What Is the Synoptic Problem of Matthew, Mark, and Luke and What is the Hypothetical So-Called Q Document?


Please Help Us Keep These Thousands of Blog Posts Growing and Free for All


Edward D. Andrews
EDWARD D. ANDREWS (AS in Criminal Justice, BS in Religion, MA in Biblical Studies, and MDiv in Theology) is CEO and President of Christian Publishing House. He has authored ninety-two books. Andrews is the Chief Translator of the Updated American Standard Version (UASV).

The reliability of the Gospels has long been questioned because of pseudo-scholarship. Were the Gospel writers plagiarists? Did the synoptic Gospel (Matthew, Mark & Luke) writers merely copy from one another? Is there a document called Q? Was the Gospel of Mark written first? Are the Gospels authentic and reliable?

“The gospels must now be seen as the result of early Christian mythmaking. Q forces the issue, for it documents an earlier history that does not agree with the narrative gospel accounts.”[1] – Burton L. Mack, retired professor of New Testament studies.

Burton L. Mack is not alone in his thinking, it has become very common among Bible scholars to question the reliability of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, that is, the Bible’s historical accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry. Why have some Bible scholars viewed the Gospels as myths? Should their views cause us to have doubts as to the trustworthiness and the truthfulness of the Gospels? Below we will examine some of the evidence.

The Reading Culture of Early Christianity From Spoken Words to Sacred Texts 400,000 Textual Variants 02

The Reliability of the Gospels Begin to Be Questioned

From the close of the first century C.E.[2] to the 18th century, the reliability of the Gospels was never really brought into question. However, once we enter the so-called period of enlightenment, especially from the 19th century onward, some Bible scholars viewed the Gospels not as the inspired, fully inerrant Word of God but rather as the word of man, and a jumbled word at that. In addition, they determined that the Gospels were not written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, saying the Gospels were written after the apostles, denying that the writers of the Gospels had any firsthand knowledge of Jesus; therefore, for these Bible critics such men were unable to offer a record of reliable history. Moreover, these liberal Bible scholars came to the conclusion that the similarities in structure and content in the synoptic (similar view) Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), suggests that the evangelists copied extensively from one other. Further, the liberal Bible critics have rejected that the miracles of Jesus and his resurrection ever occurred as recorded in the Gospels. Lastly, some have even gone so far as to reject the historicity of Jesus himself.


Philosophical rationalism found its beginnings in René Descartes (1596 –1650), Thomas Hobbes (1588 –1679), Baruch Spinoza (1632 –77), and John Locke (1632 –1704). Theological rationalism, however, was directly linked to three chief sources: Christian von Wolff (1679 –1754), Hermann Samuel Reimarus (1694 –1768), and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729 –81). Wolff attempted to tie biblical revelation into natural revelation, while Reimarus made natural revelation the source of Christianity. Lessing added to this new set of problems by arguing that the contingent truths of history could never be a proof for the necessary truths of reason. Thus, to these men can be traced much of what later developed in liberal Christianity, including the destructive form of biblical criticism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Accordingly, “biblical criticism” came to mean not simply the scientific investigation of biblical documents but a method that assumed from the start the critic’s right to pass judgment on the truth claims of the Bible. Thus, for example, to interpret the Bible historically meant almost by definition to acknowledge that it contains contradictions; indeed, one of the standard textbooks on the subject simply assumes that any approach is unhistorical that does not accept those contradictions.[3] In short, assent to the view that the Bible was not totally reliable became one of the operating principles of the “historical-critical method.”

Anyone who was theologically committed to the traditional view of inspiration obviously could not do “criticism” in this sense. Subsequent developments, however, created further complications. The formulations of so-called higher criticism regarding the historical origins of biblical documents tended more and more to denigrate the religious value of the Bible. By the beginning of the twentieth century, “conservative” and “liberal” approaches had become almost totally polarized, though the former continued to make extensive use of critical studies insofar as these could be integrated into the framework of theological orthodoxy.[4]

English Bible Versions King James Bible KING JAMES BIBLE II

Higher criticism (historical-critical method) is a term used to describe the study of the Bible with the objective of finding out details such as the authorship, source material, and time of the composition of each book. Higher criticism of the Bible got started in earnest during the 18th and 19th centuries. Historical criticism, also known as the historical-critical method or higher criticism, is now known as biblical criticism. Some forms of biblical criticism are source criticism, form criticism, tradition-historical criticism, redaction criticism, structural criticism, reader-response criticism, and feminist criticism, among several others.


Eta Linnemann writes, “In the academic community, the confirmed results of scientific investigation are considered the touchstone of intellectual inquiry. Indeed, society at large has come to respect all claims offered under the rubric of ‘science.’ As a ‘scientific theology,’ the historical-critical method has come to dominate the field of biblical criticism in Germany and is championed in seminaries and universities around the world.” In Historical Criticism of the Bible Eta Linnemann tells how modern Bible scholarship has drifted far from the truth, and why its assumptions are nonetheless so influential and thereby inherently dangerous. Those who practice the interpretive methods of biblical criticism evidenced by their writings and words that one does not have to believe that the Bible is the fully inerrant, inspired Word of God. Biblical criticism is extremely flawed, and its assault on the Bible has stumbled much of Christianity into believing that the Bible is not the fully inerrant Word of God but rather it, the Bible, is full of errors, mistakes, and contradictions.


