What Are the Synoptic Gospels?

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The Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are very similar, but all three are quite different from the Gospel of John. Differences between these three Gospels and John's include the material covered, language used, timeline, and John's singular approach to Jesus Christ's life and ministry. In fact, John's approach is so unique that 90 percent of the information he provides regarding the life and ministry of Jesus is absent from the Synoptic Gospels. 

Synoptic Gospels: Definition and Origin

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 of 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

John wrote his Gospel about 20 years after Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Tradition dates the writing of 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 the 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 the 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 Synoptic Gospels:

John may have chosen to skim or skip some of the information already covered in the Synoptic Gospels, yet fill in important gaps (as he saw it) by providing new material. For instance, John devoted a great deal of text to describe the events surrounding the Lord's Passion week before His crucifixion—a critical week, as we now know.

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

The 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

  • "Major Differences Between John and the Synoptic Gospels." https://bible.org/seriespage/major-differences-between-john-and-synoptic-gospels
  • "What is the gospel of Q and does it prove the Gospels are false?" http://carm.org/what-gospel-q-and-does-it-prove-gospels-are-false
  • Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary.
  • International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia.
  • "The Synoptic Gospels." NIV Study Bible