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The Synoptic Problem FAQ

The information in this page is originally posted in "Synoptic Problem FAQ". The compiler has added the table of content and other features to enhance it. If you want to know all the theories on theSynoptic Problem, please refer to this webiste. See also The Present State Of The Synoptic Problem*
by William R. Farmer
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Table of Content

  1. Basics
2SH 2. The Two Source Hypothesis
2GH 3. The Two Gospel (neo-Griesbach) Hypothesis
FH 4. The Farrer Hypothesis
  5. Other Synoptic Source Theories

AH

 

 

JSH

 

Mt
Lk
Mk
Content
Solution
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largely consists of narrative  material (miracles, healings, and the passion) but also contains some sayings  material.
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mainly saying material (mostly of Jesus, but some by John the Baptist) but includes at least one miracle story (the Centurion's Servant)

  1. Q hypothesis: (Q --> Mt & Lk)
  2. Lukan posteriority hypothesis: (Mt --> Lk)
  3. Matthean posteriority hypothesis: (Lk --> Mt)

 

1. Basics

1.1 What is the synoptic problem?

The synoptic problem is an investigation into the existence and nature of the literary interrelationship among the first three "synoptic" gospels. Matthew, Mark, and Luke are called the synoptic gospels, in contrast with John, because they can readily be arranged in a three-column harmony called a "synopsis." Unlike John, the synoptic gospels share a great number of parallel accounts and parables, arranged in mostly the same order, and told with many of the same words. Any proposed solution to the synoptic problem, therefore, must account for these literary similarities among the synoptics, not so much in terms of their factual content, but in the selection of that content, the arrangement of the material, and wording of the parallels.

1.2 Why is the synoptic problem is important?

The synoptic problem is the cornerstone of historical critical scholarship of the gospels. As a result, one's solution to the synoptic problem will influence one's exegesis, redaction criticism, and form criticism of the gospels as well as affect the quest for the historical Jesus, early church history, and even the text of the gospels.

1.3 What kinds of solutions have been proposed for the synoptic problem?

In German scholarship on the synoptic problem, it has become customary to classify synoptic theories according to the nature of the interrelationship between the synoptic gospels. (E.g. Holtzmann 1885: 339-345; Reicke 1978a: 50-52; Schnelle 1994, ET 1998: 162-166) A non-documentary hypothesis (Traditionhypothese) relies on oral tradition as the explanation, in which each evangelist independently composed his gospels based on traditional accounts and, possibly, eye-witnesses.

A documentary relationship may be either direct or indirect.

The hypothesis of direct dependence (Benutzunghypothese) holds that one evangelist knew and used to the gospel of another. One example of direct dependence is the traditional Augustinian Hypothesis, which holds that Matthew was first, followed by Mark who used Matthew, and then by Luke who used both Matthew and Mark.

Indirect dependence (e.g. Urevangeliumhypothese) posits that at least two of the evangelists have used a common written source.

Some solutions are hybrids.

For example, the Fragmentary Hypothesis (Diegesentheorie) proposes that the common wording of the synoptics is due to indirect dependence on several smaller documents but their common order is due to an oral tradition. (e.g., Schleiermacher 1832)

As another example, the Two Source Hypothesis (Zweiquellenhypothese) calls for direct dependence of Matthew and Luke upon Mark for the "triple tradition" but indirect dependence upon a hypothetical written source "Q" for the "double tradition." (Weisse 1838)

1.4 Not so fast. Is there a synoptic problem?

Properly defined, the answer is "yes." This question, however, has recently been asked in the title of a provocative and controversial book by Eta Linnemann (1992) who faults many textbooks for assuming that the interrelationship among the synoptic gospels is documentary rather than oral before establishing that proposition.

