Minding Your P (75)s and Qs – The Synoptic Problem

The Synoptic Problem revolves around the commonalities and differences in the first three Gospels:  Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  The first three Gospels share a lot of parallels with regards to parables, sayings, and accounts.  They all begin with similar “historical arrangement” of Jesus’ life. (Lea & Black 2003, p. 113)  Much of these Gospels are arranged in mostly the same order and even with many of the same words.

Luke gives us a clear process by which he gathered his information.  First, Luke mentions original “eyewitnesses” who had given him the traditions.  Second, he mentions the writer who created an account of what had happened.  And third, he mentions his own investigative reporting. (Lea & Black 2003, p. 115)

There seem to four main varieties of criticism in analyzing these Gospels:  Form, Source, Redaction, and Literary.  In form criticism, the focus comes from the oral transmission of the Gospels.  Form critics are not concerned with the historical accuracy of the Gospels.  A common strand of form criticism comes from Rudolph Bultmann in which he believed that the actual stories in the Gospels were more mythologically related versus actual in order to support the beliefs of the early church. (Ogden 1984, p. 3)

In source criticism, the experts are looking to find which written sources the Gospel writers used to create their Gospels.  The majority of this group believe that there is another source that the Gospels took their information from known as Q.  The most common view is the “Two-Source” theory.  In this theory, the theologians believe that Mark was the earliest Gospel and that both Mark and Q were used to create Matthew and Luke.  This is a very popular belief as our text mentions many of the reasons.  First, Matthew contains almost all of Mark and Luke contains almost half.  Second, Matthew and Luke both repeat the exact same wording as Mark.  Third, much of the chronological sequence in Mark is kept in both Matthew and Luke.  And fourth, Matthew and Luke appear to tone down the wording found in Mark sometimes.  (Lea & Black 2003, pp. 120-121)

In redaction criticism, the viewpoint is that the authors of the Gospels changed traditions in order to emphasize their own views and beliefs.  In this criticism, there are four main points.  First, the writers chose to include or exclude material (such as the Sermon on the Mount).  Second, the arrangement of the material indicates a difference in emphasis.  Third, there seem to be items that were added to some of the Gospels, such as Luke’s reference to Jesus’ praying all night giving an emphasis to prayer.  And finally, changing the words.  Matthew discusses the “poor in spirit” while Luke changes it simply to “poor.” (Lea & Black 2003, p. 123)

Finally, literary criticism is the fourth view.  In literary criticism the critics look to accept the texts as they are without digging deeper into the intentions or meaning.

Going back to Markan priority, there seem to be quite a few reasons both for and against it.  First is that there is content missing from Mark.  Many believe that Mark would not have left out that information if he had access to Matthew and Luke’s Gospels. (Goodacre 2002)  On the flip side of that, there is also material that is only found in Mark that theologians believe was too strong to include in both Matthew and Luke.  Another reason in that Mark seems to use more primitive language than Matthew or Luke.  (Vermes 2005, p. 175)  Finally, Mark Goodacre mentions another reason he calls fatigue.  This is where Matthew and Luke begin changing Mark but get tired of it and begin to copy him directly. (Goodacre 2002)

As for reasons against Markan priority, there are also several.  The main one would be external evidence.  Irenaeus in Against Heresies, says “Matthew also published a gospel…while Peter and Paul were preaching the gospel….But after their death, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, also transmitted to us what Peter used to preach….”

The more I read the critics the more I begin to believe none of what any of the critics have to say.  I believe that each of them have too many issues to be taken directly as they are.  I am beginning to believe that Mark was written first and Matthew and Luke did copy portions of it, but I don’t believe that that alone can help us understand the Synoptic issue.  I believe that we need to look at the oral traditions because that is how much of the information was passed in the first century.  I also believe we need to consider the sources.  Any and all written information should be visited and analyzed.  To go along with that, we will find that each and every piece of information has some sort of redaction done to it.  We as theologians owe it to our understanding to try and find out what they stand for in the writings.  And finally, there are times we need to simply shut up and accept the Gospel for what it is…the good news of a risen Savior!!!


Lea, Thomas & Black, Alan.  The New Testament:  It’s Background and Message.  Tennessee:  Broadman & Holman.  2003

Bultmann, Rudolf.  New Testament Mythology and Other Basic Writings. ed. Schubert M. Ogden.  Philadelphia:  Fortress.  1984.

Goodacre, Mark.  The Case Against Q.  Harrisburg:  Trinity Press Int’l.  2002.

Vermes, Geza.  Who’s Who in the Age of Jesus.  London:  Penguin.  2005.

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