The Synoptic Gospels — A Historian’s Perspective

From a Lecture Series by Professor Bart Ehrman

The story of Jesus’ life can be found similarly told in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. In fact, they are so similar in parts, that many scholars believe that one of these Gospels was used as a source for the other two.

Image of the Bible open to the New TestamentHistory of the Bible: The Making of the New Testament Canon
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Historical or Theological?

Before diving into the Gospels, I’d like to first say a word about a historian’s take on theology. Sometimes it’s hard for my undergraduates to understand the difference between an historical approach to the New Testament and a theological approach; so, I try to explain it to them in terms they can understand.

The historian can differentiate between the theology of Gandhi, on the one hand, and Martin Luther King, Jr., on the other. The historian can tell you what each person thought, but the historian cannot tell you which person was right about their theological beliefs.

…the historian doesn’t have any particular access to God, only to events that happened in this world.

The historian can tell you what happened during the Reformation as the Protestants fought the Catholics, and can tell you what the theological issues involved were. But, the historian cannot tell you which side was on the side of God; the historian doesn’t have any particular access to God, only to events that happened in this world.

The historian can tell you that Jesus died on the cross and can tell you the circumstances surrounding his death, but the historian, as a historian, cannot tell you that Jesus’ death was for the sins of the world; that’s a theological judgment to be made by theologians, something that the historian, as an historian, cannot say.

The Synoptic Gospels

With that, let’s talk about the Gospels, our earliest accounts of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. These four books—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—are usually divided into two groups by scholars.

The first group are the synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The synoptic Gospels are called synoptic from a Latin word, which means “seen together,” because the synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke tell many of the same stories, often in the same words, frequently following the same order.

You can put Matthew, Mark, and Luke in parallel columns next to each other and can compare their stories with one another and can see, then, that they’re telling the same story. So, they’re synoptic because they can be seen together.

Image of Stained glass window depicting the Four Evangelists, Saint Matthew, Saint John, Saint Mark and Saint Luke, in the Church of Stabroek, Belgium.
Stained glass window depicting the Four Evangelists, Saint Matthew, Saint John, Saint Mark and Saint Luke, in the Church of Stabroek, Belgium.

These three Gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—tell the same basic story about Jesus. In two of them, Matthew and Luke, he’s born of a virgin in Bethlehem.

The gospel of Mark is different, because it begins with Jesus as an adult. But from there on, the stories have very similar outlines. Jesus gets baptized by John the Baptist; he goes into the wilderness to be tempted by the Devil; he comes back; and he begins proclaiming the coming of the Kingdom of God. He teaches the crowds in parables; he performs many miracles, including casting out demons.

Halfway through his ministry, he goes up onto a mountain in the presence of three of his disciples and he is transfigured before them, the Mount of Transfiguration. He predicts that he needs to go to Jerusalem to be betrayed and denied, and to be put on trial and then executed, but that then he will rise from the dead.

He then makes a trip to Jerusalem the last week of his life. He overthrows the tables of the money-changers in the temple and causes a ruckus in the temple, which leads to the anger of the high priest, who decides to have him turned over to the Roman authorities.

He is turned over to Pontius Pilate, who condemns him to death by crucifixion. Jesus then is crucified, and on the third day, he’s raised from the dead.

A Case Of Plagiarism?

You find the same basic story in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Sometimes, within the basic story, you have exact accounts in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. There are verbatim agreements: you’ll have the same story, word-for-word agreement.

The only explanation as to why you can have this word- for-word agreement, in the opinion of most scholars, is that one of these Gospels is being used as a source for the other two. In other words, there must be copying going on.

I sometimes have difficulty convincing my students that if you have three accounts of the same event that are in the same words, somebody has to be copying somebody else.

Image of Papyrus 46, one of the oldest New Testament papyri
Papyrus 46, one of the oldest New Testament papyri

The way I try to convince these 19- and 20-year- olds of this is, I do this little exercise where I come into class a couple of minutes late to make sure everybody’s there; I fiddle around in front of the class; I turn on the overhead projector; I put down my briefcase; I roll up my sleeves; and I do a few other things.

Then I ask everybody in the class to write down everything they’ve seen me do in the last three minutes. The students, all 400 of them, write down what they’ve just seen me do.

Then, I collect four of the papers and say, “Now, I want you all to do a synoptic comparison. I’m going to read what each of these sources has to say, and I want to know whether you have a single sentence that is exactly like someone else’s.”

In all of my years of doing this—15, 16 years of doing this—I’ve never had anybody with two sentences exactly the same.

So I ask my students, “What would you think would happen if I took up two of these pieces of paper and I had two paragraphs that were verbatim, the same, exactly alike?”

I typically get the answer, “Well, somebody copied off from someone else.” Exactly, somebody copied from someone else.

Then I will ask, “Now imagine we didn’t do the writing part of this exercise today. Suppose we waited 30 or 40 years, and, instead of asking you to write down what happened that day in class, I asked friends of yours that you had told about what had happened in class. If I then got two accounts that were exactly the same, what would you assume had happened?”

There’s always some wise guy in the back row that raises his hand and says, “It’s a miracle.” Right. Well, those are the two options, actually: it’s either a miracle, or else somebody’s copying somebody else.

Chart of similarities between the 3 synoptic gospels

 

What If It’s a Miracle?

If you explain the similarities on the basis of a miracle, then you have trouble explaining the discrepancies.

People don’t typically notice the discrepancies among the Gospels because of the way they are read. The way people read the Gospels is they read Matthew, it’s about the life and death of Jesus; then they read Mark, and it sounds a lot like Matthew sounded; then they read Luke, and that sounds a lot like Matthew and Mark sounded.

When you read them this way, vertically, one at a time, they all sound very much alike. Yet when you read them horizontally— one story in Matthew, then the same story in Mark, and the same story in Luke—you begin to notice discrepancies that are very hard to reconcile with one another.

What scholars think today is that Mark was the first Gospel written, and that Matthew and Luke both had access to Mark, and used Mark as one of their sources. Matthew and Luke had other sources available to them as well.

Do you think the similarities within the synoptic Gospels are a case of “sharing a single source”, or due to divine intervention? Discuss your thoughts in the comments below…

The Gospel of John

Image of The Bible, open to the book of John. This translation is King James, which is public domain.The Gospel of John is different from Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The Gospel of John does not contain most of the stories found in the synoptic Gospels.
For example, in John there’s no account of Jesus actually being baptized. There’s no account of his birth either. There’s no account of him going to the wilderness to be tempted by the Devil. Jesus never tells a parable in the Gospel of John. Jesus never casts out a demon in the Gospel of John. Jesus does not go up to the Mount of Transfiguration in the Gospel of John. Jesus does not have his last supper, in which he gives out the bread and the wine and says, “This is my body, this is my blood,” in the Gospel of John. Jesus is not put on trial before the Jewish Sanhedrin in the Gospel of John.

There are wide-ranging differences where John doesn’t have the same stories as the synoptics. John has a different set of stories; it has a different set of miracles, including the first miracle in the Gospel of John where Jesus turns the water into wine. John has many dialogues between

Jesus and someone else that are found only in John. For example, there is Jesus’ discussion with Nicodemus in chapter 3, or with the Samaritan women in chapter 4. Many of Jesus’ sayings are found in John, only in John.

These books do not claim to be objective histories; they claim to be proclamations of good news.

The term “Gospel” comes from the Old English word for “good news.” These books do not claim to be objective histories; they claim to be proclamations of good news. In other words, these books are not historically accurate accounts of things that Jesus said and did. These are books that are proclaiming information about Jesus that is meant to provide information needed for salvation. These books are the good news of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.

From the lecture series: History of the Bible: The Making of the New Testament Canon
Taught by Professor Bart Ehrman, Ph.D., M.Div.
By Alecmconroy (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
By Relationship_between_synoptic_gospels.png: Alecmconroy derivative work: Popadius [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons