The Synoptic Question

“Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to set forth in order a declaration of those things which are most surely believed among us, even as they delivered them unto us, which from the beginning were eyewitnesses, and ministers of the word; it seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write unto thee in order, most excellent Theophilus, that thou mightest know the certainty of those things, wherein thou hast been instructed.”

Lk. 1:1-4

“And Barnabas and Saul returned from Jerusalem, when they had fulfilled their ministry, and took with them John, whose surname was Mark.”

Acts 12:25

“Only Luke is with me. Take Mark, and bring him with thee: for he is profitable to me for the ministry.”

2 Tim. 4:11

 

 

Order of Contents

Introduction
The Synoptic Question Briefly Described  1
Analyses of the Synoptic Question  5
The Early Church on the Question  2
History of the Synoptic Question  2
The Dating of the Gospels  3
The Gospel of John  1
More

 

 

Introduction

What is the Synoptic Question?

The Synoptic Question tries to resolve the order of authorship and development of Matthew, Mark and Luke, in explaining how and why they share much of the same information (verbatim sometimes) in common.  ‘Synoptic’ means a ‘with-viewing’, as these Gospels view many of the same events together.

The question was originally pressed and developed the most by the destructive higher criticism of rationalistic-liberalism, beginning in the mid-1700’s and continuing through the 1800’s & 1900’s.  

While the Synoptic Question is not entirely necessary to answer, and, as there is limited information to go on, all of the questions will never be answered certainly, yet the Synoptic Question is a legitimate one to ask and has believing, conservative answers.

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Background

The first mainstream, establishment viewpoint of liberal scholarship from the late-1800’s was the priority of Mark, that Matthew and Luke derived their information from Mark, it being the simplest Gospel.  

When the obvious could no longer be avoided, that Matthew and Luke have information in them not found in Mark, liberal scholars, using the (tenuous) principles of ‘form criticism’, derived that this common information came from a first collection of notes of Jesus’ sayings and recorded events, which they called ‘Q’.  Evangelicals quickly followed in-line behind these ‘experts’.  Unfortunately for this widely dominant Two-Source Hypothesis, there is no evidence that ‘Q’ ever existed, and all reconstructions of it have proven to be of the utmost arbitrary and varying character.

Again, the obvious could only be honorably ignored for so long: both Matthew and Luke have information in them unique to themselves, not shared with each other and not derived from Mark.  So, the document ‘M’ was created to explain the information unique to Matthew, and ‘L’ appeared in order to explain the information unique to Luke.  This Four-Source Hypothesis though, predictably, is now one of many in a growing alphabet soup (see Wikipedia’s Synoptic-Gospel Theories for a survey).

Something that all of these form-critical theories which reconstruct the derivative-development of the texts have in common, is that they leave things in such a questionable and ambiguous state that faith finds very little to rest certainly on.  None of them explain *all* of the data in the Gospels (rather, they usually have to be imposed upon it), and there are always plenty of counter-examples, if one is honest, to prove them false.

Several assumptions underlying the current mainstream viewpoint(s) are:

(1) late dates for the actual writing of the Gospels,
(2) that much of the accounts in the gospels were derived second-hand, or passed through many unknown hands,
(3) that this was done by the transcribing of previously written documents with a measure of free modification,
(4) that the final Gospel productions are a result of a long process of documentary development, and
(5) that the critic 2,000 years later can accurately discern this development in the text from the desk in his room.

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The Traditional Conservative Viewpoint

The traditional, conservative viewpoint that has been assumed through most of Church history has been that the Gospels, while sharing a significant portion in common, represent fundamentally independent accounts, this being extensively evidenced by: 

(1) the multitude of varying details and word-order in parallel accounts of the same event, with their remarkably underived character and undesigned harmony, which necessitate a different first-hand witnessing and recording of that event;

(2) this also necessitating an early recording and composition of the Gospels, along with the natural desire to provide a written testimony of the Gospel for the emerging Church and to meet the needs and demands thereof;

(3) the variations in accounts of the same events in the separate Gospels often include details that only particular disciples would know, or had a reason to relate, in consistency with their individual personalities, circumstances and purposes.

(4) variations of word-order and grammar in accounts with otherwise the same content show that the accounts were not simply transcribed-verbatim from previous sources.  Nor were possible, previously written sources carelessly modified if we shall uphold the integrity of the Gospel writer, something which their accounts everywhere plainly evidence and demand.   

(5) The inclusion of numerous historical details throughout the accounts that are otherwise-unexplained show that the Gospel writers were honestly and plainly recording what happened as it was witnessed, and they did not think it an ideal (as do many N.T. scholars) to redact, contour and modify everything to their own subjective or ulterior purposes.

