Jerusalem is, as to be expected, the most often named city in each of the canonical Gospels. But, as I worked through the city data, I noticed how differently each Gospel treats the importance of Jerusalem.
In Mark and John, Jerusalem is the first city mentioned: In both cases, people are coming from Jerusalem to see what John the Baptist is all about (Mark 1:5; John 1:19). In both Luke and Matthew, however, two cities are mentioned before Jerusalem: for Matthew, Babylon (in the genealogy) and Bethlehem; for Luke, Nazareth and Bethlehem. This makes sense, as the latter two are much more interested in Jesus’s lineage and birth than Mark and John are.
In Mark, Jerusalem is mentioned 7 times. The first four references record various people coming to John or Jesus from Jerusalem (Mark 1:5; 3:8; 3:22; 7:1). The final three references are part of Jesus’s final movement to Jerusalem and his death (Mark 10:32-34; 11:1-27; 15:41).
Matthew mentions Jerusalem 11 times. He adds to Mark four items unique to the First Gospel: (1) the wise men go to Jerusalem to ask about the Messiah (Matt 2:1-3); (2) the instruction, “Do not swear by Jerusalem” (Matt 5:35); (3) the prophecy, addressed to “the daughters of Zion,” that the king is coming on a donkey and a colt (Matt 21:5); and (4) after Jesus’s death, resurrected people come out of the tombs and enter the holy city (Matt 27:53). Matthew shares with Luke two additions: (1) the devil takes Jesus to the top of the temple in “the holy city” (Matt 4:5) or “Jerusalem” (Luke 4:9); and (2) as Jesus and his disciples are traveling to Jerusalem, Jesus tells them what will happen to them and laments over Jerusalem (Matt 20:17-18; 23:37; Luke 13:33-34). “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it.”
Luke mentions Jerusalem more than any other Gospel–23 times. Not only is Jerusalem quantitatively dominant, it is also qualitatively the most important city for Luke by far. Luke begins and ends the story in the temple in Jerusalem (Luke 2: 22-30; 24:52-53) and he notes that Jesus and his family return to Jerusalem every Passover (Luke 4:41-50). In Luke, there are fewer mentions of the places around Galilee where Jesus and his disciples traveled. For example, Luke doesn’t seem to care where Jesus went after he fed the multitude (Luke 9:11; cf. Matt 15:29; Mark 6:45; 8:10). Rather, in Luke, Jesus “set his face to Jerusalem” early in the narrative–at Luke 9:51-53 (cf. Matt 20:17-18; Mark 10:32-34). And, after this point, like a drumbeat growing steadily louder, Luke constantly notes that Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem–at 13:22, 13:33-34; 17:11; 18:31; 19:11–until his final entry at 19:28. Jerusalem is the centripetal force in Luke’s Gospel.
And then there’s John. As I mentioned, Jerusalem appears first for John in a way similar to what we see in Mark and Matthew: People come to John the Baptist from Jerusalem (John 1:19; cf. Matt 3:5; Mark 1:5). And his last mention of Jerusalem is similar: Jesus’s final entry into the city with Hosannas, palms, and a young colt (John 12:12; cf. Matt 21:1-10; Mark 11:1-11; Luke 19:28). In between, John is John. Six of 10 mentions of Jerusalem are associated with festivals: Passover (John 2:13-23; 4:45; 11:55), Booths (John 7:25), Dedication (10:22), and an unnamed festival (John 5:1-3). For John, Jerusalem is where festivals occur. This aligns with another significant mention of the city: In John 4:20-21, the Samaritan woman asks Jesus about the correct worship place–this mountain (in Sychar) or in Jerusalem? Jesus says, “Eventually, neither.” In John, Jesus goes up to Jerusalem several times and ends up there quite early–in 12:12 at his final entry. Interestingly, Jerusalem is not mentioned in the aftermath of Jesus’s death (cf. Matt 27:53; Luke 24:18, 33, 52-53). Eventually, neither.
For Mark, Jerusalem sends people to see about Jesus and is the location of Jesus’s death. Matthew keeps the same general view of the city and adds some narratives, sayings, and prophecies about “the holy city.” For Luke, Jerusalem is THE city, the centripetal force of the narrative. For John, Jerusalem is where people worship, but not for long.