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The synoptic problem refers to scholars' attempts to understand the relationship among the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke (known as the synoptic gospels because they have so much material in common).

Two solutions to this problem—the Q or two-source hypothesis and the Farrer hypothesis—begin with the premise that the first gospel to be written was Mark. What arguments are used to support this view?

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Abstract

The primary argument for Markian priority is the strong evidence that both Luke and Matthew redacted Mark's material. If Mark were a summary of Matthew, we would expect it to smooth out any rough edges. However the reverse is true. In the triple tradition, it's invariably Mark that has the rough edges that are smoothed out by Luke and Matthew.


Let's take the first passage found in Mark that is also found in Luke and Matthew:

As it is written in Isaiah the prophet,
“Behold, I send my messenger before your face,
    who will prepare your way,
the voice of one crying in the wilderness:
    ‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
    make his paths straight,’”

—Mark 1:2-3 (ESV)

Note that while Mark says that the quotation comes from Isaiah, it's actually a merger of Malachi 3:1 and Isaiah 40:3. Whether Mark was following some standard practice or simply did not remember where the first stanza came from, attributing both to Isaiah has caused considerable confusion and seems to have spawned a textual variation ("in the prophets"). Matthew simplified the text by dropping the Malachi reference altogether:

For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said,
“The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord;
    make his paths straight.’”

—Matthew 3:3 (ESV)

Luke makes the same edit, but also fills out the quotation a bit. It seems that he was interested in quoting down to "all flesh shall see the salvation of God" in order to further his theme that salvation also belongs to the Gentiles:

As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet,
“The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
    make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
    and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall become straight,
    and the rough places shall become level ways,
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”

—Luke 3:4-6 (ESV)


If Matthew were first and Luke last among the Synoptics, we might expect Luke to match Matthew sometimes and Mark other times depending on which version fit his purposes best. But this seems somewhat rare. The more common pattern is that Luke follows Mark and ignores Matthew. For instance:

Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.”—Mark 8:29b (ESV)

Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”—Matthew 16:16 (ESV)

And Peter answered, “The Christ of God.”—Luke 9:20b (ESV)

Peter's proclamation is the dramatic turning point of Mark, but the point is somewhat blunted if you don't associate "Christ" with the full range of Jewish cultural understanding of the Messiah. So Matthew added "the Son of the living God" to fill out the meaning of Peter's words. "Living God", in particular, pulls in many Scriptural references that add weight to the title. Luke also seemed to be aware that "Christ" might not be properly understood by his Gentile patron, so he added "of God". If he had had both texts open before him, it's difficult to see why he would have chosen to punch up Mark's bare-boned language rather than just taking Matthew's version.


Of all the New Testament texts, Mark preserves the majority of our Aramaic words and phrases attributed to Jesus. Luke and Matthew tend to drop these phrases when they are found in the triple tradition. They are more likely to retain Aramaic in material that is not found in Mark. The general pattern of the church as seen in Acts and Paul's letters was for the Greek-speaking believers to become more numerous than the Aramaic- and Hebrew-speakers. Therefore, it was sensible for the Gospel writers to translate words into Greek when they found them transliterated from Aramaic in their sources.

But if Mark were editing Matthew, it's difficult to understand why he would revert back to Aramaic. Presumably, including transliterations would only serve to confuse his audience.
While he does seem aware that many of his readers will not understand the words—Mark usually provides a translation—he uses them even when Luke and Matthew do not. (See for instance Mark 5:21-43, Matthew 9:18-26, and Luke 8:40-56.)

The most natural way to read this situation is that the gospel writers wanted to retain the Aramaic words of Jesus when they were remembered, but didn't bother to carry on the tradition once the words were recorded in another account. If this analysis is correct, Mark must have been first.


Finally, readers of the original language acknowledge that Mark's Greek is "unique". As Bruce Alderman notes:

Most translations won't show it (Young's Literal Translation does), but Mark often writes in ungrammatical Greek, switching from present to past tense and back—sometimes in the same sentence. Matthew and especially Luke don't make the same grammatical mistakes.

Even in English, Mark's way of telling his story seems different than in the other gospels. A causal reader will notice the reliance on the word "immediately" to move the action along. That sense of urgency is reflected in Mark's use of the present tense and the Greek word καί (meaning "and, also, even, indeed, but") to join phrases and stories. When I first studied Mark as a whole, I had no problem noticing that the long ending was written by another author even when reading a translation that evened out the language.

