What Is the “Synoptic Problem” and Why Do Apologists Need to Know About It?

by Jimmy Akin

in Bible

Synoptic EvangelistsThree of the Gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—are very similar to each other when compared to the fourth Gospel, John. They tell the story of Jesus in very similar ways, frequently including the same stories and sayings and often using exactly the same words.

That’s why these three are known as the “synoptic” Gospels—because they offer a “shared view” of Jesus’ life (Greek, sun = “together” + opsis “seeing”).

They are so similar that scholars have tried to figure out why. This is known as “the synoptic problem.”

In the last two centuries, there has been an enormous amount written about the subject, and we can’t hope to more than scratch the surface here. We will, however, look at some of the more popular solutions to the synoptic problem.


Is There a Problem at All?

diagram oral sourcesIt’s tempting to ask whether there even is a problem to be solved. Relying on eyewitness evidence and oral tradition, couldn’t Matthew, Mark, and Luke have written independently of each other? Couldn’t they include the stories and sayings that they do just because Jesus did and said those things?

This view is known as the Independence hypothesis, and it is the position that most people hold, at least before they start looking closely at the issue.

Despite its appeal, the Independence hypothesis has not won many advocates among scholars in recent years. Part of the reason is the Gospel of John. It is missing many of the familiar stories and sayings found in the other three, and it has a great deal of new material not found in them.

What’s more, John indicates that there was an even larger pool of material about Jesus to select from. At the end of his Gospel, he writes: “There are also many other things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25).

That means we have to ask the question of why Matthew, Mark, and Luke chose the material that they did. It isn’t that they were recording everything Jesus said and did. They could have picked different stories and sayings, like John. If they wrote independently of each other, why did they make so many of the same choices?

It is commonly estimated that 90% of the material found in Mark is also found in Matthew (B. F. Streeter, The Four Gospels, 160). Nine out of ten verses in Mark are paralleled in Matthew! That seems to be too large an amount of material in common for it to just be random chance. It suggests a common source.


An Oral Gospel?

What could that source be? One possibility is that it was an oral equivalent of a Gospel.

People relied on and trained their memories to a greater extent in the past, and it is not impossible that the early Church developed a standard way of recounting the ministry and passion of Jesus—a cycle of stories and sayings that were memorized in a definite order, rather than just as a pool of traditions. If so, they had the oral equivalent of a Gospel, and the Synoptic Evangelists could have drawn on this for the material they share in common.

Most scholars have not favored this viewpoint. Memorizing such a Gospel would have been quite an achievement—particularly without a written text to work from—and it is not clear that the early Christian community had enough people willing to perform the feat. Further, we have no record of people in the first century attempting this, and we have no record among the Church Fathers of the Synoptics being based on such a source.


A Lost Gospel?

diagram lost gospelMost scholars think that the similarities among the Synoptics are due to a common written source. The question is: Do we still have this source?

Some have suggested that we don’t—that the common source behind the Synoptics was a now-lost “proto-Gospel” that each drew upon.

Luke tells us that, in his day, “many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us” (Luke 1:1). It is possible that the three Evangelists used one of these prior narratives in composing their own Gospels.

But we should be careful about claiming that there was a single, written source that explains the similarities among the Synoptics.

This view invokes a hypothetical source, and Occam’s Razor indicates that we shouldn’t propose hypothetical sources beyond what is necessary to account for the data. Otherwise, the problem will become nightmarishly complex. (Indeed, one web site devoted to the synoptic problem—hypotyposeis.org—listed 1,488 solutions! That number is made possible by freely proposing hypothetical sources for which we do not have clear evidence.)

Rather than proposing hypothetical, lost documents, we should at least initially try to explain the material in the Synoptic Gospels by appealing to documents that we know existed: Matthew, Mark, and Luke.


Who’s on First?

It’s possible to explain the shared material in the Synoptics by proposing that one of them is the common source. In other words, one of the Evangelists wrote first and the other two borrowed from him.

You could explain the 90% of Mark that is paralleled in Matthew either by saying Mark wrote the first Gospel and Matthew borrowed from him or that Matthew wrote first and Mark did the borrowing.

You don’t need a hypothetical source to account for the material. You just need to identify which was the first one written.

On this, there are two major views: One holds that Matthew wrote first and the other that Mark did. Virtually no one in Church history has claimed that Luke wrote first.

The idea that Matthew wrote first is known as “Matthean priority,” and it was the most popular view in most of Church history. The alternative view, that Mark wrote first, is known as “Markan priority,” and it is the most popular view today.


