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Solving the synoptic problem, additional resources.

The first three books of the New Testament, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, are commonly called the Synoptic Gospels. They have gained this title because they are very similar to each other yet commonly different from John's Gospel. In fact, their similarities and relation to each other have created one of the most debated subjects in the realm of New Testament Studies. This area of scholarship has adopted the name, "The Synoptic Problem."

Mark's Gospel is the shortest of the three, yet large portions of it are also found in Matthew and Luke. Additionally, Matthew and Luke share a significant amount of verses (more than 200) that are not found in Mark. The similarities include subject matter, exact wording, and even order of events. When material is found in all three Synoptic Gospels, it is referred to as triple tradition. The material that is only found in Matthew and Luke is called double tradition, or Q. Also, the material that distinctively belongs to Matthew is called the M tradition, while that which belongs to Luke is called the L tradition.

Because there is still debate regarding the Synoptic Problem, the major solution theories will be considered below.

On the other hand, there are problems with Matthean priority. It is evident that Mark's Gospel is the shortest and the majority of it is also found in Matthew and Luke. [4] It is difficult to explain why the shortest Gospel is only about ten percent original, especially when there is much support of it being Peter's interpretation through Mark. [5] If indeed Mark was an abridgment of the Matthew and Luke, it also would be hard to give account for the deletion of significant points that are found in the two Gospels (e.g. Birth of Christ and the Sermon on the Mount). Moreover, many of the earliest quotes supporting Matthean priority also state that it was written in the Hebrew dialect (or Aramaic). Consequently, these quotes do not require Matthean priority in the Greek text, which will allow possibilities for Markan or Lukan priority.

Defining Q: The letter Q is short for the German word Quelle which means "source" or "spring." Q can actually refer to a few different things. It could be a tangible first century document, parts of various first century documents, oral tradition(s), or just the double tradition material that is found in both Matthew and Luke. Many differing hypotheses have been made concerning Q because there is no tangible proof that such a document existed outside of the double tradition. One of the only areas of consensus regarding Q is that it antedates both Matthew and Luke. Q would also be a Sayings-Gospel. Unlike the Gospels in the New Testament, Q would not contain narrative sections because the Q material in both Matthew and Luke are sometimes placed in different contexts. Q remains a hypothesis, though, and until there is weightier evidence, it is only one of the few solutions to the Synoptic Problem.
  • Mark Goodacre. The New Testament Gateway (The Synoptic Problem Web Sites) :

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What Is the Synoptic Problem?

The goal of the gospels is clearly to communicate what happened during Jesus’ time on earth. As Jesus commanded that we are to share the Good News, this is exactly what these authors are doing in their accounts.

What Is the Synoptic Problem?

When it comes to understanding “who is Jesus” and “what did He do during His time on earth,” one key place to start is by cracking open a book — the Bible.

The first four books of the New Testament, called the gospels, all contain an in-depth summary of how Jesus came to be and what He did during His roughly 33 years as Word become flesh.

The gospels all tell what is known as “the Good News” — the story of all Jesus did, taught, promised, and fulfilled. The first three, the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, are all strikingly similar.

They more or less summarize the most important details of Jesus Christ and His life and ministry, from His miraculous virgin birth to His healing and teaching ministries to His betrayal, death, and ultimate resurrection.

As a rule, they focus on the whats, wheres, whens, and hows of Jesus’ time on earth. The fourth, the Gospel of John, focuses more on the “who” — the identity of the Christ by diving in-depth into His divinity.

These first three gospel accounts are all termed the Synoptic Gospels , and they have much in common, which is both comforting and troubling, for they raise a number of questions.

These questions, from how and why they are so similar to who wrote which account first and how this all came to be, are known as the “synoptic problem.”

Here, we dive into what is the synoptic problem, and why it matters.

The word synoptic is an adjective stemming from the noun synopsis, which means a summary, general survey, or overall condensation of a broader body of work.

These three synoptic gospel accounts — Matthew, Mark, and Luke — each summarize in different ways what happened during Jesus’ life as a man.

In fact, the three can be lined up in parallel format, each in a column stacked one next to the other, and most of the accounts are strikingly similar. Each is written in a different manner and style, and some are shorter or longer than the others.

Some contain additional, extraneous information, such as the circumstances surrounding the impregnation of Jesus’ mother, Mary, by the Holy Spirit.

People often interpret the word “problem” in a negative light: An unwelcome or possibly harmful situation or matter that must in some way be overcome. But “problem” has another meaning — an inquiry or investigation, such as a mathematic or scientific problem, one that is to be sorted out in a way that fascinates the intellect while challenging the heart and various theories behind the question.

In the case of the “synoptic problem” of the gospels, this refers to the fact that the gospel accounts are unusually similar, down to the phrasing, miracles, and parables.

This begs the question: How and why are all three so similar, yet written by three different people in three different time periods? Were they oral accounts or written? Were they copied one from another, or somehow each inspired by a fourth, separate account?

Are they similar because each writer was infused and empowered by the Holy Spirit, or because of some other reason?

Which Gospel Was Written First?

One question many people ask is which gospel account was written first, and did the other accounts take that writing into consideration as they penned (or orally recounted) their version?

Many people believe the Gospel of Mark was written first, likely between the mid-50s and late 60s AD, and most probably while the Apostle Peter, Mark’s constant companion, was still alive.

While none of the gospel accounts specifically list an author, early church scholars unanimously agreed it was written by “John Mark,” better known simply as Mark, and geared toward non-Jewish (Gentile) Christians.

The Gospel of Matthew, while technically anonymous, is ascribed unanimously to Matthew, one of the 12 apostles . The NIV Study Bible dates the account at roughly AD 50-70 and notes it is written largely for a Jewish-Christian audience, partly because of the author’s concern for the Old Testament, his use of Jewish terminology, and his lack of explanation of Jewish customs, as a Jewish audience would have needed no explanation.

The Gospel of Luke was specifically written to a Theophilus, thought to have been either a Roman official or high-ranking patron of the author’s, though its application clearly is intended for broader reach.

Scholars date the writing of this account sometime between the 60s and the 80s AD. Luke was a Gentile physician and companion of Paul, and the gospel account largely emphasizes the teaching of Jesus to the whole world, not simply God’s “chosen people.”

Many scholars believe Mark was written first because it is shorter, and a theory is that Matthew incorporated much of Mark into his own account, possibly to expand on the brevity for his audience.

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Luke is thought to have been written last, as it begins by acknowledging other accounts and notes he intends, after his own investigation into all circumstances, to set forth his own account.

However, the truth is no one really knows. Not only are the gospels anonymous but they are not dated. Hence, the “problem.”

Were the Gospels Oral Accounts or Written?

While there was indeed a strong oral tradition in the early days of the church, and certainly long before, many Bible experts believe the accounts were written.

Indeed, Luke’s account begins by acknowledging it is a letter to Theophilus, explaining at the start, “I too decided to write an orderly account for you” ( Luke 1:3 ).

But, as Jesus taught orally and in-person, likely the stories about Jesus were first shared orally, then later written as a way of preservation.   

Were They Copied One from Another or Inspired by a Separate Account?

The early church was close-knit and frequently in communication. While spread across wide expanses of land, the central church remained in Jerusalem, and church leaders would report back and share news and funds with their “home base.”

Many experts believe the gospel accounts were freely communicated , there to be helpful resources in spreading the Good News. So, the possibility is strong that the gospel writers studied and utilized each other’s research and tales to trigger their own memories.

Some scholars posit another theory: The synoptic gospels all stem not only from the writers’ own memories but from a fourth source , known as Q.Q, which stands for Quelle, is a French word meaning source.

While there appears to be no physical evidence for this “Q source,” the similarities among the accounts point to two possibilities.

One, the writers copied from each other (hence explaining the repetition of exact phrases, such as the term “divided up his clothes” after Jesus was crucified in Mark 15:24 , Matthew 27:35 , and Luke 23:34 ).

Or two, the writers based their texts upon the Q source, whether oral, written, or communicated some other way.

Did the Holy Spirit Play a Role in the Writing of These Gospel Accounts?

We know from the Book of Acts that the Holy Spirit filled the early church on the Day of Pentecost, lighting upon each like “tongues of fire” ( Acts 2:3 ) and infusing them with the power of the Spirit. Certainly, the authors were filled with the Holy Spirit as they wrote the gospels.

Some choose to see the above-mentioned “Q source” in that same light. That is, Q is actually the Holy Spirit.

How Do We Solve the Synoptic Problem?

Solving the synoptic problem largely comes down to ideology. Some solve it by believing one of the above theories.

Others choose to disregard the problem altogether, open to the idea that however, these accounts came to be, they are part of Holy Scripture and fundamentals of our faith.

Whatever we choose to believe (or disregard), one thing is clear: All four gospels are supremely helpful in enabling us to understand who Jesus is, why He came, and what He did.

And it all comes down to belief. As Jesus asked the blind men who came to Him for healing in Matthew 9:28-29 : “‘Do you believe that I am able to do this?’ ‘Yes, Lord,’ they replied. Then he touched their eyes and said, ‘According to your faith let it be done to you.’”

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In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Synoptic Problem

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Synoptic Problem by John S. Kloppenborg LAST REVIEWED: 13 September 2010 LAST MODIFIED: 13 September 2010 DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0120

The Synoptic Problem is the problem of the literary relationships among the first three “Synoptic” Gospels. Matthew, Mark, and Luke are called “Synoptic Gospels” because they can be “seen together” ( syn-optic ) and displayed in three parallel columns. The three gospels contain many of the same stories and sayings, often related in the same relative sequence. However, there are also important differences in the wording of individual stories and sayings, in the ordering of some materials, and in the overall extent of each gospel. In some instances, the degree of verbatim agreement or the sequential agreement in the arrangement of episodes and sayings is so strong that one must posit some kind of literary relationship among the gospels. By contrast, there are often marked differences in wording between any two gospels, and sometimes among all three. This raises several questions: (1) Is the relationship among the three gospels a matter of direct literary dependence, indirect dependence mediated through oral performances of written texts, or common dependence on oral information? (2) Can the direction of dependence be established? (3) Can a genealogy of the development of the Synoptic Gospels be constructed?

Most introductions to the New Testament have at least a brief discussion of the Synoptic Problem. As critics of the Two-Document Hypothesis (2DH) have observed, the treatment of the Synoptic Problem is often far from even-handed, with various theorists either dismissing other theories as inadequate or not considering them at all. Kümmel’s otherwise masterful introduction to the New Testament ( Kummel 1975 ) provides a detailed history of scholarship but is lacking in a full consideration of alternatives to the 2DH. Collins 1983 gives careful attention to various logically possible theories, while ultimately favoring the 2DH. Both Goodacre 2001 and Kloppenborg 2008 are intended for the introductory student. Two online resources are available oriented to the novice, one maintained by Stephen Carlson ( Synoptic Problem ) and the other by Mark Goodacre ( New Testament Gateway ).

Collins, Raymond F. Introduction to the New Testament . Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1983.

A careful treatment of New Testament source criticism, including a brief but clear presentation of the arrangements of the three gospels that are logically possible, given the array of Synoptic data. See especially pp. 115–155.

Goodacre, Mark S. The Synoptic Problem: A Way Through the Maze . The Biblical Seminar 80. London: Sheffield Academic Press, 2001.

An introductory level treatment of the Synoptic Problem that argues for Markan priority and the dependence of Luke on Matthew (hence, the Mark without Q (Farrer) Hypothesis (MwQH)). Critical of the 2DH, especially the arguments in favor of positing Q, Goodacre offers a careful and fair-minded analysis of the Synoptic Problem. Some attention is given to the Two-Gospel (Griesbach) Hypothesis (2GH), but none to complex theories.

