I suppose I’ll inaugurate the answering of questions on this forum, although I’m not totally sure I understand the question. I’ll give it my best try.
Are the gospels synonymous in their content? No.
Are the gospels synonymous in that they all say the exact same thing? No.
Are the gospels synonymous in their purpose? I would argue yes. John and Luke clearly outline for us the purpose behind what they’ve written (Luke 1:3-4 and John 20:30-31) and although Matthew and Mark don’t come straight out and say why they’ve written, it seems like they also have a similar purpose.
Mark’s gospel begins by saying in verse 1 “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”. Matthew’s gospel seems to have less external writing (i.e. the author inserting a comment into the text) that would suggest his motivation for writing, but within the storyline it seems to me that a theme and purpose can be seen through the gospel. This theme and purpose relates to who Jesus is and what his gospel is.
Some of you are perhaps familiar with the teaching that the gospels are like four different perspectives on Jesus, just like four witnesses to an event would all tell it a bit differently. While that might be accurate, I feel it lessens the power of each gospel’s witness and testimony. The gospels were crafted and created, pulling stories from Jesus’ life, in an intentional manner, not a witness giving us a play by play of everything that occurred.
Each gospel is trying to get us (and even the ‘us’ can vary. Matthew’s harsh critique of religious leaders might be read very differently in a mostly affluent North American setting than it would be in a more impoverished Latin American setting) to see Jesus and his gospel. The authors probably weren’t planning to have their four gospels read together, one after the other, as we are prone to do. We try to line them up, but I’m not sure they were even meant to be lined up. To me, they line up in purpose, which I believe is articulated the clearest in John 20:31 “but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”
I would suggest that while they all have a part to play in our understanding of God wrapped in flesh, it’s important to understand that the authors had an agenda.
Ya reading that is a bit awkward. But let me explain:
As we look at the gospels, there will be a set of questions that we should consistently ask when considering the context of that narrative. Who is the author? who does the author work with? who is the audience? and other questions will help us begin to approach each particular narrative with the appropriate posture of interpretation.
Let’s start with Matthew. In short, Matthew is a Jewish author who is writing for a Jewish audience. Much of my opinion about the gospel of Matthew will go against popular scholastic opinion: it was inherited from my rabbi’s learning under Ray Vander Laan, and was shaped by listening to others teach on Matthew’s gospel. While I don’t believe this is nearly as important as we seem to make it, regarding the question of when each gospel was written (in terms of order), it is my personal opinion that Matthew was in fact written first. I also happen to believe that Matthew was originally penned in Hebrew. These are not the typical opinions. There is no external evidence to support the idea of a Hebrew version of Matthew, but there are many clues within the Text itself. I do not discredit all of the discussion about the source material “Q,” or even doubt its existence (in fact, I see that discussion as very fruitful), but I do see Matthew being the first record and Mark being penned later. This is neither here nor there for the purposes of this discussion, so we’ll continue moving forward.
In order to understand the agenda that Matthew has behind writing his gospel, we need to look no further than the first chapter of his gospel. Bible students will immediately raise their eyebrows at that suggestion, as they remember that the first chapter of Matthew starts with a thorough genealogy. I believe this is one of the most intentional decisions made by Matthew in his gospel.
If a Jew were to read Matthew’s genealogy, they would quickly notice how odd the genealogy is. From a Jewish perspective, the genealogy is one of the worst ever recorded in biblical history. The passage is riddled with problems:
The passage contains multiple references to women. Women are not typically included in Jewish genealogies. The maternal lineage does not become important until later in history; the mention of fathers takes all priority. Women are not mentioned in a genealogy unless absolutely necessary.
The women Matthew mentions in Jesus’s genealogy are not women you would ever want to go out of your way to point out. Under normal circumstances, the author would work incredibly hard to bend the lineage around these stories and avoid bringing them up all together. Each of these women comes from a frustrating past, therefore marring the genealogy. Tamar slept with her father-in-law. Rahab was a prostitute. Ruth was a pagan, a Moabitess forbidden to enter the assembly of God. Bathsheba is part of the worst moment of King David’s life. The purpose of a genealogy is to prove the purity of a person’s pedigree. Why does Matthew deliberately go out of his way to mention these women?
If we consider for a moment who Matthew was and his background, it may shed some light on the agenda that lies behind his gospel.
