This past week in Sunday school, we talked about the story of Martha and Mary. These sisters appear, either by name or by anonymous reference to their story, in all four gospels. The stories are slightly different in all four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John), something that occurs quite often even though we aren’t always aware of it. In fact, we mush together the gospel narratives and get the manger, angel, and wise men all hanging out together in the stable, with King Herod’s henchmen close behind when really it didn’t go down like that. So, here’s the very first thing I ever wrote in seminary, a short paper explaining what’s up with the gospel stories, and why it’s ok to not believe the gospel writers were sitting around with a steno pad anytime Jesus opened his mouth.
The Living Voice of Inspiration and Authority in the Synoptic Gospels
In reading the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, it becomes apparent that these three Gospels often tell similar stories, yet sometimes use different wording, tell them in a different order, or even omit certain details and whole stories. Contrary to Raymond E. Brown’s statement that “most readers of the New Testament find the issue complex, irrelevant to their interests and boring,” attempting to understand the similarities and differences between Matthew, Mark, and Luke is actually quite relevant to the reader’s faith because the issue is part of a larger question of biblical authority and inspiration (Brown 111).
The question at hand, then, is how do we know that the Gospels offer a message that is faithful to Jesus?
For some readers, Scripture as a whole is viewed as the inerrant Word of God, so any discrepancies (dare I say errors?) such as those that can be found in the Gospels really need no explanation since that is the way God intended the Bible to be. Ignoring this group of readers, the answer to the question of faithfulness to the message of Jesus is addressed to readers who seek to have faith informed by scholarship, not in spite of it, and yearn to see the Gospels as a living Word of God, finding the Word of God to be a viva vox (“living voice”) experienced through time (Gnuse 2259).
The four canonical Gospels–Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John–account for elements in the life and ministry of Jesus, primarily through the use of narratives and parables. These four Gospels were probably written in the period of 65-100 C.E., with Mark considered the earliest and John the latest (Brown 109). Understanding that the attributed authors were not actually eyewitnesses to the ministry of Jesus is important to understanding the nature of the differences between the Gospels. It is very difficult to explain why separate eyewitnesses would tell accounts that sometimes were similar, sometimes exact, and sometimes completely divergent, including occasional anachronistic elements, and restructuring verbal identity in a way that even changes the actors in the story.
Within the four canonical Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke are called the Synoptic Gospels, because they can be viewed side by side, that is, “syn-optically” (Brown 111). Of the material that makes up the Gospel of Mark, 80% appears in Matthew and 65% can be found in Luke (Brown 111). Scholars refer to the content present in all three Synoptic Gospels as the Triple Tradition. There is also material found in both Matthew and Luke that is absent from Mark, and this is known as the Double Tradition. In instances when Matthew diverges from the text of Mark, Luke fails to do so, and when Luke diverges from Mark, Matthew does not. There is also some material present in the Synoptic Gospels that is found in Luke alone, and likewise some that is unique to Matthew.
In finding an adequate explanation for the origin of these nuances of the text, that is, in solving what can be called the Synoptic Problem, the most commonly accepted solution is called either the “two document hypothesis” or the “four source hypothesis.” The wording, phrasing, and order are often so similar between the Synoptic Gospels that a common written tradition, rather than an oral tradition, seems likely.
This solution posits Mark as the earliest of the Synoptic Gospels (a Marcan priority), and says that the writers or redactors of Matthew and Luke had access to Mark in document form and used portions of it to craft their Gospels. The four source hypothesis also posits a second documentary source, called Q, representing Quelle (“source” in German), that they used independently of one another. The Q source, while remaining hypothetical since it is not actually known to exist, has been reconstructed from the material found in Luke and Matthew to be 220-235 verses in length and is thought to consist primarily of Jesus’ teachings (Brown 117).
The other two sources (not necessarily documents in this case) that play a role in this hypothesis are known as M and L, are different elements that Matthew and Luke, respectively, drew upon when creating their text.
