The Synoptic Gospels

This session was taught at the Christ Church Manchester School of Theology on Saturday 16th February 2019. The CCM School of Theology was set up to serve local churches in Manchester and beyond.

Topic: Synoptic Gosples

In this session, we look at the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke.

Speaker: Andy Martin

Liam is one of the leaders of Christ Church London and is a regular speaker and writer about theology, including on his blog – Leaven on Earth.



The Synoptic Gospels

What are the Synoptic Gospels? And how do Matthew, Mark and Luke choose to portray the story of
Jesus, in order to emphasise the significance of his life, death and resurrection?

What is a gospel? Where did they come from?

What is a gospel?

– Bios = A form of biography
– They highlight the key events that surround a person; their words and deeds
– Whilst they are historical documents, they are not expected to be strictly chronological in order, but are often arranged thematically in order to emphasise the overall thrust and focus of the individual’s life and work

Where did they come from?

Source Criticism: Seeks to reconstruct the original sources of the documents
Form Criticism: Breaks down the books into sections and tries to work out the original setting for each story or item
Redaction Criticism: Seeks to study how and why the documents were compiled as they were, and thus what is the purpose of the text?

‘Inasmuch as many have undertaken to
compile a narrative of the things that
have been accomplished among us,
just as those who from the beginning
were eyewitnesses and ministers of the
word have delivered them to us, it
seemed good to me also, having
followed all things closely for some time
past, to write an orderly account for
you, most excellent Theophilus, that
you may have certainty concerning the
things you have been taught.’
(Luke 1:1-4)

Many eyewitnesses (v2) -> …and sent to its intended recipient (v4) -> …orally communicated the stories about Jesus (v2) -> …which was arranged for a particular purpose (v3-4) -> …which were written and compiled by various people (v1) -> …and wrote his own account (v3) -> Luke researched these over quite some time…(v3)

What are the Synoptic Gospels?

– Synoptic = syn (together) + optic (view)
– The most likely hypothesis is that Mark was written first and that Matthew and Luke both drew upon Mark’s account (and possibly others). John was written independently.

Mark – Mid to late 50s?

Matthew – Late 50s – Early 60s?

Luke – Early 60s?


Content Unique to Mark – 3%

Content in Matthew and Mark – 18%

Content in Mark and Luke – 3%

Content in all three Gospels – 76%


Content Unique to Matthew – 20%

Content in Matthew and Mark – 10%

Content in Matthew and Luke – 25%

Content in all three Gospels – 45%


Content Unique to Luke – 35%

Content in Luke and Mark – 1%

Content in Matthew and Luke – 23%

Content in all three Gospels – 41%

The feeding of the 5,000: an example of independence and interdependence

Number of words used to tell the story:-

  • Matthew – 157
  • Mark – 194
  • Luke – 153
  • John – 199

Number of words common to all of the synoptic gospels: 53
Number of words John has in common with the synoptic gospels: 8 (five, two, five thousand, took loaves, twelve baskets of pieces)

Percentage of agreement between the gospels:-

Matthew & Mark – 59%

Matthew & Luke – 44%

Luke & Mark – 40%

John & Matthew – 8.5%

John & Mark – 8.5%

John & Luke – 6.5%

‘The following conclusions seem inevitable: John represents a clearly independent telling of
the story. He uses only those words absolutely necessary to be telling the same story, and
even uses a different Greek word for “fish”! The other three are just as clearly interdependent
in some way. Those who know Greek recognise how improbably it is for two people
independently to tell the same story in a narrative form and have a 60 percent agreement in
the words used, and often in the exact word order.’
(Fee and Stuart, How to Read the Bible for all its Worth)

Why are there differences between the accounts?

The authors were selective
– ‘Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book […] there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.’ (John 20:30; 21:25)
The authors were creative
– Groupings of teachings or miracles
– Juxtaposition of a miracle and a teaching, to make the point in two way.
– Exercise: Compare the temptations in Matthew 4:5-10 and Luke 4:5-13. Why are they in a different order?

