New College, University of Edinburgh

John and the Synoptics: Are We Really Still Asking That Question?

Once when discussing my thesis on John’s relationship to Mark, a fellow student enquired, ‘are we really still asking that question?’ And the answer – ‘yes, yes we really are’. So I would like to take this opportunity take you on a whistle-stop tour of ‘John and the Synoptics’ across the millennia, which will in turn hopefully give a good indication of why in 2017 we are still asking this question.

In the earliest times the church fathers offered their opinions concerning John’s relationship to the Synoptics. In the 2nd century Clement of Alexandria suggested that John knew the Synoptics, but wrote his own type of gospel, as he was recorded by Eusebius as saying that John was ‘conscious that the outward facts had been had been set put in the Gospels…[and] composed a spiritual gospel’ (Hist. eccl. 6.14.7). Later on in the 3rd century Origen declared that there was a total lack relationship between any of the gospels as he wrote ‘if someone carefully examined the gospels with regard to the historical disharmony that each one shows…then the person would surely become dizzy from trying to confirm that the gospels are true.’ (Comm. Jo. 10.3).[1] In the 4th century Eusebius argued that John’s knew the Synoptics and sought to supplement them, as he stated ‘the previously written three had already been distributed to everyone, even to John. The only thing lacking in the previous writings was what had been done in the earliest times’, which John fulfilled in his prologue (Hist. eccl. 3.24.2).[2]

For a good while after this, opinion on the matter lay dormant. However, after the Reformation interest in the question took hold again. In the 16th century John Calvin again suggested that John knew the Synoptics and sought to supplement them, stating that although John was written last, a scholar must start with his gospel as his prologue shows the ‘purpose for why [Jesus] was manifested’[3]. After the Enlightenment, in the 18th century P. Annet again declared that there was no relationship between any of the gospels. When referring to the resurrection of Jesus he wrote, ‘the witnesses…palpably contradict one another in every particular they give us of it.’[4] Later in the 18th century H. Owen argued that John knew the Synoptics and sought to correct them, stating that ‘St John undertook to confute their errors from the Life and Conversation of Christ.’[5] In the 19th century D. F. Strauss proposed that John did not know the Synoptics, and that his discourse material was freely composed by the author under the influence of Alexandrian or Hellenistic philosophy.[6]

The 20th century saw a surge in interest concerning John’s relationship to the Synoptics. In 1926 H. Windisch proposed that John knew the Synoptics and that he wrote his own Gospel so as to replace them.[7] In 1938 P. Gardiner-Smith argued that John did not know the Synoptics and rather shared common oral tradition with them, as the similarities and differences between the gospels were consistent with the process of oral transmission.[8]  In 1941 R. Bultmann suggested that John did not know the Synoptics, and rather composed a good part of his gospel by drawing on a revelation discourse source and a signs source.[9] From 1955 C.K. Barrett advocated that John knew the Synoptics, and in 1974 he stated that he found Gardiner-Smith’s proposal to be  ‘lame’ and remarked that ‘anyone who after an interval of nineteen centuries feels himself in a position to distinguish nicely between ‘ Mark ’ and something much like Mark ’ is at liberty to do so. The simpler hypothesis, which does not involve the postulation of otherwise unknown entities, is not without attractiveness.’[10] From 1980 D.M. Smith argued that John did not know the Synoptics, and in 1992 he suggested that John bore a resemblance to the apocryphal gospels, as like them he presented a very different picture of Jesus, and did not have knowledge of the Synoptics/Canonical gospels.[11] Also, in 1992, T.M. Dowell suggested that John knew the Synoptics, and that he sought to improve them by offering a higher Christology so as to counteract criticism from the Jewish community.[12] In 1993 T. L. Brodie argued that John knew the Synoptics, and called for the gospel to be analysed in light of the ‘procedures of transformation’ which were employed by other Greek, Roman and Jewish authors of the time.[13] In 1998 R. Bauckham proposed that John knew the Synoptics and sought to compliment them by offering a fuller Christological and Soteriological explanation of the incidents present in their gospels.[14] In 2001 Anderson suggested that John did not know Mark, but rather they were ‘bi-optic gospels’. He argued that John was written around 80CE, and that the sources of information for each gospel – a Johannine preacher for John and Peter for Mark, circulated in the same circles and as such had similar material to offer.[15] In 2005 Mackay proposed that John knew Mark, and that he carefully adapted Mark’s strategy and symbolism to suit his own apologetic.[16] In 2011 Dunn proposed that John did not know the Synoptics and returning to an earlier suggestion argued that they shared common oral tradition, but accounted for the similarities and differences on account of the fact  that John used the material ‘to draw out fuller meaning of what Jesus had said and done’.[17] Also in 2011, Hunt advocated that John knew all the Synoptics, as he ‘assiduously studied all three gospels’ and altered then so as to suit his own theological and thematic interests.[18] In 2015 Barker proposed that John knew Matthew. He suggested that John should be studied in light of the apocryphal gospels so as to assess how both depend upon and re-cast their Synoptic/Canonical sources.[19] In 2016 M. Labahn argued that John knew the Synoptics through a process of ‘secondary orality’ – the oral traditions that were written into Mark’s gospel were re-oralised and were in turn written into John’s gospel.[20]

