Saturday, July 23

Is The "Snyoptic Problem" Valid?

The Bible, written by about forty men who claimed that God was writing through them, over a span of 1600 years, writing on three different continents, at many different locations - from prison and the wilderness to the palaces and sleepy little towns, the Bible has been the most controversial work in all of history, the most hotly debated and researched work, the most beloved yet the most hated by many, the most read, among other things. One such claim involves the first three books of the New Testament: Matthew, Mark, and Luke. These are called the Synoptic ("to see together with a common view") Gospels, and the claim is that the similarities between these three Gospels leads some to believe that the authors derived their material and information from a common source, known as the hypothetical "Q" document, essentially showing that God did not write through men, but that the Bible is nothing more than a collection of false history. But does this claim hold any water? (Photo credit: [a]John Rylands, Papyrus: 2nd Century CE. From JRUL; [b] Chester Beatty Library, Dublin, Ireland. 3rd century.)

The "Q" source is called such for the German word quelle, which means "source." This claim is usually made because it would indicate that the account of Jesus' resurrection was a much later tradition as was His worship as God and Savior, but as we have seen in recent entries such as, "Early Christianity: The 1st Corinthians 15 Creed", the account of the resurrection has been around since day one of Christianity (See also: "Did Jesus Claim To Be God?"). As we can determine from early writings such as Pliny the Younger, Governor of Bithynia in Asia Minor in 112 AD, writing to Emperor Trajan, Pliny affirms that these early Christians "were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verse a hymn to Christ as to a god..."[1] Lucian, a satirist of the second century AD, said that Christians followed Jesus and denied "Greek gods and by worshiping that crucified sophist himself and living under [Christ's] laws."[2]

But what of the "Synoptic Problem?" The argument states that these three Gospels are so similar that they must have used each others Gospels, or a common source, the "Q" document. First of all, there is no evidence for the existence of such a document, we have never discovered a portion, fragment, or whole document that would ever qualify as "Q." Also, none of the early church fathers ever mentioned such a document or Gospel, but they did mention Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. In fact, if we did not have the 24,600+ copies of the New Testament from the early centuries, we could still reconstruct the New Testament from the writings of the church fathers alone, since they so often quoted from it, and in no writings are there any references to another Gospel such as this hypothesized Q document.

The "Q" document is a postulation, an invention, of secular and liberal "scholars" and "historians" who seek to deny and destroy the credibility, reliability, accuracy, and inspiration of Scripture, who believe that the Bible is merely another work of literature from antiquity, that has been changed over time and that it is subject to the same kinds of criticism applied to works of literature. In past entries, we have established the Hebrew Bible and New Testament to be archaeologically attested, we have provided evidence for the historicity of Jesus (though minimalists claim it proves nothing), we have shown that the Bible has not changed over time and is actually the most reliable and accurate work of antiquity we possess (see entries: "Does Archaeology Support the New Testament?", "Does Archaeology Support the Hebrew Bible?", "Did Jesus Really Exist? Is There Any Historical Evidence?", and "Is The Bible Reliable? Has It Been Altered?").

John Rylands - John's Gospel (Fragment)[a]
As noted, there is no historical evidence for the existence of this "Q" document, nor is there theological, biblical, or archaeological evidence for its existence. It is little more than the invention of liberal scholars seeking to undermine the validity and veracity of God's Word. There have been wonderful, in-depth studies on why the "Q" document is an incorrect hypothesis, and how the Gospels are reliable, trustworthy documents and accounts of the events of the life of Jesus, and it is not the intention of this entry to delve into a lengthy, technical analysis or specific research on the topic, but merely to answer the question for the layman seeking answers about his or her worldview. The question remains, however: if Matthew, Mark and Luke did not use a "Q" document, why are they so similar?

