The gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are referred to as the Synoptic Gospels because they include many of the same stories, often in a similar sequence and in similar or sometimes identical wording. They stand in contrast to John, whose content is largely distinct. The term synoptic (Latin: synopticus) comes via Latin from the Greek σύνοψις, synopsis, i.e. “(a) seeing all together, synopsis”; the sense of the word in English, the one specifically applied to these three gospels, of “giving an account of the events from the same point of view or under the same general aspect” is a modern one.
This strong parallelism among the three gospels in content, arrangement, and specific language is widely attributed to literary interdependence. The question of the precise nature of their literary relationship—the synoptic problem—has been a topic of lively debate for centuries and has been described as “the most fascinating literary enigma of all time”. The longstanding majority view favors Marcan priority, in which both Matthew and Luke have made direct use of the Gospel of Mark as a source, and further holds that Matthew and Luke also drew from an additional hypothetical document, called Q.
Broadly speaking, the synoptic gospels are similar to John: all are composed in Koine Greek, have a similar length, and were completed within a century of Jesus’ death. They also differ from non-canonical sources, such as the Gospel of Thomas, in that they belong to the ancient genre of biography, collecting not only Jesus’ teachings, but recounting in an orderly way his origins, his ministry and miracles, and his passion and resurrection.
In content and in wording, though, the synoptics diverge widely from John but have a great deal in common with each other. Though each gospel includes some unique material, the majority of Mark and roughly half of Matthew and Luke coincide in content, in much the same sequence, often nearly verbatim. This common material is termed the triple tradition.
The triple tradition
The triple tradition, the material included by all three synoptic gospels, includes many stories and teachings:
- John the Baptist
- Baptism and temptation of Jesus
- First disciples of Jesus
- Hometown rejection of Jesus
- Healing of Peter’s mother-in-law, demoniacs, a leper, and a paralytic
- Call of the tax collector
- New Wine into Old Wineskins
- Man with withered Hand
- Commissioning the twelve Apostles
- The Beelzebul controversy
- Teachings on the parable of the strong man, eternal sin, His true relatives, the parable of the sower, the lamp under a bushel, and the parable of the mustard seed
- Calming the storm
- The Gerasene demoniac
- The daughter of Jairus and the bleeding woman
- Feeding the 5000
- Confession of Peter
- The demoniac boy
- The little children
- The rich young man
- Jesus predicts his death
- Blind near Jericho
- Palm Sunday
- Casting out the money changers
- Render unto Caesar
- Woes of the Pharisees
- Second Coming Prophecy
- The Last Supper, passion, crucifixion, and entombment
- The empty tomb and resurrected Jesus
- Great Commission
Furthermore, the triple tradition’s pericopae (passages) tend to be arranged in much the same order in all three gospels. This stands in contrast to the material found in only two of the gospels, which is much more variable in order.
The classification of text as belonging to the triple tradition (or for that matter, double tradition) is not always definitive, depending rather on the degree of similarity demanded. For example, Matthew and Mark report the cursing of the fig tree[Mt 21:18–22][Mk 11:12–24], clearly a single incident, despite some substantial differences of wording and content. Searching Luke, however, we find only the parable of the barren fig tree[Lk 13:6–9], in a different point of the narrative. Some would say that Luke has extensively adapted an element of the triple tradition, while others would regard it as a distinct pericope.
An illustrative example of the three texts in parallel is the healing of the leper:
|Mt 8:2–3||Mk 1:40–42||Lk 5:12–13|
Κύριε, ἐὰν θέλῃς
δύνασαί με καθαρίσαι.
ἐκτείνας τὴν χεῖρα
|Καὶ ἔρχεται πρὸς αὐτὸν
καὶ λέγων αὐτῷ ὅτι,
δύνασαί με καθαρίσαι.
