The Synoptic Problem and Delbert Burkett’s Multi-Source Hypothesis

The Synoptic Problem is a question of how the first three gospels came to be written. It is as if a teacher has been given three reports and it is obvious that the authors cheated off of one another. The two longer reports look like they branch off from the shorter report but there is also material that the longer reports share than the shorter one doesn’t. Most of this common material are sayings, which leads you to believe there was a note being passed around with nothing but quotes on it, but then the teacher also finds a little bit of non-quote material as well, and so figures it must have either been on an earlier version of the short report or had been added the quotes note being passed around. That is the Two Source Hypothesis, the theory that Matthew and Luke both copied from Mark and a lost sayings source, called Q, independently.

The Two Source Hypothesis is probably one of the only things that the majority of modern Biblical scholars agree on. And yet lately there has been a resurgence of the Farrer Hypothesis in atheist circles, the theory that Luke knew Matthew but decided to mine that gospel almost exclusively for the Q sayings. This is perhaps accredited to Richard Carrier’s fondness for the arguments of Mark Goodacre, who has a pretty big sway in internet circles. But to me this has always seemed to be a step backwards. The Two Source Hypothesis answers a lot of questions about why Matthew and Luke made a lot of the editorial decisions they did that would otherwise seem weird and pointless, especially in an age where you wrote with ink without being able to “go back”. The biggest problem The Two Source Hypothesis has is not inventing a hypothetical gospel without enough evidence but for not being able to explain the “minor agreements” between Matthew and Luke and not being able to explain enough of the complex editing process the gospels went through.

Delbert Burkett appears to have solved that problem with his book, Rethinking the Gospel Sources: From Proto-Mark to Mark. I was thrilled to see that Neil Godfrey posted about his Multi-Source Hypothesis on Vridar. It purports a very complex hypothesis that involves six now lost sources: A, B, C, Proto-Mark, Proto-Mark A and Proto-Mark B. I have used their hypothetical sources in my own Gospel Chart Flowchart.

When I read critics of the Two Source Hypothesis prattle on about “Occam’s Razor”, I always think about how they would probably hate Burkett even more. In a sense, yes, a hypothesis does become weaker the more sources you add to it because the more complicated a hypothesis is, the more chances there are for you to be wrong about something, but if the problem is itself complicated, then a complicated answer will at least be closer to the correct answer than the simple answer, and any analysis of the Synoptic Problem shows it is in fact a very complicated problem.

Proponents of Farrer think they can answer a complicated problem with a simple answer, but the questions about why the textual replication process became so complicated for such a simple model are never adequately explained. The “entropy” within the puzzle is not solved but is just delegated to the unfathomable mind of the author: Why did Luke jump around dozens of times like that if he was just copying from Mark and Matthew? “Who knows. People do crazy things.”

That’s why I think the Two Source Hypothesis is a far better than Farrer: it actually provides good technical answers for a large number of the particularly weird complications about the Synoptic Problem. It probably only answers something like 75% of the textual problems regarding why the author jumped around, but that’s better than just brushing them off as incomprehensible fancies of the copyist. The real problems for Two Source Hypothesis advocates come when they try to smooth over the “minor agreements” by introducing absurd ideas like Q3, where John the Baptist references are somehow added to a Sayings Source.

As silly as it may seem that each of the gospel writers had something like 3 to 6 sources sprawled out around them as they wrote, Burkett’s Hypothesis actually provides an explanation for 95% of the textual problems with jumping around: the authors were not jumping back and forth within one source text for no apparent reason but were jumping between sources so as to combine smaller gospels into larger and larger gospels. Using Burkett’s graphs, you can see that the creation of the gospels were far more systematic and linear than either Farrer or Two Source Hypothesis advocates ever dreamed possible.

Although the vast majority of stories in Mark are earlier versions, the story of the “unclean spirit” in Matt. 17:14 // Luke 9:38 is more original than the version of the story in Mark 9:14-27. If you remove all of the text unique to Mark, you get a relatively complete internally consistent story about an “unspeaking and mute spirit”. This suggests that has conflated the story of the “unclean spirit” that throws a boy into the fire and water with a different story about an “unspeaking and mute spirit” whose father begs Jesus to help his unbelief. This is shown by the fact that a crowd forms in Mark 9:25 despite there already being one in 9:17. The unique story that Mark conflates centers on the faith of the father while the common story centers on the faith of the disciples. Mark’s unique story offers a climax in 9:26 where the reader is led to believe that the child may have died before a twist ending where Jesus pulls him up, showing the child to be both alive and cured, but the effect is ruined because the conclusion from the common story informs the reader beforehand that the spirit had left him and that he had been cured. This conflation is further evidenced by the fact that Mark 9:14-16 uses a very high concentration of characteristic Markan language (“around them”, “arguing”, “immediately”, “they were astounded”, “running forward”, “they greeted”, “he asked”, “around you arguing”) that both Matthew and Luke omit. These words are used by Matthew and Luke in non-Markan contexts so there is no reason to believe that Matthew or Luke disliked these words and chose to edit them out all 24 times that Mark uses them. This suggests that all three Synoptic gospels used now lost source(s).

