The Synoptic Problem

Part 1 of 14

By J. F. Springer, New York


For Christians, the importance of the Synoptic Problem centers upon the fact that a wrong solution is in course of acceptance, and that this wrong solution carries with it a lowered view of the character of the larger part of our record of the deeds and teachings of the Founder of the Christian religion. Everywhere in the world of New Testament scholars—I do not say, however, everywhere in the world of learned Christians—men are adopting the view that in Matthew we have a composite document derived from two or more prior writings, one of which was more or less identical with our Mark. This view is in fact part of the celebrated Two-Document Hypothesis. An immediate corollary to the assumption of a dependent Matthew is the conclusion that someone else than the Apostle Matthew must have been the author. An eye-witness would hardly have been a secondary writer.1

The Two-Document Hypothesis views Matthew and Luke each as derived, in large part, from Mark or a document nearly equivalent, and a hypothetical source consisting largely of discourses. Mark thus becomes the earliest of all these Synoptic Gospels. That his hypothesis has met with wide acceptance may be illustrated by the following excerpts.

“These phenomena of the Synoptical Gospels have given rise to a most protracted and intricate discussion, in which various theories, e. g. of original writings from which our Gospels are drawn, and of the priority of one Gospel or another, from which the rest were drawn, have been presented and thoroughly sifted. Fortunately, we are at the end of this sifting process, for the most part, and are in possession of its results. Tradition and internal evidence have concurred in giving us two such sources, one of which is the translation into Greek of Matthew’s Logia, or discourses of our Lord, and the other our present Gospel of Mark.” E. P. Gould, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel according to St. Mark (1896), Introduction, p. xi.

“I am not going to give a history of the ebb and flow of modern criticism; it will be enough to say that the relative priority of Mark is now accepted almost as an axiom by the great majority of scholars who occupy themselves with Gospel problems.” F. G. Burkitt, The Gospel History and its Transmission (1906), p. 38.

“After 70 years of fervid debate, the fundamental proposition of this theory, Mark, the literary groundwork of Matthew and Luke, is now admitted. The second principle, Matthew and Luke independent combiners of Mark with another evangelic writing (Q) principally made up of the teaching of Jesus, is accepted with almost equal unanimity.” B. W. Bacon, The Beginnings of Gospel Story (1909), Introduction, p. xix.

“It is well to take this Gospel (St. Mark) first, as being almost certainly the earliest in date and quite certainly the simplest in structure.” Sir J. C. Hawkins, Horae Synopticae (2d ed., 1909), Part III. A., p. 114.

“. . . the theory, now very generally held, that a source corresponding on the whole with our present Gospel of St. Mark was used by the other two Synoptists as a basis or Grundschrift, to which they added introductions, insertions and conclusions derived from other sources.” Ibid., Part III. A., p. 114.

“A record which, if not virtually identical with our St. Mark, is at least most nearly represented in it, was largely used in the composition of our first and third Gospels.” “This thesis, which is now one of the most widely accepted results of modern criticism of the Gospels, cannot claim support, it must be admitted, either from early tradition, or from long prescription.” V. H. Stanton, The Gospels as Historical Documents, Part II, The Synoptic Gospels (1909), pp. 30f.

“Secondly, the priority of Mark to Matthew and Luke no longer requires to be proved. Whatever modifications and qualifications it may be necessary to introduce into this general thesis, the starting-point of research is the working hypothesis that the order and outline of the second canonical gospel lay before the writers of Matthew and Luke, who employed it more or less freely as a framework into which they introduced materials from other sources.” James Moffatt, An Introduction to the Literature of the New Testament (1911), p. 180.

“The one universally accepted result of modern study of the synoptic problem is the dependence of Matthew and Luke upon the Gospel of Mark.

“Though it is no longer necessary to demonstrate this use of Mark by Matthew and Luke, the relation among the three Gospels is not to be dismissed with a simple statement of this dependence. *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *      *     *     *     *     *     * “Our first work is to observe, with some thoroughness, the manner in which Matthew and Luke use the Gospel of Mark. If any proof is still required that Matthew and Luke did employ this Gospel, it will appear in the discussion.” C. S. Patton, Sources of the Synoptic Gospels (1915), p. 3.

