Posted by / Tuesday, 21 March 2017 / No comments

The synoptic problem and it solutions

The books of Matthew, Mark and Luke are referred to as the synoptic gospels. The word “Synoptic” comes from two Greek words, “syn” meaning together and “opsis’ meaning seen together. Literally therefore, synoptic gospel refers to the story of the life of Jesus Christ as seen together by the three gospel writers - Matthew, Mark and Luke.  

The synoptic problem refers to the similarities, differences and peculiarities found in the three gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. It has been realized that though the three writers are said to have written the story of the life and work of Jesus from the same point of view, there are certain similarities, peculiarities and difference that suggest otherwise. These, similarities, differences and peculiarities are what are referred to as “the synoptic problem.”

There are similarities in arrangement, style, wording and language when the three books are compared and contrasted. There are also differences in the order of events; some wordings are the same in similar passages. There are stories that are found in only two of the gospels and those peculiar to each of the gospels. There are also some differences in the order of events as recorded by the writers. There are stories that only Matthew recorded. There are also stories that only Luke recorded and there are stories that only Mark recorded. This is the synoptic problem.

Attempts have been made by scholars to find solutions to the synoptic problems and to satisfactorily solve the problem but most have failed to fully answer the question.

It was caused by inspiration from God
The reason why there are similarities in the three gospels is because they were inspired by God to write down the things they wrote down. Scholars who put forward this argument have been criticized on the ground that it does not explain the differences that are found in the three gospels.

Oral tradition
This theory acknowledges that there were some oral traditions in existence before the people started writing. Since the gospel writers relied on the same oral tradition, there are bound to be similarities in the accounts. This theory too has been shot down on the grounds that the oral tradition circulated as distinct episodes and not as on complete story. Also, if they wrote from the same source, why should there be differences in some of the accounts.

First documentary hypothesis
The theory of first documentary hypothesis, which was propounded by St. Augustine, stated that Matthew was the first of the gospels to be written before the other two copied from his work. This theory was also denounced because it shows Mark as copying from Matthew when the facts do not show it to be so. Where Matthew and Mark write about the same issue, Mark’s account sounds more vivid and detailed. This could not have been the case if Mark was the one that copied from Matthew.

The theory of a primitive gospel
This theory states that there was a primitive gospel that circulated in the early church so the gospel writers may just have copied from that primitive gospel. This has also been disproved by scholars who say there is no historical trace of the existence of that primitive gospel. Also, it only explains the similarities; it does not explain the differences.

Two documentary hypothesis
This theory postulates that there were two sources that the gospel writers used. That is, the Mark and the “Q” Source. According to Lachmann, who put forward the theory, this explains the similarities in the gospels and even the matters that are found in both Matthew and Luke. The reason why this does not completely the solution to the problem is that it does not explain the stories that can be seen only in Matthew and those that can be seen only in Luke.

Four documentary hypothesis
A diagram of the solution to the Synoptic problem

This theory, which was propounded by B.H. Streeter, states that Mark was the first gospel to be written and Luke and Matthew copied from him. The theory continues that apart from using Mark as their source, both Matthew and Luke also used a common source which can be termed the “Q” source. Finally, there were some stories that were peculiar to Matthew so the theory states that Matthew got those stories from the “M” source and for the stories peculiar to Luke, he must have gotten the materials for those stories from the “L” source.

The theory of four documentary hypothesis is the only one of all the theories that has been able to explain the similarities, differences and the peculiarities found in the three synoptic gospels.

1. a. What is the synoptic problem?
    b. How has the synoptic problem been solved over the years? 

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