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Almost all of Mark's content is found in Matthew, and much of Mark is similarly found in Luke. Additionally, Matthew and Luke have a large amount of material in common that is not found in Mark.

The Gospel of Luke, the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Mark are known as the Synoptic Gospels because they include many of the same stories, often in the same sequence, and sometimes the exact same wording. This degree of parallelism in content, narrative arrangement, language, and sentence structures can only be accounted for by literary interdependence. Scholars believe that these gospels share the same point of view and are clearly linked together. [1] The term synoptic comes from the Greek 'syn,' meaning "together," and 'optic,' meaning "seen". [2]

A possible fourth Synoptic Gospel is the Gospel of the Hebrews. It too has a degree of parallelism that can only be accounted for by literary interdependence. Some scholars believe that this Hebrew Gospel was composed by Matthew himself and was the basis of the Synoptic Gospels. [3] Others argue the Gospel of the Hebrews was derived from one or more of the Synoptic Gospels. [4]

The other Apocryphal gospels, as well as the canonical Gospel of John, differ greatly from the three Synoptic Gospels.



The Augustinian hypothesis suggests that the Gospel of Matthew was written first. The Gospel of Mark was written using Matthew as a source. Then the Gospel of Luke was written using both Mark and Matthew.

There is continuing debate among Biblical scholars regarding the composition of the Synoptic Gospels. Traditionally, the Gospel of Matthew was seen as the first Gospel written. The Gospel of Mark was directly dependent on Matthew, with Gospel of Luke then dependent on Matthew and Mark. [5] This is commonly referred to as Augustinian hypothesis.

Unlike some competing hypotheses, this hypothesis does not rely on, nor does it argue for, the existence of any document that is not explicitly mentioned in historical testimony. Adherents to the Augustinian Hypothesis view it as a simple, coherent approach to understanding to the Synoptic Gospels. However, textual criticism has shown serious flaws with this traditional approach and it has been largely abandoned by the Academic Community.


The Griesbach Hypothesis

The Griesbach Hypothesis states that the Gospel of Matthew was written first. The Gospel of Luke was written using Matthew as a source. Then the Gospel of Mark was written using both Matthew and Luke.

It was, therefore, one of direct literary dependence on and among the gospels of Matthew, Luke and Mark which came to be called a utilization hypothesis. According to Griesbach, the historical order of the gospels was, first, Matthew; second Luke , making use of Matthew and other non-Matthean tradition; and third, Mark, making use of both Matthew and Luke. In proposing this hypothesis, Griesbach maintained Matthean priority, as had Augustine. [6]

The Two-Source Hypothesis

The most popular view in modern scholarship is the two-source hypothesis, which speculates that Matthew borrowed from both Mark and a hypothetical sayings collection, called Q (for the German Quelle, meaning "source").

For most scholars, the Q collection accounts for what Matthew and Luke share — sometimes in exactly the same words — but are not found in Mark. Examples of such material are the Devil's three temptations of Jesus, the Beatitudes, the Lord's Prayer and many individual sayings[7] [8]

Four Source Hypothesis

There were difficulties with the Two Source Hypothesis, the most serious of which was that it could not account for all the material in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. In The Four Gospels: A Study of Origins (1924), Burnett Hillman Streeter refined the Two-source hypothesis into a Four-source hypothesis. It explained the relationship among the three Gospels and posits that there were at least four sources to the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke: the Gospel of Mark, and three lost sources: Q, M and L.

According to Streeter's analysis, the non-Marcan matter in Luke has to be distinguished into at least two sources, Q and L. In a similar way he argued that Matthew used a peculiar source, which we may style M, as well as Q. [9] [10]

Farrer Hypothesis

The Farrer hypothesis suggests that the Gospel of Mark was written first. The Gospel of Matthew was written using Mark as a source. Then the Gospel of Luke was written using both Mark and Matthew.

The Farrer-Goulder Hypothesis argues that the Gospel of Mark was written first, followed by the Gospel of Matthew and then by the Gospel of Luke.

Farrer's position has the advantage of simplicity, as there is no need for hypothetical sources to be created by academics. Instead, it states that the Gospel of Mark was used as source material by the author of Matthew. Lastly, Luke used both of the previous gospels as sources for his gospel.[11][12]

The Parker Hypothesis (Parker 1953)

The Pierson Parker and his followers argue that a Hebrew proto-Matthew was the first gospel to be written and it was the basis for later gospels.

Other Hypotheses

Other hypotheses that have been proffered in order to deal with the synoptic problem include, the Oral transmission (synoptic problem), the Lindsey hypothesis (1963), Jerusalem School hypothesis (1973), and the Logia Translation hypothesis (1998).[13][14][15]

The Problems With Q

Although most scholars accept the Two Source Hypothesis, many are not entirely happy with it. The difficulty tends to center around Q. The 2SH explains the double tradition by postulating the existence of a lost "sayings of Jesus" document known as Q. It is this, rather than Markan priority, which forms the distinctive feature of the 2SH as against rival theories.

While the 2SH remains the most popular explanation for the origins of the synoptic gospels, the existence of the "minor agreements" have raised concerns. These minor agreements are those points where Matthew and Luke agree against Mark (for example, the mocking question at the beating of Jesus, "Who is it that struck you?", found in both Matthew and Luke but not in Mark). The "minor agreements" thus call into question the proposition that Matthew and Luke knew Mark but not each other.

Secondly, how could a major and respected source, used in two Canonical gospels totally disappear? Why was Q never mentioned in any of the Church catalogs? Also not one scholar from the time of Christ to Jerome has ever mentioned it. Until these issues are resolved Q will remain in doubt.[16][17][18][19]

Recent Scholarship

See the Synoptic Problem
DIFFERENCES are rendered in black.[20]

Scholars continue their work to find a solution to the synoptic problem and to develop answers to the difficult questions surrounding Q.

If Q did exist, these sayings of Jesus would have been highly treasured in the Early Church. It remains a mystery how such an important document, which was the basis of the two canonical Gospels, could be totally lost. An even greater mystery why the extensive Church Catalogs compiled by Eusebius and Nicephorus would omit such an important work, yet include such spurious accounts as the Gospel of Peter and the Gospel of Thomas.