The Augustinian Hypothesis

diagram augustinian hypothesisFor much of Church history, the standard theory of how the Gospel were composed is that Matthew wrote first, Mark then did an abbreviated version of Matthew, while adding a small amount of material of his own. Finally, Luke wrote.

This view takes its name from St. Augustine (354-430).

At the beginning of his Harmony of the Gospels, Augustine took the position that the Gospels were written in this order, though a statement that he made later in the work has led some to think that he may have revised his view or become less sure about the order.


The Griesbach Hypothesis

diagram griesbach hypothesisAnother view, known as the Griesbach hypothesis, agrees that Matthew wrote first, but it holds that Luke wrote second and that Mark wrote last, making his Gospel a combination and abridgement of the first two. (Mark is quite a bit shorter than either Matthew or Luke.)

The view is named after Johann Jakob Griesbach (1745-1812), the German scholar who proposed it.

This is the second most popular view among biblical scholars today. (We will discuss the most popular one shortly.) The best-known advocate of this theory in recent years was William Farmer (1921-2000).


The Farrer Hypothesis

diagram farrer hypothesisIf you hold that Matthew wrote first then the Augustinian and Griesbach hypotheses are the two obvious options. But what if you hold that Mark wrote first? Again, there are two options that don’t involve hypothetical documents.

The first is known as the Farrer hypothesis. According to it, Mark wrote first, then Matthew used and expanded on Mark, and finally Luke drew from and abridged the first two, while adding some new material from his own sources.

This view is named after the English scholar Austin Farrer (1904-1968), who proposed it. It is popular principally among British scholars.


The Wilke Hypothesis

diagram wilke hypothesisThe other obvious view based on the idea that Mark wrote first is known as the Wilke hypothesis. According to this view, Mark wrote the initial Gospel, Luke wrote next drawing partly on Mark and partly on his own sources, and then Matthew wrote last, drawing on both Mark and Luke.

This theory is named after the German scholar Christian Gottlob Wilke (1786-1854), who was also a convert to the Catholic Church from Lutheranism.

The Wilke hypothesis has received a surprisingly small amount of attention in recent literature, with many authors gliding over it in a sentence or failing to mention it altogether. Despite that, it has been attracting renewed attention in the last few years, with a number of new advocates. Among them was German scholar Martin Hengel (1926-2006), who proposed a version of it.


The Two-Source Hypothesis

diagram two-source hypothesisBy far the most common theory today is the “Two-Source hypothesis.” According to this view, Mark wrote first and then Matthew and Luke used him independently of each other.

This would account for why both Matthew and Luke have certain material in common with Mark, but it would not account for why they have certain material in common with each other.

There are around 235 verses in Matthew that are paralleled in Luke, and many scholars have proposed a common source for this material. They have dubbed this source “Q.” It is often claimed that this is short for the German word Quelle, which means “source,” but this is not certain.

The view is known as the “Two-Source hypothesis” because it holds that Matthew and Luke used two major sources: Mark and Q.

Note that the idea of a Q source (which might have been written or oral) is only needed if you assume that Matthew and Luke wrote independently of each other. If you hold one of the views mentioned above, you don’t need to propose a Q source. For example, Luke could have drawn all of the so-called “Q material” directly from Matthew under the Augustinian, Griesbach, or Farrer hypotheses. Alternately, Matthew could have taken all of this material directly from Luke under the Wilke hypothesis.

The Two-Source theory was first proposed in 1838 by the German scholar Christian Hermann Weisse (1801-1861) and was elaborated by various others—most notably by the English scholar B. H. Streeter (1874-1937).

In 1911 and 1912, the Pontifical Biblical Commission issued a pair of decrees that insisted Catholic biblical scholars were to teach that Matthew wrote first, thus ruling out the Two-Source hypothesis.

These decrees were disciplinary and provisional, and they were ultimately superseded. The Two-Source view then became dominant among Catholic scholars.

This was acknowledged by Benedict XVI, before he became pope and while he was himself the head of the Pontifical Biblical Commission. In an address to the commission, he noted that the Two-Source theory is “accepted today by almost everyone” (Joseph Ratzinger, On the 100th Anniversary of the Pontifical Biblical Commission).

Upon coming into office, Pope Francis wrote a letter to an Italian newspaper that indicated that he, personally, adheres to the idea that Mark wrote first:

“I would say that we must face Jesus in the concrete roughness of his story, as above all told to us by the most ancient of the Gospels, the one according to Mark” (“Pope Francisco writes to La Repubblica: ‘An open dialogue with non-believers,’” La Repubblica, Sept. 11, 2013; online at repubblica.it).

