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Christian Scriptures

Conflicts between the Gospel of John and
the remaining three (Synoptic) gospels

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Almost all of the biblical information about the earthly ministry of Jesus is contained in the four gospels Mark, Matthew, Luke and John. The word "Gospel" is a translation into English of the Greek word "euangelion" which means "good news." Many dozens of gospels were written in the first and second century CE; each was believed to be accurate by various groups within the early Christian movement and was extensively used by them. Four of them (Mark, Matthew, Luke and John) were eventually accepted by the early orthodox Christian movement as inspired by God. They were approved for inclusion in the official canon during the 4th century CE, and are found today in every Bible.

All of the original copies of the four gospels in the Christian Scriptures have been lost. We must rely upon hand-written copies which are an unknown number of hand-copied replications removed from the originals. The oldest known surviving part of a gospel dates from about 125 CE. It consists of about 50 lines from the Egerton gospel -- one of the 40 or so gospels that never made it into the official canon, and whose author is unknown. Another portion of an ancient manuscript, containing part of the Gospel of John, is also dated to about 125 CE. The remaining manuscripts date to the second half of the second century CE or later.

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Differences between John and the Synoptic Gospels:

Matthew, Mark, and Luke are often called the "synoptic" gospels. "Synoptic" is a Greek word meaning "having a common view." 1 John differs significantly from the synoptic gospels in theme, content, time duration, order of events, and style. "Only ca. 8% of it is parallel to these other gospels, and even then, no such word-for-word parallelism occurs as we find among the synoptic gospels." 2 The Gospel of John reflects a Christian tradition that is different from that of the other gospels. It was rejected as heretical by many individuals and groups within the early Christian movement. It was used extensively by the Gnostic Christians. But it was ultimately accepted into the official canon, over many objections. It is now the favorite gospel of many conservative Christians, and the gospel least referred to by many liberal Christians.

Some differences:

Item Matthew, Mark, Luke John
First event mentioned Jesus' birth (baptism in Mark) Creation of the world
Authors: according to conservative Christians Apostle Matthew; Mark and Luke, co-workers of Paul Apostle John
Authors: according to liberal Christians Unknown authors 2 or more unknown authors
Virgin birth Mentioned in Matt, Luke Some interpret John 1:45 as denying the virgin birth
Jesus as Son of God... From the time of his birth or baptism From the time that the universe was created
Description of Jesus Jesus' humanity emphasized Jesus' deity emphasized
Jesus baptism Described Not mentioned
Preaching style Brief one-liners; parables Essay format
Jesus teaches as: A sage A philosopher and mystic
Exorcism A main function of his ministry None performed
True parables Many None
Theme of his teaching: Kingdom of God Jesus himself. Kingdom of God is a background theme.
Jesus' theology Deviated little from 1st century CE liberal Judaism. Similar to beliefs taught by Hillel. Largely independent of Judaism and in opposition to much of its teaching.
Response expected from the reader 20 Respond to God's will as expressed in the Mosaic law Respond to Jesus as the definitive expression of God's will or revelation
Exorcism of demons Many None
Involvement with the poor and suffering Focus of his ministry Rarely mentioned
Involvement with Scribes (Jewish teachers) 26 references to scribes, who are puzzled and angered by Jesus' teachings No references at all.
Miracles performed by Jesus Many "nature miracles," healings, and exorcisms Few; all "nature miracles"
Jesus references to himself Rare Focus of the gospel, including the many "I am" sayings
Basis of personal salvation Good works, helping the poor, sick, imprisoned, and needy Belief in Jesus as the Son of God
Duration of ministry 1 year 3 years
Location of ministry Mainly Galilee Mainly Judea, near Jerusalem
Aggravated assault committed in the Temple courtyard: Near the end of his ministry Near the start of his ministry
Date of the Last Supper Passover eve Night before Passover eve
Ceremonial event at the Last Supper: Communal meal  Foot washing
Who carried the cross? Simon Jesus
Visitors to the tomb on Sunday with Mary Magdalene? One or more additional women None; Mary Magdalene went alone
Who was present in the tomb? One angel or two men Two angels
Burial shroud A single piece of cloth Multiple pieces of cloth, as was the Jewish practice at the time. (John 20:5-7)
Jesus' first appearance to disciples after his resurrection At Emmaus or Galilee Jerusalem

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How the differences are resolved/explained:

bullet Liberal theologians generally accept the books of the Bible as historical documents, written by authors who were each motivated by a desire to promote their group's evolving spiritual and theological beliefs. Many have concluded that these two gospel traditions are so different that they must largely reject one as a useful source of information about the actual life and teachings of Jesus. They typically regard John as containing few or none of Jesus' actual sayings; they concentrate on the synoptic gospels for meaningful information. Many supplement the canonical Gospels with other writings which were widely circulated within early Christian movement: the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Q, etc.

