Which scholars, historical figures, or churches have argued that the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) were all written independently without access to any of the other gospels? What arguments have they used?

This question isn't about particular theories of dependence (Augustinian, Ferrer, Griesbach, two sources, etc.), but rather about people denying literary dependence entirely.

(This question comes from the comments here, but I figured it'd be better to have is as a separate question.)

  • I think that it will be important for you to specify what you mean by literary. Are you literally meaning literary (which would allow for oral tradition interdependence) or are you asking for folks who argue for no interdependence whatsoever? – swasheck Feb 6 '13 at 18:13
  • I would be interested in examples of people who think that they share common oral tradition pre-dating the written gospels, but that none of the authors had read (or heard recited) any of the other gospels. – Noah Feb 6 '13 at 19:03
  • I'm having trouble figuring out how to clarify this rigorously. For example, I would count Matthew having memorized Mark prior to writing his gospel as literary dependence, even if he learned it orally from someone who had read it and memorized it. – Noah Feb 6 '13 at 19:10

Literary independence of the synoptics is certainly a minority viewpoint (and has been for centuries—Augustine argued for dependence in “Harmony of the Gospels”), but it exists.

I am unaware of any ancient scholars arguing for literary independence. A few modern scholars are cited here.


Perhaps the most noteworthy example in recent years is that of Eta Linnemann, who published “Is There a Synoptic Problem” in an effort to reconsider commonly held views. Linnemann comes out against the popular Two-Source hypothesis and explores the possibility that none of the Gospel authors directly copied from another. Her critique of pre-suppositions in Gospel scholarship in general and hyper-skepticism specifically have garnered positive reviews from those who believe scholarship is/was off-course, and have been frustrating to those who wish to hold to the conclusions of early 20th century scholarship.

John AT Robinson expressed a similar sentiment in “Redating the New Testament” (see p. 314), concerned that questions are sometimes settled too quickly and the answers are not re-examined:

“[O]ne cannot help observing how the caravan of New Testament scholarship has tended to move on to fresh sites...leaving behind the other workings in the state in which they then were and taking over their results to date, without further reexamination, as the presuppositions of the new work. This I suggested happened, notably in regard to the synoptic problem, both when the form critics took over from the source critics and when the redaction critics took over from the form critics. These newer disciplines have had much illumination to shed. But they become dangerously unrelated to reality when they ignore detailed investigation of the 'introductory' questions - and still more when they claim that these can be settled by the answers to their own questions.”

In this sense the theory may be marginalized not because it is unsupported by evidence, but because it isn’t taught in the textbooks.


Rainer Riesner argues for a somewhat complicated relationship among the synoptics, in which they rely on common oral and written sources, but none directly rely on each other. Riesner draws attention to the powerful role of memory in ancient times, and suggests that while there were written sources before the synoptics, much of the common material is the result of memorization and careful tradition-bearers. (a summary of his views are found in chapter 5 here)

Riesner actually uses Luke’s preface to argue against literary dependence:

“Some scholars emphasize anew the role of eyewitnesses and earwitnesses as being the tradition bearers and informants of the Gospel writers [such as Bauckham or Hengel]. Indeed, in the manner of a historian of antiquity Luke in the preface to his Gospel claims that he received the traditions of such primary witnesses. And in Romans 10:14-17 Paul gives an outline of a chain of tradition reaching from ‘the word of Christ’ through the apostles to their hearers.” (“The Synoptic Problem – Four Views” [hereafter “Four Views”] - p. 102)

And Riesner points out that if Jesus’ sayings were considered on par with Old Testament teachings, we should very much expect that they were memorized and handed down with accuracy:

“The shorter or longer poetically structured sayings of the Old Testament were already memorized…[t]o his sympathizers who believed in Jesus’s prophetic or even messianic authority, his sayings were of the utmost importance.” (Four Views pp. 102-103)

Riesner and others have noted that an itinerant preacher like Jesus almost certainly gave the same sermon more than once, affording many opportunities for hearers to learn His words through repetition. While Riesner does not rule out common written sources for the synoptics, he certainly draws attention to the fact that modern cultures are quick to downplay the role and power of memorization in antiquity. His assessment of the evidence is:

“When one understands the role of oral tradition and eyewitness memory in the first century…a different picture emerges. Rather than being dependent on one another, the three Synoptic Gospel writers each partially used the same intermediary sources, both oral and written.” (Four Views p. 90)

Why does this remain a minority viewpoint?

Tremendous correspondence in Greek

The close correspondence of the synoptic gospels in Greek is much more impressive than is readily apparent in English. Greek words have suffixes applied to indicate their relationship with other words and as such, word order is not so crucial to meaning in Greek as it is in English. When a Greek text has identical (or nearly identical) order of material, grammar, and word order, it suggests a literary relationship.

David Barrett Peabody highlighted Matthew 3:7-10 & Luke 3:7-9, during a portion of which “there is verbatim agreement between Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels for a total of sixty-two words in Greek, in the same word order and in the same Greek grammatical forms” (Four Views p. 68). Hundreds of other (shorter) examples could be cited.

Minor agreements

The minor agreements of Matthew & Luke against Mark (see here) are not only problematic for the Two-Source Hypothesis, they present some difficulty for literary independence. That Matthew & Luke would share precisely the same small details hundreds of times is readily explained if one used the other as a source; it appears terribly improbable otherwise.


Luke’s prologue and the Argument from Order (my thoughts on the latter topic here) could each support their own lengthy discussion in favor of a literary relationship.


While I applaud the scholarly effort to reopen questions that have been prematurely “closed” (same thing happens in scholarly literature as sometimes happens on stackexchange =) ), ultimately, I do not find the literary independence hypothesis convincing.

My own study of the synoptic problem (see here & here) has led me to the conclusion that oral transmission certainly played a role, but the similarities not just in stories, but in order, wording, and Greek grammar, are best explained by a literary relationship.

  • Thanks for this. I'll just note that you wrote about twice as much on the problems with this view, which this question does not concern, as you did on the arguments for it. It would be good if that balance could be shifted. – curiousdannii Feb 17 at 2:55
  • 1
    @curiousdannii you make a good point. I get excited about the synoptic problem and sometimes get long-winded =). I have rebalanced the argument, in particular in giving more weight and attention to Riesner's arguments. Though I disagree with Riesner, his research is excellent and his position well-stated. – Hold To The Rod Feb 17 at 3:51
  • Awesome, thanks! – curiousdannii Feb 17 at 3:59

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