Kloppenborg, John S. “What is Q?” In Q, The Earliest Gospel: An Introduction to the Original Stories and Sayings of Jesus . By John S. Kloppenborg, 1–40. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008.

Designed as a basic introduction for undergraduates and the informed public, the first chapter of this text explains the data and arguments that go into the formulation of the 2DH. Kloppenborg compares and contrasts the 2DH with the explanations of the same data by the Two-Gospel (Griesbach) Hypothesis (2GH) and Mark without Q (Farrer) Hypothesis (MwQH).

Kümmel, Werner Georg. Introduction to the New Testament . Rev. ed. Translated by Howard C. Kee. Nashville: Abingdon, 1975.

Kümmel’s now standard introduction to the New Testament provides a long bibliography of works through the mid-20th century, as well as an account of the history of scholarship, culminating in a defense of the 2DH. Kümmel’s presentation has been criticized for its neglect of alternate hypotheses, except as preliminary steps toward the eventual triumph of the 2DH. See especially pp. 38–80.

New Testament Gateway .

Mark Goodacre’s New Testament Gateway contains a subdirectory on the Synoptic Problem and Q , collecting links to other websites that discuss issues related to the Synoptic Problem.

Synoptic Problem .

The site, maintained by Stephen Carlson, presents diagrams of two dozen possible theories to the Synoptic Problem, a brief bibliography, links for some important primary and secondary sources, and links to several other sites that defend other theories of the problem.

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Synoptic problem

"The Synoptic Problem , briefly stated, is the attempt to explain how Matthew , Mark , and Luke agree, yet disagree, in these three areas: content, wording, and order... Synoptic Problem is the term that has been used to describe the task in determining the precise relationships between the first three gospels. Scholars note the alternating array of agreements and disagreements among the three gospels and wonder why and how the disparities came to be. Why, on the one hand, do the Synoptic Gospels have so much material in common? About 90 percent of Mark's material is found in Matthew, while about 50 percent of Mark is found in Luke. In addition, nearly 235 verses in Matthew and Luke are similar to one another. In those places where agreement appears, incredible similarities can extend even to identical tense and mood for every word in an entire verse (or more). Given that Jesus probably spoke in Aramaic, these similarities are even more asounding. In some places, the Evangelists have identical parenthetical material," (Williams, Two Gospels From One , p. 22-23).

Synoptic theories

This section is a brief overview of current speculative solutions to the Synoptic Problem including scholarly thought first proposed in the 1800's and traveling back through traditional church history and church views citing the writings of the ancient church fathers. Most modern study focuses on the first theory.

The Two-source hypothesis states that Matthew and Luke independently copied Mark for its narrative framework and independently added discourse material from a non-extant collection of sayings which scholars denote as Q . Much work has gone into speculating the extent and wording of Q, particularly since the discovery of the Gospel of Thomas which attests to the sayings gospel genre. Holtzmann's 1863 theory posited an Ur-Marcus in the place of canonical 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.

The Farrer hypothesis posits that Mark was written first and Matthew used Mark, but that Luke used both, thus dispensing with the hypothetical Q document.

The Griesbach hypothesis holds that Matthew was written first, and Luke used it in preparing his gospel. Then, Mark conflated the two in a procedure that mostly followed where Matthew and Luke agree in order except for discourse material.

The Augustinian hypothesis holds that Matthew was written first, then Mark, then Luke, and each Evangelist depended on those who preceded him. This position is in the closest agreement with church father testimony of the gospels origins. John Wenham was considered one of the prominent scholars who supported the Augustinian hypothesis. A variant of this hypothesis that was popular mainly among Roman Catholic scholars in the first half of the 20th century was that Matthew was written first, and copied by Mark and then Luke, but that Matthew was written in Aramaic , and when it was translated to Greek the translator liberally adapted some of the phraseology of the other gospels which were already in Greek.

Other theories usually posit more hypothetical and proto-sources. Generally their plausibility is in inverse relation to the number of additional sources. For example, Pierson Parker (1953) argued for a proto-Matthew in addition to Q. Marie-Émile Boismard calls for seven hypothetical documents, one of them a form of Q.

  • Matthew Williams , Two Gospels From One: A Comprehensive Text-Critical Analysis of the Synoptic Gospels (Kregel, 2006)
  • Synoptic problem (Wikipedia)
  • Synoptic Gospels

External links

  • The Synoptic Problem , by Daniel Wallace (
  • Synoptic Problem (wikipedia)
  • The Synoptic Problem , by John McVay
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The Oxford Handbook of the Synoptic Gospels

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1 The History and Prospects of the Synoptic Problem

John S. Kloppenborg is Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and University Professor at the University of Toronto. His recent publications are Christ’s Associations: Connecting and Belonging in the Ancient City (2019), Synoptic Problems (2014), vols. 1 (with Richard Ascough) and 3 of Greco-Roman Associations: Texts, Translations, and Commentary (2011, 2020), and The Tenants in the Vineyard: Ideology, Economics, and Agrarian Conflict in Jewish Palestine (2006).

  • Published: 22 March 2023
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The Synoptic Problem owes its birth to the complex array of agreements and discrepancies that exist among the Synoptic Gospels: two, and sometimes three, of the Synoptics display a very high degree of verbatim agreement in the telling of some stories or sayings. In other cases, the agreement is very low. Matthew and Luke, for example, agree almost completely on the wording of the saying on God and Mammon (Matt 6:24 // Luke 16:13) but show wide disagreement in their infancy stories. Matthew, Mark, and Luke generally agree in the sequence of stories, especially after Mark 6:6. But significant discrepancies are also found in the relative sequence of other stories and sayings. While Matthew and Mark locate the anointing of Jesus during the last week of his life (Mark 14:3–9 // Matt 26:6–13), Luke locates it in the midst of Jesus’s activities in the Galilee (Luke 7:36–50).

Early History

Discrepancies among the Synoptic Gospels were noticed almost from the beginning. Origen (c. 184–c. 253 CE) attributed some of the disagreements to the carelessness of copyists but reported that some critics argued that more serious discrepancies were the work of forgers ( radiouroi ; Comm. Jo. 32.32, §395). When Origen himself was unable to harmonize the literal sense of one Gospel with another, he resorted to the explanation that such discrepancies pointed to the need for a nonliteral, pneumatic interpretation ( Princ. 4.3.5).

Origen’s apologetic approach did not end the problem. Porphyry (c. 234–c. 305 CE) mounted a concerted attack on Christianity, arguing that Christian teachings were conceptually incoherent, and adduced many seemingly irreconcilable contradictions in parallel Gospel accounts, such as discrepancies in the details of Jesus’s death (Porphyry, according to Macarius, Apocriticus 2.12). Eusebius, like Origen, responded that when details could not be reconciled at the level of literal meaning, a pneumatic interpretation was intended. But Eusebius’s more lasting contribution was his division of the text of the four Gospels into pericopae and his organization of each into one of ten “canons”—lists of pericopae that are attested in all four Gospels, in three Gospels, in two, or singly ( Oliver 1959 ). These canons would come to guide the construction of Gospel harmonies that aimed at a single harmonious narrative which obviated sequential and other discrepancies.

The Eusebian canons informed the construction of Augustine’s De consensu evangelistarum (c. 400 CE). In Books 2–3 Augustine chose to start with Canons I–VII—the pericopae in which Matthew had a story or saying paralleled in three, two, one or no other gospel., In these pericopae, Augustine argued that disagreements in the sequence of pericopae were only due to the ways in which the evangelists happened to remember those events, since each knew very well the supposedly original sequence. Disagreements in wording were sometimes treated as no more than alternate ways of expressing the same idea. More serious discrepancies might point to the need for spiritual rather than literal interpretation. Book 4 examined the material in Mark and Luke alone (Canon VII), the Luke-John pericopae (Canon IX), and then the Sondergut (singly attested material, Canon X), in each case with the intent of showing that there were no real inconsistencies among the Gospels, since disagreements could be relegated to inconsequential variations, different memory choices, or the particular emphases of the evangelists.

Augustine offered several statements that have been taken to imply a primitive solution to the Synoptic Problem. The most widely cited is “Mark followed [Matthew] closely and looks like his attendant and epitomizer [pedissequus et breviator]. For in his narrative he gives nothing in concert with John apart from the others: by himself he has little to record; in conjunction with Luke, as distinguished from the rest, he has still less; but in concord with Matthew he has a very large number of passages. Much, too, he narrates in words almost numerically and identically the same as those used by Matthew, where the agreement is either with that evangelist alone, or with him in connection with the rest” ( Cons. 1.2.4). The debt to Eusebius is obvious. The supposed lack of Mark’s relationship to John or to Luke reflects the facts that Eusebius had omitted assembling canons for Mark-Luke-John or for Mark-John, and that Canon VII (Mark-Luke) had only thirteen items. Augustine seems to have forgotten that Canons I (all four Gospels), II (Matt-Mark-Luke) and IV (Matt-Mark-John), in which Markan material was tabulated, totaled 210 items. This oversight meant that Augustine supposed that Mark’s primary relationship was to Matthew, which he assumed without argument was written first. 1

It is doubtful, however, that Augustine was proposing a solution to the Synoptic Problem comparable to the “utilization hypotheses” of the nineteenth century, although many supposed that Augustine had proposed a literary explanation of the Gospels, with Matthew first, Mark using Matthew, and Luke using both (the so-called Augustinian solution). As a Platonist, he was much less interested in literal disagreements and agreements among the Gospels and literary genealogies than he was in the relationship of all four to the full Gospel of Christ, which each Gospel embodied in a partial and perspectival fashion ( de Jonge 1992 ). For him, Matthew emphasized the royal aspect of Christ, Luke emphasized the priestly aspect, Mark was concerned with neither kingship nor priesthood, and John focused on divinity ( Cons. 1.6.9).

Augustine’s treatise was successful, however, in promoting the idea that a harmony of the Gospels could be constructed. Hundreds of harmonies were produced by the end of the eighteenth century ( Fabricius 1790 –1809: 4:882–89; de Lang 1993 ). It was, perhaps ironically, the effort to produce a single harmonious narrative of the Gospels that led to the undoing of the effort, and the rebirth of the Synoptic Problem.

The Synoptic Problem, Sixteenth to Nineteenth Century

By the sixteenth century, two basic approaches to Gospel harmonies had been developed. The first adopted one Gospel, typically Matthew or John, as the lead text, and pericopae from the other Gospels were then merged with the lead text. This meant that both sequential and verbal disagreements were obviated. But the other approach, epitomized by the harmony of Alfons Osiander (1537) , insisted on respecting the canonical wording and order of each Gospel, and so inevitably repeated stories and sayings. The result was absurd: Jesus was tempted three times; he acted against the temple three times; a centurion’s son was healed twice (and a royal official’s son once); Jesus was anointed by three different women; and he was betrayed by Judas twice (see de Lang 2019 ; Dungan 1999 , 306).

These harmonizing projects presented easy targets for rationalist criticism. In 1778 Gottfried Lessing published a supposedly anonymous essay in which the author (in fact, Herrmann Samuel Reimarus) attacked the credibility of the Gospel accounts by focusing in detail on their numerous contradictions. These contradictions, he argued, suggested that Jesus’s disciples had falsified stories about Jesus, fabricated miracle stories, and invented the entire idea of a resurrection ( Reimarus 1778 ; ET 1970). In their fabrications, they had also produced conflicting and incoherent accounts, which Reimarus took as evidence of fraud. Reimarus’s essay sent shock waves through academic circles, since it threatened to undermine the historical and theological value of the Gospels and to render the knowledge of the historical Jesus impossible. The reaction was a series of compositional scenarios that could both account for the differences among the Gospels and yet preserve the possibility of access to the earliest “original” layers of the tradition.

Lessing himself posited the existence of an Aramaic proto-gospel ( Urgospel ) translated into Greek by Matthew in its most complete form, but in different versions by Mark and Luke ( Lessing 1784 ). A more complicated form of the Urgospel hypothesis was advanced by J. G. Eichhorn, who hypothesized four intermediate recensions of the Urgospel that eventually led to the three Synoptics ( Eichhorn 1794 ). Another approach was to posit an original oral proto-gospel ( Ur-Markus ), which was put into to writing as canonical Mark, expanded and written down as proto-Matthew (later translated into Greek as canonical Matthew), and was in turn revised as Luke ( Herder 1796 ). Neither the Urgospel hypotheses nor the oral tradition hypothesis posited a direct relationship between any of the canonical Gospels; the relationship among the three was mediated either by the written Urgospel , intermediate recensions, or the oral Gospel. Each of these hypotheses offered ways to account for the differences in sequence and wording of Gospel stories and sayings, tracing the variations to differing translations of the same Aramaic original, to the vagaries of oral transmission, to recensional activities, or a combination of these explanations. Each also made it possible to imagine the recovery of a set of reliable historical traditions about Jesus, even if those traditions were at some remove from the Greek canonical Gospels.

A very different approach was proposed by Johann Jakob Griesbach. Griesbach’s signal innovation was the development of a three-gospel synopsis that was intentionally not designed to facilitate the creation of a harmonious life of Jesus (1776). Gospels were aligned in three vertical columns, which made it simple to compare the wording of each Gospel with the others. Greisbach’s synopsis also allowed each of the Synoptic Gospels to be read continuously in its canonical sequence while at the same time displaying the parallel accounts in the other two Synoptics. Griesbach provided visual indications of sequential agreements and disagreements by means of vertical intercolumn lines alongside any text that was printed out of canonical sequence. This made visible the internal order of the Synoptics, that is, where any two of the Synoptics agreed sequentially and where any one Gospel departed from a common sequence. What became clear was that Mark’s internal sequence was supported by either Matthew or Luke or both, or, to put it differently, Mark’s order of pericopae agreed either with Matthew’s or Luke’s order but had almost no independent order.

Three developments followed from this. First, J. B. Koppe pointed out that the “Augustinian” sequence of Matthew → Mark → Luke, with Luke using both his predecessors, was unintelligible: for when Mark deviates from Matthew’s sequence, he always agrees with Luke ( Koppe 1782 ). This would mean that Luke always preferred Mark’s order to Matthew’s whenever Mark deviated from Matthew, even though Luke could see Matthew’s order of material. But no rationale could be given for such an idiosyncratic procedure. The second development was an alternative, proposed by Gottlob Christian Storr, who contended that Mark was the earliest of the Gospels, used first by Luke, and then by Matthew, who also used Luke ( Storr 1786 ). The phenomenon of order observable in Griesbach’s synopsis was explicable on this view, for it meant that sometimes Luke sided with Mark’s order, and sometimes altered it, and likewise Matthew usually agreed with Mark but sometimes deviated. Yet Storr’s hypothesis that Matthew also used Luke inevitably raised the question, why did Matthew never agree with Luke’s sequence against Mark?

The final development was Griesbach’s own thesis, which reversed the “Augustinian” relation between Mark and Luke, arguing that Mark had abbreviated and conflated the two other Gospels, but in such a way that whenever he departed from Matthew’s sequence, he turned to Luke’s (1789–90; ET 1978). Hence, Mark followed one of his sources, then the other, producing a “zigzag” effect. 2

The important difference between Griesbach and Storr’s solutions and those of Lessing and Eichhorn was that the former were “utilization hypotheses” that assumed the direct dependence of one Gospel upon another rather than positing otherwise unknown intermediate texts. This also meant that Griesbach (and Storr) could not rely on such explanations as translation variants to account for the differences among Gospels but had to posit editorial policies on the part of the secondary evangelists. Griesbach, for example, explained Mark’s omission of the infancy accounts of Matthew and Luke by asserting that Mark was only interested in Jesus as a teacher. He offered other explanations, mostly deductions from his own hypothesis (hence circular)—that Mark wanted to write a short book and hence omitted the long sermons of Matthew and Luke.

Griesbach’s hypothesis (GH) languished for three decades until the thesis of Markan posteriority was revived by De Wette, who rejected Griesbach’s view of the relation of Luke to Matthew, proposing instead that both drew on oral tradition and an Aramaic Urgospel ( de Wette 1826 ). Until 1860 the GH enjoyed wide acceptance—de Wette counted fifteen major advocates from 1805 to 1853 (1860, 150–52), and the more extensive bibliography of Neirynck and Van Segbroeck (1978) lists almost forty titles before 1880.

For de Wette, the GH exemplified a schema of theological development. Matthew represented Jewish Christianity; Alexandrian or Hellenistic Christianity was epitomized in John and Hebrews; and Pauline Christianity embodied a universalism that had influenced Luke ( de Wette 1813 , 19–20). A similar scheme had been adopted by the Tübingen school and its doyen, F. C. Baur, who offered a comprehensive theory of the history of dogma based on the fundamental opposition between Jewish Christianity and Paulinism and the eventual resolution of this conflict in catholicism. Matthew’s Jewish-Christian Gospel was composed after the Bar Kochba revolt. Luke represented an irenic blend of Pauline and Jewish elements, written in response to Marcion’s use of an earlier draft of Luke, but incorporating a decidedly Pauline and universalist outlook. Mark’s “indifferent and neutral” character and its harmonistic nature was consistent with a date after the midpoint of the second century ( Baur 1847 , 567). 3

By 1860, however, Baur had died, and most of the proponents of the Tübingen school had defected to other synoptic theories and other disciplines. 4 What came to replace the GH owed much to an essay by Friedrich Schleiermacher (1832) and another by the text critic Karl Lachmann (1835; ET 1966–67) . Schleiermacher, attracted by the statement of Papias that “Matthew compiled the λόγια [oracles] in the Hebrew language and each interpreted them as they were able” (Eusebius, Hist. eccl . 3.39.16), argued that Papias cannot have been speaking about canonical Matthew, which was written in Greek and was hardly a collection of “oracles.” Instead, Schleiermacher surmised that Papias knew of a collection of sayings of Jesus that canonical Matthew translated and used in Matthew 5–7; 10; 13:1–52; 18; 23–25. For its narrative materials, canonical Matthew used another source that Papias had described as Peter’s memoirs, collected by Mark and containing the things “said and done by the Lord” (Eusebius, Hist. eccl . 3.39.15).

These suggestions proved remarkably durable. In 1835, Lachmann examined the order of the synoptic tradition and concluded that canonical Mark better resembled the order of the primitive narrative gospel than either Matthew or Luke. Lachmann accepted Schleiermacher’s conclusions about the λόγια as “obviously true” ( Lachmann 1835 , 577) as well as his supposition of a narrative source behind Matthew. The content of the synoptic tradition convinced him that Griesbach had underestimated the importance of Mark. When one compared the order of the pericopae, the greatest degree of disagreement was registered between Matthew and Luke; Mark tended to agree with either one or the other. Mark, however, better represented the primitive order than Matthew or Luke. Matthew’s divergences from the order of Mark and Luke could be explained by supposing that Matthew, influenced by the sequence of the λόγια, moved some sections from his narrative source so that they might function better in relation to the sayings sources. The converse, that Mark remodeled the narrative source, was unlikely, since his Gospel was uninfluenced by the λόγια source. Thus, there would be no reason for Mark to rearrange narrative materials that he found in Matthew.

In 1838 C. H. Weisse combined the insights of Schleiermacher and Lachmann along with a rejection of the late dating of the Gospels current in the Tübingen school to propose what might be seen as a forerunner to the Two Document hypothesis (2DH): canonical Mark and Papias’s Mark were identical, for not only did Mark seem to be the common denominator between Matthew and Luke, but Mark also seemed more primitive. Luke had, like canonical Matthew, used both Mark and the λόγια source (1838, 1:34, 48, 54).

Despite advocating Markan priority, Weisse did not think that Mark always embodied reliable historical memories. On the contrary, it contained stories that had begun as myths that had been historicized as narratives about Jesus. Weisse also expressed some embarrassment over the fact that the two initial pericopae in the λόγια source: Luke 3:7–9, 16–17; 4:1–13 were either not sayings of Jesus or not sayings at all (1838, 2:5). The source also contained a narrative about the centurion’s serving boy and the Beelzebul accusation. Weisse had relieved this embarrassment by suggesting that the sayings now attributed to the Baptist were originally Jesus’s sayings about John and that the temptation story and the healing of the centurion’s serving boy originated as parables of Jesus that had been converted into narratives (1838, 2:8, 17–26, 53–55).

When Weisse revisited the Synoptic Problem in 1856, he felt obliged to modify his hypothesis, reintroducing Ur-Markus . Weisse decided, evidently out of loyalty to Schleiermacher’s understanding of λόγια as “oracles,” that it was better to attribute at least John’s sayings (Luke 3:7–9, 16–17), the temptation story, and the story of the centurion to an Ur-Markus rather than to the λόγια (1856,156–57). Hence canonical Mark abbreviated Ur-Markus , while Matthew and Luke fused Ur-Markus with the λόγια source.

Weisse’s 1838 book did not attract followers, and his 1856 work was not much more successful. The turning point in the discussion of the Synoptic Problem came seven years later with the publication of Holtzmann’s Die synoptischen Evangelien (1863) , which is often credited with definitively establishing the 2DH. It is, however, probably more accurate to say that Holtzmann’s position triumphed not so much because it had satisfactorily dispatched alternate solutions and had provided compelling arguments for itself as because the thesis of Markan priority was seen to fit with the emerging theological commitments of liberal theology.

Holtzmann was influenced by Weisse’s 1856 proposals, in particular the notion of an Ur-Markus . Although he supposed that canonical Mark was closer to Ur-Markus than the other Synoptics, it differed from Ur-Markus (A) in five important respects: (1) at several points Mark contained obscurities that were the result of abbreviation; 5 (2) Mark had legendary—hence secondary—elements not found in the parallel accounts (e.g. Mark 7:24–31); (3) Mark might have shortened the originally longer speeches of John the Baptist and Jesus; (4) the minor agreements of Matthew and Luke against Mark (Holtzmann lists 36) suggested that canonical Mark was secondary to A; (5) at some points Matthaean and Lukan scenes displayed better internal coherence than the Markan parallel (e.g. Mark 10:23; 10:49).

This meant that A contained a longer form of the words of the Baptist (Matt 3:7–12; Luke 3:7–9, 16–17) than was present in Mark, the long form of the temptation story, a version of the inaugural Sermon (Luke 6:20–49), the story of the centurion’s serving boy (Matt 8:5–13 // Luke 7:1–10), and an expanded version of the Beelzebul accusation. Holtzmann also assigned the story of the adulterous woman from John (7:53–8:11) and the great commissioning from Matthew (28:9–10, 16–20) to A. Correspondingly, this implied that the other source, the λόγια (Λ), lacked the double tradition material—the material common to Matthew and Luke but absent from Mark—in Luke 3:7–17, 4:1–13, 6:20–49, and 7:1–10.