“From all these facts criticism has come to the very general conclusion that Mark’s narrative and order of events form the basis for the narratives and order of Matthew and Luke—in other words, that when they wrote their gospels, Matthew and Luke had before them and used in their writing the Gospel of Mark substantially in the form in which it lies before us to-day.” M. W. Jacobus, A Commentary on the Gospel according to Mark (1915), p. 17.

“All study, whether literary or historical, of the first three gospels must start by assuming as an ascertained discovery the dependence of the authors of the first and third gospels for a large part of their material on a document practically identical with the gospel of St. Mark. Since Matthew and Luke have in common some two hundred verses not contained in Mark, the hypothesis that they derived these from a second document, now commonly spoken of by the symbol Q, has gained a very general acceptance.” B. H. Streeter, The Hibbert Journal, October, 1921, article Fresh Light on the Synoptic Problem, p. 103.

“On the other hand, the similarity (between Mt. and Mk.) would be reasonably accounted for if the two Gospels were partly founded upon documents used by both Matthew and Luke. One such document we know of, namely, the Mark Gospel. There was probably another which has not come down to us, and which many critics refer to as Q.” J. E. Symes, The Evolution of the New Testament (1922), p. 206.

“Practically all the critics, conservative and advanced, agree that St. Mark is the earliest gospel, and generally that the first and third gospels have another source in common, usually called Q, which according to an increasing number of critics lies behind St. Mark also.” W. Lockton, The Church Quarterly Review, July, 1922, article The Origin of the Gospels, pp. 216f.

“There is not only a large amount of common material in the narrative portions of our first three Gospels, but also a most remarkable agreement in the presentation of this material. The Gospel of Mark, which consists in the main of stretches from the Lord’s ministry together with the story of the cross, has been almost entirely incorporated in the Gospel of Matthew, and three-fourths of it has been taken over into the Gospel of Luke. Since it is self-evident that Matthew and Luke depend upon Mark, we may say that the Gospel of Mark represents the Gospel literature in its most primitive form.” H. Offermann, The Lutheran Church Review, January, 1923, article The Present State of the Synoptic Problem, p. 10.

“But it may now be said that for some time there has been a steady increase of opinion, approaching to very general agreement, that the earliest Gospel is the Second, and that it was used by both the other Synoptists, in a form not substantially different from that which we know.” A. B. Browne, The Church Quarterly Review, January, 1923, article Some Early Gospel Sources, pp. 309f.

The foregoing extracts are sufficient, perhaps, to emphasize the fact that there is a widespread acceptance of, and acquiescence in, the main features of the Two-Document Hypothesis. This is particularly the case with respect to the thesis that Mark represents a form of the gospel that originated prior to Matthew and Luke. However, history teaches us that a consensus of experts is by no means always in the right. In the present case, I think the verdict is wrong. And not only so, but it appears to me that the conclusion reached has not been because there has been a proper and thoroughgoing investigation of the facts nor because there has been an application of a suitably directed and inevitable logic. I do not, at his stage, ask the reader to accept my view of the inadequate and unscientific manner in which the Synoptic Problem has been handled. Not at all. But I do ask him to “stop, look, and listen.” If the view that is everywhere being urged is really wrong, then the Christian who accepts it suffers a great calamity.

I propose that we shall look into the whole matter and seek to ascertain where the truth is. The facts are multitudinous and some of them intricately interrelated. It will be necessary to restate them. Apparently, it is impossible to refer the reader to an adequate and correct statement of the phenomena to be explained, a statement not cluttered up with irrelevant and imperfectly ascertained data. The reader who accompanies me in my effort to get the facts before us and disentangle the logic will, perhaps, not have an easy time. I can promise him, however, that he will be importantly employed.

Let us not begrudge the time, patience, and mental effort necessary to an examination of the foundation upon which the Two-Document Hypothesis rests. We will then be better prepared to go on, if God will, and see what may be done of a constructive character.

The Synoptic Problem Amongst The Ancients

The first three of the New Testament writings are characterized by considerable sameness of material and unity of treatment. The point of view is one, and for this reason there is appropriateness in the descriptive title, Synoptic Gospels. But the similarities are associated with differences. The ensemble of the difficulties of explaining the origin of the likenesses and dissimilarities constitutes the renowned Synoptic Problem.

