The Synoptic Problem



  1. What is the Synoptic Problem?

    Through careful study scholars have found that the accounts of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are very similar in their accounts of Jesus’ life. In fact in many instances the accounts are almost word for word the same. In the majority of events are compiled in the same chronological order. Yet for all their similarity there are also differences. At times the three place certain events in a different chronological order from each other. In other cases there are differing details supplied or omitted in a description of the same event. This raises legitimate questions about the three gospels.


  2. What are the proposals?

    There are four main options given to solve the “synoptic problem.” First, G.E. Lessing proposed that all three depended upon one source, which is now lost. Second, J.G. Herder proposed that all three depended on oral history. Third, F. Schleirmacher proposed that all three depended on earlier written fragments. Fourth, many have proposed that the three were interdependent. There are variations of this proposal of which three are worth mentioning: a) the Augustinian view, which holds to Matthean priority, from whom Mark borrowed, and then Luke borrowed from both; b) the “two gospel” hypothesis which holds to Matthean priority, from whom Luke borrowed, and then Mark borrowed from both; c) the “two source” hypothesis which holds to Markan priority and unknown collection termed “Q” with Matthew and Luke borrowing from both.


  3. What is the preference?

    Most commonly, scholars hold to the “two source” hypothesis. I am not yet sure that I hold to this view unwaveringly. This view seems viable. Taking into account the strong oral tradition I think that a possible option to the synoptic problem is Markan priority supplemented with oral tradition. There is significant historical and biblical evidence of oral tradition being used to pass on important details (Heb. 2:1-4). In essence I am somewhere between Markan priority

    supplemented with “Q”, and Markan priority supplemented with oral tradition.


  4. Why is it the preference?

    Markan priority supplemented with “Q” is preferred by most because of the agreement between Mark and Matthew, Mark and Luke, but disagreement between Matthew and Luke concerning order and certain details. Also the style and theology of Mark appears more primitive which is taken by scholars to be evidence of Markan priority. This leads them to believe that Matthew and Luke are revisions which have been refined.


Scholars have found that there are about 250 verses that Matthew and Luke share which are not in Mark. There is a lack of verbal correspondence and a difference in order. It is pointed out that most of this common material is teaching of Jesus. This common material has been referred to as “Q.” Scholars believe that Markan priority supplemented by “Q” is the best option considering the evidence.


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