Monday, February 15, 2021



The Synoptic Problem

        The analysis of the synoptic shows that Mark has 661 verses (vv.); Matt has 1068, and Luke has 1149. Eighty percent of Mark's material is reproduced in Matt and 65 percent in Luke.[1] Matt and Luke have in common (in whole or in part) an approximate 220-235 vv. of non-Marcan material.[2] Since the Synoptic having substantial similarities, questions about their relationships are inevitable.[3] Did all three Gospel writers draw on an earlier text that is no longer extant, or is one of the three a source for the other two, or is some other explanation to be sought?[4]

The Main Solutions

        Little attention was given to this problem until the eighteenth century, although its existence had been obvious from earliest times. While the number of solutions to the synoptic problem is proportionate to the amazing amount of research and imaginative thinking that has been devoted to the matter,[5] I have singled out four main options.

a) Common Dependence on One Original Gospel

            In 1771 the German writer and literary critic G. E. Lessing argued that the relationships among the Synoptic Gospels could be explained if they had independently used one original gospel written in Hebrew or Aramaic. This proposal was adopted by others and received modification at the hands of J. G. Eichhorn, who postulated the existence of several lost gospels as the sources for the Synoptic Gospels.[6]

b) Common Dependence on Written Fragments

        The unsatisfactory character of J. G. Eichhorn's solution led F. Schleiermacher to suggest that several fragments of gospel tradition existed in the early church and that these gradually grew until they became incorporated into the Synoptic Gospels. Luke's Prologue was appealed to in support of this hypothesis. The major weaknesses of this hypothesis are the absence of any traces of such early records and the inability of the theory to account for the remarkable similarities·[7]

c) Common Dependence on Oral Sources

         Shortly after G. E. Lessing had proposed an “Ur-gospel” as the solution, the German critic J. G. Herder argued that dependence of the Synoptic Gospels on a relatively fixed oral summary of the life of Christ. This approach was expanded and defended at length by J. K. L. Gieseler in 1818.[8]

d) Interdependence

         The last basic solution to the synoptic problem maintains that two of the evangelists used one or more of the other gospels in constructing their own. Without necessarily denying the use of other sources now lost, advocates of this view argue that only borrowing at the final literary level can explain the degree of similarity among the Synoptic Gospels. This solution to the synoptic problem has been urged from early in the history of the Church by Augustine.[9] Until the nineteenth century this was the standard view of those who saw a literary relationship among the Synoptic Gospels.

Theories of Interdependence

         Only a theory that includes as a major component literary interdependence among the Synoptic Gospels is capable of explaining the data. One aspect of these data stands out as particularly determinative for the viability of proposed theories: the relationship among the gospels in the order of their recording of the events of the ministry.[10]

The “Two-Gospel” Hypothesis

         J. J. Griesbach following the suggestion of Augustine, considered Mark as an epitomizer of Matthew, while even Luke was considered to be earlier than Mark. But this theory has generally been discounted because it has been thought to fail to do justice to Mark's characteristics. 1 Nevertheless several scholars have recently attempted to revive the hypothesis.[11]

The “Two-Source” Hypothesis

        While the two-gospel hypothesis views Matthew and Luke as the building blocks of Mark, the two-source hypothesis holds that the similarities and divergences can be accounted for by the postulation of two written sources, one of which was the canonical Mark or an earlier written form of it, and the other a common source used by Matthew and Luke in different ways. This latter source was named Q.[12] Marcan priority[13] was first proposed in the 1830s, apparently independently, by Karl Lachmann and C. G. Wilke, while the full two-source hypothesis was advanced by C. H. Weisse in 1838.  It was given its classic expression in an 1863 monograph by H. J. Holtzmann.[14] The Mark-Q theory may be regarded as the basic element in modern source criticism of the synoptic gospels. But many of the variations between Matthew and Luke are difficult to account for adequately under this theory.