The existence of a highly treasured dominical sayings document in circulation going unmentioned by the Fathers of the Early Church, remains one of the great conundrums of Modern Biblical Scholarship.

James Edwards, the Bruner-Welch Endowed Professor of Theology at Whitworth University confronts this issue head on. He studied Jerome's Illustrious men, which deals with the written texts of the great authors of the Early Church. This bibliographal work names over 800 Christian works as well as 31 from Josephus and 36 from Phils. Jerome also names 25 lost documents.

When Edwards looked at the first section of Illustrious Men, he found the Gospel of Mark where it should be, [21] as it was the first gospel written and was the basis of later gospels. Following it should be Q. But not only is Q not where it should be at the top of Jerome's list, this treasured work recording the Logia of Christ is mentioned nowhere by Jerome. Rather, the first seminal document is not Q but the Gospel of the Hebrews. Section 2 on James, the largest in the Illustrious Men, is mainly about this Hebrew Gospel (one-third of the section). The entirety of the third section is devoted to the Hebrew Gospel as well. In "the place of honor" that should be given "the phantom Q" we find a Hebrew usurper. [22]

From this basis James Edwards expands the Parker Hypothesis into the Hebrew Gospel Hypothesis. In meticulous detail he puts forward his solution to the synoptic problem. This Hypothesis states Matthew wrote a small Hebrew Gospel called the Gospel of the Hebrews and this was the second source used in the Gospel of Luke and possibly used in the so-called "Gospel of Matthew". [23]


Scholars generally date the synoptic gospels as having been written after the epistles of Paul and before the Gospel of John. (ie between years 60 and 115). [24] As to the specific dates for each book, this largely depends on (or supports) the particular hypothesis used to account for the books' textual relationship.

Comparison Chart of the Major Gospels [25]

The material in the Comparison Chart is from the Gospel Parallels by B. H. Throckmorton, The five Gospels by R. W. Funk, The Gospel According to the Hebrews, by E. B. Nicholson & The Hebrew Gospel and the Development of the Synoptic Tradition by J. R. Edwards.

Item Matthew, Mark, Luke John Thomas Gospel of the Hebrews
New Covenant The central theme of the Gospels - Love God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself [26] The central theme - Love is the New Commandment given by Jesus [27] Secret knowledge, love your friends [28] The central theme - Love one another [29]
Forgiveness Very important - particularly in Matthew and Luke [30] Assumed [31] Not mentioned Very important - Forgiveness is a central theme and this gospel goes into the greatest detail [32]
The Lord's Prayer In Matthew & Luke but not Mark [33] Not mentioned Not mentioned Important - “mahar” or "tomorrow" [34] [35]
Love & the poor Very Important - The rich young man [36] Assumed [37] Important [38] Very important - The rich young man [39]
Jesus starts his ministry Jesus meets John the Baptist and is baptized [40] Jesus meets John the Baptist [41] N/A- Speaks of John the Baptist [42] Jesus meets John the Baptist and is baptized. This gospel goes into the greatest detail [43]
Disciples-inner circle Peter, Andrew, James & John [44] Peter, Andrew, James & the Beloved Disciple [45] Peter, Andrew James & John [46] Peter [47]

Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James, Simon the Zealot, Jude Thaddaeus, & Judas[48]

Philip, Nathanael, Matthew, Thomas, James, Simon the Zealot, Jude Thaddaeus & Judas [49]

Matthew, James the Just (Brother of Jesus), Simon the Zealot, Thaddaeus, Judas [50]

Matthew, Thomas, James the Just (Brother of Jesus) [51]

Possible Authors Unknown; [52] Mark the Evangelist & Luke the Evangelist The Beloved Disciple [53] Thomas [54] Matthew the Evangelist [55]
Virgin birth account In Matthew & Luke, but not Mark [56] Not mentioned Not mentioned Not mentioned
Jesus' baptism Described [57] Not Mentioned [58] N/A Described great detail [59]
Preaching style Brief one-liners; parables[60] Essay format, Midrash[61] Sayings [62] Brief one-liners; parables [63]
Storytelling Parables [64] Figurative language & Metaphor [65] Gnostic, hidden [66] Parables [67]
Jesus' theology 1st Century liberal Judaism. [68] Critical of Jewish Authorities [69] Gnostic [70] 1st Century Judaism [71]
Miracles Many miracles Seven Signs N/A Fewer but more credible miracles [72]
Duration of ministry 1 year [73] 3 years (Multiple Passovers) N/A 1 year [74]
Location of ministry Mainly Galilee Mainly Judea, near Jerusalem N/A Mainly Galilee
Passover meal Body & Blood = Bread and wine Interrupts meal for foot washing N/A Hebrew Passover is celebrated but details are N/A Epiphanius [75]
Burial shroud A single piece of cloth Multiple pieces of cloth [76] N/A Given to the High Priest [77]
Resurrection Mary and the Women are the first to learn Jesus has arisen [78] John adds detailed account of Mary's experience of the Resurrection [79] Not Applicable as Gospel of Thomas is a collection of the "sayings" of Jesus, not the events of his life In the Gospel of the Hebrews is the unique account of Jesus appearing to his brother, James the Just. [80]

See also


  1. ^ F.L. Cross and E.A. Livingston, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, Oxford University Press, 1989 p. 1333
  2. ^ "synoptic". Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press. 2nd ed. 1989.
  3. ^ James R. Edwards, The Hebrew Gospel & the Development of the Synoptic Tradition, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2009 pp. 182 - 186
  4. ^
  5. ^ Ronald Allen Piper, The gospel behind the Gospels: current studies on Q, Volume 75 of Novum Testamentum, BRILL, 1995 p.23
  6. ^ De Consensu evangelistarum, i . 2 (4)
  7. ^ Bart Erhman, Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, Oxford University Press, p.80-81
  8. ^ Two-Source Hypothesis Website [1]
  9. ^
  10. ^ Streeter, Burnett H. The Four Gospels. A Study of Origins Treating the Manuscript Tradition, Sources, Authorship, & Dates. London: MacMillian and Co., Ltd., 1924.
  11. ^ D. E. Nineham (ed.), Studies in the Gospels: Essays in Memory of R. H. Lightfoot (Oxford: Blackwell, 1955)
  12. ^ Austin Farrer, On Dispensing With Q, 1955.
  13. ^ "Synoptic Problem Home Page". Retrieved 2007-07-08. 
  14. ^ Ehrman 2004, p. 110 and Harris 1985 both specify a range c. 80-85 for Matthew
  15. ^ Brown, Raymond E. (1997). Introduction to the New Testament. New York: Anchor Bible. pp. 226. ISBN 0-385-24767-2.
  16. ^ Pier Franco Beatrice, The Gospel according to the Hebrews in the Apostolic Fathers, Novum Testamentum, 2006, vol. 48, no2, pp. 147-195 ISSN 0048-1009
  17. ^ James R. Edwards, The Hebrew Gospel & the Development of the Synoptic Tradition, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2009 pp. 209 - 247
  18. ^ Martin Hengel, The Four Gospels and the One Gospel of Jesus Christ Trinity Press, SCM 2000 p.207- 210
  19. ^ Mark Goodacre (10 January 2003). "Ten Reasons to Question Q". The Case Against Q website. Retrieved 2009-06-08. 
  20. ^ Matt 3:7-10 & Luke 3:7-9. Text from 1894 Scrivener New Testament
  21. ^ Section 1:4, of Illustrious Men states, "Then, also, the Gospel of Mark, who was his disciple and interpreter of Peter..."
  22. ^ and, Section 2:11, states "The gospel which is named the Gospel of the Hebrews, and which I have just translated into Greek and Latin, which Origen..." Then, Section 3:1, Jerome continues on about the Hebrew Gospel as follows, " ...composed a Hebrew Gospel of Christ, first published in Judea for the sake of those Hebrews who believed, this was translated into Greek, though by what author is not known. Moreover, the Hebrew itself has been preserved in the library at Cesaera which Pamphilus the martyr so diligently gathered. I have also had the opportunity of having the volume described to me by the Nazarenes of Boera, a city of Syria, who use it. In this it is to be noted...
  23. ^ James R. Edwards, The Hebrew Gospel & the Development of the Synoptic Tradition, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2009 pp. 1-376
  24. ^ Geza Vermes, The Passion, (Penguin, 2005) pages 10-12.
  25. ^ See Chart
  26. ^ "In the Synoptic Gospels this is the "Greatest" Commandment" that sums up all of the "Law and the Prophets"
  27. ^ Jn 31:34
  28. ^ Log 25
  29. ^ The Lord says to his disciples: ”And never be you joyful, except when you behold one another with love.” Jerome, Commentary on Ephesians
  30. ^ Matt 18:21, Lk 17:4
  31. ^ Jn 20:23
  32. ^ In the Gospel of the Hebrews, written in the Chaldee and Syriac language but in Hebrew script, and used by the Nazarenes to this day (I mean the Gospel of the Apostles, or, as it is generally maintained, the Gospel of Matthew, a copy of which is in the library at Caesarea), we find, “Behold the mother of the Lord and his brothers said to him, ‘John the Baptist baptizes for the forgiveness of sins. Let us go and be baptized by him.’ But Jesus said to them, ‘in what way have I sinned that I should go and be baptized by him? Unless perhaps, what I have just said is a sin of ignorance.’” And in the same volume, “‘If your brother sins against you in word, and makes amends, forgive him seven times a day.’ Simon, His disciple, said to Him, ‘Seven times in a day!’ The Lord answered and said to him, ‘I say to you, Seventy times seven.’ ” Jerome, Against Pelagius 3.2
  33. ^ Trite
  34. ^ In the so-called Gospel of the Hebrews, for “bread essential to existence,” I found “mahar”, which means “of tomorrow”; so the sense is: our bread for tomorrow, that is, of the future, give us this day. Jerome, Commentary on Matthew 1
  35. ^ In Matthew's Hebrew Gospel it states, ‘Give us this day our bread for tomorrow.” Jerome, On Psalm 135
  36. ^ Matt 19:16, Mk 10:17 & Lk1 8:18
  37. ^ Jn 12:8
  38. ^ Jesus said "Blessed are the poor, for to you belongs the Kingdom of Heaven" Log 54
  39. ^ The second rich youth said to him, “Rabbi, what good thing can I do and live?” Jesus replied, “Fulfill the law and the prophets.” “I have,” was the response. Jesus said, “Go, sell all that you have and distribute to the poor; and come, follow me.” The youth became uncomfortable, for it did not please him. And the Lord said, “How can you say, I have fulfilled the Law and the Prophets, when it is written in the Law: You shall love your neighbor as yourself and many of your brothers, sons of Abraham, are covered with filth, dying of hunger, and your house is full of many good things, none of which goes out to them?” And he turned and said to Simon, his disciple, who was sitting by Him, “Simon, son of Jonah, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. ”Origen, Commentary on Matthew 15:14
  40. ^ Matt 3:1, Mk 1:9, 3:21
  41. ^ Jn 1:29
  42. ^ Gospel of Thomas, Logion 46
  43. ^ Epiphanius, Panarion 30:13
  44. ^ Matt 10:1, Mk 6:8, Lk 9:3
  45. ^ Jn 13:23, 19:26, 20:2, 21:7, 21:20
  46. ^ Epiphanius, Panarion 30:13
  47. ^ Log 13
  48. ^ Jn 13:23, 19:26, 20:2, 21:7, 21:20
  49. ^ Jn 13:23, 19:26, 20:2, 21:7, 21:20
  50. ^ Epiphanius, Panarion 30:13, Jerome, On Illustrious Men, 2
  51. ^ Log 1- 114
  52. ^ Although several Fathers say Matthew wrote the Gospel of the Hebrews they are silent about Greek Matthew found in the Bible. Modern scholars are in agreement that Matthew did not write Greek Matthews which is 300 lines longer than the Hebrew Gospel (See James Edwards the Hebrew gospel)
  53. ^ Suggested by Irenaeus first
  54. ^ Preface to the Gospel of Thomas
  55. ^ They too accept Matthew's gospel, and like the followers of Cerinthus and Merinthus, they use it alone. They call it the Gospel of the Hebrews, for in truth Matthew alone in the New Testament expounded and declared the Gospel in Hebrew using Hebrew script. Epiphanius, Panarion 30:3
  56. ^ Matt 1:18
  57. ^ Trite
  58. ^ Trite
  59. ^ Epiphanius, Panarion 30:13
  60. ^ Trite
  61. ^ Trite
  62. ^ Trite
  63. ^ Trite
  64. ^ Parables
  65. ^ Language in the Gospel of John
  66. ^ Log 109
  67. ^ Parables of Jesus
  68. ^ Similar to beliefs taught by Hillel the Elder. (eg. "golden rule")Hillel Hillel the Elder
  69. ^ Jn 7:45 & Jn 3:1
  70. ^ Trite
  71. ^ Similar to beliefs taught by Hillel the Elder. (eg. "golden rule")Hillel Hillel the Elder
  72. ^ Jerome, Commentary on Matthew 2
  73. ^ Events leading up to Passover
  74. ^ Events leading up to Passover
  75. ^ Epiphanius, Panarion 30:22
  76. ^ As was the Jewish practice at the time. (John 20:5-7)
  77. ^ Jerome, On Illustrious Men, 2
  78. ^ Matt 28:1 Mk16:1 Lk24:1
  79. ^ Jn 20:11
  80. ^ Jerome, On Illustrious Men, 2
  • 1914: The New Testament from the Greek Text as Established by Bible Numerics. New Haven: Bible Numerics Co.
  • Dr. Chuck Missler Evidence of Design