1.5 So, is there a documentary interrelationship among the synoptic gospels?

Although a few scholars at various times have supported a largely oral solution (e.g., Westcott 1888; Reicke 1986; Linnemann 1992), a strong consensus among scholars has developed that there is indeed a documentary interrelationship between and among each of the synoptic gospels. There are five main, cumulative reasons for this conclusion:

  1. Verbatim agreement. It is rare for two independent reporters of the same event to share more than a few words in common, but the synoptic gospels often feature a substantial number of agreements in their exact words. For example, in one passage about John the Baptist, Matthew and Luke agree for 61 out of 63 Greek words of a presumably Aramaic speech. Generally, the verbatim agreement between Matthew, Mark, and Luke runs about 50% of the words, but, by contrast, their agreement with John in parallel episodes falls to about 10%.
  2. Extensive agreement in order, especially in which the arrangement of material is not strictly chronological but topical or exhibiting some other creativity in presentation. In these cases, it is difficult to attribute the non-chronological but topical narration to independent reporting. For example, Matthew and Mark relate the death of John the Baptist as a non-chronological flashback in the same place in their narrative. As another example, the synoptics agree in the order in which certain parables and miracles are related in an arrangement that is probably intended to be topical.
  3. Substantially similar selection of material, when that selection features some amount of creative, editorial choice. Jesus did and said many things, so any account of his ministry must involve some editorial judgment in what to include and what to leave out. The synoptic gospels, for instance, relate many of the same miracles, but these miracles hardly overlap with the ones related by John.
  4. Presence of editorial comments and other redactional material in the synoptics that are not necessitated by a mere telling of historical fact. For example, both Matthew and Mark feature an identical aside to the reader ("let the reader understand") in the synoptic apocalypse.
  5. A consistent literary pattern between the three documents that establishes Mark as the "middle term" connecting Matthew and Luke. Specifically, agreements between Matthew and Luke against Mark are consistently much less prevalent than agreements against Matthew or Luke in arrangement and wording. We would expect for independently composed documents to exhibit no such pattern.
Mt
Lk
Mk
Content
Solution
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largely consists of narrative material (miracles, healings, and the passion) but also contains some sayings material.

In the triple tradition, the ordering of the passages is largely shared between Matthew and Mark, between Luke and Mark, or among all three. It is rarely the case, however, that Matthew and Luke agree against Mark in arranging the Triple Tradition.

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mainly saying material (mostly of Jesus, but some by John the Baptist) but includes at least one miracle story (the Centurion's Servant)

The double tradition exhibits some of the most striking verbatim agreements in some passages but quite divergent versions in other passages.

  1. Q hypothesis: (Q --> Mt & Lk)
  2. Lukan posteriority hypothesis: (Mt --> Lk)
  3. Matthean posteriority hypothesis: (Lk --> Mt)

1.6 What is the triple tradition?

The triple tradition is material that is common to all three of the synoptics. Almost all of Mark's content is found in Matthew, and about two-thirds of Mark is found in Luke. The triple tradition largely consists of narrative material (miracles, healings, and the passion) but also contains some sayings material.

1.7 What is the fundamental observation of the triple tradition?

The fundamental observation of the triple tradition and, indeed, the synoptic problem is that Mark is the "middle term" between Matthew and Luke.When the triple tradition is analyzed, a very interesting pattern emerges. In the triple tradition, the ordering of the passages is largely shared between Matthew and Mark, between Luke and Mark, or among all three. It is rarely the case, however, that Matthew and Luke agree against Mark in arranging the Triple Tradition. This pattern also extends to the content, extent, and the wording of the triple tradition passages.

There are four basic documentary approaches that can account for the fact that Mark is the middle term between Matthew and Luke:

  1. Markan priority hypothesis: Mark was first and copied by both Matthew and Luke.
  2. Matthean priority hypothesis:
    1. Matthew was first and was copied by Mark who was copied by Luke (Mt-->Mk-->Lk) or
    2. Mt -->Lk-->Mk
  3. Lukan priority hypothesis: Luke was first and was copied by Mark who was copied by Matthew. (Lk-->Mk-->Mt)
  4. Griesbach hypothesis: Mark, who was third, combined and conflated Matthew and Luke. (Mt & Lk-->Mk)

1.8 What is the double tradition?

The double tradition is the substantial amount of material (about 200 verses) that is shared between Matthew and Luke but is not found in Mark. Its content is mainly saying material (mostly of Jesus, but some by John the Baptist) but includes at least one miracle story (the Centurion's Servant) as well. The double tradition exhibits some of the most striking verbatim agreements in some passages but quite divergent versions in other passages.

