What a Difference the Gospel of John Makes

I’m currently reading The Fourfold Gospel by Francis Watson. What an amazing book. Here’s a small excerpt which I hope will whet your appetite.

“In John, the “cleansing of the temple” takes place at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and follows an incident—water turned to wine at Cana of Galilee—that is not recorded elsewhere. In the synoptics, the temple incident takes place at the end of Jesus’ ministry and is a link in the chain of events that leads to his death.

In John, most of Jesus’ activity takes place in or around Jerusalem, which he visits for feasts such as Passover or Tabernacles on four occasions before the final Passover when he meets his death. References to Jesus in Galilee are limited to three passages. In the synoptics, Jesus’ main activity takes place in or around Galilee, and he visits Jerusalem only once.

In John, Jesus’ debates with opponents in Jerusalem focus mainly on the issue of who he claims to be. Even when he heals on the Sabbath, it is his identity that becomes the primary issue rather than Sabbath healing as such; the Jerusalem authorities seek to kill him because “he not only broke the Sabbath but also called God his own father, making himself equal to God.” In the synoptics, Jesus’ debates occur in Galilee as well as Jerusalem, and they are mainly concerned with the observance and interpretation of the law.

In John, the event that leads to Jesus’ death is the raising of Lazarus. In the opinion of Caiaphas the high priest, this miracle poses a threat to public order with potentially disastrous consequences; the only responsible course is to put Jesus to death. In the synoptics, Jesus performs no miracles in Jerusalem or its vicinity (apart from blighting a fig tree and restoring a severed ear). His death is unrelated to his activities as a miracle worker.

In John, Jesus speaks at length with his disciples about a future in which he will be absent and yet present to them in a new way, through the Paraclete, or Holy Spirit. In the synoptics, this period of absence is viewed as a time of tribulation for the world that will culminate in the coming of the Son of man on the clouds of heaven.

In John, Jesus prays for himself, his disciples, and future believers while still in the upper room following the Last Supper. Confident of his own destiny, he asks to be restored to the glory that he shared with his Father “before the foundation of the world.” In the synoptics, he is distressed at his forthcoming suffering and prays in Gethsemane that the cup of suffering be removed, while subjecting himself to his Father’s will.

In John, Jesus’ “glory” is manifested not only in his miracles but also and above all in his death. In death he is “exalted” or “glorified.” The cross is his throne, and the crucifixion is his enthronement. In the synoptics, the revelation of Jesus’ glory takes place not on Good Friday but on Easter Day.

While it is modern scholarship that has labeled Matthew, Mark, and Luke as the “synoptic gospels,” the distance that separates them from John is not a modern discovery. Its recognition is as old as the four-gospel collection itself; the very fact of John’s inclusion shows that the distance was felt to be a positive rather than a negative factor. The question is how and why that distance enhances the canonical collection rather than undermining it and making it incoherent.

The differences illustrated here may not all be of the same kind. It is unlikely that Jesus performed similar demonstrations in the temple at both the beginning and the end of his ministry. It is not unlikely that Jesus visited Jerusalem more than once in the course of his ministry. All the same, these differences show why it has proved so difficult—indeed, impossible—to construct out of the four gospels a credible account of Jesus’ ministry in its actual historical sequence.” (The Fourfold Gospel, Baker Academic pp. 86-88)

The Fourfold Gospel is available in hardcover with 224 pages and sells for $24.99.

Francis Watson (PhD, University of Oxford) is Research Chair in Biblical Interpretation at Durham University. He previously held the Kirby Laing Chair of New Testament Exegesis at the University of Aberdeen and taught at King’s College London. Among his numerous works are the critically acclaimed Paul and the Hermeneutics of Faith; Paul, Judaism, and the Gentiles: Beyond the New Perspective; and Gospel Writing: A Canonical Perspective. He is also coauthor of Reading Scripture with the Church.

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About Louis

I am a 1997 graduate of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
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