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Gospel of John vs the Synoptic Gospels

Excerpts from ‘The Problem of the Fourth Gospel’

Henry Latimer Jackson, Cambridge [Eng.]: University press, 1918

Archive Book Link: https://archive.org/details/problemoffourthg00jack/page/n5/mode/2up

Now, where objection is raised, the marked peculiarity of the Fourth Gospel is highly accentuated. It is regarded, not as the record of historical events, but as a manual of instruction of which the theme is Jesus, the divine Logos manifested in the flesh. The view further is that the Synoptic Jesus, human in his every lineament and child of his own age and people, is altogether unrecognizable in the Johannine Christ… it is further urged that our Gospel and the Synoptics part company in the case of other personages, and that they are utterly at variance on matters, amongst others, of locality and date. (P. 50)

With the Synoptics the scene is mainly laid in Galilee ; with the Fourth Gospel it is largely transferred to Judaea and Jerusalem ; in the former case the events are crowded into one short year, in the other the Ministry is extended over three Passovers. In the one case the Jewish people are described with picturesque variety of type and class and section; not so in the other case, with ‘John’ they dwindle down to Pharisees and Priests and rulers of the people; as for the Pharisees they have become the very core of unbelieving Judaism in its hostility to Jesus. The Jews are pictured as in hopeless case; away with them to the devil, the Greeks for Jesus and for God! And again, the difference between the Johannine and the Synoptic representations of the Passion, the Death, and the Resurrection is regarded as fundamental. (PP. 50-51)

For reasons such as these there is wide-spread agreement that whatever be its interest and value as a early Christian document, the Fourth Gospel must be ruled out as a source for the Life of Jesus… the Fourth Gospel does, in many respects, present a striking contrast to its three companions. Common features and resembles there may be; the fact remains that discrepancies are both numerous and of such a nature as to stare the instructed reader in the face. (P. 51)

Of our Four Canonical Gospels ‘John’ is certainly the latest — and perhaps the latest by a long way ; as for the remaining three, they are nearer to the events they purport to relate, and it is safe to say of the Synoptic tradition that it stretches back to Apostolic times and to the very days of Jesus. (P. 52)

Christian’ thought is no longer fettered by outworn mechanical theories of inspiration and interpretation in the case of the Bible literature. To narrow down to the Gospels; in the old and disastrous view the Evangelists were passive agents, men who could not choose but write down words from divine dictation, ‘living pens grasped and guided by an Almighty hand.’ A more enlightened view obtains… Neither to the men themselves nor to their respective writings does infallibility attach. (PP. 52-53)

Neither he nor the Synoptics are infallible. If he corrects them and makes his alterations in them, it is exactly what two of them have already done with a third ; Matthew and Luke have treated Mark with a very free hand. Let us add that mere priority is not in itself an absolute guarantee of accuracy, nor is inaccuracy necessarily connoted by lateness of date. (P. 53)


The independent attitude of the Fourth Evangelist is manifested in his extension of the duration of the Ministry and in his bold transpositions of events and dates. (P. 53)

It certainly appears from the Synoptic representation that the public Ministry of Jesus began and ended within a single year; otherwise the Fourth Evangelist, who expands it to a period which includes at the least three Passovers….To turn to the Cleansing of the Temple. According to the Fourth Gospel it occurred at the beginning of the Ministry, while it is placed by the Synoptics at the close of the Ministry ‘, and is evidently regarded by them as the decisive act which precipitated the Death of Jesus. Harmonists have struggled to escape the difficulty… The balance of probability is surely against the Johannine dating; for the position of the story in the Synoptics is natural, while in the case of our Gospel it has rather the effect of an anti- climax. (PP. 54-55)

