John and the Synoptic Gospels

The Gospel of John and the Synoptic Gospels

As D. Guthrie remarks, “It is obvious to the most casual reader that John has features that are strikingly different from the Synoptic Gospels” (p. 237.) In this present article we wish to consider the Gospel of John in comparison to the three Synoptic Gospels, considering their similarities and their differences. Then we will seek to come to an understanding as to how they relate to one another.

Similarities Between John and the Synoptics

All four Gospels include the following: (1) narratives and comments about John the Baptist; (2) the call of the disciples; (3) the feeding of the five thousand; (4) the trip across the Sea of Galilee; (5) Peter’s confession; (6) the entry into Jerusalem; (7) Jesus’ last meal will His disciples; (8) the arrest, trial, and crucifixion; and (9) various post-resurrection appearances. In addition to this general agreement among the four Gospels, there are also narratives about the cleansing of the temple and an anointing of Jesus, but both these events are placed in different settings in John’s Gospel (see more on this below.)

These similarities may also be supplemented by a number of isolated words spoken by Jesus and others, recorded both in John as well as in the Synoptics. Yet the whole of this common material contains very little verbal agreement when John is compared with the Synoptics; unlike the verbal agreement that is found among the Synoptics themselves when they quote the words of Jesus and others. Note, for example, Peter’s confession as it is reported by John (6:68-69) in comparison to the Synoptics (Matt. 16:16; Mk. 8:29; Lk. 9:20.)

In common with the Synoptics, John records samples of both healing and nature miracles, although John treats them differently from the Synoptics. Moreover, John records some Galilean material in common with the Synoptics, although he concentrates on the Jerusalem ministry (D. Guthrie, p. 288.)

Differences Between John and the Synoptic Gospels

The first type of difference between John and the Synoptics is what may be called significant omissions. For instances, parables in the proper sense of the word are lacking in John, yet they constitute the staple of Jesus’ teaching in the Synoptics. In John much of the teaching comes out in debates with opponents or in intimate contact with the disciples (E. Harrison, p. 210.) However, it should be noted that the parabolic element in Jesus’ teaching is not altogether absent from John. John 12:35-36a may be seen to be a parable, and there are also the vivid “I AM” declarations. More significant is the narrative material John omits; this would include, among other things, the virgin birth, Jesus’ baptism, the temptations in the wilderness, the transfiguration, and the institution of the Lord’s Supper.

Perhaps the best explanation of this phenomenon is given by D. Guthrie who maintains, “any omissions by John were dictated by his assuming his readers’ acquaintance with the events, and by his specific purpose” (p. 289.) Furthermore, it has been pointed out that the statement found in the Prologue (“the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory”) is John’s testimony to the transfiguration. Whereas the Synoptics emphasize that on a particular occasion the Lord Jesus dramatically displayed His divine glory, John’s emphasis is on the fact that the Lord’s divine glory was manifested in various ways throughout His ministry (note, for instance, 2:11.) Then, too, Jesus’ discourse on His identity as “the Bread of life” (6:35,51) is supplemental to His teaching at the time of the institution of the Lord’s Supper as recorded in the Synoptics. Finally, when he records the words of Jesus, “Now is my soul troubled; and what shall I say? Father, save me from this hour. But for this cause I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name” (12:27-28a), it may well be John’s intention thereby to summarize the agony of Gethsemane, which the Synoptics present in more detailed narrative.

A second type of difference to be found when John is compared to the Synoptics is that of significant additions. Among the significant additions unique to John’s Gospel are the following: (1) the early Judean ministry, including the miracle at Cana; (2) Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus and with the Samaritan woman; (3) the healing of the paralytic at the pool of Bethesda; (4) the healing of the blind man in Jerusalem; (5) the raising of Lazarus; (6) the washing of the disciples’ feet; (7) the farewell discourses in the upper room; and (8) portions of the passion narrative.

Why is there so much new material introduced? Once again, D. Guthrie responds, “If John is designed to supplement the Synoptic Gospels the answer will be ready to hand” (p. 290.) One must also remember John’s clearly defined purpose as stated in 20:30-31. In keeping with that purpose, John has inserted this material not found in the Synoptics. For example, the miracle at Cana reveals Jesus’ true identity and serves to elicit and confirm the faith of the disciples (2:11.) His discourses with Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman serve to expound the doctrines of regeneration and true spiritual worship. The healing of the paralytic affords Jesus the opportunity to bear witness to the fact that He is the Son of God who is Lord of the Sabbath. Or, again, the raising of Lazarus becomes the occasion of Jesus’ assertion that He, as the great “I AM,” is the Resurrection and the Life (11:25-26.)

The third type of difference between John and the Synoptics is what might be called historical/chronological variations. The most notable differences in this category are: the dating of the cleansing of the temple, the duration of Jesus’ ministry, the anointing at Bethany, and the dating of the Last Supper.

Whereas the Synoptics record the cleansing of the temple very late in Jesus’ ministry, (in conjunction with His triumphal entry into Jerusalem), John records a cleansing of the temple that occurred early on in Jesus’ ministry. There seems to be no true difficulty here; in all likelihood there were two occasions on which Jesus cleansed the temple.

The seeming variation in the duration of Jesus’ ministry poses less of a problem that is often imagined. It is generally supposed that the Synoptics require only one year for Jesus’ entire ministry, whereas John requires almost three. But the chronological indications in the Synoptics are too vague to settle the question of the duration of the Lord’s ministry. Furthermore, there are in fact many incidental details that suggest a much longer period than one year. Moreover, there are some obvious gaps in the Synoptic narratives, particularly in relation to the Judean ministry. It is not impossible to regard both the Synoptics and Johannine accounts as complementary in this matter (D. Guthrie, p. 294.)

