Thinking Through The Synoptic Problem: An Appeal To Tradition

Table of Contents

Introduction                                                                                                            3

The Essence of the Synoptic Problem                                                                    4

Thinking Through the Synoptic Problem: An Appeal to Tradition                       6

Conclusion                          8


The so-called “Synoptic Problem”, addressing the “synoptic” gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, is defined by Black and Beck as “the harmony and the variety – the resemblances and the differences – between these Gospels.”[1] In other words, these particular Gospels are distinguished and placed together by their recounting of the same narratives, employing many of the same motifs, while simultaneously offering contrasts significant enough to be conferred the status of “differences.” The Synoptic Problem thus attempts to account for the overall unity between these narratives, while also accounting for such “variety”: the problem here is one of exegesis as well as of biblical hermeneutics.

Various theories have been proposed in light of the Synoptic Problem, summarized by Black and Beck in terms of three prominent theories: the “oral theory”, the “two-source hypothesis” and a challenge to the “two-source hypothesis” above all epitomized in the work of William Farmer.[2] The following paper shall provide an account of these various approaches in light of the Synoptic problem, ultimately offering a reading in favor of the oral theory. The reason behind this decision, as will be argued through the course of the paper, is because of the co-emergence of the Synoptic Problem with the Protestant tradition and its emphasis on scripture. The “bibliocentric” view and a correspondent emphasis on the exegesis and hermeneutics of the Scriptures within the greater Protestant tradition essentially in this sense creates a greater Synoptic Gospel controversy, whereas this problem historically, particularly in the work of the Church Fathers, was not exactly deserving of a “problematic” status. Accordingly, the paper shall present an argument in line with the tradition of the Church Fathers to defend what Black and Beck term the “oral theory.”

The Essence of the Synoptic Problem

            As Robert L. Thomas writes, “the first three Gospels in the New Testament – Matthew, Mark, and Luke – are the “Synoptic Gospels,” so called because, as the term synoptic suggests, each of them records the Lord Jesus’ life from the same general perspective as the other two.”[3] Accordingly, what brings the Synoptic Gospels together is their immediate striking similarity: how could the testimonies of Matthew, Mark and Luke incorporate such a same general perspective? Obviously, the prima facie here response is that this similarity is simply a reflection of the historical reality of Jesus Christ. At the same time, however, the Synoptic Problem asks deeper exegetical questions: these questions include the source of the narrative about Christ, how much do they depend on the testimony of those who knew Christ, with the exception of Matthew, and if there was any influence of one gospel upon the others.

A further problem here is that these Synoptic Gospels differ in many striking ways with, for example, the Gospel of John. In addition, there are also differences internal to the Synoptic Gospels themselves, such as the account of Jesus’ Mother and Brothers in Luke 8:19-21 from those accounts of Matthew and Mark, and the Healing of the Gerasene Demoniac, which is portrayed differently in Matthew sections 8:28-34.[4] With these differences in mind, however, one could suggest that the fundamental axis of the Synoptic Problem is the source of the shared perspective in these gospels on the one hand, and the more explicit differences from the Gospel of John, for example, on the other hand.

The so-called “oral theory”, which was essentially the Orthodox position of the Church historically, can be interpreted precisely in terms of the emphasis on the unity of the Synoptic Gospels. Hence, this theory, as Black and Beck note, suggests that “all three Gospels draw from oral traditions deriving from the early Christian community”,[5] such that “the amazing similarities between the Synoptic Gospels appears to stand as a strong testimony to the tenacity of these traditions.”[6] What is above all emphasized here is the homogeneity of the tradition, the historical reality of the Incarnation of Christ, and the strong belief of the nascent Christian Church which was able to orally preserve the narrative despite religious prosecution.

The two-source theory, in turn, stresses, on the one hand, the historical precedence of the Gospel of Mark in regards to the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, whereas, on the other hand, it posits a missing text, commonly as designated text “Q”, which was a source text for both Matthew and Luke. As Goodacre explains the relationship between Matthew, Mark, Luke and Q, “Matthew and Luke are dependent on Mark in all those passages where there is agreement between Matthew, Mark and Luke; and they are dependent on Q in all those passages where there is agreement between just Matthew and Luke.”[7]

Lastly, the third most prevalent theory within the academic literature is the aforementioned theory proposed by William Farmer, a theory whose direct target is the two-source theory which had gained in a currency during the twentieth-century amongst scholars of the problem, according to which “Matthew was written first, that Luke used Matthew in preparing his Gospel, and that Mark conflated the two.”[8] Hence, the most explicit reason for the difference between this so-called “two-Gospel hypothesis” and that of the contemporarily dominant two-source theory is its clear reversal of priority ascribed to Mark: Mark’s apparent primacy from the perspective of the two-source theory is now indicative of Mark’s equivocation of these two texts. Accordingly, this last theory can be viewed as closer to the oral theory of the Church Fathers, in so far as it opposes the crucial historical dependence upon Mark of the two-source theory, while also eliminating the “mystery” text Q of this same theory.

