This invention relates to methods for reacting a hydrocarbon, molecular oxygen, and optionally water and/or carbon dioxide, to form synthesis gas. The preferred embodiments are characterized by delivering a substochiometric amount of oxygen to each of a multitude of reaction zones, which allows for optimum design of the catalytic packed bed and the gas distribution system, and for the optimization and control of the temperature profile of the reaction zones. The multitude of reaction zones may include a series of successive fixed beds, or a continuous zone housed within an internal structure having porous, or perforated, walls, through which an oxygen-containing stream can permeate. By controlling the oxygen supply, the temperatures, conversion, and product selectivity of the reaction can be in turn controlled and optimized. Furthermore the potential risks of explosion associated with mixing hydrocarbon and molecular oxygen is minimized with increased feed carbon-to-oxygen molar ratios.