THE SYNOPTIC PROBLEM

ARE THERE ERRORS IN THE BIBLE?
ARE THERE ERRORS IN THE GOSPELS?
IS THERE LITERARY DEPENDENCY IN THE GOSPELS?
COPYRIGHT NEIL CADMAN B Sc.(Arch.) B Arch. M.Rel.Ed.
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OBVIOUS CHRONOLOGY

OBVIOUS CHRONOLOGICAL ORDER IN THE GOSPELS

In spite of many claims that the Gospels are not written chronologically but are rather arranged according to some other criteria, it cannot he disputed that there is at least some chronological order in their arrangement. For example, no gospel ends with the incarnation. All have the incarnation at the beginning. All the Gospels have the resurrection at the end.

BASIC DIVISION OF THE GOSPELS

There is a basic chronological division of each Gospel into four main parts and the sequence of that division is the same in each Gospel. The sense of the Gospel story is dependent upon that division.

It is as follows.

  1. The birth of Christ
  2. His Galilean ministry
  3. The walk to Jerusalem (It is primarily in Luke)
  4. The Passion and Resurrection

MAJOR EVENTS

In the Gospels there is no variation in the order of the following major events:

1 The Incarnation (Matt.1, Mk.1, Lk.2, Jn.1)
2 The Preaching of John the Baptist (Matt.3, Mk.1, Lk.3, Jn.1:6)
3 The Baptism of Jesus (Matt.3, Mk.1, Lk.3 only)
4 The Temptation in the Wilderness (Matt.4, Mk.1, Lk.4 only)
5 The Calling of the Disciples (Matt.4, Mk.1, Lk.5, Jn.1)
6 The Casting into Prison of John the Baptist (Matt.4:12, Lk.3:20 only) *
7 John the Baptist’s Continuance in Prison (Matt.11:2, Mk 6:17 only)
8 The Death of John the Baptist (Matt.14:10, Mk.6:27 only)
9 The Transfiguration (Matt.17:1-13, Mk.9:2-13, Lk.9:28-36 only)
10 The Last Walk going up from Galilee to Jerusalem (Matt.20:17, Mk.10:32, Lk.9:51)
11 The Triumphant Entry into Jerusalem (Matt.21:20, Mk.11:11, Lk.19:41, Jn.12-15)
12 The Last Supper (Matt.26:19, Mk. 14:18, Lk.22-14, Jn.13:1)
13 The Arrest of Jesus (Matt.26:46, Mk.14:43, Lk.22:47, Jn.18:2)
14 The Trials of Jesus (Matt.26:57, Mk.14:53, Lk.22:54, Jn.19:24)
15 The Crucifixion of Jesus (Matt.27:33, Mk.15:22, Lk.23:23, Jn.19:18)
16 The Burial of Jesus (Matt.27:57, Mk.15:42, Lk.23:50, Jn.19:38)
17 The Resurrection of Jesus (Matt.28:1, Mk.16:1, Lk.24:1, Jn.20:1)
18 The Ascension of Jesus (Mk. Lk. only) (Lk.24:50 only)

* Luke's reference to John being cast into prison is an aside, and therefore does not need to be chronologically ordered. It refers both back to the introduction of this section Chp.3:1, where Herod is mentioned as being in control of Galilee and forward to the death of John.

THE MOST IMPORTANT EVENTS ARE CHRONOLOGICALLY ORDERED

Infact all these incidents, except the transfiguration, are dependent upon their chronology for their sense. It would not be possible, for the incarnation to follow the crucifixion, nor for John the Baptist’s teaching to follow Christ’s. These main events are spread evenly throughout the Gospel record. Therefore every Biblical scholar has to admit that there are at least some chronologically ordered events in all four Gospels.

LESS IMPORTANT CHRONOLOGICALLY ORDERED EVENTS

There are a number of events, which are recorded as coming between the temptation in the wilderness and the entry into Jerusalem. They are middle events largely consisting of the various miracles and teachings of Christ. Although they are of great importance, in that it is these events that are largely the provocation of the animosity of the Pharisee's that brings about Jesus’ crucifixion, the individual appearance within the middle portion of each gospel has little effect on the overall story. Nevertheless, in this middle section of less critical events there are some events, which correlate chronologically to each other, hence indicating a order within this middle section. They are as follows:

i) The Healing of Peter’s Mother in Law (Matt.8:14-15, Mk.1:29-31, Lk.4:38-29)
ii) The Paralytic Lowered through the Roof (Mk.2:3-12, Lk.5:17-26)
iii) The Disciples Eat Corn on the Sabbath (Matt.12:1-8, Mk.2:23-28, Lk.6:1-5)
iv) The Healing of the Withered Hand (Mk.3:1-6, Lk.6:6-11)
v) Jesus Chooses the Twelve (Mk.3:13-19, Lk.6:12-16)
vi) The Feeding of the 5,000 (Matt. 14:15-21 Lk. 9:12-17, Jn. 6:4-15)
vii) Jesus Walks on the Sea (Matt. 14:25-33, Mk.6:45-52, Jn. 6:4-21)
viii) The Canaanite Woman asks for Help (Matt.15:21-28, Mk.7:24-30)
ix) Jesus Feeds the 4,000 (Matt.15:29-39, Mk.8:1-9)

