Sunday, 3 June 2012

The Synoptic Problem and Markan Priority? (Part 1 of 2)

via Wikipedia
     The term "synoptic," derived from the Greek sunopsis ("seeing together"), is applied to the first three New Testament Gospels because of the high degree of similarities among them in relation to structure, arrangement, content, style, and vocabulary. Where did Matthew, Mark and Luke get the information that comprises their respective accounts? If they are entirely independent of one other, why are they so much alike? If they all share a literary relationship, how are the striking differences to be explained and how can they serve as three separate witnesses to the life and teachings of Christ? This, briefly stated, is the so-called "Synoptic Problem."
     What is currently regarded in scholarly circles as the most viable option is that the similarities among these documents can only be accounted for on the basis of literary dependence. This basic premise has led to what has become the prevailing method of synoptic analysis known as Redaction Criticism, i.e., the study of how authors have created a literary work by editing and modifying their sources of information. And the foundation of the whole theory is the presumption of Markan priority (MP), i.e., Mark’s Gospel is believed to have been produced first and was then utilized by both Matthew and Luke in compiling their corresponding works. It has been estimated that about 90% of Mark’s material is found in Matthew and about 55% in Luke (see B. H. Streeter, The Four Gospels 151, 159-60).
     This popular theory is based on the following observations: (a) Mark is the shortest (the supposition being that Matthew and Luke expanded the material); (b) Mark’s writing style tends to be more awkward (thus Matthew and Luke supposedly smoothed it out); and (c) purportedly Matthew and Luke do not often agree against Mark, while the materials they share in common (not found in Mark) are usually located in a different sequence (see Bart D. Ehrman, The New Testament: Historical Introduction [4th ed.] 93-96).
     However, contrary to the confident assertions of MP theorists, this artful proposal is neither a proven fact nor a satisfactory explanation. It does not account for the approximately 230 agreements of Matthew and Luke against Mark,1 which has compelled critics to surmise yet another source, viz. a hypothetical document designated Q (from the German Quelle, meaning "source"). Despite the fact that there is no tangible evidence that this Q source ever existed, its presumption does not explain the unique content of Matthew and the unique content of Luke not shared with Mark or with each other.2 Nevertheless, rather than abandon the theory, scholars have simply contrived two more hypothetical sources, viz. "M" for the information peculiar to Matthew and "L" for the distinct material in Luke.
     Lest we become too enamored with the imaginative world of hypotheticals, we ought to concentrate on what is verifiable and determine how the MP theory holds up under the scrutiny of the biblical texts themselves. While the information in over 250 verses in Matthew is not duplicated elsewhere, and 500 verses appear only in Luke, the material in almost fifty verses is unique to Mark. If literary dependence is the sole option, how do MP theorists account for the fifty-five verses of Mark not found in Matthew, or the striking omission in Luke of the material in Mark 6:45–8:26 and 9:41–10:12? What about the curious absence in both Matthew and Luke of the following sections of Mark: 1:1; 2:27; 3:20-22a; 4:26-29; 7:2-4, 32-37; 8:22-26; 9:29, 48-49; 13:33-37; 14:51-52?
     There are also interesting details in Mark that do not appear in the parallel accounts of Matthew and Luke.3 It is not without significance that Luke places a great deal of emphasis on prayer (cf. 3:21; 6:12; 9:18, 28-29; 11:1-8; 18:1-14; 21:36; 22:32, 40-46; 24:53), yet the prayer of Jesus in Mark 1:35 is not found in Luke. Notice how MP theorists respond: "It is possible that the reference to prayer here is a later addition . . . the statement was not included in the version of Mark known to [Luke]" (D. E. Nineham, The Gospel of St Mark 84). If the absence of empirical proof does not subvert this hallowed theory, and if speculative assumptions and circular reasoning are needed to bolster it, one must wonder why it has retained its status for so long as the coveted badge of critical scholarship!
–Kevin L. Moore

