Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Synoptic Problem


The word "synoptic" comes from the Greek and literally means "seen together." The Books of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are called the "Synoptic Gospels" because they contain much of the same material and largely follow the same outline. They can be laid out in parallel columns for comparison and study. These three Gospels can be seen together.

The Gospel of John goes its own way. It is made up mostly of unique material and doesn't lend itself easily to comparison with the other Gospels.

The Gospel of Matthew contains roughly 90% of the Gospel of Mark. Luke contains a little more than 50% of the Gospel of Mark. Matthew and Luke also have some material, mostly teachings of Jesus, in common that is not found in Mark. All of the synoptics have some material found in none of the others.

The "Synoptic Problem," as scholars call it, is the question of just how these three Gospels are related.

The most commonly held solution to the Synoptic Problem is the so-called "Two Document Hypothesis." This theory postulates that Mark was written first. Matthew and Luke both had copies of Mark which they used as one source for their own writings. Matthew and Luke also had another common source, a hypothetical, probably written, collection of sayings that scholars call "Q."

The designation "Q" probably comes from quelle, a German word meaning "source." The simplest definition of "Q" is material found in both the Gospels of Matthew and Luke but not in Mark.

So, the Two Document Hypothesis holds that Matthew and Luke, working independently, both used Mark and the hypothetical Q  as sources for their own Gospels. They also included a certain amount of their own material, referred to as "M" for Matthew, and "L" for Luke.  The Two Source Hypothesis is often illustrated with a diagram like this one:

Although the existence of Q is strictly hypothetical, the International Q Project, a group of notable New Testament scholars, worked to reconstruct its text as nearly as possible. Using their knowledge of how Matthew and Luke used Mark, they built what they believe to be the nearest possible approximation of what an actual Q source would have looked like. Based on this work, some scholars claim to have found two (or is it three?) layers of tradition in the Q material and have even proposed a structure for what the community that produced Q would have looked like. It is fascinating work (at least to a New Testament geek like me) but seems an elaborate structure to build on the shaky foundation of a hypothetical document.

There are other possible solutions to the Synoptic Problem.  The strongest contender is the "Farrer Hypothesis" (also known as the "Farrer-Goulder-Goodacre Hypothesis" after some of the prominent scholars who have championed it). The Farrer Hypothesis does away with the need for hypothetical sources. In this scenario Mark was written first, Matthew expanded upon Mark, and Luke was written using both Mark and Matthew as sources.

Other possible solutions to the Synoptic Problem have been proposed, but the Two Document Hypothesis and the Farrer Hypothesis have the best scholarly support. There are also highly nuanced variations of these two hypotheses.

As a student of the Bible, I find all of this quite fascinating. As a preacher, I am less concerned with the solution to the Synoptic Problem than its very existence. Paying attention to the way that Matthew, Mark, and Luke handle the same material helps me better understand what each author is trying to say. Understanding a text is a necessary step before proclaiming it.

Coming soon: The Real Solution to the Synoptic Problem. I found the illustration of the Two Document Hypothesis at this website.


  1. Christians should not be surprised that authors of some of the books in the New Testament "plagiarized" the writings of other New Testament authors, ie, the authors of Matthew and Luke copying huge chunks of Mark, often word for word, into their own gospels.

    This habit is not new in the Bible. There is evidence that Old Testament writers did the exact same thing. An example: the entire chapters of II Kings 19 and Isaiah 37 are almost word for word identical!

    If the Bible is the inspired Word of God, why would God have the author of one inspired book of the Bible copy almost word for word large sections, sometimes entire chapters, from another inspired book of the Bible? Is that how divine inspiration works?

    So should we simply accept this "word for word copying" as the will of the Almighty, accepting it blindly by faith, continuing to insist that God wrote the Bible, or should we consider the overwhelming evidence that the books of the Bible are human works of literature, no more divinely inspired than any other work of fallible human authors?

  2. Hi Gary,

    Thanks for you comments.

    I'm not sure I agree with your characterization of the way that the Gospels were redacted as "plagiarism."

    And regarding 2 Kings 19 and Isaiah 37, it might be well to keep in mind that the biblical authors were almost certainly not writing works that they thought would be anthologized. They thought that their works would stand alone. So the redactors of Isaiah grabbed a chapter from 2 Kings to give historical context to the prophet's words.

    I absolutely agree that these things give the lie to simplistic theories of inspiration, which are the handmaiden of a doctrine of inerrancy. Compound this with the writers' varying, and sometimes incompatible, points of view and the cognitive dissonance completely undermines biblical inerrancy.

    I think it is possible to speak meaningfully of the Bible as inspired and as the "Word of God" (though I don't often use that phrase). But simplistic formulas are unconvincing and even tend to drive thoughtful readers away from the Church.