Synoptic Problem Overview

Liberty University


A Paper Submitted to Dr. James F. Davis

In Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for

NBST 525

Liberty Theological Seminary


Rick Mangrum

Lynchburg, Virginia

Sunday, May 8, 2011




SIMILARITIES AND DIFFERENCES—————————————————-­———-8

PROPOSED SOLUTIONS—————————————————————————-13

PREFERRED SOLUTION—————————————————————————-15




            Reading and studying the Bible to develop a deeper understanding of God and His will for the life of the reader is an adventure undertaken by millions of both believers and non-believers in the last two thousand years or so.  It is exciting and fulfilling!  It is not simple, and it is sometimes not without problems.  There are many challenges and problems that will be encountered along the way by both the casual and serious biblical student.  One common challenge to overcome in the study of the New Testament is what is called the Synoptic Problem.

This will be a brief overview of the Synoptic Problem.  This topic has long generated lively debate and discussion among both believers and non-believers in Christ.  It is a subject that when understood gives a much fuller and deeper appreciation of the story of Jesus’ life and ministry as told in Matthew, Mark and Luke, traditionally called the Synoptic Gospels.

A logical beginning is the definition of the words synoptic and problem, as well as why the first three books of the New Testament are known as the Synoptic Gospels.  Synoptic is defined as “taking a common view”.1 Problem is defined as “any question or matter involving doubt, uncertainty or difficulty”.2   In 1776, a German Bible scholar named Griesbach grouped Matthew, Mark and Luke together as the “Synoptic Gospels” because he saw that they described the life and ministry of Jesus with a common view.3   That common view is the foundation of the Synoptic Problem.  There is doubt and uncertainty because these three gospels give such a common view.

1 Website. <>, (Accessed April 25, 2011).


3Donald K. McKim, Dictionary of Major Biblical Interpreter (Downers Grove, IL:  InterVarsity Press, 2007), p492.



While each of these three gospels tells the story of Jesus in the same “general historical arrangement”, they are not identical.4 There are many similarities in the three books that lead the reader to the same conclusions about the life of Jesus on Earth, but they are not exactly the same.  There is the problem.  If the Bible is the inerrant, infallible word of God, the first three books of the New Testament cannot tell the same story in different ways, even if only slightly different.

In summary there are two sides to the problem.  If the three books were really written by three different people, it is unlikely they would be so .  If they are really the inspired word of God, they cannot be significantly different.  Those are the issues to be discussed.

Beginning with a brief history of the investigation into the relationship between the Synoptic Gospels, a summary of general similarities and differences between them will follow.  There are several generally accepted proposed solutions to the Synoptic Problem that will be defined and summarized.  Lastly, an attempt will be made to persuade the reader to adopt one of the proposed solutions.


            The historical development of the synoptic gospels parallels the outline of the book of

4Thomas D. Lea and David Alan Black, The New Testament, Its Background and Message (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2003), p113.




Luke; given by Luke in the prologue.5 Luke first used the eyewitness oral accounts of events.  He then used existing written accounts.  Finally he would add his own influence and observations into his account of the life of Christ.  These three steps give the blueprint for the writing of all gospels and the investigations, often called criticisms, of these books.

The examination of oral accounts of the Gospels and how they became written accounts, called form criticism, was the first true analysis of scripture.  Since there were originally no written accounts, the review of oral accounts for accuracy is the first step of investigation of scripture.  This analysis may have occurred after the written word was available but focused on the process by which accounts were transmitted.  This focus on the first stage of gospel “writing” was originated by Scandinavian scholars in examination of the Old Testament.  In the twentieth century, German scholars led by Rudolph Bultmann did extensive work on this type of criticism in the New Testament.6  Bultmann believed that the historical accounts in the New Testament were inaccurate, molded by the writers to tell the desired theological story.  He believed there were some New Testament writers who “domesticated the text to fit a preconceived scheme”.7 In other words, they may have altered oral, often repeated stories to come to the theological conclusion desired by the writer.

            Just as Luke used oral accounts as an original basis for his writing, many biblical writers

5Lea and Black, p114.

6Lea and Black, p115.

7 Thomas R. Schreiner, New Testament Theology, Magnifying God in Christ (Grand Rapids, MI:  Baker Publishing Group, 2008), p88.



would use the same method.  Form criticism on the surface seems to look to invalidate scripture based on the potentially inaccurate method of the oral transmission of stories and ideas before they become written.  There is absolute validity in the questions these critics ask. There certainly was a period in which biblical stories passed from person to person before they were written.  Change or editing could have occurred.  The positive benefit of form criticism is to openly validate the value of eyewitness accounts of biblical occurrences.  C.H. Dodd supported the idea that without the oral transmissions of biblical stories in New Testament times, the gospel would not have been as effectively advanced.  He defined patterns of early Christian teaching as kerygma, or proclamation.8 He also viewed the early New Testament books as the last examples of scripture that originated in an oral form.  Dodd’s more positive approach to form criticism also frames the gospels as the seeds of early church creation.

Again, just as Luke moved from oral eyewitness accounts as an original basis for his writing to using already written texts, the analysis of written texts was the next step in the historical progression of the investigation of the validity of scripture.  Called source criticism, it questions the source of biblical writing.  If not their own or someone else’s eyewitness account of an event, then what is a biblical writer’s source of material?   This form of investigation has a firm date of beginning, when in 1771 G.E. Lessing wrote that the synoptic gospels were similar because they all came from one source, Hebrew or Aramiac.9  Lessing’s writing came just a few years before Griesbach would invent the term Synoptic Gospel as noted previously.  Just a few

8Lea and Black, p119.




years later in 1797, J.G. Herder would advance the source critical analysis of the synoptics further with his idea that the gospels were so similar because the oral accounts of Jesus life occurred in a short period of time before they were written into texts.

One of the most commonly accepted solutions to the synoptic problem would come to life from this process.  Called interdependence and suggested by St. Augustine originally in the late fourth century, this was the idea that a first gospel was written with the other two using the first one as a source.10  Griesbach embraced this solution and published his version in 1789 called the Two Gospel Hypothesis.11  In contrast to Augustine’s order of Matthew, Mark and Luke, Griesbach supported Matthew, Luke and Mark.  This view was generally supported by the traditional views of church fathers.12 The earliest church fathers were “almost unanimous” in their view that Matthew was first.13 The content of Matthew, targeting Jews in Palestine, strongly supports this position.  This view of Matthean priority is certainly supported by the order of the final canonized text.  Matthew, a well-documented eye witness to the life of Christ can be easily accepted by some as the primary source.

The view also has more modern supporters as well.   It was advanced as recently as 1976 by W.R. Farmer whose work was based largely on Griesbach’s original ideas.14

10Roy B. Zuck, A Biblical Theology of the New Testament (Chicago, IL:  Moody Press, 1994), p65.

11Lea and Black, p120.


13Lea and Black, p122.

14Lea and Black, p121.



Source critics would propose other solutions to the synoptic problem in as well.  The Two Source Hypothesis proposed that Mark was the first gospel and other others were written using Mark and another document as well.  The other document, known as “Q” is from an unknown source and now lost. Many source critics firmly support the Markan Priority view, the idea that Mark came first and the others followed.  There is some clear evidence to support this idea.  Matthew includes almost all of the material in Mark.  Luke contains about half of it.  Both Matthew and Luke repeat the exact words of Mark in several places.  Matthew and Luke also closely follow Mark’s sequence of events.  And both Matthew and Luke appear to correct the sometimes awkward grammar of Mark in similar ways. This is view of Markan Priority is supported by the numbers of words, actual verses and overall style of Mark that seems to be repeated in both Matthew and Luke.   “Q’s” existence has been proposed to explain the material in Matthew and Luke of material not in Mark.  “Q”, a now unknown source is not as unusual an idea as it may sound to a reader encountering it for the first time.  It is not unlikely that the sayings of Jesus may have been collected in some now unknown form and circulated among his believers.  Perhaps a type of modern day blog or newsletter prepared and circulated by a well-intentioned believer could explain the repetition of content in the Gospels.

