Synoptic Problem: Exploring J. J. Griesbach Hypothesis and Streeter’s Argument

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Published on International Journal of Social, Politics & Humanities
Publication Date: May 7, 2019

KOLAWOLE, Oladotun Paul
Department of Religious Studies, Olabisi Onabanjo University
Ago-Iwoye, Nigeria

Journal Full Text PDF: Synoptic Problem: Exploring J. J. Griesbach Hypothesis and Streeter’s Argument.

The synoptic Gospels in the New Testament canon provide the information concerning the birth, life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. A careful reading reveals the similarities and differences among the Synoptics; one is somehow eager to provide an explanation. Over the years, the similarities and differences in the Synoptic gospels pose significant challenges to the doctrines and expositions of the texts. Why are there varieties in language agreement among them? Is any of the writer abreast with the work of one (or more) of the other? Are they dependent on older, now lost written sources? In other words, the literary relationship is what constitutes the Synoptic Problem. It is thus, the attempt to answer these questions by Synoptic scholars for about the last two hundred years. The research observes that the scope of ‘Synoptic problem’ is wide, because of varying schools of thoughts that have developed over time; however, the scope of this discourse is centered on J.J. Griesbach and Streeter’s arguments.

Keywords: Synoptic Gospels, Synoptic Problem, New Testament.

Obviously, the New Testament canon presents four (4) separate accounts of the life of Jesus from which the church nourishes spiritually and doctrinally. However, the explicit structure and narrative parallels between Matthew, Mark and Luke make it possible to set their accounts of Jesus’ life alongside one another – “Synoptic”. This enables one to gain a “synoptic” overview the three accounts. When the Synoptic Gospels are arranged in a parallel arrangement it is obvious they stand in a literary relationship with one another. In recent centuries scholars have wondered what that relationship is. This has led to one of the major unsolved issues in Gospel Studies: “The Synoptic Problem”. This assertion forms the framework of this discourse. In view of this, several scholars (notably among them are; J.J Griesbach and Streeter) have sought to give explanations on the considerable similarities and differences in spite of the extensive agreements of these three literary works.

1.1 The Synoptic Gospels
To begin with, the research sees the need to briefly explore what and why these gospels are referred to as “Gospels” and “synoptics gospels. Nickle explained that the term ‘gospel’ mainly refer to a type of written document such as the first four books of the New Testament. He explained that the primary sense of the gospel was to proclaim ‘good news.’ The gospel as a technically designation of a type of literature is found in the numerous apocryphal (‘hidden” but later mean ‘non apocryphal’). More importantly, the early Christians significantly broaden ‘gospel’ to summarize the preaching of Jesus Christ which encapsulates his public ministry (Mk 1:1, 1:14-15, 13:10, 14:9; Matt 4:23, 24:14, Rom 1:1-5, 16; 1st cor 1:17-24; 15:1-5).
Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are referred to as ‘Gospels’ because they give records of Jesus birth, life, ministry, death and resurrection. But Matthew, Mark and Luke are called ‘Synoptic Gospels’ because they give details of Jesus’ life which can be arranged in columns so that they might be ‘viewed together’ (syn = with; opsis = look at). This is because differences exists between John and Matthew, Mark and Luke on crucial matters; the chronology of Jesus’ crucifixion and cardinal events in his ministry. In fact, Matthew, Mark and Luke are severally on the same page with respect to their descriptions of same event. This evaluation and assessment prompted the Syrian Tatian attempt on the issue of different accounts by harmonizing them into one narrative. Though the gospel of John cannot be totally sideline from any discourse on the gospels; however, the synoptic gospels are the primary concerns of this research.

