Make your own free website on

The Synoptic Problem

Barry L. Davis


Undertaking a study of the Gospels will inevitably lead to the discovery of the Synoptic Problem. As the researcher examines the text of the Gospels he will notice both striking similarities and differences between the three Synoptics. As he turns to sources of reference he will undoubtedly come across many theories that attempt to explain both these differences and similarities. Wading through the various theories and determining which one is correct, if any, is a difficult task. In fact, Stoldt states that "the critical analysis of the sources of the Gospels is justifiably regarded as one of the most difficult research problems in the history of ideas" (p.1).

As the Synoptic Problem is examined, it will be discovered that although there are many probable solutions, none of them can actually solve the problem, and in many instances the solutions only further intensify the problem by raising even more questions.


Synoptic Parallels

By examining any Harmony of the Gospels it is easy to see that there are many parallels in all three Synoptics. This is to be expected, since all three Gospels are essen- tially telling the same story. When these parallels are studied closely it can be determined that:

     Some 606 vv. out of Mark's total of 661 appear, although somewhat abridged,                           in Matthew, and 380 appear in Luke. Only 31 vv. in Mark have no parallel in either                    Mark or Luke (Pinnock, p. 788).

Thomas and Gundry explain (p. 261), using Westcott's figuring, that 93 percent of Mark is found in both Matthew and Luke. It can be demonstrated from these facts that the Synoptics obviously have much in common.

Another observation that must be made is that although there are many parallels in all three Synoptics, there are also places where there are parallels in only two Gospels. Pinnock points out that 250 verses that are parallel to Matthew and Luke are not found in Mark (p. 788). The parallels between Matthew and Luke that are not contained in Mark are almost all accounts of the teachings of Jesus. Both record the preaching of John the Baptist (Matt 3:7-10; Luke 3:7-9); Jesus' teaching on the impossibility of serving two masters (Matt 6:24; Luke 16:13); Jesus' message to John the Baptist in prison (Matt 11:4-6; Luke 7:22-23); and Jesus' sorrow over Jerusalem's resistance to Him (Matt 23:37-39; Luke 13:34-35). There are also cases where Matthew and Mark run parallel without Luke and where Luke and Mark run parallel without Matthew, but these parallels are not found in abundance (Guthrie, p.137).

Unique Material

While there are many parallels in the Synoptics there is also much material that is unique to the individual authors. House lists 40 sections of Matthew, 6 sections of Mark, and 46 sections of Luke that are unique to their Gospels (pp. 91-92). These are not sections that are simply unique in their presentation, but they are unique in that they are not to be found in any form in the other Synoptics (with the possible exception of the Great Commission).

These unique sections would include, but are not limited to: Matthew's presentation of the angel appearing to Joseph before Jesus' birth (1:18-25); Mark's account of the young man who fled when Jesus was taken captive (14:51-52); and Luke's account of the Rich man and Lazarus (16:19-31). Clearly there is much to be found in common in these Gospels, but there is also much that sets each one apart.

The Synoptic Problem Explained

The similarities between the Synoptic Gospels contribute to the Synoptic Problem. Guthrie (pp. 136-137) has broken these similarities down into three distinct categories.

First, there is a similarity of arrangement. All three Gospels basically follow the same order, which includes Jesus' baptism, His temptation, His Galilean ministry, and His journey to Jerusalem where He is crucified and resurrected from the dead. There is an obvious relationship here between the three Gospels that needs to be explained. How was such remarkable unity maintained in this general outline? Was one Gospel the outline for the other two? Was a hypothetical document used as the basis for all three Synoptics? Why is it that when Matthew departs from Mark's order Luke supports it and when Luke departs from Mark's order Matthew supports it? Why do not Matthew and Luke follow each other when they depart from Mark? These are questions that arise from the similarities in the arrangement of these three Gospels and they are questions that contribute to the Synoptic Problem.

Secondly, there is similarity in style and wording. In a number of parallel passages the agreement is somewhat general, but in many other passages it is very specific.

