The Fourth Gospel has stood the test of time as possibly the greatest book in the world. We should not be far wrong if we identified Luke’s Gospel as the most beautiful, but John’s Gospel as the most sublime, ever written.
Leon Morris reminds us that John’s Gospel has been compared to ‘a pool in which a child may wade and an elephant can swim.’
This Gospel was written by the disciple closest to our Lord. In the case of Mark and Luke, these were written by those close to the apostolic circle. In Matthew we have a record of the life of Jesus through the eyes of a devoted companion and follower. But John was the one who leaned of Jesus’ breast. He was the ‘beloved disciple’. Here is the testimony of our Lord’s closest friend.
It is a wonderful combination of the lucid and the profound. It has the clarity of a spring, but we cannot plumb its depths.
Interestingly, John is the only one of the four Gospels that identifies its author. It was written by the disciple whom Jesus loved, Jn 21:20, 24. Throughout, the book shows signs of having been written by one who had witnessed the scenes described and who had been on intimate terms with the Lord. The word ‘witness’, which occurs in Jn 1:7f, 19; 3:11,26,33; 5:31; 12:17; 21:24 etc, reflects this.
According to Jn 13:23, the Beloved Disciple was present at the Last Supper. Now, according to the Synoptics, only the twelve disciples were present at that meal, so this would make the Beloved Disciple one of the Twelve.
Why does the author not refer to himself directly in this Gospel? As we move towards an answer, let us reflect that none of the Gospel writers mentions himself by name; nor does Luke in Acts. As far as John is concerned, the answer must be that, having known the Master so closely, he wished to maintain the character of a witness, and by keeping himself in the background to magnify the Lord of whose divinity he is so convinced.
Contemporary scholarship generally rejects the idea that this Gospel was written by John the son of Zebedee. Their reasons for doing so include
- the very substantial differences between this Gospel and the Synoptics. The Fourth Gospel does not mention various incidents at which, according to the Synoptics this John was present (such as the raising of Jairus’s daughter and the Transfiguration;
- the (alleged) unlikelihood of John the Apostle characterising himself as ‘the beloved disciple’. This smacks, it is said, of arrogance and exclusivism. Response: it is perilous to engage in such speculative psychologising on this matter. Whenever a NT writer speaks of himself as loved by Christ (see, for example, Gal 2:20), it is never to suggest that others are less loved. It is, rather, to marvel at the wonder of God’s grace reaching me – even me, unworthy sinner that I am. On the other hand, to speak of someone else as the special object of Jesus’ love does begin to suggest that Jesus loves some more than others. These considerations probably also account for the author’s unwillingness to identify himself directly. As servant, he prefers to point to his Master. He is already well known to his intended readers (Jn 21:24f) and need to stand on his apostolic authority.
- the presence of what appears to be extensive interpretation, or even elaboration, of Jesus’ teaching by the author; this is thought to be inconsistent with the more straightforward reportage that might be expected from an eyewitness.
- evidence of Hellenistic patterns of thought and language, thought to be inconsistent with authorship by a ‘simple”]’ Jew. However, the Dead Sea Scrolls indicate the considerable extent to which Greek thought and language permeated Palestine at the time.
- the mention, by Papias (as reported by Eusebius) of two Johns – John the Apostle and John the Elder. Many have inferred from this that it was this second John, who was himself a disciple of the first, who wrote the Gospel. But it is not at all clear that Papias was thinking of two Johns at all – it is quite possible that in his own mind John the Apostle and John the Elder were one and the same person.
Hengel has hypothesised that ‘John the Elder’ is ‘the beloved disciple’, a Palestinian Jew who witnessed some of the events in Jesus’ life, but who was not John the Apostle.
Arguments in favour of authorship by John the son of Zebedee.
There is good evidence that Polycarp (AD 70-156) knew John the Apostle. According to Irenaeus, who in turn knew Polycarp personally, ‘John the disciple of the Lord, who leaned back on his breast, published the gospel while he was resident at Ephesus in Asia.’ Secondary evidence in favour of apostolic authorship is also available from Papias, Clement of Alexandria, and Tertullian. Eusebius quotes Clement: ‘John, last of all, conscious that the outward facts had been set forth in the Gospels, was urged on by his disciples, and, divinely moved by the Spirit, composed a spiritual Gospel.’ Early testimony to the apostolic authorship of the Fourth Gospel is, in act, impressive. According to Westcott, ‘it is significant that Eusebius, who had access to many works that are now lost, speaks without reserve of the fourth gospel as the unquestioned work of St. John.’
