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The Synoptic Problem

By Jen Vafidis, Editorial Assistant

For a week, a Florida pastor’s threat to burn copies of the Koran to mark the most recent anniversary of September 11 had an almost disastrous momentum. Before he eventually acquiesced, Pastor Terry Jones provoked a hot-blooded global response. Protests in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Indonesia, not to mention an insinuating statement from Hezbollah, gave off the persistent impression of danger. One of the pastor’s many vocal critics was President Goodluck Jonathan in Nigeria, a country plagued with violent in-fighting between Christians and Muslims. In a Facebook post the President condemned Jones’ plans and implored him to be “mindful of the Golden Rule taught by Jesus Christ: Do unto others as you would want others to do unto you.” In response to Jones’ accusation that the Koran was “filled with lies,” President Jonathan fit a universal ethic (one shared by the Koran, no less) into a framework Jones would embrace, if he were to hear of it at all. The rhetorical move echoed the countless times this ethical standard has been used to teach empathy, whether by a mother witnessing a child pulling another child’s hair or by a politician (JFK speaking about segregation comes to mind) struggling for simplicity in moments of ambiguity.

This whole debacle made me think of an age-old question: how do we know what Jesus actually said? Feeling woefully ignorant of the specific origins of the Golden Rule in Christianity, I did some research. I discovered that the translation of “Do unto others…” can be found in the King James bible’s version of Matthew’s account of Sermon on the Mount. In reading about Matthew and asking more questions, I stumbled upon a common “problem” in New Testament scholarship, one which academics have been trying to explain for centuries, and I have since been stuck in the labyrinthine field of biblical studies.

Matthew’s is a synoptic gospel, so called because Matthew describes events that can be “seen together” with the events in the book of Mark and the book of Luke. Due to the repetitions of certain words, events, and parables in these three gospels, New Testament scholars have dubbed the relationship between Mark, Matthew, and Luke as “the synoptic problem.” As Stephen Carlson puts it, the synoptic problem is important because “one’s solution to the synoptic problem will influence one’s exegesis, redaction criticism, and form criticism of the gospels as well as affect the quest for the historical Jesus, early church history, and even the text of the gospels.” How one reads these gospels shapes all of one’s historical understanding of Jesus Christ; so no pressure for the uninitiated like me.

At the risk of generalizing to a callous extent, I will say this: the synoptic problem can be introduced with a set of simple, albeit indefatigable, questions. For starters, who copied whom? How did these evangelists come across their information? Is there a way to chart the development of these gospels, to find a genealogy of their words? If two out of three agree that a set of specific phrases were said at a specific time, then is that the traditional account of what happened? (Here it is important to remind ourselves that “traditional” does not automatically mean “factual”; whether the bible is history or literature is a whole other set of questions, one that I foolishly tried and promptly failed to summarize.) How can one reconcile the three, in all their agreements and disagreements, to form a consensus?

These questions have many answers, more than I can possibly cover in a simple blog post. So here’s a start: New Testament Gateway has a rudimentary introduction to the many theoretical solutions to the synoptic problem, and Thomas Longstaff and Page Thomas have put together a comprehensive and wide-reaching bibliography of central scholarship dating from 1716 to 1988. A very helpful (and color-coded) diagram can be found in Allan Barr’s A Diagram of Synoptic Relationships, which charts “agreement” and editorial decisions between the three works (a goldmine for statistics nerds and linguistic geeks alike). Other scholars – most recently Paul Hoffmann, Thomas Hieke, and Ulrich Bauer – have charted the repetition of certain phrases and words, in order to trace the similarities and build a concordance to the Bible.

More detailed sources and citations are helpfully annotated in John Kloppenborg’s OBO entry on the synoptic problem, and for further reading about individual gospels, the OBO entries on Mark and Matthew provide substantial overviews of the scholarship on each.

Recent Comments

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  2. ben

    I am not a theologian so I don’t know much about synoptic problems. I know though that Pastor Terry Jones’ plan to burn the Koran was reckless to say the least. It would have endangered the lives of Christians around the world.

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