The Synoptic Problem

A thorough examination of the Synoptic Gospels, including comparisons of vocabulary, grammar, narrative order, statistical analysis, and socio-historical framework, seems to indicate some level of shared information, a form of relationship, among the authors. The primary problem with such an indication is the side-by-side existence of similarities and differences between all three narrative accounts. This paper offers an overview of the Synoptic Problem with a history of the investigation into this relationship between all three accounts, specifically looking at the four most popular proposed solutions to the problem. At the end of the examination, I believe one solution will show itself to be the most viable solution.

The Problem Defined

The general consensus among biblical scholars is that there were three basic stages of Gospel development: 1) the oral stage, 2) the written source stage, and 3) the redaction/editing stage. The Synoptic Problem is essentially a source critical issue, seeking an explanation to the phenomenon on the great similarities and dissimilarities within the Synoptic Gospels Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Why do they agree on so much? Why are there differences in some places when there is so much agreement in others? The high degree of agreement between the gospels assumes that each gospel had some form of dependence on other gospels or similar sources.[1] This, in a nutshell, is the Synoptic Problem. It deals with the second stage of Gospel development – the written sources.

Similarities and Differences

There are three general categories where the reader may observe similarities among the Synoptics: 1) agreement in wording, 2) agreement in narrative order, and 3) agreement in parenthetical material.[2] Though the actual percentages of wording agreements differ from scholar to scholar, one cannot deny that there are many identical words (not merely synonyms) among the Synoptics. Thomas, seems to loathe the idea of any Synoptic interdependency, attempts to reduce the percentage of similarities by justifying why some words would have been identical without literary dependence. Thus he says the words of Jesus would be more likely to be memorized, as would the words of the Pharisees.[3] His practice of cutting down the percentages is based on his own speculation and is purely hypothetical. He makes assumptions based on what he thinks people would have remembered but has no way to verify his claims. Agreement in narrative order is a very convincing case for interdependence, for Matthew and Luke never agree with each other against Mark.[4] Though this is an argument for Markan priority, it does play into a need to question the interdependency of the Synoptics. Finally, the parenthetical material-that material that is clearly an authorial aside to the reader-in the Synoptics points towards some type of inter-relationship.

These similarities in and of themselves do not constitute the problem. The problem lies in the fact that the Synoptics have these similarities yet have striking differences. Though they agree in word, order, and insertions, there is considerable variation as well. The side-by-side existence of the similarities and differences creates the search for the answer to the Synoptic problem.

When a Problem Isn’t a Problem

The different Gospel writers “added to” and “took away from” the story of Jesus as they were writing. Matthew and Luke’s Gospels are a lot longer than Mark’s, so clearly they added (or maybe Mark took away). Either way, one cannot get around the differences between these Gospels. How many demoniacs did Jesus heal when he sent demons into the nearby pigs? How many blind men cried out, “Son of David, have mercy!” when Jesus was travelling to Jerusalem? How do the friends of the paralytic get him before Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel? These are but a few of the differences that do not seem to bother the evangelists.

Honestly, there are portions of the Synoptics that do have differences within the individual narratives (besides wording, or pericope order, etc.). This is only problematic for western thinkers and literary cultures. Oral cultures, even when using writing, have a much more fluid understanding of language and story than literary cultures do. While modern oral tradition is not exactly identical to ancient oral tradition, it still gives insight into the oral mentality. Lord and Perry report a fascinating story where they took one Romanian storyteller to hear another storyteller. After the first man told a story, they asked the second if he could repeat it. He “repeated” the story but ended up making it longer and changing some minor details, all while claiming that he told the story identically to the original storyteller. Matthew and Luke’s differences would not have been seen as a problem or alteration of the truth by anyone in the ancient culture, even if some details were altered.

Biblical scholars who study oral tradition and Scripture note that there is not a clear distinction between orality and literacy. There is often a co-mingling of the two until the text is finally received in canonical form.[5] It is quite possible for a culture to know written texts yet still deal extensively with oral material.[6] While there is biblical evidence of literary work aside from oral tradition, e.g. Ecclesiastes or the Pauline corpus, there is a substantial portion of the OT and NT that is characteristic of oral literature. These characteristics include rhymes, structural devices such as chiasms, repeated words and phrases, and easily remembered slogans, sayings, and proverbs. These characteristics allow us to see the oral nature of the creation narrative of Genesis 1, the plague narratives of Exodus, and the book of Proverbs. Bailey points out that the NT oral tradition begins “with Jesus himself.”[7] Also, Scripture itself points to an authoritative tradition that pre-dates the text. Paul writes in 1 Thessalonians 2:13:

Here is another reason why we constantly give thanks to God: When you received God’s word, which you heard from us, you did not accept it as the word of humans but for what it really is-the word of God, which is at work in you who believe. (ISV)