Another instance of ‘violent alteration,’ as it would appear, is that of the respective datings of the Death-Day of Jesus. Take first the Synoptic representation. Jesus, it would appear, celebrates the Passover with the Twelve. They depart from the Upper Room; the scene changes from the Mount of Olives to ‘a place which was named Gethsemane’; quickly there follows the Arrest. As for the Crucifixion, it takes place the day after the Celebration of the Passover. Not so, says the Fourth Evangelist; he tells of a Supper partaken of by Jesus and his friends while nowhere stating that the number of the latter was limited to The Twelve. Far from identifying that Supper with the Paschal Meal, he is at pains to make it understood that the Passover lay still ahead; and that, when the night of its celebration had arrived, the body of Jesus was already in the tomb… in regard to the day of the month ; the Synoptics assign it to the 15th of Nisan, ‘John’ to the 14th. They are, accordingly, in flat contradiction in regard to date. (P. 55)

The Scene of the Ministry

This, by the Synoptics, is laid in the Galilaean homeland of Jesus ; and, recording certain journeys outside Galilaean territory , they have nothing to say of visits paid to Jerusalem save only the one which issued in his death. In sharp contrast is the representation of the Fourth Evangelist; for with him the scene on which Jesus moves during the period of his Messianic activity is Judaea ‘, and in particular Jerusalem; but rarely does he appear in Galilee, and when there his stays are of brief duration. No wonder that the discrepancy is insisted on. (P. 58)

John the Baptist

The contention here is that the Baptist who figures in the Fourth Gospel wears but slight if any resemblance to the Baptist of the Synoptic representation ; that the two portraits are singularly unlike… it is possible that the real Baptist at no time definitely attached himself to the cause of Jesus, but went his own way and rushed to a self-invited fate. (P. 60)


The contention is raised that the Fourth Gospel is in contrast with the Synoptics in that, along with changed motives and with significant omissions, the element of the miraculous is strongly enhanced. (P. 61)

We will observe in the first instance that one particular class of miracles is excluded by the Fourth Evangelist. In the case of the Synoptics there is frequent mention of demoniac-cures performed by Jesus ; and, by the way, it is widely conceded that he did actually heal many a sufferer who, in the conception of the age, was possessed by an evil spirit. No such narratives occur in the Fourth Gospel; ‘John knows nothing whatsoever of the most frequent wonder- works of Jesus, the healing of demoniacs’; or rather, he declines to admit such Synoptic stories into his own Gospel. (PP. 62-63)

It must be said, then, that there is enhancement^. With the works of healing the effect is heightened; in one case the cure is performed from a considerable distance, in another blindness is from birth, in a third it is emphatically said of the sick man that he had been no less than ‘thirty and eight years in his infirmity’ … the very climax is reached with the Raising of Lazarus.. the narrative which, pointing to Bethany, suggests unmistakably that the corpse already four days in the tomb had seen corruption ‘. (P. 64)

It is true to say that whereas the miracles of healing in the Synoptics are miracles of mercy and compassion, wrought because Jesus had sympathy with the sufferers, the miracles recorded by the Fourth Evangelist tend to the glory of him who wrought them. They are proofs, not of his humanity, but of his divinity.’ (P. 66)


Here, again, the Synoptic and Johannine representations are held to be mutually exclusive: — ‘Jesus must have spoken just as the Synoptics make him speak’; the Christ of the Fourth Gospel adopts ‘the theological and philosophical language of the schools.’ So, briefly stated, run multitudinous objections; and, as has been noted in another connection, there is a strong family likeness between the criticisms of time past and time present. Let two specimens be placed side by side:- — ‘Here (in the Synoptics) the popular form of oriental proverb-wisdom and inventive parable, there (in the Fourth Gospel) the profound allegory with appeal to profound reflection; instead of pithy and concise sayings alike luminous and easy to retain, a series of witnessings and disputings in exalted tone and with utter disregard for the capacity of the hearers. (P. 68)

According to the Synoptics the demands of Jesus are for self-renunciation, for compassionate love, for a taking of one’s self in hand, for work for others ; his warnings are directed against the danger of riches, worldly desires and anxieties; above all he preaches about the Kingdom of God and the conditions of entrance therein. Not so in the Fourth Gospel; the preaching of the Kingdom recedes, while Jesus becomes the dialectician… In both cases he figures as teacher; in the Fourth Gospel the subject-matter of his teaching is [almost] exclusively himself. (PP. 68-69)

