Guidelines for Synoptic Analysis
Adapted by Sheila E. McGinn from Jeffrey S. Siker
Last page update: 14 April 2006

Purpose

The purpose of doing synoptic analysis is to draw attention to major and minor differences and similarities in comparable materials (sayings & stories) among the four Gospels, and to begin to get a sense for various patterns that emerge from each Gospel.

Procedure

There are various ways in which one can approach a synoptic analysis. The following ten steps, however, should prove helpful as a general guide for examining specific parallel passages in the Gospels. IT WILL BE ESSENTIAL TO USE SECONDARY LITERATURE TO COMPLETE THIS ANALYSIS ACCURATELY AND CONCISELY. See the short list of suggested resources at the bottom of this page.

  1. Read straight through the passage one Gospel at a time.
  2. Read across the passage one verse at a time in each of the four Gospels (Matthew to Mark to Luke to John).
  3. Compare and contrast the exact wording of the parallel passages you are examining. The use of colored pencils makes it easier to highlight similarities and differences between the various Gospels. I suggest using the following color scheme for underlining:
    1. red: material in common across Matthew, Mark, & Luke (triple tradition)
    2. blue: material in common only between Matthew & Luke ("Q" material)
    3. green: material in common only between Matthew & Mark
    4. orange: material in common only between Luke & Mark
    5. brown: material in common between the Synoptic Gospels and John
    6. Use an unbroken line (____) for exact agreements in order & wording.
    7. Use a broken line (_ _ _) for agreements that aren't quite exact.
  4. Note what you think are the most significant differences between the various Gospels in how they relate the parallel passage. Be aware that part of the process entails deciding what counts as a major difference and what is a relatively minor difference.
  5. Determine what the form of the passage appears to be. Is it a miracle story? A pronouncement story? A parable? A collection of loose sayings of Jesus? In general, what is the passage about?
  6. Can you identify a written source for the passages found in Matt and Luke? Assume the "two-source hypothesis" (Mark & Q were used by Matthew & Luke) in determining which source/sources Matthew & Luke used.
  7. What is the larger literary context in which the passage occurs in each Gospel? Sometimes the context will be very similar in each Gospel, sometimes very different. What comes before and after the passage? (To check this it may be easier to look up the passage in each Gospel in a standard Bible rather than to use the Synopsis of the Four Gospels.) Is the passage closely connected to what comes before and after? If so, how? Does it continue a discussion or argument? Does it move on to another topic? Does it begin a new section, or cap off a section? In general, how does this passage fit into each Gospel as a whole?
  8. What is the literary structure of the passage in each Gospel? Where and how do thought units begin and end? What are the major and minor divisions within the passage? Where does the emphasis fall?
  9. What is the content of the passage in each Gospel? What is being said? Who are the main characters? How might you condense the passage into a single statement that gets at the whole? What is the punchline (if any)?
  10. What observations can you make from the perspective of redaction criticism? How have Matt & Luke in particular shaped the passage to suit their own theological purposes? What changes have they made and why? How might these changes show the special theological concerns of Matthew & Luke? (Again, assume the two-source hypothesis.) How does Mark's version, and so Mark's theology, differ? If there is a parallel in John, how does it compare?
The Paper

After going through this procedure, choose one of the versions of the passage as your "baseline" for your discussion. I suggest that you organize your observations by writing an outline of your paper, and then a rough draft (1250–1500 words). Let the rough draft sit for a few hours or overnight, and then rewrite it, aiming to be clear and concise. Proofread your paper, and document all use of secondary literature. Refer to pertinent biblical passages by citing the name of the Gospel, chapter, and verse(s) (e. g. , Mark 8:30–31). Review the grading protocol for this assignment to be sure your essay addresses all the required topics, and review the basic expectations for written assignments, and particularly of research papers. Re-write your paper (in conformity with these requirements) so it expresses clearly and succintly your analysis of the chosen pericope, illuminated by the current literature on that textual unit.

Resources

For further information regarding the passage(s) you are analyzing it can be helpful to consult various Bible dictionaries and commentaries in the library. For general dictionary information you might look at The Anchor Bible Dictionary (1992; 6 vols.), or The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible (1960; 4 vols. & supplementary volume, 1972); as well as the one-volume Harper's Bible Dictionary, all found in the reference section of the library. For commentaries on the passage you are examining you might consult The New Jerome Biblical Commentary and Harper's Bible Commentary, both one-volume commentaries found in the reference section. For much more extensive commentaries you might consult the following: