17 The Synoptics: Mark, Matthew, and Luke

Griesbach's Synopsis Evangeliorum
Griesbach’s Synopsis Evangeliorum, 1809 CE, comparing Matthew, Mark and Luke’s version of the same story.

Why are these gospels called synoptic? How are they all similar?

Matthew, Mark, and Luke are called “Synoptic Gospels” because they can be “seen together.” What that actually means is that these gospels contain many of the same stories, and that those stories are sometimes even presented in the same sequence within each of the three different synoptic gospels. There are, of course, substantial differences in style from one gospel to the next, and in addition  to shared content, each gospel has content that is completely unique to itself. Still, the three gospels interact with each other through the overlapping use of many stories, narratives, dialogues, and images.



Oxford Bibliographies states the “Synoptic Problem” here very well with these questions:

  1. Is the relationship among the three gospels a matter of direct literary dependence, indirect dependence mediated through oral performances of written texts, or common dependence on oral information?
  2. Can the direction of dependence be established?
  3. Can a genealogy of the development of the Synoptic Gospels be constructed?


How do we look at the “synoptic Problem”?  What are the sources of the gospel materials?



In the chart below you can see the small  (3%) slice of material that is only found in Mark, the equally small material (3%) that is found in only Mark and Luke, the slightly larger set of material found in only Mark and Matthew  (18%) and the fairly substantial amount of material found in all three gospels–76% of Mark overlaps with 41% and 46% of Luke and Matthew respectively.  That is a lot of overlap!  Luke and Matthew also share some materials not found in Mark–about a quarter of each gospel.  So clearly these writers had access to similar materials, and likely to one another’s work!  The non-gospel work that they seemed to have access to has been nicknamed “Q” for Quelle, the German word for Source.

A little more information about Q

Take a minute to read this article, which was prepared for PBS Frontline’s award winning program called From Jesus to Christ.  Written by Marilyn Meadows[1], it talks a bit more about this mysterious, assumed extra source of materials about Jesus.  More About Q

Watching this short clip with Dr. Sara Parks[2] might also help understand this idea of Q




Miniature of Saint Mark in the Susteren Gospel Book in the church treasury of the Abbey of Susteren, the Netherlands. The gospel is from the 11th or 12th c
Miniature of Saint Mark in the Susteren Gospel Book in the church treasury of the Abbey of Susteren, the Netherlands. The gospel is from the 11th or 12th century CE

The Gospel of Mark

The Gospels of the New Testament are not biographies as we understand them today. The events they narrate are not taken at face value as historically factual. The Gospel of Mark illustrates how the gospel writer skillfully crafts a narrative in order to deliver a message. The message in Mark emphasizes a suffering messiah, and the necessity of suffering taking place before attaining glory. The gospel’s apocalyptic passages predict trouble for the Jewish temple and incorporates this prediction with understanding the future. Jesus is seen as the Son of God–a term for a human being sent for a special purpose–and this is kept secret, since Jesus is not going to look like the messianic figure that Judaism has hoped for in its prophecies. This Jesus is not a warrior king, nor someone to rescue the Jews from Roman occupation.  Mark’s messiah is not the messiah of Isaiah, for example.  This is a martyr messiah, and that is a startling revelation.

The Structure of Mark

The gospel of Mark has been called a passion narrative with an extended introduction. What is a passion narrative?  Passio means “suffering” and so a passion narrative is the suffering of Jesus that happens at his arrest, his trial, his crucifixion. The resurrection is included in most passion narratives,  but not in Mark’s gospel. All of that narrative, from arrest through the resurrection, together is called a passion narrative. That passion story occupies a huge part of the Gospel of Mark.

The Gospel of Mark is the shortest Gospel in the canon. It is only sixteen chapters long, and of that, one-third of it is about the last week of Jesus’ life.  Notice what an outline of Mark entails:

  • Chapter 1, verse 1 is the title, “the euangelion,” or “the gospel according to Jesus Christ,” and it doesn’t say “according to Mark” in the title because that name–Mark– was added later in history.
  • Chapter 1:2-13, contains an initial introduction to Jesus, just a little bit about him.
  • From chapter 1:14 to chapter 9:50 are the nine chapters of Jesus’ Galilean ministry, his healings, teachings, traveling around, and the miracles that all take place near his home.
  • Chapters 11 through 15 are all focused on the last week of Jesus’ life in Jerusalem.
  • Finally chapter 16:1-8 contains rumors of the resurrection. Why “rumors” of the resurrection? Because in the Gospel of Mark, (if Mark ends at Chapter 16:8, and there has been some controversy about whether it really is supposed to end there) if the gospel ends at 16:8,  no one actually sees the resurrected Jesus.
  • At the end of Mark there is just the one report that he has been raised from the dead. The women at the tomb are told about this by a young man, who’s sitting at the tomb. They are told to go and tell the other disciples that Jesus is raised and that he will go before them to Galilee and meet them there. Notice here that the women don’t actually tell the disciples anything! It just says that the women were afraid and they ran away.

Historical Critical Reading of Mark 

Carrying the Cross, from the Gelati Gospels MSS Date12th century
Carrying the Cross, from the Gelati Gospels 12th century

What did Mark want to do with this text?  What kind of historical context do we imagine for Mark and his writing?  Tradition says that the writer of Mark is someone who was trying to summarize Peter’s teachings to the Romans, but there is really nothing in the gospel–or anywhere else– to support this claim.  The gospel of Mark is presented in its style as a “decisive new development in the history of Israel, not the beginning of a new religion”. [3]  In Mark, Jesus is portrayed as a messianic figure, but one who suffers and is martyred, and this is not at all consistent with the concept of a messianic figure in Jewish prophecy.  Jesus does not fit with the disciples’ expectations of what a messiah would be.

Scholars see a number of problems to address while reading this text.  It can be confusing at times for the reader to understand what is going on here with an initial reading of Mark’s gospel.

One of the most famous problems in Mark is called the “Messianic secret”. This “secret” is stated like this–over and over again in Mark,  Jesus does something, and then he tells somebody to be quiet about what he has just done.  Why keep his actions a secret?  Why keep his identity a secret?


Matteo da Milano Title Cutting from a Missal: Initial O with Christ Performing an Exorcism. 1520
Matteo da Milano, Cutting from a Missal: Initial O with Christ Performing an Exorcism, 1520 CE

In Mark 1:25, Jesus confronts an unclean spirit. The unclean spirit cries out,

“What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth, have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”

In other words, the unclean spirit has just made a correct christological confession according to the Gospel of Mark.

“But Jesus rebuked him saying, ‘Be silent and come out of him.’ And the unclean spirit convulsing and crying out with a loud voice, came out of him. He cured many who were sick with various diseases and cast out many demons, but he would not permit the demons to speak because they knew him.”

If Jesus is announcing that he is the Messiah, then when people or other beings recognize this truth, why doesn’t Jesus let them speak? Why does he tell them not to tell anyone this truth? Jesus does this “silencing” with demons, but it is not just demons that he commands to silence, he also tells people to keep silent about him.

Look at 1:43, concerning a man cured of leprosy:

“And he was made clean. After sternly warning him, Jesus sent him away at once saying to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone, but go show yourself to the priest, offer your cleansing what Moses commanded as a testimony to them.”

This is a testimony to the fact that the man is now no longer a leper, but Jesus tells the man, “Don’t tell anybody about the miracle”.

In chapter 5:53, also notice what happens right below,

“But he went out [the man did] and began to proclaim it freely and to spread the word so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly but stayed out in the country and people came to him from every quarter.”

So Jesus does a great act, he says “don’t tell anybody”, and the person who was helped goes out and tells other people anyway. This is a pattern found in Mark.  The writer of the Gospel of Mark knew that Jesus was not proclaimed openly and widely as the Messiah during Jesus’ own lifetime. He was proclaimed as the Messiah by Jesus’ disciples after his death. Why didn’t all these people recognize Jesus was the Messiah during his lifetime? Scholars have questioned whether the writer of the Gospel of Mark decided it must have been a secret because Jesus kept it a secret, even saying that Jesus wanted to keep it a secret. The problem with that theory is that the people go on to tell others about this man Jesus who cured them anyway, no matter that they were told to keep the secret by Jesus himself.

There have been a lot of other theories about this Messianic secret. What does it mean? Why does he tell people to be quiet? What is going on here that he wants them to keep quiet about? Why do the people go tell others about him anyway? What does that mean for the story?  Is it because, as many say, this is a messiah who is not at all like the prophesied messiah?

That’s the first problem.

The second problem in Mark is the problem of people misunderstanding Jesus all the time.  It happens over and over in the gospel narrative.

Here is an example from the crucifixion–

“At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’”

This is Aramaic and it means, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?”  It’s from Psalm 22. The gospel then goes on to say:

“When some of the bystanders heard it they said, ‘Listen, he’s calling for Elijah.’”

Jesus is not calling for Elijah. It is just that the Aramaic word eloieloi sounds like the name Elijah, so people standing around don’t hear, or don’t understand, what is happening.

It’s not just the people standing around who do not understand, either.  In many places the disciples, the people who are closest to Jesus, are the ones who get it wrong. Repeatedly Jesus has to explain things to Peter, James, and John, his closest disciples. They do not understand the multiplying of the loaves, the way Jesus walks on water, the cures, the casting out of demons. People in his home town ask, “Isn’t this Joseph’s kid? What would he know about anything?” All the way through the gospel of Mark various people that Jesus cured of illness and possession have been stating what they believe Jesus to be–the Holy One, the Son of God.  The affected people have been confessing their belief in him as Holy, and yet still the disciples do not seem to understand what is going on around them. The demons will proclaim Jesus as Holy, but still the disciples act confused about who Jesus really is.

The point of all this, however,  is not to say that historically Jesus’ disciples actually did not understand. This “it is a secret” approach is the narrative structure of this particular gospel. Why does the author tell stories this way, with perpetually confused disciples?  The author is making a point about Jesus and his life at that time.

It is not a mystery to the readers of Mark knowing who Jesus is, which is part of the point of the Gospel. Mark is letting the reader in on some information, as he writes about the people in the gospel stories who do not know any of that information.

The last person to know who Jesus is, and to recognize him and not to misunderstand is the centurion at the cross. In Mark 15:39 the Roman centurion, when Jesus dies, says this, “Surely this was the Son of God.” . The centurion recognizes that Jesus is the Son of God. The other people who recognize Jesus and understand are the demons, the previously ill, the outcasts and the needy.  The disciples are late to comprehension.  The reader gets to know who Jesus is right away, as they begin reading, and so they watch the participants in the life and ministry of Jesus struggle.


