Friday, June 8, 2012

The Synoptic Problem

Oldest surviving sarcophagus portraying Jesus as the Good Shepherd (a reference found only in John's Gospel)
Photo taken from Bart Ehrman's The New Testament - A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings.
This is an excellent book every Christian should read.

I first read of the "Synoptic Problem" when I was a boy but the text was not easy to follow and so rather than read up on it (this was a time before the internet) I did the next best thing - asked my vicar.  He told me this was not something for the lay person and it was huge ground for theologians to cover and we who were devout parishioners in Christ's Holy Church should be thankful for the work of these experts. They have grappled with the problem and they have solved it.  However, it would be too arduous a task for each one of us to try to understand such a difficult subject and we should rest secure that these brilliant scholars are there before us.

But what my vicar said to me was nothing unique.  I have since met many Christians including a good friend of mine who takes precisely that route in their belief - he actually said to me as we were drinking coffee after lunch that the scholars were more brilliant than both of us combined and if these scholars could believe, why couldn't we?  When my vicar first told me that, I knew he was talking rubbish and I realised that there were problems in the church that priests and scholars wouldn't want the laity to know.   So I did a bit of research on my own.  And boy, what a can of worms you can open up if you really want to peer into the Synoptic Problem.  The similarities of the Synoptics aren't all there is to a problem larger than the entire Church.  When you start examining the differences in the Synoptics, it becomes even more interesting.  How Luke changed Mark's stories, for example, (Mark was written much earlier than Luke) to suit his idea of Jesus being in supreme control as opposed to Mark's very different Jesus and how different Synoptic Gospels copied the sayings in Q (a sourcebook that scholars are certain was used by the Synoptics but has never been found) cast such a spell over me as a boy in a way that Treasure Island could not.  Of course when you go further and start to compare the Synoptics with the Gospel of John, you fall right into the deepest quagmire imaginable.  As someone close to me once said, he could not understand why the church did not get rid of 3 Gospels and left only one as the word of God.  Even a common burglar knows better than to carry his tools out in the open for all to see.

For a long time, I dismissed the existence of Q and I forced myself to think that the similarities (even where the verses were copied verbatim) were all due to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.  In my late teens, I joined a fundamentalist church and I firmly rejected any book that did not accord with the Baptist belief of biblical inerrancy.  For two years, my mind was shackled and I utterly refused to read any book that argued against biblical inerrancy or that questioned the canon of scriptures.

It's very hard to be a fundamentalist because you can't chain the human mind for too long.  Deep down, you know it's all bunkum but you are taught that such thoughts come from the Devil and the correct response is to reject them in Jesus' name.  But how many years can you fool a child into believing nonsense?  There will come a time when he will want to read those books written by the Devil himself and decide for himself who the real Devil is when it comes to lies, deception and falsehood.

To me personally, the biggest obstacle to faith must be the Holy Gospels themselves.  Elsewhere in the Bible (except for a few Old Testament books where two books tell the same story), each book has a monopoly of the story it tells.  Some tell the most fanciful tales but hey, you've got to accept them because they're inspired by God and besides, nothing is impossible with God, you of little faith!

But the Gospels tell largely the same story.  They all talk about Jesus and his ministry on earth.  But they disagree with one another like crazy.  And of course when you bring in John's Gospel, you are as good as supplying non-Christians with nuclear warheads and begging them to blow you up.

Theologians always come up with great names for serious problems with the Bible.  For example, instead of saying there are huge similarities and dissimilarities in the first three gospels, they talk of the Synoptic Problem.  This is sure to make the average parishioner lose interest.  Next, everyone knows how different John's Gospel is from the rest.  John's Jesus is a very different Jesus from the other Gospels.  In John's Gospel which was written the latest - as late as towards the end of the 1st century, Jesus is almost equal to God; in fact, a plausible argument can be made that he is equal to God! How else can we have our doctrine of the Trinity firmly entrenched if not for John's Gospel?

But instead of saying this, scholars merely say that we see in John what they choose to call "high Christology".  Wow, you've got to give it to these scholars.  When it comes to covering up problem areas, they are second to none.  High Christology sounds so lofty and correct.

You may think this isn't something you can fool anyone on but the average parishioner is fooled.  In the first place, most Christians aren't at all interested in their religion or the Bile or problems in the Bible.  They are more interested in the stock market, cheap deals and the latest tv programme.  They are more interested in, if I may borrow biblical language, the things of this world.  When you haven't the slightest interest in the Bible, why should you care if someone tells you there are huge problems with it?  You'd be more interested if he's letting you in on info concerning an imminent collapse of the stock market. 

But for those who are interested in these problems, the church has its apologists whose job it is to defend the faith.  There are many books written to reconcile what they call "apparent" inconsistencies.  I've read many of these books and I'm quite familiar with how they go about doing this.  I'm talking mainly about the Gospels because like I've said, for all the other books of the Bible, they usually have a monopoly over the stories they tell so there can be no contradictions there.

Broadly, this is how you reconcile the differences:

1.  Choose the greater number.  For example, in one Gospel, only one woman was at the Crucifixion of our Lord, another gives a different number and yet another gave about 4 or 5 (I don't recall the precise number).  The apologist will always take the larger number to be correct.  The Gospels that said fewer attended the Crucifixion were merely zooming in on these few without excluding the presence of the others.  Sometimes, you can't employ this ruse.  For example, John tells us the story of Jesus feeding the 5000 and one of the Synoptic Gospels says it was 4000.  Some apologists are quick to point out that one of the Synoptic Gospels specifically explained that the 4000 did not include women and children.  Difference harmonised?  No, I'm afraid not.  In John's Gospel, Jesus used 5 loaves and 2 fish to feed the 5000 and the crumbs filled 12 baskets.  In the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus used 7 loaves and a few fish to feed the 4000 and the crumbs filled 7 baskets.  Now, this calls for a different method:

2.  Say they are two separate events.  The feeding of the 5000 is a separate and distinct event from the feeding of the 4000.  Problem solved.

3.  Confuse parishioners with Greek.  Because the New Testament was written in Koine Greek, it's easy when one encounters a problem to say that the Greek word allows for a different meaning.  One example is our Lord's promise that his Second Coming would take place in the lifetimes of the Apostles, his listeners in the early 1st century.  This is one of the major problems of the faith because technically, Christianity should have died out in the 2nd century AD when Christ did not come again. Scholars tell us that some scribes in the early church even tried to alter some biblical verses to remove this promise of our Lord because it wouldn't look good for God to make a promise he didn't fulfil. In one verse, our Lord said that "this generation" would not pass before the end of the world came and of course he (Jesus) would come on a cloud with the angels.  Scholars have brilliantly shown that the Greek word for "generation" can also mean "race" and since the Jewish race is still around, phew! we can't say Christ didn't fulfil his promise.  Alas, there are at least 5 other verses where our Lord didn't use the word "generation" and he still made it clear that he would return in the 1st century when his 1st century listeners would still be around.

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