Synoptic Problem Essays

Recently, a pastor wrote to Dallas Seminary, expressing some concern over my views on the literary interrelationship of the synoptic gospels. This letter was prompted no doubt by a particularly vicious and ill-informed attack on my views written by another man who posted his views on his website and circulated it to thousands of people electronically. Below is my response.

Dear Pastor _______,

In my essay on the synoptic problem I wrote the following:

The remarkable verbal agreement between the gospels suggests some kind of interdependence. It is popular today among laymen to think in terms of independence—and to suggest either that the writers simply recorded what happened and therefore agree, or that they were guided by the Holy Spirit into writing the same things. This explanation falls short on several fronts.

You were concerned about my views and seemed to wonder whether they really were in harmony with a high view of the Bible. I am not sure exactly what was behind the question, but possibly you may think that my view of the Bible is that it is not inspired. Nothing could be further from the truth. In another essay that is also posted on the website I wrote:

The doctrine of election is analogous to that of inspiration. God has inspired the very words of scripture (2 Tim 3:16), yet his modus operandi was not verbal dictation. Isaiah was the Shakespeare of his day; Amos was the Mark Twain. Both had widely divergent vocabularies and styles of writing, yet what each wrote was inspired by God. Luke’s style of writing and Greek syntax is quite different from John’s, yet both penned the Word of God. We read in 2 Peter 1:20-21 that no prophet originated his own prophecies, but was borne along by the Holy Spirit: “1:20 Above all, you do well if you recognize this: no prophecy of Scripture ever comes about by the prophet's own imagination, 1:21 for no prophecy was ever borne of human impulse; rather, men carried along by the Holy Spirit spoke from God” (NET Bible).

Thus, we are presented with a mystery: Each biblical writer wrote the very words of God, yet each exercised his own personality and will in the process. The message originated with God, yet the process involved human volition. The miracle of inspiration, as Lewis Sperry Chafer long ago noted, is that God did not violate anyone’s personality, yet what was written was exactly what he wanted to say.

In other words, my view is that although the gospel writers used sources, this does not mean that their writings were not inspired. The historic position of the Protestant faith has always held to this view of inspiration. Calvin, Hodge, Chafer, Walvoord, Erickson, etc., all hold that the use of sources in the process of writing scripture is not a denial of inspiration. It is just a denial of mechanical dictation, which is what I was getting at in the essay on the synoptic problem.

You should know, by the way, how important is the doctrine of inspiration to me: I spent over 1200 hours on my master’s thesis (completed in 1979) on “The Relation of Adjective to Noun in Anarthrous Constructions in the New Testament.” Ultimately, my objective was to determine what the relation of γραφή to θεόπνευστος was in 2 Tim 3.16. I had detected a weakness from the grammatical side of things in the argument that θεόπνευστος was a predicate adjective (“all/every scripture is inspired”): no New Testament grammar produced any examples that this could be the case in wholly anarthrous constructions! The only actual examples in anarthrous constructions found in the grammars were of an attributive relation (“all inspired scripture…”). If the attributive view were correct, it might mean that not all scripture was verbally inspired. I felt that the grammatical argument for the predicate adjective needed to be shored up, so I began to research the construction. I examined the entire NT, as well as 5000 lines of Greek outside of the NT. I also looked at every πᾶς + noun + adjective construction in the LXX. This was before computer search tools, so all of this had to be done manually. My conclusion? I found overwhelming evidence that θεόπνευστος was indeed a predicate adjective. So much evidence, in fact, that the attributive translation could be viewed as illegitimate. My thesis was published in 1984 in Novum Testamentum, a Dutch journal of scholarly repute. Even though the journal is not at all evangelical, the editors did not change one word of what I wrote. Not one word. At the very beginning of the article I noted that the burden of the article was to shed some light on 2 Tim 3.16 so as to help resolve disputes among American evangelicals—they even left this intact! Altogether I found about 400 passages in which the adjective in such constructions could be predicate, and those that followed the exact contours of 2 Tim 3.16 were always predicate. I published more on this point in my book, Greek Grammar beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996) 309-14. My conclusion on 2 Tim 3.16 was that the adjective θεόπνευστος was indeed predicate and that the verse should be translated “every scripture is inspired and profitable…” Now, this grammar was written five years after I first wrote the essay on the synoptic problem. So, you can see, my theology has not changed on this point.

