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Four Document Hypothesis Synoptic Problem Essays


     The Synoptic Problem, which addresses “how Matthew, Mark, and Luke agree, yet disagree, in three areas: content, wording, and order”[1] has perplexed scholars for many years. Present in this realm of study are multiple solutions to the problem; however there is little agreement being found. For years, the Synoptics textual data has been evaluated and studied, inclusive of the word order, the literary content, etc., but this has only produced additional questions regarding this most difficult and intriguing subject. With this in mind, the purpose of this study is three-fold. First, a general overview will be given to address the issue of the Synoptic Problem. Second, a brief evaluation of the various solutions will be given, and finally, the issue of Markan priority will be addressed and defended. In the latter of these topics, the author will attempt to demonstrate that the consistency of the Two-Document/Four-Document hypotheses is superior due to its consistency with both the Bible texts and the literary structure of the Synoptics themselves.


     The term “synoptic,” which “comes from a Greek word meaning ‘a seeing together,’”[2] is the term utilized when reference is made to the first three Gospel narratives, Matthew, Mark and Luke. Within these three literary works, there is a tremendous amount continuity to be found, with all three Synoptics testifying to the life, ministry, death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. However, despite the common thread that is shared amongst these Gospels, there are also noticeable differences in some of the material which is presented. When these similarities and differences are considered side-by-side, they form what has come to be known as the as the “Synoptic Problem.”[3] D.A. Carson and Douglas Moo speak to the issues of agreement and discontinuity when they state, “what makes the synoptic problem particularly knotty is the fact that, alongside such exact agreements, there are so many puzzling differences.”[4]

Hence, when the issue of the Synoptic Problem is considered, the question is asked as to how these similarities and differences came about? Also, is there dependence upon one common source for all of the synoptic writings? These types of questions have lead scholars to different conclusions and solutions to the presented problem, the first of which as was purposed by G.E. Lessing. The solution that Lessing offered led him to conclude that at least one of the three Gospel’s was originally founded via the existence of a previous Hebrew or Aramaic predecessor. While popular at first, this attempted solution, according to Carson and Moo, has fallen out of favor with critics in the last hundred years.[5] In fact, the textual transmission tradition offers little to no evidence on this point; while is does support a Greek MS tradition to the sum of 5800 plus Greek NT MS to date.

Another purposed solution to the Synoptic Problem argues that there was an early, common dependence on oral sources,[6] which maintained that “a relatively fixed oral summary of the life of Christ explained the data better.”[7] This view, while not overly popular, nonetheless enjoys some limited support in modern scholarship; although it has fallen out of favor since the nineteenth century. Another attempted solution of the Synoptic Problem maintains that there was a “Common dependence on gradually developed written fragments.”[8] In short, this position posits that several primitive lines of Gospel traditions existed in the early/infant church and “that these gradually grew until they became incorporated into the Synoptic Gospel’s.”[9] Also, there is the position of independence, which argues that the Synoptic authors wrote independent of one another. This understanding, which is popular among King James Only advocates, has likewise fallen out of favor in regards to modern scholarship.

Finally, there is the position that the author favors and will defend, which maintains that there was interdependence between the Synoptic writers and their source materials, where “two of the evangelists used one or more of the other gospels in constructing their own.”[10] Support for this argument includes a common linkage between Matthew and Luke, with the possibility of oral tradition influence intermixed into the autographic process. In this view, differences in accounts, sayings and the like could be accounted for via different eye-witness testimony and the Gospel author’s familiarity with apostolic tradition, or, possibly the apostles themselves. Moreover, this position maintains that there was a common source which was utilized to record common elements found in Matthean/Lukan traditions. This common source, according to the majority of scholarship is that of Markan priority, which many scholars argue is most consistently agreed with by both Matthew and Luke. There also exists in this theory the existence of  “Q,” “M” and “L” documents, which would be a common source documents that served as the antecedents to at minimum Matthew and Luke.




As stated, there are numerous views to explain the interrelationship between the Synoptic Gospels, and numerous subsets of these views. For the purpose of this study, only a handful will be evaluated. First, there is the “Literary Independence View,” which maintains that the similarities between the Gospels are due to the one common author, God Himself. Hence, this view posits that inspiration accounts for the commonality between the Synoptic writings. This view finds tension when one considers the different wording that is present in the Synoptic parallel accounts, forcing the adherent to declare that God directly inspired multiple wordings for the same individual accounts. In opposition to this view is “Literary Interdependence,” which argues that Matthew was the antecedent to the other Gospel’s and was utilized as a source for Luke. Subsequently, both Matthew and Luke were utilized by Mark’s author. This view, which is unpopular in modern scholarship, was championed by the likes of Augustine and has a rich historical pedigree; being popular since the fifth century.[11] This view struggles with the literary parallels that are present within the Synoptics due to its determined order of the Gospel’s and fails to fully answer questions as to a Markan redaction.

There is also a theory known as the “Two-Gospel Hypothesis,” which posits a view of Matthean priority and argues that Matthew was the first Gospel, with Luke being penned second and finally, Mark as the third of the Synoptics, with both Mark and Luke depending on Matthew. Like the Augustinian view, this theory comports with church tradition regarding the first and fourth Gospel’s, but inverts the second and third, thus breaking away from that same tradition. Moreover, the available data seems to suggest the opposite conclusion; that Matthew was dependent on antecedent literary sources to formulate his Gospel. This view also enjoys a somewhat popular acceptance in modern scholarship, but is far from the most popular view of Markan priority.


     The majority of scholars in modern times by far favor what is known as “Markan Priority.” This view takes into account the massive “triple tradition” agreement which is found between the Synoptic works. Daniel B. Wallace explains, “When one compares the synoptic parallels, some startling results are noticed. Of Mark’s 11,025 words, only 132 have no parallel in either Matthew or Luke. Percentage-wise, 97% of Mark’s Gospel is duplicated in Matthew; and 88% is found in Luke.”[12] So powerful is the agreement of Mark to the other Synoptics, it aids scholars to formulate conclusions based on the shear agreement of the Gospel texts. Robert Thomas states on this issue that “literary dependence is not a presupposition of Markan priority but a conclusion based upon the evidence of the synoptics.”[13] Thomas goes on to argue statistically in the following manner, “The content of these three authors is strikingly similar. About 90 percent of Mark’s material is found in Matthew whereas about 50 percent is found in Luke.33 In other words, of Mark’s 661 verses, 500 appear in Matthew and 350 in Luke. These parallels include both narrative and sayings material. Also, about 250 verses parallel each other in Matthew and Luke”[14] Hence, the amount of agreement between Mark and Matthew/Luke is startling and very telling.

However, it is not simply literary agreement that influences one to hold to Markan priority, but rather, literary disagreement as well. Wallace states that “less than 60% of Matthew is duplicated in Mark, and only 47% of Luke is found in Mark.”[15] Included in Mark’s omission are key features/teachings of the Synoptics. First, Mark omits both the birth of Jesus (Matt 1:18-25, Lk 2:1-7) and the birth of John the Baptist (Lk 1:57-66), the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:1-8:29, Lk 6:20-49), the Lord’s Prayer (Matt 6:9-13, Lk 11:2-4), and the resurrection appearances of the Lord Jesus.[16] With this in view, the question must rightfully be asked; what could account for the omissions of such key theological teachings by Mark “if” Mark itself was dependent upon either Matthew or Luke, or both? Meaning, the omissions by the author of Mark do not seem to be consistent with a form of Markan dependence on either Matthew or Luke.

