The Synoptic Problem
by Felix Just, S.J., Ph.D.

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?

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 different ways.

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.

The "Q-Document" (a.k.a. "Sayings Source" or "Redens-Quelle" in German) - Many scholars believe that another written document (unfortunately now lost) was used by both Matthew and Luke (but not Mark) in the composition of their Gospels.

  1. Although this document no longer exists, but was lost to history, it seems to have been mostly a collection of sayings, parables, and other teachings of Jesus, with very few narrative stories of Jesus' actions; it most likely did not contain a Passion Narrative.
  2. The bulk of the proposed contents of the Q-source consists of any material found both in Matthew and in Luke, but not in Mark; some scholars, however, suggest that it may have been slightly larger/longer, if certain material was retained by one of these evangelists, but not the other; thus, some materials considered "M" or "L" in the Four-Source hypothesis might also have been in the Q-document.
  3. For the proposed contents of the Q-source, see either the brief listing on my "Synoptic Outlines" webpage or the more extensive listing of the proposals of several other scholars, as compiled by Peter Kirby on his "Early Christian Writings" website.

Objections against the "Q-Hypothesis" - Some scholars object to the hypothesis of a no-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:

  1. Objection: The "Q-document" no longer exists, if it ever did.
    : 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)
  2. 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.
  3. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
For more details on all of the above, see the Synoptic Problem Home Page, by Stephen Carlson.

Color Analysis of Synoptic Materials:

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.

Single Traditions:

Use the following colors to highlight words, phrases, or longer passages that occur in only one Gospel, but not in the others:


Double Traditions:
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

Triple Traditions:

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.]

Electronic New Testament Educational Resources

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This page was last updated on October 17, 2015
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