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Is This the Same Jesus? John and the Synoptics (part 2)

In yesterday’s post I began to show how vastly different the Gospel of John is in comparison with the Synoptics, purely in terms of contents.  What is even more striking are the differences when when John and the Synoptics contain the same kinds of stories (e.g., miracles; teachings; passion narrative).  This is where you can see how the portrayal of Jesus is REALLY different in the fourth Gospel (something no one can see if they simply assume they’re all saying the same thing and all have the same views — as happens when people will read one passage from one Gospel, then another from another, and yet another from another, instead of reading one at a time and seeing what *it* has to say, apart from what the others do).

Here is how I deal with it in my textbook, slightly edited here.


Comparison of Emphases

The differences between John and the Synoptics are even more striking in stories that they have in common. You can see the differences yourself simply by taking any story of the Synoptics that is also told in John, and comparing the two accounts carefully.   Try it!   (Jesus baptism; his last evening with his disciples; his ….   well, here I’ll show some).  A thorough and detailed study of this phenomenon throughout the entire Gospel would reveal several fundamental differences. Here I will emphasize two of them, differences that affect a large number of the stories of Jesus’ deeds and words.

First, the deeds. Jesus does not do as many miracles in John as he does in the Synoptics, but the ones he does are, for the most part, far more spectacular. Indeed, unlike the Synoptics, Jesus does nothing to hide his abilities; on the contrary, he performs miracles openly in order to demonstrate who he is. To illustrate the point, it may be instructive for us to compare two stories that have several striking resemblances to one another, the Synoptic account of the raising of Jairus’ daughter (Mark 5:21-43) and John’s account of the raising of Lazarus (John 11:1-44). Read them for yourself. In both, a person is ill and a relative goes to Jesus for help; Jesus is delayed from coming right away, so that by the time he arrives the person has already died and is being mourned; Jesus speaks of the person as “sleeping” (a euphemism for death); those present think that he has come too late and that now he can do nothing; Jesus approaches the one who has died, speaks some words and raises them from the dead. Both accounts end with Jesus’ instructions to care for the person’s well-being.

]Clearly these are the same kind of story.  What is striking is how they differ from one another in their details — not so much the details of who died and under what circumstances as the details of how the miracle itself is portrayed.  It is striking, first of all, that …

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Where Did the Gospel of John Get Its Stories?
Comparing John and the Synoptics



  1. Avatar
    AstaKask  March 27, 2020

    Was there a lot of discussion about whether to include John in the Bible, given that his Jesus is so different from the Synoptic Gospels?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 29, 2020

      Not at all — it was always massively popular, especailly because of it’s more theological understanding of jesus, and was thought to complement and complete the others.

  2. Avatar
    godspell  March 27, 2020

    John does say that Jesus performed many other signs that he is not telling us about–meaning that ‘John’ is well aware of other miracle stories, and has intentionally refrained from using them.

    Now it’s been a while since I read John through, so correct me if I’m wrong–is Jesus the only one who ever is said to perform any miracle in John’s Gospel?

    One of the main points made in Mark is that Jesus is trying to convince his disciples they can do anything he can do. It’s all about faith.

    While Jesus’ miracles are strongly emphasized, and we mainly just hear about the disciples doing them, we are made constantly aware that Jesus believes it’s nothing special about him that makes this possible. He says people he heals have really healed themselves through believing. (Which is in fact how faith healing works, if it can be said to work–science is still working on that one).

    In Matthew’s account of Jesus walking on water, Peter can also walk on the water–for a moment, then he loses faith, and sinks.

    Mark doesn’t tell the story this way (in this respect, I think Matthew’s account is superior–Matthew seeing a chance to make the story better), but Mark’s point in the story, as always, is that the disciples can’t understand who Jesus is. It is implied that if they did understand, and did have faith in him, they would have nothing to fear from nature’s wrath. It is Jesus’ faith in God that holds him up and calms the tempest. (In a sense, Mark’s Jesus is saying the only thing to fear is fear itself.)

    John, naturally, gives not the slightest indication that Jesus thinks all the disciples could be walking on the water with him. Only Jesus could do this, because only Jesus is the Incarnate Word of God, and there has never been anyone like him before, nor will there ever be again. You should believe in him, but believing in him will never make you equal to him, because he is beyond all things. He is not a man, and never was.

    And yes, he does talk endlessly about how great he is.

    Hmm. Reminds me of someone…….

    • Bart
      Bart  March 29, 2020

      Yes, I believe only Jesus is said to do miracles in John.

      • tompicard
        tompicard  March 31, 2020

        but in John, Jesus says “you can do greater things than these”
        what to think of that?