     1 The approximately 230 agreements of Matthew and Luke against Mark, when viewed collectively, require a more reasonable explanation than the “insignificant” or “accidental” assertions that MP theorists tend to offer. See esp. Robert L. Thomas, “An Investigation of the Agreements between Matthew and Luke against Mark,” in JETS 19 (Spring 1976): 103-112. Thomas concludes: “For too long New Testament scholars have been bound to the assumption of direct literary dependence among the writers. Perhaps this has been a blindfold rather than a help in supplying answers. At least the option should be entertained that the three synoptists worked in relative independence of one another in producing their gospels” (112). See also Robert L. Thomas, “Redaction Criticism,” in The Jesus Crisis: The Inroads of Historical Criticism into Evangelical Scholarship, eds. Robert L. Thomas and F. David Farnell (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1998): 233-66.
     2 A. Wikenhauser observes that out of 1,149 verses in Luke's Gospel, almost half are unique to him (NT Introduction 548). I. H. Marshall, a MP proponent, admits that many attempted explanations "do not seem adequate and sometimes give the impression of being desperate attempts to iron out the difficulties at any cost," and the Marcan priority hypothesis "must be judged insufficient to account for all the evidence .... the evidence is not completely in its favour" (Luke: Historian and Theologian [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1970]: 57-62).
     3 See, e.g., Mark 1:13b, 20b, 35; 2:26b; 3:17b, 20-22a; 4:3a, 36b, 38a; 5:13b, 26, 41b; 6:3a, 8b, 9a, 39b, 48b; 7:30; 8:35b; 9:3b, 41b; 10:11b-12, 30b, 45b, 46b; 11:10a, 17b; 12:29b, 32-34; 14:30b, 36a, 15:21b, 47a.

Related Posts: Synoptic Problem/Markan Priority 2Authorship of NT Gospels, Biblical Authorship (Part 1), Biblical Authorship (Part 2)Uniqueness of Mark's Gospel


  1. Christians should not be surprised that authors of some of the books in the New Testament "plagiarized" the writings of other New Testament authors, ie, the authors of Matthew and Luke copying huge chunks of Mark, often word for word, into their own gospels.

    This habit is not new in the Bible. There is evidence that Old Testament writers did the exact same thing. An example: the entire chapters of II Kings 19 and Isaiah 37 are almost word for word identical!

    If the Bible is the inspired Word of God, why would God have the author of one inspired book of the Bible copy almost word for word large sections, sometimes entire chapters, from another inspired book of the Bible? Is that how divine inspiration works?

    So should we simply accept this "word for word copying" as the will of the Almighty, accepting it blindly by faith, continuing to insist that God wrote the Bible, or should we consider the overwhelming evidence that the books of the Bible are human works of literature, no more divinely inspired than any other work of fallible human authors?

    1. Your anachronistic and prejudicial characterization of biblical documents having been “plagiarized” is not substantiated by your unprovable assertion that the authors of Matthew and Luke allegedly copied “huge chunks of Mark.” I invite you to read both of my articles, “The Synoptic Problem and Markan Priority,” .
      You seem to think you’ve discovered something new (previously unknown to Bible believers) when you enthusiastically observe, “the entire chapters of II Kings 19 and Isaiah 37 are almost word for word identical!” If you had done a little more investigation, you would learn that Isaiah 36-39 is a collection of historical records closely corresponding to 2 Kings 18, 19 & 20, originally composed by the prophet Isaiah himself (2 Chron. 32:32; cf. 2 Kings 20:20). This hardly constitutes “plagiarism,” and you failed to mention the marked differences (additions, omissions, and rearrangements).
      When you ask the rhetorical question, “Is that how inspiration works?,” I’m not so sure you understand what biblical inspiration is and how it relates to divine revelation. I invite you to read my article, “Biblical Inspiration in Perspective,” .
      When historical records were put into writing by God’s prophets, and these records were then employed to supplement additional written accounts (cf. 1 Kings 11:41; 14:29; 15:7; et al.), this is perfectly consistent with “how inspiration works.”
      The “overwhelming evidence” to which you allude to dismiss the Bible as God’s word is overstated and appears to be skewed by your anti-Bible presuppositions. You are carelessly dismissing the overwhelming evidence supporting the divine inspiration of the Bible. I invite you to read, “The Bible in Perspective,” , and a host of helpful information available on the Apologetics Press website, .

    2. Note, I attempted to insert links to the recommended articles and website, but my technological ineptness prevented it. The Apologetics Press website is linked at the very bottom of my Home Page, and my articles are categorized and linked on the "Moore Articles" page.