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The Synoptic Gospels: Literary Sources

Synoptic derives from the prefix σύν (syn, with, together) and ὀπτῐκός (optikos, “sight”). The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are the Synoptic Gospels because they are so much alike and, by consulting a Synopsis, one can read the three Gospels side by side in parallel columns.

There must be a literary relationship between the three Gospels:

  • The agreement in order and wording, including verbatim agreement
  • There are even agreements 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)
  • Triple Tradition: material shared by all three Synoptic Gospels
  • Double Tradition: material shared by Matthew and Luke but not Mark
  • Sondergut: “special material” unique to a Gospel such as “M” or “L

Diagrams of the Synoptic Problem

  • Two/Four Source, Farrer (Mark without Q), Griesbach (Two Gospel), and Augustinian hypotheses (courtesy of Felix Just’s The Synoptic Problem)


Markan Posterity or Priority?

  • The Patristic consensus and the Canonical and Western ordering of the Gospels favours Matthean priority.
  • Is Mark’s Gospel an abridgment or harmonizing summary of the Jewish Christian Gospel of Matthew and the Gentile Christian Gospel of Luke?
    • Mark’s outline covers John’s baptism ministry to the empty tomb (1:1-16:8), lacking accounts of Jesus’s birth and Easter appearances to his disciples (cf. Matthew 1-2; 28:9-20; Luke 1-2; 24:9-53).
    • Mark has more details in individual episodes that are unparalleled in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, including the emotional states of Jesus (Mark 1:41; 3:5), the hostility of Jesus’s family towards him (3:31), the use of saliva to heal and the two-stage healing of the blind person (7:32-35; 8:23-26), the aside that it was not the season for figs (11:14), the sons of Simon of Cyrene (15:21), and the flight of a naked young man in the Garden (14:51-52).
  • Order: Mark is often the “middle term,” meaning that Matthew and Luke rarely agree in wording or order against Mark.
  • Length: Matthew reproduces around 90% of Mark’s content while Luke around 65% with some major omissions (e.g. Mark 6:45-8:26).
  • The refined grammatical and literary style of Matthew and Luke:
    • Mark’s Aramaic expressions (3:17; 5:41; 7:11, 34; 14:36)
    • Mark’s repetitive use of καὶ εὐθύς (“and immediately”)
    • Compare the imagery in Mark 1:12, Matthew 4:1, and Luke 4:1.
    • Compare the title given to Herod in Mark 6:14 and Luke 3:19.
  • Mark’s Gospel features some harder readings:
    • Compare the accounts of the Sabbath incident in Mark 2:23-28, Matthew 12:1-8, and Luke 6:1-5.
    • Compare the accounts of Jesus walking on the water in Mark 6:47-52 and Matthew 14:24-33 (omitted by Luke).
    • Compare Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi and the aftermath in Mark 8:27-9:1, Matthew 16:13-28, and Luke 9:18-27.
    • Compare the reactions to Jesus in the synagogue in Nazareth in Mark 6:2-6, Matthew 13:54-58, and Luke 4:16-30.
    • Compare the accounts of Jesus’s interaction with a rich man in Mark 10:17-31, Matthew 19:16-30, and Luke 18:18-30.
    • Compare the predictions of Peter’s denials in Mark 14:29-31, Matthew 26:33-35, and Luke 22:31-34.

Double Tradition: derived from a common source (German Quelle) or from Luke’s use of Matthew’s Gospel (or vice-versa)?

  • The Double Tradition mostly consists of sayings of Jesus, but there is a handful of narrative episodes.
  • Lack of Matthew’s additions to Mark’s text in Luke’s Gospel: evidence of Luke’s independence from Matthew or a choice to generally privilege Mark’s account without the Matthean additions?
    • Matt 3:14-15 – the dialogue between Jesus and John the Baptist.
    • Matt 16:16-19 – imparting on Peter blessing and keys to the kingdom
  • Lack of “M” (Matthew’s unique material) in Luke’s Gospel: evidence of Luke’s independence from Matthew or an editorial choice to exclude some of Matthew’s special material?
    • Compare the nativity accounts in Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2.
    • Compare Judas’s death in Matthew 27:3-10 and Acts 1:18-20.
  • The general lack of agreement between Matthew and Luke when departing from Mark’s order.
    • When was Peter’s mother-in-law and the leper healed in Mark (1:29-31, 40-45), Matthew (8:1-4, 14-15), and Luke (4:38-39; 5:12-15).
    • When did Jesus visit the synagogue in Nazareth in Mark 6:1-6, Matthew 13:54-58, and Luke 4:16-30?
  • Alternating Primitivity?
    • Compare the beatitudes in Matthew 5:3-12 and Luke 6:20-23 (cf. woes in 6:24-26)
    • Compare the Lord’s prayer in Matthew 6:9-13 and Luke 11:2-4.
    • Compare the sayings about Wisdom in Matthew 11:19 and 23:34-35 (cf. 11:28-30; Sirach 51:25-26) and Luke 7:35 and 11:49.
  • The different ordering of Jesus’s teachings.
    • Compare the two major teaching blocks in Luke 6:20-7:50 and 9:51-18:14 and the five discourses in Matthew 5:1-7:28, 10:1-11:1, 13:1-53, 18:1-19:1, and 24:4-26:1.
    • Compare the “Sermon on the Mount” in Matthew 5-7 and “Sermon on the Plains” in Luke 6:20-49.
  • Scholarly reconstructions of “The Sayings Gospel Q” and online resources pertaining to Q scholarship.
  • Objections to Luke’s independence from Matthew: minor agreements.
    • Matthew and Luke agree in numerous instances against Mark in the Triple Tradition (common grammar or phrasing, additions or deletions to Mark’s text)
    • Example: the guards mock Jesus to prophesy in Mark 14:65, but specify “who hit you” in Matthew 26:67-8 and Luke 22:64.
  • Objections to Luke’s independence from Matthew: major agreements or Mark-Q overlaps.
    • John’s preaching (Matthew 3:7-10, 11b-12; Luke 3:7-9, 16b-17).
    • Jesus’s temptations (Matthew 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-13; cf. Mark 1:12-13).
    • the authority behind Jesus’s exorcisms (Matthew 12:25-32; Luke 11:17-23; 12:10; cf. Mark 3:23-30).
    • the Centurion’s servant (Matthew 8:5-13; Luke 7:1-10)



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