Both John and the writings traditionally attributed to him are quite closely associated with Ephesus. Patmos, the place of origin of the Revelation, was quite close to Ephesus. The description of the situation in the church in Ephesus (Acts 18:24-20:38) reflects a number of themes that are prominent in the Johannine writings, mentioning as it does ‘disciples of John the Baptist, disputes with Jews, the descent of the Spirit, miracles of healing, and the threat of false teaching (the theme of the Johannine Letters)’. (Harper’s Bible Commentary)
The classic approach of Westcott, followed by Morris and Blomberg, is to say that the author of John’s Gospel was (1) a Jew, (2) of Palestine, (3) an eyewitness, (4) an apostle (i.e., one of the Twelve), and (5) the apostle John. The first two of these proposals are scarcely disputed.
The remarkable fact that the Fourth Gospel does not name John the Apostle requires explanation. It it entirely reasonable to suppose that John withheld his own name. In the Synoptics and Acts Peter and John are often associated (see also Gal 2:9); in the Fourth Gospel, Peter and the unnamed disciple are often associated. This makes it likely that John and the unnamed disciple are one and the same person.
Relationship with the other Gospels
As befits the last Gospel to be written, John largely avoids ground previously covered by the Synopists. Apart from the events of the Passion Week and the resurrection, he touches the Synoptics only in the Feeding of the Five Thousand and the walking on the water.
John omits a number of areas that were clearly significant in some or all of the Synoptic Gospels:
- the conception and birth of Jesus
- his baptism
- his temptations
- the Sermon on the Mount
- the casting out of demons
- many of Jesus’ miracles and parables
- the transfiguration
- the Last Supper
- his struggle in prayer in Gethsemane
- his ascension
(David Pawson, Unlocking the Bible, p887, adapted)
On the other hand, John supplements them in various ways: he alone tells of the meeting with Nicodemus, and with the woman of Samaria. He alone relates the raising of Lazarus, and our Lord’s appearance to Peter after his resurrection. He alone records the public discourses of chapters 5,6,7,8 and 10, and the private discourses of chapters 13-16, together with the prayer of chapter 17. He mentions two passovers not given by the other Gospels, Jn 2:23; 6:4, and may imply yet another, Jn 5:1. He pays special attention to the first year of our Lord’s ministry, Jn 1:19-4:45. Whereas the other Gospels only allude to a significant ministry in Jerusalem, John adds considerable detail. In terms of doctrine, John takes us further into the eternal purposes of God in the incarnation, Jn 1:1-18; cf. Col 1:14-20; Heb 1:1-3. In doing so, he adopts the language of the intellectuals of the day (Word = ‘Logos‘).
Critics have asserted that the teaching of Jesus as presented by the Synoptists is incompatible with that presented by John. That there are differences is beyond doubt. But then there are significant differences within the synoptic accounts, as well as between them and John. And in the non-Markan portions of Matthew and Luke (‘Q’) there is a distinctly John-like passage, Mt 11:25-30; Lk 10:21-24.
Another factor may help to account for the differences between John and the Synoptics. It may be (as Morris suggests in Jesus of Nazareth: Saviour and Lord) that Jesus employed two rather different approaches, in keeping with the rabbinic tradition. One approach was teaching that was intended to be learned and memorised (recorded in the Synoptic tradition), and the other was teaching of a more informal kind (preserved by John).
The style of this Gospel is a remarkable combination of simplicity and profundity. It contains a number ‘key words’ which are used in a profound spiritual sense – ‘light’, ‘darkness’, ‘world’, ‘life’, ‘truth’, and so on. It contains a number of explanatory notes on Jewish terms and customs, indicating that it was not written primarily for the Jews, but for the worldwide Church. Gregory Nazianzen suggested that Matthew wrote for the Jews, Mark, for the Romans, Luke, for the Greeks, and John for the whole world.
