When people talk about Jesus and even biblical accounts of Jesus, they often imagine a single comprehensive narrative. Reading the text in light of source criticism will likely give you a different impression.

A wood carved nativity scene with the baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and the three magi.
Which gospel account is the nativity scene based upon and are there any liberties taken?
Image courtesy of Jennifer Lewis on Pexels.

At this stage in our study, I want you to not only read the text, but also to note what you are observing and what you are wondering as you do so.

This chart contains 16 major episodes or pericopes found across the gospel accounts traditionally referred to as Matthew, Mark, and Luke. When seen together, you will see that in many ways they overlap (contra the Gospel of John and other known gospels). Hence scholars call these gospels the “Synoptic Gospels (Gk. syn— together, ospethai— to be seen).” But comparing the texts synoptically also reveals some of the differences in the gospel accounts.

I want you to compare treatments of these pericopes, working horizontally (that is, a single pericope as treated in all of the gospels). Write down enough in each square that you can see similarities and differences in the accounts without having to re-read/re-write the entire pericope. If a square does not list any verses, then that particular pericope is not represented in the gospel.

Once you complete the chart, I want you to develop a working theory of composition that explains the similarities and differences in each account. Do not read commentaries or rely on secondary resources that presume to know details of the text or author’s background. (These presumptions are disrupted anyway.) Your theory is based upon a methodical study of your synoptic chart. Be creative, but remember Ockam’s Razor:

“The Law of Parsimony” aka “Occam’s Razor” (attributed to William of Occam). Image courtesy of Brett Jordan on Flickr.

Once you’re done, check out the following discussion of the Synoptic Problem by Duke University professor Mark Goodacre over at Bible Odyssey.

Front page of the website, "Bible Odyssey," with a discussion of The Synoptic Problem as explained by Mark Goodacre. A video and transcript can be found at the linked site.
Click here to read/watch Prof. Goodacre’s discussion of the Synoptic Problem over at Bible Odyssey.

Then come back here and look at some of the solutions that scholars have proposed. (Don’t peek!)

Griesbach Hypothesis–The Gospel of Matthew was written first. The Gospel of Luke borrows from the Gospel of Matthew. And the Gospel of Mark borrows from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Image courtesy of Alecmconroy on Wikimedia Commons.
Two-Source Hypothesis–The Gospel of Mark was written first. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke borrow not only from the Gospel of Mark, but also a source of Jesus’s sayings not found in the Gospel of Mark. Scholars call this hypothetical source “Q” (cf. the German word “Qelle,” meaning source.
Image courtesy of Alecmconroy via Wikimedia Commons.
The Four-Source Hypothesis–In addition to the arguments of the Two-Source Hypothesis, the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke each draw upon their own unique sources that are neither part of Mark nor Q. Image courtesy of SlothMcCarty at Wikimedia Commons.
The Q+/Papias Hypothesis presents a somewhat different view on Q, postulating that it is better understood as a document that imitated the Old Testament book Deuteronomy by strategically collecting and arranging sayings of Jesus (cf. Gk. logoi, sayings). The Gospel of Mark uses this resource, called Q+. The Gospel of Matthew borrows from Q+ and the Gopspel of Mark. The hypothesis then proposes that–based upon some writings from the second-century bishop, Papias of Hierapolis– that there indeed existed a Logoi (which Papias confused as an alternate translation of Matthew–which itself looks a bit like Deuteronomy). Lastly, the author of the Gospel of Luke used all of these sources to construct. Image courtesy of SlothMcCarty at Wikimedia Commons.

In your interactive notebook, make a diagram for your solution and copy down diagrams and explanations of the ones presented above. Then I want you to discuss which of the “professional” solutions is closest to the one you devised as well as where does your’s agrees and departs? You need not write anymore than is in the captions.