The Synoptic Problem & the Collapse of Consensus

بِسۡمِ ٱللهِ ٱلرَّحۡمَـٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ

The Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, and Luke are referred to as the Synoptic Gospels.  This is because they have many of the same stories, often in a similar sequence and in similar wording.  In contrast, the Gospel according to John is distinct.  The term ‘synoptic’ comes via the Latin ‘synopticus’, from the Greek ‘synoptikos’, generally meaning ‘all together’.  Specifically applied to these three Gospels, it refers to an account of the events from the same point of view or under the same general aspect.  This is known as the Synoptic Problem.

Relying on eyewitness evidence and oral tradition, it would be conceivable that the authors of the Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, and Luke could have written independently of each other.  This view is known as the Independence hypothesis, and it was the position that most people held until they started looking closely at the issue.  The Independence hypothesis has not won many advocates among scholars in recent years, partly because of the reason is the Gospel according to John.  The Gospel according to John is missing many of the familiar stories and sayings found in the other three, and it has a great deal of new material not found in them.

Also, the author of the Gospel according to John indicates that there was an even larger pool of material about Jesus (a.s.) to select from:

John 21:25
25 There is much else besides that Jesus did; if all of it were put in writing, I do not think the world itself would contain the books which would have to be written.

That means we have to question why the authors of the Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, and Luke chose the material that they did.  If they wrote independently of each other, why did they make so many of the same choices?  This is also evidenced by the fact that there are hundreds of Gospels with hundreds of stories not found in the canonical works, the four gospels.

The first obvious conclusion is that there had to be a source.  One possibility is that it was an oral equivalent of a gospel.  People trained their memories to a greater extent in that age, something still found in many primitive societies, and even the Arabs at the time of the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.).  It is not impossible that the early Church developed a standard way of recounting the ministry and passion of Jesus (a.s.).  Most scholars are not in favour this viewpoint.  Memorising such a gospel would have been difficult since the gospels we have encountered are not written in a form that is easily memorised, in contrast to Scripture such is the Qur’an, which is essentially a very long poem.  Also, it is unclear if the early Christian community had enough people able to perform such a feat.  Furthermore, we have no record of this, or any such mention by the Church Fathers of the Synoptic Gospels being based on such a source.  There is also the theory of a lost proto-gospel.  The similarities among the Synoptic Gospels could have been due to a common written source.  But we have no record or mention of such a source.

Almost all of the Gospel according to Mark’s content is found in the Gospel according to Matthew, and much of the Gospel according to Mark is similarly found in the Gospel according to Luke.  Also, the Gospels according to Matthew and Luke have a large amount of material in common not found in the Gospel according to Mark.  All the Pauline Gospels were composed in Koine Greek.  All the Synoptic Gospels have similar length, were completed within a century of Jesus’ (a.s.) death, and they differ from non-canonical sources, such as the Gospel according to Thomas, in that they belong to the ancient genre of biography, collating not only Jesus’ (a.s.) alleged teachings from a specific perspective, but recounting his origins, ministry, miracles, passion and resurrection in a chronological manner.  In terms of content and literary style, the Synoptic Gospels are distinct from the Gospel according to John.  Although each gospel has unique material, the majority of the Gospel according to Mark and roughly half of the Gospels according to Matthew and Luke coincide in content, in much of the sequence, and are often nearly verbatim.  This is termed the triple tradition.

The triple tradition, has more than thirty distinct stories in common.  These triple tradition pericopae, passages, also tend to be arranged in much the same order in all three gospels.  This contrasts with material found in only two of the gospels, which is much more variable in order.  However, classification of text in the triple tradition or double tradition is not definitive.  This depend on the degree of similarity demanded.  For example, the Gospels according to Matthew and Mark report the cursing of the fig tree.

Matthew 21:18-22
18 …and, seeing a fig-tree by the road-side, he went up to it, and found nothing but leaves on it.  19 And he said to it, “Let no fruit ever grow on thee hereafter”; whereupon the fig-tree withered away.  20 His disciples were amazed when they saw it; “How suddenly it has withered away!” they said.  21Jesus answered them, “I promise you, if you have faith, and do not hesitate, you will be able to do more than I have done over the fig-tree; if you say to this mountain, ‘Remove, and be cast into the sea’, it will come about.  22 If you will only believe, every Gift you ask for in your prayer will be Granted.”

