New Testament 101 – The Synoptic Problem

The synoptic gospels are Matthew, Mark and Luke, so called because of their similarity in content and structure. Their treatment of the life of Jesus is so remarkably similar that scholars have identified a common textual source, Q, said to have been used in their composition.

Mark has 661 verses, Matthew has 1068 verses, and Luke 1149. Matthew and Luke share 235 verses with identical language said to come from the Q document. Matthew and Luke also draw content from Mark. 500 verses, and 350 verses respectively.

One explanation for this similarity is that each writer was inspired by the same spirit, this is a slightly naive position that doesn’t really deal with the convincing evidence on hand.

The four compelling arguments for interdependence are:

1. Jesus words and deeds are recorded in near exact wording – for example, the feeding of the 4,000 in Mark 8:1-10 and Matthew 15:32-39, the healing in the synagogue in Mark 1:21-28 and Luke 4:31-37, and the healing of the leper in Mark 1:40-45, Matthew 8:2-4, Luke 5:12-16. If you were to argue that spiritual inspiration accounts for this similarity them you cast doubt on John’s gospel which is not similar when telling many stories that appear in the other gospels.

2. There is significant agreement in the ordering of events in the synoptics – though there is some disagreement this can largely be attributed to authorial intention, and a stylistic decision to group similar events together.

3. There is further agreement in parenthetical content – it is highly unlikely that the writers would choose to include the same verbal sides, or inserted editorial comments, if they were not drawing from a common source.

4. Luke’s preface – Luke begins his account by acknowledging the existence of other accounts with the implicit notion that he drew from them in forming his own.

I have no problems with a common literary source, or a recording of things Jesus said while he was alive and ministering, being used to formulate the later accounts of his ministry. I don’t think anybody believes (though I might be wrong) that Matthew, Mark and Luke followed Jesus around with a quill, recording his every word – especially because Luke wasn’t on the scene, and the only evidence Mark was is speculative guess work that he wrote a couple of self deprecating coded references to his own folly in the gospel.

Markan Priority

We’ve established that the gospels were written with some reference to each other, and that Matthew and Luke share large portions with Mark. The question of which gospel came first has vexed scholars since the first century (in my opinion pretty unnecessarily).

Scholarship originally believed there were two documents floating around in the background – Q, and some sort of gospel ur-text (original text). After some deliberation and a dash of Ockham’s razor, it was decided that the Ur-text looked almost exactly like Mark, so it must in fact be Mark. Scholars have pretty much settled on the idea that Mark came first, for a number of reasons (not all are created equal):

1. Length – Mark is shorter than the others. It is almost totally present in Matthew and Luke, but they are not totally present in Mark, and although Mark is shorter than Matthew and Luke he is more long winded when it comes to shared accounts. Mark also misses a bunch of pretty important parts of Jesus ministry – like his birth and resurrection. A guy named Styler said “given Mark, it is easy to see why Matthew was written; given Matthew, it is hard to see why Mark was needed.”

2. Grammar and archaic language – Mark uses bad Greek (often fixed up in Matthew and Luke), and includes Aramaic expressions not included in the other two. Why would Mark add Aramaic back into his source? He also uses redundancies in his reporting that the others cut out. Much like sub-editors.

3. Mark writes tricky (or socially awkward) stuff without explanation, the other two explain it or leave it out.

4. Matthew and Luke rarely (if ever) use the same language as each other when they are not also agreeing with Mark.

5. The three use a similar ordering of events (though occasionally varying). Those variances are never the same in Matthew and Luke – when Matthew and Luke choose to disagree with the ordering of evensts from Mark they go in different directions.

6. The argument from redaction – most of the differences in the accounts of Matthew and Luke fit with their theological purposes – Matthew writes a lot about fulfillment, and refers to Jesus as the “son of David” three times more than either Mark or Luke. Mark uses the “historical present” significantly more than Matthew or Luke (151 times verses 78 and 9). The historical present (bringing life to the past by referring to it as present) was not a popular literary device in the first century, and Luke shows significant aversion to it.

7. Theological development – I don’t really buy this one so much, because I think it makes a tenuous jump on the base of terminology that also fits in with the author’s implied reader. Mark uses the Greek word kυριoς (lord) significantly less than the other two – who often modify “rabbi” or “teacher” to “Lord” which was one of the more popular terms for Jesus in the early church. It was also, incidentally, a title for Caesar.

In order for Markan priority, and Q,  to be plausible Matthew and Luke must not have known of each other’s work, If Matthew and Luke were aware of each other Q is completely unnecessary. Most of the reasons above for Markan priority are diluted in this case, and Matthean priotiy becomes more attractive.

