The “Synoptic Problem” was first introduced by a German biblical scholar J. J. Griesbach, who chose the word synoptic (or synopsis), meaning "seeing together". This word was then used to describe three evangelist gospels of Mathew, Mark, and Luke. In so doing, the Synoptic Problem has attempted to show and relate common literary uses between these three books. In particular, the term “Synoptic Problem” refers to the discussion and to the interdependence of the Synoptic Gospels. This may include how three evangelists’ books relate to each other in style, form, and literature, all of which are often seen through textual criticism.
Determining dependence or interdependence of each gospel through the realm of Synoptic Problem has helped understand which gospel was then used as a primary source. This is because the Synoptic Problem provides reasonable ground, thereby attempting to conclude which gospel book was written first and, subsequently, which gospel book was then used by others as a primary source. As pointed out by Wallace, unlike John, Mathew, Mark, and Luke gospels share numerous similarities in their text, which includes having many parallel passages with similar arrangements. However, accounting for those similarities seeks a solution to the Synoptic Problem as determining one’s proposed solution would have an ultimate influence on individual’s exegesis. Additionally, solution to such a problem would determine “individual’s redaction criticism thereby forming a criticism of the gospels as a result affecting the quest for the historical Jesus and the overall overview of the early church history.”
Even though some evangelicals today still question the importance of the Synoptic Problem or its solutions, conducting a research to address this issue provides better understanding of the problem. This is an essential core to what Christians believe. This helps understand “Who is the real Jesus? And what did He actually say and do?”. While acknowledging that the study of the Synoptic Problem is complex, irrelevant, and boring, Perkins still believes that such a study is important to analyze broader issues of the New Testament. Consequently, he believes that the study of the Synoptic Problem is important to understand the origin of Christianity itself.
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Therefore, as our societies continue to become more and more pluralistic, where people agree almost to anything without objective absolutes, solutions to the Synoptic Problem continues to be more and more relevant. While the research and interest towards the Synoptic Problem has slowly increased recently, continuing to study this issue will provoke movements towards finding a consensual solution. In so doing, Christians would be brought closer to understanding of life and ministry of Jesus Christ.
General Similarities and Differences among the Three Gospels
Understanding both similarities and differences in the order in which the Synoptic Gospels were written and the literary relationship between them helps define the problem. The gospels according to Mathew, Mark, and Luke are similar to one another not only in content and order of periscopes, but also in expressions, which include styles and vocabulary as well. Literary interdependence of the Synoptic Gospels emanates from having a shared common oral tradition, especially in the agreement of wording. This literal relationship brings out the difference in content between the Synoptic Gospels and the gospel according to John.
For instance, a comparison of feeding the 5, 000 shows this verbatim agreement in the Synoptic Gospels, which differs from that of John. In Mathew 14:19b-20, it states that “Taking the five loaves and the two fish (ichthus), looking upon into heaven he blessed, and breaking, gave to the disciples the loaves, and the disciples to the crowds.” Mark 6:41-42 says “And taking the five loaves and the two fish (ichthus), looking up into heaven, he blessed and broke up the bread, and was giving to the disciples in order that they set before them, and the two fish he distributed to all.” Consequently, Luke 9:16-17, “But taking the five loaves and the two fish (ichthus), looking up into heaven, he blessed them and he broke up and was giving to the disciples to set before the crowd.” However, in John 6:11-12 it states, “Thus Jesus took the loaves, and giving thanks, he distributed to the ones reclining; similarly also, whatever they desired from the fish (opsarion). And when they are full, he says to this disciples "Gather the remaining pieces in order that nothing is lost." Therefore, "the extent of verbatim agreement among the Synoptic Gospel as compared to the gospel of John denotes that there is a literary relationship among the Synoptic Gospels."
On the other hand, there is similarity of agreement in terms of order among the Synoptic Gospels. While the order of pericopae is different among the Synoptic Gospels, there is even a greater amount of agreement in order among the same. For instance, argument on chronological order within the Synoptic Gospels is overruled by occasional disagreement in the order. This is captured where many Mathew’s parables in chapter 13 are either found in Luke's chapter 8 or Luke's chapter 13. Significantly, materials are grouped topically in the gospels. For example, after the Sermon on the Mount in the gospel according to Mathew there are several miracles that are performed by Jesus. Indeed, "Mathew has further arranged his entire gospel so that the collections of narratives alternate with collection of saying." The above notion concurs with Powers' assertion that early patristic writers recognized that gospel writers did not adhere to strict chronological arrangement in their works.
Additionally, the Synoptic Gospels show agreement in parenthetical material. According to Powers, presence of identically parenthetical material denotes literary interdependence of the Synoptic Gospels. Often, it is highly unlikely that two or three distinct writers can coincidentally insert or incorporate into their texts the same editorial comments, especially at exactly same place. For instance, the use of “When you see the desolating sacrilege… (let the reader understand)…,” (Matt 24:15 and Mark 13:14) clearly depicts this interdependence. The reason behind this is that one of gospel writers did not only follow the other in writing his account, but also inserted bulk of discourse and the same parenthetical comment.
An Overview of Common Solutions
From historical point of view, two basic solutions to the Synoptic Problem have surfaced significantly. From the 16th through the 19th centuries, there emerged dependence theories that claimed that each of the Synoptic Gospels was written independently of the two Synoptic Gospels, but only dependent on either a single original gospel, relatively fixed oral sources, or gradually dependent on developed written fragments. It is important to note that most of the dependence theories except the “oral sources” theory have ceased to be argued. Mournet in his article argues that based on their writings both Mathew and Mark are heirs of a common oral tradition, especially by being independent to each other in terms of “large number of parallel passages.” While the "oral sources" was popular in the 19th century, today it has continuously been disregarded since it does not offer practical solutions to the Synoptic Problem.