Interestingly, while Mark is considerably shorter than either Matthew or Luke (Mark contains 661 verses in comparison to Matthew’s 1068 and Luke’s 1149),[17] it is also more specific and even expanded in some regards. Meaning, it is more detailed regarding the individual accounts that it does share. Kostenberger explains, “A comparison of the length of the individual pericopes shared by Matthew and Luke tend to be longer and more detailed than those in the other two Gospels.”[18] Wallace confirms this understanding when he states that “Mark’s Gospel, where it has parallels with Matthew and Luke, is not an abridgment, but an expansion.”[19] Kostenberger goes on to state the difficulty involved in attempting to explain Mark’s expanding of its shared pericopes with Matthew and Luke, while at the same time, omitting “large blocks of material in the other Gospel’s.”[20] With all of this in mind, there is strong reason to infer that Mark was the antecedent to the other Synoptics and that similarity between the three comes by way as Markan influence and not vice-versa.

Wallace goes on to interject seven additional supports for concluding Markan priority; (1) Mark’s shortened length (previously covered), (2) Mark’s more primitive grammar, (3) Mark’s harder readings, (4) lack of Matthew-Luke agreements against Mark, (5) the argument from order, (6) literary agreements, (7) redaction and (8) Mark’s more primitive theology.[21]


     Mark’s grammar is primitive in the sense that he utilizes “slang words” not seen in the other Synoptics. In addition, Mark’s grammar is filled with Aramaic expressions not found in Matthew or Luke. For example, in Mark 7:34, the author uses the word corban to explain the Pharisees abuse of the Fifth Commandment, while the other Gospel’s do not. On this point, Wallace, citing Robert H. Stein states, “for Mark to have added into his Gospel all these Aramaisms, which were not in his source(s), is unexplainable.”[22] Interestingly, Mark’s use of Greek with its Aramaic undertones fits nicely within the spread of the Gospel’s and their vital necessity, as noted by Maurice Casey when he states, “The Gospel of Mark is written in Greek, though Jesus spoke in Aramaic . . . by the time that Mark’s Gospel was written, many of Jesus’ followers were Gentiles, and this Gospel shows traces of Gentile self-identification. It follows that the change in language from Aramaic to Greek was part of the cultural shift from a Jewish to a Gentile environment.”[23] Thus, it seems that Mark in his Gospel held onto traditional sayings of Jesus and synthesized them into his more primitive Gospel.


     Mark also presents readings that could be misunderstood via the grammar; readings which are redacted in either Matthew, Luke or both. Wallace explains one of these redactions when he states of Mark chapter 10, “Good teacher . . . Why do you call me good?” (in Mark and Luke) vs. “Teacher . . . Why do you ask me about what is good?” (Matthew). The text, as Mark has it, might imply that Jesus denies his own deity. It is apparent that Luke did not read it that way, but Matthew probably did. Indeed, in the Holtzmann/Streeter view, Matthew and Luke copied Mark independently of one another. Thus what might offend one would not necessarily offend the other.”[24] In short, this point offers an area of contrast between Markan word usage and structure, up and against the supposed later Synoptic writings.[25]


     In essence, this criteria states that the amount of times that both Matthew and Luke agree against Mark are considerably less than the amount of times where the two Synoptics agree with their supposed Markan source, data which suggests Markan priority.


     While the previous arguments add great weight to the idea of Markan priority, the present argument, according to Wallace, is perhaps the strongest.[26] The Argument from Order is understood as follows;

The basic argument is both positive and negative: (1) positively: when all three gospels share pericopae, Matthew and Luke agree in the order of those pericopae a great deal; (2) negatively: when either Matthew or Luke departs from the order of Mark in the arrangement of pericopae, they never agree against Mark. To put this another way: in the narratives common to all three, Matthew and Luke agree in sequence only when they agree with Mark; when they both diverge from Mark, they both go in different directions. What best accounts for this? Most NT scholars have assumed that Markan priority does. Some have gone so far as to say that Lachmann proved Markan priority.[27]


Kostenberger agrees with Wallace’s assessment on the pericopes, stating that when Matthew/Mark agrees against Luke, or, when Luke/Mark agrees against Matthew, “the deviation from Markian order can be explained plausibly.”[28] Kostenberger goes on to explain that any order changes by Mark would be much more difficult to explain via the available data, and while not impossible, it is much more unlikely that Mark altered his order of pericopes.


