Mark and the Other Synoptic Gospels

The “Synoptic Gospels” is the title given to the first three Gospels of the New Testament: Matthew, Mark and Luke. In our present study we will be focusing on the Gospel of Mark, with references to the parallel passages found in Matthew and Luke (as well as John.) However, in this introductory article we will provide a brief overview of each of the three Synoptic Gospels.

The Gospel According to Matthew


The first Gospel is traditionally ascribed to Matthew, a publican (or, tax collector) whom Jesus called to be one of His twelve disciples. Nowhere in the first Gospel is Matthew explicitly identified as the author, but the early church fathers attributed this Gospel to Matthew the apostle. Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons in the second century, wrote that Matthew composed his Gospel “for Hebrew Christians in Hebrew (i.e.; Aramaic).” Well-attested as the Aramaic original appears to be by the early church fathers, no trace of it has survived. Furthermore, the language of the Gospel as it has come down to us bears no marks of being a Greek translation of an Aramaic original. It is possible that Matthew also composed a Greek edition for the Gentile converts, perhaps for those living in Antioch in particular. Since the Greek-speaking Gentile converts and churches quickly outstripped the Aramaic-speaking congregations in number both in the region around Palestine and throughout the Roman Empire, the Aramaic original may have perished at an early date.

The general agreement among the early church fathers in accepting this Gospel as having been written by Matthew accords well with what we know about the apostle. As a publican he must have been literate and accustomed to taking notes as part of his business activity. Also, one may well consider the agreement between the attention to detail and organization, essential to the tax collector’s profession, and the methodical arrangement of this Gospel (see below under Purpose and Characteristics of This Gospel.)

One slender piece of internal evidence supporting the Matthaean authorship of the first Gospel is found when one compares the three Synoptic Gospels’ accounts of the call of Matthew (Levi.) Upon responding to Jesus’ call to discipleship, Mark and Luke report that Matthew hosted a great feast in his house (Mk. 2:13-15; Lk. 5:27-29.) In Matthew’s account of this event we are told that the feast took place “in the house” (or, “at home”) (Matt. 9:9-10.) This may indicate that the feast was held in the home of the writer of the first Gospel, which would tend to confirm that he is none other than Matthew the apostle and former publican.

Date and Place of Composition

M. C. Tenney (p. 142) maintains that it is doubtful that Matthew’s Gospel was written after A.D. 70, since in the discourse dealing with the overthrow of Jerusalem (Matt. 24:1-28) there is no allusion to the city as having already fallen to the Romans, which event occurred in the year 70 A.D. It should be noted, however, that some scholars (such as E. Harrison, p.166) contend that Matthew’s Gospel was written sometime between the years 70-80.

The testimony of the church father Irenaeus would set the time of writing during the reign of Nero “while Paul and Peter were in Rome.” If this tradition is correct, it may have been composed by Matthew originally for Jewish and Gentile converts living outside of Palestine who were in need of a written document that would give them a more detailed and organized account of the life and teaching of the Lord Jesus.

The actual place of origination for this Gospel cannot be positively determined, although modern study has tended to view the city of Antioch as the place of composition. Favorable to Antioch is the fact that the church father Ignatius (of Antioch), writing early in the second century, shows knowledge of this Gospel. Also, a large Jewish population existed in Antioch dating back to early Hellenistic times.

Purpose and Characteristics of This Gospel

One of Matthew’s main characteristics is the dominance of Old Testament citations and allusions throughout his account. Matthew purposes to show that the major events in the life of Jesus took place in fulfillment of prophecy. The theme of this Gospel is announced by its opening statement: “The book of the generations of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matt. 1:1.) This phraseology is reminiscent of Genesis, which is divided into sections by the use of the same phrase, “the book of the generations of…” (Gen. 2:4; 5:1; 6:9; et al.) Each Old Testament occurrence of this phrase marks a stage in the development of the Messianic promise. The links in the history of God’s people are carried forward through Genesis, and one appears in Ruth 4:18, where the Messianic line ends with David. Matthew picks up the genealogy at that point and declares its fulfillment in the person of Jesus (M.C. Tenney, p. 143.)

In all probability there was an apologetic purpose in writing this Gospel. The infancy story, for instance, would answer any charge of illegitimacy against Jesus. The descent into Egypt and the subsequent return to Nazareth would account for the residence of Jesus in Nazareth rather than Bethlehem. We can also detect the apologetic character of some of the details in the resurrection narrative that is unique to Matthew (e.g.; the account of the bribing of the guard, Matt. 28:11-15.)

But it is significant that Matthew’s Gospel concludes with the Great Commission: the sending of the disciples to preach the gospel throughout the world. However Jewish many of Matthew’s emphases may be, he aims to show that Christianity is much more comprehensive Judaism—the Messiah of the Jews is, indeed, the Savior of the world (cp. Matt. 8:11.)

Matthew’s Gospel shows more careful design than any of the other Gospels. The most obvious feature of Matthew’s structure is the alteration of large blocks of teaching material (each block concluding with the phrase, “when Jesus had finished …” (7:28; 11:1; 13:53; 19:1; and 26:1) with narrative sections. After the initial narrative section, (which includes the infancy stories, the preparatory work of John the Baptist and the beginning of Jesus’ preaching ministry), Matthew introduces the block of teaching known as the Sermon on the Mount (5:3-7:27.) Then comes another narrative section, (consisting mainly of a number of miracles), followed by the second discourse section, this one dealing with the mission of the Twelve (10:5-42.) The next descriptive section deals with the incidents that illustrate the growing opposition to Jesus, this is followed by the third teaching section, the group of parables about the kingdom of God (13:3-52.) Another narrative section now follows, culminating in the account of the transfiguration and the prediction of the passion; this in turn is followed by a fourth discourse section, our Lord’s teaching on the obligations of discipleship (18:3-35.) The next narrative section begins with Jesus’ ministry beyond the Jordan and moves to His entry into Jerusalem where He subsequently engages in a number of disputes with the religious leaders. These events lead into the final section of discourses, featuring the woes pronounced upon the scribes and Pharisees and the eschatological discourse (23:1-25:46.) The Gospel then concludes with the passion and the resurrection narratives.

The Gospel According to Mark

Authorship and Date of Composition

It is now almost universally agreed that Mark is the earliest of the Gospels. The earliest witnesses to the Gospel of Mark generally connect it with the preaching of Peter in Rome some time between A.D. 60-70. Papias, Bishop of Hierapolis (c. A.D. 115), is quoted as saying, “And John the Presbyter also said this, ‘Mark, being the interpreter of Peter, whatsoever he recorded he wrote with great accuracy” (M.C. Tenney, p. 155.) Note that Papias is passing on to his readers the words of an earlier authority whom he identifies as “John the Presbyter (or, Elder.)”

Tradition asserts that Mark was Peter’s assistant for a time, and there is some confirmation of this in 1 Peter 5:13. The internal evidence of the Gospel itself also suggests Peter’s influence: after a brief introduction, the narrative picks up at the point when Peter became a disciple (1:16-20); our Lord’s Galilean ministry is prominent in this Gospel, centering particularly on the district around Capernaum, Peter’s home; and the vividness of the narrative suggests the first-hand acquaintance of an eyewitness (C.E.F. Swift, p. 806.) Furthermore, the assertion that Mark’s Gospel was based on Peter’s preaching is supported by the striking fact that the outline of this Gospel is patterned after the outline of Peter’s sermon recorded in Acts 10:36-43. The degree of parallelism may be seen by consulting the following table (provided by Wm. Lane in his commentary, pp. 10-11):


1. The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. (1:1)


2. Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God (1:14)


3. And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens opened and the Spirit descending upon him like a dove (1:10)

4. The following chapters of the Gospel are dominated by narratives describing healing and exorcism, demonstrating the power of God at work in Jesus’ ministry (1:16-10:52)

5. Mark goes on to present Jesus’ ministry and activity in Jerusalem (Chapters 11-14)

6. Mark now focuses on the passion and crucifixion of Jesus (15:1-39)

7. Mark concludes his Gospel with an account of Jesus’ resurrection (Chapter 16)

Acts 10

1. This is the word he [God] sent unto the children of Israel, preaching the gospel of peace by Jesus Christ (he is Lord of all) (10:36)

2. … that word … was proclaimed throughout all Judea, and began from Galilee after the baptism that John preached (10:37)

3. God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power (10:38a)



4. He [Jesus] went about doing good and healing all that were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him (10:38b)


5. And we are witnesses of all he did … in Jerusalem (10:39)

6. … whom they killed by hanging him on a tree (10:39b)

7. God raised him up on the third day and caused him to be seen (10:40-42)

Purpose and Characteristics of This Gospel

The internal evidence found within the Gospel itself fits well with the tradition handed down from the early church fathers that this Gospel was written in Rome and intended for a Gentile audience. As C.E.F. Swift points out (p. 806), Old Testament quotations and allusions are relatively few; Aramaic expressions are interpreted (e.g. 5:41); and Jewish customs are explained (e.g. 7:3,11.)

