John versus The Synoptics.

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 Synopsis. The 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 the Gospel of John and the other synoptic gospels(Matthew, Mark and Luke), 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 Gospel[1].

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 rectified it[2].

Thirdly John had some familiarity with at least one of the Synoptics but wrote without reference to any of them[3].

By and large it is the first view that has held sway for the greater part of the first half of the twentieth century[4]. This was the view held by such notable scholars as C.K. Barrett and B.W Bacon[5] who held that John used freely from Marcan material[6].

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”[7]. 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[8]. By far the greatest impetus for this view came from P. Gardiner-Smith[9] who carried out a thorough examination of the case for dependence and concluded that it could not be substantiated[10]. 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[11]. 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[12]. C.H Dodd took up this question of whether we can in any way discover an underlying tradition in the fourth gospel[13] 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 John's 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[14]. John A.T. Robinson believes that Dodd’s position that John is not literary dependant on the Synoptics has been fully vindicated[15]. 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[16].  The early church according to Dodd was not a community that read widely and as such many misconceptions have been perpetrated because of this[17]. 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[18].

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 John 6/and Mark 6) 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”[19]. Dodd comes to the conclusion that there is behind the fourth gospel an ancient tradition that is independent from the gospels[20].

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[21]. Mark’s 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[22] and as Dodd shows there has been long debate over this issue which has been inconclusive[23].  For if an early date for John’s death is taken as with C.K. Barrett[24], then John could not have lived long enough to write the fourth gospel[25]. 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[26]”. There is no evidence he claims, for John’s 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[27].

E. Kenneth Lee states that “when we compare the Fourth Gospel with the Synoptics we are at once struck by the differences”[28], 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 John’s omission was due to his wanting to emphasis the eternal character of Jesus[29].

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[30].

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”[31].

Again in support of the view of John’s independence from the Synoptics, Gardner-Smith critiques the position held by Professor Sparks who claims that John had knowledge of Matthew[32]. 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[33]. 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 Matthew’s two member version; it is however, absent from Luke’s 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 John’s 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[34]. 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 were sent.

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”[35]. 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[36]. Parker states himself that, “ the case is far from convincing, for John’s literary dependence on any of the Synoptics”[37]. It is obvious that John rarely agrees with the Synoptics, but when he does all sorts of things happen[38]. 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 John’s sources approximate remarkably to those used by the other Gospel writers”[39] it is hard to imagine he is thinking of anything else.

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[40]. 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[41].

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).


Appendix 1.

This diagram reproduced form Stephen Smalley’s book gives a good pictorial explanation of this view. JA is John’s own material while J1 is John’s version of material parallel to the Synoptic tradition[42]. 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 John’s Knowledge of Matthew”  Journal of Theological Studies  Vol 4 (1953) 31-35.

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 (1983) 314-320.

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.


[1] Robert Kysar, “The Gospel of John in Current Research” Religious Studies Review, Vol 9 Number 4 Oct (1983) 316.

[2] Kysar, 316.

[3] Kysar, 316.

[4] Stephen Smalley, John, Evangelist and Interpreter, ( The Paternoster Press; Exeter, 1978) 12.

[5] D. Moody Smith, “B.W. Bacon on John and Mark”, Perspectives in Religious Studies.  Volume 8 Fall (1981) 201-218. Here Smith looks at the work of Bacon and brings out Bacon’s conclusions; (1) Matthew is practically ignored; (2) Mark is made the basis; (3)  Supplements and changes are made with large use of Luke both as motive and material.

[6] C.K. Barrett, The Gospel According to Saint John, (SPCK: London, 1978) 16.

[7] M.E. Glasswell, “The Relationship Between John and Mark”  Journal for the Study of the New Testament. Vol 23 (1985) 99.

[8] D. Moody Smith, “John and the Synoptics” New Testament Studies Vol 26, (1980) 426.

[9] P. Gardiner-Smith, Saint John and the Synoptic Gospels, (Cambridge; 1938)

[10] Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, (Eerdmans; Grand Rapids, 1992) 50.

[11] George R. Beasley-Murray, John, (Word; Waco Texas, 1987) Vol 37, xxxvi.

[12] Beasley-Murray, xxxvi.

[13] C.H. Dodd, Historical Tradition in the Fourth Gospel. (Cambridge University Press; London, 1963) 9.

[14] Glasswell, 99.

[15] John A.T. Robinson, The Priority of John. (SCM Press: London, 1985) 1.

[16] Robinson, 3.

[17] Dodd, 8.

[18] Dodd, 9.

[19] D.A. Carson, The Gospel According to John, (Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 1994) 49.

[20] Dodd, 423.

[21] Dodd, 9.

[22] Carson, 68 ff. For a complete assessment of this argument see Carson.

[23] Dodd, 10.

[24] C.K. Barrett, 103f.

[25] Dodd, 12.

[26] Barrett, 104.

[27] Dodd, 12.

[28] E. Kenneth Lee, “St Mark and the Fourth Gospel” New Testament Studies, Vol 3 (1956-57) 50.

[29] Lee, 51f.

[30] Lee, 51.

[31] Moody-Smith, 433.

[32] P. Gardner-Smith, “St John’s Knowledge of Matthew”  Journal of Theological Studies  Vol 4 (1953) 31-35.

[33] Gardner-Smith, “St John’s Knowledge of Matthew” 31.

[34] Gardner-Smith, “St John’s Knowledge of Matthew” 32.

[35] Leon Morris, Studies in the Fourth Gospel, (The Paternoster Press; Devon, 1969) 40.

[36] Pierson Parker, “Luke and the Fourth Evangelist” New Testament Studies, Vol 9 (1962-63) 317- 336.

[37] Pierson Parker,  331.

[38] Morris, Studies in the Fourth Gospel, 41.

[39] Stephen Smalley, 39.

[40] Robinson,  24.

[41] Robinson. 24. In defence of his position he quotes Fortna who sees the verbal relationships between the two feeding stories in Mark 6 and 8 as analogous to that between John’s story and any other synoptic version. Yet according to Fortna no body suggests that Mark 6 is literary dependent on Mark 8 or visa versa.

[42] Smalley, 40.

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