The Synoptic Problem


The Canonical Gospels Independent of One Another

There is no direct evidence that any of the three Synoptists saw and used the work of the others; nor is the agreement of such a character that it may not be as easily and better explained from antecedent sources. The advocates of the theory of interdependency, or the “borrowing” hypothesis, differ widely among themselves: some make Matthew, others. Mark, others Luke, the source of the other two or at least of one of them; while still others go back from the Synoptists in their present form to a proto-Mark (Urmarkus), or proto-Matthew (Urmatthaeus), proto-Luke (Urlukas), or other fictitious antecanonical documents; thereby confessing the insufficiency of the borrowing hypothesis pure and simple.
There is no allusion in any of the Synoptists to the others; and yet Luke expressly refers to many earlier attempts to write the gospel history. Papias, Irenaeus, and other ancient writers assume that they wrote independently.  The first who made Mark a copyist of Matthew is Augustine (here), and his view has been completely reversed by modern research. The whole theory degrades one or two Synoptists to the position of slavish and yet arbitrary compilers, not to say plagiarists; it assumes a strange mixture of dependence and affected originality; it weakens the independent value of their history; and it does not account for the omissions of most important matter, and for many differences in common matter. For the Synoptists often differ just where we should most expect them to agree.

  • Why should Mark be silent about the history of the infancy, the whole sermon on the Mount (the Magna Charta of Christ’s kingdom), the Lord’s Prayer, and important parables, if he had Matthew 1–2, 5–7, 13, before him?
  • Why should he, a pupil of Peter, record the Lord’s severe rebuke to Peter (Mark 8:27–33), but fail to mention from Matthew 16:16–23 the preceding remarkable laudation: “Thou art Rock, and upon this rock I will build my church?”
  • Why should Luke omit the greater part of the sermon on the Mount, and all the appearances of the risen Lord in Galilee?
  • Why should he ignore the touching anointing scene in Bethany, and thus neglect to aid in fulfilling the Lord’s prediction that this act of devotion should be spoken of as a memorial of Mary “wheresoever this gospel shall be preached in the whole world (Matt. 26:13; Mark 14:9)?
  • Why should he, the pupil and companion of Paul, fail to record the adoration of the Magi, the story of the woman of Canaan, and the command to evangelize the Gentiles, so clearly related by Matthew, the Evangelist of the Jews (Matt. 2:1–12; 15:21–28; 24:14; 28:19)?
  • Why should Luke and Matthew give different genealogies of Christ, and even different reports of the model prayer of our Lord, Luke omitting (beside the doxology, which is also wanting in the best MSS. of Matthew) the petition, “Thy will be done, as in heaven, so on earth,” and the concluding petition, “but deliver us from evil” (or “the evil one”), and substituting “sins” for “debts,” and “Father” for “Our Father who art in heaven“?
  • Why should all three Synoptists differ even in the brief and official title on the Cross, and in the words of institution of the Lord’s Supper, where Paul, writing in 57, agrees with Luke, referring to a revelation from the Lord (1 Cor. 11:23)?

