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John vs. the Synoptics

22 April 2009

It’s going to take some patient reading, so gird up.  First, John’s account:

This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John [the baptizer] was baptizing.

The next day he [John the baptizer] saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!  This is he of whom I said, `after me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’  I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.”  And John testified, “I saw the spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him.  I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, `He on whom you see the spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the holy spirit.’  And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the son of God.

The next day John again was standing with two of his [i. e., John’s] disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the lamb of God!”  The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus.  When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?”  They said to him, “rabbi” (which translated means teacher), “where are you staying?”  He said to them, “Come and see.”  They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day.  It was about four o’clock in the afternoon.  One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother.  He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the messiah” (which is translated anointed).  He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John.  You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).

John 1:28-42 (NRSV, but spurious capitalization removed by qb)

Location:  somewhere along the Jordan in the vicinity of a village called Bethany; not sure if it’s the same Bethany that was the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, but it certainly appears to be on Judean, not Galilean, turf.

Occasion:  Jesus walks by John the baptizer as the latter is “standing” there with two of the latter’s “disciples.”

Instigator:  John the baptizer.  Note from 1:40 that Andrew was one of the two disciples of (and standing alongside) John the baptizer; the other is not named, but it could not have been Simon Peter because Andrew had to “find” his brother Simon Peter and “bring” him to Jesus according to John’s account here.

Now we turn to the synoptic versions, represented here by Luke:

Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Genessaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets.  He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore.  Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat.  When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.”  Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing.  Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.”  When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break.  So they signaled their partners in the other goat to come and help them.  And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink.  But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”  For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon.  Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.”  When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.

Luke 5:1-11 (NRSV)

Location:  the shore of the Sea of Galilee

Occasion:  Jesus is teaching the multitudes but apparently needs to move away so that everyone can see and hear what he has to say; he conscripts Peter’s boat and asks Peter to ferry him out to sea just enough to be seen and heard.

Instigator:  Jesus.  Everyone else reacts to him.

In Matthew’s account, we have nothing about any crowds or teaching or miraculous catch of fish; Jesus is walking by the boats and speaks to the four fishermen as he passes.  Mark’s account is essentially the same as Matthew’s, but shorter, as is typical of Mark.  But the synoptics all place the call of Andrew, Peter, James, and John around the Sea of Galilee; Jesus instigates the conversation; and none of the synoptics identifies Andrew as a disciple of John the baptizer.


What are the possibilities?

1.  John is not describing the same event as the synoptic evangelists are describing; we have two different events in history.  If this is the case, we have no obvious evidence to put fishermen (who do not already know Jesus) along the Jordan in Judea; if John simply neglected to note the change in venue from Judea to Galilee, we have no obvious evidence that would put John the baptizer in Galilee.  Troublesome option, but possible.

2.  Either John or the synoptic evangelists’ source(s) is/are making the story up out of whole cloth.  Yuck.

3.  Both John’s account and the synoptic evangelists’ accounts are fabrications.  Double yuck.

4.  The oral traditions that accumulated around the call of the fishermen diverged soon after Jesus’ death and were subject over time to creative accretions that, while incommensurable, are harmless and irrelevant.  OK, but suspicious.

Are there other solutions?  I’m going in search of ideas.  But this highlights the same kind of historical problems to which N. T. Wright refers in Jesus and the Victory of God.  What is the nature of oral tradition in first-century Palestine, and to what extent does the historian’s task impinge upon theology and faith?  How much of a pastoral burden shall we impose on narrative accounts in the gospels, especially when the evangelists do not agree with one another in terms of vital narrative elements like location, setting, characters, and dialogue?


5 Comments leave one →
  1. 24 April 2009 12:04 pm


    I cannot think of any other ideas at the moment.

    You really do need to read Bauckham who is complementary to Wright. Personally, I prefer John’s gospel because it is more “modern” in structure. I favor Matthean primacy. And the entire NT prior to 70AD but am not in Dan’s boat.

    What strikes me about all the Gospels (and the entire Bible) is how strange, bewildering, and foreign they are to the present and yet hauntingly familiar. (E.g. what does it actually mean for us to take up our cross today. First century Jesus followers knew that it meant potential martydom.) The late Flannery O’Connor referred to the American South as being “Christ-haunted.” I would say that is the case for all of Western civilization, but especially the Bible belt. And if not Christ haunted, then Bible-haunted.


  2. 24 April 2009 3:00 pm

    You are quite the dissident, Coop. Have you always been such a problem child? and such a scrappy sparring partner?

    Best o’ the weekend to you,


  3. 24 April 2009 5:42 pm


    Actually, I was a “sneaky” child and something of a pest. When I scrapped, I was a white Mohammed Ali–you know, float like a goose and sing like a moose!

    Cheers for your weekend. Mine centers around my granddaughter (8) who is ice skating at a regional meet. She is a remarkable skater. Three events today–two firsts and a yuk against girls two years her senior. Freestyle tomorrow. I’ll get to see her. Didn’t today. She always does well for her Opa. She has Olympic potential. Remember the name, Aubrey Whitley.

    And a salute to you.


  4. 24 April 2009 9:37 pm

    Well, it’s official; Bauckham is on my wish list. Father’s Day is not too far away.

    *fingers crossed*



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