Bible Study Helps: The Synoptic Gospels

The first three gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke – are known as the synoptic gospels, and they share a number of similarities. However, the three also differ in major ways from John’s gospel. Indeed, much of what is found in the fourth gospel is not found in the synoptics.

Consider some of the material found only in the gospel of John. This would include: the story of Nicodemus; the raising of Lazarus; the “bread of life” discourse; Jesus’ great intercessory prayer; and his appearance to Thomas. And the reverse is also true.

For example, some of the major themes and incidents about Jesus found in the first three gospels are absent from John’s. He hardly speaks of the Kingdom of Heaven at all; the Lord’s Prayer is not found there; and he does not cover the stories about the temptation of Jesus, his transfiguration, etc. Also missing in John are parables, exorcisms, and calls to repentance.

So why all the differences? Various reasons have been offered. Most conservative New Testament scholars argue that the first three gospels were written earlier (in the 50s or 60s) while John was written much later (from the 70s to the 90s). While the debate over the origins and dating of the gospels certainly continues, many argue that Mark may have been written first, with Matthew and Luke borrowing heavily from it, along with other possible sources.

(There are many hundreds of books dealing with all the complexities involved in the writing and formation of the gospels; how the story of Jesus came to be written down; why four gospels and no more or no less; when and how they came into being; and so on. Just one book can be mentioned here, featuring a conservative, evangelical slant on things: the very detailed and thorough work by Michael Bird, The Gospel of the Lord: How the Early Church Wrote the Story of Jesus. Eerdmans, 2014.)

Briefly, the Synoptics often presented their material around locations where Jesus ministered and preached. So they will group teachings of Jesus based on where he was at the time, eg., in Galilee, etc. While this can be found in John as well to some extent, he is more interested in theology and the deity of Christ. That is, with strong emphases on Jesus’ miracles and his teachings about his deity, John offers us a ‘high Christology’.

Moreover, one can argue that each gospel has a somewhat different purpose, and/or a different target audience in mind. Matthew for example seems to be mainly written for a Jewish audience, with Jesus being portrayed as the fulfillment of the Old Testament law and prophets.

Mark and Luke may have had gentile audiences more in mind, and if John was penned after the destruction of the temple (70 AD), then helping believers deal with persecution would have been part of his aim. Differing literary styles and so on could also be highlighted here.

And there are some differences as well found within the synoptics. For example, the birth of Christ and the genealogies are found in Matthew and Luke, but not in Mark (nor John). In sum, the Synoptics do have some differences, but many more similarities. But all three differ quite a bit from John’s gospel.

Of course all four gospels record the important features of the life of Christ: his main teachings, his death, and his resurrection. The gospels have been referred to as passion narratives with extended introductions. That is, the last week of the life of Jesus receives major – and lengthy – attention.

Here then is some recommended reading on the Synoptic Gospels. I begin with commentaries on the Sermon on the Mount. These ten volumes include some devotional and expository works along with more scholarly and academic volumes.

Boice, James Montgomery, The Sermon on the Mount (Baker, 1972)
Carson, D. A., The Sermon on the Mount (Baker, 1978)
Ferguson, Sinclair, The Sermon on the Mount (Banner of Truth, 1987)
Guelich, Robert, The Sermon on the Mount (Word, 1982)
Hughes, R. Kent, The Sermon on the Mount (PTW, 2001)
Kendall, R. T., The Sermon on the Mount (Chosen Books, 2011)
Lloyd-Jones, Martyn, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, 2 vols. (IVF, 1959, 1960)
McKnight, Scot, Sermon on the Mount (SGBC, 2013)
Quarles, Charles, Sermon on the Mount (B&H, 2011)
Stott, John, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount (BST, 1978)

Matthew commentaries – devotional and exegetical

Boice, James Montgomery, The Gospel of Matthew, 2 vols. (Baker, 2001)
Doriani, Daniel, Matthew, 2 vols. (REC, 2008)
O’Donnell, Douglas Sean, Matthew (PTW, 2013)
Sproul, R. C., Matthew (Crossway, 2013)

