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Comparing John and the Synoptics

I am about to embark on a very long thread, on the Gospel and epistles of John.   As many of you know, my colleague, Hugo Mendez, assistant professor of New Testament and early Christianity at UNC, has started publishing on a major project involving the “Johannine Community.”  That phrase will not mean a lot to many of you.  To New Testament scholars it means volumes.  In fact there *have* been volumes written about it.   It is almost certainly the most important view about the Gospel of John and 1, 2, and 3 John to be developed over the past fifty years.  We all teach it in our classes.  And Hugo wants to challenge its existence.

Hugo is on the blog and I asked him if he’d be willing to write some posts about his views.  But then we both realized that I would need to set it up by explaining what the issue is all about before he shows his different perspective.  And when I started thinking about how to introduce the matter, I realized, YIKES!  Now *that’s* complicated.   And I went down the rabbit hole.

To make sense of Hugo’s views, you’ll need to go down it with me.  There’s nothing overly-complicated about any particular feature of the view (no especially difficult passages in the rabbit hole itself); but you have to see how it gets built up (or dug down) to make sense of it all.  And that will take probably a couple of weeks of posts.

I checked, and lo and behold, I did this once, six years ago.   So here we go again!  The first thing to discuss is what is *distinctive* about the Gospel of John in relation to our other Gospels, since it is these distinctive features that require some explanation.  So I start there.

The following is an edited version of how I lay it out in my textbook on the New Testament.



The Gospel of John from a Comparative Perspective

One of the most striking features of the Fourth Gospel is the way in which some of the distinctively Johannine themes stand in such stark contrast with the other early Christian writings that we have examined so far. Even to the casual reader, the Fourth Gospel may seem somewhat different from the other three within the canon. Nowhere in the other Gospels is Jesus said to be the Word of God, or the creator of the universe, or the equal of God, or the one sent from heaven and soon to return. Nowhere else does Jesus claim that to see him is to see the Father, that to hear him is to hear the Father, and that to reject him is to reject the Father.

Exactly how different, then, is the Fourth Gospel from the others?


Comparison of Contents

Despite the important and significant differences among the Synoptic Gospels, they are much more similar to one another than any one of them is to John.  Suppose we were …

This is one of the most important issues in the study of the Gospels, and one most people have never thought about.   Wanna learn more?  Keep reading.  To do that, you simply need to belong to the blog.  Joining is simple, and the small membership fee goes directly to help those in need.  So join!

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Is This the Same Jesus? John and the Synoptics (part 2)
Did Jesus Sweat Blood? “Intrinsic” Evidence for Textual Variants



  1. Avatar
    godspell  March 26, 2020

    To sum up–John’s Jesus is perfect. Without any human weakness or flaw. Whereas Mark doesn’t mention Jesus’ birth because his Jesus is so human that it goes without saying he was born the same was as everyone else, John’s Jesus is so immaculate of conscience and purpose that it would beggar belief to depict him as issuing from a woman’ body. Mary is mentioned twice, but not by name, and whereas Mark is adoptionist with regards to Jesus’ relationship with God, I’d argue John is adoptionist with regards to Jesus’ relationship with Mary (who he just hands off to ‘The Beloved Disciple’ as he dies on the cross–as if she had no other children to support her).

    John’s Jesus is a completely divine being, with no human qualities of any kind. To the extent various Christian doctrines later evolved to say Jesus only seemed to be human but never was (which were eventually all declared heretical) , I think you’d have to give John’s gospel much of the credit.

    Luke’s Jesus is the second least human, but that’s just Luke editing and adding to the synoptic account–the underlying humanity of Matthew and Mark’s Jesus remains. John starts over from scratch, and creates a Jesus who self-evidently never once had to relieve himself.

    I was told growing up that John’s was the gospel of love, but I have increasingly come to disbelieve this. There is love there, but of a very distant abstract nature. The only exception is the Pericope Adulterae, which was interpolated into it at a much later date.

    It has a unique power, one cannot deny it is a masterpiece, but it is not a story about a man. And that’s the only story I care to hear.

    • Avatar
      bseiler  April 8, 2020

      Eloquent and compelling response. I agree, thanks.

