My only knowledge of popular solutions to the synoptic problem comes 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, 2021 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, 2021 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, 2021 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 can help
    Oct 23, 2021 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, 2021 at 2:59

2 Answers 2


Complex hypotheses

There have been synoptic theories proposed with more than 2 sources, and theories with a mix of oral & written sources, but they have tended to be less popular than the Two-Source Hypothesis, Farrer Hypothesis, and Two-Gospel Hypothesis.

  • Robert Lindsey's theory proposed 3 hypothetical written sources (further discussion here)
  • Rainer Riesner proposed 6 hypothetical written sources + a variety of oral sources (see The Synoptic Problem - Four Views p. 107)
  • Eichhorn suggested 6 hypothetical documents (see William Farmer The Synoptic Problem p. 10)
  • Heinrich Ewald proposed a 9-document hypothesis (ibid p. 25)

These and other "complex" theories have been criticized on at least two grounds:

  1. The contents of a hypothetical document are speculative -- the interactions between hypothetical documents grow exponentially as we increase the number of documents, significantly increasing the opportunity for error
  2. They fail the Occam's razor test (don't multiply entities beyond necessity); thus, they are generally only appealed to if there is no possibility to explain the synoptic data on a simpler basis. As William Farmer summarized:

This does not mean that the investigator should assume that there were no additional hypothetical documents. On, the contrary, he should be open to the possibility that such actually existed. There are instances in literary-historical studies where circumstantial evidence requires the investigator to posit the existence of a document for which he has no direct evidence. But a critic should not posit the existence of hypothetical documents until he has made an attempt to solve the problem without appeal to hypothetical documents. Only after the investigator has been unable to understand the relationship between Matthew, Mark, and Luke without appealing to unknown sources is he justified in hypothecating the existence of such sources, in order to explain phenomena otherwise inexplicable. (ibid p. 209)

Farmer himself (and many others) found it possible to explain the phenomena of the Synoptic Gospels without the need to appeal to discrete hypothetical documents. This doesn't mean the synoptic authors did not have other sources (oral and/or written); it means we don't have enough data to reconstruct them.

Lukan-Matthean independence

Luke's independence from Matthew is one of the two critical pillars of the Two-Source Hypothesis (the other pillar being Markan Priority). If Luke used Matthew as a source, there is no need to appeal to Q to explain the more than 200 verses shared by Matthew & Luke that aren't in Mark.

Both the Farrer & Two-Gospel Hypotheses accept that Luke was familiar with Matthew's Gospel and, as a result, claim that it is possible to explain all of the relevant synoptic phenomena without the existence of a document like Q.

One of the difficulties with hypothesizing Q as a single text (or hypothesizing any other discrete source) is that whichever of the synoptic authors wrote 3rd does not treat his sources consistently. If, for sake of argument, we accept the Two-Source Hypothesis, we find Luke's handling of Q material wildly inconsistent with his handling of Markan material (this phenomena is admittedly technical--there's a deep dive on this on my channel).

Oral sources

Early Christian historians held that all of the canonical gospels were based (at least in part) on the testimony of ear/eyewitnesses--Luke claims to have relied upon several of them (see Luke 1:2) Their memories cannot be reconstructed as a discrete source the same way a document can.

If the Synoptic Gospels were all written within a generation of Easter (see the works of John Wenham or Bernard Orchard, for example), the need for a "complex" solution to the synoptic problem diminishes, because the stories still existed in human memory. Sources like "M" & "L" would not necessarily have to be written documents at all.


Hypothetical documents stir curiosity because, like the human imagination, they can go anywhere, do anything, or say anything.

Virtually all synoptic scholars acknowledge there were teachings & stories about Jesus in both oral & written form besides the canonical Gospels. However, most acknowledge that our ability to reconstruct those lost sources is limited. Scholars who wish to minimize speculation tend to focus principally on sources that can be directly examined.


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, 2021 at 2:56
  • Define 2/4 source hypotheses.
    – user35953
    Oct 24, 2021 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, 2021 at 13:49
  • Then it is a matter of degree. The simpler the explanation, the higher the probability that more scholars prefer it.
    – user35953
    Oct 24, 2021 at 14:22

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