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:
- write down the problem
- think very hard
- 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.
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:
- Independent inspiration (i.e. there is no problem)
- The Griesbach hypothesis (Markan posteriority)
- The two source hypothesis (Markan priority, plus the Q source)
- The Farrer hypothesis (Markan priority, but no Q)
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"Socrates