Synoptic Gospels: The Birth, Teachings, and Death of Jesus

TL;DR

Most historians agree that:

  • Mark was written 66-70 AD; Matthew and Luke were written a few decades later, with Mark as a source
  • Jesus was born 6-4 BC, and had a brother called James
  • Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet: he thought the end of the world would come soon, within his own generation, and bring about the kingdom of God
  • Jesus preached that eternal life would result from following the Law as specified in the Hebrew Bible; he did not make the Hebrew Bible (aka Old Testament) obsolete in any way
  • An important part of following the Law was feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty, and generally caring for the least fortunate people
  • Jesus was crucified c. 30-33 AD at the order of Pontius Pilate, prefect of Judea

Overview

Mark, Matthew, and Luke are called the synoptic gospels. They describe the birth, life, ministry, and death of Jesus, and are by far our most valuable source on these issues. Aside from John, which was written later than the synoptics, no other book in the New Testament discusses Jesus in any detail. Although dozens of non-canonical gospels have been found, none of them were written before Mark, and most of them also postdate Matthew and Luke. Among the two non-Christian historians (Tacitus and Josephus) who mention Jesus within 100 years of his death, Tacitus describes him in only one sentence:

Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus

while Josephus mentions him in two short passages, one of which is at least partially inauthentic.

Authorship

The synoptics were written in Greek, intended to reach Greek-speaking inhabitants in the eastern part of the Roman Empire. Despite their names, they were not actually written by the disciples named Mark, Matthew, and Luke. The gospels themselves are anonymous—they never claim to be written by the apostles, and in fact refer to the apostles in the third person. The author of Luke offers valuable insight into why he wrote his gospel:

Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught. (Luke 1:1-4)

Notice that Luke implies he is not an eyewitness, but rather wrote his gospel based on information passed down from eyewitnesses. Luke never claims to be inspired by God or that his work is free from error. Rather, he claims to have done an investigation and wrote down what he found.  There is no reason not to believe him.

Of the synoptic gospels, Mark is the earliest and by far the shortest. It dates to 67-70 AD and was written for a Gentile audience. Matthew (80-90 AD) and Luke (80-100 AD) were written based on Mark, explaining their striking similarity to one another (the name “synoptic” means “seeing together”). Besides copying Mark nearly word-for-word, Matthew and Luke have a large amount of material in common that is not found in Mark. In the two-source hypothesis, this is explained by positing the existence of a second written source, termed Q, that both authors had. Q has since been lost, but it was probably also written in Greek and contained quotations of Jesus.

The relationship between the synoptics makes it an interesting exercise to read them side-by-side, looking for similarities and differences.  This webpage shows the gospels in parallel columns for easy comparison.

Jesus’ Family

Matthew and Luke both give Jesus’ genealogy; they are also the only books in the Bible that do so. Unfortunately, they are contradictory.

Matthew’s genealogy is:

Abraham -> Isaac -> Jacob -> Judah -> Perez -> Hezron -> Ram -> Amminadab -> Nahshon -> Salmon -> Boaz -> Obed -> Jesse -> David -> Solomon -> Rehoboam -> Abijah -> Asa -> Jehoshaphat -> Joram -> Uzziah -> Jotham -> Ahaz -> Hezekiah -> Manasseh -> Amon -> Josiah -> Jeconiah -> Shealtiel -> Zerubbabel -> Abiud -> Eliakim -> Azor -> Zadok -> Achim -> Eliud -> Eleazar -> Matthan -> Jacob -> Joseph -> Jesus

Luke’s genealogy is (starting from Abraham):

Abraham -> Isaac -> Jacob -> Judah -> Perez -> Hezron -> Ram -> Amminadab -> Nahshon -> Salmon -> Boaz -> Obed -> Jesse -> David -> Nathan -> Mattathah -> Menan -> Melea -> Eliakim -> Jonan -> Joseph -> Judah -> Simeon -> Levi -> Matthat -> Jorim -> Eliezer -> Jose -> Er -> Elmodam -> Cosam -> Addi -> Melchi -> Neri -> Shealtiel -> Zerubbabel -> Rhesa -> Joannas -> Judah -> Joseph -> Semei -> Mattathiah -> Maath -> Naggai -> Esli -> Nahum -> Amos -> Mattathiah -> Joseph -> Janna -> Melchi -> Levi -> Matthat -> Heli -> Joseph -> Jesus

Notice that both genealogies agree that Joseph is the “father” of Jesus. They also agree on the names between Abraham and David, the first king of Israel, because the Hebrew Bible provides this part of the genealogy explicitly. Thus, both authors believe Jesus to be a descendant of David. However, Matthew believes he was descended from Solomon, while Luke believes he was descended from Nathan. Both Solomon and Nathan are sons of David through his wife Bath-shua, according to 1 Chronicles 3:2.

While Jesus’ genealogy has to be considered completely unknown, we do know one fact about his family with a remarkable degree of certainty: that Jesus had a brother called James. This is attested in Mark (6:3) and Mathew (13:55), as well as by the Jewish historian Josephus (Jewish Antiquities 20.9.1). Amazingly, Paul, who wrote Galatians, claims to have met James in Jerusalem (Gal 1:19). Thus we have three independent sources—namely Mark, Paul, and the non-Christian Josephus—who agree that Jesus had a brother named James.

Birth of Jesus

Mark begins with John’s baptism of Jesus, and says nothing about the birth of Jesus. Matthew and Luke discuss it in some detail, and historians have tried to use their accounts to determine when Jesus was born.

Immediately, however, we run into a problem. According to both accounts, Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the Great. According to Luke, Jesus was born after Augustus Caesar decreed an empire-wide census, “the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria” (2:2). Herod the Great died in 4 BC, while Quirinius became governor of Syria in 6-7 AD. Jesus could not have simultaneously been born before Herod’s death in 4 BC, and after Quirinius became governor in 6-7 AD. So one of these claims must be thrown out, but which one?

Most historians agree that Luke’s claim about the census is less reliable. To begin with, both gospels associate Jesus’ birth with the reign of Herod, but only Luke mentions the census. No Roman records mention an empire-wide census by Augustus, nor did censuses ever require Romans to travel to their ancestral homelands. While a census of Syria and Judea did take place while Quirinius was governor, Jesus’ family would have been exempt because they were from Galilee. Finally, Luke itself indicates that Jesus was “about thirty years old” (3:23) when he began his ministry, during the 15th year of Tiberius (29 AD). This agrees with the 4 BC date—if Jesus was 32 years old, he would have been born in 4 BC—but is incompatible with the 6-7 AD date. Due to this and other evidence, Jesus was most likely born 6-4 BC.

Nativity traditions

It is remarkable how many nativity traditions are just that—tradition, with no Biblical basis whatsoever. For example, nowhere in the Bible does it say that Jesus was born on December 25. Not only that, the Gospels don’t even tell us the approximate time of year of his birth. Not only that, the Jews didn’t even use a solar calendar during the time of Jesus—they used a lunar calendar that was kept in sync with the Sun by observation. Christmas is a celebration of Jesus’ birth; many of its traditions, such as the Christmas tree, originated in pagan religious festivals occurring at the same time of year. The December 25 date was never meant to be the actual date of birth.

Another common myth is that three wise men came to visit the baby Jesus, guided by the star of Bethlehem. In actuality, the number 3 is not mentioned anywhere. In Matthew, an unspecified number of magi from the east visit Jesus, guided by a star. (A magi was a Zoroastrian priest who specialized in astrology.)  In Luke, an unspecified number of sheppards come to Bethlehem; they knew where to go because angels (not a star) told them.

Jesus’ teachings: Apocalypse!

Jesus’ teachings have been appropriated mercilessly to support every imaginable ideology. Was he a communist, or a capitalist? Was he liberal, conservative, or libertarian? What did he think of illegal immigration, welfare, feminism, human rights, or secularism?

It shouldn’t be surprising that Jesus didn’t say a single word about any of these issues. There’s no way he could have—he was born 2000 years before these ideologies were invented.