In sum, Mark has many, obvious problems that the other Gospels freely correct. One can easily imagine a scenario in which Luke and Matthew surveyed the existing accounts and found all of them, including Mark, lacking in various ways. Therefore, they decided to produce their own version of events combining the sources available to them. But it's harder to understand what could have motivated Mark to produce a version that does not take advantage of improved and corrected Greek

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+1 From the number, length, thoroughness and detail of your answers, besides your longstanding rank, I'd be tempted to say your middle name is Skeet. –  Kazark Apr 6 '12 at 4:09
    
Thanks for the thoroughness of this answer. –  Bruce Alderman Apr 6 '12 at 5:16
1  
Just another angle on rough edges: Most translations won't show it (Young's Literal Translation does), but Mark often writes in ungrammatical Greek, switching from present to past tense and back--sometimes in the same sentence. Matthew and especially Luke don't make the same grammatical mistakes. –  Bruce Alderman Apr 6 '12 at 5:21
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Awesome answers so far! One small thing I'd like to add is that Mark and Matthew often agree against Luke on the order of their narratives. Many times Mark and Luke agree against Matthew. But Matthew and Luke almost never agree against Mark. You can check it pretty easily yourself by looking at a harmony of the gospels. For instance, Matthew and Mark agree against Luke in Mt 12:46-13:35, Mk 3:31-4:34, Lk 8:4-18, while Mark and Luke agree against Matthew in Mt 8:2-4, 9:2-8, Mk 1:40-2:12, Lk 5:12-26. This phenomenon is difficult to explain except by Markan prioity.

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We should not try to answer this question just by reading English texts, but at least supplement this either by reading the Greek texts or referring to material written by those who can. The issue here is that Matthew, Mark and Luke contain passages that are consistently in the same order (suggesting copying) and frequently use exactly the same words in the Greek language. Once copying is established, then it is appropriate to ascertain which one was the original.

With Mark-Luke, this is easy, because of the 'Missing Block'. This is a substantial section of Mark, comprising a total of 74.5 verses from Mark 6:47 to Mark 8:27a, is missing from Luke. This results in the curious conjunction found in Luke 9:18 "And it came to pass as he was alone praying, his disciples were with him: and he asked them ..." These clauses are more meaningful when found in Mark at the start and end of the material missing from Luke - try it. It has been suggested that the person who provided the copy of Mark to the author of Luke realised that he would be offended by the passage in which Jesus called gentiles 'dogs' (Mark 7:27) and so removed that page and a further twelve pages so that the gap would not be apparent.

A technical proof of Markan priority is in the transmision of Markan intercalations. The (anonymous) author of Mark was a pre-eminent writer in the first century, and was the greatest known exponent of intercalations. Simplifying a little, intercalations were a literary device in the form A1-B-A2, which adds emphasis to both event A and event B. Of the nine undisputed (consensus they exist) Markan intercalations, Matthew retains them five times and Luke does four times, otherwise copying the content but not the structure. It is clear from this that the device moves from Mark to Matthew and to Luke, but not the reverse. In fact, the authors of Matthew and Luke probably thought it a rather strange style of writing.

Another argument in favour of Markan priority is that Mark is a very structured book, with every passage in exactly the right place from a literary point of view, using parallel and chiastic structures, as well as the intercalations mentioned above. To achieve this, it had to be the original, since the sequence of major events is the same in all three synoptic gospels. Although more general structure is found in the other gospels, especially Matthew, this is a remnant of the structure in Mark.

It appears from the earliest manuscripts that Mark originally ended at verse 16:8, with the young man telling the women that Jesus was risen, and they fled in terror, telling no one. This left the authors of Matthew and Luke with nothing to copy, but they certainly wanted to tell what happened next. This explains the very clear distinction between Matthew, where Jesus appeared (only) to the disciples in a mountain in Galilee, whereas in Luke, Jesus appeared to two of them on the road to Emmaeus, then in a room in Jerusalem.

Material that Matthew and Luke have in common, but absent in Mark, is explained by the hypothetical 'Q' document.

