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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]

Simply put, the Augustinian Hypothesis is the traditional viewpoint, and it was the dominant view for over a millennium after the time of Augustine.

2. Griesbach Hypothesis (The Two Gospel Hypothesis)

While America was in the midst of a revolution, fighting for independence from Britain, there was another revolution under way in the world of biblical scholarship. That is to say, in 1776 a German biblical scholar named Johann Jakob Griesbach not only pointed out the Synoptic Problem, but posited a possible solution.[7] Further elaborated by William Farmer in 1964, the Griesbach Hypothesis contends that Matthew’s Gospel was written first, just like the Church fathers believed. However, it was Luke who wrote second and Mark who wrote third. Explaining the literary relationship between the Gospels, the Griesbach Hypothesis contends that Luke made use of Matthew when writing his Gospel, and then Mark made use of both Matthew and Luke as a compiler and harmonizer of the previous two.

3. The Two Source Hypothesis

A decade after Griesbach put forth his solution to the Synoptic Problem, another German theologian Gottlob Christian Storr changed the debate forever. For the first time in recorded history the traditional belief in Matthean Priority had been challenged. That is, Storr is the earliest record we have of someone openly saying that Matthew was not the first Gospel to be written.[8] Rather, according to Storr, it was Mark who wrote the first Gospel. Today, Markan priority is one of the most widely held beliefs among all biblical scholars, for reasons I will explain later.

In the early twentieth century, Storr’s idea was expanded upon at Oxford University by William Sanday, who put forth the Two Source Hypothesis, which is is the majority view among biblical scholars today.[9] The Two Source Hypothesis uses Storr’s contention that Mark’s Gospel was written first, and that it was used as a source for both Matthew and Luke. What is more, the Two Source Hypothesis also posits that there was a second source for Matthew and Luke, which is now missing. This hypothetical missing source is often referred to as “Q” — which stands for quelle - the German word for “source”. This hypothetical missing source is believed by proponents of this theory to be a gospel of the sayings of Jesus, similar in form and style to the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas, (yet not of the same Gnostic substance). And the contention is that this missing source was used by both Matthew and Luke independently of each other.

In 1924, the The Two Source Hypothesis was expanded upon by B.H. Streeter. Streeter’s Four Document Hypothesis, elaborated on the Two Source Hypothesis (with which it was in complete agreement) by incorporating a hypothetical “M” source, which was the source for the original material in Matthew, and a hypothetical “L” source which was the source for the original material in Luke [10].

4. The Farrer Hypothesis

The second most widely held theory in academia today is the Farrer Hypothesis, which is named after biblical scholar Austin Farrer. In his groundbreaking 1955 essay, “On Dispensing with Q,” Farrer argued for Markan priority without the reliance on a hypothetical missing source like in the Two Source Hypothesis. The Farrer Hypothesis contends that Mark wrote first, after which Matthew wrote using Mark as a source. And then Luke wrote his Gospel using Mark and Matthew as his sources. Mark Goodacre (who I quoted at the beginning of this essay) is today’s leading proponent of the Farrer Hypothesis. His insightful book, The Case Against Q, Goodacre furthers Farrer’s argument and shines a light on the biggest problem with the Two Source Hypothesis, which is, if Luke was aware of Matthew’s Gospel, then the need for a missing source of Jesus’ sayings is eliminated.[11]

…Or another way to look at it, Luke’s independence of Matthew is what separates the two leading theories in the Synoptic Problem debate.

So, Are There Other Theories that Are Less Likely?

There are three minority views in this field that I believe are worth noting. I like studying these arguments especially, because I think it would be amazing if the answer to this literary enigma had been overlooked this whole time by the wisest among us. For as it says in scripture “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the cleverness of the clever I will thwart” (1 Corinthians 1:19).

