Synoptic Problem

Introduction to The Synoptic Problem

With the rise of scholarly research regarding the New Testament Canon there has been a general trend toward criticizing and playing down the historical traditions that have been associated with the New Testament. “The adjective ‘synoptic’ has been used since the time of J.J. Griesbach (ca. 1790) to describe the first three canonical gospels – Mathew, Mark, and Luke.”[1] These three gospels have a lot of similar material, and at times the exact same wording. A breakdown of the words shows that 1852 of the exact same words are used in all three of the gospel accounts.[2] However, some parts of Mathew are in Luke, but not in Mark, or in Mark and Luke but not Mathew. These similarities and differences do exist, and “scholars generally refer to questions – especially questions about the possible sources the Gospel writers used – regarding this puzzling combination of differences and similarities between these three Gospels as the Synoptic Problem.”[3] There is much research on this topic, and although there have been several attempts to propose a solution to this problem but ultimately one must have a dependence on the character of God to not only include what He wants in His revelation of Himself, but to maintain the documents from their original authors as well.

The Primary Theories

There are several theories that have been proposed to solve the Synoptic Problem. The main theories can be broken down into essentially five categories. The Two-Gospel Hypothesis, the Markan Priority, the Two-Document Hypothesis, the Farrer-Goulder Hypothesis, and the theory that has been around the longest, the Augustinian View. These views have varying degrees of acceptance and all deserve some sort of mention.

The Two-Gospel Hypothesis is essentially that Mathew was written first followed by Mark. Then Luke used both Mathew and Mark for his material. This hypothesis is propagated William Farmer who in his defense of the Two-Gospel Hypothesis states his “argument for Mark being dependent on both Mathew and Luke…depends on a web of evidence structured by innumerable arguments, some of which touch only the most minute points, but which nevertheless, taken together with all the rest, constitute a supportive basis that will bear the weight of the conclusion: it is historically probable that Mark was written after Mathew and Luke was dependent upon both.”[4] However, some proponents of this argument suggest that Mathew was written first followed by Luke and then Mark used the previous two gospels for his material. Either way the theory ends up being that whichever gospel is written third used the two gospels that were written earlier for its source material.

The Markan Priority is simply that Mark was written first and Mathew and Luke took the material found in Mark and then expanding upon it. We see this viewpoint defended by Scot McKnight who will say “we are reasonably confident that Mathew, Mark, and Luke are related at the literary level and that it is highly likely that they are mutually dependent…We are also reasonably confident that Mark is the middle factor.”[5] This view is shared by many people and other hypothesis (such as the two-document hypothesis), and “generally, differences between the Synoptics can be more reasonably explained when one assumes Markan priority.”[6]

The Two-Document Hypothesis generally is that Mark was written before both Mathew and Luke, but there is another document that has been lost called “Q” which provided the shared material that Mathew and Luke contain but that is not found in Mark. This view typically has lots of support from contemporary scholars who will typically hold to what is sometimes called the Oxford hypothesis which “offers a more probably account of the phenomenon: Mathew eliminated a theological difficulty. It is more probably that Mathew erased a theological problem than that Mark created one. This kind of observation when comparing Mathew, Mark, and Luke not only lends support to the Oxford hypothesis, but also makes it the most probably hypothesis.”[7]

The Farrer-Goulder Hypothesis can be shortened to Luke used Mathew Gospel in addition to Mark which made it so that there was no need for a “Q” document. “The most important evidence supporting Luke’s use of Matherw is the so-called minor agreements of Mathew and Luke against Mark.”[8] This argument is gaining supporters in England but has yet to attain as much acceptance in the rest of the world.

Lastly, the Augustinian View, which has very few modern supporters can be summarized by saying that Mathew was written first, then Mark, and lastly Luke (who had access to both Mathew and Mark) when writing his Gospel account.[9] This view was held by the early church and was generally accepted up until the scholarly challenges that have created this Synoptic Problem.

A Theological viewpoint

As we look at these proposed solutions, there is much that is left wanting when the various arguments are suggested. As Paul Enns suggests, “the above theories stress the human aspect in the writing of the gospels, which is a legitimate consideration, but it sometimes neglects the divine element.”[10] This is where the scholarly criticisms tend to fall short. The proponents of the solutions tend to minimize God when looking at the shared material. One has to admit there is a lot of material that is shared between Mathew, Mark, and Luke, and in contemporary circles there would be an assumption that the writers must have used the work of the others so as to complete their accounts. However, the characteristics of God or the divine element ought to be included in any consideration of a book that is claimed to be of divine origin.

When looking at the attributes of God, there are ultimately three attributes of God that should be considered when looking at His book. First, there is God’s omnipotence, His omniscience, and His omnipresence. These attributes of God coupled with His sovereignty and the promises found throughout scripture where He claims to provide the inspiration of scripture should enable the believer to trust the words that record Jesus’ time on Earth.

