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The Shape of the Gospel Story:
The Synoptic Gospels

Dennis Bratcher

The Gospels of the New Testament tell us about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. They tell us about Jesus’ birth, teachings, miracles, journeys, struggles, confrontations with religious leaders, as well as about his suffering, execution, and appearances after his resurrection. Since the story is so familiar to many it is easy to assume that the Gospels all tell the same story in the same way. It is true that they are telling the same story. But the way they tell it is considerably different.

A closer examination of the Gospels reveals that each of the Gospels was written in a particular style with a great deal of freedom in what was selected to include or exclude and how what is included is presented. The first three Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke share more with each other in terms of material and arrangement of the material than they share with the Gospel of John. It is this general similarity between the first three Gospels even in light of their differences that has given them the name Synoptic Gospels (synoptic = "seeing together"). The content and structure of John’s Gospel is so different from these three that it is usually studied separately from the Synoptic Gospels (see Introduction to the Gospel of John).

A careful examination of the organization of the Synoptic Gospels reveals that even though they follow a similar structure of events (compared to John), there are differences, sometimes substantial differences, in the order in which material is placed. For example, the first five chapters of Mark contain material that is also recounted in Matthew and Luke. While Luke roughly follows the order of Mark, Matthew organizes that material in significantly different ways.

Mark Matthew Luke
1:21-45 7:28-8:15 4:31-5:16
2:1-22 9:1-17 5:17-39
2:23-3:12 12:1-16 6:1-6:11, 17-19
3:13-19 10:1-4 6:12-16
3:20-35 12:22-37 6:43-45
4:1-34 13:1-34 8:4-18
4:35-5:20 8:18-34 8:22-39
5:21-43 9:18-26 8:40-56

Biblical scholars have concluded that these differences between the Synoptic Gospels, which include not only content and arrangement, but also chronology, significant themes, and theological motifs point to each Gospel having its own particular theological emphasis. Each Gospel was likely written for a different community (or communities) of Faith at a different time and location to bring the Gospel witness to bear on the needs of that particular community. The Gospel writers selectively edited and arranged the diverse traditions about Jesus that were widespread in the early church (Luke 1:1-3; cf. John 21:25) to emphasize different aspects of his life and teachings. That suggests that each Gospel has its own unique literary history as well as shares a great deal of the Jesus tradition with the others (see The Synoptic Problem).

In spite of their many differences, the Synoptic Gospels do share a similar outline in how the storyline unfolds. While each Gospel gives the story a particular personality, the Synoptics together share a general shape in recounting the events and significance of Jesus. We can see that shape in eight basic movements to the story. However, we have to keep in mind that these are divisions that help our modern minds follow the story and are really artificial and arbitrary in terms of the narrative itself.

(Note: Mark is listed first because it is the simplest version of the narrative, which most biblical scholars consider to be the first Gospel written).

1. Introduction

Mk 1:1 Mt 1:1-2:23 Lk 1:1-2:52

The Synoptics differ widely in how they begin the Gospel narratives.

Mark has only a one verse introduction that provides no information beyond labeling the Gospel a "beginning" (1:1)

Matthew’s two chapters include an introductory genealogy (1:1-17), Joseph’s dream about accepting Mary (1:18-25), the visit of the Magi (2:1-12), the flight of the family to Egypt (2:13-15), Herod’s murder of the infants in Bethlehem (2:16-18), and the family’s return to Nazareth (2:19-23).

Luke begins a much longer two chapter account with a four-verse dedication to Theophilus (1:1-4). He then tells us of Zachariah’s encounter with an angel in the temple (1:5-23), the conception of John the Baptist (1:24-25), the Annunciation of Jesus’ birth to Mary 1:26-38), the visit of Mary with Elizabeth climaxing with Mary’s song the Magnificat (1:39-56), the birth of John the Baptist and Zechariah’s response in the Benedictus (1:57-79), the birth of Jesus in a stable (2:1-7), the visit of the shepherds (2:8-20), the circumcision of Jesus and his presentation in the temple (2:21-24), the prophecies of Simeon and Anna (2:25-38), and the account of Jesus in the Temple at the age of twelve (2:41-52).

