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History of the Church #22

The Synoptic Gospels


30-100 AD

From the multi-volume work of Philip Schaff (late 1800s)


From "History of the Christian Church " by Philip Schaff

The Synoytists.


The fourth Gospel stands by itself and differs widely from the
others in contents and style, as well as in distance of time of
composition. There can be no doubt that the author, writing
towards the close of the first century, must have known the three
older ones.

But the first three Gospels present the unique phenomenon of a
most striking agreement and an equally striking disagreement both
in matter and style, such as is not found among any three writers
on the same subject. Hence they are called the Synoptic or
Synoptical Gospels, and the three Evangelists, Synoptists.  This
fact makes a harmony of the Gospels possible in all essentials,
and yet impossible in many minor details. The agreement is often
literal, and the disagreement often borders on contradiction, but
without invalidating the essential harmony.

The interrelationship between Matthew, Mark, and Luke is,
perhaps, the most complicated and perplexing critical problem in
the history of literature. The problem derives great importance
from its close connection with the life of Christ, and has
therefore tried to the utmost the learning, acumen, and in
genuity of modern scholars for nearly a century.  The range of
hypotheses has been almost exhausted, and yet no harmonious
conclusion reached.


The general agreement of the Synoptists consists:

1. In the harmonious delineation of the character of Christ. The
physiognomy is the same, only under three somewhat different
aspects. All represent him as the Son of man and as the Son of
God, as the promised Messiah and Saviour, teaching the purest
doctrine, living a spotless life, performing mighty miracles,
suffering and dying for the sins of the world, and rising in
triumph to establish his kingdom of truth and righteousness. Such
unity in the unique character of the hero of the three narratives
has no parallel in secular or sacred histories or biographies,
and is the best guarantee of the truthfulness of the picture.

2. In the plan and arrangement of the evangelical history, yet
with striking peculiarities:

(a.) Matthew, ch. 1 and 2, and Luke, ch. 1 and 2, and 3: 23-38, 
begin with the genealogy and infancy of Christ, but with
different facts drawn from different sources. Mark opens at once
with the preaching of the Baptist; while the fourth Evangelist
goes back to the eternal pre-existence of the Logos. About the
thirty years of Christ's private life and his quiet training for
the great work they are all silent, with the exception of Luke,
who gives us a glimpse of his early youth in the temple (2:
(b.) The preaching and baptism of John which prepared the way for
the public ministry of Christ, is related by all the Synoptists
in parallel sections: Matt.3: 1-12; Mark 1: 1-8; Luke 3:1-18.
(c.) Christ's baptism and temptation, the Messianic inauguration
and Messianic trial: Matt. 3: 13-17; 4: 1-11; Mark 1: 9-11;
ver.12 and 13 (very brief); Luke 3: 21-23; 4: 1-13. The
variations here between Matthew and Luke are very slight, as in
the order of the second and third temptation. John gives the
testimony of the Baptist to Christ, and alludes to his baptism 
(1: 32-34), but differs from the Synoptists.
(d.) The public ministry of Christ in Galilee: Matt. chs 4:12-18,
35; Mark 1: 14-9,50; Luke 4: 14-9,50. But Matthew 14:22-16: 12,
and Mark 6: 45-8: 26, narrate a series of events connected with
the Galilaean ministry, which are wanting in Luke; while Luke 9:
51-18: 14, has another series of events and parables connected
with the last journey to Jerusalem which are peculiar to him.
(e.) The journey to Jerusalem: Matt., chs. 19: 1-20: 34; Mark 10
:1-52; Luke 18: 15-19: 28.
(f.) The entry into Jerusalem and activity there during the week
before the last passover: Matt chs. 21-25; Mark chs. 11-13;
Luke 19: 29-21: 38.

(g.) The passion, crucifixion, and resurrection in parallel
sections, but with considerable minor diffegences, especially in
the denial of Peter and the history of the resurrection: Matt.,
chs. 26-28; Mark, chs. 14-16; Luke, chs. 22-24.