     In essence, this argument states that there are a number of literary agreements in the Synoptic Gospels that are best explained by the utilization of the Markan priority template. Certain omissions and word changes between the Synoptics are best explained by assuming a Matthew/Luke editing rather than a Markan redaction.


     Wallace cites as an example of the redactive argument the use of the phrase the “Son of David.” This phrase, which opens Matthew’s Gospel, is utilized eleven times, while at the same time, only occurring four times in Mark/Luke.[29] What could account for the omission of this vital Messianic terminology if Matthew were the first Gospel and what accounts for Luke’s corresponding numerical usage of the phrase with Mark? Wallace explains, “the four references in Mark match the four in Luke, suggesting that Luke used Mark but was unaware of Matthew.”[30]


     Finally, there is the argument from the theology of the Synoptics, where it is seen that Mark is less developed than either Matthew or Luke, thus indicating an earlier date of penmanship. For instance, Mark utilized the term κύριος (kurios > Lord) of Jesus “only six times in the triple tradition,”[31] while Matthew utilizes it fifteen times. Interestingly, Mark does utilize the more primitive terms of “teacher” or Rabbi” of Jesus, which is sometimes changed by Matthew/Luke to kurios, as noted in Mark 9:5 which reads, “And Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah” (Mk 9:5, ESV). The parallel verses in Matthew and Luke read, “Lord, it is good that we are here” (Matt 17:4, ESV) and “Master, it is good that we are here” (Lk 9:33, ESV).[32]

In summary, when the data is compiled and the above criterion is taken into consideration, it seems that Markan priority is required. There are seemingly too many factors involved regarding the interrelationship of the Synoptics to discount the presented materials; all of which call for Mark’s initial penning as the antecedent to the other two Synoptic efforts. The present argument thus far has mostly taken into account the parallel data that is present within the Synoptic tradition, but, what can account for the material that is present within the Matthew/Luke tradition that is not represented in Mark?


     The argument thus far has focused on the Synoptic tradition, maintaining that Mark is the first and most primitive Gospel. In noting the parallels between the Synoptics, it is clear that source utilization did exist, with one of these sources being Mark’s Gospel in the composition of both Matthew and Luke’s work. However, there is also much dissimilarity which must be accounted for, which includes material unique to each of the Synoptics. In addressing this issue, scholarship has postulated the existence of a common source document known as “Q” to explain the double tradition which is shared between Matthew/Luke yet absent in Mark. A.G. Patzia explains, “What is the source for this information about Jesus, which consists of approximately 230 verses? Certain German New Testament scholars contemplating this question reasoned that there had to be another literary “source,” hence the German word Quelle (source) and the abbreviation Q, as it commonly is known in New Testament studies.”[33]

Simply put, the majority of scholars maintain that the materials that are unique to the Matthean and Lukan traditions, but run parallel with one another were obtained via a separate source(s) apart from Mark; a source that the author of Mark did not have himself. The appeal to multiple sources is almost certain, given the opening of Luke’s Gospel which reads, “Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us,just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us,it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus,that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught” (Lk 1:1-4, ESV). Note Luke’s words of “many have undertaken to compile a narrative” and his appeal to “eyewitnesses and ministers,” for this is where Q fits in. So what was Q? Paul Foster explains, “The Q document was not intended to be a systematic work of theology. Rather, it is a compendium of Jesus material—mainly sayings, but also narratives—that appear to be directed toward those who identify themselves as followers of Jesus.[34]

An appeal to this common (undiscovered) source document answers the challenge to the Synoptic problem. How is there such an interrelationship between the Synoptics? The answer lies in the theory that Matthew and Luke utilized Mark and Q (and possible other sources, M/L/oral tradition) to formulate their literary works. This understanding accounts for the triple tradition of Matthew/Mark/Luke, as well as the double tradition of Matthew/Luke; with the latter being accounted for by the existence of a commonly shared Q source, as well as possible M and L sources, which would be understood as additional independent sources to account for different nuances of material which are exclusive to the individual accounts.

Finally, Patzia, quoting G.N. Stanton states the following about the supposed, Q, “We may now be reasonably certain that Q existed . . . its 230 or so sayings of Jesus were used and partly reinterpreted by both Matthew and Luke . . . Although clusters of traditions with related themes can be identified, Q contained such varied material that it is unwise to claim that it has one primary theological perspective or that it was used in the early church in any one specific way.”[35]


It has been argued that the Two-Source/Four-Source Markan Priority view is the most consistent of the given options to explain both the shared and unshared materials present within the Synoptic narratives. Mark’s primitive theology and Aramaic undertones are unique to his Gospel and point towards it being the antecedent to both Matthew and Luke. Likewise, the harmonies present between the Synoptics are best explained by Markan priority; as are the redactive changes present within the Matthean/Lukan traditions. In short, it is the view of the author that God inspired the Synoptic Gospel’s by utilizing means to fulfill His purpose of recording the life and ministry of His divine Son. These means were a consistent flow of independent accounts that were present within the first century, whether written or oral, and these accounts along with Mark were utilized to record the latter two Synoptics of Matthew and Luke.[36]






Andreas, L Köstenberger, Scott Kellum, Charles L. Quarles. The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown: An Introduction to the New Testament. Nashville, TN: Boardman and Holman, 2009.

Carson, D.A., and Douglas Moo. An Introduction to the New Testament. 2nd. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005.

Casey, Maurice. Aramaic Sources of Mark’s Gospel: Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Foster, Paul. Q: The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Edited by L. Wentz J. D. Barry. Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible, 2012.

Lea, Thomas D, and David Alan Black. The New Testament: Its Background and Message. 2nd. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 2003.

Patzia, A.G. The Making of the New Testament: Origin, Collection, Text & Canon. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995.

Thomas, Robert L. Three Views on the Origins of the Synoptic Gospels. Kindle. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregal Publications, 2002.

Wallace, Daniel B. “The Synoptic Problem.” (accessed 01 31, 2013).



[1] Robert L. Thomas, Three Views on the Origins of the Synoptic Gospels, (Grand Rapids, MI, Kregal Publications, 2002), 209, Kindle.


[2] Thomas D. Lea; David Alan Black., The New Testament: Its Background and Message, 2nd, (Nashville, TN. Broadman and Holman, 2003), 113.


[4] D.A. Carson; Douglas Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament, 2nd, (Grand Rapids, MI. Zondervan, 2005), 87.


[11] Andreas, L Köstenberger,. Scott Kellum, Charles L. Quarles. The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown: An Introduction to the New Testament, (Nashville, TN: Broadman and Holman, 2009), 164-165.

[13] Thomas, ThreeViews, 208.


[14] Ibid., 210-213.


[15] Wallace, Synoptic Problem.


[16] Ibid., Wallace. On this last point, it is assumed that the long ending of Mark’s Gospel is a latter addition and therefore does not quality for meeting the requirements of the resurrection appearances of Jesus.


[18] Kostenberger, Cross, Cradle, Crown, 168.


[19] Wallace, Synoptic Problem.


[20] Kostenberger, Cross, Cradle, Crown, 168.


[21] Wallace, Synoptic Problem, all citations.


[23] Maurice Casey, Aramaic Sources of Mark’s Gospel: Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series,(New York, NY. Cambridge University Press, 1998), 01.


[24] Wallace, Synoptic Problem.


[25] Wallace lists six examples regarding Mark’s more difficult readings which include Mk 6:5-6 (c.f. Matt 13:58),  Mk 10:18 (c.f. Matt 19:17, Lk 18:19), Mk 3:5 (c.f. Lk 6:10), Mk 1:2 (c.f. Matt 4:1, Lk 4:1), Mk 8:24-26, and Mk 3:20-21. Ibid., Wallace.


[26] The Argument from Order, while highly touted by some who adhere to Markan authority, is also highly disputed by non-Markan advocates, as seen in the following, “Both literary-dependency positions use, for example, the argument from order. One side contends that the order supports Mark’s priority; the other side contends that it supports Matthew. In both contentions, subjective logic explains the conflicting arguments. The Independence View says that the argument from order sheds no light on dependency because order in the Gospels, in most cases, reflects the order of historical happenings” (Thomas, Three Views, 1335-1337, Kindle). However, Daniel Wallace disputes the claim that the Argument from Order has been refuted, stating, “In sum, although it would be too bold to say that Markan priority is completely demonstrated by the argument from order, it certainly looks like the most plausible view. Once it is kept in mind that historical reconstruction is concerned with probability vs. possibility, rather than absolute proof either for or against a position, Markan priority stands as quite secure” (Wallace, Synoptic Problem).


[27] Wallace, Synoptic Problem.


[28] Kostenberger, Cross, Cradle, Crown, 169.


[29] Wallace, Synoptic Problem.


[32] Difference in oral tradition or audience may account for the three-fold change of Jesus’ identifier in this text. Mark utilizes the Hebraic term of ῥαββί (rabbi) in his text, thus showing support for the previously mentioned Aramaic undertones of his Gospel. On the other hand, Matthew utilizes κύριος (kurios > Lord) in his text, with Grecian undertones, while Luke utilizes the term ἐπιστάτα (epistata > master), which corresponds to both rabbi and Lord, but which is also utilized heavily in Greek literature.

[33] A.G. Patzia, The Making of the New Testament: Origin, Collection, Text & Canon, (Downers Grove, IL. InterVarsity Press, 1995), 51.

[34] Paul Foster, Q: The Lexham Bible Dictionary (J. D. Barry & L. Wentz, Ed., Bellingham, WA: Logos, 2012), Logos.

[35] Patzia, The Making of the New Testament, 53.

[36] For further reading, the author suggests the following titles that were utilized in this essay; Thomas, Robert L. Three Views on the Origins of the Synoptic Gospels. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregal Publications, 2002. Also, Wallace, Daniel B. “The Synoptic Problem.”


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February 18, 2013 in Theology. Tags: Gospels, Synoptic Problem, Textual Transmission
The Synoptic Problem
by Felix Just, S.J., Ph.D.

The "Synoptic Gospels"- The Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, and Luke are so similar to each other that, in a sense, they view Jesus "with the same eye" (syn-optic), in contrast to the very different picture of Jesus presented in the Fourth Gospel (John) or the non-canonical Gospels (see my comparative charts). Yet there are also many significant differences among the three Synoptic Gospels.

The "Synoptic Problem" - The similarities between Matthew, Mark, and Luke are so numerous and so close, not just in the order of the material presented but also in the exact wording of long stretches of text, that it is not sufficient to explain these similarities on the basis of common oral tradition alone.  Rather, some type of literary dependence must be assumed as well.  That is, someone copied from someone else's previously written text; several of the evangelists must have used one or more of the earlier Gospels as sources for their own compositions.  The situation is complicated because some of the material is common to all three Synoptics, while other material is found in only two out of these three Gospels (see the color analysis suggested below).  Moreover, the common material is not always presented in the same order in the various Gospels.  So, the question remains, who wrote first, and who copied from whom?

Some Older Proposals:

The Traditional Theory
(Augustinian Hypothesis)

The Griesbach Theory
(Two-Gospel Hypothesis)

The Farrer/Goulder Theory
(positing Markan Priority)

Note: Many other solutions have been proposed over the years, but most are variations of one of these three basic theories.

The Four-Source Theory (the solution accepted by most scholars today):

The Four-Source Theory
(a.k.a. Two-Document Hypothesis, from B.H. Streeter)

Mark = the oldest written Gospel, which provided the narrative framework for both Matt & Luke
Q = "Quelle" = a hypothetical written "Source" of some sayings / teachings of Jesus  (now lost)
M = various other materials (mostly oral, some maybe written) found only in Matthew
L = various other materials (mostly oral, others probably written) found only in Luke
Note: the arrows indicate direction of influence; older materials are above, later Gospels below
Note: by definition, Q consists of materials found in Matthew and Luke, but not in Mark.

"Markan Priority"- For most of Christian history, people thought that Matthew was the first and oldest Gospel, and that Mark was a later, shorter version of the same basic message. From the mid-19th century until today, however, most scholars are convinced that Mark is the first and oldest Gospel (at least in the final version, as we have it today), and that Matthew and Luke are later expansions of Mark. Why?

  1. Mark's Gospel contains several grammatical, literary, historical, and geographical difficulties (minor errors) that are not found in Matthew and/or Luke. If Matthew was first, it is harder to understand how Mark could have introduced these errors; but if Mark was first, it is easy to see how Matthew and/or Luke wanted to and were able to correct Mark's minor mistakes.
  2. Mark's Gospel contains several episodes that are obscure (4:26-29; 14:51-52) or make Jesus look crazy (3:19-21), magical (7:32-37), or weak (8:22-26). If Matthew was first, it is harder to explain why Mark added these strange episodes; but if Mark was first, it is easy to understand why both Matthew and Luke omitted them.
  3. Mark's basic chronological/geographical structure is the same as in the other two Synoptics; but the material found in both Matthew and Luke (but not in Mark) is in very different orders in these two Gospels. If Matthew was first and Mark second, it is hard to understand why Luke would have kept the same order for all the material found in both Matthew and Mark, but substantially rearranged all the other material found in Matthew but not in Mark. If Mark was first, however, then it is easy to explain how Matthew and Luke inserted the extra material they have in common (from the Q source?) into Mark's overall outline, although in significantly different ways.

Note that scholars who believe Mark was historically first do not suggest that the order of the four Gospels in the New Testament should be changed; there is no reason why the traditional order (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) cannot be retained in printed Bibles. However, in textbooks and academic works, many scholars treat Mark first, followed by Matthew and Luke, with John usually still last.

The "Q-Document" (a.k.a. "Sayings Source" or "Redens-Quelle" in German) - Many scholars believe that another written document (unfortunately now lost) was used by both Matthew and Luke (but not Mark) in the composition of their Gospels.

  1. Although this document no longer exists, but was lost to history, it seems to have been mostly a collection of sayings, parables, and other teachings of Jesus, with very few narrative stories of Jesus' actions; it most likely did not contain a Passion Narrative.
  2. The bulk of the proposed contents of the Q-source consists of any material found both in Matthew and in Luke, but not in Mark; some scholars, however, suggest that it may have been slightly larger/longer, if certain material was retained by one of these evangelists, but not the other; thus, some materials considered "M" or "L" in the Four-Source hypothesis might also have been in the Q-document.
  3. For the proposed contents of the Q-source, see either the brief listing on my "Synoptic Outlines" webpage or the more extensive listing of the proposals of several other scholars, as compiled by Peter Kirby on his "Early Christian Writings" website.

