In opposition to the independence theory, John Lightfoot (1602-1675) and C. K. Barrett argue for a greater degree of interdependence between the gospel of John and the other gospels. Barrett notes similarities between John and Mark. Lightfoot suggests viewing John as seeking to supplement or interpret Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The level of verbal or literary relationship is tenuous because scholars find the connections in ordinary, mundane phrases and terms instead of unique or rarely seen words and expressions. Barrett cites twelve instances of parallels between Mark and John, but of these twelve the longest is approximately equal to two sentences—one of average length and the other shorter. This seems to fail the criteria for literary dependence. Further, it would seem that unusual terms or noteworthy phrases would likely be the very things John would recall from Mark’s gospel, and the lack of these instances raises more questions as to a literary relationship between the two. “The striking verbatim agreements between John and even Mark represent only a minor fraction of the text of either.

Even when the two gospel accounts are obviously narrating the same event, the amount of verbatim agreement is relatively small when compared with that among the Synoptic Gospels.” [1] While there is some commonality of material in Mark and John, much of what is found in Mark’s gospel is not in John’s gospel, even though the few things that are in both are in the same order. The most striking example of this is the feeding of the five thousand and Jesus walking on the Sea of Galilee. The obvious reply is that the two men are telling of the same events, with different interpretation or perspective, but the events are the same, regardless of who is doing the telling. Despite the weakness of the similarities between the two gospels, Rudolf Schnackenburg refers to these parallels as remarkable and uses these to claim a degree of literary relationship between the two. In contrast, Raymond Brown supports the independent writing of John's gospel on the basis that the inconsistencies are too numerous to be anything else but independent. Schnackenburg comments the “Johannine tradition is, on the whole, independent, and even where it deals with matters also found in the Synoptics, it does not seem to pass any judgment on them. The fourth evangelist has his own style of narration and formulation, and does not show any tendency to correct or replace the Synoptics.” [2] Taking a more extreme position, Bultmann suggests that John is not based on the other three gospels and goes as far as to question whether John was even aware of what Matthew, Mark, and Luke had written.

Robert Kysar summarizes three possible solutions for the relationship between the first three gospels of the New Testament and the writing of John. One is that John knows one or all of the other gospels and depends on them to some degree to provide background material. In this way, his gospel supplements the others. It assumes its readers are familiar with the ministry of Jesus from the other writings. The second possibility is that John writes independently of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, having no knowledge of the existence of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. This premise offers a solution to the differences between the Gospel written by John and the other gospels but causes problems with regard to the similarities between them. To address the points of similarity, the “second theory would propose that the fourth evangelist is simply reporting memories that happen to be in accord with the Synoptic witnesses.” [3] The third idea is that John has access to a tradition—be it written or oral—that was also available to the other gospels. Michael Labahn, in a study of the Johannine miracles, argues, “the significant points of similarity do not justify the conclusion that John knew and used the Synoptics as literary sources.” [4] He views the influence of the other three gospels as more secondary oral in nature, which would make sense for an earlier writing of John. Manfred Lang, a contemporary of Labahn, writes that John is directly dependent on Mark and also relied on Luke to some degree.

There are chronological differences between the fourth gospel and Matthew, Mark, and Luke. John and Mark imply two clearings of the Temple (John 2:14-22 and Mark 11:15-17), and John records three Passovers while the other three gospels only record one. There are questions also about the timing of the events of the last week, the arrest, trial, and crucifixion. For example, does the crucifixion of Jesus coincide with the slaying of the Passover lambs, or do the disciples and Jesus partake of the Passover before His arrest on the evening of the Passover and crucifixion the next day? Finally, John records the decision of Pilate being made in the sixth hour while the others record the crucifixion as occurring in the third hour, which would be 9 A.M. If the fourth gospel were written around 67-70 CE, this would explain nicely why John's writing contains some similarities to the gospel of Mark, since it was the only other gospel available at the time. Matthew and Luke were written, if the time lines are correct, about the same time as John. Each writer had his agenda for writing, and this is why there is little to be found in the fourth gospel that one can link to either Matthew or Luke. Similarities only exist because all four men told the same story of Jesus’ ministry as it took place in Jerusalem and Galilee.

George Beasley-Murray in his substantial commentary using the original Greek argues that John, rather than being independent of the other gospels, is dependent on them to some degree. His premise is that, just because John's writing is different from the other gospels, this does not justify a purposeful separation or the presence of extra-Synoptic sources of information. The Gospel by John is distinct and different from the others, but it does not possess its own agenda, and one should not view it as radically different from Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Ben Witherington III notes that “the case for dependence on Matthew is generally recognized to be weak; the case for dependence on Luke depends on certain names and details shared in common, which can easily be attributed to the use of common sources. The case for dependence on Mark is more substantial, however, and may lead to the conclusion that the evangelist, at least, had heard this gospel at some point.” [5] Richard Bauckham agrees that the author of John is familiar with Mark’s gospel, and assumes his reader would know the gospel written by Mark. This knowledge on the part of the reader could simply be because the Gospel of Mark was the first one written and John had access to this book but not to the others.

It is entirely possible that too much is made of similarities and dissimilarities between the gospels. The author is “simply adapting and adopting the widely known form of the ancient biography, which begins with the main subject’s origins, concludes with his death and legacy, and in between provides a mixture of chronological narrative and topically arranged material, or discourses, or dialogs, in part depending on whether the biography is about a philosopher or teacher on the one hand or a great political figure on the other.” [6] While the fourth gospel has many differences in contrast to the other gospels, such as His encounter with Nicodemus, the meeting with the Samaritan woman at the Sychar well, the different placement of His clearing of the Temple, and the resurrection of Lazarus to name a few, “in spite of these and many more minor differences the broad outline of the story is much the same, telling of a Jewish prophet who after a brief career as a teacher and wonder-worker ends up in Jerusalem as a victim of the machinations of a ruthless hierarchy which contrives His death at the hand of the Roman colonial authorities.” [7]


Copyright 2016 © Craig B. Manning. All Rights Reserved.