John’s portrayal of Jesus is so different to that of the Synoptics that some scholars have no confidence in its historicity. Discuss.


  1. 1.      Introduction

Clement of Alexandria who lived in the second half of the 2nd Century A.D. described John’s gospel as ‘spiritual’ in comparison to the Synoptics.[1]

The difference in perspective, among other considerations, has led some scholars to conclude that John’s[2] account is not historically reliable. The aim here is not to discuss every factor that scholars consider in their analysis of reliability, but rather to focus on the debate of historicity in regard to the presentation of Jesus Christ in John’s Gospel.

Section 2 of this essay will review the main factors that cause scholars to reject the historicity of John; section 3 will move on to analyse these positions.

  1. 2.         Synoptics vs. John

There are many differences between the Gospel of John and the Synoptics; The main ones being John’s omission of important events in Jesus’ life, and John’s presentation of Jesus’ teaching:

2.1.       John’s Omissions

It is worth stating that there are many themes and events that are common to John’s Gospel and the Synoptics.[3] However, as the differences have been highlighted more frequently by those questioning John’s historicity, it will benefit the discussion to highlight some of John’s notable omissions. John does not include the virgin birth, the baptism, temptation and transfiguration of Jesus, healing of the demon oppressed or the lepers, the parables, and other sections of the Passion. In addition, the Fourth Gospel often focuses on the ministry of Jesus in Jerusalem rather than in Galilee. There is speculation about whether or not John used the Synoptics as source material for his Gospel. Conversely, there are many who argue that John’s traditions came to him though other sources altogether.[4] As such, scholars rightly question where the author obtained his material. The answer to this question will of course have a bearing on the issue of historicity.

2.2.      Christ the Teacher

It has been mentioned above that John omitted some of the important events included in the Synoptic Gospels. However, another very striking difference is to do with the content and style of Jesus’ teaching. The Fourth Gospel portrays Jesus’ teaching as Rabbinic; philosophical in comparison to his teaching in Matthew, Mark and Luke. The famous ‘I am’ statements are unique to this Gospel, along with contrasting binary statements, for example the use of ‘light’ and ‘darkness’ in John’s prologue. In addition, there are significantly more sayings acknowledging Jesus’ divine status with the Father. Such factors have persuaded some scholars that John is not historical reliability.

  1. 3.         Main Schools of Thought

Donald Guthrie helpfully identifies four categories of opinion on John’s historicity: those who believe John is independent of, interpretive of, a substitute for, or supplementary to the Synoptics.[5] Below we will review some of these positions.

3.1.            Independent

As mentioned above some scholars believe it unlikely that John used Mark, or the other Synoptics as source material for his Gospel. Stephen Barton argues for the Gospel’s independence from the diversity of content:

The accounts of the life of Jesus are irreducibly diverse. Each has an integrity of its own. As redaction criticism and (more recently) narrative criticism have helped us to see, we have to speak of ‘the Jesus of Matthew’, ‘the Jesus of Mark’, and so on.[6]

An independent interpretation of the Fourth Gospel can imply that the author used other written sources apart from the Synoptics. Conversely, this position can lead scholars to a different conclusion: that John did not use other written sources, but rather oral traditions that could be, hypothetically, reliable. James Dunn criticises scholars who believe John used written sources as having a ‘post-printing press literary mind-set’[7]. By arguing for John’s reliance on oral tradition Dunn explains the ‘Synoptic-like material’[8] in the Fourth Gospel.

Dunn also affirms the unique but yet reliable account of Jesus’ life found in John. So it is evident that a belief in independent source material, of whatever type, does not necessarily affect scholars’ opinions about the historicity of John’s Gospel.

3.2.      Interpretive

When we read the Fourth Gospel, we are listening both to tradition and to a new and unique interpretation of that tradition . . . the traditional materials have not been quoted, but rather newly interpreted by the composer for his own time and in response to forces exerted on him in his own milieu.[9]

James Martyn sees the Fourth Gospel as an interpretation of the Synoptics. As the Gospel was written later, it is believed that the change in style and content reflected the issues that had developed in the early church. Therefore it was specifically designed to combat contemporary problems. The use of the title ‘The Jews’ has been used to support this position. Scholars have argued that John 9 was created as an encouragement to Christians who were being cast out of the synagogue as a result of the Benediction against Heretics[10]. To further consolidate this point Martyn also argues that chapter 9 was constructed as a drama in a similar format to dramas of the day.[11] Martyn’s account of chapter 9 includes the comment that verses 8-41 were added ‘by someone’[12] later. Presumably the verses added were not intended to be historical, but rather dramatic. Thus Martyn, among other scholars, doubts John’s historicity because of its divergence from the Synoptics, and because of its seeming relevance to 1st and 2nd century Christian issues.  On the other hand, Dunn accepts that John includes interpretive elements in his Gospel, but upholds the oral Jesus traditions, and therefore defends John’s historicity.

Consequently, like to those convinced of John’s independence from the Synoptics, those who believe John is an interpretation of Synoptic material can be led to either disregard or uphold John’s historicity, dependent on individual scholarly persuasion.

3.2.1.   The Hellenistic School

Another camp within the interpretive schoolof Johanninescholars are those that believe the Fourth gospel is a Hellenised Gospel for Greek readers. This is most obvious in the prologue, where the author uses the word ‘Logos’ to describe Jesus. In using this term some are convinced that the author was influenced by Philo of Alexandria, a Hellenistic Jew and contemporary of Jesus. Others, such as Dunn agree with this but also argue that the Gospel is rooted firmly in Jewish tradition, and was also influenced by Second-Temple Wisdom theology[13].