Carson illustrates this by comparing the parallel accounts concerning Jesus' authority to forgive sins (Matt 9:6; Mark 2:10-11; Luke 5:24) and states that "not only is the wording almost exact (as is true in the Greek original), but each of the three evangelists inserts an abrupt break in Jesus' words at the same point" (p. 26). Another example of amazing similarity is found in the account of Jesus' acceptance of the little children, His brief teaching on entrance into the Kingdom, and His conversation with the rich young ruler (Matt 19:14-20; Mark 10:14-20; Luke 18:16-21). There are many other instances where these striking similarities occur. Obviously these accounts are related to one another, and some explanation must be given to account for their likenesses. Particularly interesting are the accounts where the exact wording and order are used.

Thirdly, in some instances there is similarity in only two of the Synoptics. In addition to those passages listed above there is the genealogy of Christ (Matt 1:1-17; Luke 3:23-38); the accounts of Christ's temptations (Matt 4:3-11; Luke 4:3-13); the healing of the centurion's servant (Matt 8:5-13; Luke 7:1-10); and the teaching on being a follower of Christ (Matt 8:19-22; Luke 9:57-62). Some explanation as to why all these accounts are not found in all the Synoptics needs to be given. In addition to the material given in only two of the Synoptics there are a number of places where Matthew and Luke have the same basic material as Mark but they add to it.

Another area that leads to the Synoptic Problem are the places where the Gospels differ from one another. Carson points out that this is what makes the problem "particularly knotty" (p.26). It has been shown that there are many similarities to account for, but when the many differences are examined it adds another piece to the puzzle. If the Gospels are the same, why not in all points? Why is it that the Synoptics follow each other in some places but not in others?

A good example of differences is to be found in the use of parallel materials in different settings. Luke records Jesus' sorrow for Jerusalem as occurring before the Triumphal Entry on the road to Jerusalem (Luke 13:22, 31-35; 19:28-40), while Matthew records that it took place in the Temple after Jesus' Triumphal Entry (Matt 21:9-10; 23:37-24:1). Another example would be the in the passion accounts, which hold to a similar order but "contain many differences of detail and wording" (Guthrie, p.137).

Another area of differences is found in the material which is unique to one Gospel. Each of the Synoptics contains material that is not shared by the other two.

Scroggie has determined that over half of Luke's Gospel is unique (in Dyer, p.233). Both Matthew and Mark also contain a considerable amount of unique material. An explanation is needed to account for these singular reports.

The Synoptic Problem, in its most basic form, involves both the similarities and differences between the Synoptic Gospels. Why are they so alike, and yet so different? Was there a common source used for information? Did one writer copy from another? Did one author have access to information the others did not? How did the Gospels end up in their present form? These are some of the questions that the Synoptic problem raises.


Documentary Theories Involving Only the Synoptics

The theory proposed by Augustine held to the priority of Matthew's Gospel. Mark used Matthew as a source and then Luke borrowed from both Matthew and Mark. "Until the nine- teenth century, this was the standard view of those who saw a literary relationship among the Synoptic Gospels" (Carson, p.31). Augustine's theory follows the order of the present canon of Scripture. This view is helpful in understanding the similarities in the Gospel accounts, but gives no answer to account for the differences. Furthermore, this theory requires that Mark edit much of Matthew's material to produce a condensed version. This theory has few proponents today.

A somewhat similar proposal is the Griesbach hypothesis. This theory also gives priority to Matthew, with Luke using Matthew as his source and Mark relying on both Matthew and Luke for his sources (Stein, p.130). Although this theory has fallen into disfavor, it has recently shown signs of recovery (Dyer, p.235). The strength of this view is found in several areas that should not be disregarded.

This theory holds to the traditional view of Matthean priority. It gives a believable explanation for the basic order of the Gospels. It also gives Mark the latitude to use source material from both Matthew and Luke, alternating where he saw fit.

The Griesbach hypothesis is not without its own difficulties. If Mark used Matthew and Luke, where did his unique material come from? Another problem arises when the purpose of Mark is considered. Stein points out that "the most basic problem that the Griesbach Hypothesis encounters that it simply cannot provide a credible explanation as to why Mark was ever written" (p.133). This hypothesis inevitably leads to a questioning of the need for Mark. If Matthew and Luke are already in existence, what requirement is there for Mark? A related problem exists in Mark's intention in editing the other Synoptics.