Yet, within the varying parallel accounts, there is much that is verbally equivalent, it being as high as 46% between Matthew and Mark.  This fact is virtually inexplicable if the sources were completely independent.  If the exam-essays of two students were 46% verbally equivalent, what professor would not suspect them of cheating?

What then accounts for the large share of verbal similarity and equivalency in the Synoptic Gospels?  The answer is rather natural and what one would expect:

The 12 disciples and the many others that followed Jesus were discipled by Him for 3 and a half years, witnessed the same events, heard the same sayings, were responsible for retaining them in a largely oral culture, probably by the same method and forms of memorization, and probably made use of some note-taking.

(That is, for those who knew how to write and had it accessible, c.f. Lk. 1:63.  The Gospel writers, of course, knew how to write as Matthew was a tax collector, Luke an intelligent physician and John we have reason to believe was of the priestly upper-class.  The literary ability of the other disciples, largely being fisherman, is unknown.).

The disciples mutually conferred with each other both during and after Christ’s earthly ministry (e.g. Jn. 20:19, 26; 21:1-2; Lk. 24:52-53Acts 1:2-4, 13-15; 2:1; 3:1; 4:23; 5:12,18; 6:2; 8:1,14; 15:4,6Gal. 2:1-3,7-9; etc.), no doubt at times with the purpose of faithfully seeking confirmation to their history (Lk. 24:13-15,31-351 Jn. 1:2-3) and to present a united testimony (Acts 5:27-321 Jn. 1:2-3), though each of their accounts would remain characterized by their experiences, personalities and life situation.

As much oral and written sharing would be expected and desired, this accounts for the 46% verbal equivalency, and represents not plagiarism, but intelligent mutual conference and confirmation throughout the disciples’ history which would naturally be too complex to reduce to a simplistic paradigm of literary dependence.

That is why no such theory of literary dependence can make sense of *all* of the details of the Gospel accounts, but breaks down rather quickly for all who have eyes to see.

While modern scholars seek, by cutting and pasting, to uncover and define the main proto-source of ‘Q’, from which most of the rest derived, Luke says in his prologue (Lk. 1:1-4) that the exact opposite was the case: that “*many* have taken in hand to set forth in order a declaration of those things which are most surely believed among us.”  

That is, there were many faithful accounts (which were probably written, as Luke’s was) of the main gospel events which were widely accessible at an early date which Luke used (though, in the Lord’s providence, they were not preserved for later generations).  This, of course, makes all speculations as to the prior sources of the gospels to be an endeavor in futility, as whatever materials the gospel writers may have gathered and used in addition to their own witness is too complex to reconstruct and has not been preserved.

Such being the case, the Gospel writers would have, and did, take full ownership for their accounts (Lk. 1:3-4; 1 Jn. 1:2-3, etc.), the accounts being based not on unknowns, but on certainties.  What accounts have been preserved, as one would expect, are precisely those that were recognized as being written by apostles (or those under their supervision and authority) as God-inspired Scripture (1 Tim. 5:18 with Lk. 10:71 Cor. 14:37; 1 Thess. 2:132 Pet. 3:15-16).  

Thus, we are left with the inevitable and bare fact of the gospel accounts as we currently have them.

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The Order of the Gospels

The early patristic fathers (who had the ability to know, reason to know, and sought to be faithful) testified that Matthew’s Gospel was written first, with Mark following, then Luke, and then John (as in the order of the Canon).  Matthew, being one of the original 12 disciples and in their circle, certainly did not need the information of anyone outside of that circle to write his Gospel.

John Mark was not one of the original 12 disciples, yet he traveled with the apostles according to the book of Acts and is said to have written the book of Mark according to the early Church.  It is highly probable, by persuasive internal evidence and the testimony of the early Church, that he was dependent on the apostle Peter (with whom he was in close association with) for much of the distinctive testimony in his Gospel.  

Mark is usually put first in the order by mainline scholarship, as they take it as an assured result of modern criticism that shorter accounts are more derivatively-fundamental than longer accounts (such as in Matthew).  They also usually preclude the author of Mark’s Gospel from being the John Mark mentioned throughout Acts and the Epistles, as the early Church testified to.

However, given the historical likelihood that John Mark was the author, then he necessarily was dependent in some measure on Matthew’s witness along with the collective witness of the rest of the apostles.  His account being shorter and more rapid is easily explained by his writing characteristic and purpose, which was different than that of Matthew’s.

