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7. Synoptic Gospels |
The mysterious three

Synoptic Gospels is drawn from Chapter Seven, beginning on page 189, of Volume One, The Veil is Torn of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

The Synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke,are not formal histories, and they aren’t legends either, but these books, along with John, have changed the world

Synoptic Gospels - The mysterious three

Synoptic Gospels - The mysterious three
The Gospels consistently affirm that women were the first witnesses to the Resurrection of Jesus—a telling point, say the Gospels’ defenders, since at that time the testimony of women—however many of them might corroborate a story—was considered unreliable. So if the stories were fiction, why invent non-credible witnesses? Luke states categorically, “They [the apostles] did not believe the women.” Only with Peter’s confirmation of the empty tomb do the disciples accept the news. And when it comes time for the disciples to relay the message to others, they pointedly omit the evidence given by the women. God may have chosen the women to believe first, but the disciples are still bound by convention—and Luke dutifully tells it as it happened.

Sometime–we don’t really know when–between the death of Jesus in about a.d. 30 and the year 100, about a century after his birth, there appeared in the early Christian world four documents called the Gospels that narrated the story of his life and message. Those four Gospels–Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, as they are traditionally known–were believed from earliest times to have been inspired by the Holy Spirit, and they became the keystone of the New Testament, the part of the Christian Bible that deals with the Christian experience of Jesus Christ.

As literature, the four Gospels were like nothing that had ever been produced before. They were not like the biographies of great men that were popular reading among the educated upper classes of the Hellenistic world, books like Quintus Curtius Rufus’s history of Alexander the Great, completed around a.d. 50. Nor were they a little like the chreiae­ and the paradeigmata, inspiring anecdotes about the deeds of famous philosophers: Diogenes with his lamp looking for an honest man, or Apollonius of Tyana wandering around the ancient world working miracles.

They were more like the books of Jewish Scripture. Their God was the God of Israel, who had given his Law, his Torah, who had redeemed them from slavery, and made a covenant with them that through them, the descendants of Abraham, all nations would be blessed. But even here, the Gospels differed. They were unlike the other Jewish sacred writings because they maintained that Jesus Christ represented the fulfillment of the Torah and was himself the means of blessing for the nations. Furthermore, they carried the names of Jesus’ earliest followers rather than those of Hebrew prophets or kings.

The Gospels are essentially collections of anecdotes (scholars call them pericopes), each relating an incident of something Jesus said or did: told a parable, preached a sermon, confronted an opponent, forgave a sinner, dialogued with a disciple, healed a blind man, raised a dead child, exorcised a demon. The anecdotes fall into a few categories: controversy stories, parables (the short tales that Jesus told to illustrate a point of his preaching), aphorisms, healing stories, and so forth. Although the Gospels have a rough chronological order, progressing from Jesus’ birth and childhood, or his earliest ministry in Galilee, to his crucifixion and resurrection in Jerusalem, only the fourth one, John, seems concerned with time frames. The other three–Matthew, Mark, and Luke, known as the “Synoptic Gospels”–concern themselves mostly with Jesus’ activities in Galilee, where he grew up, and its environs, giving the impression that Jesus ventured out of northern Israel only once, to go down to Jerusalem and die. In John’s Gospel, by contrast, Jesus spends a great deal of his ministry in Judea and travels back and forth regularly between Judea and Galilee.

When we think about this selectivity on the part of the Gospel authors, and we think about all the things that Jesus must have said and done during his ministry that were obviously not recorded in the Gospels, we realize that their authors had something else in mind besides writing a detailed and orderly chronological history. In their selection of short, mostly unconnected anecdotes, the authors of the Gospels must have been more interested in trying to capture the immediacy of experiencing Jesus, not as a noble dead man who warranted a biography, but as a powerfully alive figure whose reality they wished to transmit to others by presenting examples of what he said and did, but not necessarily his entire life.

That was what Christianity was all about to the earliest Christians, as it is to Christians today: experiencing the living Jesus. To the earliest Christians, Jesus was not simply a sage or a prophet who pointed the way to God and showed people how to live. Nor was he simply someone who had achieved enlightenment and wanted to pass on his way to his followers, or a role model for imitation or a martyr who had the courage to die for a cause. He was the “Lamb of God” whose death is the sacrificial atonement for the sins of the world. He was a larger-than-life reality whom God had resurrected from the dead–he was with God, the son of God, he was God–and the whole point of being a Christian was to be part of that spiritual reality, to consume it personally, even literally, as some saw in the Lord’s Supper. Thus, the stories in the Synoptic Gospels are a potent combination of realistic everyday detail–an oversize catch of fish in the Sea of Galilee, a hole cut through the roof of a village house to lower a paralytic inside for Jesus to touch and heal, a twelve-year-old girl raised from the dead, Jesus hungry and needing something to eat–and brief, searing confrontations with the far-larger-than-life physical presence of Jesus himself. We are at once drawn into the geographical and historical world of Jesus and immersed in it, and suspended above it in the supernatural reality of Jesus himself.

In Mark’s Gospel (there is a similar version in Matthew and Luke), for example, a blind beggar, Bartimaeus, trying to attract Jesus’ attention as he walks down a street in Jericho on his way to Jerusalem, shouts at him: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Mark continues:

<blockquote>Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.”… So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Mark 10:48—51<sup>[[#Foot1|[1]]]</sup></blockquote>

The story tells of a miraculous healing, but it is also about the sheer power that emanates from Jesus, the absolute authority of the man who is more than a man–and the mercy, too, of someone who immediately takes pity on the beggar, just as he will take pity on anyone who calls his name, even the lowliest sinner.