The “Four-Source” Hypothesis

         B. H. Streeter posited the existence of two other sources in addition to Mark and Q: “M,” the material peculiar to Matthew’s gospel, and “L,” the material peculiar to Luke’s gospel. This “four-source” hypothesis was an attempt to provide a comprehensive explanation of the origin of the gospels through source criticism.[15]

Evaluation: This survey of the various source theories has shown that the synoptic problem still remains. It seems that the process through which the gospels came into being was a complex one and no source-critical hypothesis can provide a complete explanation of the situation. However, the two-source and the four-source hypotheses provide the best overall explanation for the relationships among the Synoptic Gospels. Therefore, we should treat these hypotheses more as a working theory than as a conclusion set in concrete.

End Notes

[1] R. E. Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament (New York: Doubleday, 1997), 111.

[2] In both instances so much of the order in which that common material is presented,  and so much of the wording in which it is phrased are the same that dependence at the written rather than simply at the oral level has to be posited [C. M. Tuckett, “Synoptic Problem” in ABD vol.6, ed. David Noel Freedman (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 263-64].

[3] But what makes the synoptic problem particularly knotty is the fact that, alongside such exact agreements, there are so many puzzling differences. This combination of agreement and disagreement extends to the larger structure of the gospels as well. All three roughly follow the same order of events, even when there is no clear chronological or historical reason to do so. Each evangelist, however, omits material found in the other two, each contains unique incidents, and some of the events that are found in one or both of the others are put in a different order.

[4] Joseph B. Tyson, “Source Criticism of Acts” in Method and meaning: essays on New Testament Interpretation in Honor of Harold W. Attridge, edited by Andrew B. McGowan and Kent Harold Richards (Atlanta: SBL, 2011), 41.

[5] Full accounts of the history of the investigation can be found in W G Kümmel, The New Testament: The History of the Investigation of Its Problems (New York: Abingdon, 1970), 74–88, 144–61; Craig Blomberg, “The Synoptic Problem: Where We Stand at the Beginning of a New Century,” in Rethinking the Synoptic Problem, ed. D A Black and D R. Beck (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001), 17–40.

[6] Donald Guthrie, New Testament Introduction (USA: Intervarsity Press.1990), 139.

[7] Guthrie, New Testament Introduction, 139.

[8] Gieseler produced what might be called the prototype of the oral theory, maintaining that the apostolic preaching would form itself into similar oral traditions which would then form a kind of basic oral gospel. This oral gospel was preserved in the original Aramaic, but the needs of the Gentile mission would give rise to the demand for a Greek translation. This basic Aramaic and the Greek translation later became the main source for the three evangelists, being used differently according to the different approach of each writer. Thus Matthew produced a genuine Palestinian gospel, Mark a modified Palestinian and Luke a Pauline gospel. The literary differences between them were conditioned by the respective authors' training and ability (Guthrie, New Testament Introduction, 140).

[9] The Augustinian Proposal holds that Matthew was the first gospel written. Mark then borrowed from Matthew, with Luke, finally, borrowing from both Matthew and Mark. Until the nineteenth century this was the standard view of those who saw a literary relationship among the Synoptic Gospels (B. C. Butler, The Originality of St. Matthew: A Critique of the Two-Document Hypothesis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1951)

[10] A study of the sequential parallelism of the Synoptic Gospels at this point reveals a significant fact: while Matthew and Mark frequently agree against Luke in the order of events, and Luke and Mark frequently agree against Matt, Matt. and Luke almost never agree against Mark.  At no point, however, do Matt. and Luke agree against Mark. This phenomenon has given rise to one of the most important arguments for the nature of synoptic relationships: the argument from order. It appears to require that Mark be the “middle term” in any scheme of relationships among Mark, Matt, and Luke. In other words, Mark must have a relationship to both Matt. and Luke, whether he is earlier than both, comes between both, or is later than both. Each of these schemes can explain the phenomenon of order. Moreover, we cannot exclude the possibility that there is a relationship between Matt. and Luke independent of their use of Mark. The argument from order, in and of itself, does not exclude dependence of Matt. and Luke on one another, although it requires that the evangelist who wrote last would have deliberately chosen to follow the order of the other two gospels, whenever they agreed.

