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Comparing the Synoptic Gospels: Matthew, Mark, and Luke

Cholee took several theology classes during college and enjoys partaking in bible studies and diving deep into scripture.

Parable of the lost sheep

Parable of the lost sheep

The synoptic gospels consist of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Synoptic is from the Greek and means "seen together" or "from the same eye."

The first three gospels share a considerable amount of passages and information that are not seen in the gospel of John; hence the name synoptic. The synoptic gospels are all written in the third person, as if the authors were there observing the events at the time they were happening. Robert M. Grant's Historical Introduction to the New Testament (available at Religion Online) summarizes the history of these gospels.

  • Matthew is believed by some to have been a tax collector before he was called to be one of Jesus's 12 disciples. It is believed by many scholars that Matthew actually wrote his original transcripts in Greek and not Hebrew.
  • Mark is believed to have been a companion of Paul and Peter, as well as the cousin to Barnabas. It is traditionally believed that Mark is writing his gospel as eyewitness testimony from Peter's stories of Jesus.
  • Luke is believed to have been a physician and companion of Paul. Due to Luke's profession, his gospel takes a scientific and orderly approach to the accounts of Jesus. Luke also gives great details and narratives within his gospel unlike the other two authors. His stories are longer and contain more information than any of the other gospels. Luke is also the only other author of the synoptic gospels who wrote other books found in the bible. As a follow-up to his gospel, it is believed that Luke wrote the book of Acts.

Despite Matthew, Mark, and Luke never actually meeting Jesus, the exact nature of their relationship to each other is unknown, and as a result this is known as "the most fascinating literary enigma of all time." However, this also poses as a "problem" when trying to understand how each of these three gospels was written.

There is no evidence to substantially prove which of these three gospels was written first, however it is the long-standing view that the gospel of Mark was written first. It is also believed that Matthew and Luke borrowed from him as well as one other hypothetical source lost to history known as document Q or "Quelle."

Facts about each writer can be found in the table below.

Synoptic Gospels

WriterDate WrittenAuthor's Community

Mark (2nd generation Christian and follower of Peter)

65-70 CE

Gentile Christian community in Rome undergoing persecution

Mathew (Jewish Christian; known as apostle Matthew)

75-80 CE

Jewish Christians

Luke (Gentile Christian; physician and Paul's traveling companion)

80-85 CE

Theophilus, meaning lover of God (could represent all Christians)

What Is the Triple Tradition?

Triple tradition refers to the common material found within the three synoptic gospels.

Almost all of Mark's content is found within the gospels of Matthew and Luke. There are roughly 30 common stories and teachings found in all three gospels. The wording and placement of these parables within each individual gospel are very similar, as well as historical events and places.

Examples of common stories include the parable of "calming the sea," "blind near Jericho," and "new wine into old wineskins," just to name a few. The text from these parables may vary slightly between the gospels; however, the parables are still found in roughly the same placement within each gospel. The varied lengths in these parables contribute to the slight placement variations as well as added narration commonly found in the gospel of Luke.

Calm before the storm. What I picture the Sea of Galilee looking like before Jesus comes and walks on water.

Calm before the storm. What I picture the Sea of Galilee looking like before Jesus comes and walks on water.

Double Tradition

Just as the three gospels share common parables there are over a couple hundred verses shared between Matthew and Luke alone. These couple hundred verses are known as the double tradition, and they encompass roughly a quarter of the content found within the gospels of Matthew and Luke.

Common parables shared between Matthew and Luke include "the lost sheep," "the faithful servant," and "the return of the unclean spirit." Within these common parables, Matthew sticks to large blocks of sayings, whereas Luke incorporates narratives. Luke's narratives tend to make his passages a little longer and therefore the common verses are in different placements in both gospels.

Below you can see the differences and similarities between the two written accounts of the parable "the lost sheep."

The Parable of the Lost Sheep



15: 3-7

12 “What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? 13 And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. 14 In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish.

3 Then Jesus told them this parable: 4 “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? 5 And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders 6 and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ 7 I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.

Special M and Special L

What are special M and special L? Special M, or special Matthew, refers to the material only found in the gospel of Matthew. Likewise special L, or special Luke, refers to content only found in Luke.

Special Matthew makes up roughly 20 percent of the gospel of Matthew and is all parables not found in any other gospel. Special Luke on the other hand makes up close to 35 percent of the gospel of Luke and includes healings as well as parables that you cannot find in any other gospel.

What We Know About the Synoptic Gospels

It is hard to say with certainty who wrote the synoptic gospels, when they wrote them, and where; however the major similarities among all three point to truth. The synoptic gospels are three separate books that share common ideas, parables, and events witnessed by others during the time of Jesus. These books were written over many years following Christ's death and resurrection, yet they contain the same truths and wonders about Jesus and his followers.