But men have not always been particularly conscious of the existence of this problem. Perhaps the earliest trace of a perception of the desirability of an explanation is to be found in a fragment of very ancient writing of Papias, who lived, say about 120 A. D. Eusebius has preserved for us some statements of this author which admit of the interpretation that he was concerned to explain the divergences of the Markan from the Matthaean progression of events.2

Later on—say, about 210 A. D.—Tertullian, speaking of the four Gospels, remarks incidentally of the divergent orders: “Never mind if there does occur some variation in the order of their narratives.” Tertullian, Against Marcion 4:2 (Anti-Nicene Fathers, American Edition, vol. 3, p. 347).

Later yet, but still in the early period of Christianity— that is to say, about 400 A. D.—we find the great Augustine engaged in explaining the first considerable, and in fact the only such, statement of the Synoptic Problem to be found in the ancient literature known to have survived to the present day. Speaking of the four Evangelists, Augustine says:

“And however they may appear to have kept each of them a certain order of narration proper to himself, this certainly is not to be taken as if each individual writer chose to write in ignorance of what his predecessor had done, or left out as matters about which there was no information, things which another nevertheless is discovered to have recorded. But the fact is, that just as they received each of them the gift of inspiration they abstained from adding to their several labours any superfluous conjoint composition. For Matthew is understood to have taken it in hand to construct the record of the incarnation of the Lord according to the royal lineage, and to give an account of most part of His deed and words as they stood in relation to the present life of men. Mark follows him closely, and looks like his attendant and epitomizer. For in his narrative he gives nothing in concert with John apart from the others: by himself separately, he has little to record; in conjunction with Luke, as distinguished from the rest, he has still less; but in concord with Matthew, he has a very large number of passages. Much, too, he narrates in words almost numerically and identically the same as those used by Matthew, where the agreement is either with that evangelist alone, or with him in conjunction with the rest.” The Harmony of the Gospels, 1:2 (Sec. 4), Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, vol. 6, p. 78.

So far as appears to be known, the Synoptic Problem afterwards attracted no serious attention until we come to the eighteenth century. However, from the times of Griesbach and Lachmann until the present, it has never for any considerable length of time disappeared from the field of discussion. Today it is probably the most important New Testament question of a critical character with which Christians have to do.

Preliminary Statement Of The Facts Requiring Explanation

As already explained, the Synoptic Problem grows out of the likenesses and unlikenesses of the three Gospels concerned. Let us consider first the matter of likenesses.

All three narratives are principally engaged in setting forth in narrative form the events and discourses of the active Galilean ministry of Jesus. That this similarity should exist is no cause for surprise. The main narratives begin with the ministry of John the Baptist. This is a natural starting point, as is confirmed by the fact that the Fourth Gospel likewise begins in substantially the same way. That the three Synoptics should end at some point not long after the Resurrection is also quite natural. The Gospel of John does the same. And that the order of events should be largely the same constitutes nothing that calls for explanation. The order is inherent in the history. But the likenesses discernible amongst the first three Gospels go far beyond the matters outlined.

We are told in the Fourth Gospel that the deeds of Jesus were innumerable (Jn. 21:25). Accordingly, it is a notable matter that in so many instances the Synoptic Gospels, either all three of them or some one of the three combinations of two each, treat one and the same incident. In fact, incidents which are set forth by a single narrator constitute in respect to the total of text occupied in their portrayal but a fraction of the combined text of the three Gospels.

There is also a very great amount of verbal similarity. There is perhaps nothing extraordinary, in such similarity, in connection with what is said by others than the narrator. But the verbal similarities extend to the narrative matter. Everywhere there are to be seen, especially when two Gospels are compared, equivalences and identities of phraseology.

So much, at present, in respect to similarities. The diversities which occur in the midst of likenesses are also very notable. The First and Third Gospels prefix to their accounts of the beginnings of the active Galilean ministry not only an account of John’s activities but an extended Infancy section. These, while agreeing in the general topic of the birth and early period of the Savior’s life, are nevertheless markedly different in detail. There is no parallelism. Each of the two sections belongs with the special matter of the Gospel of which it is an integral part.

A very notable matter of fact consists of the divergences disclosed when Matthew and Mark are compared in respect to the order of events, and also when Mark and Luke are brought into similar comparison. In neither case is the number of deviations large, being round a dozen. They are, however, sufficient in number and character to constitute a large feature in the aggregate of facts calling for explanation.

