The forthcoming semester is my final one in the Master of Theology (ThM) program at Western Seminary (though I plan on taking some additional courses the next couple of semesters). All I need to do is finish my thesis (almost done!) and take one more class. I decided to do an individualized study on the Synoptic Problem after Mike Suh commented on this blog saying, ” I think if you want to do good work on the Synoptics, whether it’s Christology, Historical Jesus research, etc., you should get a better handle on the Synoptic Problem itself.” This sold me and I am beginning my research now.
One of the books that I am reading on the subject is Mark Goodacre’s (free!) The Synoptic Problem. In the first chapter he lists the most common proposed solutions to the Synoptic Problem. I’ll list and summarize them here, then I’d like to hear which one you think makes the most sense:
The Two-Source Theory:
This is the most popular theory. It postulates that both Matthew and Luke used Mark and a hypothetical sayings source known as “Q”. Mark has priority among the Synoptic Gospels.
While I understand why this is the most popular theory (it seems to explain things quite well) there is that nagging problem of Q’s non-existence. Also, it has been rightly asked if Q explains the data better than Luke having access to Matthew and adjusting Matthew as well.
The Farrer Theory:
This theory argues that both Matthew and Luke used Mark, but it goes further by saying that Luke used Matthew as well. Mark has priority again.
I admit that I tend to favor this view. I’m not sure that we need Q, but I am a novice so I’m open to hearing why Q may be important.
If you are a proponent of Q what are your reasons?
The Griesbach Theory:
This theory gives priority to Matthew. Luke used Matthew. Mark reduces both gospels for his own. This theory would come close to matching the Patristic argument for Matthian priority.
This has one thing in its favor: the early church argued that Matthew was earliest. But does it make sense of the internal data? That is where many argue it is weakened.
The Augustinian Theory:
This theory is said to go back to Augustine of Hippo. It gives Matthew priority. Mark used Matthew and Luke uses both Matthew and Mark.
Like the last theory is has the support of history, since the early church argued for Matthian priority, but does it match the internal data?
OK, so let me know which theory you find explains the most and why.
Thanks for letting me know about the free book!
Linguistically (and speaking from the way the text is used in Greek), Matthean priority is untenable. Mark is clearly first, and Matthew and Luke have borrowed liberally from him as a source. Q’s existence is neither here nor there (and yes, 20 dead bible scholars just screamed in their soul-sleep, or equivalent pre-resurrection state). Why do we need to hypothesize a mysterious ‘source’ when oral tradition can easily account for the extra data? (Notably, oral tradition is missing from each of the above hypotheses. Have you read your Ken Bailey yet?)
Hi Brian. I’m beginning an independent study on the Synoptic Problem this semester, as well, for basically the same reason as you.
I favor the Farrer thesis, too. While I’m keeping an open mind regarding Q, I tend to rebel against it, given its hypothetical nature. It seems strange that so many scholars accept it, yet it hasn’t been found. Then again, I have yet to give a detailed look at a Greek synopsis. I disagree with Augustine that Mark simply “abridged” Matthew and Luke because Mark’s gospel, though shorter, usually has more details than the others.
In one of Goodacre’s post a while back, he mentioned that E.P. Sanders told him that getting into the Synoptic Problem is like stepping into quicksand. It’s starting to feel like it!
I’m *just* beginning this study, myself. What other books have you found that you plan to use?
I’m for the Farrer Hypothesis. Markian priority seems to me to be the most likely and I see no reason for the existence of Q, not to mention the lack of evidence. However I was taught by simon Woodman at Cardiff Uni who was a big Mark Goodacre fan and an exponent of the Farrer hypothesis.
@Roger: You’re welcome!
@J Michael: True, there is no emphasis on the oral tradition in these theories. I have Bailey’s Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes though I haven’t read a lot of it. Like you I see little reason for Q (at the moment).
@Matthew: I just began as well (this week). My supervising professor is going to give me more readings as I go, so I will let you know what he gives me and I’d be eager to hear about what you read.
