Ever since ancient times, people have wondered why the gospel of John is so different from the other gospels. This difference is so obvious that several early church leaders even argued against including John in the bible. Of course it eventually was included, and over the centuries has probably been the most influential gospel of all. But many people still wonder why it's so different.
Here is a list of some of the major differences:
--- In John the ministry of Jesus appears to last at least three years. In the other gospels his ministry seems to last about one year.
--- In John the unnamed Beloved Disciple plays a big role in the story. The other gospels never mention this person.
--- As depicted in the first three gospels, Jesus normally uses common everyday language, and tends to make short simple statements that go straight to the point. But in John he talks in a different style, and often gives long speeches of a type not found in the other gospels.
--- In the first three gospels, Jesus frequently employs parables in his teaching. In John he hardly ever uses parables.
--- John contains several theological concepts not mentioned in the other gospels. Examples include the description of Jesus as the Eternal Word (or Logos), and the idea of the Paraclete, or Holy Spirit, acting as a "Comforter".
--- In the first three gospels, Jesus sometimes performs exorcisms on people possessed by demons. John doesn't mention any exorcisms.
--- John describes several remarkable miracles that aren't reported in the other gospels. These include the conversion of water into wine (John 2:1-11), giving sight to a man born blind (John 9:1-8), and the raising of Lazarus (John 11:1-45). On the other hand, John says nothing at all about the birth of Jesus, his baptism by John the Baptist, or his temptation by the Devil.
--- The first three gospels say that Simon of Cyrene helped Jesus carry the cross to Golgotha. But John 19:17 says that Jesus carried the cross the full distance himself, and doesn't mention Simon of Cyrene.
--- The gospel of John adds some extra details to the accounts of the crucifixion and the resurrection. These include the spear thrust into the side of Jesus, the presence of his mother at the cross, and his appearance to Mary Magdalene outside the tomb.
This list could be much longer, because there are many other examples besides these. But this should be enough to show that there are major differences between John and the other gospels. Now we need to look at possible reasons.
Actually there is a very simple explanation for many of the differences. It is suggested by John 21:24, which says that the gospel is based on the memories of the Beloved Disciple. The fact that the other gospels never mention this disciple suggests that their authors didn't get any information from him. So this disciple was probably the source for the stories that are unique to John, such as the raising of Lazarus and the conversion of water into wine.
Similarly, many of the stories found in the other gospels, but not in John, probably came from sources known only to their authors. Thus, the use of different sources can easily account for many of the differences between John and the other gospels.
But that explanation doesn't work very well for some differences, especially the difference in how Jesus is depicted. The first three gospels portray him as a teacher, healer, and prophet whose main concerns are the problems of society and the need for people to live more virtuously. In these gospels he shows great compassion for poor, oppressed, and outcast people, and he heals many disabled and demon-possessed individuals. When he teaches, he talks in simple language, draws images from everyday life, and uses parables to make his points.
But the gospel of John depicts him quite differently. In this gospel he talks in a different style, and often uses words and ideas not found in the other gospels. Instead of making short penetrating statements about how people should live, he gives long speeches about why he came to earth and why people must accept him as their savior. He rarely uses parables, and he doesn't cure any cases of demonic possession.
Various explanations for these different portrayals of Jesus have been put forward. For example, some people say that he must have talked and acted in different ways depending on the circumstances, but each gospel only reports situations involving one type of behavior. Another possibility is that different authors chose to emphasize different aspects of his divine nature. Thus some people believe that Matthew, Mark, and Luke mainly show his human side, whereas John mainly shows his spiritual side.
But most biblical scholars doubt that any of those explanations are correct. Instead, they favor another theory based on the idea that John's gospel was written in stages. According to this theory, the first stage was a short narrative that combined various stories and teachings passed down from original witnesses. This first stage, which has apparently been lost, would have contained accurate information about Jesus and his ministry.
Then later, according to the theory, an unknown person tried to introduce some new ideas into the gospel. To do so, this second author invented some long speeches for Jesus, and also added several new theological concepts. This author may have also eliminated some material, such as stories about demonic possessions.
If this theory is correct, the long speeches in John are fabrications that give a false picture of how Jesus talked and what he said. And some of the ideas in the gospel come from a later stage in the development of Christianity than what is found in the other gospels.
A revision by a second author could also explain why John says that Jesus carried the cross all the way to Golgotha, whereas the other gospels say that Simon of Cyrene carried it part of the distance. The original passage could have been changed to eliminate the implication that Jesus was too weak to carry the cross by himself.
Thus there is a possibility that the original version of John was altered by a second author. Yet even if that happened, the gospel still contains a lot of valuable information not found anywhere else. This includes the accounts of Jesus' early visits to Jerusalem, several important miracle stories, and extra details about the crucifixion and resurrection. The gospel also provides some unique information about major figures such as Mary Magdalene, Pontius Pilate, Thomas, and Judas Iscariot.
Of course many people believe that everything in the bible is literally true, and therefore can't accept the idea that someone altered John's gospel. But whether it was altered or not, it has been an inspiration to millions of people. And it will always be one of the great treasures of Christianity.
The image shows Lazarus (still in his grave clothes) leaving the tomb after being resurrected by Jesus. This great miracle is a highlight of the gospel of John, but isn't mentioned in the other gospels.