“The Synoptic Problem” and Harmony “Issues”

How do you deal with the synoptic problemin the Bible? How do you deal with harmony, or lack of harmony in the Gospels? This post was born out of my previous post: Gundry’s “A Theological Postscript”. Before I can really ask the questions, I suppose I should define what “The Synoptic Problem” is first.


1 : affording a general view of a whole
2 : manifesting or characterized by comprehensiveness or breadth of view
3 : presenting or taking the same or common view; specifically often capitalized : of or relating to the first three Gospels of the New Testament


1 a : a question raised for inquiry, consideration, or solution b : a proposition in mathematics or physics stating something to be done
2 a : an intricate unsettled question b : a source of perplexity, distress, or vexation c : difficulty in understanding or accepting

So what have we got here? The first three Gospels are considered synoptic because there seems to be some relationship between them: the content is very similar, the structure is similar, phrasing and word use is similar, even the same in many places, and the overall theme and agenda is similar. Yes? Where does the problem arise? The so-called “Synoptic Problem” arises because of the very strong literary relationship between the first three Gospels.

The synoptic problem is an investigation into the existence and nature of the literary interrelationship among the first three “synoptic” gospels. Matthew, Mark, and Luke are called the synoptic gospels, in contrast with John, because they can readily be arranged in a three-column harmony called a “synopsis.” Unlike John, the synoptic gospels share a great number of parallel accounts and parables, arranged in mostly the same order, and told with many of the same words. Any proposed solution to the synoptic problem, therefore, must account for these literary similarities among the synoptics, not so much in terms of their factual content, but in the selection of that content, the arrangement of the material, and wording of the parallels.

When looking at the text, especially with the help of a synopsis (like Throckmorton’s Gospel Parallels: A Comparison of the Synoptic Gospels or Aland’s (Editor) Synopsis of the Four Gospels: Greek-English Edition of the Synopsis Quattur Evangeliorum), it is easy to see a relationship. The relationship is even more noticeable when looking at the Greek, before the translation happens. What seems to be the most probable reason for this is what is called the Two Source hypothesis (Some prefer the very similar Four Source) in which Mark is given priority and the earliest date and Matthew and Luke use him as a reference to write their own Gospels and there is a second source called “Q” (from the German Quelle meaning “source”) which is largely Jesus sayings that Matthew and Luke also use. Matthew and Luke also insert their own material into their writings (some would say that Matthew and Luke also have their own, independent, sources “M” and “L”, hence the Four Source hypothesis). A note about Q, there are those that say there is literally a document that Matthew and Luke used that had these Jesus sayings but there are also those that say, probably more accurately, that Q is more likely to be not a single document, but either a grouping of documents or oral tradition, or a combination of both. There is much more that can be said about the relationship between the first three Gospels, but I will leave it at this for now. The argument still goes on about how they are related and which sources they used. For more information you can check these websites here and here although you must also realize that the best information is still largely going to be in a good old fashioned book; try Achtenmeier, Green and Thompson’s Introducing the New Testament: Its Literature and Theology, Stein’s The Synoptic Problem, or Wright’s New Testament and the People of God.

Still reading? Hope so. How are you with this so far? What problems, if any, do you have with this? This information brings me to the second issue: harmony. The synoptics rely on each other and will often have exact wording, but what about the places that don’t just deal with different material, but deal with the same material but present it differently? The story, or situation is the same, but the details are different. A Gospel synopsis is great for showing the similarities and dependance of the Gospels on each other, but they are also great for showing striking differences. I wrote up a quick little comparison of three examples in Matthew and the corresponding passages in Mark (these were three examples that Gundry pointed out in his essay). To see it (in PDF format) click here. There are just three brief examples of many throughout the Gospels. So I ask this, how do you deal with the differences? How has your church / tradition dealt with them? Are the blended together or “harmonized”? Or does the scripture lose its meaning and authority when those differences are seen? I have quite a few thoughts on this and so do the scholars, but what are your thoughts?

Shalom and God Bless

[UPDATE: Original post and comments at ModBlog no longer exist, sorry. :(]

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