Matthew was a tax collector. He was a traitor. He had turned his back on the people of God and agreed to work for Rome. If Matthew had any family to speak of in Galilee, he had turned his back on them and his faith community. Matthew was an outsider — a mumzer. (I use this term very loosely and poetically; the word in the Torah literally refers to a child of illegitimate birth — a “bastard,” without the derogatory stigma.) The day that Matthew was sitting at his collection booth and Jesus walked by, calling him to be a follower of a strictly-observant rabbi, must have been a stunning experience.
Somebody was giving the mumzer a second chance. Somebody had truly seen him and invited him into something amazing. The first act of Matthew is to throw a party and invite all of his “sinner” friends. This is a guy who is going to follow Jesus with a heart for the outsider.
So, when Matthew writes a gospel — the “good news” about a new King who is reigning — what is the thing that has always stuck out to him about Jesus? What is the thing that he wants all his Jewish readers to understand? What is his agenda?
I’ve heard people talk about how Matthew was written in order to prove that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah. I believe this is incorrect. If this is Matthew’s goal, then he fails miserably. Matthew is written to say this Jewish Messiah is one who sees the outsider. Jesus is one who welcomes the mumzer. And Matthew is going out of his way, not to prove the purity of the Messiah’s bloodline, but the messiness of it, because this is a Messiah who understands the messiness of life. When you read Matthew’s gospel, you begin to see “the one who doesn’t belong” on every page. It’s the leper. It’s the Roman. It’s the gentile woman. It’s the demoniacs in the Decapolis. It’s the blind men and the bleeding woman. It’s the unclean, the pagan outcast, the rejected, and the despised around every corner of Jesus’s ministry.
Matthew sees himself in the ministry of Jesus. Matthew’s story is his agenda.
Our God is the God who sees the one who doesn’t belong. Our God is the God who would be born of a questionable pedigree, just to prove that He’s not here for everyone who has it all together.
God is looking for mumzers.
Mark’s gospel ends up being significantly different than Matthew’s. The main difference between the two will be Mark’s audience. Whereas Matthew was a Jew writing to Jews, Mark will be a Jew who pens a gospel to the Roman culture. This will shape the message and agenda more than anything else.
The first thing that a reader notices about Mark is the pace. Mark is much shorter and carries a much faster pace through the gospel. Romans are westerners who like to be entertained. They are not easterners who value a treasure hunt buried in the Text or an expectation that you would want to work through tough questions in order to unearth amazing truths. Romans want you to get to the point and tickle their fancy. And so Mark writes a gospel that is a fast-paced tale of all the things Jesus did. He bounces from story to story, keeping the characters moving and Jesus busy.
Mark also plays on the value system of the Roman culture. The Greco-Roman culture was built on four pillars of Hellenistic life: education, health care, entertainment, and competition. If you pay attention to the stories Mark chooses to tell and the way he chooses to tell them, you begin to notice that Jesus is being portrayed as quite the impressive character. He’s a master teacher (education), an incredible healer of all kinds of conditions (health care), an entertainer of crowds who are constantly “amazed” (entertainment), and better than any other man being offered for consideration (competition).
I think there is a reason that many of us prefer the gospel of Mark. In short, we are Romans! We are westerners who are cut from the same cloth. It’s for the very same reasons we enjoy the shorter, faster, more entertaining gospel of Mark. But Mark has an agenda much deeper than simply entertaining his readers. And he starts to head down his main path as the gospel nears the end.
One of the many differences that you can find in the gospel of Mark appears to come during the telling of the crucifixion story. An astute Bible student may notice that in the gospel of Mark, Jesus is offered wine mixed with myrrh before He is on the cross; in every other gospel, He is offered vinegar mixed with gall, both before and on the cross. This seems like a minor detail (or a major one for biblical critics), but in fact, Mark is doing something much deeper under the surface. In order to explain this, I would like to describe the coronation of a Roman Caesar. (the man who did the definitive work on this was the Oxford scholar Thomas E. Schmidt.)
We don’t have a comprehensive account of every coronation of a Caesar, but we do have a few. One of the best records we have is of the coronation of Emperor Nero. From the records that we do have, one could conclude that the typical coronation had nine steps:
1. The Praetorian Guard gathers to hail Caesar as lord and god.
2. Royal robes, a wreath crown, and a scepter are placed on Caesar.
3. They lead Caesar through a procession, lined with incense altars.
4. Caesar is followed by the sacrifice (a bull, in Nero’s case), and he carries the instrument of death.
5. They arrive at Capitoline Hill; Caesar is offered wine mixed with myrrh, but he refuses it, pouring it out.
6. The bull is killed; Caesar pronounced death or life on a host of prisoners, demonstrating that he has the power of life and death.
