The Problem That Isn’t

Saint Luke, James Tissot, Brooklyn Museum

Saint Luke by James Tissot, Brooklyn Museum: Luke was the author of the Gospel of Luke, as well as Acts of the Apostles.

Some critics have used the so-called “Synoptic Problem” to cast doubt on the traditional belief that the gospels were actually written by apostles and by close associates of apostles.  They also cite the Synoptic Problem to cast doubt on the reliability of early church historians, such as Papias, Eusebius, Origen, Ireneaus, and others, all of whom attest to the traditionally understood authorship of the gospels.  If the critics are right, then the gospels do not reflect eyewitness testimony regarding the teachings and actions of Jesus.

Any person who is interested in becoming a Christian—or any Christian who wants to defend the faith—needs to understand a few things related to all of this.  In this article, we’ll make sense of it all, and explain why the misnamed “Synoptic Problem” isn’t really a problem at all.  Below, we’ll answer a few critical questions:

  1. What are the Synoptic Gospels?
  2. What is the “Synoptic Problem?”
  3. What is “Q” and how does it relate to all of this?
  4. Does the “Synoptic Problem” really undermine traditional beliefs regarding gospel authorship?

What are the Synoptic Gospels?

The term “Synoptic” is used to describe the first three gospels:  Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  They are lumped together by scholars because they share much of the same information regarding Jesus’ life and teachings.  The term comes from a Greek word meaning “of one eye” or “with one view.”  John, the fourth gospel, contains much unique information, a different structure, and a more sophisticated theology, so it is not considered part of the Synoptic group.

Christian tradition, early church historians, and some scholars today believe that the Synoptic Gospels were written by the following people:

  • Mark – Mark was a follower of the apostle, Peter. Early testimony indicates that Mark recorded Peter’s first-hand accounts of Jesus’ teachings and actions, and then shared that testimony in his gospel.
  • Matthew – Matthew was an apostle of Jesus. Church tradition and early testimony indicate that Matthew wrote this gospel as an eyewitness account.
  • Luke – Luke was a historian and a colleague of Paul. Luke wrote his gospel so as to provide an “orderly account” of Jesus’ life and ministry, using a range of available sources.

Some scholars today dispute the traditionally accepted authorship of the gospels, while even attempting to belittle those who do accept it.  A thorough and objective review of both sides of the argument, however, reveals ample evidence to support the traditionally-accepted authorship of the gospels.  In addition, that evidence has only gotten stronger over the past 25 years.  Most people who will tell you otherwise have probably read one or two books by Bart Ehrman and, on that basis, consider themselves to be experts on the topic.

You may also see repeated, rather frequently, the assertion that a majority of scholars reject the historicity of the gospels.  That assertion is often made by skeptical scholars who simply don’t acknowledge that any intelligent person can disagree with them.  In fact, a plurality (and possibly a majority) of scholars today accept that the gospels should be subjected to normal standards of historical scrutiny, and that such scrutiny most often serves to validate the historical accuracy of the gospels (Blomberg, Craig L., The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, 2007, p. 17).

What’s more, the number of scholars who feel that way is growing as scholarship advances.  We don’t have the space here to fully address the issues of gospel authorship and historicity, but we are addressing them in additional articles, such as a recent one on John.

What is the “Synoptic Problem?”

The three Synoptic Gospels seem to be interrelated, meaning that they share a significant amount of content and structure in common.  For example, Matthew and Luke seem to share Mark’s structural framework.  They also share some of the same quotes and stories, often verbatim.  In addition, Luke and Matthew share some content—often verbatim—that is not in Mark.

Therefore, it’s obvious that the gospel authors shared some sources in common, and even used one another as sources.  Some scholars have argued that this undermines the notion that these gospels were written by the traditionally understood authors.  In fact, the interrelated nature of these gospels undermines nothing, but we’ll cover that a little later.

For scholars, the key to solving the “Synoptic Problem” involves using textual analysis to try and determine the order in which the gospels were written, what sources were used, and possibly who wrote them.

What is “Q” and how does it relate to all of this?