It is possible that the Gospel which was written first (typically thought to be Mark's Gospel) was available for both Matthew and Dr. Luke to utilize, both likely had access to it. It is also likely that Dr. Luke used material from both Matthew and Mark for his gospel, which he had written after checking the facts - for example, some believe Dr. Luke interviewed Mary mother of Jesus, and derived his information concerning Jesus' birth from her - or from Jesus' brothers and sisters (Jude and James are likely candidates). The New Testament also shows that both Mark and Luke knew one another and were ministering together on more than one occasion. Luke 1:1-4 conveys, "Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled [or been surely believed] among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught."

Here, Dr. Luke (we refer to him as such because he was a physician, see Colossians 4:14 for example) notes that many have written accounts about Christ's life - likely Mark and Matthew - and after investigating these things for himself, as a careful historian,[3] he wrote his Gospel. There is no theological, biblical, or historical problem with Luke utilizing Matthew and/or Mark's Gospel(s) - why not use the resources available to you, given by firsthand witnesses? "Ultimately, the explanation as to why the Synoptic Gospels are so similar is that they are all inspired by the same Holy Spirit, and are all written by people who witnessed, or were told about, the same events. 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. Why would we not expect their accounts to be very similar to one another? Each of the gospels is ultimately inspired by the Holy Spirit (2 Timothy 3:16-17; 2 Peter 1:20-21). Therefore, we should expect coherence and unity."[4]

The question also stands: why do we have four Gospels, and not merely one? The answer is three-fold: 1) Having four Gospels by four distinct writers - Matthew, Mark, Dr. Luke and John - gives us a more complete picture of the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus (and provides us with "undesigned coincidences," which we will examine later in this article); 2) To provide multiple eyewitness accounts and the results of careful investigation - multiple attestation of the events of the first century and give more credence and credibility; and 3) For those who seek answers or knowledge, aside from a better understanding of Christ, much can be learned from individual study of the four Gospels, particularly when reconciling the alleged "contradictions" (of which there are none). 

Though the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke record similar passages, they also include what we call peculiarities, or rather, events, teachings, the like distinct to that Gospel. If all four Gospels - Matthew, Mark, Luke and John - included the exact same material, there would be no reason for four Gospels but only one. Also, it would throw into question the reliability and accuracy of their accounts even more, because it would show that the four writers likely sat around a table and copied off of each others work, showing a conspiracy type of scenario. Yet this was not the case. Though the Synoptic Gospels contain similar passages, this merely shows not only the internal consistency and accuracy of the Gospels, but also shows as noted prior: multiple eyewitness attestation. 

Let us take into consideration Deuteronomy 19:15 which records, "One witness is not enough to convict anyone accused of any crime or offense they may have committed. A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses." Though the Gospels were not written to accuse Jesus of a crime, this passage can be applied to the Gospels: one witness is not enough to demonstrate the veracity and reliability of the account, but the matter is established by the witness of two or three, or in this case, four Gospels. Simon Greenleaf, an infamous and reliable authority on evidence in the courtroom, examined the four Gospels and found them to be reliable, stating that the alleged "contradictions" between the accounts and differences in certain events actually attest to the independent nature of the account, illustrating that, when the issues are reconciled, we not only see a clearer picture, but we also see a reliable testimony and record, a factual account.

John James Blunt (J.J. Blunt) wrote a work now out of print in 1869 titled "Undesigned Coincidences." "An undesigned coincidence occurs when one account of an event leaves out a bit of information that doesn’t affect the overall picture, but a different account indirectly supplies the missing detail, usually answering some natural question raised by the first. Forgers do not want to leave loose ends like this that might raise awkward questions; they take care to tie everything together neatly. But these are just the sort of things we would expect to find in authentic and at least partly independent records of the same real event told by different people. William Paley pioneered the argument from undesigned coincidences in his Horae Paulinae (London: Religious Tract Society, 1850), which provides an extended argument for the veracity of the book of Acts and the Pauline epistles. Blunt’s work, inspired by Paley, applies the method of undesigned coincidences to both the Old and the New Testaments and then extends it to the coincidences between the New Testament documents and the works of the Jewish historian Josephus"[5] (You can read this work of J.J. Blunt here).