7. The emperor ascends the steps of the temple with the High Priest on his right and his commander on his left.
8. Caesar is acclaimed “lord and god” as people sing his praises.
9. They wait for a sign from the heavens (in Nero’s coronation, according to history, there was an eclipse).
If one takes this list and reads through Mark’s account of the crucifixion, they are stunned to find what Mark is doing. Take the list above, open your Bible to Mark 15, and connect them to the following passages:
Mark tells the crucifixion as if it was Jesus’s coronation. Mark’s trying to make the case that Jesus’s crucifixion was not a moment of defeat — it was His greatest moment of triumph.
This is a stunning agenda to attempt to communicate to a bunch of Romans. Mark is essentially trying to tell them that the world they live in is completely backwards and upside down. He’s saying that the way of empire doesn’t actually bring true peace. That in weakness — in the laying down of His life — Jesus showed empire to be the farce that it is.
And then, there is the ending. If you look in your Bible, you will notice a note that says that Mark 16:9–20 is not in the earliest manuscripts. To be quite frank, I do not believe that Mark 16:9–20 should be in our inspired Text. I believe that the early Christians attempted to “clean up” the ending to Mark’s gospel and fix something that was never broken.
If you read Mark 16:8, you can see why they would think such things. Would Mark really end his gospel with women running away, trembling and afraid?
Of course he would.
Because any Roman who reads Mark’s gospel — and accepts it — is going to feel just like those women. If they affirm the truth that Jesus is a better king, their Roman life as they know it is over. They have much to fear. And so, much like the story of the prodigal son, Mark leaves the ending open-ended and unwritten, inviting the Roman readers to consider what they believe to be the truest true about the world and what brings real peace. This is our great challenge as “Roman” readers. Do we really want to choose the “triumph” of Jesus? It runs counter to everything that our worldview says is power. Yet Mark confronts our worldview and invites us to consider — as we possibly sit trembling and afraid of the implications — whether or not we’d like to believe this “gospel” of a better kingdom.
The good doctor Luke is the one author of Scripture that we can say is a Gentile author. Actually, I’m not sure we can, since Luke would more than likely be a proselyte (a convert), converting to the Jewish faith before the introduction to the Gentiles. Everything about Luke’s account (predominantly from Acts) puts him as a fellow follower of the Way — a Jewish faith movement — and a working companion to the apostles.
Nevertheless, we can be fairly confident that Luke has Gentile roots and comes from pagan stock. In fact, some would say that if Luke is a doctor, then it would mean that he was trained in the worship of Asclepius, the Greek god of healing. We will talk more about this pagan belief later, but the Greco-Roman version of health care was seen in Asclepion worship; if this is the case, he has very pagan roots indeed.
Many have used Luke’s Gentile roots to make the case that Luke is trying to write a gospel that is more detail-oriented than his Jewish counterparts. We’ve talked before about how western Gentiles would be much more concerned with accuracy, details, and a literal rendering of the historical account. Many have proposed that Luke set out to do this very thing. The introduction to Luke’s gospel seems to point in this direction, as well:
Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.
It would appear that Luke is telling Theophilus that he is attempting to give an “orderly” and accurate account, so that he might know with certainty what happened. For many years, Textual critics maligned Luke for his inaccuracy, stating that too many details are off in his account of history. However, as the search through archaeology continues, we have often found Luke to be the most accurate in his accounts of history.
However, the translation of the Greek in this passage may be a bit more interpretive than we usually assume. There is a book written by M.D. Goulder called “The Evangelist’s Calendar” which proposes the gospel of Luke is written to accompany the weekly parashah readings in the synagogue. This would assume that the early church was indeed a Jewish movement and that they wanted to read about the life and teachings of Jesus as a part of their worship services. In this light, Luke would be writing his gospel to be separated into weekly readings, thus changing the purpose and design of his gospel — as well as its intent and agenda — entirely.
The Greek could literally be translated, “I too decided to write an ordered account for you…” The word in the Greek, if translated “ordered” (instead of “orderly”) would mean in order or sequenced. This would definitely fit a view of Luke being written as a lectionary accompaniment to the weekly parashah readings in the synagogue. This would also explain the discrepancies that we find in Luke’s account in reference to chronology (if Luke is trying to write an accurate account, why does it appear to be the least chronological?) and other small details.
