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.

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.

9 thoughts on “Did John Know the Synoptic Gospels?

    • I almost added a paragraph on Robinson just for you, since I knew when I wrote this that you would remind me of his work! It is not that I dislike the guy, but it does seem like his ideas have not had as much traction as I would have thought. He is something like a Michael Goulder or John Gager, scholars with great, idiosyncratic ideas that everyone has to acknowledge before dismisses without too much thought.

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      • Well, John Arthur Thomas Robinson, was certainly one of a kind! A very eclectic man and mind, with most certainly what we could call some real liberal ideas. But on this subject he was strangely centered, perhaps taken most definitely by the idea that the fall of Jerusalem is never mentioned in the NT, as a past fact! And it is here that I myself simply agree. Btw, I met the Bishop once in England, not too long before he discovered he was dying, RIP! I can note here too that his fellow Brit and Anglican evangelical, Gerald Bray, was his close friend. And of course Bray is most certainly rather conservative. But yes, he is always thought of perhaps, as that provocative writer of his Honest to God. Btw, one of his more unknown books, but well worth the read, is his: The Human Face Of God (love the title), but most certainly here is a liberal Christology, but again he makes one think, and outside the box a bit! The book is well written and somewhat dense, but also well footnoted. In the end for Robinson, Christ is THE Human-Man, as He was somewhat for Bonhoeffer (whom he quotes too in his book).

        Btw, thanks to think of me! I am too am eclectic, and even too an eccentric, but I hope a conservative one! 😉

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  1. I really don’t like the “theologically advanced” argument. For starters, it’s a bit nebulous. More importantly, theological advancement isn’t some sort of linear teleological progression, whatever 19th-century Germans wished to think. We could play havoc with the Old Testament, claiming that Esther clearly pre-dates the legal passages of the Pentateuch, because it has a focus on genuine spirit-filled religion, rather than some Levitical perversion that needed God’s only-begotten son to sort out. Really we’d just be making an error of genre and individual style.

    I think there is a good argument that Mark is a work that is peculiarly unconcerned about theological minutiae (indeed, that gave Matthew an enhanced motive for redacting it). Should we therefore date Mark earlier than, say, 1 Corinthians? So if Mark is particularly untheological, John’s theological advancement needs much less justification.

    The best argument for putting John in the 90s is, to my mind, the advanced form of sectarianism, suggesting that a split between Synagogue and Church was already a reality (John 9:22 being the usual offer). I’m not sure that this is a particularly secure argument for its date relative to the Synoptics other than Mark though: Matthew has his fair share of anti-Jewish invective and could simply have chanced into not making historical blunders; and Luke-Acts is characterized by relations between virtually everyone being cordial to the point of implausibility. Can sectarianism itself be explained by authorial eccentricity/polemic?

    At any rate, the Synoptic monolith needs to be broken: Mark’s being earlier than John should not lead into a sloppy assumption that Luke in particular is earlier than John. Can we once and for all demonstrate that Luke was aware of John or vice versa? How about the authors of Ephesians (aptly named…) and 1 Peter? (I think a hypothetical authorship flowchart would be a lovely presentation, even though it’s probably undoable…)

    Otherwise, we’re onto really weak arguments. The Church Fathers thought John was the last gospel written (their reliability is rather sadly undermined by Matthaean Priority also being in vogue among them). Modern people with a theological investment in the truth value of the Synoptics will also try to shove John as late as possible (and this is quite plausibly the Fathers’ motive too). And earlier dates for John are similarly undermined by their being propounded by the sorts of people who have a theological investment in early dates for every single book of the New Testament.

    I don’t think we’re going to get any closer than guesstimates at a date that sounds vaguely plausible and flatters one’s own preconceptions unless we chance across finding the end of a manuscript of John with a date on it earlier than AD90 (and its not being a fake!); I am not holding my breath.

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  2. The best reason I can think of that John would not include so much of what was in the synoptics would be that his community already had them, or early versions of them, and he was writing to fill a need that they did not fill, and/or was writing a narrative commentary on them.

    Another possibility is that John was writing to meet the particular needs of the Johannine community at that time, and so his selection, emphasis, and arrangement of the elements of the Jesus story were a retelling of the community’s story, as when the Hebrew scriptures were retold during the exile.

    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.

    My understanding is that the gospel and the Apocalypse are pretty clearly not written by the same person, judging from the style of the Greek. I don’t know, though, whether we received both books from the same community. Are you suggesting that the author is the same and wrote it in only one place? or that the community revised and transmitted the two texts as if (in some ways, at least) they were a single text?

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    • I agree that the style of Greek is totally different, and that is the usual main argument against the author being the same. I like the idea of a community-driven document, with the apostle John as a main teacher. The difference between the two books might be explained as the difference in Genre, the apocalyptic genre simply requires a different way of writing – but concepts are there (the Lamb of God), and the fact that there is almost no eschatology / apocalyptic in Gospel of John implies it was excised from the teaching of Jesus – why? Because the second volume (perhaps tasked to another part of the group) was planned in the style of a Daniel, Zechariah, Enoch, or Baruch.

      Whether “historical John” is alive when this literature was generated is impossible to know, but perhaps the tradition of his old age is correct and his age / death prompted the publication of his teaching.

      Ultimately this is all grand speculation, it is only helpful when turned into a tool for reading the text of John.

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      • So much of our so-called modern and now postmodern theology is simply “grand speculation”! 😉 I wonder sometimes if today’s students even bother reading things like Eusebius’s: The History of the Church?

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