The Synoptic Problem
& John 8:1-11
Part I: Mark and Luke

from: thread (2007)

Page Index

Last Updated: Sept. 11, 2007

Section 1: - Introduction to the Synoptic Problem

Section 2: - Luke Uses Mark
    Mark as a Base - block copying by Luke
    Minor Changes - additions, omissions, substitutions
    Minor Rearrangments - small chronological changes
    Major Dislocations - large transpositions
    Luke 7:36-50 - the special 'annointing'
    The Big Picture - full chart for Mark/Luke

Section 3: - Analysis & Summary


What is the "Synoptic Problem"?

Many Christians are bewildered by the complexity of the so-called "Synoptic Problem".

Briefly stated, the first three gospels (Matthew, Mark, & Luke) contain largely the same material, in the same order. In fact, many sections share almost a word-for-word match in these gospels. In contrast, John's Gospel is quite different in both content and expression. So the first three gospels are called the "Synoptic Gospels" ("syn - optic" meaning 'same eye-view').

The Evangelists Rely upon Each Other

On the one hand, the matching between the Synoptic gospels is far too extensive to be mere coincidence. (Even eyewitnesses don't copy each other's figures of speech.) On the other hand, the Synoptic gospels often differ significantly in their recounting of incidents and speechs.

It seems obvious that sometimes they either copied one another or some unknown previous document, and at other times attempted to 'correct', enlarge or suppliment certain stories.

The "inspiration of the Holy Spirit" alone is also inadequate to fully describe or explain the situation. For if they were meant to be identical, then which evangelist should be taken as most accurate where they differ? And why have three or more gospels at all? Why not just have only one gospel?

The partial answer is that these gospels were addressed to specific audiences, were composed in different times and places, and were written to meet the changing needs of the different Christian communities they served. (Originally the gospels circulated as separate books.)

Studying the Synoptic Problem is Important

But if as Christians we admit this, then it is also important to study those gospels, to illuminate the meaning and context behind their similarities and differences.

Establishing the order in which the gospels were written, and who copied who, is what the Synoptic Problem is all about.

We do this to help assist in establishing the truth of the gospels, their date of composition, and the history of the early church.

Some critics and so-called scholars may have alterior motives in studying the Synoptic Problem, but that should not discourage us from pursuing the truth in the historical circumstance and story behind the gospels.

The Berean Christians (Acts 17:11) searched the Old Testament to see if Paul spoke the truth. In the O.T. we are told that:

'It is the priviledge of kings to search out a mystery.' (Prov. 25:2)

Christians need not fear the truth about the gospels, and Jesus Himself in the gospels tells us that whatever is said privately will eventually be shouted from the housetops.

As we have said, some critics have used the Synoptic Problem to attack the New Testament.

But when we actually examine the way that NT writers used their sources, we find that they were very careful to respect those sources, copying meticulously the words where they knew them to be accurate in both order and content.

Luke carefully copies Mark

Luke is a case in point.

After about 200 years of analysis and theories concerning the Synoptic Problem, one of the more modest and reliable results of the study has been that Luke used sources. In fact Luke used Mark as one source, and as the basis for his own gospel.

From the Christian point of view, there is nothing wrong with this. Paul, James, Peter, and even Jesus all quote previous Holy Scripture.

And more importantly, the Apostles and even Jesus also correct, expand and interpret O.T. Scripture, to bring out its meaning and intent more clearly. This is part of the legitimate duty of a prophet, or even a teacher of Holy Scripture.

So when we see Luke virtually reproducing all of Mark and supplimenting this with another significant body of Jesus' sayings from His earthly ministry, we understand exactly what Luke is doing.

He wants to make a more complete and enlightening gospel, and provide fellow Christians with important and valuable teaching from the Lord.

And Luke doesn't do this secretly, or to gain personal credit.

In the first 4 verses Luke explains his plan in advance:

Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to set forth in order a declaration of those things which are most surely believed among us,
Even as they delivered them unto us, which from the beginning were eyewitnesses, and ministers of the word;
It seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write unto thee in order, most excellent Theophilus,
That thou mightest know the certainty of those things, wherein thou hast been instructed.

(Luke 1:1-4)

So Luke intends the Christian reader to understand that he has used previous written sources, but used them honestly and faithfully in composing his "super-gospel", or simply his more complete gospel.

