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Another difference between John and the other three gospels is that this book contains considerably more of Jesus’ early ministry. Matthew and Mark do not begin the public ministry of Jesus until after the imprisonment of John the Baptist. It is widely held that Matthew draws much of his material from Mark, and the two gospels are therefore similar. Thus, the frequency that the gospel of John is similar to Matthew in contrast to Luke should not be surprising. The fourth Gospel tells how the ministry of Jesus begins in Galilee (2:1-12) before He moves His ministry to Jerusalem (2:13) and Judea (3:24). John notes that, after the first Passover and His time in Samaria, Jesus shifts His ministry to Galilee.

John 2-4 records His work in Judea to the south. He also ministers in Galilee, and it is at Cana, in Galilee, where Jesus turns water into wine. According to John who records three Passovers in his gospel, it was during the early portion of His ministry and the first Passover when Jesus, as read in John 2:13-16, cleared the Temple of money changers and those selling doves and similar animals for sacrifices, initiating the animosity between Himself and the Jews. This would most certainly attract the ire of the religious leaders and Pharisees, thus helping to explain the intensity of their opposition to Jesus and their desire to eliminate the problem. These early chapters contain the discussion between Jesus and Nicodemus and the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the Sychar well. This well was in Samaria, which is between Judea to the south and Galilee to the north. Mount Gerazim is in the Samaritan region, and it was at this religious site the woman at the well spoke. As a note, devout Jews travelling between Galilee to Jerusalem in Judea would take a circuitous route along the western border near the Jordan River skirting Samaria to reach their destination to the north or south.

John also records Jesus going to Jerusalem for Passover in chapter five; thus far, Jesus has traveled to Jerusalem twice. During this visit to the Holy City, He healed a man who had been infirm for thirty-eight years, the third sign, and this inflamed, even more, the religious leaders and Pharisees against Him. According to John, Jesus went to Jerusalem five times (2:13-3:21, 5:1-47, 7:14-10:39, and 12:2-20:29). This assumes John 7:14 and John 10:22 record separate trips to the Holy City. This book also records three Passovers Jesus celebrates, these being 2:13, 6:4, and 11:55. The trip to Jerusalem in 5:1 was possibly a fourth Passover. Based on this information, it appears that “John describes at least a three-year ministry from Galilee to Jerusalem.” [1] Matthew, Mark, and Luke seem to tally a shorter period, but when one takes into account the fourth gospel’s narrative of the early ministry in Judea and Jerusalem, this explains the time the other writers do not take into account. Three and one-half years are generally affirmed to be the correct length of the ministry of Jesus, which validates the account in John.

Let us turn our attention now to the similarities between John and Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Barrett notes ten stories in the same sequence in the gospels of Mark and John. This could be because of dependence on common oral traditions or simply telling of events in the order of occurrence. Many verses in the first three gospels and John are similar either in actual wording or the message. These include John 1:32 and Mark 1:10, John 4:44 and Mark 6:4, John 10:14-15 and Matthew 11:27, John 12:25 and Luke 9:24, John 12:27 and Matthew 26:37-38, John 12:44-45 and Mark 9:37, John 13:38 and Matthew 26:34, and John 20:23 and Matthew 18:18. Some scholars cite these similarities as evidence that John used Matthew, Mark, and Luke as sources. This assumption of literary dependence of the gospel of John presumes the following: “that the Synoptics (or, at least, one or two of them) already existed; that John knew them; that he used them; and that he depended upon them, at least in part, for his material.” [2] These scholars presuppose John was written later, say around 85-90 CE. It is equally plausible the author of the gospel had access to the same oral traditions, as did the other authors, but not necessarily all of the finished writings, specifically Matthew and Luke. This would help explain the early date of writing; he had some of the same sources as Matthew and Luke, and he had access to the writing of Mark plus his own recollection of the ministry of Jesus.

John does not read like the others because it has a different purpose. The early church took the position that the Apostle John knew of the others when he wrote his gospel, and he wrote with the intent to supplement or interpret the other three. With the rise of biblical scholarship in the 1800s, scholars came to question this position. Three distinct positions exist concerning the fourth gospel and its relationship to the others: that it was independent of the, that it supplemented or interpreted the other gospels, or that it supplanted or replaced them. Hans Windisch (1881-1935) argues that this gospel sought to supplant the others, but he does not present himself as a trailblazer. Rather, he seeks to protest the idea of John's gospel as independent of Matthew, Mark, and Luke or that it supplements them. One can argue that Matthew came close to supplanting Mark; he took so much from Mark’s writing as to render it almost unnecessary. In turn, Luke seems to attempt to supplant both Matthew and Mark in his very precise portrayal of the life and ministry of Jesus. Windisch claims that John was familiar with Mark since traces of Mark are discernible throughout with both verbal and incidental similarities throughout. The contribution of Mark, according to Windisch, is minimal and is merely background material. Also, the writing of John contains references to Matthew and Luke not found in Mark. Thus, Windisch concludes that John knew all three other works, but the lack of material from Matthew and Luke prompts him to question the degree of this knowledge. It seems that John incorporates what he remembers from the oral transmission from Matthew and Luke. Windisch believes the fourth gospel should be seen as seeking to supplant the others, but with the motive of addressing the Christological shortcomings of the other gospels.

About a decade later, Ernest Colwell advanced the discussion by suggesting John meant to supplant the other writings because he thought Matthew, Mark, and Luke present a picture of Jesus as an exorcist, baptizer, friend of sinners, crucified criminal, and the like, not of the Messiah, which is His true identity. Thus, John presents the Messiah upon whom the reader/hearer can learn and believe. Colwell sees John as seeking to correct the mistakes of Matthew, Mark, and Luke and present a more accurate picture of Jesus the Messiah.

The debate continues with Percival Gardner-Smith of Cambridge University opining that John knew little of the other books, so he wrote independently. Further, he suggests the oral tradition continued to develop after the writing of the other books. He bases his premise on the concept that the gospel accounts depend primarily on oral traditions rather than on written sources. He questions whether the fourth gospel can be better understood concerning literary dependence upon Matthew, Mark, and Luke or with the assumption of no literary connection. The similarity between John and Mark, according to Gardner-Smith, is more a matter of both authors writing about the same topic from oral sources rather than John having access to the Gospel of Mark. C. H. Dodd, the author of The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel, echoes Gardner-Smith and expresses support for the independent writing of the fourth gospel. Dodd insists John did not have access to the other writings but referred to them from memory. The works of Dodd are popular and garner more attention than Gardner-Smith, and more credence has been given to the independent theory of the writing of the gospel of John. We should note the basis of this view assumes a later writing, somewhere around 85-90 CE, which was considerably later than the writing of the other three. The position of a later writing of John is not unassailable, and one can make a strong argument for the writing of this gospel around 65 CE, which was roughly the same period as the writing of the others.


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