"The Synoptic Problem" -- that's the term experts use to discuss the relationship of three gospels to each other: Matthew, Mark, and Luke. All three have roughly the same (syn) view (optic) of Jesus, but each of the three has its own idiosyncrasies.
For years, the standard view of Protestant scholars has been that the Gospel of Mark came first. The gospels of Matthew and Luke came next (and at roughly the same time). Both Matthew and Luke used Mark as a source; both also used a collection of Christ's sayings (now lost) that is known as Q (from the German word Quelle or "source"). What's more, Matthew and Luke each used additional sources that were unique to each gospel; the additional sources for these two gospels are known respectively as M and L. In short:
- In the beginning was the Gospel of Mark.
- Mark + Q + M = the Gospel of Matthew.
- Mark + Q + L = the Gospel of Luke.
Catholic scholars generally follow the view of Augustine of Hippo, i.e. Matthew came first, Luke used Matthew, and Mark edited both Matthew and Luke to come up with his gospel. In short:
- In the beginning was the Gospel of Matthew.
- Matthew + L = the Gospel of Luke.
- Matthew + Luke + some heavy editing = the Gospel of Mark.
Just. Don't. Ask.
Anyway, that's been the debate so far -- but all this may change, thanks to a new book by Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: the Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony. A professor of New Testament studies and Bishop Wardlaw Professor at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, Bauckham has spent a lot of time studying how stories get passed along in aural cultures, i.e. cultures that rely on word of mouth more than pen and paper.
His conclusion? The Synoptic Gospels do not rely on each other; instead, all draw on a "pool" of eyewitness accounts -- eyewitness accounts that give us an accurate and reliable picture of what actually happened in the life of Jesus.
Obviously, Bauckham's theory has some radical implications for how we interpret the gospels -- and as a reviewer noted in the Times Literary Supplement, Bauckham himself may not have realized what this implies about the date those gospels were actually written down. If Matthew and Luke did not depend on Mark, after all, then they may have been written much earlier than we currently suppose.
And no, I don't see this book changing my faith -- but it's definitely one book I'm going to read this year. And if you get a chance to read it, then drop me a note and we'll talk about it.
If we really are going to spend all eternity discussing the Synoptic Problem, after all, then we might as well get a head start!