Re-inventing the Gospel Synopsis

English says that women “conceive” or “become pregnant.” But Greek does not put it this way. Greek says that women “grip in the stomach.” In Luke 1:31, when the angel is speaking to Mary, he says that she will soon “grip in the stomach and give birth to a son.” The Greek here behind “grip” is sullambano. It is a common word with violent overtones usually referring to the act of grabbing or seizing someone. For instance, in the Garden of Gethsemane scene, Jesus is depicted as asking the mob why they have come with swords and clubs to “seize” him (Matt 26:55; Mark 14:48). How interesting that the same word – sullambano – is used in both instances! Most English translations, however, use English idioms, and this parallel is lost.

See Also: Parallel Gospels: A Synopsis of Early Christian Writing (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011)

By Zeba Crook
Carleton University, Ottawa
June 2012

Some time ago, I was trying to point out to a group of seminarians the evidence that Matthew and Luke relied directly on Mark as a source, that they relied on a document of sayings now lost (“Q”), and some of the challenges to the Q hypothesis (the so-called “minor agreements”). It was difficult to do because none of the students could read Greek; none of the Greek agreements and disagreements I was trying to draw their attention to were visible in the English synopsis I was using at the time. In frustration, I decided that I needed to create my own synopsis. I set to work immediately, hoping to be done by the end of term.

Thirteen years later, I finally finished it! Parallel Gospels: A Synopsis of Early Christian Writing (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011) is my attempt to address the limitations of other gospel synopses. Here I would like to talk about some of the challenges of re-inventing the gospel synopsis, particularly the arrangement of stories, the translation of words, and defining the scope of a synopsis.

Arrangement: A synopsis places the gospel stories (called pericopes) in parallel columns. This allows one to analyze the stories in a detailed way (which I will address next), but it also allows one to consider how the different Gospels have arranged the stories differently. A synopsis helps one see, for example, that Luke has moved the story of Jesus’ visit to his home synagogue to the beginning of Jesus’ preaching mission (Luke 4:16-30). Matthew (13:53-58) agrees with Mark’s arrangement, which places this event well into the Galilean mission (Mark 6:1-6). The synopsis arrangement encourages readers to think about what might have motivated Luke to move the story. The story provides a theological summary of Jesus’ mission, and so perhaps Luke thought it was a good way to open the mission account. A synopsis allows one to see that transposition easily.

Sometimes, choosing how to arrange stories in a synopsis is easy, as with the preceding example. Sometimes it is less clear whether one story or passage actually derives from another, or is it its own composition. For instance, where does Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount fit relatively to Mark? To put it differently, when Matthew is using Mark and taking over Mark’s narrative structure and he decides it is time to insert the Sermon on the Mount, where in the Gospel of Mark is he when he makes this decision? It is about trying to get into the author’s head in order to understand his compositional strategy.

Most synopses present the summary that introduces Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount (Matt 4:23-5:1) as parallel to a much shorter summary statement found in Mark 1:39. Before we look at the two passages, a warning: the translation here, from Parallel Gospels, does not look like a translation at all! More will be said below on why this translation looks so odd.


As you can see, Matthew shares a mere two phrases with Mark here: “their synagogues” and “whole [of] the Galilee,” the word “preaching” and a reference to demons. In other words, Matthew does not appear very parallel with Mark at all, and the few words he shares with Mark are so generic that it does not require Matthew to be reliant on Mark to have composed his own summary. But worse, it requires one to think that Matthew built his longer summary inspired by two generic phrases and couple of words in Mark.

It is more likely that Matthew’s summary is Matthew’s alone, and that therefore he inserted his Sermon on the Mount at Mark 1:20 (which is the last Markan material Matthew uses before introducing his Sermon on the Mount), and not at Mark 1:39 as is so commonly presented in synopses. This change does not, as with the example above, tell us anything interesting about a gospel writer’s theological thinking, but it does result in a more rational portrait of Matthew’s process of composition and how Mark might relate to that process.

