How did John influence the Synoptic gospels?

cloud-ground-lightning13_20849_990x742If that sounds like an odd question to you, then you need to know that someone once wrote a PhD on the influence of T S Eliot on Shakespeare. The thesis was of course on how our reading of Eliot creates a lens through which we then read Shakespeare (I am assuming, dear reader, that you are aware that Eliot lived some 400 years later than WS…!), so that Shakespeare as we read it is shaped by the assumptions that might have been formed by the influence of Eliot on our own outlook. But some have argued that the Johannine tradition might in fact have pre-dated the writing of the Synoptics, mostly because of one particular verse.

That verse is sometimes called ‘the Johannine bolt from the Synoptic blue’ (or ‘the bolt from the Johannine blue’ though I think that verse gets the metaphor the wrong way around):

All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. (Matt 11.27)

All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows who the Son is except the Father, and no one knows who the Father is except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. (Luke 10.22)

It is immediately apparent why this looks rather Johannine. First, the Father and Son are talked of in absolute terms, rather than the more usual Synoptic was of Jesus talking about ‘my’ Father or ‘our’ Father; secondly, the mutual knowledge of the Father and Son uniquely of each other, which sounds similar to ‘the Son only does what he see the Father doing’ in John 5.19; and the sovereignty of both in revelation, which sounds similar to John 6.44. To illustrate this, I often have read the verse without the reference to a class, and asked them to identify which chapter of John this comes from—and they work hard to fit it in John, sometimes identifying chapter and verse with some confidence!

Because of this, some have suggested the existence of a Johannine textual source from which the Synoptic writers drew in one way or another. G E Ladd’s Theology of the New Testament comments (on p 697) that this verse offers ‘good evidence that the Synoptic Evangelists were familiar with something like the Johannine view of Jesus’. A contemporary advocate of early composition of at least part of the Johannine text is Paul Anderson of George Fox Seminary, who sees this verse of evidence of ‘interfluentiality’ between the two traditions. (There is quite a good summary of his wider argument here.)


At the Society of Biblical Literature meeting three years ago, Mark Goodacre gave a truly engaging paper exploring this verse and questioning this kind of conclusion. He traced the origins of the phrase itself back to Karl von Hase in his 1876 Geschichte Jesu (you can read the English translation of the earlier edition of this online) where he actually described this as a ‘meteor’ (Ger: Aerolith) from the Johannine sky. Goodacre also noted the remarkable verbatim agreement between Matthew and Luke in this and the preceding verse: 54 out of 69 words in Matthew (78% of the pericope) match Luke exactly, and conversely 54 out of 74 words in Luke (74%) match Matthew exactly. This is evidence, Goodacre argued, of one being dependent on the other, rather than each being depending on a third source (the unknown document called ‘Q’)—or in Goodacre’s memorable witticism, the match is ‘too good to be Q’.

He then explored how these verses sit within Matthew’s language and theology in the rest of the gospel. First, the language of ‘all things have been given to me’ finds a striking parallel at the end of the gospel in Matt 28.19. Secondly, the format of the saying is what Goodacre calls a ‘repetitive converse logion’, where Jesus says one thing and follows it with the negation of the opposite, something we find elsewhere in Matthew:

Anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (Matt 5.19)

For if you forgive others when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. (Matt 6.14–15)

Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. (Matt 16.18)

It is worth noting that these sayings are unique to Matthew and belong to his distinctive style.

Thirdly, the theological perspective fits well with Matthew. The Son of God Christology is found in both Matthew and Mark (Matt 3.17 = Mark 1.11, Matt 17.5 = Mark 9.7, Matt 21.37 = Mark 12.6, Matt 27.54 = Mark 15.39) but also distinctively in Matthew at Matt 4.1–11, 14.33 and 16.16. Even more striking is the language of God as heavenly Father in Matthew; these phrases occur with the following frequencies in Matthew, Mark and Luke respectively:

Heavenly Father: 7/0/0

Father who is in heaven: 13/1/0

Father + my/our/your: 20/1/3

In addition, Matt 12.50 includes ‘the will of my father in heaven’ where Mark 3.35 has ‘God’.

All this is beginning to make the so-called Johannine bolt look rather like a Matthean one after all! The ‘absolute’ use of Father and Son has in fact been set up in the previous verses by the address of God as Father and the description of ‘my Father’ at the start of this verse. On the basis of this, Goodacre argued that, rather than being evidence of a Johannine tradition within the Synoptics, this verse (and others carrying similar ideas) are developed within John, particularly the ‘father/son’ language, the idea of the Father ‘giving all things’ in John 13.3 and elsewhere, and the idea of mutual knowledge found in John 10.14–15. Goodacre noted that, where there is dependence between the Synoptics, there tends to be a close parallel of language, but where there are connections with John, paraphrase and influence is more common. In other words, this verse is not a Johannine bolt in the Synoptic blue, but a Synoptic platform for the Johannine rocket to launch from.

