Recently I’ve been studying Christianity through an audio course offered by The Teaching Company called “Jesus and the Gospels.” ( Normally I would address him as Prophet Isa, or Jesus, alaihis salaam, [peace be upon him] but I wanted to quote the title as is.)
I just finished a lecture on the Synoptic Problem and it really makes me wonder if Christians really understand the magnitude of this problem and its bearing on the reliability of the Gospels. (Gospel in this sense means one of the four canonical accounts of the life of the Prophet Jesus.) It also, frankly, makes me happy to be a Muslim, because the Quran does not suffer from anything like the Synoptic Problem.
Before I get to the Synoptic Problem, I want to explain how the Quran was compiled. It’s quite simple and even beautiful in its simplicity. During the course of the two decades over which the Quran was revealed, several of the companions of Prophet Muhammad, salla allahu alaihi wa sallam, peace be upon him, memorized the revelations. Two of the companions who were huffaz (people who have memorized the entire Quran) were Zayd bin Thabit and Umar ibn al-Khattab, may Allah be pleased with them. At the same time, many of the companions wrote down verses of the Quran. To compile the Quran, Zayd and Umar collected written texts of the Quran, verified it with their own memory and checked to see if there were at least two witnesses who could confirm that the texts had been written in the presence of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him.
Here’s a more thorough account of the process I’ve sketched out above:
“The compilation of the Qur’an started, with Sayyidna Zayd bin Thabit, Radi-Allahu anhu, in charge. Lots of companions, including himself had memorized the whole Qur’an and so the Qur’an could have easily been written down from memory. There were also complete collections of the verses of the Holy Qur’an available with many companions. But Sayyidna Zayd bin Thabit, Radi-Allahu anhu, knew he had to be careful. He used both methods by collecting verses that were written during the time of Prophet Muhammad, Sall-Allahu alayhi wa sallam and also using memory. He followed four steps.
1. First he verified the verse with his own memory.
2. Sayyidna Umar, Radi-Allahu anhu, who was a Hafiz, was also in charge of the project and he verified it, too.
3. Then, before the verse could be accepted, the two reliable witnesses had to testify that it was written in the presence of Prophet Muhammad Sall-Allahu alayhi wa sallam.
4. After that, written verses were collated with the collections of different Companions.
The purpose of this method was so that the utmost care be taken in the transcription of the Qur’an, and rather then rely on memory, it should be transcribed from verses that were written in the presence of the Prophet, Sall-Allahu alayhi wa sallam.”
Contrast this with the two-source hypothesis of the compilation of the Gospels. This is a widely accepted solution to the Synoptic Problem. It is common knowledge that there are four Gospels, each named for their supposed authors – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Of these four, all except the Gospel of John are considered to be “synoptic,” a word from Greek roots meaning “seen together.” The synoptic gospels have many similarities in content, word choice, and sequence. This suggests that one of the gospels was written before the others and the rest were revisions of the original. However, no one knows for certain which gospel came first, second, third, or fourth. The two-source hypothesis basically says that Mark came first, a mysterious gospel of unknown origin called “Q” came at roughly the same time, then Matthew and Luke combined parts of Mark with parts of Q.
Here’s Wikipedia’s take on the two-source hypothesis:
“The two-source hypothesis states that Matthew and Luke independently copied Mark for its narrative framework and independently added discourse material from a non-extant sayings collection called Q. Much work has gone into the extent and wording of Q, particularly since the discovery of the Gospel of Thomas which attests to the sayings gospel genre. Holtzmann’s 1863 theory posited an Ur-Marcus in the place of our Mark, with our Mark being a later revision. Some scholars occasionally propose an unattested revision of Mark, a deutero-Mark, being the base of what Matthew and Luke used. In 1924 Burnett Hillman Streeter further refined the Two-Source Hypothesis into a Four-Source Hypothesis, with an M and an L being a unique source to Matthew and Luke respectively, with Q and L combined into a Proto-Luke before Luke added Mark. While unique sources, such as M, L, or Semitic first editions, are interesting for form-critical purposes, they are quite peripheral to the Synoptic Problem as to how the canonical gospels are interrelated.”
Confused? Here’s some more food for thought. If one gospel says event A took place before event B, wouldn’t it be logical to assume that the other gospels would agree that the same event A took place before event B? Logic apparently has no place in the world of the New Testament.
Some conflicts in the New Testament
1: In Matthew 4:5-8 the Devil took Jesus to the pinnacle and then to the mountain, while in Luke 4:5-9 he took him to the mountain and then the pinnacle.
2: In Matt. 21:12-19 Jesus cleansed the temple and later cursed the fig tree, while in Mark 11:13-15 he cursed the fig tree and later cleansed the temple.
3: In Matt. 8:28-32 Jesus caused devils to enter swine and later called Levi (Matt. 9:9), while in Luke 5:27-28 Jesus called Levi and later caused devils to enter swine (Luke 8:26-33).
4: In Mark 1:12-13 Jesus was tempted in the wilderness and later John was arrested (Mark 6:17-18), while in Luke 3:19-20 John was arrested and later Jesus was tempted in the wilderness (Luke 4:1-13).
5: In Mark 2:13-17 Matthew was called by Jesus and later the tempest was calmed (Mark 4:35-40), while in Matt. 8:18, 23-27 the tempest was calmed and later Matthew was called (Matt. 9:9-17).
You can verify all of these claims of conflicts by using an online version of the New Testament which you can find at http://www.ibsstl.org/niv/index.php.
Notice that these conflicts all occur among the three synoptic gospels. Christians seem to be at a total loss at what to do with the Gospel of John. There are many ways in which the Gospel of John differs from the others but to keep things simple, let’s just look at the beginning and the end of John. The beginning of John is quite famous, it goes, ” 1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning..” http://www.ibsstl.org/bible/verse/?tniv=yes&q=John%201. Since the Gospel starts with the beginning of time, one might logically conclude that it would end with the end of time. But remember, logic has no place in the Gospels. Near the end of the Gospel of John, it talks about the supposed resurrection of Prophet Jesus. But the very end is sort of like an appendix, with a short story involving Peter, and a very odd ending, in my view, that goes like this, “Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.”
Unlike John, Mark begins with the story of the baptism of Prophet Jesus.
Unlike John, Matthew begins with a genealogy of Prophet Jesus, which seems pretty sensible as it is in keeping with the Old Testament where genealogies of key people are common. What strikes me as rather funny is that the genealogy that is given is that of Joseph, the adopted father of Prophet Jesus and not the genealogy of Mary, his true mother, peace be upon her. Matthew follows with the story of the miraculous birth.
Unlike John, Luke begins with the story of the birth of John the Baptist. Also, try not to get confused. There are several distinct individuals in the story of early Christianity who were named John. There were at least four Johns – John the Baptist, John the Apostle, John the Evangelist, and John of Patmos.
I can barely imagine what Islam would be like if we had four conflicting Qurans. As it is, we seem incapable of agreeing on the most basic of questions cf. the classic two-Eid problem. How do Christians manage it?