‘As we look, the sense of simplicity gives way to an ever increasing consciousness of profundity. Just as, often, gazing at the bright face of the full moon on a clear night, it seems almost within reach, until suddenly a sense of its distance enters the eye and it is seen sailing majestically through immensity.’ (B.B. Warfield, Selected Shorter Writings II)
C.S. Lewis once complained that the Fourth Gospel has been compared to ‘a spiritual romance’, ‘a poem not history’, to be read in a similar way to Nathan’s parable, the book of Jonah, Paradise Lost, ‘or, more exactly, Pilgrim’s Progress’. Lewis mocks the comparison with Bunyan’s great work (‘a story which professes to be a dream and flaunts its allegorical nature by every single proper name is uses’) and concludes, ‘I have been reading poems, romances, vision-literature, legends, myths all my life. I know what they are like. I know that not one of them is like this. Of this text there are only two possible views. Either this is reportage…pretty close up to the facts; nearly as close as Boswell. Or else, some unknown writer in the second century, without know predecessors or successors, suddenly anticipated the whole technique of modern, novelistic, realistic narrative. If it is untrue, it must be narrative of that kind. The reader who doesn’t see this has simply not learned to read.’ (Christian Reflections, 152ff).
‘John’s concern for geographical places (cf. John 1:28; 4:5; 10:23; 11:18; 19:17, 20; 21:1), chronological details (cf. 1:29, 35, 43; 2:1, 12; 4:43, 52; 5:1; 7:2; etc.), cultural beliefs and customs (cf. 4:9, 27; 5:10; 7:22–23, 49), and eyewitness testimony (cf. 1:14; 21:24) demonstrates that he was also concerned with tying his witness to testable history.’ (Busenitz, Reasons We Believe: 50 Lines of Evidence that Confirm the Christian Faith)
‘It is an interesting fact that the Gospel of John, which proclaims the deity of Christ with particular force and clarity, has, in the last 150 years, been under sustained attack by academic theologians. Indeed, most scholars today dismiss that gospel as entirely non-historical. Although there are human reasonings and scholarly arguments behind that approach it is difficult to dismiss the suspicion that it is really part of an all-out Satanic attack on the deity of our Lord. It is hardly surprising that a book which is so precious, precisely because of its testimony to Christ, should be singled out for a particularly vicious attack.’ (McLeod, A Faith to Live By)
‘Sin in the fourth Gospel has often been treated in a reductionist fashion which identifies it, without remainder, with unbelief. The root of sin is the failure to recognise God as God, in particular the refusal to acknowledge and receive the logos (1:10). But it is more than simple unbelief. It manifests itself in profanation of the Temple (2:13ff.), wicked deeds (3:19f.), adultery (4:16–18), sin which brings illness (5:14), self-complacency in the matter of pleasing God (5:44), gross materialism (6:26), fickleness (6:66), treachery (6:71, etc.), hypocritical ‘justice’ (7:23f.), murderous intent (7:30; 8:59; 11:48ff.), tyrannous bondage (8:21, 24, 32–6), lying and murder (8:44), rejection of light (9:41), theft (12:6), corruption (12:10f; 19:12f.), religious hypocrisy (18:28), physical violence (18:22; 19:1–3).
‘Sin is something with the most ominous consequences (3:36; 5:14, 29), something which the Lamb of God must take away, even while men must give it up, if they are to be free (5:14; 8:21ff., and the weakly attested 8:11). The constant threat of judgment (e.g. 3:18, 36; 12:47f.) demands repentance, even if the word itself is not used.’ (D.A. Carson, Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibiity, p163)
John and the Synoptics
How is John’s Gospel different from the Synoptics, and why might this be?
1. The Differences
It is clear even to a casual reader that the gospel of John is very different from the Synoptics. This is true both of content and of style.
1.1 Material present in the Synoptics but absent from John
Missing from John are those short pithy sayings of Jesus which occur so frequently in the Synoptics. John gives us few miracles, and those that are related are referred to as ‘signs’, a term which suggests a particular kind of significance for John. The Fourth Gospel has even fewer parables. Absent altogether are the transfiguration, the healing of demoniacs, the Lord’s Supper, and the agony in Gethsemane. John omits any coverage of the birth and infancy of Jesus; of his temptation; the Sermon on the Mount; the transfiguration; the institution of the Lord’s Supper. Apart from the events of the Passion Week and the resurrection, John touches the Synoptics only in the Feeding of the Five Thousand and the walking on the water. There is little in John about familiar themes such as the kingdom of God, demons, repentance, and prayer.