     The probability that Mark was using Matthew and Luke is the probability that an                         author will very successfully carry through a complex programme of choice and rejec-                  tion to no apparent advantage (O'Neill, p. 274).

Also, similar to Augustine's proposal, the Griesbach Hypothesis only answers for similarities between the Synoptics and does not offer a credible explanation for the differences.

Documentary Theories Involving Hypothetical Documents

Several documentary theories are dependent on the priority of Mark's Gospel. Mark has been determined to be the earliest of the Gospels as a result of literary studies. He has been said to use more Aramaisms than the other Synoptics, but as Thomas and Gundry point out, "according to most standards of judgment, Matthew is more Semitic than Mark" (Thomas, p. 262). Mark is also considered primitive because of particular word usage. The Greek word kurie ("lord") is used only once in Mark, but sixteen times in Luke, and nineteen times in Matthew. Because of their frequent use of kurie Matthew and Luke are considered to be more reverential in tone than Mark. But if Matthew's nineteen occurrences are looked up, it will be noticed that seven of his uses of kurie are referring to common men (Matt 13:27; 21:30; 25:11,20,24; 27:63). It is difficult to use this type of literary evidence as proof of priority. Another reason used to determine Marcan priority is linked to the dependence of the other Synoptics. When Matthew and Luke separate from Mark they are not in agreement with each other. This is used to prove the dependence of Luke and Matthew upon Mark. It is assumed that since Matthew and Luke generally are in agreement where they are using material common to Mark, these are the places where they used Mark, and possibly other source material. The places where Matthew and Luke diverge are understood to be taken from sources not common to both Matthew and Luke. Although it is generally agreed upon that where Matthew and Luke follow Mark they are in agreement, "we rarely find more than eight words the same in the same order in any one sentence" (O'Neill, p. 280). If Mark is prior, and Matthew and Luke are basing their Gospels on his, there needs to be some explanation for the great differences in word order.

Some scholars believe that there was a Gospel prior to Mark "which was called Urmarcus because, when it was reconstructed from passages common to all three Synoptics, it naturally looked more like Mark than the other two" (Farmer, p.1204). All three Synoptics are thought to have copied from this proto-Gospel, with Mark having followed it most closely.

Although Marcan priority is generally accepted among both liberal and conservative scholars, there are a number of detractors. Stoldt, in no uncertain terms, declares that the Marcan hypothesis is "demonstrably false" (p. 227). Farmer claims that "the priority of our canonical Mark has never been proved. The consensus in its favor developed not only in the absence of sound evidence but in spite of clear scientific objections to it" (p. 1206). Dyer is convinced that:

     The presupposition of Marcan priority cannot be proven by a careful study of the                        three Gospels. Such a presupposition is based primarily on an evolutionary bias which                  believes the shortest and least extensive Gospel must be the first with the other Gospels                being later embellishments of that early account. This is a tenuous assumption (p. 240).

From the evidence both for and against Marcan priority, it is difficult to determine which is correct. The facts can go either way, and normally lean toward preconceived biases on either side of the issue.

Another fundamental ingredient for most documentary theories involves additional source material, which is mostly hypothetical. Neither conservative scholars, nor liberal, have trouble with the idea that the Gospel writers used sources. But the conservative and critical scholar differ on what they mean by sources. The conservative means that the Gospel writers may have interviewed eyewitnesses, or used official documents, such as Temple records to supplement their material. The liberal scholar understands that the sources used were extensive, making up a vast amount of the Gospel material. The critical view relegates the Gospel writers to the status of simply skilled editors, not inspired authors (Dyer, p. 241).

Most scholars agree that Matthew and Luke used Mark as their primary document, along with a source that has been labeled Q. Neirynch stresses that Q is a subsidiary hypothesis to Marcan priority (in Dungan, p. 4). The Q document is believed to be a source that was used by both Matthew and Luke, in addition to Mark's Gospel, to form their finished works. Guthrie states that "the Mark-Q theory may be regarded as the basic element in modern source criticism of the synoptic gospels" (p. 147). Yet, O'Neill claims that "it is unlikely that the material common to Matthew and Luke ever existed in one connected document, for they almost never set down the paragraphs they share in the same order" (p. 284). In the four-source theory, Q is accepted as a source, as well as the hypothetical sources M and L. This theory allows for Matthew and Luke to both be dependent on Mark and Q, with Matthew and Luke having their own personal sources that the other does not share (M,L, respectively). One of the most serious arguments against these various source theories is the absence of any extant sources.

