In my previous two posts I’ve talked about how John is very different from the other three Gospels, the “Synoptics” — both in the stories it tells and the way it tells them. That leads to the natural question. Where did “John” (whoever the author was) get his stories from? It’s widely assumed he didn’t make them all up — and he certainly didn’t make up the ones found in other Gospels, since they were written before him. Then where did his stories come from?
Did Some of them — the ones they have in common — come from the Synoptics themselves? The traditional answer is yes, since he was writing later. But then the issue is why he didn’t use *more* of the stories, including the ones that would have especially suited his purposes, and why he so drastically changed the ones he (allegedly) borrowed.
But the prior question is whether there is sufficient *evidence* to suggest he used the Synoptics. It is absolutely not good enough to think he must have because they were around before he started writing. In the ancient world books did not circulate like they do today. Now, when a book gets published, every bookstore in the country puts it out, the exact same book in every detail,on the same day. In the ancient world, books that had been known in one part of the world or even one community or other may not have been known at *all* in another one for *decades* (even centuries!).
So is there evidence of whether John knew the Synoptics? As it turns out, the question is somewhat thorny, and entire books have been devoted to it. One rather famous NT scholar that some of you may have heard of, Moody Smith, my longtime colleague from Duke who passed away a few years ago, spent much of his life dealing with it, This was his Major research passion. His best book on the matter, should you be interested in checking it out, is called John Among the Gospels.
o I’m not going to to into depth or deal with all of complexities here, I will instead simply indicate why many scholars continue to be persuaded that John did not know the Synoptics — or at least that if he did know them he did not use them as sources. I do so while acknowledging that our blog member and well-known New Testament scholar, another Dukie!, Mark Goodacre is writing a book, now as we speak, arguing that John *did* know the Synoptics. (And yes, there is no need to ask me! I *will* indeed look into whether Mark is interesting in posting on his views for us, and possibly I will interact with them my self. But he will probably want to wait till the book comes out — if he wants to do it at all — since that will help generate some buzz about the book.)
For this discussion here I simply need to stress the point that the principal grounds for assuming that one document from antiquity served as a source for another is their wide-ranging similarities: when they tell the same stories and do so in the same way, they are likely to be literarily related to one another (i.e., one was borrowing from another) Thus Matthew, Mark, and Luke must have sources in common because they agree with one another on a number of occasions, often word for word — sentences at a time. You can’t get that without authors having the same sources, either one of them copying the other or both of them copying the same third source that no longer survives.
This is not the case for the Fourth Gospel. As I have pointed out, most of John’s stories outside of the Passion narrative are found only in John, whereas most of the stories in the Synoptics are not found in John. Even more, when John *shares* stories with the Synoptics (say, the cleansing of the Temple, or the trial before Pilate), they *lack* precisely the features that make us realize that the Synoptics all had common sources: extensive word for word agreements. A few agreements here and there are not, as a rule convincing: different people telling the same story often will use the same words, even the same phrases: but it doesn’t mean that one of these people had heard the *other* tell it. She may have heard it from someone else. If, however, she writes a paragraph that is exactly like someone else’s version, well, that’s good evidence she was copying it. That’s precisely what we do not get with John and the Synoptics.
How then can we account for the similar stories that John and the Synoptics tell on occasion? It may be simplest to explain them as …
This is a key issue for understanding the Gospels of the New Testament — our only real sources for knowing what Jesus said and did. In other words, it’s important stuff. To keep reading, all you need to is belong to the blog. Joining is easy. And every penny of the small membership fee you pay goes to help those in need, a growing army these days. So think about joining! If you can’t afford it just now, send me an email and we’ll work it out with you.