Chapter OneSorting Out the Synoptic Problem: Why an Old Approach Is Still Best
Craig A. Evans
Halfway through my lecture on the Synoptic problem at least one student
asks what the point is: What does it matter which Synoptic Gospel was
written first and how the three of them relate to one another? Seminary
students are usually the quickest to raise this question. Undergraduates are
a bit slower to ask, perhaps because they are less sure of themselves. However,
the question is never heard from the pulpit or in the pew; evidently
the question is completely irrelevant in the church.
This apparent indifference notwithstanding, the Synoptic problem is
well worth pondering; its solution well worth taking into account in studying
the Gospels in preparation for preaching and teaching in the church
today. The exegetical and theological payoff is simply too great for us to ignore
the problem and the study required to grapple with it.
What the Synoptic Problem Is and Why It Matters
The Synoptic problem becomes apparent when we observe the similarities
and differences in content and order in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The
striking relationship among these three Gospels is only underscored when
they are compared to the fourth Gospel, which differs at almost every
point of comparison.
Two or more of the Synoptic Gospels hold in common many stories
and teachings of Jesus. The verbal parallels are frequent and often quite
close. The words of John the Baptist ("You brood of vipers, who warned
you .?") are, with two or three minor exceptions, in exact agreement in
Matthew and Luke. But there are also surprising divergences. All three
Gospels seem to follow the same sequence, then unexpectedly Luke breaks
away. There are also odd discrepancies between Matthew and Mark.
In Matthew we find a three-chapter version of the Sermon on the
Mount, complete with the Lord's Prayer. But in Luke the sermon is given
on a level place (hence it is called the Sermon on the Plain), is only half of
one chapter (6:20-49), and does not contain the Lord's Prayer (which
shows up several chapters later, in a completely different context).
Matthew's version of the infancy narrative features dreams, fulfilled
prophecies, the visit of the magi, the wrath of Herod, and the flight to
Egypt. None of this appears in Luke's version. Instead, we have canticles, a
visit by shepherds, and visits to a relative and to the temple. Similar discrepancies
occur in the Easter narratives. In Matthew the disciples meet
the risen Jesus on a mountain; in Luke the risen Jesus joins the two on the
road to Emmaus, appears in a house and eats food, and ascends. None of
this is in Matthew.
Matthew presents Jesus' teaching in five major blocks of material;
this material is scattered in Luke. In Matthew and Mark, Jesus makes his
way from Galilee to Judea in two or three chapters. In Luke it takes ten.
Matthew and Luke share a whole host of teaching, which is not found in
Mark. At points Luke's version overlaps with Johannine tradition; at other
points it overlaps with Pauline.
These are the most obvious examples that perplex interpreters. How
are these phenomena to be explained? This is the Synoptic problem, and
investigation of it is important for several reasons: (1) Explaining the relationship
of the Synoptic Gospels will shed light on the origins and development
of these most important sources for the life and teaching of Jesus;
(2) resolution of the Synoptic problem is important for assessing the antiquity
and value of the sources in study of the historical Jesus; and
(3) study of the Synoptic problem heightens appreciation of the distinctive
features of the Synoptic Gospels, which significantly aids the task of exegesis
and theological study. It is this third reason that guides the present essay.
Why the Priority of Mark Is Still the Majority View
Matthean priority was almost universally held from the second-century
church to the middle of the nineteenth century. When modern biblical
scholarship was in its infancy three books appeared - one English, the
other two German - arguing not only for Matthean priority, but using this
priority to explain the relationship of all three Synoptic Gospels to one another.
Henry Owen and the much better known Johann Jakob Griesbach
proposed that Matthew was written first, that Luke made use of Matthew,
and that Mark, writing last, made use of both Matthew and Luke.
Matthean priority remained the dominant solution to the Synoptic
problem for more than a century. But the dominance of this position began
to wane with the appearance of several studies in the nineteenth century.
The middle position of Mark was observed, leading some to conclude
that Mark may have been the first of the Synoptic Gospels, not second or
third. Heinrich Julius Holtzmann proposed the two-document hypothesis,
whereby it was understood that a Mark-like source (document A) and
a sayings source (document B) were utilized independently by Matthew
and Luke. The next two generations refined Holtzmann's hypothesis, resulting
in the classic two-source theory, where it is understood that Matthew
and Luke made use of Mark and the hypothetical Q (the abbreviation
of the German word Quelle, which means source). The two-source theory
and variations of it have come to dominate Gospels research.
