Synopticity, II
November 17, 2016

In my first essay on “synopticity” I offered a rather rough definition of the phenomenon and important, though not exhaustive examples. In this essay, I want to introduce broader aspects of the phenomenon of “synopticity.” The first example that I have in mind is conventional stories, stories of different historical events that follow the same patterns very closely. The second example that I will introduce is literary allusion. Both of these examples fit the notion of “repetition with difference” which is my basic — if somewhat ambiguous — idea of “synopticity.”

Conventional Stories

Modern readers often miss conventional stories. I know that for many years I did. Why do we miss them? Because our ways of telling stories and our conventions, customs, and standards of story-telling are basically different. When, as a young adult just becoming acquainted with the Bible, I read the story of Abram going down to Egypt, (Genesis 12:10 ff.), it never occurred to me to relate it to Israel’s descent to Egypt.

But if we read Genesis carefully, we note that the story of Abraham and Pharaoh is repeated, though in different forms. In this case, it is obviously not different versions of the same historical event, but different events told within the same literary conventions. The first story is in Genesis 12:10-20. There was a famine in the land, so Abraham and Sarah traveled to Egypt. Abraham tells Sarah to refer to herself as his sister. Pharaoh tries to take Sarah for himself, but God judges him and protects Sarah and Abraham. Abraham leaves Egypt with the gifts that Pharaoh had given him.

A very similar story is told in Genesis 20:1-18. In this case, Abraham and Sarah travel to the land of the Philistines and it is Abimelech who tries to steal Sarah. God rebukes him in a dream, so Abimelech restores Sarah to Abraham and the two move on with significant gifts. The third story is in Genesis 26:1-12. This story, too, begins with a famine in the land, like the original story in Genesis 12, but now it is Isaac and Rebekah who go to the land of the Philistines. Isaac also claims that his wife is his sister. Again there is danger that someone might take her, but Abimelech notices Isaac and Rebekah when they are alone and concludes that they are not brother and sister. He commands everyone to stay away from Isaac and Rebekah and they prosper abundantly.

The similarities of the three stories are striking, though there are noteworthy differences as well. There is no doubt that we are reading of three distinct events, not three versions of the same story. Genesis shows us that God has designed history in such a way that there are recurrent patterns. The stories of Abraham and Isaac prefigure the story of the Exodus, when God’s bride, Israel, is attacked by Pharaoh and saved by Yahweh, leaving Egypt with abundant spoil. Jacob’s journey to and from Laban falls into the same basic pattern, as does the story of the ark of the covenant being taken to Philistia and sent back to Israel (1 Samuel 4-7), and the story of Israel and Judah being taken into captivity, but brought back to the land. The Exodus motif finds its fulfillment in Jesus, both in His journey to Egypt and return as an infant (Matthew 2:15) and in His final Exodus (Luke 9:31; in Greek “departure” is “Exodus”). Pharaoh, Abimelech and Herod are Satans who attempt to thwart God’s kingdom program, but the victory, by grace, always belongs to the apparently weak and helpless people of God.

Literary Allusion

Just as conventional stories do not count as different versions of the same story, literary allusion is something different from what we see in the Synoptic Gospels. Still, there is something like the idea of repetition with difference that makes it legitimate, perhaps, to put literary allusion under the same umbrella of “synopticity.”

The importance of literary allusion for the Bible is well expressed by the Jewish scholar, Robert Alter: “Nothing confirms the literary character of biblical narrative and biblical poetry more strikingly than their constant, resourceful, and necessary recourse to allusion. Now, it is obvious that, because the members of any culture carry around in their heads bits and pieces of all sorts of texts, allusion also occurs quite abundantly in nonliterary discourse, both written and spoken. A newspaper article, say, about the collapse of an African government may invoke T.S. Eliot’s ‘not with a bang but a whimper,’ or a phrase from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, or a line from Hamlet, or a prescription from Robert’s Rules of Order. On the whole, such allusions to familiar texts in ordinary speech, journalism, and most expository writing work as rhetorical embellishments; there is rarely a sense that they are dictated by the necessity of the form of expression in which they occur.

"The case is quite different with literature. A person inevitably composes a story or poem — and it makes no difference whether the composition is written or oral — out of the awareness of a preexisting body of textual objects, stories or poems, in which the composition at hand will constitute a new member. Thus, every writer not only emulates certain models but is compelled to define a relationship — competitive, admiring, revisionist, elaborative — to at least certain elements of antecedent literary tradition. Allusion, then, is not an embellishment but a fundamental necessity of literary expression: the writer, scarcely able to ignore the texts that have anticipated him and in some sense given him the very idea of writing, appropriates fragments of them, qualifies or transforms them, uses them to give his own work both a genealogy and a resonant background.”[i]

Literary allusion, then, in some form draws a preexisting story into a new story so that each must be read with the other. Just as the repetition of the story of Jesus in Matthew, Mark, and Luke compels us to compare and contrast, so literary allusion provokes us to read different stories together and interpret each in the light of the other. In that sense, it seems to me to be a form of the kind of repetition with difference that I am calling “synopticity.”


As in the previous essay, my point is to argue that the basic phenomenon of repetition with significant difference is a feature of Biblical literature as a whole. It appears in different forms. It is virtually omnipresent. In that sense, what we see in the threefold testimony of the Synoptic Gospels and the fourfold testimony of the Gospels is not unusual as a Biblical phenomenon. Considering that the life of David has a twofold testimony in general and for some incidents that are reflected in the Psalms, a threefold testimony, it is to be expected that the life of Jesus would be communicated to us in a similar kind of multiplicity and “synopticity.” Of course — apart from Alter’s point that allusion is a literary necessity — I have not addressed the question of why Biblical literature should exhibit the literary characteristic I am calling “synopticity.” But I hope that I have shown that “synopticity” is so basic to Scripture that we must ask why the Bible is written in this way.

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

[i] Robert Alter, The World of Biblical Literature (New York: Basic Books, 1992), pp. 107-08.

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