2. Beginning of Jesus Ministry

Mk 1:2-13 Mt 3:1-4:11 Lk 3:1-4:13

The beginning of Jesus’ ministry is very similar in all three Synoptics. All include stories of John the Baptist, Jesus’ baptism, and his temptation, although they differ in specific content and arrangement.

Mark is typically much shorter taking only seven verses for John the Baptist (1:2-8), three verses for Jesus’ baptism (1:9-11), and presenting the Temptation narrative in only two verses (1:12-13), omitting any details of what the temptations were.

Matthew expands the account of John the Baptist, telling us about his appearance as well as the content of his message (3:1-12). Matthew adds the deference of John to Jesus at the baptism (3:14-15). Matthew also expands the temptation narrative to include the nature of the three temptations with biblical quotations by Jesus (4:1-11).

Luke follows Matthew closely here but adds historical details, as well as additional information about the preaching of John (3:10-14) and a genealogy of Jesus (3:23-38).

3. Jesus’ Galilean Ministry

Mk 1:14-8:26 Mt 4:12-16:12 Lk 4:14-9:17 [50]

This is the largest section of the Gospels and includes nearly half of Mark and Matthew and slightly less of Luke. There are many geographical markers but few indications of time. This combined with the fact that individual stories are placed in different contexts in the Gospels means that a reliable chronology of the material is virtually impossible. Once again there is a great deal of difference in how the material is arranged and used. Even with those differences, there are several features that are shared by all three Gospels.

a. While arranged differently, the teachings of Jesus figure prominently in this section of the Synoptics. This includes sayings associated with miracles and as responses to people and circumstances, teaching in parables, and teachings directed to the twelve disciples as well as larger group of followers and the crowds in general.

b. The calling of the twelve, their commissioning, and various narratives surrounding them are included in all three Synoptics.

c. Most of the miracle stories of the Gospels are in this section. About ten of these occur in all three Gospels, although they are given different contexts and points of emphasis. There are other accounts that occur in only one or two of the Synoptics.

d. Hostility and opposition from various representatives of Judaism to Jesus is interwoven in various ways throughout the narratives. Jesus’ interaction with the traditions of Judaism and its perspective on observance to the law creates opposition to his teachings and ministry.

Mark tends to follow a more straightforward narrative style in which incidents are connected with verbs of movement and place names. The teachings and sayings of Jesus occur in occasional settings scattered throughout the narrative. There are fewer parables in Mark than in the other two Synoptics, although the two major parables, the sower (4:1-9, 14-20) and the tenants (12:1-12) along with the short explanation of the purpose of parables (4:10-12), serve to call hearers to response.

Matthew expands this section by collecting together in blocks of material the sayings and teachings of Jesus that are in other contexts in Mark and Luke. The largest of these is the Sermon on the Mount (5-7), as well as the Mission of the Twelve (10), and the Parables of the Kingdom (13). Miracle stories also tend to be clustered together following the Sermon on the Mount, and controversies tend to dominate the later chapters.

Luke introduces the theme of Jesus’ mission at the beginning of this section (4:16-30) and then arranges the events, teachings, and healings to demonstrate the outworking of that mission. Luke has much shorter blocks of teaching material than in Matthew often with different settings. By not locating the following section (9:18-36) at Caesarea Philippi, Luke effectively extends the Galilean ministry through 9:50.

4. The Turning Point

Mk 8:27-9:8 Mt 16:13-17:8 Lk 9:18-36

In different ways, all three Gospels use Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi and Jesus’ response with the first prediction of his impending suffering and death (the Passion) to mark a turning point in Jesus’ ministry. In this sense, this section marks the hinge at which the Gospel story turns. Before this much of Jesus ministry was public, accompanied and acclaimed by crowds of followers. After this, Jesus is much more reclusive spending more time with the disciples and in prayer and not as willing to perform spectacular public miracles. The references to his coming death are accompanied by teachings on discipleship. This section also includes the account of the Transfiguration that is almost identical in all three Gospels. In this way three major themes of the Gospels are highlighted: 1) the confession of Jesus as the Christ (Greek; Hebrew = messiah); 2) the suffering of Jesus and its relationship to following Jesus in discipleship; and 3) the hidden glory of Jesus seen only through the eyes of faith.

Mark presents the disciples, represented by Peter, as confused and not really comprehending his teachings or believing his predictions about suffering and death. Jesus has harsh words for Peter ("Satan," Mk 8:33) after Peter rebukes him for talking about his death.