An angel tells the three Marys that Jesus is no longer in the tomb, because he is risen.
Van Eyck, Three Marys at the Tomb, 15th century

The third  problem that scholars feel needs to be addressed is the very ending of Mark. Scholars  believe that the Gospel of Mark really did end with Chapter 16:8. Clearly at some point people said, “Well, that’s no way end a book, having the women not telling anyone anything– it just says they were afraid and they ran away!” Obviously ancient people had a sense of uneasiness with Mark ending at 16:8, and so both a shorter ending and a longer ending were created later, likely as compositions of various scribes. These were probably Christian scribes who thought that Mark’s gospel should not end in such an ambiguous way, and so they created additional verses and put them at the end of the manuscript of Mark that they were copying.  There are various versions of many parts of the Bible, not just Mark. The extra endings for Mark can be found in some early manuscripts, but are not found in other early manuscripts of Mark.

Mark’s Messiah

The Schuttern Gospels (British Library, Add MS 47673) is an early 9th century illuminated Gospel Book that was produced at Schuttern Abbey in Baden.
Opening words of Mark, The Schuttern Gospels (British Library) is an early 9th century illuminated Gospel Book produced at Schuttern Abbey in Baden.e is. 

Now look in more depth at the turning point in the Gospel of Mark.

In Mark 8:27 comes this story:

“Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi. And on the way he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’”

As soon as a reader see this, it is clear that Mark is getting to the climax of this book.  All the way through the gospel, up to this point, is this question of who Jesus really is, of who people say he is. Up to now, the disciples are regularly confused and bewildered by various happenings in the gospel.  But now this happens in answer to Jesus’ question:

And they [the disciples] answered him, “John the Baptist, and others Elijah, and still others one of the prophets. He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” He sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

There it is again. Peter confesses correctly, “You are the Messiah,” and Jesus says, “Right, but don’t tell anybody”.  Jesus is not proclaiming this information about himself yet, at least according to the Gospel of Mark. Then Jesus began to teach them.  He just commanded them to keep silent about this but what does the next verse say?

“Then Jesus began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, be rejected by the elders, the chief priest, the Scribes, and be killed and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly.”

Mark is a clever writer. He puts little short sentences like this in his gospel and the reader is supposed to understand this transition to a new stage of the gospel–“he said this all quite openly”.

But it is not the end of the misunderstandings that have been happening.  Poor Peter, who often is humanity personified–Peter is unhappy with what Jesus has to say about needing to suffer, and so this happens:

“Peter took him [Jesus] aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples he rebuked Peter.”

Peter is naturally saying something like, “No, no, no, Jesus, you didn’t get it. We just said you’re the Messiah. The Messiah doesn’t suffer and die on a cross; the Messiah comes with angels and rules! The Messiah overthrows the Romans. The Messiah sets up the new reconstituted Israel, and all the nations will flock to Jerusalem now. You’re the Messiah, that’s what you do. No, you don’t suffer and die, that’s not what a Messiah does.”

There is no Jewish expectation in the ancient world that the Messiah would suffer and die. Modern Christians think that the Messiah must suffer, as the Hebrew scriptures talk in places about a Suffering Servant. But those prophecies, those statements and poems about someone suffering in the Hebrew scriptures, they were not written about the hoped for Messiah, they were written specifically about other prophets, or holy men of God, who might have to suffer or possibly be persecuted. The actual Messiah passages do not have suffering and death in them; they just refer to this coming King, the descendent of David. No Jew in the first century expected that the Messiah would be crucified. It was against all common sense. Messiahs don’t suffer, Messiahs aren’t crucified, Messiahs aren’t beaten.  A Messiah wins.


Flemish school, The Rebuking of Saint Peter
Flemish School; Christ Rebuking or Calling Saint Peter; National Trust, Kingston Lacy


Peter understandably thinks that Jesus has got it wrong. Peter says, “You’re the Messiah, you’re not going to suffer and be killed”, and that’s when Jesus turns around and rebukes Peter.  He says:

“Get behind me, Satan, for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

That is a very interesting story in itself. What is Jesus rebuking Peter for and why does Jesus call him Satan?


“He [Jesus] called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”  And he said to them, “Truly I tell you there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.”

That is what Messiahs were expected to do– come in glory with holy angels and win over the enemy, saving Israel and restoring Jerusalem.

What is going on here? There is the correct identification of Jesus, according to Mark, as the Messiah. There is the charge to secrecy in Mark 8:30.  There is one of the passion predictions, the first of several  seen in Mark. Then comes Peter’s misunderstanding, but what does Peter misunderstand? What was Peter expecting different? He was expecting the Messiah to come with angels and be triumphant.

But from Jesus comes an emphasis on the suffering that everybody has to suffer, not just the himself as the Son of Man. Everybody has to suffer, says Jesus, and with that clarification also comes a prediction of future eschatological glory. Eschatology is just that theological word meaning the end times, the study of the end times.


One earlier prediction of the eschatological glory that comes after suffering is in Mark 6:2:

Transfiguration of Jesus, 14th century, Depicted people: Jesus, Moses, Elijah, Peter, St. James the Elder, Apostle and John the Apostle
Transfiguration of Jesus, 14th century, Depicted people: Jesus, Moses, Elijah, Peter, St. James the Elder, Apostle and John the Apostle

“Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, led them up to a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi it’s good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them anymore but only Jesus.

Then in the next verse: “As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead.”


And again an emphasis on death is presented.  Mark is trying to make an important point, maybe even to his fellow believers at the time. Peter does not understand that Jesus has to suffer and has to die, and if that causes a redefinition of Peter’s notion of what a messiah is, so be it. Peter needs to work with a redefined notion of the Messiah, including the necessity of suffering.

 The Apocalyptic Mark 

The Gospel of Mark is sometimes apocalyptic in its message. It talks about angels coming at the end, it talks about a big war that is going to happen. There is the emphasis on suffering and persecution that Jesus refers to regularly, which is a common theme of Jewish apocalyptic materials. The Jewish theme in an apocalypse is not so much that the Messiah would suffer but that the Jews themselves might have to suffer before the fabulous kingdom of the end time arrives.


In Mark 13  the basic message is that  suffering must precede glory. The suffering will come to the people as well, not just to the messiah.  And this is something that the disciples do not understand, but the reader is “in” on this secret.


God promises the people glory,  and tells the people that they are going to win in the end. Still, the Jewish people have to go through a period of suffering. Jesus is the first one who does this; he accepts suffering and death before he himself is glorified.

Jesus  in Mark’s gospel tells the disciples over and over again, “You also will have to suffer at first, but if you endure to the end, you too will experience glory”.

Mark 13:

“As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to Him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” [He’s predicting the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem.] When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are to be accomplished?” Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, “I am he!” and they will lead many astray.

So when times are bad and there are wars, that is not necessarily the end yet.

For nation will rise against nation, kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs. As for yourselves, beware; for they will hand you over to counsels; and you will be beaten in synagogues.”

The Emperor sends Vespasian with an army to destroy the Jews, created circa 1503

Again Marks writes concerning this theme of suffering. There will be all these terrible cosmic events, wars and disasters, earthquakes and more, he explains.  But there is more.

In 13:10 Mark writes, “And the good news must first be proclaimed to all nations,” which has Jesus is predicting that, before the end comes, his message, the Gospel message, will be proclaimed to all people. This will happen, even though worse things will be happening at the same time as that proclamation. The message continues in Mark 13:12:

“Brother will betray brother to death, a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name, but the one who endures to the end will be saved.”

When does all the chaos and cataclysm happen? Mark has written one answer into the words of Jesus: it is going to happen during that the lifetime of the generation that is reading this message for the first time.

In Mark 13: 30 Jesus has said,

“This generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.”

Then Jesus says that nobody is going to know the exact time of all of these events, but once the abomination of desolation is set up in the temple where it ought not to be (no one is quite sure what this would look like), that is when all the terrible suffering is going to happen.  So–stay awake, stay aware, pay attention, says Jesus.

When and Where: The Writing of Mark

Now, did all of this destruction and apocalypse actually happen as predicted by Jesus in Mark’s gospel? Well, no.

What Mark does not narrate in this section predicting apocalypse is that the temple was in fact destroyed in 70 CE by the Romans. Jesus predicts and prophesies about the temple destruction, but Mark the gospel writer doesn’t tell the reader that the temple in Jerusalem was actually destroyed. He doesn’t tell about the Roman armies led by Vespasian and Titus surrounding Jerusalem and besieging it for two years.

Jerusalem was in fact leveled, and the people in it scattered.  Masada finally happened.  And none of this war and destruction is mentioned by Jesus in Mark’s gospel, nor by Mark in his narrative about the apocalypse. Only vague hints  are given of the potential possibility of true suffering and problems for the Jews.


The story of Masada: UNESCO Site and information  Masada–the history through 73 CE


If Mark knew about all of that war and destruction actually happening, why didn’t he write about it? This question is a clue from the text that helps, perhaps, date the materials found in Mark.  What Mark writes is a prediction of the temple destruction, so at least the writer knows that it is possible that this terrible thing might happen. Mark can see it happening in the future, given the relationship between the angry occupied Jewish nation and the increasingly frustrated and powerful Romans, but Mark doesn’t narrate this utter destruction actually happening.  The writers of Luke and Matthew refer to these things as actually happening, but Mark does not.

The revolt of the Jews against the Roman occupation in Israel started in 66 CE. The Roman army went through Galilee to start quelling this first in 66 CE, and again in 68 CE, and won their battles against the Jews there. The Romans then moved south from Galilee to Jerusalem around 68 CE, and for two years the Romans besieged the city of Jerusalem.

Mark writes his gospel with this kind of message, “Things are going to get a lot worse before they get better, and just like they got a lot worse for Jesus before they got better, they are going to get a lot worse for us before they get better.”  It is meant to eventually reassure the readers, but it is a realistic look at potential pain and conflict.

A number scholars believe that the Gospel of Mark may have been written any time between 60 and 70, but either the destruction of the temple has not felt real yet to Mark’s writer, or is not known to have happened as yet.

This historical reading of the Gospel of Mark places the writings of the gospel in that decade. It is one context for the dating that makes some sense.  Some scholars, however, believe that Mark’s gospel was written in Rome and some of them even believe that it was written after 70 CE. If Mark was written any time after 70 CE,  however, it might be expected that he would narrate the destruction of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple, as Luke does. Luke, who used Mark as one of his sources, uses this passage out of Mark’s gospel and edits it to add in the destruction of the temple before Jesus comes back. The reason? Likely because the writer of Luke knew for a fact that the temple had been destroyed.

The internal message of required suffering before a final victory and glory sums up Mark’s message.  It is a message to the early followers, and addresses the real struggles that these believers may be experiencing as they read Mark’s words.


