The Basis for Luke Primacy
John vs the Synoptics

John vs the Synoptics

James D. G. Dunn, Jesus Remembered, Christianity in the Making, Volume 1, Paperback Edition, 2019

“Few scholars would regard John as a source for information regarding Jesus’ life and ministry in any degree comparable to the Synoptics. It is worth noting briefly the factors which have been considered of enduring significance on this point.

One is the very different picture of Jesus’ ministry, both in the order and significance of events (particularly the cleansing of the temple and the raising of Lazarus) and the location of Jesus ministry (predominantly Jerusalem rather than Galilee).

Another is the striking difference in Jesus’ style of speaking (much more discursive and theological, in contrast to the aphoristic and parabolic style of the Synoptics). As Strauss had already pointed out, this style is consistent, whether Jesus speaks to Nicodemus, to the widow at the well, or to his disciples, and very similar to the style of the Baptist, as indeed of 1 John. The inference is inescapable that the style is that of the Evangelist rather than that of Jesus.

Probably most important of all, in the Synoptics Jesus’ principal theme is the Kingdom of God, and he rarely speaks of himself, whereas in John, the Kingdom hardly features and the discourses are largely vehicles for expressing Jesus’ self-consciousness and self-proclamation. Had the striking ‘ I am’ self-assertions of John been remembered as spoken by Jesus, how could any evangelists have ignored them so completely as the gospels do?

On the whole, then, the position is unchanged: John’s gospel cannot be regarded as a source for the life and the teaching of Jesus of the same order as the Synoptics… We shall certainly want to call upon John’s gospel as a source, but mostly as a secondary source to supplement or corroborate the testimony of the Synoptic tradition.” (Page 165-167)

James D. G. Dunn, , Neither Jew nor Greek: A Contested Identity, Christianity in the Making, Volume 3, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Kindle Edition.

Dunn, James D. G.. Neither Jew nor Greek: A Contested Identity (Christianity in the Making, Volume 3) (p. 613). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Kindle Edition.


As David Friedrich Strauss pointed out long ago, the style of Jesus’ speech in John’s Gospel is consistent, whether Jesus is depicted as speaking to Nicodemus, to the woman at the well, or to ‘the Jews’, or to his disciples. And the style is very similar to that of the Baptist, as indeed to that of 1 John. The inference is inescapable that the style is that of the Evangelist or of the Evangelist’s tradition, rather than that of Jesus. And it can hardly be judged other than scarcely credible that Jesus was remembered as having uttered the ‘I am’ assertions, so vividly descriptive and self-assertive, and yet not one of the Synoptic Evangelists bothered to recall or use them. How could such self-identifying assertions made by Jesus during his mission have been so ignored or blanked out by the earlier Gospel writers? The only obvious conclusion is that the ‘I am’ sayings, so characteristic of John’s Gospel, and so distinctive of John’s Gospel, cannot be traced back as such to Jesus himself. This is Jesus tradition developed well beyond its roots in Jesus’ own mission. (pp. 615-616)

So far as the final form of the Gospel itself is concerned, it would appear that John felt free to mould the tradition available to him in his own distinctive way. (pp. 632-633)
It is hard to avoid the conclusion that John moved the account of the cleansing of the temple to the beginning of his Gospel to provide a window through which the unfolding of Jesus’ mission and revelation should be seen. And that he did so also to make room for his own version of the climax to Jesus’ mission, the climax which triggered the decisive action against Jesus. More has to be said about the raising of Lazarus, but it is best said in the context of John’s account of Jesus’ signs. (p. 636)
In short, it is hard to doubt that John’s version of Jesus’ teaching is an elaboration of aphorisms, parables, motifs, and themes remembered as characteristic of Jesus’ teaching, as attested in the Synoptic tradition. (p. 642)
It is quite possible, then, to envisage how the Johannine Word/Wisdom Christology is the product of a long reflection on such features of the earlier Jesus tradition. In the light of Jesus’ resurrection and exaltation to the right hand of God, as they believed, it was natural to see the fuller and deeper significance in such features, and natural to develop a richer expression of them within the Gospel framework already established by the Synoptic Gospels. Were the question of historicity a real one for John and his audiences, in the same way as is the case today, he would probably have confirmed that he was not attempting to provide a historical record of what Jesus did and said. His concern was rather to bring out the truth of Jesus as they now perceived it, the fuller significance of the historical life and mission of Jesus which only became clear to them with the passing of some decades. For John the truth of Jesus was much fuller and richer than the historical facticity of what he said and did during the three years of his mission. To miss this probable conclusion and to insist that John has to be read on the same terms and level as the Synoptics is most likely to miss what John saw himself as doing. (pp. 670-671)

V. H. Stanton, The Gospels as Historical Documents, Part III, The Forth Gospel, 1911, p. 209

“The difference between the Synoptic representation of the person and the Ministry of Jesus and that in the Fourth Gospel is such that we are compelled to ask whether we can use them both. M critics… give their preference to the Synoptics. Although they do not by any means regard them as fully trustworthy, they hold them to be so by comparison with the fourth evangelist. It is held that a presumption in favor of the Synoptic accounts is raised by their greater naturalness and life likeness, and the absence of the appearance of any such special doctrinal purpose as there is in the case of the Fourth Gospel, by which their character as narrators might be impaired. And it is held also that the result of a detailed comparison is to demonstrate their superiority to such an extent and in so many instances that, even where the best case can be made out for the Fourth Gospel, it is most probable that the others are in the right.” 

C. H. Dodd, The Authority of the Bible, Second Harper Tourchbook Edition, 1962 p. 215

“It is therefore worthwhile to exercise the most strenuous historical criticism in seeking to recover the earliest and most trustworthy forms of the Gospel tradition. A century of such criticism has not been without results. We may now say with confidence that for strictly historical material, with the minimum of subjective interpretation, we must not go to the Fourth Gospel. Its religious value stands beyond challenge, and it is the more fully appreciated when its contribution to our knowledge of the bare facts of the life of Jesus becomes a secondary interest. This is not to say that it makes no such contribution. But it is to the Synoptic Gospels that we must go if we which to recover the oldest and purest tradition of the facts. These Gospels coincide, overlap, diverge, confirm and contradict one another in a way that is at first simply perplexing. But out of these curious interrelations of the three it has been possible to deduce a gradually increasing mass of probable conclusions about the earlier sources upon which they rest.”

