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The Synoptic Gospels: Matthew, Mark, and Luke

Discuss about the Literary Synoptic and New Testament.

“The nature of the epistolary genre was revealed to me: a form of writing devoted to another person. Novels, poems, and so on, were texts into which others were free to enter, or not. Letters, on the other hand, did not exist without the other person, and their very mission, their significance, was the epiphany of the recipient.”

The above quoted lines of Amélie Nothomb from the book “Life Form” reveals the value of the Gospels and other Synoptic texts. It is to be noted that the various Synoptic texts form the core values of the Christian world and contribute significantly towards the Christian based education of the individuals[1]. However, it is to be noted that the Synoptic in the present times have been subjected to various kinds of modern interpretation and therefore different people give different interpretation of the same text. Moreover, it is to be noted that there are some discrepancy between the incidents as well as the events which are narrated in the texts related to Synoptic and the Gospel of John. It is here that the major problem of interpretation lies as all the texts belonging to the New Testament and the Holy Bible do not give the same interpretation of the same stories as well as events. It is interesting to note that the major problem arises when the scholars as well as the researchers try to interpret the various gospels related to the genre of Synoptic in terms of the literary traditions. This paper intends to shed light on the Synoptic, the various Synoptic issues and the solutions to the issues or the problems.

The three gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke are often grouped together as the “Synoptic”[2]. It is to be noted that all the three gospels more or less narrate the same incidents as well as events and therefore they are often grouped together under the category of “Synoptic”[3]. However, it is to be noted that these gospels stand in stark contrast to the “Gospel of John” which was written much later and is often considered to be a much more original work. The three gospels which form the core of the “Synoptic” narrate almost similar incidents as well as events and therefore drive home almost similar message. Therefore, it is often said that the three gospels belonging to the genre of Synoptic “give an account of the events from the same point of view or under the same general aspect"[4]. It is to be noted that the all these three gospels are similar to the “Gospel of John” in terms of their composition as all of them have been written or composed in the “Koine Greek”[5]. Therefore, it is interesting to note that they have similar length and all of them were composed “within a century of Jesus’ death”. It is also interesting to note that they differ from the other “non-canonical sources, such as the Gospel of Thomas, in that they belong to the ancient genre of biography, collecting not only Jesus' teachings, but recounting in an orderly way his origins, his ministry and miracles, and his passion and resurrection”[6]. Another interesting point to note is that the Synoptic and the “Gospel of John” use almost the same of language and therefore they are grouped together. It is to be noted that “the majority of Mark and roughly half of Matthew and Luke coincide in content, in much the same sequence, often nearly verbatim” and thus they are often called by the name of “triple tradition” because of the similarity in terms of content as well as language[7]. The aim of the gospels whether it be the Synoptic or the “Gospel of John” is clearly indicated in the prologue to the gospel of St. Luke, “Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word….so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed”[8].

The Sources for the Synoptic

It is to be noted that various sources have been cited as the authentic source of the various gospels related to the Synoptic and the “Gospel of John”. However, the most authentic source for the Synoptic is considered to be the “M Source” or more commonly known as the "Matthean material"[9]. It is considered to be the “hypothetical textual source” for the “Gospel of Matthew”. According to the "The Criticism of the Synoptic Gospels", published in the “Church Quarterly Review”, there are two major sources for the gospels form the basis of the Synoptic. According to the criticism, “One of these sources is Mark's gospel, which, if not written by the disciple of Peter, yet dates from the third quarter of the first century, and comes to us accredited with the assent and trust and employment of the church of that early period. The second is a collection of discourses which may very possibly be a translation of the apostolic work mentioned by Papias”[10]. It is to be noted that the various scholars believe that the source of the gospels of Matthew and Luke is the gospel of Mark and the majority of the incidents as well as the events which are described in the gospels of Matthew and Luke are simply taken from the gospel of Mark. Thus many scholars believe that the authors of the gospels of Matthew and Luke have used the gospel of Mark as a frame work for their gospels and have incorporated several sayings in their work from the book “Logia”[11]. It is interesting to note that “the church has always recognized the human element in the composition of the books of the New Testament, and the preface to Luke's gospel tells us quite clearly that that gospel was composed by the author out of materials partly written, partly oral”[12]. Therefore, when the scholars undertake to investigate the sources for the various gospels a historical research inevitably entails the process. It is to be noted that the divine element of the texts as well as divine inspiration is taken into consideration by the various scholars while trying to find the sources for the gospels. Therefore, “the divine character of the gospel is not diminished because the personality of the gospel writers asserts itself, just as the divine origin of the gospel was not obscured because it was presented colored by the individuality of Peter, or Paul, or John”[13].

