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The Synoptic Problem - Pt. 1

The first three Gospels of the New Testament, Matthew, Mark and Luke, are known as the Synoptic Gospels. The term synoptic comes from the Greek synoptikos, meaning view together. The Synoptic Problem addresses the issues of how and why these three Gospels are alike in many ways, while differing from the fourth Gospel of John. Added to the confusion is the overshadowing question as to why even the Synoptics differ greatly on significant points from each other. Since all are dealing with the life of Christ, why do these differences exist?

If one sees the first three Gospels as a common unit, i.e., the triple tradition, then questions arise regarding the sources and origins of these writings. Several theories and analytical approaches have been used to try and explain the reasons for the similarities and differences between the first three Gospels and to solve the Synoptic Problem.

The Synoptics are alike in three basic ways: wording, order or chronology and parenthetical material. One of many examples where the wording of the synoptics is virtually the same is Matthew 12:1-8, Mark 2:23-27 and Luke 6:1-5. These passages describe the controversy regarding the disciples' picking grain on the Sabbath. No account of this incident is found in the Gospel of John. Another example is Matthew 21:23-27, Mark 11:27-33 and Luke 20:1-8. The setting is in the Jerusalem Temple and Christ's authority is being questioned by the chief priests and elders. Again, this account is not found in John.

Order or chronology is another characteristic the Synoptics have in common and differ from John. In general, the order of the Synoptics is:

1. Preliminary information: Matthew 3:1 - 4:11; Mark 1:1-13; Luke 3:1 - 4:13
2. Galilean Ministry: Matthew 4:12 - 18:35; Mark 1:14 - 9:50; Luke 4:14 - 9:50
3. Journey to Jerusalem: Matthew 19-20; Mark 10; Luke 9:51 - 19:28
4. Ministry in Jerusalem: Matthew 21-25; Mark 11-13; Luke 19:29 - 21:38
5. Passion: Matthew 26-27; Mark 14-15; Luke 22-23
6. Resurrection: Matthew 28; Mark 16; Luke 24

By contrast, the general ordering of John is:

1. Prologue: 1:1 - 18
2. Declaration of Christ the Messiah: 1:19 - 4:54
3. Conflict with nonbelievers: 5 - 12
4. Relationship with believers: 13 - 17
5. Passion and Resurrection: 18 - 20
6. Epilogue: 21

The third area of similarity between the Synoptics is the occurrence of parenthetical material. These are pericopes, scriptural passages in which two or three of the Gospel writers use the same wording and placement for their comments or questions to their readers. As before, these subjects are not found in John. One example of parenthetical material is Matthew 8:28-29; Mark 5:1-8 and Luke 8:26-29.

The Gospel of John is known as the spiritual gospel. A reading of John will expose basic differences in wording, content and chronology. There is no mention of Christ's Birth, the Sermon on the Mount, or the listing of the Twelve by name or the Bread and Wine at the Last Supper. John documents four trips to Jerusalem made by Jesus, as opposed to the one trip found in the Synoptics. The Synoptics place the bulk of Christ's ministry in Galilee. John says Judea is the location of the majority of Jesus' work. John emphasizes the signs or miracles performed by Christ leading up to the ultimate sign, His Resurrection. The Synoptics focus more on His words and movements.

Who is right? Or, are all four correct? If we believe, as is appropriate, that all four Gospels are the inspired Word of God, how can they differ so greatly in content? The scholars of the "Jesus Seminar" would ask us to believe that the Gospels result from oral tradition, fashioned for the express use of specific communities and their needs of the time. This places the authenticity of Christ's movements, actions and very words in question. In fact, the Seminar believes only 15% of the words traditionally attributed to Christ are really His. The balance is the editorialization of the Gospel writer. These questions are all part of the Synoptic Problem. A closer look at the content, style and intended audience of each of the Synoptics will give a greater understanding of this issue.

*Next week: characteristics of the four Gospels.

(List of reference works used in writting this series of articles.)

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Linda DeLaine

October 9, 1998

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