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The Synoptic Problem. Attempts to explain the similarities between Matthew, Mark and Luke

Unknown author

Related articles

Introduction to Matthew's Gospel Introduction to Mark's Gospel
Introduction to Luke's Gospel

The synoptic gospels

The first three gospels have striking similarities and can be put in parallel columns for sake of comparison. This arrangement is called a synopsis. Therefore Matthew, Mark and Luke have become known collectively as the Synoptic Gospels. The word ‘synoptic’ is from the Greek ‘synoptikos’, which means to see the whole together, or to take a comprehensive view.

All three gospels have the same general historical structure, beginning with the baptism and temptation, followed by the Galilean ministry, the turning point of Peter's confession, the journey to Jerusalem, and finally the trial, crucifixion and resurrection.

There are also similarities in vocabulary, for instance in the healing of the leper (Mt 8, Mk 1, Lk 5), parts of the Olivet Discourse (Mt 24, Mk 13, Lk 21) and Joseph of Arimathea asking for Jesus' body (Mt 27, Mk 15, Lk 23).

There are sections common to Matthew and Luke, but not present in Mark, especially the teaching of Jesus.

There are many notable divergences. Some material found in more than one gospel has differences in vocabulary, while others are placed in different historical settings. The healing of the centurion's servant is in a different position and is described differently in Mt 8 and Lk 7. The passion narratives, although in a similar sequence, differ in wording and details. The birth narratives in Matthew and Luke are almost totally complementary, with little or no overlap.

What is the synoptic problem?

If the three gospels are absolutely independent of each other how can one account for the minute verbal agreement in their text in certain places?

If they are copied from each other, or compiled freely from other sources, how can they be original and authoritative? Are they truly a product of inspired writers, or are they merely combinations of anecdotes which may or may not be true.

A summary of the similarities

The three Gospels report the same words and deeds of Jesus. the same miracles, parables, discussions and principal events.

Passages found in all three gospels are called the 'threefold tradition'. Passages found in only two of the gospels are called the 'twofold tradition'. Unique passages found in only one gospel are called the 'unique tradition'.

Mark is the shortest Gospel. Almost all the material also occurs in Matthew or Luke or both. Very little material is unique to Mark. Matthew contains approximately 600 verses of Mark (90%). Luke contains more than half of Mark, 340 verses (50%). Matthew contains 30% unique material. Luke contains about 50% unique material.

Matthew Mark Luke
Total verses 1070 677 1150
Unique tradition 330 (30%) 70 (10%) 520 (50%)
Twofold tradition Mt + Mk 170-180
Mt + Lk 230
Mt + Mk 170-180
Mk + Lk 50
Mk + Lk 50
Threefold tradition 350 - 370 350 - 370 350 - 370

Matthew has 1070 verses in total. 330 of these are unique. Between 170 and 180 are also found in Mark. 230 are also found in Luke, and between 350 and 370 are in all three gospels.

Mark has a total of 677 verses. 70 are unique to Mark. Between 170 and 180 are also found in Matthew. 50 are also found in Luke, and between 350 and 370 are in all three gospels.

Luke has a total of 1150 verses. 520 are unique to Luke. 230 are also found in Matthew. 50 are also found in Mark, and between 350 and 370 are in all three gospels.

Structure of the gospels

The course of Jesus' life and ministry are presented in similar fashion in all three gospels.

Matthew Mark Luke
Preliminaries to ministry 3:1-4:11 1:1-13 3:1-4:13
Galilean ministry 4:12-18:35 1:14-9:50 4:14-9:50
Journey to Jerusalem 19:1-20:34 10:1-52 9:51-18:43
Passion and resurrection ch 21-28 ch 11-16 ch 19-24

Similarities in language and grammar

Many passages show close agreement in language and wording. This can include passages where unusual Greek constructions or comparatively rare Greek words are used. Some passages agree word for word.

Sometimes two or maybe all three passages agree on an OT quotation that is different from both the Hewbrew Masoretic Text (MT) and the Greek Septuagint (LXX).

Differences in content

Some accounts are only in one or maybe two gospels. When in two they differ a little or sometimes greatly. For example, the birth narratives and genealogies in Matthew and Luke, as well as the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew and The Sermon on the Plain in Luke.

Difference in arrangement

One gospel groups material in one place while the other scatters it throughout. Luke tends to follow Mark's order more closely than Matthew does.

Some suggested solutions

Before the 19th century the standard view, first taught by Augustine was that Mark was an shortened version of Matthew. Since the 19th century, when this issue was first studied in detail, there have been many suggested solutions.

The use of oral traditions

The writers used oral tradition. However this does not explain the complete agreement in wording and vocabulary.

Literary interdependence

Literary interdependence occurs when a writer depended upon an earlier document as a source of information. There are two suggestions. The first is that Mark used material from Matthew, then Luke used material from Mark. However, if Mark is a shortened version of Matthew, we are left with the question of where did Mark get his extra information from. Also the style of Mark is more lively than Matthew. Some individual accounts are much longer in Mark, than in Matthew. One example is the death of John the Baptist, where the account in Mark (Mk 6:14-29) is longer and more detailed than the account in Matthew (Mt 14:1-12).

The second suggestion is that Mark was used as a source for both Matthew and Luke. It is possible that Luke used Mark (Luke 1:1-4).

This explains the threefold tradition, but does not help explain the existence of the two-fold material found only in Matthew and Luke, but not Mark?

Two source or Two document Theory

Many scholars suggest there was a source that Matthew and Luke used that is separate from Mark. This source is called Q, from the German 'Quelle', which means ‘source’. This source is said to consist almost entirely of the words or sayings of Jesus. However, there is no evidence that such a written source ever existed.

The two later Synoptics, Matthew and Luke, are said to have drawn the greater parts of their Gospels from these two sources, Mark and Q, and adapted it to the people they were addressing.

This is a simplified study of the synoptic problem and its solution. There are many more solutions that have been suggested and some get extremely complex.

The facts that we do know

Mark got his material from Peter, writing was is effectively an extended sermon of Peter. According to Luke many had compiled narratives of the life of Jesus (Luke 1:1), therefore there were many accounts in circulation. Luke did research before he wrote his Gospel, he openly claimed to use other written sources. It is also likely that he spoke to eyewitnesses. As one of the twelve disciples, Matthew was an eye witness.

One possible and common explanation is that Mark was written first. Matthew used Mark as basis but added much of his own material. Then thirdly, Luke used both plus many other sources.

However, this does not match evidence we have for the historical setting for each gospel. Mark is normally thought to have been written following the Fire of Rome in AD 64, encouraging the believers in Rome who were being persecuted by Nero. Luke ends his Book of Acts with Paul in prison (house-arrest) in Rome for two years between AD 60 and AD 62. This would suggest that his gospel was finished earlier, perhaps while Paul was in Caesarea around AD 58. Tradition from the early church suggests that Matthew was the first gospel to be written, although the date is not certain. If these are true, then the order would be Matthew, then Luke, and finally Mark.

Related articles

Introduction to Matthew's Gospel Introduction to Mark's Gospel
Introduction to Luke's Gospel

The Bible

Pages which look at issues relevant to the whole Bible, such as the Canon of Scripture, as well as doctrinal and theological issues. There are also pages about the Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha and 'lost books' of the Old Testament.

Also included are lists of the quotations of the OT in the NT, and passages of the OT quoted in the NT.

Why These 66 Books?
Books in the Hebrew Scriptures
Quotations in NT From OT
OT Passages Quoted in NT
History of the English Bible
Twelve Books of the Apocrypha
The Pseudepigrapha - False Writings
Lost Books Referenced in OT

Old Testament Overview

This is a series of six pages which give a historical overview through the Old Testament and the inter-testamental period, showing where each OT book fits into the history of Israel.

