IBRI Research Report #2 (1980, 1990)


Robert C. Newman
Biblical Theological Seminary
Hatfield, Pennsylvania

Copyright © 1980, 1990 by Robert C. Newman. All rights reserved.


Although the author is in agreement with the doctrinal statement of IBRI, it does not follow that all of the viewpoints espoused in this paper represent official positions of IBRI. Since one of the purposes of the IBRI report series is to serve as a preprint forum, it is possible that the author has revised some aspects of this work since it was first written. 

ISBN 0-944788-02-5



Questions regarding mutual relationships among the synoptic Gospels Matthew, Mark and Luke have been a concern since early in church history. Already by late in the second century Tatian had constructed a harmony which combined all four canonical Gospels into a single narrative.[1] In the fourth century Eusebius drew up a set of tables by which one could see if any given passage in the Gospels had parallels, and if so, where these were located.[2] The first attempt to postulate a specific literary relationship between the three synoptic Gospels seems to have been that of Augustine (c 400), who suggested that Mark abridged Matthew, and that Luke used both Matthew and Mark in composing his own Gospel.[3]

The fall of the Roman Empire interrupted such studies. After the Reformation they resumed with the production of several multi- column Gospel harmonies. Then during the nineteenth century many competing theories arose to explain the origin of the Gospels, based upon their similarities and differences in content, order and wording. Some of these theories saw the Gospels as dependent entirely on oral sources; others, entirely on written sources; still others, on almost any combination of the two. Some saw the earlier canonical Gospels as sources of the later ones. Advocates for such theories of successive dependence could be found for every possible order for the writing of the various Gospels. Others saw the Gospels as dependent on one or more hypothetical written sources which have never been found. Such sources ranged from a single written Gospel, on which all three synoptics depended, to a multitude of written fragments, some of which were used by all the canonical Gospels, others by three, two or only one.[4]

By the beginning of the twentieth century a sort of consensus had developed in favor of the so-called two document theory. In this view, the Gospels of Matthew and Luke were largely secondary accounts which relied heavily on their independent use of two documents: Mark and a hypothetical source usually labelled Q. This theory, occasionally elaborated by the addition of other written or oral sources, renounced the external evidence of tradition, by which Matthew was the first Gospel to be written, in favor of internal evidence which seemed to point to Mark as the more primitive account. Material common to both Matthew and Luke but lacking in Mark was thought to be evidence for this Q, an early collection of Jesus' sayings. Some found external evidence for Q in the "logia" mentioned by Papias (c 130), whose statement, it was supposed, later church fathers had misunderstood as referring to the Gospel of Matthew.

The two-document theory has dominated Protestant and secular New Testament studies since then, both in liberal and (to a lesser extent) conservative circles.[5] It has even penetrated Catholic scholarship,[6] in spite of the greater regard for tradition there. That Mark's Gospel was written first has often been considered one of the "assured results" of Gospel research.[7]

Recently, however, there has been renewed debate over the synoptic problem, in which both the priority of Mark and the existence of Q have frequently come under attack. Denial that Mark was the first Gospel written has come from Basil C. Butler (1951),[8] Pierson Parker (1953),[9] William R. Farmer (1964),[10] Thomas Longstaff (1967),[11] Xavier Leon-Dufour (1968),[12] Edward P. Sanders (1969),[13] A. Gaboury (1970),[14] Robert L. Lindsey (1970),[15] David Dungan (1975),[16] and Bernard Orchard (1976).[17] While about half of these are Catholics, many are liberal Protestants. Only Butler favors Augustine's form of the successive dependence theory (Matthew first, then Mark, then Luke). Several (Farmer, Longstaff, Orchard, Dungan) favor Griesbach's form (Matthew first, then Luke, then Mark), which is experiencing a strong revival.

Generally those attacking the priority of Mark also doubt the existence of Q. In addition, there are those who accept Mark's priority but see no need to hypothesize Q. These include Austin Farrer (1955),[18] A. W. Argyle (1964),[19] R. T. Simpson (1966)[20] and Nigel Turner (1969).[21] It is doubtful that the two-document theory has been overthrown as yet, though George W. Buchanan seems to think so.22 It is certainly safe to say that no alternative has replaced it so far.

In this paper, we would like to examine both the internal evidence (or phenomena) of the synoptic problem and the external evidence, largely the traditions about the Gospels given by the early church fathers. We will seek to evaluate the various synoptic theories in the light of this evidence, and then make some proposals for a possible solution.