Mark may have intended for his Gospel to be an encouragement and challenge to the Roman Christians who about this time were experiencing the effects of persecution at the hand of the emperor Nero. (It may be observed, for instance, that Mark mentions persecution as the lot of the disciple where the other Synoptics lack such a reference {Mk. 10:30 as compared to Matt. 19:29 and Lk. 18:29-30}.) During the early years of Nero’s reign, relatively little attention had been given by the imperial authorities to the gatherings of Christians for worship. But the situation was radically altered by the disastrous fire that swept Rome in the summer of A.D. 64. After the initial shock, popular resentment was fanned by the widespread rumors that the fire had been officially ordered by the emperor. When Nero’s efforts to allay the populace’s suspicion and resentment against him failed, he sought a scapegoat. Blame for the fire was placed upon the Christians. Such behavior by the imperial government meant that life became precarious for Christians living in Rome and throughout Italy. It seems likely that the Gospel of Mark was originally intended to be a pastoral response to this critical situation, as well as a witness to the Roman world of Jesus’ absolute lordship (see below under the discussion of Mark’s Christology.)

In his opening sentence Mark makes clear that his intention is to write a “Gospel” about Jesus Christ, the Son of God. This at once distinguishes the book from a biography and also explains the large proportion of space devoted to the last three weeks of Jesus’ life. The cross and resurrection were the central features of the Christian gospel. In this, of course, Mark’s account is not unique; the same is true of all the Gospels: in each of them the movement of the narrative is dominated by the passion story. But what is unique to Mark’s Gospel is the fact that the action is heightened by the relative absence of blocks of teaching material.

Mark’s Gospel is a Gospel that emphasizes action. There is no prologue, except for the title; Mark gets right to the significant events in the life and ministry of Jesus. For its size, Mark gives more space to the miracles of Jesus than does any other Gospel. For instance, in ninety-one pages of Greek text, Luke narrates twenty miracles, whereas Mark, in fifty-three pages of Greek text, narrates eighteen of our Lord’s miracles. Mark is also a Gospel of personal reactions. All through its pages are recorded the responses of Jesus’ audience: they were “amazed” (1:27), “critical” (2:7), “afraid” (4:41), “puzzled” (6:14), “astonished” (7:37), “bitterly hostile” (14:1.) E. Harrison points out (p. 164) that there are at least twenty-three such references.

In keeping with his action orientation, Mark has selected and arranged his material in such a way as to present the Lord Jesus as One who continues to speak and act meaningfully in the context of crisis, in particular, the crisis the church in Rome was then facing. Mark’s account is characterized by simplicity and straightforwardness. His language and style is less elaborate than Matthew or Luke. His very frequent use of the word “immediately” gives a sense of vividness and excitement to the action. Mark is especially fond of using the present tense to relay past happenings. When Mark does not himself speak directly to his readers (cf. 13:14), he terminates a long discourse in such a way that Jesus addresses them: “And what I say to you, I say to all, Watch!” (13:37). The account of the stilling of the storm (4:35-41) is terminated abruptly by a rhetorical question, “Who then is this, that even the wind and sea obey him?” The use of such literary devices as the parenthetical statement or the rhetorical question is designed to keep men from a spectator-relationship to what Jesus said or did (Wm. Lane, p. 27.) Throughout this Gospel Jesus continues to manifest His presence and His authority.

Finally, we must say a word about the high Christology of this Gospel. As E. Harrison remarks, “it is literally thrust upon the reader in the very first verse, where Jesus Christ is designated as the Son of God” (p.179.) The teaching of Christ as the Son of God is not developed in a doctrinal sense (as in the Gospel of John); rather, it is presented by means of Christ’s activity. Christ possesses power over all types of illnesses and casts out evil spirits with irresistible authority (1:27.) He stills storms with a mere word and thus demonstrates His authority over nature (4:41.) Mark’s Gospel leaves no doubt concerning the sovereign authority of Jesus. It begins with the assertion that He is the Son of God (1:1), it is filled with demonstrations of His divine authority, and it climaxes with the testimony of none other than a Roman centurion, “Truly this man was the Son of God” (15:39.) That final testimony is confirmed by the resurrection that follows the passion (16:6-7.)