Matthew’s version is only slightly longer and presents the disciples in a better light. Only Matthew tells of Jesus first responding positively to Peter’s confession, blessing him by using a word play on his name ("rock," 16:17-19). Matthew also includes a short judgment saying (16:27).

Luke does not locate the confession of Peter at Caesarea Philippi. He leaves it and the following events as part of Jesus’ Galilean ministry and places it much earlier than Matthew. Luke omits Peter’s rebuke and Jesus’ stern response.

5. The Journey toward Jerusalem

Mk 9:9-10:52 Mt 17:9-20:34 Lk 9:37-19:27

Mark and Matthew are very similar in this section, while Luke is considerably different. Basically all three chart a steady movement from Galilee to Jerusalem. Mark especially includes geographical references that help plot the movement of the story toward Jerusalem. But since there are few time references, and the chronology in John’s Gospel is considerably different, it is uncertain whether this journey is a physical one or a literary technique in which several trips are schematized into one. All three Gospels include the ironic account of the disciples arguing over who is the greatest and seeking positions of honor when Jesus comes into his Kingdom, in spite of Jesus’ continued predictions of his coming death.

Mark is once again the simplest version of the narrative with almost everything in Mark also included in the other two Synoptics. In terms of rhetorical structure, 8:1-10:52 form a larger narrative unit centering on the themes of discipleship and understanding its cost. In this section, that theme of discipleship is stressed as well as examples of faith that illustrate the nature of the Kingdom of God.

Matthew follows Mark’s structure but expands the narrative with questions about paying taxes (17:24-27) and issues of church discipline (18:15-20). Also included are two parables that occur only in Matthew, the Unmerciful Servant (18:23-35) and the Laborers in the Vineyard (20:1-16).

Luke shows the greatest divergence here and is considerably longer. The narrative is more obviously structured as a journey with an introductory statement marking its beginning (9:51). While both Mark and Matthew do not mention Samaria (cf. Matt 10:5), Luke recounts Jesus’ trip through Samaria (9:51-56, cf. John 4:5-9). Much of Luke’s expanded material in this section corresponds to material that Matthew presents in the Sermon on the Mount. Also included are a whole series of parables that are unique to Luke: the Good Samaritan (10:25-37), the Friend at Midnight (11:5-8), the Rich Fool (12:16-21), the Lost Coin (15:8-10), the Prodigal Son (15:11-32), the Unjust Steward (16:1-13), the Rich Man and Lazarus (16:19-31), the Unjust Judge (18:1-8), the Pharisee and Tax Collector (18:10-14), and the Pounds (19:11-27; cf. Mt 25:14-30). Luke also includes an additional unique account, the story of the tax-collector Zacchaeus (19:1-10).

6. Holy Week

Mk 11:1-14:11 Mt 21:1-26:16 Lk 19:28-22:6

All three Synoptics share the same basic structure with differences in arrangement and content. Once again, most of Mark in included in the other Synoptics and Luke shows the most divergence but mostly in details. The final week begins with the triumphal entry into Jerusalem followed by the cleansing of the Temple (located differently in John), which precipitates open hostility from Jewish religious leaders. Jesus responds to questions about his authority, paying taxes to Caesar, and engages the debate about resurrection. Comments about the coming destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem lead into teachings on the end of the age, in different forms in each of the Synoptics. Mark and Matthew share several features not in Luke: the cursing of the fig tree, the question about the greatest commandment, and the anointing at Bethany. All three conclude with the betrayal by Judas, although presented from different perspectives.

Mark inserts the cursing of the fig tree before the cleansing of the Temple and follows later with the explanation of the action.

Matthew places the cursing of the fig tree after the cleansing of the Temple. Only Matthew mentions Jesus healing in the temple (21:14). There are several parables found only in Matthew: the Two Sons (21:28-32), the Marriage Feast (22:1-14; cf. Lk 14:15-24), the Ten Virgins (25:1-13), and the Talents (25:14-30; cf. Lk 19:11-27). Matthew also includes a short section on the Great Judgment (25:31-46), and omits the Widow’s Offering that is included in the other two Synoptics.

Luke omits the cursing of the fig tree and recounts Jesus weeping over Jerusalem (19:41-44). Luke attributes the betrayal by Judas to Satan entering into him (22:3).

7. The Passion Narratives

Mk 14:12-15:47 Mt 26:17-27:66 Lk 22:7-23:56

Again, with many differences in details the Synoptics follow basically the same outline in presenting the Passion or suffering of Jesus: the Last Supper/Passover, the Prayer in Gethsemane, Jesus’ Arrest, the Trial before Caiaphas, Peter’s denial, the Trial before Pilate, the Release of Barabbas, the Mocking and Scourging, and Jesus’ Crucifixion, Death, and Burial. Mark and Matthew share several details of the story that Luke omits or alters: a man carrying a jar of water who leads them to the place where they eat the Passover meal; the mention of the betrayal at the beginning of the meal (Luke places it after the meal), the singing of a hymn after the meal, the name Gethsemane, Jesus finding the disciples asleep three times (once in Luke), the disciples deserting Jesus after his arrest, Jesus Cry of Dereliction from the cross, and the tearing of the temple curtain at Jesus’ death.

Mark begins with a mention of the Passover lamb (14:12). Only Mark mentions a young man following Jesus after the other disciples had fled (14:51-52), but omits the mention of Peter following at a distance that is in Matthew and Luke.

Matthew follows Mark closely here with minor differences. Matthew includes Jesus saying that he could summon twelve legions of angels if it were his intention to fight. Matthew differs most in including several accounts surrounding Jesus’ death: the remorse of Judas (27:3-9), Pilate’s wife’s dream (27:19), Pilate’s hand washing (27:24-26), the earthquake and resurrection of the saints at Jesus’ death (27:51-53), and the guard at the tomb (27:62-66)

Luke differs in many details of the account, which leads some to conclude that Luke is working with a different tradition or source material here. Luke includes the breaking of bread as well as a second cup after the bread (22:19-20). Luke puts into this setting an account of a dispute between the disciples over who is greatest (22:24-27) that occurs in different settings in Mark and Matthew. Luke also includes a section of instruction to the disciples, including warnings and a promise of prayer for Peter (22:28-32). There is also an angel ministering to Jesus as he prayed (22:43-44), although since these verses do not appear in early manuscripts most textual scholars consider them to be later additions.  Only Luke mentions the healing of the servant’s ear (22:51), Jesus turning to look at Peter after his denial (22:61), the appearance of Jesus before Herod Antipas (23:6-12), the words to the women of Jerusalem (23:27-31), and the repentance of one of the criminals (23:42-43). Luke omits the Cry of Dereliction but includes Jesus committing himself to God’s hands (23:46).

8. The Resurrection

Mk 16:1-8 [9-20] Mt 28:1-20 Lk 24:1-53

The resurrection accounts vary widely with each Gospel telling the story differently. The finding of the empty tomb by the women is shared by all three Synoptics, although the details of that account differ.

Mark is the shortest account, only eight verses. The longer ending of Mark (including vv.9-20) is generally considered to be a later addition to the book added time later to provide closure to the book by some who thought the narrative ended too abruptly. There are several suggestions as to why the book would end so abruptly at 16:8: part of the book has been accidentally lost, the writer was not able to finish the book, the book was intended to end at 16:8, etc. In any case, the longer ending is usually rejected as not being part of the original Gospel (in existing manuscripts, there are four different endings of the book as well as a dozen or so minor variations). Mark differs in several small details from the other Synoptics.

Matthew mentions an earthquake and an angel rolling back the stone of the tomb and talking to the women (28:2-7). In Matthew, Jesus meets the women at the tomb and instructs them to tell the disciples (28:9-10). Also unique to Matthew is the Jewish leaders bribing the guards to lie (28:11-15), and the appearance of Jesus to the eleven and the Great Commission (28:16-20).

Luke has two men at the tomb to explain to the women (24:4-7). The rest of the account and the way it is told is unique in Luke: the women’s report to the disciples and their response (24:9-12), the two men on the road to Emmaus and their report to the disciples (24:13-35), the appearance to the eleven in Jerusalem and Jesus instructions to them (24:36-49), and the Ascension (24:50-53)

The content of the Gospels is adapted from W. D. Stacey, Groundwork of Biblical Studies, Epworth, 1979.

-Dennis Bratcher, Copyright © 2018, Dennis Bratcher - All Rights Reserved
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