This conclusion may appear puzzling, since the sermon in Luke 6:20–49 would seem to fit Holtzmann’s Λ (sayings source). What had influenced Holtzmann was an alleged “textual gap” detected by Heinrich Ewald at Mark 3:19, 20—the call of the Twelve concluded with “and he went home” (Mark 3:19), but what follows is not an event about Capernaum but the Beelzebul accusation, which has its own introduction, instead. Moreover, neither Matthew nor Luke recorded a parallel to Mark 3:20–21. Ewald surmised that, in the early version of Mark, the Sermon on the Mount and the story of the centurion’s serving boy originally filled this gap (1850, 208–9). Holtzmann did not believe that the lengthy Matthaean sermon occurred there but agreed in assigning the substance of the shorter Lukan sermon (6:20–49) and the healing in Luke 7:1–10 to A.

Holtzmann also agreed with Weisse on another crucial point: Λ contained only sayings of Jesus ( Holtzmann 1863 , 142). To have included in Λ narratives such as the temptation story and the healing in Luke 7 or the sayings of John the Baptist in Luke 3 would have made Λ into an “evangelical narrative” with the very characteristics of the canonical Gospels. Hence, Holtzmann withheld from Λ any narrative elements. He detected, nevertheless, a certain appropriateness in having the second source begin with Luke 7:18–35: “just as A began with the appearance of the Baptist, so Λ began appropriately with a statement of Jesus concerning the significance and import of John (Luke 7:18–35 = Matt 11:2–11, 16–19) relating to this ἀρχὴ τοῦ εὐαγγελίου (‘beginning of the gospel’)” (1863, 143). The lasting influence of Schleiermacher’s λόγια can be seen in both Weisse and Holtzmann, dictating a reconstruction of the second synoptic source in accordance with an implicit and wholly undefended notion of generic purity: the λόγια source can only have included sayings. This is ironic in the case of Holtzmann, for notwithstanding his use of the term Λ (which obviously was a gesture toward Papias’s λογία), the testimony of Papias played very little role in Holtzmann’s argument. Holtzmann’s positing of Λ followed from his argument that A was prior to Matthew and Luke, and that Matthew was independent of Luke. This created as its corollary the need to posit a source to account for the material (mostly sayings) that Matthew and Luke had which they did not obtain from Mark. He only considered Papias’s testimony, treating it as ancillary confirmation of his proposal, once he had provided the logical grounds for positing a sayings source (1863, 252). Moreover, while previous speculations that the structure of the λόγια source began with Matthew’s five well-organized speeches, Holtzmann argued that Matthew appeared to have rearranged the speech material, conflating it with pericopae from A to create those five speeches. Luke better represented the order and character of Λ. Hence, Holtzmann’s “second synoptic source” bore little real resemblance to Papias’s putative Aramaic “oracles” or to Schleiermacher’s collection of Matthaean speeches except insofar as they too were exclusively sayings.

The architecture of Holtzmann’s argument for “the Markan hypothesis” left much to be desired. William Farmer complained that Holtzmann’s argument and those that followed him were “not based upon a firm grasp of the primary phenomena of the Gospels themselves, but upon an artificial and deceptive consensus among scholars of differing traditions of Gospel criticism” (1964, 38). It is certainly true that Holtzmann did not begin with a detailed analysis of the patterns of agreements and disagreements among the Gospels in sequence and in wording and the logical inferences that these patterns permit. Instead, he proceeded by cataloguing and evaluating the solutions proposed to date: neither Lessing’s Urgospel hypothesis nor Herder’s oral tradition hypothesis was plausible, since the various minute agreements among the Synoptics in the use of rare words (such as ἐπιούσιος in Matt 6:11 // Luke 11:3) or in phrases with complex word-order (e.g., Matt 12:27–28 // Luke 11:19–20) were simply inexplicable on hypotheses that posited independent renditions of oral tradition. Turning to the “utilization hypotheses,” he listed all logically possible versions with their adherents but reduced the basic choice to two: either Matthew was primary and Mark secondary, or vice versa, since no one seriously defended Lukan priority.

At this point, Holtzmann invoked what he saw as a consensus of Synoptic scholarship: apart from the GH, which in his view was “without foundation,” all agreed that the Synoptics depended upon a common Grundschrift . Here the consensus collapsed. Some favored a proto-Matthew, others favored a proto-Mark; some explained Luke with reference to proto-Mark, others with reference to Matthew (1863, 66).

What is problematic about Holtzmann’s procedure is that he moved to an exposition of his own solution without resolving the disagreements that he had just enumerated. His procedure was to offer a post hoc rationalization of his own solution without seriously considering the alternatives. Instead, Holtzmann was content to give a plausible accounting of the later evangelists’ procedures, given the assumption of their dependence on A and Λ, and only occasionally offered arguments concerning the direction of dependence.

Holtzmann’s treatment of citations from the Hebrew Bible was better. He offered more clearly directional arguments, for he observed that whereas all of the citations taken from A were essentially Septuagintal, those added by Matthew showed more affinities with the Masoretic text (MT). For Holtzmann, it was rather unlikely that Mark could have used Matthew but avoided the bulk of Matthew’s MT-leaning citations. 6

Also more persuasive were Holtzmann’s remarks on Matthew’s and Luke’s alterations of A. He noted that Matthew tended to be more concise than Mark but had also made sentences more complete in the interest of clarity. Matthew introduced various improvements, for example, replacing the awkward parenthesis in Mark 11:32 with a participial phrase and replacing Mark’s dangling ἀλλ’ ἵνα πληρωθῶσιν αἱ γραφαί (“but in order that the scriptures be fulfilled,” Mark 14:49) with τοῦτο δὲ ὅλον γέγονεν ἵνα πληρωθῶσιν αἱ γραφαὶ τῶν προφητῶν (“all this happened so that the writings of the prophets would be fulfilled,” Matt 26:56). Luke made analogous “improvements,” using the optative mood in questions and replacing Mark’s direct discourse with the more classical accusative-infinitive construction. Moreover, Holtzmann noted various points where Luke inadvertently betrayed knowledge of what was in Mark, even when he omitted the relevant portions of Mark. For example, Luke omitted Mark’s explanation of the reason for Judas’s kiss—“whoever I kiss is the one” (Mark 14:44; see Luke 22:47–48). Luke does so because he does not have Judas actually kiss Jesus; he only approaches in order to kiss him. Yet Luke presupposed this explanation by having Jesus say “Judas, do you betray the Son of man with a kiss?” (1863, 331–32).

If one looks to Holtzmann for a systematic proof of the 2DH, one will be disappointed. What he offered was a detailed exposition of Markan priority (or in fact, the priority of A), showing how it might plausibly account for the data. In this it must be said that his solution was coherent, but it must also be made clear that his defense of Markan priority did not logically imply the invalidity of other hypotheses, even if his successors assumed that it did. Eventually, Holtzmann modified the most awkward part of his hypothesis, namely the A ( Ur-Markus ) source. In 1863, he had attempted to explain Mark’s omission of the sermon in A (= Luke 6:20–49) because the sermon was “too long for him” (1863, 116). However, Mark’s apocalypse (13:5–35) and his parables discourse (4:1–34) are both longer than Luke 6:20–49 ( Stoldt 1980 , 76). In his 1886 introduction to the New Testament, Holtzmann dropped the idea of an Ur-Markus entirely (1886, 363–65; 1892, 350). Although he did not offer a new catalogue of the contents of Λ, it would presumably now have contained at least some of the double tradition prior to Luke 7:18–35. Abandoning a pre-Markan source, however, also meant that Holtzmann lost a convenient way by which to explain the minor agreements of Matthew and Luke against Mark, and so he speculated on the possibility of sporadic influence of Matthew on Luke.

Holtzmann’s case was regarded as so effective that subsequent generations of Synoptic scholars simply took his solution for granted. In the decades between 1863 and William Sanday’s Oxford Studies in the Synoptic Problem (1911), only Meijboom’s dissertation (1866) and Wernle’s monograph (1899) qualify as substantial reviews of the problem. Why was the Markan hypothesis embraced as it was? In spite of Holtzmann’s positing of a sayings source lying behind Matthew and Luke, there is no evidence that the appeal of Holtzmann’s solution lay in a fascination with pre-gospel sources. Indeed it is surprising how little Λ figured in Holtzmann’s book. His real interest was A and the way it might serve as the basis for a life of Jesus.

Holtzmann included in his 1863 monograph a sketch titled “The Life of Jesus according to the A Source,” in which he used Markan material to circumscribe the development of Jesus’s consciousness in seven identifiable stages (1863, 468–96). This he described as the most valuable result of his investigation. Indeed, his portrait of Jesus, as Schweitzer described it, became “the creed and catechism of all who handled the subject during the following decades” ( Schweitzer 1906 , 203; ET 1910, 204). On Holtzmann’s showing, Mark (or A) lacked the “dogmatic” features that were so evident in both Matthew and Luke. The Markan Jesus was the epitome of “the clarity and harmony of what constitutes vigorous persons: the convergence of understanding, emotion, perception, presentiment, genuine simplicity, and innocence in which unrivalled versatility is crystallized with such a wonderful energy as has not been attested empirically elsewhere” (1863, 496; ET 2006, 222). This depiction eminently served the theological goals of liberal theology, with its strong antidogmatic agenda. Indeed, Schweitzer is correct in stating that “the victory … belonged, not to the Marcan hypothesis pure and simple, but to the Marcan hypothesis as psychologically interpreted by a liberal theology” (1906, 203; ET 1910, 204).

Between 1863 and 1900 a long string of “lives of Jesus” was published, all capitalizing on Holtzmann’s view of Mark: typical of these “lives” was the interpretation of the kingdom of God as a spiritual kingdom of repentance and the conviction, based on Holtzmann’s reading of Mark, in which Jesus’s messianic consciousness developed, precipitated principally by a “Galilean crisis” in which Jesus faced the failure of his mission. The spell of Mark would not be broken until Wilhelm Wrede demonstrated that the “messianic consciousness” that was so fundamental to the liberal lives was a creation of Mark ( Wrede 1901 ; ET 1971).

As long as the nineteenth-century fascination with the notions of religious genius who embodied ideal humanity held sway, Holtzmann’s reconstruction of the historical Jesus appeared self-evidently correct. His Jesus was vigorous, introspective, and nondogmatic and espoused the superior morality of A’s Sermon (Luke 6:20–49). It is startling, nevertheless, to note that Holtzmann’s treatment passed over Mark 13 in silence—a text that hardly gives the impression of a nondogmatic speaker. It was Johannes Weiss’s 1892 “rediscovery” of the apocalyptic strands in the Jesus tradition and its reiteration by Schweitzer (1906) —ironically, Holtzmann’s student—that led eventually to the deconstruction of the liberal Jesus. There was, however, no corresponding denouement for Markan priority, as there had been for the Griesbach hypothesis after Baur’s death in 1860. The 2DH outlived liberal theology, and insofar as Weiss and Wrede both accepted the 2DH, it played a role in that deconstruction.

The Twentieth Century and Beyond

By the end of the nineteenth century, the two hypotheses of Markan priority and the independence of Matthew and Luke, along with the corollary inference of a sayings document, seemed firmly established. Ever since Weiss, the sayings source, once called τὰ λόγια, now came to be known as Q (for Quelle “source”) (1890, 557). Three further developments, two in Germany and one in England, finalized a temporary consensus on the Synoptic Problem. First was Paul Wernle’s 1899 monograph that argued that it was unnecessary to posit a proto-Mark when Matthew and Luke’s direct use of Mark was plausible. This had the corollary that Q was more or less coextensive with the double tradition, along with a few instances of Mark-Q overlaps. The second development was Wrede’s 1901 analysis of the messianic secret in Mark, which argued that the Second Gospel, far from being a reliable biography of Jesus, was an apologetically constructed account designed to reconcile the nonmessianic character of the historical Jesus with the messianic beliefs of his followers. Wrede’s thesis had the effect of undermining the confidence in Mark that was so fundamental to Holtzmann’s use of A to create a psychological portrait of Jesus. Mark’s narrative framework was his own editorial invention.

