Why Is The Gospel of John So Different From The Others? (Pt. 2)

By Garrett Best

Since John was written, believers and unbelievers have pondered why John’s Gospel is so different from the other three. I explored a few of the differences in the last post if you missed it.

In this post, I’m going to attempt to explore a few of the complexities involved in the discussion of why John is so dissimilar from the other Gospels.

Did John Know The Synoptics?

This has been a very debated topic. If John was aware of the Synoptic Gospels, then he has intentionally given a very unique presentation. If John was unaware of the Synoptics, then this might explain why his presentation was so different. He didn’t have access to them to use as sources.

Was John independent of or dependent on the Synoptics? There are heavy hitters on both sides of the dependence/independence debate. Recently, Richard Bauckham has argued that John was written as a complement to the Gospel of Mark and that John expected the readers of John to be familiar with Mark (“John for Readers of Mark” in The Gospels for All Christians, pg. 147-71).

In 1972, C.K. Barrett argued that John was dependent on the Synoptics. Barrett points out that no one really believes John was dependent on Matthew; however, there are cases to be made for John’s use of Luke and/or Mark. Consider these parallels between John and Luke:

  • Mary and Martha of Bethany (Jn. 11:1-12:8; Lk. 10:38-42)
  • High priest Annas (Jn. 18:13, 24; Lk. 3:2; Acts 4:6)
  • The entrance of Satan into Judas (Jn. 13:2, 27; Lk. 22:3)
  • Predictions of Peter’s denials at the Last Supper (Jn. 13:38; Lk. 22:34)
  • The servant of the high priest who lost his ear at the arrest (Jn. 18:10; Lk. 22:50)
  • Two angels at the tomb (Jn. 20:12; Lk. 24:4)

Barrett believed there are even stronger arguments for John’s knowledge of Mark. Barrett even believed that John was intentionally correcting Mark’s account at certain points, such as the timing of Jesus’ ministry in relation to the ministry of John the Baptist (Jn. 3:24; Mk. 1:14-5) and the identity of the person who carried the cross of Jesus (Jn. 19:17; Mk. 15:21). There are also parallel sayings between John and Mark:

  • Jesus’ prediction to destroy the temple and raise it in three days (Jn. 2:19; Mk. 15:48)
  • Jesus statement that a prophet has no honor in his own country (Jn. 4:43-44; Mk. 6:4)
  • Jesus teaching that those who love their life will lose it (Jn. 12:25; Mk. 8:34-35)

Frans Neirynck has argued that the parallels in the crucifixion and resurrection accounts argue for dependence (“John and the Synoptics: The Empty Tomb Stories,” NTS 30 (1984): 161-87).

While Bauckham, Barrett, and Nierynck should not be dismissed lightly, the parallels and similarities between John and the Synoptics hardly prove dependence. They merely point to the fact that John was using traditions that interlocked with the Synoptic traditions. Over 90% of Mark is found in Matthew and Luke which points toward literary dependence. No more than 10% of John parallels the Synoptics which is not a strong case for literary dependence. One troubling tendency of those like Barrett who have argued for literary dependence is that they must see all of the differences in John from the other three as deliberate “corrections” to the Synoptic Gospels. Thus, John has been seen as a polemical correction to the Synoptics by many of those who have argued for literary dependence.

On the other hand, Percival Gardner-Smith and C.H. Dodd have been the most prominent advocates of independence. Gardner-Smith argued in the 1930s that there were very few verbal similarities between John and the Synoptics. Where there were similarities, it could very easily be due to common knowledge of the Jesus tradition rather than literary dependence.

C.H. Dodd argued the case for independence more strongly in the 1960s. Dodd moved very carefully through every possible similarity between John and the Synoptics. He believed that the material in John was largely derived from oral tradition. Dodd asked whether “the coincidences of language or content go beyond what might be reasonably expected in works having behind them the general tradition of the early Church…” (Historical Tradition in the Fourth Gospel, 9). In other words, where John does appear similar to the Synoptics, it is not due to dependence, but rather to the fact that John independently made use of the same “general tradition” that was being passed on in the early church.

Gardner-Smith and Dodd were arguing in the 20th century when the form critical methods of Rudolph Bultmann still dominated and they had a heavy emphasis on oral traditions. The form critical methods of Bultmann have been largely abandoned and so while the works of Gardner-Smith and Dodd are still valuable, they place an overdue emphasis on oral traditions. The other fallacy in their work is that they seem to define “dependence” as literary dependence. This is a major assumption because dependence might come in several different forms including orality, memory, or performance.

Mutual Influence or “Interlocking Traditions”

Various scholars have tried to bypass the impasse of the dependence/independence debate.

Leon Morris has argued argued that John interlocks with Matthew, Mark, and Luke at various points. In several places, John provides material that explains the portrait given in the Synoptics. Morris points out that Jesus is crucified in the Synoptics because he is accused of having said “I will destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days” (Mk. 14:58; 15:29; Matt. 26:60-61; 27:40). However, there is no report in the Synoptics of Jesus having said this. There is a tradition in John of Jesus having made this claim (Jn. 2:19-21). This is an example where it is likely that John provides material that explains the picture found in the Synoptics (Studies in the Fourth Gospel, 61-62).

