Saturday, 4 August 2012

The Synoptic Problem

This is Week Eleven of Giford's Bible Study Programme.
Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour.
- Matt 27:45
And when the sixth hour had come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour.
- Mark 15:33
It was now about the sixth hour, and there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour,
- Luke 23:44
And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom
- Matt 27:51
And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.
- Mark 15:38
and the curtain of the temple was torn in two.
- Luke 23:45
Length: 5/5
Controversy: 1/5

I did promoise in Week Two that we'd come back to the death of Jesus. I would now like to introduce a slightly more complex idea than we've been dealing with up to now. Let us break with habit and actually look at the texts describing Jesus' death.

We were looking, if you recall, at Matthew's claim of the dead rising at Jesus' death. By looking at the first three Gospel accounts side-by-side, we can see that Matthew, Mark and Luke are identical or near-identical in several places, such as those quoted above.
It beggars belief that such close parallels could arise by chance in separate retellings of the same events. If we were police officers looking at witness statements with this kind of similarity, we would certainly believe that the witnesses had colluded. Teachers marking exam scripts like these would naturally assume plagiarism. So we can safely assume that there is some link between the three Gospel accounts, more than just having been written by witnesses to the same events. Exactly how that happened is not so clear - it might be that two of the gospels are copied from a third; that one is copied from a second which is in turn copied from the third; that all three are copied from some now-lost source; or so on. But what is clear is that there is a link between the texts, more than can be explained simply by them being different eyewitness accounts of the same events (although this does remain the claim made by some fundamentalists).

But there is a further problem. Let's look at the text following the above two sections and before the mention of the centurion:
...torn in two, from top to bottom and the earth shook, and the rocks were split; the tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many. When the centurion...
- Matt 27:51-54
Mark has no text here:
...was torn in two, from top to bottom. When the centurion...
- Mark 15:38-39
...torn in two. Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, 'Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit!' And having said this he breathed his last. Now when the centurion...
- Luke 23:46-47
Clearly, these are not copies of each other. Indeed, they are rather contradictory - Jesus is already dead by this point in Mark and Matthew, with his last words being 'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?'. In Luke, Jesus lives until after the curtain has torn and his last words are very different.

Although I have chosen Jesus' last moments to illustrate this, it is a problem that recurs throughout the Gospels (you can look for youself by scrolling up and down on the link above). In places, the 'Synoptic Gospels' - Matthew, Mark and Luke - are so close that they must surely be based upon each other. Yet in others, they are so different that they must equally surely not be based on each other. And the Fourth Gospel, that of John, is never in such close agreement with the first three as they are with each other - in this example, we have no curtain, no 'darkness' and no centurion in John's version - and a third set of last words for Jesus.

This is the 'Synoptic Problem'.

The most widely accepted solution is that Matthew and Luke are each basing their gospels on Mark, plus separate (different) sources. So in the example above, Matthew has added the story of the earthquake and mass resurrection, whereas Luke has added the extra set of last words (and removed Mark's version of the last words). This makes more sense than (for example) thinking that Luke and Mark both independently decided to edit out the same section of Matthew, both here and in many other places. There are other lines of argument pointing to Mark as the earliest Gospel, but they are beyond the scope of this week's lesson.
There are a few problems with this idea, which we will come to in future weeks, but this idea of 'Markan priority' is firmly established among New Testament scholars. Of course, it follows from this that Matthew and Luke (and therefore Acts, which is universally regarded as being by the same author as Luke) are not eye-witness accounts. There are many levels to the Synoptic Problem. 

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