Cleansing of leper Matthew 8:1-4, Mark 1:40-45, Luke 5:12-16
Centurion of Capernaum – Matthew 8:5-13, Mark no parallel, Luke 7:1-10
Peter’s mother-in-law Matthew 8:14-15, Mark 1:29-31, Luke 4:38-39
Sick healed Matthew 8:16-17, Mark 1:32-34, Luke 4:40-41
Following Jesus Matthew 8:18-22, Mark no parallel, Luke 9:57-62
Stilling the storm Matthew 8:23-27, Mark 4:35-41, Luke 8:22-25
Gadarene demoniac Matthew 8:28-34, Mark 5:1-20, Luke 8:26-39
Healing of the paralytic Matthew 9:1-8, Mark 2:1-12, Luke 5:17-26
Matthew’s call – Matthew 9:9-13, Mark 2:13-17, Luke 5:27-32
Fasting question Matthew 9:14-17, Mark 2:18-22, Luke 5:33-39
Jairus and the Woman  Matthew 9:18-26, Mark 5:21-43, Luke 8:40-56

Christology and Crisis: Matthew

– Matthew is often described as ‘the most Jewish’ gospel because of his attention to detail about Jewish customs, his focus on ethics and the law,
his criticism of the Jewish leaders, and his regular reference to OT scriptures
– It may have been written to Jewish Christians, or Christians in areas with large Jewish populations (Syria or Palestine?) helping them to see
Jesus as the fulfilment of the OT and giving them an ethical framework for how to live as kingdom people
– A large amount of Matthew’s gospel is given over to sustained blocks of Jesus’ teaching

Exodus 1:15-17, Matthew 2:16-18 – Child saved from evil king slaughtering children
Exodus 2:15-22 2:13 – Flees for his life and has to live in a foreign land
Exodus 2:23-24 2:19-20 – He returns after the death of the King
Exodus 4:22 3:17 – Son of God
Deuteronomy 8:2 4:1-2 – Wilderness for 40 years
Exodus 19:20 5:1-2f – Teaching on the mountain top

Who is the Christ?

What is the Crisis?

Compare the final speeches of Moses and Jesus. What similarities do you notice?

 ‘The Lord has said to me, ‘You shall not go over this Jordan.’ The Lord your God himself will
go over before you. He will destroy these nations before you, so that you shall dispossess
them, and Joshua will go over at your head, as the Lord has spoken. And the Lord will do to
them as he did to Sihon and Og, the kings of the Amorites, and to their land, when he
destroyed them. And the Lord will give them over to you, and you shall do to them according
to the whole commandment that I have commanded you. Be strong and courageous. Do not
fear or be in dread of them, for it is the Lord your God who goes with you. He will not leave
you or forsake you.” Then Moses summoned Joshua and said to him in the sight of all
Israel, “Be strong and courageous, for you shall go with this people into the land that
the Lord has sworn to their fathers to give them, and you shall put them in possession of
it. It is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not leave you or forsake
you. Do not fear or be dismayed.”

Deuteronomy 31:2-8

‘Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed
them. And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted. And Jesus came
and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore
and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son
and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And
behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Matthew 28:16-20

Christology and Crisis: Mark

– The first gospel account to be written
– Written to Gentiles. He translates Aramaic phrases and explains Jewish customs (e.g. handwashing in 7:3-4)
– Mark was not an eyewitness, but was ‘Peter’s Interpreter’ (Eusebius’ Historica Ecclesiastica, 3.39.15; Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho 106; Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses 3.1.2; Tertullian, Adversus Marcion 4:5 etc)
– Peter had a close relationship with Mark (1 Peter 5:13 – “my son”)

Compare Peter’s proclamation of the gospel with the structure of Mark’s gospel

Acts 10 Mark’s Gospel
Acts 10 – ‘Good News’ (v36), Mark’s Gospel – ‘The beginning of the good news’ (1:1)
Acts 10 – ‘God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit’ (v38), MArk’s Gospel – The coming of the Spirit on Jesus (1:10)
Acts 10 – ‘Beginning in Galilee’ (v37), Mark’s Gospel – The Galilean ministry (1:16-8:26)
Acts 10 – ‘He went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil’ (v38), Mark’s Gospel – Jesus’ ministry focuses on healings and exorcisms

Acts 10 – ‘We are witnesses of everything he did… in Jerusalem’ (v39), Mark’s Gospel – The ministry in Jerusalem (ch 11-14)
Acts 10 – ‘They killed him by hanging him on a cross’ (v39), Mark’s Gospel – Focus on the death of Christ (ch 15)
Acts 10 – ‘God raised him from the dead on the third day’ (v40), Mark’s Gospel –  He has risen! He is not here’ (16:6)

