These are exerpts of a talk I gave today about the Synoptic Gospels, at a religious education event.
Why are the first three Gospels called "synoptic"?
Because they "are so similar at many points when viewed together, particularly when arranged in parallel columns or lines, that they are called ‘synoptic,’ the Greek work for such a general view. The fourth Gospel…often differs significantly from the synoptics in outline and approach" (Catholic Study Bible, NT, p. 2).
While this is a valid observation, there are downsides to viewing the Gospels this way, too -- because in emphasizing how they are similar, what's distinctive about each may get lost.
Since there’s no way -- in an hour! -- I can do much in-depth examination of the Gospels themselves, I’ve chosen to give you some general pointers and suggestions for when you are dealing with these texts.
And the first thing I’d like to suggest is, be careful when dealing with "scholarship."
When I was in the seminary, I had a course in principles of religious education, taught by Father Ron Nuzzi, who some of you may have heard speak from time to time. And he had a saying that he drilled into our heads: "If you don’t know the language, don’t use the language!" It’s tempting to cite words in Spanish, or Latin, or Greek or Hebrew, and so forth—but if you aren’t really conversant in that language, you can’t know if you’re even pronouncing it right! So his advice is stay away from the foreign language, and stick to what you know.
Well, I’d apply that to the scholarship that is associated with Biblical studies.
We all know there’s a lot of scholarship associated with Scripture. But the problem is, it’s changing all the time.
For example: Who can tell me which Gospel was written first?
Most scholars argue that Mark was written first. And I am in no position to contest that. But who was aware that many serious scholars do challenge that? Who’s right? I don’t know; and for most of my purposes, as a priest, I don’t need to know! Is it an interesting question? Yes. Does it have real implications? Yes—it bears on the question of who composed Matthew—because if Matthew was composed after Mark, and drew heavily on Mark, the reasonable question, why would the Apostle Matthew need to rely on Mark?
This is what is called "the synoptic problem." How did these three Gospels, similar in so many ways, come into being—which came first, how did they influence each other, etc.?
This is the sort of thing that might keep scholars up late at night—but I don’t see why it should keep me or you up late! Or those you are teaching!
We believe they are the Word of God. We believe what the Second Vatican Council said in Dei Verbum:
The Church has always and everywhere held and continues to hold that the four Gospels are of apostolic origin. For what the Apostles preached in fulfillment of the commission of Christ, afterwards they themselves and apostolic men, under the inspiration of the divine Spirit, handed on to us in writing: the foundation of faith, namely, the fourfold Gospel, according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. (18)
Holy Mother Church has firmly and with absolute constancy held, and continues to hold, that the four Gospels just named, whose historical character the Church unhesitatingly asserts, faithfully hand on what Jesus Christ, while living among men, really did and taught for their eternal salvation until the day He was taken up into heaven (see Acts 1:1). . . . The sacred authors wrote the four Gospels, selecting some things from the many which had been handed on by word of mouth or in writing, reducing some of them to a synthesis, explaining some things in view of the situation of their churches and preserving the form of proclamation but always in such fashion that they told us the honest truth about Jesus. For their intention in writing was that either from their own memory and recollections, or from the witness of those who "themselves from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the Word" we might know "the truth" concerning those matters about which we have been instructed (see Luke 1:2-4). (Dei Verbum, 19.)
So, there are legitimate scholarly questions about who actually wrote the Gospels—did Matthew himself write his Gospel, or did someone else put on paper what originated from him?
But sometimes people assert more than they know. For example—have you heard the claim that Paul didn’t write all the letters bearing his name?
It’s one thing to say, it may be that Paul didn’t write Ephesians himself; it’s quite another to assert, Paul DID NOT write Ephesians!
My point is, for most folks, this isn’t helpful. And getting into this runs the risk of becoming pseudo-scholarship—because while you or I may be familiar with part of the scholarship: "Mark came first" or "Paul didn’t write Colossians"—we may not be as familiar with the other parts: "No, Matthew really did come first" or, "maybe Paul really did write 1 & 2 Timothy"!
I make this point because, unfortunately, a lot of the materials you may be using will claim—flat out—that Peter didn’t write 2nd Peter; Paul did not write Ephesians, etc. And I’m saying, that’s more than they can know! They weren’t there! That a majority of scholars thinks something is true is significant, but that doesn’t settle the matter—if for no other reason that the scholarship is always subject to change.
Second guideline I’d offer is, be aware of presuppositions.
Any materials you use have certain presuppositions. I have my own, and if you ask me about them, I’ll do my best to identify and acknowledge them.