John portrays Jesus as spending much time in Jerusalem before his final week. This helps explain why the religious leaders were so hell bound on having Jesus crucified in the Synoptics. John’s account explains why the antagonism ramped up so quickly. Jesus had already clashed with them several times in Jerusalem making them look bad on their own turf.

Don Carson believes John may have known (and even read) Mark or Luke, but that John still decided to write his own Gospel. Andreas Köstenberger believes that John was aware of the Synoptic materials and drew upon the same eyewitness testimony as Mark and Luke, but has made a deliberately creative reworking of the material in order to make the message relevant in a new context. John’s purpose statement (20:31) necessitated that he transposed his own presentation over Mark and possibly Luke to create a new presentation of the Jesus tradition.

My Own Conclusion

Are you confused? Good. There’s no conclusive answer to the Johannine Question. Almost no two scholars say the same thing about John’s relationship to the Synoptics.

My own opinion is that John was aware of at least one of the Synoptic Gospels (probably Mark and maybe Luke). I reached this conclusion because of Richard Bauckham’s arguments in “For Whom Were the Gospels Written?” in The Gospels for All Christians, 1998, pg.s 9-48. While I think Bauckham may overstate his case at times, his basic thesis is instructive. Bauckham uses evidence from the first and second centuries to argue that the Christians were a tight knit community that had a high level of mobility and communication. The evidence we have in the New Testament shows that Christians were highly mobile (i.e. missionary journeys of Paul). This means that literature produced in the first century would have spread rather quickly. This explains why Matthew and Luke would’ve been able to take advantage of Mark’s Gospel. Mark spread quickly.

If scholars are right about the Gospel of John, the Gospel was the last to be written at the end of the first century in Ephesus. Given Bauckham’s thesis, it would have been impossible for John to live in a major city like Ephesus without being aware of one or more of the Synoptics, especially Mark, at the end of the first century.

I opine that John was aware of the Synoptics (most likely Mark), but intentionally provided his own account. His own presentation of Jesus incorporates decades of reflection upon the meaning and significance of Jesus. This means that while John is similar to the Synoptics in many ways and most likely knew of at least one of the Synoptic Gospels, he did not feel constrained by the other presentations.

If we believe John was written last sometime at the end of the first century, then John would have had nearly 60 years to reflect on the significance of Jesus and his teaching. John’s Gospel would be the product of decades of reflection and guidance by the Holy Spirit to understand the truths Jesus taught. It is also quite possible that John’s Gospel was an attempt to contextualize the gospel message in a style that would reach his particular audience. Because of the extended teaching portions, the memorable teachings like the “I AM” statements, some scholars have surmised that the distinct style is due to early Christian preaching. They believe that Gospel of John was basically an early sermon put down in writing. There may be something to that theory.

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5 comments

  1. I agree with your conclusion.

    I’m surprised that there was no mention of John being a primary witness to Jesus’ life. In fact, after Jesus’ arrest, John was the ONLY witness. It seems foolish to argue whether John was dependent on the synoptic gospels at all. I fully agree with you that he had the gospels at his fingertips, but, being a primary witness himself, why was there any need for him to be “dependent” on them?

    That’s an interesting theory about the style of a sermon. I’ve understood the purpose of John’s gospel and his first letter to be about both Jesus’ divinity and humanity. I believe John saw the beginnings of Gnosticism (which taught that God could not become human) and wanted to write a gospel and a letter to prepare the church for the coming heresy.

    1. Xyhlem, if the traditions about authorship can be trusted, all four Gospels are connected to early eyewitness testimony. Matthew was one of the twelve, Luke a companion of Paul, Mark associated with Peter, and John one of the twelve. Couldn’t we say the same about the Gospel of Matthew? Why would Matthew use Mark if he was a primary witness of the events? But, it seems he did. Matthew clearly thought there was value in using the basic story and material of Mark, so even if we did think John was dependent on the Synoptics, I don’t see there being any issues with that.

  2. Garrett,

    I agree with what you have written here, and like Bauckham, think it would be virtually impossible for John to not be aware of at least one of the other gospels by the time he was writing.

    Also, given the statement that Jesus did so many things that they would fill all the books in all the world (John 21.25), it seems possible to me that John specifically included some events and happenings from Jesus’ life that he knew were not already recorded elsewhere.

    1. Luke, I agree with you. I don’t have a problem with thinking John recorded events that happened but are not recorded in the others.

      I think the real questions for me are about the historicity and trustworthiness of the Gospel of John. If the traditions are correct that early apostolic witness lies behind all four Gospels (which I believe they are), then why is John’s presentation of Jesus so different? I’m not thinking here primarily of events, but overall presentations. For example, Matthew 5-7 and John 13-17 both record lengthy teaching sections of Jesus. Read those two sections and you leave with different styles, and different emphases.

      I’m not suggesting there’s irreconcilable differences, but I do have questions.

      1. Yeah, I get you.

        Can master teachers teach in different ways at different times? Would your style change if you were teaching kingdom values to a large group of people verses giving your “last words” to your closest followers? Did ancient understandings of historical reporting allow authors to exercise more freedom in reconstructing speeches/narratives that would also lend to some differences?

        I would answer all of those questions with a “yes”, and think that those and other similar perspectives “reconcile” a lot of the differences. Like you, I still have questions, but at this point, I am pretty comfortable with some of the inherent tensions that we have in the different gospel accounts.

        As always, I enjoyed the post!

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