New Eyes on the New Testament Pt.2

II. Exegetical Issues

  1. Understanding the Gospels

The Synoptic Problem 

Determining the relationship of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, or the synoptic problem, is challenging at best.  Initially it is important to recognize that each of the gospels represents two different occasions:  the occasion of its writing and the occasion the events actually occurred.   It is generally accepted the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) were written in the early to late 60s, however some critics contend that Matthew and Luke were probably written in the 70’s or even 80’s.   Their composition and content indicate that Mark was written first then Matthew, followed by Luke.  Matthew reflects the basic outline of Mark but includes more information.  Luke probably had access to the content of Mark and Matthew and any sources they had.  In fact Luke told his readers he that investigated materials about Jesus from various sources (1:1-3).

Target Audience and Objective

When a writer wanted to convey information to Christians in the first century he chose one of two forms, a letter or a gospel.  While the gospels are more biographical in nature, the objective of their authors was not just to tell a life story.  Their intent was to use life events to convey a specific purpose or objective.

Matthew was a Jew writing to a mostly Jewish audience and/or those who would have been familiar with the Torah and Jewish tradition.  His account is filled with quotations from the Hebrew bible with no explanation of Jewish customs. According to the author of Hebrews some Christians were beginning to question Jesus’s credibility (Heb 5:11-6:6; 12:12).  Apparently Matthew’s objective was to affirm Jesus as the promised Messiah, and also to affirm him as a pro-Torah rabbi. Mark was targeting a mostly Gentile audience therefore he used more Jewish detail in his explanation of events. Consider the comparison of Matt 15:2-5 with Mark 7:1-12.  Both texts address hand washing and support of parents however only Mark provides the Jewish components.  Probably Mark’s objective was to define the nature of discipleship to a mostly Greco-Roman readership.  Luke wanted his mostly Gentile audience to understand Jesus as not just the savior of the Jewish nation but of the entire world.  Accordingly he traced the genealogy of Jesus back to Adam instead of Abraham as Matthew had done.  The gospel of John was probably penned in the mid 90’s and stands in contrast to Matthew, Mark and Luke.  Even though it is not one of the synoptic gospels, it too, illustrates an author pursuing a specific objective.  John informed his readers that his purpose in writing was to provide a basis for the belief that Jesus was indeed the Son of God (John 20:21). 

Significantly, the chronology of events was evidently not important for the gospel writers, nor were the details.  For example consider the following:

  1. Matt 8:26 and Mark 4:40: little faith or no faith in calming the storm.
  2. Matt 7:11 and Luke 11:13: good gifts or Holy Spirit from the Father.
  3. Matt 10:10 and Mark 6:8: take no staff or take a staff when going out.
  4. Matt 17:20 and Mark 9:29: faith or prayer in driving out demons.
  5. Matt 8:15 and Mark 1:31: wait on him or wait on them by Peter’s mother in law.

Selection and Adaptation of Material

The amount of information we have about Jesus’s life is very limited.  John affirmed Jesus did “many other miraculous signs” (20:30), and did “many other things” (21:25) that were not recorded.  Luke indicated three times he knew more information than he “selected” to include in his treatise. One, he said John exhorted the people “with many other words” (3:18).  Two, he reported the guards “said many other insulting things” to Jesus at the time of his death (22:65). Three, he stated that Peter said “many other words” (Acts 2:40).

Because Matthew, Mark and Luke each had a specific audience and theological objective in mind, they selected material that would fulfill their purposes.   This is clearly demonstrated by the conflict concerning divorce between Jesus and the Pharisees.   Both Matthew and Mark chose to include this event but they used it in different ways.  Mark included the dialogue as one of three triads he used to teach against divorce (1).  Mark also seemed to adapt the situation to his largely Gentile audience (at this point talking to the disciples in the house and not the Pharisees) when he added instruction about a woman divorcing her husband.  A Torah knowledgeable audience would have known that under Jewish law a woman was the property of her husband and, as such, could not divorce him.  For that same reason, according to the Torah, adultery could not be committed against the wife.   Matthew used the dialogue as a focal point to illustrate the fallacy of law keeping over servant hood.  Luke would have known of this conflict but “selected” not to record it.   Instead he included only one isolated statement about divorce and apparently used it to illustrate the greed of the Pharisees (Luke 16:18).   