There are a bunch of problems with the idea that Matthew and Luke were unaware of each other. They’re outlined (as is everything previously written here) in this useful article.  It concludes by suggesting that resolving this issue helps to date the gospels, which is useful for exegesis. The author of the article, Daniel Wallace, adopts the two source hypothesis and concludes that each gospel was probably written before 62 AD – which has significant implications because this predates the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 66AD. Flying in the face of those liberal postmodern scholars who think that everything supernatural and prophetic was the result of redaction by an oppressed Jew after Nero. Here’s another article outlining different synoptic theories.

How the “synoptic problem” influences exegesis

An awareness of the similarities and differences between gospel accounts means that when we come across differences in accounts we should ask “why has this writer chosen to put this in (or leave this out)? What does this add to their message? Who is this story aimed at? Being aware that different authors included different accounts deliberately helps us to properly assess the significance of these changes. Having a position on priority gives a base for comparison between the accounts.

What I think (or why the two source hypothesis doesn’t bother me)

As somebody who wrote press releases for a living, and who was always happy to see those releases picked up verbatim by the media, though with their own story angles added, I have no problem with the idea that the gospel writers were writing from a common source and fleshing out the accounts based on their intended audience. That doesn’t make their message any less true, it just makes their messages more targeted to particular groups of people. I have no problem with that. It makes sense. People who think this presents problems regarding the truth or authenticity of the gospel accounts have rocks in their heads.

New Testament 101: Background – Intertestamental Period

The Old Testament period, depending on who you listen to, either ended with Malachi (around 445BC), or Daniel (some scholars put Daniel in the second century BC).

In any case, the canonical account of the end of the Old Testament wraps up after the construction of Jerusalem’s “second temple” – hence the name “second temple Judaism” is applied to the religious practices that developed in this period. Israel exists under the reign of the Persians at the close of the Old Testament, and by the time of the New Testament find themselves under Roman rule. A lot of political water has gone under Jerusalem’s bridge in this time…

We have a fair bit of literature from second temple Judaism covering this period – important bits for reference sake include:

The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha

These books are non-canonical histories of the Jewish people that were widely circulated amongst second temple Judaism, and included in the Septuagint (also known as the LXX) a Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament from around the third century BC. The writings included in the Septuagint (and wikipedia links) include: Tobit, Judith, Wisdom of Solomon, Wisdom of Jesus Sirach, Baruch, Epistle of Jeremy (in the Vulgate this is chapter 6 of Baruch), additions to Daniel (The Prayer of Azarias, Sosanna and Bel and the Dragon), additions to Esther, 1 Maccabees, 2 Maccabees, 3 Maccabees, 1 Esdras, and Psalm 151.

The Dead Sea Scrolls

The Dead Sea Scrolls, discovered at Qumran, include copies of scrolls from the Hebrew bible, copies of these apocryphal documents, and a bunch of secular writings from the period describing life in Second Temple Judaism.

Jewish Histories

Josephus wrote significant (though pretty biased) accounds of Jewish history covering the intertestamental period and different events in the first century AD.

Philo of Alexandria gives a unique insight into the Hellenization of Judaism. He was a Jew, living in a Greek city in Egypt, he was well connected, and wealthy. And he fused Greek philosophy with the teachings of Judaism. Philo was a Jewish envoy to the crazy Roman emperor Gaius Caligula when trouble kicked off between the Jews and residents of Alexandria over the Jew’s refusal to worship the emperor as part of the Imperial Cult. His fusion of Greek and Jewish theology led some 19th century critical scholars to dub him the father of Christianity – because they believed the beliefs of Christianity to have evolved from this fusing. But it was more an apologetic exercise where he sought to promote Judaism as the best philosophy on offer.

The Persian Period (539-332 BC)

The Persian period placed Israel in a geographically precarious position between waring nations. Israel was the frontier for conflict between Egypt and Persia. Some suggest Nehemiah’s quest to rebuild Jerusalem’s walls should be understood in this light. Aramaic became the Jewish Linga Franca in this period.

The Hellenistic Period (332-143 BC)

Alexander the Great smashed Syria up bad and belted any Persian political pretenders into submission. Persia’s territories fell under Hellenistic rule. Then Alexander died and all his potential heirs started clamouring for power. Judea became a pawn in a two hundred year wrestling match between two dynasties – the Ptolemaic rulers from Egypt, and the Seleucid rulers from Syria.