Pope Francis did not indicate whether he also believes there to have been a Q source—and letters to newspapers do not count as acts of the papal Magisterium—but this does indicate the degree of acceptance that Markan priority has achieved in Catholic circles.


How Certain Can We Be?

By the mid-twentieth century, the Two-Source hypothesis had achieved such dominance that it was often presented as one of “the assured results of modern scholarship” (to use a common phrase).

This began to change, with a notable number of scholars challenging it and with even its advocates making more modest claims on its behalf.

For example, Joseph Fitzmyer—an advocate of the Two-Source hypothesis—famously said:

“The history of Synoptic research reveals that the problem is practically insoluble. As I see the matter, we cannot hope for a definitive and certain solution to it, since the data for its solution are scarcely adequate or available to us” (“The Priority of Mark and the ‘Q’ Source in Luke,” Jesus: Man’s Hope, 1:132).

Advocates of other views have often agreed that the best we can achieve is a probable solution, not a certain one.

This is because the data we have is limited and often difficult to assess. Basically, it comes in two forms: external and internal.

External data consists of what we can learn about the Synoptic Gospels from outside sources, such as the Church Fathers. Internal data consists of what we can learn by comparing the Synoptic Gospels with each other. Both kinds can be difficult to assess.


Mixed Messages

The external data can be difficult because, although the Augustinian hypothesis eventually became the majority view and remained so for a long time, the Church Fathers do not all agree, particularly in the period before Augustine.

This can be seen by looking at what they have to say about Mark. According to Augustine, Mark was the second Gospel to be written, after Matthew and before Luke. He wrote: “Mark follows [Matthew] closely, and looks like his attendant and epitomizer” (Harmony of the Gospels I:2[4]).

But Clement of Alexandria, the late-second century head of a catechetical school in Mark’s see of Alexandria, may have held Mark was written third—after both Matthew and Luke, for he said the Gospels with the genealogies (Matthew and Luke) were written first (Eusebius, Church History 6:14:6-7). This would be in keeping with the Griesbach hypothesis.

The earliest statement we have comes from the early second century historian Papias, who in turn quotes a first century figure known as “John the Presbyter” or “John the Elder” (Greek, presbuteros = “elder”). This figure was a disciple of Jesus. He is sometimes identified with John son of Zebedee, but a careful reading of Papias indicates that he may have been a separate individual (see Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, ch.s 2, 9, 16).

According to John the Presbyter,

“Mark, having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately, though not in order, whatsoever he remembered of the things said or done by Christ. For he neither heard the Lord nor followed him, but afterward, as I said, he followed Peter, who adapted his teaching to the needs of his hearers, but with no intention of giving a connected account of the Lord’s discourses, so that Mark committed no error while he thus wrote some things as he remembered them. For he was careful of one thing, not to omit any of the things which he had heard, and not to state any of them falsely” (Eusebius, Church History 3:39:15).

Since John the Presbyter is a first century source and a witness of Jesus’ ministry, his testimony regarding Mark’s composition has great weight.

It was also held by many in the early Church (see Jerome, Lives of Illustrious Men 9 and 18) and by a number of modern scholars (including Richard Bauckham, Martin Hengel, and Benedict XVI) that John the Presbyter had a hand in writing at least some of the Johannine literature in the New Testament, especially 2 and 3 John, which are addressed as being from “the Presbyter/Elder” (2 John 1, 3 John 1; see Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth 1:224-227 for his view of John the Presbyter’s role in the origin of the Johannine books).

If this is true then his testimony regarding the origin of Mark’s Gospel would have even greater weight. It would represent the testimony of one of the other authors of the New Testament! (The same would be true if John the Presbyter were identified with John son of Zebedee.)

Either way, if Mark’s Gospel is based on his memory of things Peter preached and if 90% of Mark is in Matthew then it would seem that Mark wrote first and Matthew borrowed from him. It would seem hard to say that Mark is based on Peter’s preaching if 90% of it came from Matthew.

However, some advocates of the Griesbach hypothesis have proposed that Peter gave a series of lectures based on Matthew and Luke and that Mark had these lectures transcribed (so Dom Bernard Orchard, David Alan Black). In this way, Mark could be based on Peter’s preaching and still have so much of its material taken from Matthew.

This, however, does not seem to correspond to what John the Presbyter says: He states that Mark “wrote down accurately, though not in order, whatsoever he remembered of the things said or done by Christ” based on Peter’s preaching, “with no intent of giving a connected account of the Lord’s discourses.” The stress is placed on Mark’s after-the-fact memory of Peter’s preaching, not on the transcription of a set of lectures.


Internal Evidence

If the external evidence can be difficult to assess, so can the internal evidence that scholars have gleaned by comparing Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The literature on the subject is vast, often brain-crushingly detailed, and frequently the arguments don’t prove what they’re supposed to.

For example, one argument B. H. Streeter proposed for Mark being the first Gospel is that its literary quality is not as high as Matthew or Luke. This is true, and it is especially clear in the Greek text. The claim is that Mark reads like a first attempt at a Gospel and that Matthew and Luke then expanded on and polished the material, producing Gospels of higher literary quality.

This argument has weight, but it is not conclusive. It is possible that Mark could have decided to do an abbreviated Gospel, and—in his retelling of the material—he revealed that he was not as accomplished an author.

Another argument is based on the fact that the Synoptics often present the same stories and sayings in a different order. Streeter argued that, when this happens, either Matthew tends to follow Mark’s order or Luke does. Matthew and Luke virtually never agree with each other against Mark’s sequence. This suggested to him that Matthew and Luke were using Mark as a source but occasionally changed the sequence in which they presented material.

Unfortunately, this argument—like many—is reversible. As later scholars pointed out, the same phenomenon can be explained if Mark was compiling his material from Matthew and Luke. At any given point, it would have been natural for Mark to follow Matthew’s order or Luke’s order, but he couldn’t do both when they were different.

The difficulty in finding conclusive arguments—based on internal or external evidence—has convinced many scholars that we simply can’t have conclusive proof. The best we can hope for is a probable solution, and some scholars don’t even hold out that hope and think the matter is unknowable.

This leads to a final question.


How Important Is the Synoptic Problem?

The answer will depend on your perspective. For some scholars, the subject is crucially important. This is particularly the case for those engaged in “the search for the historical Jesus.” These scholars tend to think that the true Jesus—“the Jesus of history”—has been obscured by successive layers of tradition and dogma and so been transformed into “the Christ of faith.”

For them, finding the truth about Jesus involves peeling away and discarding the layers of tradition, and if you want to do that then it matters very much which Gospel was first and whether lost sources like Q were being used. You need to identify the earliest material you can so that you can dismiss later material as saying something about the Church rather than about Jesus.

This is why it’s important for apologists to know about the Synoptic problem. Regardless which solution (if any) one thinks persuasive, apologists need to be able to interact with the kind of arguments involved. Otherwise, they will be unprepared to deal with those who use the relationships among the Synoptics to discredit them.

From the perspective of faith, the matter is much less urgent. Knowing how the Synoptic Gospels were composed can help shed light on particular passages, but it is not necessary for a basic understanding of Jesus and his message. From a faith perspective, the Gospels are inspired by the Holy Spirit and are reliable records of Jesus’ life and teachings.

In other words, the Jesus of history is the Christ of faith.

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BM September 10, 2014 at 5:51 pm

There are some interesting writings on this and related questions at the following site that you or your readers may be interested in:


Johno September 11, 2014 at 2:05 am

Wow – Jimmy, that’s a great straightforward explanation of a very complex subject. Even a simple guy like me can get the drift, although only at a superficial level. Interesting, I haven’t seen this discussed often. Well done.

David September 11, 2014 at 5:18 am

I’ve read recently about a view that holds the order of writing is Mat. Luke then Mark but the order of their approval, copy and disbursement was Mat. Mark Luke. That would account for a number of issues especially allowing for the historical/traditional order. I find that those who propose Mark as first have an agenda to deconstruct using the hist/crit method. It may be an example of B16’s humility that he allows for the fact that “most ‘scholars'” accept the two source theory even though he may not hold to it and it may just be an example of P. Francis Jesuit training and lack of theological endeavor that he accepts it. I don’t think he would call himself an theologian and definitely not on par with B16. I would be interested in the rational you might give for dismissing the Bib Pont. Com. I don’t think B16 ever really does though he never enforces it either, which again is in line with his demeanor.

Del Rayva September 11, 2014 at 7:21 am

Hmmm. You didn’t mention anything about “Aramaic Matthew.” (AM) I had been taught that the first gospel written was Matthew, but in Aramaic. Mark then combined what he had heard from Peter with a translation of Matthew into Greek. Then, someone translated AM into Greek, using Mark as a reference. Finally, Luke had Mark and Greek Matthew, as well as his own discussions with Mary and others as a reference.

I’m not saying that’s definitely right, but it seems like a relevant theory to mention.

