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Previous article in this series: October 1, 2014, p. 10.

Introduction

If the Bible is not an altogether unique book, both as far as its contents and its authority are concerned, then the Christian Scriptures are reduced to what its critics, whether outside of Christianity or apostates from Christianity, allege: a merely human book, intended to solve merely human problems, flawed by human foibles, and suffering from the delusion that it is something more. If Christianity is to make good on any claim that it represents something greater than the other world religions, that it is not just another philosophy holding out the hope of improving the social and economic lot of its adherents, or that it is not just another, albeit somewhat large, support group that claims to uplift its members and impart to them certain coping skills, then what must distinguish it above all else is its authority. If Christianity is altogether unique, that can only be due to the fact that its authority and basis are altogether unique. What is unique about the Christian religion is that its authority is a divinely inspired, infallible, and inerrant Scripture. Every religion has its sacred book. But no other religion has a book like Christianity’s book. Its book is a uniquely holy book. Its book is holy because its book is the very Word of God—the Word of God in the words of men.

We are busy examining the doctrine of Holy Scripture. In particular, we are busy examining what the Bible teaches about itself. We have examined what the Old Testament Scriptures say about themselves—the law, the prophets, and the psalms. Last time we considered Christ’s view of Scripture. We saw that our Lord’s view of the Old Testament was that it is the very Word of God, a Word, therefore, that cannot be broken (John 10:35). Because it is the Word of God, Jesus appealed to the Scriptures as the final authority both for His teaching, as well as in controversy with His theological opponents. Even when confronting the Devil, Jesus chased him away with “It is written….” Jesus honored the Holy Scriptures not only in His teaching, but also by submitting to them in His own life, submitting to them when that submission involved suffering, shame, and ultimately death—the death of the cross.

Jesus’ attitude towards and use of Scripture is recorded in the gospel narratives: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. But not only do the gospel narratives make plain what Jesus’ attitude was towards the sacred Scriptures; they also make clear the view of the gospel writers themselves. To the gospel accounts can be added the book of Acts, which was also written by Luke, “the beloved physician,” and which sets forth those things that Jesus continued to do and teach in the church—the gospel according to Luke setting forth those things that “Jesus began both to do and teach” (Acts 1:1). The book of Acts records those things Jesus continued to do and teach after His ascension into heaven and after He poured out His Spirit into the church. The gospel narratives and the book of Acts make plain that the gospel writers shared the Lord’s high view of Scripture. They too considered the Old Testament Scriptures—and by extension the New Testament Scriptures—to be the very Word of God.

The “Synoptic Problem”

Before we consider the evidence that makes clear the gospel writers’ view of Scripture, there is a preliminary issue that we ought to address. That preliminary issue is what is usually referred to as the “Synoptic Problem.” What is the Synoptic Problem?

When the first three gospel accounts—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—are compared to each other, it is unmistakably clear that there are similarities between them. The gospel of John is somewhat unique, both in its approach and in the material that is recorded in it. Much of what is found in the gospel according to John is found only in John. But the other three gospel accounts are similar in content and in expression. They record many of the same events in the life, ministry, and death of Christ. Many of the same sayings of Christ, many of the same controversies, many of the same miracles, and many of the same parables are found in these three gospel accounts. It is estimated that as much as ninety percent of the material found in Mark is also found in Matthew. Because of their similarities, the first three gospel accounts are often referred to as the synoptic gospels, or simply, the synoptics. The word “synoptic” comes from two Greek words: sun, which means “together” and opsis, which means “a sight, or view.” The synoptics present a somewhat shared view of Jesus; their “sightings” of Him are much the same.

The similarities among the synoptics have led some to speculate as to the explanation for the similarities, as well as the differences. The question of how to explain the similarities and differences among the synoptic gospels is called the “Synoptic Problem.” What could account for the similarities among the synoptics? Whole books have been written—many books—by eminent scholars analyzing and proposing solutions to the Synoptic Problem. The following are some of the main solutions (hypotheses) that are proposed.

