know the answer to this. Sure, we can say what the 'Jesus of Luke' would do, or the 'Jesus of Mark', but not the real Jesus. So, by looking at the synoptic problem, I've led myself not to a solution, but to an even bigger problem. Sigh.
"The more I learn, the more I learn how little I know"


Marcus Green said...

Art doesn't have a right answer.

As I read this, I worry you want it simple, but life isn't simple. At least, people aren't. One of the great things about alternative newspapers recording the same events is that often accurate recordings of similar facts come out feeling totally different if the writers are looking for different things.

I have seen reports of events where I have been present, where I would have to say the reports were accurate but did not reflect the emphases that I took away. It can be frustrating; it can be revealing.

The Gospel writers do sometimes disagree with each other in exactly this way. This does not mean they impose or change realities, or make Jesus in their image. Unless each story of 200 words contains everything that can be said about each such occasion... (without stage directions, comments on facial expressions, distance between participants... hmm...). Stand in one place, all you see is light; stand to the side, all you see is shadow. Same scene. Which is really right? Wrong question.

I'm happy to find & explore the facets of truth we are granted, and to seek for more of them within what is recorded. Truth is personal, supple and living, and in the midst of the delightful complexity of the Gospel records we find it in a glorious dealing with God and people.

I'm not sure I'd like the simpler version you seem to prefer. It doesn't reflect the way life works for me. And real people really reflecting a real God should have colours and moods, not black & white inevitability.

Beautifully simple answers to hard questions are enticing, but they're like MacDonalds, and although some may be lovin' it - seriously, there's better food out there.

David said...

I've often heard the "different viewpoints of same events" explanation. However, in the original post, the example: "(e.g. Mark 6v5 where Jesus 'could do no mighty work') which Matthew or Luke rewrites (e.g. Matthew 13v58 where Jesus 'did not do' any mighty works)" seems to stretch that line of reasoning.

This isn't just an argument of semantics - "could [not] do" is NOT equivalent to "did not do". A subset to be sure. But to say Jesus could *not* do mighty works is no small thing. Why would works inspired by God not want us to be clear on such a point? Why be lacking on a point concerning omnipotence?

If we're going to concede that "could [not] do" is in error... now we have to consider that might not be the only error, even if unintentional, and rules out the possibility that the current works we have are 100% inspired & inerrant. Whether the "original" works are or not is somewhat irrelevant if don't have them - such a claim would only support that some portion could be inspired & inerrant but we can't be sure which part that is. How useful is that? Why would an omnipotent god let us wind up in such a predicament over something so critical?

Ricky Carvel said...


I don't want it simple. But I do want 'it' to be reasonable and justifiable. The 'it' in question being that which I believe.

Is is reasonable and justifiable to believe that what we have here (in the gospels) is independent, eye-witness reportage, with a bit of (legitimate) storytelling spin? The more I read on this issue and the further into it I dig, the less I can believe that. Not only are these stories not eye-witness reportage, but they are not independent either. One has copied another, keeping some bits the same, and changing other bits.

Mark, for example, begins his gospel with a story of Jesus going to a baptism of repentance. While there, the Spirit descends like a dove into him. (NB almost all English translations render this word as 'upon' in Mark 1 and 'into' in virtually all other uses of the word in the NT - translation bias?)

Matthew tells basically the same story, except that he changes the word for into to the word for upon which changes the sense of the story. Matthew also adds a couple of lines of dialogue where John says he shouldn't be baptising Jesus, and Jesus says its OK. Matthew has also added a couple of chapters before this showing that Jesus was filled with the Spirit from birth - this wasn't something new that happened when John baptised him, as Mark implies.

A plain reading of the text suggests that Mark's Jesus was human, repented (thus, by implication, a sinner), was baptised and then the Spirit entered into him.

Matthew disagreed with this on almost every level, so changed the story to make it absolutely clear that Jesus was always full of the Spirit, never needed to repent and the baptism was the proclamation from heaven of the start of his public ministry.

Of course, the church today believes the latter story and would call anyone who believed the former story a heretic. But that clearly wasn't the case 1900 years ago; one gospel writer, and presumably his readers, believed the former story.