Thinking through the Synoptic Problem: An Appeal to Tradition

            With this brief although necessary summary of the main “players” in the current debate in the academic and theological literature concerning the Synoptic problem complete, the following section will endeavor to defend the particular position of the Oral Theory, a theory which is construed as the traditional theory of the Church. However, the manner in which this theory will be defended is one in which the Synoptic Problem is in a sense “deflated”: namely, the Synoptic Problem emerges as problematic precisely because of the bibliocentric character of Protestant theology. This is not to de-emphasize the sacred nature of the Scriptures, a sacred status itself which is recognized by the historical and traditional Church: however, it is a commentary on the attempt to reduce the life of this Church to the Scriptures as opposed to the life of this Church being the community of Christians, a Church of who Christ is the head. (Col. 1:18)

It is therefore important to note that the Synoptic Problem was not especially problematic for the Early Church and the geniuses of the Church’s history, above all exemplified in the thought of the Church Fathers. Hence, “St. Chrysostom and St. Augustine are the only Fathers who have formulated views concerning the mutual relation of the Synoptic Gospels, and the writers of the Middle Ages seem to have taken into account these patristic views.”[9] Church Fathers such as Augustine were therefore aware of the Synoptic character of these gospels, noting their profound similarity. Accordingly, Augustine proposed his own genealogy of so-called “synoptic relations”, whereby “the canonical order of the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) was the order in which the Gospels were written.”[10] On the one hand, the synoptic character is clearly seen, on the other hand its character is explained in terms of the order of the Scripture itself. This, however, should not be interpreted as merely a dismissal of what would become a fundamental question of interest to later theologians: rather, what is arguably emphasized in this approach is precisely the tradition of the Church, the strong homogeneity of narratives of an oral tradition. Augustine does not merely dismiss the importance of synoptic character, because he in fact does diagnose it and thereafter offers an explanation for it. But what is central to the synoptic Gospels is not the question of narrative differences, but rather the homogeneity of belief of the Christians who composed these bibles: what is at stake here is the commitment to Christ and the living tradition of believers that is emphasized in such synoptic qualities. In other words, the synoptic character of these Gospels is not a problem of textual order, but rather itself denotes a radically positive expression of the shared Christian faith.

In this sense, there is a crucial shift when the synoptic character of these Gospels becomes a synoptic problem. And here the “problematic” status of these texts should not be found in these texts themselves, but rather in the reading of a problem into these texts. That is to say, somewhat ironically, by problematizing the synoptic character of these gospels, instead of mobilizing it as a clear indicator of the homogeneity of the Christian faith, as is arguably clear in the lack of commentary from the Church Fathers on this issue, the prominence of the sacred character of Scripture is somewhat devalued by the same approach that makes the Scriptures central to the Faith. By problematizing the synoptic character of these texts one is precisely looking at the Scriptures in rational and human terms instead of considering them to be sacred. The classification of sacred here does not intend to make the texts an irresolvable mystery, for the very incarnation of Christ and the gospels that speak of His incarnation, death, and resurrection mean that God wishes to communicate this mystery to man. The “synoptic problem” is rather the result of reading all too human categories of rationality and classification into a text that, as sacred, is beyond human rationality. One here misses the forest for the trees, absolving the sacred aspect of the scriptures for their dry rational categorization, even to the point of positing mystery sacred texts such as the Q of the “two-source theory”, which seems to devalue the entire centrality of the existing scriptures that Protestantism and its various forms such as Evangelicism desire to uphold.


In this regard, one could advance the thesis that in the over-attention to the scripture at the expense of the sacrifice of the tradition of the Church, of the great thinkers that are the Church Fathers, of the lives of the saints, of the aesthetic majesty of the Church’s art epitomized in the form of iconography, one is left merely with the exegesis of scripture: this fails to see that the Scripture is one part of a faith directed towards Christ and the triune God, and that all aspects of the Church help illuminate Scripture, whereas Scripture helps illuminate all other aspects of the life of the Church. The time of the historical emergence of the synoptic problem as problem seems to make this point clear. In short, something essential is here being missed when the synoptic character of these gospels are now construed as synoptic problems. It was the Church Fathers, according to their pronounced silence on such a synoptic problem as itself a problem, that show us this sacred nature of Scripture is in fact being overlooked in such conflicts of exegesis.


Black, David Alan and David R. Beck, “Introduction”, In: D.A. Black and D.R. Beck (eds.)

Rethinking the Synoptic Problem. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001. 11-16.

Carson, D.A., Moo, Douglas J. & Morris, Leon. An Introduction to the New Testament.

Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1992.

Goodacre, Mark. The Synoptic Problem: A Way Through the Maze. London: T&T

International, 2001.

Gigot, Francis. “Synoptics.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton

Company. Retrieved April 4, 2013 from New Advent:

Kostenberger, Andreas J.,  Kellum, L. Scott & Charles L. Quarles. The Cradle, The Cross,  and the Crown: An Introduction to the New Testament. Nashville, B&H: 2009.

Thomas, Robert L. “Introduction”, In: R.L. Thomas (ed.), Three Views on the Origins of the  Synoptic Gospels. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2002.

[1] David Alan Black and David R. Beck, “Introduction”, In: D.A. Black and D.R. Beck (eds.) Rethinking the Synoptic Problem (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001) 11-12.

[2] Ibid., 11-13.

[3] Robert L. Thomas, “Introduction”, In: R.L. Thomas (ed.), Three Views on the Origins of the Synoptic Gospels (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2002), 8.

[4] D.A. Carson, Douglas J. Moo, and Leon Morris. An Introduction to the New Testament. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1992), 28.

[5] Black and Beck, “Introduction”, 12.

[6] Ibid., 11.

[7] Mark Goodacre, The Synoptic Problem: A Way Through the Maze (London: T&T International, 2001), 20.

[8] Black and Beck, “Introduction”, 12.

[9] Francis Gigot. “Synoptics.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912).  Retrieved April 7, 2013 from New Advent:

[10] Andreas J. Kostenberger, L. Scott Kellum & Charles L. Quarles. The Cradle, The Cross, and the Crown: An Introduction to the New Testament (Nashville, B&H: 2009), 165.