        • Bart
          Bart  March 31, 2020

          He’s saying in the future his disciples too will do miracles. But the question I thought was about what actually happened in the Gospel of John. No one else does miracles there.

  3. Avatar
    DRwdstk  March 27, 2020

    Another difference with John is where the Synoptic Gospels espouse the Judaism of Jesus and the Disciples, John has a distinct hatred of the Jews. Perhaps (as I may have read in one of your books) the community of John was probably persecuted by the Sadducee rulers as a heretical Jewish sect. John blurs the line between the Pharisees and the Saduccees more than the in the synoptics, charging them all with evil. This is particularly puzzling since Jesus was likely Pharisaic, or close to it. His unique take on the Torah was very Pharisaic, from the Golden Rule to the notion that you don’t need the High Priests on the Temple Mount to have a relationship with the Almighty. Even the apocalyptic notions were not completely foreign to Pharisaic philosophy at that time or for a couple of centuries before and after. (by the way,I love your Apocalyptic Prophet book)

  4. Avatar
    Stephen  March 27, 2020

    I read Prof Mendez’s article and he talks about “writing a new history” of gJohn which seems to include the assumption that John knew the Synoptics (or Mark at least). In the past you’ve indicated you don’t agree so my questions are these…
    1. What is your current thinking?
    2. How much do you think Prof Mendez’s overall argument depends on this assumption?


    • Bart
      Bart  March 29, 2020

      I don’t think there is sufficient evidence to suggest that the author of John had read Mark. But I don’t know how much his overall argument hands on the view (he wouldn’t take it as an assumption, but would indicate he has reasons for thinking it)

  5. Avatar
    fishician  March 27, 2020

    Correction: you meant Matthew 12:38 where Jesus was asked for a sign. In that passage Jesus says, “something greater than Solomon is here.” I have heard it suggested that the reason for invoking Solomon’s name is that the Jews had apocryphal stories (The Testament of Solomon) of Solomon having power over evil spirits and forced them to help build his temple. Jesus’ most common miracle is exorcism of evil spirits, which is why he compares himself to Solomon. Do you think this idea has merit? It does seem that the emphasis in the story is listening to wisdom rather than reliance on miracles, though.

  6. Avatar
    Tim_Cottingham  March 27, 2020

    Thanks for continuing this whilst the UK is on lock-down, Bart! Hours of entertainment. Any plans to connect with Sam Harris for another of his podcasts? It’d be great to hear you unpack concepts of heaven and hell with him. Your last interview with him was totally engrossing. Tim

    • Bart
      Bart  March 29, 2020

      Thanks. We’ve pitched it to him, but it’s rare to get on with two books in a row in close proximity.

  7. Avatar
    veritas  March 27, 2020

    In John’s gospel, the author clearly tries to show that Jesus was a pre-existent being with God. But I find he (Jesus) is suggesting he his sub-servient to God and not equally (totally) like God. That God has still the ultimate authority in all things. ” So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, Father, I thank you that you have heard (present) me. I knew (past) that you always hear me, but I said this is for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me”. John 11: 41-42, emphasis added. Also, I am not sure of ancient burial practices. It sounds very much like Jesus’s burial. Do you also get the same impression that he is not totally God with all of God’s powers? Great post!

    • Bart
      Bart  March 29, 2020

      In John’s Gospel, yes, I would say Jesus’ Father is superior to him.

  8. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  March 27, 2020

    Carry on! Great series of posts.

  9. Avatar
    plparker  March 27, 2020

    Can you also mention a helpful bibliography of other sources as you address these issues?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 29, 2020

      I still like a classic by Robert Kysar,

        John among the Gospels

      Or try a more recent book like John Carroll’s

        Jesus and the Gospels
  10. Avatar
    brenmcg  March 28, 2020

    When Luke says in Luke 1:2 “… eyewitnesses and servants of the word” he means both “eyewitnesses of the word” and “servants of the word”

    Do you think Luke is therefore calling Jesus the Word here?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 29, 2020

      I’d say definitely not. These are people who minister the written words and oral communications believed to come from God. (E.g. the Hebrew Bible and the Christian kerygma)

      • Avatar
        brenmcg  March 29, 2020

        Those would be servants of the word.

        But what could it mean to be an eyewitness of the word, other than the johannine sense of seeing the personification of the word?

        • Bart
          Bart  March 30, 2020

          They aren’t eyewitnesses of the word. He has heard from eyewitness and from ministers of the word.

          • Avatar
            brenmcg  March 31, 2020

            But does the placement of γενόμενοι before “the word” indicate that they were both – (eyewitnesses and servants) having become, of the word.

            Otherwise he could have written γενόμενοι at the end – “eyewitnesses and (servants of the word) having become.”

          • Bart
            Bart  March 31, 2020

            Do you read Greek?

          • Avatar
            brenmcg  April 1, 2020

            No. But I think if he’d intended to mean to say (eyewitnesses and servants) having been of the word, that’s how he would have written it.

          • Bart
            Bart  April 1, 2020

            Yup. That is how he wrote it.

  11. fefferdan
    fefferdan  March 28, 2020

    Bart, in introducing this topic, I notice that you do not include the Book of Revelation in the Johannine literature, although some commentators do. Will you be addressing this issue? To me it’s obvious that Revelation is by a different writer, but I’d be interested to know whether you think it might have been read in the Johannine community anyway.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 29, 2020

      It certainly was written by someone named John (unlike all the others, as it turns out!) But the reason for not including it in the group of the fourth Gospel and 1, 2, and 3 John is that those are so similar in many ways, including in vocabulary used, that htey could plausibly be thought of as coming from the same author. Whoever that was, it was not the author of Revelation. So for this discussion it is not in view.

      • kt@rg.no
        kt@rg.no  March 30, 2020

        Considering the Revelation, it uses the same terms as “the lamb”, “the word” about the Messiah, and “the living water” which is similar (unique?) with John could that point to the same author?

        Beside that I have read somewhere some time ago that the Greek differs where the Greek in the Revelation was a terrible Greek while the Gospel and the letters were good/excellent Greek. Beside that, which I’ve hear somewhere, that the phrase “the lamb” and “the living water” was different in Greek, but are the same word in Arameic?. Could that point in a direction that the original Greek was a translation done by different translators, and since (if) the Revelation was in terrible greek, could that point to that it was written in Aramenic or perhaps Hebrew in the first place and later translated?

        I’ve assumed that the Gosple of John was written to or of the Essene sect, which was occupied with esoteric/mystic teachings/ideas. I’m drawn into this thought because John’s assosiation to John the Baptist who seemed to perhaps had some Essene influence (,,wilderness,,,apocolyptic ideas, discontempt toward the Saddusees and the Pharasees etc), and also a bunch of paralells with phrases in the Dead sea scrolls. Beside that, the phrases and ideas of the Messiah in the beginning of the gosple seems to be well understood and even expreced by a mystic / esoteric sect like the Essenes?

        In your mind, would those thoughts be fair assumptions?

        • Bart
          Bart  March 31, 2020

          Also Logos. So yes, it is often thoguht to come from the same community. But it’s perspective is *massively* different from the others — in particular, whereas the Gospel of John has radically de-apocalypticized Jesus’ message, the book of Revelation is ALL apocalyptic. Completely different eschatologies. The Essenes were a very small sect, and their apocalyptic ideas, at least as known from the Dead Sea Scrolls, run precisely counter to those found in the Gospel of John.

          • kt@rg.no
            kt@rg.no  March 31, 2020

            Thank you.
            I have no problem to accept an idea that some of the Judaim ideas came from a more mystic background and that some of the texts should be read in that light, or like the Jews tell when they tell about the 4 levels (Prades) of how they wrote their Messages. One of their claimed way to potray a message is useing “Sod”,,,a mystical message. which Jewish mystisim is partly occupied with. In that light, the Revelation is or might be a story of a Souls migration back to its origin. The Revelation in that sence is what it is a revelation (or apocolyptical – uncover – revelation) of human soul in realtion to God. If so, the language in Gosple of John doesn’t seems to give me another conclusion.

            In addition to that, I understood that they were occupied by esoterism and mystic in their isolation and which give the idea that they would be familiar with such ideas. When I read Josephus War II (in particular verse 154 – translated by William Whiston, A.M., Ed) it even seems that they supported the consept of reincarnation «,,,,,,, but that the souls are immortal, and continue for ever; and that they come out of the most subtile air, and are united to their bodies as to prisons,,,,» . If Josephus got that right (which so many other claims), they would be familiar to a more symbolic understanding of the Revelation (or Apocolypt as the Greek calls it). In that context it would be an understandable name of the book and the message (at least I suspect the book tries to give). In addition, that would not be far from other mystical ideas they claimed was circulation at that time.

            Is it unlikely,,,,,,no ,,not for me at least. Such a concept will even fit perfectly ot the old Hinduism , even in their holy scripture Bhagavad Gita where the huan soul are an eternal share of God(supreme being), and this part within us is latent devine and must be awakened within us.. Even Buddism came around when the Jews was in captivity in Babylon. So, if the Hebrew Bible was written in that time, probably later, why are the “mystical ideas” much alike in Judaism as the flat out mainstream religion/ideas, only 1000 miles east of Babylon (Indus valley) where most of the world populations would believe in..

  12. Avatar
    clerrance2005  March 29, 2020

    Prof Ehrman,
    Question 1 – John 11:52 “52 and not only for that nation but also for the scattered children of God, to bring them together and make them one.” – NIV. Who are the scattered children of God in this contest?

    Question 2 – From John 11 Sanhedrin was fraught with anxiety about Jesus Messiahship and miracles, my question is if the Jews were expectant of the Messiah anyway, why this anxiety amongst the Jewish leaders as portrayed in the gospel? Shouldn’t it have rather been a saving grace to them especially with them being subservient to the Romans.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 30, 2020

      The “nation” here is Judea; the other children of God are all those destined for salvation outside of Judea.

      Yes, that’s precisely what the author of the Gospel wants you to be thinking: what’s *WRONG* with those crazy Jews??? The story doesn’t make sense apart from the fact taht the author, living 60 years later, beleived Jesus was teh messiah, knew that most Jews wouldn’t accept it, and that they didn’t accept it because he was a crucified criminal — just the opposite of what a messiah would be. In his views, though, they were simply willful and opposed to God, and so he set up the story to make the reader agree with him.

      • Avatar
        clerrance2005  March 30, 2020

        Prof Ehrman,

        Thank you for the responses. Much appreciated

        Still in relation to Question 1 – John 11:52 “52 and not only for that nation but also for the scattered children of God, to bring them together and make them one.” – NIV.

        “The “nation” here is Judea; the other children of God are all those destined for salvation outside of Judea” – Are the ones outside Judea in your statement just the Jews outside Judea or it’s inclusive of the Gentiles as well.

        • Avatar
          clerrance2005  March 31, 2020

          Prof Ehrman,

          Please I didn’t get a response on this question.

          Prof Ehrman,
          Thank you for the responses. Much appreciated
          Still in relation to Question 1 – John 11:52 “52 and not only for that nation but also for the scattered children of God, to bring them together and make them one.” – NIV.
          “The “nation” here is Judea; the other children of God are all those destined for salvation outside of Judea” –

          Are the ones outside Judea in your statement just the Jews (children of God) outside Judea or it’s inclusive of the Gentiles as well.

          • Bart
            Bart  April 1, 2020

            For John’s Gospel, they are non-Jews as well (most of the congregation in which this author lived were apparently gentile)

  13. Avatar
    clerrance2005  March 29, 2020

    Prof Ehrman,
    Was proof texting of the Hebrew Scripture a tool employed by the NT writers?

  14. Avatar
    clerrance2005  March 29, 2020

    In John 11:9 – “Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Anyone who walks in the daytime will not stumble, for they see by this world’s light.” Did 1st Century Jews have their time calibrated in the same way as we do today in terms of 24 hours/ day; 60 minutes/ hour; 60 seconds/minute?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 30, 2020

      The *day* traditionally lasted 12 hours. And the *night* traditionally 12 hours. Oddly, the length of the hour depended on how many hours of day light there were. However long the period of daylight, that length was divided by 12. (I don’t think they had minutes nad seconds, although i don’t recall ever thinking or reading about it)

  15. kt@rg.no
    kt@rg.no  March 29, 2020

    I think it is the same Jesus, but I suspect that the authors/scribes came from different traditions, or the story was intended to different audiences.
    It would not surprise me at all if John, who was a disciple of John the Baptist was influenced by the Essene movement, perhaps through John the Baptist who seems to have some references to this Essene movement and ideas. Who knows if he (John the baptist) was a Essene himself (a sect which seems to be hostile to outsiders, and definitely “non evangelical” in spreading their views). The Gospel of John looks to me, because some of the symbols and Phariseeic language are close or similar to what you can find in the Dead sea scrolls (light/darkness, living water, holy spirit in the same light as in NT,,and more), to point to the Essene sect. In addition to that, it also mentioned some typical Essene issues which was important to their Essene Halacha, like the story of Temple tax (which was a Halacha dispute back then, either annually or once in a life time) and even the story of the woman taken in adultery – at least a good Essene point in their Halacha interpretation of 2 valid witnesses (even though it might not have been in the original Greek translation).
    There seems to be a lot in this text pointing to the Essene sect and it would not surprise me if John was written by someone close to the sect, or written to the sect.
    Since I don’t fully believe Jesus was an Essene (at least he differs in several ways) but for me seems to have a foot firmly planted in the Essene ideas, including the apocalyptic ideas) but also (for me) in the Pharisee ideology (at least the ideas based on Hillel the Elder and this version of Judaism, I think the gospel might have had different audiences, or scribes from different Judaist groups which could accept his message within their own interpretation of their Jewish belief.

