The Synoptic Problem

The so-called Synoptic Problem does not seem to be a problem at all, in the useful sense of the word.  It seems to me that a better title for this issue would be the Synoptic Production or the Synoptic Compilation.  Yet, the Synoptic Problem it remains, and Clements describes the matter by saying, “Even a quick reading of the four Gospels reveals that three of them (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) are alike, especially when contrasted with John.“ He goes on to say that these similar three are called “synoptic” for the very reason that they share a common view of the life, ministry, sayings, works, death and resurrection of Christ.  “A more detailed comparison, however,” says Clements, “reveals a wide variety of differences as well as similarities… From a literary point of view, these facts raise difficult questions. How did the Gospels originate? Did their authors use each other’s work, and did they have other materials available to them?”[1]

The problem, then, is in the mind of the form, source and redaction critics.  This is not to say that the questions are not interesting or worthy of our time, but the questions themselves are not problems.  However, some of the answers provided by the critics who ask these questions are problematic indeed.

In 1771 G. E. Lessing posited an explanation as to the similarities found among the Synoptic Gospels.  He suggested that there was a single Hebrew or Aramaic gospel already in circulation, which the Synoptic Gospel authors used as a source for their own.[2]  Later on, J. G. Herder, and later still J. K. L. Gieseler, theorized that the body of this original source was not written but “a relatively fixed oral summary of the life of Christ.”[3]  Then a theologian by the name of F. Schleiermacher argued that Papias’s (an early Christian bishop Hierapolis, in the Phrygian part of the Roman province of Asia[4]) ‘logia’ (his collection of teachings and sayings of early Christian elders – possibly as many as two disciples) made reference to one of several progressively developing written fragments, small pieces of gospel tradition, that eventually were subsumed into the Synoptic Gospels.[5]

Finally, though chronologically the earliest postulated explanation of the similarities, there is also the theory of Interdependence.  This solution to the synoptic problem asserts that two of the gospel writers used one or more of the other Synoptic Gospels in their own composition.  Advocates of this view are not forced to deny the use of another source(s) now lost, and maintain, “only borrowing at the final literary level can explain the degree of similarity among the Synoptic Gospels.”[6]  This interdependent view of the compilation of the Synoptic Gospels is nearly universally accepted among present-day New Testament scholars.

With a view toward the interdependence of the Synoptic Gospels there are three significant arrangements suggested as a pattern for production.  The Augustinian Proposal gets its name from St. Augustine, the legendary North African theologian, who first maintained it.  This patter begins with Matthew, then Mark borrowed from Matthew, and finally Luke borrowed from both Mark and Matthew.  Not only did the early Church believe that Matthew had originally written his gospel in Hebrew or Aramaic (based on an obscure quote from Papias),[7] but until the nineteenth century the Augustinian Proposal “was the standard view of those who saw a literary relationship among the Synoptic Gospels.”[8]

TheTwo-GospelHypothesis is another view towards a pattern of development.  J. J. Griesbach held that Matthew was indeed written first, but that Luke was second and then Mark pulled much of his gospel from both Matthew and Luke.[9]  This accounted for the vast similarities and almost verbatim quotes between Mark and Matthew, and Mark and Luke.

In contrast to the Two-Gospel Hypothesis, TheTwo-SourceHypothesis flips this pattern on its head.  This developmental system sees Mark as the pioneer gospel writer while Matthew and Luke drew from his work and another text independently from one another to pen their own gospels.  This other conceivable text is known only as ‘Q’, and it is perhaps a lost collection of Jesus’ sayings.[10]  The Two-Source Hypothesis perceives the similarities between Matthew and Luke, which are not shared by Mark, to be that material received from the mysterious ‘Q.’ Referring back to the earlier question of some possible written and/or oral gospel tradition, it is entirely plausible that ‘Q’ may be defined as some very early combination of both written and oral stories about and sayings from Jesus.

