Reviews of

What John Knew and What John Wrote

In Elizabeth Corsar, Fortress Press, Gospel of John, John, Lexington Books, Synoptic Gospels, Synoptic theories, Wendy E. S. North on January 6, 2023 at 3:00 pm

2023.01.01 | Wendy E. S. North, What John Knew and What John Wrote: A Study in John and the Synoptics (Lanham: Lexington Books/Fortress Academic, 2020).

Review by Elizabeth Corsar; St Padarn’s Institute, Cardiff.

In her monograph, what John knew and what John wrote, North successfully puts forward a positive case for John’s use of the Synoptic Gospels, and her innovative study makes a significant contribution to this perennial New Testament question. Moreover, as the pendulum continues to swing ever more so toward the notion that John was dependent on the work of his Synoptic contemporaries for the composition of his own gospel, North’s timely monograph serves as an important study within this trend. 

North’s study begins with the important point that, while John wrote a gospel like that of Mark, Matthew, and Luke, his compositional approach is notably different from that of these Synoptic counterparts. All too often, it has been assumed that John wrote his gospel without knowledge of the Synoptic Gospels, as he does not share the considerable level of similarities that the Synoptics do. However, North astutely points out that, when we move beyond the closed Synoptic circle and look to the wider literary world, it becomes apparent that authors of this wider literary environment (e.g., Josephus, a contemporary of John) drew on source material for the composition of their works and thoroughly rewrote the material that they had borrowed. Thus, it is clear that the Fourth Evangelist and the Synoptic evangelists utilised different compositional practices. Therefore, North commences her study from the premise that John’s gospel needs to be studied in its own right for John’s use of Synoptic source material to be properly understood. 

In order to establish how John uses his Synoptic sources, North’s monograph employs a comparative method. Initially, she looks at Johannine source use on the basis of intratextual examples (i.e., how John repeats John) and intertextual examples (i.e., how John repeats scripture). Then she uses the evidence she gains from this analysis to explore John’s use of Synoptic material. 

In chapter 2, North considers how John reuses and varies features within his own gospel. She reflects on the reuse and variation of character portrayals, the development of statements into “threads” that run throughout the gospel, and discourses that are transformed into narratives. Then, from this analysis, North compiles a comprehensive list of ten characteristics of John’s reuse of material: (1) John defers markedly from the vocabulary of the original; (2) he includes echoes of the original in the next context; (3) he includes echoes of the context of the original within the new reference; (4) he is unlikely to repeat the original in full; (5) he replaces elements of the original; (6) he amplifies elements of the original; (7) he links different texts on the basis of existing verbal agreement; (8) he constructs his composition on more than one basis; (9) his fidelity to his source can cause awkwardness; and (10) his choice and appropriation of source material generally serves his agenda. North demonstrates that these characteristics do not reflect isolated instances, but are rather found throughout John’s gospel, thus strengthening her evidence that John utilises these techniques. Such an approach is also particularly sound, as the method does not impose anything on John that he himself does not demonstrate within his gospel. Then, in the first half of chapter 3, North considers how John incorporates scripture into his gospel. She begins by briefly noting the work of Maarten J. J. Menken and observes that his extensive work on John’s use of scriptural citations offers conclusions that align significantly with the ten characteristics evidenced and collated in chapter 2, which for North further substantiates the evidence of the characteristics of reuse employed by John. Following on from this, North then turns her attention to John’s use of scriptural allusions as this, she states, allows the opportunity to explore how John incorporates source material into his gospel. By appealing to the criteria for allusions set out by Richard Hays among others, North investigates John’s incorporation of scripture in chapters 1, 3, 5, 6, 8, 12, and 19 of the gospel. From this analysis, she assembles a set of three literary features, which demonstrate how John included scripture within his gospel: (1) verbal correspondence “signals”; (2) verbal links “echoes”; and (3) the relevance of the material to the Johannine context, whether treated with fidelity or freedom. Like the previous approach in chapter 2, this method is also on strong ground, as John’s use of scripture is universally acknowledged, and thus, John’s use of scripture offers a solid basis for exploring John’s use of other sources, such as Synoptic source material. 

At this point in her monograph, North turns her attention to the all-important question of John’s use of the Synoptic Gospels. In the second half of chapter 3, she takes a number of examples where there are notable points of contact between John’s material and the material present in the Synoptic gospels, and she assesses these correspondences based on the evidence she gathered in the first half of chapter 3. North observes that in several passages (e.g., the temple scene, the healing of the official’s son, the healing of the paralysed man, the feeding of the 5000, the anointing, the arrest, the trial before the High Priest, the trial before Pilate, the empty tomb scene, and the resurrection scene), John has points of verbal correspondence and points of verbal linkage with each of the Synoptic Gospels, and that the synoptic material that he appears to use is relevant to his agenda whether he altered it or not. Then in chapter 4, North continues to pay attention to the question of John’s use of the Synoptics. In this chapter, she looks more extensively at four passages where John has notable points of contact with the Synoptics, and she assesses these correspondences based on the evidence that she gathered in chapter 2. North observes that in several passages (e.g., the feeding of the 5000, the anointing, the trial before Pilate, and the disciples’ race to the empty tomb), John reuses and varies features of the Synoptic accounts, as in the first two narratives, all ten characteristics are present; while in the second two narratives, eight of the ten characteristics are apparent. These passages have been continually explored in regard to the question of John’s use of the Synoptics, particularly the feeding narrative that features in many a scholarly monograph or article. However, what North has done in this study with these passages offers innovative and helpful ways of appreciating how John used Synoptic source material.

This monograph is very well written and researched, and most importantly, it is persuasive. There is little doubt that North’s innovative work makes a significant contribution to the perennial question of John’s use of the Synoptics. 

Elizabeth Corsar 
St Padarn’s Institute, Cardiff
Elizabeth.Corsar [at] stpadarns.ac.uk

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