Unsolved mysteries bring out the detective in man. Theology has its share of fascinating yet perplexing mysteries, none of which is more acute in the world of contemporary biblical scholarship than the so-called Synoptic problem. A glance at recent issues of almost any theological journal will show how important the problem of the relation between the first three Gospels has become since the advent of a new “quest” for “the historical Jesus” among such disciples of Rudolf Bultmann as Ernst Käsemann, Günther Bornkamm, and Hans Conzelmann.

The aim in this article, however is not to present the most recent views, but rather to look at three clues that lie within the pages of the New Testament itself. Those already versed in the mystery will find little here but the independent reflections of a “detective” who has yet to consult with many of his older and wiser colleagues.

The first clue to be found in the New Testament is the practice of certain Jews in the synagogue at Berea who, in response to the speech of Paul and Silas, “were more liberal-minded than those at Thessalonica: they received the message with great eagerness, studying the scriptures every day to see whether it was as they said” (Acts 17:11, NEB). Not only does this suggest that the Old Testament was read and explained in order to convert Jews to Christ; it also represents one example of the regular practice of primitive Christians (cf. also Peter’s exhortation about selecting Judas’s successor, Acts 1:15–22)—namely, searching the Old Testament for references to Jesus Christ and his Church.

Within any given local church two developments may be surmised: first, the number of references to Christ in the Old Testament would tend to become somewhat standardized in time and favorite verses would become prominent sources for reflection; secondly, various apostolic narrations from the life of Christ would attach themselves to these standardized lists of favorite verses. As Luke tells us elsewhere (Luke 1:1, 2, NEB), many “[accounts] of the events that have happened among us” came to circulate among the various early Christian communities.

The Exodus And The Gospels

Because the exodus from Egypt was for the Jews the most important event of the Old Testament, it may be suggested that these early accounts were based on “traditions” that might very well have been influenced to some extent by the order of the events related to the Exodus. Surely it is not difficult to conjecture that the crossing of the Sea of Reeds might have reminded the original eye witnesses of our Lord’s baptism, the wandering in the desert of his temptation in the wilderness, the account of the bitter waters at Marah of several episodes in Christ’s life in which water plays a prominent role, the miraculous manna and quail on the journey from Elim to Sinai of the bread and fish that fed the multitudes, the Ten Commandments of the Sermon on the Mount, Moses the lawgiver of Christ as the proclaimer of a new Law, and perhaps even the crossing of the Jordan and entry into the promised land of the crucifixion and ascension of our Lord. Such a framework might have existed prior to the composition of the first written accounts of Christ’s words and works. Only gradually did a concern for a more chronological framework appear; and when it did, it would appear to have been superimposed on the existing Old Testament framework. A quick look at the Gospel of Matthew will reveal the validity of this hypothesis.

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A second clue to the Synoptic mystery occurs in a well-known passage in the Fourth Gospel. The author frankly confesses that “there were indeed many other signs that Jesus performed in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book,” and that the basis upon which he selected his contents was not primarily biographical, nor chronological, nor even historical, but “fiducial”: “Those here written have been recorded in order that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that through this faith you may possess eternal life by his name” (John 20:30, 31 n., NEB). Thus to John at least the fiducial is really more important than the merely historical. As evangelicals we must beware of conveying the false impression that the Christians of the first century had a nineteenth-or twentieth-century conception of historiography. All four Gospels, in fact, have as their primary function the confirmation and deepening of the kerygmatic witness of the apostles.

This ultimate theological concern of the Evangelists makes more credible our earlier suggestion that some events in Christ’s life were originally fitted to a framework of Old Testament passages rather than to any chronological or sequential pattern, such as a contemporary historian might follow. On the basis of biblical evidence, no evangelical needs to quarrel with the words of F. C. Grant: “Nothing merely biographical or historical has a place here; the book was written ‘out of faith’ and ‘for faith’—i.e., the creation, or the confirmation, of Christian faith is all that matters” (“Mark,” Interpreter’s Bible, VII, 651). However, as F. F. Bruce says, such a conclusion “throws little light on the historicity of any particular incident or utterance” (“Biblical Criticism,” New Bible Dictionary, p. 153). When it is admitted that the primary aim of the Gospels is not a historical account, at the same time it must not be forgotten that historical accuracy as conceived by first-century standards was of tremendous concern to the early Church. At this point we have another clue to our mystery.

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For ‘Authentic Knowledge’

The only other Gospel that states its own purpose is Luke. Luke’s famous preface (1:1–4) has much to say about the formation of the Gospels. The author apparently felt that extant accounts of the words and works of Christ were incomplete and lacking in important detail. He also hints that some accounts may have included inauthentic forms. He therefore emphasizes that he “[went] over the whole course of these events,” that he did so “in detail” for the purpose of giving “authentic knowledge” to Theophilus (Luke 1:3, 4, NEB). Thus, despite the fact that the date of the writing of the Synoptic Gospels is some three or four decades removed from most of the events narrated, biblical evidence would seem to suggest that certain exponents of the Formgeschichte method who attribute to the primitive community a high degree of creativity are giving Luke’s words far less emphasis than they deserve.

Karl Ludwig Schmidt, for example, in rejecting the essential historicity of the gospel framework would seem to be denying the very concern of the early Church for authentic knowledge that Luke’s preface reflects. When Bultmann says that “the study of the laws that govern literary transmission can be approached by observing the manner in which the Marcan material was altered by Matthew and Luke” (“The New Approach to the Synoptic Problem,” The Journal of Religion, VI [1926], 345), he would seem to be on solid ground. But when he goes on to suggest that the names given by Matthew and Luke to unidentified characters in Mark are the result of a pious imagination that “paints such details with increasing distinctness” (loc. cit.), we are surely required by objectivity to say that this is only one possible side to the coin of literary law. Equally possible is the conclusion that Matthew and Luke uncovered new information; and that this was actually the case, at least for Luke’s Gospel, would seem to be the prima facie implication of Luke’s preface.

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Support From Modern Scholars

Much modern scholarship would seem to warrant and even underline such a view. Although Luke begins his Gospel as a classical Greek historian, we know that his essential conservatism results in a rather literal Greek translation that preserves the Aramaic flavor of the original gospel forms. Moreover, the work of the Scandinavian school at Uppsala, the conclusions of the Albright archaeological school, and the recent discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls have done much to confirm the great reliability of materials transmitted both orally and in writing. Then, too, the very fact that the Gospels sound as if they are earlier than the Epistles, when in fact they were written later than many of the latter, should make us cautious about overemphasizing the creative role of the community of faith.

In any case, the early Church would appear to have had some concern for completeness, detail, and authenticity by the very fact that it chose Luke’s Gospel for popular use and eventually for its canon, and by the fact that it chose four Gospels only, not more nor less. That Matthew and Luke seem to have used versions of Mark quite similar to the one we now possess would seem to indicate that Mark, recognized as the fullest and most accurate of the early accounts of what was remembered of Christ’s life, came to have a semi-canonical status at a very early date, perhaps even in some Aramaic (oral?) original. The process of increasing completeness, order, and authenticity culminated with Matthew and Luke, whose additions were accepted by the early Church, not because of any pious and legendary accretions but because of the correspondence of their narrations with the facts as remembered by eyewitnesses who were still alive. So when we say that the Gospels are first and foremost Heilsgeschichte, we dare not thereby lose sight of the natural concern of the early Church for an authentic historical account as well.

The term Heilsgeschichte has been translated into English in many ways, none of them really satisfying. Perhaps when applied to the Gospels the word can most accurately be translated “conversion history,” despite the fact that many scholars question the fundamentally evangelistic purpose of the Gospels. This conversion history has undoubtedly been influenced by its evangelistic purpose; therefore we can with real validity look at each pericope of the gospel narrative and ask, “Why did the early Church feel this story would lead to faith in Christ, and how does the purpose influence the way in which the story is told?”

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This “life situation” is technically called the Sitz im Leben and has played a large role in contemporary Synoptic study. A young American Roman Catholic scholar has suggested a three-fold distinction to lead to greater precision in discussion. He calls the event as it may have occurred in Christ’s own life, complete with details omitted by the evangelists as unnecessary for their purposes, the Sitz im Leben Jesu; the situation in the early Church that led to the preservation of any given narrative he calls the Sitz im Leben Ecclesiae; and the situation of each pericope within the Gospel as a whole he calls the Sitz im Evangelium (Richard Sneed, Catholic Biblical Quarterly, October, 1962, pp. 365 f). In many cases, admittedly, the three Sitze may be considered coincident on the basis of Luke’s preface.