G. H. C. Macgregor, The Gospel Of John, Harper and Brothers, New York, 1928

The Fourth Gospel and the Synoptics

All criticism of the Fourth Gospel must begin with an attempt to relate the book to the Synoptic Gospels. And firstly, to what extent was ‘John’ (the proper name used throughout without prejudging the question of authorship) acquainted with the three earlier Gospels, and what use did he make of them? Of late it has been generally assumed that he knew and used Mark; but ‘that he knew either of the others seems more than doubtful.’ Perhaps this statement should be so far modified as to say that the evidence while supporting the conclusion that John did not use Matthew, favors the theory that he is dependent on Luke as well as on Mark. (p. x)

That John was familiar with Luke’s Gospel may be argued from the remarkable points of contact between the two Gospels in regard to the story of Martha and Mary. John assumes that his readers are acquainted with the story of the two sisters as told by Luke, and shows a peculiar interest in elaborating the balder Marcan narrative by a somewhat artificial cross-identification of persons and places as between Mark and Luke. It must suffice to refer the reader to the notes on John 2:1 ff. and especially John 12:2 ff., where John’s version of the anointing is obviously the result of a conflation of Mark and Luke. There are also notable resemblances between the accounts of the Passion in Luke and John. Compare Jn. 19:1 with Lk. 23:22, where both Evangelists regard the scourging by Pilate as an attempt to induce the Jews to be content with something less than the death penalty; John 20:3 ff. with Luke 24:24, to which John’s story gives detail and precision; Jn. 20:19 and Jn 20:20 with Lk 24:36 and Lk 24:40 respectively. Literary dependence on Luke seems suggested by a comparison of Jn. 18:10 with Lk. 22:50Jn. 19:41 with Lk. 23:53Jn. 20:12 with Lk. 24:4 (two angels, not one as in Mark and Matthew), and especially Jn. 13:38 with Lk. 22:34, where John’s wording is almost identical with Luke’s just where the latter differs from Mark’s (Mark 14:30). Finally, we find the most notable coincidence between John and Luke in the fact that both place the first Resurrection Appearance to the Disciples at Jerusalem, not (as do Mark and Matthew) in Galilee.

Between Matthew and John there are but few points of contact and none sufficiently striking to prove literary dependence; Streeter notes a number of minor agreements of Matthew and John against Mark, but denies that they have any significance. The evidence for John’s use of Matthew is quite inconclusive, and the probability is that he had no knowledge of it, or else that knowing it he ignored it on account of its Judaistic and Apocalyptic outlook. (p. xi)

In his placing of certain incidents and his analysis of the determining factors in the course of Jesus’ ministry, John departs from the Synoptic tradition. According to the Fourth Gospel, the Cleansing of the Temple occurred at the beginning of the ministry, while the Synoptics evidently regard it as an act of provocation which finally precipitated Jesus’ death. That there were actually two ‘cleansings’ will hardly be maintained, and though it may be argued in favor of the Johannine placing that a protest against the desecration of the Temple would be called for on Christ’s first public appearance, such an act whenever performed must inevitably have provoked arrest, and the balance of probability is against our Gospel. Once again John is influenced by dogmatic motives and by the desire to secure a suitable introductory incident to illustrate the theme, which is the key to the first section of the Gospel, that the new gospel of Christ is to supersede the old religion typified by the Temple. Having thus antedated the ‘Temple-cleansing ‘ John is under the necessity of substituting another incident as the event which precipitated the denouement, and this he finds in the story of the raising of Lazarus, a miracle of which the Synoptics know nothing. That John is at variance with the earlier Gospels, even with regard to the event which provided the occasion for the arrest, is one of the greatest difficulties facing the harmonist. (p xiv-xv)

In his attitude to miracles, John presents an interesting contrast to the Synoptics. As regards the type of miracle recorded it is noticeable that the cure of demoniacs, a class of miracle which not only, according to the Synoptics, was the most frequently performed, but also to the modem mind is the most credible, is entirely omitted. On the other hand ‘nature miracles’ that is, miracles performed on inanimate objects, such as the turning of water into wine, the multiplication of the loaves, the walking on water — a type of miracle which presents peculiar difficulty — receive special emphasis. This is in line with John’s tendency everywhere to heighten the miraculous. Those on whom the miracles are wrought have been ill for thirty-eight years, born blind, dead for no less than four days. Corresponding with this tendency is a new conception of Jesus’ motive in performing miracles. According to the Synoptics it is because he is ‘ moved with compassion ’ (Mark 1:41Mark 8:2), according to John Jesus ‘signs’ are evidence of his divine power (and the more miraculous the more convincing the proof), and therefore ‘display his glory (John 2:11). Whereas for the Synoptics faith is a condition of miracle (Mt. 13:58), John regards miracle as the supreme inducement to faith (John 14:11). Hence we find that according to the Synoptics Jesus when asked for a ‘sign’ as a prop to faith, refuses it (Mk. 8:12) ; whereas in Jn. 2:18-22, when met with the same request, he does not decline it but points forward to his miraculous resurrection with the result in the sequel that when his disciples ‘remembered’  they believed. (p. xv-xvi)

We turn now to Jesus’ discourses, and again feel the sense of contrast. And first in respect of their form. The reader of the Synoptics will agree with Justin Martyr’s verdict when, speaking of ‘the very doctrine delivered by Christ himself,’ he says: ‘Short and pithy are his discourses; no sophist was he ‘ (Apol. 1:14). The Johannine discourses impress one as discursive and dialectical, a limited number of great themes being repeated again and again on the most varied occasions. Yet, while this distinction is broadly true, our Gospel is not lacking in just such concise and axiomatic sayings as characterize Jesus’ speech in the Synoptics.  No doubt to the casual reader they are almost lost in the Evangelist’s elaboration of them, but a more careful study reveals them dotted here and there like gems in a cunningly wrought setting. In the Synoptics, the most characteristic and fascinating of Jesus’ discourses are the parables. But the Fourth Gospel does not contain a single true parable, the only passages which approach the parabolic form (e.g. ‘ the Vine,’ John 15:1-8 ; ‘ the Good Shepherd, Chap 10) being rather ‘allegories’ or figurative discourses. (p. xvi – xvii)