The story of Bartimaeus thus operates on many levels. It is specific and realistic, a narrative written by someone who believed that the events in it actually occurred–and might have talked to someone who witnessed them firsthand. The beggar has a name, Bartimaeus–and Mark is also careful to tell us that he is the “son of Timaeus,” a translation of the Aramaic word Bartimaeus. In Mark’s brief but vivid narrative, we can almost smell the narrow, dusty, fetid street in Jericho, hear the tumult of the boisterous crowd around Jesus, feel its jostling of half-washed bodies. We can sense the anxiety and the touching faith in Bartimaeus’s plaintive, “My teacher, let me see again.” When Jesus speaks, it is in a tone of commanding authority and utter self-confidence. (This is not the meek and gentle Jesus of sentimental Christian hymns!) Jesus knows that he has the power to make the blind see, and he knows of Bartimaeus’s faith instantaneously, because he can see inside his soul.

But the story also has another plane: It tells of the believer who is always welcome in Jesus’ presence, always the object of his forgiveness, despite his infirmities. Indeed, Bartimaeus’s moving prayer in slightly altered form is the basis of the endlessly repeated Jesus Prayer of the Eastern Church: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner!”

The anecdotal, strung-together, often disconnected nature of the individual Gospel stories also served another purpose: The Gospels were almost surely written to be read aloud to a community of Christian believers, probably at worship services. Short, self-contained pericopes that could be read, then made the subject of preaching in church assemblies, made sense in the context of early Christian worship. This would also explain their focus on the immediacy of Jesus, the sense of his immanent presence, rather than on the biographical details about his family and his education and his progress toward power that a conventional Hellenistic narrative about a great man might contain. The earliest Christians were encouraged to see themselves in the people who had had those wondrous encounters with Jesus during his early ministry.

But where did these anecdotes come from? They were obviously favorite stories about Jesus that had been told and retold many times among early Christians before Matthew, Mark, and Luke wrote them down. The stories themselves undoubtedly originated among the Galileans, Samaritans, and Judeans who had seen and heard Jesus during his ministry in the Holy Land. And when those stories were retold, when Mark and Luke first heard them, there were probably older witnesses still alive who could augment the narratives. Matthew might have had his own personal recollections as one of the apostles.

The stories were retold in different ways, depending on what the tellers and listeners were interested in. That typically resulted in three different versions of the same tale: For example, neither Matthew nor Luke mentions Bartimaeus’s name in their versions of the story of the blind beggar at Jericho. In fact, Matthew has two beggars in Jericho, both anonymous. There could have been many reasons for that. Two slightly different versions of the story might have been in circulation, each based on a different set of memories. Perhaps Peter, telling the story to Mark, remembered the story differently from Matthew. Or perhaps Matthew, Mark, and Luke all heard the story from different people, perhaps eyewitnesses, perhaps Matthew was an eyewitness himself. According to tradition, all three Synoptic authors were living in Jerusalem at one time or other after Jesus’ death: Matthew was one of the Twelve, Mark lived in Jerusalem, and Luke visited the city with Paul. They would have had plenty of opportunity to both hear stories about Jesus and talk to people who had heard Jesus preach or had seen one or more of his miracles.

Only one story in all the Gospels is not a short anecdote, or even a sequence of short anecdotes, but rather, a sustained narrative that spans several chapters. It is the story of Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection that is the climax of each. In each of the Synoptic Gospels (and in John’s Gospel as well), the Passion narrative is the longest continuous section. In Mark’s Gospel, for example, it takes up nearly a fourth of the narrative, dwarfing everything else. Furthermore, the Passion story is the one story in which the Synoptics are as specific about chronology and exact timing as John’s Gospel. Here, the writers are not stringing discontinuous events together but giving a detailed account of the last week of Jesus’ life in Jerusalem and his utter transformation after his death.

Furthermore, their three accounts of the Passion are not only similar but are virtually identical, differing only in the smallest details. All three Synoptics tell of Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem, his last Passover supper with his disciples, his betrayal by the disciple Judas, his arrest at night in Gethsemane, the hearing before the Jewish Sanhedrin, Peter’s denial of his master to the tune of a crowing rooster, the mob that howls for Jesus’ crucifixion, the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate’s interrogation of Jesus and his release of the convicted rebel Barabbas instead of Jesus, the crown of thorns and the purple cloak that the Roman soldiers make Jesus wear, the dragooning of Simon the Cyrenean on the streets of Jerusalem to help carry the cross, the two criminals crucified on either side of Jesus, the soldiers gambling for his clothes at the foot of the cross, the women who stand by him faithfully after the men flee, the tomb with its stone rolled in front of the door–which proves to be empty when those same women return early Sunday morning with their spices for anointing Jesus’ corpse, and an angel tells them that he has risen. Here and there, tiny details in the accounts of the three Synoptics diverge: The cock crows at different times in the three Gospel stories during Peter’s betrayal, and Luke places a second angel at Jesus’ tomb when the women arrive (Matthew mentions only one angel and Mark refers simply to “a young man” who is mysteriously there). But in all, the Passion story the Synoptics tell is remarkably uniform.

