Synoptic Parallels: What we learn from them and how we may use them today

In doing textual analysis, one is confronted by certain similarities and differences in the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ ministry. However, if the intended purposes of the author are discerned from the initial moment, then Gospel parallels are not difficult to understand. Rather, an examination of the New Testament documents will show that each writer wrote each book with a unique perspective and purpose. Rather, the accounts were intended to convey a Gospel message and a theological significance to the reader. For that purpose, this writer chose the Galilean Ministry of Jesus, (Matthew 8-9; Mark 1-2; Luke 5) to show how differences in the texts can be used today.

The Galilean Ministry (Matthew 8-9; Mark 1-2; Luke 5)

As one approaches the Galilean ministry of Christ, one is confronted by three perspectives on how it occurred. Matthew was an eyewitness to the ministry of Christ; Mark was a disciple of Peter and Luke was an investigative writer who learned much from Paul and close associations of Christ as he traveled ministering with Paul. Each composed his own Gospel at various periods, and it is reasonable that Luke has given a more orderly account of his recordings. It is not surprising then, to note that every narrative touched by Luke in chapter 5 has been covered by both Matthew and Mark. Luke however, seems to provide more details than the other two writers on some issues in the Galilean ministry.

For example, in Luke 5:1-11, Luke touches on the historic call of the first three disciples, Simon Peter, James and John. Surprisingly, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother is not mentioned, but the use of “we” by Peter may be suggestive of Andrew and others. Here, Christ calls his first disciples after first using Peter’s ship to teach the crowds and the miraculous catch of fish. In Mark 1:16-22, the four disciples are clearly named, Zebedee the father of the other two (James and John) is also mentioned and servants that helped with the fishing. In the final analysis, the stories are not contradictory. Rather, Luke omitted some details that could distract his flow of thought and chose to emphasize Peter, James and John, a trend he follows in the Acts of the Apostles; while on the other hand, Mark’s emphasis on the same story has to do with the immediate response of both disciples to Christ’s call.

A cursory look at Mark shows that his prologue to the Gospel of fifteen verses (Mark 1:1-15), covers what Matthew and Luke covered in their first four chapters (Matthew 1-4 and Luke 1-4). Surprisingly, Mark does not seem to concern himself with the details of the Virgin Birth and nativity, which may be inferred that, his audience had no problems with such issues in the understanding of their Gospel message. Rather, Mark seems to have interest in the preaching and actions of the Christ that was already known to his audience. Instead of giving a lengthy treatise on John as does both Luke and Matthew, he passes over it in summary form proving that Christ was indeed the One to whom John the Baptist has testified as the Messiah who was to come.

If we have to look at this prologue, we can easily understand that it is a summation of the other two writers’ lengthy treatise on the birth, childhood and early years of Christ. Mark focuses his attention to the last three and half years of Christ’s earthily ministry. Of particular interest is the fact that the whole narrative of Mark 2 is found in both Matthew and Luke only with minimal variations which authenticates the veracity of the narratives.

Another thing this writer has discovered is that, although the three writers spoke of the very same events, they did not seem to have agreed on the order of events here. In Mark 2, the evangelist begins by showing us that Jesus was gathered in a house and it had been noised that he was around. Mark does not disclose whose house it was but places some emphasis on the miracle of the healing of the man with the palsy (Mark 2:1-11). However, Matthew first alludes that Jesus returned to his own city (Matthew 9:1), so the house may probably have belong someone near, a relative or a disciple since Christ himself claimed that he had no house (Matthew 8:21).

In both Matthew and Luke, the healing of the paralytic man precedes the calling of Matthew (Matthew 9:9). Luke and Mark on the other hand, prefers the name Levi (Luke 5:29). Skeptics can see these as two differing people, but a study of the Gospels shows that Matthew was also called Levi, the son of Alphaeus (Mark 2:14). The occupation of Matthew as a publican and a tax collector is clearly narrated which implies that he might have been called Matthew but a Levite from the tribe of Levi or may have been given the name of one of Israel’s ancestors.

Unlike the other two author’s, Matthew has some unique material of his own found in 8:5-31. Luke mentioned two specific healings, that of the leper and the paralytic man. Mark 1:23-28 speaks of the healing of the man possessed with a devil, followed by Peter’s mother-in-law healing and the many sick folk before introducing the healing of the leper into his narrative. In this Galilean ministry, two distinct episodes of exorcisms occurred, one in the synagogue at Capernaum involving one demon (Mark 1:23-28). However, Matthew chose to include the deliverance of two men from Gergesenes whose demons were sent into the swine (Matthew 8:28-34).

The healing of the centurion’s servant is unique material which is only given by Matthew. Matthew seems to have interests in the ministry of Jesus in Capernaum as he devotes more words to it. Mark suggests that Jesus’ fame spread beyond the Galilean borders which may be the reason why the centurion might have came and begged him to send a word to heal his daughter and why many came during the night to Peter’s mother-in-law house to get healing. Concerning the events of that night, both Matthew and Mark are in agreement. However, each seems to emphasize a different trait of the evening, still they don’t disagree. For instance, Mark simply states that he healed “many” sick people and expelled “many demons”. On the other hand, Matthew states that “all” were healed (Matthew 8:16) and goes further to find the significance of the night’s healings. He foresees a fulfillment of the Messianic prophecy of Isaiah 53 coming to pass in his very own eyes. For Mark who was not present at the event, relying on oral tradition from Peter only sees the healings and the deliverances and nothing more. This is easily expected in narrative accounts for each writer can have his own emphasis. Again, this does not prove the Gospel writers differed; on the contrary, the two narratives seem to complete each other.

Matthew, Mark and Luke seem to all have a negative view of the Pharisees and Scribes. First, we have been introduced to them when Jesus healed the paralytic man as men who did not feel comfortable with Jesus’ pronouncement of forgiveness of sin. They believed that this was God’s own work alone. Yet, Christ had asked them in a question form if healings or miracles were more important than forgiveness of sins. He had shown them that thi9s was beyond the scope of their knowledge for the Son of Man had power also to forgive sins on earth.

Matthew and Luke do not give us the number of the people who brought in their sick friend (Matthew 9:1-2). Only Mark states specifically that four men carried him (Mark 2:3). Interestingly, this is not a contradiction. In both instances, the word men is in plural which means that, though the other two authors could not have specifically mentioned the numbers, more than two men were involved, and Mark says four specifically carried him, but did not explicitly state how many men came with him. We may assume they were plenty of witnesses who wanted to see the healing of this man y Christ. However, gives the same conclusion in differing words – they were amazed and glorified God (Mark and Luke), they marveled and glorified God (Matthew).

Still, there is another controversy involving Jesus and the Scribes and the Pharisees that had to do with the questions eating with sinners and publicans, fasting and plucking corn on the Sabbath. While these are separate events, they seem from Mark’s account, to have transpired one after another. Although in Mark’s narrative, we cannot be as certain as to which particular time frame between the mentioned events. Only Mark adds the Sabbath controversy. Matthew on the other hand includes discussion on the calming of the storm, rising of Jairus’ daughter, the healing of the woman with the flow of blood, the healing of the dumb man, the healing of the two blind men and Jesus’ compassion on the crowds.

The events described so far have similarities and certain differences. However, these events cannot be shown to have been meant to be duplicated or be normative for today’s church. Clearly, we can see certain principles in these narratives that can be applicable to modern church life. For instance, Jesus’ call to become fishers of men is still applicable today, though the circumstances of one’s calling may be different from that of the apostles. The church has a pending mission to win sinners to Christ. The healings and miracles in the narratives help us to see the greatness of God and his compassion for suffering humanity. This gives great assurance for answered prayers for Jesus Christ is still the same today (Hebrews 13:8). The church can pray in anticipation for answered prayers and healings for the sick only if the compassion of Christ is the driving factor.

Jesus’ authority over sickness, demons and nature can be a great assurance to Christ’s power and believers are guaranteed victory in Christ, who has all the power and authority in the universe. In the calming of the storm, Jesus clearly indicated that the apostles were fearful because of their lack of faith. Thus, for believers today, faith is a great weapon against fear.

In the final analysis, synoptic parallels are not our enemy. They help us to have a clear picture of what transpired in the ministry of Jesus from the perspectives of different eyewitnesses. They help us to appreciate the variety of witnesses whom God chose to write his word for us and to acknowledge that His divine hand indeed superintend the authorship and transmission of the biblical text. A study of how each narrative complements another in the synoptic parallels is a sure proof of the Scripture’s inspiration. Contrary to skeptic arguments by scholars today, the Gospel accounts when treated together make a one unique whole. The Gospels should thus be read in order to generate faith and leads one to Christ.

The Gospels are literary stories first and foremost and should be read as such. Each author had his unique style and literary forms to implore in his writing. Hence, we cannot expect each author to use the exact wording, phraseology and follow a same line of thought. To do so will be to rob the human authors of Scripture their unique personalities which God saw as befitting for the task of authoring His word using unique individuals.

Conclusion

This essay sought to show that the Synoptic Gospels contains parallel passages. These parallels are not linked to ignorance of the writers neither do they lose sight of the task at hand. Each author had a unique insight and purpose in writing his Gospel and presenting it that way. The material found in Matthew 8-9; Mark 1-2 and Luke 5 all speaks of the same period of Christ’s ministry in Galilee. It is not contradictory but complementary.

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