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+1 for a thoughtful answer. Could you elaborate though how you're constructing Luke 9:18. Was Mark 6:45 missing too? And how did the mountain get dropped from 46? –  Soldarnal Oct 17 '13 at 4:57
    
Mark 6:46 = 'And when he had sent them away, he departed into a mountain to pray.' Mark 8:27b = 'and by the way he asked his disciples, saying unto them, Whom do men say that I am?' Luke 9:18: 'And it came to pass, as he was alone praying, his disciples were with him: and he asked them, saying, Whom say the people that I am?' Imagine asking the disciples, while alone praying! –  Dick Harfield Mar 6 at 4:44
    
In Mark 6:35, the went to a desert place before feeding the 5000, then in 6:45, they went to Bethsaida after the 5000. In Luke 9:10, they went to a desert place/Bethsaida before the 5000. Very possibly, the author found his Markan material (with the Missing Block) confusing, and felt that the "desert place" and Bethsaida should be the same destination. –  Dick Harfield Mar 6 at 5:04
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Markan priority is an answer to the question what is the precise literary relationship between Matthew, Mark and Luke, also known as the Synoptic problem. A close comparison of the first three gospels suggests that one or more of these writers had one or more of the other gospels before them as they wrote. This is more than a common oral tradition. Matthew, Mark and Luke have a fundamental literary agreement.

Mark Stein in his book the Synoptic Problem provides the following evidence for this precise agreement.

Agreement in Wording

While Matthew, Mark and Luke differ slightly from one another, when the tell the story, on the whole, they use the exact same words.

  • Matthew 19:13-15, Mark 10:13-16, Luke 18:15-17 (216-217)
  • Matthew 22:23-33, Mark 12:18-27, Luke 20:27-40
  • Matthew 24:4-8, Mark 13:5-8,Luke 21:8-11

Agreement in Order

Stories are often arranged topically or non-chronologically in Matthew, Mark and Luke. And yet in their topical arrangement of stories Matthew, Mark and Luke exhibit remarkable similarities in order.

  • Jesus’ teaching in Synagogue – choosing twelve (Matthew 8:14-10:4, Mark 1:21-3:19; Luke 4:31-6:16)
  • Peter’s confession – the healing of the blind man (Matthew 16:13-20:34; Mark 8:27-10:52; Luke 9:18-18:43)
  • Jesus’ mother and brothers – Jesus rejected at Nazareth (Matthew 12:46-13:58; Mark 3:31-6:6; Luke 8:19-8:56 (4:16-30)

Agreement in Parenthetical Material

Parenthetical material are things clearly written by an author and not imbedded in the story itself. When parenthetical material appears one or more gospels it again suggests that someone was copy the other.

  • Let the reader understand” (Matt 24:15-18, Mark 13:14-16, Luke 21:30-22)
  • "He said to the paralytic" (Matt 9:1-8, Mark 2:1-12, Luke 5:17-26)
  • For he had said to him” (Matt 8:28-29, Mark 5:1-8, Luke 8:26-29)
  • For he knew it was out of envy” (Matt 27:15-18, Mark 15:6-10)

Unusual Agreements

The gospel writers occasionally differ in their quotations of Old Testament Scripture. However, when they do differ with Old Scripture they typically agree with one another.

  • Matthew 3:3, Mark 1:3, Luke 3:4 (the LXX of Isaiah 40:3 reads “make straight the paths of our God” and the Masoretic text reads “make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God.”
  • Matthew 22:37, Mark 12:30, Luke 10:27 Mind and heart together are not mention in either the LXX or the Masoretic text.

Luke's Authorial Testimony

Luke also indicates that a literary relationship existed between his gospel and others (1:1-4)

Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, it seemed fitting for me as well, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in consecutive order, most excellent Theophilus; so that you may know the exact truth about the things you have been taught.

All this evidence leads scholars to ask which gospel(s) came first? Again this is known as the Synoptic Problem. Which gospel(s) was/were used by the others?

For the following reasons scholars have singled out Mark's gospel as the first.

Mark’s Shortness

Mark is by far the shortest gospel. By word count Mark (11,025 words) is a little over half of the length of the Matthew (18,293) and Luke (19,376). Which is more likely that Matthew and Luke expanded upon Mark or that Mark combined and shortened Matthew and Luke? If Mark is shorter it seems more likely that Matthew and Luke expanded it.

Mark’s Poorer Writing Style

Colloquialisms and inferior writing style

In Mark 10:20 the rich young man replies to the question of Jesus concerning the commandments, “All these I have observed (ephylaxamen) from my youth.” The parallels in Matthew 19:20 and Luke 18:21 change the verb to ephylaxa.

In Mark 1:12 we read that after Jesus’ baptism the Spirit “drove” (ekballei) him into the wilderness to be tempted. The word in Mark is almost always negative. Thus, Matthew 4:1 reads “Jesus was led up (anechthe) by the Spirit,” and Luke 4:1 states that Jesus “was led (egeto) by the Spirit.”