OT 1: Creation and Patriarchs
OT 2: Exodus and Wilderness
OT 3: Conquest and Monarchy
OT 4: Divided kingdom and Exile
OT 5: Return from Exile
OT 6: 400 Silent Years

New Testament Overview

This is a series of five pages which give a historical overview through the New Testament, focusing on the Ministry of Jesus, Paul's missionary journeys, and the later first century. Again, it shows where each book of the NT fits into the history of the first century.

NT 1: Life and Ministry of Jesus
NT 2: Birth of the Church
NT 3: Paul's Missionary Journeys
NT 4: Paul's Imprisonment
NT 5: John and Later NT

Introductions to Old Testament Books

This is an almost complete collection of introductions to each of the books in the Old Testament. Each contains information about the authorship, date, historical setting and main themes of the book.

Genesis Exodus Leviticus
Numbers Deuteronomy

Joshua Judges Ruth
1 & 2 Samuel 1 & 2 Kings Chronicles
Ezra & Nehemiah Esther

Job Psalms Proverbs

Isaiah Jeremiah Lamentations
Ezekiel Daniel

Hosea Joel Amos
Obadiah Jonah Micah
Nahum Habakkuk Zephaniah
Haggai Zechariah Malachi

Introductions to New Testament Books

This is a collection of introductions to each of the 27 books in the New Testament. Each contains information about the authorship, date, historical setting and main themes of the book.

Matthew's Gospel Mark's Gospel Luke's Gospel
John's Gospel

Book of Acts

Romans 1 Corinthians 2 Corinthians
Galatians Ephesians Philippians
Colossians 1 & 2 Thessalonians 1 Timothy
2 Timothy Titus Philemon

Hebrews James 1 Peter
2 Peter 1 John 2 & 3 John


Old Testament History

Information about the different nations surrounding Israel, and other articles concerning Old Testament history and the inter-testamental period.

Canaanite Religion
Israel's Enemies During the Conquest
Syria / Aram
The Assyrian Empire
Babylon and its History
The Persian Empire
The Greek Empire
The 400 Silent Years
The Ptolemies and Seleucids
Antiochus IV - Epiphanes

Old Testament Studies

A series of articles covering more general topics for OT studies. These include a list of the people named in the OT and confirmed by archaeology. There are also pages to convert the different units of measure in the OT, such as the talent, cubit and ephah into modern units.

More theological topics include warfare in the ancient world, the Holy Spirit in the OT, and types of Jesus in the OT.

OT People Confirmed by Archaeology
The Jewish Calendar
The Importance of Paradox
Talent Converter (weights)
Cubit Converter (lengths)
OT People Search
Ephah Converter (volumes)
Holy War in the Ancient World
The Holy Spirit in the OT
Types of Jesus in the OT

Studies in the Pentateuch (Gen - Deut)

A series of articles covering studies in the five books of Moses. Studies in the Book of Genesis look at the historical nature of the early chapters of Genesis, the Tower of Babel and the Table of the Nations.

There are also pages about covenants, the sacrifices and offerings, the Jewish festivals and the tabernacle, as well as the issue of tithing.

Are chapters 1-11 of Genesis historical?
Chronology of the Flood
Genealogies of the Patriarchs
Table of the Nations (Gen 10)
Tower of Babel (Gen 11:1-9)

Authorship of the Pentateuch
Chronology of the Wilderness Years
Names of God in the OT
Covenants in the OT
The Ten Commandments
The Tabernacle and its Theology
Sacrifices and Offerings
The Jewish Festivals
Balaam and Balak
Highlights from Deuteronomy
Overview of Deuteronomy

Studies in the Old Testament History Books (Josh - Esther)

Articles containing studies and helpful information for the history books. These include a list of the dates of the kings of Israel and Judah, a summary of the kings of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, and studies of Solomon, Jeroboam and Josiah.