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The name given since Griesbach's time (about 1790) to the first three canonical Gospels. It is derived from the fact that these Gospels admit -- differently from the evangelical narrative of St. John, of being arranged and harmonized section by section, so as to allow the eye to realize at a glance (synopsis) the numerous passages which are common to them, and also the portions which are peculiar either to only two, or even to only one, of them.


I. Differences and Resemblances

Turning over the pages of an ordinary harmony of the four, or of a synopsis of the first three, Gospels, which show in parallel columns the coincident parts of the evangelical narratives, the reader will at once notice the large amount of matter which is common to the Gospels of St. Matthew, St. Mark, and St. Luke. Brief as these three sketches of Christ's life actually are, they run parallel to one another in no less than 330-370 verses or about one-third of their whole account of Christ's words and deeds, while, with the exception of a few incidents (68 verses), the whole contents of St. Mark are practically found in St. Matthew and in St. Luke. This agreement in the facts related appears all the more striking, because of the great amount of historical material which must have been at the disposal of each Synoptical writer. The Synoptists are, each and all, fully aware that Jesus healed vast numbers of various diseases; they nevertheless agree in selecting the same cases of healing for fuller record; and while they distinctly speak of His unceasing and extensive teaching, yet they usually concur in reporting the same discourses. A no less wonderful similarity may be observed between the first three Gospels with regard to the general conception and the order of the whole narrative. In all three, Christ's public life is distinctly connected with the preaching of St. John the Baptist, is chiefly confined to Galilee, and is set forth in certain epochs, as the early Galilean ministry, the crisis in Galilee, the ministry in Perea and Jerusalem, and the tragic end in the Holy City followed by a glorious Resurrection. In constructing their several records, the Synoptists adopt the same general method of presentation, giving not a consecutive narrative that would result from a fusing of the material employed, but a series of little accounts which are isolated by peculiar introductory and concluding formulæ, and which repeatedly agree in details and in order even where a deviation from the chronological sequence is manifest. Together with all these resemblances, there is throughout the Synoptics a remarkable agreement in words and phrases, which can be more particularly realized by means of a Greek harmony or a close translation of the original text. This verbal agreement in the Greek Gospels is all the more surprising, as Jesus spoke in Aramaic, and as in most cases, it is plain that the verbal resemblances cannot be referred to an accidental similarity, since they are due to the common use of very peculiar terms and expressions, of identical variations from either the Hebrew or the Septuagint in quotations from the Old Testament.

The interconnexion of the Synoptics is not, however, simply one of close resemblance, it is also one of striking difference. When compared attentively, the three records appear distinct as well as similar in incidents, plan, and language. Each Synoptical writer introduces into his narrative fragments more or less extensive, at times entire episodes which are not related by the other two Evangelists. St. Mark says nothing of the infancy and the early life of Christ, while St. Matthew and St. Luke, who speak of them, do not as a rule narrate the same facts. St. Mark does not even allude to the Sermon on the Mount, and St. Luke alone narrates in detail the last journey of Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem. On the other hand, Matt., xiv, 22 -- xvi, 12 and Mark, vi, 45 -- viii, 26, record a series of Galilean incidents which are nowhere found in the third Gospel. Despite his obvious conciseness, St. Mark has two miracles and two parables wholly peculiar to himself. St. Matthew, who apparently does not aim at brevity, makes no reference to the Ascension. Moreover, in the very passages which indicate a close relation of the three, or of at least two, Synoptics, in their sources, minor differences in the events recorded continually appear, which can be fully realized only through a diligent study of the parallel passages, or through the perusal of larger commentaries in which such constant differences are distinctly pointed out. At times the divergences are so great as to appear, at first, actual contradictions. Of this description are the differences noticeable between the genealogies of Jesus (Matt., i, 1-17; Luke, iii, 23-38), the accounts of the episode of the demoniacs of Gerasa (Matt., viii, 28-34; Mark, v, 1-20; Luke, viii, 26-39), of the miraculous healing connected with Jericho (Matt., xx, 29-34; Mark, x, 46-52; Luke, xviii, 35-43), of the petition of the mother of James and John (Matt., xx, 20-28; Mark, x, 35-45), of the incidents relative to the Resurrection, etc. The general disposition of the events narrated betrays also considerable differences. Thus while St. Matthew devotes three successive chapters to the Sermon on the Mount (v-vii) and gives together the parables of the kingdom in one chapter (xiii), St. Luke divides this twofold topic into several portions which he connects with distinct circumstances. it is well known too, that St. Matthew very often gathers together topics which are similar, while St. Mark and St. Luke follow more closely the chronological order, whence arise numerous transpositions which affect the general arrangement of the narrative.

