Explaining the Differences Between John and the Synoptic Gospels

3 explanations for the unique structure and style of John's Gospel

Most people with a general understanding of the Bible know that the first four books of the New Testament are called the Gospels. Most people also understand on a broad level that the Gospels each tell the story of Jesus Christ -- His birth, ministry, teachings, miracles, death, and resurrection.

What many people don't know, however, is that there's a striking difference between the first three Gospels -- Matthew, Mark, and Luke, which are known together as the Synoptic Gospels -- and the Gospel of John.

In fact, the Gospel of John is so unique that 90 percent of the material it contains regarding Jesus' life cannot be found in the other Gospels. 

There are major similarities and differences between the Gospel of John and the Synoptic Gospels. All four Gospels are complementary, and all four tell the same basic story about Jesus Christ. But there's no denying that John's Gospel is quite different from the other three in both tone and content. 

The big question is why? Why would John have written a record of Jesus' life that is so different from the other three Gospels? 

Timing Is Everything

There are several legitimate explanations for the large differences in content and style between John’s Gospel and the Synoptic Gospels. The first (and by far the simplest) explanation centers on the dates in which each Gospel was recorded.

Most contemporary Bible scholars believe that Mark was the first to write his Gospel -- probably between A.D.

55 and 59. For this reason, the Gospel of Mark is a relatively fast-paced portrayal of Jesus' life and ministry. Written primarily for a Gentile audience (likely Gentile Christians living in Rome), the book offers a brief but powerful introduction to Jesus' story and its staggering implications.

Modern scholars aren't certain Mark was followed next by Matthew or Luke, but they are certain that both of those Gospels used Mark's work as a foundational source.

Indeed, about 95 percent of the content in Mark's Gospel is paralleled in the combined content of Matthew and Luke. Regardless of which came first, it's likely that both Matthew and Luke were written at some point between the late 50's and early 60's A.D.

What this tells us is that the Synoptic Gospels were likely written within a similar time period during the 1st Century A.D. If you do the math, you'll notice that the Synoptic Gospels were written about 20-30 years after Jesus' death and resurrection -- which is about a generation. What that tells us is that Mark, Matthew, and Luke felt pressure to record the major events of Jesus' life because a full generation had passed since those events had occurred, which meant eyewitness accounts and sources would soon be scarce. (Luke states these realities openly at the beginning of his Gospel—see Luke 1:1-4.)

For these reasons, it makes sense for Matthew, Mark, and Luke to follow a similar pattern, style, and approach. They were all written with the idea of intentionally publishing the life of Jesus for a specific audience before it was too late.

The circumstances surrounding the Fourth Gospel were different, however. John wrote his account of Jesus' life a full generation after the Synoptic authors had recorded their works—perhaps even as late as the early 90's A.D.

Therefore, John sat down to write his Gospel in a culture in which detailed accounts of Jesus' life and ministry had already existed for decades, had been copied for decades, and had been studied and debated for decades.

In other words, because Matthew, Mark, and Luke succeeded in officially codifying Jesus' story, John did not feel their pressure to preserve a full historical record of Jesus' life -- that had already been accomplished. Instead, John was free to construct his own Gospel in a way that reflected the different needs of his own time and culture.

Purpose Is Important

The second explanation for John's uniqueness among the Gospels has to do with the major purposes for which each Gospel was written, and with the major themes explored by each Gospel writer.

For example, the Gospel of Mark was written primarily for the purpose of communicating Jesus' story to a generation of Gentile Christians who had not been eyewitnesses to the events of Jesus' life.

For that reason, one of the main themes of the Gospel is the identification of Jesus as the "Son of God" (1:1; 15:39). Mark wanted to show a new generation of Christians that Jesus really was the Lord and Savior of all, despite the fact that He was no longer physically on the scene.

The Gospel of Mathew was written with both a different purpose and a different audience in mind. Specifically, Matthew's Gospel was addressed primarily to a Jewish audience in the 1st century -- a fact that makes perfect sense given that a large percentage of the early converts to Christianity were Jewish. One of the major themes of Matthew's Gospel is the connection between Jesus and the Old Testament prophecies and predictions regarding the Messiah. Essentially, Matthew was writing to prove that Jesus was the Messiah ​and that the Jewish authorities of Jesus' day had rejected Him.