Mark 11:12-24
12 When they had left Bethany next day, he was hungry; 13 and, observing a fig-tree some way off with its leaves out, he went up to see if he could find anything on it.  But when he reached it, he found leaves and nothing else; it was not the right season for figs.  14 And he said to it aloud, in the hearing of his disciples; “Let no man ever eat fruit of thine hereafter.”  15 So they came to Jerusalem.  And there Jesus went into the temple, and began driving out those who sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the bankers, and the chairs of the pigeon-sellers; 16 nor would he allow anyone to carry his wares through the temple.  17 And this was the admonition he gave them, “Is it not written, ‘My House shall be known among all the nations for a house of prayer?’  Whereas you have made it into a den of thieves.  18 The chief priests and scribes heard of this, and looked for some means of making away with him; they were afraid of him, because all the multitude was so full of admiration at his teaching.  19 He left the city at evening, 20 and next morning, as they passed by, they saw the fig-tree withered from its roots.  21 Peter had not forgotten; “Master,” he said, “look at the fig-tree which thou didst curse; it has withered away.”  22 And Jesus answered them, “Have faith in God.  23 I promise you, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Remove, and be cast into the sea,’ and has no hesitation in his heart, but is sure that what he says is to come about, his wish will be Granted him.  24 I tell you, then, when you ask for anything in prayer, you have only to believe that it is yours, and it will be Granted you.”

The texts in both clearly refer to a single incident despite some substantial differences of wording and content.  In the Gospel according to Luke, however, we find only the parable of the barren fig tree in a different point of the narrative, pericopae.

Luke 13:6-9
6 And this was a parable he told them; there was a man that had a fig-tree planted in his vineyard, but when he came and looked for fruit on it, he could find none; 7 whereupon he said to his vine-dresser, “See now, I have been coming to look for fruit on this fig-tree for three years, and cannot find any.  Cut it down; why should it be a useless charge upon the land?”  8 But he answered thus, “Sir, let it stand this year too, so that I may have time to dig and put dung round it; 9 perhaps it will bear fruit; if not, it will be time to cut it down then.”

Some would consider an extensively adapted element of the triple tradition; I regard it as a distinct narration.  A better example of the triple tradition in the texts would be the healing of the leper.

Matthew 8:2-3
2 …and now, a leper came and knelt before him, and said, “Lord, if it be thy will, thou hast power to make me clean.”  3 Jesus held out his hand and touched him, and said, “It is my will; be thou made clean.”  Whereupon his leprosy was immediately cleansed.

Mark 1:40-42
40 Then a leper came up to him, asking for his aid; he knelt at his feet and said, “If it be thy will, thou hast power to make me clean.”  41 Jesus was moved with pity; he held out his hand and touched him, and said, “It is my will; be thou made clean.”  42 And at the word, the leprosy all at once left him, and he was cleansed.

Luke 5:12-13
12 Afterwards, while he was in one of the cities, he came upon a man who was far gone in leprosy.  When he saw Jesus, he fell on his face in entreaty; “Lord,” he said, “if it be thy will, thou hast power to make me clean.”  13 And he stretched out his hand, and touched him, and said, “It is my will; be thou made clean.”  Whereupon all at once his leprosy passed from him.

More than half the wordings in these passages are identical to each other.

The triple tradition constitutes a complete gospel quite similar to the shortest gospel, the Gospel according to Mark.  Unlike the Gospels according to Matthew and Luke, the Gospel according to Mark contributes relatively little to the triple tradition.  Pericopae unique to Mark are scarce, notably the two healings involving saliva, found in Mark 7:33-36 and Mark 8:22-26 and the story of the naked runaway, found in Mark 14:51-52.  The additions of the Gospel according to Mark within the triple tradition tend to be explanatory elaborations or the addition of Aramaic terms.

The pericopae that the Gospel according to Mark shares only with the Gospel according to Luke are several, including the exorcism at Capernaum, found in Mark 1:23-28 and Luke 4:33-37; the departure from Capernaum, Mark 1:35-38 and Luke 4:42-43; the non-believer exorcist, found in Mark 9:38-41and Luke 9:49-50; and the widow’s tithe, found in Mark 12:41-44 and Luke 21:1-4.  There are a greater number of passages shared only with the Gospel according to Matthew, although they are also not very extant.

Some two hundred verses, roughly half the length of the triple tradition, are the pericopae shared between the Gospels according to Matthew and Luke, but absent from the Gospel according to Mark.  This is the double tradition.  Parables and quotes predominate in the double tradition, but it has narrative elements including the preaching of John the Baptist (a.s.); the Temptation of Jesus (a.s.), which was summarised in two verses within the Gospel according to Mark; The Sermon on the Mount, or The Sermon on the Plain, as it is known in the Gospel according to Luke; the Centurion’s Servant; the Messengers from John the Baptist (a.s.); the Discourse with the scribes and Pharisees; and the Lament over Jerusalem; amongst several others.

Distinct from the material of the triple tradition, the passages of the double tradition are arranged differently in these two gospels.  The Gospel according to Matthew’s lengthier Sermon on the Mount, is paralleled by the Gospel according to Luke’s shorter Sermon on the Plain, with the remainder of its content scattered throughout the latter.  There is a consistent pattern with the authors of the Gospel according to Matthew collating narrations and sayings into large blocks, while the authors of the Gospel according to Luke do the opposite, interspersing them with narrative.

Besides this double tradition proper, the Gospels according to Matthew and Luke often agree with each other, contrary to the Gospel according to Mark within the triple tradition to varying extents.  This sometimes take the form of several additional verses, or sometimes differing by a single word.  These are the major and minor agreements.  One example is in the Passion narrative:

Mark 14:65
65 Then some of them fell to spitting upon him, and covering his face while they buffeted him and bade him prophesy; the servants, too, caught him blows on the cheek.

In contrast, the Gospels according to Matthew and Luke both add to this:

Matthew 26:67-68
67 Then they fell to spitting upon his face and buffeting him and smiting him on the cheek, 68 saying as they did so, “Shew thyself a prophet, Christ; tell us who it is that smote thee.”

Luke 22:63-64
63 The men who held Jesus prisoner beat him and mocked him; 64 they blindfolded him and struck him on the face, and then questioned him, “Come, prophesy; tell us who it is that smote thee.”

The literary relationship among the Synoptic Gospels provide a clue as to their origins and evolution of the text.  And the Gospel according to Mark’s special place is noted because it has the fewest embellishments relative to the other two.  The double tradition’s origin is the foundation of of the synoptic problem.  The simplest hypothesis is that the Gospel according to Luke relied on the Gospel according to Matthew, or vice versa.  But many experts have various grounds to maintain that neither the Gospel according to Matthew nor the Gospel according to Luke copied directly from.  If that be the case, they must have drawn from some common source, distinct from the Gospel according to Mark, a source that provided the material of the double material and overlapped with the Gospel according to Mark’s content where major agreements occur.  This hypothetical document has been named Q, from the German ‘Quelle’, meaning ‘source’.

The Gospels according to Matthew and Luke contain a large amount of material found in no other gospel.  These materials are sometimes called Special Matthew, M and Special Luke, L.  Both Special Matthew and Special Luke have distinct opening infancy narratives and distinct post-resurrection conclusions.   The authors of the Gospel according to Luke continue the story in their second book, Acts of the Apostles.  In between, Special Matthew includes mostly parables, while Special Luke includes both parables and healings.  Special Luke is notable for containing a greater concentration of Semitisms, grammatical and syntactical behaviour revealing the influence of the Aramaic that Jesus (a.s.) and his disciples spoke, than any other gospel material.  This hints at a source in the local language.  The authors of The Gospels according to Luke give clues of how they composed this gospel in the prologue:

Luke 1:1-4
1 Many have been at pains to set forth the history of what time has brought to fulfilment among us, 2 following the tradition of those first eye-witnesses who gave themselves up to the service of the word.  3 And I too, most noble Theophilus, have resolved to put the story in writing for thee as it befell, having first traced it carefully from its beginnings, 4 that thou mayst understand the instruction thou hast already received, in all its certainty.

The synoptic problem is the question of the specific literary relationship among the three Synoptic Gospels.  It is a question about the source of the gospels, and how they were traced to Jesus (a.s.).  Unlike the study of ahadits, there are no chains of narration that stand up to scrutiny.  Because the texts of the Synoptic Gospels often agree very closely in wording, order, quotations and narration.  Most scholars ascribe this to direct or indirect documentary dependence.  There are several points of contention.  Which Gospel was written first?  The earliest one would be the source of the other two, and the closest to the origin of the stories.  Was there successive dependence?  Did each of the Synoptic Gospels draw from its predecessors?  Where did the frequent agreements between the two independent gospels against the third originate?  Did any of the Gospels draw from some earlier document that has been lost?  Were they written directly from oral sources?  What is the chain of transmission?  Since Jesus (a.s.) and the people quoted in the Gospels in Aramaic, but the Gospels were originally in Koine Greek, who translated the text?  Was it translated from an oral source?   At what point did this translation take place?  How and why did those who put the Gospels in their final form expand, abridge, alter, or rearrange their sources?

Some theories further try to explain the relationship between the Synoptic Gospels and the Gospel according to John; and to non-canonical gospels such as the Gospel according to Thomas, the Gospel according to Peter, the fragmented Egerton Gospel, the Didache; and even further one, to lost documents such as the Hebrew Logia mentioned by Papias of Hieropolis, and the Gospel of Marcion.

Church Tradition had virtually unanimous in ascribing the Synoptic Gospels to, respectively, the apostle, Matthew son of Alpheus (r.a.); the interpreter of the apostle, Simon Peter (r.a.), Mark the Evangelist; and the companion of Paul of Tarsus, Luke the Evangelist.  Augustine of Hippo presents the gospels as composed in their canonical order: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, with each evangelist thoughtfully building upon and supplementing the work of his predecessors.  This is the Augustinian hypothesis.  This hypothesis is the first of several we will cover here.

The Augustinian hypothesis is only a possible solution to the synoptic problem.  It holds that the Gospel according to Matthew was written first, followed by the Gospel according to Mark, which used the preceding Gospel according to Matthew and the preaching of Peter (r.a.) as sources.  It holds that Luke the Evangelist wrote his Gospel independently, and was aware of the two Gospels that preceded him.  This hypothesis does not rely on, nor argue for, the existence of any document not explicitly mentioned in historical testimony.  The foundation of this hypothesis is historical testimony, as opposed to textual criticism.  It is viewed as a coherent and elegantly neat solution since it draws from the writings of the Church Fathers, which are historical sources dating back to as early as the first half of the 2nd century.

The Augustinian hypothesis certainly attempts to address fundamental points of contention surrounding the synoptic problem, such as the reliability of early Christian tradition, the order the gospels were written, the possibility of unknown sources behind the gospels, the possible extent that the gospels were redacted, and the extent of alteration in the gospels between the time they were originally written and the time the first surviving manuscripts appear.  These and other matters are raised and alternate resolutions proposed by proponents of competing hypotheses, such as the Two-Source hypothesis, its related Q hypothesis, the Farrer hypothesis, and others.

Early Christianity here, is the period preceding the First Council of Nicaea, 325 CE.  It is divided into the Apostolic Age and the Ante-Nicene Period.  The Apostolic Age is traditionally the period of the Twelve Apostles, dating from the Great Commission of the Apostles by the resurrected Jesus (a.s.) to spread his message to the nations of the world, in Jerusalem circa 33 CE, until the death of the last Apostle, John the Apostle (r.a.) around 100 CE.  The Ante-Nicene Period commenced from here.

The first Christians, evidenced from Acts of the Apostles, were all Jewish by birth, or by conversion.  The biblical term ‘proselyte’ was used to describe them.  Historians called them Jewish Christians.  The early Gospel message was spread orally; likely in Aramaic, and later in Koine Greek.  The Acts of the Apostles and the Epistle to the Galatians state that this first Christian community was centered in Jerusalem, and its leaders included were the Apostles.  Paul of Tarsus, after his conversion to Christianity, claimed the title of ‘Apostle to the Gentiles’.  It is a self-proclaimed title from a man who never met the Messiah (a.s.).  By the end of the Apostolic Age, Christianity began to be recognised internally and externally as a separate religion from Judaism.  This was Paul’s influence.