Luke Uses Mark

Block Copying

If then Luke used Mark as a base in composing his own gospel, then his basic method is quite simple and easily understood. He wanted to blend Mark with his other sources, so he looked for appropriate points in Mark to insert his new materials.

Luke places his Nativity material (stories of Jesus' origins) in a block at the beginning, to act as a preface to Jesus' public ministry. He then inserts another block between chapter 3 and 4 of Mark, and finally he places a third very large block of sayings and other material between Mark chapter 9 and 10.

Essentially then, Luke cuts Mark into three blocks, and combines them alternately with three blocks of new material of his own, one block on Jesus' origins, and two blocks of essentially sayings material with a few more stories.

In doing this, it seems clear that Luke wants to disturb Mark's basic gospel as little as possible. He does not drastically rearrange Mark, and he reproduces the bulk of Mark's Gospel without serious alteration. His purpose is basically to suppliment Mark's gospel with new material from other sources, especially Jesus' teachings.

A Strange Omission

There is one apparent exception to Luke's strategy of reproducing and supplimenting Mark. He appears to omit a large contiguous block of Mark, namely Mark 6:45 - 8:25. This seems strange, for normally Luke is careful to include almost everything in Mark. Of some 678 verses, Luke preserves over 600 of them in one form or another.

It is possible that the copy of Mark that Luke used simply lacked these verses for some reason, or that they were inserted into Mark after Luke wrote. However, Luke is not reluctant to make minor rearrangements and even some small substitutions in Mark's account.

Some feel that Mark 6:45 - 8:25 in part seems to be an alternate account of the Feeding of the 5000 (Mark 6:33-45 = 8:1-10?), and was included by Mark to prevent its loss, as has happened elsewhere in the Bible (e.g. Isa. 36:1-39:8 = 2nd Kings 18:13-20:21, etc.). ( It is interesting to observe that some of the apparent 'Johannine' material in Mark is in this very section. )

Luke's Block Outline

Whatever the case may be, it does not affect the basic observation that Luke used Mark as one of his sources, and as the base for his more complete Gospel account. It is also clear that Luke used Mark in a very simple and straightforward way:

Luke's Block Outline
Luke block 1: Luke 1 - 2 (Nativity etc.)
Mark block 1: Mark ch 1 - 3 (with suppliments)
Luke block 2: Luke 6:20 - 8:3 (Sermon on Plain etc.)
Mark block 2: Mark ch 4 - 9 (but Luke skips 6:45 - 8:25)
Luke block 3: Luke 10:1 - 18:14 (including Johannine material)
Mark block 3: Mark ch 10 - 16 (with minor edits, suppliments)

Synoptic Chart of Mark / Luke

Here we have laid out the basic relationship in a standard synoptic chart form:

Minor Additions,
Omissions, Substitutions

Now lets look at Luke's use of Mark in a little more detail:

Here we show with the black horizontal lines, each of the sections that Luke copies over from Mark. Luke copies about 67 out of 72 sections, near verbatum, and only leaves out 5 (see below).

These are the sections that are left pretty much as is, and in the same order that Mark gave them:

Main Lines,
Minor Add. Om. Subst.

Luke's Additions to Mark's Account:

On the right you can see small horizontal lines in light green, that represent some supplimental material that Luke has inserted. The first is an additional note giving details of John' imprisonment, which Mark perhaps did not know, but was of concern to Luke's readers.

The second small line is the insertion of the Genealogy of Jesus.

These additions obviously don't detract from Mark, but make it more complete and useful from the ongoing view of Christians coming subsequently.

Further down, just before Luke's 3rd Block, he inserts a story about Jesus' rejection in a Samaritan village (Luke 9:51-56).

After the third massive Block, Luke is pretty much done adding, although he again makes about seven small insertions in the last part of Mark.

Two involve the story of Zacchaeus, and the parable of the Minas.

The third is the substitution of Mark's story of the Fig Tree with a Lamentation for Jerusalem. Of course the Fig Tree was the the national symbol of the Southern Kingdom of Judaea, and was actually minted on coins in Jesus' time.

Luke makes the dark and threatening prophecy concerning the "Fig Tree" explicit and understandable to non-Jews.

The last four minor insertions in the Passion Narrative involve a petty dispute between the apostles at the Last Supper, the ironic remark of Jesus to "buy a sword", Jesus' confrontation with Herod, and Jesus' final sermon on His way to the cross.