The Difficulty Of Analysis

That the period of literary development was comparatively short for the Gospels in contrast to the Old Testament, even Bultmann, like Wrede and Wellhausen before him and like other prominent German form critics, of course admits. Therefore he does not deny that the task of literary analysis is extremely difficult, nor that the form critic must exercise great caution. Nevertheless he maintains that the various types of narrative in the Gospels can be identified and their original forms determined on the basis of laws that such stories tend to follow in all literature, and particularly in the Hellenistic literature of the first century.

But as F. F. Bruce points out (loc. cit.), the rather radical conclusions that many form critics reach concerning the historical trustworthiness of the Gospels often appear to be based more on their theological presuppositions than on the Formgeschichte method itself. A Roman Catholic scholar of the Albright school, Frederick L. Moriarty, cautions that “form criticism, in its widest sense, can neither prove nor disprove the historicity of the units it isolates.… As long as form criticism remains faithful to its own principles and methods, it is powerless to evaluate the historical value of the material transmitted by the documents” (“Gerhard von Rad’s Genesis,” The Bible in Current Catholic Thought, p. 38). He quotes Albright, who said in 1939: “The ultimate historicity of a given datum is never conclusively established nor disproved by the literary framework in which it is imbedded; there must be external evidence.”

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Bultmann’s scholarship is vast, and we are not here evaluating his system as a whole. But it does seem that with his healthy emphasis on faith as the primary purpose for the writing of a Gospel, there is definitely room for a more frequent coincidence of the Sitz im Leben Ecclesiae and the Sitz im Leben Jesu. “A life-setting of one kind in the early Church does not necessarily exclude an original life-setting in the ministry of Jesus” (F. F. Bruce, loc. cit.). Or to use the words of C. F. D. Moule: “The Synoptic Gospels represent primarily the recognition that a vital element in evangelism is the plain story of what happened in the ministry of Jesus” (“The Intention of the Evangelists,” New Testament Essays, pp. 175 f.).

First-Century Perspective

This is, of course, by no means an exhaustive study of the clues to the Synoptic mystery contained in the pages of the New Testament. For example, no mention has been made of the remarkable insights that come from a study of the three Synoptic Gospels in parallel columns. No student of the Bible can appreciate the complexity or the joy of such biblical studies until he owns a “harmony” of the Gospels and asks himself why there are so many differences in wording and yet such a substantial identity in the three Synoptic narratives of any one event. A great deal may be learned by evangelicals from an application of the methods of form criticism to the various narratives. If each narrative is seen as nearly as possible through the eyes of the first-century believer, new areas of understanding open up, and we can gain some impression of why the individual narrative was so important to the early Christians. A close study of this kind will also unearth a treasure of insight into God’s Word that will otherwise remain buried, to the impoverishment of pastors whose sermons have become only superficially biblical.

Many scholars are convinced that the conclusions reached by form criticism need not be so disruptive and destructive as they appear to be in the hands of such disciples of Bultmann as Reginald H. Fuller, who, in a recent work entitled Interpreting the Miracles, views all the nature miracles of the New Testament as a product of the primitive scientific outlook of the early Christian world rather than as acts performed by Jesus Christ himself essentially as related in the Gospels. “Modern man is prepared to accept the healings of Jesus as due to his power of suggestion; the nature miracles … he can only dismiss as pious legend” (p. 121), Fuller says. Despite Luke’s preface, he claims that Luke’s alterations of Mark’s account of any narrative are “rarely of direct historical value” (p. 24). Many readers of such works as this will feel again and again that a more orthodox solution to the problem is not only equally credible but even more in harmony with the evidence.

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In vain, however, will the evangelical student look for mature works on form criticism written by evangelical scholars. All he can do is pray that the Lord of the harvest will some day soon see fit to send into this field of scholarship laborers who are equipped to show the strengths of a more cautious criticism and the weaknesses of extreme radicalism. Unless such laborers are forthcoming from the ranks of orthodox Christians, it is likely that many will assume that the heterodox conclusions of some form critics have carried the day and that evangelical orthodoxy can be maintained only by a sacrifice of intellectual integrity.

Leslie R. Keylock, an alumnus of the University of Alberta (Canada) and of the Wheaton Graduate School of Theology, is a research assistant in religion at the State University of Iowa, where he is a Ph.D. candidate.

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