If it can be demonstrated that John does indeed know a very large number of story details from the synoptic gospels, often agreeing with one synoptic gospel against another, might it not also be the case that John, too, had a theological agenda, that he also wanted to correct errors that he perceived in one or the other synoptic gospels, and that his corrections made it difficult to see his reliance on a synoptic source?
See Also: The Case for a Proto-Gospel: Recovering the Common Written Source Behind Mark and John (Peter Lang Inc, 2020).
By Gary Greenberg
President of the Biblical Archaeology Society of New York
We call Matthew, Mark, and Luke the synoptic gospels because if you read the three manuscripts in parallel to each other, you find numerous stories in each that describe the same incident, use many of the same words, and appear in the same sequential order. Because of the substantial amount of agreement as to story content, word usage, and sequential order, it is almost universally accepted among scholars that some sort of literary relationship based on a written text must have existed. Defining this relationship is what we call “the synoptic problem.” Either the authors of all three gospels knew a common written source, or two of the three knew a written version or at least one of the other two.
Further analysis shows that in almost every major instance where one of the three gospels departs from the word usage or sequential order followed in the other two, either Mark and Matthew agree against Luke, or Mark and Luke agree against Matthew. This strongly indicates that Mark is the hub gospel used as a written source by the other two. There are, however, a few occasions, usually referred to as the “minor agreements,” where Matthew and Luke agree against Mark, leaving the accepted theory of Markan priority as less than a perfect solution.
Nevertheless, it is almost universally accepted among New Testament scholars that Mark was the first gospel written and that Matthew and Luke used it as a source. Scholars refer to the collection of parallel stories in all three synoptic gospels as “the Triple Tradition.”
The Gospel of John, on the other hand, looks very different from the synoptic gospels. To begin with, there is far less verbal agreement between John and Mark than there is between Luke and Matthew. John has none of the synoptic parables, none of the synoptic exorcisms, none of the synoptic healing missions, and fewer miracles than the synoptic gospels. John’s miracles, for the most part, look very different from those in Mark. At the same time, John introduces his own set of non-parable hard-to-understand teachings, none of which appear in the other gospels, and he introduces several “I Am” sayings that also do not appear in any of the other three gospels.
There are also significant chronological and sequential disagreements between John and the synoptic gospels. John, for example, places Jesus’ last visit to Jerusalem much earlier in time than the synoptic gospels do, and his version of the last visit to Jerusalem looks nothing like the synoptic versions. John also places the chasing of the money-changers at the beginning of the mission rather than at the end of the mission as in the synoptic gospels.
For these and other reasons, New Testament scholars believe with near unanimity that the substantial differences in style, content, and verbal description between the Gospel of John and the other three canonical gospels preclude any literary relationship between John and any of the others based on a written copy of at least one of them. This is not to say that John does not know several stories that also appear in the other three gospels, but that such familiarity, they say, is based primarily on oral traditions circulating in the Christian communities, some of which may perhaps derive directly or indirectly from one or more of the other three gospels.
While Matthew and Luke appear to incorporate a large amount of material from Mark, there is no question that they also occasionally make wholesale changes to what Mark wrote, often changing the content and/or Mark’s sequential location of stories. On occasion, stories are broken up and the pieces redistributed to other locations. Sometimes stories are omitted.
Luke’s versions, for example, of the “Rejection at Nazareth,” “Recruitment of the first disciples,” or the “Anointing at Bethany” look nothing at all like Mark’s versions of the same stories and depart significantly from Mark’s order of events. Compare, also, Matthew’s versions of “the healing of a man with a withered hand,” the “Jesus and Beelzebul accusation,” and “the Empty Tomb” with Mark’s versions of these stories. (All biblical citations in this paper are to the NRSV.) In all likelihood, if these very different versions of Mark’s stories appeared in John (but not in Matthew or Luke), they would probably be considered good examples of why John did not know a written version of Mark.
