The Synoptic Problem

Miriam Berg
August, 1995

The synoptic problem lies in the fact that Matthew, Mark, and Luke seem to bear a literary relationship to each other.

The most obvious feature of this relationship is that most of Mark appears in Matthew and Luke in nearly the same words and in nearly the same order.

The less apparent feature of this relationship is that many passages which are found in both Matthew and Luke but not in Mark or John appear in nearly the same words, although not usually in the same order.

Augustine of Hippo was the first to propose a solution to the synoptic problem. He wrote in "De Consensu Evangeliston" in 400 C.E. that Mark had been written as an abridgement of Matthew. Augustine also wrote that the sayings attributed to Yeshua were the recollections of the disciples and preserved their sense but not the exact words, and further that the sequence of events was not necessarily accurate because the evangelists were not concerned with chronological order. These are still essential principles for us to remember today.

Eusebius, the church historian of the 3rd century, noted that the ending of Mark (Mk 16:9-20) was spurious and had probably been copied from Luke as an abridgement of Luke's reported appeararances after Yestuia's death. He also pointed out that John was completely different from the other gospels and constructed tables of passages from the Synoptics.

Papias, who lived in about 100 C.E., wrote about the synoptic problem, but unfortunately his works have all been lost, and all we have are quotations from his writings by Eusebius and others. Papias is quoted as saying that Mark wrote down what Peter had said, but not in order (or verbatim), and also that Matthew had compiled the sayings of Yeshua in Aramaic and everyone had translated them as best they could. But we owe to Papias the earliest mention of either Mark or Matthew as a biographer of Yeshua.

Toward the end of the second century Tatian, a Syrian bishop, compiled a four-column presentation of the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. This was the first harmony of the gospels, and is usually dated around the year 175 A.D., although only a few fragments remain.

After the council of Nicaea in 325 C.E., in which it was decided that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were the "real" gospels, interest in the synoptic problem declined to a vanishing point. They were accepted uncritically as independent witnesses, with their very differences being taken as evidence of the truth of their stories. Not until the 17th century did interest revive itself with the new and widely available translations of the Bible and the reawakened scholarly curiosity about the origins of things.

Thus in the 17th century in the new atmosphere of inquiry it was proposed that the first three gospels were actually copied from an older gospel.written in Aramaic which had nevertheless undergone modification in different communities. Mark is traditionally ascribed to the church in Rome, Matthew to the church in Jerusalem but more probably Alexandria since Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 C.E., Luke to the church in Corinth and John to the church in Ephesus both in Asia Minor. The principal flaw in this hypothesis is not that each gospel contains material not found in any other gospel or even that the differences are sometimes contradictory as well as marked but that there wasn't enough time--a fragment of John exists from about 110 A.D. and Matthew, Mark, and Luke all seem to be older and were well known early in the 2nd camtury and certainly well enough known by the year 175 for Tatian to write his Diatessaron.

Richard Simons (1638-1712) was the first to do a critical study of the gospels. His approach was to list those passages which occurred in all three Synoptics, those which occurred in two of them, and those which occurred in only one.

Hermann Reimarus (1694-1768) was among the first to distinguish the historical Jesus from the mythical Jesus taught by the church as "Christ". Reimarus refused to publish during his lifetime for fear of the church and his works were not published until 1776 by Gotthold Lessing, who was one of the advocates of the theory of an older gospel written in Aramaic.

Johann Griesbach (1745-1812) wrote in 1774 that Mark had been copied from both Matthew and Luke.

Johann Herder proposed instead in 1797 that all three of the gospels had been written down based on an orally transmitted narrative, as a way of explaining the differences which seemed greater than could be explained by a common written source.

F.C. Baur (1792-1860) originated.the notion that Christianity produced the gospels and not vica versa, and pointed out that the epistles of Paul are antecedent to many ideas in the gospels.

Karl Lachmam (1793-1851) studied the theories of whether Mark copied from Matthew or vice versa and decided that Mark was an older gospel and Matthew had been copied frm Mark.

Freidrich Schliermacher (1768-1834) was the first to suggest that Matthew and Luke utilized another written source document, which he called Q, from "Quelle", the German word for "source".

David Strauss (1808-1874) wrote a "Life of Jesus" in 1835 in which he also expressed Reimarus' belief that the historical Jesus was different from the Christ taught by the church.

C.H. Waisse published the first argument in 1838 that Matthew and Luke were constructed from Mark and "Q".

Adolf Holtzmann published a thorough analysis of Mark and Q in 1863 as found in Matthew and Luke.

In 1859, Constantin Tischendorf discovered in the monastery of St. Catherine's on the Sinai peninsula the oldest complete set of the gospels, which dates from the 4th century. Based on this and other papyri which were discovered in the late 19th century, Westcott and Hort published a now and better reconstruction of the Greek text of the Now Testament.

Burnett Streeter (1874-1937) published in 1924 his 4-source.theory: that Matthew and Luke were based on Mark and Q and two additional documents, one possessed by Matthew which provided Matthew's unique passages, and one possessed by Luke which provided Luke's unique passages, which other documents he called M and L. This hypothesis has governed the field of gospel study ever since.

