The Synoptic Problem: A Review & Comparison of Two Books

The Synoptic Problem


The Synoptic Problem concerns the literary relationship between the first three ‘Synoptic’ Gospels of the New Testament: Matthew, Mark, and Luke. These Gospels agree extensively in language, contents, and the recordings of events and sayings from the life of Jesus Christ. Synoptic is therefore derived from Syn, “together with”; optic “seeing” (seeing together). A content agreement can be seen in Mt 10:22a; Mk 13:13a; Lk 21:17. A mathematical comparison shows that 91% of Mark’s Gospel is contained in Matthew, while 53% of Mark is found in Luke as indicated in NIV Study Bible. Such agreement raises questions as to the source of the Synoptic Gospels. Did the authors rely on a common source? Were they interdependent? These questions constitute the Synoptic Problem.

In analyzing the synoptic problem, I am reviewing two books:

  1. Guthrie, Donald. Gospels and Acts: New Testament Introduction, published by the Tyndale Press, London, 1966, Page 114-177 (64 pages), and
  2. Green, B. Joel, Mcknight, Scot, and Marshall, I. Howard. Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels: A Compendium of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship, published by InterVarsity Press, Leicester, England, 1992, Page 784-792 (9 pages).

At the end of the review of the two books, I will make a comparison, and then my comments

Review Of Book One (64 pages):

Donald Guthrie analyzed the Synoptic Gospel through 7 key-point diagnoses:

  1. The Nature of the Problem;
  2. A Brief Historical Survey of Solutions;
  3. The Four-Source Theory;
  4. The Marcan Source;
  5. The Source Q;
  6. Sources peculiar to Matthew (M) and
  7. Sources peculiar to Luke (L).

Guthrie believes that the problem lies with the Similarity of Arrangement, Similarity of Style, and Wording and Similarities in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke that contain considerable material content omitted from Mark. He also analyzed the Divergences citing the example of the healing of the Centurion’s servant (Mt 8:5; Lk 7:1) that were placed in a different order and widely differed in narration.

Guthrie raised the issue of Matthew and Mark often agreeing against Luke. Luke, and Mark against Matthew and sometimes though rarely, Matthew and Luke against Mark. Guthrie brought out several scholars’ postulations on the Original Hypothesis, like G. E. Lessing, J.G. Elichhor, and F. Schleiermacher. To Guthrie, Similarities & Divergences arose during a period of oral transmission. G. Herder was the first to moot this Oral Theory, and in 1818, Gieseler produced the prototype.

Westcott supported the Apostolic Fathers’ Oral theory. To Westcott, Mark’s Gospel was the most direct representation of the Evangelic Tradition by its ‘vivid simplicity.’ Documentary Hypothesis supports two written sources, the canonical Mark or an earlier written form of it and the other, a common source used by Matthew and Luke named ‘Q,’ Quelle (source). Still, in many hypotheses, Q became not a single but a multiplication of sources in Guthrie’s conclusion.

The advocates of form-historical identification were Dibelius, Bundy, Grant, Relich, Lightfoot, Taylor, & Nireham. Guthrie advanced reasons for the Priority and the problems arising from the theory, which includes the significant omission in the middle of Mark (6:45-8:26), which Luke entirely omits. Guthrie proposed four types of solutions as a result of this omission. Guthrie adduced that most Scholars maintain the Priority of Mark on the entire collection of arguments generated in the Synoptic Gospels. He claims the existence of ‘Q’ crops up once the Priority of Mark is accepted.

Review Of Book Two (9 pages):

The Synoptic Problem was also treated with seven key-point diagnoses in this book:

  1. The Similarity of the Synoptic Gospels;
  2. The Existence of a Literary Relationship;
  3. Various Literary Explanations;
  4. The Griesbach Hypothesis; (
  5. The Two-Document Hypothesis;
  6. Problems with the Two-Document Hypothesis and
  7. The Value of the Solution of the Synoptic Problem.

Each of the points was treated in a Scholarly and educative manner. The authors examined:

  • The similarity in Wording by comparing various parallel accounts found in the three Gospels using Synopsis;
  • The similarity in order by comparing the order of the various accounts (periscopes);
  • The similarity in Parenthetical material, i.e., “Let the reader understand” in Mat 24:15 and Mk 13:14, and
  • The similarity in Biblical Quotations.

