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Differences Between John and the Synoptics

In this sub-thread I’m trying to explain why I do not use the fourth Gospel extensively in trying to decide what Jesus actually taught (specifically about the afterlife, but about much of anything else as well).   One of the main issues involves the differences between John and the three Synoptic Gospels (all of them earlier than John), Matthew, Mark, and Luke.   Here I discuss one aspect of these differences: at the very fundamental level, John simply has Jesus say and do different things than he does in the others.  This is how I put it in my introductory textbook.


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, the creator of the universe, 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 is the Fourth Gospel from the others? The comparative approach seeks to answer this question.


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 to list the most significant accounts of the Synoptics. In two of them Jesus is said to be born in Bethlehem, to a virgin named Mary. In all three, his public ministry begins with his baptism by John, followed by a period of temptation in the wilderness by the Devil. When he returns …

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  1. Avatar
    meohanlon  October 1, 2017

    Hi Dr. Ehrman,

    I recently came across some arguments that, for some of the overlapping events, favored the chronology of John over the Synoptics’ even if the actual content of Jesus’ sermons and self-identification is more accurately represented in the Synoptics, especially in Mark. You may already be familiar with this line of arguing, but the reason for favoring John’s chronology are based on a few observations re. internal consistency, supposing the events as described to be more or less historical; 1. The Ceansing of the Temple event, for instance, which in John happens on an earlier trip to Jerusalem, while in the Synoptics, it happens during Jesus’ last week there. According to the argument it is close enough after Jesus discipleship with John the Baptist, that when “the Jews” ask him by whose authority he’s acting, he refers to John the Baptist in an analogous way. So it seems this is still in recent enough memory to seem relevant, and not so long after the baptism that Jesus has developed his view enough for it to stand on its own independent terms. Also, if as the Synoptics suppose, it happened early in his last week, why would they allow him to go on preaching in the temple?

    Furthermore, John’s chronology seems to make more sense of the Triumphal Entry (it this is something that can be taken as historically accurate); it seems like he’s already built a following in Jerusalem (possibly with the help of his Bethany connections), which implies previous visits there during his ministry, perhaps the temple cleansing having won some admiration among the locals, and at the same time, some notoriety among the locally maligned temple authorities, who have perhaps already issued a warrant for Jesus’ arrest.

    I’m wondering what your thoughts on this might be, and to what extent John’s chronology, or other aspects of the gospel, are favored by your peers?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 2, 2017

      My view is that the cleansing of the temple in the last week of Jesus’ life makes much better sense (since it started the processes leading to his execution). And I don’t think the Triumphal Entry makes sense given *any* chronology — it’s a legendary tale.

      • Avatar
        RVBlake  October 3, 2017

        How do you know the Triumphal Entry tale is legendary?

        • Bart
          Bart  October 4, 2017

          I talk aboiut it in my book Jesus Before the Gospels. If it had really happened as described, Jesus would have been arrested on the spot.

  2. Avatar
    godspell  October 1, 2017

    It’s very striking to me that John seems to be trying to get rid of certain controversial stories entirely. It’s a problem that Jesus would ask for baptism, so he never does–the Baptist simply declares him to be the Lamb of God, who was here before John (because he was here before the world was made).

    The virgin birth story is also a problem, because it conflicts with John’s conception of how Jesus came into the world. “John” must have heard it, but he’d rather forget it. Nor does it make any difference to him whether Jesus came from Judea or not–he’s not at all interested in convincing Jews that Jesus is qualified to be Messiah, that’s no longer relevant. So get rid of all that. Jesus was always part of God, and has returned to God. He was never a man, so he has no earthly parents.

    Why get rid of the Transfiguration? Maybe because it suggests the Old Testament prophets are Jesus’ peers, when in fact they are far inferior to him, as John would see it. John most certainly does not consider Jesus a Jew, so get rid of the Passover supper.

    Why get rid of the exorcisms? That’s a tough one. Maybe because those stories don’t serve John’s anti-Jewish agenda. In the earliest versions, Jesus is simply casting out evil spirits–their name is Legion, and they don’t really have any master. Basically, it’s a very widespread belief (still found in some places) that the mentally ill have some imp afficting them. Jesus is simply acting as a shaman–probably using the force of his charisma–and, if this doesn’t sound too old fashioned, his love–to calm troubled people. That can seem like a miracle at times.

    By the time John is writing, there is a greater and greater identification by at least some Christians between Satan and the great majority of Jews who refused to accept Jesus as Lord (Pagels wrote about this.) The antipathy has grown very deep. John doesn’t talk much about devils, because to him the Jews are the devils.

    I know we have to talk about this, but it’s damned depressing, all the same.

  3. Avatar
    superfly26  October 1, 2017

    Could you give more detail on how Christians create a single narrative from the four gospels? Difference should produce conflict and contraction for the believer. Have Christians developed a system to smooth these differences over?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 2, 2017

      Yes, maybe I’ll post on this.

