A New Solution to the Synoptic Problem

Karl Keating

November 12, 2013

My friend Dennis Barton lives near Liverpool, England, and operates an apostolate called The Church in History Information Centre. Over the last several decades he has defended the Church from many erroneous historical claims. He also has had an interest in scriptural disputes.

Dennis became friends with the late Bernard Orchard, OSB, one of the twentieth century's top biblical scholars. One of Orchard's lasting interests was the Synoptic Problem: What is the literary relationship between the Gospels written by Matthew, Mark, and Luke, which appear so much alike? In particular, what was the order of their composition?

Taking cues from Orchard, and expanding somewhat on the latter's ideas, Dennis has come up with an interesting hypothesis, one that undercuts the prevailing theory of Markan priority.

The traditional (also called Augustinian) sequence of composition has been Matthew, then Mark, then Luke. The modern theory of Markan priorty says that Mark wrote first, followed by Matthew and Luke. Dennis thinks both theories are wrong.

He believes the order of writing was not the same as the order of publication. The traditional listing gives only the order of publication. The order of writing actually was Matthew, then Luke, then Mark. Here is Dennis's argument:

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For centuries it was recognised that borrowing had taken place between Matthew, Mark, and Luke, but there had been little interest in researching how it had occurred. Then in 1764 Henry Owen, an Anglican vicar, claimed that Mark had borrowed from Matthew and Luke. Owen’s claim was ignored in England. In Germany, scholars upholding Jerome’s sequence (Matthew–Mark–Luke) condemned it, but Owen had awakened an interest in a line of research which was then adopted by others. In 1838 Christian Weisse claimed that a borrower would not deliberately turn the good quality Greek of Matthew and Luke into the poor quality of Mark. Weisse concluded that Mark had written first.

Ancient Christian historians had unanimously recorded Matthew as writing first. Catholics claimed that the Gospel writers and these historians showed Christ founding a visible Church. The acceptance of the Markan priority theory, by destroying the reliability of the ancient historians, would undermine the Catholic argument. The theory also would strike at the heart of biblical Protestantism.

In 1893 Pope Leo XIII condemned the theory and, in 1901, established the Papal Biblical Commission (PBC) to oversee the teaching of Scripture. The PBC decided to defend Jerome’s sequence and became so conservative that it stifled research into alternative options. After a century of debate between Protestant and secular scholars, the theory of Markan priority came to dominate much of the Protestant World. At the same time English Benedictine monks (led by John Chapman, Christopher Butler, and Gregory Murray) considered that Owen could have been correct, but in 1912 the BPC ruled that Luke wrote after Mark. From then on, Catholics had to restrict themselves to criticising Markan priority and upholding the priority of Matthew.

Christopher Butler, as president of the English Benedictines, was a voting member at the Second Vatican Council. A former Anglican, he was better informed regarding the Synoptic Problem than were most Catholics. He assisted in the wording of Dei Verbum and helped the abolition, in all but name, of the PBC.

On returning from the Council, Butler became immersed in promoting its reforms and was a member of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith at Rome. He could spend little time on scriptural research, which fell to his younger colleague Bernard Orchard, OSB. Orchard had been a founding member and first chairman of both the Catholic Biblical Association of Great Britain and the World Federation. In 1953 he was joint editor of the pioneering Catholic Commentary of Holy Scripture, and in 1956 he produced a Catholic edition of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible. Pre-Council this was refused an Imprimatur. One was finally granted after the Council in 1966. The Catholic Truth Society edition of the RSV–CE became widely read. Known today as the Ignatius Bible, it is used for the English scriptural quotations in translations of Vatican publications.

Orchard’s first step was to clear away misunderstandings regarding Owen’s theory. In The Order of the Synoptics (1987) he showed that Clement of Alexandria was not alone in reporting the Gospels as written in the Matthew–Luke–Mark sequence. Orchard quoted from Irenaeus, Tertullian, Augustine, Priscillian, and Jerome. His Anglican co-author, Harold Riley, showed how the modern historical-critical method could be used to vindicate the work of Owen.

Orchard was puzzled by why Mark’s two misquotations from the Hebrew Bible had not been corrected. This triggered his ground-breaking hypothesis that Peter had given talks in common (koine) Greek to conflate Matthew and Luke and that Mark had recorded the talks exactly, including poor style and memory slips. The 1991 finding that the Greeks had shorthand strengthened the basis of Orchard’s theory.

During the 1990s Orchard’s articles made known his views. He was consolidating his findings when he died in 2006. I had started to collect his writings and had come to read the Gospels through Orchard’s eyes. Example: Mark’s Gospel breaks awkwardly at 16:8. Suggestions made to explain the style of his final 12 verses have not obtained general acceptance. But with Orchard’s theory in mind, it came to me those verses were Peter’s answers to questions provoked by his talks. On examination, the verses became understandable. Orchard, still alive at the time, became excited by the idea.

Critics have asserted that, as Acts does not mention the pastoral epistles, they were not by Paul, but one of Peter’s answers concerned a question provoked by words at the end of Acts. This shows it was completed before Paul’s later journeys. I then learnt that the early Church read the Gospels continuously from Sunday to Sunday in the Matthew–Luke–Mark–John sequence. This pattern has continued in the East but has been lost, due to the multiple feasts, in the West. This provides support for Clement’s statement that Matthew and Luke wrote first.

Clement stated that Mark reproduced his Gospel quickly because of the urgent demands made by a big audience. Luke would have had fewer facilities in Rome for quick reproduction, and his writing was longer than Mark’s. So, although Luke wrote prior to Mark, his Gospel was published after Mark’s. Peter was indifferent to Mark’s publication until he saw its positive effects. He then authorised a further edition for the local churches. Luke’s publication would have appeared between Mark’s two editions. This means Clement gave us the order of writing (Matthew–Luke–Mark), while Origen gave us the order of publication (Matthew–Mark–Luke).

Archaeologists have found two editions of Mark’s Gospel, with one having the final 12 verses. The order in which scrolls arrived at churches often would decide their order of filing in its library. This would influence their order of use by preachers. Papias wrote that Mark recorded exactly, while Matthew had to rely on less-precise Hebrew stories. This could be explained by Hebrew not possessing shorthand.

In the 1970s dedicated Catholics, such as Raymond Brown and associates, were eager to implement the call for a Catholic biblical revival, but they faced two unproved “solutions” of the Synoptic problem: the traditional solution, based on the alleged uniformity of the external historical evidence, and the solution of Markan priority, based on years of critical scientific research. They decided the second was more likely to be correct. So, in the 1989 Jerome Bible Commentary, the Markan priority theory became entwined with the biblical revival. But we now have a third theory consistent with Pope Leo’s encyclical, the ancient historians, Dei Verbum, critical analysis, Verbum Domini, and the views of many separated brethren.

(For the evidence supporting this Clementine Biblical Tradition, go to Dennis Barton’s


Karl Keating is founder and president of Catholic Answers, the largest American Catholic apologetics and evangelization organization. He is the author of five books, including Catholicism and Fundamentalism and What Catholics Really Believe.

Karl offered this item on a blog for discussion. It was not as a point of Catholic doctrine or teaching.