The Written Period
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Within a decade or so, the gospels were starting to be written down. (The letters, of course, were written right way.) The main issue here is was is called the "Synoptic Problem," how can Matthew, Mark, and Luke be so similar and yet different in places. And what about John? The keys to the question lie in Luke 1:1-4 and John 20:30-31. There are two fundamental answers to the question. (1) The historical situatrion can be reconstructed with a high degree of certainty, and once seen many of the issues fall away. (2) Harmonization is the process by which we understand how divergent accounts can also both be accurate.
A. Authorship and Authority
B. Writing of the Synoptics
1. Synoptic Problem
2. What do the Synoptics Say about themselves?
a. Luke 1:1-4
b. John 20:30-31
c. John 21:25
Course: Why I Trust My Bible
Lecture: The Written Period
Period of Writing: Authorship and Authority
We’ve talked about the period of oral transmission. I don’t think the church created stories; I think it had every reason to be as truthful as it could be, persecution being a big part. Eventually, the church decided that they had to start writing these things down. We don’t know how early the Gospels were written, certainly by the 50’s Mark was written, so the oral recounting of Jesus did not go on for too long before being written down.
The focal point is that when the Gospels and the New Testament were written, the authority of the documents was all bound up in the authority of the writers. In other words, when Paul writes his letter to the Roman church, it’s received instantly as fully authoritative, because Paul is an Apostle. We all know he’s an Apostle. He does the work of the Apostle. The church has recognized it. So Romans was accepted right away.
There are other writings by other Apostles that would have been accepted instantly by the church. For example, the Gospel of Mark is the memoirs of Peter. According to church tradition, it’s Peter authority that lies behind the Gospel of Mark, so the Gospel of Mark was accepted as authoritative. It was immediately accepted as correct because, “It’s Peter, and obviously Peter knows what he’s talking about.”
Matthew was accepted instantly. Interestingly, John had some trouble: Both his Gospel and his letters were more slowly accepted because some of the heretics were using them to try to prove their own teaching, and so the church was a little leery about the writings of John. We’ll talk more about the issue called canonicity later, but because it was John behind the gospel, the Beloved Disciple, ultimately the church said, “It’s got to be correct; we just simply have to accept it even if these people are misusing it.”
Here’s the point I’m trying to make. At a very early date, within twenty years probably of when Jesus died, you had people that were absolutely trusted. They were fully authoritative. They were recognized by the entire church (not just a little church in this city or a church in that city) as being people with ultimate authority to speak for God. It’s their authority that lies behind the Scripture, it’s their rightness that lies behind the rightness of Scripture.
So that is the process from Jesus’s life and teachings up until these things being written. There are, of course, some books that are written by non-apostles, right? Luke was not an Apostle and wrote a third of the New Testament: Luke and Acts. We don’t know who wrote Hebrews. James wasn’t an Apostle; he was a half brother of Jesus, but not an Apostle. So there are some writings that we have that are not from Apostles. But the bulk of the New Testament was written by people who were seen to be totally authoritative because of their role as Apostles.
What I’m trying to do is lay a foundation for helping you understand why you can trust the New Testament; that’s where I’m going in all of this.
Writing of the Synoptics
When it comes to writing, we need to talk about something called the Synoptic Problem, or the Synoptic Gospels, because much of the discussion that you hear over the water cooler at work has to do with the Synoptics.
Matthew, Mark and Luke are called the Synoptic Gospels. They are called that because they are so similar; that’s what the word synoptic means.
There are many places in which Matthew, Mark and Luke are very similar in wording and in order. The problem comes about more when they are different because even in the same paragraph they can be very similar and yet there can be significant differences among the three Synoptic Gospels. So the synoptic problem, as we call it, is, “How do you explain the similarities and differences that exist among the Synoptic Gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke?”
In one sense this isn’t that big of a deal to me, but in another sense it is, because it deals with trust of the Bible. That’s why it’s important to understand how Matthew, Mark, and Luke got put together, because if you can see that, then you can understand that they are trustworthy.
When I was a teacher, if I had asked for a term paper on the Life of Christ and I got papers from Matthew, Mark, and Luke, I would have flunked all three of them and sent them to the Dean’s office. You can’t copy today, you can’t come out word for word, and yet have significant differences, without there being an issue of trust or honesty or something like that involved. So, I’m going to go into some detail about the synoptic, but the point is that I want you to see that you can really trust them. That’s my goal.
