The Synoptic Problem – How Were the Gospels Written?

This was not a sermon but rather a discussion of the Synoptic Problem – how is it that Matthew, Mark and Luke’s Gospels are so very similar in places and yet so different in others? These were the notes for the discussion.

What Luke says
Luke 1:1 Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, 2 just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eye witnesses and servants of the word. 3 With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4 so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.

The Similarities and Differences between Matthew, Mark and Luke
1. Similarities in Wording

Matthew 19:13–15
Mark 10:13–16
Luke 18:15–17

Matthew 22:23–33
Mark 12:18–27
Luke 20:27–40

Matthew 24:4–8 Mark 13:5–8
Luke 21:8–11

2. Similarities in Order

Matthew 16:13–20:34
Mark 8:27–10:52
Luke 9:18–51/18:15–43

Matthew 12:46–13:58
Mark 3:31–6:6a
Luke 8:19–56

3. Similarities in Parenthetical Material – Let the Reader understand Matthew 24:15 Mark 13:14.

4. Similarities in OT Quotations – not following Hebrew or Greek OTs e.g. Matt 3:3 Luke 3:4

NOT just down to “the verbal inspiration of the Holy Spirit” – explains similarities, not differences.

Mark is the shortest in length. Of Mark’s 11,025 words, only 132 have no parallel in either Matthew or Luke. Percentage-wise, 97% of Mark’s Gospel is duplicated in Matthew; and 88% is found in Luke. On the other hand, less than 60% of Matthew is duplicated in Mark, and only 47% of Luke is found in Mark. There is much important material found in both Matthew and Luke that is absent in Mark. In particular, the birth narrative, Sermon on the Mount, Lord’s Prayer, and resurrection appearances

For examples of exclusively Mark-Luke parallels, note the following: the healing of the demoniac in the synagogue (Mark 1:23-28/Luke 4:33-37); the widow’s mite (Mark 12:41-44/Luke 21:1-4).
For examples of exclusively Mark-Matthew parallels, note the following: the offending eye/hand (Matt. 5:29-30 and 18:8-9/Mark 9:43-47); the details about the death of John the Baptist (Matt. 14:3-12/Mark 6:17-29); Jesus walking on the water (Matt 14:22-33/Mark 6:45-52); Isaiah’s prophecy about a hypocritical people and Jesus’ application (Matt 15:1-20/Mark 7:1-23); the Syrophoenicean woman pericope (Matt 15:21-28/Mark 7:24-30); the healing of the deaf-mute (Matt 15:29-31/Mark 7:31-37); the feeding of the four thousand (Matt 15:32-39/Mark 8:1-10); Elijah’s coming (Matt 17:10-13/Mark 9:11-13); the withering of the fig tree (Matt 21:20-22/Mark 11:20-26); the soldiers’ mockery of Jesus before Pilate (Matt 27:28-31/Mark 15:17-20).

Possible Answers to The Synoptic Problem
The Gospels are so similar, yet so different, because of a literary dependence between them.

Augustine (5th Century) Matthew wrote first, Mark used Matthew, Luke used Mark

The Two Gospel hypothesis (Griesbach 1789)
Matthew wrote first, Luke used Matthew, Mark used Luke and Matthew.
Agrees with the Early Church tradition that Matthew was written first. It can explain the agreements between the Gospels, especially where Matthew and Luke agree and Mark doesn’t. But it doesn’t explain the differences between accounts. Why would Luke miss out so much of Matthew. And why would Mark have bothered to write anything at all?

The Two Source Hypothesis (Holtzmann 1863 Streeter 1924) The widely held view today.
Mark wrote first
Matthew and Luke each used Mark plus another source or sources called Q.

Why do we think Mark wrote first?
1. Mark is the shortest and so much of Mark is in both Matthew and Luke.
2. Mark missed out so much from Matthew and Luke but adds redundant material.
3. Mark has the poorest Greek and the least developed theology.
4. Mark has Aramaic expressions (Mk 3:17; 5:41; 7:11, 34; 14:36; 15:22, 34) which are not in Matt or Luke.
5. Mark has harder readings theologically – limitations of Jesus’ power (cf. Mk 1:32–34; 3:9–10; 6:5–6
6. The lack of verbal agreements of Matthew and Luke against Mark
7. The absence of agreements in order with Matthew and Luke against Mark
8. The argument from REDACTION. We can see reasons why Matthew and Luke might have changed from what they read in Mark, but no sensible reasons why Mark would have written what he did if he had Matthew and Luke.

Arguments 6, 7 and 8 are the most persuasive for scholars.

The existence of Q
Matthew and Luke have in common about 235 verses not found in Mark.52 The verbal agreements between these two is often striking e.g., Matt 6:24/Luke 16:13; Matt 7:7-11/Luke 11:9-13
But the non-Mark material appears in different places in Matt and Luke, and sometimes it differs. Matt 6:10 v Luke 11:2 Matt includes but Luke misses out, “your will be done on earth as in heaven.
Q could have been one document, or a collection of documents, Matthew and Luke both having some but each having some others.

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