The Synoptic Problem is the study of the similarities and differences among the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) in an attempt to explain their literary relationship: The problem arises from the observation that the first three of the four canonical Gospels can be viewed together (syn-optic) in a synopsis, a book that sets them out in parallel columns like this:

Matthew 9:9 Mark 2:14 Luke 5:27
And having passed on from there, Jesus saw a man seated in the tax-office, named Matthew, and he says to him, ‘Follow me.’ And

having arisen, he followed him.
And having passed on he saw Levi son of Alphaeus seated in the tax-office, and he says to him, ‘Follow me.’ And having arisen, he followed him. And he saw a tax-collector named Levi seated in the tax-office, and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And having left everything and having arisen, he followed him.

In contrast with John’s Gospel, the synoptics often have similar wording, and they often show a parallel order of events. These similarities are so great that they demand some kind of literary explanation. One or more of the evangelists has been copying from one or more of the others, or from their source material. The synoptic problem is therefore a subset of source criticism of the New Testament. As well as a fascinating literary puzzle, it asks key historical questions for the study of Christian origins, and is foundational for related tasks including the dating of the Gospels, redaction criticism, and historical Jesus research.

History and Hypotheses.

The father of the study of the synoptic problem is Johann Jakob Griesbach who produced the first Synopsis of the Gospels in 1776. Griesbach followed his construction of this synopsis with a critical theory on the composition of the Synoptics in 1789. Griesbach’s theory was that Mark was the third Gospel to have been written and that its author used both Matthew and Luke in his composition. The theory was popular for much of the nineteenth century, and it had the advantage of cohering with the patristic view that Matthew’s Gospel was the first to have been written.

Synoptic Problem

Figure 1. Griesbach Theory.

By the end of the nineteenth century, however, another theory was ascendant. The Two-Source Theory is founded on the idea that Mark was the first Gospel to have been written and that Matthew and Luke used it independently. This theory also appeals to a hypothetical document known as “Q,” derived from the German word Quelle, “source.”

Synoptic Problem

Figure 2. The Two-Source Theory.

This theory, according to which Matthew and Luke independently draw on the “two sources” Mark and Q, was so popular in the twentieth century that many scholars regarded the synoptic problem as having been solved. The Two Source Theory (also known as the Two Document Hypothesis) is still sometimes used as the sole means by which synoptic source issues are discussed.

One of the key contributions on the synoptic problem in the twentieth century was made by B. H. Streeter, whose Four Gospels (Streeter 1924) argued not only for Matthew’s and Luke’s use of Mark and Q but also for Matthew’s use of a source called “M” and Luke’s use of a source called “L.” This modification of the Two-Source Theory is known as the Four-Source Theory (or Four Document Hypothesis).

Synoptic Problem

Figure 3. The Four-Source Theory.

While still popular, recent scholarship has become more sceptical about the existence of “M” and “L” as discrete documents. For Streeter and others, they were the sources for Matthew’s “special” (unique) material and for Luke’s “special” (unique) material respectively. However, contemporary scholars are more inclined to see Matthew’s and Luke’s special material as deriving from a range of sources, perhaps largely oral. Many also see this material as being particularly prone to influence from Matthew’s and Luke’s creative minds, not least given the presence of apparently legendary materials in Matthew’s special material (e.g. Pilate’s wife’s dream [Matt 27:19] and the saints rising from their tombs [Matt 27:51–53]) and distinctively Lucan themes in his special material (e.g. Luke 24:13–32, Road to Emmaus).

In spite of the popularity of the Two-Source Theory, there have always been vocal minorities championing other theories. Between the 1960s and the end of the twentieth century, a revival of the Griesbach theory, now renamed “The Two Gospel Hypothesis,” posed a significant challenge to the Two-Source Theory, especially in North American scholarship. The revival was associated especially with William R. Farmer who published his major book The Synoptic Problem in 1964. Although it kept the discussion of the synoptic problem open, it remained a minority view. Another popular alternative, especially in the United Kingdom, was the Farrer Theory, named after Oxford theologian Austin Farrer’s essay, “On Dispensing with Q” (Farrer 1955).

Synoptic Problem

Figure 4. The Farrer Theory.

