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Posted on June 24th, 2012, by

Synoptic problem appeared when scholars compared first three Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke and found them very similar to one another.  That is the why Gospels by Matthew, Mark and Luke are united in the section of Synoptic Gospels. The word synoptic derives from Greek language and means something united together by common views. These three Gospels can be viewed together and together they create one and the same picture.

Problems which arise concerning these Gospels are based on the idea of some researches that all three Gospels are very alike and may derive from one written source. There are things which are similar in all three Gospels. Some things are similar only in two of three Gospels. For example, there are things, which are similar between Gospels of Mark and Matthew, and there are things, which are similar between Mark’s and Luke’s Gospels.

Today there are four official scientific versions of relationship between three gospels which correspond to the appropriate hypotheses. The first version presumes Markan priority and refers to Farrer Hypothesis and Two-Documents Hypothesis. In accordance with this version, Mark’s work is an original and the other two are copied from it. The second version, Matthean priority is based on Augustinian hypothesis which presents the Gospel of Matthew as the primary source, which was copied by Mark, which, in its turn, was copied by Luke. The third version is the so-called Lukan priority. It presumes that Luke was first, then Mark copied his work from it and at last Matthew copied Mark. In accordance with the fourth version, Markan posteriority, it was Mark who combined both, Matthew and Luke’s gospels.

The Gospel of John is the last of four canonic Gospels. It was written later than the other three Gospels and differs from them in style and composition. The Gospel of John is the most controversial of all Gospels. There are a lot of doubtful questions about the authorship, the date of composition and sources of the Gospel. The authorship of the fourth Gospel is still doubtful.  In the Gospel the author defines himself as a Beloved Disciple and this phrase is usually associated with John the Apostle. This fact has become the evidence of John’s authorship. The supposition that the author was one and the same with the beloved disciple is often advanced as a means of insuring that the evangelist did witness Jesus’ ministry (The Anchor Bible Dictionary, v. 3, pp. 919-920). At the same time, there is no evidence in the text that the author was the one who eye witnessed the scene. There are only descriptions of the scene but 19:35 does not claim that the author was the one who witnessed the scene but only that the scene is related on the sound basis of eyewitness. [1]  At the same time most of the scholars find these proofs insufficient and do not believe them to be enough to put the authorship of the Gospel under doubt. Most of the scholars agree with the assumption that the Epistle of John was written before 100 AD. They give such arguments as the lack of mention about the destruction of the temple as the main argument of the composition of the Gospel before 100. Some scientists who find the resemblance with the Epistle of Mark name the date about 90 AD, others propose even earlier dates, such as 50-70. [2]  “The earliest date for the gospel hinges upon the question of whether or not it presupposes the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. Most agree that it does, although there have been persistent attempts to argue otherwise. The reasons for positing a post-70 date include the view of the Temple implicit in 2:13-22. Most would argue that the passage attempts to present Christ as the replacement of the Temple that has been destroyed”. [3]

There is an idea that there existed an account of Christ’s life, birth, death and resurrection and this source was used by Mark, Luke and Matthew for their Gospels. Another possible explanation of similarities between three gospels is an idea that Mark, Luke and Matthew copied each others works. Scientists state that similarities between first three Gospels can not be explained by coincidence only. Not only events described are similar but also the language by all three authors is also very alike. The main task of scientist has become to find out the kind of connection which exists between these Gospels.

Augustine, a recognized authority of religious thought, became the first person to give an idea that the first Gospel war written by Matthew, the second one by Mark and the third one by Luke. Each author relied on the earlier ones in his writings. In our time such an order has become a canonic one and that is the way Gospels are usually written in the Bible.

Later appeared a theory which got the name the Two Documents Hypothesis. According to this theory, the first Gospel was written by Mark. Luke and Matthew used the Gospel of Mark and some written sayings of Jesus and composed their two gospels at the same time. This theory is based on the assumption that Luke’s and Matthew’s Gospels are based on the two sources and the name of the theory reflects this assumption.

Simple calculations prove this assumption. The Gospel of Mark contains 661verses. Only 31 of these verses are not repeated in Luke or Matthew. About 600 verses are repeated in Matthew and more than 200 are repeated in both Luke and Matthew’s Gospels.

The next theory got the name Q-theory. It is based on the assumption that all three gospels derive fro one common source. This source is called Quelle in German and that is the reason document is referred to as Q-document and the theory got the name after this document.[4] Common information which probably derives from Q-document can be found in all three Gospels. In addition to this Q-information, each of the Gospels contains different information peculiar to community to which belonged the author.

The synoptic problem has no one definite solution yet. Each theory has strong and week points.