The second and the most accepted solution to the Synoptic Problem among contemporary scholars are the so called interdependence theories (or hypothesis). These proposed theories primarily focus on source criticism, especially in answering questions such as “What written sources, if any, did the evangelists use in compiling their Gospels?” In so doing, they help investigate these gospel sources to determine how they were used to complete the Synoptic Gospels. Among numerous proposed solutions, there are at least 4 or 5 prevailing ones, which have several well-known advantages or limitations that originate from their basic parent theory of literary interdependence.
For instance, the traditional or Augustinian hypothesis is one of the interdependence theories developed as a solution to the synoptic puzzle. According to Augustine’s solution, Mathew was written first, then Mark used Mathew, and Luke used Mark in creating “synopses” or harmonies of the gospels. By this, Augustine’s solution defends the canonical order of the gospel, thereby reflecting interest in related gospel questions. Contrary to Augustinian hypothesis, the Two-Gospel hypothesis proposed by Griesbach notes that Mathew was written first, then Luke, and lastly Mark, who ultimately produced a digest of Mathew and Luke. In its defense, the theory brings out the fact that Mathew, Mark, and Luke were written in a certain chronological manner. Concurring to the existence of this chronological order is the Farrer theory that proposed that Mark’ gospel was written first, Mathew used Mark as a primary source, and then Luke used both Mathew and Marks as sources. While the above theories denote an order of chronology in the writing of the Synoptic Gospels, their weaknesses stem from the variability in certain order of writing, which makes it difficult to determine which gospel was written first, second, or third.
However, one of the theories that was not stated above but provides a better solution to the Synoptic Problem is the Two-Source Hypothesis. It is based on this theory that this study discusses the theory.
The Two-Source Hypothesis
The Two-Source Hypothesis provides an essential solution to the Synoptic Problem because it uses two basic sources to explain the origins of the Synoptic Gospels. The first literary source for the solution as held by the theory is the priority of Mark, and the second source, the existence of Q. Based on the views of K. Lachmann and H. J. Holtzmann, proponents of the theory; “Mark was the one which was first written gospel with Mathew and Luke independently of each other, dependent on Mark.” Additionally, “both depended on the Q material, which was thought to have been composed in Antioch approximately A.D. 50.” It is this dependency on Mark that is continuously used to illustrate where there is “agreement between Mathew, Mark, and Luke, and they are dependent on Q in all those passages where there is agreement between Mathew and Luke.”
Streeter in his article Four Gospels discusses an understanding of source criticism, thereby drawing conclusion that Mathew and Luke were both dependent on Mark and Q. It is the incorporation of a variety of other materials known as Q within the gospel of Mathew and Luke that depicts this dependency. For instance, “Mathew in his gospel has continuously depended on non-extant sayings source “M” (written in Jerusalem approximately A.D. 60), while Luke has dependent on his own non-extant sayings source “L” (written in Caesarea approximately A.D. 60).” The “M” and “L” materials are the passages that are unique to the book of Mathew and Luke respectively.
In examining the Two-Source theory by using the triple tradition, a series of cumulative arguments are presented that show Mark as superior and more significantly. This shows the existence and likelihood of both Mathew and Luke knowing and using the Q material. These arguments outlined above have supported the notion that there is literary dependency between the three Synoptic Gospels. This has resulted from painstaking process of word-by-word comparison such as comparison of Mathew14:19b-20, Mark 6:41-42, and Luke 9:16-17. As a result, disapproving that evangelists had no literary dependency of certain form has not been easy, something that all theories have reviewed here. According to Streeter, Mathew reproduces 91% of Mark and Luke 55% of Mark, much of which is attributed to the same identity of wording. Next, the writer notes that words used by Mathew and Luke really correspond to each other as compared to general agreement in order between either Mathew, Luke, or Mark.
Additionally, examining the existence of Q through the complexity of Luke’s Prologue as discussed by Newman determines whether Luke actually knew Mathew and whether Q were written or oral sources. Today, the source and origin of the Q material seems to be the Synoptic Problem itself as people still debate on how such materials came to be known as Q. The fact that Mathew and Luke have approximately 250 common verses, which are not found in Mark suggests that Mathew and Luke must have used secondary sources known to both. Therefore, Q has continued to be the most widely used explanation for the Mathew-Luke material that is not common to Mark, thereby making a Two-Source hypothesis a dominant solution for the Synoptic Problem.
In conclusion, the Synoptic Problem has been examined with an illustration of the process through which the gospels came into existence and why it had some dated order, which still remains extremely complex. This process has become so complex with no source-critical hypothesis, however, it can best provide a complete explanation of the situation. In this limited discussion, therefore, it should be noted that details of arguments relating to the Synoptic Problem have been examined. However, it is leaving out the basic overview of the problem. It is in this perspective that various questions for further study should be addressed to find new ideas that can help determine the origin of the gospels. The questions include: Were Q sayings written down or oral accounts passed on from eyewitnesses? If so, how reliable would they be for a plausible solution today? If Q presented good values that both Mathew and Luke dependent on, why do Christians not have evidentiary pieces of such documents today? Is it possible for the Two-Source Hypothesis solution to prevail without existence of important pieces of such documents?