The Hasmonean (Maccabean) Period (143-63 BC)

The Seleucid dynasty took control of the near east in about 202BC, and initially provided Israel with religious freedom. This symbiotic relationship lasted until 169 BC when Antiochus IV decided to loot the temple. There was a mini-rebellion after this, and Antiochus eventually issued an edict banning any expressions of Judaism and installed a statue of Zeus in the Temple in Jerusalem. This was like flame to a fuse, sparking a Jewish military rebellion. The Hasmoneans, a family linked to the priesthood – and particularly the Maccabean clan – aligned themselves with the Roman Empire and eventually claimed the high priesthood (Antiochus’ successor repealed his edict), and finally independence. The family eventually claimed royal honours and began expanding Jewish boundaries, in a quasi-messianic campaign.

During this period of self-government a number of Jewish religious groups emerged – the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Essenes and the Zealots. See below for their distinctives… and these groups

The Roman Period (63 BC to New Testament times)

The Hasmoneans rebuffed Greek rule for a significant amount of time, and during this period a power vacuum emerged in the near east – and there was nothing the Roman Empire liked more than a power vacuum in neighbouring territories. So Rome invaded. Pompey, a Roman General, arrived in Judea and found a house divided, two Hasmonean upstarts were fighting for supremacy. Both turned to Pompey for support, he picked a side (Hyrcanus), the other guy didn’t like it. And Pompey invaded.  Hyrancus was installed as high priest and “ethnarch” (but not king), and Rome redistributed the territories the Maccabees has claimed. A guy named Antipater, and his son Herod the Great, took power from the Hasmoneans. Herod was a Roman puppet. He ruled for 26 years and conducted a huge infrastructure program (largely to honour Roman rule and cement his power). He also wiped out the last of the Hasmoneans (including his wife, and his two sons by her). Herod died in 4 BC, leaving dueling heirs, and a dynasty vastly unpopular with the power brokers of Jewish society. Augustus wasn’t happy with either heir and placed Judea under provincial rule, through Roman officials reporting to the governor of Syria. In 66AD the Jews rebelled against Rome and Jerusalem, and the temple, were eventually destroyed.

Hellenistic Judaism

Hellenism was a cultural phenomenon. As the cultured Greeks conquered the primitive barbarian like nations around them they brought their culture with them. Cultural appropriations included religion, language, social structures, government, art, philosophy, and an aesthetic approach to just about everything… As this influence crept in, or possibly burst in, to the Jewish scene, the citizens of Judea were forced to reassess the core and non-core elements of their religious practice. This Hellenisation caused significant tension within the Jewish population – but it’s fair to say that it wasn’t all encompassing. Jews maintained their religious identities and kept ceremonial and cultic distinctions from the rest of the Greek empire. In many ways Philo was the model Hellenised Jew.

Hellenisation was essential for social mobility. Any political wannabees had to sell out their Judaism for progress.

While some “scholars” like Bart Erhman push the idea that nobody in Palestine spoke Greek as a piece of evidence for a lack of authenticity of the gospels – this is a minority position that pretty much contradicts all the extent evidence, including coins, inscriptions and papyrii from the period. Hengel is one scholar who has conducted significant work in demonstrating that Palestinian culture was a multilingual, multicultural melting pot. About ten percent of Palestinian Jews, in Hengel’s estimate, spoke Greek as their primary language.

There was no real “normative” model of Judaism in this period – everybody pretty much chose how Greek they wanted to be, or how Jewish.

Jewish Theology

The Qumran documents, and other apocryphal writings, show that there was significant theological diversity operating in the Second Temple period. There were four dominant theological movements, or sects, operating in Judea in this time:

The Pharisees

The Pharisees emerged largely in opposition to the Hasmonean rulers, and their fusion of prisetly and kingly power, they were a popular group and socially powerful. They sought to apply the Torah to everyday life, and are presented (particularly in Matthew) as the foils to Jesus teaching, they are often grouped with “the teachers of the law,” they were particularly concerned with creating a fence aroung the Torah, they created a series of extra laws and customs to ensure they would never encroach on the Torah (these were later written up as the Mishnah). They sought to bring about the Kingdom of God, and the arrival of the Messiah, by teaching God’s law. They believed in the soul, in resurrection, in heaven and hell, and in the existence of the supernatural. While they are often presented negatively in the light of Jesus’ teachings, it was a broad church of beliefs and practices (Nicodemus in John 3 was a Pharisee, Joseph of Arimathea may have been one too).

