The Synoptic Gospels and Their Literary Relationship

The Synoptic Gospels:  Matthew, Mark and Luke are referred to as the Synoptic Gospels because of the similarities in the chronicle of Christ’s life and ministry they present.  However, in addition to their similarities each also has its unique differences so that the question arises about their literary relationship:  Was there some common source of information behind the Synoptics from which all the authors drew?  Did one or more of the authors know of the other gospels and make use of them as they wrote their own?  Statistics: A careful analysis of the similarities and differences of the synoptic gospels reveals that a large part of Mark’s gospel is duplicated in Matthew and Luke: 76% of Mark (some figure as much as 91%) makes up 47% of Matthew, and 53% of Mark makes up 30% of Luke.  This has led many scholars to surmise that Mark’s gospel was written first, and that Matthew and Luke made use of it as one of the primary sources for their own gospel, but expanded upon it.  In addition, around 22% of Matthew and 20% of Luke is composed of material common to these two gospels but not found in Mark (such as John’s preaching on repentance, the temptation of Jesus, etc…), perhaps indicating a source (called Q by scholars) common to Matthew and Luke but unknown to or not used by Mark.  Approximately 31% of Matthew and 50% of Luke is material not found in the other gospels and indicates sources (known as M and L) unique to them.  Only a relatively small portion (about 7%) of Mark is unique only to it.

Matthew and Oral Tradition: Clearly as one of the twelve apostles Matthew would have had his personal experience and firsthand knowledge of Jesus’ ministry to draw upon.  It is also clear that Jesus’ ministry left a strong oral tradition of His sayings that were passed on from person to person and taught from place to place in the early church that would have been familiar to large numbers of Christians in the first century: the apostle Paul quotes one of these in Acts 20:35 that is not recorded elsewhere (“remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that He Himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive’”).

Unique Sources: It also seems clear that each of the gospel writers had sources unique to them that they made use of: Matthew’s gospel traces Jesus’ physical descent through Joseph and describes the events surrounding His birth from Joseph’s perspective, indicating a source related to Joseph.  Luke, on the other hand, traces Jesus’ physical descent somewhat differently and describes his birth from Mary’s perspective, indicating a different source related to Mary—perhaps even Mary herself (see Luk 2:19,51).

The Role of Mark: John Mark was Barnabas’ cousin (Col 4:10) and his mother Mary had a house in Jerusalem where the disciples would meet and where Peter himself went after being delivered from prison by the angel of the Lord (Acts 12:12-14).  In 1Pe 5:13 Peter refers to Mark as “my son” from which it is clear that he was near and dear to him.  The statement may also indicate that it was through Peter that Mark came to know the Lord.  Considering that Mark’s home was large enough to accommodate the “many” who were gathered together there for prayer, that there was an outer gate and servants, and that Barnabas himself was a land owner (Acts 4:36-37), it is clear that the family was one of affluence so that Mark was likely better educated than the general population.  It is also possible and perhaps probable that it was here in Jerusalem where the apostles “went up to the upper room where they were staying” after Jesus’ ascension and where “a gathering of about one hundred and twenty persons was there together” (Acts 1:12-15).  It may also have been here where the disciples prepared for Jesus the Passover; some have even conjectured that Mark was the man whom the disciples met carrying the pitcher of water (a task usually done by women) and led them to the “large upper room furnished and ready” (Mar 14:12-16, Luk 22:7-13).  Recall also the “certain young man” who, besides Peter, was following Jesus after His arrest and was seized but “escaped naked” by leaving behind the linen sheet that covered him; many also believe that this was Mark himself as the episode is only recorded in Mark 14:51-52 and linen garments were only affordable to the wealthy.

