What Are the Synoptic Gospels, and Where Do They Come From?
The Bible’s four gospels paint four portraits of Jesus. While each gospel follows him on the same journey, they recount it a little differently. They had their own methods, styles, purposes, audiences, and (probably) sources—making each portrait of Jesus uniquely valuable.
Despite their unique qualities, the first three gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—share many of the same accounts of Christ, often shared in the same order and with the same wording. Because of their similar perspectives on Jesus' ministry, together they’re known as the synoptic gospels. (The word “synoptic” comes from the Greek word synoptikos, meaning “able to be seen together.”)
While the differences between the gospels can be a challenge for us, these similarities can be problematic, too. The parallel passages between the synoptic gospels have left scholars with pressing questions about their origins. If Matthew, Mark, and Luke wrote about Jesus’ life and ministry from different perspectives, why are they so similar? If four people witnessed a car accident or a parade, they’d probably have loosely similar timelines, but significant variations in how they remember dialogue, what details they recall or omit, and how they describe it all. Yet these three gospels are remarkably similar. How did that happen?
The uncertain relationship between the synoptic gospels is known as “the synoptic problem.”
The synoptic problem
Looking at parallel passages, it’s hard to imagine that Matthew, Mark, and Luke don’t share a source or sources of some kind. What’s unclear is whether or not one or more of the gospels served as a source for the others.
For example, take a look at these passages where Jesus interacts with little children:
|“Then little children were brought to Jesus for him to place his hands on them and pray for them. But the disciples rebuked those who brought them. Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.’ ”
|“People were bringing little children to Jesus to have him touch them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.’ ”
|“People were also bringing babies to Jesus to have him touch them. When the disciples saw this, they rebuked them. But Jesus called the children to him and said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.’ ”
The quote from Jesus is identical in all three passages, and the text leading up to the quote has slightly different wording, but basically says the same thing. Matthew adds that people wanted Jesus to pray for the children. And the gospels are full of passages like these.
So how do we know what’s happening here?
Two key questions we need to answer
The gospels don’t come with a “works cited” page. We don’t have a detailed list of sources to cross-examine. To answer the synoptic problem, scholars mostly have to work from the gospels themselves.
While that means solutions to the synoptic problem rely heavily on speculation, there’s a lot we can deduce from the information we have, and many brilliant people have arrived at the same handful of conclusions.
There are two questions the synoptic problem challenges us to answer:
1. Did the synoptic gospel writers use each other as sources? There’s a clear overlap in material, but the gospels could have shared another source—some combination of written and oral—to produce such similar writings. If we decide that one or more of the gospels was a source for the others, this leads us to a more complicated question:
2. If so, which synoptic gospel was written first and which depended on the others? Without the gospels’ original manuscripts, we can’t just look at the dates to determine which came first. We have to use literary clues to identify which gospel (or gospels) seem to exert the greatest influence on the others.
5 signs the synoptic gospel writers used each other as sources
While some scholars believe each of the gospels was written completely independently of the others, several highly unlikely coincidences make that pretty hard to accept. Here’s why most scholars believe one or more of the gospel writers used the others as sources:
1. So much common material
The Gospel of John isn’t one of the synoptic gospels because it was clearly written independently. Over 90% of the Book of John is unique, that is, the book’s material is not found in any of the other three gospels.
If the synoptic gospels were written independently, we’d expect a significant portion of those gospels to be unique as well. However, over 90% of Mark appears in either Matthew or Luke, and in many cases the wording is unchanged or barely different.
2. So much verbal agreement
While it’s completely possible that the disciples memorized the exact words of Jesus, quotes alone can’t account for the similar wording in the synoptic gospels. Matthew, Mark, and Luke contain entire sentences that are the same word for word, even in narrative material.
These numerous instances of exact matches seems to suggest that the writers worked from the same written material—if they separately worked through oral material years apart, it’s unlikely that they would have all preserved these accounts of Christ verbatim.