@Peter: It seems “Q” data could be better explained through Luke using Matthew and some oral tradition, yes?
James Dunn’s theory espoused in “Jesus, Paul and the Gospels” is indispensable. The decades of oral tradition, i.e., Jesus stories (the gospel) likely play a huge part in the formation of the Synoptic Gospels, influencing and even accounting for divergence as well as similarity. Dunn assumes Markan priority, but his oral transmission emphasis downplays the priority question and reduces the Evangelists’ reliance on Q as source.
Any theory which requires the return of Indiana Jones to discover the “Lost Gospel of Q” sounds exciting enough to keep archeologists digging for decades (Even though the Nazis already have it!)
But seriously: placing Mark first works for me, but it still leaves us dealing with similarities between Matthew and Luke not found in Mark. Perhaps I’m in the hybrid category, “Qarrer?”
I agree with the oral tradition being perhaps the better explanation for the extra-Markan material but I don’t discount Q as a sayings source that M and L could have drawn from (along with their own respective unique sources). Matthew (and maybe Luke as well — I just can’t recall anything off the top of my head) in many places seems to have just a bunch of sayings strung together, which seems to indicate a sayings source (although not necessarily written it perhaps could be; I’ll have to review my notes to see how similar Luke and Matthew are on the more sayingsy parts that they share). The Gospel of Thomas seems to show that at least one group was into collecting Jesus’ sayings in written form, and it’s possible that the precedent for sayings collection could be in the first few decades of Christianity, just on a smaller scale (in other words, not intended for broad circulation as Matthew and Luke, and presumably Mark, seem to have been).
I won’t bet my car on a Quellensreden, but I think it is a helpful way (that can’t be completely dismissed) to understand Matthew’s and Luke’s information beyond Mark and, along with their own M- and L-sources, their literary similarties and differences.
I’m encouraged to see so much sympathy for the Farrer hypothesis at least in this neck of the woods.
My 2 principle complaints against the romance of Q-theory are:
1. Those who ‘believe’ in it also often believe it pre-dates Mark or equals it in ‘authority.’ Now I would refute the idea that any writings which surfaced in the first 70 years (up to John) can claim theological precedence on the basis of ‘temporal’ precedence (Markan priority is only a literary priority – i.e. Matthew Luke and John are as theologically worthy as Mark).
2. I don’t like to see Q-scholars infer or imply super-priority to texts which by Farrer’s hypothesis are simply Matthean materials which have been ‘seconded’ by Luke – either from Luke’s ‘further research’ or his personal theological taste. Because if there’s a possibility that Farrer is right, the Q-school runs the risk of exalting texts which are, as Goodacre says, simply “Luke-pleasing bits of Matthew.” That could be a problem – and I have seen that it ruins the value of much of the German exegesis of the 1950s and 60s (Fuchs, Kasemann, etc.).
I favor the Farrer theory. I’ve found Blomberg’s discussion on the subject in “The Historical Reliability of the Gospels” to be informative.
First, you, by now, have come across http://www.hypotyposeis.org/synoptic-problem/. If not, check it out. Second, the infatuation with Q is over-zealous. I have the same misgivings that I see expressed here. However, thirdly, the Farrer hypothesis is not without its problems and the existence of Q has some foundation (see http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/q-exist.html).
How about “none of the above”. I don’t know if Steph Fisher has yet published any of her work on a chaotic theory of Q, but Maurice Casey summarizes it in his big Jesus of Nazareth book.
@Krister: It does seem that oral tradition needs to be given more attention when addressing this subject. Thank you for recommending Dunn’s work.
@Ray: Indiana Jones! Yes! Do you think the Farrer Theory + more attention to oral tradition would work?
@JohnDave: You are correct that Thomas gives credence to the idea of a sayings source. When it comes to the Synoptic Problem we may need to ask if Luke’s variations on Matthew make more sense with a common source of Luke simply changing Matthew. If it is Luke changing Matthew one clue may be if there are serious theological differences between Matthew and Luke where Luke seems to differ.
