What is the Synoptic Problem?

The first three Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) are called the Synoptic Gospels. The term synoptic comes from the words meaning “same” (syn) and “sight” (optic), or “to see together”. There is quite a bit of overlap with what these three books report, while about 90% of the Gospel of John contains different information.

There are different views on how Christians should view the overlapping information. On the one hand, if the authors are attempting to report the same facts, shouldn’t those facts be the same? On the other hand, if the authors were writing independently, shouldn’t they be more different than they are? The problem is that some parts of the Gospels have exactly the same wording, indicating a common source, while still being slightly different in other parts. Critics argue both sides of the problem when claiming the Bible is unreliable:

  • If the Gospels really had the words of Jesus’s, they would report them exactly the same! The words aren’t exactly the same, so they can’t be accurately reporting what Jesus said.
  • If the Gospels were written by different authors, they would have far more differences! Parts of the Gospels are exactly the same, so they had to be copied.

Here is a passage which is contained in all three of the Synoptic Gospels:

Matthew 19:13–14 (ESV)

Mark 10:13–14 (ESV)

Luke 18:15–16 (ESV)

Then children were brought to him that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples rebuked the people, but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.

And they were bringing children to him that he might touch them, and the disciples rebuked them. But when Jesus saw it, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God.

Now they were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them. And when the disciples saw it,  they rebuked them. But Jesus called them to him, saying, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God.

As you can see, these two verses from the three Gospels are very similar. The problem is, if this was a quote from Jesus, all three Gospels should be exactly the same, but they’re not. Also, some of the phrases in the narrative portion are the same, which is unlikely to happen if there were three independent authors writing about the same event. It seems there must have been a common source these Gospels used. If there was a source these authors used, then why is Jesus’s wording slightly different? Wouldn’t a common source allow the authors to copy Jesus’s words?

One possible explanation which accounts for both the similarities and the differences is the oral teachings the Jesus and Apostles must have done. They undoubtedly told the same stories many times, and likely had memorized them. Parables which were meaningful to one group of people would likely have been applicable to other groups. There were likely people in the audiences who heard the same speech many times, so the books may partially be based on oral teachings, although perhaps not perfectly.

…if one Evangelist knew that Jesus said something similar on several different occasions but had a written account of his words only from one of them, he would have felt free (and completely justified in doing so) to follow that wording in his description of Jesus’ teachings on any of those occasions.1

The oral teachings hypothesis doesn’t seem to fit the circumstances of this story, though, as these verses seem to be describing a specific event, not a general teaching, such as might happen with the parables. Although Jesus often had to repeat his teachings several times before the disciples understood what he meant (and some of it not until after the resurrection), allowing the children to come to him seems like something they would remember. Perhaps the crowds tried to keep the children away, but I doubt the disciples did after the first time.

The next example seems to be an even more obvious problem if the Gospels were written in isolation from each other. In the middle of quoting Jesus, the three Gospel authors pause for a comment. It’s pretty unlikely three authors would independently add a comment at exactly the same place.

Matthew 9:6 (ESV)

Mark 2:10-11 (ESV)

Luke 5:24 (ESV)

 “But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins“–he then said to the paralytic— “Rise, pick up your bed and go home.

But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins“–he said to the paralytic— “I say to you, rise, pick up your bed, and go home.

But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins“–he said to the man who was paralyzed— “I say to you, rise, pick up your bed and go home.

Let’s see how much of each book has in common with the others. First, we need to know how many words are in each book23.

Gospel Words
Matthew 18,293
Mark 11,025
Luke 19,376

When we look at the number of words in common, the percentages are so high that it’s unreasonable to think the authors use the same words and phrases by coincidence.

Gospels

Exact Word Forms in Common

4

Matthew, Mark, and Luke

  • 1,852 Words
  • Matthew 10%
  • Mark 16%
  • Luke  9% 

Only Matthew and Mark

  • 2,735 Words
  • Matthew 15%
  • Mark 24%

Only Matthew and Luke

  • 2,386 Words
  • Matthew 13%
  • Luke 12%

Only Mark and Luke

  • 1,165 Words
  • Mark 10%
  • Luke 6%

When we look at the number of words in common, the percentages are so high that it’s unreasonable to think the authors use the same words and phrases by coincidence. The obvious copying in the Synoptic Gospels is called the Synoptic Problem, which scholars have studied and debated for centuries. The three Gospels were not written at exactly the same time, so it seems the one written first was copied by the other two.

Why do the Gospels have so much in common, but still have differences? Each of the Synoptic Gospels was written for a different audience (Why are there Four Gospels?), and the authors wanted to include an overview of Jesus’s ministry, and add information which would be most meaningful to the intended audience. Apparently the second and third authors read what the first author wrote and agreed it was correct, so there was no need to rewrite those parts.

Christians can be confident the Synoptic Problem doesn’t affect our beliefs in God in any way. No Christian doctrines are affected because of the similarities or differences in the Synoptic Gospels. Scholars consider it a problem because they want to know the unknowable.

Resources

Footnotes

  1. Blomberg, Craig L., The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, Second Edition (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007) 183. (Amazon) (Logos)
  2. The exact text of the autographs by the authors is unknown, so there are several minor variations of the text available, which can have different word counts.
  3. Wallace, Daniel B. The Synoptic Problem (Bible.org, June 2nd, 2004) Accessed 01-Jun-2019.
  4. Williams, Peter J. Can We Trust the Gospels? (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018; Logos book) 45. (Amazon) (Logos)
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  1. […] my last two articles I’ve researched What is the Synoptic Problem? and Which Gospel was Written First?. It is frequently accepted by modern scholars that Mark was […]

  2. […] my article What is the Synoptic Problem?, I showed there is so much in common between the Synoptic Gospels that the later Gospels must have […]

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