Q theory has considerable counterparts. The theory is based on the assumption that there exists Q text of Q Gospel which is common for all three Gospels. The theory is proved by the fact that most probably the authors of three Synoptic Gospels were not directs witnesses of the event described and this way they should have used some kind of written source as a source for their Gospels. From the other side there is no any reliable evidence that Q Gospel exist in reality. This Q text is only a hypothesis of the scientists. There was not found not a single evidence that this kind of text ever existed. There was not found any single manuscript which could be considered to be Q text. Other sources also do not mention this text. In addition in the early sermons there are no references to this text. There is another strong argument against Q theory.  According to historical data Gospels of Mark , Luke and Matthew were written between 50 and 65 A.D.  Many Church fathers refer to this gospels in their sermons. If the Gospels were written during the time described Mark, Luke and Matthew must have been the direct witnesses of the events they wrote about. Opponents of Q theory also state that similarities in text should be considered a normal thing since all three authors heard same sermons by Jesus and by down his words the same way. These similarities only prove that all three writers witnessed same things. In addition many specialists do not reject an idea that Mark, Luke and Matthew used other sources when writing their gospels but they do not put so much meaning to this fact. These researches believes that Mark, Luke and Matthew really eye witnessed events the described and used some additional material only to add credibility to the things they wrote. In addition in many cases the authors wrote themselves that they used  some sources for their Gospels. They saw nothing wrong in addressing other sources and confessed that.  There are many evidence for and against Q concept. The reasons against this theory is manly based on the idea that there was not find material proves of the existence of Q text. If these kind of evidence appear Q theory will definitely become one of the main ones.

There are other theories and hypothesis concerning the origin and order of the synthetic gospels.

These hypotheses include the Farrer hypothesis, the Parker hypothesis, the Griesbach hypothesis and some others, which are more hypothetical and less reliable. In accordance with the Farrer hypothesis, the first Gospel was written by Mark. Matthew’s Gospel is based on this first one and much later Luke wrote the third Gospel which is a combination of the first two.

The opponents of the Parker hypothesis state that at first a proto-Matthew was written as an addition to Q. The Mark Gospel was created on the ground of the proto-Matthew’s one with some new elements and features added. At that very time Luke created his version independently, although in his work we can also find elements of all the previous ones: proto-Matthew, Mark and Q and other sources, which were later used by John. This peculiarity explains the close connection between the Gospel of Luke and later the Gospel of John.  The Griesbach hypothesis is also well known. This hypothesis argues that Matthew was the first who wrote his gospel. The second was Luke who used Matthew’s materials and the third was Mark who thoroughly analyzed both gospels, chose facts that coincided in both works and made his version taking into account all the details.

The representatives of these hypotheses accept one common thing that there was one evangelist who first wrote the gospel and the other two are only his followers and  their writing are based on this very first work. However, there is another group of researchers who argue  that all three gospels were written independently. The bright representative of this school is Eta Linnenmann. She states that all three evangelists wrote independent works and the coincidence presented in them is only accidental. This theory is also the basement of Christian belief. According to Bible, the Holy Spirit inspired all the evangelists and it is senseless to look for any documents that can prove or disprove the evidence of the data described.

Mark is a middle term between Matthew and Luke. Specifically, the following scenarios are logically possible: the content of all three gospels coincide to a particular degree and this material forms the Triple Tradition. In Matthew’s work we can find 91% of Mark’s content, while in Luke we see 53% of Mark’s writings. The most part of the Triple Tradition makes Mark’s material, due to this fact some researchers propose the so-called Markan Tradition instead of the Triple one. In general, the Triple Tradition consists of narrative with elements of saysing  material.

Along with the Triple Tradition it is necessary to speak about the Double Tradition. In Matthew’s gospel we can find 25% of Luke’s content, however, this content is not presented in Mark’s work. The Double Tradition is presented by sayings, which mostly include Jesus’ saying, and a few miracle stories. If to speak about the unique material presented, in the Gospel of Mark it makes only 3%, in the Gospel of Mathew’s it composes 20%, while in the last work the Gospel of Luke it is 35%.[5]

The order of the material is of great importance for the modern researchers because it can help to find the truth about the primary source and so solve the synoptic problem, at last. The fact that the order in the Gospel of Matthew and Mark coincides, especially taking into account that the texts are arranged in accordance with the topical order, not the the chronological one, is very interesting. This common topical arrangement can be the evidence that both works are closely connected.

The arrangements of the Triple Tradition may be considered from another side too. The materials prove that Matthew’s or Luke’s order always supports Mark’s order. This fact can be the background of the evidence of the Griesbach Hypothesis, however, on the other hand, another group of scientists state that this evidence cannot be statistically meaningful and significant. Since Matthew’s deviations are toward the beginning and Luke’s are towards the end, it is not surprising that both Matthew and Luke rarely re-ordered the same Marcan pericope. [6] Even in this question there cannot be found any precise data. This fact makes the researches in the sphere of synoptic problem complicated.

The main problem and subject  of controversy concerning Synoptic Gospels debate is a debate whether the authors of these gospels were originally inspired by God or Holy Spirit or they were only rewritten from other sources. This question becomes very meaningful for all religions people who view the Bible as holy text inspired by God. Different theory, which explain different view on Synoptic problem have their opponents and proponents but there is no one theory which would give explanations which would satisfy everybody.

[1] The Anchor Bible Dictionary, (Oxford University Press 1998),    919-920

[2] Graham N. Stanton, The Gospels and Jesus, (The Oxford Bible Series, 1989) 258

[3] The Anchor Bible Dictionary, (Oxford University Press 1998) 920

[4] The Full Life Study Bible (NIV). Donald C. Stamps, General Editor. Grand Rapids, (Michigan: Zondervan Publishing Company, 1990), 158


[5] Colloquy on New Testament Studies: A Time for Reappraisal and Fresh Approaches, Bruce C. Corley, ed., (Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1983),  27


[6] Warfield, Benjamin. 1889. The Authority & Inspiration of the Scriptures, (Oxford Uniresity Press, 2006). Retrieved June 10, 2008  from


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