     No one has yet produced a copy of Q, M, or L. If these sources were so well known                 and highly respected that they were used by the Gospel writers, one can well wonder                  why no trace of them can be found while other apocryphal gospels (which are far infer-                ior) managed to survive (Dyer, p. 241).

While these sources are questionable, they are still valid hypotheses as to the origins of much of the Gospel material.

Another hypothetical source is that of a Hebrew or Aramaic Gospel which all three Synoptists translated independently (O'Neill, p. 281). This source is directly related to the Primitive Gospel Theory. This theory explains both the similarities and differences in the Synoptics by showing that no two translators are going to agree word for word. O'Neill believes that this is the easiest way to explain the Synoptic Problem (p. 273). To explain the unique material in the Synoptics this theory uses a complex argument that seems highly improbable.

The Collection Theory attempts to solve the Synoptic Problem by a hypothetical source of Gospel tradition that existed in the early church. Schleiermacher believed that these fragments of tradition grew until they were assimilated into the Synoptic Gospels (in Carson, p. 29). This theory is not widely held today.

The two-source theory is the most popular hypothesis today. Although Thiessen believes that this theory is disin- tegrating, that hardly appears to be the case (p. 109). This theory "rests on two foundational pillars--the priority of Mark and the existence of Q" (Dyer, p. 237). Both Matthew and Luke are understood to have used Mark as a basic source document, as well as the hypothetical sayings source Q. Q could possibly have been simply an oral source, or it might have been a written collection. This helps to explain similarities, but does not fare well in explaining differences. To account for the differences "Q became not a single source but a multiplication of sources" (Guthrie, p. 147). Thiessen gives five basic criticisms against the two-source theory:

(1) It is based upon an unproved theory of development;

(2) It is prima facie improbable that a Gospel like Mark's would be treated in the manner supposed;

(3) The very existence and nature of the so-called "Q" is uncertain;

(4) There is no reason for supposing that Matthew and Luke cannot have written independently;

(5) The priority of Mark was "discovered" just at the time when the Bible was losing its age-long

position and prestige as the infallible Word of God.

Although Thiessen's fifth point is somewhat subjective, the other four are valid criticisms against the two-source theory. They do not destroy the hypothesis, but they do warrant serious consideration. Still, it must be acknowledged that according to many scholars "the two-source theory remains the best general explanation of the data" (Carson, p. 32).

The four-source theory accepts Marcan priority and the hypothetical sources Q, M, and L. By using these three sources, plus Mark, the similarities and differences in the Synoptics are supposed to be explained (Dyer, p. 238). This theory was developed to account for the differences and similarities that the two-source theory was not able to explain. This has also led to problems because it postulates three sources that are not extant in any form, rather than only one. There have also been many variations of the four-source theory, some of them quite complicated.

Of the documentary theories involving hypothetical documents, the two-source theory remains the most dominant.

Non-Documentary Theories

One of the most popular non-documentary hypotheses is the theory of Independent Development. This view holds that each Gospel writer was independently inspired by God to write the words that he wrote. It does not deny that there were at least some sources used, as Luke testifies to (1:1-4), but at the same time God worked with each author to produce what He wanted each author to communicate. Matthew, Mark, and Luke, had no reason to depend on each other, or hypothetical sources, they depended completely on God. This view has a high regard for Scripture and gives full credit to God. One weakness of this view is that it tends to overlook the obvious differences of personality of each Gospel writer and can lead to a view of mechanical dictation which is obviously not correct. This view also tends to neglect the differences that are found in parallel accounts.

The Interdependent Theory holds that Matthew, Mark, and Luke not only were in contact with each other, but they worked together to produce their Gospels. Each writer was able to help the other two with details known only to him. In this way they supplemented each others material. The similarities in the Synoptics come from their acquaintance, and the differences came from personal emphases.

