John versus The Synoptics.
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topic of the Similarities and Differences between John and the Synoptic Gospels
is one over which much ink has been spent. Far be it from this author to try
and rewrite the history of this debate or bring some new insight that has been
previously undiscovered. However it will be attempted to show that the
arguments of those who hold to literary dependency have been justifiable
overcome, and that with having been able to establish that John wrote without any
literary dependence on the Synoptics, the doorway is open to look at the Fourth
Gospel as sharing an Interlocking Tradition.
In the discussion of the relationship between John and the
other synoptic gospels, it is almost impossible to be dogmatic when talking
about which theory best explains the similarities and differences. Rather there
are three main views to which we can turn. It is not the first view on which we
will concentrate but the second, because it enables the first view to be
unlocked and the debate can turn to a
new and innovative way of looking at this issue (An Interlocking Tradition).
Firstly there is the view that John had one or more of the
Synoptics before him and deliberately set out to write a different type of
Secondly John was not dependent on of any of the Synoptics
but wrote independently out of an overlapping oral tradition avoiding the
repeating of that tradition. Instead John confirmed, completed, clarified and
Thirdly John had some familiarity with at least one of the
Synoptics but wrote without reference to any of them.
By and large it is the first view that has held sway for
the greater part of the first half of the twentieth century. This was the view held by such notable
scholars as C.K. Barrett and B.W Bacon who held that John used freely from Marcan material.
It is the second view however to which we turn, because to
show that the John wrote independent of the Synoptics is to free the gospel and
allow a greater interpretation of the facts.
The words of M.E. Glasswell or
echoed in this debate the fact that the author of the Fourth Gospel had
before him when he wrote, tradition which was in many places parallel to that
of the Synoptics is probably universally accepted. At issue he claims is whether he knew
that tradition in written form.
Writing on behalf of those who see John writing
independently there are such authors as, Gardiner-Smith, John A. T. Robinson, Goodenough, Dodd, Raymond E. Brown and Schnackenburg. By far the greatest impetus for this
view came from P. Gardiner-Smith who carried out a thorough examination of
the case for dependence and concluded that it could not be substantiated. Gardiner-Smith bought to attention the
existence of a continuing oral tradition which was in use at the time of the
writing of the Synoptics. Also he raised the issue of the
concentration of the critics on the similarities between John and the Synoptics
and not on the differences between them. This made the issue of dependence less
compelling. C.H Dodd took up this question of
whether we can in any way discover an underlying tradition in the fourth gospel which is independent from any other
traditions known to us. He goes onto claim that it has almost been a dogma of
criticism that John depends on the Synoptics.
There is no reason to think that the author of Johns
Gospel had to follow any previous written form, nor need he be dependent on the
previous existence of one, for the idea of writing such a work. John A.T. Robinson believes that Dodds
position that John is not literary dependant on the Synoptics has been fully
vindicated. He claims that the literary dependence
of John on the Synoptics rests on the presupposition that, (1) the synoptic
gospels or at least one of them already existed; (2) John had a prior knowledge
of them; (3) John used them; and (4) he depended upon them, at least in part
for his material. The
early church according to Dodd was not a community that read widely and as such
many misconceptions have been perpetrated because of this. Rather it carried out its affairs with
the means of voice, worship and missionary preaching and it was out of these
forms of communication that the traditions of liturgy, didache
and kerygma were built up. Similarity in form he
claims can be explained in a different manner. The explanation is that of a
common tradition under which the gospel writing began.
D.A. Carson highlights this and states, if the work of
Dodd and others is right, and John preserves independent tradition, then the
places where John and Mark seem very close (e.g. in the ordering of events in
John6/Mark6) could be taken as evidence not of direct literary dependence but
of common dependence on oral tradition, and ultimately on the order of events
themselves. Dodd comes to the conclusion that there
is behind the fourth gospel an ancient tradition that is independent from the
Arguing against dependence which according to him is based
on the striking similarities between John and the Synoptics in literary style
and sequence, Dodd raises the issues of chronology and authorship.
Firstly, on the issue of chronology, he points out that
John is a narrative neatly arranged in order according to the Jewish calendar,
which includes about three years. Marks account however only appears to
cover one year and as such has been used by many critics to refute John.
