This table captures only a small fraction of the variants that can readily be found among the first three gospels, let alone the fourth. The very first item in the table is an event that occurs in all four of the gospels—the baptism of Jesus and his subsequent “wilderness trial” as I will call it. But I have excluded John entirely. Note that I positioned Mark in the first position as though it were the first to be written. I placed it there because I was supposing it to have been written first and Matthew to have relied on it. With that supposition I ask some basic hypothetical questions such as, Why would Matthew have left out “and believe the gospel” in 4:17? Similarly, in the account of the Gerasene demoniac recorded in all three of the synoptics, why would Matthew leave out the part about how the people found the delivered man “clothed and in his right mind”, and how he begged Jesus to let him go with him. After all, these are very salient details, and Luke has them in his account so why should Matthew have omitted them out? This kind of question can be asked multiple times about how we suppose Matthew ‘would have’ incorporated Mark’s details if he had truly relied on his gospel. On the other hand, supposing that Matthew wrote first, the same kind of question can be asked in reverse. For example, why would Mark omit the entire contents of Matt. 8:5-13 that records the healing of the Roman centurion’s servant? And Matt. 14:33 that records the disciples adoring Jesus as the “Son of God” after he walked out to them on the water and entered their boat?
In review of both positions of priority such questions can be posed in either direction. With reference to Marcan priority I am not swayed by the preponderance of current scholars as long as Matthew has the weight of historical testimony. (I am reminded of the reversal of what I will call the “Tubingen consensus” when scholars who held to a very late date for the gospel of John [ca. 180] were obliged to concede to a much earlier date once the John Rylands fragment (P52) was discovered, and Baur was compelled to apologize publicly.) Either way, it seems indisputable that Matthew and Mark (and Luke) were interdependent in some ways, not only on each other but on additional source/s. But the variants show that they were also independent in other ways—enough to have made their own decisions about which events to include/exclude, some of the secondary details of the events, and the order in which to arrange them when their precise order was deemed non-essential. To me it is the most plausible speculation that they both had access to written sources, and Luke actually says that he did. I rather respect the words of this writer from the online periodical NewAdvent.org, who as far as I can tell is unidentifiable.
It is reasonable to think that not many years elapsed after Christ's death before attempts were made to put into written form some account of His words and works. Luke tells us that many such attempts had been made before he wrote; and it needs no effort to believe that the Petrine form of the Gospel had been committed to writing before the Apostles separated; that it disappeared afterwards would not be wonderful, seeing that it was embodied in the Gospels. It is hardly necessary to add that the use of earlier documents by an inspired writer is quite intelligible. Grace does not dispense with nature nor…ordinary, natural means. The writer of the Second Book of Maccabees states distinctly that his book is an abridgment of an earlier work (2 Maccabees 2:24, 27), and St. Luke tells us that before undertaking to write his Gospel he had inquired diligently into all things from the beginning (1:1).
If this view is true, with which the two-source and other ‘source’ hypotheses agree, it would suggest that the production of the gospels was not as beholden to oral tradition as others maintain.
So far I have used the term “apparent discrepancy” several times and will continue to use it interchangeably with variants. I use it to refer to any and all kinds of differences between the gospels that seem to be problematic. Of course, as I have already said, the other side of the synoptic problem is identical or very similar material, which are often called parallels but which I will also call redundancies. (Redundance can have a positive connotation.) In general, redundancies are not as problematic as discrepancies except that many apparent discrepancies are only such because they are embedded in redundant passages. Then the question becomes, if the passages are truly parallels because they record the same historical event or discourse, but they are not identical, why aren’t they? (The obvious assumption is that they should be.) But another apparent problem arises when parallel passages are placed by the writer (or ‘redactor’) in a different order. Sometimes this is not a big deal but other times it could be because some events obviously had to occur in a particular order: The resurrection event has to have followed the crucifixion event, and the trial could not have happened before the crucifixion, for example.
I have been an avid reader (both vertical and horizontal) and student of the Bible since I was 16. As such I have become gradually aware of said redundancies and discrepancies gradually over the years. (Actually, if one reads through all four gospels in, say, a year or less, it’s not hard to notice them. And it doesn’t take very long to come across examples; one doesn’t even have to read through each gospel completely to encounter them. To be quite honest, sometimes they are troubling (or they were to me, at least), but other times not so much. I remember when I first noticed that the account of the healing of the tomb-dwelling demoniac was contained not only in Matthew’s gospel, but also in Mark’s, and Luke’s, and that they are similar but not identical. They are similar enough that I had to ask myself, “Wait, were these the same one event in the ministry of Jesus, or two, or were they three similar but separate events?” For me anyway, at age 17 or 18, that was the most basic question that arose, for this example followed by the many others that present themselves in the gospels. In this case, it turns out to be the former. This time, for convenience, I’ve copied all three passages below, but for the sake of conserving space I only do it once. This example is a narrative about an occasion (or multiple occasions) when Jesus and his disciples when to gentile country and encountered a man possessed with not one demon but many—perhaps thousands.
1. Matthew’s account is in chapter 8: 28-34 and reads as follows:
And when he came to the other side, to the country of the Gadarenes, two demon-possessed men met him, coming out of the tombs, so fierce that no one could pass that way.  And behold, they cried out, “What have you to do with us, O Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?”  Now a herd of many pigs was feeding at some distance from them.  And the demons begged him, saying, “If you cast us out, send us away into the herd of pigs.”  And he said to them, “Go.” So they came out and went into the pigs, and behold, the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the sea and drowned in the waters.  The herdsmen fled, and going into the city they told everything, especially what had happened to the demon-possessed men.  And behold, all the city came out to meet Jesus, and when they saw him, they begged him to leave their region. (ESV)
2. Mark’s account is in chapter 5:21-28 and reads as follows:
They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes.  And when Jesus had stepped out of the boat, immediately there met him out of the tombs a man with an unclean spirit.  He lived among the tombs. And no one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain,  for he had often been bound with shackles and chains, but he wrenched the chains apart, and he broke the shackles in pieces. No one had the strength to subdue him.  Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always crying out and cutting himself with stones.  And when he saw Jesus from afar, he ran and fell down before him.  And crying out with a loud voice, he said, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.”  For he was saying to him, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!”  And Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” He replied, “My name is Legion, for we are many.”  And he begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country.  Now a great herd of pigs was feeding there on the hillside,  and they begged him, saying, “Send us to the pigs; let us enter them.”  So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out and entered the pigs; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the sea and drowned in the sea. (ESV)
3. Luke’s account is in chapter 8:26-39 and reads as follows:
Then they sailed to the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee.  When Jesus had stepped out on land, there met him a man from the city who had demons. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he had not lived in a house but among the tombs.  When he saw Jesus, he cried out and fell down before him and said with a loud voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me.”  For he had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many a time it had seized him. He was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the desert.)  Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Legion,” for many demons had entered him.  And they begged him not to command them to depart into the abyss.  Now a large herd of pigs was feeding there on the hillside, and they begged him to let them enter these. So he gave them permission.  Then the demons came out of the man and entered the pigs, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and drowned.
 When the herdsmen saw what had happened, they fled and told it in the city and in the country.  Then people went out to see what had happened, and they came to Jesus and found the man from whom the demons had gone, sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind, and they were afraid.  And those who had seen it told them how the demon-possessed man had been healed.  Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked him to depart from them, for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned.  The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him, but Jesus sent him away, saying,  “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” And he went away, proclaiming throughout the whole city how much Jesus had done for him. (ESV)
There are many points of comparison in these passages, and clearly some discrepancies. But there are enough similarities to pin them all down as the same one event: All three passages identify the country of the Garasenes or Gadarenes (which was close enough to satisfy me); that Jesus and his disciples arrived at the region by boat; that they were met immediately confronted by someone demon-possessed who lived among the tombs; that the man recognized Jesus as the “Son of God”; that Jesus commanded the demons to come out and go into a herd of pigs, etc. No, there were too many of the same details for these to be accounts of two or three separate events, of that I was sure. Later more knowledgeable sources confirmed my conclusion. The only detail that bothered me at the time was whether there were one or two demon-possessed men? Matthew says two while Mark and Luke say one. Which was it? They both can’t be right. I remember the first time that dawned on me, it bothered me. Later I concluded that there must have been two demoniacs, but only one really confronted Jesus while the other remained in the background. So Mark and Luke apparently chose to mention only him to simplify or streamline the account. (I realized that this is not uncommon: Sometimes when I am conveying an encounter I do the same thing by leaving out the “supporting actors”.) For me, all those years ago, that was the simple solution that removed the apparent contradiction, and still is. Another discrepancy is whether the demoniac called Jesus, “Son of the Most High God” as rendered in Mark and Luke, or just “Son of God” as in Matthew. Either Jesus said “Son of God” and Mark/Luke embellished acceptably, or he said “Son of the Most High God” and Mark acceptably simplified. The solution for that one is similar, and it never even bothered me: They mean the exact same thing. Admittedly, other discrepancies are more difficult to reconcile than these, examples of which we will examine on the next page.
The question of redundancy focuses on the other side of the coin: Why do three of the four gospel writers include this account while John omits it (and a great many others that the synoptic writers include)? Were they all three present, but not John? No, John was probably there, but Mark probably wasn’t, and Luke was certainly not. In John’s case he chose to omit it and, again, a great many other events; thus we can put his gospel in a class of his own (non-synoptic). Therefore we must deal with John separately. Then, for different reasons we come to understand that Luke’s gospel is in a unique category too, having not been present for any events of Jesus’s ministry. Luke got his information from sources much like an investigative reporter does. Since Mark was not there either, we must wonder about the source/s of his knowledge of this and other events synoptic events. If many scholars are correct, he got his information from Peter who was there. That leaves Matthew, who gets the simplest explanation. So with reference to the three synoptic writers, there obviously must be a reasonable explanation for why they all include this account. It is reasonable that there must have been some kind of interdependence, so nearly all scholars believe. But what was it? is the more difficult question. Did they use each other as sources? If so, shouldn’t their accounts be identical? we might suppose. Since they’re not, why not? Finally, a) was one gospel a prototype for the other two, and b) was there some additional source that they all used? Historically the universal belief for the former question was that Matthew came first, a position known as Matthean priority, or Augustinian Hypothesis. But currently the most prominent position is that Mark was written first (Marcan priority). As I mentioned much earlier, many conservative scholars such as Dan Wallace ascribe to this position, for extremely technical reasons. In keeping with that position, the notion that there was most likely an additional source known simply as Q is also prevalent among Marcan-priority scholars and others(the two-source hypothesis). The analysis of these various positions is well outside the scope of this paper, but it’s their implications that I am most interested in. Dr. Dan Wallace concludes his paper on The Synoptic Problem with some of the implications he draws from his research on Marcan priority. These can be found at the conclusion of my paper as well.
Let’s consider some other examples of synoptic discrepancies, as concisely as possible. In Mark 2:1-12 there is another account that is included in all three synoptic gospels (cf. Matt. 9:2-8, Luke 5:18-26). In it a paralytic man is brought to Jesus by other men for healing, and Jesus does heal him but first forgives his sins. When he heals him, Jesus says, he does so in demonstration of his authority to forgive sins. It’s the only account where Jesus so explicitly forgives a person’s sins—having not been asked to do so. Upon the declaration of the man’s forgiveness the scribes (and pharisees according to Luke) get bent out of shape and judge Jesus in their hearts as a blasphemer, and he knows it. This is my expression of the essential core of the event and my introduction of this salient idea. Again, these accounts are redundant and there are some discrepancies, but no essential ones in my judgment, namely contradictions. One I already mentioned in parentheses above. In their more detailed versions, Mark and Luke offer some ‘extraneous’ details that Matthew omits, including how the paralytic was lowered to Jesus through the roof; but more significantly he omits the rhetorical question pondered by the S & P: “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (If Mark was written first, it’s a little odd that Matthew would have left this out.) Mark and Luke’s details of their getting through the roof are a bit different, but they all say that the paralytic man was brought to Jesus by other men who had faith for his healing. He was healed by virtue of their faith for him. Allow this to suffice, and to add that these three accounts of this singular event have all the marks of essential harmony. As I am using it, this term should not be interpreted as ‘basic harmony’ but rather as ‘harmony of essence’, the essence of the meaning and the core details of the passage—the truly important ones, not peripheral ones.
I would like to consider one more example. Take Mark 6:1-6 with its parallels in Matthew 13:54-58 and Luke 4:16-30 (which we discussed in class). This is the account of Jesus returning to his home town and encountering incredulity from the townsfolk who knew him. Both Mark’s and Matthew’s versions are fairly short, but Luke’s is much longer because it includes an episode in the synagogue where Jesus apparently reads and supplements (from memory) a Hebrew or Greek scroll and claims that the messianic prophecies apply to him. Matthew and Mark left that out entirely. First, we can wonder why they left out what Luke describes in much detail, especially if they wrote their gospels before Luke’s. We cannot really know. But along with their interdependence we can see an obvious instance of Luke’s independence. The question, Did he make that up?...or parts of it? naturally arises. At the very least it is rooted in the same event that Matthew and Mark record. But there is another, more subtle detail included in Matthew’s and Mark’s accounts that Luke leaves out this time about the status of Jesus’s miracle-working there. Matthew writes that because of the townspeople’s unbelief “he did not do many mighty works there”, while Mark writes that “he could not do any mighty work there…” (well, except to heal a few people; how trivial). So which was it? Did Jesus simply choose not to do any mighty work there? or was he unable to? First of all, the essential core of the account between Matthew and Mark (and Luke) are in agreement: He returned to his hometown and was met with unbelief from his neighbors. The climate of faith there was so deficient that it was unconducive to many the mighty works that he might have done, and that he would do in other places where the people had more faith. Why should that surprise us? Jesus himself taught that there is a correlation between a faith and miracles:
Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not cast it out?” He said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.” (Matt. 17:20)
On some occasions Jesus even asked, “Do you believe that I am able to do this?” (Matt. 9:28) So what is clear in this scenario is that Jesus did not find muchfaith for mighty works among his neighbors. It also suggests that he was not very inclined to do any mighty works there—he expected hearts of faith. But of course, there must have been a few people with faith because he did heal them (even though those were not some of his more impressive miracles.) So when Mark said he could not do any mighty works there, and Matthew said he did not, they were not saying two different things, they were saying the same thing. Mark was clearly not expressing Jesus’s absolute inability to do any miracles in that situation (because he did do some), he was he was giving expression to a lack of the climate of faith that is a general prerequisite for Jesus to be inclined toward “mighty works”.
Finally, I would like to make one last mention of Dr. Dan Wallace’s paper, The Synoptic Problem, a critical reading on this subject for this course. In it he offers not only his exquisite argument for Marcan priority, in so doing he provides an indefatigable analysis of hundreds of variants and apparent discrepancies among the gospels. After reading it I could understand why professor DeGregorio is so impressed with it. But it is painfully technical and difficult to get through. To be honest, I was also troubled by the sheer enormity of his argument for Marcan priority, and the abundance of internal textual evidence he provided made my head spin. But the reward came at the end when he offers the implications of his research:
…The evidence seems overwhelmingly to support Marcan priority. …The implications of this affect authorship, date, and purpose of the first three gospels. …If Acts was written toward the end of Paul’s first Roman imprisonment (c. 61-2 CE), then Luke must have preceded it. And if Luke preceded it, Mark must have preceded Luke (mid to late 50s seems most probable). Further, if both Matthew and Luke used Mark independently of one another, it is difficult to conceive of Matthew having been written much later than 62, even if he were cut off as it were from the literary fruits of the nascent Church. Mid-60s would seem to be the latest date for Matthew. Once such a date is assigned for each of these books, then their traditional authorship becomes virtually unassailable. And the purpose for each book would need to be found within the framework of such a date. There is one more implication which can be made from all this, in regard to date: if neither Matthew nor Luke knew of each other’s work, but both knew and used Mark, how long would it take before someone such as John would become aware of any of these books? Since Gardner-Smith demonstrated long ago John’s independence of the Synoptic Gospels, such independence becomes increasingly incredible with every passing year. There is the very distinct possibility that John, too, was written in the mid-60s.
If Wallace is correct the significance of this is enormous. His research pushes the dates of the gospels ahead about two decades. Already the canonical gospels enjoyed the favored status of being first-century documents, but two decades earlier advances them from the A league to AA in baseball terms, and greatly strengthens the case for their traditional authorship. If these things are true then the case for their historical authenticity, truthfulness and accuracy are also reinforced. And here I will reiterate my primary argument: The presence of variants and apparent discrepancies proves that the writers of the four gospels and/or members of the church community did not redact them. If they had redacted them they would have removed the offending variants to produce gospels that are much more 'redactionally uniform'. Or, they would have discarded three of the gospels in favor of the best one. Or, they would have super-redacted the four gospels into one Master Gospel that contains one meta-narrative with one set of details. But they did not do any of those things. The reason they didn't is because they were happy with the meta-narrative, its macro details, and its micro-details. The truth is the truth.
 By church I mean two things: 1) the institution in progressive stages of development; 2) the collective Community and sub-communities of Christians in various regions that were the possessors, users and proliferators of the gospels.