If parallels be compared in respect to verbal agreement, there will be found more or less diversity of phraseology, even where the general sense is similar. In some cases, our Greek MSS. disclose variations in details. These may not necessarily reflect actual contradictions amongst the original Gospels. (Our Greek Matthew is probably a translation from the Aramaic). Then, there are those differences which consist in material added by the several Gospels. All the Gospels have, each of them, special matter which it adds to its presentation of the individual incidents and speeches.

So much attention has been given to the combination of likenesses and dissimilarities that it may be well to consider an example. I select one in which all three Synoptic Gospels are involved.

Matthew 26:47   Mark 14:43   Luke 22:47
Καὶ ἔτι αὐτοῦ λαλου`ντος ιδοὺ ᾿Ιούδας εἶς εῶν δώδεκα ἦλθεν καὶ μετ᾿ αὐτοῦ ὂχλος πολὺς μετὰ μαχαιρῶν καὶ ξύλων ἀπὸ τῶν ἀρχιέων καὶ πρεσβυτέρων τοῦ λαοῦ.   Καὶ εὐθὺς ἔτι αὐτου` λαλου`ντος παραγίνεται [ὁ] ᾿Ιούδας εἶς τῶν δώδεκα καὶ μετ᾿ αὐτοῦ ὂχλος μετὰ μαχαιρῶν καὶ ξύλων παρὰ τῶν ἀρχιερέων καὶ τῶν γραμματέων καὶ πρεσβυτέρων.   ᾿Ετι δὲ αὐτοῦ λαλοῦντος ἰδοὺ ὄχλος, καὶ ὁ λεγόμενος ᾿Ιούδας εἶς τῶν δώδεκα προήρχετο αὐτούς,


The first thing to note is the similarity of presentation. Judas is presented as coming at a moment when he interrupts Jesus in His talk with the disciples. Then his name is so presented as to direct attention to the fact that he is one of the Twelve. We have here a considerable amount of sameness of presentation discernible in all three parallels, although but a single Greek sentence is involved in each. Further, all agree in including the multitude as participants in the event.

Now, consider the likenesses and dissimilarities of presentation which occur in pairs of Gospels. Matthew and Mark present all the matters they have in common in precisely the same order—Jesus is speaking—Judas comes—he is one of the Twelve—with him a multitude— these have swords—and staves—they come from the chief priests—and the elders. Included here are naturally those points in which all three Gospels agree, as they are part of the agreement of any two.

Mark and Luke have less agreement in presentation. In fact, it goes no further than what is common to all. The same may be said as to the agreement in presentation as between Matthew and Luke. As to differences— while all mention the multitude, Luke presents it at a different point. Moreover, he puts Judas in advance.

Let us now consider the similarities and dissimilarities in such way as to take into account the exact phraseology. There are seven matters:

1. Identities and similarities extending through all three Gospels.

2. Identities and similarities between Matthew and Mark as contrasted with Luke.

3. Identities and similarities between Mark and Luke as contrasted with Matthew.

4. Identities and similarities between Matthew and Luke as contrasted with Mark.

5. Special material belonging to Matthew alone.

6. Special material belonging to Mark alone.

7. Special material belonging to Luke alone.

In connection with No. 1, all three of the Synoptics, we have:

ἔτι αὐτοῦ λαλοῦντος
᾿Ιούδας εἶς τῶν δώδεκα

With No. 2:

Mt. and Mk.   Lk.

ἦλθεν, παραγίνεται
καὶ μετ᾿ αὐτοῦ ὄχλος
μετὰ μαχαιρῶν καὶ ξύλων
ἀπὸ παρὰ των άρχιερέων
καὶ πρεσβυτέρων

  προήρχετο αὐτούς


With No. 3:

Mk. and Lk.



With No. 4:

Mt. and Lk.




With No. 5:



τοῦ λαοῦ

With No. 6:



καὶ τῶν γραμματέων

With No. 7:


ὁ λεγόμενος



In the foregoing, we have illustrations of almost all the varieties of textual phenomena that occur in connection with parallels belonging to three or two Gospels. Absent are cases illustrative of agreements between Mark and Luke as contrasted with Matthew (No. 3 and also instances representative of apparent discrepancies as to matters of fact). Otherwise, the example may be taken as fairly representative of a large part of those difficulties which in the aggregate constitute the Synoptic Problem.