Jesus, as pictured in the earlier Gospels, whether he be speaking, preaching, or disputing, never has resort to dialectic skill, to the ambiguity of artifice, to a mystical style ; on the contrary, there is utmost simplicity and clearness, a certain natural eloquence which owes far more to mental genius than to painfully acquired art. In the Fourth Gospel he disputes as the dialectician; ambiguous is his language and mystical his style; he deals to such an extent in obscurities that even very learned people are quite in the dark as to the real significance of many of his words. In the one case there are short and pregnant sayings, parables so full of beauty and of inward truth as to grip attention and to sink deep into the soul ; in the other the parabolic mode of teaching is practically absent. Here the question turns on conduct, rules of life, the Mosaic Law, errors of the Jewish people; there the speaker is concerned with dogma, with meta- physics, with his own [identity] (P. 69)

There is an absence of variety in the manner of the discourses generally, no matter who the speaker may be; the several characters, that is, hold converse in Johannine phraseology, and without individuality whether of idea or speech; conversations are reported at length when, apparently, there was no third person at hand. The question here being narrowed down to a single issue, the discourses placed by the Evangelist in the lips of his Christ, the fact must be reckoned with that, if ‘some actual sayings of the historic Jesus’ be embedded in our Gospel, it is certainly not throughout a depository of genuine utterances of Jesus. (P. 70)

Now, the position has been aptly stated thus: ‘Jesus cannot have had, at the same time, the style and method of teaching which the Synoptics describe and that which the Fourth Gospel reflects. We must therefore attribute the language, the colour, and the form of these Johannine discourses to the Evangelist. The Gospel of John is a distillation of the life and teaching of Jesus from the [conduit] of the Apostle’s own mind. It is his interpretation of the meaning of Christ’s words, deeds and person derived from intimate personal relations with him, and coloured and shaped by a long life of Christian thought and experience.’ (PP. 70-71)

‘a Jesus who preached alternately in the manner of the Sermon on the Mount and of John 14-17 is a psychological impossibility.’ (P. 71)

What is it that God looks for and what is alone decisive for life or death? The answer of the Fourth Gospel is this : believe on the Son of God who came down from heaven and believe that he is Jesus — an answer which has had a baneful effect on Christendom, for it is only too easy to make such a profession of belief without drawing nearer to God and becoming a better man. Very different is the answer of the Synoptic Jesus ; with him everything is contingent on that doing the Will of God which involves uprightness, brotherly love, trust in God, humility, yearnings for God’s Kingdom; of those who do the Will of God he says that they are for him mother or sister or brother. (P. 72)

‘say what we will about differences of audience and of situation demanding different forms of address, and allowing for exceptional instances, the contrast between the terse axiomatic sayings, the simple parables of the Synoptics, and the elaborate arguments of the Johannine discourses, is too great to be explained away.’ (P. 73)

The contrast is sharp. It is recorded of the Synoptic Jesus that men ‘heard him gladly,’ and small wonder that they did so when, ‘being so much in earnest with the matter, he had in a unique degree the manner at command’; of the Johannine Christ it was reported that ‘never man so spake,’ and the phrase, scarcely explained by the context, has been regarded as generally significant of abstruseness in the matter and manner of his discourse. In the one case he so speaks as to attract and often win sympathy; in the other he talks above people’s heads, he positively invites misunderstanding : ‘there is an argumentativeness, a tendency to mystification, about the utterances of the Johannine Christ which … is positively repellent … it is quite inconceivable that the historic Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels could have argued and quibbled with opponents as he is represented to have done in the Fourth Gospel.’ (P. 74)

‘In the Johannine discourses … we feel that it is not the visible and audible Jesus who is speaking, but the Christ who is the life of the Church’  and the only possible explanation is that the Fourth Gospel ‘is not history, but something else cast in an historical form.’ (P. 74)

