The question of
the relationship & sources of the gospels of Matthew, Mark & Luke.
Even a casual comparison of the contents of these works points to one or more
basic sources. The Synoptic Problem is the challenge confronting any student
of the gospels: find a working hypothesis
that is adequate to account for all the similarities &
differences in these 3 compositions.
that gospels preserve the memoirs of separate apostles does not
explain the patterns of agreement & divergence in the contents of Matthew,
Mark & Luke. Three reporters covering the same events might make the same
observations. But reports by independent eyewitnesses are expected to
differ in organization & style, since these depend on
the individual memory & verbal skills of each author.
amount of similarly worded material in 2 texts is a clear signal of a common
source. Either one author has plagiarized from the other or both are echoing
someone else. The question is: who is copying from whom?
units other than dialog dependent on story
Yet the bulk of
the synoptic material is repeated by at least two works. Note that the preponderance
of parallel passages between Matthew & Luke is in sayings, while
Matthew has more scenes in common with Mark.
** =Lukan count
Note also the
material presented by 2 gospels that is omitted by the third . Though
Matthew omits fewer lines found in the other synoptics, note that
Mark omits the fewest scenes & the most sayings.
|| by Luke
|| by Matt
|| by Mark
Mark presents most
of the narrative common to the synoptics but less than half of
ascribed to Jesus by both Matthew & Luke. Any literary source
theory must account for Mark's failure to present such a large proportion of
A survey of
material unique to each gospel shows that (aside from sayings) the core of the
common synoptic tradition is preserved in Mark. Matthew & Luke have only 5
brief scenes in common that have no parallel in Mark [4th column].
|| to Matt
|| to Mark
|| to Luke
|| to Mt + Lk
Sequence is even more important than quantity of material in
establishing literary dependence between texts. Given decent
memories, any number of authors could reproduce many of the sayings &
stories that they have heard in similar wording. But like any
search engine, the human memory recalls most items by motif & keywords
rather than the order in which these items were learned. Except in cases of
inevitable cause/effect, events are rarely recalled in the sequence in which
they actually occurred.
Without some built-in logical markers, stories & sayings can be repeated
in almost any sequence. While dramatic openings, climaxes & conclusions
may be easy to recall, details in between are hard to keep straight. For the
randomness of aural memory increases with the passage of time. This is
particularly evident in the memorization of long stories or speeches.
Thus, the clearest
evidence of literary dependence among the synoptic gospels is the fact that
Matthew, Mark & Luke present the material they have in common in the
same basic sequence from Jesus' baptism thru his burial. The outline common
to all 3 synoptics is:
- John the Baptist's appearance &
- Jesus baptized
- Jesus tested
- Jesus preaches in Galilee
- Cures & exorcisms
- Social controversies
(meals & sabbath observance)
- Interpretation of parables
- 5000 fed
- Peter identifies Jesus as
- Jesus' death &
disciples' persecution predicted
- Jesus transformed
- 2nd prediction of Jesus'
- Jesus goes to Judea
- Jesus summons children
- Call to abandon
possessions & follow Jesus
- 3rd prediction of Jesus'
- Blind cured
- Jesus enters Jerusalem
- Temple purged
- Jesus questioned by
- Destruction of temple
- Judas Iscariot cooperates
with temple authorities
- Jesus celebrates Passover
- Jesus arrested at
- Trial by Sanhedrin
- Peter denies Jesus
- Trial by Pontius Pilate
- Burial by Joseph of
- Women discover empty tomb
(told to report to disciples).
At many points in this
outline each author has inserted material that is not reported there by the
If one limits comparison of
sequence to a pair of gospels at a time an even more significant pattern
appears. The agreement in the outlines of Matthew & Mark, on the one
hand, and Mark & Luke, on the other, is about twice as extensive as the
sequence common to all three. But there is no agreement in the order of
Matthew & Luke apart from the sequence each shares with Mark. The
non-Markan sayings common to Matthew & Luke are presented at different
points in their narratives, except for two passages:
- oracles of John the
- a trio of dialogues
between Jesus & the devil.
In both cases Mark presents a
briefer version of the same scene.
Thus, any synoptic source
theory must account for three characteristics of the gospel outlines:
- Matthew & Luke each
have double the material in Mark's order as each other's.
- Matthew & Luke agree
in sequence only where they also agree with Mark.
- Matthew & Luke include
almost 75 of the same non-Markan sayings at different points in
[For detailed comparison of these patterns
see Gospel Outlines.]
Style: The third factor that needs to be accounted for by any source
theory is the literary style of each gospel. The vocabulary and grammar of
an original narrative represent a particular author's personal style of
story-telling. A text copied by another scribe, on the other hand, will
contain only minimal traces of the second writer's personal style. While the
synoptic writers are authors in their own right, two factors place their
compositions between these extremes of free creation and mechanical
originally separate strands of material from different sources into larger
literary complexes. Thus, the transitions between passages in each
gospel reflect the logic & style typical of that particular writer.
Compilations of oral sources often retain the informal style of orality in
the seams of a written text.
literary works, on the other hand, tend to polish their sources to make the
text read more smoothly. Editing generally improves grammar, reduces
redundant wording, bridges narrative gaps & resolves logical problems.
The gospel of
Mark is the least polished & most oral of the synoptics. Matthew
invariably has better grammar & smoother literary transitions between
passages. Luke writes the most literate Greek in the NT. Yet, in reporting
the same passage, Luke's wording is almost always closer to Mark than to
Matthew. While Luke's transitions between scenes & sayings rely on more
sophisticated rhetoric than Mark's they are never the same as the
transitions in Matthew.
To remain viable
of the relationship of the synoptic gospels must account for these patterns of
parallels & divergences.
Other On-line Resources: