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NT Survey 111 Seminar 5 Synoptic Problem

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Andrew Hodge                                                                                                   25th March 2007

NTES 111 New Testament Survey

Seminar 5

The Synoptic Problem

Guthrie, Donald. New Testament Introduction. 4th rev. ed. The master reference collection. Downers Grove, Ill.: Inter-Varsity Press, 1996, c1990 Ch 5; Libronix DLS; Irving L. Jensen Jensen’s Survey of the New Testament 1981, Moody Press, Chicago

Briefly articulate the nature of the synoptic problem:

            Jensen (footnote 9 p 180) states that ‘synoptic is used to identify the similarity of Matthew, Mark and Luke. The word itself is from the Greek synoptikos , which means “seeing the whole together” ‘. Jensen’s presupposition is that the Synoptic Gospels form a unified whole which together with the Gospel of John provide as full a picture of Jesus as we need.

            Guthrie’s presupposition (in common with other liberal theologians - see below) attempts to establish differences between the Gospels, thus throwing up straw-man “problems”.

            Guthrie argues for the existence of a Synoptic Problem from three points of similarity, and one of divergence (pp 136-138).


·         same general historical structure - Jesus’ baptism and temptation, Galilean ministry, Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ as the turning point, last journey to Jerusalem, the trial, crucifixion and resurrection. A high proportion of material common to all three.

·         similarity of style and wording - same Greek words used to describe the same incidents eg the healing of the leper (Mt. 8:1 ff.; Mk. 1:40 ff.; Lk. 5:12 ff.), the question of Jesus’ authority (Mt. 21:23 ff.; Mk. 11:27 ff.; Lk. 20:1 ff.), portions of the eschatological discourse (Mt. 24:4 ff., Mt. 24:15 ff. Mk. 13:5 ff., 14 ff.; Lk. 21:8 ff., 20 ff.), and the request of Joseph of Arimathea for the body of Jesus (Mt. 27:58; Mk. 15:43; Lk. 23:52).2,[1]

·         similarities in two Gospels compared to the third - applies particularly to material common to Matthew and Luke but absent from Mark. Most of this material comprises the teaching of Jesus, with very little narrative and no part of the passion story.[2]


·         Here Guthrie presents arguments logical to the human mind which attempt to show that a problem exists where there is a changed sequence, a different historical or geographical setting, or different words used for the telling of the same narrative or doctrine. For example, “The birth narratives of the first and third gospels are quite different and bear very little relationship to each other, while Luke has a long section, commonly known as the ‘travel’ narrative (Lk. 9:51–18:14), which largely comprises his own material. Matthew records such stories as Peter’s walking on the water and the coin in the fish’s mouth, which neither of the others contains, Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount is related only loosely to Luke’s Sermon on the Plain, which is much shorter, although some of the omitted material occurs elsewhere in Luke in scattered contexts.”[3] (note “his own” - my emphasis added. Who is supposed to be writing this Gospel?).

Guthrie makes the comment “Whereas the three synoptics often agree in sections common to them all, Matthew and Mark often agree against Luke, and Luke and Mark against Matthew, and sometimes, though more rarely, Matthew and Luke against Mark.1, [4] Guthrie quotes Stoldt (see footnote) who says “These are impressive lists and any proposed solution must be prepared to account for them”. In a human intellectual sense it is easy to agree with this, but we are NOT dealing with a human document.

Guthrie then concludes this section on ‘divergences’ - “These are the basic details which constitute the problem.”[5]



Examine the historical solutions as described in Guthrie:

            Guthrie states “Little attention was given to this problem until the eighteenth century, although its existence had been obvious from earliest times. The widespread influence of Tatian’s Diatessaron is sufficient evidence of the desire for the removal of the difficulties by means of harmonization.”[6] If Tatian had used harmonisation to promote the unity of all four Gospels then I may agree with him. Guthrie then gives himself away by stating in the same paragraph “Indeed, these questions were not seriously considered until they were forced to the forefront by the upsurge of rationalism in the eighteenth century (my emphasis)”2, [7] Note in the reference to Calvin that “he was (not) seriously concerned about the synoptic problem.” I would agree.


