So how long have you been a Christian? Depending on how you answer that question will determine how you might answer the next set of questions. How much have you read your Bible? When reading through the New Testament did you struggle with reading the first three gospel accounts of Jesus’ life? If so it’s okay, and you are not alone. The first three gospels are commonly referred to as the Synoptic Gospels. Now I know your staring at me going “synoptic, what in the world does that mean?” “The term synoptic comes from the Greek word sunoptikos, “to see things together,” and characterizes the three gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. They are studied together because their view of the life of Christ is considered sufficiently similar.”
Similarities between the Gospels
Once we acknowledge that these gospels contain a generous amount of similarities we have to ask ourselves, “Did these authors know of each others work? And if so who borrowed from whom?” This is generally referred to as the synoptic problem. Joel Green, Scot McKnight, and I. Howard Marshall in their work, The Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, list four common areas that these gospels are generally in agreement. Those areas are similarity in wording, similarity in order, similarity in parenthetical material, and similarity in biblical quotations. When looking at the different categories of similarities, scholars generally prefer to reference the original Greek material as a way to perform a baseline comparison. I would like to take a moment to quickly discuss each group of similarities, starting with the similarities in wording. Green points out that you can easily see the similarities when you compare a group of selected verses found on page 784. Köstenberger points out, “The similarity in wording is sufficiently close to suggest the possibility of a literary relationship, that is, that one or more of the Gospel writers was familiar with one or more of the other Gospels.”
In looking at the similarities in order Köstenberger, explains it in this manner,
The Gospels contain numerous periscopes, self-contained units of narrative such as the account of Jesus’ healing of the leper in Mark 1:40-45. Although these periscopes could be arranged in a number of different ways in the individual Gospels—topically, chronologically, or geographically (based on the locations in which they occurred)—the Gospels share a remarkable similarity in the order of the periscopes.
When we move into the area of similarity in parenthetical material or explanatory material as some call it, we notice that there becomes more of what people may call coincidence. That being said the Greek words being used could have been translated multiple ways. Köstenberger argues for some sort of literary dependence between the authors because, “… Jesus’ original Aramaic words could have been translated into Greek in a number of different ways and thus not yielded the frequent verbatim agreements that exist between the Gospels.”
The last area of recognized similarity is in biblical quotations. When you take the time to examine the Greek manuscripts for each of the gospels and compare them side by side you will notice that their quotations are almost exact. The problem with that is they are not verbatim quotes from the text! Green points out that,
At times we find the exact same form of an OT quotation (see Old Testament in the Gospels). This would not be unusual if that form was identical either with the Hebrew OT or the Greek translation of the OT known as the Septuagint, but when we find an identical quotation of the OT which is different from the Hebrew OT and the Greek OT, this similarity requires some sort of explanation (cf. Mk 1:2 par. Mt 3:3 and Lk 3:4, Mk 7:7 par. Mt 15:9).
While there are numerous amounts of similarities between these gospels as we have noted there are also several differences. When you read the genealogies found in Matthew 1 and Luke 3 you may ask yourself, “what is wrong here, is the Bible contradicting itself?” The answer to that question is no it is generally believed that one genealogy follows the line of Joseph and the other Mary.
Proposed Solutions to the Synoptic Problem
Paul Enns in The Moody Handbook of Theology lays out a short list of six different approaches to the synoptic problem. The first being the oral tradition theory, which believed that the preaching about Jesus was fixed and there were no written forms behind the Synoptic Gospels. The interdependence theory was credited to Griesbach in 1789. In this theory, it is believed the first author had oral tradition and each subsequent writer could use those that came before. The primitive gospel theory was introduced in 1778 by Lessing and it taught that the gospel writers used a primitive source called the Urevangellim, which no longer exists. In 1817 Schleiermacher composed a theory known as the fragmentary theory in which the gospel writers composed their gospels from numerous fragmentary writings about the life of Jesus. Then we have the two-document theory which holds to a Markan priority view (meaning Mark wrote his gospel first and the others copied from him). And along with this view a hypothetical document referred to as “Q” was used to supplement Matthew and Luke’s writings. An even more recent development has been the four-document theory and this theory builds on the two-document theory suggesting that there is special material for Matthew called (M) and special material for Luke called (L).
Two Favored Solutions
Of all of the theories mentioned above, two are highly favored now in scholastic circles; the Griesbach hypothesis also known as the two-gospel hypothesis or the interdependence theory and the two-document theory. “This hypothesis, which argues that Matthew was the first Gospel written, that Luke used Matthew and that Mark used both Matthew and Luke, was first proposed by H. Owen in 1764.” This view is not the most popular view in our current society; most scholars within the last hundred years have begun arguing more for the two-document position.
The problem that arises in my mind is that if Mark were the first one to write his gospel, and the others used him and “Q”, why do we still have Mark’s gospel and no evidence of “Q”? While Darrel Bock in his article tries to articulate a good argument for “Q” in Rethinking the Synoptic Problem, it just did not do a well enough job to convince my logical mind that it was the best option. In dealing with either of these stances, we are dealing with hypothetical situations; however, I tend to think that the two-gospel hypothesis is best suited for me.
Defending the Two-Gospel (Griesbach) Hypothesis
It is not to say that all things in history are correct or do not need to be changed, but I believe that the early church had a better handle on the gospels than modern scholars wish to give them credit for. According to Green, “…the priority of Mark was unknown in the early church, the priority of Matthew was assumed.” There is argument made that the early church fathers are unreliable in all of their facts. Köstenberger points out, “…early church testimony insists that Mark wrote his Gospel independently of the other Gospels based on the memoirs of Peter (as stated by Papias) and the Luke’s Gospel was the last Gospel to be written, not the second (as stated by Origen, the Anti-Marcionite Prologue, and Augustine).