@John: You are very correct. Temporal priority doesn’t equate to accuracy. For instance, it could be that John’s placement of the temple cleansing earlier in his narrative is more historically accurate than Mark’s placement of it later in Jesus’ career (JohnDave has done good work on this).
@Mike: Thanks for the recommendation. I’ll have to look that up.
@Chris: Do you think Q-elements can be explained by oral tradition?
@Doug: Does it look anything like Paul Anderson’s “Interfluential Relationships” ? http://nearemmaus.com/2010/05/25/the-origin-and-development-of-the-fourth-gospel-paul-anderson/
I don’t know off hand if Luke ever changes Matthew. A fair number of pericopes that they share and are not found in Mark seem to be the same, except for a minor things like tense, word order, etc. Unfortunately, I only concentrated on Luke-John similarities and differences last summer, so I’ll have to go back and look at others when I have time. Do you have any specific examples in mind?
One thing about sayings sources is that even Mark, as does Matthew and maybe Luke, appears to string together sayings of Jesus (thematically and not randomly, of course). Can this imply a sayings source behind Mark? Not only that, but if there is some sayings source behind any of the Gospels, such a source could be an early literary representation of the oral Jesus tradition. It wouldn’t have to be accurate necessarily, but then that what follows if that is true is that early Jesus sayings sources weren’t meant for broader circulation and didn’t survive the copying process like the Synoptics did, and that would be why we lack the evidence today (or at least up to this point). That’s at least one way I’m thinking about it.
If it isn’t clear by now, I hold to the two-source theory, but without making Q more than it should be but without minimizing it either.
Mark is first. Luke has Mark. Matthew has Mark. Luke has Matthew and Q. Q can be a source or a number of shared sources with Matthew.
I’m glad to see my comments counted for something! I think you’ll find the topic not as “boring” as people put it. I recently had a conversation with Professor Goodacre, and one of the things he mentioned was just how many few grad. religion programs in the nation (or the world for that matter) have a class that is devoted to this important topic (a handful I think by his count). Also, in the end, our main tools of the trade are the texts, not any particular method that may be in vogue at the moment. So whether it’s the 3rd, 4th, or 10th quest for the historical Jesus, particular views on the historicity of GJohn, or some other topic in Gospel studies, I think you’ll find that if you have a good handle on the contours of the texts themselves, your own foray into other topics that interest you will be enriched. Best of luck!
@JohnDave: One example of Luke possibly changing Matthew would be the Sermon on the Mount/Plain (e.g. “Blessed are the poor in spirit” reduced to “Blessed are the poor”), but I will need more time to think of others.
It could imply a saying source behind Mark, but could that “source” be oral tradition (early testimony says Mark spoke with Peter).
@Adam: It does seem like “Q” has come to mean something more like “possible written sayings source(s) + oral tradition” for many, yes?
@Mike: I am glad I took your advice. I think you are 100% that the first goal should be familiarity with the text.
I think a good bit of Q could be explained by oral tradition. It is the bits of uncanny agreement that lend credibility to a written source, however. Even within an oral culture the word-for-word agreement seems too coincidental to be founded on oral tradition. And, then, given this agreement, the portions where Matt and Luke disagree seem hard to explain if Luke was relying on Matt. In short, no theory is failsafe. I guess that is why independent studies such as you are taking are worthwhile. If any one theory could answer all the questions, there would be no need for exploration of the topic.
Matthew wrote first, in Hebrew. He sends a copy of to his buddy Mark for any revisions he might suggest. Mark takes the Hebrew gospel written by his colleague Matthew and sees potential in the Gentile market place. He sends back Matthew’s manuscript with a list of corrections, but not before composing his own gospel in Greek. Not surprisingly, the larger Gentile market gains Mark’s work a wide readership. Matthew is happy that the message is getting out but feels not a small sense of jealousy over the success of his friend’s work. He decide to write his revision in Greek, composing this new version with Mark’s gospel in hand. Sadly, the runaway success of Matthew’s Greek revision meant that his Hebrew version never made it to the publisher.