Objections against the "Q-Hypothesis" - Some scholars object to the hypothesis of a no-longer extant collection the sayings and teachings of Jesus (as the "Q-document" is thought to have been) for various reasons; but each of these objections can easily be countered:

  1. Objection: The "Q-document" no longer exists, if it ever did.
    : If almost all of the material in "Q" was incorporated into Matthew's and/or Luke's Gospels, then early Christians would have had little need or desire to preserve "Q" as a separate document. When people find a "revised and expanded edition" of a work, they don't always keep the older, shorter edition. Rather than wondering why "Q" was lost, it would be more important to ask why Mark was preserved! (see the next section below)
  2. Objection: No early Christians would have composed a collection of the sayings and teachings of Jesus, as "Q" supposedly was (like the "Sayings of Confucius" or the "Sayings of Chairman Mao"), without also including some stories of his miracles and other actions, and his passion, death, and resurrection.
    Response: The non-canonical "Gospel of Thomas," rediscovered in 1948, is a collection of 114 sayings, parables, and short teachings of Jesus that does not include any miracles or other stories about events in Jesus' life. Although the Gospel of Thomas is not the same as "Q" (its contents are significantly different), it is proof that early Christians did indeed compose the same type or genre of literature that the Q-document seems to have been.
  3. Objection: The "Q-hypothesis" is not necessary for explaining the relationships among the three Synoptic Gospels.
    Response: All the other solutions that try to solve the Synoptic Problem without positing a "Q-document" (see the charts above) have their own significant problems. [The details are too complex to be discussed on this webpage, but are available in many textbooks and scholarly works.] Although we should remember that the past existence of a Q-document is only a hypothesis, not a proven fact, it does seem to provide the best solution for explaining the "Synoptic Problem."

The Preservation and Canonization of Mark - Given that Mark's Gospel is so short and has several difficulties (see above), it is interesting to ask why Mark was not lost, but rather was accepted into the NT canon. There are at least three reasons why Mark was preserved and canonized, despite its shortcomings:

  1. Mark was the secretary or "interpreter" of Peter (see Papias, as quoted by Eusebius); so in a way, the Gospel according to Mark could be thought of as "Peter's Gospel." And since Peter was the leader among the apostles, early Christians would have had good reason to preserve what they considered to be a written record of Peter's preaching.
  2. Mark's Gospel was thought to have been written in Rome and/or for the early Christian community in Rome (see Clement of Alexandria, again quoted by Eusebius); so in a sense, Mark's Gospel could be considered the "Gospel of/from Rome." Not only was the city of Rome the capital and largest city of the Roman empire, but the two most important Christian apostles, Peter and Paul, both preached, were martyred, and are buried there. Thus, the Christian community in Rome became prominent and influential very early in Christian history, and it is easy to understand why "their" Gospel would have been preserved and accepted into the NT canon.
  3. If "Markan priority" is correct and Mark's was indeed the First Gospel to have been written, then it would be the oldest available record of the words and deeds of Jesus, yet another reason why early Christians might have preserved and continued to use it, despite its brevity and shortcomings.
For more details on all of the above, see the Synoptic Problem Home Page, by Stephen Carlson.

Color Analysis of Synoptic Materials:

When analyzing biblical passages that are common to two or three of the Gospels, biblical students often highlight the texts using commonly available colored pens.  The following color scheme is very easy to remember, if you recall what most children learn in kindergarten about combining the primary colors.  This coloration scheme is also used on the pages of this website.

Single Traditions:

Use the following colors to highlight words, phrases, or longer passages that occur in only one Gospel, but not in the others:


Double Traditions:
Use the following colors to highlight materials that occur in two of the Synoptic Gospels, but not in the third:

Matt & Mark
red + yellow = orange
Mark & Luke
yellow + blue = green
Matt & Luke (Q)
red + blue = purple

Triple Traditions:

Use a pencil or black pen to underline materials that are identical in all three of the Synoptic Gospels:

Matt & Mark & Luke
(black or gray pencil)

   [Note: If you also wish to color distinctive materials from the Gospel of JOHN also, you might highlight or underline them in BROWN.]

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This page was last updated on October 17, 2015
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