  2. Avatar
    fishician  March 26, 2020

    I think one of the most striking differences between John and the Synoptics is that in the Synoptics it seems to be Jesus cleansing the Temple that triggers the events leading to his eventual arrest and crucifixion, but in John it is, of all things, the great miracle of raising Lazarus from the dead that triggers the events (a miracle the Synoptics don’t even mention!). Do you think this was the author wanting to make “the Jews” look even worse, by having them get upset by Jesus doing a wonderful think like raising someone from the dead? Part of the antisemitic flavor of that gospel? Or some other more theological motive?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 27, 2020

      Yup, it’s an unusually intresting difference. (Made necessary, in part, by his putting the cleansing of the temple as virtually the first thing Jesus does in his public ministry!). As to why Lazarus: yup, I think something like that. “The Jews” reject his miracles, even teh most spectacular of all that cannot be explained apart from divine intervention. And since they can’t prove he is not from God, they decide to have him killed. In a sense that is John’s version of teh “unpardonable sin.” (John doesn’t have that saying of Jesus: but in the Synoptics teh sin is attributing teh Spirit at work in Jesus as demonic/devilish, when it is from God. That is unpardonable. In John they act out on that conviction by arranging to have Jesus killed.)

      • galah
        galah  March 28, 2020

        So, if this reflects a sense of antisemitism, I suppose those responsible were Gentile Christians. I know that Pagan Gentiles didn’t like Jews either, because of their odd differences. Was hating Jews something that both sides had in common?

        • Bart
          Bart  March 29, 2020

          Not necessarily. Lots of Jews over the centuries have said very nasty things about other jews and aer sometimes accused of anti-Semitism. (thus, e.g., Woody Allen. I’m not saying I’m agreein with the accusation, only that others have made it)

  3. Avatar
    longdistancerunner  March 26, 2020

    I’ll get your new book on kindle here in a day or two, I ordered it a long time ago and am looking forward to it but one question..
    If the concept of heaven and hell weren’t a concept of Jesus, the deciles or the apostle Paul..
    Who was the devil the Synoptics we’re talking about in the wilderness/ temptation thing?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 27, 2020

      The ideas of heaven and hell, and the idea of the devil, are not necessarily connected to each other. They Synoptics have the devil, but they do not think of humans’ souls going to heaven or hell. The devil is the power on earth opposed to God whom God will destroy at the end of time when he brings his good kingdom here on *earth*, for people to live in and enjoy bodily when they are raised from the dead — i.e., in the Synoptics; and for the historical Jesus! For tehm the devil doesn’t rule in hell, or get tortured in hell. They don’t have a hell, and the devil is at work here on earth.

      • Avatar
        mmckiernan884  March 28, 2020

        From what I have been taught, it is believed that the book of Job was the first book written in the Old Testament, maybe that is wrong. But one of the things I’ve heard you speak on is this idea that ancient Jews didn’t really have this concept of the Devil, because they hadn’t been introduced to a dualistic idea yet. So, was Job a Jew? If not, who is Satan supposed to be in that book?

        • Bart
          Bart  March 29, 2020

          Job is not usually thought to be the first book, no. But that being said, it is far more difficult to date than most of the other books. and no, Job in the book itself is not a Jew.

          • Avatar
            mmckiernan884  March 29, 2020

            Oh cool thank you! So I guess it would probably be fair to say then that Job would have been written a little later given that “Satan” makes an appearance?

          • Bart
            Bart  March 30, 2020

            Yes, almost certainly. Although this Satan is not the Devil; he is part of God’s angelic council.

      • Avatar
        clerrance2005  March 28, 2020

        Prof Ehrman,

        Regards to your statements “They Synoptics have the devil, but they do not think of humans’ souls going to heaven or hell” and “For tehm the devil doesn’t rule in hell, or get tortured in hell”.

        Hell as a place of eternal torment is clearly reflected in Matt 25:41 – 41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.

        How do we reconcile this verse in Matt 25:41 with your statements above.

        • Bart
          Bart  March 29, 2020

          When we think of “hell” we think of the place that souls go to in order to be punished forever. The devil is not sent to *that* place into fire, because *that* place doesn’t exist for the Matthew. The devil is indeed sent into eternal fire. wherever that is. But it’s not the place we call hell, because it is not where souls go.

          • Avatar
            clerrance2005  March 30, 2020

            Prof Ehrman,
            Please kindly clarify further by assisting with these:
            Q1. What then is the difference between Hell, Gehenna, Lake of Fire and Hades.

            Q2. From your statement, it appears wrong for one to assume that ‘hell’ and ‘lake of fire’ are the same thing.

            Q3. Matt 10:28 cites hell – Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell. What is this hell, as you were quite emphatic in your statement that it does not exist for Matthew?

          • Bart
            Bart  March 30, 2020

            1. Hell is the later idea that there is a place where humans will be tormented for ever. Gehenna is in Jewish tradition a desecrated valley outside of Jerusalem were you do NOT want your remains unceremoniously dumped. The Lake of Fire is the place only found int he book of Revelatino that God has made for the punishment of the Devil and his angels. Hades is the Greek place where all people go when they die. 2. Yes. 3. The term used here is “Gehenna.” Hell, which youre’ finding in your translation,m is a mis-translation.