ἐκτείνας τὴν χεῖρα
καὶ λέγει αὐτῷ·
αὐτοῦ ἡ λέπρα,
ἀνὴρ πλήρης λέπρας·
ἰδὼν δὲ τὸν Ἰησοῦν
πεσὼν ἐπὶ πρόσωπον
ἐδεήθη αὐτοῦ λέγων·
Κύριε, ἐὰν θέλῃς
δύνασαί με καθαρίσαι.
ἐκτείνας τὴν χεῖρα
ἡ λέπρα ἀπῆλθεν ἀπ᾿
a leper came
And he stretched out his
|And, calling out to him,
there comes to him a leper
and kneeling and
saying to him:
a man full of leprosy.
But, upon seeing Jesus,
he fell upon his face
Lord, if you wish,
I can be cleansed.
And he stretched out his
More than half the wording in this passage is identical. Just as interesting, though, is that each gospel includes words absent in the other two and omits something included by the other two.
Relation to Mark
It has been observed that the triple tradition itself constitutes a complete gospel quite similar to the shortest gospel, Mark.
Mark, unlike Matthew and Luke, adds little to the triple tradition. Pericopae unique to Mark are scarce, notably two healings involving saliva[Mk 7:33–36; 8:22–26] and the naked runaway.[Mk 14:51–52] Mark’s additions within the triple tradition tend to be explanatory elaborations (e.g., “the stone was rolled back, for it was very large“[Mk 16:4]) or Aramaisms (e.g., “Talitha kum!”[Mk 5:41]). The pericopae Mark shares with only Luke are also quite few: the Capernaum exorcism[Mk 1:23–28][Lk 4:33–37] and departure from Capernaum,[Mk 1:35–38][Lk 4:42–43] the strange exorcist,[Mk 9:38–41][Lk 9:49–50] and the widow’s mites.[Mk 12:41–44][Lk 21:1–4] A greater number, but still not many, are shared with only Matthew, most notably the so-called “Great Omission” from Luke of Mk 6:45–8:26.
Most scholars take these observations as a strong clue to the literary relationship among the synoptics and Mark’s special place in that relationship. The hypothesis favored by most experts is Marcan priority, that Mark was composed first and that Matthew and Luke each used Mark and incorporated most of it, with adaptations, into their own gospels. A leading alternative hypothesis is Marcan posteriority, that Mark was formed primarily by extracting what Matthew and Luke shared in common.
The double tradition
An extensive set of material—some two hundred verses or roughly half the length of the triple tradition—are the pericopae shared between Matthew and Luke but absent in Mark. This is termed the double tradition. Parables and other sayings predominate in the double tradition, but it also includes narrative elements:
- Preaching of John the Baptist
- Temptation of Jesus (which Mark summarizes in two verses)
- The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew) or Plain (Luke)
- The Centurion’s servant
- Messengers from John the Baptist
- Woes to the unrepentant cities
- Jesus thanks his Father
- Return of the unclean spirit
- Parables of the leaven, the lost sheep, the great banquet, the talents, and the faithful servant
- Discourse against the scribes and Pharisees
- Lament over Jerusalem
Unlike triple-tradition material, double-tradition material is very differently arranged in the two gospels. Matthew’s lengthy Sermon on the Mount, for example, is paralleled by Luke’s shorter Sermon on the Plain, with the remainder of its content scattered throughout Luke. This is consistent with the general pattern of Matthew collecting sayings into large blocks, while Luke does the opposite and intersperses them with narrative.
Besides the double-tradition proper, Matthew and Luke often agree against Mark within the triple tradition to varying extents, sometimes including several additional verses, sometimes differing by a single word. These are termed the major and minor agreements (the distinction is imprecise). One example is in the passion narrative, where Mark has simply, “Prophesy!”[Mk 14:65]while Matthew and Luke both add, “Who is it that struck you?”[Mt 26:68][Lk 22:64]
The double-tradition’s origin, with its major and minor agreements, is a key facet of the synoptic problem. The simplest hypothesis is that Luke relied on Matthew’s work or vice versa. But many experts, on various grounds, maintain that neither Matthew nor Luke used the other’s work. If this is the case, they must have drawn from some common source, distinct from Mark, that provided the double-tradition material and overlapped with Mark’s content where major agreements occur. This hypothetical document is termed Q, for the German Quelle, meaning “source”.