Let me give you some examples. In fact, these passages are in your notes at the end of this section: Matthew 3:7-10 and Luke 3:7-9. The underline shows where they are different. The first sentence is a little different. “But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, or, he said therefore to the crowds that came up to baptized by him.” In other words, Matthew, for whatever reason, wanted to be a little more specific as to who was in the crowd. Evidently Luke didn’t think it was very important, so he left out some of those details.
One has the singular “bear fruit” the other has the plural “bear fruits.”
One says “do not presume to say to yourself” while the other, “do not begin to say to yourselves.” Those are differences that are reflective of the Greek; they are not just English differences.
But the rest is exactly the same, word-for-word. Now how does that happen? How do they get word for word, exactly the same?
There are also significant differences in wording if you compare stories. In Matthew, one of the Synoptics, it says Jesus was crucified between two thieves and they reviled him. In Luke, you have the story of one of those reviling thieves that converts (the verses are in your notes). He converts, and you can look at that and say, that’s so different. One says they reviled him and the other one, evidently, found out more about Jesus and repented of sins and we’re going to see him in Heaven.
These are the kinds of differences in the Synoptics: similarities and differences of wording.
There are also similarities and differences of order. The Synoptics all have the same basic structure. Jesus spent most of his time in Galilee, then, he went on a long trip outside of Israel and eventually ended up in Jerusalem and died. There is a basic similarity of order.
And yet there are some significant differences. For example, if you go to the story of temptation in Matthew 4, the devil says, “Turn the stones to bread, jump off the temple, worship me.” In Luke, the order is different—”Turn the stones to bread, worship me, jump off the temple.” That’s pretty different, isn’t it? So the question is how do you explain these similarities, and how do you explain the differences? I’ll come back and explain these examples to you in a moment.
What do the Synoptics Say about themselves?
If we’re going to see how the Synoptics were put together, it’s best to let the Synoptics tell us how they were put together; and there are three passages that are very important to understand.
The first is the first four verses of Luke 1. As I read this, you tell me what Luke is telling you about how he went about writing his Gospel. He says, “Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.” There’s a lot in those four verses that tell us what Luke is doing. What are some of the things that he tells us about how he went about writing the Gospel?
He’s not the first one to write an account; there are other accounts out there.
He’s trying to make it orderly; that’s really important. He’s not claiming to make it chronological. I know one of the translations out there says that, but it’s a virtually impossible translation of the Greek word “orderly.” he’s claiming to do an orderly account.
Ancient writers were not nearly as concerned about sequence as we are. For example, in the temptation narrative, Matthew says that the temptation sequence was, turn stones to bread, jump off the temple, and then worship Satan. In Luke, the sequence is, turn the stones to bread, there worship Satan, and then jump off the temple. When we hear the word and, we hear sequence. That’s our culture; that’s not the biblical culture. There is a very strong theme in Luke that a prophet dies only in Jerusalem, and it appears that Luke changed the order to make that point. He doesn’t claim to be telling us chronologically what happened, but he’s trying to make a point. So he just says this happened and this happened and this happened, without claiming chronology.
There are other things in Luke 1 as well. Luke is a Christian. He’s writing to corroborate other testimonies.
Historical veracity is very important to him, isn’t it. He wants Theophilus, the guy that’s probably paying for all of this, to know with certainty the things that he has been taught. So for example, you find in Luke a tremendous emphasis on historicity. It was when Quirinius was governor of Syria that Augustus ordered the world to be taxed. When you get into Acts and he starts recounting all the places that Paul traveled in this trip, Luke almost ad nauseum tells us every little hole in the wall that Paul stopped at on his trip to Rome. “Come on Luke, I don’t really care.” Well, Luke does care because he wants us to understand that these things really happened.
So there is a broader issue here too, and that is that Luke is writing with purpose. It’s not simply to tell us everything he could possible drum up about Jesus, but he has certain goals in mind, and he’s writing and he’s choosing certain stories of Jesus and he’s doing it with intent.
