The synoptic problem refers to the puzzle of the precise literary relationship between the three "synoptic" Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke which share a significant number of parallel passages, often including the same or nearly the same words.
There is a great deal of literary overlap in the first three canonical gospels -- Matthew, Mark, and Luke -- graphically represented in this chart:
That is, 94% of Mark is in Matthew (or conversely, 55% of Matthew is in Mark), and 79% of Mark is in Luke (or conversely, 42% of Luke is in Mark). About a quarter of Matthew and Luke is shared between them only, this material being absent from Mark. It is not just a matter of shared texts (or not) but variations in ordering and arranging the material, as well as fine differences in wording.
Accounting for this nature and degree of literary inter-relatedness involves investigation of:
- sources (between and beyond these documents)
- literary precedence (which came first? then in what order?)
- literary dependence (who used what?)
- literary development (later editorial shaping)
Orientation to basic positions staked in the attempt to solve this "problem" may be found in:
- Wikipedia on the "Synoptic Problem"
- Mark Goodacre, The Synoptic Problem: A Way Through the Maze (T & T Clark, 2004), chs. 1-2
The "Q" Source
An important hypothesis in the study of the synoptic problem is that the common material to Matthew and Luke that is distinct from Mark (labelled "Double Tradition" in dark blue in the chart, above) might derive from a shared but now lost source, conventionally referred to as "Q". Its existence and putative influence have been much debated, and continue to be be debated. For more, see:
- Wikipedia on the Q Source
- Hermeneutics.SE Q&A: "What is the evidence for the existence of the Q document?"
There are many presentations of the synoptic material in both Greek and translation. Useful online resources include:
- English: the second edition of Burton Throckmorton's Gospel Parallels: A Synopsis of the First Three Gospels (Thomas Nelson, 1957);
- Greek: Arthur Wright (ed), *A Synopsis of the Gospels in Greek: After the Westcott and Hort Text (Macmillan, 1896);
- John Marshall's "The Five Gospel Parallels" website provides the Synoptics plus John and the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas.