Introducing the Synoptic Problem to the Person in the Pews

June 9, 2015

At the blog Bible Study and the Christian Life, I have started a series on the Synoptic Problem (the literary relationship of Matthew, Mark and Luke as well as their sources) primarily for a lay audience. Instead of going through every technical argument for/against Markan priority and the debate over the existence of Q, my purpose is to give a broad overview of the subject with links to do further research and examples that will show how it might be relevant to their everyday Bible reading. Please let me know if my explanations are clear for those who may have no prior knowledge of the subject and if they are pastorally sensitive to those who may have a difficult time accepting that one Gospel writer would edit another.

  • Post 1: Introducing why there must be a literary connection between the Synoptic Gospels.
  • Post 2: An overview of the three major theories.
  • Post 3: A specific example of triple tradition, double tradition and unique material in the account of John’s baptism of Jesus.
  • Post 4: A specific example of double tradition in the beatitudes.
  • Post 5: A discussion of the relevance of the Synoptic Problem to historical, literary and theologically minded readers.

The Case For and Against Q

February 20, 2014

In the Two Source Theory, Matthew and Luke relied on Mark’s narrative (i.e. triple tradition) and a hypothetical source called “Q” from Quelle (source) to account for the shared non-Markan sayings in Matthew/Luke (i.e. double tradition).  Scholars posited a hypothetical source, rather than assume that Luke just took over the sayings from Matthew or vice-versa, and gave a number of reasons for the independence of Matthew and Luke.  Since a number of passages in the double tradition are near verbatim, it seems unlikely that Matthew and Luke drew independently on oral tradition alone rather than a written source(s).  The second most popular theory to account for the Synoptic Problem, the Farrer Theory, argues that Luke used Matthew and eliminates the need for Q.  Here are some arguments for and against the existence of Q.

Lack of Matthew’s Additions to Mark

If Luke knows both Mark and Matthew, we would expect Luke to be familiar with Matthew’s redaction of Mark.  John Kloppenborg (“On Dispensing with Q? Goodacre on the Relation of Luke to Matthew” NTS 49 [2003]: 210-36) argues that it would be odd for Luke to not reproduce the following additions to Mark (p. 219):

  • Matt 3:14-15 – the dialogue between Jesus and John the Baptist.
  • Matt 12:5-7 – additional justifications for Jesus’ Sabbath practices including that Jesus is greater than the Temple and the Hosea proof-text about desiring mercy rather than sacrifice
  • Matt 13:14-17 – the Isaiah proof-text to explain why the crowd was unable to grasp the parables.  One could add that Luke frequently does not reproduce the scriptural proof-texts by which Matthew legitimates Mark’s story
  • Matt 14:28-31 – Peter walks on water [BUT Mark’s whole episode is cut out in Luke’s great omission]
  • Matt 16:16-19 – blessing Peter for his divinely given insight into Jesus’ identity and giving him the keys of the kingdom and power to bind/loose on earth as it is in heaven
  • Matt 19:19b – Matthew’s exception to the divorce prohibition [BUT Luke omits Mark’s section on divorce]
  • Matt 27:19, 24 – the dream of Pilate’s wife to having nothing to do with an innocent man and Pilate washing his hands of the guilt for the crucifixion of Jesus

Farrer theorists might respond that this objection is framed according to the Two Source Hypothesis.  That is, not only does Luke follow Matthew in the innovation of re-writing Mark with the addition of birth/Easter narratives and expanded teaching material, but Luke does reproduce some of Matthew’s additions to Mark in the minor agreements (e.g., ‘who hit you’ in Matt 26:68/Luke 22:64 against Mark 14:65) and major agreements/so-called Mark-Q overlaps (e.g., temptations in Matt 4:1-11/Luke 4:1-13 against Mark 1:12-13) against Mark.  Second, if Luke knew Mark for a long time before coming into contact with Matthew, perhaps Luke was hesitant to include Matthew’s redactional changes to Mark’s text that had long been used by the community.  Third, Mark Goodacre invokes Austin Farrer’s notion of “Luke pleasing” to explain why Luke takes over some but not many of Matthew’s additions to the triple tradition.  Sometimes we can make educated guesses about why Luke did not reproduce something from Matthew while other times we may be at a loss on Luke’s reasons, though the same applies to discerning the cause for Luke’s omissions from Mark.  Lets take an example:  Mark Goodacre (Case Against Q, p. 50) points out that there is a very good reason to omit the dialogue between Jesus and the Baptist in Luke:  Luke has imprisoned John before the baptism (Luke 3:20)!  However, Kloppenborg (pp. 219-20) retorts that this is Luke’s solution to get over the embarrassment that Jesus underwent John’s baptism for the forgiveness of sins, an expedient that would not have been necessary if he knew Matthew’s solution to have the Baptist protest how he needs to be baptized by Jesus and Jesus respond that his baptism is necessary to fulfill all righteousness.   The question is whether Luke’s omissions can be explained by fidelity to Mark’s text and/or for redactional reasons or better accounted for by Luke’s ignorance of Matthew.

Lack of “M” material

In addition to Q, B.H. Streeter argued that the special material found only in Matthew and Luke went back to distinct sources (“M” and “L”).  Today, most scholars view Matthew and Luke drawing on a diversity of oral or written traditions for their special material rather than treating “M” and “L” as distinct sources (but see Kim Paffenroth, The Story of Jesus According to L; RBL review).  J. Andrew Doole’s What Was Mark for Matthew distinguishes “M” traditions loosely connected to Mark’s narrative and others that appear to embellish upon Mark itself (33-4).  His list of the latter (e.g., priests work on the Sabbath, Peter walks on water, Peter given the keys to the kingdom, eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven, become as children, the innocence of Pilate, other narrative details) belong above under additions to the triple tradition, though Doole sees pre-Matthean oral tradents rather than the conservative Matthew as embellishing Mark, but here are examples of the former:

  • Nativity (genealogy, Joseph’s dream, Immanuel, star and magi, slaughter in Bethlehem and flight to Egypt)  (Matt 1-2)
  • The healing of two blind persons and a mute one (9:27-34)
  • The scribe trained for the kingdom of heaven brings out new treasure along with the old (13:51-52)
  • Paying the Temple Tax with a coin from a fishes mouth (17:24-27)
  • Judas’ death by hanging (27:3-10) (*note: Acts 1:17-20 describes Judas’ death very differently)
  • The earthquake and the resurrection of the saints (27:51b-53)
  • The Great Commission (28:16-20)
  •  Parables – hidden treasure, fine pearl, good and bad fish, 2 sons, maidens’ lamps, sheep & goats (13:44-50; 21:28-31; 25:1-13, 31-40) (*note: other famous parables are the unmerciful servant in 18:23-35 or workers in the vineyard in 20:1-16)
  • Logia – uprooted plants, eschatological predictions (Matt 15:13; 24:10-12, 26) (*note: 24:10-12, 26 does not seem to me loosely connected but other examples might be the yoke saying of 11:28-30 or church rules of 18:15-20)

An obvious retort to why more “M” is not Luke is, if it was included, it would not be “M” since it would be part of the double tradition in Matthew/Luke and Two Source theorists would classify it as “Q” or Farrer theorists what Luke took from Matthew.  Yet Two Source Theorists deem many “M” traditions to nicely align with Luke’s theology (Gentiles, grace/forgiveness, poverty), and ask why Luke would exclude these traditions.  Farrer theorists argue “M” was Luke -displeasing: “Must we therefore distinguish in Matthew two elements, M and Q, M rabbinic in tone, Q popular and nonrabbinic, of which St. Luke knew Q, but not M? Will it not do as well to say that St. Luke let alone what he did not care for, viz., the rabbinic parts of Matthew?” (Austin Farrer, “On Dispensing with Q“, 58).  But this may not accurately characterize “L” with its birth narratives in the style of the Septuagint, scriptural proof-texts in the Nazarene synagogue episode, additional halakhic arguments for Sabbath practices, and so on (cf. the Jerusalem Decree in Acts).  Did Luke have other reasons to pass over M?  Mark Goodacre (Case Against Q) observes that Luke reproduces much of Matthew’s birth narrative (Virgin Birth, Mary/Joseph, Bethlehem), replaces the gloom of Herod’s atrocity with the joy of Elizabeth and Mary or rejoicing angels and shepherds, and eliminates the Magi due to disliking magicians.  Francis Watson (Gospel Writing, 131-6, 141-3) emphasizes Luke’s account as a reaction to Matthew:  the annunciation is to Mary as the main subject rather than Joseph, Luke’s wording echoes Matthew, and Luke’s geneology rejects descent through Solomon’s line (cf. Jer 22:28-30; 36:30-1).  Can one find redactional reasons for Luke excluding M, or revising it (Goodacre notes that Luke 24:46-9 adapts the Great Commission; Watson argues the Prodigal Son in Luke 15:11-32 reworks the two sons in Matthew 21:28-31), or are the omissions better accounted for by Luke’s ignorance of Matthew?

Lack of Agreement When Departing From Mark’s Order

Start with a Synopsis and look at when Matthew or Luke depart from Mark’s order.  Matthew switches the healing of the leper (Mt 8:14-7; Mk 1:40-5) and Peter’s mother-in-law (Mt 8:14-7; Mk 1:29-34), relocates the calming of the storm followed by the demoniacs (doubled) (Mt 8:23-34; Mk 4:36-5:20) and the healing of Jairus’ daughter as well as hemorrhaging woman (Mt 9:18-26; Mk 5:22-43), has Jesus designate the “Twelve” later in the narrative (Mt 10:2-4; Mk 3:16-9), and moves back predictions of persecution (Mt 10:17-23; Mk 13:9-13).  Luke moves John’s imprisonment (Lk 3:19-20; Mk 6:17-8) and the Nazarene synagogue (Lk 4:16-30; Mk 6:1-6) and the woman anointing Jesus (Lk 7:36-50; Mk 14:3-9) forward in the narrative, moves the call of the first disciples (Lk 5:1-11; Mk 1:16-20) and Jesus’ true family (Lk 8:19-21; Mk 3:31-5) later in the narrative, switches the crowds following Jesus and the designation of the Twelve (Lk 6:12-19; Mk 3:7-19), and puts the saying about Jesus as one who serves at the Last Supper (Lk 22:24-7; Mk 10:45).

