The Synoptic Problem

So this coming Sunday we start our New Testament curriculum year. I plan to do an introduction to the New Testament, much along the lines I did four years ago, the gist of which you can read from my blog post at that time. I also think I may add a little bit about NT scholarship. Gospel Doctrine is not an academic course in the NT, but it is useful for students to have some sense of some of the issues that would be broached in such a course. Some of the things I’m toying with briefly describing are textual criticism, the delay of the Parousia, pseudonymous writings (although I’m thinking this last topic might be too much to bite off for only a portion of a single lesson and am leaning away from mentioning it). The other thing I’m thinking about describing is the Synoptic Problem. So I thought I would take a shot at describing this issue here in case it might be useful to others preparing similar introductory lessons.

Matthew, Mark and Luke are referred to collectively as the “synoptic” gospels, because they share a lot of material, including vocabulary and ordering, and thus “see together.” These parallels can be seen clearly in a “synopsis,” which is a three-columned harmony of these gospels. The problem is how best to account for both these similarities and also the differences among these three books.

There are a variety of theories, that are usually organized along the lines of which Gospel was composed first. Thus, there are Matthean Priority, Marcan Priority and Lucan Priority theories, as well as other theories that do not assign a priority to any Gospel. (In Mormon studies compare the different positions vis-a-vis the Book of Mormon: 1 Nephi Priority or Mosian Priority, the latter of which theory has clearly won the day.)

Before outlining the theories, there are a couple of terms to become familiar with. First, the “triple tradition” refers to material that is common to all three Gospels. About 76% of Mark is also common to Matthew and Luke. (Another 18% is common between Mark and Matthew.) Second, the “double tradition” refers to material that is common to Matthew and Luke but not derived from Mark. About a quarter of these two Gospels falls into this category.

The oldest, most traditional and conservative theory is called the Augustinian theory, and takes the Gospels as being composed in their canonical order: Matthew, Mark and then Luke. Under this theory, Mark has a place between Matthew and Luke. A more common version of Matthean Priority today is the Two-Gospel or Griesbach Theory, which puts the composition order as Matthew, Luke, Mark, arguing that Mark has collected what Matthew and Luke share in common.

The most widely held theory today is the Two-Source Theory, which assumes Marcan Priority. According to this view, the triple tradition is accounted for by Mark being the earliest Gospel and Matthew and Luke both copying substantial material from Mark. So how do we account for the double tradition? By means of a hypothetical source, called appropriately enough Q (from German Quelle “source”). There is also a variant of this theory called the Four-Source Theory, which posits that there were also separate sources that account for the material that is unique to Matthew (Special-M) and unique to Luke (Special-L).

Other scholars retain Marcan Priority, but do away with the need for Q, by positing either that Luke borrowed from Matthew (the Farrer Hypothesis) or that Matthew borrowed from Luke the (Wilke Hypothesis).

That is sort of the gist of things. Here is a website that goes into these theories in much more detail. Personally, FWIW, I am partial to the Two-Source Theory. For a brief description of this issue in my Footnotes to the New Testament for Latter-day Saints project, see pp. vii-viii here.


  1. What’s your lesson’s takeaway pertaining to this particular issue, though? I like the idea of talking about it in Sunday School, but how do you tie it in to the lesson?

  2. I also am interested in why you feel this is important for a Sunday School class. I love this sort of stuff, but what is the purpose of going over it in a class that I assume has a wide range of experience, textual understanding, viewpoint, personal need, etc?

  3. WestBerkeleyFlats says:

    I think that the point is that members assume that they can combine the narratives of the four gospels together, even though there are differences between them, especially with regard to John.

  4. Kevin Barney says:

    My lesson is an overview of the NT–how it’s structured, how it came to be, the types of literature in it. For that purpose the Synoptic Problem is right in the lesson’s wheelhouse as an illustration of the kind of thing scholars talk and think and write and argue about. I’m trying to illustrate issues in NT scholarship, not because we’ll be covering those in the year-long course (we won’t), but to give people at least a small sense of the kinds of things scholars care about.

  5. That makes sense. Thanks.

    My only input is to keep it as simple as possible, with illustrations (perhaps a Venn Diagram done in advance). I can see spending a couple of minutes on it, but I think most members will have an unspoken “so what” reflex. If you can tie it into “as far as it is translated correctly”, maybe that would provide an answer to that reflex. (I might be underestimating your ward, so take this comment fwiw.)

  6. Kevin Barney says:

    Yes, it will be a small segment of the lesson, and I will be using a diagram.

  7. Lori Lehtola says:

    I love your article, and really wish I could be in your class! I’m an historian and have been studying this field, along with that of first century Christianity, for several years now, It’s really important for anyone who studies the New Testament to have a good background in how it was written!

  8. Not to suggest there is a right or wrong about it, but personally I would have a “so what” reaction to Augustinian vs Two Source vs Four Source. But I would have a great interest in the differences (in LDS circles call it the uncorrelated portions). What are they? Why are there differences? What is the message? Is the true story the union or the intersection of the three? Or rather is the useful or meaningful or important story the union or the intersection? (I’m a union sort — give me more, give me all, it doesn’t have to be neat.)

  9. Here is a link to an online version of a book on the Synoptic problem written by Mark Goodacre, a well-regarded NT scholar at Duke University. He is not a fan of Q.

  10. Kevin Barney says:

    Yes, Mark Goodacre is a key critic of the Two-Source Theory.

  11. The “takeaway” point seems pretty easy to me: a simplistic, literalist reading of a single translation will not yield the full fruits of _studying_ the scriptures. There’s a lifetime of new things to learn about the text, despite what members may have concluded from the soul-deadening once-every-four-years catechistic approach Gospel Doctrine classes typically take.

