The Synoptic “Problem”

The Synoptic “Problem”

The “Problem” Stated

The use of the term “synoptic” dates to J.J. Griesbach (1745-1812.) This Greek word means, “a seeing together” (E. Harrison, p.137.) Because they have so much in common, these three Gospels can be laid beside one another and “viewed together.” This interrelation has given rise to the Synoptic “problem,” which may be stated as follows: If the three Synoptic Gospels are totally independent of each other in origin and development, why do they resemble each other so closely, even to exact verbal agreement in many places? If, on the other hand, they have a literary relationship to each other, how can they be three independent witnesses to the deeds and teachings of the Lord Jesus Christ? (M. Tenney, p. 133)

From the early days of the church the phenomena of the first three Gospels created discussion. Up until the eighteenth century the church had been mainly concerned to explain the differences between the three accounts. But now attention became directed to the agreement in the accounts. How were they to be explained?

Attempts to Solve the “Problem”

The most common theory among critical scholars has been to view Mark as the earliest of the three and to see both Matthew and Luke as borrowing extensively from Mark. But since Matthew and Luke also have a considerable amount of material in common that is not derived from Mark, it was postulated that they both made use of another unknown early source. This postulated source came to be called “Q” (from the German word, Quelle, meaning, “source.”)

While the posited “Q” document seemed to account for the material common to Matthew and Luke, but not found in Mark, it did not account for the material that is unique to Matthew and that which is unique to Luke. In 1924 B.H. Streeter posited a four-source hypothesis. He limited the Q source to that material used by both Matthew and Luke but not derived from Mark. He then proposed the existence of two other sources, one that Matthew used, (which he labeled, “M”), and one that Luke used, (labeled, “L.”) According to this theory, Matthew used Mark, Q, and M in writing his Gospel; Luke used Mark, Q, and L for his Gospel. (Note: For the sake of brevity, what has been presented here is only the basic, though essential, outline of Streeter’s hypothesis.)

When the contents of the hypothetical Q document are culled from Matthew and Luke (i.e.; the material they have in common but which they did not borrow from Mark), they are seen to consist of the following items: a variety of discourses and saying of Jesus (such as the Beatitudes, the cost of discipleship, and warnings against the Pharisees, among many others) and a few narratives (such as the ministry of John the Baptist, the temptations of Jesus, the healing of the centurion’s servant, and John the Baptist’s question to Jesus.) Upon reviewing the “contents” of the posited Q document, several difficulties become apparent. The “document” lacks any cohesion: “there appears to be a preponderance of isolated sayings with no evident framework to hold them together” (D. Guthrie, p. 148.) As Guthrie goes on to write, “a problem for the Q theory is the lack of any contemporary literature parallel to the type of document that Q is supposed to be” (p. 152.) One must remember that Q is a hypothetical document, unsupported by any external evidence, “a precarious basis for a unique document” (Guthrie, p. 153.)

What is true with regard to the Q document also applies to the posited M document supposedly used by Matthew. When this material is isolated it is found to consist of some of the sayings of Jesus, the birth narratives unique to Matthew, and a few other narratives. “At best the M source, in any of its proposed forms, lacks much connection of thought and it is not easy therefore to conceive how it was originally compiled” (Guthrie, p. 159.) Again, we must bear in mind that the existence of M is even more hypothetical than Q.

All that has been said about the hypothetical Q and M documents also applies to L, (the supposed source unique to Luke.) When the L document is isolated from the rest of Luke’s Gospel material, it is found to consist of the following: fourteen parables, a number of sayings of Jesus, and a large amount of narrative material. Note: It is assumed that Luke possessed yet another source containing the infancy narratives.

We may summarize this portion of the present article with the words of D. Guthrie: The simple two-source theory had become a conglomerate of many sources before it developed into a more specific four-source theory, which in turn has never been quite convincing. Indeed, most scholars would admit that no thoroughgoing source theory has yet been produced that answers all the major problems in these Gospels (p. 228.)

Guiding Principles

In seeking a solution to the Synoptic “problem,” one should have proper respect for the external testimony of ancient tradition. Where there is a strongly attested tradition, it should be assumed that such tradition is probably correct, unless it can be proved wrong. When tradition gives its testimony (e.g.; with regard to authorship of the Gospels) with reasonable unanimity and clarity, criticism of that tradition must prove that the tradition is in error before producing an alternative to the witness of that ancient tradition.

Hand in hand with this, if criticism rejects a given tradition, then criticism is obligated to furnish some adequate account as to how that tradition originated, and, therefore, why it is invalid. Too often, if a tradition does not accord with modern theories about any of the Gospels, critical scholars have merely dismissed the tradition as the guesswork of an ancient writer. Such arbitrary dismissal of a disliked or inconvenient tradition without providing adequate reasons for such dismissal is inadmissible for good scholarship. In considering any possible solution to the Synoptic “problem,” due attention must be paid to ancient tradition. It may be assumed as a starting point that most of the well-attested traditions were based, at least partially, on fact.

