14. Similarities among John’s Gospel and the Synoptic Gospels

The number of similarities, even between the Gospel of John on the one side and Matthew, Mark, and Luke on the other, is remarkable.

Is there any historical worth to the Gospel of John? Does it stray so far from the actual life of Jesus that we can hope only for a pious but mostly fictional story of him? Skeptics like to point out the differences (not the same as contradictions), but do they ever see the remarkable similarities?

In the last four articles on the four Gospels, we discovered that they all share the same storyline, particularly in the context of mission. We should therefore be able to find this storyline in a comparison between John on the one hand and the Synoptics on the other.

The list is built on the Gospel of John. If John and one other Synoptic share one similarity, then it is listed. Needless to say, if John and two other Synoptics share a common feature, then it is listed, too. I have not counted how many similarities there are among John and one or two other Synoptics. But a reader is invited to compile these totals.

What is surprising about this list is how many times all four Gospels share similarities (see Q & A Two, below, for the totals).

1. So what are the similarities among John and the Synoptics?

The items are derived from a wide range of similarities, from large themes, all the way to specific verbal agreements. The categories follow the life of Christ, since that is the strategy of the four Gospels. The order of each item under the categories follows John’s references, as often as possible. Many items in this list have more than one Biblical reference, but they are sometimes omitted for brevity.
























2. So what’s the bottom line for the historical reliability of the four Gospels?

For me, the most surprising feature of this list is how often the four Gospels share similarities: about 149 out of a grand total of 226 items, which makes 66%.

The four Gospels cohere together in a unified storyline and present the same characters in the life of Jesus, though, of course, an author like John omits some and highlights others. But Peter’s life, for example, remains the same, in broad outline.

3. Why do the four Gospels share the same storyline?

Jesus’ ministry and death are rooted in a life story, in history, in time and place, in Israel about four decades before the destruction of the temple in AD 70 by the Roman General Titus (in that link see an image on the Arch of Titus of the Menorah [and more] triumphantly being carried through Rome).

Broadly speaking, the chronology in this list follows the ministry of Jesus because he lived one day at a time – chronologically, historically, as we all do. So it is only natural that his life story would be recounted in the Biblical Gospels – from his spiritual encounter with John at the Jordan River to Jesus’ resurrection.

4. But what about all the variations between the Gospels?

If a Gospel author varies the order of the story or omits characters – variations and omissions that all Greco-Roman authors used – then these decisions do not take away from the bigger chronology in the Gospels. Sometimes the authors emphasized theology and literary techniques, instead of a strict chronology or sequence. But this does not mean that they did not anchor their stories in historical events and a broad sequence. It is inconceivable, to cite absurd examples, that the death and resurrection would be placed before the triumphal entry into Jerusalem or before Judas’ betrayal. But within the chronology of Christ’s life, it is possible, for instance, to alternate the scenes of Peter’s denials with the scenes of Jesus’ trial, as John brilliantly – and touchingly – does (18:12-27).

This long list demonstrates how stable the traditions were. To cite an example, when the author of John wrote his Gospel (probably) in the 90’s, the Baptist’s name was still known as John, not Simon or Jacob. We should not take these facts or this stability for granted.

Bottom line: coherence of the same storyline in four accounts implies stability. Stability means historical reliability. It’s that simple.

5. So does the huge number of agreements between the four Gospels indicate a common “pool” of traditions about the life of Christ, or do they indicate eyewitness testimony?

The answer is both. In John’s case, I have reached the decision that it was written by an eyewitness. But he also had a stable “pool” of traditions from which to draw. The life of Christ presented in a broad, outlined story provides easy access to the common pool of traditions and remembrances and repetition by the tradition transmitters. This pool explains, in part, why Matthew, Mark, and Luke agree, even if we assume that Matthew and Luke borrow from Mark. There had to be a starting point. We already learned in the article on Mark’s Gospel that Peter was the main eyewitness in this Gospel. Undoubtedly, he wisely decided that the best way to preach the gospel is to follow Jesus’ life story, though of course he may have told short anecdotes in a context, and Mark put things in a broad storyline.