The historical-critical method teaches that much of the Bible was composed of legend and myth. Some have even gone so far as to claim that Jesus never existed. Instead of being designated the Word of God, the Bible was said by these Bible scholars to be the word of man. The historical-critical method of interpretation is taught in almost all seminaries. Today, the genuinely conservative Bible scholars and pastors are making it known that modern-day historical-critical method of interpretation is exposed as just another attack on the Bible. ‘Liberalism, strong in influence in the 19th century, has continued into the 20th and 21st centuries. It views the Bible as a human book not given by divine inspiration, and it teaches that supernatural elements in the Bible can be explained rationally.’ (Zuck 1991, 53) Biblical criticism is pseudo-scholarship and has done nothing more than weaken and demoralize people’s assurance in the Bible as being the inspired and fully inerrant Word of God and is destructive in its very nature.


Grammatical-Historical Interpretation

The grammatical-historical method is a method, which attempts to ascertain what the author meant by the words that he used, which should have been understood by his original readers. (Stein 1994, 38-9) It was the primary method of interpretation when higher criticism’s Historical-Critical Method was in its infancy back in the 19th century (Milton Terry), and remains the only method of interpretation for true conservative scholarship in the later 20th century into the 21st century.

Grammatical Aspect

When we speak of interpreting the Bible grammatically, we are referring to the process of seeking to determine its meaning by ascertaining four things: (a) the meaning of words (lexicology), (b) the form of words (morphology), (c) the function of words (parts of speech), and (d) the relationships of words (syntax). In the meaning of words (lexicology), we are concerned with (a) etymology, how words are derived and developed, (b) usage how words are used by the same and other authors, (c) synonyms and antonyms -how similar and opposite words are used, and (d) context-how words are used in various contexts.

Who Wrote the Gospels Found in the New Testament of Our Bibles and How Do We Know?

In discussing the form of words (morphology), we are looking at how words are structured and how that affects their meaning. For example, the word eat means something different from ate, though the same letters are used. The word part changes meaning when the letter “s” is added to it to make the word parts. The function of words (parts of speech) considers what the various forms do. These include attention to subjects, verbs, objects, nouns, and others, as will be discussed later. The relationships of words (syntax) are the way words are related or put together to form phrases, clauses, and sentences. (Zuck 1991, 100-101)


Historical Aspect

By “historical” they meant the setting in which the Bible books were written and the circumstances involved in the writing. … taking into consideration the circumstances of the writings and the cultural environment.

The context in which a given Scripture passage is written influences how that passage is to be understood. Context includes several things:

  • the verse(s) immediately before and after a passage
  • the paragraph and book in which the verses occur
  • the dispensation in which it was written
  • the message of the entire Bible
  • the historical-cultural environment of that time when it was written.
  • (Zuck 1991, 77)

Some of the truly conservative scholars who have remained faithful to the grammatical-historical method of interpretation are Bernard Ramm, Harold Lindsell, Gleason L. Archer, Robert L. Thomas, Norman L. Geisler, Thomas Howe, Roy, B. Zuck, David F. Farnell, among other select ones. Such ones are referred to as “fundamentalist Protestants,” as though fundamentalism is now a dirty word. Some modern-day scholar believes that they can dip their feet in the pool of higher criticism, suggesting that they can use certain aspects of these forms of criticisms, without ending up doing any harm to the trustworthiness of the text, to inerrancy. This is very naïve, as some of them end up swimming in the deep end of higher criticism, while others walk along the edges of the deep end.

Here are just ten of the “tip-of-the-iceberg” of the things that these scholars would agree with:

  • Matthew, not Jesus, Created the Sermon on the Mount.
  • The commissioning of the Twelve in Matthew 10 is a group of instructions compiled and organized by Matthew, not spoken by Jesus on a single occasion.
  • The parable accounts of Matthew 13 and Mark 4 are anthologies of parables that Jesus uttered on separate occasions.
  • Jesus did not preach the Olivet Discourse in its entirety, as found in the of the gospel accounts.
  • Jesus gave his teaching on divorce and remarriage without the exception clauses found in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9.
  • In Matthew 19:16-17, Matthew changed the words of Jesus and the rich man to obtain a different emphasis or to avoid a theological problem involved in the wording of Mark’s and Luke’s accounts of the same event.
  • The scribes and the Pharisees were, in reality, decent people whom Matthew painted in an entirely negative light because of his personal bias against them.
  • The genealogies of Jesus in Matthew 1 and Luke 3 are figures of speech and not accurate records of Jesus’ physical/and or legal lineage.
  • The magi who, according to Matthew 2, visited the child Jesus after his birth are fictional, not real characters.
  • Jesus uttered only three or four of the eight or nine beatitudes in Matthew 5:3-12[5]

The Original Meaning

The objective of the exegete in his use of the grammatical-historical method of interpretation is to discover what the author meant by the words that he used, as should have been understood by his originally intended audience. Each and every text has one single meaning. Milton S. Terry wrote, “A fundamental principle in grammatico-historical exposition is that the words and sentences can have but one significance in one and the same connection. The moment we neglect this principle we drift out upon a sea of uncertainty and conjecture.” (Terry 1883, 205)

How to Interpret the Bible-1 INTERPRETING THE BIBLE how-to-study-your-bible1

Were the Gospel Writers Plagiarists?