The importance of oral tradition in the composition of the gospels

The gospels were not written down until a generation–or two!–after the time of Jesus.  Understanding more about oral tradition and its role in Christian scriptures is important.  Two American scholars –Dr. Michael White and Dr. Helmut Koester– have this to say about oral tradition–The Importance of Oral Tradition




Matthew the Evangelist, miniature from the Grandes Heures of Anne of Brittany, Queen consort of France (1477-1514).
Matthew the Evangelist, miniature from the Grandes Heures of Anne of Brittany, Queen consort of France (1477-1514).

The Gospel of Matthew

The gospel of Matthew preaches both a Torah-observant message and a mission that seeks to reach out to gentiles. Matthew is the most Jewish of the four canonical gospels, containing many references within it to the Hebrew scriptures. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus limits his ministry to the people of Israel. It is clear that Jesus is talking to his fellow Jews. It is also clear that the church Matthew is writing for understands its Jewish origins, but that by the time Matthew is written–sometime around 80 CE– these particular followers have been separated from the local Jews, perhaps not totally by their own choice.  It is also clear within the gospel of Matthew that the city of Jerusalem and its temple have been destroyed. This historic context is important for understanding Matthew’s purposes,  and understanding the context in which his gospel is presented.

The Structure of Matthew

Matthew structures his book to feel a bit like the Torah, in some subtle ways.  He quotes Hebrew scriptures.  He refers to Jesus as the fulfillment of prophecies.  He compares Jesus to Moses, even to the point of comparing their lives. He connects Jesus to messianic passages all through the gospel.

The gospel of Matthew begins with the phrase,

“The book of the genesis of Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham.”

Notice that Matthew calls him “son of David”, as a descendant of the great king of Israel, and son of Abraham, connecting Jesus to the father of the Jews. Even the Greek word genesis in the phrase “the book of the genesis;” refers to the definition “the beginning”, as it is the Greek term given for the first book of the Hebrew Bible when the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek. Matthew appropriates that term, and begins his own gospel with that same word, intending his readers to recall the Torah book of Genesis.

1647 Jacob Jordaens the elder - Flight of the Holy Family into Egypt
1647 Jacob Jordaens the elder – Flight of the Holy Family into Egypt

Matthew then writes a Haggadah  on Moses.  These haggadah stories are meant to teach moral lessons. The gospel of Matthew starts out with one of these haggadah stories. It starts with the story about the evil king wanting to kill all the boy babies in Israel, because he is afraid that the new baby king will be a threat to him–whose story is like this one? The story continues showing that the child in question is eventually able to leave Egypt and come home to Israel– again, who does that sound like? These stories at the beginning of Matthew’s gospel are all meant to remind the reader of Moses, of course, and in the stories Jesus is portrayed over and over again as a new Moses. These initial stories might have morphed into a part of the popular Christmas story, but the point of the opening stories in Matthew are to tell the reader that this key person, Jesus,  is a new Moses.

There is also a fulfillment-of-scripture motif in Matthew.  Matthew throughout Christianity has been interpreted as somehow both supporting and rejecting the Jewish law.   Matthew certainly presents Jesus as a new Moses, but Christians often take that to mean that Jesus is not only the new Moses, but in fact Jesus displaces the old Moses.

Matthew’s  gospel may have been put first in the canon because it was read by Christians as being the new Law, the new Torah. As Jesus, in Matthew’s gospel, talks about the Jewish law he also talks about new commandments. Christians have taken that to mean the displacement of the Jewish Torah with a new Christian Torah, and that perception by Christian readers actually puts Matthew in a very odd position. Is Jesus, in Matthew’s opinion and perception, somehow trying to relieve people from following the Jewish law?

It helps to look in more detail at the structure of Matthew. The opening 2 chapters are that birth narrative, which is really the Moses Haggadah.  After that, come what many scholars say are five key speeches by Jesus in Matthew.  A lot of the sayings in these speeches occur in a similar context in Luke or in Mark. Matthew seems to have taken materials that he found either in written or oral sources and combined them into five separate speeches. Some scholars say Matthew meant to reflect the five books of Torah; also called the Pentateuch which is the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Each of the five speeches is preceded by some kind of narrative–something happens in each section of narrative that then leads into the specific speech given by Jesus.


Melchior Broederlam, Altar of Jacques de Baerze Description detail: The Flight into Egypt Date 1398
Melchior Broederlam, Altar of Jacques de Baerze “The Flight into Egypt” 1398

The five speeches of Jesus from Matthew’s gospel are:

  • The first speech, found in chapters 5-7, which is the famous Sermon on the Mount. This is what the kingdom of God is to look like, and this speech (or sermon) begins Jesus’ ministry. This all takes place shortly after his baptism by John the Baptist.
  • In chapter 10 Jesus gives a speech to his disciples about the mission to Israel that he wants them to undertake. It follows activities in Jesus’ ministry (miracles and a description of discipleship) with the speech commissioning the 12 disciples to go off and preach to their fellow Jews.
  • In chapter 13 Matthew has Jesus give a speech full of parables about the kingdom of heaven, which is a response, in part, to opposition that arises to his ministry.
  • In chapter 18, Jesus is again speaking to his disciples, mostly about church rules. Jesus talks about how the church should behave and what the church will be like–the ethics of communal behavior. In the narrative before this, Jesus feeds the multitudes, foretells his suffering, and gains a confession of faith from the disciples. That confession leads into this speech on the beginning of the church.
  • Before the last speech, there are  debates, problems with, and conflicts concerning the Scribes and Pharisees, as Jesus comes into more direct conflict with these leaders, and with the priests of the temple. In chapters 23-25 Jesus gives a lengthy sermon. Remember Mark 13 and  Jesus’ prophecies of  when the end of time would come, and the Messiah would come in glory? Matthew here takes that speech from Mark, adds a lot of materials and brings it up to date.  (Matthew and Luke put more into their materials that show they were writing after the time of Mark, and using Mark as a source).

So these five different speeches may be designed or arranged by Matthew to imitate or refer to the five books of the Pentateuch.  When the final speech has been given, the passion narrative of Matthew’s gospel begins.  At this point in the gospel, Jesus has arrived in Jerusalem, and the final story is ready to be told.

 Jesus and the Torah

Saint Matthieu l'évangéliste Date8th century Medium illumination on parchment
Saint Matthew the Evangelist
8th century illumination on parchment

What does the Torah, the Law, mean to the believers within the gospel of Matthew? Most Christians are taught, and most people who have only experienced Christianity have the idea, that Christianity  supersedes Judaism. The thing that makes Jews and Christians alike is that they both worship the same God and use the same Hebrew Bible.

One of the things that make them different is not only the worship by Christians of Jesus, but also the neglect by Christians of the Jewish law. Christians can eat shellfish and pork; they don’t have to keep the Jewish Sabbath, they don’t circumcise their sons. Is that the view of the Law we find in Matthew?



Look at Matthew chapter 5:17 where Jesus says this:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.”

In Christian doctrine what is often taught is that Jesus did fulfill the law in his own person. But that’s not what Jesus says here. Notice, “Until heaven and earth pass away” in the previous passage.  Then Jesus goes on to say:

“Therefore whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them, will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Jesus is not saying, “okay I’ve come, now you don’t have to keep the Jewish law”. He’s actually teaching his own disciples to be the most devout Jews possible, even more so than the leadership of the temple. If Matthew didn’t want this clear statement as a message to the members of his church, he wouldn’t have put it in his Gospel.

What would Matthew have been saying to members of his own Christian community in the first century? It seems that this writer believed that a proper community following Jesus should be a Torah Law abiding community. He is expecting people in his church not to do away with the Jewish law but to keep it.

It can help to understand how Matthew wrote about the law by looking at how Matthew presents Jesus and Jesus’ teachings concerning specific laws from within the Torah.

Take a look at “the antitheses,” as these following passages are termed, the Matthean antithesis.

A good example is found in Matthew 5:21:

“ ”You have heard that it was said to those in ancient times you shall not murder, and whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.  But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or a sister you will be liable to judgment, and if you insult a brother or sister you’ll be liable to the counsel;  and If you say, ‘You fool,’ you’ll be liable to hell of fire.’”

He’s not saying “I’m getting rid of the law, murder’s okay now”.  He is saying that not only can you not murder, you are not to even be angry, insulting, or harsh to one another.  Isn’t it interesting that those are what he equates with the idea of murder?

Keep going with Matthew 5:27 where Jesus says:

“ ‘You have heard that it was said you shall not commit adultery, But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.’”

Jesus is basically saying that not only is adultery not acceptable, but that even desiring her in that way is not acceptable. Again, this is not just about one behavior, but both internal intent as well as external action.

Look also at Matthew 5:38 where Jesus says:

“You have heard that it was said an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth, but I say do not resist an evil doer. If anyone strikes you on the right cheek turn the other also, if anyone wants to sue you to take your coat, give your cloak as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile go the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow anything from you.”


These passages called antitheses have been read throughout Christian history by many as implying that Jesus is doing away with this bad, strict, difficult legalism of the Jewish law, and teaching people a law of grace and forgiveness instead.

If it’s hard not to commit adultery, it’s even harder not to lust. If it’s hard not to murder someone, it’s even harder not to be angry with them. And if it is hard not to retaliate when someone knocks you down, it is even harder to let them knock you down again. Jesus is taking the Jewish Torah, talking about the spirit and not just the letter of the law,  and in doing so making it almost impossible to keep. But Jesus is still expecting the disciples to keep these laws, even down to the spirit and not just the letter of the laws. What Matthew presents Jesus as doing is not getting rid of the Torah, the Jewish law, he’s intensifying it.

Jesus makes all the law and the intensified statements a moral lesson. That is not anti-Jewish.  Hebrew prophets in the Hebrew Bible do that same thing over and over, saying phrases like, “God doesn’t want just your sacrifice, God wants your heart”.

This prophetic approach to people is the way Jesus is presented in the gospel of Matthew. Jesus is viewed like any Israelite prophet who is explaining the law, by showing it as already written to be a moral teaching. The Israelite prophets were concerned with the practice of the law, but even more, they too were also concerned with the spirit, intent, and faith behind those laws. While teaching about intensifying the Torah law, Jesus never teaches anything about giving up the law. Hand washing before eating, for example, might be important, but more important is what comes out of our mouths, not just what goes into them. These kind of intensifying examples are found all through the gospel of Matthew.


Jesus teaching his disciples Date1684 Source From a 1684 Arabic manuscript of the Gospels, copied in Egypt by Ilyas Basim Khuri Bazzi Rahib (likely a Coptic monk). In the collection of The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Md
Jesus teaching his disciples1684
From an Arabic manuscript of the Gospels, copied in Egypt by Ilyas Basim Khuri Bazzi Rahib (likely a Coptic monk). In the collection of The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Md

Jesus Teaching the Disciples

Matthew also presents Jesus as a teacher, as well as a prophet.  Mark says in his Gospel that Jesus was a great teacher, and people said, “Yes, he’s a great teacher, he teaches not like the scribes and the Pharisees. He teaches as one with authority”. There are a few parables, a few controversies, but in Mark’s gospel is says that Jesus is a great teacher without presenting much of the actual content of Jesus’ teaching. Matthew, on the other hand, not only tells the reader that Jesus is a great teacher, Matthew presents a great deal of Jesus’ actual teaching content.