The loss of confidence in Mark as a source for the historical Jesus was followed by a brief period in which attention shifted to Q. Adolf von Harnack opined that Q provided uncontaminated access to the historical Jesus. It was “a compilation of discourses and sayings of our Lord, the arrangement of which has no reference to the Passion, with an horizon which is as good as absolutely bounded by Galilee, without any clearly discernible bias, whether apologetic, didactic, ecclesiastical, national or anti-national” (1907, 121; ET 1908, 171). According to Harnack, Q was qualitatively different from Mark. It was both homogeneous and ancient, unpreoccupied with the miraculous (even in Q 7:1–10!), apologetics, or the “exaggerated” apocalypticism of Mark. Its focus instead was on pure morality ( Harnack 1908 , 233, 237, 250–51).

The third important development, now in England, was B. H. Streeter’s study The Four Gospels (1924) , the classic British statement of the Two (or Four) Document Hypothesis. Streeter had dispensed with the idea of a proto-Mark, accepting Markan priority and the independence of Matthew and Luke. This meant that Q was represented by the double tradition and some of the Mark-Q overlaps. In addition to Mark and Q, Streeter posited literary sources to account for the special Matthaean (M) and Lukan (L) materials. 7 Streeter also suggested geographical centers for each of these documents: Mark in Rome, M in Jerusalem; Q in Antioch; L in Caesarea, Matthew in Antioch, and Luke in Corinth (1924, 150). He also proposed that prior to its incorporation into Luke, Q had been joined with L to form “proto-Luke,” which was then conflated with Mark to produce the third Gospel. 8

Questioning Markan Priority

After Streeter there were few challenges to the 2DH. In 1951 B. C. Butler offered a critique of the 2DH, pointing out the illegitimate inference to Markan priority from the observation that Matthew and Luke tended not to agree against Mark in matters of order. He dubbed this the “Lachmann fallacy” even though it is clear that Lachmann did not commit it. But many since Lachmann had, including Streeter: “we note, then, that in regard to (a) items of subject matter, (b) actual words used, (c) relative order of incidents, Mark is in general supported by both Matthew and Luke, and in most cases where they do not both support him they do so alternately, and they practically never agree together against Mark. This is only explicable if they followed an authority which is content, in wording, and in arrangement was all but identical with Mark” ( Streeter 1924 , 162). Butler’s counter-argument was that the data Streeter observed permit any inference in which Mark is the connecting link between Matthew and Luke, that is, any arrangement in which Mark is medial.

Butler’s entirely correct point was not heeded until much later, probably because the 2DH had proved so useful in underwriting the development of redaction criticism in the wake of World War II. Credible accounts of the editorial profiles of Matthew and Luke had been created assuming the priority of Mark and the independent use of Mark by Matthew and Luke. 9 About the same time as Butler’s intervention, Austin Farrer offered an essay advocating Markan priority and the direct dependence of Luke upon Matthew, which eliminated the need to posit Q, since Luke’s Q sayings all came directly from Matthew ( Farrer 1955 ). This essay had little immediate effect, perhaps because it was so poorly argued, but it would become a centerpiece of the “Farrer-Goulder hypothesis” or “Farrer hypothesis” (FH), which was revived in the late 1980s.

The most important development since Streeter has been William Farmer’s 1964   The Synoptic Problem , the first comprehensive survey of the history of the Synoptic Problem since Holtzmann and a devastating critique of previous attempts at a solution. Farmer pointed out the several logical fallacies that had been committed in the construction of the 2DH (including the “Lachmann fallacy”) and instead revived the Griesbach hypothesis (now called the “Two Gospel Hypothesis” or 2GH). His most important point concerned the phenomenon of order: “Mark’s order shows no independence of Matthew and Luke…. This seems explicable only by a conscious effort of Mark to follow the order of Matthew and Luke. Neither Matthew nor Luke could have achieved this alone…. Only someone writing later who was attempting to combine the two narrative documents has the possibility of preserving what order the second preserved from the first and then, wherever the second departed from the first, following the order of either one or the other” ( Farmer 1977 , 293–94). This statement embodied a fallacy of its own. If it were the case that Mark alternately agreed with Matthew, then Luke, and that when he agrees with one he disagrees with the other, Farmer’s inference would be valid. But this is not the case. There are a significant number of instances in which Mark agrees with both . These data, as Butler has insisted, permit any arrangement in which Mark is medial, which includes Markan priority, Markan posteriority, and straight line solutions that put Mark between Matthew and Luke, for example Matthew → Mark → Luke or Luke → Mark → Matthew.

The Synoptic Problem in Current Study

Farmer’s signal contribution was to reopen the Synoptic Problem as a site for debate. What followed were stout defenses of the 2GH, mounted in a series of conference papers ( Corley 1983 ; Dungan 1990 ; Farmer 1983 ; Focant 1993 ; Strecker 1993 ; Tuckett 1984 ) and two important collaborative volumes, one focusing on the relationship of Luke to Matthew ( McNicol 1996 ) and a second on Mark’s use of Matthew and Luke ( Peabody, Cope, and McNicol 2002 ).

Only slightly later, the Farrer hypothesis was revived by Michael Goulder ( 1974 ; 1989 ). Since the key problem for this hypothesis was accounting for Luke’s direct use of Matthew, Goulder offered a remarkable tour de force, an elaborate commentary on Luke that argued how each Lukan pericope could be understood as either dependent on Mark or on Matthew. The weakest points were his tethering of Luke’s editing to a complex lectionary hypothesis—that Luke’s editing reflected knowledge of a lectionary cycle—and his theory that Luke worked backward through Matthew. Neither of these two features of the FH has been retained in the several subsequent defenses of the Farrer hypothesis ( Goodacre 2002 ; Goodacre and Perrin 2004 ; Sanders and Davies 1989 ). At the end of the century, the 2DH still retained a privileged position, not because it was without difficulties but because the alternate solutions presented serious difficulties of their own. The most problematic datum for the 2DH is the existence of the “minor agreements” (MAs)—points at which Matthew and Luke agree against Mark. On the simplest version of the 2DH, one should not expect such agreements as cannot be explained credibly on the basis of coincidental editing or through the influence of Q. Yet there are some: famously, Matthew 27:68 and Luke 22:64 agree in the words “prophesy, who struck you?” against Mark’s “prophesy” (14:65), and both Matthew 9:20 and Luke 8:44 have the woman who was healed of a hemorrhage touching the fringe (κράσπεδον) of Jesus’s cloak, whereas Mark’s woman only touches the cloak (Mark 5:27). The most comprehensive catalogues of the MAs are Neirynck (1974) and Ennulat (1994) . Neirynck offered extensive stylistic analyses designed to show that many of the MAs can be seen as resulting from the editing of Mark by the other evangelists, and that in some cases the editorial decisions coincided, for example, to eliminate Markan parataxis or Markan redundancies. Ennulat did not disagree with this assessment but added that some of the MAs were post-Markan , that is, they represented editorial developments or elaborations of Mark. This led Ennulat to suggest that Matthew and Luke used not the version of Mark known as one of the canonical Gospels but rather a Deutero-Markus , a slightly expanded version.

The MAs continue to represent a challenge to the 2DH, not because they are technically insolvable but rather because there are too many possible solutions and it is impossible to decide which of these is the better: corruption of Mark’s text, textual contamination of Matthew from Luke or vice versa, editing of Mark by Matthew and Luke producing coincidental agreements, post-Markan developments adopted independently by Matthew and Luke, or even the secondary influence of Matthew upon Luke either during Luke’s composition or at some stages of its transmission.

The 2GH faces three key challenges: first, why Mark omitted not only minor details from his putative sources, but also the infancy stories, the large Matthaean and Lukan sermons, many parables, and the resurrection appearance stories. Second, Griesbach Mark engaged in conflation, not only at the level of paragraph or section, but at the level of sentence or clause, taking a phrase or a word from Matthew and another from Luke, that is, micro-conflation. But such a procedure is not only very difficult to imagine prior to the development of a writing desk but also unattested in other ancient authors ( Derrenbacker 2005 ; Mattila 1995 ). And third, the 2GH must also account for Luke’s use of Matthew, in particular how Luke worked through Matthew’s well-organized speeches in Matthew 5–7; 10:1–42; 13:1–52; 18:1–35; and 24–25 and in many cases disassembled those speeches and shifted sayings into the more heterogeneous section in Luke 9:51–18:13. Moreover, the 2GH also forces one to imagine a Mark who vilified both Jesus’s disciples and his family, when both of Mark’s sources held them in a more positive light ( Kloppenborg 1992 ).

The challenges for FH have to do not with Matthew or Luke’s treatment of Mark but rather with Luke’s use of Matthew. First, like the 2GH, the FH posits a direct relationship between Matthew and Luke, and this triggers many of the questions that plague the 2GH. On the FH, Luke has located all of the sayings he shares with Matthew after Matthew 4:16 // Luke 4:16 differently relative to Mark’s framework. One expedient is to argue that Luke used Mark’s Gospel before he became aware of Matthew, and so worked the Matthaean sayings into his composition differently. This of course does not explain why the Sermon on the Mount was so dramatically shortened by Luke, unless one invokes Goodacre’s surmise that Luke did not like long sermons ( Goodacre 2002 , 81–104). Francis Watson’s solution to this conundrum is that Luke saw the Matthaean Sermon on the Mount but copied into a notebook a further thirteen pericopae, which he used later in his composition ( Watson 2013 ). A second challenge to the FH is to explain how Luke could have taken over the Matthaean sayings without Matthew’s Markan framing of those sayings. For example, on the FH Luke disengaged the woes against the Pharisees (Luke 11:37–54) from the Markan context that Matthew used in Matthew 23, even though Luke took over that Markan pericope at Luke 20:45–47. Luke also detached the Jerusalem saying (Luke 13:34–35) from its place in Matthew 23, which Matthew locates in Jerusalem, and relocated it to a point in the Lukan story where Jesus is not near Jerusalem at all ( MacEwen 2015 ). Advocates of the FH has only begun to face these difficulties. Third, a more serious challenge is Luke’s failure to take over the additions that Matthew effected on Mark (Matthew 3:15; 12:5–7; 13:14–17; 14:28–31; 16:16–19; 19:9, 19b; 27:19, 24). One might argue, as Goodacre does, that Luke knew Mark before he learned of Matthew, and so the basic structure of the Gospel was determined by Mark and additional Matthaean details were only worked into his Gospel later. Still it is odd that none of Matthew’s additions found their way into Luke. In fact, Luke shows no awareness of how Matthew joined additional sayings to a Markan anchor ( Kloppenborg 2003 ).

The Ways Forward

At the end of the twentieth century the 2DH, FH, and 2GH remain the best supported hypotheses, along with a handful of more complex hypotheses ( Boismard 1990 ) and such lesser-known options such as “Matthaean posteriority,” which reverses the FH’s relationship between Matthew and Luke ( MacEwen 2015 ), and the “Jerusalem school,” which retains Q but assigns priority to Luke ( Lindsey 1963 ). While the Synoptic Problem should not be treated as a free-for-all of groundless speculation—it requires careful consideration of the relevant data and attention to both logical and technical constraints—there should also be a degree of humility in one’s discussions of the Synoptic Problem and avoidance of the hubris that announces that certain hypotheses have been “discredited,” when in fact the particular complexion of available data hardly admits the language of deductive testing and disproof.