Wesley Vincent September 11, 2014 at 10:09 am

Certainly this issue is important for biblical scholars to pursue. However, there are some aspects of this type of debate that intrigue. First, there is the traditional view that dates back very close to the time of the apostles or at least during a time when those who had known the apostles still lived. Second, those who proposed the historical critical model, date from sixteen or eighteen centuries later and spoke from a position with an ax to grind. These later scholars seemed determined to “demythologize” all of the New Testament. Demythologizing seems best equated with a goal to disprove NT historicity and debunk Christianity. So as a believer, not a scholar, I’m more interested in the motive of the researcher than the argument presented. Theologically, the order of composition matters not one whit. Accepting the opinion of scholars, especially the johnny-come-lately who reject the miraculous, thus, reject the early historical claims, matters greatly.

anthony September 11, 2014 at 11:05 am

I find Q a bit quixotic. I quit questioning curious queries. Common sense: people memorized. They did not read or write- I have repeatedly asked a friend of mine who travels to international auctions. Yes, he still remembers all the bids and prices. He relies on his memory. I remember Dr. Hahn saying that common people memorized all the psalms. I asked an Antiochan priest about this. He told me his bishop recites from memory all the psalms every day. This corresponds to what I remember Dr. Hahn saying.

Choose the simple solution. Memory was a survival tool, an entertainment source and a practical method for negotiating life. Simplify.

Jimmy, I appreciate your clarity and presentation of complicated material in a comprehensible way- even for someone who is just starting out.

Patrick September 11, 2014 at 12:43 pm

Very interesting article. Until the 18th century, everyone thought that Matthew’s Gospel was the first. This was based on the unanimous views of the early Fathers: they all considered that Matthew’s was the first, even though there was some disagreement about the second.

The post-18th century views are based on literary analysis, none of which provides conclusive proof for any of the different hypotheses. So the interesting question is: why has literary analysis trumped historical evidence from those who were much closer to the actual events? Are there not issues here of theological bias (given that Matthew’s Gospel provides the basis for Petrine primacy)? And why have so many Catholic scholars fallen for Marcan priority, given the surprisingly flimsy basis for the latter?

ursula riches September 11, 2014 at 12:45 pm

I understood that Mark was Peter’s son and so would have known a lot about Jesus first hand and from Peter and the others. Luke was a physician and I had understood that his source Q was our Holy Mother, Mathhews sources must also have included our holy Mother and of course St John actually lived with out Holy Mother Mary-so his gospel is very different. The Mother of God knew her son for about thirty years longer than the 12 disciples. When the gospel of John states that stories of Jesus were numerous, he of all apart from our Lady and St Joseph, he would know. Could anyone imagine our Lady not sharing stories of her son or imagine St John would not be the most willing of listeners?

Suzanne September 11, 2014 at 2:39 pm

I just really appreciate the work you are doing and making it available to your readers.

TeaPot562 September 11, 2014 at 4:06 pm

One idea has been expressed by noting Mark 14, verses 51-52.
One of my course instructors thought that Mark was the son of the man who owned the dining room used for the last supper. If so, Mark could have been an occasional witness to some of the Last Supper, and followed Jesus and the Eleven to Gethsemane.
In which case the arrest of Jesus would have been eye-witness testimony. Mark may also have been the “man carrying the water jar” mentioned in verse 13 of this gospel.

Nick from Detroit September 12, 2014 at 9:58 am

I first read of Dom Bernard Orchard’s, OSB, work earlier this year, when I came across this article, by Karl Keating, on Catholic Answers website:

His solution seems to account for almost all of the objections to the “Synoptic Problem.” It is also logical and well-reasoned, in my opinion.

alan September 13, 2014 at 5:44 am

Hebrew Matthew which was much longer than Greek Matthew came first, it was Q, and it explains the claim of Matthew being first. Jerome translated some of it in a letter to pope damasus

De Maria September 13, 2014 at 6:33 pm

Has it occurred to anyone that they were written simultaneously? Has it occurred to anyone that the common source was the Holy Spirit?

St. Luke said:

Luke 1 King James Version (KJV)

1 Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to set forth in order a declaration of those things which are most surely believed among us, 2 Even as they delivered them unto us, which from the beginning were eyewitnesses, and ministers of the word; 3 It seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write unto thee in order, most excellent Theophilus,

That sounds as though “many” are writing down that which was passed down. “Passed down” how? Probably oral teaching:

2 Pet 1:19 We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts: 20 Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. 21 For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.

St. Peter says that the Holy Ghost moved holy men of God to speak. They all spoke at the same time, did they not?

Isn’t this obvious from the Pentecost, Acts 2. But then, those same men wrote down that which they preached. And the common source, the Holy Spirit.

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