The Synoptic Problem Handout


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  Please fill in the spaces below with arrows to show the direction of influence.

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


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

  • Sometimes the agreement in the wording of the three Gospels is nearly verbatim, so one writer must be copying from another rather than each independently relying on the same oral tradition.
  • 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)
  • “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” (Mark 4.38)
  • “Master, Master, we are perishing!” (Luke 8.24)

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; [verse 28] so the son of man is lord even of the Sabbath.’ (Mark 2.27-28; cf. Matt 12.8; Luke 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)

The Non-Markan Double Tradition in Matthew/Luke

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 sayings source labelled as Q (from German Quelle meaning “source”) or from a variety of oral/written 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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