The Synoptic Gospels and Differences in Their Portrayal of Jesus

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Over his head they put the charge against him, which read, 'This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.’...

From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice,

‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’ that is, ‘My God, my God why have you forsaken me?’(Matt 27:45-46)

This haunting image from the Gospel of Matthew of Jesus on the cross at Golgotha, being taunted by Roman soldiers and even the bandits crucified with him is one of the most predominant symbols of western society. Very few people have likely read the canonical gospels (Matthew, Mark, Lukeand John) in full, but rather have developed their understanding of Jesus from a realm of cultural cues that permeate western society. Depending on where a person receives their cues – which church, school, media outlet, or country, among others – his or her picture of who Jesus Christ is may differ dramatically.

Many scholars will agree that Jesus was a Jew, probably living in northern Palestine (Lower Galilee) in the early first century AD. Most will accept that an historical Jesus did indeed exist, but beyond the gospels, some early Christian apocryphal textsand historical evidence about the time-period in which he lived, there is little empirical evidence of who he was. This entry will focus on the canonical synoptic gospels - that is, the first three gospels found in the New Testament of the Christian Bible - and their portrayals of Jesus.

A Brief Introduction to the Gospels

In order to provide the greatest understanding of what may, to the uninitiated, be four paintings of inconsistent portraits of the same man, a short introduction to the gospels and their suspected history is important.1

The Synoptic Gospels

The New Testament begins with four narratives about the story of Jesus’ life. Each is distinctive, though the first three, Matthew, Mark and Luke, are far more comparable in content than John. These first three are often referred to as the ‘synoptic gospels’ (syn = with, ops = one eye), although they differ in style and portrayal of Jesus’ life, probably depending on when and where they were written. Although they carry men's names, it is generally accepted that it is unlikely that men named Matthew, Mark, Luke or John actually wrote the gospels. John is sometimes considered the exception, given that the gospel makes a direct link between a ‘beloved disciple’ and the apostle John, but this claim has never gained authority amongst scholars. The gospels are only four of many similar documents that were circulating in the first four centuries after the birth of Christ. The Council of Nicea met in 325 AD and decided what would go in an official canon. Things that were considered heretical were left out and the current New Testament books were then edited and compiled into what we know today as The Christian Bible.

The Gospel According to Matthew3
is the first document presented in modern forms of the Christian Bible, but is unlikely to have been the earliest of the gospels written. The text has enough similarities to Mark to make it entirely plausible that the author(s) had access to a version of Mark. The gospel’s area of origination is suspected to be outside of Palestine, perhaps in Syria. Its authorship is unknown and it was likely later attributed to ‘Matthew’ to lend it credibility. Matthew contains many elements of what would become church doctrine and is the only gospel to mention the church, which may be why it is presented first.

The Gospel According to Mark is commonly believed to be the earliest written of the three synoptic gospels, although its authorship and geographic origin issues of controversy. Somewhat crudely composed and sparse in detail, Mark is largely over-shadowed by the meatier texts of Matthew and Luke and may have an origin less in previous writings than in more localized oral histories and tradition. Reading Mark, one may get the feeling that they are missing part of the story. Parts of history (or tradition) are often included in very sparse detail, but with introductions that make the reader think there should have been more before. Mark is a somewhat disjointed read that presents only a bare bones tradition of Jesus. Notably, it does not contain the birth story, but is more specifically focused on the fulfilment of early prophecies and Jesus’ death.

The Gospel According to Luke is written in the traditional form of an Hellenistic history and begins with a dedication to a man who was probably the author’s patron. It contains more dialogue than the other gospels and uses time-related words to place the story within an ordered framework of a man’s life from birth to death. Luke’s date of composition is inconclusive, but, as with Matthew, it appears to rely on Mark and so was probably written later. Its geographic origins and its author are unknown.

The Gospel According to John - One needs only look at a table of parallel passages from the four canonical gospels to see that John differs significantly from the three synoptic gospels and is therefore not considered beyond this introduction. John may, in its open criticisms of Jewish authority, reflect the building tension between leaders of the synagogues and those members who were beginning to claim that Jesus was the prophesied messiah. John’s geographic origins are unknown; Ephesus (west Anatolian coast) has been suggested among others.


The canonical gospels are the primary vehicle from which the western world has arrived at its understanding of Jesus' life. In a strict literary reading of the gospels, setting aside traditional representations, the reader will gain an appreciation of the four very different approaches to Jesus as the man (or more than man).

Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels

The gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke contain many similar elements, clearly come from a similar source and in many cases, their portrayal of Jesus is similar as well. So, what is common between the three? In all three, Jesus is portrayed as a teacher who doles out advice on issues of spirituality and following God’s will. He chooses twelve special disciples to whom he directs special teaching; he tells parables, or short stories meant to teach. He is a miracle worker who heals the sick and fights off Satan in the desert. He is the Son of Man4 who will be the final judge of men and the one who will suffer according to the prophecies in Daniel (Dan 7:13-14). He is the one prophesied in the Hebrew Old Testament (OT) as the Messiah and he performs ministrations in Galilee and Judea. And, in all three, Jesus eats a Last Supper, betrayed by Judas, is abandoned by Peter when in captivity and dies on the cross, only to be resurrected.