            The most detailed idea of interdependence comes from a British scholar many years later.  In 1924, B.H. Streeter published that he accepted the idea of Markan Priority and the existence of “Q” as well as other added and today unknown sources, “M” and “L”.15  “M” would be the

15Lea and Black, p611.



unknown source of all material unique to Matthew and “L” all the material unique to Luke.  Streeter’s ideas, known as the Four Source Theory have never received wide acceptance but are still considered today as possible solutions to the synoptic problem from a source criticism point of view.

Just as Luke moved from oral to written to personal in his approach to writing his gospel, the investigation of the synoptic gospels moved from form criticism to source criticism to the last significant form of biblical analysis, redaction criticism.  Just as Luke used his personal point of view to finalize his writing, redaction criticism investigates the personal motivation of the writer to validate each gospel.  W. Wrede was a leader in this form of criticism in his 1901 work that questioned the motivations and method of Mark in the writing of his gospel.16  He detailed a theological agenda under which Mark worked while he wrote his book.  Wrede was followed by many others who believe that each Gospel writer modified the content of their books to fit a personal theological agenda.  This form of criticism is less developed than the previous two but none the less valuable.

            Redaction criticism has a valuable place in the theological investigation of any scripture, especially the Gospels.  There is no doubt that each writer had some personal theological agenda as all writers do.  This form of investigation focuses us on the distinct contributions of each Gospel, where the synoptic problem discussion focuses more on their similarities with a skeptical eye.  In fact, all three forms together create a solid path to understanding and deeper knowledge of the scripture.

16Schreiner, p206.


A final form or criticism or investigation, new since the days of Luke’s writing, is literary criticism.  This form of biblical analysis examines each book just as it is today, with no regard for how it was developed.  Critics of this discipline do not seek to understand an author’s intention but more narrowly focus on the meaning of scripture based on their own current understanding.  This is most subjective of all the criticisms and not strictly applicable to the synoptic problem.  However, no summary of investigations would be complete without a mention of literary criticism.

So far this overview has defined the key terms and briefly outlined the historical timeline of biblical scholars’ investigations into these New Testament books.  Now to move on to what exactly are all the similarities and differences referenced so far.


            The similarities and differences between the synoptic gospels can be seen easily by separating them into general then specific examples of each. There are five clear examples of general similarity or interrelationship between the books.17

 The first is verbatim agreement.  How unusual it is for different writers to use exactly the same words.   Yet it happens many times in the synoptic gospels.  For example in the account of John the Baptist, Matthew and Luke use 61 of the exact same Greek words out of 63 total words in one passage.   Overall, the verbatim agreement between Matthew, Mark, and Luke is about

17 Stephen C. Carlson  The Synoptic Problem FAQ, <>, 2000, (Accessed April 26, 2011).


50%.  Secondly, the order of the materials presented is similar.  It is particularly evident in the passages that are presented in the same non-chronological order in multiple books as is the case of the story of the death of John the Baptist in Matthew and Mark.  Overall the order of events presented is very similar.

The third general area of similarity is in the selection of materials presented.  A complete list of the sayings or miracles of Jesus does not  really exist.  In his several years of ministry he most likely said many things and possibly preformed miracles not documented.  The list of those sayings and miracles documented by the first three books of the New Testament is very similar.  Fourthly, the presence of editorial comments by the writer, redaction material, is very similar.  For example, both Matthew and Mark both use the same phrase “let the reader understand”.  A consistent literary pattern is the fifth general similarity.  Mark appears to be the “middle” gospel, creating a bridge or connection between Matthew and Luke.  Agreements between Matthew and Luke against Mark are much less prevalent than agreements against Matthew and Luke.  If the three books had been completely independent in their writing that would not be expected.

