By Garrett Best
If you’ve been following my latest series of posts, you know I’ve been exploring possible solutions to the Synoptic Problem. The Synoptic Problem can be summarized like this: Why are Matthew, Mark, and Luke so similar and yet different at the same time. Scholars theorize that the reason those three Gospels are so similar is because they are using the same written sources to write their Gospels. The most convincing solution to the Synoptic Problem is called the two-source hypothesis. Mark was the first Gospel to be written and was used by Matthew and Luke. In addition, Matthew and Luke used another source, termed Q. The similarities among these three Gospels is attributed to their common use of the same two sources, Mark and Q.
But, what about the Gospel of John? The Gospel of John is certainly one of the most beloved of the four Gospels. In many ways, it is very similar to the Synoptic Gospels. It is about Jesus. It tells of his ministry, contains his teaching to the disciples and crowds, and calls for faith in him as the Son of God. The Gospel culminates in his death, burial, and resurrection. John contains some similar material to the Synoptics; yet despite these similarities, when I’m reading John I can’t help but feel that I have ventured into new and strange territory. John is clearly different from other three.
This quandary is usually referred to as the Johannine Question. Why is John so different from the three Synoptic Gospels?
Consider a few examples:
- While the Synoptics picture most of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee with his final week climaxing in Jerusalem, John pictures Jesus spending the majority of his time in Judea (2:1-19; 4:43-54; 5; 6:1; 7-8; 10).
- The Synoptics present the cleansing of the temple as the final straw for the Jews in Jerusalem. The Jews move quickly to have Jesus murdered after overturning the tables in the temple courts. The cleansing of the temple happens in the final week of Jesus’ life in the Synoptics (Mk. 11:15-18; 21:12-13; Lk. 19:45-47). In John, the cleansing of the temple occurs at the beginning of his ministry (Jn. 2:13-22). In John, the raising of Lazarus from the dead is the last straw with the religious leaders (Jn. 11:47-53; 12:9-10). The climactic miracle in John (the raising of Lazarus) doesn’t even occur in the Synoptics. How can an event that significant not even appear in the Synoptics?!
- The style of Jesus’ preaching and message in John is very different. In John, Jesus sounds more like the author of the letters of John than the Jesus of the Synoptics. In John, Jesus speaks in long, thematic speeches. When you compare Jesus speeches in John (like John 10) to say, the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, there is a marked difference in the way Jesus speaks and the content he presents. He uses a series of “I AM” statements. He talks about the Father-Son relationship. In the Synoptics, Jesus main message is about the kingdom of God. The phrase “kingdom of God occurs over 30 times in the Gospel of Luke, and only twice in John when Jesus speaks with Nicodemus (3:3, 5). In John, Jesus preaches about “eternal life”, not the “kingdom of God”. The word “life” occurs over 40 times in John and only 13 times in the Gospel of Luke.
- Much of the material found in the Synoptics is absent from John. There is no birth narrative, no parables, no exorcisms, no tax collectors, no temptation by Satan, no transfiguration, no institution of the Lord’s Supper, no prediction of the destruction of Jerusalem, no baptism of Jesus, et. al.
- John contains unique material nowhere to be found in the Synoptics. His unique material includes Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, the woman at the well, turning water to wine, healing the crippled man at the pool of Siloam, healing the man born blind, raising of Lazarus, the foot washing episode, all the material in the Farewell Discourse, Jesus high priestly prayer, post-resurrection appearances to the disciples, Jesus as the “word” and “lamb of God”, to name a few.
These differences raise a host of questions, and Christians have pondered these mysteries since the Gospel was written. Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-215) believed that John was written as a “spiritual Gospel” while the other three were to be taken more literally. Clement wrote, “But that John, last of all, conscious that the outward facts had been set forth in the Gospels, urged by his disciples, and divinely moved by the Spirit, composed a spiritual Gospel.” (reported in Eusebius, Hist. Eccl. 6.14.7) Origen (c. 185-253) believed that there were irreconcilable differences between John and the Synoptics. He sought to relieve the tensions by uncovering the deeper, spiritual sense of John’s meaning through a symbolic rather than literal interpretation. For the majority of Christian history, John has been looked at as being a “spiritual Gospel” that supplemented the more historical presentation of the Synoptics. Whereas the Synoptics supply the church with a more literal history of Jesus’ life and ministry, John provides the church with a deeper, spiritual message.
Were the early church fathers correct? What accounts for the overall difference in the presentation of John from the Synoptics? Did John know of the Synoptic Gospels? Did he write dependent on or independent of them?
Unfortunately, that’s too much to try to tackle in this post, so stay tuned for part 2.