The question is: how do we explain the similarities between the books of Matthew, Mark and Luke? Scholars have debated over the issue, but are nowhere near resolving the disagreements. Even as Bright Mhango tackles the issue, he does not pretend that he will add a touch of finality to the debate.
The Gospels of Luke, Mark and Matthew are so similar even to the uninitiated eye, with Matthew containing some 600 of the 666 verses in Mark. This similarity is what some scholars have dubbed the â€˜synoptic problem.â€™
This raises a lot of questions. Did two of the writers copy from one? Did they all copy from someone else?
Some people argue that all the three wrote by getting information from people narrating stories to them, but this notion is quashed by the fact the three gospels are even similar in structure. Only the gospel of John stands out from the other two.
Take Matthew 14:19b-20: “Taking the five loaves and the two fish, looking up into heaven he blessed, and breaking, gave to the disciples the loaves, and the disciples to the crowds. And all ate and were satisfied.”
Talking about the same, Mark 6:41-42 says: “And taking the five loaves and the two fish, looking up into heaven, he blessed and he broke up the bread, and was giving to the disciples in order that they set before them, and the two fish he distributed to all. And all ate and were satisfied.”
Luke 9:16-17 says: “But taking the five loaves and the two fish, looking up into heaven, he blessed them and he broke up, and was giving to the disciples to set before the crowd. And they ate and were satisfied.”
The above verses, if compared to John 6:11-12, show that the three have some strange similarity and it is not just this verse, but why?
Scholars are still fighting up to date to find out what went down back in the days. Augustine of Hippo argued that the Biblical orderâ€”Mathew, Mark then Lukeâ€”is the correct order, of which the gospels were written. He says Mark abbreviated Mathew and Luke used both Mark and Mathew to come up with his gospel.
Then came Johann Griesbach, who argued that the gospel of Matthew appeared first and was used by Luke as a source for his own gospel. Mark then used both gospels as sources. Griesbachâ€™s hypothesis is what theologians now term the â€˜two gospel hypothesis.â€™
All these theories have their following, but recently the two theories have taken centre stage and have come to be accepted as the more believable of the various assertions that are there on the question of why the gospels are similar.
Christian Weisse postulated that Matthew and Luke independently used Mark as a source and independently combined their Markan source with another source of tradition, what has come to be known as â€˜Q.â€™ The Q stands for Quelle which means â€˜source.â€™
Austine Farrar added to Weisseâ€™s theory by agreeing that Mark is the priority but argued that Matthew added to his Markan source and then Luke used Matthew as a source.
Farrarâ€™s hypothesis states that Matthew was written first (probably in the 40s AD by the apostle Matthew), while Christianity was still centred in Jerusalem, to calm the hostility between Jews and Christians. After Matthew, as the church expanded beyond the Holy Land, Luke was written as a gospel to the Gentiles by Luke the Evangelist, probably in the 50s AD.
But since Luke was not himself an eyewitness of Jesus, Peter gave public testimonies that validated Lukeâ€™s gospel.
These public speeches were transcribed by Mark the Evangelist into Markâ€™s gospel and distributed immediately thereafter, as recorded by the early church father Irenaeus.
Markâ€™s shorter and less-polished nature is, therefore, a consequence of the fact that it came from a series of transcribed speeches that were never meant to be a separate gospel tradition. Paul then allowed Lukeâ€™s gospel to be published.
Farrarâ€™s hypothesis is the most recommended of the many theories that scholars propose in trying to solve the synoptic problem. To the common Christian, however, it doesnâ€™t matter how the gospels came to be and the fact that many sources are actually speaking of one thing only speaks of the truth value of that event.