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Synoptic Problem

The Oxford Companion to the Bible What is This? Provides authoritative interpretive entries on Biblical people, places, beliefs, events, and secular influences.

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    Synoptic Problem

    The synoptic Gospels are those of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. They are called “synoptic” (“seen together”) because of their close similarities, which enable the texts to be set out in parallel for comparison. It is generally agreed that there is a literary relationship among them, but the phenomena are complex and judgments on them are conflicting. Dominant in modern critical scholarship is the Two Document Hypothesis (TDH), namely, that Mark was the first gospel and was one of two sources used by both Matthew and Luke, the other being “Q” (German Quelle, “source”). But the TDH has not shaken off challenges from the older view that the earliest gospel was that of Matthew.

    All four Gospels reflect a common tradition about Jesus. But John is sharply distinguished—in style and wording, structure, and especially theological emphasis. It may show knowledge of the synoptics; but the “Johannine problem” is a separate one. This article will summarize the synoptic phenomena, the leading hypotheses, and the main arguments. For a detailed study, readers should use one of the various synopses or harmonies that print the texts in parallel columns and highlight the verbal similarities by positioning the words skillfully or using distinctive type or colors. They are available in Greek and in translation; some include John as well as the synoptics. Details of content and order can be checked by reference to their analytic index.

    The Phenomena.

    It is convenient to take the shortest gospel (Mark) as the norm, and use words like “agree” and “omit” when making comparisons, but the question of relative priority must not be prejudged thereby.


    It has been calculated that of Mark's 661 verses all except 31 (six sections or pericopes) are paralleled—over 600 in Matthew and at least 350 in Luke. There are some 200 verses common to Matthew and Luke, but absent from Mark. These are commonly labelled “Q material,” but some scholars restrict the symbol “Q” to the hypothetical source. “M” and “L” are used to denote material peculiar (or special) to Matthew and Luke.

    Structure and order.

    Mark's structure is simple: John the Baptist, Jesus' baptism and temptation, his Galilean ministry, the journey to Judea, and the climax in Jerusalem, culminating with the narrative of the passion and the discovery of the empty tomb.

    Matthew and Luke share this framework, with some differences. Both preface their works with infancy narratives (but these are strikingly different) and conclude with appearances of the risen Christ (again, very different). Both have much non‐Marcan material. Matthew inserts most of his Q and M material in five blocks of discourse at appropriate points, the most notable being the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5–7). Luke omits Mark 6.45–8.26 (his “great omission”) and concentrates Q and L material into two sections (6.20–8.3; 9.51–18.14), dubbed his “lesser” and “greater interpolations.” The latter begins at the point where Jesus sets out for Judea (Luke's route is different), and is called his “travel narrative.”

    Luke scarcely deviates from Mark's order in his closer parallels, though he makes omissions. But he has a number of remote parallels, remote both in context and in substance (4.16–30; 5.1–11; 11.17–23; 13.18–19; 22.24–30); this group plays a significant part in synoptic criticism. Luke's passion narrative raises special problems: much of it resembles Mark, much differs strikingly.

    Matthew follows Mark's order from Mark 6.14 onward, but his earlier chapters contain an almost unbroken sequence of miracle stories (8.1–9.34), some of which occur elsewhere in Mark.

    Mark's order is always supported by at least one of the others; that is, Matthew and Luke never agree against Mark with respect to the order of the pericopes. To this there are only tiny exceptions.

    The order of the Q material is harder to define; much of it comes in different places in Matthew and Luke. Nevertheless, of 23 pericopes some 13 come in the same relative order. For the first two of these (John's preaching and Jesus' temptations), the Marcan framework supplies a fixed place. But after that, Matthew and Luke never again coincide in choosing the same Marcan context for the same piece of Q material. Any Q order is thus distinguishable from the Marcan order.


    Select list of representative passages:

     I. ——— 1.23–26 4.33–35
    9.6 2.10 5.24
    16.24–28 8.34–9.1 9.23–27
    21.12–13 11.15–17 19.45–46
     II. 17.1–8 9.2–8 9.28–36
    28.1–8 16.1–8 24.1–9
    III. 16.13–15 8.27–29 9.18–20
    22.23 12.8 20.27
    IV. 11.2–22 ——— 7.18–35;10.13–15, 21–22
    V. 10.34–36 ——— 12.51–53
    22.2–14 ——— 14.6–24

    Verbal similarity varies greatly: from near identity in groups I and IV to a low degree in II and V. It is in group IV, that is, non‐Marcan passages, that the highest degree of sustained identity occurs. We have, then, the paradox (aptly named “the Marcan cross‐factor”) that, whereas the presence of a passage in Mark makes agreement in order more likely, identity of wording is most striking in some Q passages, that is, passages absent from Mark.