However, the interesting point about the gospels is not where they agree, or are similar, but where they differ, or even conflict. Simple differences include the lack of the birth narrative in Mark and the descriptions of Jesus as a child in Luke. But each gospel also presents Jesus in slightly different ways, perhaps as looking at the same man through variously tinted lenses. This article is an attempt to ignore 2000 years of exegesis, politics and religious frosting and look at the gospels as if they are literature, focusing on the stories they tell and the character of Jesus within their ‘plots’.5


Jesus in Matthew is a strict and conservative man, whose life from birth to death is the fulfilment of fourteen prophetic sayings from books in the Old Testament, which are quoted throughout the text. The language of the gospel portrays Jesus as an ascetic, whose movements and actions are directed by the prophecies.

Matthew begins his story with Jesus’ birth to the virgin girl Mary in Bethlehem. After the boy’s birth, Joseph and Mary, acting on advice from God, flee to Egypt to escape the slaughter of children by Herod, who hopes to kill their child. After Herod’s death, the family returns to Palestine to live in Nazareth (Galilee), where Jesus grows up. John the Baptist foretells the imminent coming of the kingdom of God. As John baptises the adult Jesus in the Jordan, God tells Jesus that he is his son. God leads Jesus into the wilderness and the devil tempts him there. Jesus’ character development in Matthew begins here, as he answers the temptations of the devil one by one with scripture, until the devil leaves.

Jesus’ conservatism in Matthew is best illustrated in 5:21-48, where he radicalizes existing Jewish laws, making them stricter and their infringement more severely punished. He threatens the ‘hell of fire’ as the ultimate punishment for actions such as insulting brothers and sisters (perhaps metaphoric), failing to forgive, committing adultery (including in thought alone), divorce (because it causes adultery) and swearing falsely. He commands obedience to rules about prayer, possessions, fasting and conduct toward God and men. Matthew is ultimately a collection of prescriptions and proscriptions regarding human actions and how they will lead to eternal life with God or eternal burning in hell. Jesus is a strict teacher, who warns that he will deny any that stray from his path of righteousness. He exhorts his followers to ‘keep the commandments,’ and then lists what are called today the Ten Commandments and adds one: ‘If you wish to be perfect, go, sell you possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me” (19:21).

The language in Matthew is harsh and it leads to an understanding of Jesus as harsh as well, with little sympathy for human suffering. He says to his apostles, ‘[Y]ou will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved’ (10:16,22). The theme of battle, violence and betrayal holds strong throughout Matthew. Jesus is bringing suffering to those who follow him and expects his followers to endure through it for the reward of eternal life. He foretells the coming of the kingdom as a battle, with famines, earthquakes and war – birth pangs that will be signs of the end of the age on earth (24:20). He has come, not to offer peace, but

…to set a man against his father,
and a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.

As Jesus’ death draws nearer, Matthew portrays Jesus as becoming increasingly impatient with the people around him. He tells Peter, ‘Get behind me Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things” (16:23). In addition, when his disciples fail to heal an epileptic boy, he says, ‘You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I put up with you?’ (17:17). When hungry, he withers a fruitless fig tree, saying ‘May no fruit ever come from you again!’ (21:19). He also shows some signs of questioning his fate, such as when he prays, ‘My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want” (26:39) and ‘My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done’ (21:42). In the end, he gives himself peacefully to those who wish to arrest him, exhorting his disciples to not use violence and not answering any charges brought against him. The gospel ends with Jesus, after his crucifixion and resurrection, commissioning his eleven apostles (Judas had hanged himself) to go out into ‘all the nations…teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you,’continuing on the note of command and obey carried throughout the gospel (28:19-20).


Matthew reflects many of the themes developed in part by Mark, but Mark is far shorter on details and emotions. Reading Mark, one is challenged to come up with a character for Jesus, but the overall feeling is secrecy. Jesus in Mark is portrayed by his actions as separate and secretive. He is announced by John the Baptist as ‘the one who is more powerful than I’ (Mark 1:7), but does little to enhance this appearance of power. He works miracles and then firmly tells people to keep it secret. As his fame grows, he ‘could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter’ (Mark 1:45). Large crowds are described as ‘pressing in on him,’ and when he has a chance, he withdraws. He takes his twelve disciples and gives them secret teachings, explaining the meaning of the parables to them in secret. He tells them that ‘to those outside’ (everyone else) ‘everything comes in parables; in order that ‘they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand; so that they may not turn again and be forgiven’ (Mark 1:11-12).

In Matthew, Jesus is also somewhat secretive and mysterious, saying, “All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Matt 11:25), and Jesus chooses to reveal him to those who show faith. To others he speaks in obscure parables, but, as in Mark, he explains further to his chosen disciples. However, even though the theme of secrecy can be ferreted out in Matthew, it is not developed enough to be called a central characteristic of Jesus in the gospel.


