John and the Synoptic Gospels – an Excerpt from Encountering John, 2nd Edition

Cover ArtThe following is an excerpt from Encountering John, 2nd Edition, by Andreas J. Köstenberger.


We conclude that John was almost certainly familiar with Synoptic tradition and probably also one or several of the written gospels, but that for whatever reason he saw fit not to let them set his agenda. In this sense, John wrote independently. As Clement of Alexandria put it, John “composed a spiritual Gospel.” By this Clement meant to imply not that the other gospels are unspiritual, but that John is more overtly interested in the theological underpinnings of Jesus’s person and work than are the Synoptics.

This is borne out, for example, by John’s transposition of Synoptic miracles (dynameis, works of power) into “signs” (sēmeia, significant acts that may or may not actually be “miraculous”). For John, what is significant is not Jesus’s amazing deeds in and of themselves. Rather, all of Jesus’s “works” point to the essence of who Jesus is—the Christ, the Son of God. In the style of ancient biographies, John recounts the deeds of a person (in this case, Jesus) primarily as a means of illuminating his essence. Other instances of this approach include John’s emphasis on Jesus’s preexistence and the seven “I am” sayings.

What should therefore be our proper approach to John’s gospel? First and foremost, we should not read it with constant reference to how it supplements the Synoptic Gospels—that would be to reduce John’s gospel to the menial task of filling in gaps in the other gospel writings. If John did not write his gospel with the intention of providing a mere complement to the Synoptics, we should respect his desire and treat his gospel accordingly. A more satisfying approach is therefore to “let John be John” and to let John himself set his own agenda. Rightly understood, therefore, John was both dependent and independent: like a master composer, he creatively transposed some of the material in the Synoptics in order to tell the story of Jesus, as it were, in a different key.

©2013 by Andreas J. Köstenberger. Published by Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

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