The "Synoptic Gospels"- The Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, and Luke are so similar to each other that, in a sense, they view Jesus "with the same eye" (syn-optic), in contrast to the very different picture of Jesus presented in the Fourth Gospel (John) or the non-canonical Gospels (see my comparative charts). Yet there are also many significant differences among the three Synoptic Gospels.
The "Synoptic Problem" - The similarities between Matthew, Mark, and Luke are so numerous and so close, not just in the order of the material presented but also in the exact wording of long stretches of text, that it is not
sufficient to explain these similarities on the basis of common oral tradition alone. Rather, some type of literary dependence must be assumed as well. That is, someone copied from someone else's previously written text; several of the evangelists must have used one or more of the earlier Gospels as sources for their own compositions. The situation is complicated because some of the material is common to all three Synoptics, while other material is found in only two out of
these three Gospels (see the color analysis suggested below). Moreover, the common material is not always presented in the same order in the various Gospels. So, the question remains, who wrote first, and who copied from whom?
Some Older Proposals:
The Traditional Theory (Augustinian Hypothesis)
The Griesbach Theory (Two-Gospel Hypothesis)
The Farrer/Goulder Theory (positing Markan Priority)
Note: Many other solutions have been proposed over the years,
but most are variations of one of these three basic theories.
The Four-Source Theory (the solution accepted by most scholars today):
The Four-Source Theory (a.k.a. Two-Document Hypothesis, from B.H. Streeter)
Mark = the oldest written Gospel, which provided the narrative framework for both Matt & Luke Q = "Quelle" = a hypothetical written "Source" of some sayings / teachings of Jesus (now lost) M = various other materials (mostly oral, some maybe written) found only in Matthew L = various other materials (mostly oral, others probably written) found only in Luke Note: the arrows indicate direction of influence; older materials are above, later Gospels below Note: by definition, Q consists of materials found in Matthew and Luke, but not in Mark.
"Markan Priority"- For most of Christian
history, people thought that Matthew was the first and oldest Gospel, and that Mark
was a later, shorter version of the same basic message. From the mid-19th century
until today, however, most scholars are convinced that Mark is the first and oldest
Gospel (at least in the final version, as we have it today), and that Matthew and
Luke are later expansions of Mark. Why?
Mark's Gospel contains several grammatical, literary, historical, and geographical
difficulties (minor errors) that are not found in Matthew and/or Luke. If Matthew
was first, it is harder to understand how Mark could have introduced these errors;
but if Mark was first, it is easy to see how Matthew and/or Luke wanted to and were
able to correct Mark's minor mistakes.
Mark's Gospel contains several episodes that are obscure (4:26-29; 14:51-52)
or make Jesus look crazy (3:19-21), magical (7:32-37), or weak (8:22-26). If Matthew
was first, it is harder to explain why Mark added these strange episodes; but if
Mark was first, it is easy to understand why both Matthew and Luke omitted them.
Mark's basic chronological/geographical structure is the same as in the other
two Synoptics; but the material found in both Matthew and Luke (but not in Mark)
is in very different orders in these two Gospels. If Matthew was first and Mark
second, it is hard to understand why Luke would have kept the same order for all
the material found in both Matthew and Mark, but substantially rearranged all the
other material found in Matthew but not in Mark. If Mark was first, however, then
it is easy to explain how Matthew and Luke inserted the extra material they have
in common (from the Q source?) into Mark's overall outline, although in significantly
Note that scholars who believe Mark was historically first do not suggest that
the order of the four Gospels in the New Testament should be changed; there is no
reason why the traditional order (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) cannot be retained in
printed Bibles. However, in textbooks and academic works, many scholars treat Mark
first, followed by Matthew and Luke, with John usually still last.
Objections against the "Q-Hypothesis" -
Some scholars object to the hypothesis of a non-longer extant collection the sayings
and teachings of Jesus (as the "Q-document" is thought to have been) for
various reasons; but each of these objections can easily be countered:
Objection: The "Q-document" no longer exists, if it ever did. Response:
If almost all of the material in "Q" was incorporated into Matthew's and/or
Luke's Gospels, then early Christians would have had little need or desire to preserve
"Q" as a separate document. When people find a "revised and expanded
edition" of a work, they don't always keep the older, shorter edition. Rather
than wondering why "Q" was lost, it would be more important to ask why
Mark was preserved! (see the next section below)
Objection: No early Christians would have composed a collection of the
sayings and teachings of Jesus, as "Q" supposedly was (like the "Sayings
of Confucius" or the "Sayings of Chairman Mao"), without also including
some stories of his miracles and other actions, and his passion, death, and resurrection. Response:
The non-canonical "Gospel of Thomas," rediscovered in 1948, is a collection
of 114 sayings, parables, and short teachings of Jesus that does not include any
miracles or other stories about events in Jesus' life. Although the Gospel of Thomas
is not the same as "Q" (its contents are significantly different), it
is proof that early Christians did indeed compose the same type or genre of literature
that the Q-document seems to have been.
Objection: The "Q-hypothesis" is not necessary for explaining
the relationships among the three Synoptic Gospels. Response:
All the other solutions that try to solve the Synoptic Problem without positing
a "Q-document" (see the charts above) have their own significant problems.
[The details are too complex to be discussed on this webpage, but are available
in many textbooks and scholarly works.] Although we should remember that the past
existence of a Q-document is only a hypothesis, not a proven fact, it does seem
to provide the best solution for explaining the "Synoptic Problem."
The Preservation and Canonization of Mark - Given
that Mark's Gospel is so short and has several difficulties (see above), it is interesting
to ask why Mark was not lost, but rather was accepted into the NT canon. There are
at least three reasons why Mark was preserved and canonized, despite its shortcomings:
Mark was the secretary or "interpreter" of Peter (see
Papias, as quoted by Eusebius);
so in a way, the Gospel according to Mark could be thought of as "Peter's Gospel."
And since Peter was the leader among the apostles, early Christians would have had
good reason to preserve what they considered to be a written record of Peter's preaching.
Mark's Gospel was thought to have been written in Rome and/or for
the early Christian community in Rome (see Clement
of Alexandria, again quoted by Eusebius); so in a sense, Mark's Gospel could
be considered the "Gospel of/from Rome." Not only was the city of Rome
the capital and largest city of the Roman empire, but the two most important Christian
apostles, Peter and Paul, both preached, were martyred, and are buried there. Thus,
the Christian community in Rome became prominent and influential very early in Christian
history, and it is easy to understand why "their" Gospel would have been
preserved and accepted into the NT canon.
If "Markan priority" is correct and Mark's was indeed the first
Gospel to have been written, then it would be the oldest available record
of the words and deeds of Jesus, yet another reason why early Christians might have
preserved and continued to use it, despite its brevity and shortcomings.
When analyzing biblical passages that are common to two or three of the Gospels,
biblical students often highlight the texts using commonly available colored pens. The
following color scheme is very easy to remember, if you recall what most children
learn in kindergarten about combining the primary colors. This coloration
scheme is also used on the pages of this website.
Use the following colors to highlight words, phrases, or longer passages that occur
in only one Gospel, but not in the others:
Use the following colors to highlight materials that occur in two of the
Synoptic Gospels, but not in the third:
Matt & Mark
red + yellow = orange
Mark & Luke
yellow + blue = green
Matt & Luke (Q)
red + blue = purple
Use a pencil or black pen to underline materials that are identical in all three
of the Synoptic Gospels:
Matt & Mark & Luke
(black or gray pencil)
[Note: If you also wish to color distinctive
materials from the Gospel of JOHN also, you might
highlight or underline them in BROWN.]