Luke, also not one of the original disciples, but a close associate of the apostles according to the epistles, wrote relatively later and looked with due care into the accounts, as he describes his circumstance and purpose for writing in his prologue (Lk. 1:1-4).  

There he says that he received his information from numerous sources, namely: from those which were eye-witnesses ‘from the beginning’ and ‘ministers of the Word’ (perhaps Matthew and Peter, amongst the rest of the apostles, and others).  Luke reports of himself that he ‘had perfect understanding of all things from the very first’ (possibly being one of the 70 commissioned disciples in Lk. 10:1, which account Luke is the only one to give of the Gospel writers) and that the things he writes are ‘things which are most surely believed among us’.  Luke includes in his Gospel significant tracts of information not included in the other gospels, such as Jesus’ last Peraean ministry (Lk. 11:37-13:17).

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Our Recommendation

There will be no final, certain answer to many of the issues involved in the Synoptic Question this side of glory.  If you need a certain answer, then make sure you are going to heaven through the atonement Christ provided and ask the Gospel writers themselves.

You can, though, have an intelligent assessment of the involved and sprawling issue, which will be a great confirmation to your faith as you discern in greater detail the complete truthfulness and inspiration of the Gospels as we have them.  To that end, the resources below will be of inestimable help.

The most trustworthy source that we are aware of on this subject, which we give our highest recommendation to, is Alfred Edersheim’s The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah  Buy  (1883).  Edersheim (1825-1889), raised an orthodox Jew, converted to the Savior and became one of the most renowned, scholars of the 1st century in his day.  Edersheim’s Life and Times was the magnum opus of his life’s work, having spent 7 years in seclusion writing it.

Unfortunately Edersheim does not treat of the Synoptic issue in any one central place, but in commenting on the Gospels as he guides one through the life of Christ, he harmonizes their accounts together.  This method gives him ample opportunity to provide insightful, often profound, satisfactory and believing explanations for the differences and similarities of the Gospel accounts.  

Edersheim deftly harmonizes the various details of the Gospel writers, often according to their characteristics, purposes or specific witness of the event, while noting where a writer may have derived their account from another disciple, if there is reason to believe so.  Edersheim was very aware of the liberal theories of his day (which have not changed much up to our time) and he soundly refutes them in detail.  

As Edersheim’s work is based upon the self-evident truthfulness of the Gospel accounts, upon principles inherent to them, and as his interpretations are a full explanation of *all* the Biblical data, his exposition, along with the Word of God which it is based upon, is timeless and will never go out of date.  

We do not pretend that Edersheim has the last word on every question, but he does provide a solid foundation for faith to rest upon.  We do not hesitate to advise you to read his work cover-to-cover.  It may be one of the best books you ever read.

In further evaluating and ruminating on the Synoptic Question, be sure to remember that:

“The secret things belong unto the Lord our God: but those things which are revealed belong unto us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law.”

Deut. 29:29

In doing so, never lose sight of the One that the Synoptic writers testify to:

“Search the scriptures; for…  they are they which testify of Me.”

John 5:39

“My sheep hear my voice…”

John 10:27

 

 

 

The Synoptic Question Briefly Described

Berkhof, Louis – ‘The Synoptic Problem’  1944  8 pp.  in Introduction to the New Testament, pp. 18-25

Berkhof was an American, Dutch-Reformed professor of New Testament.

 

 

Analyses of the Synoptic Question

The Best

Edersheim, Alfred – The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah  Buy  1883

Edersheim (1825-1889), in commenting on the Gospels as he works through the life of Christ, harmonizes their accounts together, which gives him ample opportunity to give insightful, often profound, satisfactory and believing explanations of their differences and similarities, often harmonizing them according to the gospel writer’s characteristics, purposes or specific witness of the event, not neglecting where there may be reason to believe that they derived their information from another disciple.

Edersheim was raised in Orthodox Judaism and became a Christian partially through the influence of ‘Rabbi’ John Duncan.  He entered the ministry in the Free Church of Scotland.  Later he transferred into the Church of England and was a renowned scholar on 1st century studies.

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Introduction and Comparison

ed. Thomas, Robert – Three Views on the Origin of the Synoptic Gospels  Buy  2002

This volume presents three views on the Synoptic question from evangelicals, and provides counter-responses to each.  The first view is the typical mainstream view of Markan priority, involving Mark and ‘Q’, as the two main sources, as well as ‘M’ and ‘L’ to round out 4 sources.  The 2nd view is the minority mainstream view which, following liberals, posits the order as Matthew-Luke-Mark.

The 3rd view is the Independence view, which has been the majority view of Church history.  Unfortunately though, the version of the Independence view presented in the book holds that the Gospel writers wrote entirely independently of each other, with no literary collaboration, which is inconsistent with the ‘Introduction’ above on this page, which allows for a measure of collaboration.