The internal evidence relevant to the synoptic problem is complex and confusing. There is consequently a great temptation to make oversimplified generalizations, construct one's theory, and then ignore or beat into submission any recalcitrant facts. Having said this, however, we have space only to sketch the data! Basically this data can be divided into three categories, in each of which the synoptic Gospels show both similarities and differences. These areas are: (1) content, both main incidents and details; (2) order, both between and within incidents; and (3) wording, both vocabulary and particular grammatical forms. Alford well summarized the situation over a century ago:

The phenomena presented will be much as follows: first, perhaps, we shall have three, five or more words identical; then as many wholly distinct; then two clauses or more, expressed in the same words, but differing order; then a clause contained in one or two and not in the third; then several words identical; then a clause not only wholly distinct, but apparently inconsistent; and so forth, with recurrences of the same arbitrary and anomalous alterations, coincidences and transpositions. Nor does this description apply to verbal and sentential arrangement only; but also, with slight modification, to that of the larger portions of the narrative.[23]

Let us consider content first. In view of the fact that John speaks of the enormous number of events during Jesus' ministry (Jn 20:30; 21:25), it is rather surprising how much overlap there is between the three synoptic Gospels. Of course, we would expect overlap on the unique and crucial events of Jesus' ministry, such as his baptism and temptation, the feeding of the five thousand, Peter's confession, the transfiguration, triumphal entry, trial, death and resurrection. We would also expect overlap in general features such as Jesus' popularity, miraculous works, parabolic teaching, and the growing opposition of the leaders. What is surprising is the synoptics' unanimous presentation of such specific miracles as the healing of Peter's mother-in-law (13, 47),[24] a certain leper (45), the paralytic (52), the man with a withered hand (70), and blind Bartimaeus (193), since Jesus must have performed hundreds or thousands of healings during several years of ministry. All three Gospels also give the parable of the sower (90), with Jesus' reasons for teaching in parables (91), and the interpretation of the sower (93), the parables of the wicked tenants (204) and the fig tree budding (220), the question about fasting (54), plucking grain on the Sabbath (69), the dispute about greatness (129), blessing the little children (188), the rich young ruler (189), and three predictions of Jesus' death (122, 127, 191), not to mention other incidents. There are, in addition, many more incidents duplicated in two of the three Gospels. This is in striking contrast to the much smaller overlap with the Gospel of John, which is more like what one would antecedently expect. This close similarity of content naturally suggests that the synoptic Gospels depend upon one of themselves, or upon some common source, which Gospel or source had already made a definite selection from far more numerous materials.

If we try to visualize this content overlap by the number of verses involved (the numbers being approximate since parallel passages don't necessarily have the same number of verses), the data may be given in a diagram using three overlapping circles, each of which represents one Gospel.[25] The shaded section repre- sents material shared by all three synoptics, about 480 verses in each. In addition, there are roughly 300 verses shared by two of the three most by Matthew and Luke, somewhat less by Matthew and Mark, little by Mark and Luke. Most notable is the fact that, although Matthew and Luke each have considerable material found only in one of them, Mark has very little not found in one or both of the others. Some have interpreted this as evidence that Matthew and Luke used Mark (two-document theory), but others that Mark used Matthew and Luke, concentrating on their overlapping material (Griesbach hypothesis). Both are consistent with this data, but neither is required by it.

A discussion of details related to content is beyond the scope of this paper. Only a careful examination of the Gospels in parallel columns will suffice to get a feel for the data. It ranges from striking similarity on some points (e.g., the parenthetical remarks "he said to the paralytic" (52) and "let the reader understand" (216) to sharp differences in others (e.g., the number of demoniacs (51, 106), blind men (193), crowings (241) and angels (253)). The former cases exert pressure against oral source theo ries, the latter against written source theories.

Let us consider next the evidence of order, both in main incidents (pericopes) and in details within an incident. Several papers have dealt with this matter in recent years: Porubcan (1964),[26] Honore (1968),[27] Sanders (1969)[28] and Tyson (1976).[29] The synoptic Gospels agree in the general order of events in Jesus' ministry: that it (1) began during John the Baptist's ministry, (2) moved into Galilee, (3) then to Judea, (4) finally to Jerusalem, where Jesus suffered crucifixion, died and rose from the dead. But there is much more agreement than this; let us look at the order in greater detail.

Nothing can be said about order where a Gospel has incidents not mentioned in the others. The 480 verses where Matthew, Mark and Luke all overlap (often called the Triple Tradition) consist of 72 pericopes. Porubcan notes that the 42 pericopes included in periods (1), (3) and (4), above, occur in the same order in all three Gospels. The 30 pericopes of (2), the Galilean ministry, are also in basically the same order, though there are a few places where either Matthew or Luke individually departs from the order of Mark and the other synoptic. Using Robertson[30] I find four places where Matthew diverges and three where Luke does. It is noteworthy that, at the level of pericopes, Matthew and Luke never agree against Mark in following a different order. This has usually been taken to indicate that Matthew and Luke independently used Mark (two-document theory), but according to the Griesbach hypothesis, Mark got his order by alternately following Matthew and Luke!

Taking the Gospels two at a time, Tyson notes that there are no order divergences in pericopes shared by Matthew and Mark alone, nor in those shared by Mark and Luke alone. By contrast, most of the material common to Matthew and Luke alone (Q in the two- document theory) is located differently in each. This is rather hard on the so-called Ur-Gospel theory, in which each of the three Gospels got its material independently from the same single written source. In this theory, one is hard-pressed to explain how it is that Matthew or Luke just happens to handle the material they used but Mark didn't in such a different way than they handled the material they share with Mark. Those who think Luke used Matthew or vice versa (e.g., Augustine's or Griesbach's versions of the successive dependence theory) are also in trouble here, as they must explain why one Gospel relocated so much material already positioned in the other. The two-document theory, by contrast, handles this phenomenon rather easily, since the pericopes shared by Matthew and Luke alone come from another source Q. Because Q is supposed to be mostly Jesus' discourse rather than narrative, it is claimed that Matthew and Luke had no information on where to locate it, so they independently fit it into their own narratives, thus producing the differences in order. However, such a conclusion is not necessary to explain this material. Since Jesus was an itinerant teacher, it is most likely that much of his discourse was given on several occasions. Matthew and Luke may well record similar statements made at different times.

Turning to consider the matter of order within pericopes, there are many minor cases of divergence. Of more significant transpositions, Hawkins[31] finds 23: 3 of these involve Matthew vs. Mark, 11 Matthew vs. Luke, none of Mark vs. Luke, 6 of Matthew and Mark vs. Luke, 2 of Mark and Luke vs. Matthew, and one of Matthew and Luke vs. Mark. Sanders,[32] however, finds several more examples where Matthew and Luke agree against Mark. If valid, these last cases are troublesome for the two-document hypothesis. Of Sanders four "clear cases," one is Hawkins' (above) and a second appears to be equally strong, both involving the order of materials within a pericope. The two other cases have nearly identical statements located within different pericopes. A proponent of the two- document theory would presumably explain these as examples of similar material originally in both Mark and Q, where both Matthew and Luke happened to follow Q. Sanders also gives three additional cases, which seem quite weak to me.

The argument from order has generally been one of the strongest for the two-document theory, yet Sanders notes many other cases where either: (1) passages are differently placed in all three Gospels; (2) Mark differs from one Gospel where the other has no parallel; or (3) Matthew and Luke put the same Q material in the same place relative to Mark. To the extent these examples are valid, the proponent of the two-document theory must either expand the size of Q until it begins to look like Matthew (moving toward Augustine's or Griesbach's views) or concede that Luke and Matthew did not use their material independently (thus alleviating any need for Q).

Let us next consider the verbal evidence related to the synoptic problem. According to Honore[33] there are somewhat over 10,000 words in Mark and somewhat under 20,000 each in Matthew and Luke. All three Gospels overlap in passages containing about 8,000 words. If we define verbal agreement as the use of the same vocabulary word in the same grammatical form in a common passage, then the Triple Tradition has over 1800 verbal agreements between all three Gospels. In addition, there are nearly 2000 double verbal agreements between Matthew and Mark, over 600 between Matthew and Luke, and over 1000 between Mark and Luke. The exact figures he gives are included in the chart below:
Verbal Agreement in the Synoptics

% Agree-

Mt Mk Lk

-- 1908 637
1908 -- 1039
637 1039 --

Although we are only looking here at the so-called Triple Tradition (similar material in all three synoptics), it is clear that there is considerable verbal identity in this part of the Gospel material. It is certainly more than casual memory might be expected to preserve. Therefore, oral source theories must postulate some enhancement, either through direct revelation, divine aid in recall (cp. John 14:26), or memorization (whether by rote or due to repeated use). On the other hand, this is pretty substantial divergence for copying, so written source theories must include substantial editing. Neither alternative can be ruled out by the verbal evidence; ancient societies depended much more on memory than we do;[34] it was a common practice in Greco-Roman culture in writing histories to epitomize and edit existing written sources.[35]

Looking at the details above, notice that Mark has somewhat more agreements than either Matthew or Luke. Honore does statistical analyses of this phenomenon and of the order of the incidents. He concludes that both analyses favor Mark as the intermediary between Matthew and Luke, on the assumption that two Gospels used the other or others. Mark is intermediary in three schemes:

Here schemes (2) and (3) each have two alternatives, depending on whether or not there is also di rect borrowing between the first and third Gospel in each diagram. Of these schemes, (1) is the two- document theory (with Q ignored), and (2) is Augustine's form of the successive dependence theory. Griesbach's form does not appear to be favored in this analysis, unless one argues that it is merely (1) stood on its head.

