What Are the Synoptic Gospels?

The Synoptic Gospels and the Gospel of John Differ Greatly

Bill Fairchild

The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are very similar, but all three are quite different from the Gospel of John.  Differences between these three "Synoptic Gospels" and John's include the material covered, language used, timeline, and John's unique approach to Jesus Christ's life and ministry.

Synoptic, in Greek, means "seeing or viewing together," and by that definition, Matthew, Mark, and Luke cover much the same subject matter and treat it in similar ways.  J.J. Griesbach, a German Bible scholar, created his Synopsis in 1776, putting the texts of the first three Gospels side by side so they could be compared.  He is credited with coining the term "Synoptic Gospels."   

Because the first three accounts of Christ's life are so alike, this has produced what Bible scholars call the Synoptic Problem.  Their common language, subjects, and treatment cannot be coincidental.

Synoptic Gospel Theories

A couple theories try to explain what happened.  Some scholars believe an oral gospel existed first, which Matthew, Mark, and Luke used in their versions.  Others argue that Matthew and Luke borrowed heavily from Mark.  A third theory claims an unknown or lost source once existed, providing much information on Jesus.  Scholars call this lost source "Q," short for quelle, a German word meaning "source."  Still another theory says Matthew and Luke copied from both Mark and Q.

The Synoptics are written in the third person.  Matthew, also known as Levi, was an apostle of Jesus, an eyewitness to most of the events in his text.  Mark was a traveling companion of Paul, as was Luke.  Mark was also an associate of Peter, another of Jesus' apostles who had firsthand experience of Christ.

John's Approach to the Gospel

The tradition dates John's Gospel somewhere between 70 A.D. (the destruction of the Jerusalem temple) and 100 A.D., the end of John's life.  In this longer time lapse between the events and John's record, John seems to have thought deeply about what things meant.  Under inspiration of the Holy Spirit, John contains more interpretation of the story, offering theology similar to the teachings of Paul.  Even though John's Gospel is written in third person, his mentions of the "disciple Jesus loved" in his text hint at John himself.

For reasons only John may have known, he leaves out several events found in the Synoptics:

On the other hand, John's Gospel includes many things the synoptics do not, such as:

Integrity of the Gospels

Critics of the Bible often complain that the Gospels don't agree on every event.  However, such differences prove the four accounts were written independently, with diverse themes.  Matthew stresses Jesus as the Messiah, Mark shows Jesus as the suffering servant and Son of God, Luke portrays Jesus as Savior of all people, and John discloses Jesus' divine nature, one with his Father.

Each Gospel can stand alone, but taken together they provide a complete picture of how God became man and died for the sins of the world.  The Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles that follow in the New Testament further develop the foundational beliefs of Christianity.

(Sources:  Bible.org; gty.org; carm.org ; Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary , Trent C. Butler, general editor; International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia , James Orr, general editor; NIV Study Bible, "The Synoptic Gospels", Zondervan Publishing.)