How the Synoptic Problem was solved
(The Clementine Gospel Tradition)
Traditionally, it was presumed that the order of
Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, as used by Jerome, had been the order in
which the Gospels had been written. It was recognised that some
borrowing had taken place between the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke
(The synoptic Gospels), but there had been little interest of how it had
occurred. Then in 1764 Henry Owen,
an Anglican vicar, made a revolutionary suggestion. He based it on the
internal evidence within the Gospels and claimed the order of writing
had been: Matthew, Luke, Mark. His idea was ignored in England, but it
sparked a new line of research in Germany.
In 1838 Christian Weisse said that a borrower would not
deliberately turn the good quality Greek in Matthew and Luke, into the
poor quality to be found in Mark. So Weisse concluded that Mark had
written prior to the others. His opinion became known as the
Markan priority theory.
However, the early
historians had unanimously reported Matthew as being the first
to write, Christians had always held that the Gospel writers and the
early historians were reliable authorities. It was realised that the
acceptance of the Markan priority theory, would destroy the
reliability of the ancient historians and the Gospel writers and thereby
In 1893 Pope Leo XIII
condemned the theory and called for more study. He provided resources
for historical and linguistic research. In 1901 he established the Papal
Biblical Commission (PBC) to guide the teaching of Scripture. But by
1912 the PBC, had come under the authority of
Pope Pius X. It forbad Catholics to
deny the opinion that Matthew, Mark and Luke had been composed in that
order. By imposing the sequence used by Jerome the PBC stifled Catholic
research. Catholics interested in developing Owen’s theory, such as the
English Benedictine monks John Chapman and Christopher Butler, had to
restrict themselves to criticising Markan priority and upholding the
priority of Matthew.
Following a century of debate by Protestant and
secular scholars, the Markan priority theory came to dominate the
English speaking world. But, by the Vatican Council of 1962-5, Butler
had become president of the English Benedictines and an influential
figure. As a former Anglican, he was better informed regarding the
Synoptic Problem than most Catholics. He influenced the wording of
Dei Verbum and the abolishing, in all but name, of the PBC. However,
as a CDF member and active in promoting the reforms of Vatican II, he
was unable to spend time on Scriptural research.
The new opportunity for research was taken up by
Butler’s colleague, Bernard Orchard OSB.
He had been a founder and first chairman of the Catholic Biblical
Association of Great Britain and of the World Federation. In 1953 he was
joint editor of the pioneering: A Catholic Commentary on Holy
Scripture. In 1956 he produced a Catholic edition of the Protestant:
‘Revised Standard Version’. It was refused an Imprimatur till 1966,
after the Council. The CTS edition of this RSVCE version became widely
read. Known today as the Ignatius Bible, it is used
for the English Scriptural quotations in translations of Vatican
Orchard was keen to develop Owen’s theory and, in:
The Order of the Synoptics (1987), he showed that
Clement of Alexandria had stated
clearly that the Gospels were written in the
Matthew-Luke-Mark sequence. Orchard
also pointed out how other pre-Jerome historians, such as
Ireneaus, Tertullian, Augustine and Priscillian had agreed with Clement.
Orchard’s Anglican co-author, Harold Riley, showed
how the historical-critical method could be used to vindicate Owen’s
Orchard was puzzled why Mark’s two misquotations
from the Hebrew Scriptures had not been corrected. This triggered his
ground breaking hypothesis that Peter had
given a talk in kione (common) Greek, merging together Matthew and Luke.
This was Peter’s way of endorsing Luke’s Gospel.
Peter’s secretary, Mark had used shorthand
to record the talk exactly, which included Peter’s
poor Greek style and memory slips.
Mark’s ‘poor’ Greek was soon criticised. In reply
bishop Papias, who may have met members of the audience, wrote that Mark
recorded exactly. Using the word ‘exactly’ may be seen as him accepting
both that the talk had been delivered in poor Greek and that it had been
recorded in shorthand. (In 1991 E. R. Richards confirmed the widespread
use of Greek shorthand at public meetings during that period). When
Papias added that recorders of Matthew had had to rely on less accurate
methods, he could have been alluding to Hebrew not having a form of
During the 1990s Orchard’s promoted his views in
articles, but died in 2006 while still consolidating his findings. At
that time, I was collecting his writings and had come to look at
the Gospels through Orchard’s eyes. For example: Mark’s Gospel brakes
awkwardly at 16:8, and generations had puzzled over the final 12 verses.
They were in a different style and it came to me that they could be the
answers given by Peter to questions provoked by the talks. On
examination, the verses became easy to understand. Orchard, still alive
at the time, eagerly welcomed the suggestion.
Some critics of the authorship by Paul of the
Pastoral Epistles have pointed out that Acts does not refer to them in
the final years of Paul’s life. But one of Peter’s answers concerned a
question provoked by words to be found at the end of Acts. This
indicates that Acts was completed before Paul’s later journeys.
Some parts of the early church read the Sunday Gospels in the
Matthew-Luke-Mark-John sequence. This pattern has
continued in the East but, due to its multiple feasts, not in the West.
This provides further support for Clement’s words and the ideas of Owen,
Riley and Orchard.
According to Clement, Mark issued his Gospel
quickly. This was because of the urgent demands by the large audience
which had listened to Peter. The need for Luke to publish his Gospel
quickly was not so great. Also, his Gospel was longer than Mark’s.
So, although Luke wrote prior to Mark, his Gospel was published after
that of Mark. (ie. The
sequence used by Jerome was that of publication not of composure).
Clement tells us that when Peter saw the positive
effects of Mark’s Gospel, he authorised a
second edition for the churches. Archaeologists have found
two editions of Mark’s gospel, one having the final twelve verses and
the other without them. Luke’s publication had time to appear between
Mark’s two editions. The order in which scrolls arrived at churches,
would often dictate the order of there filing in libraries.
This would influence the sequence of use when
quoted by preachers and teachers. It is interesting that while Clement
gives us the order of writing, his pupil Origen uses their order of
in his first book, seems to give us the order in which his church
library filed the Gospels. He says: “The Evangelists are said
to have written in the: Matt-Mark-Luke-John order”. But, in his
well researched fourth book, he says Mark
drew on the ideas of Matthew and Luke.
Following Vatican II, there was a revival in Catholic biblical studies.
Following Vatican II, Catholics were eager to promote a biblical
revival. Scriptural experts considered the two main scholarly positions
regarding the Synoptic problem. 1) The traditional view based on the
sequence used by Jerome, and: 2) Markan priority based on modern
critical research. In the Jerome Biblical
of 1989, edited by Raymond Brown, these experts favoured the
second option. But they also clearly stated that neither came even
close to being satisfactory.
Today, the Clementine Gospel Tradition
provides a third way. This option is consistent with the witness of
the ancient historians, Pope Leo’s Encyclical, modern critical analysis,
Dei Verbum, Verbum Domini and
the views of many Protestants.
This article was obtained from the: ‘Church in
History’ website. See web link below for more information.
Fuller details for the above are available in
Section 3 of:
How the Gospels Were
Written - By Dennis Barton -
The Gospels are
Historical - By Dennis Barton -