Synoptic Gospels Summary

Overview (Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

The Gospels (literally, good news) of Matthew, Mark, and Luke have been called Synoptic (seen together) Gospels since the end of the eighteenth century because they contain similar details in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. In addition, the three Gospels have a linguistic resemblance in the Greek in which they were written, which is not thought to be coincidental given that Jesus himself spoke Aramaic and the Gospels purport to be a written record of his teachings. The fourth Gospel, attributed to John, is set apart from the others because of its late composition and the author’s use of figurative and symbolic language that is not found in the three Synoptics.

From the eighteenth century, scholars have debated various theories as to why there is so much similarity among the three Synoptic Gospels. At least one-third of the Gospel material is repeated in the other Synoptics. This question is referred to by biblical scholars as the Synoptic problem. The most obvious explanations are that the writers, or evangelists, copied from one another or witnessed the same events.

These theories have been discounted for a number of reasons. First, it is improbable that the evangelists were apostles in close proximity with Jesus. Because the earliest of the three Gospels (Mark) was not written until approximately 65 c.e. and the two others up to twenty years later, any copying would probably have been from Mark’s earlier document. Because most scholars do not believe that Matthew and Luke copied from each other, the most prevalent theory has been that the Synoptic authors drew on a number of existing documents. It has been proposed that there was a document or an early source (called Q for quelle, or source) of one-line sayings of Jesus that Matthew and Luke both used for their information. In addition, some scholars believe that both Matthew and Luke had their own private sources of material about Jesus and also drew on Mark’s Gospel for some of their content.

The Synoptic problem is of special interest to students of the Bible engaged in the quest for the historical Jesus. This quest focuses on determining which details of Jesus’ life, deeds, and words are the most likely to be historically accurate. For example, because only two of the Gospels (Matthew and Luke) begin with the birth of Jesus, it is widely held that details of Jesus’ birth are unknown. The accounts rendered by Matthew and Luke differ greatly from each other and contain a number of elements that biblical scholars consider to be either symbolic or indicative of the evangelists’ theological objectives. With the exception of the inclusion by one evangelist of an incident recounting Jesus’ being lost on the way to the temple at age twelve (Luke 2:39-52), all three of the Synoptic Gospels follow Jesus closely during the three years of his public ministry before his...

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Synoptic Gospels Bibliography (Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Brown, Raymond. An Introduction to the New Testament. New York: Anchor Bible, 1997. A preeminent biblical scholar guides the reader through the sociohistorical background of the Gospels and their philosophical and theological significance. Provides resources for further study.

Brown, Raymond, Joseph Fitzmyer, and Roland Murphy, eds. The New Jerome Biblical Commentary. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1987. A serious academic guide to individual passages of Scripture. Provides background, interpretation, and resources for more in-depth analysis. Catholic perspective, but more academic than denominational.

Malina, Bruce, and Richard Rohrbrough. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. 2d ed. Minneapolis, Minn.: Augsburg Fortress Press, 2002. Provides the reader with fascinating sociological background to the world in which Jesus lived and a deeper insight into the meanings of his words and actions.

Sanders, E. P., and Margaret Davies. Studying the Synoptic Gospels Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1990. Surveys the various scholarly debates about the purpose, authorship, and interrelationship of the Synoptic Gospels for the interested layperson. Clear explanations of abstract theories.

Senior, Donald. Jesus: A Gospel Portrait. Rev. ed. Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press, 1992. Senior combines biblical scholarship with a reverential study of the person of Jesus, his world, and his significance for Christians today. Contains a valuable bibliography.

Throckmorton, Burton H. Gospel Parallels: A Comparison of the Synoptic Gospels. 5th ed. Nashville, Tenn.: Nelson Reference, 1992. Handy tool first published in 1949. Illustrates clearly how the material of the Synoptics lines up. Gospel passages are copied in parallel columns for clear comparison.