The synotic problem and historicity

Drs Gijs van den Brink, 1997



Were the words that the Lord Jesus spoke and the things He did, according to the gospel writers, really so said and done?  A strong proof for their accuracy is the often verbal agreement of the synoptic gospels.  Three witnesses of the same events should surely convince everyone of the veracity of these traditions!

The facts are however different.  In due course the harmony between the gospel writers became a problem, the so-called 'synoptic problem'. Reicke (1990) mentions four approaches to solve this problem. All four have had several adherents the last 200 years.

  1. The utilisation hypothesis, which holds that one evangelist was dependent upon another.
  2. The proto-gospel theory, implying that an unknown document is regarded as the common source of the four gospels or at least of three or two of them.
  3. The tradition hypothesis, which ascribes the similarities and deviations of the synoptic reports to an oral tradition represented by the apostles and evangelists.
  4. The multiple-source theory, which implies the assumption of multiple sources.

Nowadays most modern scholars endorse the first approach, the utilisation hypothesis. The often verbal correspondences between the gospels would point to literary dependence.  The question is then, of course, who is dependent on whom.  Since the middle of the 18th century, all conceivable possibilities have been proposed (cf. Kümmel 1977: 44-52; Dungan 1990).

Most scholars subscribe to the two-source hypothesis, according to which Mark is the oldest gospel, which was consulted by Matthew and Luke.  Along with Mark, Matthew and Luke would have used a second common source, the so-called 'sayings source' or 'Q'. There are many variations of this theory as far as details are concerned. 

Other proposals were also made, such as the Griesbach hypothesis.  According to this hypothesis, Matthew was actually the first gospel, first being used by Luke and lastly, was also used by Mark (Farmer 1983).  The possibility that Luke is the oldest gospel has also been proposed.  Mark would then have written his gospel after that, using the information from the gospel of Luke, and finally Matthew was written with the information from Mark (Lindsey 1984). 

All of these proposals for a solution to the synoptic problem have in common that they seek to explain the agreement of the gospels in terms of literary dependency.  Since a literary dependency makes the gospel writer a redactor  and greatly limits the historical veracity of the gospels, it is important to ascertain if this explanation is right, or, to put it differently, whether it is acceptable historically. It must be asked whether those who favour the source theory are not looking at the course of things too much from the perspective of the 19th and 20th century. As long ago as 1797, J.G. Herder rejected current methods of literary criticism by these frank declarations:

"Considering the manner in which Gospels were understood at the time in question, namely that Gospels contain oral records in written form, there was no objection to adding new oral communications, thus supplementing extant Gospels ... It was only natural that several Gospels were composed ... The whole idea that our Evangelists had been like scribes (scribae) who collected treatises and supplemented, improved, collated and compared each with the other, is ... extraordinarily inconsistent and unnatural with regard to their situation and intention, also to the purpose of their respective Gospels ... Assumptions of this kind lead to such a confusion that all points of contradiction between the Evangelists become even more conspicuous. Ultimately, one does not know which Evangelist would have copied the other, or supplemented, abbreviated, disrupted, improved, corrupted him or even stolen from him ... In fact, not one of them endeavoured to surpass and subdue the other, but each simply presented his report. Perhaps none of them had seen the Gospel of another, and even if this had been possible for one author, he did not make use of it when he wrote his own Gospel. (quoted by Reicke 1990: 302)

Well known scholars in the 19th and 20th century, such as J.C.L. Gieseler (Germany), H. Alford and B.F. Westcott (England) and H. Riesenfeld and B. Gerhardsson (Scandinavian school) uphold the tradition theory. Also, orientalists and folklore specialists are becoming more involved in the synoptic problem. Especially Lord (1978) has illustrated possibilities for explaining the similarities and differences between the gospels by paying attention to the unity of stability and flexibility, as found in oral traditional literature.

We want to discuss briefly four themes which cast light on the way the gospels most probably came into existence:  first, the quality of memory and recollection in the time of Christ; second, the method of teaching; third, the early written traditions of the words of Jesus, and fourth, the analogy with the tradition of the targums, the Aramaic translations of the Old Testament. 