In this theory, Matthew and Luke are dependent on Mark, as in the Two-Source Theory, but a direct line is drawn from Matthew to Luke. The suggestion is that if Luke also knew Matthew, then there is no need for the hypothetical Q. The exposition of this theory in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century is particularly associated with Michael Goulder and Mark Goodacre (Goulder 1989; Goodacre 2001; 2002).

A Literary Problem.

The synoptic problem emerges from the observation that the Synoptic Gospels have some kind of literary relationship. The order and wording of the synoptic passages is often so close that it is impossible that there is not some kind of literary link. In some passages there is almost one hundred percent verbatim agreement, as in this example from Matthew and Luke:

Matthew 3:7–10 Luke 3:7–9
Offspring of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Bear fruit therefore worthy of repentance and do not presume to say in yourselves, “We haveAbraham as father;” for I say to you that God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Already the axe is laid at the root of the trees; for every tree not producing good fruit is cut down and cast into the fire. Offspring of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Bear fruit therefore worthy of repentance and do not begin to say in yourselves, “We have Abraham as father;” for I say to you that God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Already the axe is laid at the root of the trees; for every tree not producing good fruit is cut down and cast into the fire.

Here, John the Baptist’s preaching is identical in the Greek of Matthew and Luke with only the words for “presume” and “begin” differing. This kind of literary agreement requires some kind of literary explanation; one evangelist is dependent on the other or both are dependent on a hypothetical source. They are not independently recounting words from the oral tradition.

It is telling that agreement between the synoptics also occurs in peculiar literary constructions, an example of which occurs in the healing of the Paralytic:

Matthew 9:6 Mark 2:10–11 Luke 5:24
“But in order that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on the earth to forgive sins,” then he says to the paralytic, “Arise, take up your bed and go to your house.” “But in order that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on the earth to forgive sins,” he says to the paralytic, “I say to you, Arise, take up your pallet and go to your house.” “But in order that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on the earth to forgive sins,” he said to the paralytic, “I say to you, Arise and take up your bed and return to your house.”

The Greek here is bizarre, almost clumsy. The sentence “In order that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on the earth to forgive sins…” is unfinished. The narrator intervenes before Jesus’s speech continues. This points to some kind of literary borrowing among the evangelists. Similarly telling are places where the evangelists agree on the same narrator’s comment, as when Matthew and Mark feature the identical narrator’s aside, “Let the reader understand” (Matt 24:15 // Mark 13:14), in their version of Jesus’s Apocalyptic Discourse, an aside that also draws attention to the literary nature of the speech. Further, the agreements in order between different synoptic passages often clearly point to a literary relationship.

The emphasis on the literary links between the synoptics might seem to contradict studies that recognize the importance of orality and memory in antiquity but a balanced understanding of the composition of the Gospels requires attention to both orality and literacy. In his preface, Luke appears to mention both those who have composed narratives and those who have communicated with him orally (Luke 1:1–4). Similarly, early patristic writers like Papias stress their knowledge of both the written text and the spoken word.

The Contours of the Problem.

Any attempt to solve the synoptic problem begins by analyzing the different sets of data that make up the Synoptic Gospels. Broadly speaking, there are four types of material: triple tradition, double tradition, special Matthew, and special Luke. The triple tradition is a large body of material consisting of passages found in all three synoptics. Examples include the Parable of the Sower (Mark 4:1–9 and parallels); the Feeding of the Five Thousand (Mark 6:30–44 and parallels); and much of the Passion Narrative (Mark 1415). It features more narrative than sayings material and most of Mark’s Gospel is made up of triple tradition material.

The double tradition material is made up of passages found in both Matthew and Luke but not in Mark. It is rich in sayings material and includes the Lord’s Prayer (Matt 6:9–13 // Luke 11:2–4), the Beatitudes (Matt 5:3–10 // Luke 6:20–23) and the Parable of the Talents / Pounds (Matt 25:14–30 // Luke 19:12–27).

Special Matthew is made up of passages unique to Matthew like the Parable of the Ten Virgins (Matt 25:1–13) and the Sheep and the Goats (Matt 25:31–46). Although it features a lot of sayings material, there are also narratives like the Coin in the Fish’s Mouth (Matt 17:24–27). Special Luke is made up of passages unique to Luke and it is rich in the kind of material that marks out Luke as the great storyteller of the New Testament such as the parables of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37) and Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11–32).

