Skip to main contentAccessibility feedback

Dear visitor: Summer is here, and you may be thinking about a well-deserved vacation, family get-togethers, BBQs with neighborhood friends. More than likely, making a donation to Catholic Answers is not on your radar right now. But this is exactly the time we most need your help. The “summer slowdown” in donations is upon us, but the work of spreading the gospel and explaining and defending the Faith never takes a break. Your gift today will change lives and save souls for Christ this summer! The reward is eternal. Thank you and God bless.

Dear visitor: Summer is here, and you may be thinking about a well-deserved vacation, family get-togethers, BBQs with neighborhood friends. More than likely, making a donation to Catholic Answers is not on your radar right now. But this is exactly the time we most need your help. The “summer slowdown” in donations is upon us, but the work of spreading the gospel and explaining and defending the Faith never takes a break. Your gift today will change lives and save souls for Christ this summer! The reward is eternal. Thank you and God bless.

Background Image


The name given to the first three canonical Gospels

Click to enlarge

Synoptics, the name given since Griesbach’s time (about 1790) to the first three canonical Gospels. It is derived from the fact that these Gospels admit, differently from the evangelical narrative of St. John, of being arranged and harmonized section by section, so as to allow the eye to realize at a glance (Greek: sunopsis) the numerous passages which are common to them, and also the portions which are peculiar either to only two, or even to only one, of them.

I. Differences and Resemblances

Turning over the pages of an ordinary harmony of the four, or of a synopsis of the first three, Gospels, which show in parallel columns the coincident parts of the evangelical narratives, the reader will at once notice the large amount of matter which is common to the Gospels of St. Matthew, St. Mark, and St. Luke. Brief as these three sketches of Christ’s life actually are, they run parallel to one another in no less than 330-370 verses or about one-third of their whole account of Christ’s words and deeds, while, with the exception of a few incidents (68 verses), the whole contents of St. Mark are practically found in St. Matthew and in St. Luke. This agreement in the facts related appears all the more striking, because of the great amount of historical material which must have been at the disposal of each Synoptical writer. The Synoptists are, each and all, fully aware that Jesus healed vast numbers of various diseases; they nevertheless agree in selecting the same cases of healing for fuller record; and while they distinctly speak of His unceasing and extensive teaching, yet they usually concur in reporting the same discourses. A no less wonderful similarity may be observed between the first three Gospels with regard to the general conception and the order of the whole narrative. In all three, Christ’s public life is distinctly connected with the preaching of St. John the Baptist, is chiefly confined to Galilee, and is set forth in certain epochs, as the early Galilean ministry, the crisis in Galilee, the ministry in Perea and Jerusalem, and the tragic end in the Holy City followed by a glorious Resurrection. In constructing their several records, the Synoptists adopt the same general method of presentation, giving not a consecutive narrative that would result from a fusing of the material employed, but a series of little accounts which are isolated by peculiar introductory and concluding formulae, and which repeatedly agree in details and in order even where a deviation from the chronological sequence is manifest. Together with all these resemblances, there is throughout the Synoptics a remarkable agreement in words and phrases, which can be more particularly realized by means of a Greek harmony or a close translation of the original text. This verbal agreement in the Greek Gospels is all the more surprising, as Jesus spoke in Aramaic, and as in most cases, it is plain that the verbal resemblances cannot be referred to an accidental similarity, since they are due to the common use of very peculiar terms and expressions, of identical variations from either the Hebrew or the Septuagint in quotations from the Old Testament.

