The Synoptic Problem, in short, is the attempt to explain the similarities and differences between the gospels Matthew, Mark, and Luke. In many places these three gospels are so close in wording, often verbatim stretches of large portions, that common oral tradition cannot account for three separate authors writing independently from one another. So scholars assume some type of literary dependence between the three. The problem we are trying to solve? Who copied from whom? The term “synoptic” comes from the Greek, σύν (syn ”together”) and ὄψις (opsis ”view”) since they can be viewed side-by-side and compared as they contain many of the same stories in a similar chronology.
Now the data is divided up into 4 major groups that covers about 100% of all the material found in the three books:
Triple Tradition (TT) – These are stories shared between Matthew, Mark and Luke. This includes many of the miracle stories, the parable of the sower, the stilling of the storm, the passion narrative and so on.
Double Tradition (DT) – These include stories shared between Matthew and Luke only comprising around 200 verses. Here we find the Lord’s Prayer, the beatitudes (any saying where Jesus declares blessedness), the temptation of Jesus (though this story is not really verbatim like the TT material) and so on.
Special M – This is material unique to Matthew and it includes some famous stories like Pilate’s wife’s dream. It is mostly made up of parables including the parable of sheep and goats, etc.
Special L – This is material unique to Luke and some of the most famous stories like, the good Samaritan (Luke 10), the prodigal son (Luke 15)—and one of my all time favorites—the road to Emmaus (Luke 24)!
So this brings us to the Synoptic Problem. This pertains only to the TT material. Given that oral tradition cannot account for the so-similar wording, and in some places almost 100% verbatim copying, there must have been a similar source the writers worked from. This also suggests that the Synoptic Gospels are not three independent accounts of the life of Jesus, since if they were we would expect to see paraphrasing of the same events and not the verbatim copying we see of the TT material. The next logical step in trying to solve this problem is to ascertain the source that was being copied from, if we can even do so.
There is a theory which deals with this, called Markan priority, a theory that is almost universally subscribe to. That is, Mark was the first Gospel written and Matthew and Luke both copied from Mark leaving us with our TT material. So how do we know this?
Arguments for Markan Priority
Before delving directly into the arguments one minor issue needs to be address. There is very little material that is unique to Mark’s gospel i.e. material not found in Matthew and Luke. Why is this interesting to us? Mostly because of how strange the material actually is! It is so strange that one must wonder why Mark, if he were copying from Matthew or Luke, would include the odd details? Simply put, it is unlikely he would. Two famous examples to illustrate just how odd the material may help us understand the point. The first example comes during Jesus’ arrest in the garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14). Once he is taken away Mark ends the scene with a young man who was following Jesus, and it says there in v.51—52 that the young man was “wearing nothing but a linen sheet over his naked body; and they seized him but he pulled free of the linen sheet and escaped naked.” What? It is certainly difficult to imagine what the author had in mind here or what he had heard about Jesus’ arrest! Puzzling indeed.
The next example comes from the story of Jesus’ attempt at healing the blind man in Bethsaida. I say attempt because after his first try to heal the blind man, Jesus promptly asks, “Can you see anything?” And the man says; “I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.” Jesus tries it again, this time the man’s sight is restored. So Jesus’ first attempt to heal the man didn’t really work? This is an odd example of a healing story especially when compared to the healing stories in Matthew, Luke and John where results are always instant. So we need to ask the question, is it more likely Matthew and Luke would omit those strange stories or that Mark adds them in after he has finished with Matthew or Luke as a source? While it is not impossible it certainly is strange!
Let us turn our attention to the double tradition material, material found only in Matthew and Luke. These contain some of the most famous stories, stories that would seem a necessary inclusion for anyone attempting to write a book on the life and ministry of Jesus. If Mark is the third Gospel, would he have omitted material like the Lord’s Prayer? While it’s not impossible that Mark omitted these stories it does seem unlikely. We also see Matthew and Luke softening up what Mark has to say, things that would seem theologically embarrassing, seem to have been made easier to swallow in Matthew and Luke. So in the story of the rejection at Nazareth (Mark 6) the writer tells us that Jesus “could do no miracle there” except heal a few sick people, because of their unbelief. This can, and has been, interpreted as Jesus not being powerful enough to sway the unbelievers there. But when we turn to the same story in Matthew (13), he changes the words, only slightly, but the impact on the meaning is immense where he says Jesus “did not do miracles there.” Now Jesus chooses not to do miracles there.
Or at Jesus’ baptism; John the Baptist is baptising for the repentance and forgiveness of sins and Matthew evidently seems not to like the idea that Jesus needed baptising so he cuts out the line where John is baptizing for repentance of sin. Instead he has Jesus coming into the water and John says to him “I need to be baptized by you, and you come to me?” Matthew is obviously concerned with Jesus having a baptism of repentance. Repentance from what?! It’s Jesus! He shouldn’t need to repent for anything! Furthermore, when Luke tells the story of Jesus’ baptism he diminishes its importance significantly and kind of brushes over it with a few short lines “when all the people were baptized Jesus was also baptized and the spirit descended upon him” and then we get the loud voice from heaven. And that’s it. Moreover, we see in Mark (10) where the rich young ruler says to Jesus “good master” and Jesus harshly scolds the young man saying “why do you call me good, no one is good but God alone.” Jesus seems to be distancing himself from being God. Where in the Matthean parallel, Jesus now says to the young man, “why do you ask me concerning what is good?” So what is more likely? That the harder reading was softened? Or the softer reading was hardened?
What’s more, Matthew and Luke seem to have knowledge of the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem which occurred in 70 CE. They speak as though the temple is no longer with us while in Mark 13 we get the sense that the temple is still standing and it is being written during the first Jewish revolt against the Romans. And what becomes clear on a deeper inspection of the Synoptics is how raw Mark is. You can get a good sense that Mark is drawing on oral tradition as oppose to Matthew and Luke who seem to be working from a literary source. Mark is the shortest Gospel and this follows the criterion of embellishment, that is, a writer would tend to embellish, make longer or exaggerate stories in the re-telling adding details. The best example of this comes from Peter’s confession to Jesus in Mark where he says, “You are the Christ”; in Luke’s paralleled version of the story he adds a bit more to what Peter says, “You are the Christ of God”, and in Matthew Peter practically gives a sermon, ” You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” So what is more likely? That Mark shortened Jesus’ words overturning the criterion of embellishment? Or that Matthew and Luke added to the outline of Mark? Mark is also written in a very crude style of Greek (one example that translates well into English is the fact he uses trains of “ands”—Jesus did this and he said that and then he went there) and where there are errors in Mark’s Greek, Matthew and Luke come along fix it. One historical example is that Mark refers to Herod Antipas as a king but Luke realizes he wasn’t a king at all and corrects it to a tetrarch (a ruler of a fourth). If Matthew and Luke were the source of Mark, why would Mark change the text making it more inaccurate or sloppy? Again, while it’s not impossible, what is more likely?
On saying that it is just as important to note what tidbits Matthew and Luke change and how they spin the stories. This can also give a sense of who may be copying from whom. We have already seen how they soften the wording in Mark but can these differences tell us anything about the writer and his views? Can they give us what the writer is trying to focus on? This will be our focus in Part II where we will examine the sources using a literary science is employed to try to tease out these differences and what they might mean—what is known as redaction criticism. This is the study of how these texts were edited and what this might imply. This is made possible only because we have at least one of the sources, Mark.