The Synoptic Problem

The first three books of the New Testament, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, are frequently referred to as the Synoptic Gospels. Described in this manner due to their similarities to each other, while different from John’s Gospel. For some critics, these similarities are so close that a great controversy and debate has ensued. The result of this disagreement is commonly referred to as The Synoptic Problem.”

It is my view that scholars themselves created this problem due to a lack of understanding in precisely what has been written. In examination of these three Gospels, we find precisely what we would expect from three independent sources: There is adequate unanimity between these Gospel witnesses to demonstrate corroboration, but sufficient variation to eliminate collaboration.

All three Gospel authors wrote independent accounts. The differences are explained by simple forensic investigation which reveals that in genuine testimony which is truthful, multiple witnesses write a majority of the same accounts, with additions and omissions separate from the others. These differences are in accordance with individual memory and independent priority. The existence of these differences in recollection are precisely what forensic experts look for in written testimony in order to confirm truthful accounts.

Evidence The Four Gospels Are Separate And Distinct Narratives

All that has ensued with these various theories is what could be expected when so many opinions of men creep into an analysis of God’s word, confusion. By simply reading the text of all four Gospels, no theory is necessary. There are similarities in the synoptic Gospels when the writers are recounting the actual words of Jesus, or an event that a particular Gospel writer thought was significant. Other writers either added their own details, or omitted the details other writers included because they were either not as important as other details, or not remembered at the time of writing.

If the writers had copied from each other, it is likely that we would find a nearly identical account in all the Gospels. A significant marker of individuality, while maintaining corroborating accounts, demonstrates the independent memories of each Gospel writer.

The Following Are Traditional Definitions For Each Of the Alleged Theories For The Synoptic Problem

Mark’s Gospel is the shortest of the three, while large sections are also found in Matthew and Luke. Analysis suggests that Matthew and Luke share over two hundred verses that are not found in Mark. These similarities are found in their subject matter, precise words, and the order of specific events. When critics find these similarities in all three of the Synoptic Gospels, they refer to these as the triple tradition. Critics refer to the material only found in Matthew and Luke as the  double tradition, also known as Q. Text that is distinctively located in Matthew is described as the M tradition. Text found uniquely in Luke is described as the L tradition.

It is important to understand that even with these diverse differences in text in all three Gospels, they all share a commonality in the same narratives they are recounting. None of these differences changes the fundamental and important accounts of Jesus in coming to earth as God in the form of a man, performing miracles to prove His claim to be God, dying by crucifixion, and being raised from the dead. All four Gospel writers emphasize the importance of Jesus as the true Messiah, fulfilling all of the prophecies required for the Messiah. All four Gospels recount these same important events, defining them as credible, truthful independent narratives.

God does not restrict the individuality of persons who serve Him to write, speak, or serve in the same way that everyone else does. Those whom Jesus called to witness all that He said and did, had the freedom to write a narrative from the memory the Holy Spirit enabled them with (John 14:26). Each man wrote their accounts from the mind, personality, recollection, and abilities of each individual. These differences in memory, style of writing, additions or omissions of details, does not remove the inspiration of the text as coming from God, promised by Jesus before He went to the cross.

Possible Solutions For The Synoptic Problem

Because there is still a great deal of debate regarding the Synoptic Problem, the following theories are offered as ideas that scholars have proposed. It is important to understand that no one knows if any of these theories are correct. There is no person who can definitively state that any one of these ideas is the correct solution. It my opinion, as stated earlier, none of these ideas are necessary if we understand the text itself.

The Augustinian Theory:
This theory suggests that Matthew was the first Gospel that was written, followed by Mark, then Luke. This hypothesis describes the second and third Gospels as relying upon the previous Gospel(s) as their sources. Some scholars see a preservation of Matthean priority as essential due to certain statements that were voiced by some of the early church fathers. One statements originated from Augustine who said that the evangelists “have written in this order: first Matthew, then Mark, third Luke, and last John.”[1, 2]

The Griesbach Theory:
Similar to the Traditional Augustinian Theory, the Griesbach Theory also preserves a Matthean priority. Unlike the Augustinian theory, this Two-Gospel Hypothesis requires Luke as the second Gospel, followed by Mark as the third. In this theory, Luke would have used Matthew as a source, Mark would have used both Matthew and Luke as their sources. The Matthean priority obtains its support from the church fathers, stated by Clement of Alexandria who wrote that the Gospels and their genealogies found in Matthew and Luke, were written first.[3]

One point to consider in this theory is the difficulty it has with the Matthean priority. It is clear that Mark’s Gospel is the shortest with the majority of its text also found in Matthew and Luke. It is difficult to explain how the shortest Gospel is less than ten percent original, particularly when we understand Peter’s interpretation of these events through Mark. If Mark was truly a summary of Matthew and Luke, how do we account for the omission of important points that are observed in the other two Gospels, such as  the birth of Jesus and His Sermon on the Mount?

