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Introducing the Synoptic Problem

The word Synoptic derives from the prefix syn (with, together) and optikos (“sight”). The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are called the Synoptic Gospels because they are so much alike and, by consulting a  Synopsis, scholars can compare their shared material in columns side by side. Here are some key points:

There must be a literary relationship between the three Gospels:

  • Sometimes the agreement in their wording is nearly verbatim, so one writer must be copying another rather than independently relying on their memory or on oral tradition.
  • There may even be agreement in the authors’ explanatory asides:
    • So when you see the desolating sacrilege standing in the holy place, as was spoken of by the prophet Daniel (let the reader understand) (Matthew 24:15)
    • But when you see the desolating sacrilege set up where it ought not to be (let the reader understand) (Mark 13:14)
    • When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near (Luke 21:20)

Therefore, one Gospel must have been a source for another Gospel, but how do we determine which is earlier and which is later. Scholars closely compare verses in the “triple tradition” or that occur in all three Gospels and verses in the “double tradition” or that occur in Matthew and Luke but not Mark.

Example 1:

  • And he did not do many deeds of power there, because of their unbelief. (Matt 13:58)
  • And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.  And he was amazed at their unbelief. (Mark 6:5-6)

Example 2:

  • “Lord, save us! We are perishing!” (Matt 8:26)
  • “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” (Mark 4:38)
  • “Master, Master, we are perishing!” (Luke 8:24)

Example 3:

  • ‘Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.’ (Matt 16:28)
  • And he said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.’ (Mark 9:1)
  • But truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God.’ (Luke 9:27)

Example 4:

  • Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness… (Matt 4:1; cf. Luke 4:1-2)
  • The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness (Mark 1:12)

Example 5:

  • “Why do you ask me about what is good? One there is who is good.” (Matt 19:17)
  • “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” (Mark 10:18; cf. Luke 18:19)

Example 6:

  • A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, ‘If you choose, you can make me clean.’ Moved with anger [textual variant: compassion], Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I do chose. Be made clean!’ (Mark 1:40-42)
  • …and there was a leper who came to him and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, if you chose, you can make me clean.’ He stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’  (Matt 8:2-3)
  • When he saw Jesus, he bowed with his face to the ground and begged him, ‘Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.’ Then Jesus stretched out his hand, touched him, and said, ‘I do choose. Be made clean.’ (Luke 5:12-13).

Example 7 (Matt 12:8 and Luke 6:5 have a parallel to Mark 2:28 but not Mark 2:27 – what do you think might be the explanation?)

  • [Mark 2:27] Then he said to them, ‘The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath; [Mark 2:28] so the son of man is lord even of the Sabbath.’

Example 8 (why do you think the following passages are in Mark are not in Matthew and Luke)?

  • When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind.’ (3:19-21)
  • …when he [Jesus] had put saliva on his eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked them, ‘Can you see anything?’ And the [blind] man looked up and said, ‘I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.’ Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he looked intently and his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. (8:22-25)
  • A certain young man was following him, wearing nothing but a linen cloth. They caught hold of him, but he left the linen cloth and ran off naked. (14:51-2)
  • Mark often includes Aramaic words (3:17; 5:41; 7:11, 34; 14:36) not repeated by Matthew or Luke.

Example 9:

  • Why does Mark not include the accounts of the birth and childhood of Jesus, (Matthew 1-2; Luke 1-2) the ethical teachings of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) or the Sermon on the Plains (Luke 6:17-49), and the resurrection appearances (Matthew 28:9-20; Luke 24:9-53) found in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke?

Example 10:

  • “You brood of vipers!  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?  Bear fruit worthy of repentance.  Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.  Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Matt 3:7-10 and Luke 3:7-9 almost verbatim agreement while this dialogue is not in Mark)

Example 11:

  • “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 5:3)
  • “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” (Luke 6:20)

Example 12:

  • “But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” (Matt 12:28)
  • “But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” (Luke 11:20)

Example 13:

  • “For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: Justice and mercy and faith.” (Matt 23:23)
  • “For you tithe mint and rue and herbs of all kinds, and neglect justice and the love of God.” (Luke 11:42)

Scholars propose several models to explain the literary relationship between the Synoptic Gospels (check out Stephen Carlson’s www.hypotyposeis.org/synoptic-problem/2004/09/overview-of-proposed-solutions.html). Draw in the arrows in the following diagrams representing the three most common theories:


a. Griesbach/Two Gospel Theory:  (J.J. Griesbach, W. Farmer, B. Orchard)

Matthew              Luke


.               Mark

The Jewish Christian Gospel of Matthew is followed by the Gentile Christian Gospel of Luke, while Mark’s Gospel is an abridgment or harmonizing summary of the first two Gospels.


b. Two/Four Source Theory (H. J. Holtzmann; B. H. Streeter, R.H. Stein, C.M. Tuckett)

M            Mark                Q              L


.            Matthew            Luke

Matthew and Luke independently relied on Mark’s biographical outline from the baptism of Jesus to the empty tomb. Matthew and Luke also independently copied a hypothetical sayings source called “Q” (from the German Quelle or “source”) and each had distinctive traditions about Jesus as well (“M” or “L”).


c. Markan priority without Q/Farrer Theory (A. Farrer, M. Goulder, M. Goodacre)

.                       Mark




.                        Luke

Matthew and Luke relied on Mark’s biographical outline from the baptism of Jesus to the empty tomb. Luke also had direct access to Matthew’s Gospel, taking over and editing or re-arranging some of the material Matthew added to Mark, so there is no need to appeal to a hypothetical source like “Q” to explain the “double tradition” shared by Matthew and Luke.


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