Books and Authors

The Synoptic Problem and the Composition of the Gospels

Ripped from: SCRIPTING JESUS: The Gospels in Rewrite, 2010, L. Michael White, HarperOne, pp.10-13

It has long been recognized that the Gospel of John is rather different in outline and content from the first three Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke.  These three have greater similarities in outline and materials and have often been called the “Synoptics,” because they may be “seen together,” or side by side, and are similar.  Even so, there are some noticeable differences.  We find, for example, that key events vary as we move from one Gospel to the next even among the Synoptics.  Both Matthew and Luke contain a “sermon” with beatitudes (Matt 5:2-7:29; Luke 6:17-49), but they occur in different settings.  Matthew’s version is over three times longer (a total of 111 verses) than Luke’s (a scant 32 verses), while Mark does not contain this episode at all.  Then when we look at the narratives that surround these different sequences, we discover that the cause-and-effect relationships for the course of Jesus’s career—particularly as they lead up to his death—vary significantly from Gospel to Gospel.

The Synoptic Problem asks the question this way: How can it be that these three Gospels have so much material in common, even verbatim in some instances, but still have episodes moved around or new and distinctive material added? To answer this question, we must conclude that there were some common sources lying behind the written Gospels, but that the various Gospel authors compiled their accounts with some flexibility by stitching these source materials together in different ways.  There are then two key components to this process: first, the oral circulation of stories about Jesus prior to any written accounts; second, the artistry of the individual Gospel authors, each one combining and reworking older source traditions in new ways.

By far the most widely accepted theory of synoptic relationships is called the “Two-Source Hypothesis.”  It assumes that Mark was the first of the New Testament Gospels to be written down, based on a variety of oral traditions that had been transmitted separately.  Thus, Mark, written in Greek, was the first “Gospel” in the sense of an attempt to write a narrative “Life” of Jesus.  Sometime later, the authors of Mathew and Luke used Mark as a source, but did so independently of one another.  This fact helps account for the fact that Mathew and Luke have much of the same material, but it is repositioned within their respective narratives.

It also seems that the Matthean and Lukan authors had access to other sources, oral traditions not used by Mark.  Some of these were probably unique, but others could be common to both Matthew and Luke.  One of these in particular seems to be a large group of some 250 verses of Jesus’s teachings.  It includes such famous passages as the Beatitudes, the Lord’s Prayer and the parable of the lost sheep, none of which are found in Mark.  These days, it is usually called “Q” (from German Quelle, meaning “source”) or sometimes the “Synoptic Sayings Source,” and it is usually dated by scholars between 50 and 70 CE.  The Two-Source Hypothesis thus proposes that Mark and Q were the two main sources used by Matthew and Luke.  Both Matthew and Luke used Mark as the basic outline, but each one modified it by reordering episodes and inserting Q materials in distinctive ways.  Thus, each of the three synoptic Gospels is a distinctive construction of both oral and written traditions.  Each one is an expression of faith, while trying to preserve the memory and message of Jesus in new and changing circumstances.

In the final analysis all the current scholarly theories regarding the composition of the Synoptics, even the more conservative, assume four major characteristics to the development of the Gospel tradition:

  1. There was a vibrant and influential oral tradition about what Jesus said and did and that the Passion narrative was its earliest core
  2. These independent oral traditions were circulated within and among individual Christian communities, where they were given context and meaning in the worship life of the community.
  3. Transmission of these source traditions, whether in oral or written form, to other communities allowed for retelling and reconfiguration to fit new needs and situations.
  4. The order, themes and content of the individual Gospels reflect the local context of their respective authors and communities as an expression of their faith in Jesus in the light of their cultural background and social experience.

In other words, the Gospels as we now have them are not direct or neutral accounts of Jesus.  Nor do they claim to be.  They do not operate under modern conceptions of writing history, nor were there “four guys on a street corner.”  Instead, they are early attempts to weave the various materials, whether oral or written, into a narrative about Jesus for a particular audience in a particular context.