One solution is that the gospel writers depend on a common oral tradition. Back in Bible times people relied more on oral tradition than they do today in our age of texting, emails, faxes, and Facebook. This was the case in the Old Testament before Moses wrote the first five biblical books that comprise the Pentateuch. This was also the case in the early apostolic age. Many of the sayings and deeds of Christ were transmitted orally among Jesus’ disciples. This is the teaching of John in the last verse of his gospel account: “And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written” (John 21:25). Access to this common oral tradition, in the judgment of some, accounts for the similarities among the synoptics. Only two of the gospel narrators— Matthew and John—were eyewitnesses of Jesus’ public ministry, which, in turn, was only a portion of Jesus’ entire life. Mark, or John Mark, was a close associate of the apostle Peter, and Luke was a close associate of the apostle Paul, accompanying him often on his missionary journeys, as the book of Acts makes clear. There must have been an oral tradition on which especially John Mark and Luke relied.

Another solution that is offered to the synoptic problem is that of a common written source, perhaps a lost gospel, a proto-gospel from which each of the canonical gospel accounts drew. This common written source is often referred to as “Q,” from the German word quelle, which means “source.” We know that there were more than twenty apocryphal gospels, many of them Gnostic or Ebionite: the Gospel(s) of Mary Magdalene, of Peter, of Barnabas, of Bartholomew, of Thomas, of Matthias, of James, of Andrew, of Nicodemus, and more besides. Many of them attempt to fill in details concerning Jesus’ childhood and youth, including miracles that He performed and judgments that He called down upon other children who mocked and teased Him. One or more of these written gospel accounts was the common source of the synoptics, it is alleged.

Yet another solution to the synoptic problem offered by scholars is that the gospel accounts are dependent on each other. Some hold that Matthew wrote first, that Mark then created an abbreviated version (the Reader’s Digest version, if you will) of Matthew, and that Luke then borrowed material from both Matthew and Mark. All the possible variations of this hypothesis, differing with regard to who wrote first and who was dependent upon whom, have also been proposed, as well as a two-source hypothesis, to which many contemporary scholars hold.

Is There Really a Problem?

But is the “Synoptic Problem” really a problem for the Reformed believer and the Reformed minister who holds to the infallible inspiration of Holy Scripture? Do the proposed solutions create greater problems than the “problem” they allegedly solve? Do the solutions, in fact, compromise Scripture’s teaching concerning itself?

We believe they do. They do, because the scholars who propose them cannot accept the fact that despite their similarities the gospel accounts were written entirely independent of each other. The scholars who envision a “Synoptic Problem” cannot accept the doctrine of the divine inspiration of the Scriptures as the main, if not the sole explanation for both the similarities and the differences among the gospel narratives. In their view, something other than verbal, plenary inspiration must come into play to account for the similarities and the differences among the gospel narratives.

But for the child of God who approaches the Scriptures with the humble attitude, “Speak, for thy servant heareth” (I Sam. 3:10), the truth of divine inspiration ultimately accounts for both the similarities and the differences among the gospel accounts. To him there is no need for a heavy dependence on human sources; no need for a proto-gospel upon which the gospel writers depended. Although the writers were undoubtedly aware of the oral traditions that circulated, and although they may have engaged in a certain amount of research and investigation before writing their gospel accounts, what they wrote they wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. He revealed to them the contents of their accounts. What they wrote of the life and ministry of our Lord Jesus Christ, they wrote because it was revealed to them by the Holy Spirit. No less than the Old Testament writers and no less than the apostle Paul, the gospel writers wrote down what the Holy Spirit put in their hearts and minds. The similarities among them are due to the one Holy Spirit who inspired the gospel writers, to the one Lord Jesus Christ whose words and deeds they faithfully recorded, and to the one church of God throughout the ages to whom the gospel accounts are addressed.

The differences are not to be viewed as evidence that the accounts are contradictory, but rather complementary to each other. In a wonderful way they supplement each other. Together the four gospel accounts give us a complete picture of the life and ministry of our Lord Jesus Christ. Like so many pieces of a large jigsaw puzzle, they fit together to give us what is fundamentally one grand description of Jesus Christ, God’s Son in our flesh, our Lord and Savior.

It must be emphasized that the purpose of the gospel accounts is not to provide us with a biography of Jesus. If that were their purpose, they have failed miserably, especially in light of the lack of information concerning Jesus’ childhood and young manhood. Rather, their purpose is the revelation of God in the Person and work of His Son, sent into the world to save elect sinners. The material selected by the Holy Spirit in each of the gospel accounts fits this purpose.