The editors considered the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Schleiermacher (1817) suggested that the disciples had taken notes (memorabilia) of Jesus’ words and deeds. This “fragmentary hypothesis” never received much support. Ur-Gospel theory was postulated by G. E. Lessing (1776) and J. G. Eichhorn (1796) with the claim of the existence of an early written Gospel in Aramaic, translated into Greek and went through several revisions.

The Griesbach Hypothesis was proposed by H. Owen in 1764, arguing that Matthew was the First Gospel written, that Luke used Matthew and that Mark used both Matthew and Luke. This Hypothesis received its name due to the advocacy by J. J. Griesbach. The strength of this Hypothesis is that it explains several aspects of the Synoptic problem. It agrees with the Church Tradition, explains all the Gospel Agreements, and explains the Markan Redundancies. Yet it has problems as it also conflicts with the Church Tradition in its argument that Matthew was written in Aramaic (or Hebrew). The authors considered the Priority of Mark in the ability to explain specific Gospel Agreements. They postulated that the Markan Redundancies could be explained by the Two-Document Hypothesis, which supports the Priority of Mark.

Comparison Of The Two Books:

Agreement In Postulations And Solutions

  1. The two books agreed they are not exhaustive in their Synoptic Problem and Solutions analysis. The Synoptic Problem remains; therefore, it is necessary to discuss possible avenues for further investigations.
  2. Both Books use seven key points of diagnosis to explain the Synoptic Problem. Each key point is an aspect of reflection that is an art and science of finding and applying the main points to the Synoptic Problem.
  3. Both make use of several scholars’ postulations on Synoptic Gospels, i.e., J. J. Griesbach, G. E. Lessing, J. G. Elichhron, F. Schleiermacher, etc.
  4. The two books highlighted, to some degree, both the Priority of Mark and the Priority of Matthew.
  5. Both admitted the existence of multiple sources; ‘Q’ – Quelle Source, M source, L source, Oral Traditions, and the leading of the Holy Spirit.

Dis-Agreement In Postulations And Others

  1. The discourse of Donald Guthrie tends more toward the Priority of Mark. He did more analyses on the Markan Source, ‘Q’ Source, and M & L Source.
  2. The Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels support the Priority of Matthew in line with the Church Fathers, and Markan Redundancies explained by the 2-Document Hypothesis.
  3. The Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels is more Scholarly in approach and arguments.
  4. The Problems of the Two-Document Hypothesis were more strongly defended in the 2nd book using overlapping Traditions; Textual Corruption and overlapping Oral Tradition.
  5. The solution’s value has Historical Criticism, a Redactional Investigation of the Gospels, and Hermeneutical insights.
  6. A good example is the lost Sheep parable (Lk 15: 3-7 par Mt. 18: 10 14). The emphasis was more on one than the other.


I agree with Guthrie’s conclusion that the Synoptic Problem remains and therefore calls for further research. Donald Guthrie used generously supporting evidence to support his belief on the Priority of Mark, which looks one-sided concerning other views. I note that Guthrie’s theology and convictions influenced his writing.

The 7-point analyses of both books are very apt as they seek to make their principles very useful and guide the reader to understand the message entirely. The Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels has excellent editorial though short of in-depth analyses. The Editors delved professionally into the issues and identified ways for further studies.

Each Gospel writer had their focus, uniqueness, and purpose for writing. I do not believe any of the Gospel writers set out to compete with one another. The evidence, both internal and external, points to the availability of various sources that could have been used. The Gospels are expository of the Spirit of Truth.

I agree with the Church Tradition and the Church Fathers that Matthew wrote his Gospel first, so I hold on to the Priority of Matthew. The most common view is that Matthew and Luke used the Gospel of Mark and a hypothetical document called ‘Q’ as sources for most of the materials included in their Gospels. Mark seems to have an insight into Matthew and probably Luke as discerned from the hermeneutics of his Gospel, but Matthew had a much more potent reason to write first, to set records straight as a direct Apostle of Jesus Christ. He had no reason to copy Mark’s writings because the Master had trained him.

The Synoptic Problem diagnosis is essential as it allows the growth of Faith and Exegesis of intricate issues for greater understanding. The write-ups were put together with the Analytical and Inquisitive Minds of Scientists, the Zeal of Crusaders, and the Resourcefulness of Teachers. And also, the Faith of Christians is an excellent overview of scholarly research on the Synoptic Problem within the last decades.

I am not into harmonization but into the Portrait of Christ in the Gospels. Matthew is the kingly Messiah, Mark is a wonder worker and tireless servant of God, and Luke is the friend of sinners and outcasts. I recommend the two books for students & scholars of New Testament studies.

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