      • Avatar
        reevecj  April 7, 2019

        Did you create a post on this? I am writing a paper on the synoptic gospels versus John for my Judaism, Christianity, and Islam class and would love to hear your thoughts on how the Church has dealt with the issue.

        • Bart
          Bart  April 8, 2019

          I don’t recall ever devoting a single post on it. But it’s an issue I deal with all the time in my teaching and writing. I suppose the place I deal with it most direclty is probalby in Jesus Interrupted.

    • Rick
      Rick  October 2, 2017

      I do not mean to be trite but, it seems to me to be called Sunday School. Just take the main story line all of the Gospels agree on and then pick and choose stories to fill in – Give a list of verses to the adult classes and have some one make a cartoon book of it for the kiddo’s. Who’s going to take the NT and check it out anyway?

  4. DestinationReign
    DestinationReign  October 1, 2017

    The totality of the Gospels is put forth in a paradoxical way, in that they are best collectively assessed only QUASI-historically. We can take the collective message of the four Gospels and come to a GENERAL idea about the historicity of their contents. But when it comes to specifically dissecting their disharmonies, it is most beneficial to see what is revealed through them on a higher prophetic level.

    As you point out, throughout the three Synoptics, Jesus is emphatic about keeping His divine identity CONCEALED. These Gospels pertain to the dark age of Christianity in which Christ has been absent and “hidden” from the world (John 9:4-5). John, though, pertains to the coming Kingdom Age in which it will be unequivocally revealed that:

    “All things were made through him. Without him was not anything made that has been made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men.”

    Thus, John’s thematic structure is one of portraying Christ as divine.

    John represents the HIGHER-DIMENSIONAL state of being in which the Kingdom Age will take place; a transcendence of this physical earth plane. This is why it is so different from the Synoptics. This is also why Christ does not preach about the “coming Kingdom” in John – because John pertains to the very dispensation OF the Kingdom!

  5. Avatar
    seahawk41  October 1, 2017

    I just started reading Crucible of Faith by Philip Jenkins. This book covers some of the stuff you are talking about for your book on the afterlife, although I think Jenkins is tackling a more broad topic. Are you familiar with this book? How does it impact your plans?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 2, 2017

      No, haven’t read it. He’s a remarakably wide-ranging scholar.

  6. Avatar
    ardeare  October 1, 2017

    I have a different take on the Johannine Prologue. To me, it reads like a personal testimony in Jesus Christ by…………someone…….The Apostle John? It does take some footwork to get there. Verses 6,7, and 8 need omitting along with 15 and 17. Verse 19 would have only “This is the testimony of John.” What we have as the remainder of verse 19 would be Chapter 2, verse 1.
    I think the fact that John has so much stitch work in it provides this as a real possibility. Is this an old theory that’s been tried before? Thanks

    • Bart
      Bart  October 2, 2017

      Yes, the idea that the John the Baptist material did not originally belong to the poem is widely held. But I don’t see anything in what remains that would make us think “personal testimony” (as opposed to other parts of John or the other Gospels).

  7. Avatar
    Evan  October 2, 2017

    John says that Jesus was held overnight and interrogated by Annas, which sounds plausible. The Synoptics concoct an absurd trial that is wholly unbelievable. John says Jesus competed with JBap as he established his movement, which also sounds plausible. Mark says that did not happen and that Jesus started by calling fishermen who had no association with JBap. John says Jesus overtly claimed his messianic status, which makes sense in context. Mark gives us the absurd messianic secret. Why trust the Synoptics over John’s basic narrative? Granted they are not as advanced Christologically, but in many ways it seems the Synoptics appear to be more fictitious than John, at least as far as the narrative is concerned.

    • Avatar
      heronewb  October 2, 2017

      If Jesus had been walking around claiming to be God the Father or his equal, he would have been killed day one. The brazen God Jesus of John is unlikely.

    • Avatar
      llamensdor  October 7, 2017

      You have it exactly backwards. John is theology, not history. Jesus (the Jew) hates the Jews, and pontificates like a Greek scholar. There is hardly a speech in John that can possibly be an accurate record of what Jesus really said or thought.

  8. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  October 2, 2017

    John 6:22-59 seems to contain elements of a Eucharistic liturgy that differs from the last supper liturgy in 1 Corinthians 11 and the synoptics. Do you think the Bread of Life discourse may have been built around a different liturgy used by the Johannine community?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 2, 2017


    • DestinationReign
      DestinationReign  October 2, 2017

      Verse 59 is stopping too soon. The important element of that entire discourse is verse 63 – wherein He implies having a higher SPIRITUAL understanding of what He was saying; not a literal understanding. Christianity has of course made a vain ritual of the act of “eating and drinking” Him, because Christianity over-literalizes the Gospels (and the entire Bible). Christianity is precisely what Christ preaches AGAINST in the Gospels.

      Luke provides clues; Luke is the only Synoptic Gospel that does not portray Christ directing His disciples to specifically eat the bread or drink the wine in the “last supper” narrative. Luke is the Gospel of the end-time overcomers who see through the charade; those who do NOT “eat His body” and “drink His blood.” Those who help to bring an end to the dark age of “blood atonement” religion. Those who will end religion with Truth that cannot be refuted – Luke 21:15. (Yet another Gospel element that “coincidentally” happens to be only found in Luke.)