Back to synoptic literary interdependence: Luke tells us explicitly that he used sources (Luke 1.1-4). What is interesting here is that he praises the “eyewitnesses and servants of the word” (v 2) as among his more reliable sources. The word for servants here is ὑπηρέτης, a word that Luke uses only five other times in Luke-Acts. Three uses are technical, referring to some kind of an official. But two are of a different sort. One is part of the risen Lord’s message to Saul when Saul was on the road to Damascus (Acts 26.16). And one refers to John Mark as the servant of Paul and Barnabas (Acts 13.5). Some scholars suggest that both of these non-technical references may well be a hint as to Luke’s sources. That is, that Mark and Paul were among Luke’s sources for the gospel and Acts, respectively. I think that that view is probably correct. In Acts, for example, the “we” sections don’t begin until chapter 16, when Luke joined up with Paul’s entourage. At that point, Luke becomes an eyewitness to the events and needs no other sources. But until then, he had to rely on information supplied him by others. Paul would have logically been one of those sources. And Mark would naturally have been one of the sources that Luke used in writing his gospel. Since Mark is not mentioned until late (Acts 13), it is even likely that Luke came across his gospel after he had already written a draft of his own. If that is the case, as G. B. Caird notes in his little commentary on Luke, then Luke’s use of Mark is extremely conservative, giving a stamp of approval on what Mark wrote. I agree with that assessment. Luke also may have interviewed Mary, the mother of Jesus. Twice we are told in Luke 2 that Mary “treasured all these things in her heart” (Luke 2.19, 51). That alone might hint that Luke interviewed Mary to find out about Jesus. But there’s more: the Greek of the first two chapters of Luke is far more Semitic than the rest of the gospel. Although much of it can be attributed to a conscious imitation of the LXX, not all of it can. I think that Luke went to the very best sources he could—including the mother of our Lord!—to get his facts straight. And the Holy Spirit sovereignly protected the good doctor from error as he wrote down his message. The real miracle of inspiration is that the writers were usually unaware of the Spirit’s guidance of them as they penned their words. But when the dust settled, what they wrote was the Word of God.

Frankly, at issue here is a huge matter. Not only should we say that the Spirit of God was more interested in holy men than in stenographers, but the interrelationship of the incarnation and scripture hangs in the balance of how we address inspiration in the gospels. I firmly believe that the incarnation of Christ absolutely demands of me that I do careful historical investigation. Our religion is the only one in the world that invites the reader to examine the data in terms of time-space history. Jesus Christ became a man in history. And the record of his words and deeds in the gospels speaks of places, names, dates, etc.—in short, all the things that a true historian includes to make his writings subject to verification. Even the resurrection of Christ is subject to historical verification. If the risen Lord could walk through walls, then why was the stone rolled away? It wasn’t to let Jesus out, but to let the disciples in—so that they could verify that he was truly no longer there. And if it had been God’s modus operandi to have us embrace a blind faith, then Jesus would never have appeared to the disciples after his resurrection; they would simply have been told to trust the angels. Not only do the gospels give evidence otherwise, but when Paul gets into a heated debate with the Corinthians about the resurrection he appeals to historical proof. In 1 Cor 15.5-6 he appeals to over 500 eyewitnesses of the resurrection as proof that it really occurred. And he adds “most of them are still alive, though some have fallen asleep.” This point is intended to undergird his argument that the resurrection of Christ must be subject to historical verification, and that it comes out with flying colors!

