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The Synoptic Problem - A Solution

(The Clementine Gospel Tradition)

Christians had always recognised that borrowing had taken place between the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, but there was little interest in how it had occurred. Then in 1764 an Anglican vicar, Henry Owen, suggested that the order of writing had been: Matthew, Luke, Mark. His idea was ignored in England, while German scholars, upholding Jeromeís sequence, condemned it. But Owen had sparked a new line of research. In 1838 Christian Weisse said that a borrower would not deliberately turn the good quality Greek in Matthew and Luke, into the poor quality be found in Mark. Weisse concluded that Mark had written first (i.e. Markan priority).

The ancient historians had unanimously recorded Matthew as writing first. Christians claimed that the Gospel writers and these ancient historians were reliable. The acceptance of the Markan priority theory, by destroying the reliability of the ancient historians, and therefore the gospel writers, would undermine Christianity.

In 1893 Pope Leo XIII condemned the theory and provided resources for historical and linguistic research. In 1901 he established the Papal Biblical Commission (PBC) to oversee the teaching of Scripture. English Benedictine monks (led by John Chapman and Christopher Butler) considered Owen could have been correct. But unfortunately, in 1912, the BPC decided to uphold the sequence used by Jerome and so stifle further research. It ruled that Catholics must not deny the opinion that Matthew, Mark, Luke had been composed in that order. So Catholics, interested in Owenís theory, had to restrict themselves to criticising Markan priority and upholding the priority of Matthew. Meanwhile, following a century of debate between Protestant and secular scholars, the Markan priority theory came to dominate much of the Protestant World

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 most Catholics. He played a important part at the Councilís wording of Dei Verbum and helped in the abolition, in all but name, of the PBC.

Following the Council, Butler became a member of the CDF at Rome, and active in promoting the reforms of Vatican II. So he could spend little time on Scriptural research. This opportunity was taken up by his young colleague, Bernard Orchard OSB. Orchard had been a founder member and first chairman of both the Catholic Biblical Association of Great Britain and of the World Federation. In 1953 he was joint editor of the pioneering: A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture. In 1956 he produced a Catholic edition of the Revised Standard Version of Scripture. Being pre-Council this was refused an Imprimatur. But one was granted in 1966 and the CTS edition of this RSVCE became widely read. Known today as the Ignatius Bible, it is used for the English Scriptural quotations in translations of Vatican publications.

Orchard saw the need to clear away misunderstandings regarding Owenís theory.

In: The Order of the Synoptics (1987), he showed that Clement of Alexandria was not alone in reporting the gospels as being written in the Matthew-Luke-Mark sequence. Orchard pointed to Ireneaus, Tertullian, Augustine, Priscillian and Jerome. His Anglican co-author, Harold Riley, showed how the modern historical-critical method could be used to vindicate the order suggested by Owen.

Orchard was puzzled by why Markís two misquotations from the Hebrew Scriptures had not been corrected.  This triggered his ground breaking hypothesis that Peter had given talks, in kione (common) Greek, to conflate Matthew and Luke. Mark had exactly recorded them, including their poor style and memory slips. The 1991 finding of the Greek use of shorthand strengthened Orchardís theory. Papias wrote that Mark recorded exactly, while Matthew had to rely on the less accurate recording of Hebrew.

During the 1990s, Orchardís promoted his views in articles. But in 2006, while consolidating his findings, he died.  At the time, I was collecting his writings and had come to look at the gospels through Orchardís eyes. For example: Markís gospel brakes awkwardly at 16: 8, and generations had puzzled over the final 12 verses. It came to me that these could be answers which Peter gave to questions provoked by the talks. On examination, the verses became understandable. Orchard, still alive at the time, excitedly welcomed the idea.

Critics of the Pastoral Epistles have asserted that as Acts does not mention them, they were not by Paul. But one of Peterís answers concerned a question provoked by words at the end of Acts. This indicates that Acts was completed before Paulís 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 lost, due to the multiple feasts, in the West. This provides further support for the words of Clement and the ideas of Orchard.

According to Clement, Mark had to issue his gospel quickly because of the urgent demands of a big audience. Lukeís publication would have been less urgent. He also would have had fewer facilities in Rome for quick reproduction and his gospel was longer than Markís.  So, although Luke wrote prior to Mark, his gospel was published after that of Mark. We are told that Peter was indifferent to Markís publication until he saw its positive effects. He then authorised a second edition for the churches.

Archaeologists have found two editions of Markís gospel, one having the final verses and the other without. Lukeís publication had time to appear between Markís two editions. The order in which scrolls arrived at churches could often decide the order of their filing in its library. This would influence the sequence of quotations by various preachers. So Clement give us the order of writing, while Origen give their order of publication. Augustine, in his first book, gives the order his library Ďreceivedí the gospels, but in his forth book says Mark drew from the ideas of Matthew and Luke.

In the 1970s dedicated Catholics, such as Raymond Brown, were eager to implement Vatican IIís call for a biblical revival. They faced two unproved Ďsolutionsí of the Synoptic problem. The traditional, based on the alleged uniformity of Jeromeís historical evidence, and that of Markan priority, based on 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 today we have a third theory consistent with Pope Leoís Encyclical, the ancient historians, Dei Verbum, critical analysis, Verbum Domini (Tradition & Scripture) and the views of many Protestants. For evidence supporting the above: Go to:

Or to:  Church in  Website (Section 3).

Version: 27/4/13

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