What is biblical criticism? Contrary to its unfortunate and yet quite widely communicated connotation, biblical criticism should not be understood as the process whereby skeptics critically examine the text of the Bible in order to prove that it was not inspired by God’s Holy Spirit. Although these methods of biblical study have been and still are utilized by some critical scholars in order to support (i.e., prove) their own “liberal” (i.e., those which deny the possibility of the supernatural) presuppositions, not all students of the Bible who use the various critical methods of examination are doing so in order to criticize the text in this way. Simply put, biblical criticism refers to the procedure whereby the student approaches the text by asking it precise, critical questions.

          What is the Synoptic Problem? Again we encounter an unnecessarily abrasive term and a term that is somewhat misleading. The synoptic problem is not a problem with the texts at all. The problem lies in the fact that there is obviously some literary relationship between the three accounts of Matthew, Mark and Luke and biblical “scholars” are unable to figure out, or at least to agree upon, exactly what that relationship is. Students stumbled upon this literary relationship not necessarily because they were “criticizing” the Bible but because they were investigating it closely.

           Examining the texts of the synoptic gospels closely enough to allow the “synoptic problem” to come into view is truly an exciting revelation. Although Matthew includes large blocks of teaching material into his gospel which appear to be original to him (i.e., not taken from any known source), according to most scholars Matthew also incorporates almost ninety percent of Mark’s gospel into his own. Furthermore, Matthew uses Mark’s chronological framework almost verbatim. It is the investigation of these features, along with the investigation of the striking similarities in grammar and word usage and the glaring omissions of Mark’s material from Matthew’s account, that makeup this entire area of inquiry. In other words, the Synoptic Problem came into sharper focus during this type of penetrating and critical examination of the text.

           The truly fascinating, and profoundly fruitful, benefit of this type of critical inquiry comes when one tries to understand why Matthew did what he did with Mark’s account. This leads to the revelation of the underlying theological purpose (tendenz) for Matthew’s writing and pays huge dividends in the thorough and accurate understanding of the theological message of his writing.

           At the same time, a new issue arises: what about those large blocks of material which Matthew includes in his gospel but are not taken from Mark? What is the source of these traditions and sayings? Beginning in the late 1700’s and continuing up to the present day, biblical scholars have been discussing (debating, arguing about) this source issue and have put forth various theories in order to explain this phenomenon. The most widely accepted hypothesis is the existence of a theoretical document referred to simply as “Q” which provided the non-Markan material contained in both Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels. That material found only in Matthew’s gospel (“M”) is accounted for by concluding that he either knew it from personal experience or discovered it from personal research. That similar material found in Luke (“L”) is accounted for in a similar fashion.

           Regrettably, perhaps partially because of its unnecessarily offensive terminology, this entire method of biblical research has been associated with liberal scholars (i.e., those who deny all that is supernatural) for almost two centuries. It is time we changed that perception. This approach to biblical investigation has produced and will continue to produce profoundly useful insight into the theological meaning of not only our synoptic gospels but our entire sacred text as well.