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The Synoptic Gospels

The Baptism of Jesus

So we begin a new term and a New Testament of the Bible. Pivotal in the NT are the Gospels, which are subdivided into the Gospel of John and the Synoptic Gospels. In this session we shall focus on the latter, comparing the texts of Jesus’ baptism from the Gospels of  Mark, Luke and Matthew. This can be done easily using a parallel Gospel. NB: in the following ‘John’ is St. John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin, not the disciple John who gives his name to the fourth Gospel.

Mark 1:9-11

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”

Luke 3:21-22

Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heavens were opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”

Matthew 3:13-17

Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfil all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

Similarities and Differences

The story is extremely similar in outline but there are differences, why should this be?

Even if each of the three had been eyewittness accounts there would probably still have been differences because different people remember and focus upon different aspects. But there isn’t any reason to think that these are eyewitness accounts because no one was following Jesus at this stage.

In addition to different people focusing on different things they can also compose their account with different audiences in mind. Other explanations of differences are that they could have been put together in different places at different times. Indeed we know that Matthew and Luke were written later than Mark  because they both re-use lots of Mark’s material, as the following diagram illustrates.

The majority of scholars infer the existence of a lost document as a hypothesis to explain the Double Tradition. This document is generally called ‘Q’ after the German word for ‘source’ – ‘quelle’.

So let’s explore the differences in those texts. The only real contradiction being that in Luke’s account the Holy Spirit decends when Jesus is praying afterwards, rather than immediately as he surfaced. This author seems to care a lot about prayer and has a high theology of the Holy Spirit. Note that what happens to Jesus here before he begins his ministry is very similar to what happened to the Apostles at Pentecost just before they started theirs.

Mark and Matthew set the scene whereas Luke did not (although in each Gospel the story is part of a larger narrative about John the Baptist), Matthew adding a dialogue with John which, given John’s beliefs about Jesus, gives us a more realistic impression of their relationship. This author seems to care a lot about righteousness.

Unlike Mark, whose account is consistent with the Spirit and voice only being perceived by Jesus, the others specify that the heavens did open, Matthew having the voice address anyone who was listening rather than just Jesus, and Luke emphasising that there was an objective dove-like appearance. Luke seemed concerned to convey to his pagan audience that he was being literal, rather than hiding a secret esoteric message behind symbolism.

More Characteristics of the Gospels

Hebrew culture, and bronze age civilisation generally had a sophisticated oral tradition. This had developed by necessity because there was very low literacy and writing/reading materials were incredibly expensive. The writing down of the respective accounts probably only took place as the eye-witnesses to Jesus were dying out, in order to preserve their purity.

According to tradition Mark was written by an eponymous disciple of Peter. His concise account focuses the bare facts and thereby lacks theological and narrative development. This must have first been written down before 70 AD because its prophesy about the destruction of the Temple is so vague as to imply it predates that event. In traditional Christian art Mark is often sybolised by a lion; this represents courage and monarchy.

The author of Matthew, by tradition an original Apostle of Jesus, had a Jewish audience and for this reason his account is is the most heavily steeped in Hebrew culture, prophesy and ritual practise. Parts of it may have been written originally in Aramaic; it was probably written down soon after Mark. The symbol of Matthew is a man; this represents the Incarnation.

The author of Luke tells us he is disciple of St. Paul. He was a medical doctor who was concerned at putting together a historical account from various eye-witnesses. This Gospel was probably written down soon after the destruction of the Temple. The symbol of Luke is the bull; this represents service and strength.

Our earliest written fragments of the Synoptic Gospels date to c. 100 AD.


See the Next Part of Bible for Bluffers.

Comments on: "The Synoptic Gospels" (1)

  1. An interesting analysis, although I would suggest that all 3 of the gospels clearly have Jesus receiving the Spirit after coming out of the water.

    Mark – “And when he came up out of the water”

    Matthew – “immediately he went up from the water”

    Also, I think that Matthew was written first, the argument that Mark was written first just because it is shortest seems a little ridiculous to me.

    Though I would suggest that all of them were written prior to 70 AD, anticipating the fulfilment of Daniel 7. The antichrists and false prophets represent the little horn (Dan 7:7) – the Judaisers, who murder many of the saints. The destruction of heavenly bodies represents the overthrowing of the kingdoms of the world as they are handed over to the martyred saints (Dan 7:26-27). These saints are “the Son of Man” (a corporate entity) and the heavenly Christ is the Most High, who sends his angels out to gather his chosen ones (the Son of Man) into heaven to reign with Him (Dan 7:13-14) shortly before Jerusalem is destroyed. The Apostles would have ascended bodily into heaven at this point and sat on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.

    That’s more or less my take on the whole thing anyway.

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