Guthrie presents six historical solutions to the ‘problem’:

  1. The original gospel hypothesis  Originated by G. E. Lessing,3 who postulated that our gospels were different translations or abstracts from an old Aramaic Gospel of the Nazarenes, which Jerome mentions as still being current among the sect of the Nazarenes in the fourth century.[8] Guthrie appears not to favour this approach. In my view it basically abolishes any Godly inspiration of the Synoptic writers.
  2. The fragment theory  Others did not agree with an ‘original gospel’ and proposed a number of collected fragments instead, compiled by different people for different purposes, ultimately coalescing in the three Synoptics. Guthrie: “The major weaknesses of this hypothesis are the absence of any traces of such early records and the inability of the theory to account for the remarkable similarities in the synoptic gospels, not only in vocabulary but in the sequence of events.”[9]

It might be accepted that each Synoptic writer (in common with all Scripture writers) would either have had access to the relevant literature of their day, or had access to relevant eyewitnesses of the events they wrote about, or had their own personal eyewitness evidence. In every case, each writer wrote within his own milieu which God had ‘prepared beforehand that he should write in’ (my paraphrase).

  1. The oral theory  (G. Herder. 17971). In 1818, J. K. L. Gieseler 2 produced what might be called the prototype of the oral theory, maintaining that the apostolic preaching would form itself into similar oral traditions which would then form a kind of basic oral gospel.[10] This basic tradition would have been preserved in the original spoken Aramaic which would then have been translated into koine Greek as the mission field of the early Church expanded to include the Gentiles. The three Synoptics were then written differently according to how the three writers viewed this ‘oralised tradition’.

Westcott’s presentation of the oral theory may be regarded as its classic formulation,3, [11] and in summary:

    • the Jews would not write down their oral knowledge about Jesus (while there were a multitude of eyewitnesses why would they need to?. The earliest Gospels, Matthew and Luke, were written ~60 AD, about 30 years after the ascension and Pentecost so there would have been plenty of them left, but diminishing. Then was the time for writing).
    • As “the apostolic circle was primarily composed of preachers and not writers, literary enterprises would not at once have occurred to them.”[12] Exactly so. It only occurred to them when the Holy Spirit said “Write”! 

Westcott then excuses the Apostles from any Holy Spirit influence by stating “this disinclination towards an immediate reduction of the gospel material to writing was later invaluable since ‘the very form of the gospels was only determined by the experience of teaching’.”[13] This at best is illogical and at worst, hypocrisy.

    • “the most attention would naturally be given to those narratives which were most used in the apostolic preaching,”[14]  Westcott again absolving the writers of any Holy Spirit direction. Also note he is emphasising the role of the Apostles. Only one of the Synoptic writers - Matthew - qualifies. * Westcott claims that the Apostolic Fathers preferred oral testimony. This is in error, even though “‘it would be surprising if Jesus’ hearers had less than perfect recall for poetic sayings’ (p. 305).”[15] The early Church accepted the Synoptics into the Canon because of the qualities of known truth, plus Holy Spirit inspiration which gave authority. This inherent authority not only allowed inclusion of the Synoptics but excluded the pseudepigrapha and antilegomena.
    • Westcott makes Mark’s Gospel the simple foundation of the other two, which were rewritten to reflect their readership. This is merely his opinion. There is no evidence to support such a view and some evidence which is contrary (see above). Westcott’s position on the Oral Theory exposes his spiritual bankruptcy, and the bankruptcy of those who venerate him.

Guthrie discounts the oral theory on three grounds:

·         The precision of the narrative sequences in the three accounts is less likely with only an oral basis (although if this followed the normal high standard of Jewish oral tradition it is not a difficulty)

·         Uniformity of narrative is more likely with a written ‘source’. This especially appeals to those who presuppose that Mark’s was the earliest Gospel and formed the basis for the other two

·         Mark’s Gospel does not contain much of what is in Matthew and Luke. Where did the latter get their material from? The obvious rational choices are they made it up, or they got it from those who remembered it (oral transmission!) or it came from an additional document - “Q” (see below). No thought of Godly inspiration here.