Had the Synoptists seen the work of the others, they could easily have harmonized these discrepancies and avoided the appearance of contradiction. To suppose that they purposely varied to conceal plagiarism is a moral impossibility. We can conceive no reasonable motive of adding a third Gospel to two already known to the writer, except on the ground of serious defects, which do not exist (certainly not in Matthew and Luke as compared with Mark), or on the ground of a presumption which is inconsistent with the modest tone and the omission of the very name of the writers.
These difficulties are felt by the ablest advocates of the borrowing hypothesis, and hence they call to aid one or several pre-canonical Gospels which are to account for the startling discrepancies and signs of independence, whether in omissions or additions or arrangement. But these pre-canonical Gospels, with the exception of the lost Hebrew Matthew, are as fictitious as the Syro-Chaldaic Urevangelium of Eichhorn, and have been compared to the epicycles of the old astronomers, which were invented to sustain the tottering hypothesis of cycles.
As to Luke, we have shown that he departs most from the triple tradition, although he is supposed to have written last, and it is now almost universally agreed that he did not use the canonical Matthew.  Whether he used the Hebrew Matthew and the Greek Mark or a lost proto-Mark, is disputed, and at least very doubtful.  He follows a plan of his own; he ignores a whole cycle of events in Mark 6:45–8:26; he omits in the common sections the graphic touches of Mark, for which he has others equally graphic; and with a far better knowledge of Greek he has yet more Hebraisms than Mark, because he drew largely on Hebrew sources. As to Matthew, he makes the impression of primitive antiquity, and his originality and completeness have found able advocates from Augustine down to Griesbach and Keim. And as to Mark, his apparent abridgments, far from being the work of a copyist, are simply rapid statements of an original writer, with many fresh and lively details which abundantly prove his independence. On the other hand, in several narratives he is more full and minute than either Matthew or Luke.  Compare the healing of the paralytic Mark 2:3-12 with Matt. 9:2-8, the murder of John the Baptist Mark 6:14-29 with Matt. 14:1-13 & Luke 9:7-9, the healing of the demoniac boy Mark 9:14-29 with Matt. 17:14-21 and Luke 9:37-43, also the accounts of Peter’s denial.  His independence has been successfully proven by the most laborious and minute investigations and comparisons.  Hence many regard him as the primitive Evangelist made use of by both Matthew and Luke but disagree among themselves as to whether it was the canonical Mark or a proto-Mark.  In either case Matthew and Luke would be guilty of plagiarism. What should we think of an historian of our day who would plunder another historian of one-third or one-half of the contents of his book without a word of acknowledgment direct or indirect? Let us give the Evangelists at least the credit of common honesty, which is the basis of all morality.

Apostolic Teaching the Primary Source of All the Synoptists

The only certain basis for the solution of the problem is given to us in the preface of Luke. He mentions two sources of his own Gospel—but not necessarily of the two other Synoptic Gospels—namely, the oral tradition or deliverance of original “eyewitnesses and ministers of the word” (apostles, evangelists, and other primitive disciples), and a number of written “narratives,” drawn up by “many,” but evidently incomplete and fragmentary, so as to induce him to prepare, after accurate investigation, a regular history of “those matters which have been fulfilled among us.” Besides this important hint, we may be aided by the well-known statements of Papias about the Hebrew Gospel of Matthew and the Greek Mark, whom he represents as the interpreter of Peter.
The chief and common source from which the Synoptists derived their Gospels was undoubtedly the living apostolic tradition or teaching which is mentioned by Luke in the first order. This teaching was nothing more or less than a faithful report of the words and deeds of Christ himself by honest and intelligent eye-witnesses.[footnote]Luke 1:2: καθὼς παρέδοσαν (handed down by the living word) ἡμῖν οἱ ἀπ ̓ ἀρχῆς (i.e., from the beginning of the public ministry of Christ; comp. Acts 1:21 sq.; John 15:27) αὐτόπται καὶ ὑπηρέται γενόμενοι τοῦ λόγου (the same persons).[/footnote] He told his disciples to preach, not to write, the gospel, although the writing was, of course, not forbidden, but became necessary for the preservation of the gospel in its purity. They had at first only “hearers;” while the law and the prophets had readers.[footnote]Hearers and hearing of the gospel are spoken of in many passages, as Matt. 13:14; Luke 7:1; John 12:38; Acts 17:20; Rom. 2:13; 1 Thess. 2:13; James 1:22, 23, 25. The reading (ἀναγινώσκειν) is mostly used of the Old Testament: Matt. 12:3, 5; 21:16, 42; 24:15; Mark 25; 12:10, 26; 13:14; Luke 4:16; 6: 3; 10:26; Acts 8:28, 30, 32; 13:27; 15:21, etc.; of the Epistles of Paul: Eph. 3:4; Col. 4:16; 1 Thess. 6:27; of the book of Revelation: Rev. 1:3; 5:4.[/footnote] Among the Jews and Arabs the memory was specially trained in the accurate repetition and perpetuation of sacred words and facts. The Mishna was not reduced to writing for two or three hundred years. In the East everything is more settled and stationary than in the West, and the traveler feels himself as by magic transferred back to manners and habits as well as the surroundings of apostolic and patriarchal times. The memory is strongest where it depends most on itself and least upon books.
The apostolic tradition or preaching was chiefly historical, a recital of the wonderful public life of Jesus of Nazareth, and centered in the crowning facts of the crucifixion and resurrection. This is evident from the specimens of sermons in the Acts. The story was repeated in public and in private from day to day and Sabbath to Sabbath. The apostles and primitive evangelists adhered closely and reverently to what they saw and heard from their divine Master, and their disciples faithfully reproduced their testimony. “They continued steadfastly in the apostles’ teaching” (Acts 2:42). Reverence would forbid them to vary from it; and yet no single individual, not even Peter or John, could take in the whole fullness of Christ. One recollected this, another another part of the gospel story; one had a better memory for words, another for facts. These differences, according to varying capacities and recollection, would naturally appear, and the common tradition adapted itself, without any essential alteration, to particular classes of hearers who were first Hebrews in Palestine, then Greek Jews, proselytes, and Gentiles.
The Gospels are nothing more than comprehensive summaries of this apostolic preaching and teaching. Mark represents it in its simplest and briefest form, and agrees nearest with the preaching of Peter as far as we know it from the Acts; it is the oldest in essence, though not necessarily in composition. Matthew and Luke contain the same tradition in its expanded and more matured form, the one the Hebrew or Jewish Christian, the other the Hellenistic and Pauline type, with a corresponding selection of details. Mark gives a graphic account of the main facts of the public life of Christ “beginning from the baptism of John unto the day that he was received up,” as they would naturally be first presented to an audience (Acts 1:22). Matthew and Luke add the history of the infancy and many discourses, facts, and details which would usually be presented in a fuller course of instruction.