In the agreement of exact words in many cases, order of material, selection of material, presence of editorial comments and consistent literary pattern there is clear general similarity between the three books.18

            Are there more specific similarities?  Yes. The list is long.  All three books begin with a prologue.  After that, there are at least 152 examples of the same story being told in Matthew,




Mark and Luke.19 These include the story of John the Baptist, baptism of Jesus, temptation of Jesus, ministry in Galilee, Sermon on the Mount, Sermon on the Plain, last journey to Jerusalem, ministry in Judea, final ministry in Jerusalem, Olivet discourse, passion narrative and the resurrection.   The parallel stories of these and many other key events in the life and ministry of Jesus form a list of very specific similarities between the three books.

So the general and specific similarities between the synoptic Gospels are undeniable.  Can there be many differences?  This of course is the other side of the synoptic problem.  There are both general and specific differences.

The general differences are best examined by writer.  Matthew was the only one of the twelve disciples of the three.20   His emphasis on Jesus as the Messiah and King fulfilling all of the promises of the Hebrew scripture is very different from Mark and Luke.   Matthew’s audience was clearly Jewish with the writing of his book originally in Hebrew later translated into Greek.  Matthew focused on the Law of Moses more frequently.  He uses Jewish terms such as “kingdom of heaven” instead of “kingdom of God” in the words of Jesus’ teaching in thirty two of the thirty six times these phrases are used.  Matthew also has a Palestine focus with attention to detail about Jewish life and religious customs.  His accounts of Jesus’ life were intended to show him as the fulfillment of the Law.

            Matthew also clearly tells Jewish readers that the Heaven is theirs to lose if they do not

19 Synoptic Gospels Parallel Website,<>, (Accessed April 25, 2011).

20 Gleason L. Archer,  Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (Grand Rapids, MI:   Zondervan, 1982), p311.



recognize Jesus as the Messiah.  In the parable of the wicked husband, the words of Jesus in Matthew are that “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you”, while in Mark and Luke the words are “shall be given to others”.21 The redactive material of Matthew is clearly intended to tell the story to a Jewish audience.

Mark is not so focused on Jesus as the Messiah as he is Jesus as “the Conqueror over Satan, sin, sickness and death”.22  According to church tradition, Mark was primarily the travelling assistant of Peter, going along with the twelve disciples during much of Jesus’ later ministry.  His book focuses more on the dynamic personality of Jesus and his actions than on the philosophy or theology of his ministry.  Mark is more about the here-and-now of the ministry of Jesus and how it can impact lives.   Much of Mark’s book may really be a narrative of Peter’s perceptions of the life of Christ.

            Luke is generally different than the other two in ways that are easy to see.   His perspective is that of a well-educated Greek, organized and comprehensive in his attention to detail in the accounts of Jesus’ healing miracles.  His book is carefully researched.  He goes so far as to outline his methods of research and development in the prologue.  He wished his reader to “know the exact truth” about Jesus’ life and ministry. 23  In Luke’s book, the focus is on people and Jesus’ interaction with them, especially women and children. There are thirteen

21Archer, p312.


23Archer, p313.



women mentioned in Luke not mentioned in the other books.  Luke used 180 technical terms in his book in his drive for detail that is not found in the other two.

Overall the general differences between Matthew, Mark and Luke are seen in the characteristics of the writer.  This idea may be obvious to some, but given the general and specific differences between the three books it is worthy of discussion.   There are also differences that are very specific.

To this writer the specific differences are best seen by examining stories in each of the three books that are unique to that book.  After reviewing both the general and specific similarities of the three books, one might expect this list to be short.  That is not the case.        There are at least sixteen stories unique to Matthew, four to Mark and thirty three to Luke!24 Among the best known stories unique to Matthew are Jesus’ flight into and return from Egypt as a child, portions of the Sermon on the Mount on almsgiving, prayer and profaning the holy, the parable of the hidden treasure and one of the most beloved passages of all time in Matthew 18:19 “where two or three are gathered in my name, there will I be also”.25

                In Mark the list of unique material is very short, a fact leading to the proposed solutions to the synoptic problem, soon to be covered in this writing.  The four unique to Mark are the parable of the seed growing secretly; Jesus thought to be beside himself, a blind man healed at Bethsaida, and Jesus appearing to the eleven while they sit at the table.

24 Synoptic Gospels Parallel Website,<>, (Accessed April 25, 2011).

25New American Standard Bible (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2006), p394.



