What is the Problem with Q?

The dominant view in over the last 150 years of New Testament scholarship is that Mark was written first, and that Matthew and Luke both used Mark as an outline from which they wrote their gospels.  This accounts for the narrative portions of the gospels.  But there is a great deal of material where both Matthew and Luke agree that is not in Mark.

In order to account for this common material, scholars have conjectured a document they call Q (from the German word Quelle, source).  This hypothetical document is used to explain the many sayings of Jesus that appear in Matthew and Luke, but not in Mark.  In this theory, both Matthew and Luke used two documents, hence the name “two source theory.”  Some scholars assume that this document must have existed in one form or another.  For example, G. N.  Stanton says that “we can be reasonably certain that Q existed as a written document” (650).  Yet scholars such as Thomas Edgar vehemently deny its existence.  Edgar states that “Q has never been seen nor is there any evidence that such a document ever existed” (147).

The existence of a “sayings” gospel is a possibility in the light of two pieces of circumstantial evidence.  The statement of Papias can be taken quite easily as a collection of sayings of Jesus were collected by Matthew first, rather than the gospel of Matthew.  A problem night be then that Papias does not know the Gospel of Matthew.   Second, the Gospel of Thomas, while not a particularly help source for historical studies, does show that the genre of a sayings gospel existed. Alas, circumstantial evidence is just.  Thomas is not Q and dates well after the first century.  What Papias says may be explained in several different ways which do not imply the existence of a Q-like source document.

There is something about the idea of a source document which makes evangelicals uneasy.  We do not want to accept the idea that Matthew and Luke were scholars and editors, assembling their gospels from sources.  Most conservatives would dismiss Q immediately because it is the product of Historical Criticism (as the essays in The Jesus Crisis do).  Did God inspire Matthew and Luke to edit their sources, or write their gospels?  For the conservative scholar, Q simply is not helpful since their emphasis is on the text as it appears in the Bible.

This unease is felt over a  broad spectrum of scholarship as well.  The essays in Questioning Q, for example, wonder if relying on the existence of a Sayings source has short-circuited the idea of the Gospel writers as creative writers who should be treated as authors, not editors of their books.
Both of these warnings are well intended.  It is true that documents which “count” are the synoptic Gospels as they appear on the page of the Bible.  If the writers used sources, that may not matter much for our interpretation of the words in Matthew, Mark and Luke.  I have always tried to get students to “stay within the world of the story” and read Matthew as Matthew, not as a parallel book to Luke.

Yet the evidence is there, and as I read it Matthew used Mark and a sayings source of some kind.  Luke likely also used Mark and a sayings source, although he could have also used Matthew.  For me, it is not correct to mis-characterize Matthew ans cut and pasting sources together to create his gospel.  Rather, if Matthew used courses, he was a scholar marshaling all of his resources to create a theological document which answered some questions about the person and nature of Jesus and the idea of discipleship after the resurrection.  There is nothing wrong with the idea that Matthew (or Mark) used sources, but too much emphasis on the sources will obscure the goal – a clear reading of the Gospels.


Thomas Edgar.  “Source Criticism: The Two Source Theory,” pages 132-157 in The Jesus Crisis (ed. Robert Thomas and F. David Farnell; Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1998).

Mark Goodacre, editor. Questioning Q: A Multidimensional Critique (Downer’s Grover, Inter-Varsity, 2004).

G. N.  Stanton.  “Q”, pages 644-650 in The Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (ed.  Joel B. Green and Scot McKnight;  Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity, 1992).

Why Study The Synoptic Problem?

One is tempted to argue that the whole issue is hopelessly confused and it is best to approach the gospels as they are written and not really worry about the differences.  While this is a noble sentiment, it leaves the question of differences unanswered.  There are differences that we must account for in some way, either by a dependence theory (2 source, 4 source, etc.) or an independence theory.  In his excellent introduction to the Synoptic Problem, Mark Goodacre suggests several reasons students of the Gospels should think through the Synoptic Problem.

Synoptic Meme

Historical and Apologetic Reasons.   The order of the writing of the gospels is valuable simply because it is an historical question that is at the very roots of the Christian story.  It is sometimes thought that the earliest Gospel is the more “primitive”, before the later theological layers were added. Therefore it we read Mark, or Q, we are reading the earliest strata of Christian thinking.  While this has some merit, it is not true that the later gospels are somehow less valuable than the earlier for the sole reason that the demonstrate theological development.  It is obviously true that John is more theologically nuanced that Mark, but that does not mean that John is necessarily creating stories and making Jesus say and do things that he did not say or do.

There is an apologetic value to this form of research.  It is sometimes objected that the Gospels contradict one another, therefore they are to be entirely doubted.  Rather than contradictions, the synoptic variations are to be explained by a literary relationship that can be tracked through the three gospels and in then in to later texts. It is not as though we have to make up crazy explanations for obvious contradictions, the parallels are quite close, just to sort of thing you would expect if there was a literary relationship.

Theological Reasons. It is possible to track the development of thinking about Jesus, who he was and claimed to be over the four gospels.  What did Jesus do on the cross?  What did he think would happen when he died?  What is the importance of the resurrection?   This is aided greatly by the synoptic tradition.  For example, Mark has the least to say about the resurrection, Matthew and Luke quite a bit more, John clearly the most.