The Sadducees

The Sadducees were compromisers – they supported the Hasmonean dynasty, and the Hellenisation of Israel. They were wealthy. They were corrupt. They focused their theology on the Pentateuch alone, while acknowledging the rest of Scripture. Only doctrine that could be demonstrated through the Pentateuch was binding, they rejected Oral Law. The Sadducees, in contrast to the Pharisees, dismissed any notion of immortality, resurrection or supernatural beings like Angels and Demons. They did not oppose Roman rule. They were the administrators of proceedings in the temple under Rome, and died out with Jerusalem in 70AD.

The Essenes

The Essenes were essentially a Jewish Doomsday cult. They tried to withdraw from society, maintaining purity and piety, while awaiting the apocalypse. They repudiated the Maccabean dynasty, and believed that withdrawing from society would hasten the coming of the kingdom of God. They were intensely devoted to the law and saw themselves as God’s elect subgroup within Israel. Qumran was a particularly rigid Essene monastic community. They expected two messiahs – a priestly leader, and a kingly leader, and their documentation found at Qumran reveals that though the community was contemporaneous with Christianity they did not acknowledge Jesus or Christianity in any way (despite the views of some “scholarly” conspiracy theorists.

The Zealots

The Zealots were cool. They carried swords around and stealthily killed Roman collaborators. They were first century Jewish ninjas. They hoped to overturn Rome’s empire in a military fashion and led a variety of revolts during the first century that can best be described as failed messianic uprisings. Their expectations are consistent with some of the disciples’ expectations of Jesus as a military messiah.

New Testament 101: Overview

Right, so my New Testament exam is tomorrow. So I thought I would continue in my recent vein of boring you to death with my exam preparation. I am finding it particularly helpful to try to frame my thoughts on the matters at hand in the least boring way possible. So you’re stuck with these types of posts for the next four years. If we’re lucky.

Our NT exam (and this time I double checked the details) feature two sections of five questions (so ten in total) of which we must answer two from each section (so four in total). The sections are split neatly between the context of the gospels and the content of the gospels.

Context, judging by past papers and the material from our lectures, majors on the inter-testamental period, and the religious, cultural, social, and political structures and conventions of first century Palestine, with a bit of geographical context thrown in for good measure.

Content, examines the structure of each of the four gospels, their treatments of the life and ministry of Jesus and their particular emphasis and apparent intended audience (or purpose). This latter category is assessed by examining the distinctives of each of the synoptic gospels and different treatments (chronologically and in level of detail) of Jesus’ teaching (both in word and deed). There’s a particular emphasis (in the assessment and teaching content) on Mark’s gospel. And of course, we have to know about the so called “synoptic problem”…

These are the “learning objectives” from the course outline.

  • to be able to demonstrate an understanding of the historical, cultural, religious and political environment of Jesus’ ministry.
  • to be able to apply an understanding of background to explaining given passages from Mark’s gospel.
  • to be able to demonstrate an understanding of the issues involved in the so called Synoptic Problem.
  • to be able to give an outline of Mark’s gospel and explain what is distinctive about his presentation of the life of Christ, in comparison to the distinctive features of Matthew, Luke, and John.
  • to be able explain the teaching of the gospels on the Kingdom of God and other major topics covered in the course.
  • to be able to reflect on the implications of the material studied for life and ministry.

The topics covered in essays (and therefore not covered in exams) are:

  • Discuss Jesus’ attitude to the law.
  • Compare and contrast Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom of God with what we know of first century Jewish expectations about the kingdom.
  • Why did the parables play such a significant role in the ministry of Jesus?

So, based on my detective work, these are (loosely speaking) the topics I expect the exam to deal with:


  1. Something on Hellenization – both the 2008 and 2009 past papers ask similar questions about the Greekness of first century Judaism.
  2. Something on the theology of second temple Judaism – both past papers ask about how Jesus ministry would be understood against this backdrop.
  3. Something about the intertestamental period – one exam paper (2008) asks a question that was an essay this year (the expectations of the kingdom of God in the first century), the other about what happened in the period between Malachi and John the Baptist. This question will probably focus on the Intertestamental literature (Qumran documents), the 2008 exam had this as a separate question to the kingdom of God one.
  4. Something about Palestinian culture – probably with reference to shame/honour culture, the four sects of Judaism, and any other cultural norms that might be significant for interpreting the ministry of Jesus.
  5. There’ll probably be a second question about a slightly different aspect of one of these first four areas.


  1. A compare/contrast question about the structure of each gospel.
  2. A question about the intended audience of a gospel.
  3. A question about variations between gospel accounts of an event (probably something in the passion narrative/resurrection).
  4. Something specifically related to the content of Mark’s gospel.
  5. A compare/contrast question about two of the gospels, and the way they treat a particular aspect of Jesus’ ministry – probably his miracles, and probably a comparison between Mark and John.