Studying the Synoptic Gospels: Origin and Interpretation, A Critical Review


Robert H. Stein’s Studying the Synoptic Gospels: Origin and Interpretation is an excellent work that is in its second edition, which provides an excellent introduction to the scholarship concerning the synoptic problem. It goes deep enough into the studies of the Synoptics to satisfy experienced theologians while remaining comprehensible to the uninitiated reader. The bulk of the book is focused upon Stein’s proposed solution that Matthew and Luke used Mark plus the hypothetical Q material to write their gospels.


To any reader of the gospels, it becomes obvious that there is overlapping material amongst Mark, Matthew, and Luke. With further readings, it will become noticeable that these three, known as the synoptic gospels, agree on much, but variance does exist between their accounts. Although it is reasonable to think that the variance of the material is the problem, but the reality is regarding the extensive nature of the common material.[1] It is expected that the multiple accounts are similar in the story that they tell, but it is “how” they tell the material so similarly that gives rise to the question of how this came to be. Stein notes three major ways in which they agree: the wording of the accounts, the arrangement of the periscopes, and parenthetical material.[2] Additionally, Luke claims to have used other narratives to compile his, [3] and unique forms of Old Testament scripture are utilized (neither from the Masoretic, nor Septuagint).[4] While Stein covers many theories, it is his conclusion that Mark was written prior to Matthew and Luke, thus allowing Matthew and Luke to use Mark and additional material to write their narratives.[5]

In support of a Markan priority, Stein offers seven primary arguments. First, when common material is compared, Mark is found to contains greater detail than both Matthew and Luke, although the overall length of Mark’s narrative is shorter. For this reason, Mark cannot be viewed as an abridgment of Matthew and Luke.[6] Secondly, the superior grammar of Matthew and Luke may be viewed as an improvement over Mark’s account.[7] It is unlikely that Mark would have read either of their accounts and then chosen to write more poorly than theirs. Thirdly, Mark contains multiple instances containing a more difficult reading than Matthew or Luke’s accounts. It is more probable that Matthew and Luke changed their accounts in favor of less problematic readings.[8] A piece of fourth powerful evidence is the verbal and order agreements amongst the Synoptics. Agreements exist between Matthew-Mark and Mark-Luke, but rarely as Matthew-Luke, indicating a Markan priority.[9] Stein’s fifth argument regards occurrences of literary agreement that “best explained by a Matthean abbreviation or rewording of Mark.”[10] In more modern scholarship, a sixth argument may be made from the redaction criticism perspective. It is easily argued that Matthew and Luke used Mark in their accounts; however, it is difficult to make the case that Mark utilized Matthew or Luke.[11] As the search for the most primitive gospel unfolded, a seventh reason became evident. Mark’s use of less developed theological titles for Jesus than Matthew and Luke indicate it is likely an earlier gospel.[12]

If Matthew and Luke used Mark to write their gospels, it is difficult to know if they used the Mark we have today or if it was an earlier version. It is possible that a predecessor of the Markan account, Ur-Markus, may have been used.[13] Ultimately, Stein argues these proposals create more problems than they solve; thus, it is unnecessary to argue these possibilities.[14] A hypothetical source called Q may be the answer to material that both Matthew and Luke share that is not found in Mark. Stein admits that the Q hypothesis has problems, but he argues that Luke using Matthew or Matthew using Luke is far more problematic.[15] The Q hypothesis is not easily proven as the proposed Q material has not been found, so it remains entirely theoretical. While the Q hypothesis relies on a Markan priority, it possesses less certainty amongst the two theories.[16]

Critical Analysis

Stein provided extensive coverage of many theories regarding the synoptic problem; however, the bulk of his material was in support of his conclusion. This is not surprising as it is popular in modern scholarship, and his arguments are convincing. Stein’s argument for a Markan priority is thorough and explains much of the synoptic problem. Although it cannot be proven with absolute certainty, the largest portion of the puzzle has been explained by a highly probably theory. It makes no unreasonable claim, and logic would conclude that the gospels were not likely written at the same time, so one of them preceded the others. The question remaining is whether the other two gospels utilized the earlier one or not. With the evidence presented, it is likely that Matthew and Luke did use Mark or something from the lineage of a Markan gospel.

What is more difficult to accept is that a theorized source, called Q, existed and was used by Matthew and Luke. It does explain some of the shared material of Matthew and Luke that Mark does not contain, but it is hard to accept any well-defined features of what Q would have contained. At most, accepting a vague extra source or sources is the safest bet to explain these issues.  As Stein states, “any solution to the Synoptic Problem is and will always remain a theory.”[17] For that reason, theories should not completely alter our views of the gospels, but they can help us understand them better. Without absolutes, all tools must be carefully utilized, and if used properly, they may unlock deeper mysteries overlooked in prior history.

[1] C. M. Tuckett, “Synoptic Problem.” Edited by David Noel Freedman. The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 263.

[2] Robert H Stein, “Studying the Synoptic Gospels: Origin and Interpretation. Second Edition” (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), 29.

[3] Luke 1:1-4, (ESV).

[4] Stein, 29.

[5] Ibid., 151.

[6] Ibid., 94.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 67.

[9] Stein, 94-95.

[10] Ibid., 95.

[11] Ibid., 84-85.

[12] Ibid., 91-93.

[13] Ibid., 151.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid., 121.

[16] Stein, 151.

[17]Stein, 94.

Latest posts by Gordon Bland (see all)

Gordon Bland

I am a seminary student working toward my M.Div. While I grew up Pentecostal, within my first semester of seminary, I came to a different understanding of the Word and theology. I am now Reformed Baptist. #1689 I love teaching others about Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, for it was Christ that transformed me. For a number of years, I was a militant atheist and substance abuser. If God can change me, I know he can do the same for you! I am but a wretch, yet He still chose to give me grace. He truly is amazing and deserves all our praise!

%d bloggers like this: