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Doctrinal Writings
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The Synoptic Problem

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Pastor Mark Montgomery
Ambassador Baptist Church
1926 Babcock Blvd
Pittsburgh, PA 15209
Ever since the early days of the church, there has been much discussion as to the phenomena of the first three Gospels: Matthew, Mark, and Luke. This discussion revolves around the fact that these three books, though written by different authors, cover much of the same material in similar fashions with many striking verbal agreements. However, there are a number of differences as well.(1) The question of why these similarlties and differences occur is known as the Synoptic Problem. The word synoptic comes from the Greek word ouvoIItLkos , and means "seeing the whole together".(2) It should be noted here that the Gospel of John is not included as one of the Synoptic Gospels. This is not because it is contradictory to the other three, but rather because it portrays the life of Christ from a different standpoint. Thus, it will be the purpose of this paper to examine the possible reasons for the similarities and differences within Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and thus arrive at a Biblical solution for the Synoptic Problem.

There does not seem to have been any early attempt to deal with the problem presented by the Synoptic Gospels. The first individual to deal with the situation was Augustine. He believed that the similarities of language indicated a literary dependency. Based on this idea, he concluded that Mark was a condensation of Matthew. However, this was the last discussion of the problem until the middle of the eighteenth century when the problem really came to the forefront and numerous solutions were offered.

The first of these solutions is known as the Urevangelium Theory. This theory, which was popularized by Lessing and Eichhorn, suggests that there was an origina1 Gospel of the Nazarenes, composed by Matthew, which was the source for the Synoptic writers.(3) Lessing held that Matthew composed this source shortly after the death of Christ in the Aramaic language. When he left Palestine to preach among the Hellenists, he made an abstract of this work in the Greek language. This Greek abstract is the canonical Matthew of the Greek New Testament. He also held that Mark and Luke were exerpts from the Aramaic Gospel made by the authors for their own specific purposes. This theory really has no validity. In the first place, such an idea has no historical support. Secondly, if the Gospels are nothing more than translations, abstracts and adaptations from one particular Aramaic source, why was not the source itself preserved? This would certainly have been a logical step. Thirdly, this still does not fully explain why there are omissions within the various Gospels which would have been pertinent to their purpose. Thus, the Urevangelium Theory can not be accepted as a legitimate solution to the Synoptic Problem.

A second theory which has been proposed is the Interdependence Theory. This theory holds that one of the Gospel writers wrote first, the second copied from that, and the third copied from both preceeding manuacripts. The initial author is thought to have received most of his information from oral traditions, and the succeeding writers are thought to have added or subtracted in their works based upon the oral traditions which they had heard. Perhaps the fact which mediates against this view the most is that those men who hold to this view are unable to come to terms as to which of the three Gospels was written first. It would seem, if this were the correct theory, that it would be obvious which author did the original writing. Yet this is not the case. In fact, every possible combination has been suggested and adhered to by at least one man.(5) This theory succeeded in accounting for the material common to the Synoptics. But it failed in attempting to explain the presence of elements peculiar to the individual writings.(6) Thus, because of its inability to resolve the problems, this theory must be abandoned.

A third theory is the Fragmentary Theory. This theory was developed by F. Schleiermacher in the nineteenth century in response to the unsatisfactory character of Eichhorn's Urevangelium Theory. According to this theory, the deeds and sayings of Jesus were preserved by the Apostles in separate, detached forms. When the need for these forms came from outside of Palestine, these fragments were collected into various groups. As long as the Gospel writers had similar fragments, their books were the same. However, the men could possibly have collected fragments which dealt specifically in different areas. At these points in the Gospels, the narratives would be different. This theory has enjoyed a revival in popularity lately under the name of Form Criticism. However,this theory fails to answer one very important question: why is there structural unity between the various accounts? The Synoptic Gospels follow a basic chronology. Yet this solution would seem to lend credence to a hap-hazzard formation of the Gospel. Were three different men in three different areas working on books based strictly on fragments which they had, the chances are very great that the three books would not bear any chronological resemblence to each other. Yet a shallow reading of the Synoptics immediately shows that all three follow the same basic sequence. Thus, it seems that this theory too is inadequate in its explanation of the Synoptic Problem.

A fourth theory is the Oral Tradition Theory. Westcott is regarded as having given the classic formulation of this theory.(7) His argument follows in this vein:

  • 1. Since the Jews would not commit to writing their mass of ora1 traditions, it is unlikely that the first Christian leaders would have done so.
  • 2. Since the Apostolic circle was composed primarily of preachers and not writers, literary works would not have occurred to them immediately.
  • 3. Since the Gospels arose out of the recurring needs of the community, the most attention would naturally be given to those narratives which were most used in the apostolic preaching.(8)
  • 4. The Apostolic Fathers, so far as they bear any witness to the origin of the Gospels, support an oral theory.
  • 5. Mark's Gospel, by reason of its "vivid simplicity", is the most "direct representation of the Evangelic tradition." This being the foundation, Matthew preserves the Hebraic form while Luke presents the Greek form.
The differences in the Gospels can be accounted for on two grounds. First, special contributions were made by the individuals to supplement their general information. Secondly, the particular aim of each writer had something to do with his choice of materials.