Special Matthew and Special Luke
Matthew and Luke contain a large amount of material found in no other gospel. These materials are sometimes called Special Matthew or M and Special Luke or L.
Both Special Matthew and Special Luke include distinct opening infancy narratives and distinct post-resurrection conclusions (with Luke continuing the story in his second book Acts). In between, Special Matthew includes mostly parables, while Special Luke includes both parables and healings.
Special Luke is notable for containing a greater concentration of Semitisms than any other gospel material.
Luke gives some indication of how he composed his gospel in his prologue:
Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.[Lk 1:1–4 (NRSV)]
The synoptic problem
The “synoptic problem” is the question of the specific literary relationship among the three synoptic gospels—that is, the question as to the source or sources upon which each synoptic gospel depended when it was written.
The texts of the three synoptic gospels often agree very closely in wording and order, both in quotations and in narration. Most scholars ascribe this to documentary dependence, direct or indirect, meaning the close agreements among synoptic gospels are due to one gospel’s drawing from the text of another, or from some written source that another gospel also drew from.
The synoptic problem hinges on several interrelated points of controversy:
- Priority: Which gospel was written first? (Clearly, where one text draws from another, the source must have been composed first.)
- Successive dependence: Did each of the synoptic gospels draw from each of its predecessors? (If not, clearly the frequent agreements between the two independent gospels against the third must originate elsewhere.)
- Lost written sources: Did any of the gospels draw from some earlier document that has not been preserved (e.g., the hypothetical “Q”, or an earlier edition of another gospel)?
- Oral sources: To what extent did each evangelist draw from personal knowledge, eyewitness accounts, liturgy, or other oral traditions to produce an original written account?
- Translation: Jesus and others quoted in the gospels spoke primarily in Aramaic, but the gospels themselves in their oldest available form are each written in Koine Greek. Who performed the translations, and at what point?
- Redaction: How and why did those who put the gospels in their final form expand, abridge, alter, or rearrange their sources?
Furthermore, some theories try to explain the relation of the synoptic gospels to John; to non-canonical gospels such as Thomas, Peter, and Egerton; to the Didache; and to lost documents such as the Hebrew logia mentioned by Papias, the Jewish–Christian gospels, and the Gospel of Marcion.
This view (when any model of dependence was considered at all) seldom came into question until the late eighteenth century, when Johann Jakob Griesbach published in 1776 a synopsis of the synoptic gospels. Instead of harmonizing them, he displayed their texts side by side, making both similarities and divergences apparent. Griesbach, noticing the special place of Mark in the synopsis, hypothesized Marcan posteriority and advanced (as Henry Owen had a few years earlier) the two-gospel hypothesis (Matthew–Luke).
In the nineteenth century, researchers applied the tools of literary criticism to the synoptic problem in earnest, especially in German scholarship. Early work revolved around a hypothetical proto-gospel (Ur-Gospel), possibly in Aramaic, underlying the synoptics. From this line of inquiry, however, a consensus emerged that Mark itself served as the principal source for the other two gospels—Marcan priority.
In a theory first proposed by Christian Hermann Weisse in 1838, the double tradition was explained by Matthew and Luke independently using two sources—thus, the two-source (Mark-Q) theory—which supplemented Mark with another hypothetical source consisting mostly of sayings. This additional source was at first seen as the logia (sayings) spoken of by Papias and thus called “Λ”, but later it became more generally known as “Q”, from the German Quelle, meaning source. This two-source theory eventually won wide acceptance and was seldom questioned until the late twentieth century; most scholars simply took this new orthodoxy for granted and directed their efforts toward Q itself, and this is still largely the case.