Furthermore, in all three Synoptic Gospels (and also in John’s Gospel), Jesus’ death and resurrection are foreshadowed in his own predictions: “Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering…and be killed, and after three days rise again,” writes Mark in Chapter 8 of his Gospel, and in Chapter 9, Mark again quotes Jesus: “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

It seems clear that the Passion stories are not just the most important part of the Synoptic Gospels but that they are the oldest part. To the very earliest Christians–in Jerusalem, in Damascus, in Antioch just a few years after Jesus’ death when the early church had just a few thousand members–retelling the story of the Crucifixion and Resurrection must have been a kind of ritual that had to be done just right. You could not leave anything out: not the rooster, the dice, Judas’s kiss, Pilate’s interrogation, the mob, or the crown of thorns.

It was important that everything be remembered correctly because, as the early Christians knew, Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection lay at the center of their experience: Jesus, who was in “the form of God,” had taken on “the form of a slave” (as Paul had reminded them) and had submitted to death, the cruelest of all human experiences, then been exalted to God’s right hand by a resurrection that promised a similar resurrection for all into eternal life. It was a hard thing for those early Christians to take in, because crucifixion, a humiliating form of execution meted out to the worst of traitors and felons in the Roman world, was a scandal to both Jews and pagans. Jesus bore no outward signs of the messiah who was expected to restore God’s kingdom; he did not die defending Jewish law, as had the Maccabean martyrs about 150 years before his birth; and the Torah itself, in the Book of Deuteronomy, deemed anyone hanged on a tree to be “cursed.” And the man who had hung there for a ghastly afternoon with nails punched into his wrists and feet bore no resemblance to the noble Hellenic philosopher who accepted his death with an epigram of resignation, or to the Greek hero who avoided death at the last moment by being transformed into a god.

Turning Jesus’ ignominious death into glory, the earliest Christians reminded themselves over and over that he had shed his blood for “many” like the Suffering Servant described by the prophet Isaiah, and that he was the stone rejected by the builders who became the cornerstone, as one of the Psalms said.

It is not surprising that Matthew, Mark, and Luke heard the same story, or very nearly the same story, from every witness to whom they talked. Three Passion stories made clear that Jesus was not simply a good man and wise teacher who had been accidentally executed. (That didn’t happen in the Roman world, which left Hillel and other Jewish holy men who were Jesus’ contemporaries alone.) To the Synoptic authors, Jesus was the Son of God–all three used those very words–and he was killed because his bold claims to fulfill the Torah and the Jewish prophecies were regarded by both the Romans and certain Jewish leaders as a threat.

There is also a strong likelihood that one or more of the three Synoptic authors read one or more of each other’s Gospels and borrowed material from it, augmenting what they had read with oral tales they had heard about Jesus or the recollections of eyewitnesses they had talked to. As we can tell from reading such first-century church fathers as Clement of Rome, even the very earliest Christians were familiar with more than one Gospel. And we also know from the discovery of a fragment of John’s Gospel in Egypt dating from only thirty-five years after its generally accepted date of composition that the Gospels circulated widely, and far from their places of origin. (So did personal letters; fragments of ancient correspondence have been dug up from the Egyptian desert that were written as far away as Asia Minor and Rome). And finally, Luke tells us in the opening verses of his Gospel that during the course of his research, he not only talked to “eyewitnesses and servants of the word” but read “many” accounts of Jesus’ life and teachings that had “been set down.” Among those writings, it is not at all improbable that Luke consulted Mark’s Gospel, Matthew’s, or both.

The likelihood that Luke, a careful historian, read one or more of the other Synoptic Gospels before he started writing helps explain the most puzzling feature of the Synoptic Gospels: why they all use such similar material from Jesus’ life. After all, Jesus undoubtedly said and did many more things than the Gospels record. Not only are huge sections of Mark’s material also in Matthew and Luke, but both Matthew and Luke follow Mark’s order when using (or seeming to use) Mark’s material. Often, the Greek words themselves in all three Gospels are mysteriously similar, down to the same verb form in many cases, suggesting that there is a literary relationship among them, not simply a matter of reliance on a common oral tradition or similar eyewitness accounts. The question of which Synoptic author wrote first, and which Synoptic author read which other Synoptic author, is called the Synoptic Problem.

The early Christians were not unaware of the Synoptic Problem. One church father, Augustine of Hippo in northern Africa, writing around a.d. 400, surmised that Mark had simply condensed Matthew’s Gospel in writing his own shorter version of the events of Jesus’ life. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, however, the majority of New Testament scholars believed that Mark’s, the shortest Gospel, was actually the first to be written, with Matthew and Luke coming later. Out of that group, a majority believes that Matthew and Luke actually had copies of Mark in front of them, but they wrote their Gospels independently of each other. To account for the fifth of their Gospels that Matthew and Luke share in common but don’t share with Mark–mostly sayings of Jesus together with a miracle or two–many scholars believe that there existed a written collection of Jesus’ words that the scholars call “Q,” from the German word Quelle, for source. Those scholars believe that both Matthew and Luke relied on a combination of Mark and Q in writing their Gospels, along with a good deal of material that each had separately gathered elsewhere.