The Synoptic and Johannine portraits of Jesus 

It is here contended that there is no escape from a categorical ‘ either — or’ … the sharp contrast, it is said, is reducible to ‘ the simple formula : here man — there God.’ While the Synoptic Jesus ‘advances practically nothing as to his divine nature, and judging from his utterances, solely holds himself endowed with divine gifts, sent by God, Messiah,’ the Johannine Christ ‘makes everything turn on himself’ … Therein speaks the criticism of a century ago; in like manner that of more recent times: never does the Synoptic Jesus ‘step outside the bounds of the purely human’; as for the Christ of the Fourth Evangelist, he is ‘complete from the outset, for Him there is neither childhood nor youth. He is throughout the divine word manifested in the flesh.’ And so again, when it is said that in the Fourth Gospel … we have ‘ a version— or perversion — of the Master’s life by a disciple who has portrayed him, not in his self-sacrificing love, . . . but as the mighty super- human being demanding recognition of the divine Sonship and Messianic glory.’ (P. 75)

He who looks down from the Synoptic canvas is assuredly true man. To drop metaphor, the Jesus of at any rate the Marcan representation has already reached manhood when he comes on the scene, and it is clear from the manner of the allusions that he shares the experiences which are common to the race. He is conscious of physical needs; the strain of continued action tells on him; stirred by emotions manifold lie is moved to compassion by the spectacle of suffering and pain; he both wins and displays affection; capable of sternness he gives vent to wrath. Rebuff astonishes him, and he finds himself powerless to act; he disclaims omniscience; if he puts questions it is because he has need to be informed. Great spiritual crises are experienced by him, and the meaning of temptation is realized to the full. He cannot do without prayer; hence, seeking strength, he goes apart to be alone with God. Yet strength fails him; in Gethsemane deep terror seizes him, and he pleads as hoping for deliverance to the last. Bitter is the cry wrung from him in his dying moments. (PP. 75-76)

To turn from it to the portrait of the Johannine Christ; A portrait of ‘sweet, unearthly beauty’ as it has been called, it is certainly of an exalted personage. There is an air of imperiousness about the Christ of our Evangelist, as, issuing his commands, he expects obedience from those who are rather summoned as his subjects than invited as his friends. The multitudes are eager to make him a King; precisely because they own him a force to be reckoned with, his destruction is compassed by his foes. His discourse is of high matters, and it is with conscious dignity that he refers to himself. Majestic is the part played by him in the closing scenes; whether in the Garden, in the high priest’s court or in the praetorium his [appearance] is stately and his speech serene. He ‘decides His own fate.’ (P. 78)

But the Johannine representation does not stop short here; on the contrary, it is plain that the regal personage depicted transcends mere manhood. He manifests a celestial glory. He knows all men as knowing what is in man. If he tell of heavenly things it is as having seen and known them; he has come down from heaven, and thither he will soon return. He can say: ‘ My Father worketh hitherto and I work’; if eternal life be for him know- ledge of ‘the only true God,’ it is equally to know himself; dishonor done to him is dishonor done to God ; with deliberation does he say; ‘The Father is in me and I in him’; recognizing a distinction, he affirms that he and the Father are ‘one.’ Pre- existent as he claims to be, he is conceived of as ‘the Word’ that was with God from all eternity. (P. 78)

It must nevertheless be owned that a contrast is presented which finds no sufficient explanation. (P. 81)

When every allowance has been made for powers of adaptation and varied environment, it is impossible to believe that the historic Jesus was really accustomed to discourse after the manner of the Johannine Christ. The former lives and moves in the Synoptic Gospels. (P. 82)

The modern student cannot but feel that to turn from the ‘Synoptics to the Fourth Gospel is to breathe another atmosphere, to be transported to another world, The contrast is, indeed, sharp… ‘Another world.’ The world, to a certainty, of Greek life and thought’; the world of Asia Minor, of Ephesus. (P. 82)

These are excerpts of one chapter of the book The Problem of the Fourth Gospel. For an abridged version of the entire book, see The Problem of the Fourth Gospel – Abridged Book

For additional references and book excerpts pertaining to criticism of John see https://lukeprimacy.com/criticism-of-john/

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