We find further difficulties in some of the earliest quotes that support a Matthean priority, stating that it was written in the Hebrew or Aramaic dialect first. As a result, these references do not require a Matthean priority in the Greek text, that would also allow the possibility for Markan or Lukan priority. Papias said: “Matthew gathered the sayings of Jesus in the Hebrew tongue, and each person translated them as he was able.”[4]

The Two-Source Theory:
This theory has become the most widely accepted conjecture amongst many New Testament scholars today. The reason for its popularity is that the two-source theory resolves the problems that originate with the Matthean priority, while also impeaching the problem of the double tradition. By the Two-Source Theory, priority is specified to Mark. The two-source theory states that both Matthew and Luke independently used Mark as their primary sources. Matthew reproduces most of its text from Mark, while Luke includes more than half of Mark’s text. By accessing Mark as a source, Matthew and Luke subsequently required Q as a common source.

Correctly Interpreting Q:

The letter Q is an abbreviation for the German word Quelle which means “source” or “spring.” In practice, Q may refer to different ideas. In one application, Q may be used to describe substantial first century documents. A second application may be its use to define several individual parts of diverse first century documents. Another application is in the oral tradition(s). Finally, Q is sometimes used in the double tradition material that is observed in both Matthew and Luke.

Because the Q document is an alleged document of hypothesis, there are several different conjectures in New Testament scholarship related to its criticism. I have had issues with the usage of such an idea because it cannot be validated and exists only in the hypothetical. This has become one of the primary tools used by liberal critics to prove ideas about the New Testament that are, as yet, unproven.

Amongst the conjectures for Q, is the idea that it antedates Matthew and Luke. In this regard, Q would be classified as a Sayings-Gospel. Different from the Gospels we do have, Q would not include Gospel narratives due to the existence of Q as a hypothesis and not a reality. I personally object to Q for the same reasons that I object to many of the unprovable assertions that are a part of New Testament Criticism today. These postulated ideas, give the unsuspecting layperson or student the idea that they are proven and reliable conclusions. They are not.

In debates with nearly 2,000 atheists I have heard the common claims of Q, late-dates for the writing of the Gospels, and the assertion that non-eye witnesses wrote the text. None of these are provable, but the majority of seminary students, and people who read the books and commentary written by liberal New Testament scholars, assume they are correct and proven.

Unlike the Gospels which are a part of the New Testament, Q would not contain narrative sections because the Q material in both Matthew and Luke are sometimes placed in different contexts. Q remains a hypothesis and until there is actual evidence to prove its reality, I for one, will not accept it as fact.

The Three-Source Theory:
The least popular of the synoptic problem solutions is the Three-Source Theory. This idea is similar to the Two-Source Theory, with the exception of one important point: Markan priority and the utilization of Q are both accessed, while the Three-Source Theory also adheres to a Matthean influence on Luke. This requires Mark as the first Gospel, then Matthew, and finally Luke. In this theory, Matthew and Luke are using the prior Gospel(s) as its source along with Q. Many scholars have difficulty with this idea due to the requirement of Luke in using text from Matthew, which is viewed as doubtful. This would impeach the idea of using Q in the first place.

The Four-Source Theory:
This is a unique theory that is centered on all the elements of the Two-Source Theory. The Four-Source Theory also makes use of Matthew and Luke independently using Mark and Q, with each Gospels accessing material that was unique to themselves. The text that we find used exclusively by Matthew is called M tradition, while Luke’s text is called L tradition. Understanding that this theory is simply a form of the Two-Source Theory, this has become a preferred solution for many scholars.

Farrer Theory (Mark without Q):
The final theory is called the Farrer Theory. As with the previous ideas described in this article, the Farrer Theory gives priority to Mark’s Gospel. In this theory, Matthew is the second Gospel that was written, followed by Luke. The Farrer Theory describes Matthew accessing the text of Mark, while Luke would have made use of Mark and Matthew. This theory does not require a theoretical Q due to there being no need to explain the triple and the double traditions from outside sources. A few of the primary advocates for this view are: A. M. Farrer, Mark Goodacre, J. H. Ropes, and M. D. Goulder. Some scholars see the Farrer Theory as a solid solution the the Synoptic Problem without the requirement of any hypothetical external texts.

Other Interests In New Testament Criticism:


[1] Irenaeus and Origen, antecedent Augustine, also held to the same order of composition.
[2] Subsequent supporters of this theory include,H. G. Jameson, Hugo Grotius, John Wenham, and Basil Christopher Butler.
[3] Primary contributors for this theory are, J. J. Griesbach, T. R. W. Longstaff, Henry Owen, and William R. Farmer, et al. (
[4] Eusebius Ecclesiastical History 3.39.16
[5] Format Source BLB

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