Here's one rule I use with Scripture:
1. Beware of the presupposition that the human authors were sloppy or inattentive.
In the Catholic Study Bible, in the note on Matthew 15:32—the account of the feeding of the four thousand, the second story in Matthew of a miraculous feeding—we read: "Most probably this story is a doublet of that of the feeding of five thousand (14:13-21). It differs from notably only [emphasis added] in that Jesus takes the initiative, not the disciples (32), and in the numbers: the crowd had been with Jesus three days (32), seven loaves are multiplied (36), seven baskets of fragments remain after the feeding (37), and four thousand men are fed (38)."
Now—what are some presuppositions in that commentary? Can you pick them out?
One is: that these differences in detail are not that big a deal: "only"! Now, this may be true; or, it could be these details are not peripheral, but very significant.
Matthew and Mark both tell of these two feedings, one shortly after the other. Let me ask you: when Matthew (or whoever wrote this Gospel) actually penned these words, and sometime after he wrote this story of the 5,000, he wrote the story of 4,000, do you think he noticed what the person who wrote that commentary noticed? Did Matthew not notice all the similarities?
Some will say, "yes, and look at Chapter 16 of Matthew": there—in vv. 5-12—Jesus refers to both feedings—and some will say, that’s how the human author "fixed" this "problem."
What’s the presupposition there?
That there is a problem!
Or, put it this way—is the problem in the text—or in the one reading the text!
Why assume the problem is with the text? There are two stories here—have to be duplication!
But if you actually look at the text, it treats them as two different episodes, and Jesus himself calls attention to them as two episodes, and highlights differences in each.
What I think is happening here is the commentator can’t figure out why this story is "told twice"—so it has to be "a doublet"!
So you get the presupposition that the human author is inattentive or sloppy. Personally, I think its more probable that the human author, who clearly worked hard on this -- and, by the way, when you read these Gospels closely, you discover just how hard they worked, how well informed they were with Scripture, because they quote it and allude to it constantly…
Anyway, I think it’s more probable the author didn’t make the mistake; but rather, the commentator makes the mistake in not figuring out why these stories are told twice.
Did it actually happen once—twice—or many times? None of us knows that.
What we have is the text presents it as two different episodes.
My presupposition is to take the text as the norm and not try to "outsmart" the text!
Let me highlight some interesting things in these two stories, and see what we might make of them:
In the first story, the crowds followed Jesus on foot.
In the second, it emphasizes they brought "the lame, the blind, the deformed, the mute and many others." The first account merely says, "he cured their sick." Could be the same; or it could be, in the second occasion, they made an effort to bring folks.
In the first, we aren’t certain where he was, except he withdrew "in a boat" to a deserted place; in the second, it says, Jesus walked by the Sea of Galilee"—no mention of a boat—and he went up on a mountain. Ah—a mountain!--there’s another detail not mentioned in the first story. And in Matthew, and in Mark, "up a mountain" is a significant detail: remember the "Sermon on the Mount" in Matthew? Remember the transfiguration happened on a mountain?
So the first story describes Jesus alone, in a boat, crossing over—and there the people are waiting for him; the second describes him walking, and they follow him. And it emphasizes the people needing healing they brought. It also emphasizes the effect of the healing: "The crowds were amazed when they saw the mute speaking, the deformed made whole, the lame walking…and they glorified the God of Israel."
Why might that reference—"God of Israel" be notable? Look at the text—where was Jesus right before this? He was in Tyre and Sidon—among Gentiles! There is yet another detail belonging to the second account, that is not specified in the first.
OK—let’s continue examining these two accounts…
In the first, as we saw, the disciples approached Jesus—why? What did they urge? Send them away.
Now—we’re considering the question, are these two separate events, or a duplication. Let’s assume, for now, it is one episode, told twice. Notice, in the second account, what comes right before it? The story of the Canaanite woman—a pagan—who encounters Jesus. Look at v. 23, and see what the disciples said there: "Send her away"! And this story, to a great extent, is about this question—will Jesus send her away? And the answer is, no—he doesn’t.
So notice how Matthew tells the story: the apostles say, at the first feeding, "dismiss them" -- send them away; then they say it again with the Canaanite woman, but the Lord actually heals her -- then at the second feeding, they don't say that.
Hmmm . . . maybe the learned a lesson?
Let’s keep comparing…
In the first episode, it’s not specified how long they’d been away from home; in the second, it does specify, "three days." Since the second also says, the Lord was concerned "they may collapse on the way"—but that’s not said in the first…
Doesn’t it seem that in the first story, they weren’t out as long? So there wasn’t an issue of fainting from hunger?
Do you notice what I see? In some of this, there seems to be a progression:
One long day------------------------Three days
The disciples say, dismiss them------They don’t say that
Jesus: Give them food (challenge)---Omitted (no need?)
setting: unstated--------------------Could be Gentile.