One can learn a great deal from comparing the gospels, and by looking at the comparisons and differences we can learn the truths that lay within.

Today we can learn much from these sources. The similarities between these three books only solidify for me what I already know, which is Jesus did indeed walk this Earth and some day He will return again.

Questions & Answers

Question: What are the symbolic names of the gospels?

Answer: Matthew - Angel or winged man. This is thought to represent the ancestry of humans as the book of Matthew talks heavily about the genealogy of Christ. It can also represent Jesus' incarnation.

Mark - Winged lion. Mark talks about the resurrection of Christ, and it was once believed that lions slept with eyes open which can be compared to Christ in the tomb. The lion also signifies how Christians should walk on their path to salvation (with courage).

Luke - Winged ox/bull. Luke's focus is on the sacrifice of Christ. Oxen have commonly sacrificed animals and therefore are used as the symbol for Luke. The ox is also the symbol of strength, sacrifice, and service which signifies that Christians should be ready to endure sacrifices while following Jesus.

John - Eagle. It is believed that the eagle represents the highest of inspiration. John is believed to have written several books of the Bible, so his gospel is symbolized by the eagle. John's gospel also goes deeper into "higher" Christology by talking about Christ's divine nature.

Each of the gospel's symbols is referenced in Ezekiel 1-2 as well as Revelation. These symbols can also be seen in early medieval gospel books as well as on church portals (doors/gates/pillars) or ceilings.

Question: What does the abbreviation CE mean in the date written by the gospel writers?

Answer: CE stands for Common Era and is the equivalent to AD which means Anno Domini (year of our/the Lord). AD holds religious connotations so CE is commonly used in modern or neutral settings. When referring to biblical history, CE & AD tend to be interchanged frequently.

With more countries and ultimately their school curriculums moving towards using CE and dropping AD, I felt it was better to use CE in this instance.

© 2014 Cholee Clay


David Lobo on October 21, 2019:

Dear Cholee,

Just started studying the gospels and your site is very helpful.

Plan to write a book of my business experiences based on learnings from the Gospels and am looking for advisers. Could I write to you for guidance?


David Cracroft, Salt Lake City on July 06, 2019:

Thank you, Cholee, for your carefully studied and articulated thoughts. I am fascinated by this study. We agree on these important points. Carry on your important research. You are on the right path! The Lord Bless and Keep You!

Cholee Clay (author) from Wisconsin on March 13, 2014:

Bishop J L Hayes--I've always assumed Matthew was the first gospel written, however the more I study and learn about the gospels I'm leaning more towards Mark's gospel being written first.

The estimated dates of when each gospel was written suggests that Mark's gospel was written first. There is also the understanding that almost all of Mark's information is in both Matthew and Luke. Which draws me to believe that he wrote first and they used his works.

If Matthew was written first I would almost think Mark would then have written his gospel last. My reason for this is that Luke and Mark would have wrote off Matthew and that would explain why Luke contains ideas from Mark. Mark would have used Luke and Matthew and no other source which would allow his gospel to be encompassed with 90 percent of the information that both Matthew and Luke contain.

However, since Matthew and Luke have contents that are unique to their gospels alone, I believe they wrote after Mark and added in their own ideas, parables, and knowledge to supplement what Mark already had.

Just my two sense :) I'm still learning and growing, as I have just really dived into the synoptic gospels roughly a year ago.

Jerry Lynn Hayes Sr from Texas City, Texas on March 12, 2014:

Shesabutterfly, I have written a verse by verse commentary on the synoptic Gospels. I, of course love them. There is some in-house debate on which was the first book written, Matthew or Mark. I have come down on the side of Mathew. What are your thoughts on that?

Christy Kirwan from San Francisco on March 12, 2014:

What a thorough, informative Hub! Very well done, shesabutterfly. The mystery of Matthew, Mark, and Luke's relationship is a deeply fascinating one!

Cholee Clay (author) from Wisconsin on March 09, 2014:

I completely agree that each book was written by the name it carries. However the particulars of each person tends to get confusing, at least to me. I've taken many theology classes in college so I tend to ask lots of questions and research everything :)

Jerry Lynn Hayes Sr from Texas City, Texas on March 09, 2014:

Have enjoyed this article very much. Of course I take the position that each book was, indeed, written by the person whose name it carries. I am totally unconvinced by any evidence produced otherwise. But, then, that is me and my faith.

Peace to your house.

Jerry Lynn Hayes Sr from Texas City, Texas on March 09, 2014:

You are such a wonderful find, here on HP. I will be following you.

I am new here (less than a month). I look forward to reading all your biblical articles. Please stop by my site and say hello.

Peace to your house.