The often significant departures of Matthew and Luke from Mark are usually attributed to one or the other making theological corrections to Mark, based on their own personal agendas. If it can be demonstrated that John does indeed know a very large number of story details from the synoptic gospels, often agreeing with one synoptic gospel against another, might it not also be the case that John, too, had a theological agenda, that he also wanted to correct errors that he perceived in one or the other synoptic gospels, and that his corrections made it difficult to see his reliance on a synoptic source?
In what follows, I will attempt to address that question by laying out some of John’s major theological principles, how they would affect his understanding of stories in the synoptic gospels, and what sort of editorial steps he would take to address those issues. Often, this might make his stories look very different than the ones he is reacting to in the synoptic gospels. However, if it can be shown that his gospel directly interacts with one or more written synoptic gospels, would that not make his gospel as much a synoptic gospel as those of Matthew and Luke who made similar alterations to Mark?
Since Matthew and Luke react to Mark, in the examples below, I will focus on how John interacts with Mark. As I lay out some of John’s major themes, we will look at Mark’s Gospel through a Johannine filter to see what John might have objected to and what changes he may have made. Obviously, the scope of such a study is enormous, and given space considerations, I can only provide a few examples. Hopefully, I can provide enough to whet the intellectual appetite. Let us look at some examples.
The Main Gospel Message
First and foremost, John’s gospel message differs significantly from Mark’s. In Mark, the way to get to heaven is to obey the commandments and, if you have the resources, to aid the poor. See, for example, Mark’s account of the rich man who wanted to know how to get to heaven. In John, the only way to eternal life is to accept that Jesus is the one sent from God to deliver eternal life. For example, according to John,
- “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life [emphasis added].”
- “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
- “This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.”
If this is John’s gospel message, then he would have reacted strongly to stories in Mark that contradict that message. In Mark’s account of Jesus confronting the Temple authorities, a scribe approaches Jesus and asks him which commandment is most important. Jesus responds that “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” Jesus then adds a second commandment: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.”  The scribe congratulates Jesus on his teaching, and Jesus replies, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”
If John knew Mark’s story, he would have at least two problems. First, the obeying of commandments, in Mark’s Gospel, is one of the paths to eternal life. Second, Jesus affirms that accepting these commandments is a pathway to eternal life. John rejected these gospel themes. Therefore, if he wanted to retell this story, it would have to be done in a way that eliminates the fundamental gospel message in Mark’s story.
It is my suggestion that John addressed this problem in his own gospel in an interesting way. He separated the two commandments and placed them in different contexts, turning the two commandments into instructions for his apostles who had already accepted Jesus as the way to eternal life.
In Mark’s first commandment, to love God, John has changed the context. He placed the instruction into a dialogue with Peter after Jesus’ resurrection. Jesus directly asks Peter three times in a row if Peter loves Jesus. Each time, Peter says he loves Jesus, and Jesus tells Peter to take care of his followers. Jesus tells Peter what kind of horrible death he will face and asks Peter to follow him.
John has taken Mark’s basic commandment, to love God in order to get into heaven, and transformed it into a question to Peter as to whether he loves Jesus (i.e., God), even in the face of danger. The message is to an apostle who has already accepted Jesus as the one sent by God to bring eternal life.
As to the second commandment, “love your neighbor,” John changed it to an instruction to all of the apostles, saying, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another [emphasis added].”
Note what John has done here. He has taken the general Markan principle that you have to love your neighbor to get into heaven and transformed it into a way to show others that you have already accepted Jesus as the path to eternal life. John has essentially reversed the order of events. In Mark, you must first love your neighbor to get into heaven. In John, if you are on the path to heaven by accepting Jesus, you should love others to show that you have accepted him.
In both cases, John has transformed Mark’s story from one in which someone gets eternal life by obeying commandments to one in which people who have already qualified for eternal life accept these commandments as a way to show others that they follow Jesus.
All Judgment Has Been Given to Jesus
A fundamental principle in John’s Gospel is that the Father has handed over all judgment to Jesus. According to John,
- “The Father judges no one but has given all judgment to the Son, so that all may honor the Son just as they honor the Father. Anyone who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him [emphasis added].”