1. Independance/ Orality and Memory Hypothesis

I often conflate the Independence Hypothesis and the Orality-Memory Hypothesis, because there is a clear overlap in these two theories that is difficult to ignore. Perhaps I am doing a disservice to both theories by linking them together in such a way; nevertheless, it seems that such a mistake should be forgiven. Whatever we label these theories, is not as important as understanding their implications. Besides, conflating these theories is common among scholars. In The Synoptic Problem: Four Views, biblical scholar Rainer Riesner argues in favor of the Orality and Memory Hypothesis, and he, does so by conflating it with, and differentiating from the Independence Hypothesis. Riesner refers to both theories in tandem as the “Tradition Hypothesis.” It is referred to as the “Tradition Hypothesis” because the proponents of the Independence Hypothesis often argue in favor of the Augustinian ordering of the Synoptics; which is to say, they are in agreement with the traditional church point of view.

Reisner cites some highly acclaimed proponents of the Independence Hypothesis as a defense of his own advocacy for the Orality and Memory Hypothesis, but then he undercuts their research in an attempt to bolster his own, saying, “Even the Tradition Hypothesis in its purest form is defended today. Eta Linnemann and F. David Farnell explain the Synoptic evidence only by the different memories of eyewitnesses. To a certain degree their views are influenced by dogmatic assumptions on the inerrancy of Scripture. Other scholars argue on purely scientific grounds for the Tradition Hypothesis.”[12]

What Riesner is doing here is differentiating his Orality and Memory Hypothesis — which according to him is based on scientifically studying the oral traditions of cultures at the time and applying that understanding to figuring out when and how those words came to be written down — from proponents of the Independence Hypothesis like Eta Linnemann, whose book “Is There a Synoptic Problem?” contends that all three Synoptic Gospels could have been written independently of each other. Linnemann’s argument, as Riesner illumines, is “dogmatic” based on “the inerrenancy of scripture” rather than on a strictly ”scientific grounds.”[13] However, this may be an unfair assessment of Linnemann’s research and the Independence Hypothesis. As Edwin Reynolds argues, “Although [Linnemann] writes with an apologetic goal, that in an of itself does not invalidate the objective nature of the data she submits for evaluations.”[14]

2. Wilke Hypothesis

In 1838, theologian Christian Gottlob Wilke preceded Austin Farrer with his own two gospel hypothesis with Markan priority. However, unlike Farrer, Wilke thought that Luke preceded Matthew. The Wilke Hypothesis contends that Mark wrote first. Then Luke wrote his Gospel and used Mark as his source. Then third, Matthew wrote his Gospel using both Mark and Luke as his sources. Any hypothesis that places Luke earlier than Matthew is a minority view. Nonetheless, there have not only been theories of Luke written before Matthew, but there are also theories with complete Lukan priority, where scholars have argued that Luke wrote his Gospel before both Matthew and Mark.

Perhaps one of the reasons that Lukan priority is so difficult to accept is because in the prologue of the Gospel of Luke. The evangelist is quite explicit about using sources for his writing. He writes, “Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us, just as they were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word” (Luke 1:1-2). We naturally assume that the Gospels of Matthew and/or Mark are “the eyewitnesses and ministers of the word” that Luke is referring to. There are some scholars, however, who believe we may be jumping to conclusions on that (the next theory explains what I mean).

3. The Priority of Luke (Jerusalem School)

The first one to posit complete Lukan priority among the Synoptics was William Lockton in 1922. Theologian and member of the Jerusalem school, Robert Lisle Lindsay, put forth a similar argument in the 1960s, unaware of Lockton’s previous scholarship on the matter. The Jerusalem School Hypothesis (of which Lindsay is a proponent) contends that the original gospels were written in Hebrew and then translated into Greek. This translation (or set of translations) is known as the Proto-Narrative. Both the Proto-Narrative, and the hypothetical Q source of sayings (which we described earlier in the Two Source Hypothesis) were used by Luke, who wrote his Gospel first. Mark then used Luke and the Proto-Narrative as his sources. And then Matthew used Mark and the Proto-Narrative as his sources.

