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.
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.