The Synoptic Problem
As one opens the pages of the New Testament, they are immediately met with four back-to-back accounts of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. While it may, at first glance, appear to be a bit strange that four separate accounts of the life of Christ would be included into the canon of Scripture, that fact certainly doesn’t present a problem in and of itself. The problem arises when those accounts are measured against one another. “If we only had the Gospel of Mark, there would be no such thing as ‘the Synoptic problem… The term synoptic… dates back to Johann Jakob Greisbach… and was attributed to the first three Gospels because they provide a common or similar outline of the story of Jesus.1”
While the simple fact that we have four Gospels does not itself present a problem, the similarities of the synoptics makes “…the issue of synoptic origins and relations… one that cannot be avoided.2” While the similarities between the texts, alone, raise questions, it is the combination of similarities and their relative differences that creates even more questions. One “…attempt to explain [the] similarit[ies]involves the argument from history. Matthew, Mark, and Luke look alike because they are accurate historical records of what Jesus said and did. Without denying that the Synoptic Gospels do provide an accurate account of what Jesus said and did, it must be pointed out that at times we find a different ordering of the events and a different wording.3”
It is at this point that we begin to raise our proverbial eyebrow at how the similarities and differences between the Gospels present themselves. If they are just similar because they record the same events, then why do they not present the same order? If they are not ordered the same because the author has a purpose other than historical accuracy, why are some of the accounts so similar, though not in the same order?
A Problem With Many Solutions
When one begins to analyze potential solutions to the Synoptic Problem, various aspects of the process of Gospel compilation begin to arise. Moo and Carson, drawing from Luke’s Gospel, summarize the process into three stages: “Luke acknowledges three stages in the genesis of his work: the ‘eyewitnesses and servants of the word’ who ‘handed down’ the truth of Jesus; those ‘many’ who have already drawn up accounts of Jesus and the early church; and Luke himself, who, having ‘carefully investigated these sources, now composes his own ‘orderly’ account.4” It is extremely important that we recognize at least one Gospel author’s willingness to state, openly, the process that he used in compiling his work. We can at least assume, then, the possibility that the other authors took similar approaches in the compiling of their materials.
Once we have acknowledged with Luke that other sources may have been used in composition, along with eye-witness accounts, we are faced with a few more questions: What source(s) did Gospel authors use? Did they use the same source(s)? Is it possible that they used each other as sources? These questions are at the center of dealing with the Synoptic Problem and the possibilities seem endless. However, extensive textual and historical research has yielded a few major views that help us to narrow the likely possibilities down to two: The Griesbach Hypothesis and the Two-Document Hypothesis.
The Griesbach Hypothesis, or Two-Gospel hypothesis5, “…argues that Matthew was the first Gospel written, that Luke used Matthew, and that Mark used both Matthew and Luke…6” This approach has many advantages. It’s strongest advantage is that it has agreement with early church history. “The early church tradition is quite unanimous in claiming that Matthew was the first Gospel written (Irenaeus, Eusebius, Augustine).” The Griesbach Hypothesis’ agreement with early church history combined with its ability to explain many of the similarities, and differences, in the synoptics without the need of positing an additional source make it quite appealing7. Still, the “Two-Gospel” hypothesis is not without its challenges. First, its greatest advantage may also be its greatest weakness. “Whereas the church tradition is unanimous in stating that Matthew was written before Mark and Luke, that tradition in the same breath also argues that Matthew was written in Aramaic… Yet it is clear that our present Matthew is not a simple translation from Aramaic into Greek.8” So, while history is somewhat on its side, that same history is not necessarily trustworthy.
Further, early church history presents a bit of a problem for the Griesbach theory as well. The Griesbach theory requires that Mark draw almost all of his material from Matthew and Luke as primary sources. However, church tradition includes “Papias’ statement that Mark had as his main source the ‘memoirs of Peter’ and wrote his Gospel independently of Matthew…9” Finally, this hypothesis requires Mark to compile nearly all of his material from Matthew and Luke, and reduce it down. “It…makes more sense to think that Matthew and Luke have taken over much of Mark, expanding it with their own material, than that Mark has abbreviated Matthew, and/or Luke with the omission of so much material.10”
This leads our discussion to the second likely solution to the Synoptic Problem: The Two-Document, or Two-Source, Hypothesis. “[T]he two-source hypothesis holds that Mark and ‘Q,’ a lost collection of Jesus’ sayings, have been used independently by Matthew and Luke.11” This approach, as noted above, has the historical support of Papias, as cited by Eusebius, but its greatest advantage is that it seems to best represent the materials we have in the present state of the Synoptics. Obviously the greatest disadvantage of this hypothesis is that it requires that Luke and Matthew draw not only from Mark, but from another source that we have no tangible evidence of. “The reason for positing the existence of such a written collection of Jesus’ sayings is that there are approximately 250 verses common to Matthew and Luke that are not found in Mark. Most, though not all, of this material consists of teachings of Jesus.12”
As a result of positing a ‘Q’ source, some variations of the Two-Source document have emerged. For example, some suggest that Q is “a combination of written and oral traditions” while “most…think that Q was a single written document.”13 The present author is most convinced that ‘Q’ is nothing more than Mark and Luke relying on similar eye-witness accounts as they wrote their Gospels. Still others, assuming Markan priority, suggest that there is no need to posit a ‘Q’ source “…arguing that it is far simpler to think that Luke has used Matthew.”14