    In Marcan passages, wording tends to follow the same pattern as order: it is exceptional to find Matthew and Luke in agreement against Mark. But there are exceptions, dubbed “the minor agreements,” a label that must not be allowed to disguise their importance and extent. Very different are Luke's remote parallels; they provide the major agreements with Matthew, which heavily outweigh Luke's agreement with Mark.

    The examples in groups I and IV put it beyond reasonable doubt that the Gospels have some close literary connection, and those in III put it beyond any doubt whatever that the connection is in Greek, since the identity extends to the Greek syntax and sentence structure. Only here does Mark use the accusative and infinitive construction for indirect statement—a construction used in these passages by all three Gospels. Notice especially that Mark 8.28 and Luke 9.19 both switch to the alternative construction, with the conjunction “that” at precisely the same point.

    Leading Hypotheses.

    Independent knowledge of a common tradition and independent translation from Hebrew or Aramaic originals have doubtless contributed to the synoptic Gospels. But neither will suffice as a hypothesis to account for the close similarities. Equally inadequate is the hypothesis supported at one time that all the synoptics draw on a single basic gospel; this fails to account for the Marcan cross‐factor.

    Leaving aside more complicated reconstructions, we may pick out three hypotheses that have had wide support and do justice to many of the phenomena. For the first two the earliest gospel is Matthew, for the third it is Mark.

    The hypothesis of Augustine

    (AH) put the gospels in their canonical order; Mark is an abbreviation of Matthew, and Luke writes with knowledge of both. AH has had backing from ecclesiastical authority; in modern times it has been powerfully advocated by, for example, B. C. Butler and, more recently, by John Wenham. A modified form of it assigns priority to an Aramaic Matthew, used by Mark, but allows that Mark influenced our Greek Matthew. The arguments about relative priority are summarized below. But even if the direct arguments for Marcan priority are dismissed, AH has difficulty with the Marcan cross‐factor.

    The hypothesis of J. J. Griesbach

    (1789) (GH) was accepted in the nineteenth century and revived in modern times by William R. Farmer, Bernard Orchard, and others: the order is Matthew, Luke, Mark; Mark, the latest, utilizes both Matthew and Luke, sometimes preferring one and sometimes the other. Arguments for and against GH are summarized below.

    The Two‐Document hypothesis

    (TDH), widely accepted by modern scholars, holds that the two documents, namely Mark and Q, were utilized independently by Matthew and Luke. B. H. Streeter gave classical expression to it in English (1924), along with some refinements, especially that L and Q had already been combined in Proto‐Luke before the Marcan material was added; a full discussion would require detailed examination of the passion narratives. Other variants of TDH are that one document was an earlier edition of Mark (“Ur‐Markus”) and that the Q material comes from more than one document.

    Leading Arguments.

    The only second‐century statements about the Gospels early enough to have any weight are the traditions transmitted through Papias (Eusebius, Hist. Eccl. 3.39): that Matthew “composed the oracles in Hebrew,” and that Mark reproduced the firsthand testimony of Peter. This evidence is obscure (what are “the oracles”?—one speculation among many is that the original reference might be to Q) and also ambivalent. Argument must therefore rest on the internal evidence of the Gospels.

    The main arguments for Marcan priority.

    The priority of Mark, advocated since the eighteenth century, came to be hailed as the one assured result of criticism. That claim was excessive, but though challenged it has retained majority support.


    Mark is the shortest gospel, and omits much striking teaching; if the author had been drawing on Matthew and Luke, would he have omitted Matthew's Sermon (chaps. 5–7), and Luke's most famous parables?


    Mark is rich in circumstantial detail, and has a vividness compatible with eyewitness testimony (e.g., 2.2–4; 4.35–8). Matthew is less vivid; although his accounts sometimes include extra points of substance, these often look like insertions of alien material (e.g., 15.12–14; 16.17–19).


    When variations in language are examined, it is usually easy to suggest why Matthew or Luke might want to alter Mark: to improve the Greek, to eliminate criticism of disciples (Mark 10.35) or apparent disrespect toward Jesus (4.38; 10.18), to simplify or clarify (8.21; 9.12–13). Sometimes a distortion or improbability is introduced (Matthew 9.18; Luke 8.51); and sometimes—a weighty argument—Matthew retains a Marcan phrase incompatible with a change he has made, and thus betrays knowledge of Mark (Matt. 14.9; cf. 14.5).

    General character.

    These arguments have considerable force, for example, from Christology, Matthew's apologetic and ecclesiastical interests, and Luke's literary quality. But not every passage points the same way; discussion would be lengthy and inconclusive.