Other New Testament scholars contend that there never was a Q-document–and we certainly don’t have a copy of Q or any historical record telling us that such a text ever existed. They argue that Matthew used Mark’s Gospel, and that Luke, writing later, used both Mark and Matthew. This theory accounts for the material that all three Synoptics have in common and also for the anecdotes that Matthew and Luke share with each other but not with Mark. Still other scholars hold a different theory: that Matthew and Mark wrote independently, drawing on common oral tradition for their material, and that Luke, the historian who prided himself on using written materials, relied on both.

The upshot is that it is impossible to prove any of these theories on the scant information we have about the actual composition of the Gospels. The Synoptic Problem is just that: a problem likely never to be solved. In the end, we have to regard the appearance in the world of the three Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, so tantalizingly similar in subject matter yet so strikingly different in tone and details, all three written within a few years of each other, as a wonderful mystery: three striking accounts of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus that appeared just decades after his earthly ministry ended.

We should remember that ancient writers were not like twenty-first-century college professors penning scholarly articles in their carrels, with piles of books and journal articles in front of them as their sources. It is far more likely that the authors of the Synoptic Gospels relied on a more complicated mixture of their own memories, the accounts of elderly eyewitnesses to Jesus’ life and death, their observations of the Holy Land (all three had lived there, according to tradition), and the stories about Jesus that fervent early Christians had passed along to them, along with whatever written documents they had at hand that told them about the risen Lord whom they revered. Those documents could have included other gospels, perhaps collections of Jesus’ sayings and other now-lost writings about him, and even letters of Paul and other early Christians.

Although the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are strikingly similar in content, each differs radically from the others in style, emphasis, and in its portrait of Jesus. Let us examine some of these similarities and differences, beginning with the Gospel of Mark. The earliest reference to Mark is a written account attributed to Papias, bishop of Hierapolis in Asia Minor around a.d. 130. Papias’s document itself disappeared, but the fourth-century Christian historian, Eusebius, quoted from it in his own history of the early church.

According to Papias, Mark acted as Peter’s interpreter in Rome and transcribed his preaching, taking down his Gospel at Peter’s direction. This is not implausible. The fisherman Peter undoubtedly needed a translator when he preached to the early Christians of Rome, who were probably Greek-speaking Jews. (Greek was the international language of much of the Mediterranean world. It was for many their second language.) Some of the incidents in Mark’s account of Jesus’ ministry seem to bear the stamp of Peter’s firsthand observations: a story of how Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law of a sickness by taking her by the hand, or how Jesus once fell asleep on a pillow in Peter’s fishing boat. Occasionally, Mark uses Latin words (speculator, meaning “executioner,” for example) that suggest a Roman influence that would be natural for someone living in Rome (Mark’s very name, Marcus, was one of the most popular Roman names).

Mark’s Greek prose was of an uncultivated, sometimes grammatically incorrect “longshoreman” variety, with a limited vocabulary–the literary style of a fisherman’s half-lettered companion for whom Greek was not a first language (a number of Aramaic words appear in Mark’s Gospel that its author dutifully translates). Nonetheless, Mark, as the episode of the beggar Bartimaeus indicates, knew how to tell a gripping story, combining vivid dialogue with fast-paced action. He enjoyed supplying the names of his characters: Bartimaeus’s, or the fact that Simon the Cyrenean had two sons named Rufus and Alexander. He dotted his Gospel with precise and graphic details that are missing from the other two Synoptic accounts: the fact that Jesus was “with beasts” during a time of fasting in the desert early in his ministry or that “four” men lowered the paralytic’s pallet through the roof of the house in Capernaum.

Mark’s Gospel, at about 650 verses the shortest of the Synoptics, contains no account of Jesus’ birth or childhood, and in its oldest surviving texts from the fourth century, it ends abruptly after the women encounter the young man at Jesus’ empty tomb and learn of his Resurrection (other texts contain a few more verses in which Jesus appears after the Resurrection and instructs his disciples to preach his gospel to all nations). To Mark, Jesus’ ministry in Galilee and death in Jerusalem were the central focus. He begins his story nearly as abruptly as he ends it, with Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist, a popular rustic prophet, in the Jordan River and his subsequent temptation by Satan in the desert before his ministry begins. Mark was particularly interested in Jesus’ miracles. (Although his characters often address Jesus as “teacher,” Mark recorded few of Jesus’ teachings). He devotes a fourth of his Gospel to graphic accounts of Jesus’ healings of the sick, his exorcising of demons from those tormented by Satan, and his dominion over nature: In one of his most startling miracles, he awakens from sleep in Peter’s boat and calms the raging winds of a summer storm.

The subjects of those miracles–eighteen in all, more than in any other Gospel–are typically ordinary people like Bartimaeus or Peter’s mother-in-law or the twelve-year-old girl raised from the dead. Lepers, demoniacs, deaf-mutes, blind men, children whom Jesus blesses, a Greek woman from Syro-Phoenicia to the north of Galilee who has a sick daughter–these plain folk are desperately in need of Jesus’ help. As the story of Bartimaeus illustrates, these encounters are full of human emotion, both on Jesus’ part and on that of those who encounter him.

But Mark is most intent on showing us that Jesus proclaims a new and divine kingdom, and is himself divine. He also aims to dramatize Jesus as the Lord of the end time. The purpose of the miracle stories seems as much to demonstrate the astonishing effect that Jesus has on other people as to show Jesus’ supernatural powers. His Gospel begins with the words “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, Son of God.” And toward the end, after Jesus’ death on the cross, the centurion in charge of the Crucifixion remarks, “Indeed this man was the Son of God.” Even when Jesus tells an occasional parable, a short story illustrating some truth about his otherworldly kingdom, his purpose seems to be to impress his listeners rather than instruct them. Mark’s Jesus is larger than life and blazing with divinity. For that reason, Mark has traditionally been depicted in Christian art accompanied by a lion.