Goodacre uses the Lord’s Supper as an additional example of this theological development.  There are four versions of the words spoken by Jesus when he passes the cup, in each of the three synoptic gospels and 1 Corinthians (Mt. 26:27-28, Mk. 14:23-24, Lk. 22:20, 1 Cor 11:25). Historically speaking, Paul is the earliest of the four, only Paul and Luke use the words “new covenant” – a theologically loaded word.  Why is that not in Mark or Matthew?  Were there multiple versions of the Lord’s Supper liturgy with slight variations?  Would a Jewish community be more likely to understand the “new covenant” than a Gentile?  Would Mark be likely to not use the phrase if he were writing to Rome?  Is there a relationship between Paul and the writer of Luke?

The evangelical scholar must approach these issues with the assumption that if there was dependence on sources, that dependence was under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.  If Matthew used Mark, he did so in a way that was superintended by the Holy Spirit and can in no way be seen as malicious (i.e., Matthew changed the words of Jesus for some theological reason.)   There is nothing about the various solutions to the Synoptic problem that is essentially “against” the authority of scripture or the inspiration or inerrancy of the New Testament documents.

By ignoring the problem and pretending that it does not exist does not help evangelicalism in dealing with criticisms of inspiration.  We must be able to explain the data in a way that actually enhances the doctrine of inspiration and glorifies God for the rather remarkable collection of documents we have describing the life and ministry of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Bibliography:  Mark Goodacre, The Synoptic Problem (Sheffield: Sheffield Press, 2001), 24-32.

Is there a Synoptic Problem?

Synoptic Problem MemeAs Craig Blomberg observes in his Jesus and the Gospels, “the vast majority of careful students of the Gospels” assume that there is some sort of literary relationship between the first three gospels (97). Usually this is described as the “Synoptic Problem,” but I wonder if it is really a “problem.”  Why do “careful students of the Gospels” agree on a literary relationship?

There are two main reasons for this decision.

1. Similarity in the Material of the Gospels.

The majority of the texts containing material in the Synoptic Gospels are similar. R. H. Stein identifies four areas of similarity:

  • Similar Wording.  In many of the synoptic parallels, there is often a nearly exact similarity of words in parallel passages. Even where the order of the words differ, the same words are often used (Matt 19:13-15, Mark 10:13-16, Luke 18:15-17; Matt 24:4-8, Mark 13:5-8, Luke 21:8-11).
  • Similar Order of Events.  The general outline of the three synoptic gospels is identical. While a few events are in a different order, the general outline is the same. Note the order of the events in Matthew 16:13-20:34, Mark 8:27-10:52, and Luke 9:1-18 / 18:15-43.
  • Identical Parenthetical Material.  In Matthew 24:15 and Mark 13:14 there appear to be words added by the author as an aside to the words of Jesus.  This verse is the most impressive evidence for some sort of literary dependence. The words, “let the reader understand” are repeated verbatim in both Mark and Matthew, imply that one of the writers used the other as a source for the sayings, or that a third source lies in the background.
  • Similar Biblical Quotations.  In the case of Biblical Quotations the texts match up between the Synoptic Gospels, but are not based on the LXX or any known Old Testament text.  In Mark 1:2, Matthew 3:3, Luke 3:4, there is a quotation of the prophet Isaiah that does not conform to either the Greek translation of the Old Testament (LXX) and the Hebrew Bible.

2. Apparent Contradictions in the Material of the Gospels.

There are a few sections of the synoptic gospels which are described singular events, yet vary in significant details. The baptism of Jesus is an example of a problem passage where one of the gospel writers appears to have changed the one of the others. In Mark 1:10 and Luke 3:22 the voice from Heaven addresses Jesus saying “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”  But in Matthew 3:17 the voice addresses John the Baptist (or the crowd) saying “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”  Clearly this is a singular event, only occurring one time in Jesus ministry.  How are we to account for this apparent change by Matthew?

Examples of both categories could be multiplied, although there are not as many apparent contradictions as there are agreements. From these observations is seems obvious that the writers of the synoptic Gospels drew on similar resources but were free to use those resources creatively.  All three know the story of the baptism of Jesus, Matthew was able to report the words from Heaven differently for some reason.

For me, the reason that Matthew is different is interesting. For example, if he was working with a copy of Mark, what motivated him to include Peter getting out of the boat (Matt 14:28-30)?

Is there really a Synoptic Problem?

Perhaps it sounds trite, but I do not see a problem as much as I see an opportunity. We have three creative, theological minds (Matthew Mark and Luke) presenting their understanding of the events of Jesus’ life and teaching. That the vary tells me that there was no single authoritative document which told the story of Jesus until these three gospels were complete. But that they are so similar tells me that there was little tolerance for creation of stories and sayings of Jesus. In fact, there are very good reasons to devote some energy toward the synoptic problem.

It is true that Matthew has stories which are unique, or Luke has parables which do not appear in Matthew.  But for the most part, the Synoptic Problem is not that these are three different gospels, but rather that these are three similar gospels, written within a short time of each other.


Bibliography:  R. H. Stein, “Synoptic Problem,”  in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (ed. Joel B. Green and Scot McKnight;  Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1992), 784-85.