The Synoptic Gospels and Jesus

Based on the literary structure of the Gospel of Matthew consisting of five distinct sections of Jesus’ teaching,  Jesus is emphasized as a teacher in comparison to Moses (traditional author of the five books of the Law). Matthew presents Jesus as a new Moses-like figure who gives authoritative teaching. Jesus is presented as greater than Moses because he will save his people from their sin and initiate a new covenant with them (Blomberg 146).

Matthew uses the phrase Son of David throughout his Gospel, which refers to the Jewish conventional expectation of a kingly Messiah who would come from the house of David. With this designation, Matthew emphasizes Jesus as the King of the Kingdom of God. Jesus is the promised King from the Davidic line, and he will carry out his rule and reign for all eternity. He will deliver his people from bondage and gather them into his eternal kingdom. He will restore and heal his people from all their afflictions and sins (Blomberg 146).     

The Gospel of Mark portrays Jesus’ mighty deeds in the first half and his suffering and death in the second half. The focus is “Jesus’ glory and the centrality of the cross” (Blomberg 131). This may be due to Mark trying to balance and emphasize Jesus’ divinity and humanity. At crucial points throughout the book, Mark introduces the greek terms Χριστός (Christos) meaning Christ (ex. Mark 1:1; 8:29) and υἱοῦ θεοῦ (hyiou theou) meaning Son of God (ex. Mark 1:11; 3:11; 9:7; 15:39). Both of these terms are quivalent to the Hebrew word מָשִׁיחַ (māšǐaḥ) meaning Messiah.

Thus, Mark portrays Jesus as the Messiah, but he also presents this as something to be kept secret. More than any other writer, Mark tells of Jesus commanding people not to reveal his messianic identity. This may be due to Jesus attempting to prevent “premature enthusiasm to overwhelm his mission because popular christological expectation did not leave room for a suffering Messiah” (Blomberg 133). Furthermore, Mark advances the idea of a suffering, servant Messiah (related to Isa 52:13-53:12) when he portrays Jesus as saying, “…For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Mark emphasizes Jesus’ suffering for the sins of humanity (Blomberg 133).

While the Gospel of Luke has several of the same Christological themes as Matthew and Mark, Luke emphasizes Jesus’ humanity and compassion for social outcasts. This can be seen in his narratives which are focused on Samaritans. For example, unique to the Gospel of Luke is the recording of the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), and the story of the Samaritan leper returning to gives thanks (Luke 17:11-19). Luke often uses the phrase “tax collectors and sinners” to characterize those who gathered near Jesus and who were welcomed by him. In fact, only Luke tells stories of two tax collectors who are portrayed as upstanding (i.e. Luke 18:9-14; 19:1-10). Furthermore, Luke emphasizes Jesus’ concern for the poor by compiling teachings (Luke 14:7-24) and parables (Luke 16:19-31) that speak to the plight of the poor. One of the most powerful statements by Jesus concerning the poor is in Luke 4:18 where he claims to fulfill the mission of Isaiah’s servant “to proclaim good news to the poor” (Blomberg 164).

Another significant emphasis in the Gospel of Luke is Jesus as “Savior.” In Luke 2:11, the angel Gabriel announces, “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (ESV). For Luke, the title of “Savior” is the most distinctive title for Jesus. Luke’s use of the greek words σωτήρ (sōtēr) meaning Savior, σωτηρία (sōtēria) and σωτηρίον (sōtērion) meaning salvation appear nowhere else in the Synoptic Gospels. Luke 19:10 sums up this emphasis stating, “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (ESV) (Blomberg 165).

Works Cited

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

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.