In chapter 13, Matthew writes a large number of parables, many of them concerned with the Kingdom of Heaven. He compares God’s kingdom to the mustard seed or the yeast that both grow from tiny to huge, or compares it to a treasure or pearl to be sought with diligence.

And toward the end of this parable chapter Jesus asked the disciples in Matthew 13:51

“Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.” And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” When Jesus had finished these parables he left that place.”

This last bit of the chapter is a parable that Matthew uses to give a hint to his readers.  Jesus regularly says,  “You have heard it said, but I say to you…” In Matthew, Jesus takes out of the Jewish law the most important parts of the law and emphasizes those, and then adds some of his own intensified teachings.  Matthew also believes that he and his fellow disciples in the church should behave in that way too. He writes his Gospel to help people figure out how to imitate Jesus. How do people discern what of the old should be used and what to do to really follow the spirit of the law, as well as the letter of the law?  Matthew tells them how to do this intensifying of the law in his gospel as he describes Jesus’ teaching content.

Fulfillment of prophecy in Matthew

The Gospel of Matthew likes to point to foreshadowing, and show how Jesus came to fulfill ancient prophecies. Matthew regularly takes a Jewish scriptural reference,  takes a quotation from within that reference, and uses it to indicate that the particular prophecy is fulfilled by Jesus.

Matthew 2:13-14 says:

Melchior Broederlam, Altar of Jacques de Baerze Description detail: The Flight into Egypt Date 1398
Melchior Broederlam, Altar of Jacques de Baerze Description detail: The Flight into Egypt 1398

“After they [the wisemen] had left,”, “An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said get up, take the child and His mother and flee to Egypt and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about.to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”


The little family flees to Egypt in the face of danger in their home country. Then, when Joseph hears that Herod is dead, they come back, as is indicated in verses 19-23 of the same chapter:

19 When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, 20 “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” 21 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. 23 There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazarene.”

These are examples of the kind of fulfillment of prophecy that Matthew uses to describe Jesus all through the gospel.  Matthew uses a fulfillment structure regularly; in the birth narratives referring to various verses from Isaiah, Micah, Hosea and Jeremiah; during Jesus’ ministry, quoting Psalms, Zechariah and Isaiah; and in the passion narrative, quoting Zechariah, the Psalms, and even Daniel.  It was important to Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus to show how Jesus fits into the picture drawn throughout the Hebrew scriptures of a messiah, a holy one from God.


Leaf from a Lectionary with St. Matthew Description This leaf is from a lectionary (a book of gospel readings used in church services) that was presented to the Holy Trinity Monastery at Chalke in Constantinople by the Empress Katherine Komnene in 1063. The tools of the scribe's trade are laid out before the evangelists: a stylus (a pointed tool for writing, drawing, and engraving), a pair of dividers (a device resembling a compass, used for dividing lines and transferring measurements), pens, a knife, a burnisher (polishing tool), and inkpots. Portraits of the authors of the Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—appear frequently in gospel books throughout the Christian world. Understood to be eyewitnesses to the texts they wrote, their presence in these books served to "authenticate" the gospels. Date 1057
Leaf from a Lectionary – Matthew
This leaf is from a lectionary (a book of gospel readings used in church services) that was presented to the Holy Trinity Monastery at Chalke in Constantinople by the Empress Katherine Komnene in 1063 CE. The tools of the scribe’s trade are laid out before the evangelists: a stylus (a pointed tool for writing, drawing, and engraving), a pair of dividers (a device resembling a compass, used for dividing lines and transferring measurements), pens, a knife, a burnisher (polishing tool), and inkpots.

The Foundations of the Church in Matthew

Matthew is not presenting the creation of a new religion in his gospel. He thinks what readers would call Christianity is simply the right way to be a Jew. What Matthew is presenting is different from the forms of Judaism that are represented by the Pharisees or the Sadducees, both considered devout sects of Judaism at the time Matthew was written.  So when the “church” is talked about in Matthew, it is talked about as a Jewish institution.  It will have gentile members, but they are to follow the Jewish law as taught by Jesus.

So Jesus, besides being the one who teaches about Torah, and being presented as a new Moses,  is also presented in the gospel of Matthew as the founder of the church. In fact, the word “church” in some of the Gospels is very hard to find it because it’s anachronistic. Jesus didn’t go around during his own life talking about the “church”, the idea of church developed after Jesus’ death. It is Matthew who adds conversation about the church,  the foundation of the church, and laws about the church, and puts those words into the mouth of Jesus.

Look at Matthew 16:17, the content of which was considered in discussing the gospel of Mark.  In Mark, Jesus says to the disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” Peter says, “Some of them say the Elijah, or some of them say one of the prophets, or John the Baptist.” Jesus said, “But who do you say that I am?” and Peter says, “You’re the Messiah.” Jesus tells him, “Be quiet,” and then Jesus rebukes him when Peter tells him that he’s not supposed to be crucified.

Matthew takes that story from Mark, but Matthew changes it. He writes:

“When Jesus came from the district of Caesarea of Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?”

When Simon Peter says, “You’re the Messiah, the Son of the Living God,” in Mark’s version Jesus said, “Right, but don’t tell anybody.”  In Matthew, Jesus says something else first:

“Jesus said to him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth on will be loosed in heaven.’ Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.”

Between the command to silence, which came right after the confession in Mark, Matthew puts this foundation-of-the church narrative.

Matthew shows Jesus as the one who founds the church and puts it into the hands of his disciples. Whether he assigns it only to Peter, as the Roman Catholic church says, or gives it into the hands of all the disciples might be up for debate, but clearly Matthew wants to establish that Jesus intends that there be a church, something that is new and separate from the Jewish establishment.  This idea is clearly not found in the gospel of Mark.

In Matthew chapter 18, then, is a section where Jesus gives rules to the disciples for how the church should be run, and how it should be organized.

Over and over again comes a phrase, found only in Matthew, where Jesus talks about “little ones.” Jesus talks about these people with only a little faith and spends time encouraging their faith to grow.  The concept of a “kingdom of heaven” is often used as a way to address the church and the people who need to have more faith.  It is meant, clearly, to encourage them in their growth.  One way that Jesus talks about the kingdom of heaven is found in Matthew 13:24-30, with the parable of the good seed and the weeds:


The Enemy Sowing Weeds, Mömpelgarder Altar, 1540
The Enemy Sowing Weeds, Mömpelgarder Altar, 1540 CE

24 “He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field, 25 but while everybody was asleep an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and then went away. 26 So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. 27 And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ 28 He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ 29 But he replied, ‘No, for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. 30 Let both of them grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’ ”


Matthew is saying here that the world, and even the church, is a mixed bag of people. Not everybody is truly who others think they are. There is good and there is evil mixed together in the world, but people are going to have live with that reality. The church is going to be an organization that has both people of little faith and people of greater faith. The church is very much a part of the world. Understanding and accepting this is important as people read to understand how to follow Jesus in this gospel.

There are a set of parables in Matthew 13 called the “mixed group” parables of Matthew. They’re particular to Matthew because Matthew seems to be making the point with these “mixed group” parables that the church itself is, as is all of humanity, a mixed group.


Rembrandt, Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee, 1633
1633, Rembrandt, Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee.  18 March 1990 stolen from Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston. Still missing.

An example of different messaging: the stilling of the storm in Matthew and Mark

Matthew 14:22 contains the famous story called “The Stilling of the Storm.”  Mark 6:45 has this same story in a slightly different format. Looking at what Matthew added to Mark’s story can really help identify what Matthew’s editorial interests might have been. Why did he take something out of Mark, tell it differently, and add new narrative to it?  Remember that each of these writers is not just telling what happened because it happened exactly that way, they each are writing a book intending to put across a particular theological message.

Compare what Matthew says to what Mark writes, and see what Matthew adds and takes out of the earlier version.

Matthew writes:

“Immediately he [Jesus] made the disciples get into the boat and go ahead to the other side while he dismissed the crowds. After he had dismissed the crowds he went up to the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came he was there alone, but by this time the boat battered by the waves was far from the land, for the wind was against them.”

Notice the phrase “for the wind was against them”– the boat is battered, the wind is against them. Some of these details aren’t in Mark. The basic story is found in Mark, but this narrative about the boat being battered by the wind, or that the wind is against them–it is new in Matthew.

“And early in the morning he came walking toward them out on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. Immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; Do not be afraid.”

Jesus walking on water. Armenian manuscript. Daniel of Uranc gospel. Date1433
Jesus walking on water. Armenian manuscript. Daniel of Uranc gospel.
Date 1433 CE

In Mark, Jesus then gets in the boat, stills the storm, and Mark ends it with his own statement that the disciples still didn’t understand the character of Jesus. Mark’s theme is that the disciples continually misunderstand who Jesus really is, and what he is teaching.

That’s not the way Matthew ends the story, however. Notice what Jesus says in Matthew’s gospel:

“Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He [Jesus] said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord save me!”

“Lord save me!” cries Peter.  The Greek word for “save me”–sōzō–can mean just “rescue me”–save me from illness or danger, but it also can mean “save me” in terms of a person who needs salvation. The Greek word means both of these things.

“Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith. Why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshipped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

Now comparing these two versions of the story shows some important changes in the narrative from Mark to Matthew. First, the boat is beaten by the waves, a detail not found in Mark. Why did Matthew add that? Then comes the entire section of verses 28-31, with Peter walking towards Jesus– that’s not in Mark, either. Matthew added that. In verse 33 Matthew says, “They worshipped him,” and then the disciples make this confession, “Truly you are the Son of God,” which is a Christian confession.

The boat represents the church in Matthew’s gospel, and Matthew sees the church as being persecuted. Jesus had prophesied that the disciples would be persecuted. So the boat is persecuted, which is represented by the storm, and the winds, and the waves buffeting them, and they’re afraid. Peter, who represents every Christian, says, “I want to be like you, Jesus, and I want walk on water. I want to overcome all these problems.” He gets out of the boat, but he doesn’t have enough faith, he has only a little faith, and his doubt causes him to start sinking. When he does that, what should he do? He should cry out to Jesus and Jesus will save him. Then Jesus gets in the boat, calms the storm, and they worship him and confess him.

What was just a miracle story, just a basic story about the power of Jesus in Mark’s account has now become a moral story about the church in Matthew’s account. It is something that Matthew writes to encourage his own church.  The church may be battered and torn, but Jesus will save them, if they just reach out to him.