There is not unanimity concerning the theories above, but many do hold the Two-Source Hypothesis.  The postulation of Mark being the first gospel written does seem appealing for several reasons.

First, Mark is shorter and more abrupt than Matthew and Luke.  Mark’s brevity can have any number of causes, and shorter does not necessarily mean earlier.  Yet, because Matthew and Luke both contain much of Mark, it seems hardly worth the time for Mark to write the gospel he did if he did so after the other two.  Quoting G. M. Styler, “Given Mark, it is easy to see why Matthew was written; given Matthew, it is hard to see why Mark was needed.”[11]

Second, Matthew and Luke often agree with Mark when there are areas of similarity, but Matthew and Luke agree less frequently.  This makes sense best if we see Mark as the available text to each of the other two authors as they wrote independent from one another.[12]

Third, Mark’s gospel has more of an awkward style and a greater number of Aramaic expressions than do Matthew or Luke.  The reason that this is an argument for the earlier writing of Mark is that it would seem inconceivable that an author would take material from a smooth format and break it up.  Rather, the opposite is what an author would do, and this plausible authorial process fits better with a view from Mark to the others instead of Mark from the others.  Additionally, the Aramaic expressions in Mark are translated to the Greek culture or eliminated altogether in Matthew and Luke.  It simply does not make sense that Mark would pull an expression back from its translated context or insert it in the material already well written.  These three individually nudge one in the direction of accepting Mark’s earlier authorship than the other two Synoptic authors, but collectively they seem to unavoidably point to an earlier arrival of Mark.

I have already “tipped my hand,” as it were, in this last paragraph.  My position is that of the Two-Source Hypothesis.  It seem most plausible to me that Mark was written first, and that all three Synoptic Gospel authors were familiar with gospel traditions that were included in their works.  These gospel traditions were certainly oral, and many of them were likely contained in some written form (possibly ‘Q’) as well.[13]

There are no doubt questions that this hypothesis does not answer, and there are men smarter than me who hold another view.  However, ultimately the answers to these questions are that God superintended the development of these documents through His sovereignty and providence.

Divine inspiration of Scripture is not to be confused with automatic writing, dictation, or any other obliteration of human authorship.  In fact, the beauty of God’s word is that it comes through the means of such common instrumentality.  Historical developments, culture, personal research, education, life experiences, and a host of other influences came to bear on the gospel writers, but none of these stifled the divine revelation they conveyed as they themselves were being carried along by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:21).

I agree wholeheartedly with Clements when he says, “Scholarly work on history and literature should therefore not be despised, since it often sheds light on the text. On the other hand, our confidence in the truth of Scripture does not rest on the ability of specialists to sort out literary problems, but on God’s power to fulfill His promises (Is. 55: 10,11; 2 Tim. 3: 16,17). “[14]


[1] Clements, Don K. New Geneva Introduction to the New Testament. Edited by R. C. Sproul. Narrows, VA: Metokos Press, 2006.

[2] Carson, D. A., Douglas J. Moo, and Leon Morris. An Introduction to the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992.  89.

[3] Ibid.  90.

[4] Lovell, Graham Davis. “Papias on Mark and Matthew.” Papias on Mark and Matthew. May 25, 2012. http://newtestamenthistory.blogspot.com/2012/05/papias-on-mark-and-matthew.html.

[5] Carson, D. A., Douglas J. Moo, and Leon Morris. An Introduction to the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992.  90-91.

[6] Carson, D. A., Douglas J. Moo, and Leon Morris. An Introduction to the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992.  91.

[7] Ibid.  143.

[8] Ibid.  93.

[9] Ibid.  93.

[10] Ibid.  94.

[11] Carson, D. A., Douglas J. Moo, and Leon Morris. An Introduction to the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992.  96.

[12] Ibid.  97.

[13] Ibid.  101.

[14] Clements, Don K. New Geneva Introduction to the New Testament. Edited by R. C. Sproul. Narrows, VA: Metokos Press, 2006.

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