Most of us carry in our heads a curiously mixed-up
version of the Gospels. Because we have been variously exposed
to four different Gospels, we run them together. But as careful
Scripture readers always discover, the Gospels are often difficult
or even impossible to harmonize. Each Gospel shapes a unique
portrait of who Jesus is and what his life, death and resurrection
meant for his followers. Scholars have long recognized that
three of the four GospelsMatthew, Mark and Lukehave
a remarkable similarity in both wording and structure. They
can easily be put into parallel columns and viewed together
at one glance. This has led scholars to call them synoptic
(from the Greek word for "seeing together or at the same time").
Solving the Synoptic Problem
Putting the Synoptic Gospels in parallel columns
readily illustrates their interdependence. The Synoptic problem
is explaining their interrelationships, in particular which
came first and so was the inspiration and source for the others.
In the history of biblical scholarship, many ingenious solutions
have been proposed, but only a few hypotheses have been widely
From the time of St. Augustine (d. 430) to the
18th century, the accepted view was that the four Gospels were
written in the order in which they appear in our Bibles—Matthew,
Mark, Luke and John—and that each depended on its predecessors.
In the 18th century, scholars eliminated John from Synoptic
consideration, retained the priority of Matthew and identified
the order of composition as Matthew-Luke-Mark.
In the middle of the 19th century, a two-source
solution gained prominence. It argued for the priority of Mark
as the original Gospel and identified as the second source a
collection of about 230 verses of Jesus— sayings not found in
Mark but used by both Matthew and Luke. Scholars dubbed this
source "Q," from the German word for source, Quelle.
This two-source solution has been expanded in the 20th century
to recognize that both Matthew and Luke had other sources unique
to their communities. These materials show up in their distinct
infancy narratives, their sayings of Jesus and their resurrection
materials. Almost all biblical scholars today accept this expanded
two-source theory as the basis for their analysis of the Synoptic
Mark—Why Write a Gospel?
How would you respond if someone asked you to
tell them the Christian message? Most of us would probably tick
off a list of doctrinal formulas. How many of us would tell
the life story of Jesus? Mark—s great invention was to take
the life of Jesus and shape it into a presentation of the Good
News of our salvation. Mark—s narrative Gospel fixed the general
pattern of Jesus— life in the Gospels: baptism, ministry in
Galilee, journey to Jerusalem to suffer, die and rise to new
life. It also anchored the numerous free-floating sayings of
Jesus more closely to specific situations in Jesus— life.
Why would Mark shape a Gospel in the form of a
life of Jesus? Most people would answer that this would preserve
the memory of Jesus. While there is certainly some truth to
this, preserving memories can be done in many other ways. One
could string together sayings, as "Q" and the apocryphal Gospel
of Thomas do, or present a theological form of the Gospel, as
Paul tends to do.
The masterstroke of Mark—s Gospel life is its
structure. To make Jesus— life into a "Gospel life," nothing
is more important than the ending. Mark—s Gospel ends with the
resurrection of Jesus, not with his death. Had the Gospel ended
with his death, there would have been no good news to proclaim,
but only a rehash of the well-known bad news that everybody
dies. Mark—s Gospel proclaims that death ends only the earthly
life of Jesus, but not his relationship with God. The good news
is that what happens to Jesus will also happen to us—if we dare
to follow his way of relationship and service that leads through
death to new life.
Matthew and Luke—Why Revise a Gospel?
Once the Gospel was proclaimed as a narrative
life of Jesus, others recognized its essential power and appeal.
Jesus— life became the pattern for his followers, his story
became their story and his destiny became their hope. The Gospel
story could not be reinvented, but its riches could be brought
to light in new ways. Like a tool that could be adapted to new
tasks, Mark—s Gospel story was used by other evangelists for
their own purposes.
The need for a revised version of Mark—s Gospel
occurs for the same reasons most books are revised. The word
revise means "to see anew." Revisions occur when the original
book is read in a new situation that demands new solutions to
problems, or when a later author has new material that needs
to be added. Both Matthew and Luke are guided by these fundamental
motives as they edit Mark—s Gospel to reshape it for the problems
challenging their communities.
Mark—s Gospel was written in a time of trial when
following Jesus— way meant taking up the cross and maybe even
death. It was "the beginning of the good news" (Mark 1:1) for
a mixed community of Jewish and Gentile Christians who thought
it was the end. Mark shaped his life of Jesus like an extended
parable that probes the issue of Jesus— identity. Over and over
his readers are forced to readjust their comfortable expectations
in the light of surprising and challenging information about
who Jesus really was.
Neither Matthew—s nor Luke—s communities confronted
such trials. Matthew—s main problem was encouraging his mostly
Jewish audience to embrace both their Jewish tradition and the
mission to the Gentiles that was transforming Christianity into
a new kind of community. To do this, he portrayed Jesus as an
authoritative teacher who built upon Moses— law but transformed
it into the new Christian community of right relationships (righteousness).
