Every year I read a book or two that is so good that I can’t put it down. I look forward to the next chapter, and I’m sad when it’s over. The Synoptic Problem: A Johannine Solution by Kym Smith (Blackwood, South Australia: Sherwood Publications, 2007) was one of them.
Smith is an Anglican priest who ministers in South Australia. I have previously read his other books, Redating the Revelation (2001) and The Amazing Structure of the Gospel of John (2005). The former argues for an early date of the Book of Revelation (about 61 or 62 AD), and that it was “reissued” meaning copied and distributed more widely, not redacted, during the reign of Domitian in the 80s or 90s of the first century. Smith’s second book gave many examples of a seven-fold chiastic structure used in the Gospel of John.
This new book addresses the so-called synoptic “problem,” which concerns the question of the similarity between the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Most people today answer the question by saying that Mark was written first, and that both Matthew and Luke used Mark, a collection of sayings called “Q”, and traditions from their respective communities. Smith attempts a historical reconstruction of the process of the formation of the Gospels that puts John in the mix with the synoptic Gospels. He operates within a conservative tradition, holding that the Gospels were all written in the 60s AD by the apostles or apostolic men.
Smith argues that before Peter was killed by Nero in Rome he authored the short account of Jesus’ life, ministry, and passion which we know as “The Gospel of Mark.” Because Peter was in prison, it was his ministry associate, Mark, who around 64 AD worked his way around the Mediterranean duplicating and distributing that Gospel. This, Smith says, corrolates with what was written by the early historian Eusebius that Mark was with Peter in Rome and brought that Gospel to Alexandria.
However, in the late 60s, the apostles Peter and Paul were killed; and it fell to John to provide leadership for the Church, since he was now the only survivor of Jesus’ inner circle (Peter, James, and John). Smith conjectures that about 68 AD John called the remaining apostles, eyewitnesses of Jesus, and other church leaders to Ephesus, among whom may have been Andrew, Matthew, Philip, Nathaniel, and Luke. At this “council” it was resolved to write to the Church, since it was apparent that the Church might outlast the apostles and eyewitnesses who heretofore had provided the details about Jesus’ life and teachings. “There was a need to collate all the information they held between them and to commit it to writing so that it would be available for the continuing Church.” (p. 7) The Gospel of Mark was useful, but not sufficient for the long term, so it was decided to expand that work with a more comprehensive account of the life, teachings, and passion of Christ. As a group they prepared the material for inclusion, and at some point abandoned the framework of the Gospel of Mark. From all the collated material John formed a new gospel with a different framework. “However a considerable amount of material was still unused.” (p. 12) Matthew and Luke were then commissioned to take it to produce two “Markan expansions, Matthew’s for a Jewish readership and Luke’s for a Gentile readership.” (p. 13)
That is the thesis, and the next 200 pages provide the evidence for this historical reconstruction. One chapter supports it with other passages from the New Testament, among which are 2 Pet 1:12-15 and John 21:24-25. Interestingly, he sees Luke’s prologue: “Many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us, just as they were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word, etc” as evidence of the aforementioned “council.”
In another chapter Smith employs comparative structural analysis between the Gospel of John and Matthew and Luke to support his case. In still another chapter, he judiciously uses documents of the post-apostolic church, including the writings of Papias, Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Eusebius, the Muratorian Canon, and early anti-Marcionite prologues to the Gospels. There is also a chapter in which he addresses what “Q” was.
I may not buy into all the details of Smith’s reconstruction, but I think he is on to something when he sees the production of the Gospels as a corporate effort by the apostles and early eyewitnesses. Too often we are led to believe that the Gospels were written by communities in isolation from each other. I also like his interpretation of Luke 1. This summer when I was reading the Gospel of John devotionally, I noticed a few things that I had not noticed previously, thanks to Smith’s book, a bold and tightly argued alternative to liberal scholarship on the Gospels.
In the course on “Gospels and Acts” at Providence Theological Seminary that I teach every other year, we deal with the Synoptic problem. I will be sure to bring in this text as either a supplement or recommended reading. If you are interested in the Synoptic Problem, especially if you view the Scriptures within a conservative biblical tradition, I encourage you to pick up a copy of this book.
Kym Smith, The Synoptic Problem: A Johannine Solution
Address: Sherwood Publications
PO Box 240
Blackwood, South Australia 5051