Differences in John and Why They Matter, Part 3

Differences in John and Why They Matter, Part 3 February 29, 2024


As we wrap up our discussion on the differences in John and why they matter, in John’s gospel, this tradition the Hebrew, prophetic, justice tradition is wholly erased and Jesus’ motive is the exact opposite.

“Zeal for your house will consume me.” 

John’s Jesus is no longer zealous for the oppressed. Now, in this late gospel, Jesus is consumed by zeal for the purity of the temple and maintaining the purity of religious ritual observances there.

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(Read this series from the beginning at Part 1 and Part 2.)

Another significant difference between the gospels is the overt antisemitism held in the Johannine community by the time John’s gospel was written. In the synoptics, rejection of Jesus is a matter of classism. The Jews loved Jesus and hung on his every word. Why wouldn’t they? Jesus’ message was a populist message that resonated deeply with the people who were suffering at the hands of those in power. It was the powerful, propertied, and privileged responsible for crushing the masses through complicity with Rome and who created enormous wealth for themselves who rejected Jesus’ calls for a return to the economic justice teaching of the Torah. 

Notice this difference in Luke:

“Every day he was teaching at the temple. But the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the leaders [these were political positions] among the people were trying to kill him. Yet they could not find any way to do it, because all the people hung on his words. (Luke 19:47-48)

In John’s gospel, however, there is no distinction between the rich and poor, the powerful and the marginalized, or the elites and the masses within Jesus’ Jewish society. In John, the opposition is all wrapped up in one simple, antisemitic designation: “the Jews.”

Lastly, the gospels switch from critiquing the injustice of the temple state, with its physical capital in the temple, to spiritualizing the temple as a symbol of Jesus’ body.

The presence of proto-Gnostic tendencies in the writings of the Johannine community is well-documented by scholars. Christian Gnosticism would come to teach a dualistic way of looking at our world through the lens of separating our bodies from our spirit. Later, Gnosticism would teach that the material world was evil and spiritual was good. It therefore defined salvation as the point at which our spirits are finally set free from imprisonment in our material bodies and material world. (This sounds a lot like many of the sectors of Christianity today, which is why I say that much of Christianity today is more gnostic like the Johannine community than the Jesus of the synoptic gospels.)

In the synoptics, Jesus prioritizes setting people free from material, concrete, very tangible suffering. but not from the material, concrete, and tangible itself. 

What are we to make of these differences? Both teachings are in our sacred texts. Both are biblical. And both are ways of viewing and defining Jesus. For those who want the Bible to make all of their decisions for them, it’s not that simple when the Bible offers two different options. We have to take some personal responsibility. We have to actually decide which way of practicing Christianity today in our context is more life-giving. 

We have to choose how we practice our own Christianity. Both options are biblical. And they each produce radically different fruit. Are we focused on postmortem destinations or saving people from what they are suffering in this life? Are we defining salvation as celestial, heavenly bliss in another life, or do we define salvation as the synoptics do, as being set free from death-dealing oppression, injustice, violence, and marginalization in this life? Are we defining our humanity as broken and salvation as when we’re set free from our humanity? Or have we lost touch with our humanity ourselves or because others are attempting to dehumanize us? If so, salvation is our reclaiming our humanity! (Jesus defines salvation in Luke’s story of Zacchaeus in this way.) 

I find it escapist and defeatist to separate Jesus’ gospel from this life and transform it into being solely about spiritual realities in preparation for a next life. For myself, I find the focus of the synoptic gospels in our present social context to be much more relevant and much more life-giving.


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About Herb Montgomery
Herb Montgomery, director of Renewed Heart Ministries, is an author and adult religious re-educator helping Christians explore the intersection of their faith with love, compassion, action, and societal justice. You can read more about the author here.

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