Teaching the Gospels starting with John

This fall I am teaching a course on all four Gospels ("The Life and Teachings of Jesus") to freshmen. Precedent, biblical scholarship, and the textbook I'm using all suggest going the typical route: Synoptics then John, and within the Synoptics, Mark first, then Matthew and Luke in some order, then John. Basically in presumed chronological order of their writing, with John as the odd duck coming in at the end—either adding a dose of high-level theological questions or, as semesters tend to get away from professors, getting the requisite nod and discussion but not nearly as much attention as the earlier, ostensibly more reliable and relatable (because more historical) Synoptics.

That's how I'll teach it this fall, and maybe the one after that. But I'm already thinking how to re-shape the course once I get a handle on it.

And I'm thinking I'd like to start with John.

The class is neither for seminarians nor for historians. It isn't a historical introduction to the composition of the Gospels; it's not a prep course for future pastors who will need to know the background and hypothetical redactional relationships between the books.

It's a course for freshman at a Christian university on the life and teachings of Jesus. We'll be beginning with prayer and talking like Jesus not only matters but is alive, present, at work in the world and in us. And if you believe, as I do, that Matthew, Mark, and Luke are every bit as theologically motivated, resourced, and interesting as John, then framing the course with the theological claims and questions that John raises might—might—enable more productive, more spiritually engaged, more intellectually challenging, and ultimately more rewarding interaction with the Synoptics than the other way around.

It's a thought. I'd love to hear how others have taught similar courses. We'll see how this fall goes, and if my intuitions are confirmed. If and when I undertake the experiment, I'll report on the results.


  1. I think this could be a fruitful endeavor. I recently preached a Christmas sermon from John 1:1-18 in which I claimed that "The Word became flesh" is a great way to characterize what all four Gospels are trying to say - the Word became flesh, and here's how that Word-made-flesh spoke and prayed and interacted and laid down his life. All four Gospels articulate, on some level, a theology of the incarnation, and John is the one to finally put all that theology on the surface ("I and the Father are one").

    So, by beginning with John's more overt theological reflection, students can be alerted to how those same things are going on in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, even if these want to make us work a little harder for it. In this way, John trains us to read the Gospels not simply as stories about Jesus, but as theologically robust narrative reflections on what happens when the Word becomes flesh.

    Thanks, Brad.


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