The so-called Synoptic Problem: The early church fathers believed Matthew penned his Gospel first with Luke and Mark following in that order.[6] Further, it is possible Mark and Luke were likely aware of Matthew’s Gospel, yet the early Church Fathers give no inclination it was used as a source for their Gospels. Rather, their writings reveal all four gospels were written independently. Inasmuch as John penned his Gospel in 98 CE, it was assumed he also was aware of the other three gospels but was moved to supplement and not cover the same material a fourth time. This impression would stay intact for 1,700 years.

The synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are referred to as such because they are similar when compared to the Gospel of John. They are similar in view, the material covered and even similar wording.  The word synoptic can be broken down into syn-, meaning “together with,” and “optic,” meaning “see,” giving us “seeing together.”[7] Matthew’s Gospel is over 90 percent similar in its content to Mark. Of Mark, 601 of his 606 verses are found in Matthew while Luke’s Gospel is about 50 percent similar in its content to Mark. The Gospel of Mark is only about 7 percent unique to itself while Matthew contains 42 percent that is characteristic to it alone with Luke coming in with 59 percent that is unique to itself, and the Gospel of John has 92 percent that is characteristic to itself.


Johann Jakob Griesbach (1745-1812)

The synoptic question got its start in earnest in 1774 when Johann Jakob Griesbach (1745-1812) issued his Synopsis of the Gospels Matthew, Mark, and Luke with the passages laid out in corresponding columns for straightforward assessment. From that day, they have been referred to as the “synoptic,” or similar view Gospels. Griesbach did not doubt the Gospels were penned by the four authors, even though these names were not added to them until the second century C.E. Moreover, Griesbach felt “the apostles were fitted through the Holy Spirit to both understand and transmit the doctrine without danger of error.”[8]

First, we must give context to  the Griesbach quote above, “the apostles were fitted through the Holy Spirit to both understand and transmit the doctrine without danger of error.” Without context, one might think Griesbach believed in absolute or full inerrancy. He did but only for the apostles, so for example, the Gospel of John and Matthew would be without error but the Gospels Mark and Luke could err. Dr. F. David Farnell writes, “Griesbach believed that only those Gospel writers who were apostles were inspired (i.e., Matthew and John). This automatically left the conclusion that Mark and Luke were uninspired accounts. The apostles, Griesbach posits, were not inspired in the act of writing but were given a one-time gift of inspiration at Pentecost that afterward ward enabled them to understand and transmit doctrine but not inerrantly. Thus, Griesbach rejected the orthodox approach of plenary, nary, verbal inspiration. His unorthodox views of inspiration caused him to believe that the NT writers often err. Therefore, one could not harmonize the Gospel accounts. Griesbach’s view of the Gospel of John was highly skeptical in terms of its chronological reliability, and he omitted it from his synopsis. Accordingly, John must be separated from the synoptics. Griesbach’s separation of the first three Gospels from the fourth (i.e., John’s Gospel) gave rise to the classification of the former as the ‘Synoptic Gospels,’ a term that was coined in German man by Griesbach. His historical skepticism led him to develop a “synopsis” rather than pursuing development of a traditional ‘harmony’ because he rejected harmonization. Under this approach, the apostolic book of Matthew became the Gospel that the nonapostles, Luke and Mark, used in writing their Gospels.” – Thomas L Robert. Three Views on the Origins of the Synoptic Gospels.


After Griesbach obtained his master’s degree when he was 23, he traveled Europe, visiting one library after another examining manuscripts of the Greek New Testament. The results of this research were published in 1774 and 1775, as well as his Greek text (in later editions). His Greek text was used by a number of Bible translators that included Archbishop Newcome, Abner Kneeland, Samuel Sharpe, Edgar Taylor, and Benjamin Wilson.

The Emphatic Diaglott is a diaglott, or two-language polyglot translation, of the New Testament by Benjamin Wilson, first published in 1864. It is an interlinear translation with the original Greek text and a word-for-word English translation in the left column, and a full English translation in the right column. It is based on the interlinear translation, the renderings of eminent critics, and various readings of the Codex Vaticanus. It includes illustrative and explanatory footnotes, references, and an alphabetical appendix. The Greek text is that of Johann Jakob Griesbach. The English text uses “Jehovah” for the divine name a number of times where the New Testament writers used “Ancient Greek: κύριος, romanized: kýrios” (Kyrios, the Lord) when quoting Hebrew scriptures. For example, at Luke 20:42-43 it reads: “For David himself says in the book of Psalms, Jehovah said to my Lord, sit thou at my Right hand, ’till I put thine enemies underneath thy feet”, where Jesus quoted Psalm 110:1.

For the first time in the critical texts of the Greek New Testament, in Griesbach’s text we find manuscript readings that were older than those that were used by Desiderius Erasmus in his Greek text of 1516 C.E. The significance of this research is obvious from the following comment: “Griesbach spent long hours in the attempt to find the best readings among the many variants in the New Testament. His work laid the foundations of modern text criticism and he is, in no small measure, responsible for the secure New Testament text which we enjoy today.”—J. J. Griesbach: Synoptic and Text-Critical Studies, 1776-1976, p. xi.