The fact that Matthew and Luke rarely agree when departing from Mark’s order is explained on the Two Source Theory as due to their independent use of Mark.  How might Farrer theorists respond?  By not taking over Matthew’s alterations, Luke may have wanted to restore Mark’s order as his primary source.  Yet Luke also straightens out weak spots in Mark’s order:  John’s imprisonment gets around the problem of John baptizing Jesus, Luke’s Nazarene synagogue is Jesus’ inaugural proclamation that sets the tone (e.g., foreshadowing the Gentile mission), or the call of the disciples is left until after some of the ministry so it is not so random to drop everything to follow a yet-unknown teacher.  In Michael Goulder’s Luke: A New Paradigm, he argues that Luke’s prologue on past attempts “to arrange in sequence” (anataxasthai) a narrative and the author’s goal to write an “orderly” account means that Luke wanted to reconcile chronological disputes between Mark and Matthew (199-200).  Mark Goodacre (Case Against Q) argues that Luke knew, preached, and memorized Mark for 20 years before coming into contact with Matthew (51, 89).  He writes, “In this way, Luke stands at a unique moment in Christian origins, a moment when Matthew’s importance is beginning to be felt, but when Mark is still in many ways valued more highly” (90).  But does the attitude towards the sources in the Lukan prologue (and possibly the representation of “John Mark”) and Luke’s liberty to make changes to Mark, including major alterations (cf. Passion Narrative), expansions (e.g., Lk 4:16-30; 7:36-50), and omissions (Mk 6:45-8:27), suggest that Luke had such fidelity to Mark that the author would not go along with Matthew’s relocation of Markan episodes?  Or is Luke’s ignorance of Matthew’s re-arrangements of Mark more likely?

Alternating Primitivity

Sometimes the form of the double tradition seems more primitive in Matthew and other times in Luke.  This makes sense if either Matthew or Luke alternate between sticking closely to Q or adapting the wording/content of the source to their redactional interests, but, if Luke is copying Matthew (or vice-versa), would we expect Luke (or Matthew) to always be secondary?  Michael Goulder (Luke: A New Paradigm) takes the line that Matthew is the creative originator of the non-Markan material and so Luke’s formulation must be secondary, while Mark Goodacre (Case Against Q) is open to oral/written sources so Luke may sometimes know pre-Matthean formulations.  To decide what is a more primitive formulation, John Kloppenborg and Robert A. Derrenbacker, “Self-Contradiction in the IQP? A Reply to Michael Goulder” JBL 120 (2001): 57-76 explain the reasoning behind determining whether Matthew or Luke better approximate Q in select cases even without having Q to double check:

[A] phrase or word should be treated as secondary (that is, not deriving from Q), (a) when it can be shown by reference to Matthew’s treatment of Mark and by reference to editorial or transitional portions of Matthew that Matthew has a tendency to add the phrase or word, and (b) when Luke has no aversion to the phrase or word. (The same logic applies mutatis mutandis to Lukan phrases and words.) (p. 63)

Additionally, they take from text criticism the preference for the shorter or difficult reading, for a scribe is more likely to expand (elaborate, clarify) than abbreviate and solve than create theological tensions, and use a similar rating system to the United Bible Society on the probability of reconstructions (pp. 59-63).  Lets look at examples.

Lord’s Prayer:  is Luke’s shorter version earlier and “debts” or “sins” more primitive?

Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.  Your kingdom come.  Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.  Give us this day our daily bread.  And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.  And do not bring us to a time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one (Matt 6:9-13)

“Father, hallowed be your name.  Your kingdom come.  Give us each day our daily bread.  And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive every one who is indebted to us.  And do not bring us to the time of trial. (Luke 11:2-4)

Beatitudes: did Matthew spiritualize the blessing or Luke abbreviate Matthew’s beatitude out of concern for the poor?

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 5:3)

“Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” (Luke 6:20)

Finger or Spirit:  has Matthew replaced Q’s wording since it is unlikely that Luke would skip a reference to the Spirit given the interest in the Spirit in Luke-Acts or Luke change Matthew to “finger of God” to connect Jesus with Moses (Exod 8:19; 31:18)?

But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. (Matt 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)

The Sender: does Matthew change Q to identify Jesus with wisdom or Luke find Matthew problematic that Jesus sent the prophets of old?  Or Matthew 11:19 has wisdom vindicated by her deeds (done byJesus and/or John?) and Luke 7:35 by her children (Jesus and John?), so is Matthew again altering Q to make the identification with Wisdom explicit or Luke not like Matthew’s wisdom Christology (cf. “M” yoke saying in Matt 11:28-30; cf. Sir. 51:25-6)?

Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will scourge in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of innocent Abel to the blood of Zechari′ah the son of Barachi′ah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. (Matt 23:34-5)

Therefore also the Wisdom of God said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute,’ that the blood of all the prophets, shed from the foundation of the world, may be required of this generation, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechari′ah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary. (Luke 11:49)

Sign of Jonah: did Matthew expand an original Q sign about Jesus’ preaching (cf. Ninevah repented at Jonah’s preaching and the queen of the south traveled far to hear Solomon) into a sign about his death and resurrection or Luke abbreviate Matthew?