3. So much agreement in order
It’s not just the precise wording of parallel passages that raises eyebrows. While some of these passages appear to occur at different times in different gospels, there are numerous instances where the gospel writers presented accounts of Jesus in the same order—even when they don’t appear to be recording the chronological order of events. Towards the beginning of Jesus' ministry, the gospels all present the following events in the same order:
- Jesus heals the paralyzed man (Matthew 9:1–8, Mark 2:1–12, Luke 5:17–26)
- Jesus eats with sinners and tax collectors (Matthew 9:9–13, Mark 2:13–17, Luke 5:27–32)
- Jesus is questioned about fasting (Matthew 9:14–17, Mark 2:18–22, Luke 5:33–39)
- Jesus heals on the Sabbath (Matthew 12:1–14, Mark 3:1–6, Luke 6:1–11)
- Paying taxes to Caesar (Matthew 22:15–22, Mark 12:13–17, Luke 20:20–26)
- Marriage at the resurrection (Matthew 22:23–33, Mark 12:18–27, Luke 20:27–40)
- Whose son is the messiah? (Matthew 22:41–46, Mark 12:35–37, Luke 20:41–44)
- Warning against the teachers of the Law (Matthew 23:1–12, Mark 12:38–40, Luke 20:45–47)
While you’ll find some unique accounts in between, these passages are never rearranged in any of the synoptic gospels. So now we have much of the same material worded the same way and appearing in the same order. The gospel writers certainly aren’t copying everything from each other, but these similarities suggest that each gospel writer is drawing from common material.
4. Agreements in comments and asides
If you and a friend were to tell the same story from your own perspective, what are the chances you’d both choose the same moment to provide commentary? The writers of the synoptic gospels frequently follow the same patterns in their narratives, pausing for parenthetical statements in the same places. Take a look at where the writer breaks up Jesus' quote (which happens to be a word-for-word quotation):
|“ ‘But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins....’ Then he said to the paralytic, ‘Get up, take your mat and go home.’ ”
|“ ‘But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins....’ He said to the paralytic, ‘I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.’ ”
|“ ‘But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins....’ He said to the paralyzed man, ‘I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.’ ”
Even when the wording isn’t exactly the same, the writers choose the same opportunities to add narrative asides. You can see this in Matthew 24:15 and Mark 13:14, Mark 5:8 and Luke 8:29, and Matthew 27:18 and Mark 15:10.
So is this a coincidence? Not likely. If a writer has details to add to the story, they could choose any number of places to add that information. The chances that all three writers would happen to choose the same locations to add the same details—without using one of the other writers as a model—are pretty small. Add that to the fact that many of these same events are recorded with the same (or similar) wording in the same order, and you’ve got a pretty good case for one of these three gospels influencing the other two.
Now here’s the kicker:
5. Identical alterations of the same Old Testament quotes
When Matthew, Mark, and Luke introduce John the Baptist, all three of them quote Isaiah 40:3 from the Septuagint, which includes the phrase “make straight paths for our God.” All three synoptic gospels make the exact same alteration to that phrase, changing it to “make straight paths for him.”
|“This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah: ‘A voice of one calling in the desert, “Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.” ’ ”
|“It is written in Isaiah the prophet: ‘... a voice of one calling in the desert, “Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.” ’ ”
|“As is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet: ‘A voice of one calling in the desert, “Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.” ’ ”
It’s pretty hard to argue that all three writers made the same changes to the same Old Testament quote in the same context completely independently. At some point you have to ask, how many coincidences does it take to equal proof? When the same material is shared with the same words, in the same order, with the same side comments, and the same altered quotes, most scholars agree: one of these gospels was a source for the others—so which is it?
The first solution to the synoptic problem was proposed more than a millennium ago, when St. Augustine of Hippo first noticed the signs suggesting the gospels weren’t written independently.
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Augustine's solution: Mark and Luke borrow from Matthew
Despite all the writings we have from the early church fathers, we don’t have an extensive exploration of the synoptic problem. In fact, what we do have seems to suggest that the early church fathers didn’t see a problem at all. The second-century church father Papias claimed Mark wrote Peter’s version of the gospel, and that Matthew wrote a collection of ta logia—literally, “the oracles”—of Jesus, meaning a collection of his sayings (which may or may not have been the Gospel of Matthew).
It seems that Augustine first identified and focused on the apparent relationship between the synoptic gospels. He believed Matthew wrote first and that Mark took Matthew’s account and abbreviated it. Luke then wrote his gospel using both Matthew and Mark’s gospels as sources.