In 1776 Griesbach published his Synopsis of the Gospels Matthew, Mark, and Luke, having the text placed in parallel columns so that they could be easily compared. This is how they come to be called the “synoptic” Gospels because they present a “like view.” Griesbach strongly believed that these Gospels had been written by the persons named. He believed that Matthew had personally witnessed the events he had recorded, and that “the apostles were fitted through the Holy Spirit to both understand and transmit the doctrine without danger of error.” Bit once again, only the apostles were error free in the mind of Griesbach, not Mark an Luke.

From his studies, Griesbach had determined that the first Gospel was written by Matthew, the second by had been written by Luke and the third by Mark. However, even during the lifetime of Griesbach, some believed that Mark was the first Gospel to be written, e.g., G. S. Storr. This theory has since achieved popular support, together with the idea that the source behind the Gospels was an unknown lost document named ‘Q.’ Scholars have since added other strands, sources, and theories, and its analysis and study have occupied numerous books and many thousands of articles. So important has it become for many theologians that it has even taken on the nature of “an article of faith.” As a result, Griesbach has been cast aside and frequently he is harshly criticized.

The Synoptic Problem: Four Views  by Stanley E. Porter and Bryan R. Dyer | Jul 19, 2016

Three Views on the Origins of the Synoptic Gospels by Robert L. Thomas | Nov 30, 2002 

Is There A Synoptic Problem?: Rethinking the Literary Dependence of the First Three Gospels by Eta Linnemann and Robert W. Yarbrough | May 6, 2020 [Reprint of 1992]

The “problem” we speak of herein is a literary dependency. Are they so similar they were excessively dependent on one another? Are Matthew, Mark, and Luke plagiarists? One must ask each author where he got his material for what he wrote. It does no damage to one’s faith to ask these questions as we will go no further than the evidence will allow, unlike higher criticism.

The Hypothetical Q Document (30 – 65 CE)

The story of Q (German Quelle “source”) dates to over 120 years ago. It originates as part of what is known as the “two-source” theory of gospel origins. As history reports, the 1800s could be known as the period of ignorance, not the period of enlightenment. Nevertheless, during this time it was decided that the gospels were not historically dependable. According to the Q Document theory, early on there were oral sayings and deeds of Jesus that were not written (agrapha, “not written). Several examples of these supposed agrapha were found in the writings of second-century Church Fathers. It is the hypothetical Q Document, which is allegedly a collection of these oral sayings and deeds that were written. These writings served as the source for Mark’s Gospel and by extension Matthew and Luke. It is also argued that Matthew and Luke did not pen their gospels from memory, or the memories of others, but instead by using the dual sources of Mark and this hypothetical document called Q.

Some establish the Q document by looking to the verses in Matthew and Luke that are similar to each other, yet do not appear in the Gospel of Mark. There is just one small problem with this theory: the so-called Q document is not in existence, and as far as evidence goes, there is none to show that it ever existed. For example, it has never been quoted by any of the Church Fathers. One would not know this by listening to the seemingly factual way the higher critics present their hypothetical document. The expressions below bring to life a nonexistent document:

  • “Q originally played a critical role”;
  • “Q demonstrates”;
  • “Q forces the issue”;
  • “Q calls into question”;
  • “Q is the most important text we have”; and
  • “Q tells us.”[9]
  • James M. Robinson, professor of religion, states: “Q is surely the most important Christian text that we have.”

Scholars such as B. F. Westcott (1825-1901), Theodor Zahn (1883-1933), and Adolf Schlatter (1852-1938) rejected this “two-source” theory, with the latter two being German. As with most other damage done to the Bible’s validity, it started with German scholarship and was soaked up by other academic scholars. Eta Linnemann, who studied under Bultmann and Fuchs, supported the two-source hypothesis. Eventually, she did her own extensive re-evaluation, which contributed to her break with historical-critical scholarship, as well as her taking up the Independence View. She expresses her strong disapproval of the position today’s seminary students find themselves in if they adopt the Independent View:

“What student in seminar discussion is going to risk being labeled as uncritical and hopelessly behind the times by raising the possibility that the three Gospels are equally original, in keeping with their own claims and early church tradition?”[10] . . . “I am shocked when I look at the books of my former colleagues, which I used to hold in the highest esteem and examine the justification for their position. Instead of proof, I find only assertions. Instead of arguments, there is merely circular reasoning.”[11]


What are the Facts About Q?

