Even to the casual reader, the gospel of John is distinctly different than the synoptic gospels: Mark, Matthew, and Luke. Although it shares some stories in common with the synoptics, most stories in John are not in the synoptics, and most stories in the synoptics are not found in John. In the synoptics, Jesus speaks in parables and casts out demons; in John, he does neither. In the synoptics, Jesus is a somewhat secretive apocalyptic prophet proclaiming the end of the world; in John, he is the equal of God, proclaiming his identity (but no apocalyptic teaching) everywhere he goes.
Narrative differences: Messianic Secret
There are numerous narrative differences between John and the synoptics. In the synoptics, Jesus communicates mainly through parables and does not want the general public to know that he is the Messiah. In fact, the two are linked: because Jesus wants to keep his identity a secret, he speaks in parables, as indicated in this speech to his disciples:
To you it has been given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God; but to those who are outside, all things come in parables, so that ‘Seeing they may see and not perceive, And hearing they may hear and not understand; Lest they should turn, And their sins be forgiven them.’” (Mark 4:11)
Indeed, almost every single time anybody recognizes Jesus’ true identity, he commands them to silence. In Mark 1:21, the unclean spirit that he casts out acknowledges him as “the Holy One of God”; in 1:43 Jesus cleanses a leper; in 5:43 he raises a girl from the dead; in 7:36 he heals a deaf-mute; in 8:26 he gives sight to a blind man; in 9:29 Peter finally recognizes Jesus as the Messiah. In every single case, Jesus commands everyone to silence. Why does he do so? Does he fear for his safety?
In any case, John presents Jesus as doing precisely the opposite. In John, Jesus doesn’t use a single parable (nor, incidentally, does he cast out a single demon); he communicates with long, essay-style speeches. Far from keeping his identity a secret, he proclaims it loud and proud to anyone who would listen, even when doing so would have been downright blasphemous to his audience:
Then the Jews said to Him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have You seen Abraham?”
Jesus said to them, “Most assured, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM.”
Then they took up stones to throw at Him (John 8:57-59)
Here, Jesus claims to be God in front of the Jews. John’s Jesus also performs many signs without commanding anyone to silence. In fact, he specifically waits for Lazarus to die so that he could resurrect him and demonstrate his power:
Therefore the sisters sent to Him, saying, “Lord, behold, he whom You love is sick”
When Jesus heard that, He said, “This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” […]
So, when He heard that he was sick, He stayed two more days in the place where He was” (11:3-6)
Narrative differences: Kingdom of God
In the synoptics, Jesus is mostly focused on proclaiming the kingdom of God and the imminence of the apocalypse. In Mark, for example, he begins his ministry by proclaiming “the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel” (1:15). One of the last things he does before his crucifixion is to tell the high priest: “And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven” (14:62). In between, most of his parables are related to the kingdom of God, and he gives a long speech in chapter 13 telling his disciples what will happen at the end of the age.
John, on the other hand, contains nearly no apocalyptic prophecy. Instead, it seems mostly focused on the identity of Jesus. John contains 46 times where Jesus refers to himself with “I am”, compared to 5 times in Luke, 2 times in Mark, and 2 times in Matthew. But who did John think Jesus was, and how does it compare to the synoptic view?
Nature of Christ
John’s portrayal of Jesus is by far the most exalted among all the gospels. Even the first few verses proclaim Jesus’ exalted status:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God.
All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made.
And the Word because flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory
So not only is Jesus God, he was with God from the very beginning of the world, and the entire world was made through him. This type of highly exalted declaration is also found in 10:30 (“My Father and I are one”), 8:58 (“Most assured, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM”), 17:24 (“for You loved Me before the foundation of the world.”) Even when Jesus is not explicitly described as equal to God, the differences between Jesus and God are minimized:
Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. (14:10)
Is this how Jesus is portrayed in the synoptic gospels? In the synoptics, Jesus is called the Messiah (meaning “anointed one” in Hebrew), the Christ (“anointed one” in Greek), rabbi, teacher, the Son of God, lord, master, Son of David, the Son of Man, and the Holy One of God. What most readers don’t know is that none of these terms unambiguously imply that Jesus was God, or even that he was divine. Obviously, there is no reason why a teacher, rabbi, lord, master, or son of David can’t be fully human. In the Hebrew Bible, “messiah” is used to refer to kings (including King David and the non-Jewish king of Persia, Cyrus), high priests, and prophets, all of whom are human. Indeed, in first-century Judaism, Jews expected the end-times messiah to be a great king descended from David who would lead the Israelites to glory. Not even “son of God” necessitates divinity—in the Hebrew Bible, the term is applied to humans such as King Solomon:
He shall build a house for My name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be his Father, and he shall be My son. (2 Sam 7:13-14)
Finally, “the Son of Man” (note the definite article) is an enigmatic term that is not found in any ancient Greek documents other than the New Testament. There is no scholarly consensus on what it means.