If we accept the Markan part of the two-document theory on this basis, however, the 637 words where Matthew and Luke agree verbally against Mark will need to be explained, since (according to this view) neither Matthew nor Luke is supposed to be dependent on the other. As the number of these agreements is more than one third the number of triple agreements, it seems hazardous to explain them away, whether as places where Mark and Q overlap but both Matthew and Luke prefer Q, or as cases where Matthew and Luke each improve Mark's style in exactly the same way, or where later textual corruption has assimilated Luke (say) to Matthew. Honore's further statistical studies, which favor the priority of Mark and the existence of Q, do not deal with this problem.

We have now surveyed the more basic material which functions as internal evidence for the synoptic problem. We have not considered arguments that certain material in one Gospel is "more primitive" than that in another. Such arguments frequently depend on debatable interpretations of the passages involved, and they always depend on definitions of "development" (such as increase in refinement, respect for Jesus, miraculous elements, or loss of picturesque details). Sanders[36] has shown these tests to be unreliable in comparing the (early) canonical Gospels with the (later) apocryphal ones. Such tendencies as seem to be reliable by this comparison show no more evidence of primitivity in Mark than in Matthew.

Before we move on to external evidence, let us review the status of various theories in the light of the internal evidence we have considered. The Ur-Gospel and Griesbach theories are able to explain the similar order in the synoptics satisfactorily by means of borrowing. In the first, all follow the order of the hypothetical original Gospel pretty closely, though Mark's order is closest. The Griesbach theory sees Mark following the order of Matthew and Luke alternatively, therefore always agreeing with at least one of them. The Augustinian model seems more strained here: basically Mark follows Matthew with occasional divergence; Luke always prefers Mark's order to Matthew's, but does not always follow Mark himself!

The most serious problem for the Ur-Gospel, Griesbach and Augustinian views is the lack of agreement between Matthew and Luke in the order of what we may call the "Q material." This must have had some order in the original Gospel (whether Ur- or Matthew). Why does Luke or Matthew depart for this order when they pretty well follow the order of their original otherwise? This problem seems to be nearly insurmountable at present. The burden of proof is certainly upon proponents of such views to come up with a reasonable explanation.

The two-document theory has a natural explanation for the fact that Matthew and Luke never agree against Mark in order of pericopes: they have both followed his order pretty closely. It also naturally explains the divergent order in the Q material, though the shadow this casts on the historical reliability of Matthew and Luke (who disagree by inserting sayings into various contexts) should give evangelicals pause about adopting it wholeheartedly. Statistical study of the verbal similarities also somewhat favors this view.

The main problems for the two-document theory involve details. Can we really get rid of 637 cases of verbal identity (where Matthew and Luke agree against Mark) by expanding Q, or invoking stylistic improvements, or claiming later textual assimilation? If we expand Q, it begins to pick up more narrative elements, which then undercut the usual explanation why the material was located differently by Matthew and Luke in the first place. If we allow much textual corruption, statistical arguments like Honore's go down the drain, since many of the values on which he bases his conclusions do not differ by much. Are these all stylistic improvements, then?

The oral theory is quite flexible, but also quite vague. It makes few predictions, so is less easily attacked. Unless further developed, it does not offer an explanation why there should be so much overlap in the content of the synoptics. The verbal dissimilarities fit oral transmission well enough, but the verbal agreements and striking parallels in content require a substantially memorized body of material. The striking divergences in detailed content and the lack of order in the Q material can be explained in various ways by oral theories, either consistent or inconsistent with the historical reliability of the material.

In summary, on the basis of internal evidence alone, the two- document theory seems to be significantly favored among the simpler written-source theories. Oral source theories cannot be judged against it without further specification of their details.


Let us now turn to external evidence relevant to the synoptic problem. The first matter to consider, though it does not necessarily bear on the question, is the authorship of the Gospels. The text of the Gospels (setting aside the titles for the moment) is anonymous, in that none of them says "I, Matthew, wrote this," or something of the sort. Yet the prologue of Luke suggests that its author was known to Theophilus, the recipient and probably patron of this Gospel. Luke, at least, was not anonymous at first. This is significant in view of the fact that early Christian tradition is unanimous in assigning these Gospels to Matthew, Mark and Luke, and that the earliest surviving manuscripts have titles also, all of which give these authors only. This is most easily explained if indeed these were the authors and such was common knowledge in the early church. Otherwise one must explain both the complete loss of the correct information and its complete replacement by a single set of spurious names none of which names are otherwise particularly prominent in apostolic history.