No Church Father or early source makes a reference to such a source. If the Q Document was distributed so widely that Mark, Matthew, and Luke had copies, why do we not even have a fragment? Paul in all likelihood did not know of the Gospel of Matthew and definitely not Mark and Luke. There is no reason why he would not have been aware of such a document that is claimed to have affected and played a very influential role on the start of Christianity and existed before he became a Christian. But Paul is dead silent on the Q Document. The Independent View stood as the dominant understanding until the era of enlightenment when the philosophical giants, such as Grotius (1593-1645), Kant (1724-1804), Reimarus 1694-1768), Spinoza (1632-1677), and Tindal (1656-1733) brought us errancy of Scripture, Biblical criticism, and their views on the origins of the Synoptic Gospels, Two-Source Hypothesis.[12]


Papias (c. 110 CE) states:

(3) I will not hesitate to set down for you . . . everything I carefully learned then from the elders and carefully remembered, guaranteeing their truth. For unlike most people I did not enjoy those who have a great deal to say, but those who teach the truth. Nor did I enjoy those who recall someone else’s commandments, but those who remember the commandments given by the Lord to the faith and proceeding from the truth itself. (4) And if by chance someone who had been a follower of the elders should come my way, I inquired about the words of the elders—what Andrew or Peter said, or Philip, or Thomas or James, or John or Matthew or any other of the Lord’s disciples.[13]

(15) And the Elder used to say this: “Mark, having become Peter’s interpreter, wrote down accurately everything he remembered, though not in order, of the things either said or done by Christ. For he neither heard the Lord nor followed him, but afterward, as I said, followed Peter, who adapted his teachings as needed but had no intention of giving an ordered account of the Lord’s sayings. Consequently, Mark did nothing wrong in writing down some things as he remembered them, for he made it his one concern not to omit anything which he heard or to make any false statement in them.” Such, then, is the account given by Papias with respect to Mark. (16) But with respect to Matthew, the following was said: So Matthew composed the oracles in the Hebrew language and each person interpreted them as best he could.[14]

Bart D. Ehrman, an agnostic Bible scholar who has spent much of his career misleading the masses about the early text of the Greek New Testament, states about Papias:

There’s an even bigger problem with taking Papias at his word when he indicates that Mark’s Gospel is based on an eyewitness report of Peter: virtually everything else that Papias says is widely, and rightly, discounted by scholars as pious imagination rather than historical fact.[15]

The Epistle to the Hebrews Paul PAUL AND LUKE ON TRIAL

It is true, that Papias exaggerated and expanded the death of Judas Iscariot based on Matthew 27:5 and Acts 1:18. However, much of what we read on Papias is found in the New Testament, whether one likes it or not. Other aspects of Papias concerning Gospel writers receive validation by other writers, such as Irenaeus, who lived shortly thereafter and would have had firsthand information. Many of these renowned Church Fathers had access to Papias and other sources that validate the truthfulness of Papias’ message. In short, if we discounted all things Papias said because he exaggerated or tried to explain Judas Iscariot’s death, we would discount every statement Ehrman has ever made based on the same principles. Ehrman has been found guilty of misrepresenting numbers on many occasions for the sole purpose of manipulating the information in an attempt to deceive.[16]

The Gospel of Matthew proved the most influential up until the time of Irenaeus (c. 180 CE). If there was a Q document and Mark was written first, with Matthew and Luke merely copying from Mark and Q, why had Matthew become the most popular among the congregations? Moreover, why were the early congregations united in Matthew’s Gospel as being written first, giving him first place in the canon? We will look at just one example in Clement of Alexandria. It is Eusebius, the fourth-century Church historian, who tells the tradition that Mark is one of the founders of the Alexandrian congregation: a congregation that Clement would later lead. Eusebius also informs us that Clement wrote of “a tradition of primitive elders,” who gave him the order of the Gospels as Matthew, Luke, Mark, and John, being written in that order. Being that Mark was one of the founders, and Clement placed him as the third Gospel writer, gives even more credence to Clement’s words, as it would be tempting to place your founding leader in the first place.

THE LIFE OF JESUS CHRIST by Stalker-1 The TRIAL and Death of Jesus_02 THE LIFE OF Paul by Stalker-1

Is There Literary Dependence Found Within the Synoptic Gospels?

Again, going back to the evidence of the Church Fathers, none of them addressed literary dependence, even when the opportunity presented itself. The in-depth answer is found in a publication by Eta Linnemann, Is There a Synoptic Problem? In short, she found absolutely no evidence that either “Matthew or Luke were literary dependent on Mark.” At the end of this investigation, nothing negates the fact they were composed independently of one another.[17] She is joined by many prominent scholars, who have viewed the evidence, and find independence to be the preferred option: Louis Berkhof, Henry C. Thiessen, Robert G. Gromacki, Merrill C. Tenney, Jacob Von Bruggen, John M. Rist, John Wenham, and Bo Reicke. While listing world-renowned scholars does not in and of itself prove anything, it lends credence to the Independent View.

This chapter does not extensively investigate the evidence for or against the dependence of either Matthew, Luke, or Mark and the so-called Q document. The best we can offer is a summary of Linnemann’s conclusions. The final analysis in determining the amount of dependence, the findings are there is no dependency. Mark contains 116 passages, of which 40 (3635 words, 32.28 percent), are not found in Matthew or Luke. Of the 76 passages that remain, 7,625 words, or 67.72 percent, occur in Matthew and Luke. Taking these 7,625 words, we find there are only 1,539 words (20.19 percent) completely identical in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. In Matthew and Mark alone, we find only 1,640 words (21.51 percent) are completely identical. In Mark and Luke alone, it is a mere 877 words (11.5 percent). In Matthew and Luke, it is 381 words (5 percent).

