The Synoptic Problem brings to the forefront of our attention the three Synoptic gospels: Mark, Matthew and Luke. Principally, the term “Synoptic gospels” was first used in 1776 by New Testament scholar Griesbach. Griesbach compared these three gospels together via a comparative study. Today, however, Synoptic is taken to refer to a synopsis, a summary, of the ministry of Jesus; this is what our Synoptics gospels provide. Professor Luke Johnson expounds on the Synoptic Problem:
“Determining the exact nature of the literary relationship among the Synoptic Gospels is not easy. There is a great amount of material shared by the three Synoptics that has nearly identical correspondence in the Greek language and in the ordering of the narratives. At the same time, in this shared material there are also significant variations in language and order. From the high degree of correspondence, there is no doubt that borrowing from one to another took place at some stage of written rather than oral transmission. The striking and often minute differences over those same stretches, however, make the precise delineation of their relationship difficult. The designation “Synoptic Problem” is used to describe this complex phenomenon” (1)
The historian’s purpose is thus to uncover this relationship between the three gospels. They clearly have many things in common while elsewhere they have some striking differences. So, why is that the case? Were these sources perhaps dependent on other earlier sources? For example, why do Matthew and Luke have so much in common with Mark (90% & 50% respectively)? Did they perhaps use Mark as a source? (suggesting that Mark must be the earliest of the three Synoptics) What about their cross agreement on aspects not found in Mark? Does that suggest there was another common source that they used as a source material but of which no longer exists?
There are a number of theories that have been proposed to account for this. For example, the two-source hypothesis holds that Mark and a hypothetical source Q were both used by both Luke and Matthew. The four-source hypothesis holds that Luke and Matthew both used Mark, Q, and additional hypothetical sources: L (Luke’s unique material) and M (Matthew’s unique material). Scholars make up each of these ranks with most of them, that I know of, holding to the four-source hypothesis.
1. Johnson, L. 1999. The Writing of the New Testament: An Interpretation. p. 155.