1.2 Material present in John but absent from the Synoptics
On the other hand, John includes much material not covered by the Synoptists. He alone tells of the wedding at Cana, of the meeting with Nicodemus, and of the conversation with the woman of Samaria. He alone relates the raising of Lazarus, and our Lord’s appearance to Peter after his resurrection. He alone records the public discourses of chapters 5,6,7,8 and 10, and the private discourses of chapters 13-16, together with the prayer of chapter 17. He mentions two Passovers not given by the other Gospels, Jn 2:23; 6:4, and may imply yet another, 5:1. He pays special attention to the first year of our Lord’s ministry, Jn 1:19-4:45. Whereas the other Gospels only allude to a significant ministry in Jerusalem, John adds considerable detail.
1.3 Differences of style and theology
The style and vocabulary of John are different. For example, he adopts the language of the intellectuals of the day (Word = ‘Logos’). John’s is therefore an especially interpretative account of Jesus, so that it is often difficult to see where the teaching of Christ ends and the comments of the Evangelist begin (cf. 3:16). The Fourth Gospel also seems to communicate a very different style of theology and spirituality. This comes across particularly strongly in the remarkable Prologue. In terms of doctrine, John takes us further into the eternal purposes of God in the incarnation, Jn 1:1-18; cf. Col 1:14-20; Heb 1:1-3. John has favourite themes such as ‘light’ and ‘life’.
2. How might the differences be explained?
2.1 Incompatible accounts?
Many critics suppose that the differences between John and the Synoptics are so profound as to be incompatible. We are then driven to conclude that one or other party is unreliable from the factual, historical point of view. In recent times, the Synoptics have often received the scholarly vote of confidence on this question. Many believe that John has given us his own thoughts and meditations on the person and work of Jesus rather than an objective account of what really happened. This opinion gains some support from the very similar style and content which is found in 1John. However, it should be noted that respected authors such as C.H. Dodd and J.A.T. Robinson have argued for the priority of John in respect of historical value.
Those who assert the picture of Jesus as presented by the Synoptists is incompatible with that presented by John often point to its language and teaching as seeming to suggest that its author has recast the story of Jesus for a Greek readership. That there are differences is beyond doubt. But then there are significant differences within the synoptic accounts, as well as between them and John. And in the non-Markan portions of Matthew and Luke (‘Q’) there is a distinctly Johanine passage, Mt 11:25-30; Lk 10:21-24. These ‘bolts from the Johanine blue’, are standing warnings against the view that the Synoptic Jesus could not speak the language of John’s Jesus.
It has been pointed out that John actually complements the Synoptics in a number of specific ways. For example, the Synoptists do not explain why the first disciples so readily left what they were doing and followed Jesus. John provides the answer: they had already met Jesus, 1:35-50, and so their decision to follow him was the culmination of a developing acquaintance.
The idea that John presents an a-historical account of Jesus can be challenged on a number of counts. First, the simple”] observation that an incident is recorded by John and not by the Synoptists is no evidence against its unhistoricity. Second, the thought-world of John has increasingly been recognised to be Palestinian and not Greek: the Qumran scrolls indicate that Judaism in Jesus’ day was perfectly capable of using language similar to that found in the Fourth Gospel. Third, archaeological evidence has been uncovered which substantiates specific narratives in the Gospel which were previously subjected to considerable scepticism (e.g. Jn 5:2).
Of critical importance in this discussion are the stated purposes of the Gospel writers, particularly Luke and John himself. Their respective statements of purpose demand that their Gospels both be taken seriously as historical documents, or else we must conclude that they have failed in their intention. Also significant is the statement by John towards the end of his gospel that he was highly selective in his use of material about Jesus. Accordingly, there are many scholars who recognise no definite conflict between John and the Synoptics, either in respect of history or in respect of theology. It can be argued that John may have had a different kind of readership in mind, and therefore selected his material accordingly. Or, it is suggested that John may have had certain errors or heresies in mind, the combating of which determined the selection and presentation of his material.
2.2 Complementary accounts?
It was formerly generally agreed that John was aware at least of Mark (or some of Mark’s sources), and even made some use of Markan material. A number of scholars feel that he may have known Luke’s Gospel also. If Luke was aware of ‘many’ accounts to chronicle the life of Jesus before him, then it is reasonable to suppose that John, probably writing some time after Luke, was at least equally aware of them.
