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The Synoptic Problem

The order of the Gospels in our printed Bible is that sanctioned by Tradition. The first three Gospels are frequently called the Synoptics (from the Greek terms syn "together," and opsis "view"). When placed side by side and brought under one view, these three Gospels present a striking resemblance and appear as one narrative. Not only are many of the same events and speeches recorded in each, but the order and manner in which they are narrated is nearly the same. The problem as to the origin and relation of the first three Gospels, presented by these resemblances, has been called the "Synoptic Problem." We can here only touch on some of the many theories proposed to solve this problem.

1) Some scholars find the solution in the oral tradition of the Church (Oral-Tradition theory): The early Apostolic teaching took a fixed form; the life and teaching of our Lord came eventually to be told in practically the same stereotyped way; the Synoptists - independently of each other - simply wrote down this stereotyped oral Gospel.

This theory is universally recognized to be insufficient. The Synoptics do not quite agree on some very important matters on which we would expect tradition to be unanimous - as the words of the institution of the Eucharist, the Lord's Prayer, the narrative of Peter's confession. Again, the language of the primitive catechesis was Aramaic; the Gospels in the form in which we possess them are in Greek; yet the Synoptics often agree word for word.

2) Others maintain that the three Synoptics were derived - with more or less modification - from one written source. This theory, however, fails to explain the omissions by St. Mark and the differences in arrangement in the Synoptics. Again, why are all contemporaries and the Gospels themselves silent about this source?

3) According to the Two-Document theory, the oldest and original document was a collection of the sayings of the Lord, which contained the Sermon on the Mount, the temptation of our Lord, and a number of other incidents. This collection of sayings is no longer extant as a distinct document. Next, St. Mark wrote his Gospel which was an original and independent composition. Then our present St. Matthew's Gospel (in Greek) and St. Luke's Gospel were compiled; the Evangelist in each case took Mark's Gospel as his model and chief source, and to this framework he added the sayings of our Lord and finally the materials peculiar to his Gospel.

The Two-Document theory cannot be reconciled with the constant tradition of the Church - a tradition which can be traced to the beginning of the second century - that St. Matthew's Gospel preceded the others and was originally written in Aramaic. Catholic scholars, however, may subscribe to the following arrangement: Matthew wrote the first Gospel in Aramaic; Mark used this Gospel when composing his own Gospel in Greek; then the Greek translation of Matthew was made in partial dependence on Mark but in substantial conformity with the Aramaic original; Luke wrote in partial dependence on Matthew and Mark but had other sources at his disposal.

4) The best solution seems to be the following: Mark and Luke used the writings of their predecessors: in addition, each Evangelist used sources and oral traditions peculiar to himself. The differences can be explained partly by the variations in the oral Gospel, partly by the style, special purpose and personality of each of the Evangelists.

St. Matthew

St. Matthew's Gospel was intended for the Jewish converts of Palestine, and was written in Aramaic, the language of the country. Unlike St. Luke (3:38) who in his genealogy of Christ goes back to God, St. Matthew goes no further back than Abraham (1:1-2). From the outset St. Matthew shows us in Jesus the son par excellence of Abraham and David - the Messias in Whom were fulfilled the prophetic oracles. Writing primarily for members of the chosen race, the Evangelist does not explain such Jewish terms as "raca" ("fool") (5:22), "carbona" (27:6), etc. St. Matthew does not explain as St. Luke does - Palestinian geographical terms, but simply speaks of Christ's "own city" and "own country" (9:1; 13:54). He repeatedly dwells on our Lord's denunciations of the Pharisees and of the Jewish leaders (ch. 12, 16, 22, 23).

The aim of the first Gospel is to show that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messias - the Christ or the "Anointed One" - promised in the Old Testament, and that His kingdom is the Church which He founded. St. Matthew constantly refers to prophecies fulfilled in our Lord in words such as these: "As it is written."

"This was done that it might be fulfilled what the Lord spoke." St. Matthew reproduces some sixty or seventy passages from the Old Testament; the other Evangelists together quote the Old Testament about fifty times. Again, St. Mark and St. Luke as a rule adduce only those quotations which occur in our Lord's discourses; St. Matthew, on the other hand, argues from the pages of the sacred text. While proving that Jesus is the fulfillment of the ancient prophecies, St. Matthew at the same time explains how the Jews - always resisting the inspirations of divine grace - rejected Him Who came upon earth primarily to save the Jews.

Although St. Matthew wrote chiefly for Jewish converts, his Gospel is not restricted to them. The adoration of the Magi - who represent the first fruits of the conversion of the Gentiles to Christ - should more naturally find a place in the third Gospel, the Gospel of universal salvation; yet the account of it is found in the first Gospel. Again, St. Matthew narrates parables in which special preference is given to the Gentiles - as, for example, the parables of the two sons, of the wicked husbandmen, and of the marriage of the king's son. He quotes prophecies concerning the Gentiles (8:11; 12:18, 21; 21:42 to 22:14; 25:32) and narrates miracles worked by our Lord for them (8:5-13; 15:21-28). He declares the universality of the Messias' kingdom in narrating Christ's commission to His Apostles to go and teach all nations (28-19). On the other hand, the first Gospel leaves to the third the narration of such specifically Jewish incidents as the mission of the Precursor, the Circumcision, the ransoming of Jesus, and Mary's purification.

While the opening chapters of St. Luke's Gospel are composed from the viewpoint of the Mother of Jesus, those of St. Matthew's are composed from the viewpoint of St. Joseph. In St. Luke's Gospel all events seem to converge toward Mary, in St. Matthew's Gospel all events gravitate around St. Joseph.

It is to Joseph that the angel announces the approaching birth of a Saviour from a virgin mother. He it is who is head of the Holy Family. He receives the order to take the Divine Infant as quickly as possible to Egypt in order to withdraw Him from the plots of Herod. It is to him again that the order is given - when the danger is past - to bring Jesus back to Palestine. On the basis of this double circumstance, may we not legitimately argue that, directly or indirectly, it is above all to St. Joseph and Mary, who took so great a part in the mysteries of the Infancy and Hidden Life, and to the members of their family, that St. Matthew and St. Luke owe their remarkable acquaintance with these phases of Christ's life?

St. Mark

St. Mark was the son of Mary whose house at Jerusalem was a meeting place of the Christians. It was to Mary's house that St. Peter went after his miraculous deliverance from prison. Some conjecture that the youth who fled naked from Gethsemani (14:51) was the Evangelist himself. St. Mark was baptized and instructed by St. Peter. In about the year 42 A.D. he came to Rome with the Prince of the Apostles. There at the request of the faithful he wrote his Gospel about the year 50 A.D. His Gospel is a record of the substance of St. Peter's preaching concerning our Lord. St. Peter's discourse in the house of the Roman centurion Cornelius (Acts 10:34-43) has been justly considered as an outline of St Mark's Gospel - as St. Mark's Gospel in miniature.

The Gospel of St. Mark gives special attention to St. Peter. The vivid descriptions, the swift movement of thought, the frequent use of such words as "straightway," "immediately," "quickly," "forthwith," "at once," strongly recall the quick and impulsive fisherman of Galilee. The Gospel suppresses incidents indicative of his position and dignity among the Apostles, such as, for example, the walking upon the water (Matt. 14:29), the finding of the coin in the fish's mouth (Matt. 17:26), the promise of the Primacy (Matt. 16:16-19), and the commission to confirm the brethren (Luke 22:31-32). On the other hand, events which are derogatory to St. Peter are deliberately emphasized - even when they are minimized or passed over by the other Evangelists. Nowhere, for example, is the depth of St. Peter's fall more fully indicated than in Mark's Gospel. One can well imagine St Peter supervising "over St. Mark's shoulder" the composition of the Gospel so that the Apostle's defects rather than his merits are emphasized.

Internal evidence shows that the Gospel was written for Gentiles, especially for Roman Gentile converts. The Gospel quotes but seldom from the Old Testament (cf. 1:2, 3; 15:28), since an appeal to the prophets would have been meaningless to the Romans. So, too, the title "Son of David" is rarely applied to our Lord. Comparisons between the Old and the New Law - which form so striking a feature in the Sermon on the Mount are also missing. On the other hand, St. Mark is careful to explain Jewish rites and customs which might prove unintelligible to a pagan reader, as, for example, the purifications (7:3), the passover (14:12), the day of preparation (15:42). He explains words and expressions which Gentile converts would not be likely to understand; for example: "Boanerges" (3:17), "Talitha cumi" (5:41), "Ephpheta" (7:34), "Corban" (7:11), "Bartimaeus" (10:46), "Two mites" (12:42). He uses Latin terms which no other Evangelist employs; for example, "spiculator," executioner (6:27), "sextarius," a cup (7:8), "quadrans" a farthing (12:42), "centurio," a Roman officer in charge of 100 soldiers (15:39).

