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.


See also