The Greatest Literary Enigma of All Time: The Synoptic Problem & A Possible Solution

Part I: A Literary Enigma

Leading biblical scholar Mark Goodacre describes the Synoptic Problem as “possibly the greatest literary enigma in history.”[1] Please do not mistake his words for hyperbole. This biblical puzzle has challenged, confounded, and captivated minds of theologians, philosophers, and frankly, all deep thinking individuals who have been clued in on the issue, for nearly two thousand years. And the debate over possible solutions to this “literary enigma” has really picked up steam in the past two and a half centuries, with some of the most important developments coming in the past hundred years alone.

I often hear atheists derisively say that they do not believe in scripture because they believe in “logic.” Despite their obvious indifference and/ or contempt towards scripture, I posit that even the most skeptical (i.e. “logical”) scholar will become captivated by the Synoptic Problem if they take the time to become familiar with the issue.

In other words, whether or not you see the spiritual value in scripture, I believe that you will still find the Synoptic Problem to be quite compelling. After all, the root of the Synoptic Problem is trying to determine what makes logical sense. This literary puzzle will challenge your problem-solving skills like a Rubik’s cube of words. To put it simply, the Synoptic Problem is the brainteaser, par excellence.

So, What is the Synoptic Problem?

Three of the four Gospels — Matthew, Mark, and Luke — share an undeniable literary connection, and because of this connection they are classified together as the “Synoptic” Gospels (thus leaving out the Gospel of John which is markedly different). The word synoptic can be broken down etymologically into syn which means “together” and optic which refers to “sight.” That is to say, synoptic means “seen together.” These three Gospels are “seen together” so to speak, because of the clear interdependence of their language. These three Gospels share near verbatim passages, in a remarkably similar order, and it is difficult to know what to make of this clear overlap. Here in lies the problem. Where one Gospel appears to be copying from another, that one seems to be in turn copying from the third, which in turn seems to be copying from the first. In other words, the Synoptic Problem is trying to figure out how to unravel this mystery of textual interdependence in order to deduce who is the source for whom, and where these teachings of Jesus originate.

What is more, the ramifications of each interpretation cannot be overstated. Understanding the order in which these Gospels were written, helps us better understand who wrote each book, when they wrote it, and why they wrote it. To be given access to such profound answers, one has to contend with a very profound question:

What is the Most Logical Solution to the Synoptic Problem?

Before I dive into the leading hypotheses in the field, I want us to really understand how deeply interwoven these three Gospels actually are.

Let me break down this problem as simply as possible.

Suppose each of the Gospels is made up of the following elements:

Matthew = A + B + C

Mark = A + B + D

Luke = A + C + D

As you can see, Matthew, Mark, and Luke all share “A,” Matthew and Mark share “B.” Matthew and Luke share “C.” And lastly, Mark and Luke share “D.”

To put this in Biblical terms, the element “A,” which represents what all three gospels share, would be made up of things like Jesus’s Baptism, Jesus driving the money changers out of the temple, his death on the cross, etc. The element “B,” which represents what Matthew and Mark share, would be things like the emphasis on the use of parables, the calling of the disciples, the feeding of the four thousand, etc.. The element “C,” which represents what Matthew and Luke share, would be things such as the nativity, Jesus’ genealogy, the Lord’s prayer, etc. And lastly, the element “D,” which represents what only Mark and Luke share, would be things like the healing of demoniac in the synagogue or the teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum (of the four elements A,B,C,D — D is by far the smallest.)

I also could have added the elements E, F, G as follows:

Matthew = A + B + C + E

Mark = A + B + C + F

Luke = A + B + C + G

E, F, G would represent what is unique to each gospel respectively. For instance if you were to read all three gospels, you would find twenty percent of Matthew is unique to the other two (“E”), thirty five percent of Luke is unique to the other two (“F”) and only three percent of Mark is unique to the other two (“G”).

So, What are the Leading Theories?

I did not know whether I should present the leading theories to the Synoptic Problem in chronological order or if I should begin with the leading theory in academia today and work my way backwards. I have decided to go with the former, because I believe that seeing how the theories developed over time helps one to better understand the evolution of the Synoptic Problem, which in turn gives us a clearer sense of how we got to where we are today.

1. Augustinian Hypothesis

For the first few centuries following Jesus’s death, most (if not all) Church fathers believed that the order of the Gospels was actually the order of the Gospels. That is to say, the canonical ordering of the Gospels in our Bibles was believed to be their chronological order as well. This is known in the world of the Synoptic Problem as the Augustinian Hypothesis. The name is derived (as you might guess) from the teachings of Saint Augustine of Hippo. In the first part of his Harmony of the Gospels. Augustine wrote, “Now those four evangelists whose names have gained remarkable circulation over the world… are believed to have written in the order which follows: first Matthew, then Mark, thirdly Luke, lastly John.”[2] (11) Augustine, writing this in the fifth century, is not saying anything new; he is simply restating what church fathers before him had previously said on the matter. For instance, the second century church father, Irenaeus wrote:

“Matthew composed a written Gospel for the Hebrews in their own language, while Peter and Paul were preaching the gospel in Rome and founding the church there. After their deaths, Mark too, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, handed on to us in writing the things proclaimed by Peter. Luke, the follower of Paul, wrote down in a book the Gospel preached by him. Then John, the disciple of the Lord who had rested on his breast, produced a Gospel while living at Ephesus in Asia.”[3]

Irenaeus was a very important figure in the early church. He was a Greek Bishop who had once heard Polycarp preach.[4] Polycarp was a noted companion of the apostles and was said to be close with the apostle John.[5] Thus, Irenaeus was on the periphery of the apostles, and as such, his word was valued greatly.

What is more, the third century theologian Origen reiterated this same understanding of the Gospel order when he wrote, “I learned by tradition that the four Gospels alone are unquestionable in the church of God. First to be written was by Matthew, who was once a tax collector but later an apostle of Jesus Christ, who published it in Hebrew for Jewish believers. The second was by Mark, who wrote following Peter’s directives, whom Peter also acknowledged as his son in his epistle: ’The church in Babylon greets you … and so does my son Mark’ [1 Peter 5:13]. The third is by Luke, who wrote the Gospel praised by Paul for Gentile believers. After them all came John.”[6]