For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so will the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. (Matt 13:40)

For as Jonah became a sign to the men of Nin′eveh, so will the Son of man be to this generation. (Luke 11:30)

The Different Order of the Double Tradition

(1) [S]ubsequent to the Temptation story, there is not a single case in which Matthew and Luke agree in inserting the same saying at the same point in the Marcan outline. (2) If then Luke derived this material from Matthew, he must have gone through both Matthew and Mark so as to discriminate with meticulous precision between Marcan and non-Marcan material; (3) he must then have proceeded with the utmost care to tear every little piece of non-Marcan material he desired to use from the context of Mark in which it appeared in Matthew—(4) in spite of the fact that contexts in Matthew are always exceedingly appropriate—(5) in order to re-insert it into a different context of Mark having no special appropriateness. (6) A theory which would make an author capable of such a proceeding would only be tenable if, on other grounds, we had reason to believe he was a crank. (B.H. Streeter, The Four Gospels, 183

Matthew has tidily collected the Q material into great blocks. Luke, we must then suppose, has broken up this tidy arrangement and scattered the Q material without rhyme or reason all over his gospel — a case of unscrambling the egg with a vengeance! (R.H. Fuller, The New Testament in Current Study, 87)

We are not bound to show that what St. Luke did to St. Matthew turned out to be a literary improvement on St. Matthew. All we have to show is that St. Luke’s plan was capable of attracting St. Luke. You do not like what I have done to the garden my predecessor left me. You are welcome to your opinion, but I did what I did because I thought I should prefer the new arrangement. And if you want to enjoy whatever special merit my gardening has, you must forget my predecessor’s ideas and try to appreciate mine. (Austin Farrer “On Dispensing with Q“, 65)

Classically stated, Two Source theorists argue that Matthew integrated Q in Mark’s framework and organized it into five thematic discourses that ended with a statement about “when Jesus had finished these words/parables/teachings” (7:28; 11:1; 13:53; 19:1; 26:1), while Luke separated out Q in two main blocks (6:20-8:3; 9:51-18:15; + 3:1-4:16).  Of course, this is a simplification as Mark Goodacre points out double tradition/Q in Matt 3-4; 8:5-13; 8:19-22; 9:37-8; 11:2-27; 12:22-45; 22:1-10 and Matthew’s five discourses are not all mainly made up of Q (Case Against Q, 82-3).  But on the Farrer Theory, why would Luke 1. detach Matthew’s new material (i.e. Q) from Markan contexts in which Matthew placed it and 2. break up Matthew’s arrangement of the material with the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 6-8) as a test case.  Here are examples of #1:

Matt 10:10b, 12-16/Luke 10:3-11 – the mission discourse

Matthew has the mission discourse after the commissioning and naming of the Twelve (cf. Mark 6:7, 3:16-19 moved back) and an “M” tradition restricting their mission to the lost sheep of Israel.  Matthew conflates the double tradition with Mark’s mission discourse (Mark 6:8-13).   Luke covered the naming of the Twelve in 6:13-16 and has Mark’s mission discourse after the Commission of the Twelve in 9:1-6, so the double tradition passages are located separately after the “L” tradition of the commission of the seventy (Luke 10:1).  Note also how the sayings in Luke 10:2, 13-15/Matt 9:37-8; 11:21-24 are placed around the commission of the seventy in Luke and in separate contexts in Matthew.

Matt 13:16-17/Luke 10:23-24 = blessed for what they see and hear.

Matthew has this statement after the Isaiah proof-text about how the crowd is hardened to not grasp the parables. Luke has it after the double tradition Christological passage about how the Son alone knows and reveals the Father (Luke 10:22/Matt 11:27)

Matt 18:12-13/Luke 15:4-5 = the parable of the lost sheep

Matthew has this after the warning not to lead little ones (disciples?) into sin and to cut off the source of sin (cf. Mark 9:42-7) and “M” tradition about not looking down on little ones because their angels behold the Father.  Luke has the accusation that Jesus eats with sinners to introduce the parable and follows with related L parables (lost coin, lost son).

Matt 19:28/Luke 22:30 = sitting on (twelve) thrones

Matthew’s promise occurs after Mark’s challenging story of the rich person and Peter’s comment that the disciples left everything (Mark 10:17-28).  Luke puts it in the Last Supper where Jesus confers on the disciples a kingdom and may omit “twelve” to not have the betrayer in the list (Luke also relocates the greatest as a servant from Mark 10:42-5a).

Matt 24:26-8, 37-41/Luke 17:23-4, 26-37 = Unexpected Judgment

Matthew inserts this material fittingly within Mark’s eschatological discourse while Luke has a separate discussion with the Pharisees and disciples on the timing of the kingdom and day of the Son of Man.