Early Christians generally revered the Tanakh as Scripture, mostly the Greek Septuagint, or the Aramaic Targum translations.  The New Testament canon developed with the inclusion of the many Letters of Paul, the canonical gospels and various other works were also recognised as scripture.  It was Paul's letters, particularly his Epistle to the Romans, which established a theology based on the personhood of ‘Christ’, rather than on the Mosaic Law.  Early Christians held a wide range of beliefs and practices, and subscribed to multiple variant gospels.  Many of these belief and practices which were later denounced as heretical.  This casts great doubt on the Augustinian contention on the reliability of church tradition.

Besides this, an area of contention is whether the Gospel according to Matthew was originally written in Aramaic using the Hebrew script, the Aramaic primacy theory; or if the Greek text is the original.  Another area of contention is whether the Gospel according to Mark or the Gospel according to Luke was written second.

Augustine of Hippo wrote in his Harmony of the Gospels, “Of these four, it is true, only Matthew is reckoned to have written in the Hebrew language; the others in Greek.  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...”

Augustine of Hippo famously dismissed the Gospel according to Mark as “pedissequus et breviator Matthaei”, “the attendant and abbreviator of Matthew”.  This was in direct contrast to the most commonly held view in academia today that the Gospel according to Mark was the earliest.  Augustine had also discussed the commonalities between the Synoptic Gospels, including the identical language found in the Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  Augustine was not the first to propose this order of the Gospels.  Irenaeus, Origen, and several others had already done so.  Augustine, however, was the first to provide a detailed scholarly textual analysis of the three texts’ interdependence for the express purpose of explaining this theory.

The Church Fathers all supported some basic ideas of the Augustinian hypothesis.  Writings from them which have survived almost unanimous that Matthew the Apostle (r.a.) was the author, that he wrote his Gospel first, and that it was in Hebrew for the Jewish Christians.  Several sources in antiquity asserted that Mark wrote his Gospel, after Matthew (r.a.) had written his, based on the evangelism of Peter (r.a.).  All this may be found in the writings of Irenaeus, Origen, and Eusebius, amongst others.  The text of the Gospel itself is circulated with a title ‘According to Matthew’.  This is a tradition indisputably acknowledged before the close of the 2nd century.  Additionally, the appellation ‘According to Matthew’ is found in the earliest manuscripts.

An original Aramaic version of the Gospel according to Matthew does not exist; no copy has survived in the original language today.  Proponents of the Augustinian hypothesis hold that the current Koine Greek version of the Gospel according to Matthew is a complete translation of the original Aramaic Matthew.  Although this theory has strong support in a number of Church Fathers.  Papias, Irenaeus, Origen, Eusebius, Epiphanius and Jerome all agree that the original Gospel according to Matthew was written in Hebrew.  Jerome claimed to have seen the original Aramaic text in the library of Pamphilus the Martyr.  Eusebius wrote that Pantaerus found a copy of the Gospel according to Matthew written in Hebrew in India, and that it had been left there by Bartholomew.  In 376 CE, Epiphanius wrote there was “no doubt” that a sect in Palestine still used the original Hebrew text.  Augustine also repeated this tradition.  Others in agreement include Pantaenus, Athanasius, John Chrysostom, Cyril of Jerusalem, and Gregory of Nazianzus.  The thing is, we do not have it, and we only have their words for it.  Considering the many issue we have had with biblical translation, how much was lost in translation?

Tradition associates the Gospel according to Luke with Paul.  This has led some to argue that Luke was with Paul during his imprisonment in Rome, or to at least place the date of composition prior to 70 CE and the fall of Jerusalem.  The author of the Gospel according to Luke wrote in his prologue that he employed various sources in composing his work.  This is used to explain away omissions as the necessary result of the constraints of these circumstances.  In any case, it is conjecture.

These views were never adequately questioned until the late eighteenth century, when Johann Jakob Griesbach published a synopsis of the gospels.  Instead of harmonising them, he displayed them side by side, making both similarities and divergences apparent.  This was a novel approach.  Griesbach hypothesised Marcan posteriority based on the special place of the Gospel according to Mark in the synopsis.  This was the Griesbach Matthew-Luke hypothesis.