- “Yet even if I do judge, my judgment is valid; for it is not I alone who judge, but I and the Father who sent me.”
- “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.”
Implicit in this theology is that John is outside and above the law, and there are no limits on this authority. Further, Jesus need not defend his actions on the basis of the law since he is above the law. Nor does he have to prove his authority through deeds. As the following passages indicate, his words are sufficient to prove his authority.
- “The one who comes from heaven is above all. He testifies to what he has seen and heard, yet no one accepts his testimony. Whoever has accepted his testimony has certified this, that God is true.”
- “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgment, but has passed from death to life.”
- “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.” (Note: this is intended as a criticism of his audience.)
If John encounters a story where Jesus has limited authority or shows that his actions are legitimate under the law or requires signs to prove his authority, that could cause problems for John. Let us look at an example of how this plays out in Mark.
Mark has a story about Jesus healing a paralytic by forgiving his sins. The scribes consider Jesus’ action blasphemous, saying only God can forgive sins. In response, Jesus says, “Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and take your mat and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the paralytic—“I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home [emphasis added].”
If John knew this story in Mark, he would have several problems. It portrays Jesus using signs to prove his authority instead of words. It leaves open the possibility that Jesus has limits on his power: while he can forgive sins, he might not have authority over other matters. Additionally, the blasphemy charge accuses Jesus of violating scripture, and that scripture functions as a limit on Jesus’ authority. Mark’s story raises several red flags from John’s theological perspective. If John wanted to present a version of this story, it would necessitate major changes.
Interestingly, John has a story about Jesus healing a paralytic by forgiving his sins and telling the paralytic, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” This would seem, at first blush, to be the same story that Mark has, but John has a number of significant differences that cause many scholars to question whether the two stories are even based on the same source story.
The first major variation is that John is missing almost all the main narrative details in Mark’s story. In Mark, the paralytic is carried by friends on a mat to Jesus, but in order to get past the crowds, they climb up to the roof of Jesus’ house, make a hole in the roof, and lower the man down to Jesus, who then proceeds to cure him. None of those actions appear in John’s story.
Further, Mark places the story in Jesus’ Galilee home; John places it in Jerusalem, where he finds the paralytic by a pool known for its curative powers. Since the paralytic cannot get to the pool because the crowd blocks his way, he needs to be lowered into the pool to be healed. In John, the paralytic is still blocked by a crowd and still has to be lowered down (into the pool) to be cured, but in this version, the goal is to get to the pool rather than to Jesus.
Another major variation is that John places the incident on a Sabbath, and Mark does not. Many commentators, perhaps most, believe that John’s story is not related to Mark’s, often citing the missing details, but also believe that the Sabbath passage is a Johannine addition to the underlying story. Few commentators seem to have any meaningful theory about why John placed the incident on the Sabbath.
One matter that seems to be entirely overlooked by many commentators is that by placing the incident on a Sabbath, all the missing details from Mark’s story would constitute Sabbath violations, and that would explain why John does not include them. The critical question, then, is why did John place the event on a Sabbath in the first place? This requires a closer look at John’s full story as well as some of Mark’s Sabbath stories.
Mark has two Sabbath stories that follow almost immediately after his story of the paralytic. Only two minor incidents separate Mark’s Sabbath stories from the healing of the paralytic. (One incident involves the recruitment of Levi; the other discusses the issue of fasting.)
In Mark’s first Sabbath story, Jesus authorizes the apostles to violate the Sabbath by plucking grain in a field. Accusations are made against the apostles, and Jesus makes what seem to be legalistic arguments showing that the actions are authorized by scripture. Jesus also announces that “the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath [emphasis added].” If John knew this story, he would have had at least two major concerns. One, he does not approve of legalistic defenses. Two, the phrase “even of the Sabbath” suggests possibilities that there are areas that Jesus does not have authority over. John would want to address these issues.
