Monday, December 07, 2009

The Synoptic Problem, Part I

A 6th century text of the Gospel of Matthew

The Synoptic Problem is a long-standing debate within the field of New Testament scholarship concerning the interrelationships of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The number of different theories addressing this problem is nothing short of awe-inspiring, and attempting to wade through them can be tedious to the point of exasperation. One can imagine a sadistic New Testament professor forcing his first year graduate students to write essays on this issue, just to torture them and weed out the weaklings.

Be that as it may, the question of the interrelationships of these three Gospels is an interesting and important one – interesting from a historical standpoint, and important from a theological standpoint. For that reason, I have done some footwork on this issue and will present it here in a way that I hope will be engaging to the average Christian or average enthusiast in matters of historical importance.


To put it simply, the Synoptic Problem addresses the fact that the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are all very similar at first glance. These three Gospels, in fact, are called “synoptic” for that very reason: they can be “seen together;” they tell stories that seem to be seen through the same eyes.

As an illustration of this, consider the fact that about 93% of Mark’s Gospel is regurgitated in Matthew, and roughly 80% is repeated in Luke. You can essentially read Matthew or Luke and get most of what is contained in Mark. Furthermore, counting the material that Luke and Matthew share with Mark, and adding to it the material they share exclusively between themselves, Matthew and Luke have about 60% of their Gospels in common.

This diagram shows that 76% of Mark's content is regurgitated in both Matthew and Luke. This material is called the "Triple Tradition." It's present in all three Gospels. Individually, Matthew includes 92% of Mark's total content, and Luke includes 79% of Mark's total content. Additionally, Luke shares about 25% of Matthew's non-Markan content. This material found in both Matthew and Luke, and only those two Gospels, is called the "Double Tradition."

Thus, these three Gospels are “synoptic.” They can be seen together. They share a lot of the same stories.

The “problem,” then, becomes an academic and historical one: Where did this material come from, who wrote it down first, who copied from whom, and when one writer changed a story from another writer, why did they do it, what does that change signify theologically, and whose version is more authoritative?

Some of those questions, particularly the last few, are beyond the scope of this essay, but it simply helps to illustrate just how complex and far reaching this issue goes.


From as early as the 2nd century C.E., Church Fathers such as Iranaeus and Origen had stated their belief in what is known as “Matthean priority” – that is, the idea that Matthew was the first Gospel to be written, and Mark and Luke both used Matthew as their primary source.

In the 5th century, St. Augustine of Hippo – famous for his “Confessions” – elaborated what was by then a Church tradition of Matthean priority. He argued that Matthew came first, followed by Mark, Luke, and John. If you have ever wondered why the Gospels of the New Testament are presented in that order, this is why. It’s what the Church believed was the chronological order that the Gospels were written in.

Augustine analyzed many of the similarities among Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and concluded that Mark had simply “abbreviated” Matthew (Mark is, in fact, much shorter than Matthew), and that each successive writer had used the Gospels written before – thus, Mark used Matthew, Luke used Mark and Matthew, and John used all three.

Prior to the Enlightenment and the genesis of modern New Testament scholarship, this Augustinian view was more or less universally accepted.


In the late 18th century, German theologian Gottlieb Christian Storr became the first prominent theologian and scholar to break with the Matthean priority of Church tradition and suggest, instead, that Mark had been written first, and Matthew and Luke had copied from Mark.

This idea did not gain much acceptance until the 19th century, after Storr’s death. During that era, a number of primarily German scholars began working in the field of critical textual scholarship, and ultimately concluded that Storr was right – Mark was written first, with Matthew coming next and copying Mark, and Luke coming third and copying the other two.


Throughout the 20th century and into the modern day, this hypothesis of Markan priority has become widely accepted among scholars and theologians alike. Pick up any book on New Testament scholarship, and the author is likely to take it as a presupposition that Mark was the first Gospel to be written.

There are a number of compelling reasons why Markan priority is now almost universally accepted.

First, Mark is the shortest of the three synoptic Gospels. Since Matthew and Luke are so much longer, it makes sense that they were expanding Mark – rather than Mark shortening Matthew or Luke, as Augustine had argued. (As an aside, the idea of a Lukan priority – that Luke was written first – is almost universally rejected among scholars.)

Related to that same argument is that Mark excludes a lot of major scenes in Jesus’ life that are found in both Matthew and Luke – most notably Jesus’ birth and resurrection. If Mark was copying from one or both of the other two, why would he leave out such important events?

Second, many scholars have noted over the years that the language of Mark’s Gospel is very primitive and colloquial. Scholar Bruce Chilton refers to Mark’s language as “pidgin-Greek.” Many people familiar with the Gospel of Mark may find this argument strange, but that is only because our modern English versions of Mark clean up his poor syntax, confusing changes in tense and pronouns, and his idiomatic writing style. In the original Greek, the Gospel of Mark is not exactly high art.

Matthew and Luke, on the other hand, exhibit a reasonably high literary quality. Thus, the argument suggests that since Mark writes in colloquial or “low” Greek, and Matthew and Luke write in literary or “high” Greek, the likelihood is that they were better trained writers, writing after Mark and “cleaning up” his language. If Mark had been using either Matthew or Luke, he would not have “dumbed down” the literary writing of his sources. On the other hand, it makes sense that Matthew and Luke would reword difficult and obtuse phrases from Mark to make them more palatable and literate.