If one accepts both the two-document theory and the traditional authorship (e.g., as some evangelicals and Roman Catholics do), he or she faces the anomalous situation that Matthew, an apostle and eyewitness, copied a substantial fraction of his work from Mark, a mere assistant with little first-hand knowledge of Jesus' ministry. This is not impossible, but it certainly requires something of a special explanation.

Consider next the order in which the Gospels were written. Tradition definitely favors Matthew being written prior to Mark. True, our earliest witness, Papias (c 130), in the few fragments known to survive from his writings, does not make any explicit statements about the order of writing. Yet his remark about Matthew's "logia"

Then Matthew wrote the oracles (logia) in the Hebrew dialect, but everyone interpreted them as he was able[37]

-- rather suggests that for some period of time nothing else was available. If Papias was referring to Matthew's Gospel, he at least hints that it was written first.

Irenaeus (c 170), who studied with Polycarp, a student of the apostle John, is quite explicit in saying that Mark wrote after Matthew:

Now Matthew published a book of the Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching the Gospel in Rome and founding the church. After their departure (exodos) Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, also handed down to us in writing the things preached by Peter.[38]

Clement of Alexandria, a younger contemporary of Irenaeus, repeats a "tradition of the early presbyters" that the "Gospels which contain the genealogies [Matthew and Luke] were written first."[39] Neither Irenaeus nor Clement seems to depend on Papias, unless one has already decided that Papias must be the sole source of all tradition on Matthew and Mark. Later testimony by Origen,[40] Eusebius,[41] and Jerome[42] also puts Matthew first, though these were writing long after the events and probably depend on earlier writers.

There is disagreement within the early tradition on the relative order of Mark and Luke. Clement explicitly puts Mark third,[39] but Origen puts Mark second and Luke third.[40] Earlier sources are not decisive. The fragments of Papias do not mention Luke. Irenaeus lists the Gospels in the order Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, but for Luke alone he omits a chronological connector:

Now Matthew published . . . while Peter and Paul were preaching the Gospel in Rome . . . . After their departure, Mark . . . handed down . . . the things preached by Peter. Luke also, the follower of Paul, put down in a book the Gospel preached by that one. Afterwards John . . .[38]

Some indirect information relevant to this question can be extracted from the New Testament and the church fathers. Taking Irenaeus' statement that Mark was written after the exodos of Peter and Paul to mean after their departure from Rome rather than after their death (the word can be translated either way), then Irenaeus' testimony is consistent with Clement's, where Peter is seen to be reacting to Mark's Gospel after it was written.[39] This would date Mark in the mid-sixties of the first century, after Paul leaves Rome (c 63) but before Peter and Paul are martyred under Nero (c 67). Luke, however, was written before Acts (cp Luke 1:3 with Acts 1:1), and Acts is most naturally dated before the death of Paul or the outbreak of the Roman persecution against Christianity (c 64). Thus it appears that Luke predates Mark, being written no later than the early sixties while Paul was in Rome, or more likely during the two years Luke was in Palestine while Paul was imprisoned at Caesarea (c 58-60).

The traditional evidence thus gives as the order for the writing of the synoptic Gospels either Matthew, Mark, Luke or Matthew, Luke, Mark. This fits the Augustinian and Griesbach models, respectively, but not the two-document theory. It should be noted that Irenaeus' testimony on the date of Matthew is a problem, since he puts it in the early sixties also, "while Peter and Paul were preaching the Gospel in Rome and founding the church." This would crowd the writing of all three synoptics into just a few years, which seems to conflict with Papias' picture of some time-period in which only Matthew was available.

Those proponents of the two-document theory who don't reject the testimony of Papias altogether have often sought to solve these problems by postulating that Papias is not referring to our canonical Matthew by the term "logia," but rather to Q.[43] This allows the order Q, Mark, Matthew, Luke or perhaps Q, Mark, Luke, Matthew but only at the price of rejecting the testimony of both Irenaeus and Clement. These are then dismissed as (1) dependent on Papias alone, and (2) misunderstanding him. This is a rather precarious position, as Irenaeus is more likely to have gotten his information from Polycarp than Papias, and Clement claims to depend on more than one early presbyter.[39] In addition, the common claim that Papias' term "logia" better fits a sayings-source like Q than a narrative like Matthew[44] ignores Papias' own usage: "logia" are what Papias himself is expounding, yet he includes Jesus' actions as well as his words.[45] He also applies the term "logia" to the Gospel of Mark, which he notes included "things either said or done by the Lord."[46]