      The age of a belief in blood atonement is coming to an end; this is in accord with the grand plan of cosmic evolution.

  9. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  October 2, 2017

    Wow! Quite a helpful summary. The most frequent response I have received about these Gospel differences is that the author of John saw no need to repeat what the other Gospel writers had already said and wanted to add additional material to what they had written. I know. I know, Sometimes, these twists and turns sound like Sean Spicer at a Trump press conference.

  10. Avatar
    jhague  October 2, 2017

    “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, the creator of the universe, 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. ”

    Of course this is true, but I think that most casual readers are drawn to John and then read John into the Synoptics. So most casual readers and most church going Christians believe that all four gospels need to be read as one big gospel.

    • Avatar
      godspell  October 3, 2017

      The language in John is beautiful, but the ideas, not so much. And the people come across mainly as stick figures. Even Jesus, but he’s not supposed to be human.

      I myself was never drawn much to John. And I yearn for an alternate reality where this gospel was never in the bible to start with.

  11. Avatar
    rivercrowman  October 2, 2017

    Speaking of the discourses of Jesus with his opponents among the Jews (John 5 and 8), I’m prompted to encourage you to keep considering writing a book on the history of anti-Semitisim. Have you read the book “The Popes Against the Jews” by David I. Kertzer? I’m currently reading it.

  12. Avatar
    darren  October 2, 2017

    Off topic, I know, but one thing I’m really, really curious about is how/when the Christian community went from singing hymns in the morning and promising only to do good (Pliny) to violently opposing one another over docetic and other doctrinal issues? Christianity began as a group of people rejecting worldly evil and violence, when did things go astray?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 3, 2017

      It wasn’t a linear shift (from one to the other): both things were happening at the same time, from virtually the beginning.

  13. Avatar
    Tempo1936  October 2, 2017

    Paul’s view of Christ’s superior divinity in Colossians 1:15+ Seems similiar to that presented in john’s gospel.
    Do you think John was influenced by Paul’s writing?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 3, 2017

      I don’t think Paul actually wrote Colossians. But the Christ-hymn there is interestingly similar in way to John’s prologue. My sense is that similar views were developing in diffferent parts of the early church.

  14. Avatar
    gage.crowder97  October 6, 2017

    Dr. Ehrman,

    I read once that the apostle John wrote his gospel in order to fill in the gaps that the other disciples left out in their literature.
    Have you ever heard the argument? If so, what are your thoughts?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 8, 2017

      Yes, that is sometimes argued. My own view (it’s a common one among scholars) is that the author of John did not know Matthew, Mark, and Luke, but is basing his account on other sources available to him (written and oral). To think that John *did* know the others, we would need extensive evidence, such as word-for-word agreements — and that’s precisely what is lacking.

  15. Avatar
    Eric  October 6, 2017

    I read somewhere that for Jesus to shuttle back and forth through all his stops in all the gospels on the night of his arrest through his crucifixion, just based on the geographic separation (Garden, Sanhedrin, Palace of Herod Antipas, etc), he would have had to have been able to repeatedly run a 3-minute mile. Chalk up another miracle!

  16. J.MarkWorth
    J.MarkWorth  April 1, 2019

    Is John at least semi-gnostic? In John Jesus is the Logos sent from above into a flawed world to tell people that they are born “from above” and are not of this world. John’s Jesus is the bread come down from heaven, etc. In John 3:1-8 we are told that we must be born “from above/again” in order to be saved; in John 17:16 Jesus says his followers are not of this world, just as Jesus himself is not of this world.
    In the Synoptics salvation comes from loving God and your neighbor, following the Commandments, feeding the hungry, etc., but in John salvation comes from knowing that you are born “again/from above.”
    Because John’s Jesus is the Logos he has gnosis, the knowledge of what will happen to him and what the ultimate outcome will be. Therefore he does not pray “take this cup from me,” but steps boldly forward at his arrest, and boldly questions Pilate. John’s Jesus is not of this world; he seems to feel no pain on the cross but conducts an adoption while on the cross and dies with the matter-of-fact “It is finished” rather than the agonized words of Matthew and Mark. I could give more examples — does this seem at least semi-gnostic to you?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 3, 2019

      My view is that there can’t be semi-Gnosticism before there was Gnosticism, and there wasn’t any Gnosticism yet at the time John wrote. The way I would put it is that John’s views later proved highly amenable to Gnostics who interpreted them in a particular way. But — a big but — they also proved amenable to Christians vehemently opposed to Gnosticism, who interpreted them in a different way. The latter views won out. (John 1:14 was used precisely to counter Gnosticism: the word *became* flesh. It didn’t seem like flesh or take on flesh, but became it. That was seen to run counter to the Gnostic denigration of flesh and insistence that flesh was both corrupt and opposed to true divinity)

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