The events of the last week, from the entry to the resurrection
(from Palm Sunday to Easter), occupy in all the largest space,
about one-fourth of the whole narrative.

3. In the selection of the same material and in verbal
coincidences, as in the eschatological discourses of Christ, with
an almost equal number of little differences. Thus the three
accounts of the healing of the paralytic (Matt. 9: 1-8, and
parallel passages), the feeding of the five thousand, the trans-
figuration, almost verbally agree. Occasionally the Synoptists
concur in rare and difficult words and forms in the same
connection, as [Greek] (in the Lord's Prayer), the diminutive
[Greek] little ear (of Malchus, Matt. 26: 51, and parallel
passages), [Greek] hard (for a rich man to enter into the
kingdom, Matt. 19:23, etc.). These coincidences are the more
striking since our Lord spoke usually in Aramaic; but those words
may have been Palestinian provincialisms.
The largest portion of verbal agreement, to the extent of about
seven-eighths, is found in the words of others, especially of
Christ; and the largest portion of disagreement in the narratives
of the writers. This fact bears against the theory of
interdependence, and proves, on the one hand, the reverent
loyalty of all the Synoptists to the teaching of the great
Master, but also, on the other hand, their freedom and
independence of observation and judgment in the narration of
facts. Words can be accurately reported only in one form, as they
were spoken; while events may be correctly narrated in different


The extent of the coincidences and divergences admits of an
approximate calculation by sections, verses, and words. In every
case the difference of size must be kept in mind: Luke is the
largest, with 72 pages (in Westcott and Hort's Greek Testament);
Matthew comes next, with 68 pages; Mark last, with 42 pages.
(John has 55 pages.)

1. Estimate by Sections

Matthew has in all 78, Mark, 67, Luke, 93 sections. Dividing the
Synoptic text into 124 sections, with Dr. Reuss

All Evangelists have in common................ 47 sections.
Matthew and Mark alone have .................. 12  
Matthew and Luke alone have ..................  2
Mark and Luke alone have .....................  6 
Sections peculiar to Matthew ................. 17 
"           "         Mark .................... 2
"           "         Luke .................... 38

Another arrangement by sections has been made by Norton, Stroud,
and Westcott. If the total contents of the Gospels be
represented by 100, the following result is obtained:

Mark has ..............  7 peculiarities and 93 coincidences.
Matthew has ........... 42     "             58   "
Luke has .............. 59     "             41   "
John has ..............  92    "             8    "

If the extent of all the coincidences be represented by 100,
their proportion is:

Matthew, Mark, and Luke have ............ 53 coincidences.
Matthew and Luke have ................... 21    " 
Matthew and Mark have ................... 20    "
Mark and Luke have ....................... 6    "

"In St. Mark," says Westcott, "there are not more than
twenty-four verses to which no parallel exists in St. Matthew and
St. Luke, though St. Mark exhibits everywhere traits of vivid
detail which are peculiar to his narrative."

2. Estimate by Verses

According to the calculation of Reuss:

Matthew contains................ 330 verses peculiar to him. 
Mark contains...................   68   "    "    "
Luke contains................... 541    "    "    "
Matthew and Mark have from 170 to 180 verses in common, but not
found in Luke.
Matthew and Luke have from 230 to 240 verses in common, but not
found in Mark.
Mark and Luke have about 50 verses in common, but not found in

The total number of verses common to all three Synoptists is only
from 330 to 370. But, as the verses in the second Gospel we
generally shorter, it is impossible to make an exact mathematical
calculation by verses.

3. Estimate by Words

A still more accurate test can be furnished by the number of
words. This has not yet been made as far as I know, but a basis
of calculation is furnished by Rushbrooke in his admirably
printed Synopticon (1880), where the words common to the three
Synoptists, the words common to each pair, and the words
peculiar to each, are distinguished by different type and color.
The words found in all constitute the "triple tradition," and
the nearest approximation to the common Greek source from which
all have directly or indirectly drawn.

