The Pastor's Bible Study:

The Synoptic Gospels
By: Dr. Gregory S. Neal

There are many excellent methods for studying the Bible.  Personally, I enjoy using the popular Disciple Bible and Christian Believer series, both of which incorporate the results of up-to-date research from across a broad spectrum of Christian scholarship. Both studies involve long-term commitments to attendance on the part of the participants, the use of multi-media resources for in-class presentations, and a well researched and written, yet easy to understand, study guide.

As wonderful as these resources are, however, my favorite approach to Bible study involves nothing more or less than the Bible, the minds and hearts of those participating in the study, and my own research abilities as a student of the Scriptures. This is the program and philosophy behind The Pastor’s Bible Study, audio podcasts of which can be found here on Grace Incarnate Ministries. In this approach, I do not utilize or have the participants purchase a set literature, study guides, or other exclusive resource. I have a general expectation on where our study is going, and I usually have a good idea of how long the study will take and how to go about charting our course through the study, but otherwise I don’t limit each session’s content to any specific range of verses or topics, nor do I limit where our group discussions lead us.  In other words, The Pastor’s Bible Study is an open-ended forum for discussion of Bible and Theology, using specific books of the Bible as our jumping off point.  The study involves a gathering of minds and hearts, a willingness to read the Biblical passages for their actual content, and an openness to new interpretations and understandings. I bring to each session a background of study materials, an understanding of the text through several different interpretive approaches, and a willingness on my own part to  be open to different interpretations as offered up by the study participants.

Usually, the Pastor’s Bible Study involves a verse-by-verse read-through of a specific book or the Bible.  During my time at St. Stephen United Methodist Church we read our way through several of the letters of Paul – including an excellent and engaging year-long study of the Letter to the Romans. In 2009 – 2010, however, we expanded our approach from looking at just one book at a time to looking at three: Matthew, Mark, and Luke, also known as the “Synoptic Gospels.”  This most recent study has been both highly challenging and highly rewarding. While it is true that I have always learned new things in each of these Pastor’s Bible Studies, in the Synoptic Studies my comprehension of many of the arguments regarding the authorship of the Gospels themselves, their structure, meaning, relation to each other, and interpretive approach to Jesus, grew tremendously.

Matthew, Mark, and Luke are called the “Synoptic Gospels” because they are synonymous with each other (i.e., their content, outline, and approach is similar and, probably, related). When read together, it is often said that they provided a comprehensive synopsis of the life and ministry of the historical Jesus from three different perspectives. One of the things that our study did was examine the veracity of this claim. We also became familiar with the character and approach of Jesus’ teachings, the picture of Jesus which each of the Gospels presents, and the theological interpretation of each of the Christian communities from and for which each Gospel was written. We also learned a bit about how the Gospels came about, as can best be determined both from reading them directly as well as from what the historical sources in the first couple of centuries of the Church have told us.

Long before any of the three existing Synoptic Gospels were written – indeed, shortly after the death and Resurrection of Jesus – someone decided to begin writing down our Lord's teachings as an aid to preaching for early Christian evangelists traveling throughout the Jewish world. These "sayings” or “words of Jesus" were written in Aramaic, more or less as originally preached, and are mostly a collection of beatitudes, parables, and other teachings grouped by theme. While it was chiefly intended for circulation among Jewish Christians within Palestine, it was quickly translated into Greek for use among Jews outside of Judea as well as among Gentile converts. Indeed, the Apostle Paul quotes from a Greek edition of this “Sayings Source” as early as about 50 AD in his letters to the Corinthian and Roman churches. This document – usually called “Q," which is short for the German word Quelle, meaning "source" – has never been found, but scholars have deduced its existence based upon the high degree of agreement in content, grammar, and word-order in those teachings of Jesus which are found in Matthew and Luke but not in Mark. Our study demonstrated the veracity of this hypothesis through an exhaustive (and, at times, exhausting) comparison-reading of the Sermon on the Mount sayings and the Parables.

Mark’s Gospel was the first one written, probably composed by John Mark, a follower and secretary of Peter, soon after the Apostle’s death in the mid-to-late 60s AD. In it the author wrote down what Peter had preached, including some of the miracles, a few of the teachings, and a general outline of the life and ministry of Jesus from baptism to death. The accounts are given in an order and with a structure that appears, at first, to be chronological but may actually be thematic. The grammar, word choice, and sentence construction of this first gospel is somewhat crude, reflecting spoken forms of source material far more than written forms. All of this confirms the probability that the author of Mark was writing down something that was being heard, providing an organizing literary structure after-the-fact.

