Did John Know the Synoptic Gospels?

Scarcely is there a subject in Johannine studies that is fraught with more mines in the field than the relationship between John and the Synoptics. G. L. Borchert, John 1-11 (NAC 25a Nashville: Broadman & Holman), 37.

Apostle John

One of the reasons that the Gospel of John seems so different is that the three synoptic gospels are so similar. Because of the similarities between Matthew, Mark, and Luke some theory of literary dependence must be given to explain the close relationship. John appears to be quite independent of the synoptics. There are a number of key omissions in John’s gospel. For example, there is no birth or baptism story, nor is there a temptation in the wilderness. Jesus casts out no demons nor are there any real parables (although there are some parabolic actions). There is no “communion” established at the Last Supper. Instead, John describes Jesus washing the feet of the disciples (13:1-16.)

Remarkably, there is no prediction of the fall of Jerusalem. I find this interesting since one of the key arguments for a date after A.D.70 is this predication placed on Jesus’ lips. The Gospel of John is universally thought to be written in the 90’s, well after Jerusalem was destroyed. If the gospel writers were inclined to create things to make Jesus appear to be a prophet, where is any hint of the coming Jewish war? Perhaps this is related to another issue, the complete lack of prophecies concerning a second coming. Instead, Jesus promises to send the Paraclete to the disciples after he returns to heaven (14:25-26, 16:7-15). Where is the Olivet Discourse in John’s Gospel? I suggest that this material was omitted since it was included in the Apocalypse of John.

Stanley Porter lists four possible positions on John and the synoptic Gospels:

  1. John knew the synoptics, or at the very least he knew Mark, which he used in writing his gospel, This “restricted dependence” theory is often complicated by arguing that it was not a canonical Mark he read, but rather a proto-Mark. Few (if any) advocate this position today.
  2. John and the Synoptics used interlocking sources. This “flexible dependence” is advocated by D. A. Carson, C. Blomberg, D. M. Smith, B. de Solages, and G. Beasley-Murray. John may not have used the synoptics, but he was aware of them. Some things are made more clear in John (that Jesus knew his disciples prior to their call, how did Peter get into the courts, why did people think he was going to destroy the temple?)  Some things in John are more clear after reading the synoptics (Jn 12, why is Philip hesitant to bring a Gentile to Jesus? Mt 10:5, do not go to the Gentiles)
  3. John used a combination of written and oral sources, some of which were known to the writers of the synoptics. This is a semi-independence theory, advocated by Gordon Smith, C. K. Barrett). A potential problem is that it is hard to imagine that independent oral traditions continued well into the 90’s if the synoptic gospels were well used by the churches.
  4. John used written or oral sources that the synoptic gospels did not know. This is a complete independence theory. C. H. Dodd (1958, 1963) is the chief commentary here, there is no literary use of the synoptic tradition at all!

Even if the gospel of John is independent of the other three Gospels, it is hard to imagine John was not aware of the preaching of the gospel (the kerygma) at the foundation of the synoptic Gospels. Carson and Moo call this an “interlocking tradition.” The Gospels use each other without betraying dependence. So John was most likely aware of the contents of the three synoptic Gospels and this accounts for the large amount of unique material. What the other three Gospel writers chose to omit John chose to include, but some details were added with help the reader to understand the three earlier Gospels. For example, Jesus already knew the disciples before he called them (John 1), a fact overlooked in Matthew, Mark and Luke.

These differences may include the more advanced theological agenda found in John compared to the synoptic Gospels. The idea of who Jesus was has developed from the time of Mark, perhaps as many as thirty years of thought has gone into who Jesus was and what Jesus did on the cross! John is interpreting the life of Jesus with the understanding that some 60 years have passed since the crucifixion – providing a theological hindsight to understand the words and deeds of Jesus more clearly.

Bibliography: D. M. Smith, John Among the Synoptics: The Relationship in Twentieth-Century Research (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992).

Stanley Porter, “The Sources of John’s Gospel,” an unpublished paper read at the 2003 meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society.

15 thoughts on “Did John Know the Synoptic Gospels?

  1. Something I thought to be possible, but may not be very theologically correct if you will, could be that John knew the synoptics and just chose not to repeat them. It seems hard to believe that he did not know them at all, because they do have a lot of similar stories, and maybe he just knew them so well and somehow knew that someday other followers would be reading, so he decided to just leave out a few stories that the other gospels explained so well. Maybe he just did not want to do them any injustice… 🙂

  2. Out of the four possible stances of Stanley Porter I am most inclined to believe that the gospel of John was written independently of the sources used for Mark, Luke and Matthew but, he knew what they said. First off there isn’t “direct literary borrowing” (Blomberg p.178). Also, it makes sense that the reason John is so different is that it is assumed that they have a background knowledge of the scriptures. We are talking about a book written somewhere around 90 AD which is 60 years after Jesus left the earth which was after the other gospels were written. To the question did John know the synoptic gospels I would assume it would be hard to miss the synoptic gospels during that time period. John would have to heard them somehow.

  3. I have to agree with Tut. John had to have known about the Synoptic Gospels in some way. He is a part of the Christian community and as such he would have heard of the books and he probably read them as well. Also, there probably would be no way for him to avoid as many stories about Jesus as he did unless he knew they were already written about. He seems to be working off of material already set out before him. The only other explanation would be that he was one odd ball that thought of things in a much different light. That and he was focusing on a different purpose and chose to use different stories to prove that. No matter what, we can view the gospel of John as being divinely inspired. God is still the author of all four gospels. I know that this is a given in this discussion, but it is something that I will always go back to and highlight. It is really cool to see how God has used four different men to relate the story of his Son’s life, death, and resurrection. What an amazing God we serve!

  4. This gospel speak a lot about John the Baptist. Where do we meet John? In the desert. A crazy man eating locust and wild honey. Its fun that people went out to interact with this guy. We was not calling people out into the desert and yet they came. They saw something authentic in this haggard looking and crazy talk man. He did not claim to be the Messiah but he did fulfill prophecy as one who was sent to prepare the way. Just from my personal understanding of John the Baptist I gather that he was a different sort of guy. Whether or not, John the apostle, knew about the synoptic gospels I think he would still write what he thought he should write. In the spirit of John the Baptist he did not seem to be one who would be swayed by the pressures of religious authorities or any other powers of that day.

  5. Out of the four Stanley Porter positions, I personally believe that the second choice makes most logical sense. Although I am not an expert on scroll traveling in the first century is assume if John was really written in the 90’s then it would have left plenty of time for him to be familiar with the synoptics. I think it is very interesting how John would leave such important things out of the gospel. If John were trying to show how divine Jesus is, it would make sense to have the birth story to show how he was born of a virgin.
    Another interesting part is how John answers so many questions that the other 3 Gospels left us. An example is Mark 15:1-3 leaves us a question about Jesus’ execution. Blomberg states, “Why does the Sanhedrin in the Synoptics have to pass Jesus over to Pilate rather than just executing him themselves under their own laws? Only John answers the question” (179). Blomberg goes on to show 3 or 4 more examples like this. By no means do I think that the author of John put these statements in to answer these questions but I think it is interesting to see how they all work together to make up a very important part of the Bible.

    • “John refers to events from Jesus’ life so briefly that one must assume he knew his audience would have previous knowledge about them” (Blomberg 179). I would agree with Greg, that position two seems to make the most sense logically. Sixty years after the crucifixion, how could anyone not have known about the events of Jesus’ life? If John was as closely tied to Jesus and his followers as Blomberg and others have suggested, then position two seems to be the best.

      No matter his sources, John must have had quiet a clear picture of who Jesus was in order to start his book they way he did (John 1). The language about the word being there in the beginning and Jesus being the Word is unique to this gospel. It seems that John was expanding upon elements the synoptic gospels did not exhaustively cover. In order to expand upon the synoptic gospels John would have had to have been quite aware of their message, structure, and authorship.

  6. I thought the same thing that Joey said about maybe John did know the other synoptics but just chose not to use them. I have to go with number 2 that I believe that one makes the most sense. I feel like the other synoptics were kind of an overview and some things left out for what John was going to talk about. In Blomberg, it states “on the other hand, there is some overlap between John and the synoptics” (page 177) and it goes onto list some of the overlaps. John 21:25: “Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written”. “Jesus did so many things that, had four writers all written of him indepenently, their Gospels might all have produced books as different from each other as John is from the synoptics” (Page 178).

  7. “First, one of the reasons John seems so different is because Matthew, Mark, and Luke are so similar to each other”, (Blomberg 178). The reason that John looks so out of place or historically incorrect is because of all the similarities in the Synoptic Gospels. If there were only two Gospels, say Matthew and John, I don’t believe we would make such a big deal about this, but since there are three similar Gospels and one that’s seemingly different, there is more of an issue here. I, like many that have already posted agree with John being aware of the Synoptics. Being part of a Christian community, he most certainly would have heard of these other three Gospels. I also like how Blomberg explains that John brings some clarity to matters that audiences don’t fully grasp in the Synoptics. It’s almost as if he had read, or knows these Synoptics and is answering the questions in his gospel that people struggled with in the others…

  8. I think the gospel of John is so different from the others because it was supposed to be that. If the Bible is divinely inspired, then God had a purpose for having the synoptic gospels written by the authors he chose and in the form he chose, and likewise the gospel of John serves a purpose as well. I think it makes complete sense that John would be aware of if not the gospels then at least of Mark but that he having the purpose he did wrote what he was led to write and what he felt needed to be communicated. This would fall under the Stanly Porter’s position of “flexible dependence.” John seems to compliment the information presented in the synoptics and yet emphasize important aspects that the synoptics don’t.

  9. Excellent point, Britalia… and I’m not just saying that in order to have an easier post.

    I have to believe that God inspired the Bible and used John’s specific personality to emphasize different things. In my experience, John is a relatively easy book to read compared to the synoptic gospels and is the “go-to” book when discussing Jesus’ crucifixion with people that may have never heard it before. In the Greek, John is often the simplest to translate and understand, while books like Matthew and Luke are very in-depth and technical.

    John saw many of the things that he wrote about first-hand. He was with Jesus for a majority of his ministry and was even spoken to by Jesus on the cross. Of the 4 gospels, John seems to me to be the most genuine, not that the others aren’t true or believable, but that John presents Jesus in more human, personal way.

  10. Yeah, I wonder if the presentation of Jesus in the gospels had to do with who the authors were. Matthew = a tax man, Mark = Never Given?, Luke = Physician, John = Fisherman. Sophistication, depth, were something that I think we can “expect” from them. Not saying that fisherman were dumb… but were not on the same level.

    It does seem that John had to have written, understanding at least to some level of the other gospels floating around. If John knew of the synoptics, then I think it is safe to assume he wrote to as plong said “is interpreting the life of Jesus with the understanding that some 60 years have passed since the crucifixion – providing a theological hindsight to understand the words and deeds of Jesus more clearly.” To say John knew of one or more of the synoptics is not to say, however, that he wrote his gospel with copies of Matthew, Mark, and/or Luke in front of him. John may have been aware of the other written accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry without actually having seen them.

  11. Hmmmm…Did John know of the synoptic gospels? Well, I have always thought that John probably read them once or twice (haha). I mean there are a lot of similarities between the synoptic gospels and John. However, I feel that maybe John wanted to be an individual and create and write something on his own. Maybe he was the rebel child and wanted to be his own man! (hehe). Who knows maybe God told John I want you to write differently than the synoptic gospels to confuse Plong’s Jesus and the Gospels class so they can have more discussion in class!! 🙂

  12. There is no good evidence that John was written post 90. Absence of reference to Temple destruction, very few miracles, simple structure, with obviously interpolated windy discourses, suggest an early document that has undergone considerable redaction. Of course this premise is theologically incorrect, and any academic who proposes it is not going to get tenure. Try thinking of a pre John,which was edited into what we have now, then Mark based on John, then Luke, based Mark with material Luke made up and threw in for good measure, then Matthew, with no Q, Matthew borrowed entirely from Luke, and made the M material. Forget divine inspiration, think plagiarism and outright creative writing in order to gain an audience.

    • Maybe advanced Christology and hints at a proto-Gnostism (docetism) are the best factors in dating John late. Maybe 85-90 is more judicious. Would you consider church tradition important?

  13. “One can no longer speak of a consensus against Johannine dependence on the Synoptics or, at least, on Mark. The reasons for the revival of interest in favor of John’s dependence are varied.”

    —New Testament scholar, Raymond Brown, in his book, The Death of the Messiah (1994), p. 76

    Gary: How many times have you heard conservative Christian apologists say that even if the authors of Luke and Matthew were dependent on Mark, the author of John was not. “Scholarship demonstrates that the Gospel of John is not dependent on the Synoptics, therefore we have at least two independent sources (Mark and John) for the Arrest, Trial, Crucifixion, and Resurrection stories found in the Gospels.”

    Not so fast, Christians!

    Scholars are currently divided on this issue. No one can claim either side of this argument as fact. We might have two independent sources for these stories, but it is also possible that the core story came from just one source: the author of the Gospel of Mark. If the core details of the Jesus’ Passion Story came solely from the anonymous author of the Gospel of Mark, whom the majority of scholars do not believe was an eyewitness or the associate of an eyewitness (ie., not John Mark), it is then possible that much or all of the Arrest scene, Trial scene, Crucifixion scene, and Resurrection scene are literary inventions, perfectly acceptable in Greco-Roman biographies!

    As long as the core story remained intact…that Jesus of Nazareth had been arrested by the Romans; tried and convicted of treason against Caesar; executed by crucifixion; buried in some manner; and shortly thereafter, his disciples believed that he appeared to them, in some fashion…the other details found in the Passion Narrative may be literary invention (fiction)!
    Think of that! It would certainly answer a lot of questions. Why does (the original) Resurrection Story in Mark have zero appearance stories? Why does the Gospel of Matthew, written a decade or so later, have appearances to the male disciples in Galilee, while the Gospel of Luke, also written a decade or so after Mark (whose author most scholars believe was not aware of Matthew’s gospel), has appearances only in Jerusalem and Judea? And why does the last Gospel written, John, have appearances in Jerusalem and Galilee as if the author had combined Matthew and Luke’s stories??? My, my, my. The evidence for a fantastical, never-heard-of-before-or-since Resurrection is much, much weaker than the average Christian layperson sitting in the pew on Sunday realizes!


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