The Synoptic Problem

By Matt Honeycutt

It is generally accepted that each gospel writer formulated his gospel for a particular audience. While skeptics continue to see contradictions among the gospels, others have noted the parallels and differences while trying to establish criteria to better understand the overall message.  This dilemma is referred to by scholars as “the synoptic problem.” Simply put, the “Synoptic Problem deals with the interrelationship of the Synoptic Gospels.”[1] To understand these differences and similarities among the Synoptics, theologians have come up with different hypotheses to determine which gospel was written first, which gospel writers borrowed from other gospel writers, and if other additional sources (labeled “Q” or Quelle) were referenced.[2] 

There are many hypotheses advocated today, but four stand out above the rest. These four are the Two-Source Hypothesis, the Farrer Hypothesis, the Two Gospel Hypothesis, and the Orality and Memory Hypothesis.

The Two-Source Hypothesis

The Two-Source Hypothesis, traditionally called the Two Document Hypothesis, reflects “Markan priority” arguing that Mark was the first gospel written (as opposed to the traditional belief that Matthew was written first), and was utilized by both Matthew and Luke as a source for their gospels.[3] Additionally, this hypothesis includes another hypothetical source(s) that is no longer extant called “Q”, shorthand for the German word Quelle, which means “source.”[4] Essentially, Mark and the non-Markan “Q” are the two sources believed to be utilized by Matthew and Luke, hence the name Two-Source Hypothesis. Figure 1 below reveals the relationship between the Synoptics along with the influence of “Q” in the Two-Source Hypothesis.

Figure 1 – Two-Source Hypothesis with “Q”

The Farrer Hypothesis

Another popular hypothesis, that is newer, is the Farrer Hypothesis named after Austin Farrer (1904-1968). This hypothesis is sometimes referred to as “Mark without Q” or “Markan Priority without Q.”[5] Like the Two-Source Hypothesis, the Farrer Hypothesis emphasizes the priority of Mark’s gospel as written first and that Matthew and Luke drew upon Mark as a source. 

Figure 2 – Farrer Hypothesis
(“Mark without Q” or “Markan Priority without Q”)

One major difference is the abandonment of the “Q” source. Mark Goodacre posits, “The Farrer Hypothesis differs from the Two-Source Hypothesis in drawing a direct arrow from Matthew to Luke. This represents Luke’s use of Matthew, and it is Luke’s knowledge of Matthew that enables one to abandon Q.”[6] This results in a much simpler model as resulted from the elimination of “Q” altogether. One convincing reason why “Q” is not necessary is “that there is no ancient, external evidence of any kind for Q’s existence. There are no textual witnesses, no fragments, no patristic citations—[sic]nothing. It is purely a scholarly construct, a hypothetical text.”[7]

The Two Gospel Hypothesis

The Two Gospel Hypothesis, which is principally a revival of the Griesbach Hypothesis, “asserts that Matthew was written first; then Luke, depending on Matthew; then Mark, depending on both.”[8] 

Figure 3 – Two Gospel Hypothesis
(Griesbach Hypothesis)

Matthew is considered the first gospel to be written according to this theory. A strong, but not infallible point is that church fathers Papias, Clement, Augustine, and other church figures spanning nearly two millennia of church history all supported a Matthean priority and the Two Gospel Hypothesis in general. In fact, New Testament scholar David Barrett Peabody avows that the Two Gospel Hypothesis is the only synoptic theory that has external evidence of the majority of church history pointing to this hypothesis. 

The Orality and Memory Hypothesis

A quite different approach to reconciling the Synoptic issue is not found in a literary relationship or dependence on each of the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, but rather on an oral and memory tradition. This is called the Orality and Memory Hypothesis. This theory posits that the “use of memory to accurately pass down a teacher’s message or historical event was a feature of both Greco-Roman and Jewish culture.”[9] Rhetorical and pneumonic devices, as well as informal note-taking, assisted in the memorization process in order to preserve historical facts orally.

Unlike the previous three hypotheses, the Orality and Memory Hypothesis claims there is no dependence between the three synoptic gospels. In fact, German New Testament scholar Rainer Riesner states, “Rather than being dependent upon one another, the three Synoptic Gospel writers each partially used the same intermediary sources, both oral and written.”[10] Riesner further notes, “The tradition of the sayings of Jesus was rather fixed, whereas narratives were handed down with greater flexibility.”[11] In sum, this hypothesis relies heavily on memory and oral tradition with very little use of informal notes.


Craig Evans posits one final important observation that all “Proposed solutions to the Synoptic Problem will always be to some degree tentative, in no small part because we simply do not possess the original compositions and therefore do not know exactly how the texts of the three Synoptic Gospels read.”[12] Although the four hypotheses defended in Porter and Dyer’s The Synoptic Problem each have qualities to be commended, to me the Farrer Hypothesis seems to make the simplest and yet strongest argument. I believe this hypothesis, along with the popular Two-Source Hypothesis, affirms the strongest vie for Markan Priority. Because early church fathers and nearly two millennia of church history prioritize Matthean authorship does not mean it is infallible.

Regarding external source material, the Farrer Hypothesis makes sense of all the data in the double and triple traditions without including the hypothetical “Q” document.[13] Mark Goodacre argues, “Luke borrows directly from Matthew in the double tradition, and from both Mark and Matthew in the triple tradition. There is no need to postulate an extra hypothetical document in this scenario.”[14] Although each hypothesis has its strong points (the Two-Source Hypothesis with its popularity and Markan Priority, the Two Gospel Hypothesis with its roots in a majority consensus of church history, and the Orality and Memory Hypothesis with its assertion of the important role of oral tradition and memory in all the hypothesis), I believe the Farrer Hypothesis is the best and yet strongest way to explain the relationship of the three Synoptic Gospels.

[1] A. D. Baum, “Synoptic Problem,” ed. Joel B. Green, Jeannine K. Brown, and Nicholas Perrin, Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, Second Edition (Downers Grove; Nottingham: IVP Academic; IVP, 2013), 911.  Note: There are only three gospels that are labeled Synoptics (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), and one gospel (John) that includes material unique with a divine purpose.  Matthew, Mark, and Luke have been grouped together as “Synoptics” due to their strong similarities.

[2] “Q” is a hypothetical, non-Markan source that is believed to be primarily made up of the teachings of Jesus either oral or written.

[3] Porter and Dyer, locations 409-12.

[4] Ibid, locations 456-8.

[5] Ibid, locations 1132-4.

[6] Ibid, locations 1145-7.

[7] Ibid, locations 1319-20.

[8] Matthew S. DeMoss, Pocket Dictionary for the Study of New Testament Greek (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 64.

[9] Ibid, locations 1897-8.

[10] Ibid, locations 1909-10.

[11] Ibid, locations 2300-1.

[12] Ibid, locations 1028-9.

[13] Ibid, locations 2877-9.

[14] Ibid.

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