The Ramifications of Each Theory

Earlier in this essay I mentioned how each of these theories carries with it its own far reaching ramifications. I will give you some examples at this time of what I mean by that. For instance, if the Gospel of Matthew was not written first, then there is no way that it could have been written by the Apostle Matthew. Why do I say that? Because if Matthew did not write first, then based on the literary connection among the Synoptic Gospels, it means that he would have likely copied Mark (and/or possibly Luke) as a source, and thus, it would not make sense for Matthew, who was an apostle of Jesus (eye witness to the living and risen Christ) to copy Mark or Luke who were not apostles. Nevertheless, to contend that Matthew wrote first, one has to explain why Mark would copy Matthew and Luke in the way that he does, leaving out so many important events in the life of Jesus such as his birth, his sermon on the mount, and his resurrection appearances.

What is more, despite the fact that the Augustinian Hypothesis places Mark second in the Gospel order, even Augustine himself could sense that this was highly unlikely. In fact, the Augustinian Hypothesis is often referred to nowadays as the “Classical Augustinian Hypothesis” because Augustine seemingly changed his mind in the midst of his research, and thus developed a second opinion on the matter. By the end of his Harmony, Augustine was less aligned with Origen, Ireneaus and other church fathers, and more aligned with the Johann Jakob Griesbach, who believed it was Matthew, then Luke, then Mark, each using the gospel(s) that preceded them as a source.

Augustine explains his new hypothesis as follows, “the more probable account of the matter, [Mark] holds a course in conjunction with both [the other Synoptists]. For although he is at one with Matthew in the larger number of passages, he is nevertheless at one rather with Luke in some others.”[15]

Augustine’s change of heart on the matter is explained in The Synoptic Problem: Four Views by David Barrett Peabody, who contends, “After completing his [Harmony] with all the material that has a parallel in any other of the other three Gospels… Augustine affirms what he says is his ‘most probable’ view of Mark — namely, that Mark combined the contents and themes of Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels, which, if intentional, would require that Mark’s Gospel be composed after and dependent upon the other two Synoptic Gospels.”[16]

This leads me to what I believe to be the solution to the Synoptic Problem. Despite the Two Source Hypothesis and the Farrer Hypothesis being the two most widely held theories among scholars in the field, I am actually in agreement with Saint Augustine on this matter. No, not Augustine when he agreed with the traditional church viewpoint, but rather, Augustine when he was in agreement with Griesbach. In other words, I believe that Matthew wrote first, then Luke wrote using Matthew, and then Mark wrote using both Matthew and Luke. In the next part of this essay I will go into great detail, arguing for each position in the ordering, doing a side by side analysis of scripture, and setting it against the historical backdrop in which is was written.

Part II: A Possible Solution

So, What Is the Solution to the Synoptic Problem?

Instead of going through each of the theories one-by-one, going over the merits and deficiencies of each. I have decided to simply argue in favor of the theory that I hold (the Griesbach Hypothesis) and in so doing, I hope to point out the pros and cons of the other aforementioned theories along the way.

Historical Context

To understand how each Gospel developed, one must first understand how the early church developed. For it is not only form and textual criticism that illumines possible answers to the Synoptic Problem (and we will see how in the next section), historical context is also a path way to our theological understanding on the matter. It is my contention that the Synoptic Problem of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, is as much about the early pillars of church, James, Peter, and Paul, as it is about the Evangelists and their possible sources. The current mainstream view of the early church is often oversimplified and misunderstood as something akin to: Jesus died on the cross and then Peter, as Christ’s closest disciple, became the leader of the new church. Perhaps, this view is derived from the passage in Matthew’s Gospel, where Jesus says to Peter, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18). Couple that with the fact that Peter is honored in the Roman Catholic Church as the first Pope, and it makes sense where this misunderstanding and oversimplification of early church leadership comes from. Despite all of that, the way in which the early church really developed is a lot more complicated. As we know, in real life things are a bit more political and controversial. After the death of Jesus, the de facto leader of the church was not Peter as most assume, but rather Jesus’s brother James. And more than just his familial relationship to the Lord, it was James’s relationship with the scriptures (i.e. the Law) that made him the ideal choice of many in the new church.

As early church chronicler, Hegessippus wrote of James,