However, David A. Black in his work Why Four Gospels?, lays a great ground work for Matthean priority. Even though he argues from what he calls the Four Gospel stance, it is along the same lines of the two-gospel hypothesis; and he argued logically enough for me to think he was closest to right. Black declares “Clement also connects this Gospel of Mark with the two other Synoptic Gospels when he states that it was subsequent to those ‘containing the genealogies.” When arguing on behalf of a particular point we must look at it from all angles, and the proponents of the Markan view often believe that Matthew and Luke wrote their Gospels independently of the other. How do they explain the agreements against Mark that Matthew and Luke make? The two-gospel hypothesis “…can easily explain the Matthew-Luke agreements against Mark, whereas the two-document hypothesis struggles with how Matthew and Luke can agree independently against their Markan source when they did not know each other, that is did not use the other.”
One argument that is often brought up against the two-gospel hypothesis is how do we deal with the Markan redundancies? Most scholars are in agreement that there are around 213 redundancies in the Gospel of Mark. While Köstenberger believes the redundancies are a part of Mark’s writing style Green claims that, “the Griesbach hypothesis suggest that this can be best explained by understanding that Mark tended to act with respect to his sources in the same way as the early scribes and copyists of the NT. When they found two different readings in their sources, they tended to harmonize them by including both.”
Another common argument that is brought against this view is why would Mark have written his Gospel in such a way as to leave out so much material that is covered by the other Gospel writers? Black responds to that question decisively by asserting that,
The fundamental flaw in this argument is precisely the baseless assumption that Mark (or Peter) intended to write a Gospel like the other two. Mark is quite a different kind of document. The Fourfold-Gospel Hypothesis, in fact, asserts that Mark’s account of the life of Jesus was never intended to be a rival Gospel. Mark is not a book in the sense in which the ancient Greeks and Romans understood the term; it is simply the spoken word directly captured and set down on paper exactly as it was originally uttered.
Farmer in Rethinking the Synoptic Problem helps to answer the question about our need to have a hypothetical source, when he says, “Only after the investigator has been unable to understand the relationship between Matthew, Mark, and Luke without appealing to unknown sources is there justification in hypothecating the existence of such sources, in order to explain phenomena otherwise inexplicable.” Since many modern scholars believe that Mark was the first to write his Gospel, would it have been impossible for Peter to reference works of other Gospel writers? Since Black like many other Matthean prioritist believe that Mark was merely a scribe of the words of Peter, there is the chance that Peter read from the works of the other Gospel writers while giving his presentations. While it is arguable that a scroll was used Black’s statements do allow you to get a different view than the one that demands a hypothetical source. He states:
It would seem that the Gospel Book hat Luke brought with him to Rome must have been in the normal format of that era, namely, the scroll. Matthew, slightly shorter than Luke, must also originally have been in a scroll format. Peter’s plan was to take the scroll of Luke and compare it with the scroll of Matthew in light of his own eyewitness recollections of the ministry of Jesus….Our Gospel of Mark is therefore the result of the combined effort of Peter and his disciple Mark, who was at Peter’s side as he delivered his lectures and was the person responsible for seeing that a true record was kept of what Peter said. We can also infer that Peter switched between the two scrolls by Matthew and Luke and that he naturally tended to follow the order of whichever scroll he had in his hand.
While no stance on this topic is perfect and they all have some flaws be willing to take a stance until the proof can cause you to change it. We must also remember that just because someone else may hold to a different view for the solution to the synoptic problem that does not make them a heretic. When dealing with this material we have no room for dogmatism because none of truly has the answer. We are all dealing off of speculation and trying to formulate the best solution possible with the materials we have available. It is my hope that this material has informed you, challenged you and most of all drawn you to look closer to the Word.
Black, David Alan. Why Four Gospels? The Historical Origins of the Gospels. Gonzalez: Energion Publications, 2010.
Black, David Alan, David R. Beck, eds. Rethinking the Synoptic Problem. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001.
Enns, Paul. The Moody Handbook of Theology. Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2008.
Gaebelien, Frank E., ed. The Expositor's Bible Commentary-General OT & NT. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1979.
Green, Joel B., Scot McKnight, I. Howard Marshall. Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. Leicester, England: InterVarsity Christian Fellowship of the U.S.A., 1992.
Halley, Henry H. Halley's Bible Handbook. Zondervan: Grand Rapids, 2007.
Kostenberger, Andreas J., L. Scott Kellum, Charles L. Quarles. The Craddle, The Cross, and the Crown. Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2009.
 Paul Enns, (The Moody Handbook of Theology. Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2008)81.
 Joel B Green, Scot McKnight, I. Howard Marshall. (Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. Leicester, England: InterVarsity Christian Fellowship of the U.S.A., 1992)784-85.
Andreas J. Kostenberger, L. Scott Kellum, Charles L. Quarles. (The Craddle, The Cross, and the Crown. Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2009)160.
 Ibid., 161. Also this page contains a great graph showing some of the similarities between the periscopes.
 Ibid. 162
 Green, Dictionary of Jesus, 785.
 Enns, Moody Handbook, 82.
 Green, Dictionary of Jesus, 786.
 Ibid, 786.
 Kostenberger, The Cradle, 166.
David Alan Black, (Why Four Gospels? The Historical Origins of the Gospels. Gonzalez: Energion Publications, 2010)31.
 Green, Dictionary of Jesus, 786,
 Kostenberger, The Cradle, 167.
 Green, Dictionary of Jesus, 786.
 David Alan Black, David R. Beck, eds. (Rethinking the Synoptic Problem. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001)109.
 Black, Why Four Gospels, 61.