Does the Gospel of John Portray a Different Jesus?
New Testament scholars often treat the Gospel of John like a red-headed stepchild. We’re often told that John presents a Jesus who is fundamentally different from the Synoptics. For example, here is the well-known NT critic Bart Ehrman:
…if Matthew and John were both written by earthly disciples of Jesus, why are they so very different, on all sorts of levels? … Why do they have such fundamentally different views of who Jesus was?…
(interview with NPR 12/14/05)
Ehrman certainly isn’t alone in his opinion here. Even Craig Evans, an evangelical New Testament scholar, concedes this point to Bart. He says:
I suspect we (Ehrman and I) don’t have too much difference on John. My view is that the gospel of John is a horse of another color altogether. It’s a different genre…you have virtually nothing…in Matthew, Mark, and Luke that sounds like, and looks like, Jesus in the Gospel of John. So, we have to ask as historians, at this point, is there just some other Jesus we just didn’t know about?…
(Evans-Ehrman debate “Does the New Testament Present a Historically Reliable Portrait of the Historical Jesus?”)
A horse of a different color? No offense to Evans, but this sounds like a nice theological way of saying John is basically fan-fiction. Should Christians think of John as borderline apocryphal? Let’s take a look and see if there is “virtually nothing” that sounds like the Jesus of Matthew, Mark, and Luke found in John.
Jesus answered them, “I did one work, and you all marvel at it. Moses gave you circumcision (not that it is from Moses, but from the fathers), and you circumcise a man on the Sabbath. If on the Sabbath a man receives circumcision, so that the law of Moses may not be broken, are you angry with me because on the Sabbath I made a man’s whole body well? (John 7:21-23)
Here Jesus gets a little snippy. Bad pun intended. Compare this reported event with one found in Luke 13:15-16, where Jesus responds to those who said that he’d broken the Sabbath for healing a disabled woman:
Then the Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger and lead it away to water it? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath day?”
In both stories, Jesus uses a pun to take a swipe at their hypocrisy. The Law’s ritual commands are not more important than making someone whole. Their priorities were all screwed up. Jesus wasn’t just witty, he was also sarcastic. Here’s Luke 13:33:
for it cannot be that a prophet should perish away from Jerusalem.’
We see the same sarcastic Jesus in John 10:32:
Jesus answered them, “I have shown you many good works from the Father; for which of them are you going to stone me?”
So far, we have learned that a good dose of sarcasm and puns is essential to becoming an imitator of Christ. That I can emulate! While that sounds fun, we also learn from both the Synoptics and in John that Jesus hated flattery.
Jesus Turns Away Compliments
In John’s Gospel Nicodemus tried to sweet talk Jesus, saying:
“Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him” (John 3:2).
Jesus wasn’t having it, responding:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Well, that came out of leftfield!
The same thing happens in Luke 11:27-28 when Jesus again rejects a compliment. Luke tells us that:
“As [Jesus] said these things, a woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to him, “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts at which you nursed!” What was Jesus’ response? “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!”
You simply can’t butter up Jesus; he sees right through it and gets down to the heart of the matter.
Jesus Becomes Lonely
There’s also the very human side of Jesus — he becomes lonely. Skeptics often say that the Jesus in John is this otherworldly Jesus, but let’s look at some interesting similarities. Here’s Jesus in Mark:
And He took with Him Peter and James and John and began to be very distressed and troubled. And He said to them, “My soul is deeply grieved to the point of death; remain here and keep watch.”…And He came and found them sleeping, and said to Peter, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not keep watch for one hour?” (Mk 14:33-37)
And here is Jesus in John:
After he had said this, Jesus was troubled in spirit and testified, “Very truly I tell you, one of you is going to betray me. (Jn 13:21)
Here Jesus is very human. He also pointedly asks the disciples if they were going to leave him after the crowds turned on him when he talked about him being the “bread of life”. (John 6:67) Again we see tremendous unity in character so far. Finally, Jesus was also very quick to say “I told you so”
Mark 13:23: But be on guard; I have told you all things beforehand.
John 14:29: And now I have told you before it takes place, so that when it does take place you may believe.
More Unity of Character
This unity of personality is a far cry from the “horse of a different color” that Evans is talking about. There are also similar sayings found in both the Synoptics and John. Likewise, a common language among gospel narratives can display a unity of character. Consider the following parallels, which are based on a variety of settings and scenes in the gospels. Such as:
A servant is not above his teacher
- Matthew 10:23-24: When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next, for truly, I say to you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes. “A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master.”
- John 15:20: Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.
- Matthew 10:40: Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me.
- John 13:20: Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever receives the one I send receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me.
Ask and you will receive
- Matthew 7:7: Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.
- John 16:24: Until now you have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.
Moses and the prophets
- Luke 16:29-31: But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’
- John 5:45-47: Do not think that I will accuse you to the Father. There is one who accuses you: Moses, on whom you have set your hope. For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?
Now of course John very strongly emphasizes different phrases and themes. No one is disputing that. But this could easily be the result of selection by emphasis.
This is completely in keeping with what we know from the early church fathers. Clement of Alexandria, writing around 180 AD said “they say accordingly that John was asked to relate in his own gospel the period passed over in silence by the former evangelists.” (Cited in Eusebius, Church History, 3.24.1-13)
The Johannine Thunderbolt
We need to realize that the Synoptics don’t necessarily give us a representative sample of all of Jesus’ topics or vocabulary. That said, Jesus does say something that sounds very much like John’s Gospel in Matthew 11:27:
All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.
Ehrman says that Jesus hardly talks about himself in Matthew, and certainly not much about his identity, but wow … this is a bombshell. According to Jesus, only he can supernaturally reveal his sonship status. And in this context, it’s only the humble that can receive it.
Is there any explanation for the fact that Jesus says the same thing in both Synoptics and John? Maybe … and hear me out here … maybe it’s because the Jesus in John is the same Jesus. This passage is paralleled in Luke 10:21-22, which according to the critics, means that this passage was in the so-called Q gospel, which they believe was an earlier, now lost source that they’d date to the 40’s or 50’s AD. Wow. So that would make this part of the earliest gospel tradition.
That means that in the 40s or 50s we have a tradition where Jesus is asserting himself as the unique Son of the Father whose identity can only be revealed by the Father. And that he is the only one who can tell you who the Father is. But hold the phone here. We’re told by Ehrman and company that this kind of theology was a later invention by John that developed in the late first century. How did this get into such an early source?
Probably because Jesus really said it. The bottom line is that the Jesus in John and the Jesus of the Synoptics are the same. He isn’t a horse of a different color, he’s the same sarcastic, punny, quick-witted, compassionate, heart-piercing Jesus found in the other canonical gospels.
Erik Manning is a Reasonable Faith Chapter Director located in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He’s a former freelance baseball writer and the co-owner of a vintage and handmade decor business with his wife, Dawn. He is passionate about the intersection of apologetics and evangelism.