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The Christian Scriptures (New Testament)

Introduction. The Synoptic Problem.

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These are books which describe Jesus' life.

The word "gospel" is a translation of the Greek word "euangelion" which means "good news." On the order of 40 to 50 gospels were written in the first and second century CE by various groups within the primitive Christian movement. Each was believed to be accurate by the group or group that used them.

Four of them (Mark, Matthew, Luke and John) were accepted by the early Christian movement as inspired by God, although John was only accepted after much debate and resistance because of its large Gnostic content.

These four were approved for inclusion in the official canon during the 4th century CE, and are found today in every Bible. Why were there only four? St. Irenaeus explained:

"There are four principle winds, four pillars that hold up the sky, and four corners of the universe; therefore, it is only right that there be four gospels."

The Gospel of Thomas is growing in acceptance among liberal theologians. It appears to include many sayings of Jesus that are not found in the four canonical gospels.

All of the original copies of the gospels have been lost. We must rely upon hand-written copies which are an unknown number of replications removed from the originals. The oldest known surviving part of a gospel dates from about 125 CE. It consists of a few passages from an unknown gospel. Another ancient manuscript, a portion of the Gospel of John, is also dated to about 125 CE. Remaining gospel manuscripts date to the third century CE or later.

A helpful text:

Robert W. Funk, et al., "The Five Gospels: : What Did Jesus Really Say? The Search for the AUTHENTIC Words of Jesus," HarperOne, (1996). Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store. Amazon customer rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Ilene Cooper of The Booklist writes:

"Based on the work of the Jesus Seminar, which brought together a group of biblical scholars, this new translation of and commentary on the five Gospels offers an answer to the perennial question, What did Jesus really say? The group not only surveyed all the surviving ancient texts for words attributed to Jesus, but also examined the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas. Then, juxtaposing the Synoptic Gospels against John and Thomas, the seminar scholars began a long and arduous process to see if they could discover which sayings are close to what Jesus said, which might have originated with Jesus, those that are not his (though the ideas may be), and those that were created by his followers or borrowed from folklore. The story of how the scholars put together this translation is fascinating in its own right, but even more so is the color-coded New Testament itself, bolstered by enlightening commentary that explains why and how category decisions were made. A strong addition to religion collections."

The "Synoptic Problem"

The similarities and differences among the first three gospels have given rise to much speculation: 1

bullet There are passages among the three that are identical or almost exactly the same. (Consider Matthew 8:1-4, Mark 1:40-44 and Luke 5:12-14.). Theologians have concluded that the gospels are linked in some way; most believe that the author of one gospel copied or adapted passages from another. 2
bullet Many nearly identical passages are found in Matthew and Luke, but are absent from Mark. These total over 200 verses. Many Bible scholars believe that Matthew and Luke were unaware of each other's writing. Thus, they conclude that both based part of their gospel on another document, usually called the Gospel of Q. "Q" stands for the German word "Quelle" which means "source." An example is Matthew 10:26-33 and Luke 12:2-9
bullet Matthew and Luke also contain unique material not present in the other gospel. This apparently came from two different traditions, of which each author had access to only one.
bullet Analysis of passages that are similar but not identical is called "redaction criticism." It can give insight into the order in which the Gospels were probably written, their date of composition, and the development of theological beliefs in the early Christian movements.

Since the books themselves are undated, the order in which they were written is not absolutely clear. John McVay lists some theories: 3

bullet Oral Theory: The three gospels were written independently and all based on "structured and durable oral traditions."
bullet Augustinian Theory: The three gospels were written in the order: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John; each author had access to the earlier gospels
bullet Two  Source Theory: Both Matthew and Luke based their gospels on Mark and the lost Gospel of Q.
bullet Four  Source Theory: Both Matthew and Luke based their gospels on Mark and the lost Gospel of Q. In addition, Matthew includes some material from a third source, often called "M". Luke similarly includes passages from another source, often called "L". Both L and M were probably oral traditions.
bullet Two Gospel theory: Matthew was written first. Luke was written later and based on Matthew. Mark was written last, and based on Luke and Matthew.
bullet Theory of Markan Priority without Q: Mark was written first. Matthew was written later and based on Mark. Luke was written last, and based on Mark and Matthew.

The Augustinian Theory was accepted by the Christian church for most of its history. The Four Source Theory is supported by most mainline and liberal theologians today. One source estimates that over 90% of contemporary Gospel scholars  accept this theory and the existence of the Gospel of Q. 4

The Synoptic Problem is not particularly important to most conservative theologians. Since they regard all of the gospels as inerrant (free of error) and inspired by God, it matters little who wrote them, when they were written, and which author had access to which documents.

We will base the essays on this Web site on the assumption that the Four Source Theory is valid.

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The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. John McVay, "The Synoptic Problem,"
  2. Matthew Sachse: "The Synoptic Problem,"
  3. B.H. Throckmorton, Jr., "Gospel Parallels: A Synopsis of the First Three Gospels," Thomas Nelson, Nashville, TN, (1979).
  4. Marcus Borg, Consulting Editor, "The Lost Gospel Q: The Original Sayings of Jesus",Ulysses Press, Berkeley CA (1996) , P. 15 & 28

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Copyright 1996 to 2009 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2009-SEP-22
Author: B.A. Robinson

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