My only knowledge of popular solutions to the synoptic problem come from Wikipedia, where they all have non-canonical gospel sources numbering about one or two (or sometimes just zero). Not many hypotheses number Luke's sources more than two, yet he says that many have written about Jesus. I'm curious why scholars construct a small number of distinct sources from the synoptics based on the assumption that all of a set range of sayings come from well defined documents rather than early Christians having a swarm of sources, including oral, perhaps even multiple ones within a single community, which Matthew and Luke could have selected from, deriving the content of special Matthew and special Luke, and making the synoptic problem a hard problem, since we have no record of this swarm.

Does it just have to do with Luke's independence from Matthew? That's something else I would like to ask about some time. But from the Q+/Papias hypothesis, it seems like scholars are opening up to both Luke reading Matthew and newly reframed sources, so why do we still think we can limit the scope of available resources to what we can reconstruct with source criticism?

To clarify, why do Luke/Matthew independence theorists think their overlapping content comes from a distinct source and not many, and how can Luke/Matthew interaction theorists construct any source textually at all?

  • 1
    The answer to this question might be helpful: hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/questions/60829/…
    – Perry Webb
    Oct 23 '21 at 13:27
  • Thanks. I'd add that my assumption was that most scholars believe in two- or four-source, per Wikipedia, which was the aim of my focus, but could also apply to any hypothesis that numbers sources to roughly two, which, per Wikipedia, is most. I split it into Matthew/Luke independence or interaction because I thought that might be the relevant categories given how I believe Q and other hypothetical constructs are discussed. So basically, I'd like to know why scholars believe questions of hypothetical documents are not a hard problem, and can talk about different discrete documents comfortably. Oct 23 '21 at 13:43
  • Hi QuestionAsker, welcome to the site! This is a thoughtful and valid question. Usually general questions like this without a specific reference are better suited for the Christianity.SE site so if it does get closed you could try it over there. As was pointed out above though, there is a related question which remained open here so it depends on what the community decides. Oct 23 '21 at 19:09
  • We do have a few questions about the Synoptic Problem - I'd consider this one of the rare and very specific hermeneutical concerns that is on-topic but can't be anchored in a specific passage.
    – Steve Taylor
    Oct 23 '21 at 23:09
  • My hope was it would be anchored in scholarship. Is that appropriate for this site? I'm completely new to Stack Exchange, and I couldn't find the rules anywhere. Oct 24 '21 at 2:59

What makes scholars think there were one or two discrete gospel sources and not many indistinct ones?

Because the former explanation is simpler than the latter. This is the standard practice of the principle of parsimony or Occam's razor by scientists over the centuries. The simplest explanation is usually the best one.


This philosophical razor advocates that when presented with competing hypotheses about the same prediction, one should select the solution with the fewest assumptions.

  • Thanks for your answer! I'm confused though. Are you saying the 2/4 source hypotheses are more parsimonious because of the number of sources, or the explanatory simplicity? The former is more straightforward but difficult to maintain. You seem to mean the latter, which leads me to wonder why the 2/4 source explanations are simpler explanations, precisely. My guess was that it was the exactness of puported Q overlap, but the difficulty of minor agreements seeks to make this hypothesis a challenge, whereas a fuller use of sources might explain that. Why do scholars believe 2/4 source is simpler? Oct 24 '21 at 2:56
  • Define 2/4 source hypotheses.
    – Tony Chan
    Oct 24 '21 at 13:07
  • My understanding is the most popular two-source hypothesis is that Matthew and Luke independently drew on Mark and Q, and the most popular four-source hypothesis is that they independently drew on Mark and Q, as well as one source each of their own, M and L. My question is why these scholars limit the search to Q/M/L, especially given the problem of minor agreements, rather than believing constructing documents from overlap and distinction is a hard problem of many documents, where distinct constructed documents are just artifacts of textual analysis. I said 2/4 because I ran out of room. Oct 24 '21 at 13:49
  • Then it is a matter of degree. The simpler the explanation, the higher the probability that more scholars prefer it.
    – Tony Chan
    Oct 24 '21 at 14:22

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