The Synoptic Problem


The Synoptic problem can be defined as “the problem of the literary relationships among the first three “Synoptic” Gospels. Matthew, Mark, and Luke are called “Synoptic Gospels” because they can be “seen together” (syn-optic) and displayed in three parallel columns”[14]. It is to be noted that the meaning of the term Synoptic is “to see together with a common view”[15]. Therefore, the three gospels belonging to the Synoptic are often grouped together as all three of them represent almost similar incidents as well as events. According to the opinion of Matthew Williams articulated in the book “Two Gospels From One: A Comprehensive Text-Critical Analysis of the Synoptic Gospels”, “About 90 percent of Mark's material is found in Matthew, while about 50 percent of Mark is found in Luke. In addition, nearly 235 verses in Matthew and Luke are similar to one another.

In those places where agreement appears, incredible similarities can extend even to identical tense and mood for every word in an entire verse (or more)”.  It is to be noted that the similarities between the various gospels have lead the scholars to wonder whether the authors of the gospels had a common source for their work and a different version of the accounts related to the life, history, death, ministry as well as the resurrection of Jesus Christ as the accounts of the life and the activities of Christ which they depict is different from the ones portrayed by the “Gospel of John” or for that matter the Bible itself. However in the opinion of Dennis Bratcher articulated in the work “The Gospels and The Synoptic Problem”, “The Synoptic Problem is not really a "problem" in the normal sense of the term. It is simply a way to refer to questions and possible explanations about the literary relationships between the first three New Testament Gospels”. It is to be noted that the incidents as well as the events narrated in the three gospels are so similar to each other that the scholars often argue that they might have a common source for the purpose of writing their gospels.


Scholars have named this particular source as the “Q Source” from the German word “quelle”[16]. However, it is interesting to note that none of the scholars have mention any “Q Source” or any other source for that matter as the source of their work. Therefore, the “Q is the invention of liberal scholars who deny the inspiration of the Bible”. Thus, this particular school of scholars believes that the Bible as well as the “New Testament” are just like the other literary works and therefore subjected to the same kind of interpretation as the other literary works are liable to[17]. However, it is interesting to note that “there is no evidence whatsoever for a Q document—biblically, theologically, or historically”[18]. In this particular the argument of Robert H. Stein articulated in his work “The Synoptic Problem: An Introduction” is important to note “One of the most persuasive arguments for the literary interdependence of the synoptic Gospels is the presence of identical parenthetical material, for it is highly unlikely that two or three writers would by coincidence insert into their accounts exactly the same editorial comment at exactly the same place”.