Farrer theorists note times Luke has Matthean additions (Q) within Markan contexts in the baptism. temptations, and Beelzebub incident.  Matthew’s/Luke’s agree against Mark in setting up the incident after the exorcism of a dumb demon (Matt 12:22/Luke 11:14; cf. Matt 9:32-4), though Matthew has this shortly after Sabbath controversies and Luke after a section on prayer.  The Centurion’s servant takes place shortly after the Sermon (Luke 7:1-10/Matt 8:5-13), despite Matthew placing the Sermon far earlier in Jesus’ career, with only the healing of the Leper  intervening in Matthew (8:1-4; cf. Mark 1:40-5; Luke 5:12-15) (Goodacre, Case Against Q, 91).  Watson argues that Matthew and Luke draw on Mark 3:7-19 to set up the Sermon:  Matthew’s Sermon is after the healing/exorcism ministry to diverse crowds and Jesus is on a mountain (deleted from the naming of the Twelve in Matt 10:2-4) while in Luke Jesus names the Twelve on a mountain and then heals/exorcizes among diverse crowds before the Sermon on the Plain (Gospel Writing, 151-5).  These examples show that Luke may be aware of Matthew’s location of double tradition and yet, if Mark was Luke’s primary source, mostly moved Matthew’s additions out from the original material in Mark.

The next issue is why break up and relocate whole sections of double tradition in Matthew, truncating Matthew’s Sermon (Lk 6:20-49) and scattering parts in Luke 11-16?  Goulder (“Juggernaut“) and Goodacre (Case Against Q, 92-6) insist, on analogy to how Luke 8:4-18 treats Mark 4:1-34 (omits Mk 4:26-9, 33-4, relocates Mk 4:30-2 to Lk  13:18-9) and Luke 9:46-8 treats Mark 9:33-50 (omits Mk 9:43-8, relocates Mk 9:42 to Lk 17:1-2, Mk 9:49-50 to Lk 14:34-5), Luke dislikes long speeches.  Goodacre defends Goulder against criticisms that Luke-Acts has lengthy speeches (e.g., Lk 12:22-53; 21:5-36; Acts 2:14-36; 7:2-53):  many are not much longer than Goulder’s 12-20 verses rule in averaging about 30 verses, Luke tends to not take over wholesale long speeches from sources while the speeches in Acts may be original, and Luke tolerates long speeches when suiting his agenda (e.g., rehearsal of Israel’s history in Acts 7, the difficulty of detaching Mark’s eschatological calendar in Luke 21 so even Matthew, who relocates Mk 13:9-12 in Mt 10:17-22, reproduces the verses in the eschatological discourse).  Kloppenborg (“Dispensing with Q?“, 229-30) responds that Luke 12:1-13:9 is 52 verses of mostly direct discourse with few interjections to address different persons (cf. Lk 14:7-17:11 at a Pharisee’s house).  Whether Farrer proponents make a convincing case that Luke’s rearrangements make redactional sense, see Farrer (“On Dispensing with Q“, 67-84), Goulder (Luke: A New Paradigm), Mark Matson (“Luke’s Rewriting of the Sermon on the Mount“), Goodacre (The Case Against Q, 97-102), or Watson (Gospel Writing, ch 4).  Luke may forge new links: Luke 6:20 beatitudes concentrate on the reversal for the poor/mistreated are supplemented with “L” woes against the well-to-do and continues to counsel the mistreated to love enemies, not retaliate, live by the golden rule, and not judge.  Luke 11 detaches the Lord’s prayer from Matthew’s context of Jewish praxis (alms, fasting) to precede parables about not giving up hope for answered prayer.  Kloppenborg (228-9) wonders why the eyes as a lamp from Matt 6:22-3 (after the evil eye) would be moved to Luke 11:34-6 and Matt 6:24 on God vs Mammon from Matthew’s next verse about material cares to Luke 16:13 by the “L” parable in 16:1-12 of the unjust manager who uses Mammon to his advantage, but Watson sees links (189-90, 209).  Luke takes the lamp on its stand in Mt 5:15 where it was a call to shine for all to see (Mt 5:16) and links it to the eyes as a lamp so like a lamb the eyes reveal ones inner light (lacking in this generation of Lk 11:29-32).  The L parable about faithful vs unfaithful uses of unrighteous Mammon is supplemented by how we ultimately serve God rather than Mammon (cf. Matson, 23-4).  So does Luke locate the double tradition different than Matthew because both independently used Q, with Matthew re-arranging Q into Mark’s framework and organized discourses, or are there reasons for Luke to re-arrange Matthew’s non-Markan material?

The Distinct Profile of Q

For Austin Farrer, “No one reconstruction [of Q], to say the least of it, is overwhelmingly evident, and no proposed reconstruction is very firmly patterned” and “after an exordium so full of dogmatic weight and historical destiny, is it credible that the book should peter out in miscellaneous oracles, and conclude without any account of those events which, to a Christian faith, are supremely significant?” (‘On Dispensing with Q‘, 57, 60).  In contrast, William Arnal summarizes: “Once posited on particular grounds (the patterns of agreement and disagreement in sequence and wording among the synoptic gospels), the Q that has emerged (and even mechanically) from this literary evidence has taken on a shape that is theologically coherent, formally coherent, generically coherent and appropriate, socio-historically plausible, and whose general formal shape and theological orientation (including the theological motifs and formal features the reconstructed Q lacks) has been independently confirmed by the unrelated discovery and publication of the Gospel of Thomas (however one dates or classifies this document” (‘The Trouble with Q‘, 11. n. 17).  Arnal’s statement takes on Farrer theorists and those who propose that some of the double tradition goes back to oral tradition (Dunn, Horsley) or multiple Greek/Aramaic sources (Casey), though even strict defenders of the classic Two Source formulation tend to admit that the reality was more messy than the model of two sources (Mark, Q) used for heuristic purposes.  Yet Q specialists argue that Q has a coherent genre as either a prophetic book (Schult, Sato, Boring) or wisdom collection (Robinson, Kloppenborg, Kirk) and distinct themes (Jesus as Wisdom’s emissary, judgment on an unrepentant generation similar to Sodom, the death of Jesus in line with the rejected prophets according to a Deuteronomistic History).  Here are some Q studies.

