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The Complete Gospels is the copyright title of a book authored by Fellows of the Jesus Seminar.
For description & purchase information contact the Westar Institute.
This page presents auxiliary information rather than excerpts from that book.

[Synoptic Problem] [Mark] [Matthew] [Luke] [Q] [John] [Signs] [Thomas] [Peter] [Fragments]  

Even a casual reading of the gospels of Matthew, Mark & Luke shows that they contain much of the same material & follow similar narrative outlines.

Since early Christian history, interpreters have been convinced that that two of these authors used the work of the third as a basic source for constructing their gospels. Papias, bishop of Hieropolis in Asia Minor in the early 2nd c. CE, claimed that he had heard that Matthew wrote first & that this work had been interpreted by others. This report was picked up & without being checked was simply echoed by other early Christian writers as if it were gospel truth. It seemed to make sense, since Matthew was a name that was found on lists of Jesus' disciples in these three gospels, while the names of Mark & Luke were not among known associates of Jesus.  Thus, when the New Testament was formed, the gospel of Matthew was put first. Later Christian writers, such as Origen & Augustine, like most modern readers, simply assumed  that the gospels were written in the order in which they appear in the New Testament. So, the similarities between the first three gospels were explained as the result of first Mark & then Luke having plagiarized material from Matthew.

By the middle of the 18th c., however, it became evident to some German scholars that this traditional explanation of the evident literary relationship between Matthew, Mark & Luke made it difficult to explain the actual contents of  these gospels.  For, if Mark was dependent on Matthew, then he simply discarded much of Matthew's information about Jesus -- not just little details, but important large blocks of material such as the stories of Jesus' background & birth, the sermon on the Mount & the resurrection appearances. Moreover, Mark's Greek was less polished than Matthew's & many Markan passages posed more logical & theological difficulties than did parallel sections in Matthew.

These difficulties became more obvious to scholars after 1766, when J. J. Griesbach designed a gospel synopsis  in which parallel portions of Matthew, Mark & Luke were printed in adjoining columns. The popularity of Griesbach's work for studying & comparing the texts of Matthew, Mark & Luke led scholars to call these three gospels "the synoptics." Thereafter, the problem of explaining the relationship of the contents of Matthew, Mark & Luke was dubbed: "the synoptic problem."

In 1782 one of Griesbach's former students, J. B. Koppe, published a work that challenged the traditional claim that Mark was a condensation of Matthew's gospel. He pointed out that Mark often differed from Matthew but was often closer to Luke in both wording & narrative sequence. Conversely, Luke's order & wording often had more in common with Mark than Matthew. Since both Mark & Luke agreed at points where they differed from Matthew, Koppe concluded that Matthew was not the primary source of the material common to all three gospels.

Koppe's research convinced even Griesbach that Mark was not simply a shorter version of Matthew. But in order to salvage the traditional view that Matthew was the earliest gospel, Griesbach suggested that Luke first radically revised the material in Matthew & that Mark then wrote a summary of the material on which both Matthew & Luke agreed.  This theory kept Matthew first, but inverted the traditional notion of the order of the composition of Mark & Luke.

The direction of further study of the synoptic problem, however, lay with scholars who granted Koppe's argument that Mark was independent of Matthew but still viewed Luke as dependent on Mark. By the beginning of the 19th c. several scholars were suggesting that Mark was the earliest gospel, which was edited by both Matthew & Luke.  The fact that Matthew & Luke offered different revisions of Mark indicated that they had worked independently of each other, without knowledge of each other's work. At least it was obvious  that each chose not to use the other's revisions of most passages in Mark.

The problem posed by the theory that Mark was the basic source of agreements between Matthew & Luke, however, was how to account for the substantial amount of non-Markan sayings material that was common to the other two synoptics. Since most of these sayings had no equivalent in Mark, Matthew & Luke must have gotten them from some other source. The primary problem with thinking that Luke took these sayings from Matthew was that he almost invariably put these sayings at different points in Mark's narrative outline than Matthew had.  But some scholars remembered that Papias had said that the earliest gospel was a compilation of the sayings (logia) of Jesus.  This was certainly not a good description of any of the extant synoptic gospels.  But it was a perfect description of the type of material that both Matthew & Luke had added to Mark's narrative. Thus, in 1838 C. H. Weisse proposed that Matthew & Luke were based on two documents: Mark & some sayings source (Redenquelle) that was no longer extant as a distinct document.  This theory became known as the "Two Document" or "Two Source" hypothesis.  In an 1890 essay another German scholar, J. Weiss, designated the document from which Matthew & Luke drew the non-Markan material that they shared "Q" (from the German word for "source": Quelle).