        • Avatar
          bseiler  April 8, 2020

          My understanding is that word “eternal” is mistranslated there by those with theological agendas. I have read that aion in this context should be translated “age” and not “eternal.” The fire is not eternal, it is a purifying fire “for an age.”

          I am not a Greek scholar but I know the translation of aion is a major controversy.

  4. Avatar
    AlbertHodges  March 26, 2020

    I cannot wait for this discussion!

  5. epicurus
    epicurus  March 26, 2020

    Looking forward to the series- great stuff.

  6. Avatar
    Marble13  March 26, 2020

    I’m reading John Spong’s book the Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic and find it fascinating how he approaches this Gospel. Very little of his thoughts got taught in my seminary courses, which I can understand, but he very scholarly presents interesting points to give a new perspective on this gospel. Then I see your blog and can’t wait to see what you and your colleague will do with this gospel. Fascinating topics as we appproach Holy Week where in the catholic services on Good Friday, John’s reading of the passion is done. Because of the current crisis the world is facing, many will miss out on this service. Keep educating us who are hungry to learn and grow……

  7. Avatar
    Stewiegriffin  March 26, 2020

    I have noticed that in Johns passion scene the sabbath is referred to as an especially important sabbath and is the only gospel that does so, by especially important is it implying that it’s a year in which the passover occured on a sabbath day?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 27, 2020

      That’s right. That’s how it can have Jesus killed on Friday but *still* have it as the day before Passover (rather than Passover day itself, as in the others)

      • Avatar
        brenmcg  March 27, 2020

        I think its the sabbath which begins the counting of the festival of weeks. The first weekly sabbath of the passover ‘s week-long festival. And the day before (Friday) is the Preparation day of the sabbath of the passover.

  8. Avatar
    dljohnston0890  March 27, 2020


    Why did Jesus in Matthew 22 ask the Pharisees “why David refers to the messiah as ‘my lord’ if he was his son”? What point was the author of Matthew trying to make? Was he simply trying to humiliate the Pharisees? Or was there another reason?

    I know this is off topic, but I’m very curious and at the end of my resources.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 27, 2020

      Not off topic at all! It’s a much debated issue. Is Jesus trying to say that he could be the lord even if he wasn’t descended from David? Many scholars read it that way — that is, that the saying descends from a tradition that did not recognize Jesus as in the Davidic line but messiah nonetheless. That may be right. but in Matthew, of course, he *is* from David’s line (and Luke etc.). Even though Matthew got the line from Mark, in Matthew it must mean something else? I’ve often thoght that it was a display of Scripture one-up-manship, where Jesus poses a question that his supposedly learned opponents can’t answer, but he has the right answer to (his presupposd answer: David calls him Lord because he was both his descendent in the flesh and also the one who came to be exalted above David).

      • Avatar
        dljohnston0890  March 27, 2020

        I thought that was the case, I just wasn’t sure. Thanks!

  9. Robert
    Robert  March 27, 2020

    Bart: “In this Gospel, he is not put on trial before the Sanhedrin or found guilty of committing blasphemy.”

    While it is, of course, true that Jesus is not found guilty of blasphemy in a Sanhedrin trial, the issue of blasphemy inundates the fourth gospel. As a great scholar (who shall remain nameless) has said recently of this gospel’s portrayal of Jesus:

    “Jesus has come down from the Father and is soon to return to him. … He himself is equal with God. He existed before he came into the world. He reveals God’s glory.”

    And Jesus is certainly considered guilty of blasphemy by the Jews in the Temple in this gospel, eg, in Jn 10,33: “The Jews answered, “It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you, but for blasphemy, because you, though only a human being, are making yourself God.”

    • Bart
      Bart  March 29, 2020

      Yup, couldn’t agree more. All the more strange it’s not a charge at a trial before the Jewish authorities.

  10. Avatar
    mmckiernan884  March 28, 2020

    So you’ve said that you believe Jesus existed, as do I. I don’t believe he was the messiah and I am right there with you on this idea that he was an apocalyptic rabbi who believed the world was coming to an end. Now, I know you don’t believe in this idea that the stories of Jesus predate Jesus and have just been applied to other Gods. There is no evidence anywhere of other Gods in other cultures being born of a virgin on December 25th, getting crucified, and rising again 3 days later? I don’t remember which book of yours where you touched on this, but I believe you said something along the lines of us not really knowing what these ancient cultures believed.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 29, 2020

      I deal with that kind of issue in my book Did Jesus Exist.

  11. Avatar
    Freedom880  April 6, 2020

    Allow me to cite Mark Matson and his intriguing book, In Dialogue With Another Gospel?: The Influence of the Fourth Gospel on the Passion Narrative of the Gospel of Luke (2001).