On the basis of this Synopticon the following calculations have
been made:

A.- Number of words in:

Matthew ...................   18,222   

Mark ......................   11,158  

Luke ......................   19,209   

Words common to all:

Matthew ...................    2,651  percent in common 14 and

Mark ......................    2,651  percent in common  23 and

Luke ......................    2,651  percent in common  13 and
B.- Additional words in common:
Matthew.... with Mark......... 2,793 (or in all 5,444)
Matthew.... with Luke......... 2,415 (or in all 5,066)
Mark....... with Luke......... 1,174 (or in all 3,825)

With the aid of my son (Rev. D. S. S.).  The method by which
the estimate was made deals with the root forms of the words
only, and ignores all inflexions - as, for instance, tenses of
verbs and cases of nouns.  The result is approximately, though
not exactly, true.
This includes 172 words of the disputed section, Mark 16:9-20
(bracketed by Westcott and Hort, and set apart in the English
Revision). Deducting these, the total number of words in Mark is
10,986, and the total number of words in the three Synoptists,
The number of words in the English Version is of course much
larger, but has no bearing upon the argument. I merely present as
an item of interest the calculation of Rev. Rufus Wendell, in the
"Student's Edition of the (Revised) New Testament" (N. Y.,
1882). He gives the following results:

Whole number of words in the Revised Version.  1881. 
Matthew .................................... 23,407
Mark........................................ 14,854
Luke........................................ 25,654
John........................ ............... 19,007

c.- Words peculiar to Matthew....... 10,363, or 56+ per cent.
    "    "            Mark..........  4,540, or 40+ per cent
    "    "            Luke.......... 12,969, or 67+ per cent

D.--These figures give the following results:

(a.) The proportion of words peculiar to the Synoptic Gospels
is 28,000 out of 48,000, more than one half.

In Matthew.......... 56 words out of every 100 are peculiar. 
In Mark............. 40  "
In Luke............. 67  "

(b.) The number of coincidences common to all three is less than
the number of the divergences.

Matthew agrees with the other two Gospels in 1 word out of 7.
Mark     "    "    "   "     "       "       1      "      4 1/2 
Luke     "    "    "   "     "       "       1       "      8

(c.) But, comparing the Gospels two by two, it is evident that
Matthew and Mark have most in common, and Matthew and Luke are
most divergent.

One-half of Mark is found in Matthew. 
One fourth of Luke is found in Matthew. 
One-third of Mark is found in Luke.

(d.) The general conclusion from these figures is that all three
Gospels widely diverge from the common matter, or triple
tradition, Mark the least so and Luke the most (almost twice as
much as Mark). On the other hand, both Matthew and Luke are
nearer Mark than Luke and Matthew are to each other.


Three ways open themselves for a solution of the Synoptic
problem: either the Synoptists depend on one another; or they
all depend on older sources; or the dependence is of both kinds.
Each of these hypotheses admits again of several modifications.

A satisfactory solution of the problem must account for the
differences as well as for the coincidences. If this test be
applied, the first and the third hypotheses with their various
modifications must be ruled out as unsatisfactory, and we are
shut up to the second as at least the most probable.


There is no direct evidence that any of the three Synoptists saw
and used the work of the others; nor is the agreement of such a
character that it may not be as easily and better explained from
antecedent sources. The advocates of the theory of
interdependency, or the "borrowing" hypothesis, differ widely
among themselves: some make Matthew, others Mark, others Luke,
the source of the other two or at least of one of them; while
still others go back from the Synoptists in their present form to
a proto-Mark (Urmarkus), or proto-Matthew (Urmattlaeus), or
proto-Luke (Urlukas), or other fictitious antecanonical
documents; thereby confessing the insufficiency of the borrowing
hypothesis pure and simple.