Mark also conflates miracle story elements that are found only in Matthew with miracle story elements that are found only in Luke:

Mark 1:32: “When evening came [Matt. 8:16], when the sun set [Luke 4:40], they were bringing to him all the ill and the demonized [Matt. 4:24; 8:16]. And the whole city was gathered at the door. And he healed many ill with various diseases. And he cast out many demons. And he did not allow the demons to speak, because they knew him [Luke 4:41].

Mark 1:42: “The leprosy left him [Luke 5:13] and it was cleansed [Matt. 8:3].”

Mark 3:7: “And Jesus with his disciples [Luke 6:17] withdrew [Matt. 12:15] to the sea [Luke 5:1]. And a large crowd followed from Galilee [Matt. 4:25; Luke 5:17] and from Judea and from Jerusalem [Matt 4:25; Luke 5:17, 6:17] and from Idumea and across the Jordan [Matt 4:25] and around Tyre and Sidon [Luke 6:17]. A large crowd, hearing what he was doing, came to him [Luke 5:1, 6:18]. And he told his disciples that a boat should wait for him because of the crowd, lest they crush him [Luke 5:3]. For he healed many, with the result that those who had afflictions would fall upon him that they might touch him [Luke 6:19]. And the unclean spirits when they saw him, fell before him and cried out saying, “You are the Son of God.” [Luke 4:41]. And he ordered them repeatedly not to make him known [Matt. 12:16; Luke 4:41].”

Mark 6:30: “And the apostles gather to Jesus. And they reported [“apangello”; Matt. 14:12] to him all the things they had done [Luke 9:10] and the things they had taught. And he says to them, “Come, you privately [Luke 9:10], to a deserted spot and rest for a little.” For there were many coming and going and they did not have time even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a deserted spot privately [Matt. 14:13].”

Mark 6:33: And they saw them going and many found out [Luke 9:11]. [“The crowds followed them.” -Matt. 14:13, Luke 9:11.] And on foot from all the cities [Matt. 14:13] they ran together there and preceded them. And getting out he saw a large crowd and felt compassion for them [Matt 14:14], because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them many things [~Luke 9:11]. [“And he healed their sick” -Matt. 14:14; Luke 9:11.]

Mark 8:37: “A great [Matt. 8:24] storm of wind [Luke 8:23] came up, and the waves broke into the boat [Matt. 8:24] so that the boat was already filled up [Luke 8:23].”

Mark 5:2: “When he got out of the boat, immediately a man from the tombs [Matt. 8:28] with an unclean spirit met him, and he had his dwelling in the tombs [Luke 8:27]

Mark 5:12: “Send us into the pigs [Matt. 8:31], so that we may go into them [Luke 8:32].”

Mark 5:28: “For she said, ‘If I touch even his garments, I will be healed [Matt. 9:21]. And immediately the fount of her blood dried up [Luke 8:44].”

Mark 5:30: “Turning around in the crowd [Matt. 9:22], he said ‘Who touched my garments?’ [Luke 8:45]”

Mark 5:34: “Go in peace [Luke 8:48], and be healed of your affliction [Matt. 9:22].”

Mark 5:38: “And he sees an uproar [Matt. 9:23] with people weeping and grieving greatly [Luke 8:52].”

Mark 5:37: “And he did not let anyone follow with him except Peter, James, and John… [Luke 8:51]. Throwing everyone out [Matt. 9:25], he took along the father and mother of the child [Luke 8:51].

Mark:14:12-31: On the first day of the Festival of Unleavened Bread [Matt. 26:17], when it was customary to sacrifice the Passover lamb [Luke 22:7], Jesus’ disciples asked him, “Where do you want us to go and make preparations for you to eat the Passover?” [Matt. 26:17] So he sent two of his disciples [Luke 22:8], telling them, “Go into the city [Matt. 26:18], and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him. [Luke 22:10] Say to the owner of the house he enters, ‘The Teacher asks: Where is my guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ He will show you a large room upstairs, furnished and ready. Make preparations for us there.” The disciples left, went into the city and found things just as Jesus had told them. So they prepared the Passover. When evening came, Jesus arrived with the Twelve. While they were reclining at the table eating, he said, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me—one who is eating with me.” They were saddened, and one by one they said to him, “Surely you don’t mean me?” “It is one of the Twelve,” he replied, “one who dips bread into the bowl with me. [Matt. 26:20-23]”


*The world “polus” (“much”) is used 58 times, of which Matthew fails to copy the word or material 76% of the time and Luke fails to copy it 84% of the time.

*Of the 13 times that Mark talks about Jesus looking around, the crowd moving around Jesus, Matthew omits all 13 and Luke omits 11. (3:5, 3:32, 3:34, 4:10, 5:32, 6:6, 6:36 9:8, 9:14, 10:23, 11:11, 3:32, 3:34)

*Matthew and Luke both omit all 9 instances where Mark uses the phrase “he began to teach”, “he taught them”, or “in his teaching”.

*Matthew and Luke both omit all 7 instances in which Jesus is trying to get privacy from crowds that are so large they interfere with normal activities. (1:33, 1:45, 2:1, 3:20, 6:31, 7:24, 9:30)

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About Jeff Q

I live in New Orleans. I have a Bachelors in Computer Science and a Masters in English Literature. My interests include ancient history, religion, mythology, philosophy, and fantasy/sci-fi. My Twitter handle is @Bahumuth.

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