In 1 Corinthians 11:23 he also writes, “For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you-how the Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took a loaf of bread….”  Paul clearly shows that there is authoritative content in his proclamation that precedes the occasion of the particular epistle. It does not seem too far-fetched to believe that, for Paul, the authoritative content was not the epistle but rather the Cristocentric proclamation! Though only mentioning written sources as his precursor (though not necessarily denying oral sources for his own work), the writer of Luke-Acts acknowledges in 1:1-4 his use of source material:

Since many people have attempted to write an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were passed down to us by those who had been eyewitnesses and servants of the word from the beginning, I, too, have carefully investigated everything from the beginning and have decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.  (ISV)

When all is said and done, contemporary scholarship on orality causes one to reconsider any kind of rigid notion of literary dependency. At the most, the oral tradition existed side by side with the written text and each evangelist drew from the oral tradition as he saw fit.[8] At the least, the nature of oral cultures allowed the evangelists to edit each other without ethical dilemma or concern of historical veracity. The “synoptic problem” is only a problem to the western, literary thinker and not an intrinsic Scriptural problem.

Proposed Solutions

There are innumerable proposed solutions to the Synoptic problem. Because of the nature of the agreement of words and order within the gospels, most scholars hold to some form of literary dependence as the most likely solution. Soulen and Soulen note that there are eighteen theoretical solutions to the problem of literary dependence.[9] The top 4 solutions to this “problem” are: 1) common dependence on one original gospel – there was some early gospel (possibly in Hebrew or Aramaic) upon which all of the Synoptic writers depended, 2) common dependence on oral sources – each writer drew from the well-spring of oral tradition (which would have had to have been rather fixed to explain the high degree of agreement between the Synoptics), 3) common dependence on developing written fragments – each writer had access to a growing body of literature, bits and pieces of the Gospel story (this fails to explain the degree of agreement in pericope placement within the Synoptics), and 4) interdependence – the Gospel writers used each other in some way, shape, or form to create their own take on the Jesus story.

Of these four solutions the most frequently touted solutions are the two-source theory and the four-source theory.[10] Each attempts to explain the rise and order of gospel writing. The two-source theory, sometimes referred to as the Griesbach Hypothesis, claims that Matthew was the first gospel, Luke was the second, and that Mark was a “Reader’s Digest” condensation of both.

The four-source theory holds that Mark was the first gospel and that Matthew and Luke each used Mark and “Q”, a now lost collection of Jesus’ sayings.[11] Streeter modified the four-source theory and postulated that Matthew and Luke used Mark, Q, and original material designated “M” (Matthew) and “L” (Luke). Quite recently, Klinghardt has done a comparative study of the Synoptic gospels and the Marcionite gospel. He revises the four-source hypothesis and inserts Marcion’s gospel in place of a hypothetical Q.[12] Regardless to which source critical theory one subscribes, one is hard-pressed to deny the existence of biblical source material. As to the NT, Lührmann notes, “While the many books on Q cannot establish its existence, the two-document hypothesis does explain more problems than do other hypotheses, and it leaves fewer problems unsolved.”[13],[14]

Of all of the solutions, interdependence is the solution that has gained the most widespread acceptance, with the idea of Markan priority leading the way. The reasons why Mark is thought to be more original than Matthew and Luke are: 1) brevity – Mark’s words have a 97% parallel in Matthew and 88% in Luke and it makes more sense to say that Matthew and Luke expanded rather than Mark deleted gospel material (as in textual criticism, the shorter reading is generally to be preferred), 2) verbal agreement – Mark and Matthew frequently agree as do Mark and Luke, while Matthew and Luke agree less often, 3) order of events – Matthew and Luke never agree against Mark, indicating that they pulled from Mark or (less likely) that Mark ONLY used material where Matthew and Luke agreed, 4) primitive grammar – Mark has a rougher style and grammar (and again like textual criticism, the more difficult reading is generally to be preferred), and 5) primitive theology – Mark contains theology that tends to be “smoothed out” by the other Gospel writers (same principle of textual criticism and the more difficult reading).[15]


I believe that, after all of the theories and evidence is examined, the four-source hypothesis (and thus Markan priority) is the most viable solution to the problem. While it does not answer all of the questions, it seems to answer many of them and leave fewer unanswered arguments than do other theories. Gregory notes, “There are factors inherent in the transmission of the synoptic tradition which call into question the likelihood that any simple solution to the synoptic problem will ever be satisfactory.”[16]

The strongest arguments in favor of Markan priority are the statistical comparisons of the agreement in verbiage and pericope order. It is possible to show that there is a greater likelihood of Matthew and Luke utilizing Mark rather than Mark comparing and using Matthew AND Luke. The arguments about brevity, style, and theology are convincing to me, but they are more open to subjective interpretation than a statistical analysis. If one does not agree with Westcott and Hort’s hypotheses regarding “the most original reading” of a text, then one is more likely to throw out these arguments that support Markan priority. I do agree that interdependence is the solution that answers the greatest amount of questions raised by the Synoptic Problem. I do not thing that interdependence answers ALL of the questions, though (like Matthew and Luke’s non-Markan material). The best answer probably lies in a combination of interdependence and reliance on other sources (whether oral or written we may never know).

  • Bailey, Kenneth. “Informal Controlled Oral Tradition and the Synoptic Gospels,” Themelios 20

(1995): 4-11.

  • Bird, Michael F. “The Formation of the Gospel in the Setting of Early Christianity: The Jesus

Tradition as Corporate Memory.” Westminster Theological Journal 67 (2005): 113-134.

  • Carson, D.A. and Douglas J. Moo. An Introduction to the New Testament. Grand Rapids:

Zondervan, 2005.

  • Dewey, Joanna. “The Survival of Mark’s Gospel: A Good Story?” Journal of Biblical Literature

123 (2004): 495-507.

  • Farnell, F. David. “How Views of Inspiration Have Impacted Synoptic Problem Discussions.”

The Masters Seminary Journal 13 (2002): 33-64.

  • Fee, Gordon D. “A Text-Critical Look at the Synoptic Problem.” Novum Testamentum 22

(1980): 12-28.

  • Gregory, Andrew. “An Oral and Written Gospel? Reflections on Remembering Jesus,”

Expository Times 116 (2004), 7-12.

  • Klinghardt, Matthias. “The Marcionite Gospel and the Synoptic Problem: A New Suggestion.”

Novum Testamentum 50 (2008): 1-27.

  • Lührmann, Dieter. “The Gospel of Mark and the Sayings Collection Q.” Journal of Biblical

Literature 108 (1989): 51-71.

  • Neirynck, F. “Synoptic Problem.” The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Supplementary Vol.

Ed. Keith Crim. Nashville: Abingdon, 1976.

  • Niditch, Susan. Oral World and Written Word: Ancient Israelite Literature. Louisville:

Westminster John Knox Press, 1996.

  • O’Rourke, John J. “Some Observations on the Synoptic Problem and the Uses of Statistical

Procedures.” Novum Testamentum 16 (1974): 272-277.

  • Rowlingson, D.T. “Synoptic Problem.” The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the  Bible. Ed. George A.

Buttrick. New York: Abingdon, 1962.

  • Soulen, Richard N. and R. Kendall Soulen. Handbook of Biblical Criticism. 3d ed. Louisville:

Westminster John Knox Press, 2001.

  • Stein, Robert H. The Synoptic Problem: An Introduction. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1987.
  • Thomas, Robert L. 2004. “Discerning Synoptic Gospel Origins: An Inductive Approach (Part

One of  Two Parts).” The Masters Seminary Journal 15: 3-38.

  • –––. 2005. “Discerning Synoptic Gospel Origins: An Inductive Approach (Part One of  Two

Parts).” The Masters Seminary Journal 16: 7-47.

[1] Richard N. Soulen and R. Kendall Soulen, Handbook of Biblical Criticism (3d ed. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 185.

[2] Robert H. Stein, The Synoptic Problem: An Introduction (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1987), 29-42.

[3] Robert L. Thomas, “Discerning Synoptic Gospel Origins: An Inductive Approach (Part One of  Two Parts).” TMSJ 15 (2004): 3-38.

[4] D.A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 97.

[5] Susan Niditch, Oral World and Written Word: Ancient Israelite Literature (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), 120.

[6] Michael F. Bird, “The Formation of the Gospel in the Setting of Early Christianity: The Jesus Tradition as Corporate Memory” W TJ 67 (2005): 113-134.

[7] Kenneth Bailey, “Informal Controlled Oral Tradition and the Synoptic Gospels,” Them 20 (1995): 4-11.

[8] Thomas, “Part One of  Two,” TMSJ 15 (2004): 14.

[9] Soulen, Criticism, 185.

[10] Soulen, Criticism, 179.

[11] Carson, Introduction, 94.

[12] Matthias Klinghardt, “The Marcionite Gospel and the Synoptic Problem: A New Suggestion.” NovT 50 (2008): 1-27.

[13] Dieter Lührmann, “The Gospel of Mark and the Sayings Collection Q,” JBL 108 (1989): 51-71.

[14] There are, as I am sure there always will be, die-hards who deny any sort of Synoptic dependence. For an honest (but slightly biased) examination of the Synoptics as independent literary works, see Dyer’s “Do the Synoptics Depend of Each Other?”

[15] Carson, Introduction, 96-97.

[16] Andrew Gregory, “An Oral and Written Gospel? Reflections on Remembering Jesus,” ExpTim 116 (2004), 7-12.

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