Solutions and Conclusions

It is to be noted that the scholars have given various reasons for the Synoptic problem and have tried to solve the problem by giving various reasons for the problem. One common argument for the problem is the oral nature of the traditional Christian texts. Therefore, in the opinion of D.M. Murdock articulated in the book “The Origins of Christianity and the Quest for the Historical Jesus Christ”, “For centuries after obtaining power during the reign of Constantine, Christians went on a censorship rampage that led to the virtual illiteracy of the ancient Western world and ensured that their secret would be hidden from the masses….Nonetheless, the Christians preserved the contentions of their detractors through their own refutations”. Thus, the oral nature of the gospels can account for the similarity in the nature of the incidents as well as the events which they depict. Another plausible explanation is found in the “Two-source hypothesis” which states that the one of the gospels was composed at an earlier date and the rest of the three were composed after that[19]. Therefore, the other authors having access to that particular gospel used it as a source for their own composition. This particular school of scholars as well as researchers gives preference to the “Gospel of Mark” as the source from which the other gospels have been written. However, there are other schools of scholars as well as researchers who give preference to the other gospels like “Gospel of Matthew” or the “Gospel of Luke” as the source from which the other ones have been written. It is interesting to note that there is a third interpretation which uses the concept of divine inspiration or the influence of the “Holy Spirit” as the plausible factor[20]. Thus, they argue that “The Gospel of Matthew was written by Matthew the apostle, one of the twelve who followed Jesus and were commissioned by Him. The Gospel of Mark was written by John Mark, a close associate of the apostle Peter, another one of the twelve. The Gospel of Luke was written by Luke, a close associate of the apostle Paul”[21]. This particular school of scholars argues that as the source of inspiration for the composition of the three gospels was the same therefore the nature of the incidents as well as the events which they depict are almost similar to each other. It is interesting to note that authors like Dennis Bratcher have tried to solve the Synoptic problem in their works like “The Gospels and The Synoptic Problem” according to “a simple principle that grew out of the Protestant reformation, the principle of sola scriptura, only Scripture. This principle, as one of the cornerstones of the Reformation, held that Scripture should be the first and final authority for the faith and practice of the Church, and that it should be allowed to stand in judgment over all human creeds, doctrines, and traditions”.


Therefore, from the above discussion it becomes clear that the Synoptic problem is one of the major ones which the various interpreters of the New Testament as well as the Holy Bible face. It is to be noted that many of the incidents as well as events narrated in all the three gospels are almost similar in nature. It is this phenomenon which gives rise to the problem of Synoptic problem. The various scholars as well as researchers have tried to solve this particular problem with various hypothesis and theories. It is interesting to note that none of the scholars as well as the researchers had been able to derive any significant reason for the similarity in the nature of the incidents and the events narrated in the three gospels.

References

"A Synoptic History Of Classical Rhetoric". Google Books. Last modified 2018. Accessed March 21, 2018. https://books.google.co.in/books?hl=en&lr=&id=mWoqAAAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PP2&dq=synoptic&ots=BTPbfqST9x&sig=suZTRcyur21lZyBNKtL

"A Theology Of The New Testament". Google Books. Last modified 2018. Accessed March 21, 2018. https://books.google.ad/books?id=eIdkM00EdlAC&printsec=frontcover&dq=A+Theology+of+the+New+Testament%27+by+George+Eldon&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjStKSO3ffZAhUVUI8KHbZmA7AQ6AEIJjAA#v=onepage&q=A%20Theology%20of%20the%20New%20Testament'%20by%20George%20Eldon&f=false.

"The Sources Of The Synoptic Gospels.". Journals.Uchicago.Edu. Last modified 2018. Accessed March 21, 2018. https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/pdfplus/10.1086/473218.

"The Synoptic Problem & Proposed Solutions". Catholic-Resources.Org. Last modified 2018. Accessed March 21, 2018. https://catholic-resources.org/Bible/Synoptic_Problem.htm.

"The Synoptic Problem And Q - Study Resources". Blue Letter Bible. Last modified 2018. Accessed March 21, 2018. https://www.blueletterbible.org/faq/q.cfm.

"The Synoptic Problem: The Literary Relationship Of Matthew, Mark, And Luke". Crivoice.Org. Last modified 2018. Accessed March 21, 2018. https://www.crivoice.org/synoptic.html.

Bultmann, Rudolf. Theology of the New Testament. Vol. 1. Baylor University Press, 1951.

Morris, Leon. New Testament Theology. Harper Collins, 1990.

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