Like Mark, the Gospel of Luke was originally intended primarily for a Gentile audience -- in large part, perhaps, because the author himself was a Gentile. Luke wrote his Gospel with the purpose of providing a historically accurate and reliable account of Jesus' birth, life, ministry, death, and resurrection (Luke 1:1-4). In many ways, while Mark and Matthew sought to codify Jesus' story for a specific audience (Gentile and Jew, respectively), Luke's purposes were more apologetic in nature. He wanted to prove that Jesus' story was true.

The writers of the Synoptic Gospels sought to solidify Jesus' story in a historical and apologetic sense. The generation that had witnessed Jesus' story was dying off, and the writers wanted to lend credibility and staying power to the foundation of the fledgling church -- especially since, prior to the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, the church still existed largely in the shadow of Jerusalem and the Jewish faith.

The major purposes and themes of John's Gospel were different, which helps to explain the uniqueness of John's text. Specifically, John wrote his Gospel after the fall of Jerusalem.

That means he wrote to a culture in which Christians experienced severe persecution not only at the hands of Jewish authorities but the might of the Roman Empire, as well.

The fall of Jerusalem and the scattering of the church was likely one of the spurs that caused John to finally record his Gospel. Because the Jews had become scattered and disillusioned after the destruction of the temple, John saw an evangelistic opportunity to help many see that Jesus was the Messiah -- and therefore the fulfillment of both the temple and the sacrificial system (John 2:18-22; 4:21-24). In a similar way, the rise of Gnosticism and other false teachings connected to Christianity presented an opportunity for John to clarify a number of theological points and doctrines using the story of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection.

These differences in purpose go a long way to explaining the differences in style and emphasis between John's Gospel and the Synoptics.

Jesus Is the Key

The third explanation for the uniqueness of John's Gospel concerns the different ways each Gospel writer focused specifically on the person and work of Jesus Christ. In Mark's Gospel, for example, Jesus is portrayed primarily as the authoritative, miracle-working Son of God. Mark wanted to establish Jesus' identity within the framework of a new generation of disciples.

In Matthew's Gospel, Jesus is portrayed as the fulfillment of the Old Testament Law and prophecies. Matthew takes great pains to express Jesus not simply as the Messiah prophesied in the Old Testament (see Matthew 1:21), but also as the new Moses (chapters 5–7), the new Abraham (1:1-2), and the descendant of David's royal line (1:1,6).

While Matthew focused on Jesus' role as the long-expected salvation of the Jewish people, Luke's Gospel emphasized Jesus role as Savior of all peoples. Therefore, Luke intentionally connects Jesus with a number of outcasts in the society of His day, including women, the poor, the sick, the demon-possessed, and more. Luke portrays Jesus not only as the powerful Messiah but also as a divine friend of sinners who came expressly to "seek and save the lost" (Luke 19:10).

In summary, the Synoptic writers were generally concerned with demographics in their portrayals of Jesus -- they wanted to show that Jesus the Messiah was connected with Jews, Gentiles, outcasts, and other groups of people.

In contrast, John's portrayal of Jesus is concerned with theology more than demographics. John lived in a time where theological debates and heresies were becoming rampant -- including Gnosticism and other ideologies that denied either Jesus' divine nature or human standing. These controversies were the tip of the spear leading to the great debates and councils of the 3rd and 4th centuries (the Council of Nicaea, the Council of Constantinople, and so on) -- many of which revolved around the mystery of Jesus' nature as both fully God and fully man.

Essentially, many people of John's day were asking themselves, "Who exactly was Jesus? What was He like?" The earliest misconceptions of Jesus portrayed Him as a very good man, but not actually God.

In the midst of these debates, John's Gospel is a thorough exploration of Jesus Himself. Indeed, it's interesting to note that while the term "kingdom" is spoken by Jesus 47 times in Matthew, 18 times in Mark, and 37 times in Luke -- it is only mentioned 5 times by Jesus in the Gospel of John. At the same time, while Jesus utters the pronoun "I" only 17 times in Matthew, 9 times in Mark, and 10 times in Luke -- He says "I" 118 times in John. The Book of John is all about Jesus explaining His own nature and purpose in the world.

One of John's major purposes and themes was to correctly portray Jesus as the divine Word (or Logos) -- the pre-existent Son who is One with God (John 10:30) and yet took on flesh in order to "tabernacle" Himself among us (1:14). In other words, John took a lot of pains to make it crystal clear that Jesus was indeed God in human form.

Conclusion

The four Gospels of the New Testament function perfectly as four sections of the same story. And while it's true that the Synoptic Gospels are similar in many ways, the uniqueness of John's Gospel only benefits the larger story by bringing additional content, new ideas, and a more thoroughly clarified explanation of Jesus Himself.