(Goodacre observed that the reason we cannot help seeing Matt 11.27 as Johannine is the same reason why we cannot help but see these ‘time travellers’ using mobile phones in 1928 and 1938—even though there were no phone signals or masts then! Once we associate a particular pattern with a certain meaning, it is hard to unlearn the association.)


One important implication struck me out of Mark Goodacre’s paper: once we get past an obsession with textual similarities, it allows us to think more theologically, and allowing Matt 11.27 to be genuinely Matthean, and typical of his theology, allows us to see that Matthew’s theology is actually nearer John’s than we might otherwise suppose.

The question of similarity and difference depends to a great extent on where one sits in relation to study of the gospels. When teaching John’s gospel to undergraduates in a ministry context, I felt I had to emphasise the striking differences between John and the Synoptics, since the students were in the habit (as most churchgoers are) of reading harmoniously, that is, filling in whatever is missing in one gospel from things they have read in the others. So most ordinary readers don’t notice that John does not mention Jesus’ baptism, but supply the information in order to make sense of John 1.32, which makes no sense without it. And, similarly, they supply the last supper as the context for the washing of the disciples’ feet in John 13 as the necessary context for John 13.26.

But in the Academy it is usually the other way around: the difference between the gospels is so assumed that it is easier to forget the similarities, particularly when you consider other documents in the ancient world. James Arlandson lists the points of agreement between John and the Synoptics, and the list is both extensive and striking. (It is worth taking time to work through it and let it sink in.) Having studied comparative literature in the ancient world for his doctorate, Arlandson concludes:

For me, the most surprising feature of this list is how often the four Gospels share similarities: about 149 out of a grand total of 226 items, which makes 66%.

The four Gospels cohere together in a unified storyline and present the same characters in the life of Jesus, though, of course, an author like John omits some and highlights others. But Peter’s life, for example, remains the same, in broad outline.

Arlandson is coming from a ‘conservative’ theological tradition, but that tradition is actually rather good at looking at the actual data, and that is what matters here. He does go on (briefly) to address related issues, and notes both the importance of story in the formation of memory, as well as the importance of eye-witnesses, and the striking difference between the gospels and the non-canonical material which was judged heretical by the church—not least on the grounds of its lack of coherence.

You might even come to the conclusion that the gospels were drawing on a shared recollection of historical events

(previously published in 2016)


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20 thoughts on “How did John influence the Synoptic gospels?”

  1. Coming from an opposite view point but to a similar conclusion, I can’t see how any of the gospel writers could have kept what they were doing a secret from each other. They were part of a movement where most of the key players came from the same provincial origins, had family members in common, had shared dramatic life experiences and were joint leaders as the movement expanded.

    Given the nature of humans, if John hadn’t felt the need to write at first it would have taken something to push him to do it later, like some or all of them feeling that what had already been said needed either to be expanded on or added to. Isn’t that how supportive networks work? Unlike in academia, say, as with commercial interests where motives might be mixed, and people may be competing for a limited number of posts and funding. I think a better model to compare with would be how ‘enthusiast’ and ‘idealist’ groups function in their earliest days, like communism or chartism or train spotters where a high degree of collaboration is still at work before rivalry sets in.

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  2. The question ‘John and the Synoptics’ is wrongly titled in the following ways:

    (a) We all know that John stands out as different in *content*, and also that the Synoptics have remarkable proportions of stretches in parallel (EP Sanders knew nothing to compare). This point cannot in any way be used to say that John is different in other ways, e.g. *date*, *historicity*. Nor indeed that Mark-Matt-Luke form a group in any other way than content, e.g. date, historicity. That is a fallacy. But it is remarkable how widespread it is even in higher echelons.

    (b) The Johannine thunderbolt is just one of many pieces of evidence that the order is ‘Mark, John, Matthew, Luke’ which was the title of my circulated paper of 1992. I posted it off, drew out £130 to celebrate with friends, and was promptly mugged in leafy Wendover (Aylesbury Gazette, p3). It was either early June or early July.

    (c) The 4 gospels employ OT templates as their structures, and one way of discerning the order is to bear that in mind, since later gospels bear traces of earlier templates. There is no trace of Luke’s multifarious Elijah material in Matt, nor of his even more multifarious Deut material. Even though bodies of material both appear largely in contexts otherwise shared with Matt. Hence Luke postdates Matt. Though the reverse is a fast-growing position, which has not to my knowledge faced this point.

