The Synoptic Problem

Find out what the synoptic problem is and discuss why it is important for learning about who Jesus really was and what he said. Whatever your outcome (documentary, essay, PowerPoint) it should discuss similarities between the three synoptic Gospels and John’s Gospel and comment on why these are important as historical sources. ***

french-revolutionImagine you’re sitting in a history lesson trying to work out what happened in the French Revolution. You need sources. There’ll be some aristocrat telling us all about how the peasants should go way and eat cake (or something) and some peasant telling us all about how the aristocracy are taking all the bread and we have to work out who’s telling the truth.

To do that we need sources. The more sources that say the same thing, the more likely those sources are to be true. The more disagreement between sources the less likely they are to be true!

But then what happens if all the sources that say the same thing were written by the same group of people? Or copied from one primary source? maybe the French Revolution didn’t even happen!

All of this is true when asking questions about Jesus. Was he real? Did he do what people said he did? Like any other historical claim we need evidence and sources to assess how likely it is to be true; and it helps if those sources agree.

For this reason the people who put the Bible together included four Gospels (the bits with the story of Jesus in). In other words they told (roughly) the same story four times (the Bible actually does that a lot). It’s very dull but it’s not meant to be a page turner – it’s meant to lend historical credibility. If more than one person said the same thing then it’s likely to be true.

For this reason we get Matthew, Mark, Luke and John who all tell the story of Jesus. John Synoptic_problem_two_source_coloredis weird, so let’s leave him to one side for now. Matthew, Mark and Luke are called the SYNOPTIC GOSPELS because they merge together and tell the same story (give or take a few small differences).

If they all tell the same story then they’re likely to be true. Aren’t they?

Well, the problem is Matthew and Luke seem to have copied Mark. Maybe they say the same thing but it’s not surprising when they copied it. Just because Jack and Jill’s maths homework both say 2+2=5 doesn’t make it right, it just means they both copied the error from Phil.

However, there are differences. They didn’t just copy Mark, they added their own stuff as well, and seem to have copied another document that we don’t have anymore (we call this document ‘Q’ (don’t ask)). So, it’s not entirely copied and it does tell the same story.

Then there’s John, who clearly didn’t copy Mark or ‘Q’ but does tell some of the same stories. So did Jesus do any of these things? You tell me!

Click on the image below to look at a table of the similarities and differences between some of the stories in the Gospels:

Synoptic Gospels


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