With regard to the dating of the anointing at Bethany, we may consider the following information that has bearing on our understanding of how to reconcile John and the Synoptics at this point. Luke tells us that the plottings of the chief priests were immediately followed by Judas’ desertion (Lk. 22:1-6.) Mark and Matthew record the plottings of the chief priests as occurring two days before the Passover, then they report the anointing at Bethany, and finally they tell us of Judas’ desertion (Mk. 14:1-11; Matt. 26:1-16.) John, on the other hand, informs us that the anointing at Bethany occurred six days before the Passover (12:1.) There is, however, no true contradiction between these accounts. Mark (and Matthew following him) informs us of the plottings of the chief priests (14:1-2), then gives us a “flashback” to the anointing that occurred previously at Bethany (14:3-9), and then goes on to inform us of Judas’ desertion and bargain with the chief priests (14:10-11.) By presenting the events in this order Mark has  highlighted Mary’s loving act of self-denial by “sandwiching” it between the self-seeking efforts of the chief priests on the one hand and Judas on the other.

The Synoptic Gospels seem to identify the Lord’s Supper with the Jewish Passover, while John states that Jesus and the disciples partook of the Last Supper before the Passover (13:1.) Some scholars have sought the solution to this dating problem in the fact that there was more than one calendar in use during this period of Jewish history. To quote Leon Morris (p. 783): “J. Morgenstern in a series of articles in the Hebrew Union College Annual has argued that there were three different calendars in use in biblical times. This does not help us in our particular difficulty, but it reinforces the evidence for the use of differing calendars during the period under consideration.” Morris concludes by writing (p. 785), “The evidence is … confusing, and it is not in the least surprising that different conclusions have been drawn by different scholars. I do not see how with our present knowledge we can be dogmatic. But on the whole it seems to me most probable that the explanation is to be found in calendrical confusion.”

But perhaps the solution is to be found in a different place, namely, the biblical concept of type and anti-type. (The “type” being the Old Testament “model,” in the form of persons, places, or events, that expounds and foretells a greater future fulfillment. The “anti-type” being the ultimate, New Testament fulfillment of the former Old Testament “types.”) Within this framework, the Synoptics would be seen as reporting the events of the annual Old Testament Passover commemoration, (which annual feast was a type of the one true Passover event.) John, on the other hand, is focusing upon the true anti-type of the Old Testament Passover, that being none other than the crucifixion of our Lord Jesus Christ. Thus John is identifying Jesus’ crucifixion as the true Passover Sacrifice, which, indeed, it was. In support of this particular view, the following items should be noted: 1) John the evangelist reports that John the Baptist identified Jesus as “the lamb of God” (Jn. 1:29), the true “Passover Lamb” of which all the Old Testament Passover lambs throughout the ages were the type; 2) John notes that not one of Jesus’ bones was broken, which he seems to see as being the fulfillment of Exodus 12:46, a passage pertaining to the sacrifice of the Passover lamb (Jn. 19:32-36); and 3) the Apostle Paul identifies our Lord Jesus as the true Passover lamb, writing to the Corinthians, “Christ, our Passover lamb, has been crucified” (1 Cor. 5:7.)

One other type of difference to be noted between John and the Synoptics pertains to the style of Jesus’ teaching. H. Riesenfeld and others have pointed out that any teacher in antiquity had what we might call his public teaching, striking sayings that he caused his disciples to commit to memory, (this comprised the body of oral teaching that was not expected to be altered in transmission, L. Morris, p. 45), and also teaching of a more informal sort. It is suggested that behind the Synoptic Gospels there lies the public teaching of Jesus, whereas the Gospel of John gives us His informal teaching as He taught His disciples in a private setting as well as His equally informal encounters with His enemies (L. Morris, p. 21.)

Understanding the Relationship Between John and the Synoptic Gospels

According to M.C. Tenney (p. 197), it is possible that John’s Gospel was written as an attempt to supplement the accounts of the life and ministry of Jesus that had found written expression in the Synoptic Gospels. The general omission of Jesus’ Galilean ministry, the almost total absence of the parables, the definite reference to selectivity in choosing what miracles to include in his account (20:30), and the dovetailing of some of John’s historical data with that in the Synoptics makes one feel that the author was trying to give to the public fresh information that had not previously been used in writing. For instance, in the account of the Last Supper, John described the foot-washing scene and explained how Jesus wished to provide an object lesson in humility for the disciples. Luke, for his part, tells how the disciples were arguing among themselves as to which of them was the greatest (Lk. 22:24.) The two accounts thus interlock, and one may speculate whether John was not explaining how Jesus met the situation Luke described.

D. Guthrie (p. 298), too, contends that the large amount of material in John, which is absent from the Synoptics, would be well accounted for if John were filling in the gaps. Moreover, John often avoids unnecessary duplications, so that it would seem he assumes his readers will be acquainted with the Synoptic records. Guthrie sums up the situation by commenting, “Whatever view of their relationship is held, it cannot be denied that each is necessary to make the other intelligible” (p. 287.)


Guthrie, Donald; New Testament Introduction; Inter-Varsity Press, Downers Grove IL, Third Edition, December 1970.

Harrison, Everett F.; Introduction to the New Testament; Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids MI, 1964 (Third Printing, October 1968.)

Macleod, A.J.; “The Gospel According to John,” The New Bible Commentary, Edited by Prof. F. Davidson; The Inter-Varsity Fellowship, London, Reprinted October 1967.

Morris, Leon; “The Gospel According to John,” The New International Commentary on The New Testament; Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids MI, 1971.

Tenney, Merrill C.; New Testament Survey; Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids MI, 1961 (Eighth Printing, February 1967.)