    (d) It is not remarkable that the Mark-Matt-Luke parallels exist, since the latter 2 use Mark as a source. Nor that the Matt-Luke parallels exist (ditto). What needs however to be emphasised is that John’s difference from Mark is not remarkable either. When John wrote, the idea of gospels being synoptic by nature was not current, and might well have seemed otiose. (Mark’s version won out over John’s however.)

    It is incredible that the alternatives are sometimes envisaged as John was first ”or” last (never in between); John was independent ”or” dependent (not a bit of both).

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    • There are academic books, even quite recently, suggesting that things like the pool having 5 porticoes were put in to make you think the gospel is early but then claim around 300 AD …. HOWEVER it was Baukham amongst others who asked if John’s gospel is really so late then why do early letters quote it (so, yes it always was influential) and then archaeologists not only did find that the Pool did indeed have 5 porticoes and even the Roman fort in Jerusalem did have a pavement outside it as depicted in the gospel. Then fragment P52 here in Manchester was carbon dated to around 127 AD (somewhere between 125 and 130 AD) and was written on BOTH sides so it is a copy in book form and NOT even the original. So the original has to be before that date.

      This shows academics can state things but fail to realise that whilst we all accept that an academic can propose something and thereby test it, but it all goes wrong when other, including other academics, assume that what the academic said was ever true.

      This like the claim that a very early language like koine Greek can have all 4 words for love are interchangeable when they aren’t at all. Koine Greek is an ancient language with aroun 70,000 words whereas as English has around 1,100,000 words. the very idea that ancient language can have four words all meaning the same is just silly when modern English has one word (arguably two words) and relies upon adjectives and adverbs.

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  3. Where does the case for the ‘lateness’ of John come from? Is it from church tradition or the assumption that its Christology is ‘high’ and unhistorical, that the historical Jesus was nothing like the figure in this gospel and didn’t say such things about himself? Or that the ‘aposunagogos’ of John 9.22 refers anachronistically to the Birkat Ha-Minim? There is a cargo load of presuppositions in those ideas. It is now accepted that John’s gospel reflects knowledge of pre-70 Jerusalem, and since so much of this gospel reflects events in and around Jerusalem (in contrast to the Synoptics), the natural assumption is that John’s gospel is shaped by the testimony of disciples in Jerusalem, whether those who lived there or those who accompanied Jesus on his pilgrimages there.

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    • Yes – John not only reflects knowledge of pre70 Jerusalem but also of the events of the fatal week (vide Bauckham). He makes much theological capital from his cameo role as the one given the nod by the gatekeeper in ch18, and there is lots of subtle micro-evidence re this from vocab in ch10 (see too Stibbe).

      However – he became ‘the Elder’ which (in a world of many elders) cannot but imply that he was aged and ”pretty unique” (as the oxymoron has it) in his involvement in the core events by the time he received that title.

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        • Sheep have gates not doors. For proof, some translations try to put ‘gate’. But the word ‘door’ is used. Sure enough a door not a gate is what applies in ch18.

          Secondly, do sheepgates have doorkeepers? It sounds a sinecure of a job. But no – of course they don’t. However, in chapter 18 there is a doorkeeper in the critical scene.

          Thirdly, do sheep dwell in an aule? Sounds a bit posh and clean for the likes of them. But fast forward to ch18 and we are in the high priest’s courtyard or aule.

          Some dictionaries have mistakenly broadened their definitions of aule and of thura accordingly. One cannot do that with John. He handpicks vocab for his own subtle ends.

          So – when we read the stipulations in ch10 (it is critically important that the shepherd be the one who is recognised by the doorkeeper and given the VIP green card to enter a door (thura) into an aule) we fast forward to ch18, which is dear to John’s heart as being his real cameo in the real events, which he uses as a badge of authority. Peter has no entry were it not for John; therefore (as elsewhere in the gospel) John is superior to Peter.

          Also 10.1 is oddly subtle and specific and one has to think hard why that particular rather complicated point should be so emphasised upfront. It is only ch18 that makes it easier.

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          • Interesting ….. (strokes chin like a Bond villain). But I will reserve judgment on ‘thura’ and ‘aule’ in first century koine until I have compared with it other literature from that period. I have read quite a bit of Hellenistic fiction which often focuses on shepherds and goatherds, so there may be a clue there to usage.