These "undesigned coincidences" provide compelling evidence for not only the reliability and veracity of both the Old and New Testaments, but also demonstrate the independent nature of the four Gospels. The more these examples are found within the context of Scripture, the more of a case is built for the reliability of the Bible, and the harder it becomes for the skeptic to refute these undesigned coincidences. Let us briefly examine a few of these, which, once examined, provides a cumulative case for the Gospels. Mark 6 and John 6 document the feeding of the five thousand. It is not the intention to establish whether or not this miracle actually occurred (though it is the view of this ministry that it truly did), but rather to point out a few things.

Mark 6:31 conveys, "Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat..." The question arises, why were so many people "coming and going?" A further detail is found in Mark 6:39, "Then Jesus directed them to have all the people sit down in groups on the green grass." This is significant, not because Mark's Gospel mentions the people sitting on the grass, because Matthew 14:19 records that people sat "down on the grass," and Luke 9:15 records that "everyone sat down," with John 6:10 recording that "There was plenty of grass in that place, and they sat down...", but this is significant because Mark records that the grass was "green." At first glance, this may seem trivial or unimportant, but when we consider that in Israel, particularly in Galilee, the grass is brown, this appears to present a scientific contradiction, since it could not have been green.

At the same time, we consider the facts: people were coming and going, and they sat on the "green grass." The following is an example of an undesigned coincidence: in John 6:4, which is in the passage describing the feeding of the five thousand, we read that "The Jewish Passover Festival was near." This explains why many people were "coming and going," and an interesting fact presents itself: during the Passover season, a small window of opportunity arises where we find that the grass in the area... is green. Mark provides the detail that people were coming and going, and that the grass is green, which by itself makes little sense - but when the detail from John is added, that Passover was near, much like a puzzle, the picture becomes clear. This is merely one example of an undesigned coincidence, with one detail provided in a Gospel that makes little sense until we find another detail in a separate Gospel. 

The cumulative case of these undesigned coincidences is rather remarkable, and establishes a case for the truth of Scripture. Consider another example found also in John 6. John 6:5 says, "When Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming to him, he said to Philip, 'Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?'" This is significant because Philip, unlike Peter, John, James, and others, Philip is not mentioned often in the Gospels, and would be considered a bit of a supporting character in a work of literature. Earlier in his Gospel, John reveals that Philip is from Bethsaida (John 1:44). Here is another example of an undesigned coincidence: Luke 9:10 says that this miracle took place in Bethsaida. Philip was asked in John 6:5 about food - why? - because Philip was from that area, and Jesus knew that Philip was familiar with the location, hence the reason he asked him, although John 6:6 reveals, "He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do." Interestingly, John does not mention the location of this miracle, but Luke does - Luke mentions the location of the miracle, but unlike John, does not mention Philip.

Papyrus 45 - Earliest Gospels and Acts[c]
There are many other examples, and we would recommend that you examine the work of J.J. Blunt by following the link mentioned earlier, or by going to the Library of Historical Apologetics website and reading the book from there. Indeed, "Much can be gained by an individual study of each of the Gospels. But still more can be gained by comparing and contrasting the different accounts of specific events of Jesus' ministry. For instance, in Matthew 14 we are given the account of the feeding of the 5000 and Jesus walking on the water. In Matthew 14:22 we are told that 'Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd.' One may ask, why did He do this? There is no apparent reason given in Matthew's account. But when we combine it with the account in Mark 6, we see that the disciples had come back from casting out demons and healing people through the authority He had given them when He sent them out two-by-two. But they returned with 'big heads,' forgetting their place and ready now to instruct Him (Matthew 14:15). So, in sending them off in the evening to go to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, Jesus reveals two things to them. As they struggle against the wind and waves in their own self-reliance until the early hours of the morning (Mark 6:48-50), they begin to see that 1) they can achieve nothing for God in their own ability and 2) nothing is impossible if they call upon Him and live in dependence upon His power. There are many passages containing similar 'jewels' to be found by the diligent student of the Word of God who takes the time to compare Scripture with Scripture."[6]