Aramaic Expressions

  • Boanerges (Mark 3:14-17; Matt10:1-2; Luke 6:13-14
  • Talitha cumi (Mark 5:40-41; Matt 9:25; Luke 8:54)
  • Corban (Mark 7:9-13; Matt 15:3-6
  • Ephphatha (Mark 7:32-35; Matt 15:30)
  • Abba (Mark 14:35-36; Matt 26:39; Luke 22:41-42
  • Golgotha (Mark 15:22-23; Matt 27:33-34; Luke 23:33)
  • Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachtani? (Mark 15:34; Matt 27:46 – Hebrew Eli Eli)

Redundancy

  • “That evening, at sundown” (Mark 1:32; Matt 8:16; Luke 4:40)
  • Fasting (Mark 2:18; Matt 9:14; Luke 5:33)
  • “He was in need and was hungry” (Mark 2:25-26; Matt12:3-4; Luke 6:3-4)
  • “The Shore at the water’s edge” (Mark4:1

Which is more likely? Matthew and Luke attempted to improve the language of Mark or that Mark devolved the style and grammar of Matthew and Luke? If Matthew and Luke have better language it seems more likely that Matthew and Luke improved upon Mark.

Mark’s Harder Readings

The Apparent Limitation of Jesus’ Power or Influence

  • Many vs. all (Mark 1:32-34; Matt 8:16; Luke 4:40)
  • Crush him (Mark 3:9-10; Matt 12:15; Luke 6:19)
  • Could not do (Mark 6:5-6; Matt13:58)

Negative Descriptions of the Disciples

  • Do you not understand (Mark 4:13; Matt 13:18; Luke 8:11)
  • They did not understand (Mark 6:51-52; Matt14:32-33)
  • Jesus was indignant (Mark 10:14; Matt 19:14; Luke 18:16
  • Request (Mark 10:35-37; Matt 20:20-21)

Miscellaneous Theological Issues

  • “Why do you call me good?” (Mark 10:17-18; Matt19:16-17; Luke 18:18-19)
  • Anger (Mark 3:4-5; Matt 12:12b-13; Luke 6:9-10)
  • Abiathar/Ahimelech (Mark 2:25-26; Matt 12:3-4; Luke 6:3-4)

Which is more likely that Matthew and Luke cleared up some of the difficulties of Mark or that Mark created difficulties where none existed before. If Mark appears to exhibit an inferior picture of Jesus than its more likely that Matthew and Luke improved upon Mark.

Mark’s more Primitive Theology

  • Lord (Mark 9:5-6; Matthew 17:4; Luke 9:33) (Mark 9:14-18a; Matthew 17:14-15; Luke 9:37-39) (Mark 13:35; Matthew 24:42; Luke 12:40)

Which is more likely that Matthew and Luke attempted to calibrate Mark’s theology to higher Christology or that Mark lowered the exalted Christology of Matthew and Luke?

Mark’s apparent lack of information on the Destruction of the Temple -

  • Matthew 23:37-39 and Luke 13:34-35 “Behold your house is forsaken and desolate.”
  • Matthew 22:4-8 – “The king was angry, and he sent his troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city.”
  • Mark 13:14, 19-20; Matthew 24:15, 21-22; Luke 21:20-21, 23-24 “Jerusalem surrounded by armies” “and Jerusalem will be trodden down by the Gentiles”

Which is more likely that Matthew and Luke added information about the temple destruction because they came later or that Mark, as the later gospel, took out information about the temple destruction from Matthew and Luke’s narrative

Accepting Mark makes sense of Matthew and Luke.

Probably the weightiest argument today in favor of Mark’s priority involves the comparison of the Synoptic Gospels in order to recognize and understanding their unique theological emphases. This is called Redaction Criticism. It's explored further in Jon Ericson's answer.

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Off the top of my head, the biggest three that I can remember are:

  • Length: Mark is the shortest of all of the Synoptic Gospels. As the theory goes, future authors would be more likely to add information that was omitted by Mark

  • Overlap: Mark overlaps with both Matthew and Luke more significantly than Matthew and Luke overlap with each other.

  • Detail: The level of detail in Mark is greater than the others. e.g. the feeding of the 5,000 has Mark saying that the grass was green. Such detail would presumably be lost as the author was more temporally separated from the event.

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