Matthew commentaries – academic and critical

Blomberg, Craig, Matthew (NAC, 1992)
Carson, D. A., Matthew (EBC, 1984)
Carson, D. A., When Jesus Confronts the World – Matthew 8-10 (Baker, 1987)
France, R. T., The Gospel of Matthew (NICNT, 2007)
France, R. T., Matthew (TNTC, 1985)
Green, Michael, The Message of Matthew (BST, 2001)
Hagner, Donald, Matthew, 2 vols. (WBC, 1993, 1995)
Hendriksen, William, The Gospel of Matthew (NTC, 1976)
Hill, David, The Gospel of Matthew (NCB, 1972)
Keener, Craig, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (Eerdmans, 1999)
Keener, Craig, Matthew (IVPNTC, 1997)
Morris, Leon, The Gospel According to Matthew (PNTC, 1992)
Mounce, Robert, Matthew (NIBC, 1985)
Nolland, John, The Gospel of Matthew (NIGTC, 2005)
Osborne, Grant, Matthew (ZECNT, 2010)
Tasker, R. V. G., The Gospel According to Matthew (TNTC, 1961)
Turner, David, Matthew (BECNT, 2008)
Wilkins, Michael, Matthew (NIVAC, 2004)
Wright, N. T., Matthew For Everyone, 2 vols. (WJK, 2002, 2004)

Mark commentaries – academic and critical

Anderson, Hugh, The Gospel of Mark (NCB, 1976)
Cole, R. Alan, The Gospel St. Mark (TNTC, 1961)
Edwards, James, The Gospel According to Mark (PNTC, 2002)
English, Donald, The Message of Mark (BST, 1992)
Evans, Craig, Mark 8:27-16:20 (WBC, 2001)
France, Richard, The Gospel of Mark (NIGTC, 2002)
Garland, David, Mark (NIVAC, 1996)
Guelich, Robert, Mark 1-8:26 (WBC, 1989)
Gundry, Robert, Mark (Eerdmans, 1993)
Hooker, Morna, The Gospel According to Saint Mark (BNTC, 1992)
Hurtado, Larry, Mark (NIBC, 1989)
Kernaghan, Ron, Mark (IVPNTC, 2007)
Lane, William, The Gospel of Mark (NICNT, 1974)
Schnabel, Eckhard, Mark (TNTC, 2017)
Stein, Robert, Mark (BECNT, 2008)
Strauss, Mark, Mark (ZECNT, 2014)
Wessel, Walter, Mark (EBC, 1984)
Wright, N. T., Mark for Everyone (SPCK, 2001)

Image of Luke (3) (Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament)
Luke (3) (Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament) by David E. Garland (Author), Clinton E. Arnold (Editor) Amazon logo

Luke commentaries – academic and critical, and devotional and exegetical (Ryken)

Bock, Darrell, Luke (NIVAC, 1996)
Bock, Darrell, Luke, 2 vols. (BECNT, 1994, 1996)
Caird, G. B., Saint Luke (Penguin, 1963)
Edwards, James, The Gospel According to Luke (PNTC, 2015)
Evans, Craig, Luke (NIBC, 1990)
Fitzmyer, Joseph, The Gospel According to Luke, 2 vols. (AB, 1981, 1985)
France, R. T., Luke (TTC, 2013)
Garland, David, Luke (ZECNT, 2011)
Geldenhuys, J. Norval, The Gospel of Luke (NICNT, 1951)
Green, Joel, The Gospel of Luke (NICNT, 1997)
Liefeld, Walter, Luke (EBC, 1984)
Marshall, I. Howard, The Gospel of Luke (NIGTC, 1978)
Morris, Leon, The Gospel According to St. Luke (TNTC, 1974)
Nolland, John, Luke, 3 vols. (WBC, 1989-1993)
Ryken, Philip, Luke, 2 vols. (REC, 2009)
Stein, Robert, Luke (NAC, 1992)
Wilcock, Michael, The Message of Luke (BST, 1979)
Wright, N. T., Luke for Everyone (WJK, 2001, 2004)

As usual, my selection features works that are relatively recent, and mainly reflect a more or less conservative or evangelical point of view. It really would be difficult if I were asked to select a handful of my top recommendations here. But I am sure many of you would prefer that I narrow things down a bit. So, if pressed, I would likely (albeit tentatively), select these:

-For Matthew, perhaps Blomberg, Carson and France.
-For Mark, perhaps Edwards, Garland and Strauss.
-For Luke, perhaps Bock, Garland and Nolland.

