We have just followed Jesus into Jerusalem to the sound of loud Hosannas, and here is where John’s account is going to veer, for the first of several times, significantly away from the other gospel accounts. Below are some of my thoughts on that.
An Autonomous Account
Most of John’s gospel is its own account. That is to say, it is autonomous in its source, an eyewitness testimony to Jesus’ ministry, death, and resurrection. There are many touchpoints between John’s gospel and Mark’s gospel, but none of those touchpoints are identical, which means neither copied from the other.
This is not so with the Synoptic Gospels. Both Matthew and Luke borrowed heavily from Mark’s gospel and it is not unusual to see sentences, and even a paragraph here and there, lifted wholesale out of Mark and placed in Matthew’s or Luke’s account. We might say today Mark’s gospel was part of the public domain, there was no copyright on his material, and he would surely have been pleased to have others take his words for their own.
So, largely, John’s gospel is its own story, with events and stories found only in his gospel. John alludes to this fact
Now certainly Jesus indeed did a great number of signs in the presence of the disciples, yet which have not been written in this book.
But these have been written in order that you all might believe that Jesus is the Christ the Son of God, and in order that those who believe might have life in his name.John 20:30-31
Not an Independent Account
This is not to say john’s gospel is independent of the other gospels. It is quite clear, when laying Mark side-by-side with John’s gospel, that they are in conversation with each other. Scholars have counted the touchpoints between them both, and there are many, never identical, but close enough to show influence.
But who influenced who?
Since we often see John and Peter together, in the gospels and also in the first chapters of Acts, it seems reasonable to posit they both influenced each other.
In fact, one of the reasons the gospels are placed in the order they are in is to reflect which gospels are closely related to the others.
Just a brief internet search will bring up a half a dozen different theories about the source material for the gospels—some schemes are pretty complex, and involve hypothetical collections such as a now lost to us “Q” source (for “quelle,” the German word for “well” or “source”). But there is a much simpler, and more plausible, idea for how the gospels were written.
Who Influenced Who
As soon as Pentecost came, the disciples became apostles and began to spread the gospel story, just as Jesus had said they would do, moments before he was lifted up into heaven. Peter’s first sermon is recorded in Acts 2.
Initially, they preached to the crowds in Jerusalem, faithful pilgrims who had come to celebrate the Feast of Weeks in the temple. But it was not long before the apostles and others had spread out into Judea and Samaria, and those who had become believers also took the gospel to their homelands.
As the apostles aged, and after several had been martyred, it became necessary to record the gospel in a more permanent way, and the first to set pen to paper was Mark, a student and close friend of Peter. His gospel is written in an oral style and was meant to be delivered in one piece.
The well-known actor Max Mclean offers his riveting performance of Mark’s gospel, and I highly recommend it!
Not long after, it is believed John sketched out an early version of his gospel that both supplemented Mark’s gospel (which was really Peter’s account) and somewhat corrected Mark’s timeline, as explained in a previous post, Why Palm Branches?
Then Luke thoroughly investigated everything he had heard, including conducting interviews with key people and securing these two written gospels to help him write his own documentary for his friend Theophilus. Matthew’s was the last gospel to be written, and its contents are arranged chiefly to present the truths Jesus taught.
Oh wait! The final version of John’s gospel was actually the last to be published, addressing and supplementing what Matthew had written.
Suggested Timeline and Placement
A suggested timeline might look like this:
[For more on this, please see Gospel of John: What is it?]
There are, let me reiterate, plenty of other theories on all of this, with excellent scholarly support for each of those theories. Some say Luke is the last gospel, and Luke used Matthew’s material. Some will insist there was a “Q” source of stories and sayings of Jesus. Others will say there were several collections, one of miracles, another of sayings, a third of stories and so on.
The above theory is one of the more conservative approaches, and points out how each gospel writer might have influenced, and been influenced by, the others.
Now consider how the gospels are placed in the Bible.
- Mark is in between Matthew and Luke, because Matthew and Luke pull heavily from Mark.
- Luke is placed next to John, because Luke is influenced by both Mark and John.
Several Notable Differences in John
As I look at my “Harmony of the Four Gospels” by Orville Daniel, I am struck both by where all four narratives of Passion Week overlap, and where John is either silent, or the only gospel speaking.
- Temple Cleansing: There is much overlap, for instance, with the triumphal entry, but once Jesus is through the gate, the gospels diverge widely. The Synoptics describe the cleansing of the temple, an event John placed at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, not at the end.
- Fig Tree Lessons: Mark, and therefore Matthew, speak of the tree Jesus rebuked for having no figs, a metaphor for Jerusalem’s religious system not producing those receptive to Jesus.
- Greeks Seeking Jesus: Instead, John’s gospel includes a seemingly random request by a group of Greeks, or possibly those of Jewish faith who were Hellenized, and come from one of the far outlying Greek regions.
- Parables and Teaching: The Synoptics place a great deal of Jesus’ teaching here, in this last week, perhaps to show Jesus being examined as the Lamb of God, and found without any impurity.
- Eschatology: The Synoptics follow with Jesus’ teaching on his second coming, and the Day of Judgment to come.
- Feast at Simon’s House: The story before the triumphal entry in John’s gospel comes well after in the Synoptics.
- Preparation for the Passover: The Synoptic Gospels all relate Jesus’ preparations, but John is silent.
- Washing Feet: Is found only in John.
- Eucharist: Is found only in the Synoptic Gospels.
- Teaching and Prayer: Everything in chapters 14-17 in John is completely unique
The rest of the differences, from Jesus’ arrest to his trials and finally his crucifixion have more overlap, as does his resurrection, though Mark has the least material on this last event.
Many, including myself, have sought to combine all these things into one grand narrative, and contrary to the purists, I think there is value in that. It helps to round out our picture of what really happened. So I am going to do that from here on in, making at least a passing reference to what is not included in John. But, I am also going to say why I think John did not include it.
[Byzantinischer Maler um 1020 / Public domain]