Handout 2: The Synoptic Problem

Get students to draw in the arrows to show in which direction the influence goes in each major model (*note: thanks to Mark Goodacre for catching some typos in the comments)


The word Synoptic comes from the prefix syn (with, together) and optic (from optikos “having to do with sight”).  We refer to Matthew, Mark and Luke as the Synoptic Gospels because they are so much alike and can be easily compared by consulting a  synopsis.  The Synoptic Problem refers to their literary relationship; for all the proposed solutions see Stephen Carlson’s site http://www.hypotyposeis.org/synoptic-problem/2004/09/overview-of-proposed-solutions.html.

a. Griesbach hypothesis/Two gospel theory:  J.J. Griesbach, W. Farmer, B. Orchard

Matthew          Luke


b. Two source hypothesis; H. J. Holtzmann; B. H. Streeter, R.H. Stein, C.M. Tuckett

Mark                 Q (from German Quelle meaning “source”)

Matthew           Luke

c. Markan priority without Q; A. Farrer, M. Goulder, M. Goodacre


Matthew            Luke

d. Augustinian Hypothesis; B.C. Butler, J. Wenham


Mark             Luke

 There Must be Some Literary Relationship

  • So when you see the desolating sacrilege standing in the holy place, as was spoken of by the prophet Daniel (let the reader understand) (Matthew 24:15)
  • But when you see the desolating sacrilege set up where it ought not to be (let the reader understand) (Mark 13:14)
  • ‘When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near’ (Luke 21:20)

Which Gospel has the Earliest Version?

Example 1:

  • And he did not do many deeds of power there, because of their unbelief. (Matthew 13.58)
  • And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.  And he was amazed at their unbelief. (Mark 6:5-6)

Example 2:

  • “Lord, save us! We are perishing!” (Matt 8.26); “Master, Master, we are perishing!” (Luke 8.24)
  • “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” (Mark 4.38)

Example 3:

  • ‘Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.’ (Matthew 16.28)
  • And he said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.’ (Mark 9.1)
  • But truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God.’ (Luke 9:27)

Example 4:

  • Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness… (Matthew 4:1; cf. Luke 4:1-2)
  • The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness (Mark 1:12)

Example 5:

  • “Why do you ask me about what is good? One there is who is good.” (Matt 19:17)
  • “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” (Mark 10:18; cf. Luke 18:19)

Example 6:

  • A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, ‘If you choose, you can make me clean.’ Moved with anger [textual variant: compassion], Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I do chose. Be made clean!’ (Mark 1.40-42)
  • …and there was a leper who came to him and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, if you chose, you can make me clean.’ He stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’  (Matthew 8.2-3)
  • When he saw Jesus, he bowed with his face to the ground and begged him, ‘Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.’ Then Jesus stretched out his hand, touched him, and said, ‘I do choose. Be made clean.’ (Luke 5.12-13).

Example 7 (Matthew and Luke have a parallel to Mark 2:28 but not Mark 2:27 – what do you think might be the explanation?)

  • Then he said to them, ‘The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath; [28] so the son of man is lord even of the Sabbath.’ (Mark 2.27-28; cf. Matt 12.8; Lk 6.5)

Example 8 (the following passages in Mark are not in Matthew and Luke)?

  • When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind.’ (Mark 3.19-21)
  • He took the blind man by the hand… and when he had put saliva on his eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked them, ‘Can you see anything?’ And the man looked up and said, ‘I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.’ Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he looked intently and his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. (Mk 8.22-25)
  • A certain young man was following him, wearing nothing but a linen cloth. They caught hold of him, but he left the linen cloth and ran off naked. (Mk 14:51-2)

Double Tradition in Matthew/Luke not in Mark

Which version of these passages do you think is the earliest version?  Do you think that Luke is using Matthew (or vice-versa) or are they both drawing on a common source labelled as Q (or possibly a variety of written or oral sources)?

Example 1:

  • “You brood of vipers!  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?  Bear fruit worthy of repentance.  Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.  Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Matthew 3.7-10 and Luke 3.7-9 almost verbatim)

Example 2:

  • “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3)
  • “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” (Luke 6:20)

Example 3:

  • “But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” (Matthew 12:28)
  • “But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” (Luke 11:20)

Example 4:

  • “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!  For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: Justice and mercy and faith.” (Matthew 23:23)
  • “But woe to you Pharisees!  For you tithe mint and rue and herbs of all kinds, and neglect justice and the love of God.” (Luke 11:42)
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8 Responses to Handout 2: The Synoptic Problem

  1. Thanks for sharing. For (c) and (d), it may be to do with the blog formatting, but it would be difficult to draw all the arrows, wouldn’t it, with the three Synoptics side by side? You’d need something like your (a) and (b) with at least one of the Gospels (probably Luke) dropping down a line.

  2. Couple of typos: “to show to show”; “Holzmann”; “Do you think that Luke using Matthew . . “: *is

    Example 3 is missing the Lucan parallel.

    Example 4: tough if you are hoping your students will say that Mark is earlier given that this is so-called Mark-Q overlap and so for Q theorists, the Matthew / Luke version may be earlier. (Perhaps this is what you hope, but I’m guessing not).

    Example 7: “this verse” not in Matthew and Luke? Might this be misleading — v. 27 not but v. 28 is.

    • Mike K. says:

      Thanks Mark for the good eye. I will edit some of these in the post and leave a note crediting you in the comments. Good point about Example 4: I have just used it to make a point about how Matthew/Luke clean up Mark’s style, but I wasn’t even thinking about the issue of Mark-Q overlap.

      • Mike K. says:

        P.S. as I have thought more about it, I kind of like how example 4 has a few different options for the students to take. It may be a good way to point out that on the Farrer Hypothesis Mark would clearly be the earlier version, while on the Two-Source Hypothesis it may not be so clear

  3. Ron Price says:

    In the Double Tradition according to my analysis, your examples 1 & 3 are explained as Luke using Matthew, and your examples 2 & 4 are explained as both drawing on a common source. As you haven’t included the radical Three-Source Theory in your shortlist of synoptic theories (but you do include the widely discredited Griesbach and Augustinian theories), I don’t suppose this 2-2 split is even considered. Unfortunately most scholars make do with a synoptic theory they know to be unsatisfactory in some areas. The whole solution to the synoptic problem, together with the true nature of the early sayings source, will never come to light while so few challenge the simplistic assumption that there was only one source behind the Double Tradition.

    • Mike K. says:

      Thanks Ron. You have to keep in mind that this is an introductory handout to first year students to the Synoptic Problem, so it introduces them to the three dominant theories (2SH, Farrer, Griesbach) and Augustinian since that was dominant historically (and the order of the NT). I am firmly convinced by Markan Priority but everything else is open game for me. I am actually quite open to greater complexity than the two Source Hypothesis allows and, in addition to your view, there is the view of Maurice Casey and his students (e.g., “double tradition” is a variety of Greek and Aramaic sources and allows that Luke used Matthew at times), Robert Gundry (seems to accept “Q” but allows that Luke used Matthew at times) or Dennis Macdonald (accepts Luke knew Matthew but reconstructs a Q+ based on other criteria such as alternativing primitivity). In fact, by providing Stephen Carlson’s link above, I draw students attention to the variety of solutions to the Synoptic Problem.

  4. […] Synoptic Problem has come up in comments in my last two posts, so I wanted to address a few online sources.  First, […]

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