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The Writing of the Gospels - Relationship between the Synoptics

According to the chronology of the Gospels detailed in Important Dates in the Lives of Jesus and Mary, chapter 11, Matthew wrote between 3 to 6 years after Christ's Ascension, Mark wrote between 15 and 16 years after the Ascension, Luke wrote between 25 to 27 years after the Ascension, and John wrote between 49 and 62 years after the Ascension.

Matthew's Gospel was written first, in the Hebrew language, in Judea. Mark's Gospel was written second, in the Latin language, at Rome. Luke's Gospel was written third, in the Greek language, at Boeotia (in Greece). John's Gospel was written fourth, in Aramaic, most likely at Ephesus in Asia (i.e. modern-day western Turkey).

A Summary of the Relationships Between the Gospels

The Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) have similarities which cannot be explained merely by the fact that all three are describing the same set of events. There are peculiarities of language, grammar, and expression which indicate that some of the Gospel writers used, in part, one or two of the other Synoptics as source material.

Four types of similarities between the Synoptics are possible. First, these three Gospels have much in common with one another, that is, some material is found in all three. Second, there are similarities between Matthew and Luke, which are not found in Mark. Third, there are similarities between Mark and Luke, which are not found in Matthew. Fourth, there are similarities between Matthew and Mark, which are not found in Luke.

The explanation for the similarities in all three Synoptics is clear from their chronology. Mark wrote long enough after Matthew for Matthew's Gospel to have been widely circulated. Similarities in Mark and Matthew can be attributed to the idea that Mark had a copy of the Gospel of Matthew. Matthew originally wrote his Gospel in Hebrew. Mark was Jewish and was raised in Judea; he could read and write Hebrew. However, some differences in parallel passages in Matthew and Mark can be attributed to the differences in language. Mark was writing in Latin based, in part, on what Matthew wrote in Hebrew. Mark would not hesitate to repeat much of the material written by Matthew because Mark's audience, the non-Jewish Christians of Rome, did not know Hebrew and so did not have access to the Gospel of Matthew.

Luke wrote long enough after Mark and Matthew for both Gospels to have been circulated widely. Mark had Matthew as a source; Luke had Mark as a source. Luke also had Matthew as a source, but to a limited extent because Matthew was written in Hebrew. Luke was a gentile, not a Jew, and so he did not know much Hebrew. Luke was a well-educated physician. Among the well-educated non-Jews of that time period, both Latin and Greek were studied. Luke knew Latin and Greek. Luke also traveled widely, often with the Apostle Paul. Many people in the area around the Mediterranean where they traveled used Aramaic as their daily spoken language. Luke also must have known Aramaic. Now Saint Paul was a Jew from the Pharisaic tradition and he knew Hebrew well. So Luke may have learned some Hebrew from Paul. But, even so, Hebrew was the language that Luke knew least well. This language difference explains why, among parallel passages in the Synoptics, Luke is closer to Mark than to Matthew.

John's Gospel is unlike Matthew, Mark, and Luke's Gospels and so it is not called Synoptic. John wrote long enough after Matthew, Mark, and Luke for all three Gospels to be in wide circulation. But, by the time that John wrote, these other Gospels had also been translated into other languages. John did not need to repeat any material out of concern that his audience would not have access to the text of other languages. He, unlike the other Evangelists, also knew that he was writing a Gospel for the whole Church. Matthew, Mark, and Luke wrote for particular audiences, so they repeated material from one another, knowing that their audience did not have access to that material. John knew that his audience had access to the three Synoptics, so he correctly chose to write in a very different manner, so as to present the truth from another point of view.

Matthew Relied on Contemporaries

Matthew wrote before Mark and Luke, so he could not refer to either of their Gospels. But he did write fairly soon after the Ascension, when at least a few of the Apostles were still in Jerusalem and Judea. James the Less was in charge of the Church at Jerusalem; he functioned as the Bishop of Jerusalem. James the Greater and Peter were still in Jerusalem at the time of Acts chapter 12, when Herod Agrippa I beheaded James the Greater. Perhaps some of the other Apostles left Jerusalem before Matthew and some after. So, Matthew could consult with either of the James' as well as Peter and perhaps a few other Apostles, while he was writing his Gospel.

Matthew, as one of the Twelve, could also rely on his own memories and experiences with Christ. Mark and Luke were not among the Twelve Apostles. Mark was but a child during Christ's Ministry. Luke was an adult during Christ's Ministry, but he probably joined the disciples late in Christ's Ministry. Luke describes an event after the Resurrection involving himself and another disciple, Cleopas (Luke 24:13-35). The many details in this narrative come from Luke's own participation in this event. Yet Luke was not one of the Twelve, and he does not seem to give similar detailed descriptions of events he himself was involved in earlier during Christ's Ministry. Luke seems to have joined the disciples later than the Apostles, or perhaps, early on, he had a small but growing interest in Christ, which reached its fullness at the appropriate time.

Matthew knew how to read and write Hebrew, since he was a Jew who was literate. As a tax collector for the Romans, he also must have known a fair amount of Latin. He could speak and understand Aramaic well, since that was his daily language. Greek would have been the language that he know least well. Matthew wrote in Hebrew, not only because his audience was Hebraic Christians (raised as Jews), but also because it was his best written language.

Mark Relied on Matthew

Mark wrote his Gospel in Rome, while Peter was away spending the winter preaching the Gospel (perhaps in Asia). The other Apostles were scattered throughout the Roman empire and beyond, preaching, so they were unavailable to Mark. Mark wrote his Gospel in Latin because he was writing for the Christians of Rome. However, having been raised in Judea, Mark also knew Hebrew. Since Matthew's Gospel was written about a decade earlier, it would have been in fairly wide circulation by the time that Mark began to write. Rome was the capital city of the Roman empire, and the home base of Peter, leader of the Apostles, and it had a thriving Christian community. Therefore, Matthew's Gospel was available to Mark in Rome. Mark had a copy of Matthew's Gospel in the original Hebrew. Mark knew both Hebrew and Latin, but was probably more proficient in Latin, the language of daily use in Rome.

This set of circumstances explains the similarities between Matthew and Mark's Gospels. It also explains some of the minor differences in parallel passages. Though Mark wrote in Latin, he only possessed the Hebrew version of Matthew's Gospel. So, firstly, whenever Mark relied on Matthew's Gospel, he had to translate from Hebrew into Latin. This produces some minor differences in otherwise similar passages. But, secondly, Mark relied on one of the earliest versions of Matthew's Gospel. This version must differ somewhat from our current version (and even from the oldest extant Greek versions). This, too, explains some of the minor incongruities in parallel passages between Matthew and Mark. Later on, both Gospels were translated into Greek.

We do not have, as far as I know, any extant complete copies of Matthew in Hebrew or Mark in Latin. However, some ancient versions of Mark's Gospel in Latin have a different ending. In place of Mark 16:9-20, this earlier fragment has the single verse: “But they reported briefly to Peter and those with him all that they had been told. And after this, Jesus himself sent out by means of them, from east to west, the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation.” The first part of this verse, the report to Peter, would be a fitting remark for Mark to make near the end of his Gospel, which is based in large part on what Mark learned from Peter. The second part of the verse has a very Latin and Roman feel to it. It may have been the original ending to Mark's Gospel, written by Mark himself. Or, it may have been added soon after by another member of the Christian community of Rome. But, the fact that this last verse has a Latin feel to it and that it is found, in the oldest extant copies, in a Latin version of the Gospel of Mark, supports the idea that Mark originally wrote in Latin.

Luke Relied on Mark and Matthew

Luke wrote his Gospel about a decade after Mark and two decades after Matthew. Luke was well educated. His primary language was Greek, but, as a scholar and physician, he also studied and knew Latin fairly well. Luke possessed a copy of Mark's Gospel in Latin. The influence of Mark's Gospel is seen in Luke's Gospel. Since Mark relied on Matthew, this chain of dependence explains the major points of agreement between Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Luke relied on Mark; Mark relied on Matthew. But some minor agreements between Luke and Matthew are not found in Mark. These could not have come into Luke's Gospel through Mark's Gospel.

There are two possible circumstances which could explain the minor agreements between Matthew and Luke. First, Luke did not know Hebrew very well, and so, though he possessed a copy of both Matthew and Mark, he looked to Mark's Gospel more than to Matthew's. This possibility is simple and probable. Matthew's Gospel had long been in circulation and Luke had traveled to many different Christian communities. Luke could have obtained a copy without too much difficulty.

Second, Luke possessed a copy of Mark's Gospel, but perhaps did not possess a copy of Matthew's Gospel. The minor influences come from Luke's exposure to Matthew's Gospel over many years. By the time that Luke wrote, Matthew had been in circulation for about two decades. Luke traveled far and wide with Paul, where he must have encountered Matthew's Gospel a number of times. In fact, he could hardly have avoided Matthew's Gospel, since it was likely a major resource for every community of those Christians who had converted from Judaism. Perhaps Luke heard it being read a number of times at Mass (in communities of Hebraic Christians). Perhaps Luke heard it read during informal discussions, among the apostles and disciples, about the Gospel message. In either case, the result is the same. Mark's Gospel had a major influence on Luke's Gospel, whereas Matthew's Gospel had a lesser influence on Luke's Gospel.

