There are four different retellings of the life and message of Jesus, scholars have long known about the different themes and styles in each of these, however, most people tend to read these as one document. In fact, one of the early Christians Tatian compiled all four into one volume, called the Diatessaron (this means the “out of four”). That said, Tatians harmonization attempted to compile all the pieces together into one story, though Tatian ended up changing the flow to the point that it created a slightly different fifth version of Jesus’ life and message, one that contained only 72% of the text from the four original texts.
Most casual Bible readers will be unaware of the differences and themes of each of these gospel accounts and will be inclined to simply make their own Diatessaron as they read, however, this is a disservice to the text, which creates clearly distinct thematic visions of Jesus and his ministry.
Some of the largest divergences are between the Synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew, Luke) and the Gospel of John. The synoptic gospels are so named because they are a synopsis, or summary, of the same events in a very similar fashion. They include many of the same stories and elements, whereas the Gospel of John stands on it’s own.
To help the reader think about these differences and themes, we shall engage on a quick survey of the issue of salvation by believing in Jesus as presented in the Gospel of John vs the prominence of salvation by following Jesus in the Synoptics. This is not to say we have a contradiction for there exist plenty of theological ways to harmonize this (“if you believe in him then you obey him”) but rather an honest survey of the different themes among the gospels.
This is not an idea that is merely presented by critical bible scholars, but even conservative evangelicals admit there is a radically different portrayal of the concepts of faith and salvation in the synoptics vs Johns Gospel.
For example in an article by the conservative Evangelical Theological Society Journal we find the following concession: “We evangelicals hold that people are saved by faith, not by works, but the Synoptics rarely mention faith in these contexts. Rather, in the Synoptics people are saved by what they do.” (1)
Before we dive in: dating the gospels
What most casual readers of the Bible are not aware of is that the gospels were written in different time periods and places, they were not penned in one sitting as the four evangelists sat down and wrote their recollection of the ministry of Jesus. In fact most scholars, even some respected conservatives, say the names of the gospel authors were anonymous and the names we know were attributed far later, but that’s for another discussion. Most Christian historians say the ministry of Jesus was in the area of 27-30 ad.
Leading scholars of the New Testament provide some of these dates of composition:
- Mark: circa 65–73
- Matthew: circa 70–100
- Luke: circa 80–100, with most arguing for somewhere around 85
- John: circa 90 110,The majority view is that it was written in stages, so there was no one date of composition.
Conservatives usually give slightly earlier dates, some commentaries list this number in the fifties, however, well respected evangelical conservatives are more in line with mainstream scholarship. For example, in an article on the very popular conservative website, Bible.org (which is associated with Dallas Theological Seminary, a leading conservative Evangelical seminary) the authors give the following dates:
- Mark: circa 60
- Matthew: circa 60-70
- Luke: circa 60-70
- John: circa. 90-100.
The one thing that is agreed by everyone is that Mark is certainly the earliest of the Gospels, and John is by far the latest.
Are there differences in how biblical writers portray salvation?
A. Salvation depicted by the John’s Gospel
John’s Gospel gives us a purpose for its writing. The author says he wrote it for the explicit purpose “that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you might have life through His name” (John 20:31) and elsewhere echoed “that you also may believe” (John 19:35).
Salvation is clearly depicted as being by “faith in Jesus” in many sections of the Gospel of John, but what is really interesting is that all of these are “believe in him to have eternal life” statements absent from the synoptic Gospels. Also, the majority of these are statements in John are the authors theological declarations, or the depictions of Jesus’ private conversations with a few people, from Nicodemus to the twelve disciples, not public teachings of Jesus. (There are only one or two exceptions, notably John 6)
The big soteriological idea in Johns Gospel is whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, and judgment is the result of not believing in him.
- “He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God” (John 1:7, 12)
- “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” (John 3:14-15)
- “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (John 3:16)
- “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever disobeys the Son will not see life, but must endure God’s wrath.” (John 3:36)
- “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgment, but has passed from death to life.“ (John 5:24)
- “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent… This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.” (John 6:29, 40)
- “Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life.” (John 6:47)
- “I told you that you would die in your sins, for you will die in your sins unless you believe that I am he.” (John 8:24)
- “Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to Him, “Yes, Lord; I have believed that You are the Christ, the Son of God, even He who comes into the world.” (John 11:25-27)
- “I have come as light into the world, so that everyone who believes in me should not remain in the darkness. I do not judge anyone who hears my words and does not keep them, for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world.” (John 12:46-47)
- “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:30-31)
B. Salvation depicted by the Synoptics
Now onto the unique thematic elements found in the Synoptics compared to the Gospel of John. The following is a list of key passages that speak of obtaining “eternal life.” All of these passages are absent from Johns Gospel.
- Cut off your hand to abstain from stumbling and losing eternal life: Some translations, like NLT phrase this as “eternal life” most others as life, however, clearly “eternal life” is the context. The clear idea is, do physical actions (asceticism) to enter eternal life. “If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life maimed or lame than to have two hands or two feet and to be thrown into the eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter [eternal] life with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into the hell of fire.” (Matthew 18:8-9)
- Obey the beatitudes, don’t break commandments, be more righteous than Pharisees: “Therefore, whoever breaksone of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:19-20)
- Endure persecution to the end and you will be saved: “you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next” (Matthew 10:22-23; 24:13, also in Mark 13:13)
- Follow Jesus in self-denial/lose your life in order to be gain life and be saved: “Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 16:24-26) (This is also found in Luke 14:27 and Mark 8:35)
- Obey the commandments to enter eternal life, give up your wealth to the poor for treasure in heaven then, follow Jesus: “Then someone came to him and said, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” … If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” He said to him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honor your father and mother; also, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The young man said to him, “I have kept all these; what do I still lack?” Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” (Matthew 19:16-22) (This story is also found in Mark 10 and Luke 18)
- Bear good fruit, instead of only doing a few good works must also avoid being ‘workers of lawlessness.’: “So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits. [not by their faith] “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’ (Matthew 7:17-23)
- Abandon wealth, family, property for Jesus to inherit eternal life. (This is also found in Mark 10): “And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life.”(Matthew 19:29) (This is also found in Mark 10 and Luke 18)
- Charity towards others as if to God will prevent eternal punishment: “ for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matthew 25:42-46)
- Obey the Law by loving your God and your neighbor to inherit eternal life: “Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” (Luke 10:25-28)
Are there any exceptions to this?
1. Long ending of Mark (not in the early manuscripts)
The Gospel of Mark does have one explicit reference to faith being a vital component of salvation, Mark 16:16, “The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned.” However, thisis part of what’s known as the “long(er) ending of Mark” which is not found in the earliest manuscripts of Mark’s gospel. Not only is this one of the most widely accepted facts about the Gospel of Mark, even the conservative KJV commentary states that most of the 16th chapter of Mark was not in the original. The point is clear and interesting, the only passage in all of the Synoptics that explicitly ties faith with eternal life is an interpolation and was almost certainly not in the original text of Mark.
2. Mark’s believe “in him” (not in the early manuscripts)
Another passage in Mark shows Jesus saying “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.” However, scholars say most ancient manuscripts do not have the phrase “in me” but rather only the phrase “believe,” likely referring to the moral teachings of Jesus not proper Christological faith. This omission in the more ancient manuscripts is also footnoted in mainstream Bible translations. If we remove this “in me” and read the passage in context, we see both this and then next verse are hardly a grand display of faith soteriology, but rather typify ascetic self-denial, “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell,to the unquenchable fire. (Mark 9:42-44) As Bible scholars have noted, Luke’s recitation of this same speech completely excludes both “believe” and “in me” while Matthew includes a citation of the disputed phrase from Mark. That said, if Mark’s use of “in me” is disputed based on the manuscript evidence, this puts the later copy, Matthew, under the same scrutiny.
3. The Parable of the Sower’s “believe” (Not in Mark and Matthew’s gospels)
The Parable of the Sower is told and explained in all three Synoptic Gospels. Yet Mark and Matthew slightly disagree with Luke regarding one particular phrase. D.A. Carson, a leading conservative Evangelical scholar notes that Mark and Matthew frequently agree against Luke, so this is not a point of contention.
In the case of this parable, Luke’s gospel interjects the phrase “so that they may not believe [in the word/seed] and be saved” (Luke 8:12). In context it is explicitly noted this is not “faith in Christ” but an act of believing the word, and Luke ends by saying “the ones who have heard the word in an honest and good heart, and hold it fast, and bear fruit with perseverance.” (Luke 8:14-15). There is no other mention of faith as a requirement or the impetus of salvation.
Concurrently Mark and Matthew fully omit the mention of any kind of belief, and their depictions of the parable are very clearly centered on the imagery of obedience and perseverance. Instead of believing the word, Matthew and Mark present the saved as one who “immediately receives it with joy” (Mat 13:23; Mark 4:16) and Matthew also mentions this one “hears the word and understands it.” Finally, in both cases, the ending of the parable places the strong emphasis the fact that he “who indeed bears fruit” is saved. (Matthew 13:23). In this conclusion all three Synoptics agree, to be saved one must persevere and bear fruit.
4. Believe in order to get healed (not to gain eternal life)
There are numerous references to faith and believing in the Synoptic Gospels, faith is certainly not absent. However, almost every single one of these references to faith are undeniably and explicitly related to physical manifestations of God’s power in earthly miracles, notably the healing of sicknesses. There are only one or two ambiguous cases of the use of faith/believing that are not clearly connected to physical miracles such as healing. It is very common to see phrases like “your faith has healed you.