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Intermediate

Stonehouse, Ned B. – Origins of the Synoptic Gospels: Some Basic Questions  Buy  1963  195 pp.  These were lectures given at Fuller Theological Seminary, CA, in 1962

Stonehouse (1902-1962) was a professor of New Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary who succeeded Machen in that position.  Stonehouse discusses the many issues and perspectives, leaves many of the questions unanswered, but favors the priority of Mark.

“Adopting a selective approach, he took what he considered to be the four most crucial questions and analyzed them.  They are the questions of authorship, order and independence, apostolic tradition, and ultimate origin…  Throughout, the text is lucid and thoroughly documented.” – The book-flap

Eta Linnemann – Is there a Synoptic Problem?  Rethinking the Literary Dependence of the First Three Gospels  Buy  1992

Linnemann (1926-2009) was a high-ranking, liberal, German professor of New Testament who became, inconveniently, but blessedly, converted to the Savior.

Linnemann argues against the typical liberal scholarship on the subject (specifically the German strand that she was immersed in) and argues for the fundamental independence of each synoptic Gospel, bringing into service a statistical analysis to do so.  

For an analysis of Linnemann’s work from a conservative New Testament scholar, see pages 177-181 & 186-189 of Robert Yarbrough’s article.  The main weakness of Linnemann’s work is that it does not present a detailed positive view in order to explain the portions of the Synoptics that are verbally equivalent, other than the assertion that the Gospels are independent accounts.

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Advanced

Guthrie, Donald – ‘The Synoptic Problem’, ‘Form Criticism and its Developments’ & ‘Towards a Solution’  1970  115 pp.  being chs. 5-7 in New Testament Introduction  Buy

Guthrie, in this advanced Introduction, gives a detailed survey of the issues and proposed solutions, giving a balanced weighing of the positive aspects of the various theories.  His attempt ‘Towards a Solution’ very wisely puts forth various principles inherently involved, shows the extremes on either side, and advises to navigate a course in-between for future studies, though the issue will probably remain unresolved.

Wenham, John – Redating Matthew, Mark and Luke: a Fresh Assault on the Synoptic Problem  Buy  1992  319 pp.

Wenham (1913–1996) was a conservative Anglican Bible scholar who held to the inerrancy of Scripture.

Part of the Synoptic problem, as Wenham argues, is that one can use the data to support whatever theory one desires to contrive: ‘Q’, L’, ‘M’, Markan priority or otherwise.  Modern scholarship largely, out of hand, rejects the patristic testimony (which needs to be accounted for) that Matthew was written first.

Wenham argues for:  

1. An early date for the Gospels,
2. The traditional order of Mt (AD 40), Mk (AD 45), Lk (AD 55),
3. Their essential independence,
4. The involvement of not only written but oral tradition in Gospel formation.  

The work will be harder to read without a working knowledge of Greek.

 

 

The Early Church on the Question

A Summary

Zahn, Theodor – The Common Tradition in the Church Regarding the Origin of the Gospels  14 pp.  in Introduction to the New Testament, vol. 2

Zahn gives all the relevant testimony of the early Church regarding the authorship and order of the Gospels from AD 180-250, though they do not give information as to one being dependent on another (which is an argument in itself that they were not).  Zahn accepts their testimony that Matthew came before Mark.

Zahn (1838–1933) was a German, Lutheran scholar.  His work is one of the major, older, mostly conservative, advanced New Testament Introductions.

Early Church Father

Augustine – The Harmony of the Gospels   365 pp  in Works, ed. Dods, vol. 8

“…Augustine [354-430], who was the first to be led, by the observations of similarities of language in the Gospels, to what was at least the beginning of a definite view regarding the origin of this phenomenon [as opposed to earlier cursory treatments of it].  He thought it could be proved that Mark was consciously dependent upon Matthew, which in part he repeated word for word, in part reproduced in abbreviated form.

The matter was not pursued further, either in the Middle Ages or at the time of the Reformation… [but] began with the middle of the eighteenth century…” – Zahn, vol. 2, p. 402

 

 

History of the Synoptic Question

Early 1900’s

Zahn, Theodor – History of the Synoptic Problem  27 pp.  in Introduction to the New Testament, vol. 2

Zahn (1838–1933) was a German, Lutheran scholar.  His work is one of the major, older, mostly conservative, advanced New Testament Introductions.