The aim of St. Mark's Gospel is to show, especially from our Lord's miracles, that Christ is true God, that He alone verifies in Himself the Roman title of "Lord of All." The very first verse of the Gospel contains the triumphant assertion of Christ's Divinity: "The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God." The Evangelist not only affirms the fact of our Lord's Divinity but also indicates its consequences. He shows that all things in heaven and upon earth must needs be subject to Christ. It is for this reason that Mark insists so much on miracles and dwells upon them with a fullness of detail not found in St. Matthew's and St. Luke's Gospels. Writing for the pagans who peopled nature with divinities and admitted the existence of "many gods," St Mark describes especially Christ's miracles over nature and shows that even evil spirits must be subject to Him. In St. Mark's account, Christ never uses explicitly the title "Son of God" but always refers to Himself as "Son of Man." Our Lord's humble ways thus stand in sharp contrast with those of the Roman Emperors who boldly and proudly styled themselves the gods, lords and saviours of the world.

St. Mark excels in portraying the emotions and affections of both Christ and His hearers. He gives minute details of our Lord's gestures, looks and words. He calls attention to Christ's anger, indignation, love, pity, grief and wonder. At the same time the Evangelist records the deep impression which Christ's words and miracles had on His followers. He tells us that the disciples and the multitudes were in astonishment at His doctrine and works.

St. Luke

St. Luke was a native of Antioch - a city renowned for its learning - where he received his early education. From the fluency and perfection of his literary style, it is inferred that he was a Greek. The teaching of Tradition that St. Luke was a physician is based on certain statements in his own writings. The Evangelist manifests great interest in diseases and their cure, and describes them in the language of ancient medicine. St. Paul explicitly refers to him as "the most dear physician" (Colossians 4:14). The belief that St. Luke was a painter is based on the statement of Nicephoras Callistos of the sixteenth century that the Empress Eudocia "sent to Pulcheria from Jerusalem an image of the Mother of God, which the Apostle Luke had painted." After his conversion he became a special friend of St. Paul, whom he first met at Troas. He remained St. Paul's companion on the missionary journeys. He visited St. Paul frequently during the latter's imprisonment at Caesarea, remained at the Apostle's side during the two years' imprisonment in Rome, and was alone with St. Paul at the time of his last imprisonment (II Timothy 4:11). Little is known of St. Luke after St. Paul's death.

1) St. Luke's Gospel is a record of Christ's life and teaching as preached by St. Paul. It stresses those facts which illustrate - in the spirit of the Apostle of the Gentiles - the universality of salvation for both Jew and Greek. It sets Christ forth as the Saviour of mankind. In exquisitely tender colors it depicts our Lord as the merciful and pitying Divine Physician - as the Friend of sinners and Consoler of afflicted. It describes those incidents which would touch the hearts of the heathen and awaken their confidence in God. The love of Christ for sinners is illustrated in the accounts of Zachaeus (19:2), the sinful woman (7:37), and the penitent thief (23:42-43). It is St. Luke's Gospel alone that narrates the beautiful parables of the Good Samaritan (10:25), the Prodigal Son (15:11), the Unjust Steward (16:1), Dives and Lazarus (16:19), the Pharisee and the Publican (18:10). The doctrine of universal salvation appears even in the genealogy of Christ, which is brought down from Adam, the father of all mankind (3:23-38), and not - as in St Matthew's Gospel - from Abraham, the father of the chosen people. The Evangelist omits whatever might be offensive to the Gentiles or cause the Jews to glory over them. The mockery and execution of Christ by the Roman soldiers is passed over in silence.

Besides being called the "Gospel of Mercy", St. Luke's Gospel is frequently designated by various other titles. Occasionally ft is referred to as the "Gospel of antithetical pictures." St. Luke has left us such contrasts as the following: Simon and the Sinful Woman; Martha and Mary; the Pharisee and the Publican; the Good Samaritan and the Priest and the Levite; Dives and Lazarus; the Good Thief and the Bad. St. Luke's Gospel has also been called the "Gospel of Hymns" because it contains the <I>Magnificat</I>, the Benedictus and the Nunc Dimittis. It is also said to be the "Gospel of Prayers," not only because it contains the Our Father and the Hail Mary but because it alone records that our Lord prayed on several distinct occasions - at His baptism, after cleansing the leper, before calling the Twelve, at His Transfiguration, on the cross for His executioners, and at the moment of His death (3:21; 5:16, 6:12, etc.).

