The Problem of the Synoptic Problem

I wrote this paper in 2010 in partial fulfillment of an assignment for a New Testament Survey course in the undergraduate program at The College at Southwestern. I am posting it today for the benefit of Sovereign Grace Baptist Church as tomorrow we will be starting a study through the book of Luke. I pray that it will be beneficial for the regular readers of as well.


The Synoptic Problem arose out of critical analysis of the first three canonical gospels: Matthew, Mark, and Luke. It concerns itself with the question of literary and grammatical dependency between the Synoptic Gospels. Those who have set out with diligence to solve the Synoptic Problem have not done so for the purpose of discovering why the Gospels are so different but, rather, for the purpose of discovering why the Gospels are so similar. At first glance, one might not think of this as so much of a problem as a blessing. “After all,” one might ponder, “why would agreement among the Gospel writers be a problem?” Some have proposed that the mere similarities betray a certain interdependence among the Gospel writers that, along with “not a few first century prejudices,”[1] severely damages their credibility. This assertion, however, could not be farther from the truth. The Synoptic Problem is not a problem as much as it is the outworking of anti-supernatural bias on the part of modern academics. In an attempt to appeal to this anti-supernatural presupposition, many have conceded that statistics and the development of alternate source theories grant the best hope of coming to a solution for the Synoptic Problem.

What is the Synoptic Problem?

In The Synoptic Problem: A Critical Analysis, William R. Farmer explains the Synoptic Problem like so, “The Synoptic Problem is difficult but not necessarily insoluble. Matthew, Mark, and Luke were almost certainly written in some particular chronological order. Reduced to its simplest terms the Synoptic Problem sets the task of discovering that order.”[2] Farmer’s explanation, however, is overly simplistic and perhaps a bit misleading. The Synoptic Problem is not merely a quest to discover the ordering of the synoptic gospels, but is more importantly a means of determining just how much the Synoptic Gospels depend upon one another for material. On a more theological level, the Synoptic Problem seeks to answer the question: “How ought the proposed interdependence of the Synoptic Gospels affect the Christian’s understanding of the inspiration of Scripture?” This question will be reassessed toward the end of this paper.

Many of the books written on the Synoptic Problem begin by providing examples of striking similarities between the Synoptic Gospels. Doremus Hayes does so in a succinct fashion. In discussing the “absolute identity of language,” Hayes notes: “This is never very extensive, but it is sufficiently striking when it occurs.”[3] He also points to the sharing of “peculiar” words among the Synoptic Gospels as significant. Such words are said to be absent from other contemporary writings and are so rare that they have caused centuries of debate among scholars. Commonly unnatural narration, a common ordering of events, and a common selection of material data are also observed by Hayes as peculiar similarities among the Synoptic Gospels, and he gives examples for each.

The Use of Statistics in Seeking a Solution

Early in the discussion of the Synoptic Problem, the questions did not deal as much with statistical analysis as they did with peculiarities and reconciliation. As skepticism began to take root and demand a more modern answer for the Synoptic Problem, statistical equations were developed to attempt a solution to the problem at hand. For the modern mindset, the most eloquently stated critical speculation is often seen as the most plausible explanation of any quandary. This has certainly been the case in the fields of biology, geology, and philosophy as they seek answers regarding the seemingly illusory nature of origins. Hence, the perceived necessity for critical, statistical analysis of the Synoptic Gospels arose in academia.

In A.M. Honoré’s article A Statistical Study of the Synoptic Problem, Honoré describes one way in which the Synoptic Problem can be so analyzed: “Let the letters A, B and C be used for the three gospels. The existence of 1852 words common to all three might be accounted for on the hypothesis that B took a certain percentage of A’s material and that C then took a certain percentage of material from B including 1852 words which B had previously taken from A.”[4] From this basic breakdown, Honoré weaves many different equations together in an attempt to shed a greater light on the subject. Using these equations, statistics were formed from which he proposed to have brought himself and his readers closer to a solution to the Synoptic Problem. Through a thorough examination of the statistics, one would hope to arrive at a clearer understanding of how the Synoptic Gospels originated.

Two initial presuppositions, however, are never addressed by Honoré: first, that one must concede the idea that interdependence is a necessary interpretation of the evidence and, second, that understanding and applying the equations set forth will lead one any closer to a solution for the Synoptic Problem. These basic premises are rarely addressed by scholars, and they are at the heart of the problem. As it may be conceded that Honoré made a solution seem possible, his final analysis is no more sure than anyone else’s has been to date.

