The synoptic gospels
The first three gospels have striking similarities and can be put in parallel columns for sake of
comparison. This arrangement is called a synopsis. Therefore Matthew, Mark and Luke have become
known collectively as the Synoptic Gospels. The word ‘synoptic’ is from the Greek ‘synoptikos’, which means to see the whole together, or to take a comprehensive view.
All three gospels have the same general historical structure, beginning with the baptism and temptation, followed by the Galilean ministry, the turning point of Peter's confession, the journey to Jerusalem, and finally the trial, crucifixion and resurrection.
There are also similarities in vocabulary, for instance in the healing of the leper (Mt 8, Mk 1, Lk 5), parts of the Olivet Discourse (Mt 24, Mk 13, Lk 21) and Joseph of Arimathea asking for Jesus' body (Mt 27, Mk 15, Lk 23).
There are sections common to Matthew and Luke, but not present in Mark, especially the teaching of
There are many notable divergences. Some material found in more than one gospel has differences in
vocabulary, while others are placed in different historical settings. The healing of the centurion's servant is in a different position and is described differently in Mt 8 and Lk 7. The passion narratives, although in a similar sequence, differ in wording and details. The birth narratives in Matthew and Luke are almost totally complementary, with little or no overlap.
What is the synoptic problem?
If the three gospels are absolutely independent of each other how can one account for the minute verbal agreement in their text in certain places?
If they are copied from each other, or compiled freely from other sources, how can they be original and authoritative? Are they truly a product of inspired writers, or are they merely combinations of anecdotes which may or may not be true.
A summary of the similarities
The three Gospels report the same words and deeds of Jesus. the same miracles, parables, discussions
and principal events.
Passages found in all three gospels are called the 'threefold tradition'. Passages found in only two of the gospels are called the 'twofold tradition'. Unique passages found in only one gospel are called the 'unique tradition'.
Mark is the shortest Gospel. Almost all the material also occurs in Matthew or Luke or both. Very little material is unique to Mark. Matthew contains approximately 600 verses of Mark (90%). Luke contains
more than half of Mark, 340 verses (50%). Matthew contains 30% unique material. Luke contains about
50% unique material.
||Mt + Mk 170-180
Mt + Lk 230
|Mt + Mk 170-180
Mk + Lk 50
|Mk + Lk 50
||350 - 370
||350 - 370
||350 - 370
Matthew has 1070 verses in total. 330 of these are unique. Between 170 and 180 are also found in Mark.
230 are also found in Luke, and between 350 and 370 are in all three gospels.
Mark has a total of 677 verses. 70 are unique to Mark. Between 170 and 180 are also found in Matthew.
50 are also found in Luke, and between 350 and 370 are in all three gospels.
Luke has a total of 1150 verses. 520 are unique to Luke. 230 are also found in Matthew. 50 are also
found in Mark, and between 350 and 370 are in all three gospels.
Structure of the gospels
The course of Jesus' life and ministry are presented in similar fashion in all three gospels.
|Preliminaries to ministry
|Journey to Jerusalem
|Passion and resurrection
Similarities in language and grammar
Many passages show close agreement in language and wording. This can include passages where unusual Greek constructions or comparatively rare Greek words are used. Some passages agree word for word.
Sometimes two or maybe all three passages agree on an OT quotation that is different from both the Hewbrew Masoretic Text (MT) and the Greek Septuagint (LXX).
Differences in content
Some accounts are only in one or maybe two gospels. When in two they differ a little or sometimes
greatly. For example, the birth narratives and genealogies in Matthew and Luke, as well as the Sermon
on the Mount in Matthew and The Sermon on the Plain in Luke.
Difference in arrangement
One gospel groups material in one place while the other scatters it throughout. Luke tends to follow
Mark's order more closely than Matthew does.
Some suggested solutions
Before the 19th century the standard view, first taught by Augustine was that Mark was an shortened
version of Matthew. Since the 19th century, when this issue was first studied in detail, there have been
many suggested solutions.
The use of oral traditions
The writers used oral tradition. However this does not explain the complete agreement in wording and
Literary interdependence occurs when a writer depended upon an earlier document as a source of information. There are two suggestions. The first is that Mark used material from Matthew, then Luke used material from Mark. However, if Mark is a shortened version of Matthew, we are left with the question of where did Mark get his extra information from. Also the style of Mark is more lively than Matthew. Some individual accounts are much longer in Mark, than in Matthew. One example is the death of John the Baptist, where the account in Mark (Mk 6:14-29) is longer and more detailed than the account in Matthew (Mt 14:1-12).
The second suggestion is that Mark was used as a source for both Matthew and Luke. It is possible that
Luke used Mark (Luke 1:1-4).
This explains the threefold tradition, but does not help explain the existence of the two-fold material found only in Matthew and Luke, but not Mark?
Two source or Two document Theory
Many scholars suggest there was a source that Matthew and Luke used that is separate from Mark. This source is called Q, from the German 'Quelle', which means ‘source’. This source is said to consist almost entirely of the words or sayings of Jesus. However, there is no evidence that such a written source ever existed.
The two later Synoptics, Matthew and Luke, are said to have drawn the greater parts of their Gospels
from these two sources, Mark and Q, and adapted it to the people they were addressing.
This is a simplified study of the synoptic problem and its solution. There are many more solutions that have been suggested and some get extremely complex.
The facts that we do know
Mark got his material from Peter, writing was is effectively an extended sermon of Peter. According to Luke many had compiled narratives of the life of Jesus (Luke 1:1), therefore there were many accounts in circulation. Luke did research before he wrote his Gospel, he openly claimed to use other written sources. It is also likely that he spoke to eyewitnesses. As one of the twelve disciples, Matthew was an eye witness.
One possible and common explanation is that Mark was written first. Matthew used Mark as basis but added much of his own material. Then thirdly, Luke used both plus many other sources.
However, this does not match evidence we have for the historical setting for each gospel. Mark is normally thought to have been written following the Fire of Rome in AD 64, encouraging the believers in Rome who were being persecuted by Nero. Luke ends his Book of Acts with Paul in prison (house-arrest) in Rome for two years between AD 60 and AD 62. This would suggest that his gospel was finished earlier, perhaps while Paul was in Caesarea around AD 58. Tradition from the early church suggests that Matthew was the first gospel to be written, although the date is not certain. If these are true, then the order would be Matthew, then Luke, and finally Mark.