Synoptic Gospel Problem

Comparing and Contrasting the Three Synoptic Gospels

The first three gospels — Mark, Matthew, and Luke — are very similar. So similar, in fact, that their parallels cannot be explained by mere coincidence. The problem here has been in figuring out what exactly their connections are. Which came first? Which served as a source for which others? Which is most reliable?

Mark, Matthew, and Luke are known as the “synoptic” gospels. The term “synoptic” derives from the Greek syn-optic because the text of each can be laid out side-by-side and “seen together” in order to determine the ways which they are similar and the ways they are different.

Some similarities exist among all three, some just between Mark and Matthew, and the fewest just between Mark and Luke. The gospel of John also shares in traditions about Jesus, but it was written at a much later date than the others and is quite distinct from them in terms of style, content, and theology.

It can’t be argued that the similarities can all be traced to the authors’ relying upon the same oral tradition because of the close parallels in the Greek they use (any original oral traditions would likely have been in Aramaic). This also argues against the authors also all relying upon independent memory of the same historical events.

All manner of explanations have been suggested, with most arguing for some form of one or more authors relying on the others. Augustine was the first and argued that the texts were written in the order they appear in the canon (Matthew, Mark, Luke) with each relying upon the earlier ones.

There are still some who hold to this particular theory.

The most popular theory among scholars today is known as the Two Documents Hypothesis. According to this theory, Matthew and Luke were written independently using two different source documents: Mark and a now-lost collection of Jesus’ sayings.

The chronological priority of Mark is usually taken for granted among most biblical scholars. Of the 661 verses in mark, only 31 don’t have parallels in either Matthew, Luke, or both. Over 600 appear in Matthew alone and 200 Marcan verses are common to both Matthew and Luke. When Marcan material does appear in the other gospels, it usually appears in the order found originally in Mark — even the order of the words themselves tends to be the same.

The Other Texts

The other, hypothetical text is usually labeled the Q-document, short for Quelle, the German word for “source.” When Q material is found in Matthew and Luke, it also often appears in the same order — this is one of the arguments for the existence of such a document, despite the fact that no original text has ever been discovered.

In addition, both Matthew and Luke utilized other traditions known to themselves and their communities but unknown to the other (usually abbreviated “M” and “L”). Some scholars also add that one may have made some use of the other, but even if this were the case it played only a minor role in the construction of the text.

There are a few other options currently held by a minority of scholars. Some argue that Q never existed but Mark was used as a source by Matthew and Luke; the non-Marcan similarities between the latter two is explained by arguing that Luke used Matthew as a source.

Some argue that Luke was created from Matthew, the oldest gospel, and Mark was a later summary created from both.

All of the theories solve certain problems but leave open others. The Two Document Hypothesis is the best contender but it is by no means perfect. The fact that it requires postulating the existence of an unknown and lost source text is an obvious problem and one that will probably never be solved. Nothing about lost source documents can be proven, so all we have are speculations that are more or less probable, more or less reasonably argued.

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Your Citation
Cline, Austin. "Synoptic Gospel Problem." ThoughtCo, Mar. 16, 2017, Cline, Austin. (2017, March 16). Synoptic Gospel Problem. Retrieved from Cline, Austin. "Synoptic Gospel Problem." ThoughtCo. (accessed January 17, 2018).