Papias, as quoted by Eusebius, is also the earliest source of traditions about Matthew’s Gospel. Papias recorded that Matthew had written the “sayings” of Jesus in the “Hebrew dialect.” That ambiguous statement (Was Matthew’s transcription of Jesus’ “sayings” the same thing as Matthew’s Gospel, and was Papias referring to the Hebrew language itself, or to the Aramaic spoken by Jews of the Holy Land during Jesus’ time?) led many scholars for many centuries to believe that Matthew wrote his Gospel in either Hebrew or Aramaic, and that it was translated into Greek soon afterwards. Tradition holds that Matthew left the Holy Land before composing his Gospel, perhaps in Antioch.

But the only early text we have of Matthew’s Gospel is written in Greek, and it does not seem to be a translation of an earlier Hebrew or Aramaic version. One reason for this is that the vocabulary of Matthew’s Gospel is very similar to that of Mark, and Matthew not only uses nearly all of Mark’s material but follows Mark’s order of arranging that material most of the time, adding another fifty percent of his own. Matthew, who was clearly better educated than Mark, writes in a Greek that was cleaner and more grammatically correct than Mark’s. This suggests either that Matthew had Mark’s Greek text in front of him or that both authors drew on a stream of oral tradition that was preserved in Greek, not a Semitic language. This leads most modern scholars to believe that Matthew, like Mark, originally wrote his Gospel in Greek. His was certainly the most popular of all the Gospels, and it was from Matthew’s Gospel–in Greek–that the earliest church fathers such as Ignatius of Antioch and Polycarp, martyred at Smyrna in Asia Minor about a.d. 156, quoted. To them and to most of the other early Christian theologians, Matthew’s Gospel was the most authoritative. It commanded a status as the first book of the New Testament that it retains to this day.

Matthew’s Gospel has traditionally been ascribed to the tax collector whom Jesus called to be one of the Twelve because his Gospel is the only one of the Synoptic three to give the name Matthew to the tax collector (Mark and Luke both call him Levi). This traditional ascription may not be correct, but it is certain that Matthew’s Gospel, the most Jewish in flavor of the four, had an author thoroughly steeped in Jewish religiosity and learning. The very name “Matthew” is a variant of the name Mattathias, the father of the Jewish hero Judas Maccabeus, and many of the Jews of Jesus’ time named their male children after the Maccabean warriors. Matthew seemed to have received an education similar to that of the Pharisees, the predecessors of the rabbis, for his Gospel, unlike Mark’s, is filled with direct quotations from Jewish Scripture, some apparently translated directly from the Hebrew. He is writing as a Jew for other Jews.

Although Matthew follows Mark’s story line, he nearly always shortens Mark’s narratives into more concise versions–except for the story of Jesus’ Passion, where Matthew’s version closely tracks that of Mark, with only a few minor variations. That means that Matthew eliminates many of Mark’s vivid details, and his Gospel lacks Mark’s dramatic flair. Furthermore, Matthew intersperses the stories with large blocks of Jesus’ teachings, such as the Sermon on the Mount, which may actually be a compilation of a number of shorter instructions by Jesus rather than a single long homily. He also presents Jesus’ parables, other discourses, and miracles in clumps of three, five, and seven. Matthew is a systematizer.

That is because Matthew is not as interested in drama as he is in teaching. He is definitely working in the rabbinic tradition. And there is a kind of rabbinic goal for that teaching: Matthew wants to show us that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah, the long-awaited descendant of David whose mission is to establish God’s kingdom on earth, which Matthew views as the Christian church (Matthew is the only Synoptic author to use the word “church.”) That is the purpose of Matthew’s frequent citations of Jewish Scripture, especially prophetic Scripture: Jesus is the fulfillment of all those messianic prophecies.

The Lord’s Prayer–“thy kingdom come”–appears in Matthew’s Gospel (Luke’s Gospel has it, too, but in a shorter version). So do the Beatitudes, the list of the attributes of those who will inherit the kingdom. His seventeen parables, ten of them unique to him, also center on God’s kingdom. He compares it to a pearl of great price, to a tiny mustard seed that grows into a great plant, to a net thrown into the sea that brings up both good and bad fish. There is an admonitory element in all of this: Jesus’ followers must choose for or against the kingdom, and prepare themselves for a final judgment in which the good will be rewarded and the evil rejected.

Because Matthew has as his goal demonstrating that Jesus is Messiah and King, he begins his Gospel with a genealogy, modeled on the genealogies of the Hebrew patriarchs in the Book of Genesis that link Jesus to the royal house of David through his putative father, Joseph. But Matthew also makes it clear that Jesus’ true father is God himself, and that Mary, Jesus’ mother, conceived her child virginally, fulfilling the Septuagint version of a passage in the book of Isaiah predicting that a virgin would bear a son.

Matthew relates that Jesus, although he was raised in Nazareth in Galilee, was born in Bethlehem in Judea, David’s own city. He tells the story of the Magi from the East who follow a great star to visit Jesus soon after his birth and give him kingly presents of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, revealing his royalty and divinity to the Gentile world, and of the jealousy of the Judean king at the time, Herod the Great, who slaughters all the baby boys in Bethlehem because he fears a possible rival, forcing Jesus’ family to seek temporary sanctuary in Egypt.