Luke, for his part, sees the success of these two respectable gentlemen but feels there are still a number of stories that have been left untold. Collecting whatever sources he could find he crafts his own work which he titled, “Life of the Historical Jesus – in Two Volumes”. Not surprisingly, his editor removed the title before sending it to print, citing that the title was “too dull for such a work of art”.
@Chris: True! John H. Arnold (History : A Very Short Introduction, 78-79) wrote, “The sources do not speak, and they do not tell all. This is, as a French historian recently put it, at once the impossibility is the possibility of history: that history, which aims at the whole truth, cannot ever reach it (can only ever be a true story) because of the myriad things which must remain unknown; but that it is this very problem which allows – or rather, demands – that the past be a subject for study instead of a self-evident truth. If there were no problems with discovering what happened in the past, there would be no need for historians (whether professional or amateur), and thus no history – just ‘what happened’ without dispute or question.” I think this says it well and gives us reason to continue our investigation.
@Adam: Very fancy reconstruction!
Brian, sorry for the very asynchronous dialogue. No, afaik, not really like Anderson at all. I’m still waiting for her to say more, but I think she shares with Casey & Crossley an early date for Mark, and an almost complete dismissal of John as evidence for early tradition.
@Doug: If John is dismissed that pretty much makes it the exact opposite of Anderson!
I don’t remember if Farrer has a formal explanation of Luke’s decision-making process to account for the really good pieces of Matthew he leaves out of his story – if he is supposed to have utilized Matthew’s record. A person would have to be clear on that to defend the theory well. The obvious example for me is the Beatitudes. How could Luke not want that material in his story?
I think the fact that Luke’s geneology and infancy material differs from Matthew’s might offer a clue – because if Luke was confident in the sources of his own material over Matthew’s, then that discrepancy in Matthew could have become grounds for Luke to feel justified in bracketing other things in Matthew that he could not independently verify.
Or of course the Matthew geneology-infancy story might be a late addition that Luke never saw. Lots to ponder. But almost any hypothesis is better than the utterly hypothetical Q I think. Great discussion, Brian.
@John: I had not though of Luke correcting Matthew’s genealogy, but that is another possibility. Maybe he didn’t like how Matthew breaks it into generations? Luke’s gentile mind may have found it useless or misleading?
I hold to Markan priori however, as I mentioned in recent posts on Dave Black’s book “Why four gospels?” no one can comfortably answer the questions relating to the earliest witnesses who appear to state that Matthew was first.
Mark was undoubtedly the first gospel, then Matthew, then Luke, with each making use of the earlier one(s). In addition there was an early sayings source, used by all three. It was a collection of the Aramaic sayings of Jesus (unlike Q). For anyone who may be interested, my presentation of this ‘Three Source Theory’ can be found on:
@Mark : I think the only response one can have regarding the early witness to Matthean priority is to insist they were wrong. The internal details don’t support it. I tend to favor this.
@Ron: Thanks for sharing! I am interested in your argument that the “sayings” were Aramaic. Do you see Thomas connected to this in any way?
I agree with Chris Spinks. One cannot be too sure of Q because it was never found. But to say that Matthew and Luke rely on oral tradition is much more untenable to me because of the similarities in wording. Much more likely they copied from a source or sources, yet unknown.
Certainly there has to be a large amount of ancient material written about Jesus that has disappeared and has no hope of discovery.
The odds that oral tradition could produce similarly worded copy is astronomical. Things don’t work that way. The hundreds of reporters who cover a world series game all produce wildly different word structures written about the same game on the same day. People taking oral traditions and putting them into words in different locations in different years with different audiences would be far more likely to have different literary structure. And I say this as a writer, not biblical historian.