In Mark’s second Sabbath story, following immediately after the grain incident, Jesus heals a man with a withered hand and, when accused of violating the Sabbath, makes a legalistic argument that his actions would be justified under scripture. Questions about whether Jesus can heal on the Sabbath would undoubtedly be something John would want to address, but from his theological perspective, Jesus is above the law and not limited by scripture.
If we ignore the two intervening incidents between Mark’s account of the paralytic and the two Sabbath incidents, Mark has presented us with a triptych of three stories describing the authority of Jesus, and he does so in a way that challenges John’s concept of the same issue. If John wanted to describe the authority of Jesus in the Markan scenarios, a number of changes would be needed.
It is my suggestion that John did address Mark’s three stories by rolling all three authority incidents into a single story about the paralytic. That is why John placed the healing of the paralytic on the Sabbath (and had to remove Mark’s details about carrying, lifting, climbing, and lowering the paralytic). In John, the paralytic also replaces the apostles as the one whom Jesus authorizes to violate the Sabbath, and John’s healing of the paralytic on the Sabbath replaces Mark’s healing of the man with a withered hand on the Sabbath.
In John, when Jesus heals the paralytic and tells him to pick up his mat and walk, the same instruction that Mark’s Jesus gives to the paralytic, Jesus has both authorized the man to violate the Sabbath, and Jesus has healed on the Sabbath. This brings together all three authority issues raised by Mark in his triptych. At the same time, it removes the apostles as potential violators of scripture. (One of John’s other principles is to remove any negative depictions of the apostles, on occasion substituting non-apostles as the persons engaged in the negative behavior.)
Because John has combined all three authority issues into a single incident, healing the paralytic, John cannot provide a precise sequential parallel to Mark. Nevertheless, for all practical purposes, John has followed Mark’s sequential order. He begins with the healing of the paralytic. He follows with the authorization to violate the Sabbath. He concludes with accusations that Jesus violated the law by healing on the Sabbath. This follows Mark’s sequence of events.
After Jesus healed the paralytic, John says that Jesus told the man not to sin anymore, not quite the same words used by Mark’s Jesus, but espousing the same theme. In John, the conversation is private. In Mark, it is public and serves as the basis of the blasphemy accusation. In John, the blasphemy accusation is slightly delayed until after Jesus is accused of violating the Sabbath by healing. This enables John to establish Jesus’ authority over all the issues raised in Mark with just a single answer: “My Father is still working, and I also am working.”
This response establishes several Johannine themes. Scripture does not limit Jesus’ authority because it comes directly from God. Healing is not offered as proof of authority. Jesus is the Lord of the Sabbath, as Mark says, but without any restrictions on his authority.
It is this defense by Jesus as to the Sabbath healing that leads to the accusation of blasphemy. “For this reason the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because he was not only breaking the Sabbath but was also calling God his own Father, thereby making himself equal to God.” All of the hostility to Jesus expressed in the three separate stories by Mark are combined into this one attack on Jesus.
The balance of John’s story is a Johannine statement about Jesus’ relationship to God and his authority to render all judgment. No scriptural defenses appear at any time in this recitation. The arguments reinforce the theme that Jesus does not have to perform signs to prove his authority because his words on behalf of the Father prove his authority: words prove his authority. “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgment, but has passed from death to life [emphasis added.]”
Editorially, John has chosen to combine related themes from separate stories and bring them together into a single incident that addresses whatever theological issues he has with the individual events. It is something he does several times in his other episodes, which is one of the reasons scholars have trouble recognizing that John worked from synoptic stories that he transforms into Johannine rebuttals.
Word versus Deeds
As I noted above, with some quotes, John elevates Jesus’ words over signs as proof of authority. Let me, therefore, dwell for a bit on one final example in which John uses a synoptic story as a platform for promoting Johannine theology.
In Mark’s Gospel, the first action by Jesus to bring him fame in Galilee takes place in a synagogue in Capernaum, where Jesus healed a man plagued by an unclean spirit. This was Jesus’ first visit to Capernaum, and the act was an exorcism. Just before Jesus expelled the demon, it asked, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?”