Similarly, in his narration of Jesus’ ministry, Matthew uses the Torah, the Jewish Law contained in the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, to present a Jesus who is the definitive interpreter of the Torah, one of the roles of the messiah. “You are the light of the world,” Jesus tells his disciples, who are to be his church. Much of what he teaches is good Jewish teaching–that his followers are to honor their father in heaven and love one another–but Jesus goes further, ultimately making enemies out of the Pharisees, the rabbis, whose values and teaching style have so much in common with his.

Jesus boldly defines himself, not only as teacher of the Torah but as fulfillment of the Torah. In fact, in Matthew’s Gospel, he proclaims himself to be the very personification of the Torah–a blasphemy certain to scandalize pious Jews. Jesus is Immanuel (God with us), he is the shekinah, the presence of God, and he is Divine Wisdom, present at the creation of the world in the Jewish scriptures and inspiration of prophets and wise men. Using the holiest symbols of Judaism, Matthew, a Jew himself, shockingly places Jesus at the very center of Judaism as Messiah, king, and, finally, Lord, which in Jewish theology is a substitute for the name of God himself. Because of this portrayal of Jesus as a human being who is also divine, Matthew has traditionally been depicted in art accompanied by a winged man.

The name ascribed to the third Synoptic Gospel, Lucas (in Greek, Loukas), is probably an abbreviation of Lucanus, a popular men’s name in Hellenistic times. Tradition holds that Luke was born in Antioch and perhaps, like Matthew, wrote his Gospel in that city. Paul describes him as the “beloved physician” in his letter to the Colossians (4:14) giving rise to the customary designation of Luke as a doctor. Whatever his formal training, he was clearly an educated, cosmopolitan man, at ease in the many countries to which he traveled. He wrote in an elegant, cultivated Greek with occasional literary allusions, and he consciously adopted different styles of writing to suit his subject matter. In the manner of other classical writers, he had a patron, Theophilus, to whom he dedicated both his Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles, the first history, or partial history, of the earliest church, which follows the Gospels in the New Testament. He probably had his Gospel published for sale in the Hellenistic book market.

Although Luke’s Gospel is the longest, exceeding Matthew’s by about ten percent, that is not because Luke wasted words. He wrote sparely and concisely to bring his characters to life in brief sketches. His writing is crammed with action, anecdotes, and personalities (including such characters as Eutychus, a youth from Troas who dozed off during one of Paul’s sermons, fell out of a third-story window, and had to be revived miraculously after landing). Luke never seems slow reading. Although it is almost certain that Luke was a Gentile, he revered Judaism and knew its Scriptures very well in their Greek Septuagint version.

This was not uncommon among Gentile intellectuals, many of whom admired Judaism’s monotheism and strong moral sensibility. We can imagine that Luke came to Christianity through his exposure to Judaism.

Skeptical scholars once suggested that Luke invented the imperial census in his nativity story, the event that drove Mary and Joseph from their home in Nazareth many miles south to Bethlehem just before Jesus’ birth. But that, too, has received archeological confirmation, at least as far as its procedures were concerned. During the 1970s, excavations at desert caves near the Dead Sea unearthed a letter describing the journey that an early second-century Jewish woman named Babata had taken with her husband from their hometown south of the Dead Sea to Rabbat in what is now Jordan, to comply with a census order. The letter uses exactly the same Greek word–apographestai, “to be registered”–that Luke used in his Gospel. Such censuses and property registrations that took years to complete were an annoying administrative feature of the Roman world, and arduous journeys for those obliged to register were common.

One of the eyewitnesses with whom Luke might have talked was Mary herself, who, according to tradition, lived in Jerusalem for many years after Jesus’ death and whom Luke could have met while accompanying Paul on his journey there. Luke, like Matthew, includes the story of Jesus’ birth in his Gospel, but it is a very different story, focusing on Mary and Jesus’ early family life (Luke is the one who informs us that John the Baptist was Jesus’ cousin). His informant on these matters could well have been Mary, and we can imagine the long conversations the two might have had together on Jerusalem evenings.

Luke went so far as to make Mary the heroine of the first two chapters in his Gospel, telling the story largely from her point of view: her encounter with the angel Gabriel in which she agreed to Jesus’ conception; her visit to her cousin Elizabeth, the Baptist’s mother; her giving birth to Jesus in a stable; her taking him to the Temple in Jerusalem to be circumcised and later, presented; her trip again to the Temple with a large extended family when Jesus was twelve. Luke’s is the only Synoptic Gospel in which Mary speaks.

Those two opening chapters are also the most Jewish in Luke’s narrative; their style echoes that of the Jewish scriptures, and they depict scene after scene of Jewish family piety. Indeed, Mary is a personification of the people of Israel, awaiting their deliverance and finally receiving it in Jesus; in her long prayer in those chapters, the Magnificat, she carols: “He has helped his servant Israel in remembrance of his mercy.”

Luke was more than an historian, however; he was a supremely gifted storyteller. His Gospel is the sole source of Jesus’ most affecting parables: the prodigal son, the good Samaritan, the rich man who went to hell because he refused to feed the beggar Lazarus. Luke also told of moving, real-life encounters with Jesus that are to be found in no other Gospel: the penitent woman who washes Jesus’ feet with her tears and wipes them dry with her hair; the short-statured Zacchaeus, who climbs a sycamore tree to get a good look at Jesus; the “good thief” on the cross next to Jesus who begs to be let into his kingdom when he dies; the two men who mourn Jesus’ death but encounter him after the Resurrection sharing supper with them at Emmaus. The theme of these stories is always God’s infinite mercy and Jesus’ infinite sympathy for the poor, the helpless, the sick, the sinners, and the bereaved.

Luke had a wry sense of irony and humor, too. It is hard not to smile when he tells us that Pilate tried to palm off the responsibility for Jesus’ trial onto Herod Antipas, the sly and ambitious son of Herod the Great: “When Herod saw Jesus he was very glad, for…he was hoping to see him perform some miracle.” Luke empathized strongly with women, and his Gospel offers vivid glimpses of many

of Jesus’ female followers besides Mary: the penitent woman, a widow at Nain whose dead son Jesus raised, the sisters Martha and Mary who fed Jesus at their house. So skilled were Luke’s word-portraits of the huge cast of characters in his Gospel that he was thought to be a painter as well as a physician.

More than Mark and Matthew, Luke’s Gospel focuses attention on Jerusalem, where Jesus is shown as an infant, a child, and the man filled with the Holy Spirit who must inexorably go there and die. Jesus’ sacrificial death not far from the Temple to bring deliverance to Israel is the climax of the narrative. For that reason, Luke has been traditionally depicted in art accompanied by an ox, a victim of sacrifice.

== An undependable liberal ==
=== Honest John Robinson, the bishop who appalled the conservatives, makes a well documented case that no academic has answered for a much earlier and more credible New Testament ===

John A. T. Robinson, the late-twentieth-century Anglican bishop of Woolwich in England, was without doubt an ecclesiastical maverick. A biblical scholar, a Cambridge University chaplain, and a devout socialist, he became a darling of liberal theology in the 1960s when he published a book called Honest to God (London: SCM Press, 1963). The book, said popular reviewers, abandoned the old dogmas of Christianity and launched forth on a new view that man should no longer seek the Deity “out there,” but within himself. Celebrated in the media, the book became an international best-seller.

On whether Honest to God actually did all these things, less superficial readers later cast grave doubts, as did the bishop himself, who, nevertheless, became thereafter known as “Honest John Robinson.” What there could be no doubt about was his next bombshell, this one a book on the dating of the New Testament. But it leaned in a very different theological direction, and, therefore, received almost no media attention. So the bombshell never went off. All it did was persuade academe that Honest John was not a dependable liberal.

At the dawn of the twenty-first century, though Bishop Robinson was now dead, the time bomb was still ticking, while conventional biblical academics tiptoed uneasily around it. For should its assertions ever gain reputability, it would force them to scrap most late-twentieth-century scholarship.

He called his new book simply Redating the New Testament (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1975), and in it he delivered an unfashionable answer to a question that had puzzled biblically knowledgeable laymen for years. Since not a single book in the New Testament makes any reference to the fact that Jerusalem and its Temple were demolished by the Romans in a.d. 70, is it not probable that all the books of the New Testament were written before that date? The most plausible explanation for this staggering omission, surely, is that the event itself had not yet happened, and all the books therefore predate a.d. 70.

The response of biblical academe seemed always to come down to a “Tut, tut.” Practically the whole body of biblical scholarship is agreed, came the answer, that the books of the New Testament were written between roughly a.d. 55 and 100. There was monumental evidence to support this, it was said. That evidence, however monumental, was rarely if ever produced.

The point, of course, directly affects the credibility of the books, since the closer are their dates of origin to the events they describe, the more probable it is that they are the accounts of firsthand witnesses, not some reminiscence of what those witnesses passed on to others in a succeeding generation. It’s the difference between, “I saw…” and “So-and-So once told me he saw….”

The bishop tackles this phenomenon of scholarly unanimity in the opening pages of Redating. True, he says, the whole body of biblical scholarship puts the dates at roughly a.d. 55 to 100. But then, back in 1850 the whole body of biblical scholarship put the dates at a.d. 50 to 170. By 1900 the body was putting the dates at a.d. 50 to 140, and by 1950 at a.d. 50 to 125.

“One takes heart as one watches the way in which established positions can suddenly, or subtly, come to be seen as the precarious constructions they are. What seemed to be firm datings based on scientific evidence are revealed to rest on deductions from deductions…. Question some of the inbuilt assumptions and the entire edifice looks much less secure.”

Question, therefore, the bishop did–the dating of St. Paul’s epistles, of the Gospels, of the Acts of the Apostles, and of Revelation and the dating also of certain other early Christian writings, in particular the Didache, a manual of Christian morality traditionally assumed to have appeared around the end of the first century.

He also questioned the explanations of “the oddest fact” that there is no mention of the fall of Jerusalem anywhere in these works. He notes immediately that he isn’t the first scholar to call attention to this curious phenomenon. James Moffatt describes Jerusalem’s fall as “epoch-making.” Scholar G. F. D. Moule wonders why, if the books were all written after a.d. 70, that the Christians didn’t make more out of it. He writes: “It is hard to believe that a Judaistic type of Christianity…would not have made capital out of this signal evidence that they, and not non-Christian Judaism, were the true Israel.”