Synoptic examples of a person’s faith cited as the preceding cause of their healing (eternal life/salvation not mentioned):
- Mark 5:34
- Mark 5:35-42
- Mark 9:23-25
- Mark 10:52
- Matthew 8:13
- Matthew 9:22
- Matthew 9:27-29
- Matthew 15:28
- Luke 8:49-50
- Luke 17:19
- Luke 18:42
Synoptic examples where a person’s faith is cited as the preceding cause of a miracle (eternal life/salvation not mentioned):
- Mark 11:23-24
- Matthew 17:20
- Matthew 21:21-22
- Luke 17:6
What’s interesting is that there is not even one case in the Gospel of John where Jesus performs that is contingent on a priori faith in the miracle. In John 4:48 Jesus never asks for faith, says “unless yousee signs and wonders you will not believe”, and conducts the miracle. In John 9:1-12 Jesus is depicted as spitting into the ground and making a salve that healed a blind mans eyes, who is not asked for preceding faith. Finally, in John 11:38-44, Lazarus is dead and incapable of preceding faith, his sister Martha shows faith in Jesus (John 11:27) however, twice she shows a lack of faith in a physical miracle. Jesus says Lazarus can rise again, Martha states “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Then she refuses to listen to Jesus’ command to open the tomb saying “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” In all these three stories there is an element of faith in Jesus, but it is a different depiction of faith than in the synoptics, here the focus is “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah” (John 11:27) whereas in the Synoptics its “if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you” (Mark 11:23-24)
5. Jesus anointed by a sinful woman in Luke (not in Mark or Matthew)
All four Gospels have one story each of a sinful woman who came to anoint Jesus with costly ointment carried in an alabaster jar. She is shunned and rejected by the guests dining with Jesus, three of the gospels mention the money could have been given to the poor, then in each she is defended by Jesus. Each gospel contains this story, albeit with different details. (Mark 14:3-9 , Matthew 26:6-12, Luke 7:36-50, John 12:3-7) In one of these four stories “faith” is used in conjunction with the word “saved.” The particular passage shows Jesus forgiving her sins and then saying: “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
There are two possible options, first that all four Gospels refers to one story, but each tells it very differently, or second there are two separate occasions where a well-known sinful woman came into the presence of Jesus and anointed him with costly ointment from an alabaster jar. In all four of these stories the words “faith” or “believe” are mentioned only once. It would be intuitive to assume this is John’s based on his thematic portrayal of faith as central to the story of Jesus, however, it is Luke that mentions faith within this story.
- If all four gospels can be traced to the same story, only Luke reports the phrase about faith, the others do not. This could be indicative of a scribal interpolation, a specific authorial intent to introduce theologoy, or perhaps a relatively small significance ascribed to a genuine phrase.
- If there are two separate stories, Mark/Matthew tell the first story and they do not mention faith. (Their depictions are nearly identical and share the most similarities, for example, in both stories the ointment is poured on the Jesus’ head.)
- If there are two separate stories, John and Luke tell the second story, only Luke mentions faith, and John, who writes the most “faith-filled” gospel, strangely does not. (John/Luke are placed together because in both of their depictions the ointment is poured on Jesus’ feet and woman washes it with her hair, however John shares many other details of the story with Mark/Matthew. For example the condemnation for not selling the ointment and giving it to the poor is found in John, Mark, Matthew, but not Luke. Likewise, John/Mark/Matthew show Jesus saying this ointment is preparatory for his burial).
Thus, we can draw this conclusion: the reference in Luke, one of the Synoptics, is unique and not reported in the other Gospels that tell this same story. That is not to say it did not happen, but merely that if it did, all three of the other Gospel writers did assume it important enough to mention. In fact, all three other Gospels place the center of emphasis on the woman’s act of love and the act of “good service” (Mark 14:6), in fact Mark and Matthew focus on the reward of notoriety that will follow this woman for all time. (Matthew 26:13, Mark 14:9)
If this is a genuine reference to salvation based on faith, then it is the one example, found only in one of three Synoptic Gospels. As we have noted, even conservatives like D.A. Carson admit that Mark/Matthew frequently agree against Luke, this would be one of these examples. We should also note that Luke depicts this as a post-event explanation that Jesus tells to one woman in a small dinner party, not the primary message preached before crowds in the Synoptics.
Finally, what’s interesting in the Luke passage itself is that there is no teaching of Jesus about eternal torment and eternal life within this context. Rather, in the stories about this woman, she is depicted as a known sinner who is scorned, shunned, humiliated, and rejected by the religious culture, that it could be argued that this is the emphasis on her situation. Therefore the salvation from sins might be depicted in this story as referring to salvation from plight of being known as a sinner. In the Synoptics, Jesus frequently said “your faith has saved you” in response to physical cures for sickness. For example in Luke 18:42 Jesus said “Receive your sight; your faith has saved you.” Saved refers to being rescued from the earthly suffering of blindness, not the obtainment of eternal life, it is conceivable that Luke’s story of the sinful woman also depicts her salvation from her the earthly plight, the rejection by those who instantly recognized her and said “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.” (Luke 7:38)
For further reference, here is a handy chart I have made that compares each of the four mentions of a woman that anointed Jesus with costly perfume. (Click the image for better resolution)