Audiences of the Synoptic Gospels

The Gospel of Matthew has traditionally been viewed as a form of Jewish Christianity. Due to the Jewish-Christian character of the book, Jewish readers appear to be the original audience of the Gospel of Matthew. During the early stages of the Christian church, there was tension and conflict between Christians and Jews which led Jewish-Christians to separate with the Jewish synagogues. The Jewish-Christians faced the challenge of defending their faith before those in the Jewish tradition who criticized them for leaving the faith of Israel. They were part of something new that included the Gentiles, and so their task was to use the Hebrew Scriptures in order to explain the Christ fulfilled continuity of their new faith and the meaning of the inclusion of the Gentiles (Hagner 262).

Christian tradition has pointed to a Gentile Christian audience for the Gospel of Mark. Many have suggested that the Gospel of Mark was written in Rome which is connected to the view that John Mark recorded the preaching of Peter for those who heard him in Rome; therefore, Roman Christians are viewed as the specific audience. The internal evidence of a Gentile audience consists of Mark’s translation of Aramaic expressions, his explanation of Jewish rituals and customs and his cessation details of elements of the Mosaic Law (see Mark 7:1-23; 12:32-34) (Carson et al. 99).

The primary recipient of the Gospel of Luke is revealed in the opening dedication to “most excellent Theophilus” (Luke 1:3). Theophilus most likely was a real person and may have been a close friend of Luke. Luke’s use of the adjective “most excellent” may imply that Theophilus was a person of rank. The title was normally reserved for Roman political officials; therefore, he may have been a wealthy individual who had the ability to financially support Luke in the investigation and writing of his account. Furthermore, the Greek style of the preface and the strong Hellenistic Greek throughout reveals that the writing was primarily intended for a gentile audience. The name Theophilus means “lover of God,” and so some have argued that Luke is using symbolism, meaning that he is dedicating his account to godly people throughout the world. This assertion is thought provoking and deserves consideration especially in view of the immense amount of information and emphasis on salvation of those outside Israel (Carson et al. 117-118).   

Works Cited

Carson, Donald A., et al. An Introduction to the New Testament. Zondervan, 1992.

Hagner, D.A. “Matthew.” New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, edited by T. Desmond Alexander, and Brian S. Rosner, Inter-Varsity Press, 2000, pp. 262-267.

Synoptic Problem

As scholars have viewed and studied Matthew, Mark and Luke together, they have arrived at a consensus that based on the similarities and nuances between these three gospels, they are dependant on one another at a literary level. In view of this literary relationship, the Synoptic Problem has emerged. Mark Goodacre defines the Synoptic Problem as “the study of the similarities and differences of the Synoptic Gospels in an attempt to explain their literary relationship” (16). The Synoptic Problem endeavors to account for the similarities and differences between the Synoptic Gospels primarily through the discipline of source criticism. The written stage in the development of the Gospels is the focus of source criticism, and thus it examines the Gospels in order to discover possible written sources that underlie them. The assumption is that written accounts of the life of Jesus were present at the time each Synoptic Gospel was written, so the goal is to discover the written sources that the writers may have used in compiling their gospels and the priority in which they may have used them (Carson et al. 26).  

Throughout the years, many solutions to the Synoptic Problem have been offered, but three have received the majority of the support. Firstly, the Augustinian Hypothesis based on Augustine’s view that Matthew wrote first, then Mark wrote borrowing from Matthew, and then Luke wrote borrowing from Matthew and Mark. This view suggests that the canonical order is the chronological order. While this was the common view for the bulk of church history, it has not received much support by modern source critics (Carson et al. 31).

Secondly, the “Two-Gospel” Hypothesis, proposed by J.J. Griesbach, suggests that Matthew wrote first, then Luke wrote using Matthew, and then Mark wrote using and conflating both Matthew and Luke creating an abridged Gospel. This hypothesis was ground breaking during the eighteenth century and at times has seen a resurgence in popularity during the modern era, but it has been mostly eclipsed by the following solution (Carson et al. 31).

Thirdly, the “Two-Source” Hypothesis (often expanded to the “Four-Source” Hypothesis) proposes that Mark wrote first, then Matthew and Luke wrote independently of one another while using Mark and another written source which scholars call “Q,” or the material common in Matthew and Luke but is not found in Mark (Two-Sources). This has been expanded to Four-Sources with the inclusion of a “M” source (peculiar Matthew material) and a “L” source (peculiar Luke material). In other words, Mark still wrote first and Matthew and Luke used Mark, “Q” and other source material that only appears in their respective gospels. While the “Two-Source” Hypothesis (including the “Four-Source” Hypothesis) is not without difficulties, it is widely held as the best solution to the Synoptic Problem (Carson et al. 31).

Works Cited

Carson, Donald A., et al. An Introduction to the New Testament. Zondervan, 1992.

Goodacre, Mark. The Synoptic Problem: a Way through the Maze. T & T Clark International, 2007.

Synoptic Gospels


As individuals study the four canonical Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), they may notice that the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke resemble one another, whereas  the Gospel of John does not share their resemblance. The resemblance of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke led a late eighteenth century German biblical scholar named J.J. Griesbach to refer to them as the Synoptic Gospels. The term synoptic is derived from the greek word συνόψις (synopsis) meaning “seeing together” (Carson et al. 19). Thus, the Synoptic Gospels are often closely examined in relation to one another.

Scot McKnight explains the similarities of the Synoptic Gospels with three phenomena─wording, content and order. First, the phenomena of wording refers to the similarity of words used by each writer when describing events (76). A brief comparative example is Matt 19:13-15, Mark 10:13-16 and Luke 18:15-17 from the Synopsis of the Four Gospels edited by Kurt Aland (pg. 217). For the sake of length limitations,  the following is a comparison of one quote from Jesus with similar wording underlined.

Matt v.14 … Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” (RSV)

Mark vv.14-15 … Let the children come to me, do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” (RSV)

Luke vv.16-15 … “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” (RSV)


Second, the phenomenon of content describes the similarity of events and sayings recorded by each writer (76). McKnight states that “approximately 90 percent of Mark is found in Matthew and approximately 50 percent of Mark is found in Luke. Furthermore, approximately 235 verses, mostly sayings of Jesus, are common to Matthew and Luke but not found in Mark” (76).

Third, the phenomenon of order reveals that at least two of the writers agree on the order of events in the life of Jesus. In other words, there are times when Matthew, Mark and Luke agree on the order of events (ex. Matt 17:22-23; Mark 9:30-32; Luke 9:43b-45), and at other times there is agreement between Mark and Luke (ex. Mark 9:38-41; Luke 9:49-50) or between Mark and Matthew (ex. Mark 9:42-50; Matt 18:6-9) (76).  

In addition to the three phenomena detailed above, the similarities among the Synoptic Gospels extends to parenthetical material or explanatory statements added by the writer (Blomberg 98). These parenthetical comments include “let the reader understand” (Mark 13:14; Matt 24:15), “he then said to the paralytic” (Mark 2:10; Matt 9:6; Luke 5:24) and “For he had said…” (Mark 5:8; Luke 8:29) (Stein 785). Furthermore, there are similarities in Biblical quotations used in the Synoptic Gospels. Robert Stein writes,

At times we find the exact same form of an OT quotation. This would not be unusual if that form was identical either with the Hebrew OT or the Greek translation of the OT known as the Septuagint, but when we find an identical quotation of the OT which is different from both the Hebrew OT and the Greek OT, this similarity requires some sort of explanation (cf. Mark 1:2 par. Matt 3:3 and Luke 3:4; Mark 7:7 par. Matt 15:9) (785).


