RPM, Volume 18, Number 9, February 21 to February 27, 2016

Introduction to the New Testament

By Louis Berkhof

Table of Contents:

The Gospels in General
The Gospel of Matthew
The Gospel of Mark
The Gospel of Luke
The Gospel of John
The Acts of the Apostles
The Epistles in General
The Epistles of Paul
The Epistle to the Romans
The First Epistle to the Corinthians
The Second Epistle to the Corinthians
The Epistle to the Galatians
The Epistle to the Ephesians
The Epistle to the Philippians
The Epistle to the Colossians
The First Epistle to the Thessalonians
The Second Epistle to the Thessalonians
The Pastoral Epistles
The First Epistle to Timothy
The Second Epistle to Timothy
The Epistle to Titus
The Epistle to Philemon
The Epistle to the Hebrews
The General Epistle of James
The First General Epistle of Peter
The Second General Epistle of Peter
The First General Epistle of John
The Second and Third General Epistles of John
The General Epistle of Jude
The Revelation of John


The first three Gospels are known as the Synoptics, and their authors are called the Synoptists. The name is derived from the Greek sun and opsis, and is applied to these Gospels, since they, as distinguished from the fourth, give us a common view of the life of our Lord. But notwithstanding the great similarity by which these Gospels are characterized, they also reveal very striking differences. This remarkable agreement on the one hand, and these manifest dissimilarities on the other, constitute one of the most difficult literary problems of the New Testament. The question is, whether we can account for the origin of these Gospels in such a manner that we can explain both the close resemblances and the often surprising differences.

In the first place the general plan of these Gospels exhibits a remarkable agreement. Only Matthew and Luke contain a narrative of the infancy of our Lord and their accounts of it are quite distinct; but the history of Christs public ministry follows very much the same order in all the Synoptics. They treat successively of the Lords preparation for the ministry, John the Baptist, the baptism, the temptation, the return to Galilee, the preaching in its villages and cities, the journey to Jerusalem, the entrance into the Holy City, the preaching there, the passion and the resurrection. The details that fit into this general plan are also arranged in quite a uniform manner, except in some places, especially of the first Gospel. The most striking differences in the arrangement of the material results from the narrative of a long series of events connected with the Galilean ministry, which is peculiar to Matthew and Mark, Matt. 14:22-- 16:12; Mark 6: 45--8: 26; and from the history of another series of events related to the journey to Jerusalem that is found only in Luke 9: 51--18:14.

But there is not only similarity in the broad outlines of those Gospels; the particular incidents that are narrated are also in many cases the same in substance and similar if not identical in form. The amount of agreement that we find in this respect is represented by Norton, Genuineness of the Gospels p. 373, and by Westcott, Introduction to the Study of the Gospels p. 201, in the following manner: If the total contents of the Gospel is represented by 100, the following result is obtained:

Mark: 7 peculiarities / 93 coincidences

Matthew: 42 peculiarities / 58 coincidences

Luke: 59 peculiarities / 41 coincidences

If the extent of all the coincidences be represented by 100, their proportionate distribution will be:

Matthew, Mark and Luke — 53

Matthew and Luke — 21

Matthew and Mark — 20

Mark and Luke — 6

Still another estimate, viz, that by verses, is suggested by Reuss, History of the New Testament, I p. 177:

Matthew — out of a total of 971 verses has 330 peculiar to him.

Mark — out of a total of 478 verses has 68 peculiar to him.

Luke — out of a total of 1151 verses has 541 peculiar to him.

The first two have 170 to 180 verses that are lacking in Luke; Matthew and Luke, 230 to 240 wanting in Mark; Mark and Luke about 50 wanting in Matthew. The number common to all three is 330 to 370.

The preceding statements refer to the subject-matter of the Synoptics. Taken by itself this might give us an exaggerated idea of the similarity of these Gospels. As a corrective it is necessary to bear in mind that the verbal coincidences, though they are remarkable indeed, are nevertheless considerably less than one would expect. Dr. Schaff and his son, after some calculations based on Rushbrookes Synopticon, get the following results:

"The proportion of words peculiar to the Synoptics is 28,000 out of 48,000, more than one-half.

- In Matthew 56 words out of every 100 are peculiar.

- In Mark 40 words out of every 100 are peculiar.

- In Luke 67 words out of every 100 are peculiar.

The number of coincidences common to all three is less than the number of divergences.

- Matthew agrees with the other two gospels in 1 word out of 7.

- Mark agrees with the other two gospels in 1 word out of 4.5.

- Luke agrees with the other two gospels in 1 word out of 8.

But comparing the Gospels two by two, it is evident that Matthew and Mark have most in common, and Matthew and Luke are most divergent.

- One-half of Mark is found in Matthew.

- One-fourth of Luke is found in Matthew.

- One-third of Mark is found in Luke.

The general conclusion from these figures is that all three Gospels widely diverge from the common matter, or triple tradition, Mark the least so and Luke the most (almost twice as much as Mark). On the other hand, both Matthew and Luke are nearer Mark than Luke and Matthew to each other." Church History, I p. 597.

In connection with the preceding we should bear in mind that these verbal agreements are greatest, not in the narrative, but in the recitative parts of the Gospels. About one fifth of them is found in the narrative portion of the Gospel, and four fifths in the recital of the words of our Lord and others. This statement will create a false impression, however, unless we bear in mind the proportion in which the narrative parts stand to the recitative element, which is as follows:

Matthew — narrative: 25 / recitative: 75

Mark — narrative: 50 / recitative: 50

Luke — narrative: 34 / recitative: 66

From what has now been said it is perfectly clear that the Synoptics present an intricate literary problem. Is it possible to explain the origin in such a manner that both the resemblances and differences are accounted for? During the last century many scholars have applied themselves with painstaking diligence to the arduous task of solving this problem. The solution has been sought along different lines; several hypotheses have been broached, of which we shall name only the four most important ones.

In the first place there is what has been called (though not altogether correctly) ~the mutual dependance theory (Benutzungshypothese, Augustine, Bengel, Bleek, Storr). According to this theory the one Gospel is dependent on the other, so that the second borrowed from the first and the third from both the first and the second. On this theory, of course, six permutations are possible viz.

In every possible form this theory has found defenders, but it does not meet with great favor at present. True, it seems to account for the general agreement in a very simple manner but serious difficulties arise when one seeks to determine which one of the Gospels was first, which second and which third. This is perfectly evident from the difference of opinion among the adherents of this hypothesis. Again it fails to account for the divergencies; it does not explain why one writer adopts the language of his predecessor(s) up to a certain point, and then suddenly abandons it. Of late it is tacitly admitted, however, that it does contain an element of truth.

In the second place the hypothesis of oral tradition (Traditions-hypothese, Gieseler, Westcott, Wright), should be mentioned. is theory starts from the supposition that the Gospel existed first of all in an unwritten form. It is assumed that the apostles repeatedly told the story of Christs life, dwelling especially on the most important incidents of his career, and often reiterating the very words of their blessed Lord. These narratives and words were eagerly caught up by willing ears and treasured in faithful and retentive memories, the Jews making it a practice to retain whatever they learnt in the exact form in which they received it. Thus a stereotyped tradition arose which served as the basis for our present Gospels. Several objections have been urged against this theory. It is said that, as a result of the apostles preaching in the vernacular, the oral tradition was embodied in the Aramaic language, and hence cannot account for the verbal coincidences in the Greek Gospels. Again it is urged that the more stereotyped the tradition was, the harder it becomes to account for the differences between the Synoptics. Would anyone be apt to alter such a tradition on his own authority? Moreover this hypothesis offers no explanation of the existence of the two-fold, the triple and the double tradition, i. e. the tradition that is embodied in all three of the Gospels and that which is found only in two of them. The majority of scholars have now abandoned this theory, although it has ardent defenders even at present. And no doubt, it must be taken into account in the solution of this problem.

In the third place we have the hypothesis of one primitive Gospel (Urevangeliums-Hypothese) from which all three of the Synoptists drew their material. According to G. E. Lessing this Gospel, containing a short account of the life of Jesus for the use of traveling missionaries, was written in the popular language of Palestine. Eichhorn, however, following him, held that it was translated into Greek, worked over and enriched in various ways, and soon took shape in several redactions, which became the source of our present Gospels. There is very little agreement among, the defenders of this theory regarding the exact character of this original source. At present it finds little favor in scientific circles, but has been discarded for various reasons. There is absolutely no trace of such an original Gospel, nor any historical reference to it, which seems peculiar in view of its unique significance. And if the existence of such a source be postulated, how must the arbitrary alteration of it be explained, how did these different recensions come into existence. It is evident that by this theory the problem is not solved, but simply shifted to another place. Moreover while in its original form this hypothesis accounted very well for the agreement, but not for the differences found in the Synoptics, in its final form it was too artificial and too complicated to inspire confidence and to seem anything like a natural solution of the Synoptic problem.

In the fourth place the so-called double source, or two document theory (Combinations-hypothese, Weisse, Wilke, Holtzmann, Wendt) deserves mention since it is the favorite theory of New Testament scholars today. This hypothesis holds that, in order to explain the phenomena of the Gospels, it is necessary to postulate the existence of at least two primitive documents, and recognizes the use of one Gospel in the composition of the others. The form in which this theory is most widely accepted at present is the following: The Gospel of Mark was the first one to be written and, either in the form in which we now have it, or in a slightly different form was the source of the triple tradition. For the double tradition, which is common to Matthew and Luke, these writers used a second source that, for want of definite knowledge regarding it, is simply called Q (from the German Quelle). This Q may have been the logia of Matthew mentioned by Papias, and was probably a collection of the sayings of our Lord. The differences between Matthew and Luke in the matter of the double tradition finds its explanation in the assumption that, while Matthew drew directly from Q, Luke derived the corresponding matter from Q and other sources, or from a primitive Gospel based on Q. On the last supposition the relation of Matthew and Luke to Q would be as follows:

But even so the use of some inferior sources by both Matthew and Luke must be assumed. The double source theory presupposes the existence of a rather large precanonical literature.

There are some evident objections to this theory also. The assumption that the logia of Matthew was anything else than the Hebrew or Aramaic original of our Greek Matthew is a baseless supposition; it has no historical foundation whatever. Furthermore the theory offers no explanation of the fact that the writers in some cases faithfully copied their original and in others altered the text rather freely or even departed from it entirely. And by postulating the development of a somewhat extensive Gospel literature previous to the composition of Matthew and Luke, it has naturally led to the position that our Gospels were written late, and therefore in all probability not by their reputed authors. Moreover it also requires us to believe that Luke included the Gospel of Mark in the number of the attempted Gospel stories which his Gospel was meant to supercede.

None of the theories broached up to the present time has proved satisfactory. There is still a great deal of uncertainty and confusion in the study of the Synoptic problem; we do not seem to be nearer to its solution now than we were fifty years ago. The great aim has always been to explain the origin of the Synoptics without taking into account the supernatural factor that entered into their composition. Now we do not doubt the value of these studies; they have already taught us a good many things regarding the origin of these Gospels; but they have proven themselves insufficient to lead to a final solution of the problem. It is, of course, folly to rule this problem out of existence by simply appealing to the supernatural agency of the Holy Spirit. It is true, if one believes in the mechanical inspiration of the Bible, there is no Synoptic problem. This is quite different, however, for those who believe that the Scriptures have been inspired in an organic way. The more naturally we conceive of the origin of these writings, the better it is, if we only do not lose sight of the operation of the divine factor, of the directing, the guiding influence of the Holy Spirit. Cf. Kuyper, Encyclopedie III p. 51 f. It is hardly sufficient to say with Urquhart, New Biblical Guide VII p. 357, that the key to the problem is found in the fact that the Synoptic Gospels are all the work of one author, and that each book is serving a distinct purpose. Yet this statement contains two important truths that we should continually bear in mind.

In any attempt to account for the similarities of the synoptics great allowance should be made for the influence of oral tradition It is very natural to suppose that, since the apostles for some time labored together at Jerusalem with Peter at the head, a particular, perhaps Petrine type of tradition became the common property of these early preachers and of their first hearers. And because the life of Christ entered as a very important element into the life of his apostles, and they felt the supreme significance of his words, it is also reasonable to assume that they aimed at inculcating the teachings of our Lord on their hearers in the exact form in which He gave it. It is equally rational to suppose that, at a comparatively early time, the desire to escape the uncertainty that always attends oral transmission, led to the composition of brief gospel narratives, containing especially the sayings and discourses of our Lord. These suppositions are entirely in harmony too with the opening verses of the Gospel of Luke: "Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to draw up a narrative concerning those matters which have been fulfilled among us, even as they delivered them unto us, who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word, it seemed good to me also, etc." Some of these early documents may have been written in Aramaic and others in Greek. The groundwork thus furnished and drawn upon by the writers of our Gospels, explains in a very natural way most of the agreements that are found in the Synoptics. And those that cannot be accounted for in that manner may have resulted directly from the guiding influence of the Holy Spirit, who led the writers also in the choice of their words. These three Gospels are in a very real sense the work of one Author.

In seeking to explain the differences that are found in the Synoptic Gospels, we should bear in mind first of all that they are no histories, but memoirs, historical arguments. In composing them each one of the writers had his own purpose. Matthew, writing for the Jews, made it his aim to present Christ as the King, the great Son of David; Mark, intending his Gospel for the Romans, endeavored to draw a vivid picture of the powerful Worker, conquering the forces of evil; and Luke, addressing the Greeks and adjusting his Gospel to their needs, sought to describe Christ as the universal Saviour, as a person with wide sympathies. This diversity of aim accounts to a great extent for the variations exhibited in the Gospels, i. e. for omissions on the one hand and additions on the other, for differences in the distribution and arrangement of the material, etc. The writers of the Gospels selected from the great mass of early traditions the material that was suited to their purpose and used it to advantage. The difference between the Synoptics is not accidental, is not the result of the chance use of certain sources. And where the identical teachings of Christ are sometimes found in different forms, we should remember, first, that the Lord may have uttered the same truth at different times in varying forms; and secondly, that the Synoptists do not always give the identical words of the Saviour, but were so guided by the Holy Spirit that they do give an exact representation of the Lords teachings, perhaps in a form better adapted to their purpose than the original would have been. Cf. Kuyper, Diet. Dogm., Locus de Sacra Scriptura II p. 131 f.; Gregory, Why Four Gospels; Van Leeuwen, Literatuur en Schriftuur p. 14 ff.; Urquhart, New Biblical Guide VII p. 328-428.

For further study of the Synoptic Problem we refer to; Norton, Genuineness of the Gospels; Westcott, Introduction to the Study of the Gospels; Arthur Wright, A Synopsis of the Gospels in Greek; Holdsworth, Gospel Origins; Buckley, Introduction to the Synoptic Problem; Hill, Introduction to the Life of Christ; Reuss, History of the New Testament I p. 163-218 (where the most important German literature is referred to); and the various Introductions of Davidson, Weiss, Zahn, Julicher, Salmon, e. a.

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