The Synoptic “Problem”
Dr. Matthew R. Anderson
In a nutshell
The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke share a literary
Synoptic = syn + optic
Synoptic = together + see (seen together)
Shared Gospel Material
Many of the same words
Much the same vocabulary (identical often)
Often the same order of pericopes or text units (ie the
healing of the man will follow the walking on the water etc).
the same way of telling the Jesus story (ie Jesus speaks in
parables and aphorisms, conducts healings, and goes to
Jerusalem only at the end of his life)
The Gospel of John, on the other hand, uses an entirely
different approach, with little account of Jesus’ teachings and
few parables, but many more long speeches
Conclusion: someone was “cribbing”!
The three Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke are so close to
each other in subject, in words and even in word order, that
there is NO doubt that one or two of the writers were copying
Thus = literary relationship
“problem” = “puzzle”
The so-called synoptic problem is really only a problem for
those who examine the canonical Gospels critically and from
a literary-historical point of view.
Which came first: Matthew, Mark, or Luke? And who copied
It’s not a problem so much as a “synoptic puzzle”!
The Synoptic Puzzle and Source
The synoptic puzzle depends on the fact (not a theory, but a fact, as Luke’s prologue 1:1-
4 indicates) that the Gospel writers used sources.
“source criticism” is the attempt to determine from the final version of a document what
were the sources that went into it.
1/ that there were oral traditions that circulated about Jesus right from the beginning;
2/ that the first written Gospels, or theologically motivated and written accounts of Jesus’
life and significance did not appear until about 40 years after his death (in other words,
well after the letters of Paul); and
3/ that like all biographies ancient and modern, some material will be left out (see John’s
statement at John 21:25); and
4/ all gospels had a theological and evangelical purpose (see Mark’s opening
statement) rather more than an historical one; and
5/ of the synoptic Gospels of Mt, Mk, and Lk, that at last one and probably two of them
used another as a source.
Theories of literary dependence
There were, and remain, a large number of different theories
that can be used to explain the literary relationships between
Mt, Mk and Luke.
Most of the older, 18th and 19th century theories have been
largely abandoned and the “Two-Source/Four Source” theory
of Markan priority is the most commonly held
However, in recent years there are several new attempts to
explain the relationship. The “Farrer Theory”, for instance,
dispenses with Q by stating that Luke used both Mt and Mk
For a good web-based introduction, see:
The Two Source/Four Source
Priority of Mark (meaning, Mt and Lk copied Mark)
Existence of a common Mt-Lk written source called “Q” (from
German for “Quelle”, or “source”
Why? Because Mt and Lk share material that Mark doesn’t
Arguments for Markan priority
Argument from order:
When Mt and Lk disagree with the order of pericopes (text units)
in Mark, they almost never agree with each other. In other words,
either Mt or Lk, and often both, agree with the Markan order, but
they never differ from that order in agreement with each other.
Argument from the length of the individual units.
Mark is the shortest Gospel but only because it has the fewest
accounts/stories. When each individual story is itself examined,
Mark’s is usually longer than either Matthew’s or Luke’s, evidence
perhaps of their editing Mark “down”
Arguments for Markan priority
Argument from Mark’s language
Mark’s Greek style and language are poorer than either Mt or Lk.
While it’s easy to imagine Mt and Lk improving on Mark while
editing his Gospel, it’s hard to imagine Mk editing something and
making it worse
Argument from sheer content
95 % of the Gospel of Mark appears in either or both of Mt or Lk,
meaning there are fewer than 30 verses that appear in Mk alone.
Neither Mt or Lk have this much overlap.
Mark’s use of Aramaic terms (ie Mk 5:41) by itself is weak
evidence for his priority, but perhaps indicates that he is
closer in time to the Aramaic original, oral Gospel
What is “Q”?
A hypothetical written source that Mt and Lk used. Hypothetical
because no one has ever seen it apart from the common
material in Mt and Lk.
Identical wording in both Mt and Lk in many cases
Identical order of sayings in some cases in Mt and Lk
Characteristics of “Q”:
About 200 verses of material
Almost all of this material consists of sayings, not stories
That there could have been this kind of genre received a boost
as a theory when Gospel of Thomas discovered in 1945
The two source and “four source”
Because there is material in both Mt and Lk that cannot be
traced back to either Mark or “Q”, scholars have now made
the “two source theory” somewhat more complicated
Depending on the scholar there are now “4” source and other
Other scholars will agree with Markan priority but will not be
so hopeful or presume as much about “Q” (see “Farrer
But for this class the most important things to remember are:
Most modern scholarship presumes Markan priority
Most scholars accept some form of “Q” even while knowing
that it cannot be completely defined
Most scholars believe that there were other sources, certainly
oral and perhaps written, that went into the writing of the
Many scholars believe that there were both oral and written
sources that went into Mark as well