The Synoptic Gospels: Is There a Problem?


From the days of Christ to modern times, questions surround the details of Jesus’ life. These questions stem from many different sources and for an equal amount of reasons. According to the Gospel of Mark, Jesus commands that we should receive the kingdom of God as little children for fear of not entering it.[1] However, many scholars and theologians seem take this to mean we should question everything, much like a toddler asking ‘why’ for every action in the universe.

The purpose and scope of this post is to provide a brief history behind criticisms of the Synoptic Gospels, describe the general similarities and differences between them, define the main proposed solutions to the Synoptic Problem, and provide a recommendation for the best solution in order for the reader to make an informed analysis of the same.


To understand the various criticisms of the New Testament, we must first know and
understand the historical background of them. During the New Testament era and even during the medieval era, Christians were not overly concerned with the literary beginnings of the Gospels. Information regarding their literary roots was subsidiary, which created a sense of vagueness.[2] However, external scholarly sources during the New Testament period provide a background for the criticisms that emerged later in history. It is important to examine these sources so we know the origins of the various criticisms of the Synoptic Gospels.

During the early history of New Testament criticisms, many scholars presented different views on the literary origins of the Gospels. In 125 A.D., Papias of Hierapolis provided some insight into the literary development of Mark and Matthew. He stated that Mark used Peter as a source for his Gospel, and Matthew wrote his sayings of Jesus in Hebrew.[3] These two bits of information provide clues to modern scholars about the literary background of these two Gospels. In his volume of books written in 130 A.D., An Interpretation of the Sayings of the Lord, Papias provides an anthology of the spoken words and sayings of Jesus that emphasizes the importance of oral transmission. His familiarization with the events of the New Testament lends a great deal of credibility to his work.[4]

Another scholar of this period, Irenaeus, provided a sequence of the Gospels. According to Irenaeus, Matthew wrote his Gospel during the establishment of the Roman church by Paul and Peter. Mark and Luke wrote their Gospels after Paul and Peter departed Rome, followed by John a few years later. Irenaeus’ deductions remain valid when compared to modern sequences of the Gospels.[5] In 200 A.D., Clement of Alexandria believed that the genealogical Gospels were written before the others. Since both Matthew and Luke contain the detailed genealogy of Jesus, most scholars deducted that Clement referred to these two Gospels.[6]

Given the various theories and criticisms of early scholars, many who had easy access to
living eyewitnesses, it is fairly easy to see how other criticisms emerged. However, things remained relatively unchanged until the Enlightenment during the 18th century. This period marked the beginning of the modern era of Gospel criticisms. One of the most influential scholars during the Enlightenment was J.J. Griesbach. In 1776 A.D., he published A Synopsis of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, which opened the door for a renewed criticism, as well as coined the term “the Synoptic Gospels”.[7] He was the first scholar to synoptically examine the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. His works eventually led to the development of the Synoptic Problem. Griesbach recognized the many similarities between the three Gospels when compared side-by-side, which was the reason he chose the word “synoptic” to group them together.[8]

Griesbach also provided his theory on the sequence of the Synoptic Gospels in his literary work, Demonstration, in which he asserts that Mark used both Matthew and Luke to write his Gospel. Mark extracted the bits of information about Jesus’ acts and words that he remembered, and transcribed them into his Gospel.[9] Since Mark had easy access to eyewitness accounts through Peter, he may have used the previous two Gospels to structure his Gospel. J.J. Griesbach’s ideas presented in these two literary works carried over into the modern era of Synoptic criticism.

During the modern period of Synoptic criticism, a few new ideas and questions began to rise to the surface. Scholars began asking ‘dangerous’ questions and making unfounded assertions about the Synoptic Gospels. Hence, the Synoptic Problem began to take shape. Some were quick to assume that the differences between the three Gospels presented certain contradictions without fully investigating the circumstances behind the differences. They erroneously assumed that a difference equated to a contradiction. However, to properly solve the Synoptic Problem, one must examine all of the evidence and consider all circumstances surrounding the writing of these Gospels.[10] A good place to begin is by following Griesbach’s lead in examining the three Gospels side-by-side to properly see both the similarities and differences between each one.


As mentioned earlier, one of the unique accomplishments of Griesbach in his analysis of the Gospels was the side-by-side comparison of events in Jesus’ life and ministry. This type of
comparison allowed him to view both the similarities and differences of all three Gospels in one snapshot, thus allowing a more thorough examination.

All three Synoptic Gospels share similar characteristics. First, they share a similar historical arrangement.[11] This characteristic is expected since they all cover Jesus’ life and ministry. Much like a contemporary biography, it makes sense that each Gospel would follow a similar timeline based on events in Jesus’ life. Second, the verbal content of many sections in each Gospel is similar. This aspect of the Gospels becomes evident in the depiction of certain stories shared by all three.[12]

However, despite these similarities, there are a few differences. Many of the differences originate in the details and wording of certain stories, such as the depiction of and the events
leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion.[13] These differences create what we know as the Synoptic Problem, and give rise to many theoretical criticisms and solutions to this problem.