Significant gaps exist between the putative originals of the Synoptics and their first manuscript attestation. The earliest manuscript of Mark is a century and a half later, in the early third century CE (P 45 ; P.Oxy LXXXIII 5345). The earliest fragment of Matthew (P 104 = P.Oxy. LXIV 4404) is from the mid-to-late second century, and the earliest manuscript of Luke (P 75 = P.Bodmer XIV–XV) is dated about 200 CE, that is, more than half a century after its likely date of composition. The fluidity of textual transmission means that it is dangerous to assume that the copies of the Synoptics used for the reconstruction of the Greek texts on which we construct Synoptic Problem hypotheses are identical with the autographs (if indeed there were single autographs). The nature of textual transmission leaves ample room for hypotheses such as Ennulat’s Deutero-Markus or solutions to the problem of the MAs that appeal to textual contamination. The fact that the wording of any of the Synoptics cannot be known with precision should rule out any dogmatic statements about proofs and disproofs. 10

Notwithstanding uncertainties about the Synoptic data, it is important to observe at least three critical stages in the construction of arguments on the Synoptic Problem. In the past, the discussion of the Synoptic Problem has often been clouded by confused or skewed descriptions of the Synoptic data and a confusion about what constitutes evidence that counts in favor of any hypothesis.

The architecture of any solution should have three stages: first, a description of the data to be explained, then a discussion of the several arrangements of those data that are logically possible, and, finally, an account of the editorial procedures that must be posited to make sense for any of those arrangements. None of these steps is without complexities. There is no neutral way to align Gospels synoptically. It is not true that the main synopses in use today ( Aland 1996 ; Boismard and Lamouille 1986 ; Huck and Greeven 1981 ) are systemically skewed to favor one synoptic theory ( Kloppenborg 2011 ; van Zyl 1997 ; contrast Dungan 1980 ). Nevertheless, there are at least three different ways to align the Sermon on the Mount with Mark, at 1:21 ( Neirynck 1976 ), at 1:39 (Griesbach; Huck-Greeven), or at 3:19 (Aland; Boismard-Lamouille; Orchard 1983 ), and each of these alignments implies something different in respect to Matthew’s treatment of Mark (on the FH and 2DH) or vice versa (on the 2GH). There are, moreover, many ways to align words and phrases (and therefore describe those words) within the same pericope. For example in Mark 1:2–6 and parallels, it makes a difference to one’s view of the editorial choices of the evangelists whether one chooses the citation of Isaiah 40:3 (Mark 1:2b–3) to anchor the parallel display, or the introduction of John the Baptist (Mark 1:4). On Markan priority, one arrangement implies that both Matthew and Luke moved the introduction of John up relative to Mark’s arrangement, while the other suggests that they moved the citation of Isaiah 40:3 to a point after the introduction of John. Aland’s arrangement of Matthew 3:7–10 // Luke 3:7–9 implies that both Matthew and Luke supplied an introduction to the oracle of John the Baptist in Q; Boismard’s alignment suggests that Luke’s introduction comes from Mark 1:5. As was true of Augustine’s understanding of the Gospels, the very tools that are used to examine the Synoptic Problem have an effect on the solutions that are proposed.

Second, as Butler made clear, several scenarios are compatible with the basic datum that Matthew and Luke do not agree with each other against Mark in the placing of a particular pericope that is also found in Mark. Any solution in which Mark is medial satisfies this condition. These include several simple solutions and many more complex solutions. One might invoke Ockham’s razor— causae non sunt multiplicandae praeter necessatatem —to narrow down the options to three or four and to eliminate the complex solutions. But it should also be acknowledged that while simple solutions are heuristically pleasing, history is seldom as simple as one’s heuristics suggest. It is extremely doubtful, for example, that on the FH or 2DH Matthew used the autograph of Mark and even unlikely that they used the same copy of Mark. Small (or large) differences among the earliest copies of Mark—differences in vocabulary, scribal corrections and additions, dropped phrases, or minor rearrangements—would inevitably create complexities in the data and make it difficult for a given hypothesis to makes sense of those data. This means that the best that can be hoped for are solutions that address most of the data, most of the time, conceding that all solutions will face data that does not fit. It is true that uncooperative data can always be accommodated by invoking supplementary hypotheses such as textual corruption, or secondary influence of Matthew on Luke, or Watson’s notebook of Matthaean sayings. But it must be conceded that any synoptic solution can be made to fit the data provided that sufficient supplementary hypotheses are allowed.

The third stage in the construction of a synoptic hypothesis is to offer an account of what editorial policies each of the evangelists must have adopted in order to produce the Gospels that they did. This stage, in fact, represents the bulk of arguments about the Synoptic Problem, but it is also the most problematic from a logical point of view. These are evidence not of the solution but the editorial procedures that are entailed in the solution. To claim, as Griesbach did, that Mark wanted to write a short Gospel simply converts the datum that Mark’s Gospel is shorter than Matthew and Luke into an aesthetic preference and attributes it to Mark. It simply renames the problem. Likewise, when Goulder argues that Luke preferred short sermons as a way to account for the fact that Luke 6:20–49 is shorter than Matthew 5:1–7:27, he simply converts the data about the length of the two sermons into an editorial preference on Luke’s part, while also ignoring the fact that Luke tolerates speeches longer than thirty verses. This kind of “explanation” could be invoked to account for anything at all. One could assert that Mark had a preference for avoiding the infancy and resurrection accounts in order to justify the 2GH; or one could posit a Matthaean editorial preference for shorter miracle narratives to support the FH and 2DH, or a Markan preference for longer miracle narratives in order to support the 2GH. These are not explanations; they are the more or less gratuitous positing of aesthetic preferences on one’s own part. They prove absolutely nothing because such explanations can be invented to “prove” absolutely anything.

It is doubtful that solutions to the Synoptic Problem can avoid redescriptions of the data masquerading as arguments. Three kinds of considerations might bring one closer to convincing arguments: first, arguments from coherence; second, arguments from physical and technical constraints of composition; and third, arguments based on editorial practices observed in contemporaneous literature.

A plausible argument can be mounted when the datum to be explained ( B ’s transformation of A ) can be seen as belonging to a coherent series of analogous transformations in the same document. This still amounts to positing an aesthetic preference of the editor, but at least that aesthetic preference can be related to a network of similar transformations evidenced elsewhere. Unfortunately, coherence arguments can be invoked in support of mutually contradictory theories. The observation that Matthew’s wonder accounts are typically much shorter than Mark’s and focus on Jesus’s speech ( Held 1963 ) might suggest that Matthew has a consistent practice of streamlining Mark’s stories. But this argument can be reversed, as it has been by proponents of the 2GH, to the effect that Mark consistently expands Matthaean wonder stories to make the accounts more lively (e.g., Peabody, Cope, and McNicol 2002 , 140). In the end, it comes down to which direction of editing one deems to be more plausible, however plausibility is understood.

Second, some Synoptic theories require editorial maneuvers that are unlikely if not impossible. It has already been noted that micro-conflation, which is required by 2GH Mark, is highly unusual since, in the absence of writing surfaces large enough to hold two exemplars as well as the text being composed, it would have been nearly impossible for Mark to maintain constant visual contact with Matthew and Luke in order to effect micro-conflation ( Kloppenborg 2019 ; Mattila 1995 ). Similarly implausible is Goulder’s suggestion that Luke worked backward through Matthew’s Gospel and that he had visual access to the whole of the Sermon on the Mount as he moved from Matthew 5:42 (Luke 6:30) to 7:12 (Luke 6:31) and then back to 5:46–48 (Luke 6:32–34, 36) and then on again to 7:2 (Luke 6:37–38), deciding what of the Sermon of the Mount to include and what to delay (1989, 363–66). Downing points out that the physical procedure that Goulder appears to assume—Luke having visual access to the 9,500 characters of Matthew’s Sermon—is unlikely, given the fact that the sermon would represent nineteen average-sized columns of text ( Downing 1992 ). No copy stand (even if they existed at the time) would allow visual access to the entire Sermon. Moreover, as Alan Kirk has shown, the construction of scrolls facilitated sequential (forward) movements through a source, not random access or a backward movement (2016, 55–56). Downing’s criticism of Goulder does not, of course, affect the versions of the FH that do not rely on Goulder’s speculations. The point here is only that attention to the mechanical and physical constraints of composition ought to affect the ways in which we try to solve the Synoptic Problem, at least to rule out procedures that are either otherwise entirely unattested, or that require access to technologies that did not yet exist.

Third, knowledge of the canons of persuasive speech articulated in the Prosgymnasmata and other rhetorical manuals can inform one’s constructions of synoptic hypotheses ( Kennedy 2003 ). Alexander Damm has shown that the two most commonly recommended rhetorical virtues are clarity (σαφήνεια/ perspecuitas ) and propriety (τὸ πρέπον/ aptum ). Clarity entails both freedom from the risk of obscurity and that the sentence conveys essential information in a way that is not unreasonably delayed. Propriety involves both the skill of inventing and arranging materials to serve the speaker’s purpose and matching the “way of speaking” to the content of the argument ( Damm 2013 , 69–80). If one assumes that editors of the Gospels had these rhetorical virtues in mind, their transformation of source materials should enhance clarity and propriety rather than obscure these virtues. The better direction of dependence is the one that evidences an improvement in rhetorical qualities.

This kind of approach to assessing the competing models of synoptic relationships elevates the argument beyond merely renaming the problem by relating each alteration of the predecessor source to the canons of persuasive speech that is known to have been current in the Hellenistic world. In this way, argument is freed from the subjectivity of what one might think by modern aesthetic standards is a better argument and grounds judgment in what ancient persons thought was a better and more convincing argument (see also Reid 2016 ).

Expanding the Synoptic Problem

With a few exceptions, the Synoptic Problem has been restricted to the first three canonical Gospels. Yet other Synoptic-like compositions exist—the Gospel of Thomas, the Didache , the Gospel citations of Justin Martyr, the Gospel of Peter, and the Longer Gospel of Mark. Some effort has been devoted to ascertaining whether, for example, Did. 1:3–2:1 knows and uses both Matthew and Luke or Q or some other collection of sayings of Jesus, and whether and to what extent the Gospel of Thomas is literarily dependent on the Synoptics or whether it embodies earlier forms of synoptic sayings.

These explorations are important not only for establishing a map of the Synoptic tradition, but to the extent that some of these documents embody pre-Synoptic tradition are potentially useful for understanding the history of editorial transformation of the Synoptics. If, for example, it can be shown that Did. 16:6–8 is not dependent upon Matthew 24 but rather on the special Matthaean material, which—on the 2DH (and FH)—Matthew fused with Mark 13, then Markan priority would be a more coherent explanation of the origins of Matthew 24 than the contrary, that Mark had extracted Mark 13:24–27 from Matthew but managed to avoided the material in Matthew parallel to Didache 16 ( Kloppenborg 1979 ). Likewise, if, as some have argued, some of the sayings in the Gospel of Thomas are independent of, and earlier than, the Synoptics, they may offer some leverage on the Synoptic Problem since they help to show the earliest forms of sayings that now appear also in the Synoptics.

Finally, the recent revival of discussion of Marcion’s εὐαγγέλιον, earlier thought to be a revision of Luke, has potential impact on the Synoptic Problem, especially if the theses can be sustained either that Marcion’s εὐαγγέλιον was used by Luke or that it was based on an earlier pre-Lukan Gospel that Luke also used ( BeDuhn 2013 ; Klinghardt 1996 ; 2008 ; Lieu 2015 ; Vinzent 2014 ). For example, Daniel Smith (2018) has recently observed that the reconstructed pre-Marcionite Gospel lacks many of the minor agreements that have plagued the 2DH, including the “fringe” (κράσπεδον) of Jesus’s garment in Luke 8:44. If this observation could be sustained, it would suggest that the “fringe” in the canonical version of Luke is due either to the textual corruption of Luke in the course of transmission (Luke being assimilated to Matthew) or perhaps to a secondary influence of Matthew on Luke as Luke edited the pre-Lukan Gospel.