The scholar Bo Reicke observes: “An amazing example of uncritical dogmatism in New Testament studies is the belief that the Synoptic Gospels should be dated after The Jewish War of a.d. 66—70 because they contain prophecies ex eventu (arising out of the event, or made after the event) of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in the year 70.” He observes that the conclusion seems to have been spontaneously drawn. Because Jesus prophesied the city’s fall, and modern people know that predictions of this sort are not possible, the account of his prophecy must have been written after 70. Such is the reasoning.

It would be like concluding, says a British journalist quoted by the bishop, that Winston Churchill’s warnings back in 1934 of the impending Second World War must have actually been made after 1939, because that’s when the war started.

Moreover, Jesus’ prophecy for the Temple and city goes notably unfulfilled in many particulars. If the account had been written after the event, why would these inaccuracies not have been amended? Or again, what of Jesus’ assertion that “some here will not taste death until the Kingdom of God has come”(Matt. 16:28; Mark 9:1; Luke 9:27)? If this had not been written for sixty or so years after he said it, numerous of the hearers would definitely be dead. So why would some modification of the prophecy not have been made?

Or, as in the Epistle to the Hebrews, the entire text describes the ceremonies at the Temple in the present tense, as then going on. Ah, comes the response, this is also true of other accounts of the Temple written long after it was destroyed. The writers simply describe the rites as they had been ordained to take place.

True enough, in some instances, replies the bishop, but what about a sentence like this from the epistle’s 10th chapter: “[T]hese sacrifices would surely have ceased to be offered because the worshippers, cleansed once for all, would no longer have any sense of sin.” If the sacrifices had already ceased, writes the bishop, “it is hard to credit that these words would have stood without modification or comment.”

In conclusion, Robinson sets out his own dates for the composition of the New Testament books, all of them predating a.d. 70. He puts the Didache back into the 30s, just a few years after the Crucifixion.

Curiously, as Robinson published his conclusions in Britain, similar contentions began appearing in France. The biblical scholar Jean Carmignac published The Birth of the Synoptics, and, soon after, Claude Tresmontant came out with The Hebrew Christ: Language in the Age of the Gospels. By translating the Gospels from Greek into Hebrew, Carmignac discovered enough Semitic word plays and stylistic peculiarities to conclude that Mark and Matthew had been written in Hebrew or Aramaic originally and later translated into Greek.

Using both retro-translation and archeological methods, Tresmontant concluded that even the Greek text of the Gospel of John (which he dated to a.d. 36—40, even earlier than Robinson) was first written in Hebrew, as was Matthew, whose Greek translation dates to the late 40s. Carmignac assigns (Semitic) Mark to a.d. 42—50, (Greek) Luke to ca. a.d. 50—60, and the first drafts of (Semitic) Matthew, which may have been a source for Luke, to the early 40s, with its final Semitic form and subsequent Greek translation to the late 50s and early 60s.

Unlike Robinson’s efforts, those of Carmignac and Tresmontant met with a barrage of criticism from the scholarly establishment, which denounced both men for abandoning the established methods of the discipline. Their defenders replied that they were not abandoning it, but trying to enlarge it through the device of retro-translation. Some scholars agreed with them; most did not.

Meanwhile, throughout the twentieth century, earlier and earlier copies of the New Testament, or parts of it, kept appearing, thereby improving its credibility. The earliest texts of the historian Tacitus’s Annals of Imperial Rome, for instance, date back to the tenth century, though Tacitus actually wrote this in the second. The earliest existing copy, that is, was produced eight hundreds years after the original. As for the classical Greeks–Plato, Aristotle, Euripides, Aristophanes, Thucydides, Homer–with one exception, no copies of any of their works survive from earlier than one thousand years after the originals were written. The exception is Homer, whose Iliad exists, in part, in a manuscript dating from five hundred years after he wrote it.

The situation with the books of the New Testament is very different. Textual discoveries during the twentieth century, rather than eroding the credibility of the New Testament recurrently strengthened it. Papyrus manuscripts have been found that date from a.d. 130 to 200, as little as eighty years from the surmised date of composition. There are some eighty other manuscripts of the New Testament that were also written on fragile papyrus, another three thousand on parchment, which replaced papyrus in the fourth century. Altogether, scholars have more than five thousand early manuscripts of the New Testament in Greek, eight thousand in Latin, and hundreds in other languages. There is simply no other ancient document for which the archeological and scholarly trail leading back to the original is as broad, detailed, well maintained and authenticated.

All of which opens a question: Why has the direction of scholarship been increasingly toward skepticism when the direction of the evidence had been increasingly toward validation? Why, in particular, do scholars ignore the contentions such as those of Bishop Robinson for a much earlier dating of the New Testament?

The bishop himself suggested an answer to that last question: “Each new student enters a field already marked out for him by datelines which modesty as well as sloth prompts him to accept, and having accepted, to preserve,” he writes. The student, that is, takes up the dating of the New Testament in his earliest and most inexperienced years. “This has a formative effect, for good or for ill, on all his subsequent work.” He adopts, that is, the assumptions of his professors and never challenges them.

'''Annotated Footnotes'''

1; All biblical quotations in this chapter are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).

This is the end of the Synoptic Gospels category article drawn from Chapter Seven, beginning on page 189, of Volume One, The Veil is Torn. To continue reading more about Synoptic Gospels from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at