    So,,,,I think it is the same Jesus, but written by authors or to audience from different Jewish traditions.

  16. Rick
    Rick  March 29, 2020

    “nor does he proclaim the imminent appearance of the kingdom (see Box 4). He instead focuses his words on identifying himself as the one sent from God.” Professor, does that indicate the Johnine Community was not apocalyptic, or had backed away from apocolypticism perhaps because Jesus had not returned by the time the gospel “went final” so to speak?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 30, 2020

      That’s right — John has moved away from apocalyptic thought.

  17. stevedemarco
    stevedemarco  March 30, 2020

    Question on John 6:19, Jesus walking on water

    When it comes to this Gospel, so many questions come to mine. I could ask so many questions on the Johannine community, The lost Gospel of Signs, The Gospel’s High Christology, the beloved disciple, the Gospel’s tone toward the Jews, and 1 John but, I’ll just ask one. The one thing that really stands out to me in this Gospel, when comparing to the Synoptics, is Jesus walking on water. Mark, Matthew, and John share this story but they are different in detail. Mark tells his version and Mathew uses Mark but adds a extended version of Peter walking on water towards Jesus. John’s version however, is different in so many ways then of Mark and Matthew. When I read John’s version I can’t help but notice the simple and basic structure of the story. I get the sense that this version is older then the Synoptics and was part of a oral tradition separate from Mark’s tradition. If that’s the case we have two separate oral traditions of this story. So my question: does this story, Jesus walking on water, go back to the historical Jesus? Is there any truth to be told about this story?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 30, 2020

      No, almost certainly not. There may be lots of “truth” in teh story, but that doesn’t mean it is historically accurate. The fact it appears in both John and the Synoptics doesn’t mean it actually happened (any more than a story about Nixon you’ve heard from two peole NECESSARILY means that it really happened, just because you’ve heard it from two people). It just means it was a familiar story some decades after Jesus’ life.

      • stevedemarco
        stevedemarco  March 31, 2020

        Is it possible that this story was layered over time? Could it be that it started off as a unexplained event with Jesus and as the story was being told by word of mouth it got fabricated to a supernatural experience? Lets just say as a HYPOTHETICAL SCENARIO, that Jesus was not found in one town but then his disciples discovered him in another town when they crossed the sea. It’s told in the Gospels, prior to the disciples taking off, Jesus was alone on the shore or on a mountain. Later as the story is being retold someone ask how did Jesus get from one town to another town over the sea? And then someone comes along and says that he got over to the other town by walking on water and then a legend is made up that Jesus walked on water. I’m not saying that’s how it happen but, I don’t want to rule out that the legend may have started with the historical Jesus and later got fabricated over time.

        • Bart
          Bart  April 1, 2020

          Yes indeed, it’s one of the options that needs to be seriously considered.

        • Avatar
          Monarch  April 17, 2020

          I think the walking on water thing may be an expression of esoteric symbolism concerning the “Word” and the reading thereof. For example, if you look at any given paragraph from above (i.e., from the reader’s viewpoint, or from “the clouds of heaven,”) you are symbolically looking down on wave after wave of water (represented by the successive lines of text,) and as you read that text you are, in effect, “walking on water.” This same symbolism can be seen in the story of Jesus and the disciples eating grain from the field on the Sabbath. In this case, the rows of grain symbolically represent the lines of text (picture the many rows of a corn field as seen from above) and as the reader reads these rows of text he is, in effect, walking along and “harvesting” ideas from the text and eating or “consuming” those ideas. Anyway, just my two cents about how I try to look for symbolic meaning in stories such as this, on the belief that “The harvest is great, but the workers [or “comprehending readers”] are few.”

  18. Avatar
    SteveEastin@abaci.com  April 1, 2020

    I’ve heard from some, including Richard Carrier, that the Lazarus story in John was intended to directly contradict the Lazarus story in Luke. In Luke, Abraham says that people would not believe even if Lazarus was raised from the dead. In John, Lazarus was raised from the dead and people ended up believing. Thoughts?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 3, 2020

      I hope Carrier doesn’t claim he came up with the idea, and at least points out that it’s been around for roughly forever 🙂 Yes, I think the John story is rooted in the knowledge that Jesus had told some kind of parable about someone named Lazarus who died in the context of a discussion of him being sent back from the dead. Note: the Jewish leaders in John precisely do *not* believe after Lazarus is raised; kind a like Abraham “predicted” in Luke 16.

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