This was a post that was originally published on the defunct blog Bible Study and the Christian Life
When I once was teaching on the Synoptic Problem, I had a student ask in a theological context whether any of it mattered at all. I began answering the question in the typical ambiguously professorial way that it both does and does not matter. 🙂
For those interested in the Gospels as literature, the focus may be on how each Gospel retells the plot of the story of Jesus on its own terms rather than bringing in possible sources and hypothetical historical scenarios behind the writing of that Gospel.
For the pastor or priest at church who wants to explain the theological vision of a particular Gospel to her or his congregation, the focus should again be on the inspired Gospel texts rather than the sources the Gospel may or may not have used. I can imagine many a bad sermon that tries to preach on “Q”, “M” or “L” rather than Matthew, Mark, Luke or John!
On the other hand, for historians who want to know more about what Jesus said and did during his lifetime, it matters how many independent early sources we have about him. Are there a number of early sources in addition to the New Testament Gospels (Q, M or material used only by Matthew, L or material used only by Luke), not to mention whether there are other Gospels not found in the New Testament that contain some historical information, or are we mainly working with the Synoptic Gospels alone.
Historians may also be interested in how Jesus is remembered over time and how his story is retold in changing historical circumstances, observing how Matthew and Luke may edit Mark’s Gospel in support of developing theological views. Each Gospel writer tried to make the story of Jesus relevant to audiences living in different times and social circumstances, just as many church leaders try to apply different stories about Jesus to how church congregations should live in the twenty-first century.
Theologians may also get a clearer window into the theological interests of each individual writer based on how the Gospels use their sources. We have seen how Matthew and Luke may update Mark’s story of Jesus’ baptism to avoid any implication that Jesus was sinful or inferior to John, a potential theological liability that may have not crossed Mark’s mind. We have also seen Luke’s care for the poor shine through by the way the author edits or adds to his sources [e.g. compare Matthew 5:3-12 and Luke 6:20-26].
In the end, the church chose to have four Gospels rather than stick with a single one. Together the Gospels give us a fuller picture of who Jesus was than would be available by reading them in isolation, for each Gospel works with traditions about Jesus that came before them yet shapes them into a new narrative of Jesus that met the needs of a new generation of believers.