Luke has the most unique material, not surprising given the detailed focus of a physician.  Luke’s list of thirty three unique stories contains many well known to any student of the Bible.  Among them are several dealing with John the Baptist, including the story of his birth, Jesus’ circumcise and presentation at the temple, the boy Jesus in the temple, the healing of the crippled woman on the Sabbath and Jesus words in Luke 21:34 to “take heed and watch” for things to come.25

These first three books of the New Testament are generally similar yet different, with specific examples of both.  There is clearly a “problem”.  There  are some proposed solutions most commonly discussed and accepted by biblical scholars.


            There are four most commonly held solutions to the synoptic problem.27  There are certainly many other possibilities as well, but these four are commonly mentioned in scholarly sources.  There are many things to consider in summarizing and understanding these theories.  An effective approach is to use the triple and double tradition approach.28    Triple tradition is taking into account how much content is common to all three gospels.  Double tradition is considering the content common to two of them.    The triple tradition is from the fact that almost

26New American Standard Bible, p1525.

27 Stephen C. Carlson,  The Synoptic Problem FAQ, <>, 2000, (Accessed April 26, 2011).



all of Mark is found in Matthew and about two-thirds of Mark is found in Luke.  The double tradition comes from the fact that about two hundred versus are common to Matthew and Luke but not found in Mark. Here are brief summaries of the four theories from that context.

First and most prevalently accepted is the Two Source Hypothesis (2SH).  It proposes that Mark, the shortest of the gospels, was the first written and both Matthew and Luke used Mark as a source along with another unknown source known as “Q”.  This unknown source would have held the sayings of Jesus in a form lost over time but known to both Matthew and Luke.  This solution gives Mark priority over the other two and some scholars who accept this theory also add “M” and “L” as earlier discussed.  This form of 2SH is called the Four Source Hypothesis (4SH).  This theory supports the triple tradition by using Mark as the primary source and supports the double tradition by using “Q”.

A second proposed solution; more popular in America is the Griesbach Hypothesis or Two-Gospel Hypothesis (2GH).  It is similar to 2SH but does not accept the existence of “Q”.  In this solution Matthew was written first.   Luke was next, using Matthew’s text for content.  Mark was the last written, essentially summarizing what he thought most important out of Matthew and Luke.  In this theory triple tradition comes from Mark picking and choosing from both Luke and Matthew for his content.  Double tradition comes from Luke using Matthew as a source.

Third is the Farrer Theory or Farrer Hypothesis (FH).  Mark was written first, then Matthew then Luke.   Matthew used Mark and Luke used Matthew.  Again no “Q”.  Triple tradition here comes from Mark as the first source and double tradition from Luke using Matthew.


A fourth solution is the most traditional of the four, following the teachings of St. Augustine and accepting the order of the scripture in their canonized New Testament form, Matthew, then Mark, then Luke.  Mark wrote a shortened form of Matthew and Luke used them both.  Again, this theory only allows for the existence of Matthew, Mark and Luke with no other outside sources. Here triple tradition is created by Matthew as the first source, used by both Mark and Luke for content.  Luke, the last to write had them both to draw from, fulfilling double tradition.

Another theory worthy of mention is the Jerusalem School Hypothesis (JSH).  Not as widely accepted as the previous four yet supported by some scholars.  It holds that Luke was written first drawing from unknown sources, then Mark then Matthew.  As the name implies, it is most widely supported by Jewish scholars living in Jerusalem.29

                These are the four primary theories and one less accepted.  All are roughly based on which writer was first.  All accept that writers that followed would use the content of others.