There can be no question that any real advance in solving the Synoptic “problem” must begin with a consideration of the oral period—that period of time immediately subsequent to the events recorded in the Gospels. It is generally assumed that the oral period stretched over about thirty years; i.e., across the life span of the first generation of Christians. In labeling these years as “the oral period” we need not exclude the development of written sources also originating during this time. It would seem reasonable to suppose that for a time oral teaching was the main means of communicating the gospel message and Christian teaching, but that it was supplemented by some literary productions. (Here one may consider the Jewish oral tradition and its method of transmission. In his careful study, B. Gerhardsson contends that rabbinical teachers not only taught traditional material, but taught it in set forms and vocabulary that the pupils were expected to learn by heart. Since the earliest Christian preachers were Jews, Gerhardsson envisages that they would have followed the rabbinical practice. From this it follows that a basic oral tradition would be formulated that could be transmitted through catechetical instruction.)

Another factor that needs serious consideration is the possibility of the use of written notes as an aid to memory. B. Gerhardsson produces some evidence that suggests such notes were used by Jewish oral tradition and it seems quite natural to suppose that the Christian community would not have neglected to use aids of this kind. If this, indeed, is the case, the Christian tradition may have been on its way to a stage of written records long before the Gospels were produced. Such written notes and records would have proved to be invaluable when the Gospels came to be written.

This brings us to the next important consideration: Were the writers of the Gospels authors in the fullest sense of the word, or were they merely editors and arrangers of a conglomerate of existing traditions, both oral and written? Luke’s preface (Luke 1:1-4) is invaluable for ascertaining the method used by Gospel writers (although some reserve is necessary before concluding that each of the Gospel writers followed an exactly similar approach.) A compilation of written narratives was evidently available in Luke’s time. It is equally evident that these writings were based on reports of eyewitnesses and ministers of the word. We may assume that each Gospel writer would chose from eyewitness accounts the material that was most relevant to his own particular purpose and intended audience. (If two Gospel writers recorded the same incident from the same eyewitness(s) a large measure of agreement would be expected, even in the verbal expressions of the narrative.) Luke seems to suggest that he is writing an independent account; he claims quite specifically to have made a thorough investigation himself on the same basis of reliable sources as did his predecessors.

One question of great importance in this discussion is the meaning of the term Luke uses, “ministers of the word.” Did these “ministers of the word” have a special function as tradition-bearers? Since Luke specifically states that they, together with the eyewitnesses, “delivered” the material to him and to others, it is highly probable that this special function was not only recognized but was also officially controlled. If the probability of official “tradition-bearers” be admitted, it is difficult to imagine that the transmission of the tradition of the life and teaching of our Lord would have been left to chance. It would make sense to believe that the tradition communicated by the “ministers of the word” was apostolically authenticated and sanctioned.

Important Factors to Bear in Mind

1. The written Gospels were accepted at a very early period as authoritative. Furthermore, their authority was inherent and not imposed upon them. (In other words, they were accepted because they were believed to have been apostolic in origin, not because the church arbitrarily bestowed its sanction upon them.) Their claims to authenticity must, therefore, have been beyond dispute. But was there a period before the end of the first century when they were not regarded as authoritative? Probability is against the notion of non-authoritative initial circulation. If this had been the case, it would involve the assumption that at some stage in its primitive history each Gospel acquired an authority that it did not previously possess. It is difficult to imagine how such a process could so soon have led to unanimous acceptance of each of them.

2. The Gospels concern a unique Person and must therefore themselves be in some measure unique. The Gospels are essentially Christo-centric and there are no parallels to this. The very uniqueness of Christ demands the possibility that the records of His life and teaching will possess unique characteristics. It is reasonable to assume that the originality of our Lord’s teaching and the originality of the influence of His actions upon His followers produced a unique situation for the germination of unique records of His life and teaching. Had this not been so, the Synoptic ‘problem” would never have arisen, for there must have been a unique regard for the records for three so similar and yet so divergent records to have been retained with equal authority. Too often Gospel criticism has begun from some point outside the phenomena of the Gospels themselves and the latter have been forced into a mold that they were never meant to fill.

3. The Gospel material formed the basis of Christian preaching and teaching and was not the consequence of those Christian activities. Few scholars would deny that the early missionaries must have possessed certain Christian traditions that were agreed upon and which they were able to impart to others. It seems most natural to assume that the Christian traditions were transmitted because they were believed to be authentic and were most probably regarded as authentic in the form in which they were transmitted. Whatever part the Christian community played in the process of transmission, it is inconceivable that the community created either the sayings of Jesus or the narratives about Him. The Christian communities were groups of people who had “received” Christian traditions (cp. 1 Corinthians 15:3, where the Apostle Paul writes, “I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received.”)