The Griesbach hypothesis is a modified version of the Augustinian hypothesis.  It agrees that the Gospel according to Matthew was written first, and that the authors of the Gospel according to Mark depended on the Gospel according to Matthew, and does not dispute that the original text was in Hebrew thereafter translated into Greek.  However, it argues that the Gospel according to Mark also depended on the Gospel according to Luke, therefore implying that the Gospel according to Luke precedes the Gospel according to Mark.

In the nineteenth century, literary criticism was applied to the synoptic problem in earnest, particularly by German scholarship.  Early work revolved around a hypothetical proto-gospel, the Ur-Gospel, underlying the Synoptic Gospels. It was theorized that this document was possibly in Aramaic.  From this line of inquiry, a consensus emerged that the Gospel according to Mark itself was the principal source for the other two gospels, the Marcan priority. This was in contrast to the Augustinian hypothesis which had it as after the Gospel according to Matthew, and the Griesbach Matthew-Luke hypothesis, which had relegated the Gospel according to Mark as last of the Synoptic Gospels.

The Two-Source hypothesis posits that the Gospels according to Matthew and Luke were based on the Gospel according to Mark, and a hypothetical collection of quotations from the Christian Oral Tradition.  This document is the ‘Quelle’ document mentioned above.  It was first articulated in 1838 by Christian Hermann Weisse, a Protestant philosopher.  It did not gain wide acceptance among German critics until Heinrich Julius Holtzmann, a Protestant theologian, endorsed it in 1863.  Prior to Holtzmann, most Catholic scholars held to the Augustinian hypothesis, while Protestant biblical critics favoured the Griesbach hypothesis

The Two-Source hypothesis explains the features of the triple tradition by proposing that both the Gospels according to Matthew and Luke used the Gospel according to Mark as a source.  Allegedly, the Gospel according to Mark appears more ‘primitive’.  They contention is that the author’s diction and grammar are less literary than the Gospels according to Matthew and Luke, the language more prone to redundancy and obscurity, the Christology less supernatural, and there is more frequent use of Aramaic.  The sophisticated versions of the Gospel according to Mark’s pericopae found in the Gospels according to Matthew and Luke might be the result of those two improving the literature.

The double tradition is postulated by the existence of a lost ‘sayings of Jesus (a.s.)’ document, a sort of ahadits collection, known as Q.  The existence of Q follows from the conclusion that, as the Gospels according to Luke and Matthew are independent of the Gospel according to Mark in the double tradition, the connection between them must be explained by their joint but independent use of a missing source or sources.  It is theorized that they used Q independently of each other, and follows from the fact that they frequently differ quite widely in their use of this source.

A major problem with this hypothesis is the fact that we have no evidence of such a document.  It is not attested in any way, by existing fragments even though a great many fragments of early Christian documents do exist, or by early Church tradition.  It is not mentioned by any of the Church Fathers.  Critically, the issues of the Synoptic Problem can be explained without the existence of this hypothetical document.  However, in 1940, Dr. Pierson Parker suggested that the non-canonical Gospel of the Hebrews was the second source used in the Gospel according to Luke.  This view does not have a following.

In 1924, Dr. Burnett H. Streeter, an Anglican theologian, refined the Two Document hypothesis into the Four Document hypothesis.  The Four Document hypothesis or Four Source hypothesis posits that there were at least four sources to the Gospel according to Matthew and the Gospel according to Luke; namely the Gospel according to Mark, and three lost sources: Q, M-Source, and L source.

According to Dr. Streeter, the non-Marcan matter in the Gospel according to Luke has to be distinguished into at least two sources, Q and L.  In a similar fashion, he argued that the Gospel according to Matthew used a peculiar source, which he styled M, as well as Q.  The author of the Gospel according to Luke did not know M-Source, and the author of the Gospel according to Matthew did not know L-Source.  The hypothetical M-Source has a Judaistic character, such as the previously proposed Gospel of the Hebrews.  This suggests a Jerusalem origin.  For L-Source, Dr. Streeter proposed a new category of documents which he assigned to Caesarea.  And for the original Q, he connected it with Antioch.  He theorised that the document Q was an Antiochene translation of a document originally composed in Aramaic, possibly by Matthew (r.a.) for Galilean Christians.   And the Gospel according to Luke was developed in two phases.

