When I became a Christian in college, I was taught that if anyone had a question about Jesus, they should be told to read the Gospel of John. I don’t remember being told why. I didn’t grow up in the church, nor did I know much about the Bible. Everyone else seemed to take the advice as obvious, so I didn’t ask.
In part, it may be because of John’s explicit evangelistic emphasis: “But these things are written so that you will believe that Jesus is the Christ, God’s Son, and that believing, you will have life in his name” (20:31, CEB). And of course, it doesn’t hurt that John 3:16 comes early on: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life.”
It wasn’t until much later, though, that I came to appreciate the uniqueness of John’s gospel, compared to Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
Having spent the last three years teaching and blogging my way through Paul’s letters to the Corinthians, it’s time to move on — this time, to the Gospel of John. So if you don’t already have a sense of John’s unique take on the story of Jesus, try this. Read through all four gospels. Best of all, read Mark first, then Matthew, Luke, and finally, John.
You’ll probably notice that Mark is the shortest of the four, with the pithiest style: “Jesus was in this place and did this. Then he went somewhere else, and did that. And immediately this happened.” Once you’ve read Mark, much of Matthew and Luke will sound familiar — many of the same stories, in some cases nearly verbatim, with an additional detail or two.
And then, John. On the one hand, cherished stories and parables from Matthew, Mark, and Luke are entirely missing: there is, for example, no institution of the Lord’s Supper in John. On the other hand, John presents a great deal of new material: at the Last Supper, for example, Jesus washes the disciples’ feet.
As a writer, it’s hard for me to imagine a world in which knowledge is passed by oral tradition. We have millions of books, print and electronic. Websites push information to us. Our days can be dominated by emails, texts, and tweets. (And you have to be careful what words and images you put out there, or they may dog you the rest of your life.)
Of course, it was no small thing in the first century to produce a written text the length of our gospels. But it’s still difficult for me to grasp that they weren’t written until the church had already been in existence for decades. If the first Easter were to happen today, the media would explode with words.
There were, of course, teachers and preachers. There were hymns celebrating Jesus. There may have been a written collection of his sayings. And there were letters, like those of Paul. But no authoritative written accounts of the life and ministry of Jesus, not until someone decided there was enough of a reason.
Biblical scholars generally agree that Mark was the first of the four to be written, and John the last. When Matthew and Luke wrote their accounts, they used Mark’s as a source, sometimes modifying the details as needed. Hypothetically, they may also have drawn from a collection of Jesus sayings (called “Q,” from the German word for “source”). That helps explain the significant overlap between Matthew, Mark, and Luke, which together are known as the “Synoptic” Gospels (from the Greek for “see together”).
John, however, is different. Very different. That’s not necessarily to say that he had no knowledge of the other gospels or Q. But why is his account so unique? Speculation abounds, and the debate goes on.
In the next post, we’ll look at a well-known and sometimes controversial example of just how different John’s story can be.