Quality of memory and recollection


First of all, in Judaism in the time of Jesus, we are dealing with a culture in which remembrances play an important role.  It is a fundamental element in the life of the Old Testament believer, that he 'remembers' the acts of God and His commandments (Num  15:39-40; Deut  8:2,18).  Partly because of this, the faculty of recollecting was developed enormously. Riesner (1981: 119-200) provided a lot of information about the quality of memory in Jewish culture.

The children of Israel could recite long speeches by heart, such as those found in Proverbs 1-9 (Riesner 1981: 193). The Jewish historian of the first century AD, Josephus (Contra Apionem II,18 (178)), praises the ready knowledge which his fellow countrymen possess from their childhood. Rabbinical tradition gives various examples of the impressive knowledge of the Scriptures demonstrated by school children.  In a Babylonian church in the third century AD, rabbi Ze'iri was therefore able to restore a damaged text of a roll based on the evidence of children (Babylonian Talmud, 'Tractate Menachoth' 29). 

Church Father Jerome is also amazed at the memory of his Jewish contemporaries.  They are able to recite the genealogies found in the books of Kings and Chronicles from beginning to end and then from the end to the beginning (Comm. in Jer 25,26; ad Tit. 3,9) , some of them even being able to recite the Torah and the Prophets as well (Comm. in Isa 58.2).  With regard to the faculty of remembering in Judaism in the time of Christ it is also of no little significance that the tradition of old, which finally found its inscripturation in Mishnah and Talmud, was for centuries passed on orally.  Here we have a culture in which the act of recollecting is not yet spoiled by newspapers and books!

It is against this background that we must read the New Testament.  The gospels speak at least twelve times about remembering the words and deeds of Jesus (Matt 26:75; Mark. 14:72; Mark. 22:61; 24:6, 8; John 2:22; 12:16; 14:26; Matt 16:9; Mark. 8:19; John 15:20; 16:4).  The intention is clear:  what Jesus said and did should be remembered in the church (Michel TDNT IV: 682).  In John 14:26, Jesus Himself also said that this would happen, with the words:  'the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will ...remind you of everything I have said to you'.  What we have in the gospels is no more and no less than a fulfilment of this promise[i]

The Lord Himself has given His disciples this guarantee of the trustworthiness of the gospel tradition.  The apostles were also aware of their duty to remember the words of the Lord Jesus and to keep that memory alive in others (e.g. Acts 20:35; 1Cor 4:17). In fact, in 2 Peter 3:1-2 we read:

'This second epistle, beloved, I now write unto you ... I stir up your pure minds by way of remembrance:  That ye may be mindful of the  words which were spoken before by the holy prophets, and of the commandment of us the apostles of the Lord and Saviour' (KJV).

According to Michel (TDNT IV: 677) these words fit in completely with Jesus' words in His Last Commission: 'Teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you' (Matt 28:20). The promise of the Lord Jesus and the faculty of remembering in Jewish culture guarantee the trustworthiness and give a sufficient explanation of the harmony of the gospels.


Oral Teaching and the role of memorisation


In the passing on of traditions, recollecting occurs not so much spontaneously but as a part of teaching. The research of Riesner (1981: 97-246) has proven convincingly that the Israelites learned by reciting aloud, as was the custom in all of antiquity.  Just as in Mesopotamia, Greece and Rome, memorisation was the standard method of teaching here as well.  In the Old Testament, memorisation was the most basic method of transmission handed down from father to son (for example, Deut  6:7-9; 11:18-21).  It was no different in Judaism in the time of Jesus (4 Maccabees 18:10-16; Josephus, Vita 2 (8)). 

In addition, along with the teaching from father to son, there were two institutions in Israel that taught in this way during New Testament times: the synagogue and the primary school. Davids (1983: 84) says that since Jesus was a teacher with a group of disciples, it would be foolish to argue that he transmitted no tradition to them. Seeing that Jesus taught His pupils and the people as a teacher, it would have been rather strange if He had not taught His disciples to memorise.  It was in fact the normal method of teaching.  It appears from at least two events that Jesus did in fact teach by memorisation. 

We see this first from the fact that Jesus taught His disciples to pray the 'Lord's Prayer' (Matt 6:9-13)[ii]  Even more important is the second event, the sending out of the Twelve (Matt 9:36-10:15) and of the Seventy (Mark. 10:1-16), because the passing on of Jesus' teaching plays a role here. The disciples are sent out and do the work of a shaliah, i.e., an 'apostle', one who delivers not his own message but that of his sender (Ellis 1978: 242). These messengers were expected to pass on the authentic words of the one who commissioned them, as was common in Ancient Eastern custom (Riesner 1981: 467-468). 

Scholarly investigations into the style of Jesus' words and the structure of the longer discourses have also shown that Jesus used mnemonic techniques in His teaching, that is, styles of speaking which facilitate memorisation (Jeremias 1973: 24-38; Riesner 1981: 394-402).  Parallelism occurs on more than one hundred occasions in the words of Jesus, particularly in figures of speech and parables.  Parallelism was a form of teaching characteristic to Him and was, in and of itself, a tool for memorisation.  Along with the figures of speech of alliteration and assonance, according to Jeremias, Jesus uses four different forms of poetic rhythm. 

Research into the structure of the gospels also shows that generally they do not consist of a series of separate stories and proverbs, but of larger sections of tradition that have come into being from 'discourses' (Jeremias 1973: 46-48).[iii]

We conclude then that it is very likely that Jesus taught His disciples to memorise with the view of passing on His teaching. 


Written Greek Reports


We must now discuss the use of the written Greek texts, which have served the reliability of the tradition very well. Among contemporary Greeks and Romans, note-taking was a widely established custom (Kennedy 1978: 131, 136-137).  We know from the introduction of the gospel of Luke (1:1) that there were already many before him who had busied themselves with writing an account[iv].  Therefore, there were many Greek texts in circulation (Aramaic writings were not part of the daily life of a Greek, such as Luke; Zahn 1909: III, 50). How is this to be explained and how far back do these Greek texts go?  We need to draw attention to two matters here, which are somewhat unfamiliar.

First, the letters of Paul suggest that the situation which gave occasion to writing an account, was not the death of eyewitnesses but the absence of teachers (Ellis 1978: 244). 
Second, during the time of Christ, Palestine was trilingual-- Aramaic, Greek and Hebrew. In answer to the question 'how far do these Greek texts go back?' we can assume: in essence, they may go back to Jesus' sending out of the disciples in Israel (Matt 10; Luke10).  The two factors were already playing a role at this time. 

There was a need for teaching wherever the disciples came and met a responsive audience. It is quite possible that they left written records behind, but could that have been notes written down in Greek?  Of course, because there were 'hellenists' among Jesus' disciples. The Greek names Philip and Andrew and their birthplace Bethsaida-Julias strongly suggest their relationship with the Greek social society.  We also know that Jesus had listeners and possibly converts from the Hellenistic Decapolis at the other side of the Jordan.

In addition, Jesus Himself spoke Greek now and then, for instance when He met the Greek woman who came from Syro-Phoenicia (Mark 7:26). The Dutch scholar Van Bruggen (1988: 21) goes even further when he says 'Once the people of Jerusalem wondered: 'will he go unto the dispersed among the Greeks?' (John 7:35). This question is strange if it concerned a Galilean common preacher, who could only speak the Aramaic language. If that were the case, people would have been more likely to think of him going to the Jews living in Babylon.

The fact that people, by the thought of a departure, spoke of the Greek diaspora, shows that they did not think that it was impossible for him to preach to Greeks: it points indeed to a regular use of the Greek language in Jesus' teaching (see also John 12:20ff.: Greeks who were at the feast wanted to speak Jesus).