However, in spite of the arguments set forth by Westcott and others, very few scholars accept this theory. There are three main difficulties in accepting this view. One difficulty is the problem of control over tradition, as it spread beyond Jerusalem. It is hard to understand how such an oral tradition could remain thoroughly fixed. A second difficulty is that, while Mark is made to be the foundation of the gospe1 tradition, it is hard to explain the absence from Mark of materials common to both Luke and Matthew. A third, major difficulty is found in the fact that the three Synontic narratives contain considerable divergency in important areas of Christ's life where verbal agreement would be expected, if all gathered information from the same source. Likewise, there is often strong verbal agreement in areas which have no real importance, a circumstance that seems to argue against oral traditions. Based on these three arguements, it seems necessary to disqualify the Oral Tradition Theory from the list of possible solutions to the Synoptic Problem.

A fifth solution which has been offered is the Two Document Theory. This view is based on the fact that:

Mark has little material peculiar to himself, whereas Matthew and Luke have so large a portion of their texts in common with Mark's. In the order of the narratives, Matthew and Luke are usually found to be in agreement with Mark, and even though one or the other may deviate from Mark's order, they do not unite against Mark in the order they follow... The conclusion is that Mark is one document used in the construction of the other two Synoptics.(9)
While this explains similarities between the Synoptics, it does not explain the origin of the material in Matthew and Luke which is not found in Mark. Thus, proponents of this theory assume that Matthew and Luke drew material from another common source. This source ia called Q, after the German word "quella", which means "source".

This theory has had a number of variations attached to it. Some hold that there was originally a document known as "Ur Markus", from which Mark copied, and both Matthew and Luke borrowed. However, this theory has generally fallen into disrepute. Others hold to a source known as "Ur Matthaus", which is the Gospel of the Nazarenes mentioned earlier. However, because of historica1 questions and theological divisions, this theory has also fallen into disrepute. Thus, the most popular description of the Two Document Theory is that of Mark and Q.

In order to rightly understand this theory. and subsequent ones, it would be profitable to have an understanding of the contents and nature of these two sources. The king-pin of the Two Document Theory is the concept of Marcan priority. This, of course, is the idea that Mark was the original writer, and that Matthew and Luke copied from him. Support given for this idea is as follows. First, the fact that there are vast amounts of Mark reproduced in Matthew and Luke is a reason given for Marcan priority. Secondly, the other two Gospels primarily follow the chronological pattern of Mark, and in cases of divergence rarely team up against it. Thirdly, Mark's language and style seem to give a more primitive account, thus making it earlier than the others. Fourthly, the fact that Mark seems to dwell more on the human emotions of Christ than do the others is a reason given for Marcan priority. Finally, Mark is said to have priority because it generally contains the least explicit account of any narrative.(10)

In spite of these arguements, there are several problems which arise from the concept of Marcan priority. First of all, there are some passages in which Matthew and Luke agree against Mark. Secondly, there is the "Great Omission", the name given to the fact that Mark 6:45-8:26 do not appear at all in Luke. Numerous reasons have been given for this omission, ranking from Luke's accidental omission, to his deliberate omission, to his use of a mutilated copy of Mark's Gospel. A third reason has also been given. Were Mark to have written before Luke (and Matthew), he must have written sometime during the middle fifties. However, in Acts 15:38, Paul indicates that Mark is not yet ready to travel with him. Adherance to the Marcan priority would indicate that even though Mark was not yet spiritually qualified enough to write a Gospel from which all others copied. This would seem rather doubtful, and combined with the other problems, places great uncertainty upon the entire concept of Marcan priority.

Q must also be identified.(11) This document is thought to have contained the teachings of Jesus rather than narratives. The reasons for Q are as follows. First, the fact that up to 950 verses are common to only Matthew and Luke indicates a common written source. Secondly, the order of the common material of Matthew and Luke is similar. Thirdly, doubles in Matthew and Luke indicate the Q source. Fourthly, sometimes the agreements in Matthew and Luke reach to unusual words and phrases.(l2) However, just as in the case of Marcan priority, difficulties are present. Perhaps the greatest difficulty is that

the existence of a document like Q during the first century A.D. must be considered to be unparalleled. The uniqueness of Q would not, of course, be damaging to the hypothesis, if there were such convincing grounds for it that a new type of literature could be confidently assumed. But it is otherwise with Q. It is hypothetical, unsupported by any external evidence a precarious basis for a unique document.(l3)

This, too, would tend to cast a shadow of doubt on the Two Document Theory. Thus, based upon the obvious difficulties associated with Marean priority and the existence of Q, it is best to dismiss this theory as being invalid.