  1. The mutual dependence hypothesis  The basis for this is alternative dating for when the Gospels were written. All combinations have been proposed so that any of the three of the Synoptics could have been written first with the other two dependent on it. #. The documentary hypothesis  See below
  2. The form-historical method  or form-criticism. This is an approach that may have some value when applied correctly. It has to do with the process by which the oral became written, taking into account genre and likely readership as well as sources and the historical setting in which the writing took place. Correct application must include the concept of what the original hearers/readers would have understood, and must not discount the overarching activity of the Holy Spirit in inspiration. With this method the Scriptural hermeneutic has almost come full circle back to the literal historico-grammatical concept which should never have been abandoned.



Analyse the “Q” source hypothesis:

            “The basic form of this theory is that the similarities and divergences can be accounted for by the postulation of two written sources, one of which was the canonical Mark or an earlier written form of it, and the other a common source used by Matthew and Luke in different ways. This latter source was named Q, probably after the German Quelle (source).”[16] As theologians grappled with this approach and problems arose, more “Q Documents” were invented to stop the gaps. “B. H. Streeter1 posited a four-source hypothesis which has won wide support “.[17] This meant that Mark (the Roman Gospel) had to be written the earliest and form the Synoptic basis. Matthew used Mark, Q (from Antioch) and M (written Jerusalem sayings), and Luke used Mark, Q and L (Caesarean tradition, probably oral).

It should be noted that Streeter “considered that the association of sources with important centres guaranteed their authority, but when the gospels became accepted the preservation of these earlier sources, with the exception of Mark, was rendered unnecessary.” [18]  In other words, once the Holy Spirit had provided approval for these human constructs, everything was now alright.

Guthrie has a long passage examining “Q” (pp 163-179), looking at the reasons for its alleged (sic) existence, a detailed list of contents, problems, probable purpose, its value, date and place of origin, authorship, and a conclusion - which contains no conclusion, and the statement  “In a field of study in which there is so much which must be considered conjectural, it would be foolish to be dogmatic.”[19]

Evaluate the various sources mentioned in the text book:

            The source document theories rely entirely on the time priority of Mark. As was seen in Seminar 3, this is not necessarily so. Jensen does not believe it and places it virtually concurrently with Matthew. This builds the theory on sand.

            Neither Q nor a copy of it is in existence, although it has been supposed that Luke refers to it or something similar in Luke 1:1 “Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to set forth in order a declaration of those things which are most surely believed among us,…”[20] This verse is also required to support the existence of multiple other supposed documents including M and L.

            Again Guthrie exposes himself when he states “Much modern criticism finds it difficult to conceive that the common teaching material in Matthew and Luke could have come about in any other way than by their respective authors both using an earlier source” (my emphasis). [21] He recovers a little ground by continuing: “But the New Testament investigator must guard against the fallacious assumption that what is inconceivable to him must be false. It may have happened in a manner alien to twentieth century experience of the transmission of ideas.”[22] My view is that this “alien transmission” is none other than the Holy Spirit, and that this is indeed alien to modern critics.

            Guthrie goes on to put arguments for and against a primary Marcan ‘source’ and even has a passage on ‘Sources of the Marcan source” (!! p158).


Elaborate on the material only found in Matthew:

            Guthrie opens this section (pp 179-191) by stating “It is this unique material which gives the gospel its distinctive characteristics” [23]. If only he had left it there.

            He subdivides the material into the ‘sayings collection’ (the Jewish “M” document), ‘testimonia’ (citations from the OT), ‘birth narratives’, and ‘other narratives’. His exposition of these subdivisions twists and turns around supposition and conjecture and the opinions of like-minded so-called theologians and scholars.



Discuss the material only found in the Gospel of Luke:

            Guthrie’s exposition of Luke’s unique material (pp 191-208) is similar to Matthew’s.

My Conclusion:

            After reading Guthrie, one gets the distinct impression that any inspiration of God in the writing of His Word has not only to be explained away, but specifically excluded. Further, there is the additional impression that Guthrie and his ilk are not saved, for they demean the content of God’s word to the level of their own human intellects, in my view being unashamedly rationalistic. The opposite impression is gained by reading Jensen.

            If one accepts the internal assertions of Scripture - as being the inspired, inerrant, infallible, plenary and unlimited truth that God wishes humanity to know - then what He has written must be fully accepted as that. Otherwise there is no limit to the distortions that might be produced by the minds of men.