However, we are not to suppose that the Problem has been consciously the same at all times. Augustine had before him a considerable proportion of the main features; but investigation of the Greek texts of the Synoptic Gospels has in the course of, say, the last century and a half uncovered multitudes of facts which must also be taken into account. On the other hand, with the advance of knowledge, some of the phenomena are discovered to present an aspect much different from that which was formerly assumed. Consequently, the Synoptic Problem, from the viewpoint of the one seeking a solution, is in respect to detail varying from time to time.

The Problem may be viewed from two angles. (1) We may consider it from the point of view of mutual independence. This hypothesis is beset with the difficulty of perceiving a reason for the choice, in so many cases, of one and the same incident and for the similarities of the presentation of the details. When the identities and similarities of phraseology, particularly narrative phraseology, are taken into account, the maintenance of the hypothesis becomes exceedingly difficult. (2) We may consider the Problem upon the basis of the assumption that in some way there is dependence amongst the three documents. Many solutions have been proposed which seek to utilize this assumption. I do not wish at this juncture to give an account of all of these nor indeed a full account of any. At the same time, it will be useful perhaps to have before us a compact statement of two principal hypotheses, which were for many years rivals for the approval of scholars. In recent years, one has gained the ascendancy and is now enjoying an extended triumph.

The Griesbach Hypothesis had the support of the great New Testament expert, J. J. Griesbach. It seeks to account for Mark by a process of double derivation from Matthew and Luke. That is to say, the Markan author is conceived as having had before him the First and Third Gospels. He chooses now from one and now from the other. In this way, one could explain similarities between Matthew and Mark and between Luke and Mark. The hypothesis readily explains the alleged unbroken support of Mark, in respect to order, by one or both of the others. This statement cannot be made in connection with either of the other Synoptic Gospels. But with Mark continually taking from one or the other, there is not so much difficulty in granting that thus his order would always have support. However, this alleged unbrokenness of support is, as the reader will find later on, not a fact. The Gries-back Hypothesis explains much, especially the great mass of identity and similarity of language in Matthew and Mark and in Luke and Mark.

The opposing conception, the Two-Document Hypothesis, sets up Mark, or a document not much different from Mark, as the primitive Synoptic Gospel. This narrative is conceived to have been a principle source of Matthew and Luke. In addition, it assumes a hypothetical document, the famous Q (=Quelle=source), as a second common source. Some have, however, sought to identify Q with the Logia of Matthew mentioned by Papias. Much can be explained by this hypothesis. We have already seen that, especially as to the priority of Mark, it has been very widely accepted.

Attention has already been directed to the fact that the Griesbach Hypothesis accords well with the conception that Mark’s order is always supported by Matthew or Luke. The Two-Document Hypothesis proposes to derive the Matthaean order in the main from Mark but to explain the divergences by a purpose on the part of the Matthaean writer to arrange his material in accordance with some topical, numerical or other non-chronological principle. The Markan order is set up as the normal, historical progression, and is thought to have served to regulate the progressions both of Matthew and Luke.

This hypothesis explains most of the textual facts which we have had before us representatively in connection with the sentence in triple parallelism—Mt. 26:47=Mk. 14:43 =Lk. 22:47. The sameness of presentation and phraseology extending through all three is accounted for by making Mark the common source at this point. So also with similarities between Matthew and Mark and between Mark and Luke. Difficulty is experienced in connection with such agreements as that which illustrates sameness and similarities possessed in common by Matthew and Luke but not participated in by Mark. There are many instances of such agreements against Mark that permit of explanation on the ground of coincidence. But with cases of the character illustrated, coincidence is scarcely adequate, especially when we consider the cumulated effect of a considerable aggregate of such instances. In the present case, it is that we have not only ἰδού in common, but an ἰδού appended to a genitive absolute. However, this source of difficulty is probably something with which any hypothesis will have to reckon that attempts to maintain substantial independence between the First and Third Gospels.

The considerable mass of discourse material possessed in common between Matthew and Luke in the form of passages of some size is explained, upon the basis of the Two-Document Hypothesis, as due to a common use of Q by the authors of both Gospels. These agreements in respect to a large part of the language of whole passages are not to be confused with the agreements in respect to fragments of text in which Matthew and Luke agree against Mark. Those are in connection with narratives recorded by all three, whereas the present ones are found in passages which have no representation at all in Mark.

The foregoing presentation of the Synoptic Problem is sufficient, perhaps, to give us a preliminary conception of its general features. It will now be in order to go on and consider the facts in greater detail and to study the explanation offered by the Two-Document Hypothesis. I maintain the proposition that, when this hypothesis is brought into close contact with the phenomena of the text, but little support will be found for it.

The Priority Matter—Matthew Vs. Mark

If, for the time being, it be assumed that there is dependence between Matthew and Mark, my programme contemplates two principal undertakings:

1. The overthrow of the proposition that Mark antedates Matthew.

2. The establishment of the proposition that Matthew is the original document and Mark the secondary one.

It will be perceived that this programme ignores the question of the hypothetical document Q. In fact, it will be unnecessary, I think, that this matter be taken up at any time, for the reason that the single feature of the Two-Document Hypothesis which assumes the priority of Mark over Matthew is essential to its existence. The destruction of the argumentative basis for this asserted priority and the successful maintenance of the priority of Matthew over Mark will together amount to a death blow to the Two-Document Hypothesis.

I now proceed to present what may be regarded as the principal claims on which the priority of Mark over Matthew is based.

Claims Depended Upon By Advocates Of The Two-Document Hypothesis

1. That the order of events as it is disclosed in Mark, in Matthew, and in Luke, leads to the conclusion that Mark was composed prior to Matthew.

2. That the Markan uniqueness in denning the beginning, course and termination of the account in so far as that is given in common by the other Synoptic Gospels, is indicative of priority.

3. That the presence of nearly all the Markan incidents in Matthew is to be explained by the derivation of the First Gospel from the Second.

4. That Mark’s uniqueness in having the other Synoptic Gospels but seldom in textual agreement against it is indicative of its priority.

5. That there are numerous irreversible parallelisms favoring the priority of Mark over Matthew.

6. That the presence of doublets in Matthew and their absence from Mark support Markan priority over Matthew.

7. That there are certain other considerations favoring Markan priority.

The corner stone of the foundation of the Two-Document Hypothesis consists of the proposition that Mark, or a writing substantially the same as our Mark, was used as an exemplar by the writer of Matthew. One of the chief lines of argument in support of this proposition concerns itself with the matter of the order in which the incidents are presented in the First and Second Gospels. I begin with an examination of this matter.

The Arguments Based On Order

In discussions favoring the Two-Document Hypothesis, the divergences of order are considered from three points of view.

1. The priority of Mark over the remaining Synoptic Gospels is claimed on the ground that its order is always, or nearly always, supported by one or both of the other orders, and that a similar claim cannot be made for either of the other Synoptic writings.

2. The primitiveness of the Markan order is based on the claim that it alone reflects the historical development.

3. The secondary character of Matthew and Luke relatively to Mark, particularly of Matthew, is conceived to be disclosed by a departure from the historical progression of events for the purpose of effecting topical and numerical groupings.

In view of this statement, the reader will, perhaps, not find it difficult to believe that the matter of the order of events plays a very considerable part in connection with the Two-Document Hypothesis. He will not be wrong in entertaining such a belief, but he will be in error if he thinks that those who have been building on this foundation have proceeded wisely.

In the sequel, it is proposed to show that, as a matter of fact, it is not true that the Markan divergences from the two other Gospels are always, or nearly always, supported. And it will be pointed out in addition that, even if this uniqueness of Mark in having its order continually corroborated be granted, the inference is not warranted that this tends to establish the priority of the Second Gospel.

My programme contemplates, moreover, a close examination and exposure of the weaknesses of the two propositions which assert, the one, that the Markan order corresponds with the historical movement of events, and the other, that the Matthaean is modified from this sequence to satisfy a literary desire to arrange material in accordance with topical and numerical requirements. It is also proposed to give strong affirmative reasons for rejecting the conception that the Markan divergences are due to chronological requirements.

Finally, it is proposed to direct attention to two substantially independent investigations each of which results in the development of affirmative evidence which makes it probable that the Matthaean order of events, as compared with the Markan, reflects the true historical progress of events.

