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What Are the Synoptic Gospels?

The narratives of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are similar enough that scholars have grouped them together under the title of “Synoptic Gospels.” We also encounter a “Synoptic Problem.” This is the crux of the Synoptic Problem. Why do we have such similarities between these three books?

Feb 21, 2020
What Are the Synoptic Gospels?

When reading over the materials found in the first three gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), you may have noticed that the authors have included several similar stories in their narratives - these are called the Synoptic Gospels. Their narratives are similar enough that scholars have grouped them together under the title of “Synoptic Gospels.” In essence, the word synoptic conveys a harmonious or similar feel. 

Here we encounter a “Synoptic Problem.”For instance, Matthew, Mark, and Luke all include Christ calming the storm (Matthew 8:18-27; Mark 4:35-41; Luke 8:22-25). The article linked shows other ways we see a common thread in all three of these books.

Did these three writers have an issue with plagiarism? Did they have the same source material (such as notes taken during Jesus’ ministry) that they all referred to? Or did divine intervention play a role in all of their texts? And why is John’s gospel so different from the three of these?

We’ll dive into these questions.

Did Matthew, Mark, and Luke Copy Each Other?

This is the crux of the Synoptic Problem. Why do we have such similarities between these three books?

Some scholars have suggested that they all used material from something known as the Q Source. The Q Source is a hypothetical document full of oral tradition, etc. that could have given non-eyewitness gospel writers, such as Luke, some firsthand accounts of Jesus’ ministry.

Of course, this theory is not without its problems.

Synoptic Gospels Theories

We do run into some problems with this theory.

First, we have no evidence of a Q source. What may have happened is Mark or Matthew (depending on which scholar you asked) wrote their gospel first, and the other two had access to it. We can point to the verse in Luke that mentions that others had written accounts of Jesus (Luke 1:1).

Second, we do have enough differences between the three gospels that the authors didn’t copy each other word for word. Even if they did use some Q source, which we have no evidence to back up that theory, they were either eyewitnesses (Matthew) or spent a great deal of time compiling eyewitness accounts to provide an accurate gospel narrative (Luke 1:2).

Third, we also see some seemingly conflicting details in these accounts. For example, the women who witness the resurrection go immediately to tell the disciples in Matthew 28:8, but they don’t seem to tell anyone in Mark 16:8. The article linked above shows how these aren’t contradictions, but each writer gave different details about the events. Hence, showing how the gospel writers did not copy each other word for word.

Fourth, we can’t altogether rule out divine intervention if Matthew, Mark, and Luke did not have access to each other’s gospels.

For instance, let’s take a look at the most famous translation of the Old Testament: the Septuagint. Compiled by 70 Jewish scholars, the Septuagint translated the Hebrew Bible into Greek. Although these 70 scholars worked independently of each other, they provided identical translations. This shows God had a fingerprint in the translation process. How much more did he have a hand in the compilation of the gospel narratives?

Why Is John’s Gospel So Different?

If we don’t necessarily have a problem with the Synoptic Gospels, then why is John’s so different? If these writers truly worked independently of each other, then why does John produce information about Jesus’ ministry that we don’t see in the other three accounts?

To figure out this, I suggest we look at when the gospels were written. Although some scholars try to push the dates as far back as AD 90, (there are entire books dedicated to why this is likely not the case), I’m going to argue for the earlier dates.

Some scholars debate as to whether Matthew or Mark was written first. We’ll go with Matthew, to align with this article and this one.

  • Matthew: Around AD 41-50 
  • Mark: Between AD 41-55 
  • Luke: AD 60-65 
  • John: Before AD 70 

We notice a couple of things with these dates. First, John had the most time to compile his gospel. Likely, before AD 70, he would have read the three gospel narratives and noticed gaps or other stories that he wanted to include (John 21:25).

Luke may have had access to the prior two gospels and included their accounts in his eyewitness accounts. We have to keep in mind that each author has a different literary flair. Luke was meticulous and wanted to get his research right. We can think of Luke’s gospel as more of an academic work (so, of course, he’d want his narratives to have similarities to the first two) and John’s more of a work for the layman audience of the day.

Why Does This Matter?

Often skeptics of Christianity will point out that the similarities of the first three gospels show that the authors just simply copied each other to push an agenda. We know there are enough differences between the three that show personal eyewitness accounts. And that even if a Q source does exist, we can’t rule out divine intervention. After all, it is the Word of God.

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Hope Bolinger is an acquisitions editor at End Game Press, and the author of almost 30 books. More than 1500 of her works have been featured in various publications. Check out her books at for clean books in most genres, great for adults and kids.

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