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.

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 dependance 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 synoptics:

  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 literarily, it is hard to imagine that John was not aware of the preaching of the gospel (the kerygma) that lay at the foundation of the synoptics. Carson and Moo call this an “interlocking tradition”  – they use each other without betraying dependance.  John was most likely aware of the contents of the three synoptics.  This may account for the large amount of unique material; what the synoptics chose to omit John decides to include (such as visits to Jerusalem prior to the crucifixion), but also details are added with help us to understand the synoptics – Jesus already knew the disciples before he called them (John 1).

These differences may include the more advanced theological agenda found in John compared to the synoptics.  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.

Are there other reasons John chose to be so different from the synoptic Gospels?

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.