Although these categories are helpful ways to subdivide the data and to analyze the problem, it is important to note that there are also passages that blur these neat categories. Some material, like the Temptation of Jesus (Matt 4:1–11 // Mark 1:12–13 // Luke 4:1–13), might be described as halfway between double tradition and triple tradition in that the passage is present in all three Synoptics but the most extensive and substantial agreement occurs between Matthew and Luke.

In analyzing the data, one key factor emerges, that Mark is usually the “middle term.” Mark plays some kind of mediating role. We can see this in three ways. First, while Matthew and Luke have a lot of their own unique material, Mark has very little. Nearly everything in Mark’s Gospel is also found in Matthew, or Luke, or both. Second, in the material that they share, the triple tradition material, there are substantial agreements in wording and order between Matthew, Mark and Luke, between Mark and Luke, and between Mark and Matthew. There are only minor agreements between Matthew and Luke against Mark. In other words, where all three synoptics are present in a given periscope, Mark is usually the common denominator. Third, the order of the passages that make up the triple tradition is generally the same as the order of Mark’s Gospel. Where Matthew does diverge from Mark’s order, Luke generally follows it. Where Luke does diverge from Mark’s order, Matthew generally follows it.

Weighing the Solutions to the Problem.

Each of the major solutions to the synoptic problem attempts to explain the composition of the Synoptic Gospels on the basis of their readings of this data. The major strength of the Griesbach (Two Gospel) theory is that it provides a robust account of how Mark became the middle term. Advocates argue that it is no coincidence that Mark appears to mediate between Matthew and Luke—it is the product of Mark’s own conflation of the two Gospels he was working with. Thus he retains the order of Matthew and Luke where their order is the same but chooses one or the other of them when they diverge from one another. And his conflation is not only on the level of entire passages but also on the level of precise wording as in this example:

Matthew 8:16 Mark 1:32 Luke 4:40
That evening, they brought to him many who were possessed with demons; and he cast out the spirits with a word, and cured all who were sick. That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. As the sun was setting, all those who had any who were sick with various kinds of diseases brought them to him; and he laid his hands on each of them and cured them.

Here, Matthew parallels the first half of Mark’s setting, “That evening,” and Luke parallels the second half, “at sundown.” The Griesbach Theory suggests that this arises because Mark is conflating the two sources he has in front of him.

Advocates of the Griesbach Theory have struggled, however, to overturn the consensus viewpoint of Markan Priority (an element in both the Two-Source and Farrer Theories), according to which both Matthew and Luke used Mark. Several arguments have been put forward for Markan Priority, the strongest of which relate to additions and omissions of material, harder readings and editorial fatigue.

Omissions and Additions.

If Mark used Matthew and Luke, then he often omits material we might expect him to include, e.g. the Lord’s Prayer (Matt 6:9–13 // Luke 11:1–4), which appears congenial and would have found an ideal context at MARK 11:20–25. If, however, Mark was written first, it is much easier to imagine why Matthew and Luke omit the handful of verses that are unique to Mark. This unique Markan material includes the Healing of a Deaf Mute (Mark 7:33–36) and the Blind Man of Bethsaida (Mark 8:22–26). These difficult stories are much more likely to have been omitted by Matthew and Luke than added specially by Mark. Both healings have Jesus using spit, and the healing of the blind man is not instantaneous but takes time.

The difficulty relates to the confusing picture of Mark that emerges if he was the third evangelist rather than the first. He omits all of the double tradition material in spite of the fact that some of it seems congenial, and he goes out of his way to add one or two odd, primitive-looking passages.

Harder Readings.

Mark often has readings that would be difficult to explain as secondary to Matthew and Luke, but which are more straightforward to explain as Matthew’s and Luke’s modifications of Mark. In the story of the Rich Young Ruler, for example, Matthew appears to modify the potentially embarrassing implication in Mark that Jesus was not good:

Matthew 19:16–17 Mark 10:17–18
Then someone came to him and said, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good.” As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.”

An apparently minor redactional adjustment in Matthew reduces the potentially troubling Christological impact made by Mark.

Editorial Fatigue.

