As scholars have viewed and studied Matthew, Mark and Luke together, they have arrived at a consensus that based on the similarities and nuances between these three gospels, they are dependant on one another at a literary level. In view of this literary relationship, the Synoptic Problem has emerged. Mark Goodacre defines the Synoptic Problem as “the study of the similarities and differences of the Synoptic Gospels in an attempt to explain their literary relationship” (16). The Synoptic Problem endeavors to account for the similarities and differences between the Synoptic Gospels primarily through the discipline of source criticism. The written stage in the development of the Gospels is the focus of source criticism, and thus it examines the Gospels in order to discover possible written sources that underlie them. The assumption is that written accounts of the life of Jesus were present at the time each Synoptic Gospel was written, so the goal is to discover the written sources that the writers may have used in compiling their gospels and the priority in which they may have used them (Carson et al. 26).
Throughout the years, many solutions to the Synoptic Problem have been offered, but three have received the majority of the support. Firstly, the Augustinian Hypothesis based on Augustine’s view that Matthew wrote first, then Mark wrote borrowing from Matthew, and then Luke wrote borrowing from Matthew and Mark. This view suggests that the canonical order is the chronological order. While this was the common view for the bulk of church history, it has not received much support by modern source critics (Carson et al. 31).
Secondly, the “Two-Gospel” Hypothesis, proposed by J.J. Griesbach, suggests that Matthew wrote first, then Luke wrote using Matthew, and then Mark wrote using and conflating both Matthew and Luke creating an abridged Gospel. This hypothesis was ground breaking during the eighteenth century and at times has seen a resurgence in popularity during the modern era, but it has been mostly eclipsed by the following solution (Carson et al. 31).
Thirdly, the “Two-Source” Hypothesis (often expanded to the “Four-Source” Hypothesis) proposes that Mark wrote first, then Matthew and Luke wrote independently of one another while using Mark and another written source which scholars call “Q,” or the material common in Matthew and Luke but is not found in Mark (Two-Sources). This has been expanded to Four-Sources with the inclusion of a “M” source (peculiar Matthew material) and a “L” source (peculiar Luke material). In other words, Mark still wrote first and Matthew and Luke used Mark, “Q” and other source material that only appears in their respective gospels. While the “Two-Source” Hypothesis (including the “Four-Source” Hypothesis) is not without difficulties, it is widely held as the best solution to the Synoptic Problem (Carson et al. 31).
Carson, Donald A., et al. An Introduction to the New Testament. Zondervan, 1992.
Goodacre, Mark. The Synoptic Problem: a Way through the Maze. T & T Clark International, 2007.