Most of us interested in religion have probably heard the term synoptic gospels at church or while watching a religion doc on TV. But many of us might not know what that means.
Religion scholars and officials love to use special terms. It makes things easier for them and, in some instances, gives an appearance of professionalism. Only the better ones, however, actually take time to explain what they’re saying.
Bible studies can get really complicated. So to make it simple, the synoptic gospels are first three gospels appearing in the New Testament. These are the books of Matthew, Mark and Luke. Although they differ in some details, there’s significant overlap in content and style among the synoptic gospels.
Most scholars believe that Mark is the oldest gospel, possibly written around 30 CE. Its content and style is simpler than that found in Matthew and Luke. So many scholars hypothesize an undiscovered document called Q (from German: Quelle, meaning “source”) to account for the material common to Matthew and Luke but not present in Mark.
According to the Q hypothesis, the writers of Matthew and Luke drew upon Mark and Q to further advance ideas found in Mark. As of yet, however, no actual Q document has been discovered so it remains a convenient scholarly fable. It might sound cynical using the word “fable,” but I think it’s fair. Some academics use the term Q as if they held the (undiscovered) document in their hands.
Wikipedia does a great job of summing up some of the issues concerning the synoptic gospels:¹
The gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are referred to as the Synoptic Gospels because they include many of the same stories, often in a similar sequence and in similar wording. They stand in contrast to John, whose content is comparatively distinct. The term synoptic (Latin: synopticus; Greek: συνοπτικός synoptikos) comes via Latin from the Greek σύνοψις synopsis, i.e. “(a) seeing all together, synopsis”;[n 1] the sense of the word in English, the one specifically applied to these three Gospels, of “giving an account of the events from the same point of view or under the same general aspect” is a modern one.
This strong parallelism among the three gospels in content, arrangement, and specific language is widely attributed to literary interdependence. The question of the precise nature of their literary relationship — the “synoptic problem” — has been a topic of lively debate for centuries and has been described as “the most fascinating literary enigma of all time”. The longstanding majority view favors Marcan priority, in which both Matthew and Luke have made direct use of the Gospel of Mark as a source, and further holds that Matthew and Luke also drew from an additional hypothetical document, called Q.
One thesis often overlooked by bible scholars is the remote possibility that God reveals similar content to different gospel writers. This is difficult for some to consider in our modern world. We tend to keep our noses pressed to the ground, sniffing for obvious clues that can be seen and verified. So to think that God reveals similar content to different writers in different places is too much of a stretch for many. The fact that the mode of expression is similar makes it even more challenging to consider. But it is possible. And considering we are discussing works about God and spirituality, it is a valid hypothesis—even if, perhaps, one not possible to support or reject until the afterlife.²
² A similar problem arises in the arts and, in my particular area of interest, music. Did composer B knowingly copy material from composer A or did composer B’s song just come out that way? It is possible that composer B never heard composer A’s work but, instead, drew from the same inspirational source as did A. Musicians often say they have no idea where a lot of their musical inspiration comes from. Many suggest that the source is spiritual. Could not the same be true with regard to the word of God?