There are also pages describing some of the historical events of the period, including the Syro-Ephraimite War, and the Assyrian invasion of Judah in 701 BC.

Dates of the Kings of Judah and Israel
King Solomon
The Kings of Israel
King Jeroboam I of Israel
The Syro-Ephraimite War (735 BC)
Sennacherib's Invasion of Judah (701 BC)
King Josiah of Judah
Differences Between Kings and Chronicles
Chronology of the post-exilic period

Studies in the Old Testament Prophets (Is - Mal)

Articles containing studies and helpful information for the OT prophets. These include a page looking at the way the prophets look ahead into their future, a page looking at the question of whether Satan is a fallen angel, and a page studying the seventy weeks of Daniel.

There are also a series of pages giving a commentary through the text of two of the books:
Isaiah (13 pages) and Daniel (10 pages).

Prophets and the Future
The Call of Jeremiah (Jer 1)
The Fall of Satan? (Is 14, Ezek 28)
Daniel Commentary (10 pages)
Isaiah Commentary (13 pages)
Formation of the Book of Jeremiah

Daniel's Seventy Weeks (Dan 9:24-27)

New Testament Studies

A series of articles covering more general topics for NT studies. These include a list of the people in the NT confirmed by archaeology.

More theological topics include the Kingdom of God and the Coming of Christ.

NT People Confirmed by Archaeology
The Kingdom of God / Heaven
Parousia (Coming of Christ)
The Importance of Paradox

Studies in the Four Gospels (Matt - John)

A series of articles covering various studies in the four gospels. These include a list of the unique passages in each of the Synoptic Gospels and helpful information about the parables and how to interpret them.

Some articles look at the life and ministry of Jesus, including his genealogy, birth narratives, transfiguration, the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and the seating arrangements at the Last Supper.

More theological topics include the teaching about the Holy Spirit as the Paraclete and whether John the Baptist fulfilled the predictions of the coming of Elijah.

Unique Passages in the Synoptic Gospels
The SynopticProblem
Genealogy of Jesus (Matt 1)
Birth Narratives of Jesus
Understanding the Parables
Peter's Confession and the Transfiguration
Was John the Baptist Elijah?
The Triumphal Entry
The Olivet Discourse (Mark 13)
Important themes in John's Gospel
John's Gospel Prologue (John 1)
Jesus Fulfilling Jewish Festivals
Reclining at Table at the Last Supper
The Holy Spirit as the Paraclete

Studies in the Book of Acts and the New Testament Letters

A series of articles covering various studies in the Book of Acts and the Letters, including Paul's letters. These include a page studying the messages given by the apostles in the Book of Acts, and the information about the financial collection that Paul made during his third missionary journey. More theological topics include Paul's teaching on Jesus as the last Adam, and descriptions of the church such as the body of Christ and the temple, as well as a look at redemption and the issue of fallen angels.

There are a series of pages giving a commentary through the text of five of the books:
Romans (7 pages), 1 Corinthians (7 pages), Galatians (3 pages), Philemon (1 page) and Hebrews (7 pages)

Apostolic Messages in the Book of Acts
Paul and His Apostleship
Collection for the Saints
The Church Described as a Temple
Church as the Body of Christ
Jesus as the Last Adam
Food Offered to Idols
Paul's Teaching on Headcoverings
Who are the Fallen Angels
The Meaning of Redemption
What is the Church?
Paul and the Greek Games

Romans Commentary (7 pages)

1 Corinthians Commentary (7 pages)

Galatians Commentary (3 pages)

Philemon Commentary (1 page)

Hebrews Commentary (7 pages)

Studies in the Book of Revelation

Articles containing studies and helpful information for the study of the Book of Revelation and topics concerning Eschatology (the study of end-times).

These include a description of the structure of the book, a comparison and contrast between the good and evil characters in the book and a list of the many allusions to the OT. For the seven churches, there is a page which gives links to their location on Google maps.