There are words that are basic, and not relevant to literary dependency. In Biblical Greek, the definite article “the” is the only article, and it plays a large role, far different and more extensive than English. The definite article “the” is found in the Greek New Testament as the most often occurring, 19,870 times, with the Greek word και “and” coming in second at 9,153 times. If we remove the basic words of the article, και, and pronouns the percentage falls drastically. Looking at our 1,539 identical words, we find the basic words of Matthew and Mark to be 530 (32.32 percent), with Mark and Luke having 286 words that are basic (32.61 percent), and Matthew and Luke at 91 words (23.88 percent).

4th ed. MISREPRESENTING JESUS The Complete Guide to Bible Translation-2

Thus, we only find 970 words of importance in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. In other words, a mere 12.72 percent of the 7,695 words have any bearing on the synoptic passages. These commonalities do not consider there are another 3,635 words, or 32.28 percent, of Mark that are not found in Matthew or Luke.[18]

The Gospels are completely reliable. They contain trustworthy historical accounts of eyewitnesses. They are built on thorough research. They offer the reader many fascinating facts about the life of the historical Jesus Christ. Therefore, like young Timothy, we do well to pay close attention to Paul’s words:

2 Timothy 3:14-17 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

14 You, however, continue in the things you have learned and were persuaded to believe, knowing from whom you have learned them, 15 and that from infancy[19] you have known the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through trust[20] in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; 17 so that the man of God may be fully competent, equipped for every good work.”

This includes the four Gospels.

We must note that we cannot be for absolute inerrancy, the infallibility of Scripture, the inspiration of Scripture and at the same time speak of literary dependence or literary collaboration. Why? Because there is going to be a time when you have to explain changes that were made by one author who was dependant on the other (source) author, changes that cause some historical discrepancy between the Gospel that made the change and the source Gospel. That situation will arise any time you attempt to propose literary dependence or literary collaboration between two synoptic authors.

The ‘source document’ idea, the Q document, the literary dependence or collaboration theory has destroyed the faith of many Christians in their view of inerrancy and divine inspiration of the Bible. (2 Tim. 3:16-17) This trend is not new, for the apostle Paul told Timothy “As I urged you when I was going to Macedonia, remain at Ephesus so that you may charge certain ones not to teach different doctrine, nor to pay attention to myths and endless genealogies, which promote speculations rather than God’s plan that is by faith.”—1 Tim. 1:3-4.

Dr. Norman L. Geisler

The Literary Background of the Gospels

There are two main questions concerning the literary background of the Gospels: Why are there four Gospels? Why are three of them so similar (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) and one (John) so different?

Before this is answered in more detail, it will be helpful to look at the differences between the Synoptic Gospels and the autoptic Gospel. The following contrast will help generalize and summarize the differences:

Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke)

Autoptic Gospel (John)

public ministry private ministry
Galilean ministry Judean ministry
parables no parables
human side divine side
earthly aspect heavenly aspect
synoptical supplementary
official personal

The Synoptic Problem

Let’s deal with the synoptic problem. Why do the first three Gospels view the ministry of Christ from the same general perspective? To be more specific: Why are they so similar in content? And why are there marked differences between them? A whole host of subsidiary questions are involved here: Who wrote first? Who is depending on whom? What sources did each writer have?

The Basic Data of the Gospels

Book Peculiarities Coincidences
Matthew 42% 58%
Mark 7% 93%
Luke 59% 41%
John 92% 8%

This chart is attributed to Bishop Westcott. Reprinted from William Graham Scroggie, Guide to the Gospels (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1995), 189.

Only 50–55 verses are unique to Mark. Matthew has 1,068 verses; 500 are common with Mark. Luke has 1,149 verses; 320 are common with Mark. Mark has 661 verses; 50–55 are not in Matthew or Luke. Matthew and Luke have 250 verses in common that are not in Mark. Luke has 580 verses peculiar to itself (which have a Gentile tone). Matthew has 300 verses peculiar to itself (which have a Jewish tone).

Some Proposed Solutions

Numerous theories have been put forth to solve the synoptic problem. Some are held by liberal scholars, some by evangelicals, and some by both (at least in part).

The One-Source Theory (Urevangelium)

This theory proposes one primitive Gospel from which all three Synoptics drew information. Accordingly, the similarities are due to one common source, and the differences result from the individual author’s theme, interests, and style.

Figure 3.1

One-Source Theory

Figure 3.1 Synoptic Gospels

Problems: (1) The disappearance of the original source is difficult to explain. (2) The differences between the three Gospels are difficult to understand. (3) There is no record or manuscripts of any such primitive Gospel.

Two-Document Theory

The two-document theory claims that the similarities between the three Gospels are due to Matthew and Luke following Mark in order and wording. And the differences are explained by positing a hypothetical common source called Q (from the German: quelle, meaning “source”) from which Matthew and Luke’s common material comes.

Figure 3.2

Two-Document Theory

Figure 3.2 Synoptic Gospels

Problems: (1) Q is a purely hypothetical source. There are no manuscripts of it or citations from it. (2) It is inconceivable that Q does not have a Passion and a resurrection narrative! This is the heart of the gospel (see 1 Cor. 15:1–19). (3) The absence of Jesus’s many miracles betrays an anti-supernatural bias.

Mutual-Use Theory

According to mutual-use theory, the similarities among the three Gospels are due to two Gospels using the form of the third (for example, Matthew and Luke using Mark). The differences result from their own purpose and way of presentation.

Figure 3.3

Mutual-Use Theory

Figure 3.3 Synoptic Gospels

Problems: (1) All possible combinations have been held of who used whom, and this weakens the view. (2) This theory does not explain verses that are common to two but not in the third. (3) While stressing “literary identity,” it neglects each writer’s individuality.

Four-Document Theory

The four-document theory contends that the similarities among the three Gospels result from the other two using Mark (from Rome AD 60) and Q (from Antioch AD 50). And the differences are due to L—Proto Luke (from Caesarea), which accounts for material unique to Luke (AD 60) and M—from Jerusalem (AD 65), to account for material unique to Matthew.

Figure 3.4

Four-Document Theory

Figure 3.4 Synoptic Gospels

Problems: (1) The theory is too complicated. (2) Mark is reduced to a literary enigma. (3) It is contrary to the claim and early confirmation of the Gospel writers as eyewitnesses. (4) Q is a purely hypothetical document.

Fragment Theory

The fragment theory holds that various people wrote down certain episodes of the teachings and acts of Jesus, resulting in one teacher having a collection of sayings, another having a collection of miracles, and another the Passion narrative. The various Gospels are accounted for as these collections were compiled into their current form. Luke’s prologue is used as a support of this theory (Luke 1:1–4).

Figure 3.5

Fragment Theory

Figure 3.5 Synoptic Gospels

Problems: This theory fails to account for the similarities of the Gospels. Further, it is difficult to explain away the disappearance of these “collections.” This theory fares no better than theories involving a Q document (see the form criticism theory below).

Oral Tradition Theory

The oral tradition theory proposes that the similarities in the Gospels result from all the writers using a common core of fixed oral tradition, and the differences are due to individual writers’ choices to fit their different themes.

Figure 3.6

Oral Tradition Theory

Figure 3.6 Synoptic Gospels

Problems: (1) This theory does not account for the differences in the Gospels. (2) It neglects the role of the Gospel writers as eyewitnesses (Luke 1:1–4; John 19:35; 21:24; Acts 2:32; 4:19–20; 10:39; 1 Cor. 15:3–8; Heb. 2:3–4), supposing a later date.

Form Criticism Theory

According to this theory, the similarities in the Gospels result from all the writers using an original Q document from which they all copied. Meanwhile, the differences are due to the many different forms this information took in the early church. The information needs to be stripped of its mythological form to get at the original core of truth.

Figure 3.7

Form Criticism Theory

Figure 3.7 Synoptic Gospels

Problems: (1) Q is a purely hypothetical source. (2) The theory wrongly assumes late dates for the Gospels (AD 70–100). (3) It neglects the role of eyewitnesses. (4) It is contrary to information in the accepted books of Paul (1 and 2 Corinthians, Romans, Galatians), which were written early (AD 55–60) and provide the same basic facts about Christ as the Gospels.

Independent Eyewitness Records Theory

The independent eyewitness records view contends that the similarities in the Gospels result from a natural overlap of eyewitness testimony of the same events, and the differences are due to individual writers’ different choices to fit their respective themes.

Figure 3.8

Independent Eyewitness Records Theory

Figure 3.8 Synoptic Gospels

Problems: This theory has difficulty accounting for the apparent literary identity, but (1) impact events result in vivid memories; (2) very little is really literarily identical—only about 8 percent, which is easily memorized; (3) the writers had supernaturally activated memories (John 14:26; 16:13); (4) the Gospel writers make a clear distinction between their words and Jesus’s words, as is evident in the editions of the Bible in which Jesus’s words are printed in red; and (5) the verified historicity of Acts demonstrates the historical reliability of Dr. Luke and, thereby, the accuracy of the Gospel of Luke, which he also wrote (see Acts 1:1 and Luke 1:3).

The Rational Background for the Gospels

Often the question of why there are four Gospels is asked. There are at least three basic reasons—veracity, doxology, and universality. The first reason is clearly apologetic.


Multiple testimony confirms veracity. The Bible declares, “By the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established” (Matt. 18:16, from Deut. 19:15). Something as important as the entrance of God’s Son into the world demanded multiple witnesses. Ordinarily two (or at the most three) would suffice, and four is more than sufficient to confirm the incarnation.


But the reason for four Gospels is not only theological, it is also doxological (having to do with God’s glory). They present a fourfold manifestation of God’s glory. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory” (John 1:14), which in Ezekiel was manifested as a lion, ox, man, and eagle (Ezek. 1:10). Each of these images corresponds to the theme of one of the Gospels: Matthew the Lion (the king of beasts), Mark the Ox (the servant of man), Luke the Man, and John the Eagle (the heavenly one).


The four Gospels are targeted to everyone so that Christ is manifest to all. Matthew presents Christ as King to the Jews. Mark presents him as Servant to the Romans; Luke as Man to the Greeks; and John as God to the whole world. In short, the four Gospels manifest that the message of Christ is universal. The chart below illustrates this point.

There are many reasons for four Gospels, not the least of which are veracity, doxology, and universality. By multiple testimony and universal appeal—to the Jews, Romans, Greeks, and the entire world—the Son of God was manifested in human flesh. Deity entered the bloodstream of humanity; the Creator was born in a cowshed; the Master lay in a manger. As Paul put it, “Great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifested in the flesh” (1 Tim. 3:16).