            Which solution does this writer prefer?  That is not a simple question.  The first instinct is to follow AH, accepting the New Testament Synoptic Gospels in the order in which they appear.  In the years between Christ’s death and the canonization of the New Testament, God was no doubt clearly in control of its evolution and growth into its current form.  He knew that it would



be used and accepted as his Holy Word just as it was presented.  There is no evidence to indicate that there was any sort of manipulation of the order of the books of the New Testament by the early church.  Lea and Black were clear in their summarization of the movement toward synoptic consensus that the Holy Spirit and its activities should be taken into account in any evaluation of the writing of the Gospels.30   God gave  these scriptures in this order for a reason.  This writer’s first instinct is to accept it as is, accepting that the triple and double traditions occur due to the unexplainable actions of the Holy Spirit in the lives and workings of those who wrote the scriptures.  Could they not have been given the same words?  Are we so intelligent today that we have “figured it out” that they could each not possibly have independently written much of the same content?  Could that not be God’s way of validating the message?  The Holy Spirit, guiding each writer, would “teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you”.31

                Based in the small understanding reached from the last few week’s examination of the scripture, accepting the Augustinian Hypothesis would present the greatest act of faith in choosing one synoptic solution over others.  For that reason this writer is drawn to that conclusion.  Traditional church fathers would certainly agree and expressed that opinion in the order in which they placed the Gospels.  Many times, scholars respect the traditional church father’s opinions when other data is not clear.

            As the only one of the twelve disciples writing a Gospel, Matthew was also an eye witness to the events of which he wrote.  While Mark relied on Peter and Luke relied on several

30Lea and Black, p126.

31New American Standard Bible, p1580.


different sources, Matthew saw these things for himself.  To this writer that is another factor supporting the Augustinian Hypothesis.

There are other things to consider as well.  The Two Source Hypothesis is very appealing in its prioritization of Mark, as is the Farrer Hypothesis.  It is undeniable that almost all of Mark appears in Matthew or Luke and it appears in the same sequence presented by Mark.  It is also very possible that sources not yet discovered, such as “Q” or even “L” and “M” could exist.  It was not that long ago what no had heard of the Dead Sea scrolls.  And even if they were not the inspired word of God we believe the Gospels to be they could be valid sources.   Today the writings of Josephus are considered valid and factual by most scholars as if they were written by one of Jesus’ disciples.  As previously discussed, the idea of “Q” or other circulated copies of the teachings of Jesus in the communities in which he was most widely accepted is not difficult to accept.

In summary, this writer would prefer the Augustinian Hypothesis first, then the Farrer Hypothesis, then the Two Source Hypothesis.  I would prioritize Farrer over Two Source because Farrer requires no sources other than those currently known.


            What a great journey is the investigation of the Synoptic Problem.  The story of Jesus, told from three different perspectives yet in an almost identical fashion in many ways.  Matthew, the tax collector focused on Jesus as the fulfillment of the law.  Mark, follower of Peter, one of


the disciples closest to Jesus told the story through the eyes of that zealot believer.  Luke, the passionate and detail focused physician used and documented oral, written and personal source in his telling of the story.

            The same yet different are the synoptic Gospels.  The long history of investigation speaks of the love of many scholars of the written word.  The proposed solutions all have one thing in common in their love and belief of the Savior. “It is Jesus that matters” not the writer or his motivations or sources.32   A deeper understanding of Jesus and his life flows from the study of this problem.  If only all other problems in life yielded the same outcome!

32 Leon Morris,  New Testament Theology (Grand Rapids, MI:   Zondervan, 1986) p92.














Gleason, Archer L.  Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, Zondervan, 1982.

Brisco, Thomas V.  Holman Bible Atlas, B&H Publishing Group, 1998.

Carlson, Stephen C.  The Synoptic Problem FAQ,     <>, 2000.

Carlson, Stephen C.  The Synoptic Problem Website, <        problem.html>. Website.  <>.

Got Questions Ministry Website. <>.

Lea, Thomas D. and David Alan Black. The New Testament, Its Background and Message, B&H             Publishing Group, 2003.

McKim, Donald K.  Dictionary of Major Biblical Interpreters, InterVarsity Press, 2007.

Morris, Leon.  New Testament Theology, Zondervan, 1986.

New American Standard Bible, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2006.

Schreiner, Thomas R.  New Testament Theology, Magnifying God in Christ, Baker Publishing        Group, 2008.

Synoptic Gospels Parallel Website.  <>.

Zuck, Roy B.  A Biblical Theology of the New Testament, Moody Press, 1994.

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