The Gospel According to Luke

Authorship and Composition

It is generally recognized today that the author of the third Gospel was also the writer of the Book of Acts. This is borne out by the following considerations: (1) The Gospel, as well as Acts, is dedicated to a certain Theophilus. (2) In Acts 1:1 the writer refers to “the former treatise” written by him. From his brief reference to the content of that “former treatise” it is evident that the third Gospel is meant. (3) In the language, style and vocabulary of the original Greek there is such an unmistakable similarity between the Gospel and Acts that no doubt remains that both books are the work of the same author (N. Geldenhuys, p. 15.)

Because of the intimate relationship between Luke and Acts, any data derived from Acts bearing on authorship should be applied to the Gospel as well. At several places in the Book of Acts the author, in recording the account, switches from the third person (“they”) to the first person (“we”.) This would indicate that in the “we” sections he was present in the company of Paul and his party. The first “we” section is found at Acts 16:10-17, (the journey from Troas to Philippi.) The second “we” section extends from Acts 20:5 to Acts 21:18, (this section narrates Paul’s last journey to Jerusalem, beginning from the time he left Philippi.) The final “we” section includes Acts 27:1-28:16, (this section traces the events of the journey from Caesarea to Rome when Paul was in the custody of the imperial government.)

The evidence gleaned from the “we” sections (especially the third section) would indicate the author of the Book of Acts (and the Gospel of Luke) accompanied Paul to Rome and was with him at the time of his house arrest in Rome. Of those who were present with Paul in Rome, the most likely candidate for authorship of Acts (and of the third Gospel) is Luke. (For a more detailed discussion of this topic, see M.C. Tenney, p. 173, and E. Harrison, pp. 186-187, both of whom are referenced in the Bibliography.)

The Gospel was written before Acts, for Luke refers to it as “the former treatise.” The Book of Acts does not take us beyond Paul’s two-year period of house arrest (Acts 28:30), although it is aware that that arrest was terminated after the space of two years. The concluding verses of Acts also seem to describe a time when the Roman authorities were still lenient toward Christianity. This would indicate a time of composition prior to the latter years of the seventh decade, at which time the church began to be persecuted by the Roman government. As N. Geldenhuys concludes (p. 35), in view of the facts, we must leave open the possibility that Acts was written prior to A.D. 70 and the Gospel of Luke was written still earlier.

Luke makes clear that his objective in composing his Gospel was to write “an orderly account’’ of “those things in which (Theophilus) was instructed” (Lk. 1:3-4.) According to the second “we” section (Acts 20:5-21:18), Luke accompanied Paul from Philippi to Jerusalem, where Paul stood trial, resulting in his two-year imprisonment in Caesarea. During this period, up until the time of their departure for Rome, Luke would have had ample time to interview eyewitnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, and Caesarea. He could have spent much time with the original apostles and examined whatever early written accounts of the life and teaching of Jesus were at his disposal (Lk. 1:1.) Luke may have undertaken the actual composition of his Gospel while present with Paul in Rome. In this connection the words of Paul to Timothy (2 Tim. 4:11,13) may be of interest: “Only Luke is with me. Take Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful to me.” Is it possible that Luke at this time was engaged in the writing of his Gospel and that is why Paul requests that Mark be sent to him? Mark’s Gospel would have already been written by this time, and it is evident that Luke made use to a great extent of that earlier Gospel. But, as N. Geldenhuys points out, “Nothing can be stated here with certainty, and the matter merely remains an interesting possibility” (p. 26.)

Purpose and Characteristics of This Gospel

Luke addresses his Gospel to “Theophilus.” He was probably a man of the upper class who may be called here by his baptismal name—“Theophilus” means “lover of God” or “loved by God.” Theophilus had already been informed about Christ, perhaps through the preaching that he heard, but he needed further instruction to stabilize him and convince him of the truth. Therefore, Luke now undertakes to write in an accurate and systematic manner an orderly account concerning Christ from all the data at his disposal. Thus, Luke may be said to be the first Christian historian. Of course, Luke’s intention was to write for a broader audience than merely one individual. Luke’s Gospel may be intended for all those in the Gentile world who were not adverse to Christianity and were genuinely interested in having a historical account of its origins.