Languages and Translations

Matthew wrote first in Hebrew; Mark wrote second in Latin; Luke wrote third in Greek. Whenever Mark was influenced by Matthew's Gospel, he had to translate from Hebrew to Latin. We might expect to see evidence of this in the text, but the situation is complicated by the fact that the earliest known extant complete copies of Matthew and Mark are in Greek. And the Greek Translation of Matthew's Gospel might not have been from the original Hebrew. Matthew could have been translated into Latin (or Aramaic) first, and later into Greek.

Suppose that Matthew's Gospel went from the original Hebrew to a Latin translation to the extant Greek. The portions of Matthew used by Mark would have made a similar journey, from Matthew's Hebrew to Mark's Latin to the Greek translation of Mark. There could be some differences in vocabulary, grammar, and phrasing, due to the same verses passing through different translators. Also, when Mark was translating from Matthew, he could, as an author, use Matthew's material much more freely than someone who was merely translating.

On the other hand, suppose that Matthew's Gospel went directly from Hebrew to Greek, and the portions of Matthew used by Mark went from Hebrew to Latin to Greek. There could then be differences in vocabulary, grammar, and phrasing, because Mark's selections from Matthew's Gospel were translated through the intermediary Latin. But these would be difficult to discern and subject to various interpretations.

Similar considerations apply to the Gospel of Luke. Whenever Luke used Mark's Latin Gospel, or (to a lesser extent) Matthew's Hebrew Gospel, he had to translate the relevant portions into Greek. However, since we have extant copies of Luke's Gospel in Greek, the problem of translation through an intermediary language is lessened. We might expect to see evidence that portions of Matthew and Mark used by Luke were translated from one language to another. (Personally, my knowledge of Greek and Hebrew is not sufficient to analyze the Gospels for evidence of their translation through different languages. I will leave this task to those more qualified than myself.)

Whenever Matthew, Mark, and Luke use the same vocabulary, grammar, or phrasing, such textual agreements had to survive translation, from Matthew's Hebrew to Mark's Latin and from Mark's Latin to Luke's Greek. The survival of textual agreements from Matthew to Luke is made more likely by two possibilities.

First, whenever a text survived from Matthew to Mark, the text only had to survive one more step, into the Greek of Luke's Gospel in order to arrive at a textual agreement in all three Synoptics. Now Mark's Latin, and Luke's translation of that Latin into Greek, would only agree if Mark's Latin was similarly translated by the translators of Mark's Gospel into Greek. However, by the time that Mark's Gospel was translated into Greek, Luke's Gospel was already written in Greek and widely circulated. So, the translators were most likely influenced in their translation by the way that Luke translated Mark's Latin. Thus, textual similarities between Mark and Luke are likely.

Second, Luke may have had a copy of Matthew's Hebrew, and may have consulted it when translating from Mark's Latin. In other words, Luke may have compared Matthew and Mark, side by side, resulting in an agreement of certain elements of the text in all three Synoptics. Some minor differences in similar texts in the Synoptics may be due to the translation of the texts through different languages (with all eventually ending in a translation into Greek).

Matthew Mark Luke
wrote in: Hebrew Latin Greek
knew: Hebrew (some Latin) Latin & Hebrew Greek & Latin (some Hebrew)
Influences -

major: Christ's Aramaic Matthew's Hebrew Mark's Latin
Luke's Greek Matthew's Hebrew
translated: Christ's Aramaic Matthew's Hebrew
Christ's Aramaic
Mark's Latin
Matthew's Hebrew (some)
earliest extant: Greek Greek (some Latin) Greek

Mark wrote his Gospel in Latin, so he was translating Christ's Aramaic and Matthew's Hebrew into Latin. However, in a few places in his Gospel, he could write Latin when people spoke Latin. For example, when Jesus debated with the Herodians (Mk 12:13-17) and perhaps when He spoke with Pilate (Mk 15:2-4). Such words were spoken in Latin, written by Mark in Latin, and later translated into Greek, so the words endured only one translation. By comparison, words spoken in Latin were translated by Matthew into Hebrew, and later translated into Greek, so that the words endured two translations. When Mark relied on Matthew, the words may have gone from the original Aramaic to Hebrew to Latin to Greek. And it is likewise with the various combinations of languages and Gospels.

