The Two Source Hypothesis


The Two Source Hypothesis (2SH) has been the predominant source theory for the synoptic problem for almost two centuries. Originally conceived in Germany by Ch. H. Weisse in 1838, the 2SH (or Zweiquellenhypothese) came to dominate German protestant scholarship with H. J. Holtzmann's endorsement of a related variant in 1863. In the latter part of the 19th century, the Oxford School brought the 2SH to English scholarship, culminating in B. H. Streeter's 1924 treatment of the synoptic problem.

The 2SH derives its name from the fact that two main sources are postulated for the synoptic gospels: a narrative source for the triple tradition and a sayings source for the double tradition.While there are many variations of the 2SH, the most basic form of the theory posits the following propositions:

The triple tradition comprises the subject matter jointly related by Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Generally, the triple tradition is characterized by substantial agreements in arrangement and wording among all three gospels with frequent agreements between Mark and Matthew against Luke and between Mark and Luke against Matthew, but a near absence of agreements of Matthew and Luke against Mark.

The double tradition consists of the material that Matthew and Luke share outside of Mark and exhibits some of the most striking verbatim agreements in some passages and quite divergent versions in other passages.

The Case for the Two Source Hypothesis

After a few false starts, the modern argument for the 2SH has settled into a two-step analysis. First, an explanation for the triple tradition is developed, in which the priority of Mark is established by a series of cumulative arguments as superior to competing explanations. Once the priority of Mark is accepted, arguments for the independence of Matthew and Luke are made to hypothesize a common source, commonly referred to as Q.

Among the best argued cases for the 2SH in contemporary scholarship include Robert H. Stein, The Synoptic Problem, and C. M. Tuckett, "The Synoptic Problem." [Stein 1987; Tuckett 1992]

Priority of Mark

It is important to understand that the contemporary argument for the priority of Mark rests not on the strength of any one argument but on the cumulative weight of many arguments. [Stein 1987: 88; Tuckett 1992: 264] The arguments supporting Markan priority are:

  1. Argument from Omission. Easier to see certain material (infancy accounts, Sermon on the Mount) being added to Mark by Matthew and Luke than Mark's omitting them from Matthew and Luke. [Stein 1987: 48-49; Tuckett 1992: 264]
  2. Argument from Length. Easier to see both Matthew's and Luke;s compressing the text of Mark to add their own material rather than Mark's abridging the content and expanding the words of one or both of the others. [Stein 1987: 49-51; Tuckett 1992: 264]
  3. Argument from Diction. Easier to see both Matthew's and Luke's improving Mark's colloquialisms in vocabulary rather than Mark's intentionally or incompetently being less literary. [Stein 1987: 52-53]
  4. Argument from Grammar. Easier to see both Matthew's and Luke's improving Mark's grammar rather than Mark's "dumbing down" one or both of the others. [Stein 1987: 54]
  5. Argument from Aramaic Expressions. Easier to see both Matthew's and Luke's removal of Aramaicisms for their Greek-speaking audience than Mark's addition of them to his source(s). [Stein 1987: 55-58].
  6. Argument from Redundancy. Easier to see both Matthew's and Luke's eliminating Mark's redundancies. [Stein 1987: 58-62; Tuckett 1992: 267]
  7. Argument from Difficulty. Easier to see both Matthew's and Luke's modifying certain "harder readings" of Mark rather than vice versa. [Stein 1987: 62-67; Tuckett 1992: 265-66]
  8. Argument from Order. Easier to understand reasons for the specific divergences of Matthew's and Luke's order from that of Mark's than vice versa. [Tuckett 1992: 264-65]
  9. Argument from Literary Agreements. Easier to explain how Matthew and Luke seem to occasionally refer to omitted explanatory material in Mark. [Stein 1987: 70-76].
  10. Argument from Redaction. Easier to see Matthew's adding his theological emphases than Mark's removing them. [Stein 1987: 77-81]. Easier to account for an uneven distribution of Mark's stylistic features in Matthew. [Stein 1987: 81-83]
  11. Argument from Theology. Easier to see Matthew's and Luke's more frequent use of "Lord" being later developed than Mark's one use. [Stein 1987: 84-86]

Existence of Q

The existence of Q follows simply from of the failure to prove that Luke knew Matthew (or vice versa, but few if any one argue that Matthew knew Luke). Once one concludes that Luke and Matthew are independent, the double tradition must be explained by an indirect relationship, namely, through use of a common source called Q. Furthermore, there is evidence that Q is written.

Arguments for Luke's and Matthew's independence:

  1. Disuse of the other's non-Markan material in triple tradition. For example, it is easier to understand Luke's near total omission of this material as due to not having it before him.
  2. Different contexts for the double tradition material. It is argued that it is easier to explain Luke's "artistically inferior" arrangement of the double tradition into more primitive contexts within his Gospel as due to not knowing Matthew. Easier to see the disparate treatment of the order of the Double Tradition versus the Triple Tradition as the result of two sources. This argument is more cogent for an oral Q rather than a written Q.
  3. Mutual primitivity: Easier to explain why the form of the material sometimes appears more primitive in Matthew but other times more primitive in Luke
  4. Doublets. Sometimes it appears that doublets in Matthew and Luke have one half that comes from Mark and the other half from some common source, i.e. Q.
  5. Disuse of the other's non-Markan, non-sayings material outside the triple tradition. Easier to explain the different infancy, genealogical, and resurrection accounts as due to not knowing each other.

Arguments for Q being a written document:

  1. Exactness in Wording. Sometimes the exactness in wording is quite impressive. E.g. Matt. 6:24 = Luke 16:13 (27/28 Greek words). Matt. 7:7-8 = Luke 11:9-10 (24/24 Greek words).
  2. Some Correspondence in Order. There is some common order between the two Sermons on/at the Mount.
  3. Doublets. Doublets are often a sign of two written sources. Used to great effect in the Documentary Hypothesis (OT analog to the 2SH).

Cutting Edge Q Studies

Much recent work has gone in studying the theology, community, and the compositional history of Q. For example, Kloppenborg, The Formation of Q, has proposed a Q stratification theory that Q was composed in stages. [Kloppenborg 1987; see also a partial critique by Tuckett 1996: 69-74]

On-Line Resources about Q

Arnal, William,
"An informal summary by William Arnal of John Kloppenborg's theories of the stratification of Q" [] (last mod., April 22, 1997) at Stevan L. Davies, ed., The Gospel of Thomas Homepage []
Fowler, Rick,
"The sayings gospel Q : a bibliography" [] (accessed July 1999).
Heisey, Nancy R.,
"The Current State of Q" [] in TIC TALK 39 (Newsletter of the United Bible Society Translation Information Clearinghouse, 1997).
Hoffman, Paul,
"Die Logienquelle Q" [] (last mod., June 10, 1997).
Smith, Mahlon H.,
"The Canonical Status of Q" [] (2d rev., April 12, 1997).

The Weak Points of the Two Source Hypothesis

Each of the central theses of the 2SH, Markan priority and the existence of Q, has its weak points, but . The minor agreements are those agreements between Matthew and Luke against Mark (or "anti-Markan agreements") that occur in triple tradition. Some of the minor agreements are quite striking; for example, both Matt. 26:68 and Luke 22:64 but not Mark 14:65 include the question "Who is it that struck you" in the beating of Jesus.

Mark's Priority or Matthew's?

The main competitor to Mark's priority is the priority of Matthew, which enjoys substantial external evidence in its favor. The case for Matthean priority, however, will not be treated here, but in the explanation of the Two Gospel Hypothesis.

Problems with Q

While there are many who do not subscribe to Q as a consequence of Matthean priority, there is also a significant group of mostly British scholars who would dispense with Q within the framework of Markan priority. Their argument, mainly involving the minor agreements, is treated in the explanation of the Farrer Hypothesis.

Minor Agreements

The minor agreements pose a special dilemma for the 2SH, because they are suggestive of a literary connection between Matthew and Luke outside of either Mark or Q, calling into question the relative independence of Matthew and Luke.

[3SH]Although a few scholars accept both Q and Luke's use of Matthew (3SH), most properly recognize that the modern argument for Q requires Matthew and Luke to be independent. Since the minor agreements undermine that premise, their weight represents a direct threat to the existence of Q.

Accordingly, it is common for those scholars who wish to keep Q while acknowledging the force of the minor agreements to attribute the minor agreements to a proto-Mark, such as the Ur-Markus in the Markan Hypothesis (MkH) that was adapted by Mark independently from its use by Matthew and Luke.

Other scholars feel that the character of the minor agreements suggest that they are due to a revision of our Mark, called deutero-Mark. In this case, both Matthew and Luke are dependent on deutero-Mark, which did not survive the ages.

Therefore, the minor agreements, if taken seriously, force a choice between accepting pure Markan priority on one hand or the existence of Q on the other hand, but not both simultaneously as the 2SH requires.