It is usually accepted that John’s was the last Gospel to be written, and he may have consciously avoided going over the ground which they had covered. On the other hand, the differences between John and the Synoptics might be explained by a relatively early date for the Fourth Gospel, so that John did not have the others before him as he wrote, but only (perhaps) some of the oral tradition or earlier documentary sources on which they would be based.
Many of the differences between John and the Synoptics are not particularly problematic on the supposition that John, writing last, purposely avoided much of the ground previously covered by the Synoptists, and chose rather to complement rather than replace their accounts.
Moreover, while considering the differences between John and the Synoptists, we should not overlook their similarities. All four gospels have in common the witness of John the Baptist, the call and instruction of the disciples, the feeding of the 5,000, Jesus’ voyage on the Sea of Galilee with his disciples, Peter’s confession of faith, the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the remarkable claims and miracles of Jesus, the hostility of the Jewish religious leaders, Jesus’ final meal with his disciples, his arrest, trial, condemnation, crucifixion, resurrection, post-resurrection appearances, and commissioning of the disciples. We have already noted some of the Synoptic themes which are absent from John. However, some themes are common between John and the Synoptics: Father, Son of man, faith, love, and sending.
Some of the material omitted by John is also left out by one or more of the Synoptists (e.g. some of the miracles and some of the parables). Therefore, John’s omission of such material is not especially significant.
An important explanation for the differences between John and the Synoptists is suggested by the fact that John concentrates almost completely on the ministry of Jesus in and around Jerusalem during the temple feasts. The Synoptics, however, focus much more on Jesus’ ministry in the north, around Galilee. The style of teaching of Jesus is obviously different in John’s gospel, but this can perhaps be explained by reference to the different audiences. In the Synoptics, his teaching is more anecdotal, more popular, more parabolic – fitting for the relatively unsophisticated Galileans.. In John. it is more rabbinical and more obviously theological – more suited to Jerusalem, and more in keeping with the accepted style of synagogue teaching. It has been pointed out that C.S. Lewis was capable of writing literary criticism, children’s fiction, poetry, apologetics, and autobiography. Who will say that Jesus was not capable of more than one style of teaching?
That John was self-consciously selective in his use of material is clear from 20:30; 21:25. Certainly, his catalogue of Jesus’ miracles is very selective. He happens not to include the curing of a demoniac, although his account of the work of the devil is clear enough. Gethsemane is not described, yet is foreshadowed in 12:27f. Once again, it is reasonable to suppose that all the evangelists were selective in their use of the available material. The selected elements were used by each evangelist to serve the overall purpose and concerns he had in mind. In John’s case, the transfiguration (for example) could be omitted since he had other, and complementary ways of presenting the glory of the Son; so also with the Lord’s Supper. If the author of the Fourth Gospel was John, the disciple, then he, having known Jesus intimately, was in a position both to relate material which the other Evangelists may have been unaware of, and also to give an interpretative account of it (so Clement of Alexandria, who famously asserted that John’s was ‘the spiritual gospel’).
Milne concludes his comparison of John and the Synoptics as follows:-
The distinctions, even where real, need not diminish our appreciation of the historical trustworthiness of John’s account. In the presence of the Word made flesh no single approach can ever be sufficient, nor any four for that matter. But God has purposed in his gracious providence the existence of the four gospels, each special and each important. Each is a witness to Jesus in a way which truly enables us to meet with Christ and set our lives under his leadership. Within that chosen team of witnesses John and his ‘spiritual gospel’ take an honoured place. ‘The Message of John’, 1993.
3. Additional Note
In addition to the general points of comparison discussed above, there are some specific problems of chronology between John and the synoptics which demand more detailed attention than can be given here:-
(a) the cleansing of the temple – John places it early, the synoptics late. Critics have argued about who is right. Conservative scholars, equally respectful of the trustworthiness of John and the Synoptics, find no obvious reason why the event could not have happened twice.
(b) the duration of the ministry – John presents the ministry of Jesus in the context of three Passovers. However, given the selectivity of all the gospel writers and the relatively vague attitude of the Synoptists to chronology and duration, there is nothing in them to make a 3-year ministry impossible.
(c) the date of the last supper – John seems to place the supper meal before the Passover began (i.e. on the Wednesday evening) with the crucifixion taking place on the following day, coinciding with the slaughter of the Passover lambs in the temple. This is understood as John’s attempt to alter the facts in order to make a theological point, cf. 19:36. Some have suggested that John and the synoptic writers were using different calendars.