There is no allusion in any of the Synoptists to the others; and
yet Luke expressly refers to many earlier attempts to write the
gospel history. Papias, Irenaeus, and other ancient writers
assume that they wrote independently. The first who made Mark a
copyist of Matthew is Augustin, and his view has been completely
reversed by modern research. The whole theory degrades one or two
Synoptists to the position of slavish and yet arbitrary
compilers, not to say plagiarists; it assumes a strange
mixture of dependence and affected originality; it weakens the
independent value of their history; and it does not account for
the omissions of most important matter, and for many differences
in common matter. For the Synoptists often differ just where we
should most expect them to agree. Why should Mark be silent about
the history of the infancy, the whole sermon on the Mount (the
Magna Charta of Christ's kingdom), the Lord's Prayer, and
important parables, if he had Matthew, chs. 1 and 2, chs. 5-7,
and ch. 13, before him? Why should he, a pupil of Peter, record
the Lord's severe rebuke to Peter (8: 27-33), but fail to
mention from Matthew (16:16-23) the preceding remarkable
laudation: "Thou art Rock, and upon this rock I will build
my church?" Why should Luke omit the greater part of the
sermon on the Mount, and all the appearances of the risen Lord in
Galilee? Why should he ignore the touching anointing scene in
Bethany, and thus neglect to aid in fulfilling the Lord's
prediction that this act of devotion should be spoken of as a
memorial of Mary "wheresoever this gospel shall be preached in
the whole world" (Matt. 26:13; Mark 14:9)? Why should he, the
pupil and companion of Paul, fail to record the adoration of the
Magi, the story of the woman of Canaan, and the command to
evangelize the Gentiles, so clearly related by Matthew, the
Evangelist of the Jews (2:1-12; 15:21-28; 24:14; 28:19)?  
Why should Luke and Matthew give different genealogies of
Christ, and even different reports of the model prayer of our
Lord, Luke omitting (beside the doxology, which is also wanting
in the best MSS. of Matthew) the petition, "Thy will be done, as
in heaven, so on earth," and the concluding petition, "but
deliver us from evil" (or "the evil one"), and substituting
"sins" for "debts," and "Father" for "Our Father who art in
Why should all three Synoptists differ even in the brief and
official title on the Cross, and in the words of institution of
the Lord's Supper, where Paul, writing in 57, agrees with Luke,
referring to a revelation from the Lord (1 Cor.11:23)? Had
the Synoptists seen the work of the others, they could easily
have harmonized these discrepancies and avoided the appearance of
contradiction. To suppose that they purposely varied to conceal
plagiarism is a moral impossibility. We can conceive no
reasonable motive of adding a third Gospel to two already known
to the writer, except on the ground of serious defects, which do
not exist (certainly not in Matthew and Luke as compared with
Mark), or on the ground of a presumption which is inconsistent
with the modest tone and the omission of the very name of the

These difficulties are felt by the ablest advocates of the
borrowing hypothesis, and Hence they call to aid one or several
pre-canonical Gospels which are to account for the startling
discrepancies and signs of independence, whether in omissions or
additions or arrangement. But these pre-canonical Gospels, with
the exception of the lost Hebrew Matthew, are as fictitious as
the Syro-Chaldaic Urevangelium of Eichhorn, and have been
compared to the epicycles of the old astronomers, which were
invented to sustain the tottering hypothesis of cycles.

As to Luke, we have shown that he departs most from the triple
tradition, although he is supposed to have written last, and it
is now almost universally agreed that he did not use the
canonical Matthew. Whether he used the Hebrew Matthew and the
Greek Mark or a lost proto-Mark, is disputed, and at least very
doubtful. He follows a plan of his own; he ignores a whole cycle
of events in Mark from ch. 6:45 to ch. 8:26; he omits in the
common sections the graphic touches of Mark, for which he has
others equally graphic; and with a far better knowledge of Greek
he has yet more Hebraisms than Mark, because he drew largely on
Hebrew sources. As to Matthew, he makes the impression of
primitive antiquity, and his originality and completeness have
found able advocates from Augustin down to Griesbach and Keim.
And as to Mark, his apparent abridgments, far from being the work
of a copyist, are simply rapid statements of an original writer,
with many fresh and lively details which abundantly prove his
independence. On the other hand, in several narratives he is more
full and minute than either Matthew or Luke. His independence has
been successfully proven by the most laborious and minute
investigations and comparisons.  Hence many regard him as the
primitive Evangelist made use of by both Matthew and Luke, but
disagree among themselves as to whether it was the canonical Mark
or a proto-Mark. In either case Matthew and Luke would be guilty
of plagiarism. What should we think of an historian of our day
who would plunder another historian of one-third or one-half of
the contents of his book without a word of acknowledgment direct
or indirect? Let us give the Evangelists at least the credit of
common honesty, which is the basis of all morality.