The acceptance of the Two Source hypothesis by most leading synoptic scholars in the 20th c. has made it the basis of most gospel analysis for more than a century. But this scholarly consensus has not been unanimous.  In 1955 a British scholar, A. M. Farrer, proposed that one could dispense with the Q hypothesis simply by arguing that Luke revised both Mark & Matthew.  Then in 1964, an American scholar, W. R. Farmer, revived Griesbach's theory that Mark condensed Matthew & Luke. Today, the updated Griesbach theory -- which has been dubbed "the Two Gospel hypothesis" -- is the chief rival to the Two Source hypothesis among conservative American scholars. In Europe, however, -- & England in particular -- there are more supporters of Farrer's thesis.

Still, as the twenty-first century unfolds, some form of the Two Source hypothesis continues to be preferred by an overwhelming majority of critically trained New Testament scholars as the theory that is best able to resolve the synoptic problem.  Although the Jesus Seminar did not formally endorse any single theory of the relationship between Matthew, Mark & Luke, the fact that the Two Source hypothesis was presupposed by most Fellows in their own analysis of gospel texts inevitably made it the common frame of reference for most of the Seminar's debate about the sayings & deeds of Jesus.

Other On-line Resources

  • The Synoptic Problem Website. Stephen C. Carlson presents capsule overviews of all major hypotheses & proponents, as well as basic tools for analysis.

  • The Case Against Q. Mark Goodacre provides lucid information on the alternative to the Q hypothesis first proposed by A. M. Farrer, including his 1955 paper & articles by recent British scholars.


Κατὰ Mάρκον: According to Mark. Analysis of characteristics, historical evidence, dating and focus of the canonical gospel [Synoptic Gospels Primer].

Other On-line Resources

  • A Symbolic Approach to Mark 7. Jerome H. Neyrey's analysis of Mark's presentation of Jesus' conflict with the Pharisees over the issue of purity.


Κατὰ Mαθθαῖον: According to Matthew. Analysis of characteristics, historical evidence, dating and focus of the canonical gospel [Synoptic Gospels Primer].

Other On-line Resources

  • The Sermon on the Mount.  Joachim Jeremias' 1961 lecture summarizing his analysis of the gospel writer's composition of the longest speech of Jesus out of smaller sayings units.



Κατὰ Λοῦκαν: According to Luke. Analysis of characteristics, historical evidence, dating and focus of the canonical gospel [Synoptic Gospels Primer].

Other On-line Resources

  • Kata Loukan (The Gospel according to St. Luke). Verse by verse parallels of 4 versions of the Greek text, the Latin Vulgate and 9 English translations) [from The HTML Bible].
  • From Enthymeme to Theology in Luke 11:1-13. Vernon K. Robbins' rhetorical analysis of Luke's version of Jesus' instructions on prayer. Article from Literary Studies in Luke-Acts: Essays in Honor of Joseph B. Tyson, pp. 191-214 [posted by author].


Q: the Synoptic Sayings Source (Red Letter Edition). Report on the recovery and reconstruction of an early sayings collection edited by Matthew and Luke with detailed analysis of its contents as historical evidence of Jesus.

The Canonical Status of Q. Mahlon H. Smith compares the Q hypothesis with other proposed solutions to the synoptic problem (especially Griesbach-Farmer & Farrer-Goulder), with arguments supporting its claim to be a canonical text.

Other On-line Resources

  • The Existence of Q. Peter Kirby cites arguments by leading scholars for Luke's dependence on a sayings source rather than the gospel of Matthew, with links to many on-line resources.

  • The Gospel of Q. Mark Mattison's translation based on the critical text of Q published by the International Q Project [posted by Gospels.net].

  • The Search for a No-frills Jesus. Charlotte Allen reviews the debate over the reconstruction of Q & explains the strengths & weaknesses of alternate solutions to the synoptic problem through interviews with Burton Mack, James Robinson, John Kloppenborg & their critics [The Atlantic Monthly 278,6 (Dec 1996) pp. 51-68].


Other On-line Resources

  • Kata Iwannhn (The Gospel according to St. John). Verse by verse parallels of 4 versions of the Greek text, the Latin Vulgate and 9 English translations) [from The HTML Bible].


Signs Gospel. Robert T. Fortna's reconstruction of the primary source for the Gospel of John [archived by Early Christian Writings].

Other On-line Resources


Scholars Version Translation by Stephen Patterson & Marvin Meyer from The Complete Gospels [archived by Gnostic Society Library]. 

Other On-line Resources

  • Gospel of Thomas Home Page. Stevan L. Davies' pioneer gateway to information relevant to Thomas on the WWW includes a hypertext edition of his book, Gospel of Thomas and Christian Wisdom.

  • The Gospel of Thomas. Mark Mattison's translation based on Coptic text of Nag Hammadi codex 2 [posed by Gospels.net].

  • Testing Thomas. Compilation of Mahlon H. Smith's posts to Crosstalk debate.



Other On-line Resources

  • The Gospel of Peter. Mark Mattison's fresh translation based on pCairo 10759 [posted by Gospels.net].




Other On-line Resources


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- This page was revised 21 February 2023 -

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