The interconnection of the Synoptics is not, however, simply one of close resemblance, it is also one of striking difference. When compared attentively, the three records appear distinct as well as similar in incidents, plan, and language. Each Synoptical writer introduces into his narrative fragments more or less extensive, at times entire episodes which are not related by the other two Evangelists. St. Mark says nothing of the infancy and the early life of Christ, while St. Matthew and St. Luke, who speak of them, do not as a rule narrate the same facts. St. Mark does not even allude to the Sermon on the Mount, and St. Luke alone narrates in detail the last journey of Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem. On the other hand, Matt., xiv, 22—xvi, 12 and Mark, vi, 45-viii, 26, record a series of Galilean incidents which are nowhere found in the third Gospel. Despite his obvious conciseness, St. Mark has two miracles and two parables wholly peculiar to himself. St. Matthew, who apparently does not aim at brevity, makes no reference to the Ascension. Moreover, in the very passages which indicate a close relation of the three, or of at least two, Synoptics, in their sources, minor differences in the events recorded continually appear, which can be fully realized only through a diligent study of the parallel passages, or through the perusal of larger commentaries in which such constant differences are distinctly pointed out. At times the divergences are so great as to appear, at first, actual contradictions. Of this description are the differences noticeable between the genealogies of Jesus (Matt., i, 1-17; Luke, iii, 23-38), the accounts of the episode of the demoniacs of Gerasa (Matt., viii, 28-34; Mark, v, 1-20; Luke, viii, 26-39), of the miraculous healing connected with Jericho (Matt., xx, 29-34; Mark, x, 46-52; Luke, xviii, 35-43), of the petition of the mother of James and John (Matt., xx, 20-28; Mark, x, 35-45), of the incidents relative to the Resurrection, etc. The general disposition of the events narrated betrays also considerable differences. Thus while St. Matthew devotes three successive chapters to the Sermon on the Mount (v-vii) and gives together the parables of the kingdom in one chapter (xiii), St. Luke divides this twofold topic into several portions which he connects with distinct circumstances. It is well known too, that St. Matthew very often gathers together topics which are similar, while St. Mark and St. Luke follow more closely the chronological order, whence arise numerous transpositions which affect the general arrangement of the narrative.

Numerous variations can likewise be noticed in the particular arrangement of facts and words, for the elements of the one and the same episode often occupy a different place in one or other of the Synoptics, or either Evangelist suppresses or adds a detail which modifies the incident. Finally, the verbal differences between the first three Gospels are hardly less numerous and striking than their verbal resemblances. Each Synoptist has his peculiar and favorite words and expressions, which have been carefully tabulated by recent Biblical scholars (Hawkins, “Horae synopticae”; Allen, on St. Matthew; Swete, on St. Mark; Plummer, on St. Luke). The verbal differences appear in the very passages which abound in verbal coincidences (cf. for instance, Matt., xviii, 2, 3; Mark, ix, 47, 48), the identity of expression never extending through passages of any length, and unless in reported discourses of Christ rarely beyond a few words at a time. This is often due to the use of synonymous terms, or of different tenses, or of different propositions, or of short glosses which either Synoptist adds to the same name or detail. We find for instance, in Matt., ix, 6, gk,cXtvn, in Mark, ii, 11, gk xp6i3paror, in Luke, v, 24, KXcvt&fop‚Ä¢ in Matt., iii, 16, “Spirit of God“, in Mark, i, 10, “Spirit“, in Luke, iii, 22, “the Holy Ghost“; etc. And what is of particular significance in this connection, is the fact that the verbal differences occur when one should most naturally expect an absolute identity of expressions, as for instance, in the words of the institution of the Holy Eucharist, in the record of the title on the Cross, etc.

II. The Synoptic Problem

These resemblances and differences, the extent and complexity of which grow upon the student who compares carefully the Synoptic Gospels and contrasts them with St. John’s narrative, constitute a unique phenomenon in ancient and modern literature. They are facts which no one can refer either to mere chance, or to the direct influence of inspiration. On the one hand, the resemblances are too numerous and too striking to be regarded as explicable on the hypothesis that the first three Evangelists wrote independently of one another. On the other, the differences are at times so significant as to imply that they are due to the use of different documents by the Evangelists, as for example in the case of the two genealogies of Jesus Christ. The harmony and the variety, the resemblances and the differences must be both accounted for. They form together a literary problem, the Synoptic Problem, as it is called, the existence of which was practically unknown to the ancient ecclesiastical writers. In point of fact, St. Chrysostom and St. Augustine are the only Fathers who have formulated views concerning the mutual relation of the Synoptic Gospels, and the writers of the Middle Ages do not seem to have taken into account these patristic views which, after all, were far from affording a complete solution of that difficult question. Subsequent leading scholars, such as Grotius, Rich, Simon, Le Clerc, had little more than a suspicion of the problem, and it is only in the course of the eighteenth century that the scientific examination of the question was actually started.

Ever since the last quarter of that century, the discussion of the origin of the mutual relationship between the first three Gospels has been carried on with great ardor and ingenuity especially in Germany. As might well be expected, the supposition that these Gospels are so like one another because their respective authors made use of each other’s writings was first tried, and in settling the order, that in which the Synoptic Gospels stand in the canon first found favor. As fresh investigations brought new facts to light, new forms of hypothesis sought to satisfy the facts, with the gradual result that the domain of possibility well-nigh appears to have been measured out. Numerous and conflicting as the successive attempts at solution have been, their history shows that a certain progress has been made in the discussion of the Synoptic Problem. The many relations of the question have come into clearer light, and the data for its solution have been revealing themselves while mere a priori views or unsound inferences have been discarded.

III. Solutions of the Synoptic Problem

All attempts at assigning the cause of the resemblances and differences of the first three Gospels admit of being classified under three general heads, according as the relationship of the Synoptics has been explained by appealing to: A, oral tradition; B, mutual dependence; or C, earlier documents.

A. Oral Dependence

The hypothesis of oral tradition implies that before our Gospels arose there were no written records of Christ’s ministry, or at least none which was used by the Synoptists. It asserts that these Evangelists have drawn from narratives of sayings and deeds of Jesus which eye-witnesses of His public life handed on by word of mouth, and which gradually assumed a greater or less degree of fixity with constant repetition. According to this theory, the resemblances between the first three Gospels can be easily accounted for. The sections common to all are explained by a cycle of teaching probably formed in Jerusalem, actually made up of incidents and discourses connected with Christ’s life from the baptism of John to the Ascension (cf. Acts, i, 21, 22), and faithfully preserved with regard to order and language by the trained retentiveness of Eastern memories. In like manner, the differences of the Synoptic Gospels are easily explained. Sections are found only in two, or one, of the Gospels because the bond established between the narratives was at times modified to suit the various circles of the hearers, and other differences in order or wording are due either to previous variations in oral tradition or to the personal initiative of the several Evangelists who fixed it in writing. This theory of an oral Gospel, handed on everywhere in very similar form, was enunciated by Herder, and chiefly elaborated by Gieseler and A. Wright. With differences in detail, it has been admitted by a large number of Catholic exegetes (Schegg, Haneberg, Friedlieb, Kaulen, Comely, Knabenbauer, Meignan, Fillion, Fouard, Le Camus, Felten), and by many Protestant scholars (Credner, Guericke, De Wette, Ebrard, Lange, Hase, Wetzel, Thompson, Westcott, Godet, etc.). It undoubtedly points to a vera causa in the spread of the Gospel, and cannot be wholly left out of account in an endeavor to explain the origin of our written records of Christ’s life. One of its claims to acceptance is that it dispenses with the unseemly supposition that any of the Evangelists made wholesale use in their own Gospels of written records composed by others, and nevertheless did not reproduce them with greater fidelity. Appeal is also made in favor of this theory, to its simplicity, and to its aptness to account for the resemblances and the differences exhibited by the Synoptics.

By itself, however, the hypothesis of oral tradition can hardly be considered as an adequate solution of the Synoptical problem. First, it does not satisfactorily explain the selection of the material included in our first three Gospels. Oral tradition had undoubtedly preserved much more than the Synoptics record, and of this the Evangelists themselves were fully aware (Matt., xi, 21; xxiii, 37; Luke, x, 13; John, xxi, 25; etc.); whence then does it come that the framework of the Synoptic narrative is practically the same in all the first three Gospels, that it consists very largely of the same events and the same discourses, and gives no account of Jesus’ ministry in Jerusalem, that is, of His ministry in the very place where the oral tradition is generally supposed to have been formed?

Secondly, the hypothesis of oral tradition does not account for the general identity of order noticeable in the Synoptics. The order of St. Mark is, as it seems, the fundamental order, and it can hardly be said to have been known simply as an oral tradition to St. Matthew and St. Luke, else the sequence of its sections, when additions were made by these two Evangelists, would not have remained as little altered as it has. Again and again, the thread of the common order is resumed at the point at which it had been left. On the supposition of a written source to which St. Matthew and St. Luke had recourse, this is natural enough. But if they depended on memory, the natural effect of the working of the laws of association, would be that when some fresh incident or some part of Christ’s teaching was recalled, the old order would be disturbed more or less extensively than we notice it to be.

Thirdly, the verbal relationship between the Greek Gospels is not satisfactorily explained on the hypothesis of oral tradition. This oral tradition was primitively in Aramaic, and the coincidences in the Greek with regard to rare words, irregular arrangement of the sentence, etc., cannot be explained by supposing that our Gospels are independent translations of one and the same Aramaic oral tradition. It is true that in order to account for these coincidences in the Greek, the early formation of an oral Greek tradition which would more or less be the counterpart of the Aramaic one, and which would have been directly utilized by our Evangelists, has been postulated by many advocates of the theory under review. But it remains very doubtful whether such oral Greek tradition would really explain the coincidences in question; and it is quite certain that it would not satisfactorily account for the variations in Greek wording of such important passages as the words of the institution of the Holy Eucharist, of the Lord’s Prayer, of the Beatitudes, of the title on the Cross, etc. Lastly, there are historical proofs of the existence of written documents at the time when our Synoptics were written (cf. Matt., xxiv, 15, 16; Mark, xiii, 14; Luke, i, 1), and the most natural supposition is that our Evangelists availed themselves of them. In fact, many phenomena disclosed by the attentive study of the first three Gospels render the supposition so probable, not to say necessary, that several advocates of the hypothesis of oral tradition (Eckermann, Fillion, LeCamus, etc.), have been led to admit a limited use of written helps by the Synoptists.

B. Mutual Dependence

The hypothesis of mutual dependence assumes that the authors of the Synoptic Gospels used each other’s writings, each successive writer availing himself of earlier contributions, so that the second Evangelist (in the order of time) borrowed from the first, and the third from both first and second. According to it, the passages which are alike reproduce those of earlier writings; those which are divergent come from the personal memory of the author or from an oral source. This, it is said, is the most natural, as it is the oldest, manner of explaining the resemblances and differences of the first three Gospels. It is the most natural, inasmuch as if three other writers exhibited such a close resemblance in their works as the Synoptists do, it would readily occur to the reader’s mind that they are not independent of each other. It is the oldest also, for it goes back to St. Augustine who formulated it in a general way in his “De consensu evangelistarum” (I, ii, 4), and who in describing the order of succession of the Synoptics, naturally followed the one embodied in the canon: Matthew, Mark, Luke. This order of succession has been accepted by many scholars, Catholic (Hug, Danko, Reithmayr, Patrizi, De Valroger, Wallon, Schanz, Coleridge, Bacuez) and Protestant (Mill, Wetstein, Bengel, Credner, Hilgenfeld, etc.). But every other possible order of arrangement has found advocates, in accordance with their respective views concerning the priority and order of sequence of the Synoptics. The order: Matthew, Luke, Mark, was advanced by Griesbach and has been adopted by De Wette, Bleek, Maier, Langen, Grimm, Pasquier. The arrangement: Mark, Matthew, Luke, with various modifications as to their interdependence, is admitted by Ritschl, Reuss, Meyer, Wilke, Simons, Holtzmann, Weiss, Batiffol, Weizsiicker, etc. It is often designated under the name of the “Mark hypothesis”, although in the eyes of most of its defenders, it is no longer a hypothesis, meaning thereby that it is an established fact. Besides these principal orders, others (Mark, Luke, Matthew; Luke, Matthew, Mark; Luke, Mark, Matthew) have been proposed, and more recent combinations (such as those advocated by Calmet, Zahn, Belser, and Bonaccorsi) have also been suggested. As regards the theory of Baur and his school concerning the composition of the Gospels, suffice it to say that it should not really be connected with the hypothesis of mutual dependence, inasmuch as its contention as to the origin of the canonical Gospels has nothing to do with the literary process of composition propounded by that hypothesis to explain the relationship of the Synoptics.

