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Synoptic Problem

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Synoptic Problem

The gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are referred to specifically as the Synoptic Gospels because they include many of the same stories, often in the same sequence, and similar wording.[1][2][3] This degree of parallelism in content, narrative arrangement, language, and sentence structures can only be accounted for by literary interdependence. Many scholars believe that these gospels share the same point of view and are clearly linked.[4] The term synoptic comes from the Greek syn, meaning "together", and optic, meaning "seen".[3]

According to the majority viewpoint, Mark was the first gospel written. Matthew and Luke then used Mark as a source, as well as a hypothetical sayings gospel known as Q. Matthew and Luke also included unique material, and the sources for this material are designated M and L, respectively. The Synoptic Gospels are the primary source for historical information about Jesus.[5][6][7] Apocryphal gospels, as well as the canonical Gospel of John, differ greatly from the Synoptic Gospels.


The triple tradition is the material that is present in all three Synoptic Gospels. It includes most of the narrative about the events in the life of Jesus, starting with his baptism and ending with the discovery of an empty tomb after the crucifixion. It also includes some of the parables (such as the parable of the mustard seed). The triple tradition accounts for approximately 76% of the text of Mark. Some of this material is present almost verbatim in all three gospels, and sometimes there are minor variations; there are some notable cases, called "minor agreements", where Matthew and Luke agree on wording which is different than Mark.[8]

The double tradition is the material (circa 200 verses) shared by Matthew and Luke, but absent in Mark. It consists almost entirely of Jesus' sayings and teachings, and includes most of the Sermon on the Mount and most parables. In addition to these, the double tradition includes a three-verse quotation (Mt. 3:8–10) that is attributed to John the Baptist (the last verse of this quotation also appears in Mt. 7:19, attributed to Jesus) and the story of centurion's servant (Mt. 8:5–13).

The Mark–Matthew material, shared between Mark and Matthew, includes the story of the death of John the Baptist, several miracles (including one of the two occurrences of feeding the multitude), the expanded version of the ban on divorce (Mt. 19:1–8), and the depiction of the death of Jesus (Mk. 15:34–41).

The Mark–Luke material is limited to a single incident in Capernaum involving exorcism (Mk. 1:21–28).

The material unique to Mark consists of some 40 verses, including, among others, Mark 3:20–21, the parable of the seed and the harvest (Mk. 4:26–29), two miracles (Mk. 7:31–37 and Mk. 8:22–26), two fragments without obvious meaning at Mk. 9:49 and Mk. 14:51–52, and the verse at Mk. 16:8 which states that the women who discovered the empty tomb did not say anything about it to anyone.[9][10]

The material unique to Matthew or Luke is fairly extensive. It includes two similar but distinct accounts of the genealogy of Jesus, two distinct birth narratives, and two distinct resurrection narratives. Matthew adds several statements to the Sermon on the Mount, several parables (including "the parable of unmerciful servant", "the parable of the weeds", and "the parable of the laborers in the vineyard"), the prophecy of the last judgment (Mt. 25:31–46), and describes the suicide of Judas. Luke also contains multiple unique miracles and parables (e.g. "The Parable of the Good Samaritan"). Many details of the last days of Jesus can only be found in Matthew or Luke. For example, Matthew is the only gospel that states that Jesus rode into Jerusalem on two animals (Mt. 21:2–7). Matthew is the only gospel that states that Jesus' tomb was guarded by a soldier. Luke is the only gospel that states that one of the robbers crucified next to Jesus repented and was promised Paradise by Jesus (Lk. 23:35–43).


The understanding that Mark was the first of the canonical gospels to be written and that, together with a hypothetical collection of sayings called Q (for the German quelle, meaning "source"), it served as a source first for Matthew and then for Luke, is widespread in modern scholarship.[11] This approach largely replaced the traditional view (the Augustinian hypothesis) that placed the Gospel of Matthew first, followed by Mark and Luke.[12] However, ever since the Farrer hypothesis (that Matthew used Mark and that Luke used Mark and Matthew) was put forward in 1955, the idea of the needlessness of the Q Hypothesis has been argued.[13][14]

Two-source hypothesis

Main article: two-source hypothesis

The two-source hypothesis states that Matthew borrowed from both Mark and Q. Much work has gone into the extent and wording of Q, particularly since the discovery of the Gospel of Thomas, an example of the sayings-gospel genre. Holtzmann's 1863 theory posited an Ur-Marcus in the place of our Mark, with our Mark being a later revision. Some scholars occasionally propose an unattested revision of Mark, a deutero-Mark, being the base of what Matthew and Luke used. In 1924 Burnett Hillman Streeter further refined the two-source hypothesis into a four-source hypothesis, with an M and an L being a unique source to Matthew and Luke respectively, with Q and L combined into a proto-Luke before Luke added Mark. While unique sources, such as M, L, or Semitic first editions, are interesting for form-critical purposes, they are quite peripheral to the "synoptic problem" as to how the canonical gospels are interrelated.