In another example Matthew and Mark adapted the illustration of the fig tree to accomplish two different objectives.  According to Matthew Jesus cursed the fig tree, it immediately withered, and then Jesus used the example to teach about faith (21:19).  In Mark, Jesus cursed the fig tree on the way to Jerusalem (11:12-14).  Upon his arrival there he rebuked the chief priest and teachers of the law (11:18), but it was not until the next morning that the withering of the fig tree was mentioned.  For Mark the cursing of the fig tree appears to be symbolic of Jesus’s judgment of Judaism, followed by his teaching on faith (11:22-26).

Literary Style

The use of various literary devices was just as common in the ancient world as it is today.   A careful study of the gospels reveals that similes, puns, proverbs, metaphors, parables, and hyperboles were often used.   Parables and hyperboles were especially predominate in Jesus’s teaching.  The word parable comes from two Greek words and means to “cast along side of.”  Its intent is to compare something familiar with something that is not.   A hyperbole or overstatement is used to draw attention to an important concept.  For example when Jesus discussed wealth, he used the overstatement of a camel going through the eye of a needle.  A chiasmus is another literary device used in both ancient and modern times to emphasize a teaching, specifically statements are made (A, B) and then the concept is repeated in reverse order (B, A).  A modern day nursery rhyme is a good example: (A)“Old king Cole (B) was a merry old soul (B), a merry old soul (A) was he.”  An example of an ABCCBA chiasmus is found in Matt 6:24:   (A) “No man can serve two masters.” (B)“He will hate one”  (C) “and love the other.”  (C) “He will be devoted to one  (B) and despise the other.”  (A) “It is impossible to serve both God and Money.” A chiasmus can be found in one verse, a group of verses, a group of chapters or even a whole manuscript.


Perhaps we have erroneously tried to blend the gospels into one unit instead of regarding them as separate theological works.  Trying to harmonize them becomes a theological nightmare. The writers did not envision their work being copied or distributed to other audiences (Matt 24:15; Mark 13:14); nor could they have predicted that their texts would be combined into one volume.  Note: This would have been true of the letters as well (Col 4:16; Rev 1:3).  Few people were literate and fewer still would have had a copy of a gospel. Rather these works were read and discussed in public gatherings.   I will pursue these thoughts with the New Testament letters in following posts.


1. A triad is composed of a passion statement, misunderstanding by the disciples, and corrective teaching by Jesus.


  1. Mike Bucchi says:

    Jerry, you always amaze me with how simple you can break scripture down. If we were back in the New Testament times, I would come to you and ask to be one of your followers, Rabbi!!

    See you next week at Full Bubble, LW!!

  2. Tally Murphy says:

    It is good to see you on Facebook. It has been a long time since Denver. Hope all goes well with you.

  3. consultant says:

    Thank you Jerry…I am reading/studying the Gospels now. Just got “The Synoptic Gospel: The Story of the Life of Jesus by Daniel John. It was recommended by Dwight Pierce. You probably remember him. He was in our ’63 – ’67 era at Harding. I am reading and thinking of the Text more through First Century Eyes – maybe “New Eyes” as you suggest. Also, Bucchi probably does not remember me. He was a kid. We were in West together for a while. Look forward to more of your musings…

  4. Will McSweeney says:

    Thanks Jerry for all the time you have invested to give such insightful information. Humanity is truly blessed to have the Word literally at our fingertips.

  5. Dave Hill says:

    Thanks, looking forward to more information.

  6. Hey, its “Jones’s Goodtime Hour” in blog form! Love it! Keep it coming!

Speak Your Mind