Luke—s problem was to demonstrate how the new
Christian community of his Gentile converts was rooted in the
unfamiliar Old Testament traditions and to direct their energy
into a worldwide mission following the example of Jesus. To
do this, he portrayed Jesus as a compassionate prophet whose
witness both in word and in suffering gathered everyone, especially
the poor and those on the margins, into a new community of universal
table fellowship and service.
Both Matthew and Luke also had new material that
they wanted to add to Mark—s Gospel. They shared a common collection
of Jesus— sayings with which they supplemented Mark in different
ways. Matthew uses most of this "Q" material to create five
extended discourses that form the backbone of Jesus— teaching
in this Gospel. Luke lumps most of this material into a great
insertion, chapters 9-19, in which Jesus the teaching prophet
sets his face toward Jerusalem, the "killer of prophets" (Luke
13:34). On the way, he reveals the meaning of God—s dream for
a community of persons related as God wants them to be.
Studying the Synoptics
To study the Synoptic Gospels, scholars have
devised a method for the "critical study of the process of editing"
called redaction criticism. Redaction is an older word for editing.
This method aims to "shed light upon the personal contribution
of each evangelist and to uncover the theological tendencies
which shaped his editorial work." (See the Pontifical Biblical
Commission—s The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church,
1993, I.A.1.) Using this method, scholars have been more able
to recognize and appreciate the unique literary and theological
characteristics of each Gospel.
We can summarize the basic presuppositions that
guide redaction criticism in this way. Both Matthew and Luke
had and used Mark—s structure for their Gospels. They also included
material from other sources at their disposal—the shared "Q"
and their own sources.
Since Luke and Matthew had Mark—s text, we presume
that their changes to Mark are conscious and freely made. By
reflecting on why these changes were made, we can begin to discern
their intentions and discover their particular emphases.
Of course there is no guarantee that we can get
back into the mind of Matthew or Luke, but still we can recognize
the themes and ideas that each of them stresses when they want
to change Mark. As we reflect upon the reasons for their changes,
we discover that they are often linked to each evangelist—s
understanding of who Jesus is and the special needs facing their
communities. Mark—s Gospel was great for Mark—s community, but
new times and new challenges demanded new versions of Jesus—
story. As you begin to study the Synoptic Gospels more carefully,
you should work with a synopsis of the Gospels, which places
the text in columns to detect more easily the changes among
the individual Gospels. In this format, you can quickly compare
the texts of each evangelist. Once you have found the passage
you wish to examine, here is what to do.
First, since we assume that Mark is the original
source, notice the changes that Matthew and Luke make to Mark.
These changes can be grammatical, such as the use of different
vocabulary or sentence construction; or thematic, such as the
introduction or omission of material that the evangelist thinks
is necessary to get his point across. Notice that changes can
be by addition, omission, change in location or substitution
(sometimes Matthew and Luke think that a version of an incident
from their own sources is better than that of Mark).
Second, decide which changes are more significant
and which might be just stylistic. Luke is always touching up
the rather rough Greek that Mark writes. As careful readers
of Mark—s text, Luke and Matthew often make changes because
what Mark wrote either was not clear to them or was not what
they wanted to emphasize about Jesus or discipleship.
Third, in light of the significant changes, ask
why Matthew and Luke would want to make these changes to Mark—s
text. Obviously they could have repeated Mark—s text word for
word, but since they chose to make changes, they must have had
Most commonly, the reasons can be traced to each
evangelist—s portrait of Jesus. Mark stresses that Jesus is
a suffering Messiah opening a new way of relating to God. Matthew
emphasizes Jesus as an authoritative teacher who presents the
new guidelines for life in relation to God. Luke highlights
the healing and prophetic activity of Jesus as a witness to
the new action of God for salvation. Such changes reinforce
their own portraits of Jesus.
Another major reason for making changes was the
particular challenge that each community faced. All the evangelists
believed that Jesus was the solution to their problems. So the
words and deeds of Jesus hold the key that unlocks the solution
to the crises facing their communities. Matthew and Luke change
Mark because Mark—s proclamation of the gospel is no longer
the way that their communities need to hear the Good News.
Shaping Our Own Gospel
What Matthew and Luke did to Mark—s Gospel is
what we are still doing to the Gospels. We take their message
to discover the solutions for our problems today. Each of us
shapes a Gospel by selecting from all four Gospels the words
and deeds of Jesus that we find most important because of our
situation, our emphases—what we need Jesus to be an example
of—and for following his path to God. The Good News in four
versions becomes the Good News in many more. How providential
it is that we have four versions rather than merely one! And
how interesting it is to trace the uniqueness of each version
and recognize the different theologies and community responses
to Jesus that are available to us today.
To see the Synoptic Gospels online, go to http://www.virtualreligion.net/primer/
Next: Baptism (by Carolyn Thomas, S.C.N.)