We should consider two other significant points in the tradition concerning the synoptic Gospels: the language in which Matthew was originally written, and the connection of Mark with Peter. The citations of Papias and Irenaeus, above, sufficiently illustrate the former, which is a standard feature in the tradition. The natural understanding of the words used is that Matthew wrote his Gospel in either Hebrew or Aramaic. The suggestion that this refers to a semitic dialect of Greek seems unlikely: it assumes that Papias is the sole source for this information and (again) that he was misunderstood. It certainly doesn't fit very well with Papias' remark that "everyone interpreted them as he was able." On the other hand, the extant Greek text of Matthew is not generally considered to be "translation Greek," i.e., the kind of wooden translation style that characterizes much of the Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Old Testament into Greek.[47] The connection between Mark's Gospel and Peter is seen in Papias:

And this the Presbyter used to say: Mark, indeed, since he was the interpreter of Peter, wrote accurately, but not in order the things either said or done by the Lord as much as he remembered. For he neither heard the Lord nor followed him, but afterwards, as I have said, Peter, who fitted his discourses to the needs but not as if making a narrative of the Lord's oracles; consequently, Mark, writing some things just as he remembered, erred in nothing; for he was careful of one thing not to omit anything of the things he had heard or to falsify anything in them.[46]

That Mark's Gospel is Peter's preaching is quite clear in this, in spite of some obscurities regarding other matters. Justin Martyr (c 150), in referring to material which only occurs in Mark, appears to call it Peter's "memoirs,"[48] though possibly he meant Christ's memoirs. Irenaeus definitely connects Mark's Gospel to Peter, as noted above. Clement's testimony should also be mentioned:

. . . the Gospel according to Mark had this occasion: When Peter had preached the word publicly in Rome and had declared the Gospel by the Spirit, those who were present they were many besought Mark, since he had followed him for a long time and remembered the things that had been spoken, to write out the things that had been said; and when he had done this, he gave the Gospel to those who had asked him. When Peter learned of it later, he neither obstructed nor encouraged it.39

Let us summarize the external evidence relevant to the synoptic problem. A substantial tradition indicates that all three Gospels were written no later than the sixties; that Matthew was written first, apparently in Aramaic or Hebrew; that Mark or Luke was written second; and that Mark preserves the testimony of Peter.

This evidence is unfavorable to the Ur-Gospel theory unless the original Gospel is taken to be the semitic form of Matthew. The evidence gives a very different order for the writing of the Gospels than does the two-document theory. The order given in tradition does fit either the Augustinian or Griesbach models, but tradition does not have Mark using either Matthew or Luke as these theories do.


Thus the data of the synoptic problem present a puzzle. Internal evidence generally favors the two-document theory or at least Markan priority. External evidence favors Matthean priority. How it this to be resolved? It has been a common practice in this century to dismiss the external evidence, since the church fathers can no longer be cross-examined, while we still have access to all the internal evidence. Of course, this is true, but it should be balanced by the observation that the interpretation of internal evidence can be rather subjective, and the internal evidence doesn't exactly fit any of the simple documentary theories anyway.

Suppose that, instead of ignoring the external evidence and constructing the simplest model that (almost) fits the internal data, we try to give both internal and external data a fair shake. Our biggest problem is the question of the relative priority of Matthew and Mark. But notice here that the internal and external evidence are not necessarily looking at the same thing. Internal evidence suggests that the content of Mark is (generally) prior to Matthew; external evidence, that the writing of Matthew is prior to Mark.

Tradition tells us that Mark preserves the preaching of Peter. The New Testament indicates (though without any papal overtones) the pre-eminence of Peter among the apostles, especially in his activity as their spokesman during those early years in which all the apostles remained together. If we suppose that the apostles in concert made a selection of materials from the life of Christ to form their basic Gospel presentation, then the common part of the synoptics may be explained as the standard apostolic testimony. This would be an oral Gospel very much like Mark, though probably lacking certain features distinctive of Peter's vivid personality -- a sort of proto-Mark.

Matthew would naturally use this oral Gospel in composing a written one, though he has apparently supplemented it with some of the detailed teaching of Jesus as well as information on his birth. Luke, too, would use the apostolic testimony (so he claims, Luke 1:2), but he has done independent research to supplement it (Luke 1:3), perhaps by interviewing many eyewitnesses. Much of the verbal similarity shared by Matthew and Luke but not Mark would in this view be due to repetition in Jesus' itinerant teaching ministry rather than guesswork in assigning sayings from Q to narrative contexts. The relative shortness of Mark compared with Matthew and Luke is then seen as a reflection of Peter's own action-oriented personality. His distinctive additions to the apostolic testimony were largely matters of color rather than further incidents or discourses.