Three basic documentary approaches have been proposed to account for the double tradition:

  1. Q hypothesis: Matthew and Luke copied the double tradition from a common written source (or sources), usually named Q from German Quelle meaning "source." (Q --> Mt & Lk)
  2. Lukan posteriority hypothesis: Luke copied the double tradition from Matthew. (Mt --> Lk)
  3. Matthean posteriority hypothesis: Matthew copied the double tradition from Luke. (Lk --> Mt)

1.9 What are the major solutions to the synoptic problem?

By far, the most widely accepted solution for the synoptic problem is the Two Source Hypothesis (2SH). However, two other proposed solutions have emerged as serious alternatives: the Two Gospel Hypothesis (2GH) in America and the Farrer Hypothesis (FH) in Britain. Other solutions that have attracted the attention of a plurality of scholars include the Augustinian Hypothesis (AH) and the Jerusalem School Hypothesis (JSH).

2. The Two Source Hypothesis

2.1 What is the Two Source Hypothesis (2SH)?

2SHThe 2SH adopts the Markan priority hypothesis for the triple tradition and the Q hypothesis for the double tradition. Accordingly, Mark was written first among the synoptics. Matthew and Luke independently copied Mark for its narrative framework (the Triple Tradition) and independently added discourse material from a non-extant sayings source called "Q" for German Quelle, 'source'.

Despite recent challenges, the 2SH remains the dominant synoptic theory today among New Testament scholars for most of the 19th century and throughout the 20th century. Lately much attention has been devoted to studying Q and its own history of composition.

2.2 What is the case for the 2SH?

Since the 2SH is a synthesis of the Markan priority hypothesis and the Q hypothesis, it is best to treat the case for each thesis separately.

2.3 What is the case for the Markan priority hypothesis?

About a hundred years ago, the case for the Markan priority hypothesis was thought to rest as a consequence of the observation that Mark is the middle term between Matthew and Luke. In 1951, however, Butler exposed this fallacy (he called it the "Lachmann fallacy" but a more accurate term is the "middle term fallacy") and demonstrated that other solutions can satisfactorily account for the observation.

Consequently, careful proponents of Markan priority have restated their case as a cumulation of several suggestive arguments. For example, it is argued that it is easier to understand certain material (infancy accounts, Sermon on the Mount) being added to Mark than Mark's omission and understand both Matthew's and Luke's improving Mark's style rather than the reverse.

2.4 What is the case for the Q hypothesis?

The case for Q rests on the independence of Matthew and Luke and is framed in terms of the failure to prove that Luke is dependent upon Matthew (or vice versa). If Matthew and Luke are independent, the double tradition must be explained by an indirect relationship upon common material, called Q. Arguments in favor of the independence of Matthew and Luke include: the disuse of the other's additions within the triple tradition and the apparent mutual primitivity of the double tradition.

2.5 What is the case against the Two Source Hypothesis?

The case against each of the two theses, Markan priority and the existence of Q, will be treated separately in more detail with the Two Gospel Hypothesis (Q3.2) and the Farrer Hypothesis (Q4.2), respectively. The minor agreements, however, pose a special dilemma for the 2SH.

The minor agreements are those agreements between Matthew and Luke against Mark (or "anti-Markan agreements") that occur in triple tradition. Some of the minor agreements are quite striking; for example, both Matt. 26:68 and Luke 22:64 but not Mark 14:65 include the question "Who is it that struck you" in the beating of Jesus. Therefore, the minor agreements are suggestive of a literary connection between Matthew and Luke outside of either Mark or Q, calling into question the relative independence of Matthew and Luke.