Luke's Omissions of Mark's material:

The sections of Mark on the left that Luke omits (in bright yellow) are equally understandable:

The omission of the Fig Tree is self-explanatory, when you see what Luke has put in its place.

The last three skipped items are:

The prophecy concerning False Prophets, which for non-Jewish readers may be unclear.

The Annointing at Bethany, which may have meaning (however controversial) for Jews, but is perhaps obscurantist for Gentiles.

Luke makes up for this omission with an 'annointing story' of his own (Luke 7:36-50), perhaps more useful from a Christian preacher's perspective.

Finally, Luke leaves out the short remark about the man who lost his clothes escaping the authorities and who fled naked.

Probably to save embarrassment for that apostle, or even just for decorum, Luke makes a sensible choice for his Gentile readers.

And that's the worst of it. All of it reasonable and understandable in view of Luke's purpose of producing a universal gospel for everyone.

Jewish elements that might be obscure are minimized and important supplimentary material is added.

Minor Rearrangements

Is the relationship between Mark and Luke really that simple? Of course not.

Luke also makes about five slight rearrangments of his material.

Moved sections are in BLUE.

Lets have a look:

Minor Displacements in Luke:

Why does Luke move these five sections around?

Partly its to tell the story with a little more care to the sequential order of events, and make the story flow more sensibly.

The early Call of the Disciples is put in its context both historically and geographically (Mark 1:16-20 / Luke 5:1-11).

Luke places the general notice of many healings and exorcisms at the end of the Markan Block, to make a more suitable ending and better bridge between Mark's material and the 2nd Block of Lukan material about to be inserted. (Mark 3:7-12 / Luke 6:17-19)

The incident with Jesus' relatives (Mark 3:31-34 / Luke 8:19-21) is moved into a better context so that it may be contrasted with Jesus' amazing climate control (an ironic touch).

Jesus' teaching on divorce finds a place among other sayings from Luke's 3rd Block: (Mark 10:1-12 / Luke's notice: Luke 16:14-18).

Peter's denial is moved slightly to make a more coherent storyline, and allow for some incoming supplimentary material (Jesus & Herod).

And that's the extent of the five small relocations of Markan material.

Large Dislocations

There are also five sections which can be said to have been dislocated quite far from their original position.

These we have marked in red.

Large Dislocations

These again, aren't that numerous or surprising once examined.

The Dispute about Baalzebul (Mark 3:20-30)is moved into the new 3rd Block, which is a 'super-section' containing the core of Jesus' teaching and disputes. (Luke 10:1-18:14).

Likewise, Luke picks up the Leaven of the Pharisees (Mark 8:14-21), and even the Warnings (Mark 12:38-40) against the scribes (lawyers) who devour widow's houses.

The Rejection of Jesus at Nazareth (His home town is put back to the beginning of His Galilean ministry, probably where it belongs, Mark 6:1-6a / Luke 4:16-30)

And perhaps not so oddly, the elaborate and embarrassing recounting of the bad behaviour of the apostles in Mark 10:35-45 is toned down and placed (or replaced) with a story about them during the Last Supper.

That's all Luke dared to do to the gospel of Mark as he found it. Some editing was inevitable in the incorporation of three large blocks of material, but it appears that Luke did as little as possible to disturb the original order of Mark.

Equally important, Luke includes almost all of Mark, except for one problematic section, and a few anecdotes that have little relevance to Gentile Christians.

We have to take off our hats at Luke's restraint, and courage in producing for us a gospel that is universally recognized as superior to Mark on a number of fronts:

(1) It is a more complete account.

(2) It is infused with real understanding and explanatory power, where Mark is often obscure (now if someone could do that for Paul's letters!).

(3) It is tailored for Gentile Christians, and has a minimum of redundant or boring material for those readers.

(4) It is a virtual encyclopedia of Jesus' teachings, something that Mark is notably deficient in supplying.

(5) It is an inspired and reverent treatment of Mark, building upon what has been before, without in any way disparaging his predecessor(s).

Final Verdict: Luke is awesome!

Luke has given us an invaluable inspired and virtually complete and self-contained 'super-gospel'.

The only thing is, he leaves us wanting more. And of course Luke rises again to the challenge of meeting those needs, in his sequel, the Book of Acts.

Luke is not superhuman, let alone perfect. But he is one of the early Christian heroes, without which the Christian New Testament would be greatly impoverished.