This view naturally explains how sometimes Matthew (and even Luke) will seem more primitive, since they do not depend on our written Mark. How they may on occasion agree against Mark in wording or order, though they generally seem to follow him. The rougher style of Mark is explained by its being a transcript of oral presentation rather than a literary work; its more dramatic style, as being the oral presentation of an experienced speaker with a vivid imagination. The fine semitic poetic structure seen regularly in Matthew is here the creation of Jesus rather than of some unknown genius in the early church.

Two problems come to mind with this proposal. The first is the tradition of a semitic Matthew. Could the synoptics be as close verbally to one another as they are if Matthew was not originally in Greek? Could our present Matthew be a translation from a semitic original? If there had been such a semitic original, why would it have disappeared? Taking these questions in reverse order, any document will likely disappear if it is preserved only by copying and there is no one who knows its language who is interested in copying it. The original Aramaic of Josephus' Jewish War no longer survives. The Hebrew Bible disappeared from Christian circles and the Greek Bible from Western Europe, only to be recovered in modern times because there were other groups which had continued to copy them. Our present Matthew could easily be a translation if the translation technique used was more like that used on Josephus (by its own author) or the Greek Old Testament translations of Symmachus and Theodotion than like the rather literalistic method common in the Septuagint. Lastly, if the apostolic testimony existed in both a Greek and a semitic oral form (the church was bilingual from the start), then Matthew (or his translator) may have used the Greek form of the tradition when preparing the Greek Matthew for publication.

The second problem is Irenaeus' testimony to the date of Matthew's Gospel, that it was published (in the sixties) while Peter and Paul were preaching the Gospel in Rome. Here I suggest that perhaps Irenaeus has confused two traditions, putting (1) its original semitic form together with (2) the date of its publication in Greek. I would rather suggest that the semitic Matthew has a much earlier date, in the forties or fifties, followed by Luke in the late fifties or early sixties, then by the Greek Matthew, and finally by Mark in the mid-sixties.

This proposal -- including authorship, dates, and literary relationships -- seems to me to do reasonable justice to both the internal and external evidence. It is also consistent with the New Testament's own picture of the history and character of the apostolic period and with the biblical doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture.


