Synoptic Gospels

The gospels of MatthewMark, 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 (synopticus) comes via Latin from the Greek σύνοψις, synopsis, i.e. “(a) seeing altogether, 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.


Common features

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 4 Evangelists

The 4 Evangelists

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
  • Feeding the 5000
  • The daughter of Jairus and the bleeding woman
  • Confession of Peter
  • Transfiguration
  • 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
Correlations of text in the Synoptic gospels

Over three-quarters of Mark’s content is found in both Matthew and Luke, and nearly all of Mark is found in at least one of the other two synoptic gospels. Additionally, Matthew and Luke have material in common that is not found in Mark.

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
Καὶ ἰδοὺ,
αὐτῷ λέγων·
Κύριε, ἐὰν θέλῃς
δύνασαί με καθαρίσαι.
ἐκτείνας τὴν χεῖρα
ἥψατο αὐτοῦ
Θέλω, καθαρίσθητι·
καὶ εὐθέωςἐκαθαρίσθη
αὐτοῦ ἡ λέπρα.
Καὶ ἔρχεται πρὸς αὐτὸν
παρακαλῶν αὐτὸν
καὶ γονυπετῶν
καὶ λέγων αὐτῷ ὅτι,
Ἐὰν θέλῃς
δύνασαί με καθαρίσαι.
καὶ σπλαγχνισθεὶς
ἐκτείνας τὴν χεῖρα
αὐτοῦ ἥψατο
καὶ λέγει αὐτῷ·
Θέλω, καθαρίσθητι·
καὶ εὐθὺς
ἀπῆλθεν ἀπ᾿
αὐτοῦ ἡ λέπρα,
καὶ ἐκαθαρίσθη.
Καὶ ἰδοὺ,
ἀνὴρ πλήρης λέπρας·
ἰδὼν δὲ τὸν Ἰησοῦν
πεσὼν ἐπὶ πρόσωπον
ἐδεήθη αὐτοῦ λέγων·
Κύριε, ἐὰν θέλῃς
δύνασαί με καθαρίσαι.
ἐκτείνας τὴν χεῖρα
ἥψατο αὐτοῦ
Θέλω, καθαρίσθητι·
καὶ εὐθέωςἡ λέπρα ἀπῆλθεν ἀπ᾿
And behold,
a leper came and worships him, saying:
Lord, if you wish,
I can be cleansed.And he stretched out his
hand and touched him,
I wish it; be cleansed.
And immediately
his leprosywas cleansed.
And, calling out to him,
there comes to him a leper and kneeling and saying to him:
If you wish,
I can be cleansed.
And, moved with compassion,
he stretched out his
hand and touched him
and says to him:
I wish it; be cleansed.
And immediately
the leprosy
left him,
and he was cleansed.
And behold,
a man full of leprosy.
But, upon seeing Jesus,
he fell upon his face
and requested
him, saying:
Lord, if you wish,
I can be cleansed.And he stretched out his
hand and touched him,
I wish it; be cleansed.
And immediately
the leprosy
left him.

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. Pericopæ 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.


Ancient sources virtually unanimously ascribe the synoptic gospels to the apostle Matthew, to Peter’s interpreter Mark, and to Paul’s companion Luke – hence their respective canonical names. A remark by Augustine of Hippo at the beginning of the fifth century presents the gospels as composed in their canonical order (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John), with each evangelist thoughtfully building upon and supplementing the work of his predecessors—the Augustinian hypothesis (Matthew–Mark).

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, 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, 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 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:

Notable synoptic theories
Priority Theory Diagram Notes
The Two-source (Mark-Q) theory, proposed as a solution to the synoptic problem. Most widely accepted theory. Matthew and Luke independently used Q, taken to be a Greek document with sayings and narrative.
The Farrer (Mark-Matthew) theory, proposed as a solution to the synoptic problem. Double tradition explained entirely by Luke’s use of Matthew.
Three-source (Mark-Q/Matthew) theory. "The arrows indicate information flow. As with the two-source hypothesis, supporters of the three-source hypothesis may or may not posit that Mark had access to the sayings collection." (w:Three-source hypothesis) A hybrid of Two-source and Farrer. Q may be limited to sayings, may be in Aramaic, and may also be a source for Mark.
The Wilke (Mark-Luke) theory, proposed as a solution to the synoptic problem. Double tradition explained entirely by Matthew’s use of Luke.
The Four-source (Mark-Q) theory, proposed as a solution to the synoptic problem. Matthew and Luke used Q. Only Matthew used M and only Luke used L.
The Two-gospel (Griesbach or Matthew-Luke) theory, proposed as a solution to the synoptic problem. Mark primarily has collected what Matthew and Luke share in common (Marcan posteriority).
The Augustinian (Matthew-Mark) theory, proposed as a solution to the synoptic problem. 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).
Jerusalem school
The Jerusalem school theory, proposed as a solution to the synoptic problem. 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.
Marcion priority Marcion hypothesis Matthias Klinghardt's hypothesis of a chronological priority of the gospel of Marcion applied to the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Marc, Luke). Reproduced from a diagram from Klinghardt, Matthias, Das älteste Evangelium und die Entstehung der kanonischen Evangelien, 2015, ch. IV, p. 191. Version with the gospel of John here. All gospels directly used the gospel of Marcion as their source, and have been influenced heavily by it.
Others or none Multi‑source Simplified diagram of the core premise in most variants of the Multi-source theory, proposed as a solution to the synoptic problem. Each gospel drew from a different combination of hypothetical earlier documents.
Proto‑gospel Simplified diagram of the core premise in most variants of the Multi-source theory, proposed as a solution to the synoptic problem. The gospels each independently derive from a common proto-gospel (Ur-Gospel), possibly in Hebrew or Aramaic.
The Q+/Papias (Mark/Q-Matthew/Papias) theory, proposed as a solution to the synoptic problem. Each document drew from each of its predecessors, including Logoi (Q+) and Papias’ Exposition.
Independence The Independence theory, proposed as a solution to the synoptic problem. Each gospel is an independent and original composition based upon oral history.

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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