The 2SH's response to the issue of the minor agreement is to weaken their significance by attributing various causes for them. B. H. Streeter devoted a chapter on this issue in his magnum opus on the synoptic problem with an analysis that is largely maintained today. [Streeter 1924: 293-331; see also Neirynck 1974 for a modern exhaustive treatment] The minor argreements are handled by one of four different reasons how Matthew and Luke could have independently arrived at their anti-Markan agreements:

  1. Coincidence. Most of the minor agreements are attributed to the independent, coincidental redaction of Mark by Matthew and Luke. Streeter stated that "the majority of these agreements do not require any explanation at all" because they are the natural result of Matthew's and Luke's production of their own gospels. In this category, Streeter noted Matthew and Luke compression of Mark's diffuse style and their improvements of Mark's rough Greek, which is the most colloquial in the New Testament and influenced by an Aramaic coloring.
  2. Overlaps with Q. Streeter attributed some agreements of Matthew and Luke against Mark to their common of use of Q in those passages that Mark and Q overlapped.
  3. Overlapping Oral Tradition. Stein suggested that. in minor agreements that appear "primitive," Matthew and Luke preferred their form of oral tradition over Mark. [Stein 1987: 126-27]
  4. Textual Corruption. Streeter argued that, in a few cases, the best manuscript copies of the gospels do not reflect the original text in a manner that produces with Matthew and Luke agree against Mark.


The arguments in favor of the 2SH have greatly evolved over the course of its long history. Many arguments have been advanced, gained popularity, and were later withdrawn. The modern argument for the 2SH, consequently, is a carefully nuanced, cumulative argument that avoids the pitfalls of yesteryear.

It is convenient to divide the history of the 2SH into four stages: (a) Precursors, before 1838, (b) Conception, 1838-1863, (c) Establishment, 1863-1924, and (d) Defense, after 1924.

A. Precursors (before 1838)

Serious study of the synoptic problem began in the late eighteenth century during the Enlightenment. The most prominent source critic in the early period was Griesbach who argued for the theory that now bears his name (Mark's being a conflation of Matthew and Luke) in 1783 and 1789. Around this time, early critics began to formulate the separate theses that would later coalesce to form the 2SH. In particular, Storr in 1786 argued for the priority of Mark, and Marsh in 1801 argued for a Q-like document. [Storr 1786; Marsh 1801].

Storr was one of Griesbach's challengers, arguing that Mark, not Matthew, was the earliest, and that both Matthew and Luke used Mark. For the double tradition, however, Storr was undecided about whether Luke used Matthew (thus almost anticipating the Farrer Hypothesis) or whether Matthew's translator used Luke (cf. the Wilke Hypothesis).

Marsh's synoptic theory was very mechanical, proposing three main hypothetical Hebrew documents, which comprised the Matthew-Mark agreements against Luke (Aleph1, labeled "pMt"), the Mark-Luke agreements against Matthew (Aleph2, labeled "pLk"), and the Matthew-Luke agreements against Mark (Beth, labeled "Q"), respectively. The first two of these documents themselves were derived from a fourth hypothetical document Aleph (labeled "G"), which contained the Matthew-Mark-Luke triple agreements. The other source, Beth, was a sayings collection that was similar to Q.

Marsh's theory has an important contact with the 2SH, namely, the postulation of a Q-like hypothetical sayings source, Beth, that is largely responsible for the double tradition. Since Marsh offered a Griesbach-like explanation for the origin of Mark as a conflation of Aleph 1 (proto-Matthew) and Aleph 2 (proto-Luke), however, Marsh should not deserve credit as the originator of the 2SH. A modern variant of Marsh's theory is Rolland's Hypothesis.

Storr's and Marsh's views passed out of favor and left no direct effect on the course of the synoptic problem. A generation later in the 1830s, two scholars laid the groundwork for what would become the two fundamental tenets of the 2SH. [Schleiermacher 1832; Lachmann 1835].

Schleiermacher's Fragmentary Hypothesis held that the synoptic gospels were composed from a multiplicity of shorter documents. In 1832, Schleiermacher argued that one of these documents was attested by the testimony of Papias, a second century bishop. According to Schleiermacher, Papias' term logia (logia) should be understood to refer to a sayings document that Matthew compiled.

Karl Lachmann, also a proponent of the Fragmentary Hypothesis, subdivided the narrative portions of the synoptics into roughly nine separate sections. Investigating how these sections were eventually arranged in the individual gospels, Lachmann concluded that the Mark's order best reflected a relatively fixed oral sequence for these sections and found reasons for Matthew and Luke to depart from this fixed oral sequence.

B. Conception (1838-1863)

Weisse (Wilke), Holtzmann

C. Establishment (1863-1924)

Wernle, Oxford School, Hawkins, Streeter

D. Defense (1924 - present)

Styler, Neirynck, Tuckett

Publications and Reviews

Stephen C. Carlson
Created: March 21, 1999
Revised: September 18, 1999
Back to the Synoptic Problem Home Page