If we compare the progressions of events as they appear in Matthew and Mark, we shall find that the correspondences far outnumber the deviations. Thus, taking the Matthaean order as standard, we find that the Markan deviates from it twelve times; or, conversely, setting up the Markan order as standard, we note the same number of deviations.

Nearly all of Mark’s deviations from Matthew occur in the first third of its text. Similarly, Matthew’s divergences are mostly concentrated in the section that is broadly parallel with this principal disturbed region of Mark—that is, in Mt. 3:1—14:12, which corresponds to Mk. 1:1—6:30. The remaining deviations are those which are due to a single reversal in order which each Gospel discloses in respect to the other’s presentation of the events. Purging the Temple and Cursing the fig-tree, both of which incidents are narrated in Mt. 21:12—19a and again in Mk. 11:12–19.

Particular attention is to be paid to the fact that, in the two chief parallel regions which disclose deviations, there is nevertheless a large amount of agreement in order. When the progression of incidents in the one text departs from that in the other, there is agreement for a longer or shorter space until another deviation. Between successive deviations, there may be anywhere from one to six incidents in identical order with their parallels.

Let us now consider the orders of Mark and Luke. I begin by setting aside the passages Lk. 5:1–11 and 7:36–50 as unparalleled in the Second Gospel; but recognize Lk. 4:16–30 as having Mk. 6:16a as its parallel. Let it also be noted that Lukan parallels to fragmentary portions of discourses in Mark are not taken into account. With these preliminary statements assumed, it may be said that Luke deviates only infrequently from Mark, the total number of deviations being not particularly different from the number of deviations of Mark from Matthew. As in the case of the first two Gospels, regions of concentration may be discerned. There are certain deviations between Mark and Luke in the regions Mk. 14:53 —15:15 and Lk. 22:54—23:25, where the deviations may be said to be equivalent to a simple interchange of two incidents in either Gospel. In the earlier part of the two narratives, the regions of deviation may be said to lie in Mk. 3:1—6:13 and in Lk. 4:14—13:30. Perhaps the Lukan region may be narrowed still further. As the two documents are in agreement in respect to the sequence of incidents everywhere else than the regions I have now specified and the total numbers, say, thirteen, we have much the same situation as has already been noted upon a comparison of Matthew and Mark.

If Luke be assumed to be secondary to Mark, then its deviations from the Second Gospel near the end of the Ministry may have been made by way of correcting the chronology. That is to say, if as a first alternative we assume derivation and also the order of derivation that is in correspondence with the order of the Synoptic Gospels commonly found in the MSS., then the whole matter may be explained as due to a mechanical interchange of two equal portions of Matthaean text (26:59–66 and 26.69—27:1). Mark having been secondary to Matthew gives the incidents in the same order. But Luke, although assumed as having been secondary, nevertheless corrects the account and so puts the Jewish trial in the daytime. It may be said that it is not permissible to reverse the order of the first two Gospels and make Mark the MS. which underwent the mechanical interchange. The mechanical explanation goes with the priority of Matthew. If, however, Markan priority over Matthew be assumed, then the latter group of deviations between Mark and Luke may still be explained upon the assumption that the Lukan writer changed the order because of his knowledge of the chronology. So, then, whether we assume Matthew or Mark as prior to the other, we may regard the latter series of deviations between Mark and Luke as due to the recognition, on the part of the writer, of the Third Gospel, of chronological deviation in his exemplar.

If, however, we take the view that the three Synoptic Gospels are mutually independent, the existence of these deviations is hard to explain. Matthew and Mark are in agreement in what appears to be a wrong chronology. The mechanical explanation would not apply simultaneously to both Gospels.

In view of what has now been set forth, both in respect to a comparison of the orders of Matthew and Mark and of the orders of Mark and Luke, we may say that there is in both cases a very general correspondence in respect to the progression of events. Deviations are relatively few. Considered alone, the uniformity requires no explanation.