It is hopefully now clear that as the past two millennia have offered such vast and varying answers to the question of ‘John and the Synoptics’ that it is still necessary in 2017 to revisit the age old question in search of an answer.


Written by Elizabeth Corsar



[1] Translation taken from J.W. Barker, John’s Use of Matthew (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), 3.

[2] Translation taken from J.W. Barker, John’s Use of Matthew, 4.

[3] J. Calvin, Commentary on the Gospel according to John, Vol 1, W. Pringle (trans), (Edinburgh, 1847).

[4] P. Annet, The Resurrection of Jesus Considered: In Answer to The Tryal of the Witnesses, Vol 2 (London: 1744), 69. Quoted by Barker, John’s Use of Matthew, 7.

[5] H. Owen, Observations on the Four Gospels: Tending Chiefly to Ascertain the Times of Their Publication and to illustrate the Form and Manner of their composition (London: T. Payne, 1764), 107.

[6] D. F. Strauss, Das Leben Jesu: kritisch bearbeitet, 2 Vols (Tübingen, 1835).

[7] H. Windisch, Johannes und die Synoptiker: Sollte der vierte Evangelist die älteren Evangelium ergänzen oder ersetzen? (Leipzig: J.C. Hinrichs’sche Buchhanlung, 1926).  

[8] P. Gardiner-Smith, Saint John and the Synoptic Gospels (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1938).

[9] R. Bultmann,  Das Evangelium des Johannes (Göttingen, 1941).

[10] C.K. Barrett, ‘John and the Synoptic Gospels’ ExpTim 85/8 (1974), 282.

[11] D.M. Smith, ‘The problem of John and the Synoptics in Light of the Relation between Apocryphal and Canonical Gospels’ in A. Denaux (ed) John and the Synoptics (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 1992), 147-162.

[12] T.M. Dowell, ‘Why John Rewrote the Synoptics’  in A. Denaux (ed) John and the Synoptics (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 1992), 453-457.

[13] T.L. Brodie, The Quest for the Origins of John’s Gospel: A Source Orientated Approach (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 34.

[14] R. Bauckham, ‘John for readers of Mark’ in R. Bauckham (ed) The Gospels for all Christians: Rethinking the Gospel Audiences (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 169.

[15] P. Anderson, ‘John and Mark: The Bi-Optic Gospels’ in R.T. Fortna and T. Thatcher (ed) Jesus in the Johannine Tradition (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 175-188.

[16] I.D. Mackay, John’s Relationship with Mark (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2004).

[17] J.D.G. Dunn, ‘John’s Gospel and the Oral Gospel Tradition’ in A. Le Donne and T. Thatcher, The Fourth Gospel in First-Century Media Culture (London: T&T Clark, 2011), 179.

[18] S.A. Hunt, Rewriting the Feeding of the Five Thousand: John 6.1-15 as a Test Case for Johannine Dependence on the Synoptic Gospels (New York: Peter Lang, 2011), 229, 283.

[19] J.W. Barker, John’s Use of Matthew.

[20] M. Labhan, ‘Secondary Orality in the Gospel of John: ‘A Post-Guttenberg’ Paradigm for understanding the relationship between Written Gospel Texts’ in S.E. Porter and H.T. Ong (ed) The Origins of John’s Gospel (Leiden: Brill, 2016), 72-80.



Share Post:
  • CSCO Team,
  • 5th April 2017


  • Bert, 9th April 2017 at 8:31 pm | Reply

    Thanks for the summary! very helpful!

Add comment