Using Mark’s Gospel as a basic outline, correcting his syntax and grammar as they went, the authors of Matthew and Luke wrote their Gospels, incorporating the Saying Source (“Q”) as seemed best to them, fleshing out the message of Jesus and interpreting it further for their own communities. Matthew’s Gospel was written by a Jewish Christian to a Jewish Christian community, probably living in or around Antioch or Damascus a decade or so following the Roman expulsion of the Jews from Jerusalem in 70 AD. This Gospel presents Jesus in the most Jewish of lights, yet also reflects the harsh antipathy between the Jewish Christian community and the Jewish society as a whole.  This antipathy was rooted in the fact that most Jewish Christians had only recently been pushed out of Synagogue worship, something which the Jewish Christians deeply resented.

On the other hand, Luke was written by a Gentile Christian (very possibily the Syrian born physician, named Luke, mentioned in Acts) to a mostly Gentile Church in either Asia Minor or Greece. While still retaining plenty of strong Jewish cultural references, this gospel was written to introduce Jesus to a gentile and Roman audience in such a way that he, and the Christian communities of which Luke was a part, would not be viewed as being contrary to Rome’s interests or the Roman government.

All three Gospels contain theological interpretations of the life and ministry of Jesus. They are not so much histories, although they contain historical information, as they are expressions of, and exhortations to, faith. Many scholars in the 20th and 21st centuries have read the Synoptics with the intention of recovering the “historical Jesus” from the many successive layers of interpretation which, they believed, had been imposed upon the Rabbi from Nazareth by the gospel authors and their communities. While I certainly agree that we encounter Jesus in the Gospels through the lenses of faith and theological interpretation, I nevertheless reject the entire project of trying to discern a “historical Jesus” within the Gospels distinct from the message of faith being articulated by the gospel authors. So often the picture of Jesus that scholarship has crafted from such studies tends to look more like an idealized, somewhat anemic, 1960s era counter-cultural “dope smoking hippie” and anti-war peace activist … an image far too similar to the researchers themselves for my comfort, and one which reminds me of the blond-haired and blue-eyed Jesus of 1930s and ‘40s conservative Anglo-Saxon Protestant America.  To be blunt, I believe that when we look to “uncover” an historical Jesus from the context of the Gospels all we really succeed in doing is create a Jesus who conforms to our own preconceived expectations. I prefer to read each Gospel, independently and then together, to see what they tell us about Jesus and the early Church’s understanding of Jesus, rather than try to determine which saying is accurate or historical or “what the real Jesus would have said.”

The approach we took in our study of the Synoptics was simple, even if its implementation grew increasingly complex as we progressed through the Gospels: taking Mark as our outline, we read through all three Gospels, supplementing Mark with material from Matthew and Luke as we went. Where Matthew and Luke agreed together but where Mark was silent, we used Matthew as our general guide and hopped around in Luke for the parallels. We also looked closely at the teachings and other accounts that were unique to any of the three Gospels. And, we examined the parables of Jesus, in depth, as referenced in all three Gospels synoptically as well as those parables that were unique to Mark, Matthew, or Luke. We then concluded our study by examining the Last Supper, the arrest, trial(s), death, resurrection, and post-resurrection appearances of Jesus in all three Gospels. Throughout our study we kept being encountered by a Jesus who, far from the stylized picture of the media or the idealized picture of academia, was often quite discomforting, challenging, and yet also appealing. This Jesus both comforted and confronted us, and he managed to do so from all three Gospels. It was, indeed, a most fruitful study, one which I offer to you for you to listen to over in the Bible Study section of this website.

© 2010, Dr. Gregory S. Neal
All Rights Reserved

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The Reverend Dr. Gregory S. Neal is the Senior Pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Commerce, Texas, and an ordained Elder in the North Texas Conference of The United Methodist Church. A graduate of Southern Methodist University, Duke University, and Trinity College, Dr. Neal is a scholar of Systematic Theology, New Testament origins, and Biblical Languages. His areas of specialization include the Theology of the Sacraments, in which he did his doctoral dissertation, and the formation and early transmission of the New Testament. Trained as a Christian educator, he has taught classes in these and related fields while also serving for more than 25 years as the pastor of United Methodist churches in North Texas.

As a popular teacher, preacher, and retreat leader, Dr. Neal is known for his ability to translate complex theological concepts into common, everyday terms. HIs preaching and teaching ministry is in demand around the world, and much of his work can be found on this website. He is the author of several books, including
Grace Upon Grace: Sacramental Theology and the Christian Life, which is in its second edition, and Seeking the Shepherd's Arms: Reflections from the Pastoral Side of Life, a work of devotional literature. Both of these books are currently available from Amazon.com.