The Gospels: A Fourfold Manifestation of Christ



Matthew Mark Luke John
Theme King Servant Man God
Presented to Jews Romans Greeks World
Ancestry Abraham (none) Adam God
Traced to royalty (none) humanity eternity
Symbol Lion Ox Man Eagle
Emphasis taught wrought sought thought
Provision righteous service redemption life
Key Verse 21:5 10:45 19:10 10:10
Key Word sovereignty ministry humanity deity
Savior promised powerful perfect personal

Norman L. Geisler, A Popular Survey of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2014), 35–42.

Please Help Us Keep These Thousands of Blog Posts Growing and Free for All




The Complete Guide to Bible Translation-2
The Reading Culture of Early Christianity From Spoken Words to Sacred Texts 400,000 Textual Variants 02
English Bible Versions King James Bible KING JAMES BIBLE II


How to Interpret the Bible-1
israel against all odds ISRAEL AGAINST ALL ODDS - Vol. II


THE LIFE OF JESUS CHRIST by Stalker-1 The TRIAL and Death of Jesus_02 THE LIFE OF Paul by Stalker-1


The Epistle to the Hebrews
Mosaic Authorship HOW RELIABLE ARE THE GOSPELS Young Christians


9798623463753 Machinehead KILLER COMPUTERS


Homosexuality and the Christian second coming Cover Why Me_
Human Imperfection HUMILITY




Powerful Weapon of Prayer Power Through Prayer How to Pray_Torrey_Half Cover-1


THERE IS A REBEL IN THE HOUSE thirteen-reasons-to-keep-living_021 Waging War - Heather Freeman
Young Christians DEVOTIONAL FOR YOUTHS 40 day devotional (1)
Homosexuality and the Christian THE OUTSIDER RENEW YOUR MIND


APPLYING GODS WORD-1 For As I Think In My Heart_2nd Edition Put Off the Old Person
Abortion Booklet Dying to Kill The Pilgrim’s Progress
ARTS, MEDIA, AND CULTURE Christians and Government Christians and Economics



40 day devotional (1) Daily Devotional_NT_TM Daily_OT
DEVOTIONAL FOR YOUTHS 40 day devotional (1)


The Church Community_02 THE CHURCH CURE Developing Healthy Churches

Apocalyptic-Eschatology [End Times]

Explaining the Doctrine of the Last Things Identifying the AntiChrist second coming Cover
AMERICA IN BIBLE PROPHECY_ ezekiel, daniel, & revelation


Oren Natas_JPEG Seekers and Deceivers
02 Journey PNG The Rapture

[1] Burton L. Mack, The Lost Gospel: The Book of Q and Christian Origins (New York, NY: HarperOne, 1994), 10.

[2] B.C.E. means “before the Common Era,” which is more accurate than B.C. (“before Christ”). C.E. denotes “Common Era,” often called A.D., for anno Domini, meaning “in the year of our Lord.”

[3] W. G. Kümmel,The New Testament: The History of the Investigation of Its Problems (Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon, 1972), 29 –31 and throughout.

[4] Kaiser Jr., Walter C. Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics: The Search for Meaning (Kindle Locations 5870-6111). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

[5] (Thomas and Farnell 1998)

[6] At times, Mark is found in second place.

[7] Thomas D. Lea and David Alan Black, The New Testament: Its Background and Message, 2nd ed. (Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2003), 113.

[8] Orchard, Bernard. J. J. Griesbach: Synoptic and Text-Critical Studies 1776-1976. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

[9] Eta Linnemann, Biblical Criticism on Trial: How Scientific is “Scientific Theology”? (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1990), 20-21.

[10] Linnemann. Is There A Synoptic Problem? Rethinking the Literary Dependance of the First Three Gospels. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1992, 45.

[11] Ibid., 10

[12] Thomas, Robert L. Three Views of the Origins of the Synoptic Gospels. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2002, 235-41.

[13] Michael William Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, Third ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 2007), 735.

[14] Ibid., 739-41

[15] Ehrman, Bart D. Peter, Paul and Mary Magdalene: The Followers of Jesus in History and Legend. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2006.

[16] “Scholars differ significantly in their estimates — some say there are 200000 variants known, some say 300000, some say 400000 or more! . . . There are more variations among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament.” (Ehrman 2005, 89-90) While the statement is true on the surface, it is very misleading to the lay churchgoer, as well as Ehrman’s audience.

[17] Linnemann. Is There A Synoptic Problem? Rethinking the Literary Dependance of the First Three Gospels. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1992, 155-91

[18] Eta Linnemann, Biblical Criticism on Trial: How Scientific is “Scientific Theology”? (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1990), 42-72.

[19] Brephos is the period of time when one is very young–‘childhood (probably implying a time when a child is still nursing), infancy.

[20] Pisteuo is “to believe to the extent of complete trust and reliance—‘to believe in, to have confidence in, to have faith in, to trust, faith, trust.’

12 thoughts on “What Is the Synoptic Problem of Matthew, Mark, and Luke and What is the Hypothetical So-Called Q Document?

Add yours

Leave a Reply

Powered by WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: