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The Catholic Study Bible A special version of the New American Bible, with a wealth of background information useful to Catholics.

Introduction to The Synoptic Gospels

Donald Senior

Pheme Perkins

The Similarities and Differences among the Synoptic Gospels

Because of their striking similarities, the three Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke have traditionally been called synoptic, from the Greek meaning to “view together.” The observer of these three Gospels would, in fact, notice many parallels among these stories of Jesus if they were laid side by side.

At the same time, the general structure and style of the Synoptic Gospels are distinctively different from John's Gospel. For example, in each of the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus begins his public ministry of teaching and healing in Galilee, travels with his disciples on a single purposeful journey to Jerusalem, and there experiences final rejection, death and, ultimately, resurrection. Jesus' sayings in these Gospels are generally either succinct and pointed or in the story form of the parable; his actions are characterized by marvelous healings and exorcisms; a major theme of his preaching is the advent of the “Rule of God.” In John, on the other hand, Jesus moves back and forth between Galilee and Judea, and his teaching is often expressed in long, meditative discourses. There are no parables in John, no exorcisms, and fewer healing stories; the Rule of God motif plays a very minor role.

But it would be a mistake to consider Matthew, Mark, and Luke as carbon copies of each other. As the Reading Guides and New American Bible introductions make clear, modern biblical scholarship has emphasized the unique style and theological perspective of each of the Gospels. While obviously related to each other in form and content, the three Synoptic Gospels develop their own distinct view of Jesus and his mission. Mark, for instance, begins his story of Jesus with his baptism at the Jordan, whereas Matthew, by means of the infancy narrative at the beginning of the Gospel, traces Jesus' origin back into the history of Israel. Luke, too, begins with an infancy narrative but gives much more positive emphasis to Jerusalem than either Mark or Matthew. In Luke's Gospel the young Jesus goes to Jerusalem to listen to the teachers in the Temple courtyard, and the disciples of Jesus will gather to pray in the Jerusalem Temple after his resurrection. Luke also adds a second volume to his Gospel; the Acts of the Apostles picks up the story of Jesus and his apostles where the Gospel left off, and shows its continuing force as the community of the Risen Christ moves out into the world.

The “Synoptic Problem”

Both the similarities and the distinctive differences among the Synoptic Gospels have led to ongoing debate about their interrelationship, or the “synoptic problem” as it is called. The canonical order of the Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke— influenced scholars in the early church, such as Augustine, to assume that Matthew was the first Gospel written, with Mark and Luke dependent on it.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, however, this general consensus was challenged. Analyses of the style and content of Mark led scholars to conclude that Mark was the first Gospel written, with Matthew and Luke directly dependent on Mark. The presence of other material in Matthew and Luke that was not found in Mark, such as the sayings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, led to the hypothesis of an additional source for Matthew and Luke. This hypothetical source of material—which scholars call “Q” (from the German word Quelle or “source”)—was probably a collection of sayings and parables of Jesus that circulated in the earliest Christian community. Independently of each other, if this hypothesis is correct, Matthew and Luke blended this source with their new renditions of Mark and perhaps with some other materials or traditions specific to their own communities.

This hypothesis about the interrelationship of the Synoptic Gospels is called the “two‐source hypothesis” because it postulates two literary sources for the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, namely the Gospel of Mark and Q. It presumes that Mark was the first Gospel to be written and that Mark, in fact, set the basic format for the story of Jesus, a format that both Matthew and Luke used as the starting point for their own narratives. This relationship would account for the similarities among the Gospels. Each Gospel writer's particular interpretation of Mark, the use of other sources, and the unique pastoral and theological perspectives of the writers and their local churches, would lead to the distinctiveness of each of the Synoptics.

Most New Testament scholars today, including Roman Catholics, accept the two‐source hypothesis as the most plausible explanation of the interrelationship among the Synoptics. But even though a majority of scholars accept it, it is still a theory and therefore vigorous debate continues about other solutions to the synoptic problem. There are those who are convinced that Matthew or even Luke should be considered the first Gospel to be written, or others who are not persuaded that there was any literary contact among the Synoptic Gospels, but rather that each developed independently from a common gospel tradition.

The issue of the relationship of John's Gospel to the Synoptics is even more problematic. Until the midpoint of this century, most modern biblical scholars assumed that John knew of the Synoptic Gospels and that his own Gospel was a very distinctive variation on the synoptic tradition. But more recently, a significant number of scholars speculate that John may represent an independent stream of tradition that had little, if any, contact with the Synoptic Gospels.

The Synoptic Gospels and Their Portrayal of Jesus

Whatever may be the ultimate solution to the synoptic problem, it is clear that the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke have made an essential contribution to our understanding of Jesus and his ministry. The strongly transcendent Jesus of John's Gospel, with its emphasis on the preexistent Word and the incarnation of that Word in human flesh, has had a profound influence on Catholic Christology. But in the twenty‐first century, Catholic theology has turned with renewed energy to the portrayals of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels. The overarching symbol of the Rule of God proclaimed by Jesus in the Synoptics has provided an important framework for understanding the social and liberating implications of Jesus' message. Modern Christology's deep interest in the humanity of Jesus also turns to the portrayals found in Mark, Matthew, and Luke. The trauma of the Holocaust and the Christian‐Jewish dialogue have led to a new appreciation of the Jewishness of Jesus, and here, too, the Synoptics' portrayal of Jesus and his milieu has provided an important backdrop. Interest in the literary quality of the Gospels has also focused attention on the Synoptic Gospels with their rich variety of sayings, parables, healing stories, conflicts, and other types of literary forms.

In short, the Synoptic Gospels are a major and essential source for a genuine understanding of Jesus and his message. That richness is described in detail in the Reading Guides that follow.


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