In recent years scholarly discussion of the Synoptic problem has intensified,
with some claiming that the dominant view - Markan priority
- is in danger of being overthrown. In 1964 W. R. Farmer challenged the
near-consensus of Markan priority. He has won a few converts (mostly in
North America and in Britain; virtually no one in Germany). He and his
followers continue to pound away at what are considered the weak points
of Markan priority. Despite their untiring efforts, however, Markan priority
continues to be held by a majority of Gospel scholars.
Markan priority continues to prevail because it possesses much
greater explanatory power than does Matthean (or Lukan) priority. Parallel
after parallel is more easily explained in reference to Markan priority.
Let us consider two examples briefly (with major points of comparison in
1 Then Jesus was led up
by the Spirit into the wilderness
to be tempted by
the devil. 2 And he fasted
forty days and forty
nights, and afterward he
12 The Spirit immediatelydrove him out into the
wilderness. 13 And he was
in the wilderness forty
days, tempted by Satan;
and he was with the wild
beasts; and the angels
ministered to him.
1 And Jesus, full of the
Holy Spirit, returned
from the Jordan, and wasled by the Spirit 2 for
forty days in the wilderness,
tempted by the
devil. And he ate nothing
in those days; and when
they were ended, he was
Analysis of Synoptic parallels often prompts the question that text critics
usually ask: Which passage (or reading) best explains the others? Applying
this question to the story of the temptation of Jesus is very suggestive.
Matthew says Jesus "was led up" (anagein) by the Spirit into the wilderness.
Luke says Jesus "was led" (agein) by the Spirit in the wilderness.
Mark says the Spirit immediately "drove"/"cast" Jesus "out" (ekballein)
into the wilderness. Does Mark's reading explain the readings of Matthew
and Luke? Or, do the readings of Matthew and Luke explain Mark's reading?
If we assume that Mark wrote first, then Matthew and Luke replaced
Mark's "drove out" with forms of "led." Or, if Mark wrote last, ignoring the
forms of "led" in the two texts in front of him, then we must imagine that
the Evangelist deliberately chose instead to write "drove out." Which option
is the most plausible?
Approximately one half of the occurrences of ekballein ("to drive/
cast out") in Matthew and Luke are in reference to exorcism; and about
one half of those not in reference to exorcism are in reference to violent or
negative acts, such as murdering and casting the son out of the vineyard
(Matt 21:39; Luke 20:15), casting Jesus out of town (Luke 4:29), casting
someone out of the kingdom into hell (Matt 8:12; Luke 13:28), casting out
someone's name, that is, striking a person's name from the membership of
the local synagogue (Luke 6:22), or casting merchants out of the temple
precincts (Matt 21:12; Luke 19:45).
If, in writing last, Mark read and made use of Matthew and Luke,
which speak of Jesus being "led" by the Spirit, it is hard to see why this
Evangelist would have chosen the verb ekballein ("drive out" or "cast out")
when he would have observed that this is the verb routinely used in the stories
of exorcism, for example, "Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your
name, and cast out (ekballein) demons in your name?" (Matt 7:22), and
that it is frequently used in other negative or judgmental contexts, as in the
examples cited above.
Accordingly, probability favors the first option. For it is much easier
to explain the appearance of "led up" and "led" in Matthew and Luke as
stylistic improvements upon Mark than trying to find an explanation that
would account for Mark's "drove out," if we suppose that when he wrote he
had Matthew and Luke before him. But why did the Mark an Evangelist use
the word at all? Mark 1:12 is Mark's first use of ekballein. It did not occur to
him that he would subsequently use this word in reference to exorcism.
Had the Evangelist narrated (or read in Matthew or Luke, if we accept the
Owen-Griesbach Hypothesis) one or two exorcisms before narrating the
temptation, he too may have chosen a different verb, as Matthew and Luke
would later do.
There are other editorial indications that Matthew and Luke are posterior
to Mark. Matthew substitutes "devil," which Mark never uses, for
Mark's "Satan." The devil is Matthew's preferred designation for the evil
one (cf. Matt 4:1, 5, 8, 11; 13:39; 25:41), a preference perhaps prompted by the
appearance of "devil" in Q, the tradition that Matthew and Luke have in
common (cf. Luke 4:2, 3, 5, 13; 8:12). For his part, Luke takes the opportunity
to say that Jesus was "full of the Holy Spirit," which is in step with this
Evangelist's marked interest in pneumatology. And of course, both Matthew
and Luke omit Mark's somewhat cryptic reference to Jesus' being
"with the wild beasts." All of these differences are easier to explain on the
assumption of Markan priority, not posteriority.
18 Now when Jesus saw
great crowds around
him, he gave orders to go
over to the other side
23 And when he got into
the boat, his disciples followed
him. 24 And behold,
there arose a great
storm on the sea, so that
the boat was being
swamped by the waves;
but he was asleep. 25 And
they went and woke him,
saying, "Save, Lord; we
are perishing." 26 And he
said to them, "Why are
you afraid, O men of little
faith?" Then he rose
and rebuked the winds
and the sea; and there
was a great calm. 27 And
the men marveled, saying,
"What sort of man is
this, that even winds and
sea obey him?"
35 On that day, when evening
had come, he said
to them, "Let us go
across to the other side."
36And leaving the crowd,
they took him with them
in the boat, just as he
was. And other boats
were with him. 37 And a
great storm of wind
arose, and the waves beat
into the boat, so that the
boat was already filling.
38 But he was in the stern,
asleep on the cushion;
and they woke him and
said to him, "Teacher, do
you not care if we perish?"
39 And he awoke and
rebuked the wind, and
said to the sea, "Peace! Be
still!" And the wind
ceased, and there was a
great calm. 40 He said to
them, "Why are you
afraid? Have you no
faith?" 41 And they were
filled with awe, and said
to one another, "Who
then is this, that even
wind and sea obey him?"
22 One day he got into a
boat with his disciples,
and he said to them, "Let
us go across to the other
side of the lake." So they
set out, 23 and as they
sailed he fell asleep. And
a storm of wind came
down on the lake, and
they were filling with water,
and were in danger.
24 And they went and
woke him, saying, "Master,
Master, we are perishing!"
And he awoke
and rebuked the wind
and the raging waves;
and they ceased, and
there was a calm. 25 He
said to them, "Where is
your faith?" And they
were afraid, and they
marveled, saying to one
another, "Who then is
this, that he commands
even wind and water, and
they obey him?"
We have here one of the most vivid, exciting stories of the Synoptic Gospels.
Every child who has attended Sunday School has heard this story, has
seen it illustrated in picture books or on flannel boards, and perhaps has
even acted it out in a skit.
Once again, if we ask which reading best explains the others, logic favors
Markan priority. Commentators have rightly observed that the phrase
"when evening had come" is from Markan redaction and serves as Mark's
way of either bringing a discrete episode to a conclusion or of introducing
a new one (cf. Mark 1:32; 6:47; 11:19; 14:17; 15:42). But in adding it here,
Mark creates a bit of a redundancy, if not an anomaly (is it "day" or is it
"evening"?). But even more problematic, the phrase stands in tension with
the story of the demoniac, which follows in Mark 5:1-20 and gives every
impression of taking place on the same day. Evidently Matthew senses this
problem, electing to replace "On that day, when evening had come" with
"Now when Jesus saw great crowds around him." Thus, it is not the end of
the day that prompts Jesus to relocate; it is the crowds. Luke removes the
difficulty by simply saying, "One day"
But Mark goes from the redundant and inconsistent to the strange,
when he says the disciples "took him with them in the boat, just as he was."
What on earth does the Evangelist mean by this? Is Jesus in some way incapacitated?
Is he perhaps in a trance, so that his disciples have to pick him
up and place him in the boat? No, probably not; it seems that Mark is only
harking back to Mark 4:1-2, where Jesus got into the boat and commenced
his teaching. That is, when the disciples departed from the shore, they took
Jesus with them, already seated in the boat ("just as he was"). But it must
be admitted that the text reads oddly. Not surprisingly, Matthew replaces
the Markan verse with "And when he got into the boat, his disciples followed
him." Not only is the problem mitigated, Jesus is properly cast as the
leader and his disciples as the followers. Luke again takes the simplest
course, by dropping all reference to going aboard: "So they set out."