Secondly there is the question of authorship and as Dodd shows there has been long
debate over this issue which has been inconclusive.
For if an early date for Johns death is taken as with C.K. Barrett, then John could not have lived long
enough to write the fourth gospel. Barrett does not explicitly deny that
John could have lived to an old age but rather he states Even if the martyrdom
tradition is rejected, difficulties remain in the alternative accounts of John. There is no evidence he claims, for
Johns residence in Ephesus to be
found in any orthodox Christian writings found earlier that Irenaeus.
If John had resided there as the tradition claims why is there no trace of this
mentioned in literature that has survived from the first half of the second century.
Dodd views this with some disdain and puts forward the hypothesis that if John
had died the early martyr death as propounded by Barrett then the Sons of Zebedee must have been dead when the prediction of Mark
10:39 was put forth.
E. Kenneth Lee states that when we compare the Fourth
Gospel with the Synoptics we are at once struck by the differences, but he goes onto say that even when we
look at some of the major similarities we must admit that they alone cannot be
enough to show that John was dependent on the Synoptics and Mark in particular,
even though they point to John having knowledge of a similar tradition to Mark.
Firstly there is no account in either of John or Mark of
Jesus birth and early life. However these admissions appear to be for
differing reasons. Lee feels that Mark left this out because he knew nothing of
them while Johns omission was due to his wanting to emphasis the eternal
character of Jesus.
Secondly even though both start at the same point in time
(the ministry of John the Baptist) and place (Galilee). Mark focuses on a non-Judaean ministry while John centers his accounts of Jesus
teaching around the feast of Jerusalem.
Both in the end bring Jesus to Jerusalem.
Thirdly both accounts end at the resurrection with both
treating it in some sense as spiritual.
Fourthly John appears to be aware of certain facts from
the Marcan tradition such as the cleansing of the
temple, the home at Bethany, the anointing, the feeding of the multitude, the
walking on the sea and the twofold nature of the trial.
It is noted by Moody-Smith that if John did not know the Synoptics,
but rather some common or overlapping traditions or sources, one could expect
to find the most extensive agreement in the passion accounts. He then goes on to
state this is exactly what is found.
Again in support of the view of Johns independence from
the Synoptics, Gardner-Smith critiques the position held by Professor Sparks
who claims that John had knowledge of Matthew. In this issue Gardner-Smith looks at
the comparison between John 13:16, John 15:20 and Matthew 10:24-25. Professor
Sparks according to Gardner-Smith discusses these passages and their
interrelationship, then concludes that since all three have the same saying and
the same complex of ideas the most natural assumption was that John knew
Matthew. Professor Sparks sets out nine
points,(of which we shall look at three) in his attempt to prove his point.
Firstly that the servant-lord antithesis was for St John
clearly primary and it is precisely this antithesis which is pointed to the
second member of St Matthews two member version; it is however, absent from
Lukes version. Gardner-Smith directs our attention to the fact that this may
point out that John was not dependent on Luke, but provides no reasoning to
believe that he was in the least influenced by Matthew. After all he may have
been using instead another source.
Secondly Professor Sparks insists that St Johns second
antithesis is between an apostle and the one that sent him which he further
claims fits exactly into the context which Matthew places the saying (the
mission of the twelve). Matthew accordingly he claims introduces the twelve
with twn de dwdeka apostolwn
ta onomata estin tauta ..., the twelve apostles. It is the
word apostle which according to Gardner-Smith, Sparks
assumes that John uses. However Matthew never uses this word again after
Matthew 10:2 and the passage in John13:16 which Sparks claims to underlie
Matthew 10:26 uses maqhthj. Are we to suppose then that John
changed maqhthj to apostoloj. For Gardner-Smith then all that has happened here is
that John has placed a well known saying into a new setting.
Thirdly it is the use again of the word apostle which bears
consideration. In the earliest Church the word apostle was commonly used to
describe a limited class of missionaries, who were not necessarily, members of
the original twelve. Later the word became restricted to the Twelve and it is
significant that Luke only uses it in that way. However neither Matthew or John
have this usage as in Matthew the word may mean nothing more than those who
It can be seen then that the issue of dependence or
independence can be supported very well from either side.