The same contrast is presented in respect of the content of Jesus’ teaching. In the Synoptics we find practical precepts adapted to concrete situations. Jesus deals with life’s great moral problems, the relation of Man to God and to his fellows; he speaks little of the mystery of his own Person and of his relation to the Father. His teaching deals almost exclusively with the question, What must one do to enter the Kingdom of God ? In the Fourth Gospel, on the other hand, we find set discourses, abstract rather than practical in character, abounding in enigmatic allusions and the elucidation of misunderstandings, which often in themselves are not a little artificial, and bearing constantly on such subjects as Christ’s own divinity, his relation to the Father, or on mysteries of faith such as the indwelling of the Spirit or the efficacy of the sacraments. But nowhere is the contrast greater than in the demands that Jesus makes upon his followers. In the Synoptics indeed, Jesus requires faith, but their ‘faith’ is rather an act of moral trust.’ In our Gospel, his demand is for belief in the divinity of his own Person. What he asks of people is not, as in the Synoptics, moral conduct, but acceptance as true of his assurance that he has come from heaven. (p. xvii)

But above all when one passes from the Synoptics to John, one is conscious of an alteration in the portrait of Jesus himself. True, the earlier evangelists agree with John in sketching the picture with a majesty above all human standards. Yet, they have no hesitation in recording incidents that suggest Jesus’ common humanity. John, on the other hand, often seems deliberately to suppress such traits. The Synoptics record that Jesus was baptized by John like any other seeker for the Kingdom; our Evangelist tells only how John witnessed the descent of the Holy Spirit on the chosen Christ. In John, we have no hint that Jesus was subject to human temptation, nor that in an agony of human weakness in the Garden he prayed that the cup of death might pass from him. In fact, such a prayer is implicitly denied. Similarly, the cry of dereliction from the Cross is omitted. From Mark (Mark 1:35) we learn that Jesus often sought a renewal of strength in prayer. But how John thinks of Jesus’ prayers is clear from John 11:41 f., where at Lazarus’ grave it appears that Jesus did not need to pray for his own sake, but only that he might confirm the bystanders’ faith. To this may be added the emphasis placed by John on Jesus’ omniscience (cf. John 1:42, 48 ; John 2:24John 4:16John 6:61, 64 ; John 5:6John 13:18John 16:19), and specially on his inviolability and what has been termed his ‘self-determination’ (John 7:30John 8:20, 59 ; John 10:39John 12:36John 18:6John 19:11). It is a postulate with John that Jesus can be compelled by no external force, that he chooses his own time and at the last ‘ lays down his life of his own accord ‘ (John 10:18), Such human characteristics as do appear in the portrait of Jesus are somewhat artificial, or seem to have been deliberately introduced with the purpose of combating current ‘docetic’ teaching, according to which Jesus was human only in semblance. (p. xviii-xix)

Finally we miss in the Fourth Gospel the sense of any development in Jesus’ understanding of his own Person and Mission. The great turning-points, so clearly marked by the Synoptics, by which he passed to a fuller realization of his vocation — the Baptism, Temptation, the Confession of Peter after the rejection in Galilee, the Transfiguration, the Institution of the Supper — all are ignored, or so transformed and misplaced as to lose their real significance. Accordingly we find that, whereas in the Synoptics it is only comparatively late that even the inner circle recognize their Master as Messiah while from his hearers as a whole the secret is hidden until the final Passover, in this Gospel Jesus begins to publish his own personal claim from the first and is openly proclaimed as Messiah by the Baptist before ever he enters on his public ministry. Here at least there can be no doubt which is the truer representation; John, writing long years after, has had his perspective foreshortened and has lost that sense of development which is still evident in the work of the earlier evangelists, whether or not they themselves were conscious of any such development. (p. xix)

The contrast presented by the two traditions remains sufficiently striking, and we cannot but feel that the scale is weighted in favor of the Synoptics, who write at an earlier date and are not influenced, at any rate so consciously as is John, by motives which are admittedly doctrinal and apologetic. We are left with the impression that a writer who is evidently primarily dependent on Mark, yet at times makes so injudicious a use of his sources (as e.g. in the account of the ‘anointing’ John 12:1), and in the end gives us a Gospel differing so signally from that of his predecessors, is hardly likely to have been himself an Apostle. Yet, the free and masterful way in which he deals with earlier material suggests that he writes with a certain sense of independent authority. (p. xx)

History or Didactic Drama?

When estimating the value of the Fourth Gospel, we have been too ready to criticize it for not conveying information that it never professes to convey. Admittedly, the Evangelist’s chief motive is not historical. If he is a biographer at all, then he is a biographer whose aim is not to convey facts, but to impart spiritual truth; a mere selection of incidents has been made, and the selection has been dictated by the desire not to communicate information, but to bestow upon the reader ‘life’ through faith: ‘These signs are recorded so that you may believe Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and believing may have life through his name ‘ (John 20:31). This, one admits, is partially true also of the Synoptics. They, too, portray Jesus not merely as seen by the outward eye, but as interpreted by the Spirit and appropriated by faith. And indeed all true history must involve a subjective as well as an objective element. But in the Fourth Gospel, ‘the reflective element is less unconsciously and more creatively and artistically present.’ (p. xx-xxi)

The Gospel thus becomes a kind of ‘historical sermon’ which reminds us of the later Jewish homiletic method known as ‘Haggadah’ in which religious teaching is driven home by the allegorizing of sacred history. (p. xxi)

The Gospel may be well described as a didactic meditation on the drama of Christ’s life. Indeed the author is essentially a dramatist rather than a historian. ‘The earthly life of Jesus in this Gospel appears as a dramatic interlude in the life of the Eternal Logos,’ The Gospel is a drama in which the protagonists are Jesus, the Word of God, and the evil powers of darkness and unbelief. The Prologue is the Prelude; the dramatic climax is reached at the Passion, the moment when Jesus’ ‘hour’ has come. Hence the material is chosen primarily for its dramatic effectiveness, and many of the vivid details, which have often been claimed as marks of an eye-witness, may well be regarded rather as the creation of a vivid dramatic imagination. The Gospel abounds in dramatic moments — the declaration of Messiahship to the Samaritan woman, the withdrawal of Judas into the outer darkness, the meeting of Mary Magdalene with the Risen Master — while ‘dramatic irony’ is apparent in Peter’s boast that he will lay down his life for Christ, in Caiaphas’ unconscious prophecy that Jesus should ‘die for the nation, and not for the nation only,’ in the Pharisees’ complaint that ‘the whole world is gone after him.’ (p. xxii)

