Synoptic Gospels and John’s Gospel
St. Mary of the Angels
November 12, 2021
The Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke are called “synoptic” from the Greek words “syn,” together, and “opsis,” viewpoint. Most contemporary Biblical scholars argue that Mark was written first, sometime between 55 AD – 59 AD. Mark’s intended audience most likely are the Gentile Christians living in Rome with whom he would have become acquainted when he had accompanied St. Paul in his missionary travels. About 95% of the material in Mark appears in parallel form in Matthew and Luke combined, which suggests Matthew and Luke relied on or were intimately familiar with Mark’ Gospel.
Matthew most likely is written around 70 AD – 75 AD and is focused on a Jewish Christian audience. He is making the case most explicitly that Jesus fulfills the Old Testament Prophets and their predictions about the coming Messiah. In focusing more on institutional Judaism, Matthew lends credence to the importance of institutional Christian worship. His approach is more pragmatic: While Luke has Jesus state, “Blessed are the poor,” Matthew has Him state, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” As the verse takes on a more metaphorical feel (now spiritual poverty as opposed to literal poverty), Matthew’s version is less likely to ostracize the rich and the well-bred – the patrons necessary for the early Church to become more institutionalized, while remaining underground and prone to bursts of Roman persecution. The importance of institutionalized Christianity is made manifest by the Jewish War and the Fall of the Temple in 70 AD. With priestly Judaism vanquished, the institutional Church replaces and surpasses what has been lost by the Jewish people.
Luke most likely is written in the mid 80s AD, though some scholars believe that he would have written his Gospel shortly after the martyrdom of St. Paul in Rome in the mid 60s AD. Whether in the mid 60s AD or in the mid 80s AD, Luke is writing in the context of persecution: the mid 60s AD is when Nero persecuted Christians in Rome, and the mid 80s AD is when Domitian set forth a more widespread persecution of Christians. Luke focuses on those most vulnerable in any persecution: the poor, the outcasts, the women, people who legally and culturally are less able to defend themselves from state sponsored terror. For Luke, “Blessed are the poor” really cuts to the chase in emphasizing God’s preference for the weak who, precisely because they are weak, are more like the blessed that Christ Jesus describes as most fit for His Father’s Kingdom.
The Synoptic Gospels share considerably in how verses are written, in what stories are told, and in the duration and chronology of Our Lord’s ministry. More importantly in distinguishing them from John’s Gospel, the Synoptic Gospels focus on what Christ Jesus is inaugurating as a result of His life, death, and resurrection – namely, the Kingdom of Heaven (sometimes referred to as the Kingdom of God) and its association with the newly emerging Church. The word “Kingdom” appears 17 times in Mark, 53 times in Matthew, and 41 times in Luke – but only 3 times in John. Only John 18:36 has a reference to “kingdom” that is paralleled in one of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 26:53): “My Kingdom is not of this world: if my Kingdom were of this world, then my servants would fight that I not be delivered unto the Jews.” Even then, there is a difference, for Matthew 26:53 refers to legions of angels descending from heaven to save Him from the Jews.
Instead, John focuses on who Christ Jesus Himself is. Very seldom in the Synoptic Gospels does Jesus refer to Himself in the First Person (“I am…”). Instead, He refers usually to the Father or to the Kingdom in the Third Person (“The Kingdom of God…”). John’s Gospel is the opposite. Jesus refers to Himself often, because the emphasis of John’s Gospel is not the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies, nor the institutionalizing of the Church, nor the Kingdom in the face of persecution, so much as on Christ Jesus and His relationship with the faithful. In John, Christ Jesus is less bound to a specific time and place. Recognizing that this might lead to a kind of abstraction of Jesus, John is careful to emphasize Him as the Incarnation of the Logos. Christ Jesus may not be localized to the First Century AD, like he is the Incarnate God only for the Jews and the Gentiles of that specific time and place in history, but neither is He a philosophical abstraction untethered from history. John is historicizing and universalizing Christ Jesus, which on its face seems to be a contradiction, but makes sense if we believe in faith that He is the Incarnation of the Logos. For John, Christ Jesus is rooted in all times and in all places because all men may have a relationship with Him. At the same time, His reach is universal and transcends the old disputes between Jews and Gentiles so prevalent in the Synoptic Gospels. This apparent dichotomy of the historical and the universal is more pronounced in the Revelation of St. John the Divine especially in John’s vision of the great multitude of the faithful from all walks of life appearing before God’s Throne to worship Him.
In practical terms, John’s emphasis serves as a Christian apologia against the Gnostics, who in the late First Century AD are emerging as a real threat to Orthodox Christianity. Gnosticism for many is attractive precisely in the universality of its concepts (Gnosticism always arising from an intricate cosmology), its propensity for philosophical abstraction (Gnosticism is a philosophical school tailored made for the hubris of the elitist intelligentsia), and its propensity to tie soteriology with gnosis and, more specifically, with the preexisting divine spark in a man from which his gnosis derives. John presents Christ Jesus as the universal in history, and as the historical universalized, which is the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us. John refutes the precept that abstraction is of its nature truer. For John, what is fully true is God, and what is true in history is the universe conforming to God through Christ Jesus, the Incarnate God in history and so everything but an abstraction. While the Gnostic focuses on the material world falling away from truth as it falls away from the One, John focuses on the material world ascending back into the truth as Christ Jesus recapitulates fallen creation back into Himself as an offering unto His Father. Finally, for John, the preexisting divine spark is Christ Jesus Himself in the flesh, and it is there for all the faithful, rich and poor, schooled and unschooled, who maintain into eternity a loving and worshipful relationship with Him.
John does not refute the Synoptic Gospels, but He does better universalize the message that is found therein and ground that message in our relationship with Christ Jesus. If some interpret the Synoptic Gospels as the story of the Incarnate God in and for the First Century AD, John is making it clear that Christ Jesus is meant for all of us and in all times. This is because all men in all times are capable of faith and responsive to love (whether embracing love or rejecting love, all men are responsive to it in one way or another), and for John faith and love are the basis of any relationship with Christ Jesus. As John is the “beloved disciple” in John’s Gospel, so are we all meant to be “beloved disciples.” John in his own Gospel is unnamed because he is serving as the “everyman.” In a way, the last image in John’s Gospel, where the “everyman” is leaning against Our Lord’s chest on the seashore, serves as a bookend to the high theology in the Prologue. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us is the Resurrected Man resting and dining on the beach with His chosen. John’s Gospel succeeds when we are able to see that the bookends are not opposing but rather complimentary reflections on Christ Jesus.