The Synoptic “Problem”

The Gospel of John is very different from the other three, and they are similar to each other. Is that a problem?

The gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are similar in many ways. They cover much of the same material, have the same general historical arrangement, and use many of the same words. Bible scholar JJ Griesbach named these gospels “synoptic” because they seem to “see together”. However, there are notable differences between these gospels. The presence of such striking similarities and curious differences causes Christians to ask “how can this be” and “where did these gospels come from”? This is the Synoptic Problem.

There are many possible solutions to the Synoptic Problem. First, it is possible that the Synoptics were all drawn from one source, possibly an original in Hebrew or Aramaic. This is a little hard to believe, though. If one gospel existed already, why write more, changing some of the material in the process? Who wrote it, and what was their relationship to Jesus? Why would such a source not be mentioned anywhere in Early Christian literature?

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Proselytes, God-fearers, and Relations between Jews and Gentiles in the Bible

Relations between Jews and Gentiles have been problematic for most of the history of the Jewish people.  Abraham seems to have been humble about his special relationship with God, and Isaac and Jacob as well.  They all seem to have integrated well into the world around them, while staying faithful to YHWH.  The Patriarchs, while flawed, knew the Lord, and were honored for it.

Slavery in Egypt was a defining period in the Jewish nation, and they understandably hated the Gentile Egyptians.  The Passover highlighted the distinctiveness of the Hebrews as God’s people, and on Mt. Sinai the tribes received the Law which separated them in many ways from those around.  Psychologically, such distinctiveness sometimes leads to short term feelings of inferiority and long term feelings of superiority.

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The Messiah, Who Did the Jews Expect Him to Be?

The Messiah was supposed to deliver Israel from all oppressors and lead them into a new golden age. A rabbi from Galilee was not what they had in mind. 

“Messiah”, “Anointed One” and “Christ” are some of the most common names used by Christians (“Christ followers”).  We understand that Jesus (the) Christ is the anointed Son of God, Creator, and Lord of the Universe who came to earth once to suffer, die and be raised again to save us from our sins.  One day He will come again to establish His perfect kingdom in the Universe.  We see Him as a suffering servant, and a conquering hero.  Given the full text of the Bible and our knowledge of what Jesus actually did, this is entirely reasonable.  But the picture of the Messiah was far different to Jews in the first century.

Like America in 2011, Palestine in the first century AD was a diverse place, with Jews, Romans, Greeks, Persians, Arabs, Egyptians, Africans, and a host of others.  Religions were aplenty, especially in Galilee, Samaria and Perea, and political intrigue and violence was the norm.  Many Jews longed for a return to the glorious days of King David, when Israel was the greatest power in the Near East.  They also chafed under Roman domination, oppressive taxes, and the rule of an outsider, Herod.  Spiritually, the Jews had been bereft of the prophetic voice of God for 400 years, and they hoped for another prophet to show the way.

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The Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Essenes

The Pharisees, whose origin is probably in the “pious ones” or Hasidim, were a prominent religious group of at least 6,000 members in first century Palestine. After the catastrophe of the Babylonian exile and the growing threat of Hellenism during and after Alexander the Great, the Jews tried to recover what was right about their religion and culture and prevent anything similar from ever happening again.  They were dedicated to the Law, including the Torah, the Writings and the Prophets, and they believed that they should focus on three things.

  1. To know the Law expertly and judge wisely from it
  2. To make disciples
  3. To build a fence around the Law.

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