The Oral Gospel Theory understands that a fixed oral tradition of the sayings of Jesus developed in the early church. The Apostles repeated Jesus' words and they were memorized by the early Christians. Another important part of this view is the understanding that Jesus repeated the same message on a number of occasions (Dyer, p. 234). Although this theory does not depend on written sources it is dependent on the memories of those who have transmitted the Gospel story. The oral gospel was in a fixed form or liturgy that was recited by the people. Wenham asserts that "the gospels were produced in a society where much learning was acquired by rote, and they were produced for communities who were trying to propagate the common teaching of the apostolic church" (p. 51). It would not be unusual for this type of oral teaching to be prevalent in the culture of the Gospel writers.

Westcott gives the following arguments for the Oral Gospel Theory (in Thiessen, p. 106):

(1) The language of Luke's preface points clearly to an oral tradition as the source of his

own Gospel, and by implication of the corresponding parts in the other Gospels;

(2) The oral hypothesis is most consistent with the general habit of the Jews and the peculiar

position of the Apostles;

(3) It is supported by the earliest direct testimony, and in some degree is implied in the Apostolic


(4) An oral source is pointed to by the internal character of the Gospels.

This theory explains the similarities of the Synoptics but not the differences. It also is weak in its explanation of material that is unique to only one, or two Gospels. It does stress the likelihood that Jesus' teachings and deeds were preserved orally which is consistent with what is known about this ancient culture.


After studying the Synoptic Problem it has to be admitted that it remains a problem. There are many possible, and even probable solutions, but none are perfect. It must be remembered that the Synoptic Problem is more a problem of understanding than it is an issue of faith. It is something that Christian minds are forced to wrestle with, and should wrestle with, but it is not a factor in our ultimate destiny.

How the Synoptics came to be in their present form remains a mystery. What is known is that these Gospels originated with, and are authenticated by God, regardless of the methodology used to compose them.


Carson, D.A.; Moo, Douglas J.; Morris, Leon. An Introduction to the New Testament. Grand         Rapids: Zondervan, 1992.

Dungan, David L., ed. The Interrelations of the Gospels: A Symposium. Macon, GA: Mercer        University Press, 1990.

Dyer, Charles H. "Do the Synoptics Depend on Each Other?" Bibliotheca Sacra 138 (1981):         230-245.

Elliot, J.K. "The Synoptic Problem and the Laws of Tradition: A Cautionary Note." The             Expository Times 82 (1971):148-152.

Farmer, William R. "The Synoptic Problem and the Contemporary Theological Chaos."               Christian Century 83 (5 Oct. 1966): 1204-1206.

Guthrie, Donald. New Testament Introduction. 4th ed. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press,         1990.

House, H. Wayne. Chronological and Background Charts of the New Testament. Grand               Rapids: Zondervan, 1981.

Kloppenborg, John S. and Vaage, Leif E., eds. Early Christianity, Q and Jesus. Atlanta, GA:           Scholars Press, 1992.

Linnemann, Eta. Is There A Synoptic Problem?: Rethinking the Literary Dependence of the           First Three Gospels. Tr. by Robert W. Yarbrough. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House,             1992.

Morris, Leon. Luke. 2nd ed. Tyndale N.T. Commentaries, 3. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989.

O'Neill, J.C. "The Synoptic Problem." New Testament Studies 21 (1975): 273-285.

Pinnock, Clark H. "Gospels." Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible. (1975)                         2:784-789.

Sanders, E.P. "The Overlaps of Mark and Q and the Synoptic Problem." New Testament             Studies 19 (1973): 453-465.

Stein, Robert H. The Synoptic Problem: An Introduction. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House,        1987.

Stoldt, Hans-Herbert. History and Criticism of the Marcan Hypothesis. Tr. and ed. by                   Donald L. Niewyk. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1980.

Stonehouse, Ned B. Origins of the Synoptic Gospels: Some Basic Questions. Grand                      Rapids:Baker Book House, 1963.

Streeter, B.H. The Four Gospels: A Study of Origins. 2nd. ed. London: Macmillan, 1930.

Thiessen, Henry C. Introduction to the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1943.

Thomas, Robert L. and Gundry, Stanley N., eds. The NIV Harmony of the Gospels. San                 Francisco: Harper and Row, 1988.

Wenham, John. Redating Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press,           1992.