Exd & Cnq


The Synoptic Problem
(an incredibly brief but still painful introduction)


  • 3 of the 4 NT gospels are Synoptic:
    • similar versions of the story of Jesus' life.
    • they 'see with the same eye.'
  • They are:
    • Mk, Mt, Lk
    • [Jn tells a similar story only in its most basic outline.]

  • Why?
    • traditional assumption = they were written by eyewitnesses to Jesus' ministry (Mt)
      • or by people who knew eyewitnesses (Mk, Lk)
    • each divinely inspired, assuring truth & consistency.


  • problems:
    • In some cases, Mk, Mt, & Lk tell same story in same words.
    • In others, similar stories, w/ minor or important differences.
    • in some cases, completely different stories.
  • When these problems were first recognized, a common oral tradition was proposed:
    • collections of miracle stories, teachings, etc.
      • circulated independently
      • combined in different ways by the gospel authors to produce different accounts.


  • accounts for similarity, not for differences in accounts of the same story.
  • These problems have been recognized by the church for almost as long as the church has recognized the gospels.
    • dealt with in 2 ways:
    • Harmony
      • In the early church, different accounts were combined into one story, a harmony.
        • [film versions of Jesus' life carry on this tradition today.]
      • Benefit:
        • disagreements reconciled or removed from the story.
      • Cost:
        • a new gospel- not entirely faithful to any of the NT gospels.
      • Tatian's Diatessaron (late 2nd cent) is probably the best-known example

    • Synopsis
      • 1776, J.J. Griesbach, German scholar, produced 1st synopsis of the gospels,
        • placed in parallel columns for comparison.
        • A synopsis is the opposite of a harmony
          • rather than eliminating differences, a synopsis draws attention to them.

  • the 'Synoptic Problem'?
    • Understanding the literary dependence of the synoptic gospels... in light of divine revelation.
    • looking at these 3 gospels side-by-side (syn-optically) in Greek, they show a literary relationship:
    1. Mk, Mt, and Lk show near-verbatim agreement in certain pericopes (passages).
    1. where (1) is true, also agreement in word order.
    2. agreement in overall narrative structure.
    3. 2 gospels, Mt and Lk, have material in common that is not in Mk. It agrees in:
      • wording,
      • word order,
      • to some extent in overall structure.
      • amounts to @ 220 verses in each of these 2 gospels.
      • sayings and parables of Jesus (not narrative).
    4. Mk is the 'common (middle) term.'
      • When narrative structures of the 3 gospels are compared,
      • agreement in Mt and Lk begins where Mk begins
        • (John the Baptist in the wilderness and Jesus' baptism)
      • ends where Mk ends
        • (originally 16:8, empty tomb).
        • Mt and Lk both have infancy narratives and genealogies at the beginning of their gospels,
          • but diff. in all but a few details.
        • Mt and Lk also have resurrection appearances after the empty tomb,
          • again, very different.

      • In few places where either Mt or Lk varies from Mk's narrative sequence, other does not (very few exceptions).
        • In other words,
          • Mk and Mt may agree against Lk,
          • or Mk and Lk may agree against Mt,
          • but Mt and Lk almost never agree against Mk.
          • suggests that Mt and Lk were aware of Mk's sequence, not each other's. 

  • General Observations:
    • material all 3 gospels have in common (see observations 1,2,& 3, above) = 'Triple Tradition.'
      • [@ 230 verses in Mk, or 35% of Mk's 662 verses.
      • Mt and Lk are both longer, so the same material is a smaller %age of their overall narrative. 
        • In Mt, triple tradition = about 22% of 1068 verses. 
        • For Lk, it is 20% of 1149 verses.]
    • material that ONLY Mt and Lk have in common (NOT in Mk)= the 'Double Tradition.'
      • @ 220 verses in each of these gospels, 
        • [@ 21% of Mt 
        • @ 19% of Lk]
    • Mt & Lk also share material w/ Mk that the other did not copy.
      • [In Mt,  @ 222 vs are also in Mk but not in Lk.
        • +ed to triple tradition, means @ 43% of Mt was copied from Mk.
      • In Lk, @ 120 vs are also in Mk, but not in Mt.
        • +ed to triple tradition, means @ 30% of Lk was copied from Mk.]
    • Each gospel also contains unique material not found in either of the other two.
    • In Mt & Lk, some memorable stories and sayings of Jesus.
      • [@ 80 of Mk's 661 verses are unique,]
        • or 12% of Mk.
      • [@ 395 of Mt's 1058 verses are unique,]
        • or 36% of Mt.
      • [@ 530 of Lk's 1149 verses are unique,]
        • or 51% of Lk.
  • earliest proposed solution to the problem is from St. Augustine, bishop of Hippo in the 4th/5th centuries.
    • follows the canonical order of the gospels in the NT:
      • MT wrote first; therefore the earliest gospel (Matthean Priority)
      • MK copied from MT, and LK copied from both.
    • driven more by an apologetic interest than by the critical study of the content of the gospels.


  • 1st critical solution is that of J.J. Griesbach:
    • MT wrote 1st
    • LK wrote 2nd, copying and redacting MT.
    • MK wrote last, creating a 'digest'-
      • a shortened gospel containing only material found in both of MK's predecessors.


  • problems w/ both of these theories:
    • Why do MT and LK disagree w/ respect to Jesus' birth and resurrection if one is aware of the other?
    • Why is the double tradition missing from MK?
      • Why would MK leave out important teachings, but add in irrelevant and redundant details?
    • Why are the more 'difficult' readings consistently Markan?

  • end of 19th century, new solution called 'Two Source Theory':
    • Many difficulties w/ previous theories disappear if we assume Markan Priority-
      • MK wrote first,
      • MT and LK each copied from him,
        • explaining the triple tradition.

    • unique agreements and disagreements between MT and LK?
      • agreements come from a common source both used, called 'Quelle' (German for 'source,' abbrev. 'Q').
      • The disagreements come from the fact that each author used his sources independent of the other.


  • This theory is modified to account for material in MT and LK unique to each,
    • could have come from MK, Q, from MT's or LK's dependence on the other, or from unique sources.
    • called the Four Source Theory:
      • 'M' = material unique to MT
      • 'L' = material unique to LK
      • In both cases, this material could come from another source, or could be the original contribution of the author.


  • In the last century (@1935), another theory proposed dispensing w/ need for Q, the Farrer Theory (Austin Farrer):
    • accepts Markan priority, but argues that MT copied from MK, and LK copied from both MK and MT.