Although the Synoptic Problem has not been solved, nor is it likely to be solved short of other discoveries, it remains a fruitful site for the discussion of the compositional history of the Synoptic Gospels and, more recently, other early Christian writings with contents like the those of the Synoptics. Properly understood, the Synoptic Problem is a laboratory in which scholars engage very complicated sets of literary data and construct hypotheses that aim on making maximal sense of those data, with the help of literary and editorial procedures that take seriously ancient compositional methods and technologies, and that pay attention to other ancient practices in the treatment of sources.

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Kennedy, George A.   2003 . Progymnasmata: Greek Textbooks of Prose Composition and Rhetoric . Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature.

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Klinghardt, Matthias.   2008 . “ The Marcionite Gospel and the Synoptic Problem: A New Suggestion. ” NovT 50, no. 1: 1–27.

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Kloppenborg, John S.   1992 . “The Theological Stakes in the Synoptic Problem.” In The Four Gospels 1992: Festschrift Frans Neirynck , edited by Frans Van Segbroeck , C. M. Tuckett , G. Van Belle , and J. Verheyden , BETL 100, 93–120. Leuven: Peeters.

Kloppenborg, John S.   2006 . “ H. J. Holtzmann’s Life of Jesus According to the ‘A’ Source. Part 2. ” JSHJ 4, no. 2: 203–23.

Kloppenborg, John S.   2003 . “ On Dispensing with Q? Goodacre on the Relation of Luke to Matthew. ” NTS 49, no. 2: 210–36.

Kloppenborg, John S.   2011 . “Synopses and the Synoptic Problem.” In New Studies in the Synoptic Problem , edited by Paul Foster , Andrew Gregory , John S. Kloppenborg , and Joseph Verheyden , BETL 239, 51–85. Leuven: Peeters.

Kloppenborg, John S.   2019 “ Macro-conflation, Micro-conflation, Harmonization and the Compositional Practices of the Synoptic Writers. ” ETL 95, no. 4: 629–43.

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Lindsey, Robert L.   1963 . “ A Modified Two-Document Theory of the Synoptic Dependence and Interdependence. ” NovT 6: 239–63.

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In book 4 Augustine ( De consensu 4.10.11) seems to have recognized the oversight, there opining that while Mark was “preferentially the companion of Matthew” he sometimes “holds a course between the two [Matthew and Luke].”

This is visually represented in Meijboom 1991 , 152–53.

See also Baur 1851 and Harris 1975 , 237, for a convenient summary of Baur’s dating of all New Testament books.

The most erudite defense of the GH was by Meijboom 1866 , whose Dutch dissertation was never published and was not translated into English until 1991.

  Holtzmann (1863 , 60) mentions Mark 1:13, 3:22, and 14:65 (“prophesy”). The last presupposes Luke 22:64, “who struck you?”

David New’s investigation concludes (1) that the evidence of the use of biblical citations is consistent with the 2DH, (2) that none of the evidence clearly favors the GH, and (3) that eleven citations could be argued either way (1993, 121).

See Foster , chapter 2 here, for an in-depth discussion of the minor sources in the Synoptic Problem.

Proto-Luke was also espoused by Taylor 1926 but has now largely been abandoned. See Verheyden 2011 .

On Matthew: Bornkamm, Held, and Barth 1963 ; Strecker 1966 . On Luke: Conzelmann 1960 ; Keck and Martyn 1966 .

See Nongbri , chapter 10 here, for a discussion of the relationship between manuscript traditions and the Synoptic Problem.

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The Synoptic Problem

by Felix Just, S.J., Ph.D.

What are the "Synoptic Gospels"?

What is the "synoptic problem", some older proposed solutions:  , the four-source theory (the solution accepted by most scholars today):  .

"Markan Priority" - For most of Christian history, people thought that Matthew was the first and oldest Gospel, and that Mark was a later, shorter version of the same basic message. From the mid-19th century until today, however, most scholars are convinced that Mark is the first and oldest Gospel (at least in the final version, as we have it today), and that Matthew and Luke are later expansions of Mark. Why?

  • Mark's Gospel contains several grammatical, literary, historical, and geographical difficulties (minor errors) that are not found in Matthew and/or Luke. If Matthew was first, it is harder to understand how Mark could have introduced these errors; but if Mark was first, it is easy to see how Matthew and/or Luke wanted to and were able to correct Mark's minor mistakes.
  • Mark's Gospel contains several episodes that are obscure (4:26-29; 14:51-52) or make Jesus look crazy (3:19-21), magical (7:32-37), or weak (8:22-26). If Matthew was first, it is harder to explain why Mark added these strange episodes; but if Mark was first, it is easy to understand why both Matthew and Luke omitted them.
  • Mark's basic chronological/geographical structure is the same as in the other two Synoptics; but the material found in both Matthew and Luke (but not in Mark) is in very different orders in these two Gospels. If Matthew was first and Mark second, it is hard to understand why Luke would have kept the same order for all the material found in both Matthew and Mark, but substantially rearranged all the other material found in Matthew but not in Mark. If Mark was first, however, then it is easy to explain how Matthew and Luke inserted the extra material they have in common (from the Q source?) into Mark's overall outline, although in significantly different ways.
  • Although this document no longer exists, but was lost to history, it seems to have been mostly a collection of sayings, parables, and other teachings of Jesus, with very few narrative stories of Jesus' actions; it most likely did not contain a Passion Narrative.
  • The bulk of the proposed contents of the Q-source consists of any material found both in Matthew and in Luke, but not in Mark; some scholars, however, suggest that it may have been slightly larger/longer, if certain material was retained by one of these evangelists, but not the other; thus, some materials considered "M" or "L" in the Four-Source hypothesis might also have been in the Q-document.
  • For the proposed contents of the Q-source, see either the brief listing on my " Synoptic Outlines " webpage or the more extensive listing of the proposals of several other scholars, as compiled by Peter Kirby on his " Early Christian Writings " website.
  • Objection : The "Q-document" no longer exists, if it ever did. Response : If almost all of the material in "Q" was incorporated into Matthew's and/or Luke's Gospels, then early Christians would have had little need or desire to preserve "Q" as a separate document. When people find a "revised and expanded edition" of a work, they don't always keep the older, shorter edition. Rather than wondering why "Q" was lost, it would be more important to ask why Mark was preserved! (see the next section below)
  • Objection : No early Christians would have composed a collection of the sayings and teachings of Jesus, as "Q" supposedly was (like the "Sayings of Confucius" or the "Sayings of Chairman Mao"), without also including some stories of his miracles and other actions, and his passion, death, and resurrection. Response : The non-canonical "Gospel of Thomas," rediscovered in 1948, is a collection of 114 sayings, parables, and short teachings of Jesus that does not include any miracles or other stories about events in Jesus' life. Although the Gospel of Thomas is not the same as "Q" (its contents are significantly different), it is proof that early Christians did indeed compose the same type or genre of literature that the Q-document seems to have been.
  • Objection : The "Q-hypothesis" is not necessary for explaining the relationships among the three Synoptic Gospels. Response : All the other solutions that try to solve the Synoptic Problem without positing a "Q-document" (see the charts above) have their own significant problems. [The details are too complex to be discussed on this webpage, but are available in many textbooks and scholarly works.] Although we should remember that the past existence of a Q-document is only a hypothesis, not a proven fact, it does seem to provide the best solution for explaining the "Synoptic Problem."
  • Mark was the secretary or "interpreter" of Peter (see Papias , as quoted by Eusebius); so in a way, the Gospel according to Mark could be thought of as "Peter's Gospel." And since Peter was the leader among the apostles, early Christians would have had good reason to preserve what they considered to be a written record of Peter's preaching.
  • Mark's Gospel was thought to have been written in Rome and/or for the early Christian community in Rome (see Clement of Alexandria , again quoted by Eusebius); so in a sense, Mark's Gospel could be considered the "Gospel of/from Rome." Not only was the city of Rome the capital and largest city of the Roman empire, but the two most important Christian apostles, Peter and Paul, both preached, were martyred, and are buried there. Thus, the Christian community in Rome became prominent and influential very early in Christian history, and it is easy to understand why "their" Gospel would have been preserved and accepted into the NT canon.
  • If "Markan priority" is correct and Mark's was indeed the First Gospel to have been written, then it would be the oldest available record of the words and deeds of Jesus, yet another reason why early Christians might have preserved and continued to use it, despite its brevity and shortcomings.

Color Analysis of Synoptic Materials:

  Single Traditions: Use the following colors to highlight words, phrases, or longer passages that occur in only one Gospel , but not in the others :

  Double Traditions: Use the following colors to highlight materials that occur in two of the Synoptic Gospels, but not in the third :

  Triple Traditions: Use a pencil or black pen to underline materials that are identical in all three of the Synoptic Gospels:

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The Synoptic Problem

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Jennifer Clutten

The   Synoptic   Problem  

  The synoptic problem is that of considering which of the 3 synoptic gospels. Matthew, Mark and Luke was written first and perhaps which gospel was written aided via the other and/or which writer used the questionable Q source.

It is believed that there is a literary connection between the gospels as there is an obvious verbal agreement that suggests some kind of interdependence between them all.  It is believed that these similarities have arisen because

  • All the gospel writers were inspired by the power of the holy spirit
  • They are all an account of the Jesus.  Therefore as they are all about the same person there will be similarities between their writings if they are historically accurate.
  • They all share a common oral tradition

Looking at the content of the gospels in turn it is obvious that there are links between the gospels.  If you have faith then it is quite easy to believe that these accounts are supposed to be the word or god and through him they would write similar accounts.  And this would provide as evidence for their links.  However, if you do not believe in god the second point can be an accurate answer to the gospels interdependence.  As reporting on the same events people are always going to have ties.  Just as different people are touched by different thing, this is an example of the similarities and differences. For example, if one of the gospel writers was touched by one particular work of Jesus they are more likely to record it in more detail.  Just as others might not have felt any connection with it and skipped it absolutely.  Also, as it is believed that the gospels were not recorded during the eye-witness period of Jesus’ life it is likely that they are all from the same source and therefore tell a similar story due to linking original accounts.

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  The literary connection can be seen in the Baptism story.  Mark has 5 verses, Matthew 15 and Luke 17. And also the Peter Disowns Jesus Mark has 7 verses, Matthew 7 and Luke 9.  The fact that these stories are in each gospel suggests some kind of clear connection between them all.

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Streeter believed that the order of the gospels was Mark first then Matthew then lastly Luke.  He also believed that all the gospels shared a common source which he called Q.  This Markan priority theory overtook the Matheau priority in the 19 th  century.  It was suggested that Mark portrayed Jesus to be too human.  That mark showed him ‘faults and all’ and when the church was first compiled it was seen to be the case that Matthew was put first as the most important gospel with the most verses and therefore as they saw it; the most historical content.   It is believed that as Mark is the priority gospel and that Matthew and Luke took Marks account and then expanded on it to write their own.  It is also true that using this theory the Matthew and Luke have taken Marks gospel and tidied it up by correcting his poor Greek.  It is known that mark used long narratives and in Matthew and Luke it can be seen that these have been abbreviated.  Mark is also seen as the priority gospel as it appears to give an all rounded approach to the life of Jesus.  Where as, Mark and Luke give a more soften approach where Jesus is seen as truly perfect light whereas in Mark critical observations are given about him.  This suggests that just like in life a true account gives the good and the bad.  And finally it is also true when looking at the reason for Markan priority that had Mark not been the definitive gospel there would be no point keeping the shorter gospel in the cannon of the bible.