The reason that is so important can be illustrated by the example of the thieves. Is it an error when Matthew says he was crucified between two thieves on the cross who reviled him? Luke says one of them converted. Did Matthew make an error? No, because Matthew is not claiming to tell us everything. That’s really important. This is a foundational point: Matthew makes no claim to tell us absolutely everything about Jesus. John, in fact, denies it when he says the world couldn’t hold all the books that would have to be written—they didn’t have memory chips back then. So Luke tells us part of the story that Matthew doesn’t. It’s a great story. I have no doubt that both thieves started by reviling Jesus, and what do you think Jesus did? For the first time in his life sat there and didn’t say anything? No, I’m sure he witnessed to thieves. I’m sure he talked about who he was and what he was there to do. And one of the thieves was converted on the cross. Matthew is not wrong by not telling us about that; he just didn’t want to tell us about it. The gospel writers are selective.
Luke’s gospel is more like a research paper; Luke went out and researched his material. There’s a lot of other source material out there, but he has certain goals in mind and he picked the material up that was important to him.
“Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book;, but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” Again, John is writing with purpose, isn’t he, and it’s a highly evangelistic book. That’s the whole goal of John: “I went out and I know all these stories about Jesus, but I’m going to pick and choose the ones that will help me accomplish my purpose, and that is so you will believe that Jesus is the Christ the Son of God.” So there was purpose.
“Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” There’s selection going on. They don’t claim to tell us everything.
This is really important, because if you look at that passage that we looked at earlier about the crowds coming to John the Baptist to be baptized, one says that there were Pharisees and Sadducees. The other one doesn’t specify. Is that an error? There are people who will say that’s an error because they have some convoluted definition of what the Gospel writers are trying to do. But the gospels are not claiming to tell us absolutely everything. They are not claiming to tell us everything in chronological order. The authors have purposes, they have a mission for writing, and they are going to pick those stories of what Jesus did and said to accomplish their goals. It doesn’t make it wrong; it doesn’t make it untrustworthy. That’s just the way they did it.
Let me give you the standard reconstruction of how the Gospels were written. Of course, there’s always controversy about all that I am going to say, but this is the standard explanation.
Most people think that Mark was written first. It’s generally believed that Mark was written when Peter was in Rome. This is because there’s a lot in Mark that would especially appeal to the Roman way of thinking. We don’t translate it because it would sound terrible in English, but the first chapter of Mark has around forty occurrences of the word “immediately.” Now Jesus did this and immediately he did that. Mark is presenting Jesus as a man of action, which is something that would have been very appealing to the Romans. Interestingly, all of Mark, except for one passage, is replicated in Matthew and Luke. So if you’ve read Matthew and Luke, except for one passage, you’ve read all of Mark. Mark is likely the first one written.
The second source in addition to Mark we call Q, which is just an abbreviation for a German word. It’s a hypothetical source, but we believe that there was another gospel written that has been lost, and Matthew and Luke made use of this document. It explains why the story about John the Baptist is word-for-word the same, because they are both copying from the same document. So Q is used to describe information that does not occur in Mark, but occurs in Matthew and in Luke. In other words, Matthew and Luke sat down, they had Mark and they copied most of it. They also had this other source that we don’t have any more, and copied from that.
And then the other two sources are called, very creatively, M and L. In other words, it’s just a way of saying that Matthew has information that no one else has and Luke has information that no one else has. So when Matthew sat down to write his gospel he had the Gospel of Mark, and copied all, but one paragraph (why he left that paragraph out I have no idea). He had this other source we call Q that he copied from, and then he had a bunch of other information. So he picked and he chose what he wanted to use. For example, Matthew is written to the Jews. Nobody debates this that I know of, because what you’ll find in Matthew is anything and everything that proves Jesus is the Messiah. Constantly, Matthew is pointing out that Jesus fulfilled prophecy. Luke doesn’t care about that because Luke’s written to Gentiles who mostly don’t know the Old Testament, so the fact that Jesus fulfilled prophecy is not important to Luke. It’s important to Matthew. So he picked and chose the information that was important to his audience.
And then there’s Luke, who primarily has Mark and this Q document and then a bunch of other material. Luke has other purposes, one of which is to let people know that Jesus cared about the minorities. If there’s a story about a woman, you’ll find it in Luke. If there’s a story about someone who is a social outcast, you’ll probably find it in Luke and not in Matthew or Mark because that was one of those very important things to Luke. And Luke is a Gentile, right? So it’s the story of Jesus going outside of Israel and traveling for a while among the Gentiles, among the non-Christians, that’s huge to Luke. So that section goes on for some ten chapters. In the other Gospels, the same section is much shorter.