It is therefore very probable that records were already being kept in Greek during Jesus' earthly ministry (Ellis 1978: 246-247).  During the mission to Israel, some disciples or their bilingual converts could have proclaimed their message in Greek to interested Greek-speaking Jews.

If we accept that Jesus normally taught in Aramaic, these disciples had a two-fold task: to translate the message and to pass it on.  Oral translation for the purpose of transmission is very difficult. It then becomes quite possible that the apostles had found a motive for writing in this situation.

It is clear that the idea of written Greek reports is very valuable for the reliability of the gospel tradition and provides us with a convincing explanation of the close verbal agreements of our Greek gospel texts.


Gospels and Targums

Finally, we need to discuss a situation in Judaism where there is also a great deal of verbal agreement between independent traditions, viz. the Targums, the Aramaic translations of the Old Testament.  In Aramaic-speaking Palestine, the Hebrew Bible had become too difficult to be left untranslated.  Because of this, the institution of the 'interpreter' came into being. He translated into Aramaic the portions of Scripture read aloud in Hebrew in the synagogue.  It is generally accepted by Targum scholars that this was a customary practice in the synagogue in the time of Jesus. 

In recent years much research has been done into these Aramaic translations, in particular as to their relationship with each other.  There is in fact a great verbal similarity between the different traditions, but there are also differences.  The Targum scholar McNamara therefore speaks of the 'synoptic problem' of these Aramaic translations (McNamara 1976: 859).  He goes on to say that more and more researchers are concerned with the tradition of the Targums in order to gain insight into the early gospel tradition. 

One of them is Bruce Chilton[v]. He sees a four-fold analogy between the gospels and the Targums: they are both, on the one hand, verbal and, on the other hand, written; they were both formed in a Jewish context; they are both intended for popular use; and they both have a synoptic relationship. 

He concludes that the gospels may have taken their shape according to a process cognate with that which produced the Targums. The analogy between them both allows us to see how documents which were originally passed on orally can be verbally similar.

We return to the question that we posed in the beginning, that is, must the great verbal agreement between the gospels necessarily be explained in terms of literary dependency?  Our conclusion is that this is not the case[vi]

We have found three explanations for verbal agreement:  first, the quality of the memory in the Jewish culture; second, the fact that Jesus taught his disciples to memorise; and third, the existence of very early written Greek texts.  In addition, we have seen that first-century Judaism was familiar with an analogous situation in the Targums, the Aramaic translations of the Old Testament. 

The most important argument for the historical veracity of the gospels remains the great, and often verbal, agreement of independent witnesses. 




Bruggen, J. van, Marcus. Het evangelie volgens Petrus (Kampen: J.H.Kok), 1988.  

Chilton, B., Targumic Approaches to the Gospels: Essays in the Mutual Defenition of Judaism and Christianity (London: University Press of America), 1986.

Davids, P., 'The Gospels and Jewish Tradition: Twenty Years After Gerhardsson'. Gospel Perspectives: Studies of History and Tradition in the Four Gospels (vol.I., Sheffield: JSOT Press), 1983, 75-99.

Dungan, D.L. (ed.), 1990    The Interrelations of the Gospels (Leuven: Leuven University Press), 1990

Ellis, E.E., 'New Directions in Form Criticism' in: E.E. Ellis, Prophecy and Hermeneutic in Early Christianity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans), 1978, 237-253.

Farmer, W.R. (ed.), New Synoptic Studies. The Cambridge Gospel Conference and beyond (Macon: Mercer University Press), 1983.

Goppelt, L., Apostolic and Postapostolic Times (tr. R.A.Guelich, London: Baker Book House), 1970.

Jeremias, J., Neutestamentliche Theologie I (2. Aufl., Gutersloh: Gütersloher Verlagshaus Gerd Mohn), 1973.

Kennedy, G., 'Classical and Christian Source Criticism' in W.O. Walker (ed.), The Relationships Among the Gospels: An Interdisciplinary Dialogue (San Antonio: Trinity University Press), 1978, 125-155.