2.6 What is the 2SH's response to the issue of the minor agreements?

The 2SH's response to the issue of the minor agreement is to weaken their significance by attributing various causes for them. For example, B. H. Streeter devoted a chapter on this issue with an analysis that is largely maintained today. (Streeter 1924; see also Neirynck 1974) The minor agreements are generally handled in the 2SH by a combination of reasons how Matthew and Luke could have independently arrived at their anti-Markan agreements, such as coincindental redaction, overlaps with Q or oral traditions, and textual corruption.

3. The Two Gospel (neo-Griesbach) Hypothesis

3.1 What is the Two Gospel (neo-Griesbach) Hypothesis (2GH)?

2GHThe 2GH adopts the Griesbach hypothesis for the triple tradition and the Lukan posteriority hypothesis for the double tradition. Accordingly, Matthew was written first, and Luke used it in preparing his gospel. Mark conflated the two in a procedure that mostly followed where Matthew and Luke agree in order except for discourse material. Thus, the triple tradition is a result of Mark's editorial choices of what to include. The double tradition is that material which Luke liked in Matthew but not copied by Mark.

Revived by William R. Farmer (1964), the 2GH has been considered the greatest challenger to the 2SH in America. Prominent 2GH scholars include David L. Dungan (1970, 1999), O. Lamar Cope (1976), Thomas R. W. Longstaff (1977), Hans-Herbert Stoldt (1977), William O. Walker (1983), Joseph B. Tyson (1984), David Barrett Peabody (1987), and Allan J. McNicol (1996).

3.2 What is the case for the 2GH?

This section is currently under development, but a praxis of Farmer's reasons has been prepared.

4. The Farrer Hypothesis

4.1 What is the Farrer Hypothesis (FH)?

FHThe FH adopts the Markan priority hypothesis for the triple tradition and the Lukan posteriority hypothesis for the double tradition. Accordingly, Mark was written first, adopted by Matthew, and then used by Luke. The double tradition is explained by Luke's further use of Matthew, thus dispensing with Q.

The FH, named for its seminal exponent A. M. Farrer (1955), is currently the most serious contender to the 2SH in Britain. Michael D. Goulder (1974, 1989) is currently its most forceful advocate but other active proponents include Mark S. Goodacre (1996).

4.2 What is the case for the Farrer Hypothesis?

This section is currently under development. In the meantime, the interested reader should visit Mark Goodacre's Ten Reasons to Question Q.

5. Other Synoptic Source Theories

5.1 What is the Augustinian Hypothesis (AH)?

AHThe AH adopts the Matthean priority hypothesis for the triple tradition and the Lukan posteriority hypothesis for the double tradition. Accordingly, Matthew was written first, and Mark used Matthew as a "lackey and abbreviator." Luke, finally, used both Matthew and Mark to compose his own gospel. Thus, each evangelist depended on those who preceded him (successive dependence).

The AH was the traditional synoptic theory and was held by many Roman Catholic scholars until the mid-20th century. Now, support for the AH is trans-denominational but limited, including H. G. Jameson (1922), Dom Chapman (1937), B. C. Butler (1951), and J. Wenham (1992).

5.2 What is the Jerusalem School Hypothesis (JSH)?

JSHThe JSH adopts the Lukan priority hypothesis for the triple tradition and a Q hypothesis for the double tradition. Accordingly, the JSH is one of the few theories that posit that Luke was written first among the synoptics though based on a "First Reconstruction." Mark was based on Luke, and Matthew then used Mark. Furthermore Matthew and Luke independently copied a non-extant sayings source called the "Anthology."

The JSH is popular among a group of scholars mostly living in Jerusalem. This group, fluent in Hebrew, is interested in approaching the synoptic problem from the point of view of a Semitic substratum. The JSH's founder, the late Robert Lindsey, adopted the Lukan priority hypothesis when he prepared a translation of Mark into Hebrew, because he found that the phrases of Mark that are not adapted to the Semitic idiom were by-and-large missing from Luke.


Stephen C. Carlson
Created: January 24, 1999
Revised: December 22, 2000
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