In short, what I am saying is two things: (1) Literary interdependence is not in any way a denial of inspiration; it is only a denial of mechanical dictation as the mode of inspiration. The nature of the Bible is such that it is both the Word of God and the words of men. To deny the first is analogous to Arianism; to deny the second is analogous to Docetism. Both are Christological heresies. And if the analogy between the incarnate Word (Christ) and the living Word (Bible) is one intended by scripture, then we could say with equal force that to deny either the divine inspiration or the full human involvement in the making of the Bible is heretical. (2) The incarnation invites and even demands that we look at the Bible with the best of our historical-critical tools. If we do not, then our bibliology is really no different than the Muslims’ view of the Quran. I am persuaded that the closer we look, the better the Bible looks. Or, as an old British scholar of yesteryear said, “We treat the Bible like any other book to show that it is not like any other book.”

Most introductions to the New Testament have at least a brief discussion of the Synoptic Problem. As critics of the Two-Document Hypothesis (2DH) have observed, the treatment of the Synoptic Problem is often far from even-handed, with various theorists either dismissing other theories as inadequate or not considering them at all. Kümmel’s otherwise masterful introduction to the New Testament (Kummel 1975) provides a detailed history of scholarship but is lacking in a full consideration of alternatives to the 2DH. Collins 1983 gives careful attention to various logically possible theories, while ultimately favoring the 2DH. Both Goodacre 2001 and Kloppenborg 2008 are intended for the introductory student. Two online resources are available oriented to the novice, one maintained by Stephen Carlson (Synoptic Problem) and the other by Mark Goodacre (New Testament Gateway).

  • Collins, Raymond F. Introduction to the New Testament. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1983.

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    A careful treatment of New Testament source criticism, including a brief but clear presentation of the arrangements of the three gospels that are logically possible, given the array of Synoptic data. See especially pp. 115–155.

  • Goodacre, Mark S. The Synoptic Problem: A Way Through the Maze. The Biblical Seminar 80. London: Sheffield Academic Press, 2001.

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    An introductory level treatment of the Synoptic Problem that argues for Markan priority and the dependence of Luke on Matthew (hence, the Mark without Q (Farrer) Hypothesis (MwQH)). Critical of the 2DH, especially the arguments in favor of positing Q, Goodacre offers a careful and fair-minded analysis of the Synoptic Problem. Some attention is given to the Two-Gospel (Griesbach) Hypothesis (2GH), but none to complex theories.

  • Kloppenborg, John S. “What is Q?” In Q, The Earliest Gospel: An Introduction to the Original Stories and Sayings of Jesus. By John S. Kloppenborg, 1–40. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008.

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    Designed as a basic introduction for undergraduates and the informed public, the first chapter of this text explains the data and arguments that go into the formulation of the 2DH. Kloppenborg compares and contrasts the 2DH with the explanations of the same data by the Two-Gospel (Griesbach) Hypothesis (2GH) and Mark without Q (Farrer) Hypothesis (MwQH).

  • Kümmel, Werner Georg. Introduction to the New Testament. Rev. ed. Translated by Howard C. Kee. Nashville: Abingdon, 1975.

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    Kümmel’s now standard introduction to the New Testament provides a long bibliography of works through the mid-20th century, as well as an account of the history of scholarship, culminating in a defense of the 2DH. Kümmel’s presentation has been criticized for its neglect of alternate hypotheses, except as preliminary steps toward the eventual triumph of the 2DH. See especially pp. 38–80.

  • New Testament Gateway.

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    Mark Goodacre’s New Testament Gateway contains a subdirectory on the Synoptic Problem and Q, collecting links to other websites that discuss issues related to the Synoptic Problem.

  • Synoptic Problem.

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    The site, maintained by Stephen Carlson, presents diagrams of two dozen possible theories to the Synoptic Problem, a brief bibliography, links for some important primary and secondary sources, and links to several other sites that defend other theories of the problem.


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