The various criticisms of the Synoptic Gospels, as well as solutions to the Synoptic Problem, attempt to provide information regarding the origin and literary understanding of the Synoptic Gospels, as well as information about Jesus’ life.[14] The literary differences between the Gospels created somewhat of a challenge to some scholars, and they saw a need for further examination. Their personal quest for knowledge, in turn, created the Synoptic Problem. Based on the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, these criticisms are divided into three periods, each with its own focus.[15]

The first period is known as the period of Oral Tradition, which consists of oral testimonies of eyewitnesses. During this period of time, information about Jesus’ life circulated through stories and sermons, with some literary material available from limited sources.[16] The type of criticisms that deal primarily with this period is known as Form Criticism.

Form Criticism uses two criteria to analyze the Synoptic Gospels. This type of criticism seeks to determine the kind of form being used and how to interpret it. By accurately interpreting a Gospel, a form critic is able to see the message through the mind of the author.[17] For example, if you know you are reading a historical novel, then you know that some of the material is historical, while some is not true. On the other hand, if you did not know it was a novel, you would accept the story as historical.

Form Criticism shares five assumptions related to the oral transmission of stories, particularly ones about Jesus’ life. These assumptions form the basis of its analytical approach to the Synoptic Gospels. It assumes that the stories about Jesus and the sayings attributed to Him initially appeared as small stand-alone units, as well as followed the forms and structures portrayed in the Gospels. It also assumes that the early church modified some stories to address a particular need of its members or the surrounding community.[18] Based on these assumptions, particularly the last one, Form Criticism began questioning the validity of some stories in the Gospels.

To address this issue, some scholars saw a need for a method to determine the age and validity of ‘questionable’ stories. The criteria for this method became known as the “laws of transmission”, which assumed that, as people passed on stories, they modified them in multiple ways for multiple reasons.[19] In a sense, form criticism began treating some stories as tales that grew more extravagant each time it was told, much like an uncle telling a fishing story.

The development of Form Criticism originated from Rudolph Bultmann in his book, The History of the Synoptic Tradition. In this book, Bultmann used Form Criticism to examine the different levels of oral tradition that make up the Synoptic Gospels. Based on his literary investigations, he concluded that little is known about the “historical” Jesus due to limited literary evidence.[20] This is primarily due to the high levels of oral traditions during Jesus’ life, and the limited written sources still in existence.

While there are a few strengths of Form Criticism, its weaknesses far outweigh them. Its most significant strength is its emphasis placed on eyewitness accounts, and their impact on the Synoptic Gospels.[21] It is rather difficult to dismiss the significance of eyewitness accounts to all three Gospel writers, given the high degree of oral transmission of this period. However, some of its weaknesses present causes of suspicion regarding the validity of Form Criticism. For example, questions surrounding the laws of transmission lead to issues regarding its validity, as well as its supporting evidence.[22] The numerous weaknesses and suspicions surrounding Form Criticism eventually led to a different type of criticism—Source Criticism.

Source Criticism stems from the second period of investigation mentioned in the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, in which he mentions written accounts of Jesus’ life.[23] This sparked an interest in investigating the written sources used by the Synoptic Gospel writers. In turn, this led to the literary comparisons of the three Gospels in what we know as the Synoptic Problem.[24]

As mentioned earlier, J.J. Griesbach’s Synopsis gave birth to the Synoptic Problem when he compared all three Gospels side-by-side, thus making it easier to examine their similarities and differences. This greatly simplified the literary comparison of each, as well as their relationship to each other.[25] His work also spurred many scholars of the time to further examine the literary sources of the Gospels, which had a more scientific approach than Form Criticism.

As more scholars adopted this method of criticism, more solutions to the Synoptic Problem emerged. The most popular solutions agree that the Gospels were interdependent of each other, and at least two of the Gospel writers used another Gospel, as well as other documents, to write their own.[26] This theory of interdependence serves as the basis of the most widely accepted theory within Source Criticism—the Two-Source Theory.

This theory consists of two parts in solving the Synoptic Problem. First, it asserts that both Matthew and Luke used Mark’s Gospel in writing their own Gospels, thus establishing the Markan Priority. Second, it also asserts that these two writers also used a lost document known as “Q”, thus establishing this document as the second source. Although this theory has its share of critics, many New Testament scholars still accept it.[27]

In evaluating this theory, it does contain a few ‘holes’ in proving it. Even though most scholars accept the Markan Priority, the very existence of “Q” remains debatable since it is a lost document. The important thing to keep in mind concerning the Two-Source Theory is the intricate development of all three Gospels. Due to this fact, a source-based solution to the Synoptic Problem is difficult to prove beyond a reasonable doubt.[28] With this in mind, some scholars decided to broaden their criticisms to the editorial process of the Synoptic Gospels.