[11] W. R. Farmer worked on the assumption that the order of the gospels was Matthew-Luke-Mark, as Griesbach had clone. Farmer points out that there have been three arguments from order: 1. Streeter's argument that Matt. and Luke never agree against the order of Mark- hence support for Marcan priority; 2. When Mark's order is not the same as Matt. it follow's Luke's order - hence Griesbach's theory that Mark is third; 3. Differences between Mark/Matt. and Mark/Luke point to an Ur-Gospel hence Lachmann's view. Farmer maintains that point 2 best accounts for the evidence (W. R. Farmer, 'Modem Developments of Griesbach's Hypothesis', NTS 23 (1977), 293-295.

      A. T. Robinson adopts a modified form of the two-document hypothesis, but posits an Ur-Gospel similar to Mark (A. T. Robinson, 'The Parable of the Wicked Husbandmen: A Test of Synoptic Relationships', NTS 21 (1975), 443-461).

[12] "Q" is a hypothetical source posited by most scholars to explain what was called the Double Tradition, i.e., agreements (often verbal) between Matt and Luke on material not found in Mark. It is named probably after the German word Quelle, means ‘source. Behind the hypothesis is the plausible assumption that the Matthean evangelist did not know Luke and vice versa, and so they must have had a common source. Many cautions are necessary before Q is reconstructed. The contents are usually estimated at about 220-235 verses or parts of verses. Independently, however, both Matt and Luke omit passages found in Mark; therefore it is plausible that independently they have omitted material that existed in Q. Sometimes only Matt or only Luke will preserve material in Mark; it is also possible that material found only in one of the two Gospels might have existed in Q.  We are not certain of the sequence of material in Q because Matt and Luke do not present it in the same order; nevertheless most reconstructions follow the Lucan order, since it seems that Matt worked Q material into his large sermons (For detailed study cf. Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, 116-122; Guthrie, New Testament Introduction, 163-180).

[13] The basic argument for Marcan priority is that it solves more problems than any other theory. It offers the best explanation for why Matt and Luke so often agree with Mark in order and wording, and allows reasonable surmises for why Matt and Luke differ from Mark when they do so independently. For instance, neither evangelist liked Mark's redundancies, awkward Greek expressions, uncomplimentary presentation of the disciples and Mary, and embarrassing statements about Jesus. When using Mark, both expanded the Marcan accounts in the light of post-resurrection faith (Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, 115; For a more detailed discussion of the Marcan Priority and the issues with it cf. Guthrie, New Testament Introduction, 150-163 )

[14] D. A. Carson & D. J. Moo, An Introduction to the NT, (Michigan: Zondervan, 2005), 94.

[15] In the first place, Streeter strictly limited the source Q to that material which was used by both Matthew and Luke but not Mark. In the second place Streeter called attention to the need for noting the locality from which the different earlier sources originated. Mark was the Roman gospel, Q was probably based on Antioch, M represented a Jerusalem sayings-document and L represented the Caesarean tradition, probably oral in character [B. H. Streeter, The Four Gospels: A Study of Origins (London: Macmillan, 1924)].


Brown, R. E.  An Introduction to the New Testament. New York: Doubleday, 1997.

Farmer, W. R. “Modem Developments of Griesbach's Hypothesis.” NTS 23 (1977): 275-295. 

Kümmel, W. G. The New Testament: The History of the Investigation of Its Problems. New York: Abingdon, 1970.

Blomberg, Craig. “The Synoptic Problem: Where We Stand at the Beginning of a New Century.” In

Carson, D. A. & D. J. Moo. An Introduction to the New Testament. Michigan: Zondervan, 2005.

Rethinking the Synoptic Problem. Edited by D. A. Black and D. R. Beck. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001.

Robinson, A. T. “The Parable of the Wicked Husbandmen: A Test of Synoptic Relationships.” NTS 21 (1975): 443-461.

Streeter, B. H.  The Four Gospels: A Study of Origins. London: Macmillan, 1924.

Tuckett, C. M. “Synoptic Problem.” In Anchor Bible Dictionary. Vols. 1-6. Edited by David Noel Freedman. New York: Doubleday, 1992.  8529-8539.

Tyson, J. B. “Source Criticism of Acts.” In Method and Meaning: Essays on New Testament Interpretation in Honor of H. W. Attridge. Edited by A. B. McGowan and K. H. Richards. Atlanta: SBL, 2011. 41-58.


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