Three Major Themes in Mark’s Gospel

The Activity of Jesus

  • Healings miracles and exorcisms
  • 1:16-8:26 – Demonstrations of power
  • ‘Immediately’ used 42 times, compared to 7 in Luke and 4 in John

The Passion of Jesus

  • ‘[Mark is] a passion narrative with an extended introduction’ (Martin Kähler)

The Cost of following Jesus

  • The expectation of what it looks like to follow Jesus is modelled on his own suffering

Christology and Crisis: Luke

A Couple – 1 Sam 1:1-2:11, Luke 1

A Barren Woman – 1 Sam 1:1, 5, Luke 1:7

Temple Encounter – 1 Sam 1:9-18, Luke 1:8-23

A Miracle Child – 1 Sam 1:19-20, Luke 1:13

A Prophet – 1 Sam 3, Luke 1:76-80; 3:1-18

Song of Triumph – 1 Sam 2:1-10, Luke 1:46-55

Word of God Rare – 1 Sam 3:1, Malachi – Luke

Precursory Ministry – 1 Sam 2-16, Luke 3:4-6

Anointing / Spirit – 1 Sam 16:13, Luke 3:21-22

Father / Son – 2 Sam 7:11b-14, Luke 3:21-22

30 Years Old – 2 Sam 5:4, Luke 3:23

Facing the Enemy – 1 Sam 17, Luke 4:1-13

Divided Crowd – 1 Sam 18:6-16, Luke 4:14-44

Travel and Threats – 1 Sam 19-30, Luke 9-19

Throne in the City – 2 Sam 5:6-10, Luke 19:11


Jesus bears burdens

  • Jesus appears to the meek and lowly
  • Mary’s viewpoint (2:19, 51) and her family
  • Shepherds (2:9) rather than Wise Men
  • Angel appears to Mary (1:26) rather than Joseph (Matt 2:20)
  • Warnings to the rich (12:13-21, 22-34; 16:14, 19-31; 18:18-25; 9:1-10)
  • Eating with Sinners (5:29-32; 15:1-2; 19:7)
  • The Lepers (5:12-16; 7:22; 17:11-19), crippled (5:17-26; 7:2) and blind (7:21-22; 18:35-43)
  • Tax Collectors (5:27-30; 15:1-2; 19:1-10)
  • Lost Coin (15:8-10) and Prodigal Son (15:11-32)
  • Women: Mary x 13. Widow of Nain (7:11-17); Woman with ointment (7:36-50)
  • Gentiles: Good Samaritan (10:29-37); Centurion (7:1-10) etc

Jesus provides strength to bear burdens

  • Begins and ends in the Temple (1:5-23; 24:53)
  • Prayer (3:21; 5:16; 6:12; 9:18, 29; 11:1-4; 18:1-8; 22:40 etc)
  • Holy Spirit: 18x. 57 in Acts. 6 in Mark. 12 in Matt
  • Joy and Praise (ch 1-2 repeatedly; 10:17, 21; 15:7, 10; 19:37; 24:41,53)

‘Jerusalem is named about thirty-three times in Luke’s gospel, as often
as in Matthew, Mark and John combined; while it comes sixty times in
Acts, the rest of the New Testament has it only fourteen times, which
shows how central it is in Luke’s thinking.’ (Richard Burridge)

Recommended Resources

Kenneth Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes. Great material on Jesus’ cultural context

Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. Great material on the trustworthiness of the gospels

Richard Burridge, Four Gospels, One Jesus. Good material on each of the gospel writers’ purpose

Carson, D.A. and Moo, Douglas, An Introduction to the New Testament. A great reference book for the whole NT

Köstenberger, Andreas and Taylor, Justin, The Final Days of Jesus. A chronological study of Jesus’ last days

Leithart, Peter The Four Good material on each of the gospel writers’ purpose

NT Wright, The New Testament and the People of God,  Jesus and the Victory of God, The Resurrection of the Son of God. Three volumes on the historical context of the NT. Very academic. Jesus and the Victory of God is the most helpful for understanding the synoptics and the kingdom.

NT Wright, Simply Jesus, When God Became King. More popular level books on Jesus and his life, teaching and ministry

Top Three Commentaries

Matthew –  Morris, Leon (Pillar), France, R.T. (NICNT), Carson, D.A. (EBC)

Mark – Lane, William (NICNT) Bock,  English, Donald (BST), Wright, N.T. (For Everyone) Green.

Luke – Darrell (NIVAC / IVPNTC), Morris, Leon (TNTC), Joel (NICNT)


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