          • A quick check with online Liddell & Scott raises an amber light for me.
            ‘aule’ is in fact used as a steading for livestock in Iliad 5.138, 142 and Odyssey 14.5, and in Iliad 5.142 we have in fact one of those famous Homeric similes, comparing a warrior to a lion leaping into an ‘aule’ (sheepfold) and ravaging the sheep there – a similar thought to John 10, although Israel then was likely free of lions, unlike 8th century BC Greece. ‘aule’ seems to have a broad range of reference (just as ‘cour’ in modern French can mean ‘court’ or ‘playground’). L & S also confirm that ‘thura’ is used for a ‘home door’, whereas ‘pule’ means one of the wings of double gates, such as you find in the entrance to a city , or a pass through mountains (cf. Thermopylae). I think it unlikely to use ‘pule’ (sg.) for a sheepfold.
            So I’m not sure if the author of John is dropping biographical hints here – one of the perils of literary interpretations!

          • Here, I think that that’s not the point. In context, a lot of words are clearly being used strangely or abnormally, including also ‘kalos’ being used for a shepherd. This makes perfect internal sense (kalos wine, kala erga/works; Gen. 1.4,31) but no lexicographical sense. That’s the big picture.

            Even if one could establish such a minority usage for these words (which is unclear, since Jn 10 is typically used in lexica as the prime example of such usage) that would explain neither why minority usages are clustering here, nor why the same words appear as a group in typical usage in chapter 18 of the same work, and all this within the work of a writer who is agreed to be subtle.

          • Words change in reference diachronically, sometimes expanding in meaning, sometimes contracting, sometimes even changing in meaning entirely (cf. ‘gay’ in our time). Koine is the same as any language in this respect. ‘kalos’ as the semantic equivalent for Hebrew ‘tov’ is already present in LXX (cf. Gen 1), so it is not strange for it to be used in John 10. That chapter, of course, has many echoes with Ezekiel 34. (cf. v. 18. ten kalen vomen, the good pasture).

          • I stand corrected, but multiple questions arise:
            -is a sheepfold of significance?
            -is its door of significance?
            -is it just a coincidence that the place where thura and aule do demand to be used uses them in their more natural contexts, whereas the place where they don’t demand to be uses them in less natural context?
            -the point on 10.1 stands.
            -How it is possible to conceive a unified theory with this material that seems to work without impediments.

            Your approach cuts out the possibility of John being subtle with words or operating from a preconceived closed system of concepts. Also is it alert to interconnections within the whole gospel? If John is a linear narrative it is a very strange one and breaks the normal conventions of linear narratives.

            I think I was wrong on pule, and not entirely right on aule either, but clearly the gates of sheepfold and of high priest’s residence are of a different status; we need to think if they are being linked deliberately or accidentally. Unless anyone can see any reason for speaking of a sheep’s doorkeeper (or of denying that John is both subtle and interconnected) then that is important.

  4. If I recall correctly, the thesis about Eliot’s influence on Shakespeare was one of many jokes in David Lodge’s academic novel Changing Places.

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  5. My understanding was that Persse McGarrigle’s ‘TS Eliot’s influence on Shakespeare’ was part of David Lodge’s satire in ‘Small World’.

    There are several places where Matt equals Mark plus John: e.g. salt and bushel plus the extremely Johannine ‘to phos tou kosmou’; and of course the Lord’s Prayer where precisely the bits that are not Mark (or kaddish) are John. This allows only one economical view: that Matt combined Mark and John, the Sermon on the Mount being a sequence of thematic bodies of Jesus’s gathered and categorised teaching (beatitudes; salt & light; antitheses; prayer and disciplines; double animals/plants). Also a lot of the Matt narrative additions to Mark (excluding the Herodotean folklegend type) find close parallels in John. That is especially remarkable given that John does not himself have all that many narrative events that are not in Mark. Matt is using John not as a source but as a source-for-marginalia to be incorporated into Mark and logia (i.e. James etc.) outlines. So (for example) as soon as Matt’s Jesus finally arrives in Jerusalem, Matt being a good scribe and compiler acknowledges briefly the healings in the temple environs of ‘the blind and the lame’, which is jolly specific considering that in the Matthean healing summaries such as 15.30 there is a much less specific, all-encompassing and all-purpose rote like ‘the lame, the blind, the crippled, the dumb etc.’. And we must not forget that the official’s boy is the only really full-blown miracle story Matt adds to Mark and it happens to be a rather Johannine one. There are many further examples of Johannine overlay in Matt.

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  6. Where did the the I am the gate/door pronouncement likely take place? Was it not near the huge gate/ door to the Temple and it’s Courtyards or (sheep?)pens?

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    • According to the narrative sequence (and John is neither a narrative work in the normal sense [one that responds well to narrative criticism] nor a work best understood sequentially) it is wherever he found the blind man after his being cast out. For that was his last mentioned movement. This is further confirmed by the fact that 10.19-21 still has witnesses of the healing or of the fact of the healing.

      Note that thura is *only* in these chs 10,18 contexts (and the 2x Jesus passes through doors). As indeed is aule. As indeed is thuroros.

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  7. Christopher,
    Apologies for not being too precise in what follows as this is from my phone. A couple of years ago I was alloted, as lay, to preach on two of the I am sayings, the gate/door being one.
    I started a block of Jesus teaching with before Abraham was I am and ended centering the whereabouts further on in or around the vicinity of Solomon’s Colonnade, with all the implications that may bring. I have Reading Backwards by Richard Hays to thank for some of it.
    It was at the Festival of Booths ( chapter 7) compulsory for the nation, an acted out reminder of the desert wanderings, and God’ s deliverencr of his people.
    It takes place in an around the Temple Courts which is where we find Jesus.
    At the time the Temple was one of the wonders of the biblical world.
    It is a holy place, and inside that the holy-of-holies, a symbol of God dwelling permanently in the heart of God’s people.
    Only a cleansed High Priest can enter the Holy of Holies.
    Surrounding the Temple are Courts or Courtyards which have magnificent gates/doors.
    To get to the Holy place it is necessary to go through different Cout yards, a bit like sheep pens, pens for people
    really.
    At Herod’s temple the courtyard furthest from the temple is for gentiles, who can’t go further into the temple with a warning, death penalty on each gate “(gentile) sinners will die “: they can not enter the Holiness of God”
    Around the courtyard of Gentiles are magnificent, colonnades, porches. The greatest is Solomon’s with 162 marble pillars and Solomon’s entrance porch.

    Near Solomon’s Porch is the Beautiful Gate, an enormous double door gate gate with pillars and dazzling orientation of silver gold and brass from Corninth.
    It is so enormous it takes 20 men to open and close.
    It is the Main Entrance to the Temple.
    Everyone has to go through The Gate.
    There is no other way.
    Here’s the rub. Jesus say he is the Good Shepherd and he is THE Gate.
    John10: 9 I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be save. They will come in and go out, and find pasture.
    There is no other way but through Jesus into the Presence of God.
    They will live, not die.
    I’d say that this is clearly a figure of speech, with a huge self referencing visual aid.
    What a beautiful gate, he i

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    • Isn’t it wonderful! Love to immerse in Josephus and Edersheim (with reservations) and get a sense of what it was to walk around in Jerusalem of that era. Together with some of the great reconstructions of the temple that have been done, even 3D ones.

      At the Liverpool Hope University conference saw that there is an arch at the entrance that has these same words ‘I am the gate – whoever enters through me shall be saved’ words. I thought – ‘Steady on – you’re just a bit of architecture.’. But a very nice one.

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  8. On Matthew 11.27

    The arguments are stacked in favour of John predating Matthew here:

    (1) See above on larger patterns of gospel-relationships, which are the main point. Too many (for coincidence) of Matt’s narrative additions (other than the Peter and Passion folk legends) are Johannine.
    (2) And this allows an economical theory: Matt, a second edition of Mark, was trying to be as comprehensive as possible by including suitable material from other sources in the most appropriate Mark context. E.g. healings of blind and lame in temple environs as soon as Jesus finally gets to Jerusalem.
    (3) Matt also has a reason (Jesus-as-New-Moses) for including a lot of new sayings material. John is one of his sources for these. To phos to kosmou etc..
    (4) Mt 11.27 is far more Johannine than Matthean
    (5) ‘Father’ appears almost more than any other key concept in John.
    (6) It appears for God 45 times in Matt too – as opposed to only 4 (or 5) times in Mark, BUT practically never without the possessive ‘my’, ‘our’, ‘your’.
    (7) The only times it appears without these – in the form ‘the Father’ – are:
    -24.36 – irrelevant since it is Mark not Matt material
    -28.19 – acknowledged to be theologically advanced and suspected of being a later addition though MS evidence is lacking
    -FOUR times (or in Codex Sinaiticus five times) in the short space of 11.25-7, including two vocatives, one of which is similar to Jn 17.1.

    So not only theologically but linguistically this is a point where Matt becomes unusually Johannine.

    That is even before we get on to the 2 uses of ‘the Son’ in the same context.

    I have always found the sequence MarkJohnMattLuke to have great explanatory power.

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