Bible Basics: The Synoptic Problem

On Wednesday February 9th we re-convened after a long break.  We have moved into the New Testament and will be focused on the gospels for the next few sessions.  We reviewed the age of the various gospels and generally fixed the following dates: Mark-c.70, Matthew and Luke-c.80-90, and John-c.100.  Of course, the letters of Paul were written well before that beginning around 50 AD with 1st Thessalonians.   The gospels vary in length, style of writing, community of origin, and interpretation of Jesus’ mission and ministry.

We began the session with the observation that each generation must interpret scripture anew.  Celia Marshall says that “every  age enters the text with new questions and receives new meaning…There is a surplus of meaning which goes beyond what the author originally intended and speaks to us in our specific situations.” We used the example of slavery, for which there is no condemnation in scripture…and even passages that would seem to support the masters’ rights over the slaves (Col 3:22, Eph. 6:5. I Pet 2:18).  Abraham Lincoln was aware of this scriptural justification, but within the context of the Bible’s overall emphasis of justice and all being created in God’s image, he did not feel the Bible supported the system of slavery as it still existed.  He went beyond what scripture literally meant in its day, and moved to what it could mean for his day and for the future.

We practiced interpretation of scripture with the passage from Mark 4:1-9, the Sower and the Seeds.  Robert Capon says that since all three of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) place it as an introduction to all the parables, it has star-billing among the parables of the kingdom.  It lays a pattern for interpretation of all the parables.  We tried not to make it an allegory, but we did identify the sower as being God and the seed as being the word of God. The vivid images of the seed falling on the path, the thorny ground, the rocky soil, and the good soil each give us a way to consider  what home our hearts provide for the word of God.

We reviewed the “synoptic problem” or the question of the relationship between Mark, Matthew and Luke with respect to who wrote first and who copied whom.  John stands apart since 90% of the material in John is unique to John.  It was also written much later than the other three, in a very different  situation.  The focus in John is on the “signs” (miracles) that point to Jesus as God’s son; and these are not part of the other gospels.  A much closer correspondence can be found between the 3 “synoptic” gospels of Mark, Luke and Matthew.  Synoptic means that they can be viewed together  as though laid out in parallel fashion. 

1.  Over half the material in the synoptic gospels is common to all three.

2.  Mark has 661 verses and over 600 of these are found in Matthew.  Half of Matthew is substantially paralled in Mark.

3.  About 40% of Luke is paralled by Mark.

4. Matthew and Luke share some 200 verses not found in Mark.  These are from an unknown source that scholars often call “Q” (from quelle-or source).  Then Matthew has some 300 verses unique to it.  Luke has some 520 verses, including some of our best-loved parables, that are only found in Luke.

Scholars have tried various ways to solve the problem of how these correspondences developed, but the best known of these theories is called the two-document hypothesis. This basically says that Matthew and Luke both used Mark as primary source material, along with the stories and material from “Q”.  Then Matthew and Luke  each had oral sources known only to themselves from which they drew their singular materials.

At our next session (Wed. Feb 16) we will look at the parables shared by all the gospels, and those unique to the respective gospels. Join us!