Let us look further into this matter of deviations between Matthew and Mark. If either of these Gospels be assumed as secondary to the other, then the deviations constitute a formidable part of the Synoptic Problem. Why should a secondary writer, who was heavily dependent upon the primary document, even for choice of incident, in his presentation of the facts and even in his phraseology, depart now and again from the order before him? Was he correcting his exemplar? Accepting the texts of the two Gospels as disclosed in our most approved recensions, we have at Mt. 9:18 an immediate sequence indicated. The incident of the Children of the bride-chamber (9:14–17) is asserted to be at once followed by that of The ruler’s daughter and the woman with the issue of blood (9:18–26). If we make Matthew primary and Mark secondary, are we to understand that the secondary writer was engaged in making a correction in the face of a statement so unmistakably requiring close sequence as Ταῦτα αὐτοῦ λαλοῦντος (Mt. 9:18), when he interposed nine events occupying about three chapters? Or, reversing things, let us assume Mark as primary. Was the Matthaean writer correcting the Markan text in spite of so explicite a time indication ἐν ἐκείνῃ τῇ ἡμέρᾳ ὀψίας γενομένης (Mk. 4:35), when he reverses the order disclosed by the discourse beginning with The Sower and the incident of Calming the storm and in addition narrates thirteen incidents in between? If we are going to solve the Synoptic Problem, we will do well to face the dilemma created by Mt. 9:18 and Mk. 4:35.

Further, the view that the one writer was correcting the text of the other must also take into account the fact that the deviations are for the most part localized in the narrative between the accounts of the ministry and death of John the Baptist. Were the corrections needed by the exemplar almost exclusively confined to this section? Or, was it here, almost entirely, that the secondary writer was qualified to make changes in the order?

Or, if we consider the possibility of explaining the deviations by an assumption of a desire upon the part of the secondary writer to group his material in accordance with some purpose other than a chronological one, we are confronted by this same concentration of deviations. What grouping based on topical or numerical considerations would require changes to be made almost altogether in a restricted section? Did the secondary writer entertain the grouping conception only for a time and then abandon it? Or, did he make changes for awhile with a purpose and then find that his object could for the rest of the narrative be secured without the necessity of any but a trifling reversal of two incidents?

The effort has been made, by advocates of the Two-Document Hypothesis, to explain the Markan order as due to the true historical progression of events and the Matthaean as deviating because of a literary plan to group incidents in clusters because of numerical and topical considerations. The numbers three, five, and seven come into especial notice in this connection. I am not going into this matter at this juncture. At the moment, however, it is desirable to point out that those who, in the interests of the hypothesis of Markan priority over Matthew, wish to explain the deviations in sequence upon this or any similar basis must deal explicitly with these deviations. It is not enough to say that the Matthaean writer, having numerical and topical considerations in mind, could not be expected to abide by the chronology. The explanation must face the facts in detail. For example, if we assume Matthew secondary to Mark, then we find the writer of the First Gospel following up the incidents as to Peter’s mother-in-law and the healing and delivering of many (Mt. 8:14–17) with the narrative of the storm on the lake (Mt. 8:18–27). What is required, in this and similar instances of Matthaean divergence, is that the individual deviation be accounted for on the basis of the purpose ascribed to the author.

It clearly appears from the foregoing that a good deal of difficulty surrounds the deviations in order as between Matthew and Mark. However, this difficulty forms part and parcel of the Synoptic Problem.

(To be continued)


1) Compare with the text the following passages:

“For a work which we shall show to be dependent upon various authorities, some of which were themselves not at first hand, cannot indeed be from the pen of an Apostle, one of the Twelve.” A. Jülicher, An Introduction to the New Testament (1904) (From the German), p. 306.

“The answer, therefore, to the question. Who was the author of the First Gospel? is a negative one. It was not S. Matthew.” A. Plummer, An Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel according to S. Matthew (1909), Introduction, p. x.

2) J. B. Lightfoot’s translation of Fragments of Papias in his work The Apostolic Fathers (1907), p. 529:”And the Elder [or presbyter] John said this also: Mark, having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately everything that he remembered, without however recording in order what was either said or done by Christ. For neither did he hear the Lord, nor did he follow him; but afterwards, as I said (attended) Peter, who adapted his instructions to the needs (of his hearers) but had no design of giving a connected account of the Lord’s oracles. So then Mark made no mistakes, while he thus wrote down some things as he remembered them; for he made it his one care not to omit anything that he heard, or to set down any false statement therein.”

Such then is the account given by Papias concerning Mark. But concerning Matthew, the following statement is made (by him):”So then Matthew composed the oracles in the Hebrew language, and each one interpreted them as he could.” Eusebius, Church History, 3.39.15, 16. See Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, vol. 1 (1904), pp. 172f.