What is the “Synoptic Problem”?

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The “Synoptic Problem” focuses the three Synoptic gospels: Mark, Matthew and Luke.

The term “Synoptic gospels” was first used in 1776 by New Testament scholar Johann Jakob Griesbach (1745-1812) who compared these three texts in a comparative study. Today the term “Synoptic” refers to a synopsis or summary of the ministry of Jesus, which is what the three Synoptic gospels provide. Professor Luke Johnson explains that the Synoptic Problem emphasizes the literary relationship between Mark, Matthew and Luke,

“Determining the exact nature of the literary relationship among the Synoptic Gospels is not easy. There is a great amount of material shared by the three Synoptics that has nearly identical correspondence in the Greek language and in the ordering of the narratives. At the same time, in this shared material there are also significant variations in language and order. From the high degree of correspondence, there is no doubt that borrowing from one to another took place at some stage of written rather than oral transmission. The striking and often minute differences over those same stretches, however, make the precise delineation of their relationship difficult. The designation “Synoptic Problem” is used to describe this complex phenomenon” (1)

The scholar’s purpose is to uncover this relationship between the three gospels. It is clear that they have many features in common. They also have several striking differences. But what explains this? Why do Matthew and Luke have so much in common with Mark (90% and 50% respectively)? Did they perhaps use Mark as a source? (suggesting that Mark must be the earliest of the three gospels) What about their cross agreement on features not found in Mark? Would that suggest there was another common source that they used that no longer exists?

A number of theories have been forwarded to explain these features. The two-source hypothesis holds that Mark and a hypothetical source Q were both used by Luke and Matthew. The four-source hypothesis holds that Luke and Matthew both used Mark, Q, and additional hypothetical sources: L (Luke’s unique material) and M (Matthew’s unique material). Most scholars today seem to hold to the four-source hypothesis.

References:

1. Johnson, L. 1999. The Writing of the New Testament: An Interpretation. p. 155.

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