However the weight of the evidence at this time leans
towards independence. Especially in the sense that John did not sit down with
any of the Synoptic gospels before him and rewrite or redact these gospels so
as to bring us the Fourth Gospel.
This then opens the door to the view held by Leon Morris
and D.A. Carson. That is, that there is a basis for an interlocking tradition. For Morris and Carson just because
there is little direct evidence of a direct dependence does not mean there
cannot be a connection between what John and the Synoptics enshrine as
tradition. Just as an article by Pierson Parker points out, the relationship
between the Synoptics and John is very complex. Parker states himself that, the case
is far from convincing, for Johns literary dependence on any of the Synoptics. It is obvious that John rarely agrees
with the Synoptics, but when he does all sorts of things happen. Sometimes for instance John agrees with
Matthew and Mark against Luke, sometimes with Mark or Matthew alone. Carson
sees the Synoptics and John reinforcing each other without displaying literary
dependence and as such represent this interlocking tradition.
In a sense Stephen Smalley agrees with this because with
statements like if there is a connection between the synoptic and Johannine
traditions, these (on the assumption of Johannine
independence) are in the underground. They remind us not of borrowing from one
Gospel to another, but of a common, primitive Christian tradition shared by all
the evangelists; even if at times Johns sources approximate remarkably to
those used by the other Gospel writers it is hard to imagine he is thinking of
Even Robinson talks about an interrelation of tradition
and cites an example of Mark 6 and John 6 where Jesus withdraws to the
wilderness, feeds the crowds, journeys across the lake while walking on the
water then delivers a discourse on bread, where each follow one another in
different forms in both traditions. This he claims in not due to their
being put together later by some process but rather because that is the way the
events took place.
In conclusion then, this appears to be the best
explanation for the similarities and differences between John and the Synoptics
because after having released ourselves from the constraints of a literary
dependence it is possible to see that if John often usefully explains something
in the Synoptics then the Synoptics frequently provide information that enables
us to make better sense of the Fourth Gospel. This then is the great strength
of this view, that one enables us to better understand and apply the other.
(See Appendix 1).
This diagram reproduced form Stephen Smalleys book gives
a good pictorial explanation of this view. JA is Johns own material while J1
is Johns version of material parallel to the Synoptic tradition. The rest is self explanatory.
Barrett C.K., The Gospel According
to Saint John, (SPCK: London, 1978).
Beasley-Murray George R., John,
(Word; Waco Texas, 1987) Vol 37.
Carson D.A., The Gospel According
to John, (Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 1994).
Dodd C.H., Historical Tradition in
the Fourth Gospel. (Cambridge University Press; London, 1963).
Gardner-Smith P., St Johns
Knowledge of Matthew Journal
of Theological Studies Vol 4
Gardiner-Smith P., Saint John and
the Synoptic Gospels, (Cambridge; 1938).
Glasswell M.E., The Relationship
Between John and Mark Journal
for the Study of the New Testament. Vol 23 (1985) 99-115.
Kysar Robert., The Gospel of John
in Current Research Religious Studies Review, Vol 9 Number 4 Oct
Lee E. Kenneth., St Mark and the
Fourth Gospel New Testament Studies, Vol 3 (1956-57) 50-58.
Morris Leon., The Gospel According
to John, (Eerdmans; Grand Rapids, 1992).
Morris Leon., Studies in the Fourth
Gospel, (The Paternoster Press; Devon, 1969).
Parker Pierson., Luke and the
Fourth Evangelist New Testament Studies, Vol 9 (1962-63) 317- 336.
Robinson John A.T., The Priority of
John. (SCM Press: London, 1985).
Smalley Stephen., John, Evangelist
and Interpreter, ( The Paternoster Press; Exeter, 1978).
Smith D. Moody., John and the
Synoptics New Testament Studies Vol 26, (1980) 425-444.
Smith D. Moody., B.W. Bacon on John
and Mark, Perspectives in Religious Studies. Volume 8 Fall (1981) 201-218.