Explanation for the Differences among the Gospel Narratives

The differences among the gospel accounts are largely due to the different groups that are specifically addressed in them, as well as their specific purposes. Matthew addresses his gospel account to the Jews in order to demonstrate to his countrymen that Jesus is the Christ, the fulfillment of all the Old Testament promises and prophecies. This accounts for the frequent reference to fulfillment of Scripture. This is why Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus begins with Abraham, the father of the Jews. Addressed as it is to the Jews, Matthew’s gospel account fills a real need. The book of Acts makes clear that for over a decade after Christ’s ascension, the church was composed almost entirely of Jews or proselytes to Judaism. The first need for an authoritative record of the words and works of Jesus arose among the Jews.

The second need for a gospel account arose among the Romans, the people and empire in power during the time of the apostolic church. In his missionary journeys to the Gentiles, Paul reached the major Roman provinces of his day and brought the gospel to the Roman world. John Mark, or Mark, who traveled with him for a portion of his missionary labors, wrote his gospel account in response to this need. In his gospel account, Mark describes Jesus especially as the great King, the glorious world Ruler. He presents Jesus in action. He omits many of the lengthier discourses and parables, and concentrates rather on Christ’s mighty deeds and miracles— deeds and miracles that demonstrate His kingly power.

The need for a gospel account also arose among the Greeks. On his second missionary journey Paul penetrated Greece, thereby bringing the gospel to the continent of Europe. Consequently, there was a need to instruct the Greeks concerning the life and ministry of the Lord Jesus. This need was met by Luke, Paul’s companion in his missionary labors throughout the Greek world. Luke was a physician and through his close companionship to the apostle Paul had an intimate knowledge of the truth of the gospel. Besides the gospel according to Luke, Luke was the human writer of the book of Acts.

Luke’s viewpoint is of Christ as the Son of Man. In distinction from the great men honored by the Greeks as heroes, Jesus is the Son of Man. For this reason, Luke’s genealogy goes all the way back to Adam, the first man. He is the sovereign Lord over all; not Caesar, but Jesus Christ is the Lord. Luke writes his gospel account to the “most excellent Theophilus” (Luke 1:3). That is a Greek name and means “God-lover.” It is evident from the preface to the gospel according to Luke that Theophilus was a believer, and had already received basic instruction in the words and works of Jesus. He may have been a catechumen at the time of the writing of Luke’s gospel account. Luke’s purpose was to enrich Theophilus’ understanding, so that he might be fully assured of the things wherein he had already been instructed. Luke indicates that in writing his gospel account he was dependent on those who “from the beginning were eyewitnesses, and ministers of the word” (Luke 1:2).

The gospel according to John stands apart from the synoptics. John was a Galilean fisherman, the son of Zebedee, who along with his brother James was called to be a disciple of Jesus. He and James were the cousins of Jesus, Salome their mother being the sister of Jesus’ mother Mary, according to John 19:25. Prior to being Jesus’ disciple, John had been a disciple of John the Baptist. In later life, according to tradition, John labored in Asia Minor, probably after Paul’s imprisonment. Under the emperor Domitian, in A.D. 95, John was banished to the island of Patmos, where he wrote the book of Revelation. After regaining his freedom, he spent the last few years of his life in Ephesus, where he died in A.D. 100.

It is John’s purpose to present Jesus as the eternal and incarnate Word. This is the fundamental truth about Jesus that must be believed whether one is a Jew, a Roman, or a Greek. His gospel account is a defense of the deity of the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus is the Word who was in the beginning, who was with God and who is God (John 1:1). The things that John writes in his gospel account he writes “that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing ye might have life through his name” (John 20:31). The many discourses that he records, as well as the deeds of Jesus, are calculated to demonstrate beyond any question that Jesus is the Son of God.

Inspired as they are by God, the gospel accounts “carry the evidence in themselves” that “they are from God,” and thus they serve “the regulation, foundation, and confirmation of our faith” (Belgic Confession, Art. 5). Next time we will take a closer look at what the writers themselves say with regard to Scripture’s inspiration.