Wednesday, February 03, 2010

The Synoptic Problem: Part 1 Introduction

Introduction: So What’s The Problem?
            In preparation for this project, I have asked a great many people in my local church about their thoughts on the Synoptic Problem.  Much to my surprise, most have not even heard of my topic much less given it any consideration.  This is a pity.  During the course of researching this topic, I have come to a great appreciation for the scholarship dedicated to the Synoptic Problem.
            Let me begin by stating that this is intended to be an introduction to the Synoptic Problem, how the Synoptic Gospels developed, the similarities and differences found in the Synoptic Gospels, the four common solutions proposed for the Synoptic Problem, and my preferred solution.  Given the parameters of this project, I believe an introduction to the basics of the Synoptic Problem is all that is possible and appropriate.  I have come to understand that the topic is far wider in scope than I could possibly hope to treat in such a short paper especially as a first year seminary student.  With that understanding at the forefront, I shall also reserve the right to modify or even completely change my view on the topic as my education progresses, my studies deepen, and I am guided by the Holy Spirit. 
            So what exactly is the Synoptic Problem?  The term “synoptic” has been used since the time of J. J. Griesbach (ca. 1790) to describe the first three gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke[1].  Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines “synoptic” as follows[2]:
1: affording a general view of a whole
2: manifesting or characterized by comprehensiveness or breadth of view
3: presenting or taking the same or common view; specifically often capitalize: of or relating to the first three Gospels of the New Testament
4: relating to or displaying conditions (as of the atmosphere or weather) as they exist simultaneously over a broad area

Given such definitions, we can see how fitting the use of “synoptic” is when describing the first three gospels.  The Synoptic Gospels can be arranged and harmonized section by section allowing the reader to see the passages that are common among all of them as well as passages shared by only two.  Here is the problem: this comparison also reveals the differences when compared closely.  At times those differences are striking while at other times they are rather minor.  According to David Alan Black and David Beck, these similarities and differences, called the Synoptic Problem, constitute a phenomenon unique in ancient literature[3] that must be explained. 

[1] Black and Beck, Rethinking the Synoptic Problem (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic,2001, 11-15).  It should be pointed out that this book is a compilation of essays written for a New Testiment Symposium held at Southeastern Seminary’s campus in 2001.  Black and Beck are the editors and wrote the introduction.
[2] Merriam-Webster, 2009
[3] Black and Beck, Rethinking the Synoptic Problem (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic,2001, 11-15).  

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