In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Synoptic Problem

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works
  • The Development of the Synoptic Problem
  • Bibliographies
  • Synopses and Related Tools
  • Concordances and Statistical Tools
  • Essay Collections
  • Surveys

Biblical Studies Synoptic Problem
John S. Kloppenborg
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 June 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 13 September 2010
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0120


The Synoptic Problem is the problem of the literary relationships among the first three “Synoptic” Gospels. Matthew, Mark, and Luke are called “Synoptic Gospels” because they can be “seen together” (syn-optic) and displayed in three parallel columns. The three gospels contain many of the same stories and sayings, often related in the same relative sequence. However, there are also important differences in the wording of individual stories and sayings, in the ordering of some materials, and in the overall extent of each gospel. In some instances, the degree of verbatim agreement or the sequential agreement in the arrangement of episodes and sayings is so strong that one must posit some kind of literary relationship among the gospels. By contrast, there are often marked differences in wording between any two gospels, and sometimes among all three. This raises several questions: (1) Is the relationship among the three gospels a matter of direct literary dependence, indirect dependence mediated through oral performances of written texts, or common dependence on oral information? (2) Can the direction of dependence be established? (3) Can a genealogy of the development of the Synoptic Gospels be constructed?

Introductory Works

Most introductions to the New Testament have at least a brief discussion of the Synoptic Problem. As critics of the Two-Document Hypothesis (2DH) have observed, the treatment of the Synoptic Problem is often far from even-handed, with various theorists either dismissing other theories as inadequate or not considering them at all. Kümmel’s otherwise masterful introduction to the New Testament (Kummel 1975) provides a detailed history of scholarship but is lacking in a full consideration of alternatives to the 2DH. Collins 1983 gives careful attention to various logically possible theories, while ultimately favoring the 2DH. Both Goodacre 2001 and Kloppenborg 2008 are intended for the introductory student. Two online resources are available oriented to the novice, one maintained by Stephen Carlson (Synoptic Problem) and the other by Mark Goodacre (New Testament Gateway).

  • Collins, Raymond F. Introduction to the New Testament. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1983.

    A careful treatment of New Testament source criticism, including a brief but clear presentation of the arrangements of the three gospels that are logically possible, given the array of Synoptic data. See especially pp. 115–155.

  • Goodacre, Mark S. The Synoptic Problem: A Way Through the Maze. The Biblical Seminar 80. London: Sheffield Academic Press, 2001.

    An introductory level treatment of the Synoptic Problem that argues for Markan priority and the dependence of Luke on Matthew (hence, the Mark without Q (Farrer) Hypothesis (MwQH)). Critical of the 2DH, especially the arguments in favor of positing Q, Goodacre offers a careful and fair-minded analysis of the Synoptic Problem. Some attention is given to the Two-Gospel (Griesbach) Hypothesis (2GH), but none to complex theories.

  • Kloppenborg, John S. “What is Q?” In Q, The Earliest Gospel: An Introduction to the Original Stories and Sayings of Jesus. By John S. Kloppenborg, 1–40. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008.

    Designed as a basic introduction for undergraduates and the informed public, the first chapter of this text explains the data and arguments that go into the formulation of the 2DH. Kloppenborg compares and contrasts the 2DH with the explanations of the same data by the Two-Gospel (Griesbach) Hypothesis (2GH) and Mark without Q (Farrer) Hypothesis (MwQH).

  • Kümmel, Werner Georg. Introduction to the New Testament. Rev. ed. Translated by Howard C. Kee. Nashville: Abingdon, 1975.

    Kümmel’s now standard introduction to the New Testament provides a long bibliography of works through the mid-20th century, as well as an account of the history of scholarship, culminating in a defense of the 2DH. Kümmel’s presentation has been criticized for its neglect of alternate hypotheses, except as preliminary steps toward the eventual triumph of the 2DH. See especially pp. 38–80.

  • New Testament Gateway.

    Mark Goodacre’s New Testament Gateway contains a subdirectory on the Synoptic Problem and Q, collecting links to other websites that discuss issues related to the Synoptic Problem.

  • Synoptic Problem.

    The site, maintained by Stephen Carlson, presents diagrams of two dozen possible theories to the Synoptic Problem, a brief bibliography, links for some important primary and secondary sources, and links to several other sites that defend other theories of the problem.

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