There are several examples of Matthew and Luke making characteristic changes to Mark in the earlier part of a passage, but failing to sustain these changes throughout, gradually lapsing into the wording of their source. The lapse creates a minor contradiction, and this phenomenon, labelled “editorial fatigue,” is a telltale sign of Markan Priority. In the Death of John the Baptist (Matt 14:1–12 // Mark 6:14–29), for example, Matthew begins by correctly calling Herod a “tetrarch” (14:1), only to lapse into calling him the less correct “king” ( 14:9), apparently reproducing Mark (6:26) who calls him “king” throughout. Similarly, Luke re-sets the scene for the Feeding of the Five Thousand (Mark 6:32–44 // Luke 9:10–17) in “a city called Bethsaida” (Luke 9:10) only to lapse into the Markan wording later, “We are here in a deserted place” (Luke 9:12, cf, Mark 6:35), which contradicts his new setting earlier in the passage. Examples like these only seem to occur in the one direction, in Matthew’s editing of Mark and Luke’s editing of Mark. It is very difficult to find possible examples that would make sense in the other direction.

If Markan Priority successfully explains the existence of the triple tradition material, the double material still requires explanation. According to the Two-Source Theory, Matthew and Luke used Mark independently of one another, so the high levels of agreement in the double tradition material necessitate the existence of the hypothetical source Q. The independence of Luke from Matthew is postulated on several grounds. The two most important arguments are those from order and from alternating primitivity.


Matthew’s Gospel is structured around five great discourses (Matt 5–7; 10; 13; 18; and 24–25). If Luke used Matthew, it is thought inexplicable that he would have ruined Matthew’s fine order, instead relocating the discourse material to different parts of his Gospel, much of it to his own large Central Section. Luke’s treatment of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5–7) is thought especially unlikely; if he knew Matthew, he has abbreviated it drastically (Luke 6:20–49), omitting some and redistributing the remainder. It is thought much more likely that Matthew and Luke are both working from Q, with Matthew doing a lot of relocating and reordering.

Alternating Primitivy.

It is argued that sometimes Matthew, and sometimes Luke has the more original form of the sayings that appear in the double tradition. This phenomenon only makes sense if Matthew and Luke are dependent on Q, and not if Luke is dependent on Matthew. The key example usually given of Luke’s greater primitivity is the first beatitude:

Matthew 5:3 Luke 6:20
Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of the heavens. Blessed are the poor for yours is the kingdom of God.

The Q beatitude must have read “Blessed are the poor,” which is more primitive than Matthew’s “spiritualized” version.

Advocates of the Farrer Theory suggest that these arguments have been overplayed. The question of Luke’s reordering of Matthew’s discourses makes sense in the light of the way that he treats Mark’s discourses too. Just as Luke abbreviates, omits, and redistributes elements from Mark 4 (the Parables chapter), so too he abbreviates, omits, and redistributes elements from Matthew’s discourses, which are sometimes very long. With respect to passages like the Beatitudes, it is just as straightforward to see Luke as secondary, not least given his well-known preference for the poor (cf. Luke 4:18) in eschatological reversal scenarios (cf. Luke 16:19–31).

One of the biggest difficulties for the Two-Source Theory, however, is the existence of many agreements between Matthew and Luke against Mark. If Matthew and Luke are independent of one another, there ought not to be so many non-Markan agreements in the triple tradition. Sometimes these are “minor agreements,” like the addition of five words in Matthew’s and Luke’s Passion narrative:

Matthew 26:67–68 Mark 14:65 Luke 22:64
Then they spat into his face, and struck him; and some slapped him, saying, “Prophesy to us, you Christ! Who is it that struck you?” And some began to spit on him, and to cover his face, and to strike him, saying to him, “Prophesy!” Now the men who were holding Jesus mocked him and beat him; they also blindfolded him and asked him, “Prophesy! Who is it that struck you?”

At other times, these are more major agreements, like the material about John the Baptist and Jesus in Matthew 3, Mark 1, and Luke 3. Q theorists explain the major agreements as examples of “overlap” between Mark and Q. The minor agreements are explained in a variety of ways, including coincidental redaction and textual assimilation.

Importance for Biblical Interpretation.