So my issue is this - using the texts from the bible, we cannot tell which of the two different Jesus personae described was the real one. And Luke's is different again. And John's even more so.

The contemporary Evangelical Church believes Jesus was pretty much as John described him, with some bits from the other gospels added on.

But what if John was wrong and Mark was right? What if Jesus was a man, filled with God's spirit, but only a man and not the second person of the Trinity?

Mark's Jesus is not perfect. John's is.

Art doesn't have a right answer, but history had a real Jesus (I think) and I want to find out the facts about who he was, not merely accept the stories that have been made up about him. Not all paintings give an accurate picture of the scene they show. That is fine for art. But if you want to know the truth about something depicted, you have to (somehow) decide which (if any) of the available paintings best represent the scene.

The thing is, I'm not happy assuming that one of the paintings is accurate without good reason. I'm also not happy with the assumption that the four paintings must show the same picture, when this is plainly not the case.

The problem is, how to discern any truth from a painting. Maybe there's none...

Edward T. Babinski said...

Ricky, Very nice post and comment. You and I are on the same wavelength when it comes to the Synoptic Problem. In fact it is not uncommon to find biblical scholars arguing that Mark was first and that the other Gospels are later derivatives of the Markan outline including John. Such scholars include:

1) Steve A. Hunt, author of Rewriting the Feeding of Five Thousand (Studies in Biblical Literature). He argues that the Fourth Gospel author rewrote/rescripted the feeding stories in the earlier Gospels adding his theological imagination to the mix -- his recent book constitutes a sustained challenge to those who think the fourth Gospel was composed by an independent eye witness: Rewriting the Feeding of Five Thousand (Studies in Biblical Literature)

2) Roger David Aus, author of Feeding the Five Thousand: Studies in the Judaic Background of Mark 6:30-44 par. and John 6:1-15 (Studies in Judaism). He raises questions concerning the historicity of the feeding stories, and lists Hebrew and Hellenistic influences that probably gave birth to such a miracle story: Feeding the Five Thousand: Studies in the Judaic Background of Mark 6:30-44 par. and John 6:1-15 (Studies in Judaism)

3) Dominika A. Kurek-Chomycz Leuven, author of The Fragrance of Her Perfume: The Significance of Sense Imagery in John's Account of the Anointing in Bethany See her paper (attached). She points out that the tale of the anointing of Jesus in John is most likely not based on eyewitness testimony but was rewritten from stories in earlier Gospels. She names scholars who agree with her. She also points out that the author of the fourth Gospel often redacts stories adding sensory information.

I enjoy reading biblical scholarship, articles, books, NT Abstracts, etc. And I have several blog pieces that argue in favor of the Jesus story being rescripted over time:

Scent from heaven? Who nose? Do tales of Jesus' anointing, resurrection & bodily ascension, bear the aroma of truth? (I wrote this piece before reading Dominika's paper): http://edward-t-babinski.blogspot.com/2011/02/perfumed-jesus.html

The word about the growing words of the resurrected Jesus:

Edward T. Babinski said...

The Markan priority view has also grown in prominence among Evangelicals and other conservative Christians:


Gary said...

Christians should not be surprised that authors of some of the books in the New Testament "plagiarized" the writings of other New Testament authors, ie, the authors of Matthew and Luke copying huge chunks of Mark, often word for word, into their own gospels.

This habit is not new in the Bible. There is evidence that Old Testament writers did the exact same thing. An example: the entire chapters of II Kings 19 and Isaiah 37 are almost word for word identical!

If the Bible is the inspired Word of God, why would God have the author of one inspired book of the Bible copy almost word for word large sections, sometimes entire chapters, from another inspired book of the Bible? Is that how divine inspiration works?

So should we simply accept this "word for word copying" as the will of the Almighty, accepting it blindly by faith, continuing to insist that God wrote the Bible, or should we consider the overwhelming evidence that the books of the Bible are human works of literature, no more divinely inspired than any other work of fallible human authors?

Adaeze Cyril said...

Explain the five problems of synoptic gospel