The four-color synopsis.

How to mark up a synopsis using the four-color system.

If you plan to study the synoptic problem at all seriously, then you will at some point have to sit down with a series of synoptic tables and mark them up or color-code them for agreements between the synoptic gospels: Matthew, Mark, and Luke. I recommend finding a single color-coding system and sticking with it. More to the point, there is one particular system that I recommend above all others....

Stephen Carlson, on his Synoptic Problem Home Page, explains how he uses four colors to synoptically represent each of the various relationships between the synoptic gospels. I regard his method as a great improvement over most of the other schemes that I have seen, some of them involving several more colors to represent the same data that Carlson does with four. For my own synoptic studies, I keep a rather heavy notebook with black and white printed synopses that, when the time allows, I color by hand with highlighters, and it is the four-color method that I use.

It therefore came as something of a surprise recently to read a weblog of his in which he mentions that visitors to his site did not seem to find his method as intuitive as he had hoped. I do not claim to know the reason for this phenomenon, but it occurs to me that perhaps another approach in explaining the method might be in order. Carlson does a fine job of explaining it on his site, but sometimes another perspective is nice. So, if you read his summary and find it unclear, read mine below. On the other hand, if you find that mine fails to communicate the point, then of course read his.

If, of course, you read both and still find the four-color system lacking, choose another method. On with the explanation:

  1. There are three synoptic gospels: Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The task of a synopsis is to identify verbal agreements between any two or all three of them. These agreements may consist of entire phrases or sentences, of single words, or even of parts of words (called morphemes).
  2. Carlson employs a color-coding scheme (as opposed to other forms of markup, such as underscores or font styles) to highlight the identical wording. Each gospel has its own color: Matthew is blue, Mark is red, and Luke is green. (These colors, so far as I am aware, are arbitrary.) In the synopsis (or synoptic table) itself, each gospel receives its own column. For the sake of consistency and simplicity, Carlson uses the canonical order of Matthew, then Mark, then Luke, from left to right.
  3. Now, any given phrase, word, or morpheme has only a limited number of options so far as verbal agreement is concerned. It can agree with neither, with one, or with both of the other two gospels.
  4. Which color to shade each phrase, word, or morpheme depends entirely on which of these three options is true.
    • If the text stands by itself, agreeing with neither of the other gospels, shade it the color of the gospel to which it belongs. If it is unique to Matthew, for instance, color it blue. If to Mark, color it red. If to Luke, color it green.
    • If the text agrees with one other gospel, shade it the color of the gospel with which it shares the verbatim text. If it stands in Matthew or Mark, for instance, but agrees with Luke, color it green. If it stands in Matthew or Luke but agrees with Mark, color it red. If it stands in Mark or Luke but agrees with Matthew, color it blue.
    • If the text agrees with both of the other gospels, that is, if all three gospels share it, then leave it black.
  5. Note in the above arrangement that each snippet of text can bear only one color. It bears its own color (by which I mean the color of the gospel in whose column it stands) if it does not agree with the text of either of the other gospels. It bears the color of one of the other two if it agrees with that gospel against the last. (Note also in this case that the two agreeing gospels trade colors, as it were; you cannot shade text in one gospel the color of a different gospel without also shading the text of the latter the color of the former.) If it agrees with both other gospels, it cannot bear two colors at once, so it bears the color black.
  6. In a finished synopsis the following will be true:
    • The triple tradition will be colored black.
    • The so-called double tradition (any text that occurs in Matthew or Luke but not in Mark) will be colored blue in Luke (because it agrees with Matthew) and green in Matthew (because it agrees with Luke).
    • Agreements between Matthew and Mark against Luke will be colored red in Matthew and blue in Mark.
    • Agreements between Mark and Luke against Matthew will be colored green in Mark and red in Luke.
    • M (unique Matthean material) will be colored blue in Matthew (only).
    • K (unique Marcan material) will be colored red in Mark (only).
    • L (unique Lucan material) will be colored green in Luke(only).
    Both the so-called minor agreements (of Matthew and Luke against Mark) and the Q material will appear as double tradition material (blue in Luke and green in Matthew).
  7. One caveat is very much in order. Sometimes morphemes ought to be shaded the color of a different gospel, or even black, which do not appear to the eye to agree with that other gospel, or with both of the others. What has happened is that two words of very different appearance actually share the same linguistic root. This phenomenon is common in Greek especially. For example, λεγει, he or she says, and ειπεν, he or she said, share the same root. The latter is merely the aorist, or past tense, of the former, and a good synopsis will reflect this fact.

Below I provide an example of the four-color method in operation. The text is the buffeting (or smiting) of Jesus before his crucifixion:

Matthew 26.67-68. Mark 14.65. Luke 22.63-65.
67 Τότε
ἐνπτυσαν εἰς
τὸ πρόσωπον αὐτοῦ
 κολάφισαν αὐτόν,
οἱ δὲ ἐράπισαν*
68 λέγοντες·
Προφήτευσον ἡμῖν,
 τίς ἐστιν
ὁ παίσας σε;
65 Καὶ ἤρξαντό τινες
ἐμπτύειν αὐτῷ
καὶ περικαλύπτειν
αὐτοῦ τὸ πρόσωπον
καὶ κολαφίζ
ειν αὐτὸν
καὶ λέγειν αὐτῷ·
καὶ οἱ ὑπηρέται
αὐτὸν ἔλαβον.
63 Καὶ οἱ ἄνδρες
οἱ συνέχοντες αὐτὸν

αὐτῷ δέροντες,
64 καὶ περικαλύψαντες 
ἐπηρώτων λέγοντες·
τίς ἐστιν
ὁ παίσας σε;

65 καὶ ἕτερα πολλὰ
ἔλεγον εἰς
67 Then
they spat
upon his face
and buffeted him,
and others slappedhim,
68 saying:
Prophesy unto us, Christ!
Who is it who hit you?
65 And some began
to spit upon him
and to blindfold
his face
and to buffet him
and to say to him:
And the attendants
struck him
with their palms.*
63 And the men
who held him
mocked him,
smiting him,

64 and having blindfolded
they asked him, saying:
Who is it who hit you?
65 And they spoke 
 him with many

Note that the Greek word for slap in line 8 of Matthew and the Greek word for palm in the last line of Mark share a linguistic root. Hence the traded colors. An asterisk * marks the difference in sequence.

I direct your attention to the following details as well:

  • The black text is that shared by all three synoptic gospels, and consists of two mere morphemes (λεγ- and αυτ-) and one entire word (προφητευσον).
  • Look at the very first line of each text. In the first column, the word τοτε is Matthean blue because neither of the other gospels has it. In the second column, the phrase ηρξαντο τινες is Marcan red for the same reason. And, in the third column, the phrase οι ανδρες is Lucan green for the same reason again.
  • But note also in that first line that Mark and Luke share the word και. Therefore, in the second column και is Lucan green, while in the third column it is Marcan red. These two columns trade colors, if you will, for this one word in common between them. Mark and Luke go on to trade colors (that is, to share text against Matthew) several more times in the synopsis.
  • Matthew and Luke trade colors further down the columns, each bearing the color of the other for the morpheme -οντες and for the phrase τις εστιν ο παισας σε, absent in Mark.
  • Matthew and Mark trade colors several times. The word εραπισαν on line 8 of Matthew shares a root with ραπισμασιν on line 14 (the next to last) in Mark. The asterisk * after each of these words indicates that the match is out of sequence (id est, not on the same line).
  • The so-called minor agreements of Matthew and Luke against Mark can be spotted at a glance. Simply look for Matthean blue in the Lucan column or Lucan green in the Matthean column.