Such a dramatic interpretation must provoke with new urgency the question of the Gospel’s actual historical value. As will be seen below there is every reason for supposing the existence of a substratum of authentic history; but probably criticism has been too much concerned to distinguish such a substratum, as if therein lay the Gospel’s chief value. A living religion will always rest on something more than the necessary basis of historical credentials, and it is not the least of our Evangelist’s merits that he appreciates the peril of tethering Christian faith and doctrine and practice too closely to the exact details of particular events in the earthly life of Jesus. On any estimation, the religious value of this Gospel must always be greater than the historical. (p. xxiii)

We revert to the discourses and ask whether we may seek in them authentic sayings of Jesus. Undoubtedly in reporting Jesus’ teaching John reflects not the Jewish tradition, which sought to preserve, as nearly as possible in their original form…  but rather the Greek method, which loved to put into the mouth of the speaker, not the ipsissima verba (very words) spoken on a given occasion, but the sentiments which seemed to the writer to be proper to that occasion. (p. xxiii)

In Jesus’ discourses we have John’s attempt to give his contemporaries a systematic summary of Christian teaching as he himself, under the inspiration of the Spirit of Jesus, conceived it, and his first readers, familiar with current Greek practice, would never suppose that Jesus’ speeches were to be accepted as a verbatim report. Indeed so little careful is the author to distinguish between his own thoughts and those that he puts into the mouths of his characters, that it is sometimes impossible to tell where the speech which he is reporting ends and his own comment upon it begins. Note especially chapters 1 and 3. (p. xxiv)

No understanding of the Gospel is possible without an appreciation of the part played by symbolism. What then for John is the relation of fact to symbol? Let it be remembered initially that the symbolic or allegorical use of an incident does not necessarily imply that it is not ‘true.’ And if we ask with Pilate, What is ‘truth’? we are reminded that the ‘true’ and the historically accurate are not necessarily the same thing. Truth is sometimes better served, even by the historian, by the interpretation of the spirit of great events and the principles which inspired them, than by a meticulously accurate narrative of facts. Thus Baron F. Von Hugel writes in the Encyclopedia Britannica : ‘The Fourth Gospel is the noblest instance of this kind of literature, of which the truth depends, not on the factual accuracy of the symbolizing experiences, but on the truth of the ideas and experiences thus symbolized.’ Yet the truth of this dictum may be admitted without denying that there may be in the Gospel a basis of actual history… To John facts and their symbolical meaning are related as flesh to spirit; the former may be a necessary vehicle, but it is the latter which really counts: ‘What gives life is the Spirit; flesh is of no avail at all ’ (John 6:63). It is in this sense that the oft-quoted words of Clement of Alexandria are to be understood: ‘Last of all John, perceiving that the bodily facts had been set forth in the other Gospels, at the instance of his disciples and with the inspiration of the Spirit composed a spiritual Gospel.’ (Eusebius, Hist. Eccl., vi, 14) (p. xxv-xxvi)


Henry Latimer Jackson, The Johannine and the Synoptic Representation,  The Problem of the Fourth Gospel, Chapter 5, Cambridge [Eng.] : University press, 1918

Now, where objection is raised, the marked peculiarity of the Fourth Gospel is highly accentuated. It is regarded, not as the record of historical events, but as a manual of instruction of which the theme is Jesus, the divine Logos manifested in the flesh. The view further is that the Synoptic Jesus, human in his every lineament and child of his own age and people, is altogether unrecognizable in the Johannine Christ… it is further urged that our Gospel and the Synoptics part company in the case of other personages, and that they are utterly at variance on matters, amongst others, of locality and date. (P.50)

With the Synoptics, the scene is mainly laid in Galilee ; with the Fourth Gospel it is largely transferred to Judaea and Jerusalem ; in the former case the events are crowded into one short year, in the other, the Ministry is extended over three Passovers. In the one case the Jewish people are described with picturesque variety of type and class and section; not so in the other case, with ‘John’ they dwindle down to Pharisees and Priests and rulers of the people; as for the Pharisees they have become the very core of unbelieving Judaism in its hostility to Jesus. The Jews are pictured as in hopeless case; away with them to the devil, the Greeks for Jesus and for God! And again, the difference between the Johannine and the Synoptic representations of the Passion, the Death, and the Resurrection is regarded as fundamental. (PP.50-51)

For reasons such as these, there is widespread agreement that whatever be its interest and value as an early Christian document, the Fourth Gospel must be ruled out as a source for the Life of Jesus… the Fourth Gospel does, in many respects, present a striking contrast to its three companions. Common features and resembles there may be; the fact remains that discrepancies are both numerous and of such a nature as to stare the instructed reader in the face. (P.51)

Of our Four Canonical Gospels ‘John’ is certainly the latest — and perhaps the latest by a long way; as for the remaining three, they are nearer to the events they purport to relate, and it is safe to say of the Synoptic tradition that it stretches back to Apostolic times and to the very days of Jesus. (P.52)

Christian’ thought is no longer fettered by outworn mechanical theories of inspiration and interpretation in the case of the Bible literature. To narrow down to the Gospels; in the old and disastrous view the Evangelists were passive agents, men who could not choose but write down words from divine dictation, ‘living pens grasped and guided by an Almighty hand.’ A more enlightened view obtains… Neither do the men themselves nor to their respective writings does infallibility attach. (PP.52-53)

Neither he nor the Synoptics are infallible. If he corrects them and makes his alterations to them, it is exactly what two of them have already done with a third; Matthew and Luke have treated Mark with a very free hand. Let us add that mere priority is not in itself an absolute guarantee of accuracy, nor is inaccuracy necessarily connoted by the lateness of date. (P.53)


The independent attitude of the Fourth Evangelist is manifested in his extension of the duration of the Ministry and in his bold transpositions of events and dates. (P.53)