Brian, I see the Gospel of Thomas as a second-century document and therefore as much later than the original Aramaic collection of the sayings of Jesus which, by the way, I identify with the logia mentioned by Papias. Comparing GTh with the synoptics shows, I believe, that it was dependent on them (directly or indirectly), and not on the logia. However the logia and GTh were clearly of the same genre, and this seems unlikely to have been a mere coincidence.
Mark priority seems obvious. that tells us that Lk &Mt used at least one written source, so it is more likely that they used other written sources (i.e. Q). Also the agreements between Lk & Mth that we attribute to Q seem to me to much too close to come from independent sources of oral tradition in two separate congregations, also suggesting a common written source. Given that Thomas demonstrates that the says sayings gospels was an independent written genre, that suggest independently that there would have been earlier written collections of sayings. The suggestion just above that Thomas is derived from the synopitcs–well bizarre is the best term for that, To think that someone who had read two narrative gospels and functioned in an environment where narrative gospels were the norm would write a sayings document seems incredible.
PF: You make a good observation that oral tradition would not likely have that much coherency in wording. I assume it still plays a part, maybe in instances where Luke departs from Matthew (though Luke seems to indicate he was dependent on written sources).
@Ron: I agree that Thomas was later. There do seem to be important times in the Gospels when the author uses Aramaic. I was reading Mk’s account of Jairus’ daughter and he has Jesus speak in Aramaic there. One has to wonder why. Maybe he is citing a saying document?
@Helena: Would you find Q more likely that Lk merely altering Mt?
@Brian: I don’t think the Jairus story is part of the Aramaic ‘logia’ to which Ron refers.
But on the related subject of traditions of Matthean priority, I think the general ‘look’ of Aramaic is just similar enough to Hebrew to suggest that those traditions (that Matthew wrote an early Gospel in ‘Hebrew’) might actually refer to an Aramaic document used by the later author of ‘Matthew’. I don’t think anybody thinks the current Gospel of Matthew was composed by the apostle, but it may be formed around a bonafide Matthean source such as an Aramaic ‘Sermon of the Mount’.
As for Jairus’s daughter, it makes sense to me that Jesus would address a young girl in Aramaic, but that simple fact can’t provide any basis for a genuine theory of an Arramaic proto-gospel or the hypothesis that Jesus spoke nothing but Aramaic.
Brian, Mark probably has Jesus speak Aramaic in order to introduce a local flavour to the story. The effect would be to make it sound more authentic.
Helena, the author of GTh may have read the synoptic gospels, or he may have heard others read or quote from them. Either way it is quite reasonable to suppose that in order to put over his gnostic ideas he chose to revert to the older genre of ‘collection of sayings of Jesus’.
@John: Thank you for the observations. I have thought that talk of a Hebrew Gospel likely meant an Aramaic one as well, if it existed. It would seem odd to argue that there could not have been some sort of Aramaic saying document. I can’t imagine why Jesus’ Aramaic speaking followers would never write any of his sayings down, but as you note it is hard to prove that it existed.
@Ron: That makes sense.
Ron, I think its a misnomer to imply decisive ‘probability’ for the opinion that Mark is consciously putting Aramaic words in Jesus’ mouth just to spice up the narrative. The probability is much greater I think that the Aramaic in this case derives from an eyewitness account.
John, Your reference to an eyewitness account raises substantial questions such as ‘What evidence would be enough to validate a miracle?’, ‘How reliable was oral tradition?’, ‘How creative was Mark?’. At least we seem to agree that we con only arrive at “probable” conclusions.
Ron, I agree that the extremely high probabilty that Jesus would speak Aramaic to awaken a little girl is nearly reversed in the face of systematic suspicion about the reliability of oral tradition and the creativity of evangelists. A 10,000-1 chance becomes a 1-10,000 chance. So anything two people might say about the matter becomes inconsequential.
And I agree that my assumption that an eyewitness report underlies the story of things said at the Jairus home is not enough to validate the alleged miracle – but I deny the miracle, siince Jesus himself is reported to have said the girl only slept (was comatose). But I must rely on a piece of the story somewhere, or I have no right discussing it.