Not surprisingly, any detractors from such critical analysis are seen as anti-intellectual or, even worse, prejudiced. In the preface to Jolley’s The Synoptic Problem for English Readers, he states, “Doubtless the student who, first freeing himself as far as possible from prejudice, compares carefully the Synoptic Gospels, will arrive at some conclusions not usually regarded as orthodox; but the lover of truth will not be deterred by words or by any fear of consequences.”[5] For some, Jolley’s folly might not be immediately apparent. The problem with his logic is that he places modern interpretive skills and speculation on a higher plain than orthodox Christianity. In Jolley’s estimation, anyone who holds to an “orthodox” understanding of the Synoptic Gospels, that of independence, is prejudiced and is thus in error. This, however, is quite an overstatement. In an attempt to spark interest in the Synoptic Problem, Jolley lobs insults at anyone who would not see it as a problem worth solving.

The Rise of Q

This problem is only compounded by the rise of the Q theory. Many modern scholars have proposed a fourth source from which the gospels may have derived their data. Jolley referred to this fictional text as “the Primitive Gospel” or “P.G.”[6] Others simply refer to it as Q. Jolley proposes this as the earliest gospel and gives it a date in the late 60s.[7] By default, then, the “later” gospels would be pushed back to dates later than A.D. 70 which would severely discredit them by calling into question their temporal proximity with the events they report. The late dating would also serve to rob the Gospels of any first-century, prophetic significance by placing the prophecies regarding the destruction of the temple after the event’s fulfillment. Such late dating for the Synoptic Gospels is typical of liberal scholars.

In response to the Q theory, Hayes proposes a hypothetical scenario in which Mark’s gospel did not survive to today, but rather only the parts of Matthew and Luke that borrow from it. In this fictitious scenario, were modern scholars to attempt a reconstruction of Mark, Hayes proposes that they “might attain to some of the general approximation to the appearance of our canonical Mark, but in multitudes of details their conjectures would differ with each other; and that any one of them would reproduce our Mark as it really is, with perfect exactness of chronology and phraseology, would be beyond the wildest reaches of possibility.”[8]

Still, the existence of Q and the belief that its chronology can be reconstructed are practically conceded by many scholars. In fact, after very little argument in support of the existence of Q, Rev. Burnett Hillman Streeter declares, “If we confine our attention to the more salient features we find that the order of the Q sections in Matthew and Luke is very much the same.”[9] From this assertion, Streeter attempts a full reconstruction of the chronology of Q. With such slim concession among scholars to the existence of Q, it is a wonder that there would be any scholars that would attempt to conduct any kind of reconstruction. As already stated, such reconstructionism is typical of modernity, especially that brand of modernity that brought evolution theory to modern academia and conceded it as fact.

Answering the Fool

In the end, if all of the questions posed by liberals had answers and all of the problems presented in the Scriptures had solutions, this still would not satisfy the average hard-hearted academic. Such ardent skepticism is only removed by the work of the Holy Spirit as He moves on the heart of the unbeliever. As John Calvin explained, “There are other reasons, neither few nor feeble, by which the dignity and majesty of the Scriptures may be not only proved to the pious, but also completely vindicated against the cavils of slanderers. These, however, cannot of themselves produce a firm faith in Scripture until our heavenly Father manifest his presence in it, and thereby secure implicit reverence for it. Then only, therefore, does Scripture suffice to give a saving knowledge of God when its certainty is founded on the inward persuasion of the Holy Spirit.”[10]


Though anti-supernaturalists may desire, and even receive, adequate answers for all of their proposed problems with the texts of Scripture, the fact remains that they will never be satisfied with the answers posed by Christians until the Holy Spirit works in them to remove their bias. On the surface, the Synoptic Problem seems to be a problem worth investigating. However, once a person begins to research the statistics and the variety of proposed solutions, it quickly becomes evident that the person will never come to a fully satisfying solution. A “Q” hypothesis, which is one of the most preposterous assertions in academia, then becomes necessary to make due for the loose ends left by the previous hypotheses. Ultimately, the academic finds himself wandering farther and farther down the rabbit trail until he discovers that he has long since left behind the possibility of discovering the intended meaning of the text. The academic soon finds himself missing the forest for the trees. The Synoptic Problem, then, is only a problem inasmuch as it can be used to distract curious minds from the message of salvation.



[1]Alfred J. Jolley, The Synoptic Problem for English Readers (London: Macmillan and Co, 1893), 107.

[2]William R. Farmer, The Synoptic Problem: A Critical Analysis (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1964), 199.

[3]Doremus Almy Hayes, The Synoptic Problem (New York: Eaton & Mains, 1912), 12.

[4]A.M Honore, “A Statistical Study of the Synoptic Problem,” Novum Testamentum 10, no. 2-3 (April-July 1968): 98-99.

[5]Jolley, The Synoptic Problem for English Readers, iv

[6]Ibid., 86

[7]Ibid., 99

[8]Hayes, The Synoptic Problem, 66

[9]Rev. Burnett Hillman Streeter, Studies in the Synoptic Problem, ed. W. Sanday (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1911), 143.

[10]John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (Edingurgh: The Edinburgh Printing Company, 1845), 99.

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