There are myriad potential solutions to the Synoptic Problem, and we won’t recount them here.  There are other resources out there that do a good job of that.  We will, however, relate the solution most commonly accepted by scholars—Christian and skeptic—today.

Figure 1 will make it easier to visualize how this solution works.  For a number of highly compelling reasons, most scholars have come to believe that Mark was written first.  Early church leaders believed that Matthew had been written first, but that does not seem likely, given more recent scholarship.  So, Mark is listed at the top left of Figure 1.  It seems to be the first written gospel.

Most likely solution to the Synoptic Problem

Figure 1: The most likely relationship of the Synoptic Gospels to one another: 1.) Mark was written first; 2.) Luke and Matthew used Mark as a source; and 3.) Luke and Matthew also used the hypothesized “Q” source, as well as their own unique sources.

Sometime later, Luke and Matthew were written.  They borrow a structure and some content from Mark, so scholars believe that both Luke and Matthew used Mark as a source.

Luke and Matthew each have some unique content, so scholars speculate that they got that content from their own sources, either oral or written.  Matthew’s source(s) are shown as “M” on Figure 1 while Luke’s sources are shown as “L”.  In Luke’s case, those sources could have been interviews with contemporaries or eyewitnesses.  In Matthew’s case, those sources could have been his own unique recollections.

As mentioned above, Matthew and Luke share some content in common that is not found in Mark.  Scholars hypothesize that this content must have come from a common source.  That hypothesized source is known as “Q.”  Q was selected as a name because it comes from a German word, “quelle,” meaning “source.”

Scholars speculate that Q was a collection of Jesus’s sayings and teachings, written in Greek.  It must have been in Greek, they say, because Matthew and Luke were penned in Greek, and they often use the same Q sayings verbatim.  Therefore, they must have copied them from the same Greek source.

It’s important to note that there are no existing copies of Q and that some scholars and theologians dispute its existence.  To this author, it’s actually not that relevant, because the existence of Q could just as easily be used to support the veracity of the gospels as to undermine it.

Nevertheless, Markan priority, with some type of Q source in the mix, seems to be the most likely solution to the “Synoptic Problem.”  Regarding the origin of Q, it’s impossible to know.  There are various scenarios related to that, as well.  In an upcoming article on the topic of Q, we’ll offer one possible solution that cleanly reconciles modern scholarship with church tradition and the testimony of early church historians.

Does the “Synoptic Problem” really undermine traditional beliefs regarding gospel authorship?

In a word, “No”:  The Synoptic Problem does not undermine traditional beliefs regarding gospel authorship.  Therefore, it’s not a problem at all.

It matters not one bit that Mark was written first.  After all, Mark was a follower of Peter in Rome, and could easily have written his gospel before the others finally put pen to paper.  The only thing that Markan priority does is indicate that Augustine may have been wrong when he hypothesized that Matthew had been written first.

Assuming that Mark was written first, it is highly likely that Matthew and Luke would have had access to it as a source.  It makes sense that they would refer to it when writing their gospels.

After all, Luke was a historian who made use of multiple sources.  In Luke 1: 1-4, he says the following:

Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.

If there had been an extant gospel (Mark) reflecting the testimony of Peter, a “top-tier” apostle, then Luke would most certainly have used it.

Likewise, Matthew would naturally have used Mark.  Even though Matthew was an apostle (and therefore, an eyewitness), it makes sense that he would have referred to Mark’s work.  After all, Mark’s gospel documented the testimony of Matthew’s friend and colleague, Peter.  Of course, Matthew would refer to it, perhaps to help confirm his own recollections, as well as to capture things that Peter (a closer confidant of Jesus) had seen but that Matthew may have personally missed.

As for Q, think about this:  If it did exist, then that means there was a written record of Jesus’ sayings and teachings that actually pre-dates the gospels!  Such a record would mean that the sayings were more quickly committed to paper than previously thought, and had even less time to be modified via an oral tradition (though Jewish oral traditions were quite accurately transmitted in their own right).  In addition, it’s possible that Q was actually written by Matthew (more on that in a separate article).

So, to sum up, the Synoptic Problem isn’t a problem, after all.  The most likely solution to it fits nicely with the traditionally understood authorship of the gospels, and may actually help argue for their historical reliability.