For Farrer theorists, “Q” is really the material that Luke was favorably disposed to and took over from Matthew, so it is not a surprise that its themes stand out from the material that Luke did not take over from Matthew (“M”) and some are in accordance with Luke’s interests (e.g., the speeches in Acts where the leaders are condemned for their rejection of the prophets culminating in the death of the Righteous One according to a Deuteronomistic interpretation of history).  Moreover, the surprise that, by isolating the double tradition in Matthew and Luke (as opposed to Mark, Matthew or Luke’s special material), it would form a coherent source in its own right may just be a product of so much intensive scholarly interest in this section of the Synoptic Gospels.

The Parallel with How Other Ancient Writers Used their Sources

Robert Allen Derrenbacker, Ancient Compositional Practices and the Synoptic Problem (PhD thesis; Toronto, 2001), F. Gerald Downing, Doing Things with Words in the First Christian Century, and J. Andrew Doole, What was Mark for Matthew argue that the Two Source Theory better accords with ancient compositional practices.  The ancients avoided complex harmonizations of multiple sources and, if a discrepancy arose between sources, the agreements between them served as the basis for a new account.  Instead they stuck to one major source at a time, though it might be supplemented from their memory or brief notes from other material, or they alternated between sources in whole blocks.   So on this theory, Luke chiefly alternates between blocks on Mark and on Q (6:20-8:3, 9:51-18:14; exception 3-4, 19:11-27).  Matthew is more difficult as it conflates Mark with Q on occasion, but Matthew still keeps much of the Q material in blocks.  This is another reason why the Griesbach hypothesis, which envisions Mark conflating Matthew and Luke, is impractical.  Goulder, who has Luke jumping around over Matthew and moving forwards and then backwards, must explain this impractical procedure.  Interestingly, Watson agreed on the weakness of Goulder “necessitating a complex to-and-fro movement within the Matthean text” and posits that Luke relied on a notebook when first reading through Matthew and drew from his notes in rearranging pieces of Matthew to forge new connections (Gospel Writing, 170-1, 171 n. 27).  John C. Poirier’s “The Roll, the Codex, the Wax Tablet and the Synoptic ProblemJSNT 35 (2012): 3-30 argues Derrenbacker and Downing overestimate the difficulty of handling a scroll in the way Farrer theorists assume when Luke read through Matthew and that wax tablets could allow Luke to experiment with new arrangements in his notes before the final copy.

Minor Agreements

If Matthew and Luke independently used Mark, agreements in their changes Matthew and Luke make to Mark should be coincidental.  Yet there are literally hundreds of minor agreements of Matthew and Luke against Mark; virtually every episode in the triple tradition has them.  Many examples are trivial, but some create an issue for the presumed independence of Luke from Matthew in the Two Source Theory:

  • Jesus is moved with “anger” (or “compassion”) at the request of the leper to make him clean (Mark 1:40-42), but the emotion is omitted in Matt 8:2-3/Luke 5:12-3.
  • The Sabbath is made for humankind in Mark 2:27, but this line is omitted in Matt 12:8/Luke 6:5 as only Jesus as the Son of Man is the Sabbath’s Lord.
  • The disciples given the mystery of the kingdom in Mark 4:11, but the mysteries of the kingdom to know in Matt 13:11/Luke 8:10.
  • Jesus rise in three days in Mark 8:31, but on the third day in Matt 16:21/Luke 9:22.
  • The guards mock Jesus to prophesy in Mark 14:65, even as they fulfill prophecy in their treatment of Jesus, but they specify to prophesy “who hit you” in Matt 26:67-8/Luke 22:64.

The Farrer theorists point out that Luke reproduces Matthew’s changes to Mark.  The strongest attempt to deal with the minor agreements from the Two Source Theory is Frans Neirynck, The Minor Agreements of Matthew and Luke Against Mark with a Cumulative ListAn appeal that Neirynck does not make in the points below, as opposed to other Two Source theorists (Helmut Koester), is that Matthew and Luke knew a proto-Mark different from our Mark.

