Academic journal article Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

The Relationship between John and the Synoptic Gospels

Academic journal article Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

The Relationship between John and the Synoptic Gospels

Article excerpt

JAMES D. DVORAK*

Since the beginning of the modern era, scholars have debated everything from the authorship of the fourth gospel to its purpose. Not uncommon among these debates has been that concerning the relationship between this gospel and the synoptic gospels. As D. M. Smith has noted, this particular debate stretches far back into history:

The relationship of John to the synoptic gospels has been a recurring problem, not only for two centuries of modern critical scholarship, but for Christian theology and exegesis over a much longer period.1

There has been no break in the debating over this issue. But there has been some change in what many scholars believe about the relationship between the gospels.

Until about World War II 2 the dominant view was that John knew and used one or more of the synoptic gospels when writing his account.3 P. GardnerSmith,4 however, began a trend away from the dependence theory when he brought to light two of its shortcomings:

First, the existence of continuing oral tradition at the time when the Gospel was written, which renders the argument for John's dependence on the Synoptics less compelling; second, the concentration of critics on points of agreement between the Fourth Gospel and the Synoptics and their overlooking of the significance of the differences.5

Since that time many scholars have followed theories that view John as having written independently of the synoptics.

In most recent debates, the arguments concerning John's relationship to the synoptics have centered around three distinct positions6: (1) that John was literarily dependent upon one or more of the synoptics, (2) that John was literarily independent of the synoptics but that similarities between them are due to use of a common synoptic tradition(s), and (3) that John was literarily independent of the synoptics but was aware of them and their tradition(s). 7

I. LITERARY DEPENDENCE

The first theory that must be discussed is that which claims John was literarily dependent upon one or more of the synoptics. This position must be assessed carefully, since several distinct arguments have been made to forward it.

In America the argument for the thesis has arisen, at least in part, as a result of Norman Perrin's8 suggestion that one can find traces of Mark's redactional work on the passion narrative in John's account.9 He writes:

For a long time the general opinion of New Testament scholars was that the passion narrative existed as a connected unit before the gospel of Mark was written, and it was easy and natural to think that John had known and used a version of that pre-Markan narrative rather than the gospel of Mark. But today the tendency is to ascribe more and more of the composition of the passion narrative to the evangelist Mark himself and to doubt the very existence of a pre-Markan and non-Markan passion narrative extensive enough to have been the basis for the gospel of John.10

The principle here is simple and clear-cut: If elements of synoptic redaction have found their way into the fourth gospel, then John must have known not merely Markan tradition but the gospel of Mark itself.1l "Traces of indisputably Markan redaction in John should prove beyond reasonable doubt John's knowledge and use of Mark."12 Therefore, according to Perrin, the similarities between John and Mark in the passion materials13 strongly imply that John knew and used Mark.

This redaction-critical stance should not be too hastily acclaimed, however. Perrin's position seems to be based on the presumption that Markan redaction can be easily identified. Lloyd Kittlaus correctly observes that one cannot be sufficiently certain about what is and what is not Markan redaction. 4 In reality, of the linguistic and stylistic criteria used to establish redaction on the Markan side, eighty-five to ninety percent are missing from the Johannine parallels. …

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