By itself alone, the theory of mutual dependence cannot be regarded as a full solution of the Synoptic Problem. Whichever order be adopted, there are always narratives where one of the Evangelists, at times, St. Mark himself, is more complete than the one who is given as his source, and consequently is independent of him, so that in all such cases appeal must needs be made either to oral tradition or to non-canonical writings. Again, in any form of the theory, the differences in form of narration, especially where one writer seems irreconcilable with the other, and the differences in arrangement, where the temporal sequence is very close, remain unaccounted for. Obviously, there is little need to criticize all the forms of this hypothesis by bringing forward special instances of the general objections just mentioned. These forms of it, however, which have found most able and numerous advocates, may be briefly considered. Against the form which asserts that St. Mark made use of St. Matthew, and St. Luke made use of both, it may more particularly be urged: (I) that St. Mark bears in the Greek too manifest a stamp. of originality that it should be regarded simply as the work of an abbreviator of St. Matthew; (2) that the use of both St. Matthew and St. Mark by St. Luke, even though we should suppose it to be a fact, is insufficient for explaining by itself alone the presence in our Third Gospel of an independent genealogy of Christ, the insertion by St. Luke of an altogether new narrative of Jesus’s birth and infancy, his scattering of many of Christ’s sayings grouped by St. Matthew in the Sermon on the Mount, his detailed account of the Perean journey which is absent from both St. Matthew and St. Mark, etc.

The arrangement advocated by Griesbach, to wit, that St. Luke made use of St. Matthew and St. Mark utilized both, is likewise open to weighty objections. Plainly, the supposition that St. Mark followed and epitomized the other two Synoptics renders it more difficult to account for the freshness and power of his narrative; and in point of fact, it clearly appears that if a direct dependence is to be admitted at all, it is time and again not on the side of St. Mark’s rugged style and shorter account of the Galilean ministry, but on the side of the smoother form and larger frame-work of St. Matthew and St. Luke. Again, the dependence of St. Luke on St. Matthew alone leaves unaccounted for the additions, transpositions, etc., already referred to. Finally, the following are the principal difficulties urged against the “Mark hypothesis”. Its supposition that St. Mark is prior to the other two Evangelists, goes against the traditional data which describe St. Matthew’s Gospel (in the Aramaic) as written first, and St. Mark’s narrative as originating independently of any written Gospel. Again, the assumed priority of St. Mark to St. Matthew and St. Luke makes it hard to imagine on what principle the later two Evangelists partitioned between themselves practically all the contents of St. Mark’s writing. It is also urged that in the “Mark hypothesis” neither the simple dependence of St. Matthew on St. Mark alone, nor that of St. Luke on both St. Matthew and St. Mark can account for all the phenomena (additions, inversions, verbal changes, etc.), which are disclosed by an attentive study of the Synoptics.

C. Earlier Documents

The documentary hypothesis is the prevalent theory among non-Catholics. Its general principle of solution of the Synoptic Problem is that in the composition of their writings, the first three Evangelists have all made use of earlier written material. The application of this general principle has given rise to a great number of suppositions, the principal of which may be briefly considered. Since Eichhorn (close of the eighteenth century), and especially since Resch (close of the nineteenth), attempts have been made to get behind our Greek Gospels to one or more Semitic documents used in them, and thus to account for the relationship of the Synoptics. This written source, the primitive contents and wording of which might still be detected, was Hebrew according to Resch and Abbott, Aramaic according to Marshall, Hoffmann, etc. In general, the variation in the words and clauses in our Gospels is accounted for by the different translations given to the Aramaic or Hebrew words. It is undoubted that the recent advocates of the hypothesis of a Semitic source have displayed great learning and ingenuity in pointing out the Semitic expressions which might underlie the divers readings noticeable in parallel passages of the Synoptics. It is undoubted, too, that the general background of the Gospels is Semitic in thought and forms of expression, and even that Semitic documents (for instance, Christ’s genealogies) have been used by their authors.