Like Matthew, Luke has many parallels with Mark, but develops them more into a story and less into an exhortation than does Matthew. Jesus’ character as a man (and more than human) is here fleshed-out with a story that includes the story of John the Baptist’s birth and the story of Mary before Jesus’ birth. Luke also develops Jesus as a child and Mary and Joseph as parents of the child. They search for him throughout Jerusalem when he goes missing and chastise him for worrying his parents. His genealogy through Joseph is listed in full, tying him strongly to his Jewish roots, including Abraham and Adam6 The Jesus of Luke is far softer than in Matthew, although there are similar moments of severity.

In Luke, Jesus is described as being thirty years old when he begins his ministry. His temptations in the wilderness by the devil are very similar to those in Matthew, as is his early teaching. While the story is essentially the same, the tone differs. Throughout the gospel, the poor, the downtrodden, the unfortunate, oppressedand ‘captives’ are focused on. Where Matthew is thick with language of conflict, Luke is filled with healing and acceptance of those who were held down by poverty and oppression. Whereas the fire of hell holds some prominence in Matthew, the term used regularly in Luke is ‘glorifying God.’

Jesus’ dialogue with people is as one who is a member of the community, rather than as one commanding allegiance, as in Matthew. As opposed to the secrecy in Mark, although Jesus’ actions do not differ, his reactions to the people following him are moderated through dialogue, in which he explains to people why he is leaving them (4:43). His disciples, the number of which are not mentioned beyond the twelve apostles in the other gospels, are far more present throughout the Gospel. He chooses the twelve, but later appoints seventy to precede him to Jerusalem and heal and spread the news of the nearness of the kingdom of God. A transition here, then a comparison of the sermons in Matthew and Luke...

A Comparison of the 'Sermons' in Matthew and Luke
The Beatitudes in MatthewThe Sermon on the Plain in Luke

Blessed are the poor in spirit,

for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn,

for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek,

for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and
thirst for righteousness,

for they will be filled.

Blessed are the merciful,

for they will receive mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart,

for they will receive God.

Blessed are the peacemakers,

for they will be called children of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted
for righteousness’ sake,

for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you when people revile you and
persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against
you falsely on my account.

Rejoice and be glad, for your reward
is great in heaven, for in the same way they
persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Blessed are you who are poor,

for yours is the kingdom of God.

Blessed are you who are hungry now,

for you will be filled.

Blessed are you who weep now,

for you will laugh.

Blessed are you when people hate you,
and when they exclude you, revile you,
and defame you on account of the Son of Man.
Rejoice in that day and leap for joy,
for surely your reward is great in heaven;
for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.

But woe to you who are rich,

for you have received your consolation.

Woe to you who are full now,

for you will be hungry.

Woe to you who are laughing now,

for you will mourn and weep.

Woe to you when all speak well of you,

for that is what their ancestors
did to the false prophets.
Matthew 5:3-12Luke 6:20-26

1“Gospel” derives from an Anglo-Saxon term, “god spell,” meaning “good news,” and finds a common Greek originating root to the word “evangelism.” Gospels, canonical or non-canonical, tell a story, most commonly in narrative format. Early Christian gospels are stories about Jesus, his relationship to his disciples and God, and about his death.22On the use of the term ‘God’ and other common terminology: Where the original texts differentiate a term such as ‘God’ as a proper name, the usage in English is as a proper name. Elsewhere, the capitalisation is dropped, such as referring to God with the pronoun ‘he.’ This is because the Greek New Testament did not make a distinction between pronouns when used for God as opposed to when used for a man. This may be unfamiliar to many people, who are accustomed to the antiquated language of the 1611 King James Bible (eg, thee, thou, He).3The information on the origins of the gospels and scriptural quotes are from The Harper Collins Study Bible: New Revised Standard Edition, With the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books, editors Wayne A. Meeks et. al., HarperCollins Publishers, 1993.4The term ‘Son of Man’ appears 81 times in the New Testament, always spoken by Jesus of himself. Various translations of the Hebrew Old Testament also include it, particularly referring to Ezekiel, but it is clearly used in a unique way in the NT gospels. The term in the New Testament is used to refer to Jesus. The term likely comes from an Aramaic idiom that can be translated simply as ‘mortal’ or ‘human’ in many cases, but in the gospels clearly takes on a more spiritual meaning as someone kindred to humans, or the ideal man.5Disclaimer: This goal is admittedly impossible without this becoming a mind-numbing structural exegesis which is one of the least informative of all analytical forms (unless you think like a computer). Since most westerners have some inherent bias that results in part from the 2000-year history of Christianity and therefore will read the gospels with a certain colour of lens, some bias in the illustrations selected by the author is hereby admitted.6Although the author of Luke makes note that Jesus was only thought to be Joseph’s son, he gives his genealogy as the son of God through Joseph (Luke 3:23-38).

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