    Matson challenges 19th and 20th century NT scholarship on the Synoptic Gospels by carefully demonstrating that Luke agrees with John in over 100 places where they both disagree with Mark and Matthew.

    Such a demonstration apparently shows that Luke’s author had the Gospel of John before his eyes as he wrote. The Gospel of Luke is thus an attempt at a “harmony” between the Gospels of Mark, Matthew and John.

    This not only places Luke as the final Gospel (so that Luke-Acts becomes the final document of the NT), but it also liberates John ‘s Gospel from exile as late as possible in the 1st century. (It also vindicates Bruno Bauer’s 1860 observation, that the Q is either Matthew copying Luke, or Luke copying Matthew.)

    In any case — if Luke’s Gospel was written after John’s Gospel, can we still use the word, “Synoptic?”

    • Bart
      Bart  April 6, 2020

      Yes, this was his dissertation topic. (I was on his dissertation committee.) Even if he’s right (I don’t think he is, but even if he is) he would still refer to Luke as one of the three Synoptics, since that designation has to do with how they agree with each other, whether or not they have any relationship with John.

      • Avatar
        Freedom880  April 8, 2020

        All right — since we can still use the word “Synoptic” to refer to Luke’s Gospel — can we still use the word “Synoptic” to presume that Luke’s Gospel preceded John’s Gospel in the same decade(s) that Mark and Matthew preceded John?

        By the way, I’m delighted to learn that you were on Mark Matson’s dissertation committee. I’m impressed by his effort to demonstrate more than 100 verses where Luke and John agree, while both disagreeing with Mark and Matthew. For only one example (as you’ll recall), both Luke and John have the risen Jesus signal to the Apostles to meet him in “Jerusalem,” while Mark and Matthew say, “Galilee.”

        Would you briefly explain why you disagreed with Mark Matson’s suggestion that Luke’s was the final Gospel written?

        Kind regards,
        –Paul Trejo, MA

        • Bart
          Bart  April 10, 2020

          Yes, the term Synoptic is not related to the dates of these three Gospels, only to the fact that they are so much alike they can be “seen together.” I don’t personally know anyone who agrees that Luke was dependent on John, though I suppose some people do Some of the problems are complicated, including the fact (brace yourself) that some of the best evidence involves Luke’s Western non-interpolations (!). These are passages that were probably not in Luke originally that were added by most scribes, and they offer some of the clearest parallels to John. The scribes who added the passages, of course, did know John.

          • Avatar
            Freedom880  April 15, 2020

            Indeed, Professor Ehrman, this perspective about Luke’s “Western non-interpolations” is most interesting. That would respond very well to the novel questions raised by Mark Matson. What source(s) should I find regarding Luke’s “Western non-interpolations?”

          • Bart
            Bart  April 19, 2020

            I have a full discussion in my book The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture.

          • Avatar
            brandon284  April 16, 2020

            Well this sounds fun!! what are some of these passages that are believed to be Western Non-Interpolations?

          • Bart
            Bart  April 17, 2020

            Ha! Maybe I’ll post on them. Two that I have posted on are Luke 22:19-20 and 22:43-44.

  12. Avatar
    Freedom880  April 22, 2020

    I had most of Dr. Ehrman’s books, but not this one: “The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture” (1991), so I quickly obtained a copy. It is a focus on Textual Criticism.

    In point are Brooke Westcott and Fenton Hort who published, “The New Testament in the Original Greek” in 1881. Their theme, “Western non-interpolations” is famous in the field. The context in Dr. Ehrman’s book is the “Anti-Docetic Corruptions of Scripture.” The basic idea is that non-docetic proto-orthodox editors made these changes in the second century. Some well-known examples from Westcott & Hort include: Luke 22:19-20, Luke 24:3, 6, 36, 40, 51 and 52.

    I’d asked about Mark Matson’s book, “In Dialogue with Another Gospel?” (2001) which offers scores of examples to suggest that John’s Gospel is older than Luke’s, as the author of Luke likely had a copy of John’s Gospel before his eyes.

    Perhaps Dr. Ehrman directed me to Westcott & Hort to consider these 2nd-century redactions as a possible explanation for Matson’s notion. Yet these “Western non-interpolations” are few in number, while Matson’s correlations of Luke and John are well over a hundred!

    • Bart
      Bart  April 24, 2020

      But most of them are very weak. These are among the strongest. Most of the weak ones are easily explained on other grounds (e.g. similiarites in oral traditions, a very common phenomenon, for obviouls reasons)

  13. Avatar
    brandon284  April 22, 2020

    Yes a post on these Western Non-Interpolations would be fantastic!!

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