By itself alone, however, the theory of a Semitic source does not appear a satisfactory solution of the Synoptic Problem. It is not certain that the whole Semitic background of the Synoptics had assumed a written shape before it was utilized by the Evangelists, for countless instances of Semitic forms of thought and expression may equally well be accounted for through the direct use of oral tradition, to which source, as a matter of fact, Papias refers the origin of St. Mark’s Gospel. Again, the differences between the parallel passages of the first three Gospels are very often such as to point directly to the use by the Synoptists of the same Greek sources, so that in large portions of their works, it is much more natural to account for such differences by the individual literary taste, general purpose, etc., of the Evangelists, than by an appeal to the collateral use of a Semitic original, or a multiplicity of versions of it, the very existence of which is doubtful, and the knowledge of which by the Synoptists is still more questionable.

A more plausible form of the documentary hypothesis goes back in substance to Schleiermacher (1817). It maintains that, at an early period, many evangelical fragments, Greek as well as Aramaic, were scattered throughout the Churches, traditions floating about of which written accounts had been made. These the three Synoptists worked in their Gospels, together with materials which each had himself collected; and in this manner the coincidences and the differences of the Synoptics may be accounted for. This theory of a plurality of primitive documents, which in certain of its modifications is combined with that of a dependence of later, on earlier, canonical Gospels, is admitted by many scholars (Renan, Wrede, Schmiedel, Loisy, etc.). This form of the documentary hypothesis does not necessarily go against the inspired character of the Synoptic Gospels. The actual use of certain primitive documents, notably by St. Matthew and St. Luke, may also be readily granted. But tradition ascribes to St. Mark’s Gospel a very different origin from the one supposed by this theory, and a careful study of the contents and the style of that Gospel has recently convinced several prominent scholars that the work is not a compilation from written sources. Again, it is not proved that because St. Matthew and St. Luke employed written documents, they exclusively confined themselves to the use of such sources. In their day, oral tradition was certainly much alive. At that time, the difference between oral tradition and a document was not great in many cases where it had easily become stereotyped by frequent repetition. And it is not a safe position to deny the use of this tradition by St. Luke, in particular, that is, by a writer who would naturally utilize every source of information at his disposal. Finally, a constant appeal to new documents, the contents, extent, and very existence of which cannot, many a time, be ascertained, gives to this theory an air of artificiality which recommends it little as an exact description of the actual manner in which the Synoptic Gospels were composed.

The last general form of the documentary hypothesis which remains to be examined is the “Two Document theory”, according to which two large works form the main sources of the Synoptics. One work like our Gospel of St. Mark, if not identical with it, is the source of the narratives common to the first three Gospels, and the other, containing the Sayings of Jesus, is the source of the didactic matter common to St. Matthew and St. Luke. Modified in various ways, this solution of the Synoptic problem has had, and has yet, numerous advocates chiefly among Protestant scholars. In the eyes of all such critics, the theory of only two main written sources is especially commendable for its simplicity and plausibility. The contents of the Synoptics comprise two classes of parallel sections: the one consists of narratives of’ actions and events found in all three Gospels; the other consisting of Christ’s teaching appears only in St. Matthew and St. Luke. Now, as in the selection of material, the arrangement, and the language of sections parallel in all three, St. Matthew constantly agrees with St. Mark against St. Luke, and St. Luke with St. Mark against St. Matthew, but St. Matthew and St. Luke scarcely ever agree against St. Mark, the simplest supposition is that St. Matthew and St. Luke made independent use of St. Mark as we have it, or of a Gospel like it (UrMarcus). The freshness and power of St. Mark’s narrative go also to prove its priority to that of the other two Evangelists. Thus far of the material common to the first three Gospels. The great bulk of the additional matter found only in St. Matthew and St. Luke consists mainly of the words and discourses of Jesus, and although it is very differently given as to historic connection and grouping, yet it is pervaded by such similarity of thought and expression as to suggest forcibly the hypothesis of a single main source as its natural explanation. The “Two Document theory” is also claimed to explain the peculiar phenomenon of “doublets” in St. Matthew and St. Luke. Finally, it is said to be supported by tradition rightly interpreted. Papias, speaking of books about Christ written by St. Matthew and St. Mark, says: “Mark, being the interpreter of Peter, wrote carefully, though not in order, as he remembered them, the things spoken and done by Christ”. “Matthew wrote the Logia in the Hebrew language, and every one translated them as he was able”. These statements seem to point to two books as the fountains of evangelical written tradition. One can be distinctly named; it is practically our second Gospel. The other, according to Harnack, Wellhausen, Stanton, can still be reconstructed; it is a record of Logia chiefly embodied in our first Gospel (UrMattheus) and also utilized by St. Luke.