It certainly appears from the Synoptic representation that the Public Ministry of Jesus began and ended within a single year; otherwise the Fourth Evangelist, who expands it to a period which includes at the least three Passovers…. To turn to the Cleansing of the Temple. According to the Fourth Gospel it occurred at the beginning of the Ministry, while it is placed by the Synoptics at the close of the Ministry ‘, and is evidently regarded by them as the decisive act which precipitated the Death of Jesus. Harmonists have struggled to escape the difficulty… The balance of probability is surely against the Johannine dating; for the position of the story in the Synoptics is natural, while in the case of our Gospel it has rather the effect of an anti-climax. (PP.54-55)

Another instance of ‘violent alteration,’ as it would appear, is that of the respective datings of the Death-Day of Jesus. Take first the Synoptic representation. Jesus, it would appear, celebrates the Passover with the Twelve. They depart from the Upper Room; the scene changes from the Mount of Olives to ‘a place which was named Gethsemane’; quickly there follows the Arrest. As for the Crucifixion, it takes place the day after the Celebration of the Passover. Not so, says the Fourth Evangelist; he tells of a Supper partaken of by Jesus and his friends while nowhere stating that the number of the latter was limited to The Twelve. Far from identifying that Supper with the Paschal Meal, he is at pains to make it understood that the Passover lay still ahead; and that, when the night of its celebration had arrived, the body of Jesus was already in the tomb… in regard to the day of the month; the Synoptics assign it to the 15th of Nisan, ‘John’ to the 14th. They are, accordingly, in flat contradiction in regard to date. (P.55)

The Scene of the Ministry

This, by the Synoptics, is laid in the Galilaean homeland of Jesus; and, recording certain journeys outside Galilaean territory, they have nothing to say of visits paid to Jerusalem save only the one which issued in his death. In sharp contrast is the representation of the Fourth Evangelist; for with him the scene on which Jesus moves during the period of his Messianic activity is Judaea ‘, and in particular Jerusalem; but rarely does he appear in Galilee, and when there his stays are of brief duration. No wonder that the discrepancy is insisted on. (P.58)

John the Baptist

The contention here is that the Baptist who figures in the Fourth Gospel wears but slight if any resemblance to the Baptist of the Synoptic representation; that the two portraits are singularly unlike… it is possible that the real Baptist at no time definitely attached himself to the cause of Jesus, but went his own way and rushed to a self-invited fate. (P.60)


The contention is raised that the Fourth Gospel is in contrast with the Synoptics in that, along with changed motives and with significant omissions, the element of the miraculous is strongly enhanced. (P.61)

We will observe in the first instance that one particular class of miracles is excluded by the Fourth Evangelist. In the case of the Synoptics there is frequent mention of demoniac-cures performed by Jesus; and, by the way, it is widely conceded that he did actually heal many a sufferer who, in the conception of the age, was possessed by an evil spirit. No such narratives occur in the Fourth Gospel; ‘John knows nothing whatsoever of the most frequent wonder- works of Jesus, the healing of demoniacs’; or rather, he declines to admit such Synoptic stories into his own Gospel. (PP.62-63)

It must be said, then, that there is enhancement. With the works of healing the effect is heightened; in one case the cure is performed from a considerable distance, in another blindness is from birth, in a third, it is emphatically said of the sick man that he had been no less than ‘thirty and eight years in his infirmity’ … the very climax is reached with the Raising of Lazarus… the narrative which, pointing to Bethany, suggests unmistakably that the corpse already four days in the tomb had seen corruption ‘. (P.64)

It is true to say that * whereas the miracles of healing in the Synoptics are miracles of mercy and compassion, wrought because Jesus had sympathy with the sufferers, the miracles recorded by the Fourth Evangelist tend to the glory of him who wrought them. They are proofs, not of his humanity, but of his divinity.’ (P.66)


Here, again, the Synoptic and Johannine representations are held to be mutually exclusive: — ‘Jesus must have spoken just as the Synoptics make him speak’; the Christ of the Fourth Gospel adopts ‘the theological and philosophical language of the schools.’ So, briefly stated, run multitudinous objections; and, as has been noted in another connection, there is a strong family likeness between the criticisms of time past and time present. Let two specimens be placed side by side:- — ‘Here (in the Synoptics) the popular form of oriental proverb-wisdom and inventive parable, there (in the Fourth Gospel) the profound allegory with appeal to profound reflection; instead of pithy and concise sayings alike luminous and easy to retain, a series of witnessings and disputings in exalted tone and with utter disregard for the capacity of the hearers. (P.68)

According to the Synoptics the demands of Jesus are for self-renunciation, for compassionate love, for a taking of one’s self in hand, for work for others ; his warnings are directed against the danger of riches, worldly desires and anxieties; above all he preaches about the Kingdom of God and the conditions of entrance therein. Not so in the Fourth Gospel; the preaching of the Kingdom recedes, while Jesus becomes the dialectician… In both cases he figures as teacher; in the Fourth Gospel the subject-matter of his teaching is [almost] exclusively himself. (PP. 68-69)

Jesus, as pictured in the earlier Gospels, whether he be speaking, preaching, or disputing, never has resort to dialectic skill, to the ambiguity of artifice, to a mystical style ; on the contrary, there is utmost simplicity and clearness, a certain natural eloquence which owes far more to mental genius than to painfully acquired art. In the Fourth Gospel he disputes as the dialectician; ambiguous is his language and mystical his style; he deals to such an extent in obscurities that even very learned people are quite in the dark as to the real significance of many of his words. In the one case there are short and pregnant sayings, parables so full of beauty and of inward truth as to grip attention and to sink deep into the soul; in the other, the parabolic mode of teaching is practically absent. Here the question turns on conduct, rules of life, the Mosaic Law, and errors of the Jewish people; there the speaker is concerned with dogma, with meta- physics, with his own [identity] (P.69)

There is an absence of variety in the manner of the discourses generally, no matter who the speaker may be; the several characters, that is, hold converse in Johannine phraseology, and without individuality whether of idea or speech; conversations are reported at length when, apparently, there was no third person at hand. The question here being narrowed down to a single issue, the discourses placed by the Evangelist in the lips of his Christ, the fact must be reckoned with that, if ‘some actual sayings of the historic Jesus’ be embedded in our Gospel, it is certainly not throughout a depository of genuine utterances of Jesus. (P.70)