Mark was first of the Gospels. ‘Q’ has been a red herring, though some ‘sayings’ were written as Papias describes – and Mark knew these sayings.
And none of the four suggested theories is correct.
Three key to solving the Synoptic Problem are:
1) Throwing out red herrings
2) Understanding orality – beyond notions of pearls which may one day be placed on strings!
3) Understanding the Gospels in relation to First Century teaching methods
Biblical scholar, are you saying that oral tradition alone produced the similarly worded text in Matthew and Luke? Because that makes absolutely no sense from a writing perspective, as I argued above.
It seems to me that orality has become an all-encompassing crutch for those who don’t want to admit the obvious — that the gospel writers rewrote other sources to fit their individual theological leanings.
I’m not saying there was one “Q” document that is embedded in Matthew and Luke. But the odds are astronomical that they copied a document or documents, whatever you want to call them. Whatever else was in those documents is impossible to say. But oral traditions would almost certainly not produce writings that are worded with such uncanny similarity.
pf, “Certainly there has to be a large amount of ancient material written about Jesus that has disappeared and has no hope of discovery.”
I am attracted to Donald Akenson’s theory that a lot of original Christian source material undoubtedly disappeared with the Roman destruction of Jerusalem. The city was certainly the “headquarters” of the Jesus Movement for a few decades after the crucifixion, but fades out of history after the judicial murder of James and the Jewish War that followed soon after. It’s plausible that a small storehouse of letters, documentary records, and other writings about Jesus was preserved until the fall of the city and the destructive rampage that followed. Might something have survived? A sayings collection not unlike what Burton Mack reconstructed? A short-lived oral tradition that Matthew’s author was able to tap? Plausible.
I think Adam was heading in the right direction then stalls a few steps out the gate; Matthew did write first in a hebrew dialect. This is a very well attested belief whether it be aramaic which is just a theory which that recent finds this century have shown hebrew was also the native tongue.
Before or after Luke came on the seen Matthew wrote his fist hand account for those of Judah who believed. Considering Luke also took it upon himsef to provide a record i am sure one of his sources was Matthew plus all of the remaining witnesses including Peter. When Luke actually finished his research and finally composed it for use no one knows but there is no reason to believe it was before Matthews written hebrew account. I am sure that Peter was very well versed in both Matthew’s and Luke’s before he went to rome where he preached to greeks and roman jews. It is also very well attested that Mark was a disciple of Peters who recorded Peter’s account of the life,death,buriel and resurrection using Matthews and Lukes accounts as memory aides. Peter was also addresing mostly gentiles so preaching jewish proof text to people who wouldnt understand it would be senseless, these things would be addressed later as they learn about the OT which was preached every Sabbath and adressng the very poor greek of Mark , Peter was a hebrew who was said to be uneducated who native tongue was hebrew dialect but was probably doing his best to address a greek audience with a limited ability to speak greek. I am also sure Mark done his best to write it for those that ask for it to be written, probably trying to make it flow better in written form and probably giving interpretations of words that were not greek later when he made copies for those that ask him to record Peter.
So Matthew wrote first and in his native tongue, then Luke in what language is unknown at first, then Mark who just recorded Peter which was not authorized by Peter but also was not codemned by Peter.
There was no reason for any other accounts because it was already thoroughly covered , Mark was just catering to someone who asked. Since we know the Hebrew Matthew was without a birth narrative and the gospel of the Lord (the first mention of Luke) was also without there would of been no reason for Mark to have it which if was known would have been very benificial to the greeks Peter was preaching to.Matthew was later translated and interpreted into greek form with a birth narrative and several false prophesies being fulfilled and Luke was also probably translated from whatever language it was preserved in when marcion brought it to rome to combat Marcions belief that Jesus revealed an unknown creator and his appearing was not prophesied in the OT plus John’s was then created for same reason probably by none other than Justin and the roman church who was trying to win over pagan gentiles with a story they could relate to.
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