First, the very nature of God is on where He must be omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent. These qualities are necessary of God otherwise he would not be God. Or at least not the God that Christians believe to be revealed through their scriptures. “The attributes of God may be defined as ‘those distinguishing characteristics of the divine nature which are inseparable from the idea of God and which constitute the basis and ground for his various manifestations.”[11] His omnipotence would enable God to do whatever He wills. This would include even to the extent of changing the words the author of any particular piece of scripture that He intends to have included in His canon. His omnipotence and omniscience would allow God to know everything that would might threaten His revealed word, and coupled with His omnipotence protect the integrity of the revealed word.

God’s sovereignty tends to be forgotten when it comes to the matters of His word. Part of what the Bible in both the Old Testament and the New Testament reveal is that God is sovereign over all of creation. He has control over the weather, He has control over the rulers of the earth, and over the hairs on ones head. Why would God then not have control over the revelation of Himself? Scripture testifies of itself that it is God breathed (2 Timothy 3:16) and only what God wants in it will be included. The other side of the idea is that nothing God does not want will be included either.

Even though we know God is sovereign over His scripture, there is more internal evidence testifying of the truth the gospels. If one will accept the testimony of the scriptures, we will learn that Jesus promised His disciples “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you.”[12] This of course is in reference to the Holy Spirit which had the mission of guiding the scriptures as they were being written. This can be stated because all of the writers of scripture, and in this case the synoptic gospels specifically, would have had the Holy Spirit living in them, “Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own?”[13]

There is a theory that some have termed the Proto-Gospel theory. This theory states there is a source from which all of the writers drew that was separate from all of the writers and has since disappeared.[14] This is likely the best theory to follow the character of God as we can tell from theology. The only problem with this theory is it is still relying on another Aramaic source. A better suggestion would be to replace the source with the life of Jesus. All three of these authors are writing about the life of the same person. All three come from a similar perspective that none of the writers were in the inner circle of Jesus but are all still followers of Jesus. The timing of the writers would make virtually no difference because they shared the primary source of the life of Jesus, but had no need to share material. Although, it is likely the authors did at the very least communicate with one another due to their shared beliefs, which would have resulted in the same associates, and similar experiences (for example persecution from the Roman state). In summary the similarities of the gospels can be explained by saying that three men are writing about a common situation from a common perspective with a shared responsibility to different audiences accounting for both their similarities and their differences.

Skepticism of the Theological basis       

A Theological basis for which the argument would necessitate does require the belief in God, and mostly the God these scriptures declare. Scholars who research the Synoptic problem say the “resemblances and differences that become evident upon a careful comparison of the Synoptic Gospels constitute a phenomenon unique in all of ancient literature. On the one hand, to most observers the resemblances seem too numerous and too striking to be explained on the basis of the hypothesis that the first three evangelists wrote independently of one another; and, on the other hand, the differences are at times so significant as to imply the use of different sources by the evangelists.”[15] This creates the dilemma that many scholars want to research the basis for the Synoptic Problem.

The scholars who research the Synoptic problem sought after because of the desire to “discern the use of written and/or oral sources by the evangelists.”[16] This can be an important study, but tends to result in arguments and confusion and likely, “this issue may not be fully resolved until (and unless) new evidence comes to light.”[17]


For many who seek to determine the order for the gospels and the dependency of the Synoptic Gospels upon each other, the issue will likely never be fully resolved, but if you look at the authors all telling the same story from different points of view it tends to make sense. Although not a perfect parallel, Occam’s Razor can be used here even though it does not necessarily apply as a scientific measure, but the simplest explanation is the best. And instead of creating a “Q” source for which there is no hard evidence, trust God to do what would be in His nature. This is more in line with the Augustinian theory which has little scholarly support today but likely fits the evidence of the nature of God the best.

Bibliography (Enns 2008)

Abakuks, A. (2006), The synoptic problem and statistics. Significance, 3: 153–157. doi: 10.1111/j.1740-9713.2006.00195.x

Black, David Alan & David R. Beck. Rethinking the Synoptic Problem. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001.

Carlson, Stephen C. Synoptic Problem Website. March 12, 2010. (accessed 09 09, 2012).

Enns, Paul. The Moody Handbook of Theology. Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2008.

Kostenberger, Andreas, and L. Scott Kellum & Charles Quarles. The Cradle, The Cross, and the Crown. Nashville: B&H Academic, 2009.

[1] (Black 2001) 11

[2] Abakuks, A. (2006), The synoptic problem and statistics. Significance, 3: 153–157. doi: 10.1111/j.1740-9713.2006.00195.x

[3] (Kostenberger and Quarles 2009) 158

[4] (Black 2001) 101

[5] (Black 2001) 77

[6] (Kostenberger and Quarles 2009) 169

[7] (Black 2001) 88

[8] (Kostenberger and Quarles 2009) 172

[9] (Kostenberger and Quarles 2009)165

[10] (Enns 2008) 84

[11] (Enns 2008) 191

[12] John 14:26 NKJV

[13] 1 Corinthians 6:19

[14] (Carlson 2010)

[15] (Black 2001) 11

[16] (Kostenberger and Quarles 2009) 174

[17] (Kostenberger and Quarles 2009) 173

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