Now, the position has been aptly stated thus: ‘Jesus cannot have had, at the same time, the style and method of teaching which the Synoptics describe and that which the Fourth Gospel reflects. We must therefore attribute the language, the colour, and the form of these Johannine discourses to the Evangelist. The Gospel of John is a distillation of the life and teaching of Jesus from the [conduit] of the Apostle’s own mind. It is his interpretation of the meaning of Christ’s words, deeds and person derived from intimate personal relations with him, and coloured and shaped by a long life of Christian thought and experience.’ (PP.70-71)

‘a Jesus who preached alternately in the manner of the Sermon on the Mount and of John 14-17 is a psychological impossibility.’ (P.71)

What is it that God looks for and what is alone decisive for life or death? The answer of the Fourth Gospel is this: believe i the Son of God who came down from heaven and believes that he is Jesus — an answer which has had a baneful effect on Christendom, for it is only too easy to make such a profession of belief without drawing nearer to God and becoming a better man. Very different is the answer of the Synoptic Jesus; with him, everything is contingent on that doing the Will of God which involves uprightness, brotherly love, trust in God, humility, yearnings for God’s Kingdom; of those who do the Will of God he says that they are for him mother or sister or brother. (P.72)

‘Say what we will about differences of audience and of the situation demanding different forms of address, and allowing for exceptional instances, the contrast between the terse axiomatic sayings, the simple parables of the Synoptics, and the elaborate arguments of the Johannine discourses, is too great to be explained away.’ (P.73)

The contrast is sharp. It is recorded of the Synoptic Jesus that men ‘heard him gladly,’ and small wonder that they did so when, ‘being so much in earnest with the matter, he had in a unique degree the manner at command’; of the Johannine Christ it was reported that ‘never man so spake,’ and the phrase, scarcely explained by the context, have been regarded as generally significant of abstruseness in the matter and manner of his discourse. In the one case he so speaks as to attract and often win sympathy; in the other he talks above people’s heads, he positively invites misunderstanding: ‘there is an argumentativeness, a tendency to mystification, about the utterances of the Johannine Christ which … is positively repellent … it is quite inconceivable that the historic Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels could have argued and quibbled with opponents as he is represented to have done in the Fourth Gospel.’ (P.74)

‘In the Johannine discourses … we feel that it is not the visible and audible Jesus who is speaking, but the Christ who is the life of the Church’  and the only possible explanation is that the Fourth Gospel ‘is not history, but something else cast in a historical form.’ (P.74)

The Synoptic and Johannine portraits of Jesus 

It is here contended that there is no escape from a categorical’ either — or’ … the sharp contrast, it is said, is reducible to’ the simple formula: here man — there God.’ While the Synoptic Jesus advances practically nothing as to his divine nature, and judging from his utterances, solely holds himself endowed with divine gifts, sent by God, Messiah,’ the Johannine Christ ‘makes everything turn on himself’ … Therein speaks the criticism of a century ago; in like manner that of more recent times: never does the Synoptic Jesus ‘step outside the bounds of the purely human’; as for the Christ of the Fourth Evangelist, he is ‘complete from the outset, for Him, there is neither childhood nor youth. He is throughout the divine word manifested in the flesh.’ And so again, when it is said that in the Fourth Gospel … we have’ a version— or perversion — of the Master’s life by a disciple who has portrayed him, not in his self-sacrificing love, . . . but as the mighty super-human being demanding recognition of the divine Sonship and Messianic glory.’ (P.75)

He who looks down from the Synoptic canvas is assuredly true man. To drop metaphor, the Jesus of at any rate the Marcan representation has already reached manhood when he comes on the scene, and it is clear from the manner of the allusions that he shares the experiences which are common to the race. He is conscious of physical needs; the strain of continued action tells on him; stirred by emotions manifold lie is moved to compassion by the spectacle of suffering and pain; he both wins and displays affection; capable of sternness he gives vent to wrath. Rebuff astonishes him, and he finds himself powerless to act; he disclaims omniscience; if he puts questions it is because he has need to be informed. Great spiritual crises are experienced by him, and the meaning of temptation is realized to the full. He cannot do without prayer; hence, seeking strength, he goes apart to be alone with God. Yet strength fails him; in Gethsemane deep terror seizes him, and he pleads as hoping for deliverance to the last. Bitter is the cry wrung from him in his dying moments. (PP.75-76)

To turn from it to the portrait of the Johannine Christ; A portrait of ‘sweet, unearthly beauty’ as it has been called, it is certainly of an exalted personage. There is an air of imperiousness about the Christ of our Evangelist, as, issuing his commands, he expects obedience from those who are rather summoned as his subjects than invited as his friends. The multitudes are eager to make him a King; precisely because they own him a force to be reckoned with, his destruction is compassed by his foes. His discourse is of high matters, and it is with conscious dignity that he refers to himself. Majestic is the part played by him in the closing scenes; whether in the Garden, in the high priest’s court or in the praetorium his [appearance] is stately and his speech serene. He ‘decides His own fate.’ (P.78)

But the Johannine representation does not stop short here; on the contrary, it is plain that the regal personage depicted transcends mere manhood. He manifests a celestial glory. He knows all men as knowing what is in man. If he tell of heavenly things it is as having seen and known them; he has come down from heaven, and thither he will soon return. He can say: ‘ My Father worketh hitherto and I work’; if eternal life be for him knowledge of ‘the only true God,’ it is equally to know himself; dishonor done to him is dishonor done to God; with deliberation does he say; ‘The Father is in me and I in him’; recognizing a distinction, he affirms that he and the Father are ‘one.’ Pre-existent as he claims to be, he is conceived of as ‘the Word’ that was with God from all eternity. (P.78)

It must nevertheless be owned that a contrast is presented which finds no sufficient explanation. (P.81)

When every allowance has been made for powers of adaptation and varied environments, it is impossible to believe that the historic Jesus was really accustomed to discourse after the manner of the Johannine Christ. The former lives and moves in the Synoptic Gospels. (P.82)