Study of the synoptic problem sheds light on the composition of the Gospels and is a key component in the discussion of the dates of the synoptics. A date for Mark’s Gospel during or after the Jewish War of 66–70, for example, necessitates dates also for Matthew and Luke in the post–70 period. Many feel that Mark’s Apocalyptic Discourse (Mark 13) shows signs of composition during or even after the Jewish War, especially given its focus on the destruction of the Temple (Mark 13:1–2), a theme that is repeated in Mark’s Passion Narrative (Mark 14:58 and 15:30). Matthew’s and Luke’s familiarity with Mark’s Gospel coheres with a post–70 date. Jesus’s lament over Jerusalem (Matt 23:37–39 // Luke 13:34–35) prophesies that the Temple will be forsaken, echoing similar themes in Josephus’ Jewish War. If Luke’s Gospel is the third of the three to have been written, his claim of “many” prior narratives (Luke 1:1) may also prove noteworthy here.

The synoptic problem has an especially close relationship with redaction criticism of the Gospels. Markan Priority has been foundational in the attempt to explicate Matthew and Luke’s distinctive perspectives. When redaction critics compare Matthew with Mark, they are able to point to modifications that Matthew has made which may illustrate a particular theological stance, as when he adds apparently legendary, apocalyptic imagery to Mark’s account of the death of Jesus:

Matt 27:50–54 Mark 15:37–39
And Jesus cried again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit. And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom; and the earth shook, and the rocks were split; the tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many. When the centurion and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were filled with awe, and said, “Truly this was the Son of God!”’ And Jesus uttered a loud cry, and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that he thus breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!”

If Matthew is using Mark, he has transformed the latter’s darkly mysterious scene with its solitary centurion so that it becomes a magnificent apocalyptic scenario with multiple witnesses of earth-shattering events.

Similarly, redaction critics draw attention to Luke’s modification of his Markan source material with a view to illustrating Luke’s special emphases. In the account of Jesus’s death, for example, Luke also has similarities and differences from Mark:

Mark 15:39 Luke 23:48
And when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that he thus breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!” Now when the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God, and said, “Certainly this man was innocent!” And all the multitudes who assembled to see the sight, when they saw what had taken place, returned home beating their breasts.

In contrast with Mark, Luke’s centurion, after having praised God (cf. 19:37; 24:53), declares Jesus “innocent” or “righteous” in line with a major theme in Luke’s Passion Narrative, in which Pilate (23:4, 14-15, 22) and even one of the thieves crucified with Jesus (23:41) similarly declare Jesus innocent of any crime.

The synoptic problem is also of major importance in the quest of the historical Jesus. Differing solutions to the problem have a major effect on scholarly judgments about the authenticity of different materials. Most historical Jesus scholars accept the theory of Markan Priority and show a general historical preference for his versions of triple tradition passages. The popular view that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet expecting the imminent restoration of the world and transformation of Israel rests in part on Mark’s presentation, which includes lines like “Some of those standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God coming with power” (Mark 9:1), a line modified in both Matthew (16:28) and Luke (9.27).

Q has also played a major role in Jesus research. The hypothetical document is often thought to have been one of the earliest Christian works and so a valuable witness to the earliest stage of the tradition, and a potentially useful source for the sayings of the historical Jesus. For scholars who emphasize the criterion of multiple attestation, traditions like the baptism of Jesus, which are alleged to have appeared in both Mark and Q (Matt 3:13–17, Mark 1:9–11, Luke 3:21), have particularly good claims to historicity. For some scholars, traditions witnessed in both Q and the Gospel of Thomas are especially valuable in life of Jesus research. Several of the beatitudes and the parables that are witnessed in both Q and Thomas take on a decisive importance. This kind of appeal, however, relies not only on the existence of Q but also on the theory of an early, independent Thomas, which is by no means the universal view of Jesus scholars.

Some historical Jesus scholars, recognizing the precarious nature of judgments on the synoptic problem, prefer to avoid engaging with it extensively while others underline the danger of applying Synoptic models in too wooden a way. The same caution can be expressed more generally in relation to other areas where the synoptic problem interacts with scholarship on Christian origins. Understanding the contours of the problem sheds light on the questions that Biblical scholars ask in a range of areas, and dogmatic positions are best avoided.



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Mark Goodacre