Biblical scholars widely agree that the first three Gospel accounts found in the New Testament – Matthew, Mark, and Luke – are very similar, and that the fourth Gospel account, John, is quite different from the other three. For this reason, the first three are often referred to as a group under the title “Synoptic Gospels,” and John is often then referred to simply as “The fourth Gospel.” The word “synoptic” means “summary of a common view,” so the title implies the idea that the synoptic Gospels were describing the story of Jesus in much more similar terms to one another than they were to John. This does not mean that John contradicts the synoptics, only that he tells different stories and constructs his stories in much different ways.
Scholarship on the synoptic Gospels in the past few years has largely focused on what is often called “The Synoptic problem.” This “problem” seeks to understand the relationship between the three synoptics. If they were too similar, there would be no real need for all three of them. We could use just one of them, then also have John for some added nuance. In church history, some scholars have actually advocated for such a thing. One second century leader used only Luke. However, scholars have recognized that this is inadequate, because as similar as the synoptics are, they are also quite different from one another in important ways, and each of them makes an interesting and important contribution to the way we understand the story of Jesus. The early church understood this, which is why they included four Gospel accounts in the New Testament rather than just one or two.
To illustrate these differences, scholars have tried to establish the relationship between the synoptics in terms of the sources and traditions behind each Gospel account. The texts are inspired by God, but they did not just drop from the sky. They were written by people faithful to Jesus, and were composed in human ways. Like most writers, the authors of the Gospel accounts used sources (Luke mentions a little about this in 1:1-4). The majority of scholars today regard Mark as the first Gospel account written, and believe that Matthew and Luke had copies of Mark, and used Mark as a source for their own books. The reasons for this are complex, but the view is well supported, and has mostly to do with the ways that Matthew and Luke are far more similar to Mark than they are to each other. But what does this mean? It means that the writers of both Matthew and Luke had Mark on hand, and liked Mark enough to quote it directly and use it as a source, but they still thought that Mark was missing important nuances of the story of Jesus that they could contribute. In other words, if they thought Mark had the whole story, then they would not have felt the need to expand on his work and add to the story. This guarantees that their own Gospel accounts are different enough to warrant their creation, and if they’re different enough to be necessary, then discovering why and how they are different is an important factor in interpreting each Gospel account properly.
At Christ City Church, we are currently in a preaching series on Mark’s Gospel account. As we’ve been doing with our last few series, we will be having a seminar to discuss Mark in ways that may not work well in a sermon or Sunday service context, but are still helpful in helping us understand how to read Mark well. In this upcoming seminar, the synoptic problem will be a useful framing tool for us to look deeper into Mark. We will be looking not only at Mark for its own sake, but we will explore some of the nuanced ways that Mark is different than the other Gospel accounts, so that we might come to appreciate the unique contribution that Mark makes to our Bible and our understanding of the life and teaching of Jesus.
These issues, and more, will be discussed at the seminar. Please do come along.
Author: Danny Daley
On Sunday, 8th October, after the service (6.15pm – 7.45pm), Danny will be holding a seminar to discuss some of the aspects of Mark. In this seminar, we will look at Mark’s sources, narrative, structure, and major themes, in hopes to read this compelling piece of ancient literature more effectively. Please come with thoughts and questions. Reading Mark all the way through would be helpful, but in no way required. Refreshments will be provided.