St. Luke's Gospel has in a special manner been designated as the "Gospel of women." It places before us and describes the following feminine characters: Elizabeth, the Mother of John the Baptist; Anna, the aged prophetess; the "sinful woman" who anointed the Lord's feet in the house of the Pharisee (7:36-50); the women "who ministered unto Jesus of their substance," among whom was Mary Magdalen (8:2); Martha, the sister of Lazarus, and Mary, Martha's sister (10:38-42); "the woman in the crowd" who lifted up her voice and said to Jesus: "Blessed is the womb that bore Thee" (11:27); the widow of Naim (7:11-17); the woman whom our Lord delivered from her infirmity (13:10-17); the women of Jerusalem who met Jesus on the way to Calvary (23:27-31). Preeminent among all these is Mary, the Mother of God, who occupies a prominent place especially in the first two chapters of the Gospel.

2) The Acts of the Apostles - also written by St. Luke - are a continuation of the third Gospel, and like it are addressed to a certain Theophilus. The plan and scope of the Acts are contained in the words of our Lord uttered shortly before the Ascension: "You shall receive the power of the Holy Ghost coming upon you and you shall be witnesses unto Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and Samaria, and even to the uttermost part of the earth" (1:8). Christ here assigns a twofold field of labor to His Apostles - Palestine, on the one hand, and the Gentile world, on the other. Accordingly, St. Luke narrates in a concrete manner the foundation and propagation of the Church among the Jews through the instrumentality of St. Peter (1 to 12), and then among the Gentiles through the instrumentality of St. Paul (13 to 28). In describing the faithful execution of the Master's command, St. Luke at the same time shows that Christ is the Redeemer of all men - of both Jews and Gentiles - and that the Gospel is the power of salvation unto all who believe (Romans 1:16). St. Luke is also careful to indicate how the Holy Ghost presided over every step and stage of the work, and hence the Acts have been called the "Gospel of the Holy Ghost"; for it is He Who acts, speaks, enjoins, prohibits in a word, Who is the principle animating and impelling the chief personages.

Discussion Aids
Set I

1. What is the origin and meaning of the "Gospel"?
2. In what sense is there only one Gospel in the New Testament? How do you account for the
differences between the four Gospels?
3. Do the four Gospels tell us everything about Christ?
4. What are the symbols for the four Evangelists?
5. In what language were the Gospels written?

Set II
1. What is meant by the word "synoptic"?
2. Why are the first three Gospels called "Synoptic" Gospels?
3. What is the "Synoptic Problem?"
4. What solutions have been proposed to this problem?
5. What seems to be the satisfactory answer?

1. For whom was St. Matthew's Gospel written? Explain?
2. Why was St. Matthew's Gospel written? Give proofs in support of your answer.
3. Does St. Matthew's Gospel omit specifically Jewish incidents? Give examples.
4. What great saint is featured by the opening chapters of St. Matthew's Gospel? What conclusions do you draw from this?
5. Who was St. Mark?
6. What was his Gospel?
7. What saint does the Gospel feature in a special way?
8. For whom was St. Mark's Gospel written?
9. What was the aim of St Mark's Gospel?
10. What characteristics of Christ and of Christ's followers does St. Mark portray?
11. Who was St. Luke?
12. St. Luke's Gospel is said to be the "Gospel of Mercy." Explain.
13. What four other titles have been given to St. Lukes' Gospel? Why?
14. What great saint occupies a prominent place in the opening chapters of St. Luke's Gospel?
15. Mention some Catholic book which carries an explanation of the Sunday Epistles and Gospels. Give a summary of the explanation of next Sunday's Gospel.

Religious Practices

1. I will listen with reverent attention to the reading of the Gospel on Sunday.
2. In imitation of St. Matthew I will try to bring the Jews of our day to recognize Christ as the Promised Messias.
3. With St. Mark I will make frequent acts of faith in the Divinity of Christ: "God of God, light of light, true God of true God; begotten, not made; being of one substance with the Father; by whom all things were made" (Nicene Creed).
4. With St. Luke I will have confidence in the infinite mercy and compassion of the God-Man.