In the video at the top of this post, Dr. Mark Strauss suggests “[Augustine] probably drew this conclusion based on their canonical order: that Matthew was first, Mark was second, and Luke was third.” Since Augustine’s first keen observations, scholars have found other reasons to support the notion that Matthew wrote first.
Are the synoptic gospels actually based on Matthew?
One of the two major solutions to the synoptic problem is known as Matthean priority, which claims Matthew came first. Unlike Augustine, modern proponents of Matthean priority believe that Luke used Matthew as a source, and then Mark used both, abbreviating them throughout his own gospel.
This is known as the Griesbach hypothesis (named after an influential eighteenth-century scholar who supported it), or the two-gospel hypothesis, since it claims Matthew and Luke were the source for Mark.
There are three main reasons many Bible scholars hold this view:
1. Church tradition supports a Matthew-first view.
Early Christians were closest to the original sources, and until the nineteenth century the church largely assumed that Matthew came first. Church tradition seems to support Matthean priority.
2. Matthew and Luke occasionally agree against Mark.
The strongest argument for Matthean priority is that there are instances in which Matthew and Luke agree, and Mark does not. This view assumes that Mark’s departure from Matthew and Luke is due to Mark abridging the two longer gospels.
3. There is no physical evidence for additional sources.
Proponents of Matthean priority argue that other views (such as Markan priority, discussed below) rely on additional sources, despite no physical evidence that such sources exist. The difference between this theory and Augustine’s solution is simply a matter of who wrote second (Mark or Luke), and who wrote third, using the other two as sources. Both of these Matthean priority theories solve the synoptic problem without the need for additional sources.
The problem with this argument is that Matthew and Luke both contain unique material we don’t see in any of the other synoptic gospels. That material had to come from somewhere, and while an additional source currently only exists in theory, it’s one of the main reasons most scholars instead believe Mark came first.
Are the other synoptics based on Mark?
Most scholars find the Matthean priority argument less convincing than the evidence for Markan priority: the idea that Mark came first. There are several significant reasons to support this view:
1. Most of Mark is included in Matthew and Luke.
About 93% of the material in Mark is in found in either Matthew or Luke. So did Mark take material from both, or did Matthew and Luke take material from Mark?
While some have argued that Mark is an abridged version of the other Synoptics, comparing accounts from Mark to their parallel passages appears to suggest otherwise. For example:
- The account of the demon-possessed man in Mark 5:1–20 has 325 words
- Whereas the parallel passage in Matthew 8:28–34 only has 135 words.
If Mark is using Matthew as his main source for this story, why does he have significantly more detail? If anything, it seems more likely that Matthew and Luke are providing abbreviated versions of the accounts in Mark.
2. Mark occasionally uses Aramaic words.
Whereas Mark retains some of the words from Jesus’ native tongue, Aramaic—such as talitha koum in Mark 5:41 and abba in Mark 14:36—Matthew and Luke consistently provide the Greek translations. If Mark got this material from Matthew or Luke, why would he translate it out of Greek and back into Jesus’ native tongue?
Furthermore, Mark’s Greek isn’t polished in some areas, and Matthew and Luke both appear to smooth over Jesus’ language when there is shared material.
It seems likely that Matthew and Luke would have encountered Aramaic words in Mark’s gospel and translated them into Greek, knowing the words would be unfamiliar to their audiences.
2. If Mark is copying Luke or Matthew, why does he leave so much out?
While there’s a lot of overlap in the stories and accounts found in the Synoptics, Mark is missing some great materials found in Matthew and Luke. If he were working from their material, why would he leave out the Sermon on the Mount?
3. The Synoptics generally follow Mark’s order of events.
As we said earlier, many of the major accounts in the Synoptics appear in the same order in all three gospels. But when Matthew presents events in a different order than Mark, Luke follows Mark’s order. And when Luke presents events in a different order than Mark, Matthew follows Mark’s order.
It appears that Mark’s order is the original, and the other two are trying to follow it. Most scholars would suggest that the deviations occur when Matthew and Luke choose to follow another source besides Mark.
Mark may not be the only source of the other synoptics
While almost all of Mark appears in either Matthew or Luke, there’s a lot of material in those two gospels that isn’t in Mark. If Mark was the only source, where did the other writers get important teachings of Jesus, like the Sermon on the Mount?
