Who wrote the Synoptic Gospels?

When I lecture on the synoptic gospels (synoptic means "seeing together") in my Who Wrote the Bible?, class at Columbus State University students frequently ask:

Why did the earliest canonical written gospel not appear until the late 60s CE?

Which gospel was written first and why?

Why is Matthew's Gospel the first gospel in the New Testament even though it was probably not written first?

Did Matthew, John Mark, and Dr. Luke write the synoptic gospels or are they pseudopigraphal?

And most importantly... why is there such remarkable literary parallelism between the synoptic gospels?


On February 27, 1933 the Reichstag (German Parliament) in Berlin was set on fire. Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party, looking around for a suitable “scapegoat”, blamed the Communists. Many of them were executed for it, even though they probably did not do it and everybody knew it.

In the winter of 64 CE a similar thing happened in Rome. A great fire devastated two thirds of the city and the mad emperor, Nero, who himself probably started the fire, found his scapegoat in the new sect of “Christians.” In the horror that followed, which even turned the stomachs of the Roman Senator Tacitus, hundreds of Christians were brutally slaughtered — including Peter and probably Paul.

Left: The first page of Mark in Minuscule 544, a Greek minuscule manuscript of the New Testament, c. 337.

It was shortly after this that a papyrus roll bearing the title: arche tou euayyeliou Iesou Christou (“The Gospel of Jesus Christ”) appeared...

This is the book we know as the earliest written Gospel...

It is what we call “The Gospel According to Mark” and it begins the synoptic gospels tradition.

Why was a gospel not written until 66 CE?

In graduate school my New Testament literature professor, Dr. Ron Cottle, emphasized repeatedly that “life precedes literature." He urged us to study carefully the "soil" of the first century context of the primitive church in the Ancient Near East out of which the synoptic gospels and the other books of the New Testament grew.

In my class I show students the following chart of the first century CE to demonstrate this principle.

The first thirty years I call the period of Inception. This is the time of the "historical Jesus", his life, death, and resurrection (0-30 CE).

The period of Expansion (30-60 CE) sees the Jesus movement grow from a small sect of

Judaism in Jerusalem to a growing international religion spread throughout the Mediterranean region and increasingly centered in the imperial capital of Rome. The method of gospel transmission is oral. Scholars call this "living story of Jesus" as the Kerygma (from the Greek verb kerusso, meaning to proclaim in the manner of a herald).

The term Kerygma means the consequence or outflow of what is preached...

...and according to Paul it is the foolishness of the kerygma that saves (1 Cor. 1:21)...

...and it was during this period that James and Paul write the first books of the New Testament.

Students are often surprised to learn that all of Paul's letters predate the synoptic gospels.

It is during the period of Consolidation (60-100 CE) that most of the books of the New Testament, including the synoptic gospels, are written.

Why was a gospel not written sooner? I suggest five reasons:

* The early disciples expected Jesus to return immediately.

* The main facts of Christ’s life were common knowledge among the people of Palestine.

* The eye-witnesses were dying.

* There were many different competing versions of the story of Jesus.

* Believers were suffering for Christ under Roman persecution and needed a record of Jesus’s faithfulness in suffering for them to give them courage and strength.

What is the "Synoptic Problem"?

Synoptic propblem

Look carefully at the parallel passages from Matthew and Luke. Identical wording is rendered in red. This illustrates the critical problem of the remarkable literary parallelism between the synoptic gospels.

The task of the “synoptic problem” is to discover the very early sources on the life and teaching of Jesus that were available to the synoptic writers.

When you place the contents of the Matthew, Mark, and Luke side by side and you soon become aware of the “Synoptic Problem.” We can easily explain parallel incidents, but the actual words are also parallel... and not just very important words as would be the case if you read the same story in three different newspapers.

The “Synoptic Problem” is this: The synoptic gospels, though independently written, must have drawn much of its material from a source or sources also available to one or both of the other two.

The above chart shows the literary relationship between the synoptic gospels.

76% of Mark is reproduced almost word-for-word in both Matthew and Luke. An additional 18% of Mark is reproduced in Matthew but not in Luke, and an further 3% of Mark is in Luke but not in Matthew. This means that 97% of Mark is reproduced in Matthew and/or Luke. Only 3% of Mark's material is unique to Mark and not found in Matthew or Luke.

Matthew contains 606 of Mark’s 661 verses. Luke contains 320 of Mark’s 661 verses. Of the 55 verses of Mark which Matthew does not reproduce, Luke reproduces 31; therefore there are only 24 verses in all of Mark not reproduced somewhere in Matthew or Luke.

The chart also shows that 23% of Luke is word-for-word identical to 25% of Matthew, but this is material unique to these gospels and not found in Mark. This suggests another literary source in independent of Mark used by Matthew and Luke in the evolution of the synoptic gospels tradition.

Scholars have made various attempts to solve the synoptic problem...

Oral tradition theory

According to this theory, behind the synoptic gospels lies a common oral story of Jesus, which all three evangelists knew. This solution does not explain the minute resemblances in wording among the synoptic gospels. So it must be a “literary” problem.

Two-Source Hypothesis (2SH)

Synoptic problem

Originally conceived in Germany by Christian H. Weisse in 1838, the 2SH culminated in Burnett Hillman Streeter’s (1874-1937), The Four Gospels: A Study of Origins (London: Macmillan, 1924). Today the 2SH commands the support of most biblical scholars from all denominations.

The first principle of the 2SH is the priotity of Mark.

Mark is earliest written formal account of Christ’s life. Luke and Matthew use Mark as one of their main sources. Scholars offer three proofs:

* Common content: 97% of Mark is included in Matthew and Luke.

* Common wording

* Common order: Matthew and Luke almost always follow Mark’s order of events, and when one departs from it, the other always follows it.

The cumulative force of these facts compels us to conclude that the earliest written Gospel is Mark.

The second principle of 2SH is that Matthew and Luke both used a second written source. Scholars call it “Q” (from the German Quelle, meaning "source"). This explains the words (and verses) in Matthew and Luke, but not in Mark.

Conclusion: Mark was a source for Matthew and Luke, both of whom also independently used a now lost source called Q. 2HS is the generally accepted theory of the evolution of the synoptic gospels.

Click here to learn more about the lost source Q.

Four Source Hypothesis (4HS)

Synoptic problem

20% of Matthew's gospel is unique to Matthew and 35% of Luke's gospel is unique to Luke. An expanded version of Streeter's hypotheses postulated Matthew’s and Luke’s own special sources as distinct, written sources (designated by scholars M and L).

Some critics have theorized that Q and L constituted a "Proto-Luke", perhaps dated as early as Mark's gospel, before being incorporated into the final version Luke at a later date.

The 4SH proposes at least four principle literary sources behind the synoptic gospels: Mark, Q, M, and L.

Who wrote the synoptic gospels?

None of the synoptic gospels name their author or authors. In each case authorial attribution dates from the second century CE.

The Gospel According to St. Mark


Left: Fra Angelico's Head of St. Mark, c. 1437-46

Papias, Bishop of Hieropolis, Asia Minor (c. 112-155 CE), gives us the author’s name, though it is not attached to the gospel itself around 150 CE):

“Mark, having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately all that he remembered of the things said and done by the Lord, but not, however, in order. For neither did he hear the Lord, nor did he follow Him, but afterward, as I said, Peter, who adapted his teachings to the needs (of the hearers), but not as though he were drawing up a connected account of the Lord’s oracles. So then Mark made no mistake in thus recording of the Lord’s oracles. So then Mark made no mistake in thus recording some things just as he remembered them, for he made it his one care to omit nothing that he had heard and to make no false statement therein.”

Other early statements relating to the authorship of Mark include the Anti-Marcionite Prologue (160-180), Irenaeus (c. 180), Clement of Alexandria (150-213), Origen (185-254), and Jerome (347-420).

Right: Beginning of a Latin Gospel of Mark, Book of Durrow (7th Cent.)

From 1 Peter 5:13 we know that Mark was with Peter in Rome (“... my son Mark”). This agrees with the later Papias tradition, which is supported by Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen and Eusebius that associates Mark with Rome. If this is correct we could call Mark’s Gospel “Reminiscences of Jesus as told by St. Peter to his friend John Mark.”

The majority of scholars date the Gospel about 65-70 CE.

Mark's sources include:

Oral Traditions:

The Kerygma; Peter's memories—Mark was his amanuensis (secretary) and interpreter; possibly his own personal memories of Jesus’ last week in Jerusalem and at his mother’s home.

Written Sources:

Document describing the conflicts between Jesus and Jewish religious leaders; collection of parables; Chapter 13 originally may have been an independent document (dated after 70 CE); the Passion story; the names of the Twelve; a account of the Work of John the Baptist.

The Gospel According to St. Matthew


Left: Icon of Saint Matthew, c. 1295-1317

Why is Matthew first in the New Testament canon?

First, it presents Jesus as Messiah—the FULFILLMENT of Old Testament prophecies. Second, it proves that the Church is the consummation and continuation of the saving purposes of God begun with Abraham in the Old Testament.

Papias attributes this gospel to Matthew c. 150: “Matthew composed his sayings (logia) in the Hebrew dialect, and every one translated it as he was able.” Other ancient statements relating to the authorship of Matthew are found in the writings of Irenaeus (c. 180), Origen (185-254), Eusebius (c. 325), Cyril of Jerusalem (c. 350), Epiphanius (c. 350), and Jerome (347-420).

The nature of Matthew’s witness to the gospel as well as later references to Matthew in the Letters of Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, suggests to scholars likely provenance (place of composition) in Antioch-in-Syria. Most critics date the composition of the gospel around 85 CE.

The Sources of Matthew:

* Mark and Q.

* Matthew’s special source M: this source emphasizes observance of the Torah and “tradition of the elders.” It describes no attempt to convert the gentiles. It departs from other materials in the account in its interpretation of the difference between the Jewish and Christian attitudes towards the Law. It Shows a distinctive attitude toward the Church.

* Other sources such as a supposed Antiochene tradition, as well as a collections of parables.

The Gospel According to St. Luke and Acts


Right: St. Luke by Andrea Mantegna, c. 1453-1454.

In addition to contributing to the synoptic gospels, traditionally Luke is believed to be the author of Acts.

Internal evidences pointing to common authorship of Luke and Acts include:

* Acts is described as a continuation of gospel account.

* Tote the dedicatory prefaces of both are to Theophilus (Luke 1:1-4 and Acts 1:1-2).

* Luke and Acts show homogeneity of style. About 700 words in Luke-Acts are used nowhere else in the New Testament.

* Medical interest shown in both Luke and Acts by correct use of medical language and descriptions of miracles of cure, sorcery, and magic.

External evidence relating to the authorship of Luke and Acts include the Anti-Marcionite Prologue (c. 150-180):

“Luke was a Syrian of Antioch, a physicians by profession, a disciple of the apostles and later a follower of Paul until his martyrdom, serving the Lord without distraction, without a wife, without children. At the age of eighty-four he died in Boeotia, full of the Holy Spirit. Although gospels already existed—the one according to Matthew written in Judea, the one according to Mark in Italy—he was impelled by the Holy Spirit to write this whole gospel among those dwelling about Achaea, making clear in his preface the fact that other gospels were written before his, and that it was necessary to set forth the accurate narrative of the Dispensation to gentile believers, so that they should not be distracted by Jewish fables nor, deceived by heretical and empty fancies, miss the mark of the truth... And afterward the same Luke wrote the Acts of the Apostles; later John, the apostle, one of the Twelve, wrote the Apocalypse on the Island of Patmos, and after that the gospel.”

Other ancient statements affirming Lukan authorship of Luke-Acts are found in the Muratorian Canon (c. 170) and the writings of Irenaeus (c. 180), Clement of Alexandria (150- 213), Tertullian (c. 207-210), Origen (185- 254), Eusebius (c. 325), and Jerome (c. 347-420).

When was Luke written?

Some scholars suggest a possible Proto-Luke as early as 60-62 CE. Most agree that the final version is dated 85-90 CE. This is based on Luke's extensive used of Mark. Luke 21 indicates that the fall of Jerusalem (70 CE) had already happened and that the persecution of Christians by Domitian (81-96 CE) was underway. However, it must have been written before John’s gospel (c. 95 CE) as John seems to have had a knowledge of Luke’s gospel.

Sources used by Luke:

* Mark and Q

* A source used only by Luke (L)

* Oral Tradition

* Birth and infancy narratives

Luke-Acts could be called The History of Christianity, Parts 1 and 2:

Volume 1—The Story of How the Gospel Began with Jesus in Galilee and Jerusalem

Volume 2—The Story of How His Apostles Carried the Gospel from Jerusalem to Rome

Return from Synoptic Gospels to Who Wrote the Bible? home page.

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