Separating the Synoptics: Considering the Danger of Synoptic Reading
During our Wednesday evening Bible study, we are walking through Matthew’s Gospel. The question was asked, “If the other Synoptic Gospels (Mark and Luke) didn’t put some things in the same order Matthew did or include the same details, do we really need to consider the literary context?”
The question was thought provoking. For instance, the literary context in Matthew’s Gospel draws readers to conclude that those who receive adopted children of God also receive Christ and the Father (Matthew 18:5). The literary context in Mark’s and Luke’s Gospels draws readers to conclude that those who receive children, those under the age of accountability, receive Christ and the Father (Mark 9:37; Luke 9:48). In all of these stories, the main point is the same; The greatest in the kingdom of heaven are the humblest servants. Still, different literary details cause expositors to render the explanation of these texts differently depending on which passage they are teaching from. They each have the same main point, but the literary context in Matthew’s Gospel causes us to see something different in Matthew’s Gospel than we see in the others. The question arises; Is literary context really that important? Shouldn’t the explanations all be the same?
It is healthy to see the relationship between the synoptic Gospel accounts. It is not healthy, however, to see the synoptic Gospel accounts as the same. There are still differences in perspective, intended audience, and details presented. Mark was a primitive, second-hand account. Matthew was a first-hand account written particularly to Jews who were legalistic concerning the Law. Matthew most likely had Mark’s Gospel as a source, but he intentionally changed details and clarified certain things for a Jewish audience. Luke was a more scholarly and historical account with many sources ranging from the testimony of eye-witnesses to both Mark’s and Matthew’s Gospel accounts. Luke also reordered some things for his own purposes. The synoptic Gospels present accounts of the same history, but to different audiences for different purposes. Their differences are just as important as their similarities.
Consider the literary context of Matthew 18:5 juxtaposed with Mark 9:37 and Luke 9:48. Matthew was writing particularly to Jews whose religion was very legalistic. Mark and Luke were not. As a result, Matthew made many of the changes he did to Mark’s account because he did not want his story about the Messiah to be misinterpreted by his legalistic audience. At every turn of the page, then, Matthew presents Jesus’s works and teaching as anti-legalistic by including certain details and framing those details in the literary context he does—a literary context that differs from Mark’s. Matthew was not up to the same things that Mark and Luke were. In the literary context of Matthew 18:5, Matthew paints a picture of adoption as children of God and exemption from the civil and ceremonial laws in the Torah. Mark and Luke do not. All three Gospels are correct in their rendering of Jesus’s teaching, but they are different. Their stories recount the same history, but they are not the same stories. They are synoptic, not the same. While there is much value in comparing the three, we mustn’t neglect observing each Gospel in its own right. If we do neglect such exposition, we never see what Matthew, Mark, or Luke intended by divine inspiration but only what we piece together. In the same way 2 Samuel, the kings, and the chronicles and Paul’s letters must be understood in their own rights if we are to ever get at authorial intent and dig into the text of Scripture well.
We should be cautious with chronological Bibles, sermon series about the seven sayings of Jesus from the cross, or any merely synoptic reading of the Bible because those things can prevent us from anchoring ourselves in one text and asking the question most necessary to interpret it well—what is the divinely inspired author up to? There can be some benefit, I’m sure, to combining accounts and seeing the stories side-by-side, but we are ultimately responsible to know what God has given and not a hybrid of our own making. Context is still the key to understanding the Scriptures correctly.