The Synoptic “Problem”

The Gospel of John is very different from the other three, and they are similar to each other. Is that a problem?


By Mark D. Harris

The gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are similar in many ways. They cover much of the same material, have the same general historical arrangement, and use many of the same words. Bible scholar JJ Griesbach named these gospels “synoptic” because they seem to “see together”. However, there are notable differences between these gospels. The presence of such striking similarities and curious differences causes Christians to ask “how can this be” and “where did these gospels come from”? This is the Synoptic Problem.

There are many possible solutions to the Synoptic Problem. First, it is possible that the Synoptics were all drawn from one source, possibly an original in Hebrew or Aramaic. This is a little hard to believe, though. If one gospel existed already, why write more, changing some of the material in the process? Who wrote it, and what was their relationship to Jesus? Why would such a source not be mentioned anywhere in Early Christian literature?

Another possibility is that writers of later gospels used earlier gospels as sources. Augustine believed that Matthew the Apostle wrote the first synoptic, and that Mark and Luke based portions of their gospels on Matthew. Critical scholars of the 19th centuries believed that Mark was written first, and that Matthew and Luke drew material from it.

A third possibility is that written fragments, no longer extant, were used by all three Synoptic writers. The last commonly considered possibility is that the Synoptic authors used oral sources to construct their gospels.   The authors probably used oral sources and written fragments, many generated by interviewing eyewitnesses. Nonetheless, the most favored view is that later gospel writers used earlier gospels as sources.

Augustine’s “two gospel” theory suggests that Matthew was written first, Luke second and Mark third. It was the predominant view until the 19th century. It has lost favor for the same reasons that the Markan theories described below have gained favor.

The modern “two source” view suggests that Mark was written first, and Matthew and Luke used Mark and a document named Q (“Quelle”, German for “source”) to write their accounts. This so-called “Markan priority” is the widely accepted among scholars. In reviewing the gospel texts, Matthew and Mark sometimes agree against Luke, and Luke and Mark sometimes agree against Matthew, but Matthew and Luke never agree against Mark. Mark is the shortest gospel, and is occasionally awkward in style, and it is thought more likely that subsequent authors would lengthen and smooth the account rather than shortening and confusing it. In another theory, Streeter argues that in addition to using Mark and Q, Matthew used M, a manuscript containing material peculiar to Matthew, and Luke used L, a manuscript containing material peculiar to Luke. The most significant difficulty to these theories is that neither Q, M nor L exist.

Relationships between the Synoptic Gospels

Gospel Unique Material (%) Shared only with Matthew (%) Shared only with Mark Shared only with Luke Found in all three Total %
Matthew 20 10 25 45 100
Mark 3 18 3 76 100
Luke 35 23 1 41 100

Matthew was a Jewish tax collector, and he used genealogy and prophecy to try to convince the Jews that Jesus was the Messiah. Mark, a disciple of Peter, was young and impetuous, just as Peter was. He wrote a no-sense, action packed gospel. Luke was a Gentile physician, educated and careful, who wrote to teach his Gentile readers about the life and person of Jesus Christ, and impel them to follow Him.

All three Synoptic writers probably used eyewitness accounts, oral sources, and written sources to compose their gospels, as Luke suggests in chapter 1. Having four gospels, with each tailored to a different audience, is reasonable, and minor differences strengthen, not weaken, the gospel accounts.   Whether in law enforcement, medicine, or anywhere else, making stories exactly alike requires collaboration. Independent eyewitness accounts always differ on some points. All told, the synoptic problem is not a problem at all but another evidence of the veracity of the Gospels as valid historical documents.

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