The Synoptic Solution to the Synoptic Problem

The Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) have many similar stories, but with very slight variations.

For example, Mark tells us Jesus healed blind Bartimaeus Mk 10:46, but Matthew tells us that Bartimaeus had another blind companion Mat 20:30, with the same request at the same time Mat 20:33. So why did Mark mention only one? These miracles occurred when Jesus was leaving Jericho Mat 20:29, Mk 10:46, and they followed a similar and previous miracle upon Jesus’ arriving at Jericho Lk 18:35. Careless preachers will speak about these incidents as if they are the same, and may even say that Luke made a mistake.

There are many variations in the Synoptic Gospels and textual critics try to explain these differences. Theories abound about the existence of lost manuscripts that were copied by different Gospel writers and sometimes copied wrongly. Almost every proposed theory assumes that each synoptic Gospel writer consulted one or both of the other synoptic Gospels.

The Synoptic Problem is a problem created by unbelieving textual critics who think that there are contradictions between the Synoptic Gospels, that these are mistakes, and therefore they cannot be inspired writings. It arises because of the unwarranted assumption that one Gospel writer is consulting or copying another Gospel writer, and the refusal to believe in the inspiration of Scripture 2Tim 3:16 and the superintending oversight of the Holy Spirit in producing and preserving the final version of the Scriptures Ps 12:6-7.

Luke tells us that there were various manuscripts circulating Lk 1:1-4, and he had evidently read some of them. The Synoptic Problem assumes, however, that he, Matthew and Mark had read one or more of the other Gospels. Luke does not say so, and the assumption is wrong.

Rather, we have no proof that any of them had read the other Gospels before they wrote their own Gospel. The likelihood is that they had not read each other, and internal biblical evidence suggests that they had not. The Gospel story was well known to Christians and committed to memory. There were many oral and written accounts circulating in apostolic times, with multitudes of variations. At the time of composition of each Gospel, there was a plethora of material, and Luke with his medical skills of observation, analysis and diagnosis made a special study of what information was available to him in order to record in the Gospel of Luke and in the Acts of the Apostles an accurate account of what he could ascertain. Analysis of Luke’s Gospel shows that he did not have the Gospels of Matthew nor Mark to hand during his researches for writing his Gospel, nor even the Gospel of John. Similar analysis of the Gospels of Matthew and Mark reveal the same about each other. They did not copy each other.

The Synoptic Solution is the proper analysis of the synoptic accounts according to biblical principles of exegesis. The Synoptic Solution analyses and exegetes the biblical text in the light of the Holy Spirit’s Authorship of Scripture, by the aid of the Holy Spirit’s guidance 1Cor 2:14 and Rom 8:5-9.

An example of the application of the Synoptic Solution can be found here.

What is the Gospel?

The Gospel is the good news of the free offer of eternal life through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.

The evidence of a living faith in Jesus Christ is love to God, love to one’s Christian brethren and love to one’s neighbour. Jesus said: “If you love Me, keep My commandments” Jn 14:15,23.

Faith must lead to good works, and prayer without repentance and a plan of action is empty words. We need prayer and action; action that needs prayer to be effective; action that will teach us and encourage us to pray in order to have God’s blessing on our work.

The Gospel needs to be distinguished from the social Gospel, which is a counterfeit gospel. The social Gospel misinterprets the Gospel as salvation by good works, or salvation by merit. Merit and grace are opposites Rom 11:6. Salvation is by free grace, God’s unmerited favour, not by merit.

This misinterpretation arises because social justice is the natural outworking of the Gospel, and social justice is mistaken for the Gospel itself. Social justice arise from the Gospel; it is not the Gospel itself.

Social justice is another way of saying that “faith without works is dead” Jam 2:20,26. Social justice is so important that Jesus taught that worship which does not arise from, and does not create Christians who are interested in social justice is vain, empty worship, which does not please God because it is devoid of proper content.

Exegesis and eisegesis

As a divinity student in 1980 I came across the term ‘exegesis’ in reference to the exegesis of Scripture.  It means ‘drawing out’ the meaning of a written text and Scripture in particular.

I was aware of the common problem of people reading into Scripture their own opinion and thus putting into Scripture something that was not there.  The danger of this is that it clothes the wrong idea with the full force and authority of Scripture.

For example: ‘A bishop must be … the husband of one wife’.  Instead of reading this in the light of polygamous practice, some have interpreted it as if it reads ‘only one wife during the whole of their lifetime’ so that people who have divorced and remarried are excluded from office, interfering with the lives of multitudes of Christians.   There are other ideas read into this verse with similar unhappy results.

Another example is Mat 7:14 ‘ strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leads to life, and few there be that find it.’  This is commonly read and preached as if it says: ‘there will always be few that find it.’  It doesn’t.  This is reading one’s own ideas into the text rather than drawing out of the text its full and proper meaning.

