Are the Synoptic Gospels Interdependent? Part 1

Post Author: Bill Pratt

It seems clear that the first three Gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke – are interdependent.  That is, they share common literary and oral sources.  Daniel Wallace, Professor of New Testament Studies, lays out the case for this interdependence in an article called “The Synoptic Problem.”  Most Christians have given this very little thought, but I think that the more we know about the process God used to give us the gospels, the better we can understand them.

Wallace presents four arguments for the interdependence of the synoptic gospels.  First, there is the agreement in wording.  According to Wallace, “The remarkable verbal agreement between the gospels suggests some kind of interdependence.”  Wallace notes that many laypeople reject this idea and argue that the Holy Spirit inspired each of the synoptic authors to write identical words in many cases, that the gospels are all independent of each other.  But does this make sense?  Wallace thinks not.

First, it cannot explain the differences among the writers—unless it is assumed that verbal differences indicate different events.  In that case, one would have to say that Jesus was tempted by the devil twice, that the Lord’s Supper was offered twice, and that Peter denied the Lord six to nine times! In fact, one might have to say that Christ was raised from the dead more than once if this were pressed!

Second, if Jesus spoke and taught in Aramaic (at least sometimes, if not usually), then why are these verbal agreements preserved for us in Greek?  It is doubtful that each writer would have translated Jesus’ sayings in exactly the same way so often.

Third, even if Jesus spoke in Greek exclusively, how is it that not only his words but his deeds are recorded in verbal identity?  There is a material difference between remembering the verbiage of what one heard and recording what one saw in identical verbiage.

Fourth, when one compares the synoptic materials with John’s Gospel, why are there so few verbal similarities?  On an independent hypothesis, either John or the synoptics are wrong, or else John does not record the same events at all in the life of Jesus.

Wallace’s second argument for interdependence is agreement in order.  “Although there is a great deal of disagreement in the order of the pericopae [story units] among the synoptic gospels, there is an even greater amount of agreement.”  In other words, there is a lot of commonality in the way the three synoptic writers ordered the stories about Jesus.

A counter-argument here may be that the reason the order of the stories are the same is because they are in chronological order.  Wallace, however, notes that the gospel pericopae are not all in strictly chronological order.  Why is that?

First, there is occasional disagreement in the order.  For example, many of Matthew’s parables in chapter 13 are found in Luke 8 or Luke 13. The scribe who approached Jesus about the great commandment is placed in the Passion Week in Matthew and Mark, and vaguely arranged elsewhere in Luke.

Second, it is evident that quite a bit of material is grouped topically in the gospels—e.g., after the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew come several miracles by Jesus.  Indeed, “Matthew has furthermore arranged his entire Gospel so that collections of narratives alternate with collections of sayings.”

Third, the early patristic writers (e.g., Papias) recognized that the gospel writers did not follow a strict chronological arrangement.

Fourth, there is a studied reserve in the gospels from pinpointing the dates of the various incidents.  Introductory comments such as, “immediately,” “after this,” “on another occasion,” “one day,” etc. are the norm.  In other words, there seems to be no intent on the part of the evangelists to present a strict chronological sequence of events.

In part 2 of this series, we will look at the final two arguments that Wallace gives for the interdependence of the synoptic gospels.

  • Boz

    Daniel Baird Wallace (June 5, 1952-) is professor of New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary where he has been tenured since 1995. He is also the founder and Executive Director of the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts, that is digitizing all known manuscripts of the bible (by taking digital photographs).

  • Christians should not be surprised that authors of some of the books in the New Testament “plagiarized” the writings of other New Testament authors, ie, the authors of Matthew and Luke copying huge chunks of Mark, often word for word, into their own gospels.

    This habit is not new in the Bible. There is evidence that Old Testament writers did the exact same thing. An example: the entire chapters of II Kings 19 and Isaiah 37 are almost word for word identical!

    If the Bible is the inspired Word of God, why would God have the author of one inspired book of the Bible copy almost word for word large sections, sometimes entire chapters, from another inspired book of the Bible? Is that how divine inspiration works?

    So should we simply accept this “word for word copying” as the will of the Almighty, accepting it blindly by faith, continuing to insist that God wrote the Bible, or should we consider the overwhelming evidence that the books of the Bible are human works of literature, no more divinely inspired than any other work of fallible human authors?