This solution to the Synoptic Problem does not explain everything in the Synoptic Gospels, nor is it accepted with universal consensus notably because of the divergences that Matthew and Luke make from Mark independently from each other. Other theories suggesting, for example, a Matthean priority (such as the Greisbach Hypothesis), may solve some problems, but also raise the question of the accounting for the Double Tradition and would need to explain why Mark chooses to leave out so many things found in Matthew that Luke does include. Despite not being a perfect solution to the Synoptic Problem, the four source hypothesis does succeed in answering more questions than it creates in the attempt to trace how Matthew and Luke came to agree so often in both wording and order with Mark (the Triple Tradition), while also answering how the Double Tradition diverges from Mark.
While the hypothesis uniting a Marcan priority, the existence of Q, and the suggestion of separate Lucan and Matthean material has been useful for explaining the origin of the observed Synoptic Problem, it does little to resolve for the reader the primary question about what such a difference actually means for interpreting scripture, understanding Biblical authority, and thinking about the Bible as the Word of God. The reason that such a technical answer to the apparent Synoptic Problem does not seem adequate for many is because “this is a theological issue, and so a theological answer is appropriate” (Brown 110).
For many people of faith, the Bible is treated with a sense of authority, and a belief, however general or specific it may be, in divine inspiration of the creation of the text as the Word of God. The idea of inspiration and authority are often linked together in a fashion that would suggest that the Scripture is somehow less authoritative as it becomes more human. The problem a reader may find in encountering the Synoptic Gospels, and the discovery of the process of editing and adapting sources, then, is that of a tension between treating the Bible as either a divine or a human document—and then believing that if it is human it has no authority and is no longer the Word of God.
If a difference in the way that the Gospel of Matthew tells a parable versus the way Luke tells is, for example, is viewed as an the work of a human redactor, it is liable to have errors, and thus not be infallible. Perhaps when Matthew and Luke used Mark as a source for their text they “felt that the Spirit of God was still on the move, so that they could change Mark’s words in ways that were still applicable to their contexts and people” (Blount 60). The challenge in creating a viable theological solution to the Synoptic Problem is to show that the discrepancy is not always an error, but perhaps an intentional act of redaction that conveys a specific message to the audience that would be less clear if the story was told in any other way.
The authority of the Bible does not necessarily have to rest on its inerrancy or on “its being a seamless document with a homogeneous or monolithic meaning” (Trible 2253). Authority can instead arise from the way in which a writer or redactor becomes a theologian and speaks of their experience in a community of faith to others in a way that is both coherent and meaningful. The reformer John Calvin treated this issue in a similar manner and suggests that Biblical authority does “not lie in words themselves but in the activity of the Holy Spirit at work both in the Scriptures and in believers” (Trible 2248).
The focus on conferring Biblical authority through the inspiration of scripture is really that of an incarnate Word, a living Word, that does not just rest with whatever author or redactor first wrote the words. In focusing on an inerrant word, a word that is located in a book, as the basis for Scriptural authority, inspiration is lost, and the text dies. Words contained in books, even if they are read aloud, are always read–never spoken. A perspective on Biblical authority that sees the words as anything other than evolving and alive “does a disservice to the power of the living Word to confront, challenge, and liberate us in the places where God’s Holy Spirit of Christ meets us today” (Blount 67).
The Word of God thus becomes not an infallible Word, and perhaps not even what some would call a Living Word, but is for the readers a Living Voice that was written with the author’s best human attempt to look toward the divine and shape the story of Jesus into a message that would speak to the readers of that time and continues to speak to us today as we experience it.
Blount, Brian K. “The Last Word on Biblical Authority.” In Walter Brueggemann, William C. Placher, and Brian K. Blount. Struggling With Scripture. Lousiville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002.
Brown, Raymond E. An Introduction to the New Testament. New York: Doubleday, 1997.
Gnuse, Robert. “Inspiration of Scripture.” In Walter J. Harrelson, Ed. The New Interpreters Study Bible. Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon Press, 2003.
Trible, Pyllis. “Authority of the Bible.” In Walter J. Harrelson, Ed. The New Interpreters Study Bible. Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon Press, 2003.