Synopticity, I

To the best of my knowledge “synopticity” is not a word used in theology or Biblical studies, but it seems an appropriate word to describe the kind of phenomena associated with the Synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke. These three Gospels tell essentially the same story with significant — sometimes puzzling — variations. It is this repetition with difference that I am calling “synopticity.” In this essay, I argue that the repetition with difference that we see in the Gospel accounts of Jesus is, in fact, a fundamental characteristic of Scripture, one that has both literary and theological foundations.

Estimates of percentages differ somewhat, but as much as 75% of the Gospel of Mark may be included in both Matthew and Luke, and as much as about 25% of Matthew and Luke may be shared in these two Gospels, though not included in Mark. The overlap between the three is obvious, even to the superficial reader. Each of the Synoptic Gospels tells the story of Jesus’ Great Galilean Ministry, His withdrawal to the north and Peter’s climactic confession of faith — the turning point of the story — followed by ministry in Perea and Judea on the way to Jerusalem, the cross, and the resurrection.[i]

The Gospel of John tells a very different, though not contradictory story. John focuses on Jesus’ ministry in Jerusalem, reporting His signs and teachings when He attended the feasts of “the Jews.” Still, with all of its uniqueness, John is telling the same story of the same Jesus. The Synoptic Gospels especially, but all four Gospels as well, confront us with repetition with difference — a single story told in wonderfully diverse ways.

In the most general form, then, “synopticity” is repetition with significant variation. In the Synoptic Gospels, this means, most narrowly, multiple accounts of the same event differ in ways that are often puzzling. However, there should be nothing surprising about this for someone well acquainted with the Bible. For, telling a story of the same event from a very different perspective does not begin with the Gospels. It begins in Genesis.

“Synopticity” in the Old Testament

The first example of “synopticity” in the Old Testament appears in the first two chapters of the book of Genesis. There are two accounts of the same event, the creation of the world. The first account from Genesis 1:1-2:3 gives a general description of each of the six days of creation and a statement about the Sabbath rest on the seventh day. The whole account moves toward the creation of man — God’s very image. Then, Genesis 2:4-25 tells the story again. Genesis 2:4 seems to summarize the whole creation account. The following verses relate the story of the creation of God’s image at length and include many details that we would not have anticipated from the story of man’s creation in Genesis 1:26-30. It is the same story, but also a remarkably different story.

From our reading of Genesis 1:26-30, for example, we never would have imagined that the man and the woman were created separately. We hear nothing in the original story about a Garden of Eden or about forbidden fruit. The second creation story differs from the first rather like John differs from the Synoptic Gospels. It is certainly the same persons being spoken of and the same events, but the perspective is profoundly different. In the broad and somewhat vague sense in which I am using the word, this is the first example of “synopticity” in the Bible. But it is not at all unique.

For example, the books of Exodus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy contain many examples of the same event told from different perspectives at different times. The story of the Exodus, Israel’s wilderness wandering, Moses’ and Aaron’s sin, and other stories are repeated in ways that offer differing insights. There is no mere repetition.

Certainly the most striking and surprising example of repetition with variation is two different accounts of the Ten Commandments, the first in Exodus 20:1-17, the second in Deuteronomy 5:6-21. One might think that the Ten Words (the Bible does not actually call them “Ten Commandments”) would be exactly the same in both passages. After all, they were originally written on stone by the finger of God. The fact that we are given two different versions of what we would expect would be precisely expressed in identical words apprises us of the different literary and theological conventions of Biblical authors.

I do not doubt that Moses himself is responsible for these two accounts. Though no one questions the fact that editorial work was done in later days, by a prophet like Ezra, for example, that is certainly not the source of the alternative versions of the Ten Words. Moses himself gave us two versions — “synopticity” in the very heart of the Mosaic covenant. It is not my purpose here to ask why he did what he did or to explain the differences. My point is that “synopticity” itself is fundamental to Biblical revelation, even in those places where we least expect it.

The stories in the books of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles include many examples of “synopticity,” the most extensive and detailed of which is the story of David. The king after God’s own heart has his life story told twice over (1 Samuel 16-1 Kings 2:11 and 1 Chronicles 11-29) just as the story of Jesus is told four times. If we include David’s Psalms, there are three accounts of many of the important events in his life — the Psalms offering the most subjective and penetrating insights into David’s heart. As in the story of Jesus, some of the differences are difficult to understand since the same events are presented from remarkably divergent viewpoints. Was it the LORD who moved David to number the people (1 Samuel 24:1) or was it Satan (1 Chronicles 21:1)? There is no question that we are talking about the same event, but the contrast in literary portrayal could hardly be more extreme. There is no contradiction here, but the disparate narratives provoke thought.

The examples above do not by any means exhaust the examples of “synopticity” in the Old Testament. There are many, many more. My point in this part of the essay is simply to introduce “synopticity” as a concept and to alert the reader that what we see in the Gospels is not some original, unique literary feature. On the contrary, the Gospels repeat literary conventions that characterize Hebrew Scripture from the beginning.

Ralph Smith is Pastor of Mitaka Evangelical Church in Tokyo, Japan.


[i] D. A. Carson and Douglas Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament—Second Edition (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992, 2005), p. 77.