I think that the Markan priority theory is a good theory due to its large amount of substantial points.  For example looking at real life I know that a true account gives the good with the bad. This can be seen if you read some ones diary.  When talking about friends you do not only write the good.  You write the bad also because you just write as you see it, with no bias.  This suggests that Marks gospel is the truer and therefore oldest account.  

Holtzman’s two source theory states that Matthew and Luke used Mark as well as another common source; he called this source Q.  He believed that Q comprised of 230 verses which were true sayings of Jesus.

Source Q provides us with evidence for the similarities that occur between Luke and Matthew that Mark cannot account for.  

Some people believe that it could be argued that Luke did not use the Q source but instead compiled his gospel from that of Matthews.  However if this is the case then during the compiling of the bible there would be no point including all three gospels as if they just used Luke it would therefore be a compilation of the other two gospels and could stand alone as a definitive document on its own.  Either this or they would of only included Mark and Matthew as Luke would only be a summary of what has already been said.  It can be said that all three gospels must have been kept as they each have some significance and individual interpretation in certain particular areas.

  I believe that the arguments in favour of the use of the Q source are the most conclusive.  This is because I believe that there is the most evidence for this cause.  For example there are many points that point towards the combined use of Mark and Q between Luke and Matthew.

  However, it is hard to understand exactly what the truth is behind the question of the synoptic gospels.  Evidence of this can be taken from the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls.  The information provided from these and the Jesus papyrus suggest that there were/are many documents that all the gospel writers could take their information from and suggest that much of the information in the gospels was taken from writings not only from common oral traditions.  I believe that it would be hard now to ever understand fully what exactly all the gospels information was taken from and as time slips by so does evidence.  

The reasons for looking at the synoptic problem are that of trying to help aid us in our understanding of the gospels themselves.  As by studying which came first we can then understand where the truth lies and where bias can be placed.

The Synoptic Problem

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SALT Exercise - The Synoptic Problem


  1. 📗 Essay Sample on The Synoptic Problem: Exploring the

    the synoptic problem essay

  2. (PDF) The Synoptic Problem: Four Views

    the synoptic problem essay

  3. The Synoptic Student Problem

    the synoptic problem essay

  4. The Synoptic Problem: Four Views

    the synoptic problem essay

  5. (PDF) Solving the Synoptic Problem for Students?

    the synoptic problem essay

  6. PPT

    the synoptic problem essay


  1. 07. September, 2023

  2. The Synoptic Problem

  3. Intro to the Gospels and the Synoptic Problem

  4. The Synoptic Problem Isn't a Problem For Undesigned Coincidences

  5. Biology Unit 5 AQA synoptic sample essays

  6. The Gospel According to St. Matthew by American Standard Version


  1. Biblical literature

    The Synoptic problem is one of literary or of source criticism and deals with the written sources after compilation and redaction. Matthew was the Gospel most used for the selections read in the liturgy of the church, and other Gospels were used to fill in the picture. One attempted solution to the problem of priority was the proposed existence ...

  2. The Synoptic Problem

    The Synoptic Problem. Any serious discussion of the Synoptic Gospels must, sooner or later, involve a discussion of the literary interrelationships among Matthew, Mark, and Luke. This is essential in order to see how an author used his sources (both for reliability's sake as well as for redactional criticism), as well as when he wrote.

  3. The Synoptic Problem Essay

    The Synoptic Problem Essay. The books of the Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John; where written over 2000 years ago. These books excluding the Gospel of John are often called the synoptic Gospels. The term synoptic is derived from the Greek word meaning "seeing together.". These three books are comparable in their recording of the ...

  4. The Synoptic Problem and Q

    Q remains a hypothesis, though, and until there is weightier evidence, it is only one of the few solutions to the Synoptic Problem. Three-Source Theory: The less popular Three-Source Theory is very similar to the Two-Source Theory except in one aspect. Markan priority and the use of Q are both retained, but the difference between the two is ...

  5. What Is the Synoptic Problem?

    What Is the Synoptic Problem? The word synoptic is an adjective stemming from the noun synopsis, which means a summary, general survey, or overall condensation of a broader body of work. These three synoptic gospel accounts — Matthew, Mark, and Luke — each summarize in different ways what happened during Jesus' life as a man.

  6. Synoptic Problem

    Introduction. The Synoptic Problem is the problem of the literary relationships among the first three "Synoptic" Gospels. Matthew, Mark, and Luke are called "Synoptic Gospels" because they can be "seen together" (syn-optic) and displayed in three parallel columns.The three gospels contain many of the same stories and sayings, often related in the same relative sequence.

  7. Synoptic problem

    Synoptic theories. This section is a brief overview of current speculative solutions to the Synoptic Problem including scholarly thought first proposed in the 1800's and traveling back through traditional church history and church views citing the writings of the ancient church fathers. Most modern study focuses on the first theory.

  8. The History and Prospects of the Synoptic Problem

    John S. Kloppenborg is Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and University Professor at the University of Toronto. His recent publications are Christ's Associations: Connecting and Belonging in the Ancient City (2019), Synoptic Problems (2014), vols. 1 (with Richard Ascough) and 3 of Greco-Roman Associations: Texts, Translations, and Commentary (2011, 2020), and The Tenants in the Vineyard ...

  9. PDF The Synoptic Problem

    The Synoptic Problem continues to fascinate biblical scholars and students of the New Testament, with no end in sight so far as arriving at a final solution or even a truce in the ongoing debate. This is the environment in which we ... Rainer Riesner—for their excellent essays and constructive responses. We have

  10. The Synoptic Problem: Where to from here?

    Abstract. The study of the Synoptic Problem continues with a wide range of hypotheses proposed to explain the relationship of Mark, Matthew and Luke to the early Jesus tradition, and to each other. This article reviews recent developments in synoptic studies highlighting the recognition of the ongoing role of the oral tradition, the ways in ...

  11. The Synoptic Problem & Proposed Solutions

    What are the "Synoptic Gospels"? The Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, and Luke are so similar to each other that, in a sense, they view Jesus "with the same eye" (syn-optic), in contrast to the very different picture of Jesus presented in the Fourth Gospel or the non-canonical Gospels (see my comparative charts).Yet there are also many significant differences among the three Synoptic Gospels.

  12. Essay The Synoptic Problem

    Essay The Synoptic Problem. The synoptic problem is that of considering which of the 3 synoptic gospels. Matthew, Mark and Luke was written first and perhaps which gospel was written aided via the other and/or which writer used the questionable Q source. It is believed that there is a literary connection between the gospels as there is an ...

  13. Introduction to the Synoptic Problem

    An introduction to the modern &amp;quot;synoptic problem&amp;quot; in the gospels, including a brief survey of proposed solutions and an investigation into history&amp;#x27;s alternate explanation. ... In addressing the topic of how the gospels were written, this essay introduces the so-called Synoptic Problem, and Source, Traditio ...

  14. Synoptic Problems : Collected Essays

    This volume contains a collection of twenty-one essays of John S. Kloppenborg, with four foci: conceptual and methodological issues in the Synoptic Problem; the Sayings Gospel Q; the Gospel of Mark; and the Parables of Jesus. Kloppenborg, a major contributor to the Synoptic Problem, is especially interested in how one constructs synoptic hypotheses, always aware of the many gaps in our ...

  15. What is the Synoptic Problem?

    What is the Synoptic Problem? When the first three Gospels— Matthew, Mark, and Luke —are compared, it is unmistakable that the accounts are very similar to one another in content and expression. As a result, Matthew, Mark, and Luke are referred to as the " Synoptic Gospels .". The word synoptic basically means "to see together with a ...

  16. The Synoptic Problem: A Way Through the Maze, by Mark Goodacre

    The Synoptic Problem A Way Through the Maze Mark Goodacre Understanding the Bible and Its World London & New York: T & T Clark, 2001 Arguably the greatest literary enigma in history, the Synoptic Problem has fascinated generations of scholars who have puzzled over the agreements, the disagreements, the variations, and the peculiarities of the relationship between the first three of our ...

  17. COLLECTED ESSAYS: The Synoptic Problem

    August, 1995. The synoptic problem lies in the fact that Matthew, Mark, and Luke seem to bear a literary relationship to each other. The most obvious feature of this relationship is that most of Mark appears in Matthew and Luke in nearly the same words and in nearly the same order. The less apparent feature of this relationship is that many ...

  18. The Synoptic Problem: Four Views

    Leading Scholars Debate a Key New Testament TopicThe relationship between Matthew, Mark, and Luke is one of the most contested topics in Gospel studies. How do we account for the close similarities--and differences--in the Synoptic Gospels? In the last few decades, the standard answers to the typical questions regarding the Synoptic Problem have come under fire, while new approaches have surfaced.


    The synoptic problem. The harmony and the variety, the resemblances and the differences must be both accounted for. They form together a literary problem, — the Synoptic Problem, as it is called, — the existence of which was practically unknown to the ancient ecclesiastical writers. 6.

  20. (PDF) The Synoptic Problem: Four Views

    The Synoptic Problem: Four Views ... most rigorous defense of the Two Source Hypothesis is found in his Word commentary on the second half of Mark.34 In an essay titled "Sorting Out the Synoptic Problem: Why an Old Approach Is Still Best," Evans defends the Two Source Hypothesis, especially Markan priority, and points to its ability to ...

  21. Solving the Synoptic Problem for Students?

    4. Whether doublets have significance in solving the Synoptic Problem. 5. Evaluation of the minor agreements of Matthew and Luke against Mark by means of probability analysis. 6. Whether the compositional activity of the evangelists was influenced by the genre (s) of the Gospels. 7. The Jesus tradition outside the Gospels with reference to the ...

  22. The Synoptic Problem

    The synoptic problem is that of considering which of the 3 synoptic gospels. Matthew, Mark and Luke was written first and perhaps which gospel was written aided via the other and/or which writer used the questionable Q source. It is believed that there is a literary connection between the gospels as there is an obvious verbal agreement that ...

  23. The Synoptic Problem: Some Methodological Considerations and a New

    The Synoptic Problem: Some Methodological Considerations and a New Hypothesis. Christopher C. Knight. Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies, Cambridge, UK. Search for more papers by this author. Christopher C. Knight. Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies, Cambridge, UK.

  24. SALT Exercise

    Religion document from Western Governors University, 8 pages, SALT Exercise: The Synoptic Problem Wade Johnson NBST 515: New Testament Orientation I April 20, 2024 Contents Summary.1 Application.4 Bibliography.6 ii 1 Summary As far back as the time of Augustine of Hippo, 354-430, there have been discussions as to

  25. Sketched with an 'Oracular Pencil': Predictive Drawing and the

    4 On the cyclical structure of the news day versus the linear flow of time, see Schlesinger, 'Newsmen and Their Time-Machine,' 339. Schlesinger conducted his study of news temporality in the News Division of the BBC between 1952 and 1975, but what he has to say about the temporal logic of journalistic work applies to any historical media setting characterized by periodicity.

  26. Remote Sensing

    The vertical air pollutant concentrations and their relationships with synoptic- and local-scale air movement have been studied. This study measured the vertical profiles of PM2.5 and O3 using an unmanned aerial vehicle during summer in South Korea and analyzed the characteristics of the measured profiles. To understand the impact of synoptic air movements, we generated and categorized the 48 ...