1.2 The Beginning: A Brief Overview
Over the years, the interest is in the story of Jesus and not in the peculiarities of each of our four canonical Gospels. Goodacre explains that Most of the Jesus films adopt the same course; they harmonize the events recorded in the Gospels in the attempt to produce a coherent, dramatic narrative. Until the seventeenth to eighteenth centuries in Europe almost everyone in Christendom considered that the historical accounts found in the Bible and their referential meaning were exactly the same thing. Whether the Bible spoke about Adam or Jesus, they existed; and their actual activities were in much the same way as the Bible describes.
But with the coming of the Enlightenment (Aufklarung) in Europe (c. 1660-1802) this synthesis began to fall apart. The growth of the sciences (natural and social) caused people to doubt the received history that came down from the ancient world. It was reckoned that only those things coming from antiquity which passed the test of critical reason would be regarded as true. In historical study this meant that one must critically study the sources in order to evaluate the claims of any writing.
The Enlightenment was a time when man believed himself to be illuminated in his own reasoning abilities beyond the need for religious revelation. This era precipitates several debates about the gospel origins. Its influence is still present today in modernism and its flavors it continues to challenge religion in a general, but Christianity most explicitly. The challenges of various kinds of criticism came at the level of philosophy, like in ethics where the God of the Old Testament is challenged as being different from the God of the New Testament because.

1.3 The Synoptic Problem
From the preceding section of this work – ‘the beginning’, the research showcase what spur this modern development with a brief historical overview. The Synoptic Problem continues to fascinate biblical scholars and students of the New Testament, with no end in sight so far as arriving at a final solution or even a truce in the ongoing debate. A probable reaction upon hearing the term ‘synoptic problem’ is a shock-perplexing mood of what is wrong with the synoptic gospel! Thus, the research posits that the addition of the word ‘problem’ to synoptics can mean several things.
In view of this, Porter and Dyre argues that if the term “Synoptic Problem” can be used in its best possible manner to refer to an issue that has garnered much scholarly attention and a variety of opinions then its use welcome. This explanation agrees with Reicke who explained that “the Synoptic Problem is a discourse among varying scholars and schools of thought concerning the divergent relationship between the three gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke).”
Although, the ‘oral tradition’ in the early centuries have often been used in tackling synoptic problem; standing on the ground of ‘literary independency’. The research argues that oral tradition, though logical is not all sufficient to tackle this problem with the emphatic statement in Luke 1:1-4. Guthrie in his work delineates several considerations to the problem’s development;
i. There are similarities of arrangement among the above mentioned gospels.
ii. There are similarities of style and wording among all three gospels.
iii. There are cases where there are similarities in only two of the three gospels. In particular, there is material in Matthew and Luke that are absent in Mark.
iv. There are some common accounts among all three that simply diverge from each other on many minor points.
In view of this, the research notes that ‘the questions’ regarding the reason behind the similarities and differences between the first three gospels as it relates to their origins is called the ‘synoptic problem’. Consequently, these issues are not easily explained. Therefore, the Synoptic Problem is the questions about the relationship between the three Synoptic Gospels in light of their unique similarities and differences. Scholars have engaged the problem with theological, historical, oral and literary solutions; notable among which is the Griesbach hypothesis and Streeter’s argument. These approaches have been held in high esteem by scholars; arguing in its stead as a viable solution to the synoptic problem. This forms the framework for the research discourse in the next section of this work.

One of the scholars in modern developments concerning the subject matter here is a German scholar, Johann Jakob Griesbach (1745–1812); who first used a synopsis to analyze the synoptics which was called “Two-Gospel Hypothesis” or “Griesbach Hypothesis”. Bruce refers to Griesbach as Selmer’s pupil who mark the transition from the “post-reformation” to the “modern” age of New Testament study.
Mcnicol explained that Griesbach was a cardinal figure of the Enlightenment; who accepted the inheritance from antiquity that the Gospels were written in the order, Matthew, Luke, Mark and John. He constructed a famous Synopsis of the Gospels and did monumental critical studies of the text to support that position. His view of the order of the Gospels prevailed as the primary perspective in Germany until the mid-nineteenth century.