Not one of these middle order lesser events varies in the order of its occurrence from Gospel to Gospel. This is prima facie evidence that all the middle order events are also chronologically ordered.

SEQUENCES OF EVENTS

There are sequences of events in the middle portion of the Gospels that are the same in each of the Gospels in which they occur. They are as follows:

  1. Jesus calms the storm - Casting the demons into the pigs
  2. Jairus’ daughter - The woman with a flow of blood - Jairus’ daughter
  3. The feeding of the 5,000 (Mk. 6:34) - Jesus walking on the water. Matt. 14:22
  4. Going up to Jerusalem. (Matt. 20:17) The disciples ask for greatness. (Matt. 20:20-23) The other disciples annoyed. (Matt. 20: 24:28) They go through Jericho. (Matt. 20:20)

PROPHESIED EVENTS

Prophesied events show chronological order indirectly. One example is the transfiguration. It is preceded by the prophecy:

Assuredly I say to you, that there are some standing here who shall not taste death till they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom. (Matt. 16:28) ...the kingdom of God (Lk. 9:27) ... with power(Mk. 9:1) This prophecy and fulfillment occurs in the same order in Matthew, Mark and Luke. The prophecy is followed by an incident which Matthew records as being six days later and Luke says about eight days after these sayings ie. the prophecy was uttered towards the evening of the first day and was fulfilled on the morning of the eighth day thereby leaving six days between utterance and fulfillment. The prophecy is fulfilled when Jesus takes Peter, James and John up to a mountain and Jesus is transfigured before them and just as He prophesied, they see Jesus in the kingdom of God in power. There is a chronological order of prophecy first and fulfillment second, as one would expect. Episodes such as this testify against the idea of spoken or written sayings of Jesus being collected together to form a book, because they are too subtle to imagine that they could be individually memorized apart from their true historical setting. For even today many readers do not necessarily associate the prophecy and fulfillment as belonging to each other, yet it is obvious the Gospel writers did.

REFERENCES TO PRECEDING EVENTS

There are episodes that mention preceding events. eg. Jesus speaks to the disciples about, feeding the 5,000 and feeding the 4,000 in that order. This indicates a chronology.

APPARENT NON-CHRONOLOGICAL ORDER

There are a number of events and teachings contained within the Gospels which appear initially to he non-chronologically arranged, such as the cleansing of the temple, which in the four instances mentioned appear at three separate points of time in the ministry of Christ. There is little point in listing all apparent non-chronological events here, for there are many of them. To list them here would necessitate unnecessary diversion at this stage.

CONCLUSION

It has to he admitted by all that there is chronological order in the Gospels but it is also admitted that superficially at least there appears to be some non-chronological ordered events. Is it carelessness or deception on the Gospel writers part that has caused this? It is a strange illogical thing to do, to put something out of sequence, when there is an obvious overall sequence, especially for three or four writers to do the same thing. It would amount to a degree of confusion.

God is not the author of confusion.(1 Cor. 14:33). The Gospels continually speak of truth, the whole thrust of the Gospels is truth verses falsehood. It would be self defeating to have any appearance of deception in their presentation, for, in the mouth of two witnesses, or in the mouth of three witnesses shall the matter he established,(Deut. 19:15) It is the intent of the four Gospels to have the matter established. It would certainly be a strange thing if the witnesses who were instrumental in putting Jesus to death were condemned by the Gospel writers because their witnesses did not agree, (Mk.14:59) yet the witness of the Gospel writers were upheld even though their testimonies, upon examination, also did not agree. The fact that the Gospel records are high works of literature are testified to by the common saying that it is the greatest story ever told. It seems to me, that it is appallingly naive to think that the greatest story ever told on earth derived from a collection of sayings put almost randomly together by a group of editors a generation or more after the historical events occurred.

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever. (Heb. 13.8)

Wisdom is the principal thing. It is more precious than rubies, silver and gold. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom and the knowledge of the holy is understanding. (Pro. 9.10)

The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: but the word of our God shall stand for ever. Isa. 40.8