Third, only a very small amount of material in Mark – about 3% – is exclusive to Mark. Almost every scene in Mark’s Gospel is found in some form or another in either Matthew and/or Luke. Yet those few sentences/passages that are exclusive to Mark are quite interesting. In every case, without fail, they are stories that depict Jesus in a negative light.

One such case is from chapter 3 of Mark, where Jesus’ family comes to where he is preaching, wanting to take him back home because they think he has gone crazy (literally: “beside himself”). Both Luke and Matthew omit this particular scene, despite using nearly everything else in the passage.

Another example is from Mark chapter 8, where Jesus has to try twice to heal a man of blindness. His first attempt leaves the man only partially able to see, with the man reporting that the people around him “look like trees walking around.” Again, Luke and Matthew omit this story.

What is more likely, that Mark copied Matthew, but added in a few stories that portray Jesus in a negative light, or that Matthew and Luke copied Mark and simply left out the stories that they found distasteful?

Finally, Matthew and Luke seem to be constantly “fixing” Mark’s problematic accounts. For instance, in chapter 6, Mark has the crowd say, in reference to Jesus: “Isn’t this the carpenter, the son of Mary?” This may not seem like a problem phrase to us, but in the patriarchal world of 1st century Judaism, a man would only have been referred to as the son of his mother if the man’s paternity were in question. Even if Jesus’ father was dead, he still would never have been called the son of Mary. Since Mark also contains no birth account (virgin or otherwise), and no reference anywhere to Jesus’ father (Joseph or otherwise), any 1st century reader of Mark would have been left with the obvious impression that Jesus was illegitimate.

When copying this scene into his own account, Matthew makes a few subtle, but profound, changes. In Matthew’s version, the crowd says: “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother’s name Mary?”

Now it’s not Jesus who is the carpenter, but Jesus’ father – who we already know from Matthew’s birth account was a man named Joseph. And instead of being the “son of Mary,” Jesus now simply has a mother who is named Mary. Luke’s account makes a similar change, dropping the reference to his mother all together, and simply calling him “Joseph’s son.”

These are subtle alterations, but they speak volumes about who was copying from whom. Surely Mark did not change the other accounts to imply Jesus was illegitimate; clearly Matthew and Luke are the ones doing the copying and changing here.

Another example also comes from Mark chapter 6. There, Mark tells us that Jesus “could not do any miracles” in Nazareth. Jesus then marvels at the Nazorean’s lack of faith. Again, we see a subtle, but profound change in Matthew’s account. There, Jesus “did not do any miracles there because of their lack of faith.” No longer is Jesus incapable of doing miracles; rather, Jesus consciously chooses not to do any miracles because of their lack of faith.

Again, this seems to be an obvious case of Matthew changing Mark to make Jesus look better, and not Mark changing Matthew to make Jesus look worse.

In addition to all these, there are also a few scattered clues here and there. In Luke chapter 4, for instance, the writer describes Jesus teaching in Nazareth. Jesus tells the crowd that he won’t do any signs and miracles for them, like he did in Capernaum. Yet Luke’s Jesus had not yet been to Capernaum at this point in the narrative. This problem of cohesion is easily solved when one looks at Mark. In Mark, when Jesus is teaching in Nazareth, he has, indeed, already been through Capernaum working miracles and prophesying. This is a strong indication that Luke was intimately familiar with the chronology and layout of Mark’s Gospel.


Despite all these arguments, there are still a few scholars here and there who stick by Church tradition of Matthean priority. The modern argument suggests that Matthew wrote first, followed by Luke, who used Matthew. Then Mark came third, redacting (editing) both of the others. This theory was first proposed by scholar Johann Griesbach, and is therefore referred to as the Griesbach Hypothesis.

Johann Griesbach, circa 1800

Generally, Griesbach supporters point to the fact that Church tradition, going back as far as the 2nd century, has argued for Matthean priority. Surely those 2nd century Church leaders, some of whom lived just a generation or two removed from the Gospel era, would have known what they were talking about when they asserted that Matthew was written first.

That is a reasonable argument, but it certainly is not enough to cast doubt on the very powerful arguments for Markan priority.

Another argument supporting Matthean priority relates to the so-called “minor agreements” of Luke and Matthew. These are cases where all three Gospels tell the same story, but Luke and Matthew use a word in common that Mark does not use.

For instance, in the story of Jesus being beaten by his captors, Mark says that they “struck” him in the face and demanded that he prophesy to them. Luke and Matthew both tell the same story, but instead of using the word “strike,” they both use the term, “hit” (or “smote” in the King James Version). Would they have both changed Mark’s word to the same alternate word? As the argument goes, this shows that Matthew wrote first, Luke copied, and Mark redacted.

This does not seem a very compelling argument, particularly up against the arguments in favor of Markan priority. Coincidence could easily account for such minor word agreements between Luke and Matthew.

However, the issue of “minor agreements” becomes more important in considering secondary sources used by the writers of the synoptic Gospels.

The second part of this account will, therefore, look at the issue of secondary sources in the synoptic Gospels. After looking at that, we will consider a possible scenario for how the Gospels were formed.

Read Part II

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