  12. A takeaway that every LDS reader of the NT should gain from Kevin’s survey of the Synoptic problem: humility in the face of texts that our people largely don’t know too well. This is the first step to reading the NT fruitfully. Ever so gently, we need to be made aware of our undisciplined and often premodern approach to NT study. This is a critical takeaway.

  13. Or what Kristine said.

  14. Amen to what Kristine says, also. In addition, I probably don’t need to point you to Julie Smith’s NT Gospel Doctrine Lesson #1 over at T&S, which seems to me to approach the pith of the Synoptic Problem in very accessible language with a great example. If I were teaching GD in my ward, which will happen when Hell freezes over, I would probably incorporate some of that material.

    Really, though, the scriptures make so much more sense, at least to me, when we know a little more about their background. Anything that shakes the class out of a narrowly-focused inerrancy approach is a great idea.

    Since my ward changes from the 9:00AM block to the 11:00AM block this year, I’ll just be so grateful for the extra rest that the instructor will get a pass for the first couple weeks!

  15. To be clear, I agree with everything that has been said about the importance of the possible takeaway articulated in the last few comments. I have stressed repeatedly to the kids in my Sunday School class that they must slow down, really study and think about context, historical background, unwritten implications, family and cultural influences and dynamics, etc. if they are to begin to understand our scriptures more fully. I have taught them not to proof text and rip verses and passages out of context – and to consider translation / transmission issues even in the Book of Mormon.

    I just didn’t get that from the OP and thought, as worded, it would go over the heads of most people and get lost in translation.

  16. Gospel Principles is down the hall, for anyone who takes a “so what” approach to the origins of the text they’re supposed to be studying.

  17. Imasurfer says:

    Well guys, that’s it for me…. I’m heading to the Gospel Principles class down the hall. I apologize for my ” narrowly focused” “premodern” approach to studying the life of the Savior that is sullying the purity of your vision.
    Let me know how your church turns out.

  18. I’ll second the treatment and analogy Julie Smith uses. Good approach to make it more accessible to the average student. Even the Bible Dictionary points to the differences between the 4 gospels, but people forget to take that next step and ask what impact those different approaches has to the reader’s view of the story. Who was their audience? Why did the author choose that approach? I’ve no idea what our ward will present on this topic, but I’d be surprised if most of them aren’t aware at least of rudimentary differences between the gospels, although I’m sure there are a few who lean toward the laziness of Biblical inerrancy.

  19. Imasurfer: No need to apologize for anything. The reason I asked the question at the top of the thread is because I personally find a lot of value in learning about these types of issues but I recognize that not all church members feel the same way. I was recently called to teach Gospel Doctrine so I am trying to find ways to introduce a class to issues like this while following the lesson plan guidelines given in the manuals.

    The takeaway I plan to discuss: Here we have 4 different testimonies of Jesus Christ. (Using the terminology added in the JST, testimony of instead of gospel according to.) They have all been gathered into one book where they each do their best to represent the Savior for our nourishment and to provide saving knowledge. The fact that they are not identical, that they present differing perspectives, seems very crucial to me. I plan to ask the class what we think about the fact that testimonies of Christ in this most important scripture are somewhat diverse in approach, content, perspective, in addition to being united on so many other things. That says something important about you and me, really.

  20. Imasurfer: In addition to what BHodges says, Julie Smith’s “Search, Ponder & Pray” (2d Edition from Kofford Books released 12/17/14) provides a backdrop for the four testimonies and has over 4600 questions of the gospels. While some of these questions can get one’s reading bogged down (something to be desired, at least occasionally), I think its helpful every so often to look at the differences between each of the accounts, not to harmonize them. I’m also fascinated by Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, which places an emphasis on who wrote the Gospels and what they knew or saw.

    I’ve appreciated nearly all of the comments and have been an admirer of Kevin’s work for years.

  21. After a brief four-week stint in a CTR class at the very end of the year, which came at the end of a nearly-three-year stint as a Valiant teacher, I am right back with a Valiant class this year and am looking forward to teaching the New Testament. The Primary lessons, of course, focus more on the stories of the Saviour, but I love posts like these which help me guide my personal study as I prepare to teach the children in my class. One thing I have learned: children in Senior Primary are capable of, willing to, and interested in understanding the scriptures and exploring issues like these! So even though it won’t be a major focus of my class, I will surely be incorporating elements (along with posts from That Other Blog and also Ben Spackman’s blog on Patheos.) Lots of sources to give me lots of background! Thanks!

  22. Kevin Barney says:

    The lesson went fine. Most of the time was an overview and introduction to the NT. I only had enough time for two short enrichment sections on things that would be addressed in an academic university type class (to widen their perspective). We spent maybe five minutes on the Synoptic Problem, working our way through a chart on the board showing the various relationships among the synoptic gospels. If you want to see the chart I used, it’s on the right hand side of this Wikipedia page:

    Then we spent the last maybe five minutes explaining what textual criticism is and a little bit about how scholars go about doing it.

    Here’s how I tried to explain the principle of lectio difficilior, to the effect that all else being equal, the more difficult text is likely to be original. That’s counterintuitive and hard for people to wrap their minds around. So I gave this illustration: Say that your seventh grader writes a report for school, but her handwriting is messy and she asks you, her mother, to copy the text over before turning it in. So as you’re copying it you come to misspellings and bad grammar and other infelicities. Maybe you copy it exactly as she wrote it. Or, just maybe, you figure you’ll clean it up as you copy, correcting the misspellings and bad grammar. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is an illustration of lectio difficilior. Scribes were not gremlins introducing problems into the text; to the contrary, if anything their inclination was to smooth out the text and remove problems, just like the mother in my story.

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