Another theory, which has its basis in the Two Document Theory, is the Four Document Theory. This theory adds two documents, M and L, to the before mentioned Mark and Q. All four documents are assigned areas of origin. Mark is said to have come from Rome; Q from Antioch; M (the private source of Matthew) from Jerusalem; L (the private source of Luke) from Caesarea. It should become immediately obvious that the difficulties of Marcan priority and Q still exist. In addition, the same problem which is present in Q is present in M and L; that being that there is no evidence of their existence. Thus, it can be briefly said that the Four Document Theory falls into the same category as the Two Document Theory and must be rejected.

The final theory which has been proposed is that of Form Criticism. This theory views the Gospel writers as being little more than editors of existing materials. However, the main object of this theory has been to undermine the reliability of the Gospels. As one proponent of Form Criticism put it, "We have no absolute assurance that the exact words of this...were really spoken by Jesus. There is a possibility that the contents of this...are also the result of a complicated historical process which we can no longer trace.(14) This type of thinking can not possibly be correct. The notion that the Gospels may be so incorrect as to not contain the words of Jesus cannot be harmonized with the Biblical truth of the providential care of God for His Word. Thus, the Form Criticism idea of editions within the Gospels from a variety of non-extant sources must be soundly rejected. Even if it were not such a blasphemous theory, it would still be rejected on the basis of contradictory divergencies by its proponents and the lack of evidence of original sources.

It has been seen that the various solutions which have been given to the Synoptic problem are not really solutions at all, but are rather the attempts of men (often unregenerate) to explain away the Divine Inspiration of the Bible. II Timothy 3:16 states that "All Scripture is given by inspiration of God." II Peter 1:21 teaches that "holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost." These two verses teach the verbal, plenary inspiration of the Bible. "All" Scripture is inspired. This of necessity includes the very words which were written. If the exact words are not inspired, then one can never be sure what is and what is not the Word of God. Armed with this knowledge of the Biblical doctrine of inspiration, the Synoptic Problem ceases to exist. All rests upon the omniscient, Holy God who authored the books. The Synoptic Gospels contain the things they do because that is what God wanted them to contain. To try to explain this by any other means is to take away from the authority of the Scriptures, which are the result of God's moving and inspiration upon holy men. Thus, in order to understand the Synoptic Gospels, one need not go to the critics to find the answer. Rather, the Word of God is its own interpreter, and in this case, its own vindicator.

(1) Westcott determined these percentages of differences and similarities:
Differences Similarities
Matthew 42% 58%
Mark 7% 93%
Luke 59% 41%
John 92% 8%
Robert Gromachi, New Testament Survey (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1974), P. 54.
(2) Henry Thiessen, Introduction to the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1943), p. 101.
(3) Jerome mentions this document as still being present among the Nazarenes in the fourth century. Donald Guthrie, New Testament Introduction (Downers Grove Inter_Varsity Press, 1970), p 123.
(4) Thiessen, op. cit., p. 104.
(5) Everett Harrison, Introduction to the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1964), p. 139.
(6) Westcott states that "the theory appears to be inconsistent with the results of a careful analysis of the language and of the contents of the Gospels. Thiessen, loc. cit.
(7) Guthrie, op. cit., pp. 125 126.
(8) This would account for the amount of space devoted to the crucifixion and resurrection narratives.
(9) Harrison, op. cit., p. 140.
(1O) Guthrie, on. cit., pp. 133-135.
(11) For the hypothetical contents of Q, see Guthrie, pp. 147 148.
(12) Guthrie, op. cit., pp. 143 l44.
(13) Ibid., p. 153.
(14) Thiessen, op. cit., p. 119.
(l5) Space limitations do not allow for a complete thesis concerning the doctrine of inspiration. For an excellent discussion consult L. Caussen, The Divine Inspiration of the Bible (Grand Ranida: Kregel Publications, 1971.


Gaussen, L. The Divine Inspiration of the Bible. Grand Rapids: Kregel Publicationn, 1971.

Gromachi, Robert. New Testament Survey. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1974.

Guthrie, Donald. New Testament Introduction. Downers Grove: Inter Varsity Press,1970.

Harrison, Everett. Introduction to the New Testament . Grand Rapids: Wm, B.Eerdmans Publishing Co.,1964.

James, Iverach. "The Synoptic Gospels", The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia vo1. II. Chicago: The Howard Severence C., 1937

Salmon, George. Introduction to the New Testament. London: John Murray, 1894.

Thiessen, Henry. Introduction to the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1943.

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