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Synoptic Evolution

azambetti's picture

“One may as well begin with” (Forster 3) the evolution of literature.  There have been many instances in the history of literature where an author’s writings are disassembled, only to be reconnected, possibly with different characters and scenery, but still having the basic themes and ideas of the original piece.  Zadie Smith’s On Beauty has this type of interconnection with E.M. Forsters’ Howards End.  I found it rather remarkable how a similar tale could evolve within two completely different societies and contexts.  Howards End is based in equestrian England in the early twentieth century among different social classes, and On Beauty is based in present day Massachusetts among social and racial classes in a university atmosphere.  What appears to make up the plethora of differences between the two similarly based stories is the audience to which the story is written.  This adjustment to a story to better connect and interact with the audience, I think, has always been the driving force for why authors find the need to revamp a story, such as Zadie Smith did with E.M. Forster’s Howards End and the writers of the Gospel of Matthew and Luke have done to the Gospel of Mark. 

The synoptic gospels are made up of three groups of writings, Matthew, Mark and Luke.  Mark was the first of the gospels to be written in 75 CE.  Interestingly, it was written without a birth narrative and with a very short and vague resurrection story.  “Mark… penned an extended account of Jesus’ life beginning with his appearance as an adult to be baptized by John and ending with the report of his resurrection” (Erhman 67).  The frequently quoted and remembered birth and elaborate resurrection stories came later when the gospels of Matthew, in 80 CE, and Luke, in about 90 CE, were written.  A hypothesis popular with many theologians is that there were four ancient and frequently read pieces of transcript that were used to compile Matthew and Luke.  These pieces are now called Q, for Quelle, M, for all verses specific to Matthew, L, for all verses specific to Luke, and the Gospel of Mark.  Quelle is a piece of ancient religious literature that no longer exists and is incorporated into both Matthew and Luke, but not Mark.  The Gospel of Mark makes up the most important portions of the two texts (Matthew and Luke), since one can easily deduce, by comparing the texts to each other, how the authors altered the original Mark gospel to engage and teach their audience about Jesus’ life. I also find it very important to note that the birth and resurrection stories of Matthew and Luke are very different in description and overall meaning.  So, how, and foremost why, did Matthew and Luke use the sections of religious literature they did to compose their gospels of Jesus’ life for their respective audiences?

Mark is the only existing piece of religious literature that was used by the authors of Matthew and Luke to construct their gospels. Comparing Mark with Matthew and Mark with Luke is the only, but extremely effective way, to understand how literature evolved from one gospel to the next.  This transformation was mostly due to a significant change in the audience to which the individual gospels were intended.  Mark was written for readers in the Gentile/ Early Christian churches.  Early Christians were previous Jews who believed that Jesus was the messiah.  Mark composes Jesus’ teachings through parables about the kingdom of God growing near.  In Mark, Jesus says “with what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it?” (GMark 4:30), and then he proceeded with a parable about God’s kingdom.  Just like the other two synoptic gospels, the Gospel of Mark is very apocalyptic and focuses a lot of its textual content on the kingdom of God and its importance to Jesus’ followers. 

Of course, because Mark is the foundation for Matthew and Luke, all three have this content in common, but I find it very interesting on Mark’s part to not include the birth story and to include a short resurrection story.  Before the synoptic gospels were written down, the stories of Jesus were an oral tradition passed around religious groups for about thirty five years.  Therefore, Mark most likely knew about Jesus’ birth and elaborate resurrection stories and did not include them in order to put extra emphasis on what Jesus had taught his followers and disciples during his life.  Mark’s readers learned specifically of how to enter God’s kingdom through Jesus’ teachings of parables.  Not only did Mark have his own interpretation of the importance of Jesus’ life, but so did Matthew.

Lacking a birth and a strong resurrection narrative, Matthew must have thought Mark to be too brief, condensing an extremely important message, so he revamped Mark.  Matthew, not necessarily being a Jew but very well informed of Jewish scriptures, deemed Jesus’ coming to earth part of a divine plan arranged by God, since Jesus “[would] save his people from their sins” (GMatt 1:21) and restore the world with righteousness.  Citing Hebrew Scripture, Matthew interpreted sayings/scriptures from Mark, Q and M that strengthened his argument concerning God’s divine plan for Jesus as the prophecy.  Matthew draws on the similarities between Moses and Jesus to further prove that Jesus is the new Moses meant to be the final interpreter of the laws of God.  The parallels show that Jesus is not just any prophet, but a prophet comparable to Moses, one of the most highly respected prophets in Jewish Scripture.  I believe that the similarities were inserted by Matthew for his audience, who were well versed in the Hebrew Bible, and were meant to prove Jesus’ true importance. 

After the Temple in Jerusalem, the only temple in existence at the time, was destroyed in 70 CE, congregations had to start meeting in houses, causing a shift in the structure of Judaism.  The Pharisees, a ruling sect in ancient Judaism, then determined what would be included in the Jewish faith.  Matthew’s audience was Jewish- Christian groups.  With such direct evidence from Jewish Scripture contained in the Gospel of Matthew, I think it was probably relatively easy for his audience to believe in the importance of his message with previous knowledge of Jewish Scripture.  In this instance, Matthew clearly includes the two extra narratives (birth and resurrection) to further show evidence that Jesus has always been expected and now has arrived to bring the kingdom to God’s people, who include Matthew’s congregation of Jewish-Christians.  Luke, another author of a synoptic gospel, also has a very intriguing interpretation of Jesus’ life.