Four-source hypothesis

There were difficulties with the two-source hypothesis, the most serious of which was that it could not account for all the material in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. In The Four Gospels: A Study of Origins (1924), Burnett Hillman Streeter refined the two-source hypothesis into a four-source hypothesis. It attempts to explain the relationship among the three Gospels and posits that there were at least four sources to the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke: the Gospel of Mark, and three hypothesized sources: Q, M-Source and L source.

According to Streeter's analysis, the non-Marcan matter in Luke has to be distinguished into at least two sources, Q and L. In a similar way he argued that Matthew used a peculiar source, which we may style M, as well as Q.[15] [16]

Minority hypotheses

Two-gospel hypothesis

Main article: Two-gospel hypothesis

Johann Jakob Griesbach (1745–1812) proposed that Mark was the last Synoptic Gospel written and that it was based on Matthew and Luke.[17] In the 20th century, the view was revived by William R. Farmer.[17] The hypothesis states that Matthew was written first (probably in the 40s AD by the apostle Matthew), while Christianity was still centered in Jerusalem, to calm the hostility between Jews and Christians. After Matthew, as the church expanded beyond the Holy Land, Luke was written as a gospel to the Gentiles by Luke the Evangelist, probably in the 50s AD. But since Luke was not himself an eyewitness of Jesus, Peter gave public testimonies that validated Luke’s gospel. These public speeches were transcribed by Mark the Evangelist into Mark’s gospel and distributed immediately thereafter, as recorded by the early church father Irenaeus. Mark's shorter and less-polished nature is therefore a consequence of the fact that it came from a series of transcribed speeches that were never meant to be a separate gospel tradition. Paul then allowed Luke’s gospel to be published.[18] This hypothesis is the most serious alternative to the two-source hypothesis.[18][19] Its main advantages over the two-source hypothesis include the fact that it relies not just on internal evidence, that it doesn’t require lost sources or other “plugs” (like the Q document) and that it reconciles the view of the early church with the evidence.

Three-source hypothesis

In 1880, Eduard Simons presented the first detailed case for a hypothesis according to which Matthew used Mark and a written sayings source, whereas Luke used both of these as primary sources, plus Matthew as a subsidiary source.[20] The sayings source in this hypothesis is not necessarily identical to Q, for Luke may have derived some of the supposedly Q material from Matthew instead of from the sayings source.

Farrer hypothesis

Main article: Farrer hypothesis

In 1955, Austin Farrer argued that the Gospel of Mark was written first, that it was a source for the Gospel of Matthew, and that Mark and Matthew were then sources for the Gospel of Luke. Farrer's position has the advantage of simplicity, as there is no need for hypothetical sources.[21][22]

Original gospel hypothesis

The original gospel hypothesis of Johann Gottfried Eichhorn (1804) argued that there was a lost Aramaic original gospel that each of the Synoptic evangelists had in a different form.[23] In 1953, Pierson Parker argued that a Hebrew proto-Matthew was the first gospel to be written and it was the basis for later gospels.[24] James R. Edwards (2009) argued that the 4th Century Jewish-Christian gospels preserved in citations by Jerome and others preserve material from a proto-Matthew which, if more had survived, would correspond to "L material" used in the Gospel of Luke.[25]

Other minority hypotheses

Other hypotheses that have been proffered in order to deal with the synoptic problem include, the oral transmission (synoptic problem), the Lindsey hypothesis (1963), Jerusalem school hypothesis (1973), the logia translation hypothesis (1998),[26][27][28] the progressive publication of Matthew hypothesis,[29] and the Q+/Papias Hypothesis (2012).[30]

The problems with Q

Main article: Q source

Although most scholars accept the two-source hypothesis (2SH), many are not entirely happy with it. The difficulty tends to center on Q. The 2SH explains the double tradition by postulating the existence of a lost "sayings of Jesus" document known as Q. It is this, rather than Markan priority, which forms the distinctive feature of the 2SH as against rival theories.

While the 2SH remains the most popular explanation for the origins of the Synoptic Gospels, the existence of the "minor agreements" have raised concerns. These minor agreements are those points in Matthew and Luke but not in Mark (for example, the mocking question at the beating of Jesus, "Who is it that struck you?", found in both Matthew (26:67–68) and Luke (22:63–64) but not in Mark (14:65)). There are at about 700 "minor agreements" that call into question the proposition that Matthew and Luke knew Mark but not each other.

Other concerns that have been raised are how a major and respected source, used in two canonical gospels, could totally disappear and the fact that Q is never mentioned in any of the Church catalogs or by one scholar from the time of Christ to Jerome. Until these issues are resolved, Q will remain in doubt.[31][32][33][34][35]

See also


External links

  • Catholic Encyclopedia: Synoptics
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