Streeter himself pointed out three questions which the 4-source theory didn't answer, however. Mese were:

1. Why did Luke insert portions of L only into Q, and never into Mark?

2. Why did Luke take so many quotations out of their context and group them with unrelated quotations in the middle third of his gospel? This is an unnatural procedure, even ridiculous.

3. Why does Luke vary so much from Mark and Matthew in the very beginning of the story and in the final week in Jerusalem?

There was an older hypothesis first published in 1899 by Ernest Dewitt Burton, a professor of New Testament Studies at the University of Chicago in the last part of the 19th century, which answers these questions, but which has never never been as well known as Streeter's hypothesis. I call this hypothesis the 5-source hypothesis, and believe it to be the best solution to the synoptic problem. Burton's theory is:

1. Mark was an older gospel, used by both Luke and Matthew.

2. Q was actually two documents. The first consisted of the portion of Luke between 6:19 and 8:3, which Burton called the Galilean document or Document G, since it tells of events around the sea of Galilee. The second consisted of the portion of Luke between 9:51 and 18:14, which Burton called the Perean document or Document P, since it is placed by Luke during Jesus' trip to Jerusalem through Perea on the eastern side of the Jordan. Burton also hypothesized that those events which are common to Matthew and Luke, or in Luke alone, in the earliest part of the story were part of Document G, and that Luke 19:1-28 which has no parallels in Mark but some in Matthew was part of Document P.

3. Matthew had another document consisting of sayings and parables, which Burton called Document M, as did Streeter.

4. Luke had another document covering Jesus' final week in Jerusalem, which Burton called Document J.

5. Luke put his documents G, P, and J in that order, and interpolated portions of Mark in between them. Where G, P, and Mark all seemed to tell the same event, he discarded Mark's version. He also felt freer to modify the wording of Mark according to developing theology.

6. Matthew took document Mark, interpolated parts of Document G, and then rearranged the first part of the story so as to build a series of great discourses, which he amplified with material from Document P and Document M. Where G, P, and Mark all seemed to tell the same event, he chose Mark's version and discarded the others. He also discarded events and verses in which demons addressed Jesus as the son of God, and inserted some sayings and verses which emphasize Jesus' mission to the Jews which have no parallel in Mark or Luke but also do not seem to be from Document M. Finally, he fluffs up the story with Old Testament quotations purporting to be predictions.

7. Whereas Luke kept Document G and Document P intact, Matthew used only selected portions of those documents, and probably of Document M also. Whereas Matthew used nearly all of Mark, without regard to its order, Luke used only selected portions of Mark, but kept them in their original order as he strung them together with Documents G, P, and J.

The 5-source hypothesis answers the unanswered questions raised by Streeter in his book. There was no document L, but the portions of Luke which are found only in Luke were in Q itself, or documents G and P, and were discarded by Matthew, not inserted by Luke. Luke did not take statements out of context and group them with other unrelated statements, they were already that way in document P, and document G does not contain collections of unrelated sayings. The variance between Luke during the beginning and and of the story is because he was using Document G at the beginning, and Document J at the end, in line with his preference for using his other documents over Mark.

The difference between Streeter's 4-source hypothesis and Burton's 5-source hypothesis can be explained as follows. Streeter, and with him nearly all scholars, have considered document Q to be defined by the way the common material occurs in the gospel of Matthew, and therefore the additional material found only in Luke had to be explained as from another source. Burton's hypothesis considers document Q as defined by the way the common material occurs in the gospel of Luke, and the material found only in Luke is explained as being part of document Q which Matthew discarded.

Both hypotheses assume a Matthean document to explain the portions of Matthew, mostly parables, which are found only in the gospel of Matthew. Of the seven parables assumed to be in document M, only three are also found in the gospel of Thomas, so that it cannot be argued that Matthew got all those parables from the gospel of Thomas. It cannot be argued that there was no document M, but that take discarded those parables from Q, because all of the seven appear within portions of Matthew which were clearly copied from Mark rather than Q.

'Ihe two documents containing the "Q" material are different in their style and structure as well. Document G (as well as document Mark) is rich and vivid in its storytelling, and the events flow naturally from one to another. It includes the report of John the Baptizer, one version of the visit to Nazareth, and the report of the calling of the first disciples with the miraculous catch of fish. By contrast document P is a random collection of sayings, parables, and events with virtually no reference to place or particular persons or even contextual relation to each other, with the one exception of a reference to Jericho in the story of Zaccheus.

The importance of the separation of Q into two documents is that it allows us three primary original sources, Mark, G, and P, which report the same events and sayings, and by which we can distinguish or infer the editorial policies of Matthew and Luke, and not merely the differences between their handling of Mark and Q.

Burton's hypothesis is embodied and enshrined in "The Records of the Life of Jesus" by Henry Burton Sharman, who studied under Burton and devoted his life to leading discussion groups on the gospels where the participants actually examined Matthew, Mark. and Luke side by side for themselves. One of his pupils was Elizabeth Boyden Howes, with whom I was able to study the Records in 1958, 1959, and 1960.

On two facing, pages following is a diagram of the Synoptic gospels, showing how Matthew and Luke copied from Mark and also from the additional source known as Q. This diagram shows how Q consisted of two documents, which Luke used in their entirety in two or three sections of his gospel, whereas Matthew used them in editorial fashion distributed throughout his gospel.


'Ihe diagram on the following pages shows the gospels in six sections:

1) Mark 1:1-3:19a, with its parallels in Matthew and Luke;

2) Luke 6:20-8:3, with its parallels in Matthew but none in Mark;

3) Mark 3:19b-10:1, with its parallels in Luke and Matthew;

4) Luke 9:51-18:14, with its parallels in Matthew but none in Mark;

5) Mark 10:2-10:46, with its parallels in Matthew and Luke; and

6) Mark 11:1-16:8, with its parallels in Matthew and Luke.

1. In the first section, all of Mark is reproduced in Matthew, with additions from another source; Luke has copied that other source for the first half, and copied Mark literally in the second half. Matthew omits Mark's story of the first preaching in Capernahum and inserts editorial commentary and Old Testament verses interpreted as predictions; Luke uses a different source for the story of the calling of the first disciples and the visit to his hometown, apparently from the same other source (Called Document G).

2. In the second section, parts of Luke are reproduced in Matthew, with insertions from Matthew's unique source (Called Document M). This section of Luke, being reported in the same order by both Matthew and Luke, is considered to be from the Galilean document (document G). There are no parallels from this section in Mark.

3. In the third section, all of Mark is reproduced in Matthew except a few verses, with insertions from another source which Luke has used as his fourth section (called Document P), and insertions from Matthew's unique source (document M), and editorial commentary. Luke has used only parts of Mark, deleting those events which appeared to overlap with his other documents and using those other documents instead.

4. In the fourth section, parts of the material found in Luke are reproduced throughout Matthew, as editorial additions to events and discourses reported in other parts of Mark and the rest of Matthew's gospel. This section of Luke plus the two events in the fifth section which are also not in Mark are called the Perean document (document P). Again, there are no parallels from this section in Mark, which observation led to the theory of document "Q".

5. In the fifth section, all of Mark is reproduced by both Luke and Matthew; Matthew has added some parables from his unique source (document M) and Luke has added the final two events from document P.

6. In the sixth section, all of Mark except a few verses is reproduced by Matthew, with additions from documents P and M; Luke copies most of the events from Mark but uses a different source from chapter 22 to the end, usually called the Jerusalem document or document J since it narrates the events in Jerusalem, but which could also have been part of document G.

7. None of the birth or resurrection stories appear in this diagram. Neither Mark nor John have a birth story; and the stories in Luke and Matthew are inconsistent with each other. None of the resurrection stories in any of the four gospels agree with each other or with the reports in the epistle to the Corinthians by Paul. The earliest manuscripts of Mark do not contain a resurrection story, and Mark 16:9-20 appear to have been added later as in abridgment of the reports in Luke.

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The most recent attempt to recover the teachings of Yeshua has been the work of the Jesus Seminar, which however has focussed exclusively on trying to determine which words attributed to him in the gospels are most likely to actually have come from him. Their concentration on this aspect of the gospels, out of the basic assumption that none of the narrative text can possibly have come from him, has led them to ignore questions of the historicity of the events themselves and to assume that all or nearly all of the narrative was made up to provide settings for the sayings, and also has led them to conclude often that sayings in the gospels could not be from Yeshua SOLELY because the context must have been made up by the later Christians. This form of reasoning does not seen to me to be sound, and its fallacy was noted as long ago as Augustine of Hippo in his statement that the gospels were merely recollections which preserved the sense but not necessarily the exact words.

The members of the Jesus Seminar also seem to have started with an assumption that Jesus was uneducated and therefore could never have quoted from the Old Testament, and therefore reject many sayings BECAUSE they are based on Old Testament quotations. Their conclusion that he was only a travelling secular sage seem to follow up the gradual un-deification of Jesus which began in the 18th century and removed him from myth and legend but retained a belief in him as a social and moral reformer whose prograrn had a foundation in the Hebrew prophets, by stripping him of any religious or spiritual program and leaving him only a person who invented or quoted folk wisdom and witty repartee, much like Will Rogers or Mullah Nasrudin.

On the other hand they render the Greek phrase which has historically been translated "kingdom of God" as "God's imperial rule", where the word "imperial" would seem to make God into much more of an emperor or tyrant than a Father who cares for the birds and the flowers and gives good things to his children. They also distort the meaning of the word "Blessed" by translating it as "Congratulations" as if the poor or the hungry or the persecuted had gotten that way by their own efforts or it had been dumped on them and they should be happy about it.

Their work does not bear directly on the Synoptic problem, however, but is based on the Streeter hypothesis, augmented by some of the newer finds such as the Gospel of Thomas and other recently discovered fragments of the gospels.