A brief history of the Three-Source Theory

"... der kanonische Mt. für Lc. ein Nebenquelle ..."
Eduard Simons
('the canonical Matthew [was] a subsidiary source for Luke')

The Three-Source Theory was first advocated in outline by Prof. H.J.Holtzmann in 1878. [1]  It was expounded in detail in a doctoral dissertation by his pupil Eduard Simons and published in 1880. [2]  Simons accepted the dependence of both Matthew and Luke on Mark, and on a source which he referred to by the Greek letter lambda (standing for "logia", Simons' name for what came to be known as "Q"). But he also thought it likely that the narratives which Luke had in mind in Lk 1:1 would have included Matthew. He reviewed several of the passages common to Matthew and Luke, and found many traces of Matthean influence on Luke. He concluded that in addition to his primary dependence on Mark and lambda, Luke had a subsidiary dependence on the canonical Matthew. His conclusion was supported by professors Hans H. Wendt [3]  and Edward Y. Hincks. [4] 

In 1899 Paul Wernle [5]  put forward three arguments that Luke did not know Matthew. The first was that almost all of the additions Matthew makes to Mark are absent from Luke. The second was that Luke doesn't follow Matthew's order where Matthew diverges from Mark. The third was that the minor agreements between Matthew and Luke against Mark do not demand direct dependence between Matthew and Luke. [6]  Many of Wernle's contemporaries found his arguments persuasive. [7] 

In 1924 when B.H.Streeter championed an essentially similar approach for English-speaking scholars, [8]  the theory that Matthew and Luke independently made use of two main sources, namely Mark and Q, was set to become established worldwide as the standard theory of synoptic origins. [9]

This emerging consensus had no serious new challenge until 1955, when Austin Farrer published his essay: 'On Dispensing with Q'. [10]  Farrer pointed out that we should no longer regard Luke as a mere adapter and compiler, and that a more creative role makes Luke's use of Matthew much more credible. Farrer derided the peculiar literary makeup of Q, with its introductory narratives eventually petering out in miscellaneous oracles. He suggested that the minor agreements of Matthew and Luke against Mark are just what we would expect if Luke had based his narrative on the more ancient gospel of Mark, making small improvements in accord with what he had read in Matthew. Farrer proposed dispensing with Q altogether. His explanation of synoptic similarities (that Matthew made use of Mark, and Luke made use of them both) became known as the Farrer Theory.

In 1966 Wilhelm Wilkens echoed Simons in presenting evidence that Luke was familiar with Matthew as well as Q. [11] 

In 1971 an intermediate viewpoint was also argued by Robert Morgenthaler, a professor at Bern. [12]  Using statistical analysis he came to a similar conclusion to that of Simons, positing that Luke had three sources before him. Mark and Q were Luke's primary sources, but he also took into account the text of Matthew and this explains the minor agreements. Farrer and most of his opponents had viewed the existence of Q and Luke's knowledge of Matthew as mutually exclusive positions. Morgenthaler called this "die falsche Alternative".

Modern support for the Three-Source Theory in the English-speaking world came from Robert Gundry in 1982. [13]  His conclusions emerged from detailed analysis of individual Matthean passages. He wrote about the presence of "foreign bodies" in Luke, revealed by texts which betray traces of Matthew's distinctive diction, style and theology. There are also texts which depend on their context in Matthew, and when they reappear in Luke they lack the clear meaning they had in Matthew. Thus, like Morgenthaler, he concluded that Luke had access to the three sources: Mark, Q and Matthew.

If Luke knew Matthew, then potentially any of the Double Tradition passages could have been taken from Matthew instead of from the sayings source, so in 2001 in a short study, Ronald Price formally presented the first steps towards a more radical form of the Three-Source Theory. [14]  This study reviewed the evidence for Luke's use of Matthew, pointed out the incongruity of Q as normally understood, and went on to try to identify which passages had been wrongly assigned to the sayings source. Subsequently the work was taken to its logical conclusion culminating in the publication on this site of an English-language reconstruction of the logia in poetic form in 2006. [15]  The most distinctive feature of this more radical form of the theory (hereafter called the radical Three-Source Theory or 'r3ST') is a historically-attested sayings source which was stylistically consistent and structurally coherent, and which was used by all three synoptic gospel authors.


1. H.J.Holtzmann, 'Zur synoptischen Frage', pp. 553-54 in "Jahrbücher für protestantische Theologie" 4 (1878)
2. E.Simons, "Hat der dritte Evangelist den kanonischen Matthäus benutzt?" (Bonn, 1880)
3. Hans H. Wendt "Die Lehre Jesu" (Göttingen, 1886)
4. Edward Y. Hincks "The Probable Use of the First Gospel by Luke", JBL Vol. 10 No. 2 (1891), pp. 92-106.
5. P.Wernle "Die Synoptische Frage" (Leipzig, 1899)
6. Wernle's first two arguments are easily countered by positing that Luke had decided to use the older gospel of Mark as his primary narrative source, and his third argument is highly dubious - Luke's direct dependence on Matthew is by far the best explanation for the hundreds of minor agreements.
7. This is a considerable simplification. Several nineteenth-century German scholars had made influential attempts to solve the Synoptic Problem. Most notably C.H.Weisse in 1838 promoted a form of the Two-Source Theory, and so did H.J.Holtzmann in 1863 before changing his mind in favour of a form of the Three-Source Theory.
8. B.H.Streeter, "The Four Gospels" (London, 1924)
9. Streeter's synoptic theory included other sources: 'M' to explain the origin of material peculiar to Matthew, 'L' to explain the origin of material peculiar to Luke, and 'Proto-Luke' (a supposed earlier version of Luke lacking the birth narratives and the Mark-based material). But Wernle also had posited extra sources, e.g. QMt and QLk. However the popularity of all the extra hypothetical sources has gradually decreased over the last few decades in line with a greater willingness to credit Matthew and Luke with redactional creativity.
10. In "Studies in the Synoptic Gospels: Essays in memory of R.H.Lightfoot", ed. D.E.Nineham (Oxford, 1955)
11. W.Wilkens, "Zur Frage der literarischen Beziehung zwischen Matthäus und Lukas" (NovT 8 (1966) 48-57)
12. R.Morgenthaler, "Statistische Synopse" (Zürich, 1971)
13. R.H.Gundry, "Matthew, A Commentary on His Literary and Theological Art" (Michigan, 1982)
14. R.Price, 'A Three Source Theory for the Synoptic Problem', in "Journal of Biblical Studies" [http://journalofbiblicalstudies.org] 1:4 (2001). Regrettably this journal is no longer accessible. However a slightly amended version of my article comprises the next two pages on this site.
15. The ultimate conclusion would be the publication of the logia in Aramaic, but this is beyond my capabilities, and must be left to a suitably-motivated linguist.