Numerous variations can likewise be noticed in the particular arrangement of facts and words, for the elements of the one and the same episode often occupy a different place in one or other of the Synoptics, or either Evangelist suppresses or adds a detail which modifies the incident. Finally, the verbal differences between the first three Gospels are hardly less numerous and striking than their verbal resemblances. Each Synoptist has his peculiar and favourite words and expressions, which have been carefully tabulated by recent Biblical scholars (Hawkins, "Horæ synopticæ"; Allen, on St. Matthew; Swete, on St. Mark; Plummer, on St. Luke). The verbal differences appear in the very passages which abound in verbal coincidences (cf. for instance, Matt., xviii, 2, 3; Mark, ix, 47, 48), the identity of expression never extending through passages of any length, and unless in reported discourses of Christ rarely beyond a few words at a time. This is often due to the use of synonymous terms, or of different tenses, or of different propositions, or of short glosses which either Synoptist adds to the same name or detail. We find for instance, in Matt., ix, 6, kline, in Mark, ii, 11, krabbatos, in Luke, v, 24, klinidion; in Matt., iii, 16, "Spirit of God", in Mark, i, 10, "Spirit", in Luke, iii, 22, "the Holy Ghost"; etc. And what is of particular significance in this connexion, is the fact that the verbal differences occur when one should most naturally expect an absolute identity of expressions, as for instance, in the words of the institution of the Holy Eucharist, in the record of the title on the Cross, etc.

II. The Synoptic Problem

These resemblances and differences, the extent and complexity of which grow upon the student who compares carefully the Synoptic Gospels and contrasts them with St. John's narrative, constitute a unique phenomenon in ancient and modern literature. They are facts which no one can refer either to mere chance, or to the direct influence of inspiration. On the one hand, the resemblances are too numerous and too striking to be regarded as explicable on the hypothesis that the first three Evangelists wrote independently of one another. On the other, the differences are at times so significant as to imply that they are due to the use of different documents by the Evangelists, as for example in the case of the two genealogies of Jesus Christ. The harmony and the variety, the resemblances and the differences must be both accounted for. They form together a literary problem, -- the Synoptic Problem, as it is called, -- the existence of which was practically unknown to the ancient ecclesiastical writers. In point of fact, St. Chrysostom and St. Augustine are the only Fathers who have formulated views concerning the mutual relation of the Synoptic Gospels, and the writers of the Middle Ages do not seem to have taken into account these patristic views which, after all, were far from affording a complete solution of that difficult question. Subsequent leading scholars, such as Grotius, Rich, Simon, Le Clerc, had little more than a suspicion of the problem, and it is only in the course of the eighteenth century that the scientific examination of the question was actually started.

Ever since the last quarter of that century, the discussion of the origin of the mutual relationship between the first three Gospels has been carried on with great ardour and ingenuity especially in Germany. As might well be expected, the supposition that these Gospels are so like one another because their respective authors made use of each other's writings was first tried, and in settling the order, that in which the Synoptic Gospels stand in the canon first found favour. As fresh investigations brought new facts to light, new forms of hypothesis sought to satisfy the facts, with the gradual result that the domain of possibility well-nigh appears to have been measured out. Numerous and conflicting as the successive attempts at solution have been, their history shows that a certain progress has been made in the discussion of the Synoptic Problem. The many relations of the question have come into clearer light, and the data for its solution have been revealing themselves while mere a priori views or unsound inferences have been discarded.

III. Solutions of the Synoptic Problem

All attempts at assigning the cause of the resemblances and differences of the first three Gospels admit of being classified under three general heads, according as the relationship of the Synoptics has been explained by appealing to: A, oral tradition; B, mutual dependence; or C, earlier documents.

Oral Dependence

The hypothesis of oral tradition implies that before our Gospels arose there were no written records of Christ's ministry, or at least none which was used by the Synoptists. It asserts that these Evangelists have drawn from narratives of sayings and deeds of Jesus which eye-witnesses of His public life handed on by word of mouth, and which gradually assumed a greater or less degree of fixity with constant repetition. According to this theory, the resemblances between the first three Gospels can be easily accounted for. The sections common to all are explained by a cycle of teaching probably formed in Jerusalem, actually made up of incidents and discourses connected with Christ's life from the baptism of John to the Ascension (cf. Acts, i, 21, 22), and faithfully preserved with regard to order and language by the trained retentiveness of Eastern memories. In like manner, the differences of the Synoptic Gospels are easily explained. Sections are found only in two, or one, of the Gospels because the bond established between the narratives was at times modified to suit the various circles of the hearers, and other differences in order or wording are due either to previous variations in oral tradition or to the personal initiative of the several Evangelists who fixed it in writing. This theory of an oral Gospel, handed on everywhere in very similar form, was enunciated by Herder, and chiefly elaborated by Gieseler and A. Wright. With differences in detail, it has been admitted by a large number of Catholic exegetes (Schegg, Haneberg, Friedlieb, Kaulen, Cornely, Knabenbauer, Meignan, Fillion, Fouard, Le Camus, Felten), and by many Protestant scholars (Credner, Guericke, De Wette, Ebrard, Lange, Hase, Wetzel, Thompson, Westcott, Godet, etc.). It undoubtedly points to a vera causa in the spread of the Gospel and cannot be wholly left out of account in an endeavour to explain the origin of our written records of Christ's life. One of its claims to acceptance is that it dispenses with the unseemly supposition that any of the Evangelists made wholesale use in their own Gospels of written records composed by others, and nevertheless did not reproduce them with greater fidelity. Appeal is also made in favour of this theory, to its simplicity, and to its aptness to account for the resemblances and the differences exhibited by the Synoptics.