Fish: 2-------------------------------"a few"
But in other details, no progression:
What might the significance of the 12 baskets be, when we encounter it new? What’s most natural? Twelve baskets, twelve apostles—each gets a basket! Remember they said, "all we have" are five loaves and two fish." But when Jesus is done, they have a lot more, don’t they? They each have a basket!
So come to the second episode, perhaps the seven baskets aren’t for the Apostles? Not sure, I confess.
But if we look for progression,why isn’t every detail pointing to progress?
Well, let me ask this question: whose faith is being challenged here? In both cases, the Apostles.
So where we don't see progression, that may suggest something about the apostles' response to the opportunities the Lord is giving them to grow in faith.
I.e., "it worked with 5,000—shouldn’t it work as well with 4,000?" "Five loaves worked; shouldn’t seven, and a little more fish, work better?"
No—so what happens? They have less to show for it: not 12 baskets, but only seven!
After all, look at Chapter 16: they are still concerned about having bread! And the Lord recalls both these episodes, and Matthew, in telling the story, highlights the number of loaves, people and baskets for each. What does he say? "You of little faith"! "Why do you not comprehend"?
Now—that’s all a possible explanation of why there are two stories told. My point is, I think an "explanation" should explain! And I don’t see the "doublet" claim explaining anything. It leaves more questions, for me, than it answers.
Also, what I’m illustrating here is a possible method you can use in approaching the Gospels: focus primarily on the text itself!
Now, I promised some principles, let me get back to that.
A second principle: "they weren’t simpletons."
On this story of the feeding that we looked at, who has ever heard this explained as follows: "the real miracle was that the people were induced to share what they’d brought and that’s how everyone had enough."
Several problems with that.
1. The text gives no actual support to that. In fact, it points away from that. Why would anyone be concerned about them being hungry if they brought food? Also, how likely is it that they brought enough food to have plenty left after 3 days? Doesn’t it make more sense that after 3 days, the food was exhausted?
2. Why would anyone be so impressed with that as a miracle?
Now, it happens to be true that in Matthew, Mark and Luke, there is no hint that the people saw this as a great wonder. They eat, they were satisfied, and sent away. (It is John who, in telling the story, has the people seeing "the sign he had done," and wanting to make him king. See John 6:14-15.) After all, the people might well not have seen the miracle happen. But what the Gospel describes is the Lord passing out the food to the Apostles, and they to the people. The Apostles would have witnessed the miracle; they would know how much there was to start with. So the synoptic Gospels present this as a sign for the Apostles. So emphasizing how this changed the people doesn’t seem to follow what the Gospel itself present. How is that a lesson in faith for the apostles?
3. The stories all emphasize Jesus as the source of the food—through the hands of the apostles. But "the miracle of sharing' explanation points away from him.
My point is, this "miracle of sharing" explanation—apart from doing violence to the text itself—asks the people in the story, and the audience for whom these Gospels were written, to be "simpletons."
Just because these folks lived 2,000 years ago, doesn’t mean they couldn’t tell the difference between everyone unpacking their lunch baskets, and one man turning 5 loves into enough for 5,000-plus!
Sometimes the miracles of Scripture are "explained" as if the people in the story were dolts: Jesus didn’t walk ON water, he walked on stones, or along the shore. Riiiight! And those fishermen couldn’t tell the difference!
Before I finish, let me offer this.
I realize you want resources you can rely on—and I’ve just given you reasons to question your resources! So you might wonder if I have any recommendations?
Well, these things are tricky, because I don’t want you to hear me say that something like the Catholic Study Bible or the New Jerome Biblical Commentary or the notes in the New Jerusalem Bible aren’t any good.
Nor do I want to give any of them unqualified endorsement.
Nor am I saying, don’t use any resources—I know that isn’t helpful.
I’d say, try to be balanced in your resources—and as I said, if you aren’t fully conversant with the scholarship, I’d tread very lightly in those areas, and focus on the text itself.
A good resource to use, that might help compensate for what I see as failings of these other resources would be The Navarre Bible. There is a volume for the Gospels and Acts; and several volumes for the rest of the NT, and the Old. And, if you want even more detail, I think they publish a volume for every book of the Bible.
Ignatius Press is coming out with some study guides, put together by Scott Hahn. Now Hahn has a lot of advantages, and a lot of people get a lot out of what he offers. That doesn’t make him an oracle or anything. Keep in mind, there isn’t necessarily "one" proper interpretation of most passages: Scripture is God’s word, and it is endlessly fruitful.
So, Scott Hahn gets this from it; the early Father of the Church got other things; the editors of CSB and NJBC got what they got; I offered you my thoughts, for what they’re worth…
The goal of our use of Scripture is, after all, to lead people to faith in Christ! It isn’t Scripture for its own sake.
Maybe I’ll stop here and let you ask questions.
* I'm sorry this chart is a mess; I can't seem to get it to appear right in blogger. This is the best I can do.