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Survey of The Life and Teachings of Jesus

© L.D. Underwood 2010

The Synoptic Problem

B: the 'synoptic problem' is a myth which vanishes into a vapor when you realize the Gospels were written 10-15 years apart as snapshots of current teaching of the apostles, thrown over the fence to the Gentile church which did not wish to know the deep mysteries, but were content with Paul's preaching of Christianity-lite : Christ and him crucified. They had access to previous gospels, and the mystery hidden from the beginning in the Old Testament which was being revealed to the by the Holy Spirit who was bringing to memory the teachings of Jesus as they studied the OT scriptures in greater depth.

In the previous section, we looked at the synoptic problem and found that the problem was a literary or linguistic problem, not one that was theological. We saw that there were similarities to explain between the various gospels of the first three, and also a number of differences to harmonize between these writings as well; and we looked at some of the proposed solutions to the problem as has been proposed by a variety of schools of thought. For example, we looked at the oral tradition theory; the fragmentary theory; the interdependence theory; the urevangelium theory; the documentary or source theory; as well as the formgeschichte theory. There is one additional one that one should consider, and that is one that is known as “redaction criticism” or “editorial criticism.” The advocates for this particular school of thought have included Günther Bornkamm—who has emphasized the book of Matthew; Willi Marxsen the Gospel of Mark; and Hans Conzelmann, the Gospel of Luke. These writers date from around the 1950’s when this particular school of thought became quite popular.

Now we can describe this school in terms of this: That the school of thought known as redaction criticism, investigates the effects that an author or editor’s personal bias or objectives may have had on the way he recorded an incident or a saying. In other words, this school of thought is interested in the final stages of the final stages of the gospel. Just the opposite of what we had in form-criticism which is concerned with the origin of these records. This school of thought seeks to detect the evangelist’s creative contribution in terms of the material and arrangement of the material to the Christian traditions which they transmitted. By way of evaluation we could say that again there are some positive features to this approach, namely that the redaction approach focuses attention on the author and his gospel as a whole, rather than on sources or rather than individual units. Therefore, it is useful in discovering the contribution of the writer to his tradition. Not only that, but this approach helps us see how the writer’s handled their sources, with or without shaping them. And it seeks to detect better the specific intention of each writer—what was each writer trying to produce in his writings?

Negatively however the critical criteria on which this method depends, are questionable, because they are based on what has been said under source-criticism or under form-criticism. They build upon those presuppositions and therefore have the same defects that those approaches might include. There is also the unwarranted assumption that redaction means composition, that it means invention, and that is unwarranted. The critics are often too subjective in their approach to the gospel, unto their assessments of their motives and methods used by a writer—too subjective in their approach. So, we’ve seen the problem as being literary or linguistic, not theological, it is a subject where good Christians can agree to disagree. And there are a variety of explanations for that problem worked out by these various scholars down through the years.

Here is a possible solution. First of all, there is no question that some of the material that these gospel writers used would be eyewitness accounts, or eyewitness materials. It is quite obvious that Matthew’s account would be that of an eye-witness since he was one of the apostolic band. And certainly Mark, who was the secretary of Peter would give Peter’s testimony or Peter’s interpretation of things, and Luke tells us very clearly in the beginning of his gospel that he used eyewitness materials. So certainly first-hand accounts, first hand material would have been used by each of these writers. One can be fairly confident, for example, that Luke must have interviewed Mary the mother of Jesus. And after all, who among people would know more about that conception and birth than Mary his mother.

There would be written fragments, Luke tells us the beginning of his gospel in the opening four verses that he made use of primary and secondary sources. They were written documents that he was able to make use of. And we know that Luke’s birth account and childhood of Christ was probably a written account that Luke translated and incorporated into his gospel.

Then there were personal contacts between the gospel writers. They didn’t live in a vacuum; there must have been some comparing of notes, when these writers would get together. Several of them were apostles and others were connected with the apostles and so it is at least possible that some of the similarities in the gospel accounts can be explained by interaction or personal contact between these various writers.

