John’s Gospel is quite different from the synoptic Gospels, both in terms of content and style. In fact, most of what John reports is not found in the other three Gospels. Where there is some overlap (for example, especially in the arrest, trial, and crucifixion of Jesus) John’s scenes are still entirely his own. This raises the obvious question of how and why John is so unique. The three “synoptic Gospels” certainly have distinctive elements, but all three basically tell the same story of Jesus in its rough outline. John, however, reports Jesus going places, doing things, and saying things that are not found elsewhere in the New Testament.
Scholars are in general agreement that John’s Gospel was the last to be written, and probably not completed until nearly AD 100. The author is anonymous, and various candidates have been considered over the years. The most common scholarly guess as to John’s authorship is that it came from the hand of Jesus’ disciple, John, the son of Zebedee, but this is not certain. A common scholarly opinion is that the Gospel began more simply as an account of Jesus’ life that was expanded over several decades and reworked by different communities to reflect their own concerns. Not all agree, however.
This theory accounts well for one of John’s emphases, which has proved troubling for contemporary Christians: John’s negative attitude towards Jews, which is not found in the other Gospels. This ancient attitude likely reflects contemporary conflicts among Christians and Jews, which would have led John to draw a sharp line between the two groups. John’s recurring warnings about “the world” is another example of “dualistic thinking” and suggests tensions between the church and the outside Greek world. For the audience of John’s Gospel, these two groups apparently posed a threat that John felt needed to be countered.
Another of John’s clear emphases is Jesus’ divine origin. The other three Gospels do not lay so much stress on Jesus and the Father being “one” or that the Father sent the Son. For John, there was an intimate connection that needed to be expressed.
Many of the best known episodes in Jesus’ life are unique to John: his night meeting with Nicodemus; the Samaritan woman at the well; the woman caught in adultery; the seven “I am” passages; the raising of Lazarus; Jesus’ prayer for himself, the disciples, and other believers in the upper room. Also, the lengthy account of the trial, sentencing, crucifixion and multiple post-resurrection appearances of Jesus includes numerous unique elements: including the appearance to Mary Magdalene at the tomb, the appearance to Thomas, and the reinstatement of Peter after his denials of Jesus.
John seems to be not so much a Gospel that “fills in” the gaps of the other three. Rather, it is a separate portrait of Jesus designed to convey meaningful theological lessons to the community for which it was written. Attempts to “reconcile” or “harmonize” John with the other three Gospels risks muting that distinct voice.
– Peter Enns