There is one belief, however, that Jesus almost certainly held: he thought the world was going to end, within his own generation. Our earliest gospel, Mark, makes this very explicit:

If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels. And he said to them, “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.” (Mark 8:38)

So, the Son of Man is coming back, this time with angels. When will that happen? Early enough that some of the people Jesus is talking to will live to see it.

The bulk of Jesus’ apocalyptic teaching is found in Mark 13, which was copied with modifications into Matthew 24 and Luke 21. It is worth quoting at some length:

As Jesus was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!”

“Do you see all these great buildings?” replied Jesus. “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”

As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled?” […]

“When you see ‘the abomination that causes desolation’ standing where it does not belong—let the reader understand—then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let no one on the housetop go down or enter the house to take anything out […] those will be days of distress unequaled from the beginning, when God created the world, until now—and never to be equaled again […]

“But in those days, following that distress,

‘the sun will be darkened,

and the moon will not give its light;

the stars will fall from the sky,

and the heavenly bodies will be shaken’

“At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens […] Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.

“Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back—whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn. If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!’ ”

Here, Jesus gives his disciples a description of what will happen during the apocalypse. It will arrive suddenly and cause unparalleled suffering. Then, the Sun and Moon will stop shining and the stars will fall from the sky—clearly not an ordinary earthly event. The Son of Man will then come back to Earth and gather up his elect, after which heaven and earth will pass away. When will all of this occur? Before “this generation” passes away.  To reinforce the point, he tells his disciples to keep watch for the events he just described.

This apocalyptic speech happens at the end of Jesus’ ministry, shortly before he was crucified. Did Jesus have apocalyptic beliefs before this, or did he come up with them at the last second? While we don’t have a direct answer in the Gospels, it’s interesting to note that Jesus was baptized by John at the beginning of his ministry.  John was himself an apocalyptic prophet, as Matthew and Luke make clear:

John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near’” (Mat 3:2)

Bear fruits worthy of repentance […] Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire (Luke 3:8)

Why would John tell the crowds that the kingdom of heaven is near if he thought everybody would be long dead before seeing it? Moreover, why does John tell the crowds to repent because the kingdom of heaven is near? How near or far the kingdom is only matters if his audience would live to see it, and had to repent before it came. The most reasonable explanation is that John and Jesus were both apocalyptic prophets, and both believed that the apocalypse would come before their generation passed away.

Jesus’ teachings: Eternal life

What does one need to do to have eternal life? Most Christians today would say something akin to “have faith in Jesus Christ and accept Him as your Lord and Savior”. In the synoptics, Jesus never says anything similar to that. In fact, a rich man specifically asks him this question in Mark 10 (copied into Matthew 19 and Luke 18). The man asks Jesus, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17).

Jesus begins his response by denying that he is good, for “no one is good—except God alone”. Clearly, the Jesus of the synoptics does not consider himself God or the equal of God. Jesus continues by saying “you know the commandments” and listing some of them, such as not murdering, not committing adultery, etc. The man responds that he’s kept all the commandments, and Jesus adds on one more requirement: sell everything, give the money to the poor, and follow Jesus. The rich man would not do this, and Jesus comments “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” Nowhere in this entire conversation is belief in Jesus’ divinity required, or even mentioned.

A longer exposition is given in the passage starting Matthew 25:31. It is worth quoting at length:

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

“They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

“He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

“Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.

Who gets eternal life? The ones who feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, welcome strangers, clothe the unclothed, and take care of the imprisoned. Who gets eternal punishment? The ones who ignore the hungry, the thirsty, the strangers, the unclothed, the imprisoned, and the “least of these brothers and sisters of mine”. What does the rich man have to do to get eternal life? Follow the commandments—and if he really wants treasure in heaven, sell his possessions and follow Jesus. Nowhere is belief in Jesus mentioned.

Jesus’ teachings: the Law

Virtually no Christian today follows the Jewish Law. Christians don’t circumcise their sons, don’t keep the Sabbath (the 4th of the Ten Commandments), and don’t restrict their diets according to Jewish dietary laws. Jesus would likely not agree with this point of view. Although there is some inconsistency among the synoptic gospels on this issue, in the overwhelming majority of cases where Jesus addresses it, he is in favor of keeping the Law.