The third criticism of the Synoptic Gospels, or Redaction Criticism, stems from the final stage of investigation mentioned in the beginning of Luke, or the period of final composition.[29] This type of criticism examines the actual text of each Gospel, and focuses on either the editor or the author to understand how the text portrays the author’s original intent. In the case of an editor, it investigates the synchronization between the author and the editor. By examining the text, a redaction critic looks for any words or phrases that do not flow with the general narrative of the text, and determines the purpose of the added words or phrases.[30]

The main issue with Redaction Criticism stems from the fact that the actual documents used by Matthew and Luke do not exist. Without them, determining legitimate changes to the original text of both Gospels is nearly impossible. This forces many redaction critics to make assumptions not supported by evidence. However, Redaction Criticism did stress the importance of the theology of the Gospel writers, as well as the accuracy of Jesus’ words.[31]


Given the variety of solutions to the Synoptic Problem, I recommend the Two-Source theory as a viable solution, with one exception. Given that Mark was the interpreter of Peter, it is fairly easy to accept that Mark wrote his Gospel first based on the testimony of Peter and other eyewitnesses. Based on his personal relationship with Jesus, Peter’s description of Jesus’ life and ministry would naturally focus on the actions and emotions of Jesus. This makes sense to me because Peter saw these things himself, and had intimate conversations with Him. In turn, Mark’s Gospel would have the same types of overtones, since they were based mainly on Peter’s testimony.

Upon reading Mark’s Gospel, Matthew and Luke felt a need to further expound on the narrative of Jesus’ life in order to portray it in further detail to various audiences. For example, if George Washington’s aide wrote a book about his military and presidential career, readers would eventually want to know ‘the rest of the story’. They would want to know about his parents, his childhood, and his later years after being president. I use the same logic when examining the Synoptic Gospels.

As far as the use of a secondary source by either Matthew or Luke, that fact would be very difficult to prove given the absence of alleged sources. It is safe to assume, however, that both writers used various research methods to arrive at the level of detail in their Gospels, which makes the use of a secondary source possible.


In conclusion, it is extremely important for any New Testament scholar to know and understand the various criticisms of the Synoptic Gospels, as well as the solutions to the Synoptic Problem. However, at some point, we must all accept these Gospels as true and accurate through faith. I once heard a minister caution his congregation to avoid the trappings of a “Dragnet faith”, which means to get caught up in only accepting the facts.

In essence, I personally believe that God designed the New Testament to invoke faith from the reader. In accordance with this design, some aspects of the New Testament, especially the Synoptic Gospels, can never be proven beyond a shadow of a doubt on this side of heaven. To believe they are truly inspired by God and is an accurate depiction of his Son’s earthly life, the reader must accept it as truth through faith. With this in mind, I fail to see a problem with the Synoptic Gospels.


1. Mark 10:15 (King James Version).

2. Stephen C. Carlson, “Chronology of the Synoptic Problem,” My Hypotyposeis Weblog, entry posted September 2009, (accessed March 1, 2011).

3. Ibid.

4. Theology on the Web, “Papias: Early Second Century,” Theology on the Web, (accessed March 1, 2011).

5. Stephen C. Carlson, “Chronology of the Synoptic Problem,” My Hypotyposeis Weblog, entry posted September 2009, (accessed March 1, 2011).

6. Ibid.

7. Mahlon H. Smith, “Johann Jakob Griesbach: 1745-1812,” American Theological Library Association Selected Religion Website, (accessed March 1, 2011).

8. D.A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 77.

9. Mahlon H. Smith, “Johann Jakob Griesbach: 1745-1812,” American Theological Library Association Selected Religion Website, (accessed March 1, 2011).

10. Doy Moyer, “A Synopsis of the Synoptic Problem,” Focus Magazine, (accessed March 2, 2011).

11. Thomas D. Lea and David Allan Black, The New Testament: Its Background and Message (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2003), 113.

12. Ibid., 114.

13. Ibid.

14. Carson and Moo, 78.

15. Lea and Black, 115.

16. Ibid.

17. Quartz Hill School of Theology, “Form Criticism,” (accessed March 2, 2011).

18. Lea and Black, 116.

19. Ibid., 117.

20. Rudolf Karl Bultmann and Roger A. Johnson, Rudolf Bultmann: Interpreting Faith for the Modern Era (Minneapolis: First Fortress Press, 1991), 11.

21. Lea and Black, 118.

22. Terence C. Mournet, Oral Tradition and Literary Dependency (Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2005), 27.

23. Lea and Black, 115.

24. Stephen C. Carlson, “Synoptic Problem,” Synoptic Problem Website (accessed March 1, 2011).

25. Mark Goodacre, The Synoptic Problem: A Way Through the Maze (London: T&T Clark International, 2001), 14-19.

26. Lea and Black, 120.

27. Goodacre, 20-24.

28. Lea and Black, 121-122.

29. Carson and Moo, 78.

30. Quartz Hill School of Theology, “B725c: Redaction Criticism,” (accessed March 2, 2011).

31. Lea and Black, 124-125.

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