SPIRIT, for each of the Gospel writers to write as they did on
what they wrote - Keith Hunt)


The only certain basis for the solution of the problem is given
to us in the preface of Luke. He mentions two sources of his own
Gospel - but not necessarily of the two other Synoptic
Gospels - namely, the oral tradition or deliverance of original 
"eyewitnesses and ministers of the word" (apostles, evangelists,
and other primitive disciples), and a number of written 
"narratives," drawn up by "many," but evidently incomplete and
fragmentary, so as to induce him to prepare, after accurate
investigation, a regular history of "those matters which have
been fulfilled among us." Besides this important hint, we may
be aided by the well-known statements of Papias about the Hebrew
Gospel of Matthew and the Greek Mark, whom he represents as the
interpreter of Peter.

The chief and common source from which the Synoptists derived
their Gospels was undoubtedly the living apostolic tradition or
teaching which is mentioned by Luke in the first order. This
teaching was nothing more or less than a faithful report of the
words and deeds of Christ himself by honest and intelligent
eye-witnesses. He told his disciples to preach, not to write,
the gospel, although the writing was, of course, not forbidden,
but became necessary for the preservation of the gospel in its
purity. They had at first only "hearers;" while the law
and the prophets had readers.

Among the Jews and Arabs the memory was specially trained in the
accurate repetition and perpetuation of sacred words and facts.
The Mishna was not reduced to writing for two or three hundred
years. In the East everything is more settled and stationary than
in the West, and the traveller feels himself as by magic
transferred back to manners and habits as well as the
surroundings of apostolic and patriarchal times. The memory is
strongest where it depends most on itself and least upon books.
The apostolic tradition or preaching was chiefly historical, a
recital of the wonderful public life of Jesus of Nazareth, and
centred in the crowning facts of the crucifixion and
resurrection. This is evident from the specimens of sermons in
the Acts. The story was repeated in public and in private from
day to day and Sabbath to Sabbath. The apostles and primitive
evangelists adhered closely and reverently to what they saw and
heard from their divine Master, and their disciples faithfully
reproduced their testimony. "They continued steadfastly in
the apostles' teaching" (Acts 2:42). Reverence would forbid
them to vary from it; and yet no single individual, not even
Peter or John, could take in the whole fulness of Christ. One
recollected this, another, another part of the gospel story; one
had a better memory for words, another for facts. These
differences, according to varying capacities and recollections,
would naturally appear, and the common tradition adapted itself,
without any essential alteration, to particular classes of
hearers who were first Hebrews in Palestine, then Greek Jews,
proselytes, and Gentiles.

The Gospels are nothing more than comprehensive summaries of this
apostolic preaching and teaching. Mark represents it in its
simplest and briefest form, and agrees nearest with the preaching
of Peter as far as we know it from the Acts; it is the oldest in
essence, though not necessarily in composition. Matthew and Luke
contain the same tradition in its expanded and more matured form,
the one the Hebrew or Jewish Christian, the other the Hellenistic
and Pauline type, with a corresponding selection of details. Mark
gives a graphic account of the main facts of the public life of
Christ "beginning from the baptism of John unto the day that he
was received up," as they would naturally be first presented to
an audience (Acts 1:22). Matthew and Luke add the history of the
infancy and many discourses, facts, and details which would
usually be presented in a fuller course of instruction.