The Usual Chronology

In contradiction to the assertions of Bishop Eusebius and Saint Jerome, most New Testament scholars today believe that Mark's Gospel was written first, before Matthew's Gospel. In truth, most of them hold and defend this view because it is the majority view of their peers. Their arguments to support this view are based on their analysis of the language and theology of Mark's Gospel. They claim that Mark shows a less well-developed theology. They completely ignore the testimony of Eusebius and Jerome, that Matthew wrote his Gospel in Hebrew for the (formerly Jewish) Christians of Judea, prior to his departure to preach the Gospel in distant lands. They never mention Mark's young age or the evidence that Mark wrote his Gospel in Rome, many years after Matthew and the other Apostles had departed Judea. In fact, many New Testament scholars do not even believe that the Gospels were written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

It is common for Biblical scholars to claim that the Gospels were written in the late first century A.D., anywhere from A.D. 70 to A.D. 100. They place the writing of the Gospel of Matthew after A.D. 70 (the usual date for the Fall of Jerusalem) partly because Matthew 24 has Jesus predicting the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem. The Temple was burned to the ground during the Roman siege and capture of Jerusalem in the Jewish uprising of the first century A.D. (my date, A.D. 56; usual date, A.D. 70). They conclude that this passage predicting the destruction of the Temple was written after it occurred. They assume that Jesus could not have known the future, that the event predicted was nothing more than the destruction of the Temple and the capture of Jerusalem in the first century, and that Jesus never made such a prediction -- it was the Gospel writer who wrote that prediction after the event happened. All of these assumptions show an astounding lack of faith among most New Testament scholars. Most Biblical scholars believe that the Bible should be interpreted without faith and that faith has no place in scholarship. They practice a separation of faith and scholarship.

On the contrary, faith teaches that Sacred Scripture is infallible. The words in Sacred Scripture are the words of Christ. Faith is greater than scholarship. All scholarship, in every field of knowledge, should be led by faith and permeated by faith. Faith teaches that Jesus actually taught all of the teachings attributed to him by the Gospel writers. Faith teaches that Jesus could perform miracles. Faith teaches that Jesus has a Divine Nature, which knows all things (even the future), as well as a finite human nature. On the basis of faith, we should all reject many of the ideas of modern New Testament scholars. In particular, the conclusion that Matthew's Gospel must have been written after the destruction of Jerusalem is based on premises which are opposed by faith in Christ.

The early Church fathers believed and taught that the Gospels were written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, John. They believed that Jesus performed miracles, knew the future, and taught the things the Gospels say that He taught. They believed that Sacred Scripture is infallible. They all interpreted Sacred Scripture with faith. In contrast, most modern Biblical scholars claim that the Bible, including the Gospels, is filled with myths, fictional stories, and errors. They arrive at the most implausible conclusions based on their own scholarship; then they adhere to such conclusions with great steadfastness. Yet they refuse to believe any conclusions based on faith, even if the greater weight of evidence is on the side of faith.

The Q-source Hypothesis

Many New Testament scholars believe that Matthew and Luke each used Mark and another written source, called “Q” (after the German word for source, “Quelle”). This conclusion is based on the premise that Mark was written first and that Matthew and Luke each did not have a copy of the other's Gospel. Textual agreements found in all three Gospels are explained, in this hypothesis, by Matthew and Luke each using Mark as one source of material. Agreements between Matthew and Luke, independent of Mark, are explained as coming from Q-source. This hypothesis is held by a majority of New Testament scholars today.

There are many problems with this idea. First, no copy or fragment of Q-source exists today. Second, no ancient writings of any kind mention such a document. Third, according to Eusebius and Jerome, Matthew's Gospel was written first. Synoptic theories about Q-source generally require that Mark's Gospel was written first, so that Matthew and Luke depended on Mark and Q-source. Historical evidence indicates that Matthew was written first, then Mark, then Luke.

On the other hand, my revised chronology of the writing of the Synoptics explains all of the agreements between Matthew, Mark, and Luke without the necessity of a hypothetical unknown written source. Agreements between all three Gospels occur because Mark had Matthew as a source and Luke had Mark as a source. Luke also had Matthew as a source, but this was limited by Luke's limited knowledge of Hebrew or, alternately, Luke only had knowledge of Matthew from having heard it read and discussed in his travels. This explains agreements between Luke and Mark that differ from Matthew. It also explains agreements between Luke and Matthew that differ from Mark.

Alarmingly, some scholars have begun to refer to Q-source as something more than hypothetical source material. They write about Q as if it certainly existed and some even refer to it as “Q-Gospel” or “the Gospel of Q.” Some scholars have even expressed the idea that they might be able to reconstruct Q and thereby have a better source for the words of Christ than the four Gospels. Some scholars have begun to place this hypothetical Q-source above the four Gospels themselves. Such foolishness is the result when very intelligent persons approach Sacred Scripture without faith. The four Gospels, those of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, are the inspired Word of God. Even if such a hypothetical Q-source document existed, which is not the case, it would not be infallible Sacred Scripture.

by Ronald L. Conte Jr.
December 25, 2005
Updated June 5, 2010

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