Last week a friend asked me for my thoughts on the ‘Synoptic Problem,’ a phrase used in New Testament studies as shorthand for what could account for both the similarities and dissimilarities between the Gospels Mark, Matthew and Luke, the three Gospels known as the ‘Synoptic Gospels’ for the common narrative they tell. ‘Synoptic Gospels’ is a way of distinguishing Mark, Matthew, and Luke from John, whose narrative is strikingly different.
Scholars speculate that the synoptics all borrowed from an additional gospel source labeled ‘Q’ that was lost to the Church.
Behind all of this conversation is an awareness that the four Gospels are not unified in what they tell about Jesus and how they tell it.
Only someone who hasn’t read the Bible would be surprised by that. Even the ancient Church both knew and was untroubled by this fact.
I remember taking my first New Testament class as a freshman at UVA and feeling perplexed that so many (many conservative evangelicals) students were threatened- their faith shaken to the core– by the so-called ‘Synoptic Problem.’
For me, it was one big yawn fest.
I felt then and do more so know that ideas like the ‘Synoptic Problem’ are only a problem if you have a ‘modern’ notion of the infallibility, inerrancy and divine authorship of scripture.
If, on the other hand, you have a more patristic recognition that the texts of scripture are incarnation (the divine coming to us by way of the human) you’re free to receive the texts as they’re given to us by the historic Church.
NT studies is a legit discipline and one in which I have little interest in so long as it’s driven to get at the ‘text behind the text’ and solve riddles the first recipients of the text seemed little interested to solve.
For me, it’s important that the ancient Church put four different Gospels into the canon, recognizing and accepting a diversity within the Gospel witness and refusing to codifying it into a single narrative.
More importantly for my faith, I’m uninterested/untroubled by things like the ‘Synoptic Problem’ simply because, before there was ever any New Testament texts, Christians were breaking bread and sharing wine with a (High Christology) prayer about/to Jesus, the incarnate, crucified, and risen Lord.
I’m not bothered or especially interested in side debates about the Gospels when Paul’s Letter to the Colossians sings of Jesus as being the pre-existent Son of the Trinity before the Gospels were committed to paper or when Paul can tick off people who’ve encountered the Risen Christ, still within the first generation of scripture.
All this is just to echo Karl Barth, things like the Synoptic Problem are problematic only to those who worship the bible.
For those who worship the Word of God, Jesus Christ, no biggie.
Of course, I could’ve saved you the trouble of reading this just by posting this video of Stephen Colbert, comedian and committed traditional Catholic, eviscerating Barth Ehrman, the aforementioned hack.