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The Synoptic Problem

Updated on December 10, 2014

The Synoptic Problem concerns the relationship that Matthew, Mark and Luke have to each other and asks the question, “Why are they so similar?” The book of Mark is almost entirely composed of pieces of the other gospels and all three overlap in hundreds of verses. The reason the “Synoptic Problem” is considered a “problem” by many people is because eyewitness accounts are notoriously unreliable. For example, if I am a law enforcement officer and I hear three accounts of the same crime by people who know each other, and use the same or very similar verbiage to describe the incident, I would certainly become suspicious that they had gotten together and decided what to say. Whether or not their intent was to mislead would be inconsequential because eyewitnesses tend to “misremember” when new information is introduced. Skeptics and even believers may wonder if this is what happened with the gospel writers. The unstated yet important underlying question here is can we trust any of them, since they may be conspiring together to create a believable story of a God-man who died for humanity’s sins? This is crucial because it is in the Gospels that the arc of history comes to a head. If the gospel writers got it wrong then you may as well either throw your whole Bible out or start looking for a new Messiah. Being the third to write this assignment, I have read April and Wade’s account of the same general information and I am consciously trying to avoid copying either of them while still covering much of the same material. Does knowing what they wrote influence the way I write? Yes. Might someone suspect we all read a similar textbook? Possibly. Might someone eventually figure out that the “Q source” here is “A Journey from Texts to Translations” by Paul D. Wegner? Maybe. But, how does that relate to our writings being less or more “inspired?” (as a reminder for all of us, including myself, “inspired” means that the Scriptures are the Words of God written through man, under God’s direct guidance.) The synoptic gospels have many similar characteristics and may very well have borrowed from one another or even from a common source, but if we believe the doctrine of inspiration, we believe that God, at no point lost all control of the situation and allowed the testimony of His Son’s life on earth to become polluted. As Vanhooser points out, the Scriptures are authoritative because they are God’s Word, not because a counsel gave them authority by placing them in the Canon. At some point the Synoptic Problem becomes an issue of faith and we either believe in the inspiration of Gospels as we do the rest of the Scriptures or we do not.

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