What evidence is there that John was aware of the Synoptics when he wrote the Fourth Gospel?
One thing we might note is the familiarity with parts of the Synoptic tradition which the author assumes of his reader. For instance, in John 1:40, the author introduces Andrew as Simon Peter's brother before having introduced Simon Peter. In 2:1f the author speaks of Jesus' mother, never introducing her as Mary. And in John 11:1-2 Lazarus is introduced as being from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. The author elaborates that it was the Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair - a story which isn't recounted in the same Gospel for another chapter.
Andreas Köstenberger in his Theology of John's Gospel and Letters makes what is in my opinion a strong argument that John positions himself (also cf. John 1:18 and 13:23) to give a supplemental view to the Synoptics which plays out in the transposition of many of the major Synoptic themes:
- Absence of birth narrative to highlight preexistence of the Word with God
- Absence of demon exorcisms to highlight Satan as chief antagonist
- Last Supper transposed into Bread of Life discourse
- Absence of eschatological discourse to highlight realized/inaugurated eschatology
- Emphasizes Roman trial as opposed to Jewish trial
He lists about twenty or so of these transpositions, some more convincing, some less. But the overall effect is to build a persuasive case that the author of the gospel intentionally wrote the gospel to supplement what was already in the Synoptic tradition. Essentially the Fourth Gospel's silence on so many of the key events and themes in the Synoptics diminishes the chances that it could be accidentally different.
The fourth evangelist must have known the basic literary structure of Mark's Gospel: Starting with John the Baptist, baptism of Christ, the call of the disciples (Joh 1:35-51) and ending with Passion and Resurrection of Christ.1
Some more compositional analogies:
- Feeding of the crowd: Mk 6:30-44, Mk 8:1-9, Joh 6:5-13
- Jesus on the lake: Mk 6:45-52, Mk 8:10, Joh 6:16-23
- claim for a sign: Mk 8:11-13, Joh 6:30
- Discussion about the bread: Mk 8:14-21, Joh 6:32-59
- Peter's confession: Mk 8:27-30, Joh 6:66-70
There are also some analogies with Luke:
- Story of the rich haul: Lk 5:1-11, Joh 21:1-11
- Mary and Martha of Bethany: Lk 10:38-42, Joh 11:1
- Lazarus: Lk 16:19-31, Joh 11:1-44
- … parts of the Passion narrative
Though there are some who try to give reasons for a chronological priority of John before the synoptics2, a majority assumes that John had known the synoptics.
1: Petr Pokorný, Ulrich Heckel, ''Einleitung in das Neue Testament'' , 547ff.
2: e.g. J.A.T. Robinson, ''The priority of John'' (1985)
It is generally accepted that John was the last gospel to be written, in which case it would have been possible, even likely, that the author1 knew one or more of the earlier gospels, whether or not he was influenced by anything in the other gospels. What, then, is important is whether John borrowed from any of the synoptic gospels or whether, in writing his Gospel, he was inspired by them.
First, we can look at similarities and parallels, then decide whether they could really only have come from knowing the contents of one or more synoptic gospels or whether they could point to a common source. Then, we can look at technical issues, such as structure, that can only be explained by literary dependence. There are undoubtedly major differences because John chose to write his own gospel, but these differences do not always demonstrate knowledge or lack of knowledge of the precedent documents.
Mere parallels are not evidence of literary dependence; after all, the evangelists are trying to inform us of actual events. However, some parallels stand out. The synoptic gospels differ markedly in their descriptions of events when the empty tomb is discovered, with John's account actually closer to Luke's account than Luke is to either of the other synoptic accounts. In both Luke and John, Peter runs to see the empty tomb for himself, although John elaborates by having Peter accompanied by the beloved disciple. Given that there is no synoptic consensus, it is likely that the only way John could have followed Luke so closely is by having knowledge of that earlier gospel.
Sometimes, differences that are simply too obvious can also point to a knowledge of an earlier work. This is especially the case when an examination of the text shows an apologetic or theological reason for changing an earlier version of an event. In the synoptic gospels, the Cleansing of the Temple is the trigger for the arrest of Jesus and occurs towards the end of his life (Mark 11:15-18), but in John's Gospel it occurs at the very beginning of his mission (John 2:13-17). I propose that this event has been moved in order to simplify the narrative, because John uses the resurrection of Lazarus as the trigger for the arrest. John's version requires collective amnesia on the part of the entire Temple establishment, as Jesus returns to the Temple several times over the next three years without further incident. On those occasions, the guards do not recognise and arrest him for that affray, and Jesus thenceforth ignores the continuing presence of the moneychangers and those who sold sheep, oxen and doves.
One of the most peculiarly distinctive Markan compositional devices has been called an intercalation or sandwich. The device has two elements:
- Literary presentation: Event A begins (A1), then Event B begins and finishes (B). Finally, Event A finishes (A2).
- Theological meaning: the purpose of the intercalation is not mere literary show; it presumes that those two events – call them the ‘framing event’ and the ‘insert event’ – are mutually interactive, that they interpret one another to emphasise Mark’s theological intention.
John Dominic Crossan says in The Birth of Christianity, page 565, the intercalation of Peter's denials and Jesus' confession (Mark 14:53-72) is clearly identifiable in John’s Gospel at 18:13-27. This means that John not only knew what Mark contained, but also knew Mark's narrative and, in this case, copied Mark's structure.
Conclusion: I have shown that John must have known the synoptic gospels, and have provided brief evidence that he knew both Luke and Mark.
1The fourth gospel was originally anonymous, until attributed to the apostle John later in the second century. For convenience, I refer to the author as 'John', although critical scholars admit we do not really know his name.
The agenda in the fourth gospel is obviously different from the synoptics which have a chronological narrative. Given the differences in competence in Greek, it seems very unlikely that the John on Patmos could be the sole composer of the fourth gospel. Who ever was the John composing the fourth gospel, it seems evident that the composer(s) had the synoptics to work from. Imaging the possibilities, it seems some educated Christians in Antioch could have used the Apostle John as a source and for creditability to fabricate the fourth gospel and the three epistles. Given the information in the commentaries above and the worst Greek of any text that has come down to us from the ancient world in The Book of Revelation, the excellent Greek in the fourth gospel and Johannine epistles, and that the New Testament texts identified with a John all share words unique to the five Johannine texts, there is some credence to John providing an editorial role in the gospel and epistles. Composing the Gospel of John without having access to the synoptics would be extremely difficult. Maybe any role by the Apostle John could have been as editor. The fourth gospels absence of references to John, in addition to demonstrating humility might have also been because he was the editor rather than the composer. Maybe John was too honest to place himself in a role in the fourth gospel which felt differently than how he remembered the chronological narrative.