For example, R.W. Funk and others in the Jesus Seminar comment:
bullet "The two pictures painted by John and the synoptic gospels cannot both be historically accurate."

bullet "In sum, there is virtually nothing of the synoptic sage in the Fourth Gospel. That sage has been displaced by Jesus the revealer who has been sent from God to reveal who the Father is."

bullet "The words attributed to Jesus in the Fourth Gospel are the creation of the evangelist for the most part, and reflect the developed language of John's Christian community." 12

bullet "The Fellows of the [Jesus] Seminar were unable to find a single saying they could with certainty trace back to Jesus in the Gospel of John."

bullet They did find one sentence in John that they felt was similar to something that actually Jesus said. It is John 4:44 where Jesus commented that a prophet is given no respect in his home territory. This paralleled in Mark 6:4, Matthew 13:57 and Luke 4:24.

bullet They did find two short passages that they felt was not said by Jesus but which contained ideas close to his own:
bullet John 12:24 where Jesus discusses the kernel of wheat that dies to produce a great harvest.

bullet John 13:20 where Jesus swears to God that if the public welcome his apostles, they are welcoming him as well. This is paralleled in Matthew 10:40 and Luke 10:16.
bullet They believe that all of the other hundreds of sentences that the author(s) of the Gospel of John attributed to Jesus -- including the "I Am" statements -- were not said by Jesus. They represent "...the perspective or content of a later or different tradition."

bullet Conservative theologians generally accept the Bible as inerrant in its original, autograph, form. They believe that its authors were directly inspired by God to write error-free text. They view both John and the synoptic gospels as being completely accurate, infallible, true, with every passages useful for their spiritual development. For example, they believe that the quotations of Jesus sayings and the descriptions of his acts in the four gospels are accurate. However, they believe that John emphasized one aspect of Jesus' ministry -- that spent near Jerusalem. Meanwhile, the synoptic gospels concentrated on his ministry in Galilee. With some effort, all apparent discrepancies can be resolved. For example, considering five of the apparent discrepancies listed in the above table:
bullet Jesus' aggravated assault on people in the temple may have happened at any point in his ministry. The stories within each gospel are all accurate and true, but not necessarily in chronological order.

bullet Jesus ministry was partly in Galilee and partly in Judea. John reported mainly on the former; the synoptic gospels on the latter.

bullet Both the last supper and foot washing happened at Jesus' last meeting with his disciples; John reported on only one event; the other gospels reported on only the other.

bullet Jesus may have carried the cross partway to the execution location, and Simon could have carried it the rest of the way.

bullet There were many visits by women to Jesus' tomb on Easter Sunday morning: one by Mary Magdalene alone, and later visits by Mary accompanied by additional women. Each of the gospel writers described only one of the many visits.

Religious conservatives frequently concentrate on the Gospel of John, because:
bullet It emphasizes Jesus' deity, 

bullet It is the basis of many of the historical, fundamental Christian beliefs, and

bullet It bases an individual's salvation on faith rather than works.

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The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay.

  1. B.H. Throckmorton, Jr., "Gospel Parallels: A Synopsis of the First Three Gospels," Thomas Nelson, Nashville, TN, (1979).
  2. F.V. Filson, "The Literary Relations among the Gospels," essay in C.M. Laymon: "The Interpreter's One-Volume Commentary on the Bible," Abingdon Press, Nashville, TN, (1991)
  3. Robert J. Miller, Ed., "The Complete Gospels", Polebridge Press, Sonoma CA, (1992), P. 249-300.
  4. Rev. C.I. Schofield, "The Schofield Reference Bible," Oxford University Press, New York, NY
  5. H.H. Halley, "Halley's Bible Handbook," Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI, (1965)
  6. H.L. Wilmington, "Wilmington's Bible Handbook," Tyndale, Wheaton, IL, (1997)
  7. J.D. Douglas, Gen. Ed., "New Commentary on the Whole Bible," Tyndale, Wheaton, IL, (1990)
  8. C.M. Laymon: "The Interpreter's One-Volume Commentary on the Bible," Abingdon Press, Nashville, TN, (1991).
  9. P.N. Benware, "Survey of the New Testament," Moody Press, Chicago, IL, (1990)
  10. R. Shorto, "Gospel Truth," Riverhead Books, New York, NY, (1997)
  11. D.M. Smith, "John." Essay in J.L. Mays, Ed., "Harper's Bible Commentary," Harper & Row, (1988), Page 1044.
  12. R.W. Funk et al., "The Five Gospels: The search for the authentic words of Jesus,"MacMillan (1993), Page 10.

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Copyright 1996 to 2013 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2013-JUL-08
Author: B.A. Robinson

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