  1. Common stylistic changes (the obvious need to edit Mark’s awkward grammar, style or Aramaisms)
  2. Common theological changes (coincidentally editing Mark’s theological liabilities in a similar manner)
  3. Influence from oral tradition on the text of Matt/Luke
  4. Later scribal harmonizations of the text of Matt/Luke

Major Agreements or Mark-Q Overlaps

There are times Matthew and Luke agree to a larger extent against Mark.  John Kloppenborg’s Q: the Earliest Gospel has a list on page 34 (Q follows Luke’s references).  Two Source theorists argue that Mark and Q recounted some similar episodes (e.g., the Baptizer, the temptation, the Beelzebub accusation) and sayings (e.g., note the doublet on divorce), so they categorize these examples as Mark-Q overlaps and note that, after Matthew 4:13/Luke 4:16, Matthew and Luke do not use the Q overlapping points in the same context (e.g., missionary discourse, eschatological discourse) or the same way. Goodacre posts here, here, here, here, and here on why this is a weakness for the Two Source Theory and the simpler explanation is that Luke takes over these extended additions to Mark directly from Matthew.

Literary Fatigue

Literary fatigue happens when a writer makes changes to his or her source, but does not carry the changes all the way forward but accidentally reverts back to the source at points, despite the inconsistencies this creates.  Mark Goodacre’s “Fatigue in the SynopticsNTS 44 (1998): 45-58 and The Synoptic Problem: A Way through the Maze pp. 154-6 offers examples where Luke seems to revert back to the way Matthew reports something, overlooking that it no longer makes sense in the new context established by Luke.  But why cannot Luke be making changes to “Q” wording that is better preserved in Matthew and then unintentionally revert back to it?  In that case, we would expect to find other examples where Matthew shows signs of editorial fatigue in reverting back to Q as it is better preserved in Luke after making changes, but Goodacre cannot find any examples to this effect.  Delbert Burkett has attempted a rebuttal to this point in an appendix of his Rethinking the Gospel Sources, Volume 2: The Unity and Plurality of Q (cf. Goodacre’s response to an example of editorial fatigue in Matthew in the comments on his podcast on the subject).  If Goodacre persuades his peers, this may be a smoking gun for Luke’s knowledge of Matthew.

Online Resources On Q

February 11, 2014

To begin the series, here are some online resources about Q.  I have tried to include as many academic links as I can find (in addition to I linked to articles available in full online rather than just articles/books where one can only get a preview) and will try to continue to expand the list as I come across more resources or hear suggestions in the comments.  I do not endorse every link I have posted, but it gives a good idea of the breadth of academic opinion on the subject:

The Synoptic Problem and the Case for/Against Q

The Text of Q as reconstructed from Matthew/Luke (Q verses follow Luke since scholars generally think that Luke sticks closer to Q’s order whereas Matthew integrates it within Markan frameworks)

Theories about Q and Christian Origins

The Synoptic Problem Handout

May 6, 2013


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)

The Synoptic Problem: The Case for Markan Priority

May 7, 2011

When scholars refer to the “Synoptic Problem,” they mean the literary relationship between the first three canonical gospels.  Matthew, Mark, and Luke retell the story of Jesus in a very similar manner (syn =together, opsis = view), whereas the Gospel of John is quite different from the “Synoptic” tradition.  Indeed, there must be some kind of literary relationship since the Synoptic Gospels often agree in order, wording, and even parenthetical asides such as “let the reader understand” (Mark 13:14; Matt 24:14).  To see this literary relationship clearly, the best thing a student of the New Testament can do is grab a Synopsis and compare any single story that appears in all three Gospels (i.e. “triple tradition”).  Or you can compare the predominantly sayings material that Matthew and Luke have in common but is not in Mark (i.e. “double tradition”).

The most common solutions to this tricky puzzle are the Griesbach hypothesis (Matthew and Luke wrote first with Mark as a later abridgement of the two), the Two Source Hypothesis (Mark wrote first and was independently used by Matthew and Luke, while the double tradition goes back to a single Greek document labelled “Q” from the German Quelle or source), and the Farrer or Goulder-Goodacre hypothesis (Mark wrote first and was used by Matthew and Luke, while Luke also used Matthew so there is no need for “Q”).  There are more chaotic approaches to the Synoptic problem that may allow for Luke’s knowledge of Matthew as well as that some of the double tradition may go back to a variety of Greek and Aramaic oral and written sources.  For more in depth treatment, see Stephen Carlson’s excellent site on the Synoptic Problem, including a number of diagrams of potential solutions and an annotated bibliography.  Or Mark Goodacre, who made his introductory textbook The Synoptic Problem: A Way Through the Maze available online, has many useful podcasts on this question.