The Annointing

The Annointing

The Big Picture

Having now hopefully a basic understanding of the components in this relationship, we can now put it all together to present the overview.

Naturally its a bit more messy than each part taken in isolation, but thats how you get down to the nuts and bolts. You have to pop the hood and take a look.

If our readers have followed this thread so far, they should be able to look at the big picture with some real understanding of the relation between Luke and Mark:

Mark and Luke: Overview

Analysis & Summary

Not So Fast, Nazaroo!

Right about now, we are probably going to get some objections from both sides on our presentation.

Objections from Synoptic scholars

On the one hand, scholars are going to object that we haven't examined the details of Luke's treatment of Mark (or vise versa), which provide critical (and perhaps conflicting) evidence, and paint a much more complex picture of how these books were composed. Furthermore, they will object that we haven't taken into account the other gospels, which, depending upon where they are placed chronologically, in a 'dependance' tree, might have more to say on who copied what and when.

Objections from Fundamentalist Believers

On the other hand, our Christian brothers and sisters are going to demand some sort of explanation of how Divine Inspiration, Preservation, and Biblical Inerrancy are supposed to fit into this picture.

Since those who are first will be last, and those last first, we will deal with scholarly objections first (hoping they will end up last! - a small joke).

Scholarly Objections Discussed

Have we really adequately and fully explained the relationship between Mark and Luke?

Of course not.

To do so would require a minute analysis of both gospels (and indeed all the others etc.) section by section, and verse by verse.

But we have not here 'glossed over' the details. We have simply taken on the more modest goal of presenting the basic outline of correspondence and positioning of the main sections of each gospel.

A complete analysis would take 20 volumes of discussion, and a lifetime to compose.

But there is a much more reasonable objection which can be addressed in the here and now:

Who Copied Who

How do we know that Luke copied Mark, and not vice versa (the other way round)? This is a fair question, and one that we can apply some evidence and arguments to.

Along with the two possible scenarios, we also have two possible motivations and purposes to explain:

(1) If Luke copied Mark: In this case, we can easily account for Luke's purpose, because he has important new material, namely a collection of Jesus' teachings to incorporate into Mark and share. As well, it is an opportunity to make the gospel more universal and useful to non-Jewish Christians and potential converts.

(2) If Mark copied Luke: What possible motive could Mark have for deleting twelve whole chapters of Luke? Well, we could suppose he wanted to produce a "Reader's Digest" version of the gospel, a kind of "Luke for Dummies".

But against this idea of Mark stripping down Luke into a kind of newspaper synopsis are the following facts:

(a) Mark's version of each incident is usually bloated with unimportant incidental details that add little to the story. If Mark's goal was to shorten Luke, it would be counter-productive to expand every remaining section to make it longer, without adding any new insight or even improvement in sense. But read the other way, Luke appears to have cleaned up Mark's diction immensely, deleting the irrelevant and making for an efficient telling of the story. Where Luke does add glosses (i.e., Luke adds 19:14, 22, 27 to the Parable of the Minas/Talents: Luke 19:11-27 = Matt. 25:14-30) they are plainly explanatory. Mark just appears wordy, once we have Luke in hand.

(b) Most of the deletions, substitutions and insertions in Luke have simple explanations if Luke copied Mark. But it would be difficult to explain why Mark would remove the milder dispute at the Last Supper (Luke 22:24-30) and replace it with the harsh bickering over princely thrones (Mark 10:35-45), or why Mark would delete the 2nd Lamentation of Jesus (Luke 19:41-44) and replace it with the cryptic Fig Tree lesson (Mark 11:12-14, 20-26).

(c) Luke tells us he is fully aware of those who have written previous accounts, and about his goal of making a more complete account. Since the evidence from Mark also fully supports Luke's claims, it is the obvious, most reasonable interpretation of the facts. Luke used something that looks almost identical to Mark as a base, and we might as well admit it was in fact Mark that Luke used.

These considerations are equally convincing for believers and unbelievers, scholars and fundamentalists. That is why a majority of scholars believe Mark came first, not Luke.

It makes no sense to insist that Mark copied and mutilated Luke, and besides flying in the face of the plain evidence, it cannot be a satisfactory position to take for fundamentalists either, since it would paint Mark as either an idiot or a vicious satirist intent on spoofing or attacking the gospel of Luke.

Common sense, scholarship, and faith work together to support our view that Mark came first, and Luke used him reverently as a basis for his own gospel.

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