Comparing John and the Synoptic Gospels

Exploring similarities and differences among the four Gospels

Some red apples and one green apples

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If you grew up watching Sesame Street, as I did, you probably saw one of the many iterations of the song that says, "One of these things is not like the other; one of these things just doesn't belong." The idea is to compare 4 or 5 different objects, then pick out the one that is noticeably different from the rest. 

Strangely enough, that's a game you could play with the four Gospels of the New Testament.

For centuries, Bible scholars and general readers have noticed a major division present within the four Gospels of the New Testament. Specifically, the Gospel of John stands apart in many ways from the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. This division is so strong and noticeable that Mathew, Mark, and Luke have their own special name: the Synoptic Gospels.


Let's get something straight: I don't want to make it seem like the Gospel of John is inferior to the other Gospels, or that it contradicts any other books of the New Testament. That's not the case at all. Indeed, on a broad level, the Gospel of John has a lot in common with the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke.

For example, the Gospel of John is similar to the Synoptic Gospels in that all four of the Gospel books tell the story of Jesus Christ. Each Gospel proclaims that story through a narrative lens (through stories, in other words), and both the Synoptic Gospels and John include the major categories of Jesus' life—His birth, His public ministry, His death on the cross, and His resurrection from the grave.

Moving deeper, it's also clear that both John and the Synoptic Gospels express a similar movement when telling the story of Jesus' public ministry and the major events leading up to His crucifixion and resurrection. Both John and the Synoptic Gospels highlight the connection between John the Baptist and Jesus (Mark 1:4-8; John 1:19-36). They both highlight Jesus' lengthy public ministry in Galilee (Mark 1:14-15; John 4:3), and they both transition into a deeper look at Jesus' final week spent in Jerusalem (Matthew 21:1-11; John 12:12-15).

In a similar way, the Synoptic Gospels and John reference several of the same individual events that occurred during Jesus’ public ministry. Examples include the feeding of the 5,000 (Mark 6:34-44; John 6:1-15), Jesus walking on water (Mark 6:45-54; John 6:16-21), and many of the events recorded within the Passion Week (e.g. Luke 22:47-53; John 18:2-12).

More importantly, the narrative themes of Jesus’ story remain consistent throughout the four Gospels. Each of the Gospels records Jesus in regular conflict with the religious leaders of the day, including the Pharisees and other teachers of the law. Similarly, each of the Gospels records the slow and sometimes painstaking journey of Jesus’ disciples from willing-but-foolhardy initiates to men desiring to sit at the right hand of Jesus in the kingdom of heaven -- and, later, to the men who responded with joy and skepticism at Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. Finally, each of the Gospels centers on Jesus’ core teachings regarding the call for all people to repent, the reality of a new covenant, Jesus’ own divine nature, the elevated nature of God’s kingdom, and so on.

In other words, it's important to remember that in no place and in no way does the Gospel of John contradict the narrative or theological message of the Synoptic Gospels in a major way. The core elements of Jesus’ story and the key themes of His teaching ministry remain the same in all four Gospels.


That being said, there are a number of conspicuous differences between the Gospel of John and those of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Indeed, one of the major differences involves the flow of the different events in Jesus’ life and ministry.

Barring a few variations and differences in style, the Synoptic Gospels generally cover the same events throughout the course of Jesus’ life and ministry. They give ample attention to the period of Jesus’ public ministry throughout the regions of Galilee, Jerusalem, and several locations in between -- including many of the same miracles, discourses, major proclamations, and confrontations. True, the different writers of the Synoptic Gospels often arranged these events in different orders due to their own unique preferences and goals; however, the books of Mathew, Mark, and Luke can be said to follow the same broader script.

The Gospel of John doesn't follow that script. Rather, it marches to the beat of its own drum in terms of the events it describes. Specifically, the Gospel of John can be divided into four major units or sub-books:

  1. An introduction or prologue (1:1-18).
  2. The Book of Signs, which focuses on Jesus’ messianic “signs” or miracles performed for the benefit of the Jews (1:19–12:50).
  3. The Book of Exaltation, which anticipates Jesus’ exaltation with the Father subsequent to His crucifixion, burial, and resurrection (13:1–20:31).
  4. An epilogue which unfolds the future ministries of Peter and John (21).

The end result is that, while the Synoptic Gospels share a large percentage of content between each other in terms of the events described, the Gospel of John contains a large percentage of material that is unique to itself. In fact, around 90 percent of the material written in the Gospel of John can only be found in the Gospel of John. It's not recorded in the other Gospels.


So, how can we explain the fact that John's Gospel doesn't cover the same events as Matthew, Mark, and Luke? Does that mean John remembered something different about Jesus' life -- or even that Matthew, Mark, and Luke were wrong about what Jesus said and did?

Not at all. The simple truth is that John wrote his Gospel about 20 years after Matthew, Mark, and Luke wrote theirs. For that reasons, John chose to skim and skip over much of the ground that had already been covered in the Synoptic Gospels. He wanted to fill in some of the gaps and provide new material. He also dedicated a great deal of time to describing the various events surrounding the Passion week before Jesus’ crucifixion -- which was a very important week, as we now understand.

In addition to the flow of events, the style of John differs greatly from that of the Synoptic Gospels. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are largely narrative in their approach. They feature geographical settings, large numbers of characters, and a proliferation of dialogue. The Synoptics also record Jesus as teaching primarily through parables and short bursts of proclamation.

John’s Gospel, however, is much more drawn out and introspective. The text is packed with long discourses, primarily from the mouth of Jesus. There are significantly fewer events that would qualify as “moving along the plot,” and there are significantly more theological explorations.

As an example, the birth of Jesus offers readers a great chance to observe the stylistic differences between the Synoptic Gospels and John. Matthew and Luke tell the story of Jesus’ birth in a way that can be reproduced through a nativity play -- complete with characters, costumes, sets, and so on (see Matthew 1:18–2:12; Luke 2:1-21). They describe specific events in a chronological way.

John’s Gospel contains no characters whatsoever. Instead, John offers a theological proclamation of Jesus as the divine Word -- the Light that shines in the darkness of our world even though many refuse to recognize Him (John 1:1-14). John's words are powerful and poetic. The writing style is completely different.

In the end, while the Gospel of John ultimately tells the same story as the Synoptic Gospels, major differences do exist between the two approaches. And that's okay. John intended his Gospel to add something new to Jesus' story, which is why his finished product is noticeably different from what was already available.

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Your Citation
O'Neal, Sam. "Comparing John and the Synoptic Gospels." Learn Religions, Apr. 5, 2023, O'Neal, Sam. (2023, April 5). Comparing John and the Synoptic Gospels. Retrieved from O'Neal, Sam. "Comparing John and the Synoptic Gospels." Learn Religions. (accessed June 10, 2023).