Q and the Synoptic Problem

For today’s article, I thought we would look at some modern Biblical Theory regarding the Gospels. While you may find greater spiritual profit in praying with the Scriptures, it is helpful to understand the modern methodologies so that you are better armed against attacks on the faith from some “Biblical Scholars.”

The Synoptic Gospels are Matthew, Mark, and Luke. They are called this because they are incredibly similar in form and content (“synops” means “from the same eye). This leads to what is commonly called “The Synoptic Problem:” Why are these Gospels so similar? What accounts for why they are so much alike? But what also accounts for their differences. We have stories that are found in all three. But we also have stories that are unique to each Gospel. And we have stories that are found only in two of them, but not the third.

I want to be clear up front that we are entering the realm of theory. What we are about to go over is not a matter of doctrine or dogma. The following are the most popular theoretical explanations to account for the evidence.

The most popular theory as to why they are so similar is called “The Two Source Theory.” The theory goes as such:

1. Mark is the first Gospel that is written. Most Bible scholars believe that the first person to ever write down a Gospel was Mark. This includes not only the four canonical Gospels, but any of the Gospels that did not make it into the Bible. One of the reasons why they think this is that Mark is the shortest of the Synoptics. The rule of the thumb is that the earlier drafts are shorter, but the later ones add more detail and complexity. To be sure, this is not an absolute rule. William Shakespeare wrote centuries before Stephen King, but the Bard’s body of work is much more technical and complex.

2. A number of Jesus’ teaching are collected in something called the “Q Source.” The theory goes that at the same time Mark’s Gospel is being passed around, there is also a loose collection of Jesus saying, teachings, and actions. This rough collection of Jesus information is called by scholars the Q Source, because it is an unknown quotient. A big mistake some people make is thinking that we have some copies of the Q Source. We do not. It is a theoretical construct. Why do they theorize Q? Because of the next part of the theory.

3. Matthew and Luke draw from Mark and Q. Years after Mark writes his Gospel, Matthew decides to write one as well. Completely independent of Matthew, Luke in another part of the world also decides to write a Gospel. Both Matthew and Luke (according to the Two-Source Theory) have a copy of Mark, from which each evangelist takes stories. This is why you find stories that are similar in Matthew, Mark, and Luke: because Matthew and Luke took them from Mark. These would be stories like Jesus healing Peter’s Mother-in-Law or the disciples picking wheat on the Sabbath.

But there are some stories that are found in Matthew and Luke, but not in Mark. Where did these stories come from? According to the theory, Matthew and Luke also have access to Q. This explains why there are stories found in those Gospels and not in Mark: because Matthew and Luke took them from the Q Source. Again, I want to emphasize that we do not have an actual, physical Q document. It is completely theoretical, but it is accepted by many as the best explanation to the problem. These stories would be like the three specific temptations Satan gave Jesus in the desert or the Beatitudes.

4. Matthew and Luke draw from their own unique sources. There are stories that are found only in Matthew that are not found in any other Gospel. The theory says that he has a unique source: the M Source. This is a source that neither Mark nor Luke have access to, which is why these stories are only in Matthew. These would be like the Parable of the Fishing Net or Jesus giving Peter the Keys to the Kingdom. Luke also has his own unique source: The L Source. This is a source that neither Matthew nor Mark have access to, which is why these stories are only in Luke. These would be like Jesus’ rejection at Nazareth or the Parable of the Prodigal Son.

Now that we have the Two Source Theory established, you can talk about it from a place of knowledge. Some things to be on the watch for:

Some people use the Two Source Theory to promote the idea that additional detail is a corruption. What that means is that Mark and Q have more authority because they were older and that the extra detail found in Matthew and Luke are less historically reliable because they are embellishments. However, this does not necessarily follow. Part of Mark’s style is his sense of urgency and immediacy. Just because he leaves out details, it does not mean that they did not happen. Also, all of Jesus’ stories were written down much later than the preaching. Just because something is written down slightly later does not make it less legitimate.

Also, as I keep mentioning, people treat Q as if it an actual authoritative document. I had a professor in college say that the parts of Q that were more historical were the ones that did not contain miracles. But this professor was dividing and assessing a document no one has access to. It was clear that Q was being used to justify the professors own biases.

Finally, there are other theories that explain the Synoptic Problem. The Two Source Theory is the most popular now, but it wasn’t always. The original theory was the Matthean Primacy Theory, which was the theory that was accepted for the longest time in the Church. This stated that Matthew wrote his Gospel first. This is one of the reasons why the Gospels are ordered with Matthew first. This theory states that Luke wrote his Gospel with a copy of Matthew in front of him and his own unique L source. And then later, Mark wrote a brief synthesis of both Matthew and Luke together.

There is also another theory I recently heard which says that Matthew wrote the Q Source first as just a loose collection of sayings and stories. But then after Mark writes the first full narrative, Matthew takes Mark and his own Q source and weaves them into his Gospel. And then later Luke uses Matthew and Q to write his.

Which of these theories is correct?

I do not know with certainty. But knowing them may help give us greater insight into how the Gospels were written. At the very least, knowing these theories will prepare you against those who might use these theories to try and undermine your faith.

Copyright 2023, WL Grayson

W.L. Grayson

W.L. Grayson

I am a devoutly Catholic theology teacher who loves a popular culture that often, quite frankly, hates me. I grew up absorbing every movie, TV show, comic book, science fiction novel, etc. I could find. As of today I’ve watched over 2100 movies and tv shows. They take up a huge part of my life. I don’t know that this is a good thing, but it has given me a common vocabulary to draw from in order to illustrate whatever theological point I make in class. I’ve used American Pie the song to explain the Book of Revelation (I’ll post on this some time later) and American Pie the movie to help explain Eucharist (don’t ask). The point is that the popular culture is popular for a reason. It is woven into the fabric of our lives and imaginations, for good or ill. In this blog I will attempt to bring together the things of heaven with the things of earth. Of course this goal may be too lofty for someone like me.

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