In effect, the demon is asking Jesus on what basis he is acting against the corrupting spirit. Jesus expelled the demon, and the congregation was amazed. “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him” [emphasis added]. As a result of this action, “At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.”
John’s Gospel has no exorcisms, and he objects to the use of deeds as proof of authority. A major problem for John would be that Mark describes this event as the first incident to bring Jesus fame, which might, therefore, become one of Jesus’ most memorable events. Hopefully, you can now see where this is going. John would need to counter the idea that Jesus’ fame and authority result from exorcisms. John addresses the issue in a very surprising way.
Like Mark, John depicts a first visit by Jesus to Capernaum. However, John does not say what happened in Capernaum. Instead, he suddenly whisks Jesus away to Jerusalem, where Jesus enters the Temple and engages in some activities in the Temple that serve to bring Jesus widespread fame in Galilee for the first time. However, the incident was not an exorcism or any other sign. It was the chasing of the money-changers from the Temple. After chasing the money-changers, the authorities wanted to know on what basis Jesus acted as he did.
John places the incident two years earlier than Mark. As a result of this incident, “When he came to Galilee, the Galileans welcomed him, since they had seen all that he had done in Jerusalem at the festival; for they too had gone to the festival.” This incident is the first incident in John to bring Jesus widespread fame in Galilee.
Reading Mark and John in parallel, we find:
- Jesus goes to Capernaum for the first time.
- Immediately after arriving in Capernaum, Jesus enters a house of worship. In Mark, Jesus enters a synagogue. In John, the action immediately switches away to the Temple in Jerusalem.
- Jesus chases corrupting influences from a house of worship. In Mark, it is a corrupting (“unclean”) spirit. In John, it is corrupting priests from the Temple.
- In each gospel, the entities chased want to know on what basis Jesus acted as he did.
- In each gospel, the action leads to Jesus gaining widespread fame in Galilee for the first time.
Despite the very different story in John, his gospel leaves tell-tale traces that he has used the Temple story as a replacement for Mark’s exorcism story. First, he tells us Jesus went to Capernaum but does not tell us why or what he did there. This looks like a typical literary seam indicating that something following in a source has been removed.
John also says that right after the chasing of the money-changers “many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing.” But Jesus did not do any signs in Jerusalem. The only sign he performed up to this point was changing water into wine at a wedding in Cana, in Galilee, which few, if any, guests knew had occurred. John very conspicuously says the second sign did not happen until Jesus returned to Galilee. The reference to “signs” was an editorial demon that John failed to exorcise from his substitution for Mark’s first wonder.
The significant point about John’s substitution of the chasing of the money-changers for Mark’s exorcism is that it demonstrated once again that John knew a story in Mark’s Gospel and took steps to change it so that it conformed to John’s theological agenda. In this last incident, John substituted an entirely different incident (with some literary parallels) for a problematic story, but the substituted story performed the same literary function as Mark’s story. Both explained how Jesus first acquired great fame in Galilee.
In the present study, I raised the question of whether John, despite its manifest differences from Matthew, Mark, and Luke in word agreement, story details, and content could be considered a synoptic gospel. Noting that Matthew and Luke, based on their own theological agendas, often changed many features in Mark’s stories, sometimes moved them out of sequential agreement or omitted them from their gospel, and sometimes made them look nothing like Mark’s original story. I suggested that we should allow that if John knew Mark’s Gospel, he might have imposed his own theological agenda on Mark’s stories, more so than Matthew and Luke, and made his own corrections to Mark.
As an approach to exploring this issue, I identified several theological themes in John that contradicted Mark’s theological approach and suggested that we read Mark’s Gospel through a Johannine theological filter, uncovering Markan claims about Jesus that might have troubled John. I then attempted to apply that filter to a few of Mark’s stories, identifying what elements John would have objected to if he had known Mark’s story, and what sort of changes he would want to make to correct Mark’s errors.