Recall the rich man’s question to Jesus in Mark 10: what is required for eternal life? Jesus’ response: keep the commandments. In Mark and Luke, he lists out a few of the commandments, all of which are part of the famous Ten Commandments. In Matthew, he lists out the same commandments but adds a new one: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (19:19). This is not one of the Ten Commandments; it is from Leviticus 19:18.

The clearest statement in favor of the Law is found in Mat 5:18 and Luke 16:16, where Jesus declares: “till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled.” Matthew’s version is preceded by “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill.” Until the apocalypse comes, Jesus says, the Law must be obeyed.

In all of the synoptics, Jesus often comes into confrontation with the Pharisees, but these conflicts are never about the validity of the Law as given in the Hebrew Bible. For example, the Pharisees accused him of acting unlawfully on the Sabbath, such as plucking grain for his disciples to eat and healing the sick. But does the Hebrew Bible ever forbid healing or plucking grain on the Sabbath? Not at all—it says that Jews must rest and refrain from work on the Sabbath. The Pharisees were a group of Jews who, among other things, took a strict interpretation of the Law and avoided anything which remotely resembled “work”. There were prominent Jewish groups who disagreed with the Pharisees, most prominently the Sadducees (who were mostly the elites of Jewish society), and most ordinary Jews weren’t part of either group.

In another famous incident, Jesus did not wash his hands before eating bread. The Pharisees ask in Mark 7:6, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat bread with unwashed hands?” As the Pharisees themselves state, the hand-washing is a tradition; it is not mandated by scripture. Jesus’ response is that scripture is more important than tradition: “All too well you reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your tradition” (7:9). Jesus goes on to say, several verses later, “whatever enters a man from outside cannot defile him, because it does not enter his heart but his stomach, and is eliminated, thus declaring all foods clean”. In my opinion, this is the only verse in the synoptics where Jesus actually opposes the Law. The last phrase (“thus declaring all foods clean”) is not found in Matthew’s version of the story (15:2), possibly because Matthew, as a Jewish Christian, found it offensive. I also don’t think this phrase represents what the historical Jesus actually taught, considering the overwhelming number of verses where Jesus cites scripture, urges people to follow the commandments (which are not just the famous Ten Commandments), and advocates in favor of the Law.

Crucifixion

According to all our gospels and both of our non-Christian historians, Jesus was crucified on the order of Pontius Pilate. Pilate was the prefect of Judea from 26-36 AD, so the crucifixion had to occur in this time range. Our best estimates place it around 30-33 AD.

According to the synoptics, Jesus was crucified on Passover, which takes place on 14 Nisan of the Hebrew calendar. Generally, 14 Nisan corresponds to early April. Because the Hebrew calendar was based on observation of the Moon—astronomy was not yet advanced enough to model the Moon’s behavior accurately—more precision is hard to come by.

Why was Jesus crucified?  The synoptic gospels all claim that the Sanhedrin, an assembly that made legal rulings on religious matters, found him guilty of blasphemy.  While claiming to be the Messiah would certainly be blasphemous to most Jews, the Sanhedrin had no power to impose capital punishment–that could only be imposed by the Romans.  The Romans couldn’t have cared less about religious squabbling, so what exactly did they have against Jesus?  One possible answer lies in Mark 15:2 and 15:26:

Then Pilate asked Him, “Are You the King of the Jews?” He answered and said to him, “It is as you say” (15:2)

And the inscription of His accusation was written above: THE KING OF THE JEWS (15:26)

Jesus proclaimed himself, or came to be proclaimed as, the King of the Jews.  To the Romans, this was a political claim–only Rome could install kings.  While Rome didn’t care about anybody’s religious beliefs, it ruthlessly punished anyone who dared to challenge its political power.

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One Response to Synoptic Gospels: The Birth, Teachings, and Death of Jesus

  1. Pingback: How John Differs from the Other Gospels | religioustexts

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