By Garrett Best
If you’ve ever read the first three Gospels in the New Testament, you don’t have to be a scholar to notice that Matthew, Mark, and Luke are similar to one another. In fact, Matthew, Mark, and Luke are so similar that they have been called the “Synoptic” Gospels which comes from a Greek word meaning “seen together”. Mark has a total of 661 verses and about 90% have some parallel in Matthew and about 65% of Mark’s verses are paralleled in Luke. In addition, there are about 230 verses that Luke and Matthew have in common that don’t appear in Mark.
Most scholars are convinced that the best explanation for these parallels is a literary relationship between Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The most likely scenario to explain the similarities between these three Gospels is that the writers used one another’s work in order to write their own. Someone copied someone.
There are four main reasons scholars believe that there is a literary relationship between Matthew, Mark, and Luke. I will introduce them briefly.
- Similarities in Wording
This is especially significant if we remember that Jesus and his disciples most likely spoke Aramaic most of the time, and the Gospels are written in Greek. How do the Gospels end up with similar wording in the Greek translation of Jesus’ originally Aramaic words? And, even more impressively, with the Greek narration of Jesus’ deeds?
Read the story of Jesus healing Simon Peter’s mother-in-law in the Synoptic Gospels (Mk 1:29-34; Lk. 4:38-41; Mt. 8:14-17). All three accounts emphasize she was sick with a “fever”. Immediately after she is healed, she begins to “serve” Jesus. But, notice what comes next in all three accounts: “that evening at sundown” (Mk. 1:32); “that evening” (Mt. 8:16); “Now when the sun was setting” (Lk. 4:40). Such an odd detail to have in common. All three go on to narrate how many sick and demon possessed people were brought to Jesus and he healed them. Mark and Luke even are similar in narrating how Jesus rebuked the demons so that they wouldn’t reveal his identity because they knew he was the Christ. In all three accounts, there is a high degree of similarity in wording and details used to narrate the accounts. This is just one example of a phenomenon that occurs throughout. Scholars are convinced the similarities are too striking to be coincidence. Someone copied someone.
- Similarities in Order
One of the striking features of the Synoptic Gospels is that for the most part, they put the same stories in the same order. For example, in Mark 2:1-3:6 there is a series of stories involving controversy over Jesus’ healing ministry and also his teaching. Note the order in Mark’s narrative: Jesus heals a paralytic, calls Levi to follow him, argues with the Pharisees over fasting, argues with Pharisees over the disciples picking grain on the Sabbath, and heals a man with a withered hand. Compare that order with Luke 5:17-6:11. They both contain the exact same order of stories. The same type of exact similarity of order occurs in the sequence of events happening on the night Jesus was betrayed in Jerusalem (Mk. 14:1-31; Matt. 26:1-35; Lk. 22:1-34).
When all the stories that all three Gospels share are set-by-side, they rarely disagree in order. The most likely way to explain this phenomenon is that one Gospel was written before the others which established the basic order of the story of Jesus and the other two Gospels utilized that basic outline in order to write their Gospels. Someone copied someone.
- Similarities in Parenthetical Notes
“But when you see the abomination of desolation standing where he ought not to be (let the reader understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains.” (Mk. 13:14)
“So when you see the abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains.” (Matt. 24:15-16)
Did you notice the identical parenthetical comment “(let the reader understand)”? In your English translations, that note is put in parenthesis because Jesus didn’t say it. The narrator of the Gospel added it. What does it mean? Let the reader of Daniel understand? Let the reader of the Gospel understand? I think it’s more likely that the Gospel writers are referring to the person who would have delivered and read the Gospel aloud to the church. I think the Gospel writers expected the person delivering and reading the Gospel to the church to know something about this prophecy in Daniel in case the church had questions.
How else do you explain the exact same parenthetical note by the narrator in the exact same place in the text? Someone copied someone.
- Similarities in Old Testament Quotations
The Synoptic Gospels quote Isaiah 40:3 to present the wilderness ministry of John the Baptist as a fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy. All three Gospels are using the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, the Septuagint, to quote the prophecy from Isaiah 40:3. The Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible follows the original Hebrew text. The last phrase of the Septuagint is:
εὐθείας ποιεῖτε τὰς τρίβους τοῦ θεοῦ ἡμῶν (“make straight the paths of our God“)
This is exactly how the original Hebrew reads: “make straight the paths of our God”. However, notice how Matthew, Mark, and Luke quote Isaiah 40:3.
εὐθείας ποιεῖτε τὰς τρίβους αὐτοῦ (“make his paths straight”)
“make his paths straight,’” (Mk 1:3)
“make his paths straight.’” (Matt. 3:3)
“make his paths straight.” (Lk. 3:4)
Notice that neither Matthew, Mark, nor Luke quote Isaiah 40:3 precisely. Instead, all three have made an identical alteration to the Greek translation of Isaiah. Rather than saying “make straight the paths of our God“, they all three say “make his paths straight” with the identical Greek construction. All three provide the same revised quotation of Isaiah 40:3 which does not occur in the Masoretic Hebrew text or Greek Septuagint of that verse. How do you explain this kind of similarity? Someone copied someone.
Conclusion: Most scholars are convinced that the Synoptic Gospels are copying one another. It is difficult to explain the similarities in wording, similarities in order, similarities in parenthetical notes, and similarities in Old Testament quotations without positing some theory of literary dependence. So, who copied who? That will be the subject of the next post. Stay tuned.