The “Two Document theory” is advocated by many prominent critics (H. Holtzmann, B. Weiss, Wendt, Wernle, Soltau, Julicher, Hawkins, etc.). Yet, is is not an adequate solution of the Synoptic problem. It leaves its defenders hopelessly divided on points of considerable importance, such as the compilatory character of St. Mark’s Gospel; the extent and exact nature of the Logian document (Q) utilized by our first and third Evangelists; the manner of its use by St. Matthew and St. Luke, respectively; the question whether it was used by St. Mark also; the number of the sources employed by St. Matthew and St. Luke besides St. Mark and Q; etc. A greater difficulty sometimes urged against this theory, regards the priority of St. Mark, which its advocates treat as a point altogether settled. Tradition has it that St. Matthew’s Gospel existed in a Semitic form before it was rendered into Greek, that is before it assumed the only form now available for a comparison, with St. Mark’s narrative. Hence, it is claimed that St. Matthew’s dependence in the Greek on our second Gospel is one arising from the fact that its Greek translation was made with the aid of our second Gospel, and leaving intact the priority of the earlier Semitic form of St. Matthew’s Gospel to the composition of St. Mark’s writing. Among other difficulties against the “Two Document theory” may be mentioned: (I) its inherent tendency to appeal to subsidiary written sources, the extent and nature of which cannot be determined; (2) its general disregard of the influence of oral tradition in the composition of the Synoptics; (3) its common, but very improbable, denial of St. Luke’s dependence on both St. Matthew and St. Luke.

From the foregoing rapid survey of the attempts at solving the Synoptic Problem, it is plain that none of them has been really successful. The problem is very intricate; the historical information concerning the origin of our first three Gospels, incomplete; and every theory, one-sided. The satisfactory hypothesis, yet to be formulated, must be a combination hypothesis gathering and uniting, in due proportions, all the truths presented by the various opinions, and also a more thorough theory taking fully into account both the data of Patristic tradition and those disclosed by literary analysis. Such theory, when framed, will undoubtedly supply the fullest vindication of the historical value of our Synoptic records.


The only decree thus far enacted by the Biblical Commission, which has a bearing on the Synoptic Question, was issued June 19, 1911. Its direct object is to affirm the traditional authorship, date of composition, and historical character of St. Matthew’s Gospel. Accordingly, it declares that the author of our first Gospel is no other than the Apostle St. Matthew, who wrote before the other Evangelists and considerably before the destruction of Jerusalem, in the language of the Palestinian Jews for whom he composed his work. It authoritatively affirms that the original work of St. Matthew was not a mere collection of the sayings and deeds of Christ, but a Gospel substantially identical with our present Greek Gospel according to St. Matthew. It finally proclaims the historical character of our first Gospel and the genuineness of some of its portions (the first two chapters; dogmatic passages concerning the primacy of Peter, the form of baptism, etc.), which has been questioned by modern critics. Hence it is plain that by this decree the Biblical Commission did not intend to deal with the Synoptic problem, to set forth an explanation of the resemblances and differences disclosed by a comparison of our first three Gospels. Yet, the Roman decree has a particular bearing on the theories of mutual dependence and earlier documents put forth as solutions of the Synoptic question. In deciding the priority of St. Matthew’s Gospel in its original language and substance, to the other evangelical narratives, the Biblical Commission has solemnly disapproved of any form of those theories which maintains that St. Matthew’s original work was not a complete Gospel or the first Gospel in the order of time. In fact those Catholic scholars who admit either of these theories regard our Greek Gospel according to St. Matthew as a work which goes back in its primitive Aramaic form to the Apostle of that name, and restrict its dependence on St. Mark to its extant Greek translation.


Did you like this content? Please help keep us ad-free
Enjoying this content?  Please support our mission!