This is a very important change to the story, because in the first century one cannot talk about “Christianity” as just one static thing, as there were different views of Jesus, and there were different views of the Jewish law. And, of course, there were different ways of using the same story.  But do remember–the early leaders of the church included all 4 gospels in the canon, so all that 4 of these differing perspectives on who the people thought that Jesus was were considered important.

Looking at one last serious issue concerning the use of Matthew over the centuries: the plague of anti-Semitism

Although Matthew is the most Jewish seeming of the gospels, Matthew has also been the source of some of the worst ideas and beliefs found in Christian anti-Semitism in all of history. Precisely because Jesus is seen as changing or improving the Law of Moses, the origins of Christian anti-Semitism can be found in Matthew’s narrative. For example, Matthew’s stories gives the idea that Pharisees are all hypocrites. This, through Christian re-interpretation, becomes the idea that all Jews are hypocrites. Christianity traditionally says that in Matthew, Jesus rejects a strict interpretation of Moses’ Law.  It is said that this is done because the Jews are all legalistic, with lots of rules to be followed in order to be considered faithful.  Christianity is then portrayed as being much better than that Jewish legalism, and that all Christians are instead full of grace and truth, not legalism and rules. Eventually the idea comes into being within Christianity that the Old Testament represents a God of anger, strictness, and judgment, and the New Testament represents a God who is like a father–loving, and full of grace.  This is clearly not what Matthew intended to portray in his work, and it is solely early Christian interpretation, not Matthew’s writing, that is to blame here.


Albrecht Altdorfer - Pilate washing his hands - St. Florian Monastery
Albrecht Altdorfer – Pilate washing his hands – St. Florian Monastery 1509-16

It is in the Gospel of Matthew that the most anti-Jewish and anti-Semitic line that has been used throughout Western history occurs, when Pilate wants to release Jesus from being crucified. After debating with the crowd, and offering to free Jesus, the people in the crowd clamor to have Barabbas released instead, and then they say, “His blood be upon us and our children.” So Pilate washes his hands of all responsibility for this death, and lays it on the people of the crowd.

That single line became the Christian charge that the Jews killed God by killing Jesus, and that they did it knowing that Jesus was their messiah.  This interpretation of the story is especially common in medieval Europe. This interpretation–that the Jewish people knowingly killed God– lead to centuries of horrific abuse of Jewish people and Jewish communities.


Matthew is seen in contradictory ways when it comes to the history of the interpretation of the New Testament. It the most Jewish of the canonical Gospels, and yet it’s been used in Christian anti-Semitism more than any other Gospel. (although the Gospel of John might sometimes be a rival for that dubious role.)

This dualism between “old” and “new”  religious ideas that is so much a terrible part of European history, is not true to the writer’s intent in Matthew’s gospel. Matthew intended that the “new” be based solidly on the older Torah law, and that living as a follower of Jesus meant being a devout and reformed Jew in every way.


Example:  The legacy of anti-Semitism

The Universal Matthew

Matthew takes Mark’s story of the resurrection and adds to it. After having to wait for the Sabbath to pass, the women come to the tomb to finish the burial, and discover that Jesus is gone, just as they find in Mark’s account. But the young man from Mark’s story is clearly not just a young man but an angel in Matthew’s account, and the angel instructs the women to tell the disciples that Jesus has risen.  The new part in Matthew is that after this takes place, then Jesus himself appears and directs the women to tell the disciples to meet him in Galilee. The disciples go the designated mountain in Galilee and they do encounter Jesus there. Some of them have doubts. Is it really Jesus?  The great commissioning reassures them and gives them a new direction for telling this good news that Jesus has been preaching.

Matthew’s gospel ends with Jesus commanding them to make disciples of all nations. The early ministry of Jesus was to the Jewish people, but from now on, post-resurrection, the message is meant to go universal.

So in Matthew 28:18: Jesus meets the disciples in Galilee after his resurrection, and says,

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you and remember I am with you always to the end of the ages.”


A question:  must Christians attempt to convert everyone?

Take a little time to think about this question, and to read this article by Dr. Matthew Schmalz.[4]

What is the Great Commission and Why is it so Controversial?



Luke the Evangelist depicted in the Evangelion from the 11th century. This is a illustration from an illuminated manuscript. The manuscript is now in National and University Library in Zagreb.
Luke the Evangelist depicted in the Evangelion from the 11th century. This is a illustration from an illuminated manuscript, now in National and University Library in Zagreb.

  The Gospel of Luke

Luke and Acts is a two-volume work, structured very carefully by the author to outline first the ministry of Jesus, and then the spread of the Gospel to the gentiles. The Gospel of Luke emphasizes both the themes of Jesus’ Jewish piety and his role as a rejected prophet. The Gospel ends in Jerusalem, and the Acts of the Apostles begins there and then follows the spread of the Gospel, both conceptually and geographically, to Samaria and beyond, always reaching out to the gentiles. By closely analyzing Luke and Acts, it is clear that the author was not concerned with historicity or chronological order. Rather, he writes his “orderly account” to illustrate the rejection of the Gospel by the Jews and its consequent spread to the gentiles.

It is hard to talk about Luke without also talking about Acts, as it seems pretty clear from stylistic and writing characteristics that these were written by the same person. Almost no scholar doubts that they were written by the same person.

Tradition states that Luke was a companion of Paul, that he was a physician and so educated in literature and science. Most scholars view this description as unreliable. What is clear from the internal evidence of Luke and Acts is that the author was someone who knew Jewish scripture, knew the Septuagint, and understood Greek literary styles.  Luke was probably writing his gospel between 80-90 CE,  and was likely living in a Greek environment. Scholars debate on whether Luke was written in Antioch or Asia Minor.  Wherever he wrote, Luke  clearly wrote for a gentile audience. Luke’s audience seems to be a more cultured type of audience, as well. Luke’s Greek is a higher quality style of Greek than was used by Mark or Matthew.

Luke wants to show that Jesus taught an ethic that was entirely compatible with good citizenship in the Roman empire.  To quote Dr. Michael White from the University of Texas, Austin,

“Jesus is less of a rabble rouser… in these stories. And this suggests something about the situation of the audience, that they too are concerned about the way that they will be perceived, the way that the church will be perceived by the Roman authorities. It’s sometimes suggested that Luke’s gospel should be seen as a kind of an apologetic for the beginnings of the Christian movement, trying to make its place in the Roman world, to say, “we’re okay, don’t worry about us, we are just like the rest of you: we keep the peace, we’re law abiding citizens, we have high moral values, we’re good Romans too.”

Now the counterpart to the realization that Luke is telling the story for a Greco-Roman audience with a kind of political agenda is what happens to Luke’s treatment of the Jewish tradition. Luke is much more antagonistic toward Judaism. And so the gospel of Luke and its companion volume, Acts, are also reflecting the development of the Christian movement more away from the Jewish roots and in fact developing more toward the Roman political and social arena. This political self consciousness and ethnic self consciousness that’s being reflected by Luke/Acts is beginning to say that we, the Christians, the ones who are telling this story, are no longer in quite the same way just Jews. And so there’s a growing antipathy toward at least certain elements within the Jewish tradition and within Jewish society.”


at Chester Beatty Library, The front side of folios 13 and 14 of a Greek papyrus manuscript of the Gospel of Luke containing verses 11:50–12:12 and 13:6-24
At Chester Beatty Library, the front side of folios 13 and 14 of a Greek papyrus manuscript of the Gospel of Luke containing verses 11:50–12:12 and 13:6-24, 3rd century CE


Listed in De Ricci, Seymour, Census of Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts in the United States and Canada. New York. N.Y.: H.W. Wilson, 1935; and Supplement, New York, N.Y.: Bibliographical Society of America, 1962. Library dossier. circa 950
Listed in De Ricci, Seymour, Census of Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts in the United States and Canada. H.W. Wilson, 1935; and Supplement, New York, N.Y.: Bibliographical Society of America, 1962. Library dossier.
circa 950 CE.

Beginning Luke’s gospel

Look at the very opening, the beginning of Luke.

“Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed onto us by those who were from the beginning eyewitnesses and servants of the word–”

When Luke tells you that he’s gotten some detail and stories handed down, traditions, accounts from eyewitnesses– what’s the first thing that this tells the reader about the author? It tells the reader that Luke was not likely not an eyewitness.  Luke says:

“I, too, decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.”

There are several things that this prologue to the Gospel of Luke says pretty clearly to the reader:

  • Luke is not written by someone who was there with Jesus. It has been handed down to Luke by people who were there.
  • Luke is a compilation of sources.  Some of them are written sources, some of them are oral sources. Luke actually admits it up front, so it sounds like he is using both written sources and oral sources. What is one of the written sources known to be used? The gospel of Mark. Most scholars think that there is another written source called Q that he may have used as well.  There is also material that is unique to Luke, and not found in the other gospels.
  • “Orderly account” means that Luke is saying that the way he tells this story is better than the way that Mark or Q or some other sources tell it. He has thought about the order in which he puts his materials, and about how he wants to write this Gospel.
  • Luke knows that he is writing something that is similar to other literature in the ancient world. The Gospel of Luke is not a biography but instead is a genre called “a life”. The Greek word for life is bios, from which comes “biology”. Bios can be the name of genre of literature that told about some great person. In the Gospel of Luke he’s writing a bios of Jesus, a life of Jesus, and it is easy to see this because Luke starts off later in the Gospel with the same kind of information that you would see if you read a book–a bios— about Augustus or Plato. Luke starts off with narratives about a miraculous birth. Telling stories about a great man and his miraculous birth was a not uncommon way to start a bios of someone. Luke has the shepherds and angels and the manger.  Many famous bios accounts have some kind of miraculous birth–see below!


Example: how to think about miraculous birth stories?  Look at this article by Dr. MJC Warren[5].

Read this article in The Conversation (a nonprofit, independent news organization dedicated to unlocking the knowledge of experts for the public good. They publish trustworthy and informative articles written by academic experts for the general public and edited by a team of journalists.  For more information about them, check The Conversation: who we are)

What Child is This?  Miraculous Births and Divine Parents


Who is Theophilus, though, the one greeted in the opening of Luke? Theophilus comes from two Greek words meaning theos which means God, and philos, meaning beloved or friend. Some scholars have said Luke is making up a name that is a fictive name for any God loving or “beloved by God” reader. There is no way to know this, of course.  Luke sets himself up as writing a bios in the gospel, and then more of a history in the book of Acts, by the ancient standards of history.  But is this history by our standards of history?  No, not at all.  Again, the writer has an agenda, just as Mark and Matthew’s writers did.