Translation: The second critical use of a synopsis is to enable the comparison of shared gospel stories at a micro-level. What words does Mark use to relate the Parable of the Mustard Seed? Which of those words do Matthew and Luke take over? Do they reject any of Mark’s words? Do they rearrange any of them? How do they edit Mark? Do they edit Mark in the same way at the same time? Do they edit Mark in the same way in other stories? Is this or that word unique, that is, does it appear only here and never again in the New Testament? Does Matthew’s and Luke’s editing of Mark tell us anything about their stylistic preferences as writers, about their theology or ideology, or about their particular depiction of Jesus?

These are important questions, the very sorts of questions ministers and priests consider when trying to decide how they might preach on a text. And yet, these sorts of observations cannot be made in most English synopses, which use standard English translations (like the Revised Standard Version) for the text in the columns. These modern translations are perfectly legitimate; they are target-language translations, which means that the target language (English) dictates the shape of the final translation. For example, English always requires a plural subject to have a plural verb, where in Greek a plural neuter verb will have its verb in the singular. Thus, an English target-language translation will override the Greek to produce a proper English translation. For most purposes, this is worthwhile, because it makes the text accessible, smooth, and idiomatic for English speakers.

The target-language is the focus not only in terms of grammar but also with idiom (the way we say things). For example, English says that women “conceive” or “become pregnant.” But Greek does not put it this way. Greek says that women “grip in the stomach.” In Luke 1:31, when the angel is speaking to Mary, he says that she will soon “grip in the stomach and give birth to a son.” The Greek here behind “grip” is sullambano. It is a common word with violent overtones usually referring to the act of grabbing or seizing someone. For instance, in the Garden of Gethsemane scene, Jesus is depicted as asking the mob why they have come with swords and clubs to “seize” him (Matt 26:55; Mark 14:48). How interesting that the same word – sullambano – is used in both instances! Most English translations, however, use English idioms, and this parallel is lost.

Does it really matter that Greek uses the same word in two such different ways? Not as far as meaning is concerned. In all languages, the same word can be used to mean quite different things, showing the dynamic nature of living languages. But it does matter if one is interested in what words the gospel writers actually use, what words they like or avoid, and what words they take over from other writers. If one cannot see the words, then one cannot see the patterns of agreement and disagreement and one misses the patterns of editing and the patterns of literary dependence.

The translation in Parallel Gospels, as you saw above, is what sets this synopsis apart from all other translated synopses. It is a source-language translation. What the Greek actually says, and how it says it, governs the shape of the final translation. When a word occurs in the Greek, I assign one English word to it and I use that same English word every time the Greek word appears (the English words I used for each Greek word can be found listed at the end of the synopsis). The result is in places a challenge to read – precisely because it is not a target –language translation. I really struggled with the effect of assigning one English word for every Greek word; language just does not work on a one-to-one word ratio.

But such a translation principle offers English readers three benefits: First, getting a sense of the actual Greek behind familiar phrases can make sentences pregnant with meaning. It can tell us something about how the ancient writers thought about their world. There is something violent about pregnancy, as foetus and mother contest for the same cramped space (her stomach!), often accompanied by no small amount of kicking from one party, and perhaps the Greeks were thinking of this. Secondly, it allows one to compare the gospel writers’ patterns of editing, to see with certainty how they changed (or not) their sources. This is invaluable when teaching the synoptic gospels to students who do not know Greek. And finally, it has the effect of reminding the reader that he/she is reading a foreign text in a very foreign language. Normally the goal of translation is to bring the text closer to the reader, but what is valuable about a source-language translation is that it emphasizes the foreignness, the cultural distance, of a text. This synopsis is difficult to read because Greek can be difficult to read. English target-translations tend to make the Greek text appear so clear that its meaning becomes naively self-evident.

Scope: Any reader will already have deduced that there is a relationship between the word “synopsis” and the term “synoptic gospels.” A gospel synopsis lays out the synoptic gospels in parallel columns because when you do so, the synoptic gospels can be analyzed synoptically – that is, one can “see” (optic) them “together” (syn). The synoptic gospels lend themselves particularly well to this arrangement.