The case for the "Q" Gospel is scant on evidence, yet the internal evidence, archaeological evidence, historical data and scientific evidence affirms the veracity of the Synoptic Gospels, and demonstrates that they were written independently by different authors. Consider the following: Matthew, a former tax collector, was attributed the authorship from the earliest traditions of Christianity. He was writing to a Hebrew audience, and as such, tended to focus on the genealogy of Jesus (Matthew 1 provides Jesus lineage through Joseph, his legal, not biological father) and showing the fulfillment of prophecies, and emphasized that Jesus is the promised Messiah, and the "Son of David" (descendant of David) who was promised to David nearly one thousand years before the birth of Christ.

The Gospel of Mark, written by John Mark, ("John" is the Jewish name, "Mark" is the Latin) was attributed as such by Papias, who wrote no later than 140 AD and said, "Mark, who was the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately all that he remembered, whether of sayings or doings of Christ, but not in order. For he [Mark] was neither a hearer nor companion of the Lord." Not much later, Irenaeus stated that the Gospel of Mark was written "when Peter and Paul were preaching the gospel in Rome and founding the church there." After their deaths in Rome, "Mark, Peter's disciple, has himself delivered to us in writing the substance of Peter's preaching."[7] John Mark himself was like a son to Simon Peter (1st Peter 5:13), he was a cousin to St. Paul's companion, Barnabas, and though at one point had a falling out with St. Paul, ended up staying with St. Paul while he was in prison (Colossians 4:10) - as did Dr. Luke (Colossians 4:14), also allowing for the possibility that Dr. Luke had direct access to Mark's original Gospel from Mark himself (see also Philemon 24).

John Mark was an eyewitness to the events of the life of Christ and a close friend of Peter, who founded the church. Mark was evidently writing for a Gentile audience, as is seen by the exclusion of things such as many prophecies from the Hebrew Bible, Jesus' genealogy, Jewish controversies and the like. The vivid account relayed by Peter to Mark focuses on Jesus as the suffering servant (Isaiah 53) who came into the world not "to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mark 10:45). What of Luke? Dr. Luke wrote both the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts, a type of sequel to his Gospel, both addressed to Theophilus. Dr. Luke shares details not found in the other Gospels, usually to demonstrate that Christianity was founded upon reliable and verifiable facts.

Though not a Synoptic Gospel, it is worth mentioning John's Gospel. "The gospel of John, written by John the apostle, is distinct from the other three Gospels and contains much theological content in regard to the person of Christ and the meaning of faith. Matthew, Mark, and Luke are referred to as the 'Synoptic Gospels' because of their similar styles and content and because they give a synopsis of the life of Christ. The gospel of John begins not with Jesus' birth or earthly ministry but with the activity and characteristics of the Son of God before He became man (John 1:14). The gospel of John emphasizes the deity of Christ, as is seen in his use of such phrases as 'the Word was God' (John 1:1), 'the Savior of the World' (John 4:42), the 'Son of God' (used repeatedly), and 'Lord and...God' (John 20:28). In John's gospel, Jesus also affirms His deity with several I Am' statements; most notable among them is John 8:58, in which He states that '..before Abraham was, I Am' (compare to Exodus 3:13-14). But John also emphasizes the fact of Jesus' humanity, desiring to show the error of a religious sect of his day, the Gnostics, who did not believe in Christ’s humanity. John's gospel spells out his overall purpose for writing: 'Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name' (John 20:30-31)."[8]