The theory is also well known in a more elaborate form set forth by Burnett Hillman Streeter in 1924, which additionally hypothesized written sources “M” and “L” (for “Special Matthew” and “Special Luke” respectively)—hence the influential four-document hypothesis. This exemplifies the prevailing scholarship of the time, which saw the canonical gospels as late products, dating from well into the second century, composed by unsophisticated cut-and-paste redactors out of a progression of written sources, and derived in turn from oral traditions and from folklore that had evolved in various communities.More recently,[when?] however, as this view has gradually fallen into disfavor, so too has the centrality of documentary interdependence and hypothetical documentary sources as an explanation for all aspects of the synoptic problem.
In recent decades, weaknesses of the two-source theory have been more widely recognized,[by whom?] and debate has reignited. Many have independently argued that Luke did make some use of Matthew after all—the Common Sayings Source. British scholars went further and dispensed with Q entirely, ascribing the double tradition to Luke’s direct use of Matthew—the Farrer hypothesis of 1955. New attention is also being given[by whom?] to the Wilke hypothesis of 1838 which, like Farrer, dispenses with Q but ascribes the double tradition to Matthew’s direct use of Luke. Meanwhile, the Augustinian hypothesis has also made a comeback, especially in American scholarship. The Jerusalem school hypothesis has also attracted fresh advocates, as has the Independence hypothesis, which denies documentary relationships altogether.
On this collapse of consensus, Wenham observed: “I found myself in the Synoptic Problem Seminar of the Society for New Testament Studies, whose members were in disagreement over every aspect of the subject. When this international group disbanded in 1982 they had sadly to confess that after twelve years’ work they had not reached a common mind on a single issue.”
Nearly every conceivable theory has been advanced as a solution to the synoptic problem. The most notable theories include:
|Most widely accepted theory. Matthew and Luke independently used Q, taken to be a Greek document with sayings and narrative.|
|Double tradition explained entirely by Luke’s use of Matthew.|
|A hybrid of Two-source and Farrer. Q may be limited to sayings, may be in Aramaic, may be also a source for Mark.|
|Each document drew from each of its predecessors, including Logoi (Q+) and Papias’ Exposition.|
|Double tradition explained entirely by Matthew’s use of Luke.|
|Matthew and Luke used Q. Only Matthew used M and only Luke used L.|
|Mark primarily has collected what Matthew and Luke share in common (Marcan posteriority).|
|The oldest known view, still advocated by some. Mark’s special place is neither priority nor posteriority, but as the intermediate between the other two synoptic gospels. Canonical order is based on this view having been assumed (at the time when New Testament Canon was finalized).|
|A Greek anthology (A), translated literally from a Hebrew original, was used by each gospel. Luke also drew from an earlier lost gospel, a reconstruction (R) of the life of Jesus reconciling the anthology with yet another narrative work. Matthew has not used Luke directly.|
|None||Multi‑source||Each gospel drew from a different combination of hypothetical earlier documents.|
|Proto‑gospel||The gospels each independently derive from a common proto-gospel (Ur-Gospel), possibly in Hebrew or Aramaic.|
|Independence||Each gospel is an independent and original composition based upon oral history.|
- “synoptic”. Oxford English Dictionary (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press. September 2005. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.) Harper, Douglas. “synoptic”. Online Etymology Dictionary.Harper, Douglas. “synopsis”. Online Etymology Dictionary.Harper, Douglas. “optic”. Online Etymology Dictionary.σύν, ὄπτός, ὀπτικός, ὄψις, συνοπτικός, σύνοψις. Liddell, Henry George; Scott, Robert; A Greek–English Lexicon at the Perseus Project.
- Goodacre, Mark (2001). The Synoptic Problem: A Way Through the Maze. p. 16. ISBN0567080560.
- Goodacre (2001), p. 32.
- Goodacre (2001), pp. 20–21.
- Bauckham, Richard (2006). Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony. p. 220. ISBN0802831621.
- Perkins, Pheme (2009). Introduction to the Synoptic Gospels. pp. 2–11. ISBN0802865534.
- Goodacre (2001), p. 38.
- Neville, David (2002). Mark’s Gospel – Prior Or Posterior?: A Reappraisal of the Phenomenon of Order. ISBN1841272655.
- Smith, Ben C. (2009). “The healing of a leper”. TextExcavation. Retrieved 2013-11-24.
- Stein, Robert H. (1992). Luke: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture. pp. 29–30. ISBN0805401245.
- Kloppenborg, John S. (2000). Excavating Q: The History and Setting of the Sayings Gospel. pp. 20–28. ISBN1451411553.
- Goodacre (2001), p. 81.
- Mt 3:7–10 & Lk 3:7–9. Text from 1894 Scrivener New Testament.
- Goodacre (2001), pp. 39 ff.
- Goodacre (2001), pp. 40–41, 151–52.
- Goodacre (2001), pp. 124–26.
- Goodacre (2001), pp. 148–51.
- Goodacre, Mark (2007-11-14). “Mark-Q Overlaps IV: Back to the Continuum”. NT Blog. Retrieved 2013-11-24.
- Goodacre (2001), pp. 145–46.
- Goodacre (2001), p. 108.
- Edwards, James R. (2009). The Hebrew Gospel and the Development of the Synoptic Tradition. pp. 141–48. ISBN0802862349.
- Bauckham (2006), pp. 65–66.
- Alexander, Loveday (2005). The Preface to Luke’s Gospel. ISBN0521018811.
- Hengel, Martin (2000). The four Gospels and the one Gospel of Jesus Christ: an investigation of the collection and origin of the Canonical Gospels. pp. 34–115. ISBN1563383004.
- Dungan, David L. (1999). A history of the synoptic problem: the canon, the text, the composition and the interpretation of the Gospels. pp. 112–44. ISBN0385471920.
- Owen, Henry (1764). Observations on the Four Gospels, tending chiefly to ascertain the time of their Publication, and to illustrate the form and manner of their Composition. London: T. Payne. Retrieved 2018-10-13.
- Lührmann, Dieter (1995). “Q: Sayings of Jesus or Logia?”. In Piper, Ronald Allen. The Gospel Behind the Gospels: Current Studies on Q. pp. 97–102. ISBN9004097376.
- Goodacre (2001), pp. 160–61.
- Farrer, A. M. (1955). “On Dispensing With Q”. In Nineham, D. E. Studies in the Gospels: Essays in Memory of R. H. Lightfoot. Oxford: Blackwell. pp. 55–88. Retrieved 2018-10-13.
The literary history of the Gospels will turn out to be a simpler matter than we had supposed. St. Matthew will be seen to be an amplified version of St. Mark, based on a decade of habitual preaching, and incorporating oral material, but presupposing no other literary source beside St. Mark himself. St. Luke, in turn, will be found to presuppose St. Matthew and St. Mark, and St. John to presuppose the three others. The whole literary history of the canonical Gospel tradition will be found to be contained in the fourfold canon itself, except in so far as it lies in the Old Testament, the Pseudepigrapha, and the other New Testament writings. […] Once rid of Q, we are rid of a progeny of nameless chimaeras, and free to let St. Matthew write as he is moved.
- Wenham, John (1992). Redating Matthew, Mark, & Luke. p. xxi. ISBN0830817603.
- Carlson (September 2004). “Synoptic Problem”. Hypotyposeis.org. Carlson lists over twenty of the major ones, with citations of the literature.
- Though eponymous and some haphazard structural names are prevalent in the literature, a systematic structural nomenclature is advocated by Carlson and Smith, and these names are also provided.
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