Kümmel, W.G., Introduction to the New Testament (tr. H.C. Kee, 2nd ed. London: SCM Press), 1977.  

Lindsey, R.L., A New Approach to the Synoptic Gospels (Jerusalem), 1984.   

Lord, A.B., 1978    'The Gospels as Oral Traditional Literature' in W.O. Walker (ed.), The Relationships Among the Gospels: An Interdisciplinary Dialogue (San Antonio: Trinity University Press), 1978, 33-91.

McNamara, M., 'Targums' in K. Crim (ed.), The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible (Suppl. vol., Nashville: Abingdon), 1976, 856-861.

Michel, O., 'μιμveσκoμαι', TDNT IV: 675-678

Michel, O., 'μvημovευω', TDNT IV: 682-683.

Reicke, B., 'The History of the Synoptic Discussion' in D.L. Dungan (ed.), The Interrelations of the Gospels (Leuven: Leuven University Press), 1990, 291-316.

Riesner, R., Jesus als Lehrer: Eine Untersuchung zum Ursprung der Evangelien-Überlieferung (WUNT 7, Tübingen: J.C.B.Mohr), 1981.   

Zahn, Th., Introduction to the New Testament (3 vols., repr., translated in 1909 from the third German edition, Minneapolis: Klock & Klock), 1977.



[i]. Th. Zahn, Das Evangelium des Johannes (Leipzig/Erlan­gen, 19216) 573. H. Alford, Alford's Greek Testament, I.II (18441, 18747, repr. Grand Rapids, 1976) 855.

[ii]. That the disciples asked this question (Mark. 11:1-4) does not mean that they could not pray in the right way, but they were asking for a prayer that was specially characteristic of their fellowship (Jeremias 1973: 167).

[iii]. The larger sections of traditions consist of sections which are connected to each other by key words. This key-word connection is a mnemonic tool and points to a word-of-mouth passing on of  information. Jeremias assumes that the whole gospel of Mark came into being through these word-of-mouth accounts (διδασκαλία). According to Goppelt (1970: 154-155), this is also the reason why the gospel tradition is so little mentioned in the letters of the NT. The letters are to be compared to a sermon, whilst the passing on of the words of Jesus was done in the catechesis.

[iv].αvατάσσoμαι διήγησιv in Luk.1:1; this we have to understand as 'to draw up an orderly account in writing' in contrast to oral tradition. So: W. Bauer, Wörterbuch zum Neuen Testament., Berlin/New York, 19715 ['eine Erzahlung (schriftl.) reproduzieren'] ; G.Delling, _vατάσσω, TDNT, VIII, 32-33; E. Klostermann, Das Lukasevangelium (Tübingen, 19753) s.v.; I.H.Marshall, The Gospel of Luke (Exeter, 1978) s.v.

[v]. Esp. his articles 'Targumic Transmission and Dominical Tradition' and 'A Comparative Study of Synoptic Development: The Dispute between Cain and Abel in the Palestinian Targums and the Beelzebul Controversy in the Gospels' (Chilton 1986: 113-136; 137-150).

[vi]. For the objection of the idea of literary dependence on rational grounds, see Alford's 'Independence of one another' in H. Alford, Alford's Greek Testament, I.I. (18441, 18747, repr., Grand Rapids, 1976) 3-6. Also the prologue of Luke (Luke 1:1-4) does not point to a literary dependence on the other gospels. παρακoλoυθειv in Luke 1:3 literally means 'to follow, accompany' and does not speak of literary research, but of investigation of the facts: E.Klostermann, Das Lukasevangelium (Tübingen, 19753) s.v.;  I.H. Marshall, The Gospel of Luke (Exeter, 1978) s.v.; or even about  being present at the events witnessing them: Van Bruggen 1987: 55, 263-264. Finally, it is evident that Luke knows nothing of a gospel or part of a gospel written by any apostle or other eyewitness. He says that those who have written an account, have received their information from eyewitnesses. Zahn 1977: III, 49; Kümmel 1977: 129.