While scholars tend to differ on agreement of the date of the Gospel's, many believe that Matthew, Mark and Luke were written between the 40's and early 60's AD, with John's Gospel having been written between 80-95 AD. The early church held that the aged apostle John wrote or dictated the Gospel in Ephesus in present-day Turkey.[9] The Gospel of John seems to assume that the audience is already familiar with certain events and facts about the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus. This is likely because the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke had already been in public circulation for a few decades, and John saw no need to repeat much of the information already presented to the public, but instead to demonstrate the deity of Christ (which, contrary to the claims of some, is also present in the other three Gospels, but simply not as frequently), to provide details and information on certain events that were not yet on record (such as the raising of Lazarus), and to answer to Ebionites of his day. 

Together, the four Gospels provide a clearer picture of Jesus Christ, born in Bethlehem, raised in Nazareth, who preached for around 3 and a half years, was beaten, flogged, crucified, died and was buried in a new tomb, and three days later the tomb had been found empty - and Jesus proceeded to appear to over 513 people over a span of forty days. The Gospels are a reliable and accurate testimony and record of the life of the Messiah, and when examined, particularly with the strength of the cumulative evidence from the numerous undesigned coincidences - only two of which were mentioned - coupled with the eyewitness testimony, it is not unreasonable to conclude that the Gospels are what they claim to be. 

Men were "carried along by the Holy Spirit" (2nd Peter 1:21), and, spanning 1600 years, God's Word was written to mankind, so that we may have hope. The accounts of the men and women of the Bible - such as Noah, Abraham, Joseph, David, Solomon, Jonah, St. Peter, St. Paul, and many others - helps us to look at certain situations in their lives and compared to ours, these accounts can help us not to make the same mistakes, or to understand life better, among many other things. The Word of God given to mankind records God's plan of redemption for mankind. The four Gospels are not derived from a non-existent "Q" Gospel, but from the Holy Spirit, who "carried along" men to write His Word. 

Thank you for taking the time to read this entry of "The Truth." We understand that there are those who will disagree with our beliefs, conclusions, and our methods of defending Christianity, yet it is our hope that you take the information presented to you into consideration. We can only provide the information, it is up to the individual to decide what to do with it. Feel free to email or with any questions, comments, concerns, or prayer requests that you may have - but we ask that you remain civil, or we will exercise the right to not respond. Also feel free to visit The Truth Ministry's facebook page or the main ministry website. Take care, and God bless you, reader. Troy Hillman
[1] Plinius Secundus (Pliny the Younger). Epistles X.96. 112 AD.
[2] Lucian. The Passing Peregruis.
[3] Sir William Ramsey, one of the greatest archaeologists to have ever lived, once questioned the reliability and historicity of the New Testament, but after researching for many years, a much-quoted statement about Dr. Luke was made: "Luke is a historian of the first rank; not merely are his statements of fact trustworthy; he is possessed of the true historic sense; he fixes his mind on the idea and plan that rules in the evolution of history, and proportions the scale of his treatment to the importance of each incident. He seizes the important and critical events and shows their true nature at greater length, while he touches lightly or omits entirely much that was valueless for his purpose. In short, this author should be placed along with the very greatest of historians." (From Ramsey's The Bearing of Recent Discovery on the Trustworthiness of the New Testament. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1915. Print.)
[4] "What is the Synoptic Problem?." Got Got Questions Network, n.d. Web. 18 Jul 2011. < >. 
[5] "Blunt, John James." Library of Historical Apologetics. Library of Historical Apologetics and the Institute for Digital Christian Heritage, 2010. Web. 18 Jul 2011.
[6] "Why did God give us four Gospels?" Got Questions Network, n.d. Web. 18 Jul 2011. < >.
[7] Alexander, et al., David and Pat. Zondervan Handbook to the Bible. 3rd ed. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1999. 577. Print. 
[8] Ibid, [6].
[9] Ibid, [7]. pp. 621