Written Documents

It is very natural that parts of the tradition were reduced to writing during the thirty years which intervened between the events and the composition of the canonical Gospels. One evangelist would record for his own use a sketch of the chief events, another the sermon on the Mount, another the parables, another the history of the crucifixion and resurrection, still another would gather from the lips of Mary the history of the infancy and the genealogies. Possibly some of the first hearers noted down certain words and events under the fresh impressions of the moment. The apostles were indeed unlearned, but not illiterate men, they could read and write and had sufficient rudimentary education for ordinary composition. These early memoranda were numerous, but have all disappeared, they were not intended for publication, or if published they were superseded by the canonical Gospels. Hence there is room here for much speculation and conjectural criticism.  “Many,” says Luke, “have taken in hand to draw up a narrative concerning those matters which have been fulfilled among us.”  He cannot mean the apocryphal Gospels which were not yet written, nor the canonical Gospels of Matthew and Mark which would have spared him much trouble and which he would not have dared to supersede by an improved work of his own without a word of acknowledgment, but pre-canonical records, now lost, which emanated from “eye-witnesses and ministers of the word,” yet were so fragmentary and incomplete as to justify his own attempt to furnish a more satisfactory and connected history. He had the best opportunity to gather such documents in Palestine, Antioch, Greece, and Rome. Matthew, being himself an eyewitness, and Mark, being the companion of Peter, had less need of previous documents, and could rely chiefly, oil their own memory and the living tradition in its primitive freshness. They may have written sketches or memoranda for their own use long before they completed their Gospels; for such important works cannot be prepared without long continued labor and care. The best books grow gradually and silently like trees.


We conclude, then, that the Synoptists prepared their Gospels independently, during the same period (say between a.d. 60 and 69), in different places, chiefly from the living teaching of Christ and the first disciples, and partly from earlier fragmentary documents. They bear independent testimony to the truth of the gospel. Their agreement and disagreement are not the result of design, but of the unity, richness, and variety of the original story as received, understood, digested, and applied by different minds to different conditions and classes of hearers and readers.[footnote]In this conclusion (which I stated thirty years ago in the first edition of my Hist. of the Apostolic Church) some of the ablest investigators of the Synoptic problem independently agree, as Lange, Ebrard, Norton, Alford, Godet, Westcott, and Farrar. “The Synoptic Gospels,” says Alford “contain the substance of the Apostles’ testimony, collected principally from their oral teaching current in the church, partly also from written documents embodying portions of that teaching: there is, however, no reason, from their internal structure, to believe, but every reason to disbelieve that any one of the three evangelists had access to either of the other two gospels in its present form.” Godet concludes his discussion with these words: “It is impossible to conceive anything more capricious and less reverential than the part which we make the author of any one whatever of our Synoptic Gospels play with the history and sayings of Jesus, supposing that he had before him the other two, or one of them. Such an explanation will only be allowable when we are brought absolutely to despair of finding any other. And even then it were better still to say, Non liquet. For this explanation involves a moral contradiction. Most of our present critics are so well aware of this that they have recourse to middle terms.”[/footnote]