A Very Brief Introduction
to the Synoptic Problem
James M. Leonard, PhD
The similarities and differences between the New Testament Gospels Matthew, Mark, and Luke indicate some sort of interrelationship or interdependency. At times, the wording of a story or a saying of Jesus is word for word, and sometimes the sequence of events is all the same between two or three of these gospels. On the other hand, subtle or major differences occur, sometimes unpredictably, but sometimes such changes seem to fit a pattern, or are consistent with a theological urgency, or fit an author’s stylistic tendencies. John’s Gospel does not share this interrelationship, but the interdependency of the other three gospels are sure and beg an explanation.
Pre-critical explanations assumed Matthew was written first, and that Mark and Luke copied and edited his material accordingly. This explanation has fallen out of favor, with most scholars concluding that, whatever else, Mark was written first, that Matthew used Mark, and that Luke used Mark or Mark and Matthew.
With great enthusiasm, many scholars in the last century or so have argued that Matthew and Luke used not only Mark’s Gospel, but also a lost document known as Q (usually explained as short for the German word Quelle, which means source). Q is and must remain for the time being a hypothetical document. We do not know of its existence from ancient references or from actual manuscript evidence. Despite this, Q advocates try very hard to conjure up its existence. Books on Q with over the top titles abound, titles such as Excavating Q and Q—the Earliest Gospel. Q scholars claim to have reconstructed its text, based upon a comparison of Matthew and Luke, and their stylistic and theological tendencies.
Enthusiasm for Q has waned in the last ten years, largely in response to arguments by Duke University scholar Mark Goodacre who argues that we can live in a world without Q. This last year, British scholar Francis Watson’s monumental work on the gospels dispenses with Q. The long-term future of Q may be in doubt.
Our knowledge of ancient persons is usually very sketchy, and dependent on very limited sources. In the case of Jesus, however, scholars are privileged to have multiple primary sources. Mark’s Gospel is the oldest, written within the living memory of the eyewitnesses to Jesus. Although Matthew incorporates much of Mark, Matthew has his own independent material which makes it a second primary source, likewise written within the living memory of the eyewitnesses to Jesus. Same also for Luke, which gives us a third primary source. If Matthew and Luke did indeed use Q (in whatever incarnation), our count of primary sources increases to four. Add to this the Gospel of John which was likely written toward the end of the first century, and the number of primary sources totals at five, if one includes Q. Such multiple attestation by contemporaries of Jesus is probably unprecedented for any ancient personality, and has implications for reconstructing the historical Jesus.
Synoptic interrelationships also allow for a comparison of the theological emphases of the specific gospel writer. An intensive analysis of an author’s style and theological tendencies may help ascertain why Matthew or Luke modified Mark’s account, or to accentuate interpretive differences between Matthew and Luke as they redacted their source. For example, both Matthew and Luke include the famous story of the 100 sheep, one of which was lost, prompting the shepherd to leave the 99 and to go search for the lost one. Luke puts this story into a context of God’s gracious forgiveness of notorious sinners (“Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’ Then Jesus told them this parable...” [Luke 15:1-3]). In contrast, Matthew applies this story to the faithful community which seeks the restoration of one of its own members who had gone astray (“‘See that you do not despise one of these little ones [i.e., one of Jesus’ disciples]. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven. “What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish.’” Matt 18:10-14).