Each of the Gospels thus tells the story in a different way.  That means more than merely rearranging certain episodes or adding new sayings here and there.  The different ordering and the narrative shaping that occur in each Gospel give new shades of meaning to the teachings, interpret causes and effects in the death of Jesus, and explore themes about faith, discipleship and community.  Changing the order and wording of such episodes usually reflects a distinctive understanding of Jesus’s life, teachings, and death on the part of the Gospel author, who was far more interested in the theological significance carried by the story than in historical accuracy.  Dramatic scenes, pathos and irony, even humorous interludes reflect a dynamic interaction between storyteller and audience.  There were already stock characters and patterns of storytelling from which they could draw, in new and changing combinations.  Each Gospel thus becomes a different “script” for how the part of Jesus is to be acted and how his life is to be played out, all the while focused on exploring the changing textures of faith.



3 thoughts on “The Synoptic Problem and the Composition of the Gospels

  1. Yo Fish! Thanks for taking the time to browse around a bit.

    The header graphic comes from an illustration by the artist Mary Blair who worked with Walt Disney on several animated films and is responsible for much of the artwork in Disney’s “It’s a Small World” attraction. She died in 1976.

    The white rabbit was one of the key characters from Alice in Wonderland. Before Alice followed the rabbit into the rabbit hole, she was just an innocent child. Her adventures in Wonderland provided her experiences that would help her through the rest of her life. It would also change her world. The theme was borrowed in the Matrix trilogy when Trinity first awakens and contacts Neo. Her advice was to “Follow the white rabbit”. That began the rocking of Neo’s world.

    From the time of childhood in the Western world we are taught various doctrinal perspectives of the Christian Bible. Oftentimes, these perspectives are not based on what the biblical texts actually say or meant, but rather on what later interpreters wanted those texts to say. This is evident even in the earliest Christian writings. This blog, “Following the White Rabbit” is an attempt to differentiate between what the biblical texts actually say and what ignorant or dishonest theologians and apologists continue to attempt to push off on innocent people in trying to perpetuate the religion of Christianity.

    The biblical writings, along with other ancient Jewish and early Christian writings, provide a plethora of perspectives on the various authors’ and editors’ thoughts on life, death, meaning and purpose. There is also a lot of good history in the Bible. These authors were often wrong, but they were also often right. As one of the great skeptical philosophers of the age of topix has said, it is a good book, just not the Good Book.

    In the 21st century, Christianity is on the decline and will eventually take its deserving and equal place among the hundreds of thousands of other mythologies of the world. In my opinion, no other book has influenced Western culture and thought more than the Bible. To me it is more important to try to understand the writings than it is to simply put them away on a shelf. In this way we can learn from our mistakes rather than keep repeating them. I am hoping that there are others who share this desire.

    One can kill the white rabbit in the same way that one can kill the Buddha, but once one has taken the red pill, once one falls into the rabbit hole, there is no turning back. Now, on the count of three: one… two…five. . .

    Posted by xcntrik | October 5, 2010, 4:01 pm
    • No, three. Five is way out.

      Sadly, when it comes to the bible, most of the Alices in this country fall into silly indoctrination rather than true learning. As you say, the dishonest theologians and apologists. I am planning to read the entire bible again soon. It has been a long time. I look forward to doing so with a completely fresh perspective, not only as a former Christian, but through the lens of all I have learned from you and HipG, particularly from a historical bent. Going to check out some other stuff on your site.

      Posted by Fish | October 6, 2010, 9:50 pm
  2. Yo X. What an interesting read. I’m going to read it over again next time I visit the website. I see the look of your site is radically changed from the last time I viewed it. What is the significance of the white rabbit and can it be killed using the holy hand grenade of Antioch?

    Posted by Fish | October 4, 2010, 8:06 pm

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