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    The Synoptic Problem

The Synoptic Problem

1. The Nature of the Problem (In progress)

  1. Similarity of Arrangement
  2. Similarity of Style and Wording
  3. Similarity in Two Gospels Only
  4. Divergences among the Gospels.
    There are considerable differences both is arrangement and vocabulary over many points of detail among the three "Synoptic Gospels" (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). Some sections of common material have little verbal similarity, while others are placed in different historical settings. The healing of the centurion's son, for example (Mt 8:5ff; Lk 7:1ff), is not only placed in a different order in the two gospels, but differs widely in its narration. The passion narratives of the three gospels, while conforming fairly closely to a similar sequence, nevertheless contain many differences of detail and wording. In addition to these differences, each of the three synoptics has certain sections unique to it. This is particularly the case with Matthew and Luke. The birth narratives of the first and third gospels are quite different and bear very little relationship to each other. Luke has a long section commonly known as the "travel" narrative (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 other gospels contain. 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. 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 rarely, Matthew and Luke against Mark. (For a complete list of these agreements, see 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 use the same wording, which differs from mark's. These are impressive lists and any proposed solution must be prepared to account for them.)

2. A Brief Historical Survey of Solutions

Little attention was given to this problem until the 18th 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.

  1. The Original Gospel Hypothesis.
    The first solution suggested was that of G.E. Lessing (Neue Hypothese uber die Evangelisten als bloss menschliche Geschichtsschreiber - 1778), postulating 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. This was further elaborated and complicated by J.G. Eichhorn (Historische-kritische Einleitung in das Testament - 1812) who not only proposed that nine different gospels issued from the original Aramiac (which he considered to have been an apostolic rough draft for use in the instruction of teachers) but that the synoptics were the concluding phenomena of this literary process. (This theory is now abandoned.)

  2. The Fragment Theory.
    F. Schleiermacher produced a different though no more satisfactory suggestion. He postulated that the apostles wrote down records of the words of Jesus as they were known to witnesses. These were later required for use beyond Palestine and various collections were made. One teacher might have collected the miracle stories, another sayings, a third the passion narratives, and so on. 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. Its importance, however, cannot be lightly dismissed since it has much in common with certain types of form criticism. It may also be said to have set the stage for the appearance of various other fragment hypotheses in attempted solutions of other New testament problems.

  3. The Oral Theory.
    In view of the lack of data regarding gospel traditions prior to our written gospels, it is natural to investigate the possibility that similarities and divergences arose through a period of oral transmission. J.K.L. Gieseler (Historisch-kritischer Versuch uber Entsehung und die fruhesten Schicksale der schriftlichen Evangelien - 1818) 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. The oral gospel was preserved in the original Aramaic, but the needs of the Gentile mission would give rise to the demand for a Greek translation. This basic Aramaic and the Greek translation later became the main source for the three gospel writers, being used differently according to the different approach of each writer. The literary differences among them were conditioned by the respective authors' training and ability. B.F. Westcott's presentation of the oral theory (An Introduction to the Study of the Gospels - 1860/1888) may be regarded as its classic formulation, which for a time secured many adherents. The main idea of his theory may be briefly summarized as follows:
    1. Since the Jews would not commit to writing their mass of oral traditions, it is improbable that the first Christian leaders would have considered doing so.

    2. Since the apostolic circle was primarily composed of preachers and not writers, literary enterprises would not at once have occurred to them.

    3. Since the gospels arose out of the recurring needs of the community, the most attention would naturally be given to those narratives which most used in the apostolic preaching, and this would admirably account for the space devoted to the passion and resurrection narratives. Such a feature accords with the testimony of the Acts and the epistles.

    4. Westcott claimed that the testimony of the Apostolic Fathers, in so far as they bear any witness to the origin of the gospels, supports an oral theory. Papias, for example, expressed a definite preference for oral testimony himself and may be reflecting a much earlier tendency. Moreover, the same writer implies that Mark wrote down some of the things he had heard Peter narrate.

    5. Assuming that Mark's gospel, by reason of its "vivid simplicity", was the "most direct representation of the Evangelic tradition", which was the common foundation on which the others were raised, Westcott regarded Matthew's and Luke's gospels as types of recension of the simple narrative. Matthew preserves the Hebraic form of the tradition while Luke presents the Greek form.

    6. But a majority of scholars have discounted the oral theory. Their main objections are as follows:
      1. The difficulty about the narrative sequence. Most scholars find it hard to believe that both the precise order of events and in many cases the precise words could have been orally preserved in the forms in which they are recorded in the canonical gospels.

      2. It is argued that the use of a written source would more reasonably account for the preservation of the narrative sequences. This line of argument has been particularly strong in the light of the development of the theory of Marcan priority.

      3. Those who embraced the theory of Marcan priority found a perplexing difficulty in the oral theory in the fact Mark omits a mass of teaching material which is incorporated by Matthew and Luke in different ways.
  4. The Mutual Dependence Hypothesis. J.J. Griesbach, following the suggestion of Augustine, considered Mark as an epitomizer of Matthew, while even Luke was considered to be earlier than Mark. Mark 1:32 became a celebrated illustration of this process, since it appears to conflate the accounts of the other synoptic gospels. But this theory, although embraced by the Tubingen school of critics, has generally been discounted because it has been thought to fail to do justice to Mark's characteristics. Nevertheless several scholars have recently attempted to revive the hypothesis, chief of whom is W.R. Farmer.

  5. The Documentary 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). The Mark-Q theory may be regarded as the basic element in modern source criticism of the synoptic gospels. But many of the variations between Matthew and Luke are difficult to account for adequately under this theory and this has led to a number of proposed modifications. In many hypotheses Q became not a single source but a multiplication of sources and this naturally tended to weaken confidence in the hypothesis. B.H. Streeter posited a four-source hypothesis which has won wide support. Streeter's solution supplied two new developments in the study of the synoptic problem. In the first place, he strictly limited the source Q to that material which was used by both Matthew and Luke but not Mark, and two other sources were proposed for Matthew's (M) and Luke's (L) unique sayings material. This meant that Matthew used Mark, Q, and M as his main sources, and Luke used Mark, Q, and L. In the second place, Streeter called attention to the need for noting the locality from which the different earlier sources originated. Mark was the Roman gospel, Q was probably based on Antioch, M represented a Jerusalem sayings document, and L represented the Caesarean tradition, probably oral in character. While there have been many modifications of this type of four-document theory, it is still widely regarded, at least among British scholars, as the most workable hypothesis of gospel origins.

  6. The Form-Historical Method. In reaction to the multiplicity of written sources which had been postulated and the minute attention which had been devoted to source analysis, a movement sprang up to investigate more closely the manner in which these sources had themselves been codified from the oral tradition. This movement, called in Germany "Die formgeschichtliche Methode" and know in English as "Form Criticism" aimed not only to classify the materials into "forms" of tradition, but also attempt to discover the historical situations (Sitz im Leben) in which they grew. This approach has had considerable influence in recent New Testament criticism. Its chief advocates have been: (In Germany) M. Dibelius, R. Bultmann, M. Albertz; (In America) B.S. Easton, W.E. Bundy, and F.C. Grant; (In Britain) E.B. Redlich, R.H. Lightfoot, V. Taylor, and D.E. Nineham.

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