  1. Tatian, Diatessaron. A fragment has survived in Greek, as well as more extensive materials in translation. See Edgar J. Goodspeed and Robert M. Grant, A History of Early Christian Literature, rev. ed. (Chicago: Phoenix Books, 1966).
  2. Eusebius, Letter to Carpianus. Greek text with tables in Eberhard Nestle, Erwin Nestle and Kurt Aland, Novum Testamentum Graece, 25th ed. (Stuttgart: Wurttembergische Bibelanstalt, 1963), pp 32*-37*.
  3. Augustine, De Consensu Evangelistarum.
  4. Surveys of the history of synoptic criticism may be found in Donald Guthrie, New Testament Introduction, 3rd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1970), pp 123-132; W. G. Kummel, Introduction to the New Testament (London: SCM, 1966), pp 37-42; Willi Marxsen, Introduction to the New Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1968), pp 113-119; Henry C. Thiessen, Introduction to the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1943), pp 101-121.
  5. See, e.g., A. T. Robertson, A Harmony of the Gospel for Students of the Life of Christ (New York: Harper and Bros., 1922), pp 255-256; Ned B. Stonehouse, Origins of the Synoptic Gospels (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1963); Guthrie, N. T. Introduction, pp 234-236; Everett F. Harrison, Introduction to the New Testament, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971), pp 146-154.
  6. See, e.g., J. A. Fitzmeyer, "The Priority of Mark and the Q Source in Luke," Perspective 11 (1970), 131-170; F. J. McCool, "Synoptic Problem," in New Catholic Encyclopedia 13:886-891.
  7. See, e.g., A. T. Robertson, The Christ of the Logia (New York: Doran, 1924), p 17; H. G. Wood, "The Priority of Mark," Expository Times 65 (1953), 17; Hugo Meynell, "The Synoptic Problem: Some Unorthodox Solutions," Theology 70 (1967), 386.
  8. Basil C. Butler, The Originality of St. Matthew (Cambridge: University Press, 1951).
  9. Pierson Parker, The Gospel Before Mark (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953).
  10. William R. Farmer, The Synoptic Problem (New York: Macmillan, 1964).
  11. Thomas R. W. Longstaff, Evidence of Conflation in Mark (Missoula, MT: Soc. of Biblical Literature, 1967).
  12. Xavier Leon-Dufour, The Gospels and the Jesus of History (New York: Desclee/Collins, 1968).
  13. Edward P. Sanders, The Tendencies of the Synoptic Tradition (Cambridge: University Press, 1969).
  14. A. Gaboury, Les structure des evangiles synoptiques (Leiden: Brill, 1970).
  15. Robert L. Lindsey, A Hebrew Translation of the Gospel of Mark (Jerusalem: Dugith, 1969).
  16. David Dungan, "Reactionary Trends in the Gospel-Producing Activity of the Early Church? Marcion, Tatian, Mark," Bibliotheca Ephemeridum Theol. Lovaniensium 34 (1974), 179-202.
  17. Bernard Orchard, Matthew, Luke and Mark (Manchester: Koinonia, 1976).
  18. Austin Ferrar, "On Dispensing with Q," Studies in the Gospels, ed. D. E. Nineham (Oxford: Blackwell, 1955), pp 55-86.
  19. A. W. Argyle, "Evidence for the View that St. Luke Used St. Matthew's Gospel," Journal of Biblical Literature 83 (1964), 390-396.
  20. R. T. Simpson, "The Major Agreements of Matthew and Luke Against Mark," New Testament Studies 12 (1966), 273-284.
  21. Nigel Turner, "Q in Recent Thought," Expository Times 88 (1969), 324-328.
  22. George W. Buchanan, "Current Synoptic Studies: Orchard, the Griesbach Hypothesis and Other Alternatives," Religion in Life 46 (1977), 415-425.
  23. Henry C. Alford, The Greek New Testament, rev. by E. F. Harrison (Chicago: Moody Press, 1958), 1:5].
  24. Numbers in parentheses here and following indicate sections in the Greek synopsis of Albert Huck and Hans Lietzmann, Synopsis of the First Three Gospels, 9th ed. (New York: American Bible Society, 1936); the same sections are used in the English synopsis of Burton H. Throckmorton, Gospel Parallels, 3rd ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1967).
  25. Estimates are from Joseph B. Tyson, A Study of Early Christianity (New York: Macmillan, 1973), pp 184-185.
  26. Stefan Porubcan, "Form Criticism and the Synoptic Problem," Novum Testamentum 7 (1964), 81-118.
  27. A. M. Honore, "A Statistical Study of the Synoptic Problem," Novum Testamentum 10 (1968), 95-147.
  28. E. P. Sanders, "The Argument from Order and the Relationship Between Matthew and Luke," New Testament Studies 15 (1969), 249-261.
  29. Joseph B. Tyson, "Sequential Parallelism in the Synoptic Gospels," New Testament Studies 22 (1976), 249-261.
  30. Robertson, Harmony.
  31. John C. Hawkins, Horae Synopticae, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1909), pp 77-80; a classic work on the data of the synoptic problem.
  32. Sanders, "Argument from Order," section III.
  33. Honore, "Statistical Study"; he gives exact figures.
  34. See especially Harald Riesenfeld, The Gospel Tradition (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1970); and Birger Gerhardsson, Memory and Manuscript (Lund: Gleerup, 1961).
  35. Consider, e.g., Josephus and Eusebius, Arrian and Plutarch.
  36. Sanders, Tendencies.
  37. Papias, Exposition of the Oracles of the Lord; only scattered quotations remain, this one quoted from Eusebius, Church History 3.39.16. The traditional evidence on the Gospels is conveniently presented in both the original Greek or Latin and an English translation in Daniel J. Theron, Evidence of Tradition (London: Bowes and Bowes, 1957), also reprinted by Baker Book House.
  38. Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.1.2, now extant only in Latin translation; this passage is quoted in the original Greek by Eusebius, Church History 5.8.2.
  39. Clement, Outlines, cited in Eusebius, Church History 6.14.5.
  40. Origen, Commentary on Matthew, cited in Eusebius, Church History 6.25.3.
  41. Eusebius, Church History 3.24.5.
  42. Jerome, Commentary on Matthew; Illustrious Men 3.
  43. V. H. Stanton, The Gospels as Historical Documents (Cambridge: University Press, 1923); T. W. Manson, The Sayings of Jesus (London: SCM, 1949).
  44. Stanton, Gospels, pp 53ff; Manson, Sayings, pp 18-19.
  45. According to Eusebius, Church History 3.39.16, who says Papias narrated a story of "a woman accused of many sins before the Lord."
  46. Eusebius, Church History 3.39.15.
  47. Harrison, Introduction to the N. T., p 169; see discussion in Guthrie, N. T. Introduction, pp 46-47.
  48. Justin, Dialogue with Trypho 106.


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