Most Patristic commentators accepted Matthean priority, which is also first in the order of the Four Gospel Canon, and Augustine’s solution that Mark was a follower and abbreviator of Matthew (De Consensu Evangelistarum 1.3) held sway for roughly 1400 years.  Griesbach supporters point to a comment by Clement of Alexandria (in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 6.14.5) that the Gospels with the genealogies (=Matthew and Luke) came first, though Stephen Carlson has offered an alternative translation (cf. “Clement of Alexandria on the ‘Order’ of the Gospels” NTS 47 [2001]: 118-25 ).  The Griesbach hypothesis is a minority view and is supported online at The Two Gospels Hypothesis Website or Geoff Trowbridge’s summary of William Farmer’s arguments.  I am in agreement with the vast majority of NT scholars, both in the Two Source and Farrer camps, on Markan priority.  The arguments from order (Mark tends to be the middle term as Matthew and Luke rarely agree in wording or order against Mark), length (Mark is the shortest of the three and almost entirely reproduced in Matthew and Luke), style (Matthew/Luke edit and clean up Mark’s awkward grammar or style, omit Aramaic words, etc), and harder readings (Matthew/Luke edit Mark’s statements on Christology, eschatology, the disciples, and so on).  Further, Mark makes an odd summary of Matthew or conflation of Matthew/Luke:  why would Mark cut out the birth narratives, much of the ethical teaching (e.g., Sermon on the Mount or Plains), and the resurrection appearances after Mark 16:8?  Why would Mark add details to individual triple tradition pericopes such as that Jesus’ family had thought he had gone out of his mind (Mark 3.19-21), that Jesus’ initial attempt to heal the blind man was not fully successful (‘I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.’) (Mark 8:22-25), that the fig tree Jesus cursed for not having any fruit because “it was not the season for figs” (Mark 11:14), that a naked youth fled from the garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:51-52), or references to Jesus’ emotions (Mark 1:41; 3:5)?  It makes sense for Matthew and Luke to insert birth, didactic and resurrection traditions while omitting other potentially embarrassing details in Mark.  Here are examples where Mark seems to be the earlier account:

Example One:

And he did not do many mighty works there, because of their unbelief (Matthew 13.58)

And he could do no mighty work there, except that he laid his hands upon a few sick people and healed them. And he marveled because of their unbelief. (Mark 6.5-6)

Example Two:

“Save, Lord; we are perishing!” (Matt 8.25)

“Teacher, do you not care if we perish?” (Mark 4.38)

“Master, Master, we are perishing!” (Luke 8.24)

Example Three:

‘Truly I say to 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 before they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.’ (Mark 9.1)

Example Four:

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness… (Matthew 4:1; cf. Luke 4:1)

The Spirit immediately drove [from ekballō] him out into the wilderness (Mark 1:12)

Example Five:

“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 Six:

…and behold a leper came to him and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.’ And he stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, ‘I will; be clean!’  (Matthew 8.2-3)

And a leper came to him beseeching him, and kneeling said to him, ‘If you will, you can make me clean.’ Moved with anger [textual variant: compassion; see here for more discussion], Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I will; be clean!’ (Mark 1.40-42)

…when he saw Jesus, he fell on his face and besought him, ‘Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.’ And he stretched out his hand and touched him, and said, ‘I will; be clean.’ (Luke 5.12-13).

Example Seven:

But when the crowd had been put outside, he went in and took her by the hand, and the girl got up. (Matt 9:25)

He took her by the hand and said to her, ‘Talitha cum’, which means, ‘Little girl, get up!’ (Mark 5:41)

But he took her by the hand and called out, ‘Child, get up!’ (Luke 8:54)

*Aramaic words in Mark 3:17; 5:41; 7:11, 34; 14:36; 15:22, 34.

Example Eight

He said to them, ‘Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry?  He entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him or his companions to eat, but only for the priests… [omits Mark 2:27] For the Son of Man is lord of the sabbath. (Matt 12:3-4, 8.)

And he said to them, ‘Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.’ Then he said to them, ‘The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.’ (Mark 2:25-28)

Jesus answered, ‘Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God and took and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and gave some to his companions?’  [omits Mark 2:27] Then he said to them, ‘The Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.’ (Luke 6:3-5)

Example Nine

But when the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified, saying, ‘It is a ghost!’ And they cried out in fear.  But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’  Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’  He said, ‘Come.’ So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came towards Jesus.  But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’  Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’ When they got into the boat, the wind ceased.  And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’  (Matt 14:26-33)

But when they saw him walking on the lake, they thought it was a ghost and cried out; for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’ Then he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened. (Mark 6:49-52)

[omitted in Luke]

Example Ten

‘So when you see the desolating sacrilege standing in the holy place, as was spoken of by the prophet Daniel (let the reader understand), then those in Judea must flee to the mountains. (Matt 24:15-16)

‘But when you see the desolating sacrilege set up where it ought not to be (let the reader understand), then those in Judea must flee to the mountains. (Mark 13:14)

‘When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near.  Then those in Judea must flee to the mountains (Luke 21:20-21a)

Example Eleven

As they went out, they came upon a man from Cyrene named Simon; they compelled this man to carry his cross (Matt 27:32)

They compelled a passer-by, who was coming in from the country, to carry his cross; it was Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus (Mark 15:21)

As they led him away, they seized a man, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming from the country, and they laid the cross on him, and made him carry it behind Jesus. (Luke 23:26)


There are many more examples that could be given, but these examples suffice to convince me that Markan priority is the most likely scenario.  One sign of the consensus on Markan priority is that, of all the commentaries I listed here, the vast majority start from the premise of Markan priority.  The one significant exception is C.S. Mann’s commentary on Mark for the Anchor Bible series that worked on the basis of the Griesbach hypothesis,  but it has been replaced by Joel Marcus’s two-volume commentaries that is firmly in support of Markan priority (Mark 1-8, pp. 40-47).   A “consensus” can always be overturned, but to defeat a reigning paradigm one must 1. poke enough holes into its main arguments and 2. present enough counter-arguments to suggest another solution is more probable.  I do not see that happening any time soon.