The modern student cannot but feel that to turn from the ‘Synoptics to the Fourth Gospel is to breathe another atmosphere, to be transported to another world, The contrast is, indeed, sharp… ‘Another world.’ The world, to a certainty, of Greek life and thought’; the world of Asia Minor, of Ephesus. (P.82)

Wilbert Francis Howard, C. K. Barrett, The Fourth Gospel in Recent Criticism and Interpretation. Wipf and Stock; 4th ed. edition, 2009


The day has passed when the student could simply assume that it is a direct historical narrative of the ministry and words of Jesus from the pen of the apostle John, and that any other theory of its character and origin is the product of “unbelieving criticism.” even the unprofessional Bible student entrusted with the preaching of the word knows that this is not so. The three latest, most scholarly, and most popular one-volume commentaries of the Bible bear witness to the present situation. (P.3)

In Peake’s Commentary, Dr. A. E. Brooke has put the modern point of view to studious moderation, recognizing the indecisiveness of the external attestation, and the serious divergences between the synoptic and the Johannine presentation of the ministry and teaching of Jesus, but attributing the gospel in its present form to the disciple of an eye-witness. In Gore’s Commentary, Dr. Walter Lock presents the case in much the same light… Dr. Garvie, in the Abringdon Commentary, interpreting the gospel on the foundation of his well-known theory we can distinguish three influences in the composition of the gospel, the Witness, the Evangelist, and the Redactor, with varying degrees of historical value. (P.3)

Thus, the simplest and most accessible commentaries call the attention of the elementary Bible student to the existence of the Johannine problem, for in its very complexity this problem is not one, but many. There is a sense in which this term is an obvious misnomer, yet, many as other questions still under discussion, for most of us the essence of the problem can be put in one short sentence: how far is it possible for us to use the fourth gospel as a reliable witness to the early life and teaching of Jesus Christ? (P.3)

Professor B. W. Bacon, in his fascinating little book, closes the chapter, “The Spiritual Gospel,” with these words: ‘The Fourth Gospel, as its Prologue forewarns, is an application to the story of Jesus as tradition reported it of the Pauline incarnation doctrine formulated under the Stoic Logos theory. It represents a study in the psychology of religion applied to the person of Christ. Poor as Paul himself in knowledge of the outward Jesus, unfamiliar with really historical words and deeds, its doctrine about Jesus became, nevertheless, like that of the great Apostle to the Gentiles, the truest exposition of “the heart of Christ.” Professor Anderson Scott, who also recognizes a singular bending of Pauline doctrine and striking originality of thought, lays more stress on the Evangelists’ should historical information. ‘It is now generally understood that his work has much less the character of an historical record than of an interpretation of Jesus, and interpretation in the light of Christian experience and of the situation of the Church toward the end of the first century. (P.5)

The reason for the widespread abandonment of the full apostolic authorship of the Gospel is the clearer recognition that the external evidence is indecisive. It is not until we reach the last quarter of the second century until we reach the last quarter of the second century that Irenaeus provides us with our first unambiguous witness in support of the traditional theory… We are without any definite evidence to show that this Gospel was attributed to John by the name in any writing before the time of Irenaeus. (P.7)

The Fourth Gospel, its Purpose and its Theology (1906), the first of many books by which Dr E. F. Scott has enriched the study of the New Testament, made an immediate impression in this country, which remains after a quarter of a century… the critical debate was treated as settled in favor “of the position  which is now generally accepted by continental scholars.” The indecisive character of the external evidence drives us to the gospel itself. by assuming a date early in the 2nd century, and an author who was in no sense an apostle or contemporary of Jesus, Dr. Scott expounds the Gospel as a reinterpretation of Christianity to a larger world of Hellenic cultural exigencies of controversy. In this narrative we are to recognize the work of one who identified The eternal Christ of inward religious experience with the Jesus of history, and who went back to the historical record to understand its deeper meaning, and to complete it and interpret it in the light of all the church had learned by faith concerning the person and work of the exalted Lord. One of the most striking features of the book is the vivid way in which the Evangelist’s subordinate aims are brought to light. (P.23)

The Fourth Gospel is written to prove the reality of Jesus Christ. But the Evangelist was no historian; ideas, not events, were to him the true realities, and if we go to his work to learn the course of events we shall only be disappointed in our search… the uncertainty of the external testimony compels us to read the answer for the riddle of the Fourth Gospel within the Gospel itself. The impossibility of finding a place for the raising of Lazarus in the historical framework of Mark decides against the historicity of that story… the most serious count against the Fourth Gospel, from the point of view of objective external history, is the attitude assigned to Jesus in his discussions with the “Jews.” … There is an argumentativeness, a tendency to mystification, about the utterances of the Johannine Christ which, taken as the report of actual words spoken, is positively repellent.’ After describing the debates reported chap. v. and viii., Dr. Burkitt concludes: It is quite inconceivable that the historical Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels could have argued and quibbled with opponents as he is represented to have done in the Fourth Gospel. The only possible explanation is that the work is not history, but something else cast in historical form.’ (P.25)

… the Johannine story of Lazarus a great stumbling block. It was inconceivable that any evangelist who knew of it would omit an event which, according to St. John’s account made so great a sensation. (P.27)

Professor B. W. Bacon, of Yale University, for more than thirty years, has written with a fullness and fertility of Johannine criticism in periodical literature, and the crown of all these studies is promised in a volume, The gospel of the Hellenists. No historical survey of the fourth gospel in the 20th century could possibly ignore the Fourth gospel in research and debate (1910), which stood mid-way between the same writers Introduction to the New Testament (1900) and his Jesus and Paul (1921). the germ of most of doctor Bacon’s ladder work is to be found in the 25 vivid pages of this little introduction. At the time he recognized three hands in the gospel: (a) to the witness may be traced the conscious authority and superior knowledge displayed in a number of passages where the Johannine narrative is to be preferred to the synoptic. This is the beloved disciple whom Bacon apparently identified with the son of Zebedee. (b) the original reporter of the apostles testimony, the elder is the profound and cultured mind to whom we also owe the Epistles. (c) the author of the appendix (Chapter 21) who compiled the gospel as we now read it, is responsible for the many comments through the book, for the insertion of several narratives which show misunderstanding of the original authors aim, and, above all, for the grave dislocations of the material which led Tatian to make a number of rearrangements within Johannine passages when constructing his Diatessaron. (PP.29-30)