    These arguments are both controversial and important. Because Mark's order is always supported by at least one of the others, many have argued that Mark's priority is immediately proved. But that is not so: the same formal relationships could result if Mark were the middle or last of the three. But the argument gains weight when combined with the Marcan cross‐factor: why should Luke (according to AH) sometimes follow Matthew's wording slavishly but not his order, and at other times his order but not his wording? Or why should Mark (according to GH) omit just those verses where Matthew and Luke are almost identical (see especially Matt. 12.27–28, 30)?

    The case for Q.

    The simplest explanation of similarities in so‐called Q material is direct use of Matthew by Luke, or vice versa. But to this there are two series of objections, and these ipso facto constitute arguments for the alternative explanation, a common source (or sources) used independently by both—in other words, the case for Q.

    If Matthew is Luke's source, there seems to be no commonsense explanation for his order and procedure. True, it is possible to suggest interesting and subtle—perhaps overly subtle—reasons why he might rearrange material to bring out his distinctive themes. But the question remains, why should he do so for only part of the time, or adhere most closely to wording when he is showing least respect for order?

    If Luke were Matthew's source, this difficulty would be less acute, for Matthew seems in any case to conflate and rearrange his material. Advocates of Lucan priority have been few, though, and space forbids further discussion. The second objection would still hold.

    If one gospel were the source for the other, the older gospel would presumably be closer to the original wording, though arguments on relative originality are often disputed. Matthew's wording is often conceded to be the older; but there are a number of sayings where the verdict is commonly given in favor of Luke (e.g., 6.20; cf. Matt. 5.9)—and it must surely be Luke who gives the original setting for the parable of the lost sheep (15.2; cf. Matt. 18.10–14). Q accounts for these phenomena perfectly. True, it is hypothetical; but, in any case, Luke 1.1 is evidence that written documents now lost once existed.

    It should be noted that acceptance of Q does not rule out the further possibility that one evangelist may have known, and made some use of, the other gospel.


    First, Matthew seems to have been the best‐known gospel. Second, Matthew has a conspicuously Jewish and conservative character (see 5.17–20), in contrast with Mark's hints that the Law is no longer binding (e.g., 7.19, 27). Third, Mark sometimes is clearly abbreviating a fuller version (e.g., 1.8, 12–13). This may be in Q; it undoubtedly is in Matthew.

    Above all, there are the minor agreements of Matthew and Luke against Mark in passages where no appeal to Q can legitimately be made. Many can be explained away as obvious grammatical improvements, others as the result of textual corruptions. But some contain points of substance (not always in identical wording, e.g., Matt. 14.17; Luke 9.13), and these are too numerous to be lightly dismissed, especially if account is taken of negative agreements (i.e., agreements in omitting some Marcan words) and agreements in word order (see also below).

    The Griesbach hypothesis.

    According to GH, the minor agreements of Matthew and Luke, and the more frequent agreements of Mark with one or the other, are easily explained as the result of Mark's editorial activity.

    In some passages, Mark (e.g., 1.32) may be conflating Matthew and Luke; but there are none that demand this explanation.

    The fact that either Matthew or Luke always supports Mark's order can be construed as a strong argument for GH, since according to TDH there should be a statistical expectation that both of them, if acting independently, would sometimes coincidentally make a change at the same point. The statistics that result from a study of some 32 pericopes in Mark 1.16–6.44 are striking, particularly if it is assumed, per TDH, that the changes made by Matthew and Luke were random. But that would be unwarranted: Matthew's changes of order are a single operation, and create his sequence of miracle stories. Furthermore, Matthew and Luke do occasionally coincide in making the same omission.

    Against GH stand all the arguments given above for Marcan priority, including the strange procedure implied for Mark in, for example, 3.23–30. In addition, though, it faces extreme difficulty in supplying a credible reason why anyone, given Matthew and Luke, ever wrote Mark.

    Concluding Comments.

    AH, GH, and TDH all meet the conditions that there must be a literary connection between the Greek texts, and that Mark has a position in the middle: chronologically (AH), or a pendant from Matthew and Luke (GH), or a peg from which both hang (TDH). Both AH and GH have difficulty in meeting the strong arguments for Marcan priority, which remain strong even if Q stands under question.

    TDH is more satisfactory. Q is hypothetical and might be one source or many; though embarrassing, this is not a fatal objection. The chief difficulty comes from the minor agreements, only partially met by appeal to linguistic improvements and textual corrections. Some further explanation seems necessary, and can be only be speculative—an alternative parallel tradition, or even secondary knowledge and use of, say, Matthew by Luke. The once‐popular “Ur‐Markus” theory unfortunately fails to account for the fact that Matthew's and Luke's changes are often improvements.

    If none of this is acceptable, the remaining possibility is that a plurality of documents were used and combined in successive stages. Such theses are complicated and speculative, hard either to establish or to disprove. The synoptic “problem” therefore remains.

    G. M. Styler

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