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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

The Basic Interrelationship of the Gospels.

The three gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are clearly related very closely to one another, much more closely than John is related to any of them. They share the same basic outline, roughly the same order of events, the same way of telling stories and relating sayings, and even the basically same portrait of the good news of the kingdom and its preaching by Jesus.

This similarity among the first three gospels is best seen by contrast to John. The geographical outline is different: in the first three gospels Jesus goes to Jerusalem only once during his ministry, for the final week, whereas in John he pays several visits to Jerusalem. The order of events is different, for example the cleansing of the temple comes early in John, introducing Jesus' ministry (Jn 2:13–22 ), whereas in the other three gospels it forms the climax (Mk 11:15–19 ). John relates many fewer miracles, but almost invariably these are developed by means of a subsequent long discourse of Jesus or by a controversy that brings out the sense and meaning of the event (for example the cure at the Pool of Bethesda continues into a discourse on the works of the Son, Jn 5 ; the multiplication of loaves flowers into the bread of life discourse, Jn 6:1–15, 22–66 ). While the Jesus of the first three gospels turns attention away from himself to the kingship of God, in John the kingship of God is mentioned only in 3:3–5 ; the Johannine Jesus teaches about his kingship only in 18:6 , and otherwise concentrates rather on his gift of eternal life. In the first three gospels story-parables are an important vehicle of teaching, whereas the fourth gospel barely uses them, preferring instead extended images such as that of the Good Shepherd (Jn 10:1–18 ).

The similarity between the first three gospels may be roughly described in terms of the number of verses shared. Of Mark's 661 verses, some 80 per cent feature in Matthew and 60 per cent in Luke. Conversely, only three pericopes of Mark (the seed growing secretly, Mk 4:26–9 , the healing of the deaf-mute, Mk 7:31–7 , and the blind man of Bethsaida, Mk 8:22–6 ) have no equivalent in either Matthew or Luke. Time and again such long stretches show almost verbatim agreement between Matthew and Mark or Mark and Luke that some literary relationship at the textual level must be postulated between them. Similarly Matthew and Luke have some 220 verses in common, mostly of sayings-material, so that some literary relationship between these two is undeniable. The possibility of viewing these three gospels together has led to the appellation Synoptic Gospels, and the difficulty of reaching an agreed solution to account for their interrelationship has been dubbed the ‘synoptic problem’. The issue is so complicated that some scholars regard it as little more than an intellectual game. Brown (1997: 111) opines that ‘most readers of the NT find the issue complex, irrelevant to their interests, and boring’.

Three proposed solutions to the synoptic problem will be outlined (c), which will be tested in a discussion of six pericopes (F–K).

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