There is a page studying the important theme of Jesus as the Lamb, which forms the central theological truth of the book. There are pages looking at the major views of the Millennium, as well as the rapture and tribulation, as well as a list of dates of the second coming that have been mistakenly predicted through history.

There is also a series of ten pages giving a detailed commentry through the text of the Book of Revelation.

Introduction to the Book of Revelation
Characters Introduced in the Book
Structure of Revelation
List of Allusions to OT
The Description of Jesus as the Lamb
Virtual Seven Churches of Revelation
The Nero Redivius Myth
The Millennium (1000 years)
The Rapture and the Tribulation
Different Approaches to Revelation
Predicted Dates of the Second Coming

Revelation Commentary (10 pages)

How to do Inductive Bible Study

These are a series of pages giving practical help showing how to study the Bible inductively, by asking a series of simple questions. There are lists of observation and interpretation questions, as well as information about the structure and historical background of biblical books, as well as a list of the different types of figures of speech used in the Bible. There is also a page giving helpful tips on how to apply the Scriptures personally.

How to Study the Bible Inductively
I. The Inductive Study Method
II. Observation Questions
III. Interpretation Questions
IV. Structure of Books
V. Determining the Historical background
VI. Identifying Figures of Speech
VII. Personal Application
VIII. Text Layout

Types of Literature in the Bible

These are a series of pages giving practical help showing how to study each of the different types of book in the Bible by appreciating the type of literature being used. These include historical narrative, law, wisdom, prophets, Gospels, Acts, letters and Revelation.

It is most important that when reading the Bible we are taking note of the type of literature we are reading. Each type needs to be considered and interpreted differently as they have different purposes.

How to Understand OT Narratives
How to Understand OT Law
Hebrew Poetry
OT Wisdom Literature
Understanding the OT Prophets
The Four Gospels
The Parables of Jesus
The Book of Acts
How to Understand the NT Letters
Studying End Times (Eschatology)
The Book of Revelation

Geography and Archaeology

These are a series of pages giving geographical and archaeological information relevant to the study of the Bible. There is a page where you can search for a particular geographical location and locate it on Google maps, as well as viewing photographs on other sites.

There are also pages with photographs from Ephesus and Corinth.

Search for Geographical Locations
Major Archaeological Sites in Israel
Archaeological Sites in Assyria, Babylon and Persia
Virtual Paul's Missionary Journeys
Virtual Seven Churches of Revelation
Photos of the City of Corinth
Photos of the City of Ephesus

Biblical Archaeology in Museums around the world

A page with a facility to search for artifacts held in museums around the world which have a connection with the Bible. These give information about each artifact, as well as links to the museum's collection website where available showing high resolution photographs of the artifact.

There is also page of photographs from the Israel Museum in Jerusalem of important artifacts.

Search Museums for Biblical Archaeology
Israel Museum Photos

Difficult Theological and Ethical Questions

These are a series of pages looking at some of the more difficult questions of Christian theology, including war, suffering, disappointment and what happens to those who have never heard the Gospel.

Christian Ethics
Never Heard the Gospel
Is there Ever a Just War?
Why Does God Allow Suffering
Handling Disappointment

How to Preach

These are a series of pages giving a practical step-by-step explanation of the process of preparing a message for preaching, and how to lead a small group Bible study.

What is Preaching?
I. Two Approaches to Preaching
II. Study a Passage for Preaching
III. Creating a Message Outline
IV. Making Preaching Relevant
V. Presentation and Public Speaking
VI. Preaching Feedback and Critique
Leading a Small Group Bible Study

Information for SBS staff members

Two pages particularly relevant for people serving as staff on the School of Biblical Studies (SBS) in YWAM. One gives helpful instruction about how to prepare to teach on a book in the SBS. The other gives a list of recommended topics which can be taught about for each book of the Bible.

Teaching on SBS Book Topics for SBS