The Four Gospels

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Matthew, Mark, and Luke are called the "synoptic gospels" because they tell the story of Jesus in a similar way as opposed to the gospel of John.

Synoptic (Greek, "syn-" + "optos", eye): The gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are written "with the same view"--the same optic, same eye, same perspective, same viewpoint, same standpoint.

Points of comparison

Synoptics (Mt, Mk, Lk) Gospel of John
Indirect assertions of the divinity of Jesus. Explicitly says that Jesus is GOD, the Son (1:1, 20:28, etc.)
Jesus baptized by John the Baptist No baptism of Jesus John the Baptist
Jesus fasts for 40 days and is tempted by the devil No fast, no temptations
Jesus is not called "The Lamb of God." Jesus is called "The Lamb of God."
John is listed among the 12 apostles No "John" the Apostle at all--"Beloved Disciple" instead; no list of 12 apostles; the word "apostle" does not appear in John's gospel at all.
James the Greater, son of Zebedee and brother of John, is listed among the 12 apostles No mention of James as an apostle.
Rejected by the people in Nazareth No mention of visiting Nazareth and being rejected there
One-year ministry Two- or three-year ministry
One visit to Jerusalem Many visits: 2:13, 5:1, 7:10, 10:22, 11:55
One Passover At least three Passovers: 2:13,23; 6:4; 11:55
Cleansing of the Temple after Jesus' triumphal entry and shortly before His death (Mt 21:12-13, Mk 11:15-18, Lk 19:45-48). Cleansing of the Temple on Jesus' first visit to Jerusalem (Jn 2:13-22); the triumphal entry is on THIRD visit two years later (Jn 12:12-16).
Nothing comparable. Story of woman caught in adultery (7:53-8:10)
Indirect mission statements: "The Son of Man ... " Direct statements: "I am . . . "
"Messianic Secret" Nothing comparable.
Changes Simon's name to "Peter" after confession of faith. Calls Simon "Kephas" in first encounter.
? "Feed my lambs; feed my sheep."
Mt & Lk: Beatitudes and Lord's Prayer Mk & Jn: neither Beatitudes nor Lord's Prayer
Transfiguration (Mk 9:2, Mt 17:1, Lk 9:28) No story of the Transfiguration (Jn 1:18 may refer to it obliquely)--but Mt, Mk, Lk say John was there!
Agony in the Garden No agony in the garden -- just one part of a verse (12:27) that raises questions about the synoptic accounts.
Jesus uses parables to teach No parables as such--lots of metaphors instead
Many exorcisms No exorcisms
"Amen, I say to you ..." (total of 50 times in synoptics) "Amen, amen, I say to you ..." (25 times)
"Little Apocalypse" foretelling woes to come to Jerusalem and the world (Mt 24, Mk 13, Lk 21). Few apocalyptic prophecies. The long discourse after the Last Supper does foretell the coming of the Holy Spirit. There are also sayings about Judgment Day.
Anointing of Jesus' head by an unnamed sinner two days before Passover (Mt 26:7 and Mk 14:3 in the home of Simon the Leper) in Bethany. Luke portrays a sinful woman anointing Jesus' feet (as in John), but places the event in the home of Simon the Pharisee. Anointing of Jesus' feet by Mary of Bethany six days before Passover in the home of Lazarus, Martha, and Mary in Bethany (Jn 12:1-8).
Last Supper: Passover meal == the first Eucharist. No footwashing ritual. Last Supper: NOT Passover, no story of the Eucharist. Tells about washing of feet instead. Jn 6: Theology of the Eucharist without an "institution narrative."
Simon of Cyrene carries the cross for Jesus. Jesus carries the cross Himself.
Jesus killed the day after Passover Jesus killed the day before Passover--"Preparation Day"
The synoptics use Mary's name when referring to her. Never uses Mary's name. Jesus calls her "woman", not "Mother."
Lk: 40 days from Res to Ascension, 10 more to Pentecost (Jewish festival of the Law). Res, Ascension & Gift of Holy Spirit (Christian Pentecost) on same day.

Date of composition

Estimated time of composition of the gospels (Two Source theory / Q-Hypothesis--one solution of the Synoptic Problem):

Mark Before 66-70 (destruction of Jerusalem), probably during Roman persecution.
Matthew & Luke after 66-70.
John 80's to 110?

It is hard to say with any certainty whether John had read the other gospels or how familiar he may have been with them through conversations with other Christians.

Length of Jesus' Public Ministry

Summary of texts

2:13 Since the Passover of the Jews was near, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. P1
2:23 While he was in Jerusalem for the feast of Passover, many began to believe in his name when they saw the signs he was doing. P1
4:35 Do you not say, ‘In four months the harvest will be here’? I tell you, look up and see the fields ripe for the harvest.[1] Grain crops were sown around December and harvested in May, about four months later. If the fields are indeed ripe and ready for the harvest, then this was probably said in May, after the first Passover and before Pentecost, which took place fifty days after Passover.
5:1 After this, there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. P2? Pentecost after P1?[2]
6:4 The Jewish feast of Passover was near. P2 or P3
7:2 But the Jewish feast of Tabernacles was near. Late September to late October. Pilgrimage to Jerusalem required.
10:22 The feast of the Dedication was then taking place in Jerusalem. It was winter. Late November to late December.
11:55 Now the Passover of the Jews was near, and many went up from the country to Jerusalem before Passover to purify themselves. P3 or P4

Three Passovers

There are three Passover feasts mentioned explicitly in John's Gospel (2:13, 23; 6:4; and 11:55) but only one Passover in the synoptics (Mt 26:2, Mk 14:1, and Lk 22:1).

In John's gospel, there is a definite return to Galilee between chapters 2 and 6; the Feast of Tabernacles (Dedication of the Temple) occurs between the Passover in 6 and the one in 11 (Jn 7:2). Since Passover comes only once a year, Jesus' public ministry must therefore have lasted at least two or three years. The estimate of the length of time depends on how early the call of the first disciples is dated (1:35-51). It is traditional to call it "three years" because of the three Passovers. It seems that early Christians took Luke's estimate of Jesus' age ("about 30," Lk 3:23), added the "three years" from John's gospel, and derived the traditional age of 33 for Jesus at the time of his death.

Three "years" in John's Gospel
Year 1 Chapters 1-2
Year 2 Chapters 3-6
Year 3 Chapters 6-21

Gospel Parallels

Mt, Mk, Lk in columns.

Burton H. Throckmorton, Jr., Gospel Parallels: A Synopsis of the First Three Gospels (Thomas Nelson).

Synoptic Problem

The synoptic problem arises from the differences between Matthew, Mark, and Luke when they are compared to each other. How can three gospels that are so much alike be so different from each other?

The similarities almost certainly have to have come from copying.

90% of the gospel of Mark is in Matthew and in basically the same order as it is in Mark.

80% of the gospel of Mark is found in Luke, but not in the same order as in Mark.

It is easier for me to imagine Mark being copied, revised, and augmented by Matthew and Luke (thus producing the notable similarities between the three gospels) rather than imagining Mark throwing so much material out of Matthew or Luke. How could Mark have gotten rid of the Infancy Narrative in Matthew? The Lord's Prayer? The Beatitudes? All of the special material in Matthew not found anywhere else? It is far easier for me to imagine Matthew discarding 10% of Mark while adding 8000 words of new material than to imagine Mark discarding 8000 words from Matthew and adding 1000 words not found in Matthew.

New Testament Statistics
Gospel Verses Words
Matt 1071 18345
Mark 678 11304
Luke 1151 19482
John 879 15635

The Q source

Matthew and Luke seem to have used "two sources" in common:

  • Mark
  • A collection of sayings of Jesus.

The German word for "source" is "Quelle." The source (Quelle) of the sayings of Jesus that Matthew and Luke have in common is called "the Q Source" or just "Q".

Q = Sayings of Jesus common to both Matthew and Luke but not found in Mark. M = Material unique to Matthew. L = Material unique to Luke.

If the two-source theory is true, then it accounts for the similarities between Matthew and Luke by attributing them to the two sources that the two gospels have in common with each other: Mark and Q; the differences between Matthew and Luke come from their unique material (M vs. L) as well as from the way in which each author edited ("redacted") Mark and Q according to their own taste and theological outlook.

Matthew = Mark (edited) + Q (edited) + M
Luke = Mark (edited) + Q (edited) + L

We don't know whether the Q Source was written or oral.

We don't have any copies of the Q source; the Q material is found only in Matthew and Luke. If it was a written manuscript, it ceased to be copied after Matthew and Luke used it in their gospels. If it was preserved orally, the oral tradition apparently broke down and disappeared without a trace sometime in the first century. So, for all practical purposes at the present time, it is just a scholarly hypothesis (guess, theory) that such an independent source existed because it helps to explain the similarities in Matthew and Luke that cannot be explained by copying from Mark.

The primacy of Matthew

A competing hypothesis to explain the similarities between Matthew and Luke is that Matthew came first and that Luke edited Matthew to produce his gospel. There is a legend in the fathers of an Aramaic version of Matthew. If there was an early version of Matthew in Aramaic, used in both the Greek version of Matthew and in Luke's gospel, which is found only in Greek, then that would also account for the Q material (the sayings of Jesus common to Matthew and Luke but not found in Mark).

Freedom of opinion

There is no dogma in the teaching of the Magisterium on this point. Catholics are free to investigate the questions raised by the different theories and disagree with each other, charitably, about how best to answer those questions.

Which John is which?

Distinguish the various Johns. John the Apostle is NOT John the Baptist. John the Apostle may be the Evangelist and the author of Revelation; it is possible that tradition has conflated (run together) the stories of two or three different people:

  • John the Apostle
  • John the Evangelist
  • John of Patmos / John the Divine (author of Book of Revelation)

References

  1. The New American Bible treats this as a proverbial saying, not as a reflection of the time of year at which Jesus said these words (footnote to Jn 4:35).
  2. NAB footnote to 5:1: "The reference in Jn 5:45–46 to Moses suggests that the feast was Pentecost. The connection of that feast with the giving of the law to Moses on Sinai, attested in later Judaism, may already have been made in the first century. The feast could also be Passover (cf. Jn 6:4). John stresses that the day was a sabbath (Jn 5:9)."

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