In view of all these similarities, it is important to point out that the material is nuanced; thus, scholars have categorized the synoptic pericopae (events, sayings, stories). The pericopae found in all three Synoptic Gospels are referred to as The Triple Tradition. Within this category Mark is often viewed as the common denominator (middle term) in that there is “some agreement with Matthew and Mark against Luke, some agreement with Mark and Luke against Matthew, but less agreement with Matthew and Luke against Mark” (Goodacre 37). The Double Tradition (or ‘Q’ material) refers to the pericopae that is found in Matthew and Luke, but not Mark. The unique features of this category is that Matthew and Luke agree in wording in most passages, but overall the order of the material differs between the two (Goodacre 42).  The Single Tradition refers to the pericopae that only appears in Matthew (‘Special Matthew’ or ‘M’ material) or Luke (‘Special Luke’ or ‘L’ material) (Goodacre 42-47). These nuances within the Synoptic Gospels lead to what many have called the “Synoptic Problem,” which will be covered in the next post.

Works Cited

Aland, Kurt. Synopsis of the Four Gospels: Completely Revised on the Basis of the Greek Text of the Nestle-Aland 26th Edition and Greek New Testament 3rd Edition: the Text Is the Second Edition of the Revised Standard Version. United Bible Societies, 1985.

Blomberg, Craig. Jesus and the Gospels: An Introduction and Survey, 2nd edition. Broadman & Holman Publishing, 2009.

Carson, Donald A., et al. An Introduction to the New Testament. Zondervan, 1992.

Goodacre, Mark. The Synoptic Problem: a Way through the Maze. T & T Clark International, 2007.

McKnight, Scott. “Source Criticism.” Interpreting the New Testament: Essays on Methods and Issues, edited by David Alan Black and David S. Dockery, Broadman & Holman Publishing, 2001, pp. 74-105.

Stein, R.H. “Synoptic Problem.” Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, edited by Joel B. Green, et al. Inter-Varsity Press, 2003, pp. 784-792.

Zealots in the 1st Century

In his essay entitled “Prophetic Movements and Zealots,” James D.G. Dunn discusses the Zealot movement. He explains that the Zealot movement was a violent revolutionary movement against Rome that emerged in Jerusalem during the winter of A.D. 66-67.[1] Thus, when Luke 6:14-16 list the twelve apostles and mentions in v. 15, Σίμωνα τὸν καλούμενον Ζηλωτὴν (Simōn ton kaloumenon Zēlōtēv) meaning Simon the one being called a Zealot, Dunn argues that this is not referring to Simon being part of the Zealot movement because this movement developed much later.[2] From this perspective, Simon being called a Ζηλωτής (Zēlōtēs) Zealot was an extra personal name used to distinguish him from Simon Peter [3] and to describe him as zealous or ethusiastic for God and his law.[4] However, Dunn also mentions that “the fourth philosophy” movement had similar, yet non-violent, views as the Zealot movement.[5] The fourth philosophy movement was a Pharisaism division led by certain teachers (e.g. Judas the Galilean, Saddok, etc.) who took a firm, proactive attitude against Roman rule.[6] This movement developed in response to the census and taxation implemented by the Roman official Quirinius in A.D. 6-7.[7] The views of the fourth philosophy continued for the next several decades and then bubbled up to form the Zealotism that Josephus describes as leading to the war.[8] Therefore, while Simon may not have been called a Zealot in the A.D. 66-67 (and beyond) sense of the term, Simon may have been called a Zealot in the fourth philosophy sense, meaning that he had a strong zeal for the God of Israel and a fiery political zeal against Rome.  

[1] James D.G. Dunn, “Prophetic Movements and Zealots” in The World of the New Testament: Cultural, Social, and Historical Contexts,eds. Joel B. Green and Lee Martin McDonald (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017), 247. [2] Ibid., 250. [3] BDAG, “Ζηλωτής” [4] TDNT, “Zēlos, Zēloō, Zēlōtēs.” [5] Dunn, “Prophetic Movements and Zealots,” 248. [6] DNTB, “Revolutionary Movements, Jewish.” [7] Dunn, “Prophetic Movements and Zealots,” 248. [8] Ibid., 248-249.