Miniature of St Luke, patron saint of medicine, and the beginning of the third Gospel. Transcribes by Shmawon the scribe and illuminated by Abraham for the sponsor Lady Nenay.
Miniature of St Luke, patron saint of medicine, and the beginning of the third Gospel. Transcribed by Shmawon the scribe and illuminated by Abraham for the sponsor Lady Nenay. 1495 CE

The Structure of Luke

First in the Luke/Acts pairing comes Luke’s Gospel.  Luke has rather carefully structured his work, and the outline goes something like this:

  •  Luke starts off with the birth and childhood narratives in chapters 1 and 2. This opening includes the relationship between Jesus and John the Baptist, and the relationship between their mothers. Luke, though, has Jesus’ parents go from Galilee to Judea for the birth of this child. This story is quite different from Matthew’s account of the birth.  Matthew starts his story off with the holy family living in Bethlehem, not Galilee. Luke states that this family is living in Galilee and, because of a census, they must go to Bethlehem, in Judea. The family may have been living in Galilee, but Luke really starts the action of his Gospel in Bethlehem of Judea.
  • Luke 3:23 shows the beginning of Jesus’ Galilean ministry, and the account of this ministry goes all the way to chapter 9:50.  There’s an announcement in 3:23 that Jesus began to preach in the fifteenth year of reign of Tiberius. After this introduction comes a genealogy, then the temptation story in chapter 4, and eventually Jesus’ inaugural address. 4:14-30 is Jesus’ first sermon. Then in 4:31 to 8:56 is the Galilean ministry. That shows Jesus in Galilee going from place to place healing, preaching, and teaching.
  • Chapter 9 is a transition from the ministry in Galilee to Jesus’ trip to Jerusalem. Chapter 9:1 states: “Then Jesus called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over demons and cured diseases.” Notice that Jesus is setting up ministry for others, now, too.
  • Jesus is on the road.  In Luke 9:51 it says: “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” Does that refer to Jesus ascension into heaven? Is it for his crucifixion because Jesus is put “up” on a cross? Notice that the gospel is only about halfway through at this point–so there is a great deal of narrative that happens on the road and in Jerusalem.  Luke is turning the reader towards Jerusalem. “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem, he sent messengers ahead of him,” and they go through the villages en route to their final destination–Jerusalem. So during all the rest of the next ten chapters (10-19) Jesus is on the road. This material is not found in the other Gospels, it is only found in Luke.
  • Then in 19:45, Jesus finally gets to Jerusalem, and from 19:45 until the end of Luke,  Jesus is in Jerusalem, and the events of the passion take place. Jesus is shown as a martyr in Luke’s version of the passion, calm in the face of injustice.

The Themes of Luke

There are some key ideas found in Luke’s Gospel, and part of each of those themes can be found early in the Gospel narrative.  A quick summary here indicates important elements of the gospel story that Luke wants highlighted for his readers:

  • Jesus was from Jewish roots, a strong Jewish foundation, and fulfilling Jewish prophecy.  This is seen in materials pulled into Luke from Mark and Matthew, and in various stories such as the circumcision of Jesus, the reference to him regularly going to the temple, etc.
  • The spirit, the Holy Spirit, is a key presence in Luke, and is referred to regularly.
  • God is going to perform a reversal of the rich and the poor.  The poor will be supported, lifted up, and shown God’s favor.
  • The “Year of the Lord” is seen in the year long ministry of Jesus.
  • Eventually this gospel message will come to the Gentiles.  This happens in more in Acts, not really in Luke, but the prophecy of this reality is clearly stated in Luke.
  • Where the Gospel goes, persecution will follow.  All suffering and struggle in Luke is going to be due to the preaching of the good news, due to Jesus’ message. And this will happen as the Gospel goes beyond the boundaries of Israel.
Jerusalem. Nazareth, chapel on the site of the ancient synagogue. Luke 4:16
Jerusalem. Nazareth, chapel on the site of the ancient synagogue.


All of this is foreshadowed in the first big speech of Jesus.  It is a speech that, in a very short version, shows up in both Mark and Matthew, but much later in their gospels.  Luke, on the other hand, has this speech placed early in Jesus’ ministry in Galilee. A little analysis will show how each of these themes is found here, and then is continued throughout the gospel.

That first speech is found in Luke 4:16-30. Compared with Mark 6:1-6 and Matthew 13:53-58,  Luke makes changes in the scene. Matthew takes this story where he finds it in the gospel of Mark, and he puts it in his own gospel at about the same chronological place. Neither Mark nor Matthew have Jesus give a long speech, but just have him appear in Nazareth.


Luke takes this same basic story and he expands on it by saying:

“When he [Jesus] came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up and read, and the scroll of the Prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it is written, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things we have heard you did in Capernaum.’”

(That is an interesting comment, because Jesus hasn’t really gotten to Capernaum yet in Luke’s Gospel.)

And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up for three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land. Yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.”

Now notice that when the scene started, the people are all happy, Jesus has come home, and they are amazed at his teaching.  But then as the speech goes on, the mood changes.

“When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way. He went down to Capernaum, a city of Galilee, and was teaching them on the Sabbath.”

So this is when he moves to Capernaum from Nazareth in Luke’s Gospel. In all the synoptic Gospels, Jesus makes Capernaum his home base in Galilee, not his hometown of Nazareth. According to Mark and Matthew, however, it’s later that Jesus is rejected in Nazareth and then makes his home in Capernaum.  In Luke, it is right away.

Luke knows he is taking this passage out of its context from where he found it because the people say, “Do for us what you did in Capernaum”, implying that they think of Capernaum as Jesus’ home base. Luke takes this passage that he finds later in Mark, and which shows up later in Matthew, too, and he moves it to the beginning of Jesus’ Galilean ministry. Luke wants this speech to be Jesus’ first speech, this sermon, Jesus’ first sermon.  Luke also expands the story into a long speech, and this specific speech leads to a big conflict.

So Luke has transposed the story about Jesus preaching in Nazareth from where he finds it in Mark, which is later in Jesus’ ministry, and he puts it at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, and he really loads it up with all the key messages of the gospel as a whole.  What’s important to Luke is using the story to emphasize the theological message that he wants to emphasize.


By looking at the details, both in this speech, but all through the gospel as well,  it is clear that Luke is not telling us what happened with chronological or historical accuracy. He puts it in the order he puts it because he wants to have this message of the Gospel reflect on some specific themes, and eventually center the reader on Jerusalem,


In part, that is why Luke has ten full chapters concerning the journey to Jerusalem. He wants to focus attention on Jerusalem throughout the Gospel. But then once the actions arrives in Jerusalem, Luke focuses attention on the fact that the Gospel goes beyond Jerusalem.

Some in depth look at those themes in Luke:

The good Jew

One of the main themes of the Gospel of Luke is that Jesus was a good Jew and did traditional Jewish things. He goes to synagogue, knows his scriptures, was circumcised, went to the temple. Only in Luke, of all the gospels, is it written that Jesus’ parents, after he was born, circumcised him on the eighth day like they were supposed to, and after a month took him to the temple for the presentation. All of this, Luke tells us, is to fulfill the scripture and the law. So Jesus’ mother and father are good Jewish parents, they do exactly what the law tells them to do, and Jesus is a faithful Jew as well.

The writer of the Gospel of Luke is very concerned to show that Jesus is a good Jew, his parents are good Jewish parents, and that he comes from good Jewish extended family. The story of Elizabeth and Zachariah is included, in part because they are Mary’s family.  Luke 1:5 says this:

“In the days of King Herod of Judea there was a priest named Zachariah who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. But they had no children because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.”

But there is another reason to include this story of Elizabeth and Zachariah.  Doesn’t that story sound a bit familiar? The reader is presented with an old, very righteous couple that can’t have children–she’s getting on in years, they are barren. It sounds like Abraham and Sarah, and it also sounds like Elkanah and Hannah, the parents of the prophet Samuel. There are a number of wonderful stories in the Hebrew Scriptures about old couples who want to have children and can’t have children. So this early Luke passage is already evoking the idea of Jesus’ family being like a story found right in the Hebrew scriptures. Elizabeth and Zachariah– they’re just like those other stories of miraculous births, coming when hope had been lost.

Giulio Romano, 1550, The Holy Family with Saints John the Baptist and Elizabeth
Giulio Romano, 1550, The Holy Family with Saint John the Baptist and Saint Elizabeth

Look at Luke 1:25, when Elizabeth conceived.   For five months she remained in seclusion, and then she said,

“This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.”

This sounds like something right out of 1 Samuel, second chapter, spoken by Samuel’s mother Hannah.

Then in Luke 1:46 we find a song sung by Mary when she is told that she will give birth to the messiah. It is called the Magnificat. This song by Mary also sounds very much like something directly out of  1 Samuel 1-2.

Mary said in her Magnificat:

“My soul magnifies the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior. For he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely from now on all generations will call me blessed.”

Mary’s song is obviously fashioned on the song of Hannah. The message is the reversal of status of rich and poor, weak and powerful–another key theme in Luke. That’s not all of the references to sections of the Hebrew scriptures. Look again at that first chapter of Luke concerning the priest Zachariah,  and his wife  Elizabeth. In  Luke 1:14 is the story of the birth of John the Baptist. The miraculous baby conceived when all hope had been lost was no other than John.  And this is the prophecy that comes with the angel to Zachariah.

“You will have joy and gladness and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit.”

John the Baptist is portrayed like Elijah–almost identical things are said describing Elijah.  The writer of Luke was likely not a Jew, and he spoke Greek as his main language. He is, however, consciously constructing his book to sound like the Jewish scripture. And he knew his Hebrew scripture!

School of Bellini, Presentation of Jesus in the Temple.1493
School of Bellini, Presentation of Jesus in the Temple. 1493 CE

Then there’s the piety of the holy family already mentioned before. Only Luke tells us about the circumcision of Jesus, in 2:21.  “That after the prescribed period according to the law of Moses,” Jesus’ family followed the law of Moses very well.

They brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord, as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every first born male shall be designated as holy to the Lord.” They offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, a pair of turtle doves and two young pigeons.

In other words, over and over again, Luke wants to portray the holy family, John the Baptist’s family, and the holy family of Jesus, and Jesus himself as all being good Jews who honor the temple, who keep the law. They do everything like they’re supposed to do.

The Holy Spirit

Look also at the text to find the statement, “the spirit of the Lord,” from the speech in Luke 4:18. Jesus cites the text,

“The spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.”

If the reader searched all the times in Luke when the term spirit (either called the Holy Spirit or sometimes just the Spirit or the spirit of God) occurs, it becomes clear that this is one of Luke’s favorite themes.  Some scholars state that the career of Jesus as described by Luke is to be a  model for any Christian’s experience, while others indicate that Luke’s intention was to emphasize Jesus’ uniqueness as the prophet martyr of the final age before the Kingdom of God arrives.

The Holy spirit is referenced in the baptism of Jesus, at the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness, in Luke 11, where Jesus promises that whoever asks God for the Holy Spirit will receive it, in Luke 12, as a promise that leaders in the movement will have the words that they need provided by the spirit, and after the resurrection while in Galilee, where Jesus promises that the disciples will receive power from on high.

There are many more references to the spirit throughout Luke, in the preparation for Jesus’ ministry, during that ministry, and after, when the Jesus movement clearly is going to move into other nations.  References to the spirit are far more common in Luke than in any other gospel.  The number of references to the spirit, or the Holy Spirit, increase in the books of Acts.

The rich and the poor

Notice in that same introductory speech in Luke 4:18  are these words:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, he has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed.”

There is a song sung by Mary when she’s told by the angel that she is pregnant.  It’s called the Magnificat because in Latin the first word of the song that Mary says is magnificat, that is “magnifies,” so it comes to us as “my soul magnifies the Lord.” The song that Mary sings includes the detail that through this child, God will lift up the poor and oppressed, God will help the poor, and send the rich away empty. Over and over again in that song sung by Mary is this idea that God is going to perform a great reversal of rich and poor, the poor will be helped and made rich, the rich will be made poor, the high will be sent down low, the low will be raised up high. Through this, the theme is already evident in the Gospel of Luke, and it is in Jesus’ first sermon in Luke 4.

The parables in Luke are especially telling in reference to this almost topsy-turvy perspective on what God is going to do for the people.  Luke’s gospel include The Good Samaritan  (an outcast being the hero), the Lost Sheep  (go find the one that keeps wandering off), the Rich Fool (clinging to wealth…), the Debtor and the Woman washing Jesus’ feet (who will feel more gratitude?–the one who has much to be forgiven) and most famously, the Prodigal Son.  This is a nice telling of that well-known story.


Example: The Prodigal Son


Year of the Lord

Look at that opening speech again in Luke 4:19, “To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  The older translations of Luke will say this as, “To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” That idea of the “year of the Lord” is another theme found in Luke. He quotes it from Hebrew scripture but then incorporates it as well into this speech. For example, there will be a time later where Jesus condemns Jerusalem because “they did not recognize the time of their visitation.” Jesus’ being there on earth represented this special time–a year of the Lord that they are not seeing. Again, Jesus in his first sermon quotes this “acceptable year of the Lord” as indicating that this year is being his year; it is the “Jesus year” in Judea.

The concept of the Year of the Lord comes up in a variety of ways in the Torah and prophets.  In Leviticus there is talk about a Jubilee year when debts are forgiven, and slaves are set free, and this is said even more clearly in Isaiah 61:1-3, which Jesus quotes in the passage from Luke 4:

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me
    because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
    to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives
    and release to the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor


This passage has been a promise to the people in Exile that they will return to their land and flourish, and here, Jesus is talking about his year of ministry as that kind of year–the year when the good news will come to the people of Israel, and it will be that kind of ministry to the poor, the outcast, the marginalized, the widow, the foreigner, etc.  Even Luke’s version of the Beatitudes, found in chapter 6, differ from Matthew’s version. Matthew has Jesus blessing the poor in Spirit, but Luke has Jesus blessing the poor.  Matthew blesses those who hunger and thirst after justice, but Luke has Jesus bless those who are actually hungry!  These kinds of blessings  (and the woes that follow) combine the themes of turning the rich on their head, and providing a clear “year of the Lord” in Luke’s gospel.

Luke 6:20-26

Then he [Jesus] looked up at his disciples and said:

“Blessed are you who are poor,
    for yours is the kingdom of God.
21 “Blessed are you who are hungry now,
    for you will be filled.
“Blessed are you who weep now,
    for you will laugh.

22 “Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. 23 Rejoice on that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven, for that is how their ancestors treated the prophets.

“But woe to you who are rich,
    for you have received your consolation.
25 “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.

26 “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.

1516-20, Transfiguration, by Raphael, 1520, unfinished at his death. (Pinacoteca Vaticana)
1516-20, Transfiguration, by Raphael, 1520, unfinished at his death. (Pinacoteca Vaticana)

The martyred prophet

Prophets, according to Luke (here and in Acts), get martyred. John the Baptist gets martyred in this gospel. Jesus himself is a prophet martyr. There are many additional martyrs in Acts.


Look at Luke 9:31 and the transfiguration story. Jesus takes some of his disciples– Peter, John, and James– up onto a mountain and while they are up there, clouds come upon them with thunder and lightning. Jesus appears suddenly with Moses and Elijah on either side of him, and they are all shining. But most of the Gospels do not tell the reader what Jesus and Moses and Elijah were talking about up on the mountain.

However, Luke does tell the reader what the three men talked about in Luke 9:31–

“They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure which was about to be accomplished at Jerusalem.”

Now the Greek word there for departure is exodus, the very word of the second book of the Bible in Greek. Elijah and Moses are talking to Jesus about his exodus. Jesus needs some advice on how to do an exodus, and the exodus doesn’t refer to his leaving the country, it refers to his martyrdom. Jesus is seen and portrayed as a prophet to the Jews first, and the martyred prophet after that by the writer of Luke.

So what happens to Jesus as a prophet? First Jesus sets himself up as a prophet by quoting stories about Elijah, who helped the woman–the widow’s son, and Elisha.  Elijah and Elisha are important prophets for Luke, and Jesus portrays himself as being like those two men who actually talked to Gentiles, so that’s why Jesus says in that same opening speech:

“No prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. But the truth is there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah when the heaven was shut up for three years and six months, there was severe famine, yet Elijah was not sent to them.”

Elijah wasn’t sent to any Jewish widows–weren’t there Jewish widows who needed a little help? Yes, but Elijah wasn’t sent to the Jewish widows, he was sent to a non-Jewish widow, a woman who lived in Sidon.

“There were many lepers in Israel in the time of prophet Elisha.”  Weren’t there Jewish lepers? Yes, Jesus says, but Elisha wasn’t sent to the Jews, he was sent to Naaman the Syrian. So Jesus is saying that Elijah and Elisha were sent to Gentiles, not to Jews. Notice what Luke has done here. He has set Jesus up as a prophet like Elijah and Elisha, and he has Jesus himself predict that the message will go out to the Gentiles. It hasn’t gone out yet to Gentiles, as in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus pretty much sticks with the Jews. The Gentiles are not receiving the Gospel yet but Jesus is predicting that they will.

Notice what happens when Jesus speaks and teaches in that first big speech. He suffers and is rejected by his own people, in his own synagogue, in his hometown.  Luke states that true prophets get rejected by their own people. A prophet in his own country is not accepted. Jesus is a great prophet like Elijah and Elisha, and as such, he is not accepted in his own country, he is rejected. The Gentile mission happens after the rejection of Jesus by the Jews. That is going to be a very common theme, particularly in Acts, although it is not as commonly in the Gospel of Luke. Luke is foreshadowing the book of Acts in this chapter containing Jesus’ sermon, since clearly Jesus himself does not preach to Gentiles.  Movement in the book of Acts will start that mission happening. But Luke is foreshadowing the rejection of the Gospel by the Jews, and the taking of the Gospel to the Gentiles, and he foreshadows it all in that first sermon by Jesus.

The crucifixion account in Luke presents Jesus as a calm figure, not crying out for mercy or asking for God’s presence, but instead quietly asking God to forgive everyone involved in the trial and crucifixion, as clearly they did not know what they were doing.  He took the side of the thief hung next to him who decided that Jesus must be coming into a kingdom of sorts.  Jesus is a resigned but willing victim of all of the harassment by Pilate, Herod, and the crowds. At the very end, he commends his spirit into God’s hands.

There is some question about the issue of Jesus asking for that forgiveness for people as he hangs on the cross.  An interesting article by Bart Ehrman might lend some additional interesting perspective on this question.


Exercise:  Read this!

Dr. Bart Ehrman[6] is a well known author and Biblical scholar, with a most informative blog.

Did Jesus pray “Father forgive them” from the cross?


Christology in Luke

Mark wrote that Jesus’ death was a ransom. Jesus died for everyone’s sins. At one point in Mark 10:45 Jesus says to his disciples, “The Son of Man came to give his life as a ransom for many.” In other words, Jesus’ death is for you, to save you. That same idea is picked up in Matthew 20:28.  But that particular saying is never found in Luke. In fact, nothing in the Gospel of Luke can be found which identifies the death of Jesus as being an atonement for sins of the people. Luke does not take Jesus’ death as being a ransom in the way that Mark and Matthew do. Why? Jesus’ death is obviously important for Luke. But what is the meaning of Jesus’ death in Luke? He is the innocent prophet who is martyred for his prophecy. That’s the meaning of the death of Jesus in Luke. There are different Christologies about the meaning of the death of Jesus in these different Gospels.

An interview with Dr. Bart Ehrman shows him offering some thoughtful reflection on the meaning of Jesus’ death in the different gospels.  Here is a quote from the interview that summarizes various scholar’s views on Luke:

“The earliest account we have of Jesus’s life, of course, is the Gospel of Mark. And in Mark, there’s a fairly unambiguous view. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus states -during his ministry, in Mark, Chapter 10 – that he, the son of man, came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

So this encapsulates Mark’s views, that Jesus’ death somehow brings about an atonement for sin, that because Jesus dies, people can have a right standing before God through the death of Jesus.

Luke was writing probably 15 years, maybe 20 years after Mark, and actually knew the Gospel of Mark. He reproduced a good bit of Mark’s Gospel in his Gospel, in the Gospel of Luke.

What is striking is that he took out this verse that – where Jesus says that he’s come to give his life as a ransom for many. Luke took out that verse, and when Luke portrays the crucifixion of Jesus, there’s nothing about the crucifixion scene that makes you think that this death is meant to be an atonement for sin.

In fact, Luke also wrote a second volume that we have in the New Testament. He also wrote the Book of Acts, which talks about the spread of Christianity through the Roman Empire. And there are a number of sermons in Acts in which the apostles are trying to convert people. And in these sermons, they talk about the death of Jesus, but they never mention that Jesus’s death is an atonement for sin.

Instead, what they say is that Jesus’s death was a huge miscarriage of justice. The people who did it are guilty before God, and they need to turn to God in repentance  so that God will forgive them.

In other words, the way the death of Jesus works in Luke is not that it brings atonement for sin. It’s the occasion that people have for realizing their sinfulness so that they can repent, and God will forgive them.”

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus dies in a way that is portrayed as a miscarriage of justice. Pilate doesn’t want to kill him. Herod just sends him back to Pilate, getting no satisfaction from talking to Jesus, but also finding no fault in him.  And even when Pilate tries to reason with the crowd,  there is no solving this without giving in to their cries for crucifixion.  It is the perfect description of mob mentality.  And so Pilate lets Jesus be crucified, in a clear miscarriage of real justice.


Peniarth 482D is a manuscript written by one scribe, on parchment, probably in London, either in the late 15th century, or at the beginning of the 16th. As in the case of Peniarth MS 481D (The Battles of Alexander the Great), it is one of the most elaborately decorated medieval manuscripts in the Library, and a rare survival in its original binding. Its importance also lies in its connection to the Royal households of Henry VII and Henry VIII.
Jesus hanging between 2 thieves, late 15th century ,one of the most elaborately medieval manuscripts and a rare survival in its original binding. It is connected to the Royal households of Henry VII and Henry VIII.

This death in Luke, say a number of Biblical scholars, isn’t a ransom, as Mark and Matthew state it, it isn’t that Jesus dies for sins. Luke makes it clear that Jesus dies, and when people realize this huge mistake they made in crucifying Jesus, then they feel guilty, and they turn back to God. God forgives those who turn away from sin and are genuinely sorry, so that the death of Jesus isn’t what brings about an atonement for sins. The death provides a chance for people to turn back to God, and when they turn away from sin, it is a forgiveness that God gives to them because of that. The death of Jesus then is offered as an occasion to repent, not as an occasion to save people by his death. The one thief, hanging on the cross next to Jesus, repents and confesses, and Jesus assures him that he will be in paradise with him that day.

Coming to the Gentiles

What did Matthew believe about the Mosaic Law? He wrote that all followers of Jesus should obey it.  What does Mark say about the Jewish law? Well, Jesus declared all foods clean, so Jesus modifies the Jewish law in a substantial way for Mark. What does Luke believe about the Jewish law?  Luke believes that the Jewish law is the ethnic contract,  the ethnic traditions of the Jews. The Law came from God, it came from Moses, and Jews keep it, so throughout  the Jewish followers of Jesus continue to keep the law. It’s just not binding on the Gentile followers of Jesus.

Luke has a different view of the law from Matthew, and somewhat different ideas from Mark, too. These are some of the diversities of Christianity found in the early years. The followers weren’t all in agreement about this. They may have been living in different geographical areas, and just developed their own different views about the Jewish law and how should it affect the followers of Jesus. They may have had different people telling them stories about what happened, and because of this developed different traditions. Some followers clearly were Jews, and some just as clearly were Gentiles.  But over the first couple of hundred of years, really differing Christologies were developed, for many complex reasons.


David Roberts, 1850, The Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans Under the Command of Titus, A.D. 70
David Roberts, 1850, The Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans Under the Command of Titus, A.D. 70

Take a look at Luke 21:20-27. Luke gets this account from Mark 13. Remember Mark’s apocalypse? All kinds of terrible things happen and then the Messiah comes. Luke is using Mark 13 as a source, but notice how Luke changes it. When Luke writes in 21: 20 he says, “When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies…” and immediately there is information in the account that is not found in Mark.

Jesus predicts:

“When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near. Then those in Judea must flee to the mountains, those inside the city must flee, for these are the days of vengeance, as a fulfillment of all that is written. 23 Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days! For there will be great distress on the earth and wrath against this people; 24 they will fall by the edge of the sword and be taken away as captives among all nations, and Jerusalem will be trampled on by the nations, until the times of the nations are fulfilled.”

Look at verse 24, “They will fall by the edge of the sword,” Jesus says. Not only is this a picture given of Jerusalem surrounded by the Roman army, but clearly the citizens of Jerusalem are defeated, fallen by the sword. “They will be taken away as captives among all nations.” And it is true that after the fall of Jerusalem, the Jews were taken as slaves to Rome, and then they were sold off and dispersed throughout the nations as slaves. “And Jerusalem will be trampled on by the nations until the times of the nations are fulfilled.”

None of that detail was in Mark. Mark wrote an apocalypse, but nothing in it related to the destruction of Jerusalem and the scattering of the people.  This detail tells us that Luke is writing after the destruction of Jerusalem because he tells you how it happened. Luke even says that there’s going to be a time of the Gentile domination of Jerusalem. It is only after that time that the Messiah comes on the clouds then as he picks up again the story from Mark. All through Luke and Acts, looking at Luke’s editing procedure, it becomes clear that Luke was written sometime after the destruction of Jerusalem, and the time he is telling this story has arrived. And what is that time? “The times of the nations.”  What that refers to is the time of the Gentiles.

Persecution follows the Gospel

This last theme in Luke’s gospel states that there was an attempt to kill Jesus for what he says, which is seen a bit in the gospel, and a great deal in Acts. The writer tells the reader that wherever the Gospel message goes, there will be persecution.  There is less of this theme in the gospel of Luke than is found in the Acts of the Apostles, but again, Jesus foreshadows the persecution that will follow the believers in a couple of places in his ministry. One is found in Luke 6:22-23 as a small part of Luke’s Blessings and Woes  (called the Beatitudes in Matthew):

22 “Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. 23 Rejoice on that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven, for that is how their ancestors treated the prophets.

There is also a passage in 12:4-7 that exhorts the followers to not be afraid:

“I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body and after that can do nothing more. But I will show you whom to fear: fear the one who, after killing, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear that one! Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.

Acts, on the other hand, has many, many accounts of people being persecuted for preaching or teaching what Jesus said and did.  This emphasizes the connection between Acts and the gospel of Luke.


Kloppenborg, John. “Synoptic Problem.” Oxford Bibliographies, 12 June 2019, https://www.oxfordbibliographies.com/view/document/obo-9780195393361/obo-9780195393361-0120.xml?rskey=l4sJz8&result=1&q=synoptic%2Bproblem#firstMatch.

May, Herbert G., et al. The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha: Revised Standard Version, Containing the Second Edition of the New Testament and an Expanded Edition of the Apocrypha. Edited by Michael D Coogan, Oxford University Press, 2007.

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“‘Four Source Hypothesis’–Jennifer Bird, Phd.” Portland Community College, 27 Mar. 2019, https://youtu.be/SCjXPVi-PMI.

Blackburn, Barry L. (1997) “The Holy Spirit in Luke-Acts: A Survey,” Leaven: Vol. 5: Iss. 2, Article 4. Available at: https://digitalcommons.pepperdine.edu/leaven/vol5/iss2/4

Ehrman, Bart. “Jesus and the Hidden Contradictions of the Gospels.” Fresh Air with Terry Gross, NPR, 12 Mar. 2010, https://www.npr.org/transcripts/124572693.

Ehrman, Bart. “The Bart Ehrman Blog.” The Bart Ehrman Blog, 25 Oct. 2021, https://ehrmanblog.org/.

“Why Study ‘Q’ with Sara Parks.” University of Nottingham, 7 Dec. 2018, https://youtu.be/NWAOR7VaN68.

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“Antisemitism and the Middle Ages.” Yad Vashem, 6 Oct. 2019, https://youtu.be/PbTefsAGIb8.

“Sacred Stories: The Lost Son.” Discovering Sacred Texts, The British Library, 10 Dec. 2021, https://youtu.be/4gft_shXinE.

“The Story of the Storytellers – Importance of the Oral Tradition | from Jesus to Christ | Frontline.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/religion/story/oral.html.


Schmalz , Matthew. “What Is the Great Commission and Why Is It so Controversial?” The Conversation, 2 Aug. 2020, https://theconversation.com/what-is-the-great-commission-and-why-is-it-so-controversial-111138.

Warren , MJC. “What Child Is This? Miraculous Births and Divine Parents in the Time of Jesus.” The Conversation, 31 May 2022, https://theconversation.com/what-child-is-this-miraculous-births-and-divine-parents-in-the-time-of-jesus-70109.

Dale Martin, Introduction to the New Testament, Yale University: Open Yale Courses, http://oyc.yale.edu. License: Creative Commons BY-NC-SA .  Most of the lectures and course material within Open Yale Courses are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 license. Unless explicitly set forth in the applicable Credits section of a lecture, third-party content is not covered under the Creative Commons license.



  1. A producer and writer at WGBH in Boston, Marilyn Mellowes is known for the popular four-hour series From Jesus to Christ: the First Christians. She developed the ongoing history series AMERICAN EXPERIENCE and served as its first series editor.
  2. Sara Parks began a new role as Assistant Professor in Biblical Studies (New Testament) at Dublin City University in Sept 2021. She was formerly a Leverhulme Research Fellow and Assistant Professor in New Testament Studies at the University of Nottingham (2017-2021).
  3. Intro to the gospel of Mark, NRSV, Oxford Annotated version p 57 NT
  4. I am a father, husband, and Roman Catholic scholar teaching at a Jesuit college in Massachusetts, USA. My teaching and research cover Comparative Religions, global Catholicism, Catholic theology and spirituality, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Jehovah's Witnesses. I am the founding editor of the Journal of Global Catholicism, author of Mercy Matters: Opening Yourself to the Life Changing Gift (OSV, 2016), and co-editor of Engaging South Asian Religions: Boundaries, Appropriations, and Resistances (SUNY, 2012). I am on the editorial boards of Christian Higher Education; Asian Horizons; Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. I have published opinion pieces in the Washington Post, Newsweek, Salon, Fortune, Commonweal Magazine, The National Catholic Reporter, and US News and World Report. I have also provided expert commentary to USA Today, The New York Times, ABC's Good Morning America, NPR, CNBC, BBC, Agence France-Presse, Hardball with Chris Matthews, and FoxNewsRadio. I lived for four years in India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, speak Hindi/Urdu fluently along with some Bengali, Bhojpuri, and Sinhala
  5. Dr Warren is Senior Lecturer in Biblical and Religious Studies at the University of Sheffield, and is a member of SIIBS, the Sheffield Institute for Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies. Warren directs the SIIBS research theme, Embodied Religion. Warren completed degrees (BA, MA, PhD) at McGill University and from 2013–2015 held a postdoctoral position at the University of Ottawa funded by the Fonds de Recherche du Québec — Société et Culture. Warren has taught classes on early Judaism and Christianity, Koine Greek, ancient Mediterranean religions, and the early church. Warren’s primary research interests lie in the cultural and theological interactions among the religions of ancient Mediterranean, especially early Judaism and Christianity. In particular, Warren is interested in how shared cultural understandings of food and eating play a role in ancient narratives, including the Pseudepigrapha, Hellenistic novels, and the Gospels.
  6. is the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He came to UNC in 1988, after four years of teaching at Rutgers University. At UNC he has served as both the Director of Graduate Studies and the Chair of the Department of Religious Studies. A graduate of Wheaton College (Illinois), Bart received both his Masters of Divinity and Ph.D. from Princeton Theological Seminary, where his 1985 doctoral dissertation was awarded magna cum laude. Since then he has published extensively in the fields of New Testament and Early Christianity, having written or edited twenty-six books, numerous scholarly articles, and dozens of book reviews.


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