And we’re not just talking about accounts that are unique to each gospel—Matthew and Luke share material not found in Mark, sometimes with nearly the same wording, such as in Matthew 6:24 and Luke 16:13.
Mark alone can’t account for all of the material in the synoptic gospels, so in order for Markan priority to hold water, scholars had to propose additional sources.
As we discussed earlier, there’s no physical evidence of an additional source beyond the three synoptic gospels. However, after analyzing the similarities and differences between the three texts, most scholars believe that there was at least one other major source that the gospel writers relied on. This is why scholars have expanded on Markan priority with the two-source theory and the four-source theory.
The two-source theory: The synoptics borrow from Mark & “Q”
Since no additional text has been discovered, scholars dubbed the unknown text source “Q” (probably an abbreviation of quelle, the German word for “source”). It’s also referred to as the “Synoptic Sayings Source.”
Since most of the material exclusive to Matthew and Luke is sayings of Jesus with a few narratives, the two-source theory suggests that one additional source is enough to account for the differences between the Synoptics.
At this point, you may be thinking, “wait—what is this ‘Q’?”
If one of the most widely-accepted solutions to the synoptic problem hinges on a source that only exists in theory, how do scholars explain this source?
Q could be a figment of scholarly imagination
Scholars who don’t support Markan priority argue that “Q” isn’t necessary. To them, the overlap between Matthew and Luke is simply the material Luke borrowed from Matthew. However, this doesn’t explain the material unique to Luke, such as the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal Son.
Q could be a variety of sources, written and oral
To some scholars, the exact nature of “Q” is less important—it could be a body of literature or a variety of oral accounts of Christ not recorded anywhere else.
Q could be a single written source
Since Matthew and Luke frequently use the exact same language to describe events or teachings not recorded in Mark, and they often present them in the same order, many scholars believe “Q” to be a single written source.
Q represents a heterodox community of Christians
Other scholars believe that “Q” goes beyond a single written source, and that it actually represents the core beliefs of a specific group of Christians with their own theology. While the four main views of “Q” are all theories, this one reaches farthest beyond the available evidence.
But Q may not be enough
Some scholars have a problem with the two-source theory: there’s material that appears exclusively in Matthew, and other material that appears exclusively in Luke. It’s possible that each writer simply omitted some of the second source that the other included, and visa versa.
Or maybe two sources aren’t enough to account for the unique material.
The four-source theory: Mark, Q, M, and L
In addition to Q, the four-source theory claims that the unique material in Matthew and unique material in Luke must have come from additional sources, dubbed M (Matthew’s other source) and L (Luke’s other source).
While other Markan priority theories exist, most modern New Testament scholars support some form of the four-source theory. Despite the lack of physical evidence, the literary evidence in the texts themselves makes a strong case that the gospel writers had additional sources, either text-based or oral.
Doesn’t divine inspiration solve the problem?
You might be wondering in all of this, “What about the Holy Spirit?”
Couldn’t God give certain insights to each writer? Why does the synoptic problem have to be answered with evidence, not just inspiration?
Answering the synoptic problem with the Holy Spirit actually forces us to ignore some of the evidence for interdependent gospels—evidence that God included in His divinely-inspired Word.
For example, Luke explicitly tells us he used sources (Luke 1:1-4). Acknowledging and investigating this doesn’t undermine the Bible’s divine authority and inspiration. It helps us trace the path of God’s inspiration. We need to ask, “What did the Holy Spirit use to inspire the gospel writers?”
The origin of the synoptic gospels and their relationships to each other have been the subject of study for centuries, and we still don’t have a definitive answer to the synoptic problem. While the majority of scholars rally behind some version of Markan priority, the debate can only deal in the realm of theory.
This isn’t to say that we can simply shrug at the similarities and differences between the gospels. There’s textual evidence that supports the existence of “Q,” even if we never find physical, written documents.
Ancient cultures placed a lot of weight on oral tradition, sometimes considering a personal account passed on through word-of-mouth to be more accurate than written sources. The early church father Papias once said, “For I did not suppose that information from books would help me so much as the word of a living and surviving voice.”
The closest we may ever get to the origins of the synoptic gospels may very well be the opening lines of Luke:
“Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.” —Luke 1:1–4 (emphasis added)
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This post is adapted from material found in Four Portraits, One Jesus, an online course on Jesus and the Gospels taught by Mark Strauss.
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