Even so, some scholars believe the purpose of the Fourth Gospel is a philosophical interpretation of Jesus’ teaching. Some therefore conclude that they cannot accept the historical reliability of Jesus’ statements. This is further consolidated, it is thought, by the emphasis on the Spirit of God, and Jesus’ statements such as ‘I and The Father are one’ (Jn. 10:30), which indicates the beginnings of a Trinitarian understanding of theology. A Trinitarian theology, some argue, was a later development of the church and was not the original message of Christ. These scholars usually give John a late date of c.120 A.D. and posit an evolutionary Christology. However, scholars persuaded of John’s Hellenistic elements do not necessarily all question the Gospel’s historicity, Dunn being an example.

3.2.1.   Gnostic Discourses   

It is Gnostic language when Satan is called “The god of this world” (2 Cor. 4:4), the “ruler of this world” (Jn. 12:31; 14:30; 16:11) . . . the terminology in which dualism is expressed shows extensive Gnostic influence. This is most apparent in John, whose language is governed by antithesis “light-darkness”[14]

Scrutinising the Gospel through the medium of Form Criticism Rudolf Bultmann believed he was able to decipher the redactional elements from the historical. In Bultmann’s estimation John’s Gospel was not a historical text. As can be seen from the quote above he believed that it was an amalgamation of different traditions including Gnostic teaching. However, Dunn presents a different view:

For all the freedom the Fourth Evangelist displays in his presentation of Jesus and despite all the differences from the Synoptics, John’s Gospel is far closer to them than it is to the apocryphal Gospels.[15]

Dunn builds on this point arguing that the Gnostic and apocryphal texts were different in that a ‘Gospel’ as a genre was an account primarily of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Even though John does often use a different style of language and teaching, the purpose of the Gospel is very similar to that of the Synoptics. Unlike the Gnostic Gospels from the 2nd century, John does not aim to give a purely philosophical account of Jesus’ teaching, but rather to affirm as strongly as the Synoptics the historicity of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

3.3.            Supplementary

Lastly, some scholars see John’s Gospel as supplementary to the Synoptics. It is hard to deny that John was aware of at least some of the Synoptic text. If the author were not, it would be difficult to explain why he used the same Gospel outline as the Synoptics, which was, in the 1st century, a new genre of writing.[16] Equally, if the Synoptics were not known to him, and he wished to create a ‘new’ Gospel, would he not have created something very different?

Therefore, a supplementary view of John’s Gospel fits better with the facts we have available to us. However, a supplementary view of this Gospel does not automatically imply that the Gospel is historically accurate. Yet, as John does use the Gospel genre as an outline, and presents us with some of the same events as the Synoptics, it would be reasonable to conclude, as Gurthrie does, that the author was aware of the Synoptic material and aimed to fill in the gaps from other sources he had available to him, whether written or oral.

  1. 4.      Conclusion

As can be seen from the analysis of various opinions above, it seems very difficult to prove or disprove John’s historicity in the modern sense. This is because we do not have the source material that John used to construct his narrative. We also do not know with certainty when the Gospel was written, or by whom. Some scholars have allowed these factors to persuade them that the Gospel’s historicity should be doubted. But, lack of outside evidence should not be thought of as conflicting evidence.

Despite all the charges that have been brought against the Fourth Gospel, its parallel to the Synoptics is still far greater than other texts written about Jesus[17]. This conclusion can be drawn from the fact that it was written as a ‘Gospel’, events are shared with the Synoptics and even though Jesus is not recorded as having told the same parables as those in the Synoptics, it is clear that he used parabolic phrases. In addition, in the early centuries of the church there was no sustained attack on the authenticity of John’s Gospel. If it did present a divergent theology, or present inaccurate history, it seems likely that other sections of the church with a more orthodox Jesus tradition would have challenged its canonicity. The differences between John and the Synoptics were well known to the early church, as can be deduced from the words of Clement of Alexandria. But such knowledge did not cause Christians to question the historicity of John’s account.

Therefore, in conclusion, there have been many scholars who have believed John too different from the Synoptics to be historically reliable. However, by contrast it can be argued that John is too like the Synoptics to be disregarded as such. Overall, the evidence seems to point in the direction of the latter.

[1] Eusebius, Eclesiastical History, vi. 14

[2] For the purposes of this discussion I will refer to the author of the Gospel as ‘John’ in line with church tradition.

[3] Gurthrie, p. 263

[4] Achtemeier, Green, Thompson, (eds.), Introducing the New Testament, p. 199

[5] Ibid., p. 273

[6] Barton, S., ‘Many gospels, one Jesus?’, in The Cambridge Companion to Jesus, ed. Bockmuehl, M., p.177

[7] Dunn, J., Jesus, Paul and the Gospels, p.77

[8] Ibid., p. 77

[9] Martyn, J.,  History and Theology in the Fourth Gospel, p.30

[10] Gundry, R., A Survay of the New Testament, p.262

[11] Ibid., p. 37

[12] Ibid., p. 37

[13] Dunn, p. 88

[14] Bultmann, R., The Theology of the New Testament, p. 173

[15] Dunn, p. 74

[16] Dunn, p. 73

[17] Notably Gnostic texts

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