The Synoptic Problem

The Synoptics

Of the four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, even traditional scholars agree that and that Matthew, Mark and Luke were written first, and John written sometime later. Traditional scholars also know that Matthew, Mark and Luke include a lot of the same stories, events, teachings and viewpoints. For this reason, they are called the “synoptic gospels” the word “synoptic” meaning “seeing together” or “similar view”.

But these stories and events aren’t just similar, as one might expect. In many cases, they are word-per-word identical. Now any schoolteacher, presented with three reports that use many identical phrases, knows what’s going on. Someone is copying. The question is, who is copying whom? The synoptic writers could be copying from each other, or all of them could be copying from a common source or sources. This isn’t some modern skeptical viewpoint. As early as Augustine (who was no dummy after all) careful readers knew that someone had copied. Because Augustine accepted catholic tradition, he assumed that Mark and Luke had copied from Matthew.

But modern scholars aren’t as ready to accept catholic tradition. The gospel writers don’t even identify themselves after all. The title “The Gospel of Matthew” that you read in your printed Bible is simply a traditional title. The manuscript itself makes no claim to have been written by Matthew. The traditional authorship makes some sense in terms of the emphasis of each gospel. Matthew seems to have a Jewish slant, for example. But tradition needs validation. I’ll continue to call these authors “Matthew, Mark and Luke”, but we really aren’t sure who they are.

Who Copied Whom?

Scholars try to decide which sources are earlier – not by comparing the verses where they are exactly the same, but the verses where there are subtle changes. Either through early copying errors or slightly different emphasis, there are many examples where the synoptic gospel writers are slightly different from each other. Usually, two gospel writers agree and one will have a slight variation. This usually means the variation is NOT the original. For example, if I have three versions of a phrase:

1. Bill took a nap 2. Bill took a nap 3. Bill, being tired, took a nap

I can deduce that “Bill took a nap” was probably the original and “being tired” was a later addition to version #3.

When we apply this method to the synoptics, it turns out that Mark seems to be the original. Sometimes Luke changes something, sometimes Matthew – but rarely are Matthew and Luke in agreement against Mark. And in many of the cases where they ARE in agreement against Mark, the very earliest manuscripts are different, and the agreement is a later “patch up” job.

Mark Wrote First

So it appears, and the majority of scholars (though not all) think, that the author of Mark wrote his gospel first, and that the authors of Matthew and Luke each had a copy of Mark sitting in front of them when they wrote their gospels, and used Mark as a framework. This also seems likely from the fact that Mark is the shorter gospel. Compilers of scripture tend to add to their sources, not abbreviate them. They are reluctant to throw away anything that might be precious.

Matthew and Luke each added from their own sources in the framework Mark provided. Each of them added (somewhat contradictory) information about Jesus’ birth and genealogy for example, and added material about his passion.

The “Q” Source.

One of the things that both Matthew and Luke add to Mark are a number of “sayings” of Jesus. Once again, these sayings of Jesus are so similar in wording in Matthew and Luke that there must be a common source for them. Scholars call this common source “Q”, for “quella”, the German word for “source”. However, each gospel writer puts the sayings in different contexts. The Sermon on the Mount, for example, in Matthew 5, happens on a plain in Luke 6. Jesus saying which begins “are not five sparrows sold for a (two) farthings” is used by Matthew as part of Jesus instruction as he is sending out the twelve. In Luke it is part of a teaching to a much larger gathering. Why don’t Matthew and Luke seem to agree on when and where Jesus said these things?

The reason is that the source (“Q”) that Matthew and Luke are copying from is probably a collection of “sayings”. This was a popular form of ancient literature – the collected sayings of a wise man. Proverbs is an example of this kind of collection. Matthew and Luke had a collection of Jesus’ sayings in front of them, but no clue as to exactly where or when these sayings fit in the life of Jesus. So they put them into the narrative of Mark wherever each author thought they best fit.

Layers in the “Q” Source

Further study has shown that the “Q” source may consist of several layers of tradition, based on differences in language, style and theme. The very earliest of these (Q1) is primarily a collection of Jesus’ “wisdom” sayings. They are generally short, pithy sayings and parables and don’t have a lot of explanation surrounding them. The subsequent layers (Q2 and Q3) deal largely with apocalyptic themes and judgment against those who reject him, and are more verbose. For a scholarly reconstruction of what the “Q” source may have looked like, with the layers indicated, see:

All of this analysis is not to say that Matthew, Mark and Luke were doing anything wrong. They are not trying to take credit for someone else’s work (in fact, they write anonymously). They are simply trying to assemble the best history of Jesus they can provide from the sources they have available. Even a conservative view of scriptural inerrancy doesn’t demand that the gospels be in exact agreement about when and where Jesus made a particular statement. It’s of no importance to anyone’s spiritual condition to know exactly what altitude Jesus was at when he taught the Sermon on the Mount (Plain).

But having these educated guesses about the gospel sources is of help in analyzing other materials, particularly the Gospel of Thomas


The tentative dates, then, for these gospels and their sources is thought to be something like this:

Q1 – the mid 50’s AD Q2 – 60 to 70 AD Q3 – the mid 80’s AD Mark – 65 to 80 AD Matthew – 80 to 100 AD Luke – 80 to 130 AD

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