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
| The Griesbach Theory
| The Farrer/Goulder Theory
(positing Markan Priority)
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
"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?
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.
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:
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)
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.
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:
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)
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This page was last updated on October 17, 2015
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