Then there is oral tradition and this factor is made probable by the Jewish custom of memorizing by rote by the scarcity of written materials and its certain that the early church was possessed with a reverence for the facts of Christ’s life even reverence for the very words he spoke. So oral tradition must be at least part of the package.

If one considers to that the stereotyped repetition in church worship services when the early church, we know followed the synagogue pattern of worship, after all of the Christians initially had been Jews, it was only later that the gospel went out to gentiles.

It was very natural that church services in the Christian tradition would follow pretty much the Jewish synagogue pattern with which they were familiar. And after reading the Old Testament scripture, then some incident or some utterance from Christ’s life would have been recited. And then a certain stereotype form would certainly have developed.

Then talk about the individual difference in the personality and the viewpoint and the purpose of writing. Each of these writers had a unique personality; had a certain perspective and slant on what he wrote, because they were witnesses. If one were a witness to an automobile accident, one’s interpretation of what took place will be slightly different; the facts will be similar in terms of the automobiles colliding; but how that one saw it happening, whose fault it was and the variety of things will be expressed by individual people differently. And so Matthew is writing to a different group of people for a different purpose than Mark is, and Luke the same. The gospel writers have different theological agendas. And so some of the differences can be explained in this way.

And finally, one might say that part of the package is the personal plenary verbal inspiration of the Holy Spirit. That is, by plenary we mean that all of God’s word is inspired in its entirety, and by verbal, even the words are inspired by that inspiration. And this gives God control of the whole process of inscripturation. But at the same time, it leaves room for individual differences found in the various human writers.

This position takes some of the best elements of some of these theories, while leaving out some of the more bizarre, or heavy pedantic kind of German approaches to some of these problems within the synoptic gospels. There were some written documents, there were fragments of various types, eyewitness accounts oral tradition, interaction between them; certain stereotype patterns of speaking in church services; the approaches of each writer being quite different; and over-arching all of that, is the superintending wisdom of God in terms of divine inspiration. This could be a tentative answer as to the origins of the gospels. Why we have similarities, why we have differences, as extreme as we do in these gospel accounts.

Another question that should be answered is the relationship between the synoptic gospels and the autoptic gospel of John. There are some contrasts that are important between these two sets of gospels. For example in the synoptic gospels the stress is upon the Galalian ministry of our Lord, which is in the North of Palestine, whereas John is more preoccupied with his ministry in the south. The synoptics as a whole tend to look at Christ’s public life; whereas John portrays his private life; what he said to his disciples in private. The synoptics would be a presentation in facts where the reader is allowed to make his own reaction to the content; whereas the gospel of John is an interpretation of the facts; where everything he writes is selected to secure a verdict. The synoptics stress what Jesus did; whereas John emphasizes who Jesus was; that is his person rather than his work. Whereas the synoptics have many parables, one finds no parables in the Gospel of John. He has some comparisons, but they would not be called parables.

In the synoptics there is little concern for times and places of events; whereas in John it is much more definite with regard to chronology and geography; time and space. The focus on the synoptic gospels is upon Christ’s humanity; that doesn’t mean they don’t believe in his deity, but that the stress is there on his humanity; whereas in John’s gospel the deity of Christ corresponding to the Eagle, is stressed.

And then the synoptic accounts speak about the second coming of Christ, where he will come again to establish and earthly kingdom and a future judgment and by way of contrast John’s gospel stresses the coming and work of the Holy Spirit, and not so much for a future earthly kingdom but for present kingdom in the hearts of people now; and for a present judgment, which is the other side of the coin, to a future judgment mentioned in the synoptics.

Clearly, there are distinct differences between these groups. There are some stories, some events, some miracles, some parables other events that are parallel to each other in these various gospel accounts, but as far as the differences are concerned, there are some rather severe contrasts and those should be kept in mind.