This mistake was so common that I realised that I needed a term to describe it, so I coined the term ‘eisegesis’ in the mid-1980s – reading into the text ideas that were not there.

There are multitudes of examples.  The Thessalonians misunderstood Paul’s first epistle as if he had said that Christ would return soon, whereas he had said suddenly, which he corrects in his second epistle 2Th 2:2.

Many people read ‘But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup’ 1Cor 11:28 as if it means ‘and therefore let him eat’, whereas the original Greek text shows that it means ‘and in this self-examining manner let him eat’.

The Greek prepositions ex – meaning ‘out of’ – and eis – meaning ‘into’ – give us these two terms:

Exegesis: drawing out of (ex-) a text what is its full and proper meaning.

Eisegesis: reading into (eis-) a text one’s own ideas, prejudices, suppositions and interpretations, which may or may not be scriptural, and which may or may not be in the text.

If we read into Scripture what we already know, we will not learn anything new.  But the value of exegesis is that one draws out of Scripture what one may not know – adding to one’s knowledge.

Thus Jesus said: ‘Every scribe who is instructed in the kingdom of heaven is like a man that is a householder, who brings out of his treasure things new and old’ Mat 13:52.

Only by exegesis can we draw new things out of Scripture.

The kingdom of heaven

The kingdom of heaven is that kingdom on God’s earth in which heaven is interested, which heaven promotes, with Christ as its King – that spiritual kingdom on earth which prepares for heaven citizens who discern Christ as the Lord from heaven – that kingdom which acts as the portal for and leads to heaven.

The Lord Jesus Christ introduced many new concepts to the attention and understanding of the New Testament Church and this is one of them. Only the Gospel of Matthew uses this term. The kingdom draws attention to the fact that the King had arrived among them. “of heaven’” distinguishes it from “the kingdom of God” which does not come with observation Lk 17:20. “of heaven” reminds us that it is not an earthly kingdom Jn 18:36 but it is a kingdom which reaches to heaven, which brings the King’s subjects to heaven, and in which heaven is interested.

This kingdom is not of this world; and one can be in the kingdom of heaven but not of the kingdom of heaven.

It is Christ’s kingdom which He has yet to deliver spotless and faultless to His Father on the Day of Judgment Mat 13:41,43; 1Cor 15:24; Heb 2:13.

Theologically, the kingdom of heaven is known as the visible Church, to distinguish it from the invisible Church which is known in Scripture as the kingdom of God. The similarity in terms is because of the similarity in concept and identity; the difference in terminology teaches and highlights that most fundamental of doctrines – “you must be born again” Jn 3:3,5.

Self-examination

“Self-examination is asking oneself the right questions and following them through until one arrives at the right answers.”

It is possible to begin with the wrong question. It is possible to have the right question but to fail to follow it through to the end. It is possible to have the right question and be side-tracked by the wrong answer at any stage of the process.

“Examine yourselves, whether you be in the faith” 2Cor 13:5. This is an important matter to examine – but it is not the only one.

“Lord, is it I?” Mat 26:22. The Lord Jesus taught His disciples to examine themselves, and sensibly they involved Him in their self-examination. We need to pray for help in self-examination. Thus Paul reminds us to examine ourselves prior and during the Lord’s Supper: “But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup” 1Cor 11:28. The Greek word houto translated “so” means “in this manner”: we are to partake of the Lord’s Supper in a self-examining manner. This implies that the Lord’s people should be well-schooled in self-examination. There are many things to examine in our lives, and many things to change.

“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” Jer 17:9. We are biassed in our own favour and thus we need to call in the help of heaven in self-examination. We need to pray for the help of the Holy Spirit to open our understanding to Scripture and to examine ourselves in the light of Scripture. “For thou wilt light my candle: the Lord my God will enlighten my darkness” Ps 18:28; “The spirit of man is the candle of the Lord, searching all the inward parts of the belly” Pro 20:27.

A theological dictionary

I have decided to begin an online theological dictionary with definitions of biblical and theological terms. It will probably include and develop into short articles on these and other themes.

Much confusion is created in Christian fellowship meetings by failure to define one’s terms. Thus people speak at cross-purposes and confusion develops instead of edification 1Cor 14:5,12,26; 2Cor 12:19; Eph 4:12,16,29; 1Tim 1;4.

For example, a discussion begins on assurance. Usually the topic is assurance of one’s personal salvation, but this is not always clear. The conversation can change into assurance about a particular doctrine, or about some aspect of faith, and no-one notices what has happened so that they speak to different topics with resulting confusion. One needs to ask: Assurance of what? It needs an object. Faith in what? It needs an object.