By itself, however, the hypothesis of oral tradition can hardly be considered as an adequate solution of the Synoptical problem. First, it does not satisfactorily explain the selection of the material included in our first three Gospels. Oral tradition had undoubtedly preserved much more than the Synoptics record, and of this the Evangelists themselves were fully aware (Matt., xi, 21; xxiii, 37; Luke, x, 13; John, xxi, 25; etc.); whence then does it come that the framework of the Synoptic narrative is practically the same in all the first three Gospels, that it consists very largely of the same events and the same discourses, and gives no account of Jesus' ministry in Jerusalem, that is, of His ministry in the very place where the oral tradition is generally supposed to have been formed?

Secondly, the hypothesis of oral tradition does not account for the general identity of order noticeable in the Synoptics. The order of St. Mark is, as it seems, the fundamental order, and it can hardly be said to have been known simply as an oral tradition to St. Matthew and St. Luke, else the sequence of its sections, when additions were made by these two Evangelists, would not have remained as little altered as it has. Again and again, the thread of the common order is resumed at the point at which it had been left. On the supposition of a written source to which St. Matthew and St. Luke had recourse, this is natural enough. But if they depended on memory, the natural effect of the working of the laws of association, would be that when some fresh incident or some part of Christ's teaching was recalled, the old order would be disturbed more or less extensively than we notice it to be.

Thirdly, the verbal relationship between the Greek Gospels is not satisfactorily explained on the hypothesis of oral tradition. This oral tradition was primitively in Aramaic, and the coincidences in the Greek with regard to rare words, irregular arrangement of the sentence, etc., cannot be explained by supposing that our Gospels are independent translations of one and the same Aramaic oral tradition. it is true that in order to account for these coincidences in the Greek, the early formation of an oral Greek tradition which would more or less be the counterpart of the Aramaic one, and which would have been directly utilized by our Evangelists, has been postulated by many advocates of the theory under review. But it remains very doubtful whether such oral Greek tradition would really explain the coincidences in question; and it is quite certain that it would not satisfactorily account or the variations in Greek wording of such important passages as the words of the institution of the Holy Eucharist, of the Lord's Prayer, of the Beatitudes, of the title on the Cross, etc. Lastly, there are historical proofs of the existence of written documents at the time when our Synoptics were written (cf. Matt., xxiv, 15, 16; Mark, xiii, 14; Luke, i, 1), and the most natural supposition is that our Evangelists availed themselves of them. In fact, many phenomena disclosed by the attentive study of the first three Gospels render the supposition so probable, not to say necessary, that several advocates of the hypothesis of oral tradition (Eckermann, Fillion, Le Camus, etc.), have been led to admit a limited use of written helps by the Synoptists.

Mutual Dependence

The hypothesis of mutual dependence assumes that the authors of the Synoptic Gospels used each other's writings, each successive writer availing himself of earlier contributions, so that the second Evangelist (in the order of time) borrowed from the first, and the third from both first and second. According to it, the passages which are alike reproduce those of earlier writings; those which are divergent come from the personal memory of the author or from an oral source. This, it is said, is the most natural, as it is the oldest, manner of explaining the resemblances and differences of the first three Gospels. It is the most natural, inasmuch as if three other writers exhibited such a close resemblance in their works as the Synoptists do, it would readily occur to the reader's mind that they are not independent of each other. It is the oldest also, for it goes back to St. Augustine who formulated it in a general way in his "De consensu evangelistarum" (I, ii, 4), and who in describing the order of succession of the Synoptics, naturally followed the one embodied in the canon: Matthew, Mark, Luke. This order of succession has been accepted by many scholars, Catholic (Hug, Danko, Reithmayr, Patrizi, De Valroger, Wallon, Schanz, Coleridge, Bacuez) and Protestant (Mill, Wetstein, Bengel, Credner, Hilgenfeld, etc.). But every other possible order of arrangement has found advocates, in accordance with their respective views concerning the priority and order of sequence of the Synoptics. The order: Matthew, Luke, Mark, was advanced by Griesbach and has been adopted by De Wette, Bleek, Maier, Langen, Grimm, Pasquier. The arrangement: Mark, Matthew, Luke, with various modifications as to their interdependence, is admitted by Ritschl, Reuss, Meyer, Wilke, Simons, Holtzmann, Weiss, Batiffol, Weizsäcker, etc. It is often designated under the name of the "Mark hypothesis", although in the eyes of most of its defenders, it is no longer a hypothesis, meaning thereby that it is an established fact. Besides these principal orders, others (Mark, Luke, Matthew; Luke, Matthew, Mark; Luke, Mark, Matthew) have been proposed, and more recent combinations (such as those advocated by Calmel, Zahn, Belser, and Bonaccorsi) have also been suggested. As regards the theory of Baur and his school concerning the composition of the Gospels, suffice it to say that it should not really be connected with the hypothesis of mutual dependence, inasmuch as its contention as to the origin of the canonical Gospels has nothing to do with the literary process of composition propounded by that hypothesis to explain the relationship of the Synoptics.

By itself alone, the theory of mutual dependence cannot be regarded as a full solution of the Synoptic Problem. Whichever order be adopted, there are always narratives where one of the Evangelists, -- at times, St. Mark himself, -- is more complete than the one who is given as his source, and consequently is independent of him, so that in all such cases appeal must needs be made either to oral tradition or to non-canonical writings. Again, in any form of the theory, the differences in form of narration, especially where one writer seems irreconcilable with the other, and the differences in arrangement, where the temporal sequence is very close, remain unaccounted for. Obviously, there is little need to criticize all the forms of this hypothesis by bringing forward special instances of the general objections just mentioned. These forms of it, however, which have found most able and numerous advocates, may be briefly considered. Against the form which asserts that St. Mark made use of St. Matthew, and St. Luke made use of both, it may more particularly be urged:

  • (1) that St. Mark bears in the Greek too manifest a stamp of originality that it should be regarded simply as the work of an abbreviator of St. Matthew;
  • (2) that the use of both St. Matthew and St. Mark by St. Luke, even though we should suppose it to be a fact, is insufficient for explaining by itself alone the presence in our Third Gospel of an independent genealogy of Christ, the insertion by St. Luke of an altogether new narrative of Jesus's birth and infancy, his scattering of many of Christ's sayings grouped by St. Matthew in the Sermon on the Mount, his detailed account of the Perean journey which is absent from both St. Matthew and St. Mark, etc.

The arrangement advocated by Griesbach, to wit. that St. Luke made use of St. Matthew and St. Mark utilized both, is likewise open to weighty objections. Plainly, the supposition that St. Mark followed and epitomized the other two Synoptics renders it more difficult to account for the freshness and power of his narrative; and in point of fact, it clearly appears that if a direct dependence is to be admitted at all, it is time and again not on the side of St. Mark's rugged style and shorter account of the Galilean ministry, but on the side of the smoother form and larger framework of St. Matthew and St. Luke. Again, the dependence of St. Luke on St. Matthew alone leaves unaccounted for the additions, transpositions, etc., already referred to. Finally, the following are the principal difficulties urged against the "Mark hypothesis". Its supposition that St. Mark is prior to the other two Evangelists, goes against the traditional data which describe St. Matthew's Gospel (in the Aramaic) as written first, and St. Mark's narrative as originating independently of any written Gospel. Again, the assumed priority of St. Mark to St. Matthew and St. Luke makes it hard to imagine on what principle the later two Evangelists partitioned between themselves practically all the contents of St. Mark's writing. it is also urged that in the "Mark hypothesis" neither the simple dependence of St. Matthew on St. Mark alone, nor that of St. Luke on both St. Matthew and St. Mark can account for all the phenomena (additions, inversions, verbal changes, etc.), which are disclosed by an attentive study of the Synoptics.

Earlier Documents

The documentary hypothesis is the prevalent theory among non-Catholics. Its general principle of solution of the Synoptic Problem is that in the composition of their writings, the first three Evangelists have all made use of earlier written material. The application of this general principle has given rise to a great number of suppositions, the principal of which may be briefly considered. Since Eichhorn (close of the eighteenth century), and especially since Resch (close of the nineteenth), attempts have been made to get behind our Greek Gospels to one or more Semitic documents used in them, and thus to account for the relationship of the Synoptics. This written source, the primitive contents and wording of which might still be detected, was Hebrew according to Resch and Abbott, Aramaic according to Marshall, Hoffmann, etc. In general, the variation in the words and clauses in our Gospels is accounted for by the different translations given to the Aramaic or Hebrew words. It is undoubted that the recent advocates of the hypothesis of a Semitic source have displayed great learning and ingenuity in pointing out the Semitic expressions which might underlie the divers readings noticeable in parallel passages of the Synoptics. It is undoubted, too, that the general background of the Gospels is Semitic in thought and forms of expression, and even that Semitic documents (for instance, Christ's genealogies) have been used by their authors.

By itself alone, however, the theory of a Semitic source does not appear a satisfactory solution of the Synoptic Problem. It is not certain that the whole Semitic background of the Synoptics had assumed a written shape before it was utilized by the Evangelists, for countless instances of Semitic forms of thought and expression may equally well be accounted for through the direct use of oral tradition, to which source, as a matter of fact, Papias refers the origin of St. Mark's Gospel. Again, the differences between the parallel passages of the first three Gospels are very often such as to point directly to the use by the Synoptists of the same Greek sources, so that in large portions of their works, it is much more natural to account for such differences by the individual literary taste, general purpose, etc., of the Evangelists, than by an appeal to the collateral use of a Semitic original, or a multiplicity of versions of it, the very existence of which is doubtful, and the knowledge of which by the Synoptists is still more questionable.

A more plausible form of the documentary hypothesis goes back in substance to Schleiermacher (1817). It maintains that, at an early period, many evangelical fragments, Greek as well as Aramaic, were scattered throughout the Churches, -- traditions floating about of which written accounts had been made. These the three Synoptists worked in their Gospels, together with materials which each had himself collected; and in this manner the coincidences and the differences of the Synoptics may be accounted for. This theory of a plurality of primitive documents, -- which in certain of its modifications is combined with that of a dependence of later, on earlier, canonical Gospels, -- is admitted by many scholars (Renan, Wrede, Schmiedel, Loisy, etc.). This form of the documentary hypothesis does not necessarily go against the inspired character of the Synoptic Gospels. The actual use of certain primitive documents, notably by St. Matthew and St. Luke, may also be readily granted. But tradition ascribes to St. Mark's Gospel a very different origin from the one supposed by this theory, and a careful study of the contents and the style of that Gospel has recently convinced several prominent scholars that the work is not a compilation from written sources. Again, it is not proved that because St. Matthew and St. Luke employed written documents, they exclusively confined themselves to the use of such sources. In their day, oral tradition was certainly much alive. At that time, the difference between oral tradition and a document was not great in many cases where it had easily become stereotyped by frequent repetition. And it is not a safe position to deny the use of this tradition by St. Luke, in particular, that is, by a writer who would naturally utilize every source of information at his disposal. Finally, a constant appeal to new documents, the contents, extent, and very existence of which cannot, many a time, be ascertained, gives to this theory an air of artificiality which recommends it little as an exact description of the actual manner in which the Synoptic Gospels were composed.

The last general form of the documentary hypothesis which remains to be examined is the "Two Document theory", according to which two large works form the main sources of the Synoptics. One work like our Gospel of St. Mark, if not identical with it, is the source of the narratives common to the first three Gospels, and the other, containing the Sayings of Jesus, is the source of the didactic matter common to St. Matthew and St. Luke. Modified in various ways, this solution of the Synoptic problem has had, and has yet, numerous advocates chiefly among Protestant scholars. In the eyes of all such critics, the theory of only two main written sources is especially commendable for its simplicity and plausibility. The contents of the Synoptics comprise two classes of parallel sections: the one consists of narratives of actions and events found in all three Gospels; the other consisting of Christ's teaching appears only in St. Matthew and St. Luke. Now, as in the selection of material, the arrangement, and the language of sections parallel in all three, St. Matthew constantly agrees with St. Mark against St. Luke, and St. Luke with St. Mark against St. Matthew, but St. Matthew and St. Luke scarcely ever agree against St. Mark, the simplest supposition is that St. Matthew and St. Luke made independent use of St. Mark as we have it, or of a Gospel like it (Ur-Marcus). The freshness and power of St. Mark's narrative go also to prove its priority to that of the other two Evangelists. Thus far of the material common to the first three Gospels. The great bulk of the additional matter found only in St. Matthew and St. Luke consists mainly of the words and discourses of Jesus and although it is very differently given as to historic connexion and grouping, yet it is pervaded by such similarity of thought and expression as to suggest forcibly the hypothesis of a single main source as its natural explanation. The "Two Document theory" is also claimed to explain the peculiar phenomenon of "doublets" in St. Matthew and St. Luke. Finally, it is said to be supported by tradition rightly interpreted. Papias, speaking of books about Christ written by St. Matthew and St. Mark, says: "Mark, being the interpreter of Peter, wrote carefully, though not in order, as he remembered them, the things spoken and done by Christ". "Matthew wrote the Logia in the Hebrew language, and every one translated them as he was able". These statements seem to point to two books as the fountains of evangelical written tradition. One can be distinctly named; it is practically our second Gospel. The other, according to Harnack, Wellhausen, Stanton, can still be reconstructed; it is a record of Logia chiefly embodied in our first Gospel (Ur-Mattheus) and also utilized by St. Luke.

The "Two Document theory" is advocated by many prominent critics (H. Holtzmann, B. Weiss, Wendt, Wernle, Soltau, Jülicher, Hawkins, etc.). Yet, is is not an adequate solution of the Synoptic problem. It leaves its defenders hopelessly divided on points of considerable importance, such as the compilatory character of St. Mark's Gospel; the extent and exact nature of the Logian document (Q) utilized by our first and third Evangelists; the manner of its use by St. Matthew and St. Luke, respectively; the question whether it was used by St. Mark also; the number of the sources employed by St. Matthew and St. Luke besides St. Mark and Q; etc. A greater difficulty sometimes urged against this theory, regards the priority of St. Mark, which its advocates treat as a point altogether settled. Tradition has it that St. Matthew's Gospel existed in a Semitic form before it was rendered into Greek, that is before it assumed the only form now available for a comparison, with St. Mark's narrative. Hence, it is claimed that St. Matthew's dependence in the Greek on our second Gospel is one arising from the fact that its Greek translation was made with the aid of our second Gospel, and leaving intact the priority of the earlier Semitic form of St. Matthew's Gospel to the composition of St. Mark's writing. Among other difficulties against the "Two Document theory" may be mentioned:

  1. its inherent tendency to appeal to subsidiary written sources, the extent and nature of which cannot be determined;
  2. its general disregard of the influence of oral tradition in the composition of the Synoptics;
  3. its common, but very improbable, denial of St. Luke's dependence on both St. Matthew and St. Luke.

From the foregoing rapid survey of the attempts at solving the Synoptic Problem, it is plain that none of them has been really successful. The problem is very intricate; the historical information concerning the origin of our first three Gospels, incomplete; and every theory, one-sided. The satisfactory hypothesis, yet to be formulated, must be a combination hypothesis gathering and uniting, in due proportions, all the truths presented by the various opinions, and also a more thorough theory taking fully into account both the data of Patristic tradition and those disclosed by literary analysis. Such theory, when framed, will undoubtedly supply the fullest vindication of the historical value of our Synoptic records.


The only decree thus far enacted by the Biblical Commission, which has a bearing on the Synoptic Question, was issued 19 June, 1911. Its direct object is to affirm the traditional authorship, date of composition, and historical character of St. Matthew's Gospel. Accordingly, it declares that the author of our first Gospel is no other than the Apostle St. Matthew, who wrote before the other Evangelists and considerably before the destruction of Jerusalem, in the language of the Palestinian Jews for whom he composed his work. It authoritatively affirms that the original work of St. Matthew was not a mere collection of the sayings and deeds of Christ, but a Gospel substantially identical with our present Greek Gospel according to St. Matthew. It finally proclaims the historical character of our first Gospel and the genuineness of some of its portions (the first two chapters; dogmatic passages concerning the primacy of Peter, the form of baptism, etc.), which has been questioned by modern critics. Hence it is plain that by this decree the Biblical Commission did not intend to deal with the Synoptic problem, to set forth an explanation of the resemblances and differences disclosed by a comparison of our first three Gospels. Yet, the Roman decree has a particular bearing on the theories of mutual dependence and earlier documents put forth as solutions of the Synoptic question. In deciding the priority of St. Matthew's Gospel in its original language and substance, to the other evangelical narratives, the Biblical Commission has solemnly disapproved of any form of those theories which maintains that St. Matthew's original work was not a complete Gospel or the first Gospel in the order of time. In fact those Catholic scholars who admit either of these theories regard our Greek Gospel according to St. Matthew as a work which goes back in its primitive Aramaic form to the Apostle of that name, and restrict its dependence on St. Mark to its extant Greek translation.


[The following appeared in a later supplement to the Catholic Encyclopedia:]

In answer to questions about the mutual relations between the first three Gospels, the Biblical Commission decided (26 June, 1913), that it is not inconsistent with their decisions already issued to explain the similarities or dissimilarities between these Gospels, to dispute freely the various conflicting opinions of authors, and to appeal to hypotheses of oral or written tradition, or to the dependence of one Gospel on another or on both that preceded it. The hypotheses known as the "two sources" is no longer tenable: to wit, the attempt to explain the composition of the Greek Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke mainly by their dependence on the Gospel of Mark and on the so-called Sayings of the Lord.

Portions of this entry are taken from The Catholic Encyclopedia, 1907.
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Simple English

The Synoptic gospels in the Bible in the New Testament are the Gospel of Matthew, the Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of Luke. They are similar in many ways, unlike the Gospel of John


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