Another important feature of this long list is the category “Geography and Locations” near the beginning of the article. Even John, the so-called spiritual Gospel, anchors Christ’s life in geography, as we observed in the article about Archaeology and John’s Gospel. Jesus really did teach, for example, in the synagogue in Capernaum, which is confirmed in the Synoptics.

Back to the issue of storytelling and a storyline — in my view, stories are easier to remember and repeat than is a list of facts or disconnected or barely connected pile of sayings. Stories provide a context and natural order that accurately jar the memory.

Years ago I attended the performance of a memory expert. He asked the audience to give him a list of digits or numbers, from zero to nine,  one digit at a time. The audience randomly shouted out about thirty of them. He wrote them across the chalkboard, in the order (or disorder) we gave him. He turned his back on the board, faced us, and repeated the string of digits in the exact order on the board. How? Long before this performance, he had developed and assigned a comical character to each digit from zero to nine. As he wrote them on the board, he developed a story in his mind, from one random digit to the next in our string. He told himself the story according to the sequence and narrative interaction of the digits that were “characterized.” So the randomness of the series received order by story.

All analogies are flawed if they are pushed too far. This true anecdote is not to say that the Gospel tradition transmitters and the Gospel authors were modern memory experts (though they may have come close). Nor does the anecdote say that the Gospel authors always follow a strict and detailed chronology. Nor especially does it say that the Gospel traditions were randomly thrown onto “the chalkboard” of a transmitter’s memory. Sometimes sayings alone have value.

But the anecdote is to say that a story is very helpful in remembering accurately, and a story also helps the storyteller’s memory of the main characters – the exact requirements and layout of both the above list and the memory expert’s technique. To cite the ultimate illustration, the Grand Narrative or Story of the Iliad surely helped Homer, an oral poet, in keeping track of the main plot and subplots and the many characters.

6. How does this list apply to the Gnostic gospels?

The Gnostic gospels in the latest edition of the Nag Hammadi collection do not come anywhere near this detailed, unified storyline in the four Biblical Gospels. These heretical texts seem glad to engage in nothing but dialogues and discussions with very few references to historical facts. Gnostic teachings are disembodied and cut off from the real-life story of Jesus; no one can be confident that he or his disciples actually said or did those things in the Gnostic texts, except a few passages that obviously derive from the earlier Biblical Gospels. Thus, this long list provides us with hard evidence for our intuition that the Gnostic texts stray far from the life and teaching and works of Jesus, as they really happened. Therefore, the early church fathers were right to distance themselves and their churches from the Gnostic heresy.

On a much smaller scale than the early church’s orthodox struggle with heresies, it is misguided to place the words orthodoxy or heresy in quotation marks as the heavy promoters of the Gnostic texts do nowadays. There really was a heresy and an orthodoxy back then; we can see the distinctions when we compare the teachings of the Biblical Gospels and the teaching of the Gnostic texts.

7. So what does all of this mean to the Church of all denominations?

The Church needs to have confidence in this age of mass media mud slinging on the Biblical Gospels. Boosting the confidence of the Church has been the main goal of the entire series.

These things in this list were really done and spoken. They are reality. We need to tell the story of the unified, essential Gospel to whoever will listen to us.


See Part Three in the series: “Archaeology and the Gospel of John”

See also Part Two: “Archaeology and the Synoptic Gospels”

Paul N. Anderson. “Aspects of Historicity in the Gospel of John.” In James H. Charlesworth. Jesus and Archaeology. Eerdman’s, 2006. Pp. 587-618.

Richard Bauckham. Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony. Eerdmans, 2006.

—. The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple: Narrative, History, and Theology in the Gospel of John. Baker Academic, 2007.

Andrew Lincoln, Truth on Trial: the Lawsuit Motif in the Fourth Gospel. Hendrickson, 2000.

Mark D. Roberts. “Did the Gospel Writers Know Jesus Personally? Section A.

—. “Did the Gospel Writers Know Jesus Personally?” Section B.

—. “Did the Gospel Writers Know Jesus Personally?” Section C.

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