Happy reading and studying.

(For Australian readers, many of these titles can be found at Koorong: )

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7 Replies to “Bible Study Helps: The Synoptic Gospels”

  1. Talking about the differences in the gospels reminds me of what I think is one of the most beautiful sections of scripture but one where the meaning is lost in translation because both “phileo” and “agapeo” are translated as “love” and that is the “feed my sheep” passage which is an almost back hand honoring of Peter by John. I also assume this is one reason why many believe John’s Gospel was written after Peter’s death because it speaks of it in John 21:19.

    What is so beautiful is that Jesus asks if Peter loves (Greek “agapeo”) Him and we know from scriptures such as Matthew 22:37 that the first commandment is that we should love (agapeo) God but Peter answers that he “phileo”s Him. In other words Peter says Jesus is His friend. It simply does not register with Peter that Jesus is asking him if he is obeying the first commandment and so Jesus gives him a second chance and asks him again. Now the Pharisees and Sadducees, if asked if they loved (agapeo) God they would have jumped at the chance to say they did but, of course, they proved that they did not but it still does not register with Peter what Jesus is asking so Peter just answers honestly and say that he is Jesus’ friend – he “phileo”s Him. The third time Jesus asks if Peter “phileo”s Him which hurts Peter’s feelings because Jesus is not only questioning his friendship but also his honesty but what is really beautiful is that John honors Peter by showing that through his death he really did “agapeo” Jesus.

  2. The tradition is that St John wrote his gospel towards the end of his life, when he was the last apostle standing, and his followers insisted he put onto papyrus his accounts of Jesus before they were all lost. The feeding of the 5,000 is the only story from Jesus’ Galillean ministry included in all 4 gospels, and only then because John uses it as a handle for a sermon. John had to include some of the synoptic accounts of Jesus’ last days in Jerusalem in order to make sense of the story, but even then he omits things he must have known about, such as the Last Supper.
    None of this can be accidental. By chance alone John should have included a few more stories from the synoptic gospels. It is clear that John had the other three gospels before him when he wrote. His gospel is one of the longest books in the NT, and it is clear that he attempted to omit everything he could from the other three gospels in order to fit in his own stories.

  3. Michael. Your interesting article would seem to suggest that Jesus and Peter are speaking Greek, this seems more than a little unlikely. The variation in word is probably a literary devise of John and as Morris suggests there is no reason to see a difference in meaning.

  4. Thanks Bill. We appreciate all your writings. Have you ever thought of Rev. David Pawson’s input to this exercise? I personally feel he has a few thoughts that are worth considering. His thoughts about Luke’s Gospel and the book of Acts are enlightening. Your thoughts are always interesting to say the least.

  5. Travis McHarg

    I didn’t say they were speaking Greek but the Greek text is what we have to go by and there would have been no reason to use different words if the intent was to use the same word – that would be an absolute absurdity. It is very obvious that the two types of “love” mentioned in John 21 are different and the Amplified Bible tries to express this but sort of becomes tangled and loses the meaning. If you want to believe that when the Bible says “phileo” it mean “agapeo” then you will simply lose some of the meaning we have been given and will not understand the reason for Jesus repeating the question. You can check the handed down Greek in Biblehub if you want but we are most definitely commanded to “agapeo” God, not to “phileo” Him so you probably should learn what that means. It is the first commandment after all.

  6. Dear Michael, thank you for your response. If I may be tedious can I quote Leon Morris:
    ‘There is no reason, on the grounds of Johannine usage, for seeing a difference in meaning between the two verbs. This point is rendered all the more significant in that the original conversation would have been in Aramaic, so the choice of word in Greek would be John’s rather than the original participants in the conversation.’ The Gospel of John, p. 873.
    Grace and peace

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