I began with the nature of John’s Gospel message: the way to eternal life is to accept Jesus as the one sent by the Father to offer eternal life. I placed this in contrast to Mark’s Gospel that proposed that the way to eternal life is to follow the scripture and to aid the poor. I applied this conflict to Mark’s story about a Temple scribe’s discussion with Jesus about the most important commandment. Jesus cited two commandments: love God and love your neighbor. When the scribe endorsed these principles, Jesus said he was close to the kingdom of God.
Since Mark depicted Jesus as saying that one was close to heaven without accepting that Jesus was the one sent by the Father to offer eternal life, I suggested that John altered the story by changing the nature of the commandments. He made them instructions to the apostles who had already accepted Jesus as the one sent by the Father, reversing Mark’s order of cause and effect.
Next, I explored the question of Jesus’ authority. I looked at three stories in Mark in close proximity to each other that dealt with the nature of Jesus’ authority in ways that John would have found objectionable. One dealt with Jesus’ proof of authority to forgive sins by healing a paralytic. Another dealt with Jesus authorizing someone to violate the Sabbath by showing scriptural authority to do so. The third showed scriptural authority to heal on the Sabbath.
I suggested that John combined all three stories into a single encounter with the paralytic on a Sabbath. Placing the event on the Sabbath explained why John removed Mark’s paralytic story details from the Johannine version. Those details would have been Sabbath violations by persons not authorized by Jesus to do so.
By placing all the events on the Sabbath, John was able to bring together the three almost-contiguous stories in Mark into a single story that addressed all of the troubling themes concerning Jesus’ authority. The story brought all the arguments together into a single attack on Jesus’ behavior that allowed Jesus the opportunity to reject the accusations with a single response that showed Jesus was above the scriptural law because his authority to judge all matters was granted by God. In this manner, John addressed all the themes that he would have found troubling in Mark.
Lastly, I explored an example in which literary themes and seams showed that John knew a particular story in Mark’s Gospel that depicted an exorcism as the first incident in Mark to bring Jesus widespread fame in Galilee. Since John believed that Jesus’ authority should come from his words rather than from signs, I showed that John took a different story in Mark, the chasing of the money-changers, and used it as a non-sign substitute for Mark’s story that showed how John’s Jesus first found widespread fame in Galilee.
Because of space limitations, I am unable to present many more such examples, many of them following Mark’s sequential order, nor could I present the full argument for each of the cases examined above. Nevertheless, I hope that enough evidence has been presented to suggest that if we use John’s theology as a filter for reading Mark, a more intensive investigation into John’s synoptic relationships will be fruitful.
Gary Greenberg is the author of the forthcoming book The Case for a Proto-Gospel: Recovering the common written source behind Mark and John (Peter Lang, due February 2020) and Proving Jesus’ Authority in Mark and John: Overlooked evidence of a synoptic relationship (Cambridge Scholars Publishing 2018.) He maintains a biblio-blog at biblemythhistory.com.
 Luke 4:16–30.
 Luke 5:1–11.
 Luke 7:36–50.
 Mark 1:16–20, 6:1–6, 14:3–9.
 Matthew 12:9–14.
 Matthew 12:22–32.
 Matthew 28:1–10.
 Mark 3:1–6, 3:20–30.
 Mark 10:17–27.
 John 5:39–40.
 John 3:16.
 John 6:40.
 Mark 12:28.
 Mask 12:30.
 Mark 12:29–31.
 Mark 12:34.
 John 21:15–19.
 John 5:22.
 John 8:15.
 John 9:39.
 John 3:31–33.
 John 5:24.
 John 4:48.
 Mark 2:1–12.
 John 5:1-9.
 Mark 2:13–17.
 Mark 2:18–22.
 Mark 2:23-28.
 Mark 3:1–6.
 John 5.
 John 5:14.
 John 5:17.
 John 5:18.
 John 5:24.
 Mark 1:21–28.
 Mark 1:24.
 Mark 1:27.
 Mark 1:28.
 John 2:12.
 John 2:13–25.
 John 4:45.
 John 2:23.
 John 2:11.
 John 4:54.