Another Possible Solution
While it is outside the scope of this [post] to analyze all the possible solutions to the Synoptic problem, one has emerged that is of special interest to this author. This hypothesis is one suggested by Matthias Klinghardt regarding the Marcionite Gospel. Admittedly, Klinghardt’s solution is a form of the Two-Source Hypothesis that simply postulates that the Marcionite Gospel is a possible ‘Q’ source. However, his hypothesis has some convincing aspects that warrant examination. First, the obvious difficulty with positing a ‘Q’ source is that there really is no historical evidence of such a source. That fact looms large over the entire hypothesis. Second, to postulate Markan priority without a ‘Q’ source, suggesting that Matthew used Mark, and then Luke subsequently used Matthew is not without its challenges. However, what Klinghardt suggests is that Marcion’s Gospel was, in fact, a proto-Luke. Klinghardt demonstrates in picture form (below) how his hypothesis changes the synoptic “picture.”15
Illustration 1: Klinhardt’s Marcionite Picture
When examined closely one begins to see how this solution might explain some of the difficulties that exist presently between Matthew and Luke. This view demonstrates how Matthew and Luke could have relied on one another, and still ended up with the present Synoptic Problem. Further, this solution eliminates the mysterious ‘Q’ and replaces it with an actual document that we know existed historically. One of the major problems with this solution is that Marcion’s Gospel was rejected. “The reason why this gospel was not considered to be part of the synoptic problem is obvious: from the ancient witnesses up to Harnack’s seminal and influential book on Marcion the basic judgment is taken for granted that Mcn is ‘nothing else than an abridged and altered version of the canonical Luke.’16” Klinghardt does an excellent job in demonstrating that there is some historical evidence that Marcion’s work was not necessarily a redaction of Luke, but actually a proto-Luke. “[T]here w[ere] a considerable number of scholars in the late 18th and early 19th centuries who proposed the opposite view and claimed that Mcn be prior to Luke, Luke thus being an enlarged re-edition of Mcn…This view was convincingly, yet without any consequences, repeated in the 20th century by John Knox.17”
The Synoptic Problem is, as Moo and Carson state “one that cannot be avoided.”18 The similarities and the differences between the Gospels combined demonstrate interdependence and the use of sources in their composition. Further, Luke’s Gospel confirms that both eye-witness accounts, as well as many written documents, were used in the compilation of his Gospel. It is not without possibility that each of the authors did the same thing. When the evidence is weighed the Greibach and the Two-Source, or Two-Document, hypotheses seem to be the most convincing. Also, Klinghardt’s suggestion that Marcion’s Gospel is actually a proto-Luke adds an interesting dynamic to the entire discussion of the synoptic problem. In the final analysis it seems that Markan priority combined with the two-document hypothesis, or some variation of it, is the closest we may ever get to understanding this problem. It’s entirely possible that a ‘Q’ source did exist. It is also well within the realm of possibility that this so-called ‘Q’ source was nothing more than Luke and Matthew relying on the same eye-witnesses as they assembled their Gospels. While the study of the Synoptic Problem seems to have narrowed to few possibilities, that does not mean the study should be abandoned. As McNicol notes: “One thing is sure. The work must continue.19”
Carson, D.A. & Moo, Douglas. An Introduction to the New Testament – 2nd Ed. Grand
Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005.
Klinghardt, Matthias. 2008. “The Marcionite Gospel and the Synoptic Problem: A New
Suggestion.” Novum Testamentum 50, no. 1: 1-27. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed November 8, 2013).
McNicol, Allan J. 2012. “The synoptic problem: have we reached a failure of nerve?.”
Restoration Quarterly 54, no. 3: 137-148. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed November 8, 2013).
Patzia, Arthur, G. The Making of the New Testament – 2nd Ed. Downers Grove, IL:
Poirier, John C. 2009. “The synoptic problem and the field of New Testament introduction.”
Journal For The Study Of The New Testament 32, no. 2: 179-190. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed November 8, 2013).
Stein, R.H. Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels: The Synoptic Problem. Edited by Joel B. Green,
Scot McKnight, & I. Howard Marshall. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1992.
1Patzia, Arthur G., The Making of the New Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InvterVarsity, 2011), 68.
2Carson, D.A. & Moo, Douglas, An Introduction to the New Testament – 2nd Ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 78.
3Stein, R.H. Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels: The Synoptic Problem, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1992), 785
4Carson & Moo, Introduction to the New Testament, 79.
5Carson & Moo, Introduction to the New Testament, 93.
6Stein, The Synoptic Problem, 786.
7Stein, The Synoptic Problem, 786.
8Stein, The Synoptic Problem, 789.
9Stein, The Synoptic Problem, 789.
10Carson & Moo, Introduction to the New Testament, 96.
11Carson & Moo, Introduction to the New Testament, 94.
12Carson & Moo, Introduction to the New Testament, 98.
13Carson & Moo, Introduction to the New Testament, 100.
14Carson & Moo, Introduction to the New Testament, 100.
15Klinghardt, Matthias, The Marcionite Gospel and the Synoptic Problem: A New Suggestion, Novum Testamentum 50, no. 1:1-27. (Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost, 2008), 21.
16Klinghardt, The Marcionite Gospel, 5.
17Klinghardt, The Marcionite Gospel, 6.
18Carson & Moo, Introduction to the New Testament, 78.
19McNicol, Allan, J, The Synoptic Prolem: Have we reached a failure of Nerve?, (Restoration Quarterly 54, no. 3: 137-148. ATLA Religion Databas with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost, 2012), 12.