Occasionally, but not very often, a synopsis creator adds a column for the Gospel of John. The challenge here is space. Ninety percent of the time, when there is material in the John column, the synoptic columns are empty, and when there is material in the synoptic columns, the John column is empty. Such is the degree of difference between John and the synoptics: a fraction of John is paralleled in the synoptic gospels, until you get to the passion narratives.

Parallel Gospels includes a column for John only where it can be argued that John has material somewhat parallel with synoptic material. Sometimes the parallels are tenuous indeed. I should make clear that by including an occasional column for John, I am not claiming a solution to the long-standing issue of John’s reliance on or independence from the synoptic gospels. I do translate John by the same principles as I translate the synoptic gospels (the one-to-one word ratio), but I also separate the John column from the other columns with a double line. I am not claiming that John is reliant on the synoptic gospels for his material.

However, while the inclusion of John is not unheard of in synoptic construction, never has a synopsis included columns for Q and for the Gospel of Thomas. Here I am stretching the boundaries of the “synopsis” even more.

Q of course is a hypothetical, scholarly reconstruction. There is no surviving manuscript evidence of Q. Yet it makes sense to include Q in a synopsis since so many scholars and their students use Q to think with. Despite the prevalence of Q in scholarship, it is actually not that easy for students to get a “copy” of Q to read. As a result, Q appears in Parallel Gospels in its entirety like the other synoptic gospels and is translated according to the same principles as the other synoptic gospels and John.

One might object, and fairly, that the presence of a column for Q in a synopsis gives Q a materiality it lacks, and a materiality the other writings in this synopsis enjoy, even the Gospel of Thomas. I must stress that the intention of including Q is not to give it materiality, nor to prejudice the debate on its existence and necessity. This synopsis is a teaching tool, and I think the presence of Q and some of the issues of Q’s relationship to the synoptic gospels (especially those concerning order – let the reader understand), offers as much teaching potential for opponents of Q as it offers proponents.

It is likewise with the presence of the Gospel of Thomas in Parallel Gospels. Like John, Thomas is only presented when it shares material with the synoptics – about two-thirds of Thomas has a synoptic parallel. Like John, the Thomas column is separated from the synoptic columns by a double line, to indicate that I make no assumptions about its literary dependence on the synoptic gospels. But unlike John, and the synoptic gospels, Thomas is not translated using the one-to-one word principle. This is because Thomas does not survive in the same language as the canonical gospels. I was able to translate John, Q, and the synoptics because we have evidence of their existence in Greek, but Thomas survives (with the exception of a few Greek fragments) only in Coptic.

In the end, the presence of Q and particularly Thomas in columns in Parallel Gospels is a reflection of scholarship in Christian Origins that has been around for a generation now, scholarship that points out that as historians, we should no longer privilege canonical gospels as a matter of principle: non-canonical gospels are no longer second-class citizens in the assembly of primary texts that tell us about early Christianity. Canonicity is an assessment of theological value, not an assessment of historical interest or value. Thus, it made sense to include parallel texts from the Gospel of Thomas, not as a claim that Thomas is as early as the synoptics (that is a thorny issue!) but because it is interesting historically that it shares so much with the synoptics.

Creating Parallel Gospels was a far more complex enterprise than I anticipated when I began the project. It is my hope, though, that grappling with the numerous challenges it presented will help its readers to deal with their own challenges in the classroom, the pulpit, and wherever else Parallel Gospels might be read.

Comments (1)

Thanks, Zeb, for this lucid and really helpful article about your synopsis. You make a lot of very strong points, and I sympathize with the point about the difficulty in teaching students with no Greek. I appreciate too your point about the inclusion of Q giving it "a materiality it lacks". I could not have put it better myself! This remains my single biggest worry about the Synopsis -- I think that the more one empowers the student to see the parallels between Matthew and Luke clearly, the more important it is not to prejudice them in either direction about the existence of Q. This is not a cheap Q sceptical point. If I were on your side of the debate, I would worry that students were accepting Q because they saw it in the book and not because they had analyzed the carefully constructed Synopsis and found it the strongest hypothesis. But more of that anon. Cheers, Mark

#1 - Mark Goodacre - 06/08/2012 - 03:56

Add new comment

This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.