1970

Guthrie, Donald – ‘A Brief Historical Survey of Solutions’  8 pp.  in New Testament Introduction  Buy 

 

 

The Dating of the Gospels

Books

Robinson, John A.T. – Redating the New Testament  Buy  2000  384 pp.

Conservative N.T. scholars used to believe that the synoptic Gospels (Mt, Mk, Lk) and many or most of the epistles were written in the 40’s, 50’s, or at the latest the 60’s A.D, exactly when one would expect them to be written if they were true, first-hand accounts that were written shortly after those events occurred, given normal historical forces relating to the desire to preserve their important witness to the Gospel, before the emerging Church.

Liberalism, however, during the mid-to late 1800’s, continuing dominant into the 1900’s, pushed these dates later past A.D. 70 (when the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed) into the 80’s, 90’s and sometimes the mid-2nd century, thus making these documents less closely tied to the events they describe, and hence less reliable.  Evangelicals in the 1900’s, sadly but predictably, followed liberal scholarship so that such late dates for the writings of the New Testament are now the established norm of mainstream evangelical scholarship.

John A. T. Robinson, who was an Anglican bishop and fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, and a theological modernist (paradoxically), here makes the fullest contemporary case for the early (conservative) dating of the N.T. documents. 

C. H. Dodd, in a letter to Robinson, wrote, “I should agree with you that much of the late dating is quite arbitrary, even wanton[;] the offspring not of any argument that can be presented, but rather of the critic’s prejudice that, if he appears to assent to the traditional position of the early church, he will be thought no better than a stick-in-the-mud.”  

Robinson’s main, over arching argument, is that the documents show a detailed acquaintance with the specifics of the Temple as it stood, they predicted its fall, and there is no indication in their writings that the Temple was then destroyed or of a time when it was not present (such as after AD 70).  To see how weak the arguments are for a late dating of Matthew, see pp. 31-32 of this excerpt of Kruger’s Introduction.

Wenham, John – Redating Matthew, Mark and Luke: a Fresh Assault on the Synoptic Problem  Buy  1992  319 pp.

Wenham (1913–1996) was a conservative Anglican Bible scholar who held to the inerrancy of Scripture.

Part of the Synoptic problem, as Wenham argues, is that one can use the data to support whatever theory one desires to contrive, ‘Q’, Markan priority or otherwise.  Modern scholarship largely, out of hand, rejects the patristic testimony (which needs to be accounted for) that Matthew was written first.

Wenham argues for:  

1. An early date for the Gospels,
2. The traditional order of Mt (AD 40), Mk (AD 45), Lk (AD 55),
3. Their essential independence,
4. The involvement of not only written but oral tradition in Gospel formation.  

The work will be harder to read without a working knowledge of Greek.

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A Summary Chart

Moffatt, James – ‘Date of the Gospels’, p. 213  in An Introduction to the Literature of the New Testament  1911

This chart gives, at a glance, a history of interpretation of the dating of the gospels up to 1911.  Note that Moffatt, and many of the persons referenced in the chart, were liberals.

The reason why the dates are all over the place for the same Biblical book is that there is very little to go on, so that anybody’s guess is as good as another.  The determining factor, usually, is one’s broader outline of the history and development of Paul’s epistles and the growing early Church.

 

 

The Gospel of John

Robsinson, John A.T. – The Priority of John  Buy  1987

On Robinson see above on ‘The Dating of the Gospels’

“In The Priority of John, Robinson furthered the argument put forward in Redating the New Testament that all the books were written before 70 AD, by focusing on the book that is placed early least often.  He also wanted to prove that John is independent of the Synoptics and better than them at describing the length and time period of Jesus’ ministry, Palestinian geography, and the cultural milieu of the early first century there.” – Wikipedia

 

 

More

For many more resources to consult, see ‘New Testament Surveys and Introductions’ on our page: New Testament Background, Survey, Authenticity & Introduction

See also commentaries on Matthew, Mark and Luke on our page New Testament Commentaries, which commentaries not only comment on the text, but also often treat of the Synoptic question in their introductory section.

 

 

 

“And when they were come in, they went up into an upper room, where abode both Peter, and James, and John, and Andrew, Philip, and Thomas, Bartholomew, and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon Zelotes, and Judas the brother of James.  These all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brethren.”

Acts 1:13-14

“Luke, the beloved physician, and Demas, greet you.”

Col. 4:14

“After that, He was seen of above five hundred brethren at once; of whom the greater part remain unto this present, but some are fallen asleep.”

1 Cor. 15:6

 

 

Related Pages

New Testament Background, Survey, Authenticity & Introduction

New Testament Commentaries

Bible Background, Survey, Authenticity & Introduction

The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible

The Inerrancy of the Bible