It is clear then that Mark and his family were among the first disciples, he could easily have known Jesus and been a witness himself to aspects of His ministry, and he was surrounded by first-hand witnesses, so that he had available numerous sources for his gospel account.  It is quite possible then that even as a young man he took to writing down his own experiences[1] as well as the teachings of Jesus and the events of His life as they were recounted in his home by the first-hand witnesses—including Peter—who gathered there.  Since most of these eyewitnesses were from Galilee where the bulk of Jesus’ ministry described in the Synoptics took place, they would have traveled to Jerusalem infrequently and primarily for the annual feasts.  As followers themselves of the Messiah and having the means to do so, Mark’s family would have naturally extended their hospitality to these who had personally witnessed different aspects of the Lord’s life or ministry.  In this way as various ones found themselves in Mark’s home on various occasions Mark’s records likely came in bits and pieces.  As these records were being gathered from different people at different times, they may also have been written down in Aramaic, Greek, Hebrew, or even a mixture of these.  Thus, while it is likely that accurate records of Christ’s ministry were written down very early, it is also likely that when they were first written down they were not in the final form we have today but more as a collection of notes such as a researcher might compile before composing a final work.  With the passage of time a clearer, more complete picture of Christ’s life and ministry would emerge as Mark and others in the early Christian community were able to piece together the various reports from different sources.  In this way these initial records would have formed the basis of Mark’s own gospel and likely also became a source for both Matthew’s and Luke’s more complete gospels.

Because of his broad familiarity with the teachings of Jesus, perhaps his own personal experience with the Lord especially during the week of His passion, his ability to read and write Greek, and perhaps having already compiled the material for what we know as his gospel account, it is not surprising that Mark would be prevailed upon by his cousin Barnabas to join him together with Paul on their first missionary journey as their helper (Acts 13:5).  Neither is it surprising that we should find him returning to Cyprus with Barnabas (Acts 15:39) who was “a Levite of Cyprian birth” (Acts 4:36), nor that many years later we should find him associated with both Peter and Paul’s ministry in Rome (see Col 4:10, 2Ti 4:11, 1Pe 5:13).

At least partly based upon the statement of Peter in 1Pe 5:13 that Mark was with him in Rome, the tradition arose in the early church that Mark composed his gospel there from material he gathered from Peter’s preaching.  Because of Mark’s explanation of Jewish customs (Mar 7:2-4, 15:42), use of Latin terms instead of their Greek equivalents (Mar 4:21, 6:27, 12:14,42, 15:15-16,39), and translation of Aramaic words (Mar 3:17, 5:41, 7:11,34, 15:22) it is reasonable to associate Mark’s gospel with a Gentile and perhaps Roman audience.  It is also reasonable that Peter figured prominently as the source for much of Mark’s gospel account.  However, even if Mark did not compose his gospel as we now have it until as late as the 60’s when Paul and Peter are known to have been in Rome, it is clear that he would have done so from materials he had available much earlier and that were likely also used by Matthew and Luke as they composed their gospels.

Summary: To summarize then, it is reasonable to understand from the many similarities of the synoptic gospels that there is a literary relationship between them.  Think: is it reasonable to assume such similarities would occur if the authors wrote entirely independent of one another?  It also seems probable that as a young man Mark had been introduced to the teachings of Jesus by Peter and had personally witnessed aspects of Jesus’ ministry, especially the events surrounding His death and resurrection.  This no doubt had a profound, life-changing effect upon him and his family.  From the testimony of others in the Christian community who met in and passed through his mother’s home in Jerusalem he came to know many of the other events surrounding Christ’s life and ministry.  At an early date he began compiling these events in written form both for his own benefit and to share with others.  The eyewitnesses themselves who surrounded him, including Peter, bore witness to the events he was recording to share with others, and because Mark had the education and means to do so, they perhaps even encouraged him in the task.  Matthew and Luke, writing independently of one another, made use of what Mark had already compiled, but expanded upon it with additional information available to them.  At some point, perhaps before but maybe even after Matthew and/or Luke had written their gospels, Mark composed an account of Christ’s ministry for some purpose he was facing from the events he had earlier compiled and that was preserved and became known to us as his own gospel account.

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1. It is perhaps significant that 37% of Mark’s gospel is devoted to the last week of Christ’s ministry.

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