… The structure of the gospel is said to consist of the story of the public ministry and synoptic outline upon which a scheme of the great religious festivals is superimposed with typical signs and discourses of Jesus also the Pauline mysticism and doctrines of grace are represented as interfusing the record of the teaching of Christ. (P.30)

The author of the appendix, designed to gain Apostolic rank for this anonymous work of edification, implied and identification of the unnamed disciple with the son of Zebedee by his skillful touches in xix. 35 and xxi. 20 ff. Yet, this is only part of a far-reaching revision of the gospel by a Redactor whose aim was to establish a place for it besides the other well-known gospels. Writing at Rome about A.D. 150, he not only insinuated Johannine authorship, but worked over the document, rearranging the material to conform more closely to the Petrine Gospel of Mark, which was honored in Rome, and inserted the story of Peter’s denial in order to recount the incident of Peters rehabilitation and Commission, and thus secure authoritative recognition from the see of Peter’s successors. (PP.31-32)

Bacon’s examination of the alleged dislocations in this text was the fullest treatment that this problem had yet received. He not only found that Tatian often furnishes external support for the belief that the material once stood in the revised order, but contends that a redactor can be traced at every point where dislocation is evident, and often in passages which by their direct connection with the appendix give independent evidence of having been introduced by the author of chapter 21. (PP.32)

James Moffat’s Introduction to the literature of the New Testament (1911) provided the English speaking world with an exhaustive survey of all the tangled mess of critical theory that surrounds the Johannine writings. No book or brochure or article of any importance, written in English, German, French, or Dutch, can have escaped professor Mofatt’s searching eye… He accepts the theory of the early martyrdom of John, Son of Zebedee; inclines to the view that he may be identified with the Beloved Disciple and so have been the original authority for some of the special traditions upon sayings and deeds of Jesus; but that neither the gospel nor the first Epistle was written either by John the Apostle or by John the Presbyter, author of the apocalypse and the second and third Epistles toward the end of the first century. He even doubts whether gospel and first Epistle come from the same hand. The ascription of Johannine authorship is later than the wide diffusion of the Gospel, which can be proved as early as the first quarter of the second century. Paulinism, Jewish Alexandrian philosophy, and Stoicism have all contributed to the Ephesian Gospel, and , though the Logos-idea is confined to the Prologue, its spirit interpenetrates the subsequent narratives and speeches. Yet, the theological aim and presuppositions of the writer must not disqualify his work as a historical contribution. In a number of ways the superior accuracy of the Johannine information must be allowed, though the general dependence upon the Synoptic narratives illustrates the derivative character of his work. (PP.32-33)

Relation to the Synoptic Gospels and the Problem of Historicity

‘The Fourth Gospel is not a faithful historical account of the life and teaching of Jesus.’ Such is the blunt verdict of M. Jean Reville at the close of his critical analysis. Dr. P. W Schmiedel dismisses the matter with a mere wave of the hand. ‘A book which begins by declaring Jesus to be the logos of God and ends by representing a cohort of Roman soldiers as falling to the ground at the majesty of His appearance (John 18:6), and by representing 100 pounds of ointment as having been used at His embalming (John 19:39), ought by these facts alone to be spared such a misunderstanding of its true character as would be implied in supposing that it meant to be an historical work.’ (P.128)

A far more discriminating judgement is given by Professor C. H. Dodd. ‘We may now say with confidence that for strictly historical material, with the minimum of subjective interpretation, we must not go to the Fourth Gospel. Its religious value stands beyond challenge, and it is the more fully appreciated when its contribution to our knowledge of the bare facts of the life of Jesus becomes a secondary interest. This is not to say that it makes no such contribution. But it is to the Synoptic Gospels that we must go if we which to recover the oldest and purest tradition of the facts.’ (P.128)

Reasons have often been suggested for the Evangelist’s choice, or rejection, of the material at his disposal, Thus of the many signs which Jesus wrought he selected, amongst others, four which serve to enhance the superhuman power of Jesus : the nature miracle at Cana in Galilee, the healing of a man who had been a cripple for thirty-eight years and of another man who hand been blind from birth, and above all, the raising of a man who had been four days in the tomb.  On the other hand, it is easy to find plausible grounds of some of the omissions. Thus, the divine dignity of our Lord might seem to be compromised by the story of the temptation, the agony in the garden, and the cry of abandonment on the cross. Polemical or apologetic aims may have led to silence regarding the submission of Jesus to baptism by John, and the institution of the Eucharist. (P.132)

The great authority of Gustaf Dalman can be cited for the Synoptic as against the Johannine presentation. His explanation is that the Fourth Evangelist knew that the words recorded by the Synoptists in connection with the distribution of the bread and of the wine were actually spoken, but that he suppressed them in his account of the events of the last evening, transferring them to the discourse in Capernaum. He did this for a double reason. He wished to emphasize ‘ that it is the Person of our Lord that is of the greatest value to humanity.’ He also feared that, as the disciples could not distinguish between spirit and flesh (John 11:60-63), the words if recorded in their original form would give rise to more serious misunderstandings, which would put the teaching and behavior of Christians in an unfavorable light. Having, then, transferred words which were originally spoken at the Last Supper as a Passover meal to another place, to show that what our Lord said to His disciples on that last night hand nothing to do with this Jewish rite, he was compelled ‘ to push back this last evening for one day, so that the Passover meal would have taken place after the death of Jesus. To the author, to whom the spiritual possession of God’s grace and truth in Jesus was central, this method did not seem wrong.’ Dalman naturally observes with reference to the influence of motive upon narrative, ‘ If this be the case, it is a serious warning to us not to put too much weight upon the Johannine presentation of the outward order of events of the earthly life of our Lord.’ (P.139)

Critical opinion is not so generally favorable to the Johannine dating of the cleansing of the Temple. This question is bound up with another – that is, the difficult problem of the raising of Lazarus. The Synoptic Gospels are silent upon this tremendous miracle, and for them, it was the cleansing of the Temple that provoked the bitter hostility of the high-priestly group. With John, the raising of Lazarus focuses on the enmity of the authorities at Jerusalem. (P.141)