John and the Synoptics

John and the Synoptic Gospels

I have adapted some of my list below from

Study Questions

  1. What are some of the similarities and differences of John from the other three Synoptic Gospels?
  2. Do you agree with the following 2nd century Christian writers that John knew the other Gospels and just wanted to supplement them?  Or is John an independent source because it is just too different from the other Gospels to have depended on them?

The Traditional Understanding of John

Afterwards, John, the disciple of the Lord, who also had leaned upon His breast, did himself publish a Gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia. (Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.1.1)

But, last of all, John, perceiving that the external facts had been made plain in the Gospel, being urged by his friends, and inspired by the Spirit, composed a spiritual Gospel. This is the account of Clement [of Alexandria]. (cited in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 6.14.7)

“The fourth of the Gospels is that of John, [one] of the disciples. To his fellow disciples and bishops, who had been urging him [to write], he said, ‘Fast with me from today to three days, and what will be revealed to each one let us tell it to one another.’ In the same night it was revealed to Andrew, [one] of the apostles, that John should write down all things in his own name while all of them should review it. And so, though various elements may be taught in the individual books of the Gospels, nevertheless this makes no difference to the faith of believers, since by the one sovereign Spirit all things have been declared in all [the Gospels]: concerning the nativity, concerning the passion, concerning the resurrection, concerning life with his disciples, and concerning his twofold coming; the first in lowliness when he was despised, which has taken place, the second glorious in royal power, which is still in the future. What marvel is it then, if John so consistently mentions these particular points also in his Epistles, saying about himself, ‘What we have seen with our eyes and heard with our ears and our hands have handled, these things we have written to you? For in this way he professes [himself] to be not only an eye-witness and hearer, but also a writer of all the marvelous deeds of the Lord, in their order. (Muratorian Canon)

Similarities of John with the Synoptics

  •  There is a basic narrative outline that begins with John the Baptist and ends with the Passion in Jerusalem (compare with a sayings Gospel like Thomas)
  • There are parallels that might suggest John’s knowledge of the Synoptic tradition (e.g., compare the anointing of Jesus by the woman in John 12:1-8 with Mark 14:3-9; cf. Luke 7:36-50)
  • There is a saying known as the Johannine thunderbolt (no one knows the Son except the Father and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him) that sounds more like John but is found in Matthew 11:25-27/Luke 10:21-22 (Q?)
  • John may supplement the Synoptics at various points.  In the Synoptics Jesus grieves over Jerusalem about how they were unwilling to heed his message (Matt 23:37/Luke 13:34) but only John has Jesus make multiple trips to Jerusalem for the Feasts.  Jesus is accused of threatening to destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days in the Synoptics (Mark 14:58; 15:34) but only John has Jesus make a similar claim (John 2:19)

 Major Differences

  • Much of John’s dialogue or stories are unparalleled in the Synoptics (e.g., turning water into wine, the resurrection of Lazarus, the extended discourses about his own identity, the extended discourses, the ‘I am’ speeches when Jesus says that he is the shepherd/vine/light/water of life, the washing of the feet, etc)
  • John has significant omissions (no virgin birth stories, no temptation by Satan, no exorcisms, no narrative parables about the kingdom of God, no Last Supper, etc)
  • Chronology:  John narrates Jesus’ visit to Jerusalem at different festivals; many assume a 3 year ministry of Jesus by calculating the number of Passovers.  Other major events, such as the incident of Jesus making a scene in the Temple, are relocated in a different place than in the Synoptics (cf. John 2:13-24)
  • May be a more mystical, reflective Gospel:  “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:13)
  • Exhibits a “higher” Christology than the Synoptics:
  1. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God [no article before theos]. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being” (1:1-3)
  2. But Jesus answered them, ‘My Father is still working, and I also am working.’ For this reason the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because he was not only breaking the sabbath, but was also calling God his own Father, thereby making himself equal to God. (5:17-18)
  3. Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ (20:28)
  4. “Before Abraham was I am” (see Exodus 3:14; Isaiah 41:4; 43:10, 25; 45:19; 46:4 (2 times); 48:12; and 51:12)
  • While Jesus seems to offer short aphorisms or narrative parables in the Synoptics, John features extended discourses of Jesus that span chapters (e.g.,. the farewell discourse in John 13-17)
  • Symbolism/double meaning and antithetical dualism (light/darkness, truth/falsehood, life/death, above/below; also found in Dead Sea Scrolls and Nag Hammadi texts)
  1. ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ The Jews then said, ‘This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?’ But he was speaking of the temple of his body (2:19-21)
  2. ‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.” ’ Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive (7:37-39)
  3. as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up (3:14)
  4. Some take things too literally (e.g., John 3:4 Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?)
  •  John seems to replace “kingdom of god/heaven” (only in John 3:3, 5; 18:36) with  “eternal life.”
  • Does John have a future or a realized eschatology?  “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgement, but has passed from death to life.  Very truly, I tell you, the hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. For just as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself; and he has given him authority to execute judgement, because he is the Son of Man. Do not be astonished at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and will come out—those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation.” (John 5:26-29)
  • Differences in Grammar and Style:  John’s Jesus sounds less like the Synoptics and more like the Johannine epistles.

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