Three other details are worth noting. First, although Jesus performs miracles in the synoptics, so do his apostles. In Acts, Peter performs miracles after Jesus’ death; in the Hebrew Bible, the fully human prophet Elijah resurrects a child (1 Kings 17:22), multiples meal and oil (1 Kings 17:14), and brings rain (1 Kings 18:41). Performing miracles is no guarantee of divinity. Second, in the synoptics, Jesus is explicitly depicted as lesser than God in Mark 13:32: “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” Third, after Jesus forgives the sins of a paralytic in Mark 2, the scribes accuse Jesus of claiming to be God (“Who can forgive sins but God alone?”). Jesus replies with “But that you may know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins […] I say to you, arise, take up your bed, and go to your house.” Note Jesus’ self-designation: Son of Man, not God.
The orthodox Christian view of eternal life most closely resembles John:
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (3:16)
He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God (3:18)
And this is the will of Him who sent Me, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him may have everlasting life; and I will raise him up at the last day (6:40)
Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (20:30)
In other words, eternal life rests on believing in Jesus. When the dead are resurrected at the end of this age, Jesus will “raise up” the believers; the non-believers are not so lucky. 20:30 is the first ending of John, where John tells us why he wrote his gospel–to convince us that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God. Why is this important? Because by believing, we may have life in his name.
This doctrine is not found anywhere in the synoptic gospels. Nowhere in the synoptics does Jesus say that eternal life depends on believing in Jesus’ divinity. I addressed the synoptics’ view on eternal life in this previous blog post. Essentially, the synoptic Jesus believed in following the Jewish commandments (not just the Ten Commandments we know today), helping the least fortunate people in society, and forgiveness. Mark believed that Jesus’ death is an atonement for sins (10:45). The importance of repentance for one’s sins seems to feature in the stories of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14), the criminal crucified with Jesus who defended Jesus (Luke 23:40), and the rich young ruler (Mark 10:27). None of these accounts associate believing in Jesus’ divinity with eternal life.
For modern readers, one particularly disturbing aspect of John is its anti-Jewish sentiment. Jesus’ enemies are often simply called “the Jews”, with no qualification. For example, in chapter 9, Jesus heals a blind man, whose parents are brought before the Pharisees for questioning. 9:22 reads:
His parents said these things because they feared the Jews, for the Jews had agreed already that if anyone confessed that He was Christ, he would be put out of the synagogue
Everyone in this story is a Jew—including the blind man, his parents, Jesus, and the Pharisees. Why, then, does the author portray “the Jews” as the enemy? In The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, Bart Ehrman proposes that the gospel was written to a specific community of Christians who had been expelled from their local synagogue, possibly for their persistent proselytism. Due to this expulsion, they developed a fortress mentality: we have special access to the truth, whereas everyone else, especially members of our former synagogue, are delusional. To Ehrman, the blind man’s parents’ fear of expulsion is anachronistic to Jesus’ time—synagogues at the time did not expel anybody for believing in a messiah—but reflects the experiences of the much later Johanine community. The Jewish Annotated New Testament disagrees with this hypothesis:
This construction is flawed on both literary and historical grounds. From a literary-critical point of view, there is no evidence that the Gospel in fact encodes the history and experience of the community in its story of Jesus. With the exception of the expulsion passages, no other parts of the Gospel lend themselves easily to this two-level reading. The well-documented theological diversity within first-century Judaism, as evidenced by the widely differing views of the Pharisees and Sadducees on fundamental matters such as the authority of oral tradition and the belief in bodily resurrection and the distinctive views expressed in the Dead Sea Scrolls, makes it unlikely that Jews would have been excluded from the synagogue for believing Jesus to be the Messiah. Indeed, in the period of 132–135 similar claims were apparently made for Simeon Bar Kosiba to be a messiah, by the prominent Rabbi Akiva, whose status and stature within early rabbinic Judaism did not suffer as a result.
Perhaps the most striking instance of anti-Jewish sentiment is found in 8:40-44. Here, Jesus is talking to “those Jews who believed Him” (8:31):
But now you seek to kill Me, a Man who has told you the truth which I heard from God […] You are of your father the devil, and the desires of your father you want to do.
These were Jews who believed in him, and Jesus still calls them sons of the devil while accusing them of trying to kill him. We have come a long way from Matthew, the gospel written by a Jewish Christian writing to fellow Jews, where Jesus emphasizes the Jewish law at every opportunity.