4. The final consideration is the impossibility of explaining the origins of the Gospels apart from the activity of the Holy Spirit. This consideration rarely finds a place in discussions on the Synoptic “problem,” because it is thought to belong to dogmatics rather than to historical criticism. But the operation of the Holy Spirit in Gospel origins is a vital factor, indeed, the vital factor, in the historical situation. The clear promise of Jesus that the Holy Spirit would teach the disciples all things and bring to their remembrance all that He had said to them (John 14:26; note, also, John 16:13) cannot be dismissed simply because it does not fit into the normal categories of literary criticism. In the light of our Lord’s promise certain propositions may be made that have a direct bearing on the Synoptic “problem”: It may first be asserted that the Holy Spirit controlled the traditions. However transmission was made during the pre-literary period, it cannot be supposed that the Holy Spirit would leave this to chance procedures. The next proposition affects the selective processes of the separate Gospel writers. If the Spirit aided memory, it is inconceivable that He did not also control the selection of the material each writer chose to use in writing his particular Gospel. The different emphases of the four Evangelists resulting in different methods of presentation may best be explained by the controlling influence of the Holy Spirit as He employed each one to suit His divine purpose. It is one of the fundamental weaknesses of all thoroughgoing source criticism that little room is left for the dynamic operation of the Spirit of God in the writing of the canonical Gospels.

A Tentative Theory of Origins

Stage 1: The apostolic preachers gave most prominence to the passion material, but they could not present this narrative in isolation. Hence, Peter in his preaching gave connected accounts of the events of Jesus’ life and ministry (note Acts 10:36-43.) This may well have been the standard pattern.

Stage 2: At the same time as the apostolic preaching, catechetical instruction was being given to the new converts. This would certainly have required some careful arrangement of the teaching material. The major content of the catechesis would most probably have been the sayings of Jesus. Such catechetical instruction may have been in oral form or written form or a mixture of both. It is possible that this early catechesis was closely connected with Matthew and that it existed in its earliest form in Aramaic.

Stage 3: Mark, who had had close contact with Peter and had many times heard Peter preach, reduced the content of Peter’s preaching to writing. The result was a Gospel with more action narrative than teaching discourse.

Stage 4: After the production of Mark’s Gospel, probably at Rome, Matthew may have come into possession of a copy of it and have been led to expand it by the addition of a considerable amount of teaching material from the catechesis and other material, some of which was drawn from personal reminiscences.

Stage 5: Luke, who was personally acquainted with Mark, conceived a plan to write a careful account of the course of events from the beginning (that is to say, from Jesus’ advent.) He studied all the written material he was able to gather and interviewed as many eyewitnesses as possible. He appears to have had a copy of Mark, although he may not have come into possession of it until after making an initial draft of his Gospel, consisting of teaching material plus much narrative material. The bulk of the teaching material Luke used was transmitted to him through catechesis, procured mainly while Luke was in Caesarea. The catechesis to which Luke had access tended to preserve shorter discourses of Jesus than those incorporated into Matthew’s Gospel.

Stage 6: It is probable that at first the tendency was for churches to use only one of the three Gospels as authoritative, because all three Gospels would not necessarily circulate in the same area. How long an interval elapsed before all three became widely know cannot be ascertained, but the interchange that took place with Paul’s Epistles would suggest a similar process took place with the Gospels. Why were all three Gospels preserved? Variations of emphasis and content were evidently no barrier to the eventual acceptance of the three. Here again the governing guidance of the Holy Spirit must not be forgotten. Guided by the Spirit, the churches would recognize those literary productions that were authentically Spirit-given (note 1 Corinthians 14:37); in which case the variations in the narratives would themselves be regarded as a part of the revelatory character of the records.

(Note: Most of what appears under the previous three headings, “Guiding Principles,” “Important Factors to Bear in Mind,” and “A Tentative Theory of Origins,” is a summary of the excellent material presented by Donald Guthrie in his New Testament Introduction, pp. 220-236.)


Bruce, F.F.; “The Fourfold Gospel,” The New Bible Commentary, Edited by Prof. F. Davidson; The Inter-Varsity Fellowship, London, Reprinted October 1967.

Guthrie, Donald; New Testament Introduction; Inter-Varsity Press, Downers Grove IL, 1970 (Third Edition.)

Harrison, Everett F.; Introduction to the New Testament; Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. Grand Rapids MI, 1964 (Third Printing, October 1968.)

Tenney, Merrill C.; New Testament Survey; Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. Grand Rapids MI, 1961 (Eighth Printing, February 1967.)