            For me, it is entirely logical that God raised up specific men at specific times to write specific things according to His omniscient purposes. These men were prepared by being exposed to a particular genetic, geographical, cultural, philosophical and literary environment that God knew was suitable for His purpose and He used them as unique instruments to record His Scriptures, in His way.

Once written, the purposes of these writings became clear. There is no point in trying to second-guess God by attempting to figure out what He was going to write before He wrote it.

Therefore, there is no Synoptic Problem. It is a straw-man argument raised up in the minds of men who should know better.


2 These parallels are best studied in a synopsis of the gospels in the Greek text. The most convenient is that of A. Huck, Synopsis of the First Three Gospels (ed.H. Lietzmann, English edition by F. L. Cross, 1949). Another useful Harmony which may be mentioned is that by E. D. Burton and E. J. Goodspeed, A Harmony of the Synoptic Gospels in Greek (1922). For a different kind of tool for synoptic studies, reference may be made to W. R. Farmer’s Synopticon (1969), which prints the texts of the three gospels consecutively, indicating their agreements by means of different coloured print. This follows the same method, but with a different arrangement, as W. Rushbrooke’s Synopticon (1880), which placed similar passages parallel to illustrate the currently-held source theory. Cf. B. de Solages, A Greek Synopsis of the Gospels (1959), for a mathematical comparison. For an English Harmony, cf. J.M. Thompson, The Synoptic Gospels (1910) and H. F. D. Sparks, A Synopsis of the Gospels (1964). A more recently produced tool is R. W. Funk (cd.), New Gospel Parallels, 2 vols. (1985).

[1]Donald Guthrie, New Testament Introduction, Series taken from jacket., 4th rev. ed., The master reference collection, 136 (Downers Grove, Ill.: Inter-Varsity Press, 1996, c1990).

[2]Ibid 137


1 For a complete list of these agreements, cf. H. H. Stoldt, History and Criticism of the Markan Hypothesis (1977), pp. 11–23, who quotes 180 instances where Mark gives additional details to the parallel passages in Matthew and Luke; 35 cases where Matthew and Luke go beyond the parallel text in Mark; another 35 instances where Matthew and Luke agree against Mark in wording; and 22 cases where Matthew and Luke use the same wording, which differs from Mark’s. These are impressive lists and any proposed solution must be prepared to account for them.

[4]Ibid 138


[6]Donald Guthrie, New Testament Introduction, Series taken from jacket., 4th rev. ed., The master reference collection, 138 (Downers Grove, Ill.: Inter-Varsity Press, 1996, c1990).

2 It is interesting to note that John Calvin, who wrote A commentary on A Harmonie upon the three Evangelistes, Matthewe, Marke and Luke (Eng. tr. by E. Paget, 1584), chose this form for convenience and not because he was seriously concerned about the synoptic problem.


3 Neue Hypothese über die Evangelisten als bloss menschliche Geschichtsschreiber (1778).


[9]Ibid 139

1 Von der Regel der Zustimmung unserer Evangelien (1797), reproduced in Werke zur Religion und Theologie 12 (1810).

2 Historisch-kritischer Versuch über die Entstehung und die frühesten Schicksale der schriftlichen Evangelien (1818).

[10]Donald Guthrie, New Testament Introduction, Series taken from jacket., 4th rev. ed., The master reference collection, 140 (Downers Grove, Ill.: Inter-Varsity Press, 1996, c1990).

3 B. F. Westcott, An Introduction to the Study of the Gospels (1888, first published in 1860).


[12]Ibid 141



[15]Ibid 5

[16]Donald Guthrie, New Testament Introduction, Series taken from jacket., 4th rev. ed., The master reference collection, 147 (Downers Grove, Ill.: Inter-Varsity Press, 1996, c1990).

1 The Four Gospels (1924).

[17]Ibid 148


[19]Ibid 179

[20]  The Holy Bible : King James Version. electronic ed. of the 1769 edition of the 1611 Authorized Version. Bellingham WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1995.

[21]Donald Guthrie, New Testament Introduction, Series taken from jacket., 4th rev. ed., The master reference collection, 149 (Downers Grove, Ill.: Inter-Varsity Press, 1996, c1990).


[23]Ibid 179

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