The Nazarene Way of Essenic Studies
Synoptic Problem and Literary Phenomena
The Academic Study of the Bible and its Textual Content

The "synoptic problem" concerns the literary relationships between and among the first three canonical gospels; the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke, known as the Synoptic Gospels

Specifically, a solution to the Synoptic Problem must account for the similarities and differences in content, order, and wording.

The literary relation may be either direct (one Evangelist possessed one of the gospels) or indirect (two Evangelists having access to a shared source). The sources may be written or oral; one or a multitude.

Synoptic Theories

This is a brief overview of the solutions to the Synoptic Problem, starting from the most widely held, near-consensus theory and its major challengers.

The two-source hypothesis states that Matthew and Luke independently copied Mark for its narrative framework and independently added discourse material from a non-extant sayings collection called Q.

Much work has gone into the extent and wording of Q, particularly since the discovery of the Gospel of Thomas which attests to the sayings gospel genre. Holtzmann's 1863 theory posited an Ur-Marcus in the place of our Mark, with our Mark being a later revision.

Some scholars occasionally propose an unattested revision of Mark, a deutero-Mark, being the base of what Matthew and Luke used. Streeter (1924) further refined the Two-Source Hypothesis into a four-source theory, with an M and an L being a unique source to Matthew and Luke respectively, with Q and L combined into a Proto-Luke before Luke added Mark.

While unique sources, such as M, L, or Semitic first editions, are interesting for form-critical purposes, they are quite peripheral to the Synoptic Problem as to how the canonical gospels are interrelated.

The Griesbach hypothesis holds that Matthew was written first, and Luke used it in preparing his gospel. Then, Mark conflated the two in a procedure that mostly followed where Matthew and Luke agree in order except for discourse material.

The Augustinian hypothesis holds that Matthew was written first, then Mark, then Luke, and each Evangelist depended on those who preceded him. This position is in the closest agreement with church father testimony of the gospels origins.

John Wenham was considered one of the prominent scholars who supported the Augustinian hypothesis. A variant of this hypothesis that was popular mainly among Roman Catholic scholars in the first half of the 20th century was that Matthew was written first, and copied by Mark and then Luke, but that Matthew was written in Aramaic, and when it was translated to Greek the translator liberally adapted some of the phraseology of the other gospels which were already in Greek.

Other theories usually posit more hypothetical and proto-sources. Generally their plausibility is in inverse relation to the number of additional sources. For example, Parker (1953) argued for a proto-Matthew in addition to Q. Boismard calls for seven hypothetical documents, one of them a form of Q.

A handful of researchers, such as Eta Linnemann, argue that each of evangelists are independent of one another and that the apparent literary similarities are merely coincidental.

Literary Phenomena in the Synoptic Gospels

Almost all of Mark's content is found in Matthew, and about two-thirds of Mark is found in Luke. This material constitutes the Triple Tradition.

The Triple Tradition is largely narrative but contains some sayings material. Since so much of Mark is Triple Tradition; some scholars combine it with the rest of Mark and talk about a Markan Tradition instead.

In addition to the Triple Tradition, Matthew and Luke share content not found in Mark, called the Double Tradition. This content is mainly saying material (mostly of Jesus, but some by John the Baptist) but includes at least one miracle story (the Centurion's Servant) as well.

Agreement in the order of the content is the strongest indication of a documentary dependence, especially when the agreement touches topical arrangements instead of chronological (e.g. both Matthew and Mark relate the death of John the Baptist in a flash-back). Therefore most scholars have not found purely oral theories plausible. The pattern of order is quite different between the Triple and Double traditions.

In the Triple Tradition, the order (or arrangement) of the pericopes is largely shared between Matthew and Mark or Luke and Mark or between all three. It is rarely the case that Matthew and Luke agree against Mark in arranging the Triple Tradition. This formal property means that Mark is a middle term between Matthew and Luke. Specifically, the following scenarios are logically possible:

Indirect Relationship

If Matthew, Mark and Luke are independent revisions of a common source, then this Ur-Gospel in order is best represented in Mark. In fact, this Ur-Gospel can be thought of as an Ur-Marcus. (Lachman 1832; Holtzmann 1863).

Direct Relationship

Butler showed that Lachmann's conclusion does not hold up if any gospel is directly related to another. He found that three (later expanded to four by Farmer 1964) situations were possible:
(1)  K     (2) M   (3) L   (4) M   L
      / \           K         K          \ /
   M   L        L          M          K

(1) Markan priority. Matthew and Luke copied Mark in Triple
Tradition. (Two-Source Hypothesis, Farrer Hypothesis)
(2) Matthean priority. Luke copied Mark who copied Matthew who was
first (Augustinian Hypothesis)
(3) Lukan priority. Matthew copied Mark who copied Luke who was first
(Few adherents).
(4) Markan posteriority. Mark conflated Matthew and Luke (Griesbach

There is an additional fact about the arrangements of the Triple Tradition: Mark's order is almost always supported by either Matthew or Luke. This lends strength to the Griesbach Hypothesis [scenario b(4)], but that support is weakened by Tuckett's mathematical observation that the relatively rare deviations of either Matthew or Luke from Mark's order means that this observation is not statistically significant.

Tuckett's model may be criticized for assuming randomness on part the later redactors (departures from a source are equally likely), but 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.

The agreement in order within the Double Tradition, however, is much weaker, mostly in the Sermon on the Mount/Plain, leading scholars to favor an indirect relationship for the Double Tradition. Thus, Matthew and Luke copied independently a sayings collection called Q. On the other hand, there is enough order in Q to argue that Q is a documentary source. Those other theories which do not hypothesize a shared sayings source usually assume that Luke copied the Double Tradition from Matthew.

A close comparison of the wording within the Triple Tradition shows that Matthew and Mark are usually quite close, with Luke being somewhat further. To the extent that Luke agrees in wording at all with the other two, it usually is with both or with Mark. Luke's agreements with Matthew against Mark, the minor agreements, are less frequent but not insignificant.

The role of the minor agreements is important because they raise the issue of just how independent are Matthew and Luke between each other. Culminating in 1924, Streeter was able to show to the satisfaction of most of the scholars at the time that these minor agreements are largely irrelevant, coincidental, or attributable to textual corruption. Streeter's work allowed the Oxford School to replace the Ur-Markus of Holtzmann's 1863 Two-Source Hypothesis with the canonical Mark.

Griesbach's explanation of Mark's redactional procedure predicts that Mark should more agree with the Evangelist he currently is copying. At a gross level this is pretty much the case, but often Mark prefers Matthew in areas he should be more like Luke.

Another important phenomenon is that Mark's wording is usually fuller than either Matthew's or Luke's. This fact has been used to argue against the notion that Mark is an abridgement, but others see it as indicating that Mark is secondary.

A final issue with wording is that Mark is felt to be more "primitive" than either Matthew or Luke and thus prior. This is of course quite subjective, and there are equally compelling reasons for Matthew to be first (more Jewish, etc.)

Return to The Nazarene Way main menu

The Nazarene Way of Essenic Studies
 Email us at:
Join our Essene Holy Communions email list
Sign our Guest Book!