While Matthew made strong comparisons between Jewish Scripture and Jesus being the true prophecy of these scriptures, Luke is comparing the conduct of Gentiles and Jews toward Jesus.  Luke used Mark as the baseline for his literature.  He modified Mark’s work, however, to include, among other things, “a standard ‘historiographic’ preface” in order to “[alert his readers both to his own abilities as a writer and the scope of his work” (Erhman 115).  Therefore, from the very beginning, Luke was gaining his audience’s confidence by proving his knowledge of the content being discussed, which I found to be an interesting tactic.  Probably the most important aspect of the Gospel of Luke is how he describes Jesus’ genealogy.  In the Gospel of Matthew (Mark does not contain a genealogy of Jesus), Jesus’ genealogy starts with “Abraham… the father of Isaac” (GMatt 1:2), which sends a very different message to the readers than when Luke ends Jesus’ genealogy with the “son of Adam, son of God” (GLuke 3:38).  Matthew connected Jesus to the Jews and Luke connected Jesus to everyone.  Luke’s audience included both Jews and Gentiles, until Luke acknowledges that the Jews rejected Jesus’ genealogy and Jesus’ message, and was only heard by Gentiles.  In the Gospel of Luke, only Gentiles are saved at the apocalypse, which is in large contrast to the other two synoptic gospels, since Luke’s audience was a more specific and distinct group of people.

The authors’ main goal is to gain followers.  At the time of the Greco-Roman empire when the gospels were written, there were a lot of indecisive Jews/Early Christians, who were attempting to find their place among a changing religion, Judaism.  Judaism was a religion that would eventually break apart, forming the Early Christians, although this modification occurred over a long period of time.  Each of the Synoptic Gospel authors has taken stories that originated from oral traditions, but interpreted them differently to convey differing messages to their readers and followers.  The Synoptic Gospels build on each other, evolving parallel (and at times anti-parallel) to each other, and have their own specific focus for its readers.  This type of literary evolution also occurred with Zadie Smith’s On Beauty when comparing it to its origin Howards End.  The reader can see the similarities between the old and new stories, but focus more on the differences, since these are the literary sections that were written specifically to them.  I was amazed when I realized how, with such literary evolution, messages can be more readily received depending on if I am a Gentile reading the Gospel of Luke in the Greco-Roman Empire or a university student in present day, as I am, reading On Beauty; eagerly wanting to connect my life with the characters.   


Coogan, Michael D. The New Oxford Annotated Bible. third. New York: Oxford

University Press, 2001.

Ehrman, Bart D. The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. 

Forster, E.M. Howards End. New York: Vintage International, 1989.

McGuire, Anne. Introduction to the New Testament. Class. Haverford College: 2007.

Smith, Zadie. On Beauty. USA: Penguin Group, 2005.


Anne Dalke's picture

Synoptically: sameness and difference


I'm coming to see a pattern in your papers: you take the framework of this course on the story of evolution/the evolution of stories and try it out in a larger framework: mass extinctions, the end of a diverse cultural environment, and now the evolution of the synoptic gospels. What's different here is that this essay's less apocalyptic than the others you've written!

When you write beyond the sphere of a particular audience (esp. important here, since you are writing about the role of changing audiences in the evolution of a story), you need to be sure to define any technical terms that might not be widely understood. "Synoptic," your keyword, is one that many of your readers won't be familiar with. It's important to highlight the meaning--that the term derives from combining the Greek συν (syn = together) and οψις (opsis = seeing)--to indicate the action of comparison.

This seems important because your approach is interestingly different from that taken in the past: it re-frames what many scholars have seen as a problem-- why the 3 texts are so similar in wording and sequence of events--as an exploration of why they are different: why do they diverge, and what role might different audiences have played in that evolution? The focus in the scholarship, in other words, has been on explaining the similarity; yours is striking in its focus on change. You might also note that your attention to audience adds a dimension that has been largely missing from our focus, in class, on a comparative study of Howard's End and On Beauty. So I'd like to see you, at the end, draw a stronger connection back to the contemporary audience of On Beauty: what difference does it make that we are not the folks for whom Forster wrote Howard's End?

I learned a lot from your comparative report of differences among the synoptic gospels. So often the bi-co faculty doesn't know much about the work of their colleagues, so it was particularly intriguing for me to think about the way in which Anne McGuire's introductory course on the New Testament might intersect with (provide additional data for?) our work here on the evolution of stories.

I was particularly struck by your comparison of the beginning of the genealogy in Matthew (with its emphasis on the Jews) and the ending of that in Luke (with its emphasis on everyone)--but then I got confused about your (counter?) emphasis on Luke's "more specific and distinct" audience. You conclude by saying that the synoptic gospels evolved "parallel and at times anti-parallel to each other." What's "anti-parallel"? Tangential? Trying to imagine the appropriate geometrical makes me want to know more about how you see the relation of sameness-and-difference.