An Orderly Account
A Comparison of the Synoptic Gospels
The Synoptic Gospels, called synoptic because they form a united narrative of Jesus’s ministry (from the Greek, sun “together” and opsis “seeing”), differ from one another in purpose, style and imagery. A comparison of their shared and distinctive attributes can help to see the multifaceted presentation of the truths of Jesus Christ which each gospel offers, as well as the fullness of understanding which results only from seeing them as a narrative whole.
Although the Synoptic Gospels are principally concerned with the historical facts of Jesus’s life and ministry, each gospel also interprets the Messiah symbolically according to their own perspectives. These viewpoints have been traditionally characterized by the assignation of symbolic images for each gospel which represent the particular focus of the gospel, derived from the Living Creatures of Revelation 4:7 and from Ezekiel 1:1-21. St. Irenaeus of Lyons explains the symbols by connecting them to the three offices of Christ, with each gospel emphasizing one of these offices. He says that St. Luke is symbolized by the Winged Ox or Fatted Calf of sacrifice by his gospel focusing on sacrificial attributes. Further, Irenaeus connects the Gospel of St. Matthew to the symbol of the Divine Man, since Matthew, focusing on Jesus’s divine kingship and his royal lineage from David, describes his human genealogy to begin his gospel and relates Jesus’s nativity. Matthew also emphasizes the meekness and humility of Jesus and those to whom he primarily ministered. Finally, he assigns the symbol of the Winged Lion to the Gospel of St. Mark, whose gospel begins with a quotation from the prophet Isaiah, which points to the uplifting quality of the Gospel; and the anecdotal and non-chronological form of his gospel reflects the style of the Old Testament prophetic writings.
The theological ideas of each Synoptic Gospel are seen by the way the Messiah is understood by each gospel according to the three munera or offices expected of him, namely that of priest, prophet and king. The Messiah was believed to fulfill each of these offices in accordance with their types or exemplars in the Old Testament, with each type illustrating different ways by which the Christ would accomplish this fulfillment, such as the priesthood of Adam, Melchizedek and Aaron; the prophetic roles of Abraham, Moses and Isaiah; and the kingship of David and Solomon, among many others. The Gospel of St. Matthew, focusing on the royal office of Christ, connects almost every event and teaching in Jesus’s life to a prophecy of the Old Testament and with their fulfillment in the kingly ‘anointing’ or ‘christening’ of the Christ, like the Israelite kings of old. Matthew also emphasizes the divine kingship of Christ by ascribing to him the title ‘Son of David’ more than any other gospel, beginning his gospel with a genealogy which prioritizes Jesus’s descendance from David, and focusing on the Kingdom of Heaven and its ecclesiastical dimension, a perspective shared by St. Mark. The Gospel of St. Luke, alternatively, describes the priestly office of Jesus, particularly through frequent healing miracles (suited to Luke’s vocation as a doctor). His gospel begins with Zachariah the priest offering sacrifice in the Temple. Luke also includes the parable of the Prodigal Son symbolizing the self-offering of Jesus the High Priest of the New Covenant as the propitiatory sacrifice of God the Father for wayward humanity. Finally, the Gospel of St. Mark emphasizes Jesus’s prophetic office, first by opening his gospel with a quote from the prophet Isaiah, and beginning with the ministry of St. John the Baptist, the last and greatest prophet of the Old Covenant. As St. Irenaeus explained above, the form and style of St. Mark’s gospel also conforms to the style of prophetic writings in the Old Testament, and Mark consistently relates the awe and wonder of the people as they receive the prophetic preaching of the Gospel by Jesus.
The Synoptic Gospels are also distinguished by their literary styles. As Catholic biblical scholar Brant Pitre explains, all the gospels are most similar in form and style to the genre of ancient Greco-Roman biographies. They followed a pattern relating the subject’s birth, public life and death, they tended to average about 10,000-20,000 words, they frequently began with a description of the person’s ancestry or genealogy, and were not necessarily chronological or exhaustive. As Luke’s prologue illustrates, they are also historical biographies, another common element of Greco-Roman biography. Despite their similarities, however, each synoptic gospel is also distinct. Matthew’s gospel uses linguistic clarity and a plethora of biblical and Judaic influences, and so can be considered the most Jewish gospel. Mark, by contrast, writing in a prophetic form, intentionally composed a largely unedited compilation of anecdotes and narrative relating to Jesus’s life and teachings, then Matthew and Luke edited and added to Mark’s gospel for their own purposes. This understanding is witnessed by the early bishop named Papias, possibly a disciple of St. John the Evangelist, who said that Mark did not intend to write a precisely chronological narrative but instead sought to truthfully relate the information given in St. Peter’s preaching which Mark heard as his companion. Finally, the Gospel of St. Luke wrote in a more precise chronological order for a specifically Gentile audience according to their expected literary standards; this style is also reflected in his other New Testament work, the Book of Acts.
In their literary structures, the Synoptic Gospels are largely similar, following the biographical pattern of relating Jesus’s origins (for Matthew and Luke in their supplementary material), then following his ministry in its parables, miracles and sayings (which are almost identical in each gospel) along his missionary journeys, and finally relating his entry into Jerusalem, his trial, Crucifixion and Resurrection. Again, however, they are each distinct. St. Luke focuses on instances of Jesus’s prayer life and its relation to the fundamental mission of the Church. St. Matthew, on the other hand, uses Judaic techniques such as parallelisms and chiasms to suit his Jewish audience. Matthew’s gospel is somewhat freer with chronological arrangement than are Luke and Mark, organizing Jesus’s life and teachings in order to illustrate prophetic fulfillment and his royal office as initiating the Kingdom of Heaven. Mark’s gospel is a looser collection of homiletic, anecdotal memoirs and thus follows a more prophetic and evangelical structure less focused on narrative chronology or literary symbolism.
Lastly, the Synoptic Gospels differ in the dating of their composition. As Jimmy Akin explains, since the Book of Acts was most likely written while Luke remained with Paul during the latter’s house arrest in Rome, as related in Acts 28, and wrote his gospel during that time, it was likely written close to 59 AD. Based on Papias’s statement that Mark was Peter’s interpreter and scribe, Mark would not have written his gospel until he became Peter’s companion in the 50s, and so it was most probably written around 55 AD. Finally, St. Irenaeus of Lyons records that Matthew’s gospel was written during Peter and Paul’s missionary activity in Rome. With this likely occurring in the 60s but prior to the apostles’ martyrdoms in 66 and 67 respectively, Matthew’s gospel was likely written about 63 AD.
 Jimmy Akin, The Bible is a Catholic Book (El Cajon, California: Catholic Answers Press, 2019), 99.
 Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies, 3, 11, trans. Alexander Roberts and William Rambaut, Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. vol. 1 (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885), at New Advent, www.newadvent.org.
 Elena Bosetti, Luke: The Song of God’s Mercy (Boston: Pauline Books & Media, 2002), 69.
 Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3, 11.
 Brant Pitre, The Case for Jesus (New York: Image, 2016), 70-73.
 Pitre, Case for Jesus, 79.
 Elena Bosetti, Matthew: The Journey Toward Hope (Boston: Pauline Books & Media, 2006), xiv.
 Akin, The Bible, 99-100.
 Eusebius, Church History, 3:15, quoted in Akin, The Bible, 100.
 Bosetti, Luke, 85.
 Bosetti, Matthew, xiv.
 Akin, The Bible, 102.
 Akin, The Bible, 103.
 Akin, The Bible, 103.
 Akin, The Bible, 104.