In his Gospel Luke is especially concerned to present Jesus in His capacity as the ideal man, the Son of God and the universal Savior. The educated Greek sought for the ideal, the perfect individual. In the person of Jesus, Luke found the fulfillment of that ideal. Now in his Gospel he shares with all the Gentile world this man who fulfills to the highest and most absolute extent the ideal of perfection—in love and severity, in tenderness and might, in humility and fearlessness, in wisdom and in all other virtues of character (N. Geldenhuys, p. 45.) But in presenting this perfect man Luke makes clear that He is none other than the Son of God. Jesus is completely human—born of a woman (2:30-31), passing through the ordinary human development from childhood to adulthood (2:52)—but He is also Christ the Lord (2:11.)

Luke makes clear that Christ did not merely come to be the ideal man who is to be imitated (6:40); He came to be the Savior (2:11), the One who came to seek and to save what is lost (19:10.) Luke presents Jesus as the universal Savior, the Savior of men from all classes of society. “Time and again the point is stressed in this Gospel that Jesus offers forgiveness and redemption to all—freely and independently of the privileges of a particular race, generation or merit. Admission to the Kingdom is open to Samaritans (17:11-19) and pagans (24:47) as well as to the Jews (1:54); to publicans, sinners and outcasts (23:39-43) as well as to respectable people (7:36); to the poor (7:22) as well as to the rich (19:2); and to women as well as to men” (N. Geldenhuys, p. 43.)

Unique to this Gospel is the emphasis placed on prayer. Luke records nine prayers of Jesus, these prayers are associated with important events in His life and ministry. Two parables only recorded in Luke deal with prayer. Luke alone relates Jesus’ prayer for Peter (22:31-32), the fact that He exhorted the disciples to pray in Gethsemane (22:40), and that He prayed for both His enemies (23:34) as well as for Himself (22:41.)

Another feature unique to the Gospel of Luke is its emphasis on the ministry of the Holy Spirit. There are more references to the Holy Spirit in Luke than there are in Matthew and Mark combined. All of the chief actors in the Gospel, John the Baptist (1:15), Mary (1:35), Elizabeth (1:41), Zachariah (1:67), Simeon (2:25-26), and the Lord Jesus Himself (4:1) were empowered for their work by the Holy Spirit. Jesus was conceived by the Spirit (1:35), baptized by the Spirit (3:22), tested by the Spirit (4:1), empowered by the Spirit for His ministry (4:14,18), cheered by the Spirit (10:21), and He expected that His disciples would complete His work in the power of the Spirit (24:49) (M.C. Tenney, p. 181.)

One last feature to note about Luke’s Gospel is its teaching concerning wealth. Many of the parables unique to Luke relate to money matters; note, especially, the rich fool (12:16-21) and the rich man and Lazarus (16:19-31.) In this Gospel the Pharisees are called “lovers of money” (6:14.) John the Baptist, in Luke’s account of his ministry, warns tax collectors against extortion and soldiers against discontentment with their wages (3:12-14.) In the Sermon on the Plain the first woe is pronounced against the rich (6:24) (D. Guthrie, p. 92.)


Atkinson, Basil F.C.; “The Gospel According to Matthew,” The New Bible Commentary, Edited by Prof. F. Davidson; The Inter-Varsity Fellowship, London, Reprinted October 1967.

Bruce, F.F.; “The Fourfold Gospel.” The New Bible Commentary, Edited by Prof. F. Davidson; The Inter-Varsity Fellowship, London, Reprinted October 1967.

Geldenhuys, Norval; “Commentary on the Gospel of Luke,” The New International Commentary on the New Testament; Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids MI, 1951 (Reprinted 1968.)

Guthrie, Donald; New Testament Introduction; Inter-Varsity Press, Downers Grove IL, 1970 (Third Edition.)

Harrison, Everett F.; Introduction to the New Testament; Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids MI, 1964 (Third Printing, October 1968.)

Hendriksen, William; “Exposition of the Gospel According to Matthew,” New Testament Commentary; Baker Book House, Grand Rapids MI, 1973 (Fifth Printing, March 1981.)

Lane, William L. “The Gospel According to Mark,” The New International Commentary on the New Testament; Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids MI, 1974.

McNicol, J. “The Gospel According to Luke,” The New Bible Commentary, Edited by Prof. F. Davidson; The Inter-Varsity Fellowship, London, Reprinted October 1967.

Swift, C.E. Graham; “The Gospel According to Mark,” The New Bible Commentary, Edited by Prof. F. Davidson; The Inter-Varsity Fellowship, London, Reprinted October 1967.

Tenney, Merrill C.; New Testament Survey; Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids MI, 1961 (Eighth Printing, February 1967.)