According to this view, the first gospel is a combination of the traditions of Jerusalem, Antioch, and Rome; the third gospel that of Caesarea, Antioch, and Rome.  That the Antiochene and Roman sources were reproduced by both Evangelists, Matthew (r.a.) and Luke was due to the importance of those Churches.  Dr. Streeter thought there is no evidence that the other sources are less authentic.

Dr. Streeter further hypothesised a proto-Luke document, an early version of the Gospel according to Luke that did not incorporate material from the Gospel according to Mark or the birth narrative.  According to this hypothesis, the Evangelist added material from the Gospel according to Mark and the birth narratives at a later date.  However, the Gospel according to Luke has no underlying passion tradition separate from the Gospel according to Mark.  Also, Luke’s travel account is thought to be based on the Gospel according to Mark.  A contemporary version of the four-source theory omits proto-Luke.  It is a theory with little to back it up in terms of discovered documentation.

A number of scholars have suggested a Three Source hypothesis, that the Gospel according to Luke actually did make some use of the Gospel according to Matthew. This allows much more flexibility in reconstruction of Q.  The Three Source hypothesis combines aspects of the Two Source hypothesis and the Farrer hypothesis.  It states that the Gospel according to Matthew and the Gospel according to Luke used the Gospel according to Mark and a collection of narrations as primary sources.  It also states that the Gospel according to Luke also used the Gospel according to Matthew as a subsidiary source.  The hypothesis is named after the three documents it posits as sources, namely the sayings collection, Mark, and the Gospel according to Matthew.

There is also an Oral Q hypothesis, in which Q is not a document but a body of oral teachings.  This is an addendum of sorts that may be applied to any of the above theories.

The Farrer hypothesis has mainly been advocated by English biblical scholars.  It is named for Father Austin Farrer, an Anglican clergyman, known more for his spirituality than for his theology.  The Farrer theory has the advantage of simplicity, as there is no need for hypothetical sources to be created by academics.  The Farrer hypothesis argues that the Gospel according to Mark was used as source material by the author of the Gospel according to Matthew.  And the author of the Gospel according to Luke used both of the previous gospels as sources for his Gospel.  Based on what we have shown above on the triple tradition, this hypothesis is highly unlikely and is not followed by serious scholars.  The sole reason for this hypothesis was to dispense with hypothetical documents, but it does not answer the real questions of the synoptic problem.

The Wilke hypothesis, named after Dr. Christian Gottlob Wilke, a Lutheran who converted to Catholicism.  It holds that the Gospel according to Mark was used as a source by the Gospel according to Luke, then both of these were used as sources by the Gospel according to Matthew; it posits Marcan priority and Matthaean posteriority.  Most arguments for the Wilke hypothesis are identical to the one for the Farrer hypothesis in accepting Marcan priority, but rejecting Q.  The divergence is in the direction of dependence between the Gospels according to Matthew and Luke.  Again, it also shares the same weaknesses, and needs to be developed further.

In recent years, despite the proliferation of theories, there has been a collapse of consensus on the synoptic problem.  Rev. John Wenham in his book ‘Redating Matthew, Mark, & Luke’, wrote, “I found myself in the Synoptic Problem Seminar of the Society for New Testament Studies, whose members were in disagreement over every aspect of the subject.  When this international group disbanded in 1982, they had sadly to confess that after twelve years’ work .they had not reached a common mind on a single issue.”

To reiterate, we do not know for certain, the order in which the various canonical gospels were written.  We do not know with any sort of evidence beyond tradition who actually wrote them, and there is enough textual criticism which is not covered in this short article in which we suspect that verses were added, removed or redacted.  Although it is stated by many of the Church Fathers that the oral tradition was in Aramaic, and that the earliest versions were written in Aramaic using the Hebrew script, we only have the Koine Greek text.  Many of these theories, in order to reconcile the various discrepancies raised in the beginning of this article regarding the triple tradition, posit hypothetical documents, from to three others.  We have no hope of proving the existence of these hypothetical documents.  As such, the basis of Christianity is based on texts that cannot be historically ascertained to be the accurate teachings of Jesus (a.s.).


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