A Brief Comparison of the Gospels of Mark and John

The liturgical year runs in three cycles with Mass readings taken largely from Matthew in Year A, Mark in Year B, and Luke in Year C. (These three are called the ‘Synoptics’ – meaning looking in the same direction – for they all follow the basic outline of Mark, and contain much of the same material) John does not have a year of focus, but selections from that gospel are used in some Masses in the other three years, especially with Mark because of its shortness.

Most modern Bible scholars think Mark is the first gospel written and shows the earliest tradition, while John is the last written after a longer time to reflect on the meaning of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. It is also in dialogue with other philosophic traditions in the Greek-Roman world not considered in the first three.

Turning to John after the Synoptics, we find not only a change in language and style, but a theological presentation that is strikingly different. Gone, for example, is any reference to the coming of ‘The Kingdom of God’. We have long ‘discourses’ of a type missing in the Synoptics; indeed, Jesus’ words at the Last Supper take up four chapters! (14-17). There is a stronger emphasis on the sacraments, often also in lengthy talks. Jesus talks more about himself, his relation to the Father and Spirit.

John has a number of vivid scenes, little dramas with a theological purpose. While Mark may characterize disciples in short vivid terms, John employs a large cast of characters to bring out aspects of Jesus’ teaching. Among the literary techniques, is the use of misunderstanding: someone will take literally, or will question, something Jesus says, which then allows Jesus to draw out the deeper meaning. Another is the use of irony; something will be said with an ordinary meaning, but will be shown later (or known by the reader) to have a deeper spiritual truth. An example of this are the words of the High Priest Caiaphas that it would be better ‘for one man to die than all the people’ meaning just that Jesus’ actions might bring down the Roman power on the Jews, but from a Christian perspective Jesus will truly die for all people of all times and places.

The length of some scenes and the discourses means that John is hard to capture in short readings and that may be the reason we do not have a year based on this gospel.

While John insists on the physical reality of Jesus’ humanity – called ‘flesh’ in the opening prologue – more than the other three he emphasizes Jesus’ divinity and what it means. Where Mark shows and hints, John spells out and often at length.
With their agreement and their differences, the four gospels give us a fuller picture of Jesus, and help us to find our own way towards understanding Christ the Lord. Each gospel has its riches, and each is worth any time one can give to reading them and reflecting.

Joan Griffith