So they are all picking and choosing the stories that will help them accomplish their goals.
This is important because you will run across people who will see the differences in the Synoptics and they will conclude they can’t trust them because they’re so different and yet so similar. These people will conclude that the gospel writers obviously copied, but they didn’t all get it right. Hopefully this explanation has helped you understand why you can trust them.
Let me give you an example of how this works. You know the word “harmonization?” What I’ve done earlier is called harmonization. Harmonization asks the question, is there any way in which both stories can be correct even though they are different? I did that with the temptation narrative. I did it with the thief on the cross. Is there some way that both thieves could have reviled Jesus and yet one of them became a Christian? Sure. That’s the process of harmonization.
Let me show how it works with the birth stories. Both Matthew and Luke agree that Jesus was born. They both agreed that the shepherds came that night. But this is where the story changes. In Luke, Jesus was taken to be circumcised in the temple and then he was given his name. Matthew on the other hand has the Magi, the three wise men, come, and then Jesus goes to Egypt for two years and you have the killing of the children.
But both Matthew and Luke agree that Jesus ended up in Nazareth. You can look at that and say, how could you trust something like that? My goodness, there was a whole trip to Egypt and Luke didn’t get it. How are you going to put that together? I’ve already given you a hint in terms of how it’s laid out on the screen.
Let me give you some interesting facts. How old is a baby when he’s circumcised? Eight days. So we know that circumcision happened within eight days of the shepherds.
During the naming at the temple, Anna and Simeon are there. If you read what they said about Jesus, they call him a light to the Gentiles. For Luke, it’s a tremendously important statement that at the very beginning of Jesus’s life, he is being proclaimed as having a ministry to non-Jews. That’s probably why Luke included them.
Where was Jesus when the Magi came? he wasn’t in a manager; all those nativity scenes we have are wrong. He was in a house. So whenever the Magi came it wasn’t the night on which he was born. I guess you could say the Inn Keeper felt sorry for them and let them come in, but we really don’t know what happened.
How old were all the babies that Herod had killed? Two and under. Now we know that Herod was absolutely paranoid. He killed off his own family, but you’ve got to be pretty paranoid to kill two years and down in order to get a one-day old baby.
When you put all those pieces together and harmonize them, this is what appears to have happened. I don’t know for sure this happened, but it’s a pretty good guess, that he was born that night the shepherds came. Joseph is in his hometown, Bethlehem and evidently decided to stay around awhile. Mary had just had a baby. They took him to Jerusalem, not very far away to have him circumcised, and it appears that they went back, not to Nazareth, but back to Bethlehem. He stayed there for awhile. The Magi came (we don’t know how long afterward), and Herod went on this killing rampage after they left. So probably between the naming and the Magi you’ve probably got about a year or year and a half. The Magi left, Herod went nuts, the angel told Joseph to get out of town, so he went down to Egypt for two years, and the babies were killed. After Herod died they came back and went back up to Nazareth.
That’s the whole process of harmonization. Looking at this reconstruction of Matthew and Luke’s account, is there any way they are both true? How do they fit together? So you go to the text, you look for hints and pieces and you fit them together. Like I said, this may be overkill for some of you right now, this may be too much information, but you need to understand there will be people who will attack your faith by saying the Gospels aren’t reliable. You need to see with relative ease how you can start fitting these things together and make perfectly good sense.
I’ve got a good friend that teaches at a school in Tennessee, and when he gets to the Synoptic problem in class he sends two people out into the hall. They sit just 30 feet from each other for about a half hour. He goes through and explains the Synoptic problem in class, and then he brings the two students back in. He has each person describe what it was like to sit in the hall for a half hour and what happened. The first one goes through all the discussion and then the second one describes his experiences, and about 30 seconds into the process the whole class starts laughing because it sounds like the two students weren’t even in the same hallway. Did they see the same things? They obviously were sitting in the same hall for the same 30 minutes, but their stories are different, but they’re compatible. That’s all that harmonization does. We’ll do more of this as we get into the Gospels.
What I want you to understand is that even if when you’re presented with a problem in the Gospels, even if you can’t explain it, you need to understand that there is a process you can go through with a little bit of study, a little bit of learning, so that these Gospels all do go together and make sense. That’s the process.
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