The Synoptic Problem

The Synoptic Problem is the issue of the relationship between the gospels Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Synoptic means “seen together.” These gospels are called the Synoptic Gospels because when compared side-by-side they are extremely similar. There are many passages that are identical or nearly identical in the original Greek. Scholars use a book called a Synopsis which has material which is the same or similar in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and sometimes John in parallel columns in the original Greek. This format makes it easy to compare theses gospels word-for-word, phrase-by-phrase, sentence by sentence, and paragraph-by-paragraph. There are also synopses in English such as the Synopsis of the Four Gospels, edited by Kurt Aland and Gospel Parallels: A Comparison of the Synoptic Gospels, edited by Burton H. Throckmorton.

The Gospel of John has a lot of very different material about Jesus so scholars disagree about whether or not there is a literary relationship between John and the other Gospels.

Scholars have noticed that almost all of the stories in Mark are included in Matthew and Luke. In addition, about 50% of the wording of Matthew, Mark, and Luke is identical. Because there is so much overlap in the content of the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke in the same order and such similar wording that most biblical scholars believe there is a literary relationship between these three gospels. If Mathew, Mark, and Luke were only based on oral tradition there would not be so much material in the same order and with so much verbal agreement. Oral traditions, and especially non-poetic oral traditions, are passed on through paraphrase, not word for word memorization.

The most common solution to the Synoptic Problem is known as the Two Source Hypothesis. According to the Two Source Hypothesis Mark was written first, then Matthew and Luke independently used Mark as a source. As noted above, almost all of Mark is reproduced in Matthew and Luke. The material from Mark is also reproduced mostly in the same order as it is in Mark, which suggests that Matthew and Luke were copying Mark.

The second source is a hypothetical written collection of mainly sayings of Jesus known as Q, from the German quelle, which means source. Q consists of the material found in both Matthew and Luke, but not in Mark. Much of this material is nearly identical in wording. Since this material is mostly teachings of Jesus, scholars call Q the Saying Source Q.

Scholars believe that Matthew and Luke must have independently used a written source, because there is no evidence that Matthew or Luke used the other as a source. For example, there are no instances of Matthew’s distinctive material or theology in Luke or Luke’s distinctive material or theology in Matthew. Many scholars consider to Q to be a gospel with its own theology.

There is a second version of the Two Source Hypothesis which is known as the Four Source Hypothesis. It is basically the same as the Two Source Hypothesis, except that the Four Source Hypothesis suggests that the material found only in Matthew comes from a unique oral or written tradition which is labeled M and material found only in Luke is labeled L. Thus, the Four sources are Mark, Q, M, & L.

The traditional solution to the Synoptic Problem that was dominant until the a couple hundred years ago is known the Augustinian Hypothesis, because it was described by Augustine in the Fourth Century A.D. This theory proposes that Matthew was written first, Mark second using Matthew as a source, and Luke third using both Mathew and Mark.

Some biblical scholars believe that Matthew was written first, Luke second using Matthew as a source, and Mark third using both Matthew and Luke as sources. This solution to the Synoptic Problem is known as the Two Gospel Hypothesis or the Griesbach hypothesis (named after biblical scholar Johann Jakob Griesbach). In this view Mark is seen as an abridgment of Matthew and Luke.

Some scholars believe that Mark was written first, Matthew second using Mark as a source, and Luke third using Mark and Matthew as sources. This solution to the Synoptic Problem is known as the Farrer Hypothesis (named after biblical scholar A. M. Farrer). This theory eliminates the need for the hypothetical source Q by explaining the material found in Matthew and Luke which is not in Mark by Luke using Matthew as a source.

Most scholars accept the Two Source theory as the best explanation of the literary relationship between, Matthew, Mark, and Luke. There are some important problems with the other theories. For example, if Mark used either Matthew or Luke as a source, why did Mark leave out so much of the important teachings of Jesus such as the Sermon on the Mount or a story of the birth of Jesus? In addition, Matthew and Luke seem to be improving Mark’s less sophisticated grammar and adding their own theological interpretations to material from Mark.

There is one important problem with the Two Source Theory. There are some places where the wording is the same or nearly the same in Matthew and Luke, but different in Mark. These agreements in wording in Matthew and Luke which go against Mark are known as the minor agreements. The problem is if Matthew and Luke are independent from each other, then no agreements in wording against Mark should exist. A minority of scholars argue that these similarities in wording are too strong to be coincidence. This is why these scholars argue for the Farrer Hypothesis or the Griesbach hypothesis.

Scholars who support the Two Source Hypothesis as the best solution to the Synoptic Problem argue that the minor agreements can be explained by coincidence, common oral tradition, overlaps between Mark and Q, or later harmonization of the wording in the process of making new copies of the Gospels (which sometimes happens over time).

For Further Reading

Pheme Perkins, Introduction to the Synoptic Gospels

  • An introduction to the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke with a chapter on their sources and a chapter on later gospels.

Keith Fullerton Nickle, The Synoptic Gospels: An Introduction
  • An introduction to the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke and their history.

John S. Kloppenborg, Marvin W. Meyer, Steven J. Patterson, & Michael G. Steinhauser, Q Thomas Reader
  • Translations of the Sayings Source Q and Thomas with introductions.

John S. Kloppenborg, Q, the Earliest Gospel: An Introduction to the Original Stories and Sayings of Jesus
  • An introduction to Q with and explanation of the Synoptic Problem in chapter 1.

E. P. Sanders, Studying the Synoptic Gospels
  • Gives a thorough analysis of the Synoptic Problem and proposed solutions.

David L. Dungan, A History of the Synoptic Problem: The Canon, the Text, the Composition, and the Interpretation of the Gospels
  • Reviews the complete history of the Synoptic Problem and proposed solutions from the second century to the present.

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