(The SIMPLE answer is each was INSPIRED BY THE HOLY SPIRIT to
record and write as they did. Jesus had said that when the Spirit
came it would guide them into all truth - see John 16:13)


It is very natural that parts of the tradition were reduced to
writing during the thirty years which intervened between the
events and the composition of the canonical Gospels. One
evangelist would record for his own use a sketch of the chief
events, another the sermon on the Mount, another the parables,
another the history of the crucifixion and resurrection, still
another would gather from the lips of Mary the history of the
infancy and the genealogies. Possibly some of the first hearers
noted down certain words and events under the fresh impressions
of the moment. The apostles were indeed unlearned, but not
illiterate men, they could read and write and had sufficient
rudimentary education for ordinary composition. These early
memoranda were numerous, but have all disappeared, they were not
intended for publication, or if published they were superseded by
the canonical Gospels. Hence there is room here for much
speculation and conjectural criticism. "Many," says Luke, "have
taken in hand to draw up a narrative concerning those matters
which have been fulfilled among us." He cannot mean the
apocryphal Gospels which were not yet written, nor the canonical
Gospels of Matthew and Mark which would have spared him much
trouble and which he would not have dared to supersede by an
improved work of his own without a word of acknowledgment, but
pre-canonical records, now lost, which emanated from
"eye-witnesses and ministers of the word," yet were so
fragmentary and incomplete as to justify his own attempt to
furnish a more satisfactory and connected history. He had the
best opportunity to gather such documents in Palestine, Antioch,
Greece, and Rome. Matthew, being himself an eye-witness, and
Mark, being the companion of Peter, had less need of previous
documents, and could rely chiefly on their own memory and the
living tradition in its primitive freshness. They may have
written sketches or memoranda for their own use long before they
completed their Gospels; for such important works cannot be
prepared without long continued labor and care. The best books
grow gradually and silently like trees.

(The author uses common logic here, and so bears witness to the
situation of the writing of the Gospels; but yet we also must
keep in mind the INSPIRATION of the Holy Spirit - Keith Hunt)


We conclude, then, that the Synoptists prepared their Gospels
independently, during the same period (say between A.D. 60 and
69), in different places, chiefly from the living teaching of
Christ and the first disciples, and partly from earlier frag-
mentary documents. They bear independent testimony to the truth
of the gospel. Their agreement and disagreement are not the
result of design, but of the unity, richness, and variety of the
original story as received, understood, digested, and applied by
different minds to different conditions and classes of hearers
and readers.

(It is like modern news "reporters" they see things from THIER
perspective on any particular event. And with the writers of the
Gospels we have to ADD the INSPIRATION of the Holy Spirit - Keith


There is no good reason to doubt that the canonical arrangement
which is supported by the prevailing oldest tradition, correctly
represents the order of composition.  Matthew, the apostle, wrote
first in Aramaic and in Palestine, from his personal observation
and experience with the aid of tradition; Mark next; in Rome,
faithfully reproducing Peter's preaching; Luke last, from
tradition and sundry reliable but fragmentary documents. But all
wrote under a higher inspiration, and are equally honest and
equally trustworthy; all wrote within the lifetime of many of the
primitive witnesses, before the first generation of Christians
had passed away, and before there was any chance for mythical and
legendary accretions. They wrote not too late to insure
faithfulness, nor too early to prevent corruption. They represent
not the turbid stream of apocryphal afterthoughts and fictions,
but the pure fountain of historic truth. The gospel story, being
once fixed in this completed shape, remained unchanged for all
time to come. Nothing was lost, nothing added. The earlier
sketches or pre-canonical gospel fragments disappeared, and the
four canonical records of the one gospel, no more nor less,
sufficient for all purposes, monopolized the field from which
neither apocryphal caricatures nor sceptical speculations have
been able to drive them.


Besides the common Galilaean tradition for the people at large
which is embodied in the Synoptic Gospels, there was an esoteric
tradition of Christ's ministry in Judaea and his private relation
to the select circle of the apostles and his mysterious relation
to the Father. The bearer of this tradition was the beloved
disciple who leaned on the beating heart of his Master and
absorbed his deepest words. He treasured them up in his memory,
and at last when the church was ripe for this higher revelation
he embodied it in the fourth Gospel.


To be continued

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