Now, this is simply one of many theories, but Goulder is far more studied than I am on the matter, and I encourage you to read the book if you get the chance and can stomach scholarly writing. (The book is very hard to find and used copies can run hundreds of dollars.)
Nevertheless, it would be very safe to say that Luke is writing his gospel to be a gospel of order. Which order (orderly or sequenced)? We may never know. However, Luke is certainly not without his own literary genius and brilliant tools of written communication. In fact, the more I study Luke, the more that I find deeply seeded literary devices (chiasms, parallelism, etc.) and brilliant teaching points. One of Luke’s main agendas under the surface appears to be that Jesus is the second Moses.
Was Luke written to a Gentile? The name Theophilus (“Friend of God”) is a Greek one; but it is one that speaks of God. It could also be a code name for God’s people or a particular body of faith or a church. It could also be a Jewish name of a more Herodian bent.
Was Luke written to Jews? The theory of Goulder would point toward a Jewish audience, as would the theme of a second Moses and the presence of eastern literary tools.
At the end of the day, we may not have answers to the many questions that are raised, but the truth of the matter is that Luke provides us with one of the most thorough accounts of Jesus’s life, as well as one that differs from the two gospels that appear to have shared source information.
Most have presumed that the gospel of John is written as the latest of the gospel accounts, in an effort to help fill in all the gaps that the “synoptic” gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) missed. While I agree that the gospel of John is certainly written late, I do not believe that his intent was to help tell some of the lost stories of Jesus’s ministry. As the case has been for Matthew, Mark, and Luke, I believe the story is much deeper once we look at the audience of John.
As a matter of context, it’s helpful to know that John is often referred to in historical circles as “the pastor to Asia.” By “Asia,” they would be referring to the modern-day region of Turkey, what was known in the Greco-Roman world as Asia and Asia Minor. John was the pastor of Asia, and church tradition has John frequently traveling amongst the seven churches of Revelation (and there’s a good chance that he did). Church history, on the other hand, has him living at Ephesus and Sardis. John is a disciple who has taken his leadership into the Greco-Roman world and into the Judaism of the Diaspora (“Diaspora” refers to the dispersion of the Jews who went to live throughout the regions of Rome, Macedonia, Greece, Asia, and Asia Minor).
It would be too much to write about who John is and how his gospel works, but it will be enough to say that John’s gospel is a gospel of a grafted people. By grafted, I am referring to a Jesus community that consists of both Jews and Gentiles. This Jesus movement that spread through Asia and Asia Minor was a movement that invited all kinds of people to the table. This community consisted of committed Jews and passionate Gentiles. This means that John’s gospel would need to be written in such a way that it communicates the message of Good News to both groups simultaneously. John is known for many unique attributes. One example would be the “I am” statements.
I am the bread of life.
I am the Good Shepherd.
I am the light of the world.
I am the resurrection.
I am the way, the truth, and the life.
These statements can be found in Jewish teaching, predating the gospel of John, in reference to Torah. One of John’s main teaching points is that Jesus is Torah, wrapped in flesh. Any Jew who heard Jesus’s “I am” statements would hear in them a claim to be Torah. But what if a Greek heard these same teachings? They would be ignorant of the teachings of Torah and the traditions surrounding them. However, they too would have experiences that shine light on Jesus’s teachings. When Jesus claims to be the bread of life, they would hear the claim of Demeter, the goddess of provision — who also claimed to be the bread of life. They would hear Dionysius in Jesus’s claim to be the resurrection. Each of these teachings would carry incredible weight for a Gentile in the Roman world.
Both groups would hear the same message: Jesus is what you’ve been chasing your whole life.
John writes his gospel in such a way that both groups hear the same message in two separate ways in the same Text — simultaneously.
It’s almost impossible to wrap your head around how an author is able to do that throughout an entire gospel. And this is a characteristic of John’s writing in his other books as well. John is a masterful cultural storyteller. John isn’t simply trying to “fill in the gaps” that the other gospels missed. John is trying to tell the stories of Jesus that relate to the culture he’s ministering to.
John is living in shephelah; and his gospel is a shephelah gospel.
John wants the world to know — the whole world, the world he’s living in — who this Jesus is and who He can be in their lives. He’s willing to take the life of Jesus and pick out the stories that help accomplish this purpose, and the stories which confront the Roman agenda in the clearest way, in order to reach his goal. As John will say in one of his letters:
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We write this to make our joy complete.