[Partly edited 9/23/13, 9/26/13, and 2/7/17]

The Gospel of John

As I hope I made it clear last time, today's New Testament scholars cannot come to agreement on Jesus--not even close.  John Crossan's The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant and John Meier's A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus are both immense volumes, each representing pretty much a lifetime of  scholarly work.  But the pictures they present of Jesus are completely incompatible! Certainly somebody has wasted a lifetime of scholarly evidence.  Maybe two somebodies! Is this inevitable?  No. The only credible sources we have for the life of Christ, the four canonical gospels give us a remarkably consistent picture, and when one's sources agree, one does well to accept their evidence.  

But do the sources agree? What about the Gospel of  John?

The Gospel of John is in some ways very different from the synoptic gospels, so different that many have maintained that the events and teachings described in it have little relationship to the historical Christ or the synoptics.  However, a close examination of this gospel shows that the picture of Jesus and his teachings given in this gospel does not conflict with that of the synoptics but complements and supplements it--sometimes in surprising ways.

[I suggested in class that one possible way of comparing/contrasting John's gospel to the synoptics is to look at the five "Narrative Essentials," plot, character, theme, setting, and tone.  Note that John's setting is different: he focuses more on Jesus in Jerusalem, while the synoptics focus on Jesus in Galilee.  The synoptics focus more on Jesus' public teaching (things like the Sermon on the Mount and the parables) while John spends more time on Jesus' private teaching (see the "exoteric" vs. "esoteric" distinction below).  John often does more with character with they synoptics, and his tone is different as well.  There seem to be some thematic differences as well.]

Now in much scholarly discussion of the life of Christ, the Gospel of John is strangely neglected.  That's in part because 19th century scholarship relegated the gospel to late date in history, alleging that none of it is historical.  F.C. Bauer and the Hegelians claimed that the gospel of John was written as late as 250 BC, more than 200 years after the death of Jesus.  What was their evidence?  None: but that was the dating of John that matched their paradigm. The Deists of the 18th century, and, even more, those who wrote the liberal lives of Jesus in the 19th century were absolutely convinced that Jesus was merely a great teacher who had never claimed to be any more than that.  Only later did the Christian writers turned Jesus the Teacher into the divine son of God.

This is the main reason 19th century scholarship insisted that the gospel of Mark was first.  Mark presents a very human Jesus, so they say, and is therefore early.  John, on the other hand is more explicit:  Jesus' claims to divinity in John are so clear that this gospel just had to be late.

But this paradigm is simply wrong.  The need of the early church was not to emphasize more and more the divinity of Jesus.  The real problem was to affirm Jesus' humanity.  Docetism (reflected later in Islam!) claimed that Jesus only appeared to have an earthly body.  Notice the line from I John, "Any spirit that confesses not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God."  Further, just as eschatology doesn't work well as an "index fossil" for the Biblical text, neither does Christology.  Just as today's church-goers differ radically in their Christology, so early followers of Jesus probably differed as well.

As Biblical archaeology began to get going in the 20th century, those who late-dated John should have been admitting their mistakes with a good deal of embarrassment when the archaeologists working at Oxyrynchus in Egypt dug up a fragment of John's gospel that clearly dated from the first half of 2nd century AD!!! Oddly, there are lots of textbooks  that still date John's gospel to 150 AD. Being a scholar means never having to say you're sorry.  But it might also mean ever learning and never able to come to knowledge of the truth.

So when was John written?  Early Christian writers believed that John himself was the last of the apostles to survive, and that he wrote the gospel close to the end of his life, around 90 AD, and that’s still the consensus date.

In his "Redating the New Testament," J.A.T. Robinson argues for an even earlier date.  Robinson's claim is that there is no reason to believe any of the NT books was written after 70 AD and lots of reason to think they were written before that date.  Robinson is no conservative: he's just having a good time tweaking the noses of those who speak with such authority and arrogance without any real evidence to back their theories.

While it's possible the Gospel of John was written as early as Robinson thinks, the end of the gospel does suggest a somewhat later date.  The final chapter talks of a widely-circulated story that John wouldn't die until Christ returned, and corrects a misunderstanding:  what Jesus had said was not that that apostle wouldn't die.  Jesus simply said if he tarry until I come, what is that to thee? In view of the way the gospel ends, the 90 AD date of John seems likely, as is the tradition of the church that John was specifically asked to supplement what the other gospels had to say. 

Also making the somewhat later date likely is the way John talks about the Jewish leaders. One difference between the synoptics and John is that the latter refers to “Jews” rather than Pharisees and Sadducees.  John certainly knows the difference:  In John 18:15, John is referring to himself when he says, “That disciple was known unto the high priest.”  

So why the generic reference to Jews?  Notice Acts 12 where Herod kills James the brother of John, and when he saw it pleased the Jews, imprisons Peter. Notice that Luke has shifted here a bit too…and John maybe begins to shift at this point: Christians and Jews are going their separate ways. 

Now note that John was in a very good position to supplement the basic story told by the synoptic writers. In some ways, he was the closest to Jesus of all the Apostles.  Unlike the other gospel writers, he heard John the Baptist's preaching directly  (Matthew was called later, remember, and Luke says specifically that he interviewed those who were eyewitnesses) so he is able to supplement quite well the synoptic account of John the Baptist and his conflicts with the Jewish leaders.

Also, John is the one disciple who (more or less) does what Peter claimed he could do…stick with Jesus until the end (woman, behold thy son….), and, because of this, can add to the trial and crucifixion accounts of the synoptics.

John begins to supplement the synoptic message right from the beginning of his gospel.

 1.  Why does John begin his gospel where he does?  What does this add to the synoptic account?  Another area in which John supplements the synoptic account is in his information on John the Baptist.

 2.  How is John's treatment of John the Baptist different from that of the synoptic gospels?  Why are there these differences?
John also supplements the synoptics by giving us information on figures not described much in the synoptics and additional information on some that are described.  John, for instance, talks about Philip and Nathaniel. John's attempt to supplement the synoptics leads to some alleged contradictions, e.g.  John places the "cleansing of the temple" early in Jesus ministry.  The synoptics place it late.  Is this a contradiction?  Why the seeming conflict? 

Really, what we have here is a repeated pattern.  And, in view of fact that John fits Mark in particular like a jigsaw puzzle, it seems more likely just an additional piece of the puzzle.  And the more you look at John, the more convincing the "jigsaw puzzle" view looks.  John almost never includes what synoptics give you already, and includes much that they don't, e.g. the conversation with Nicodemus, the story of the woman at the well, the turning of water into wine, the healing of the lame man at Bethesda, the healing of the man born blind, and the raising of Lazarus.  Much of what John includes ties well to the themes of the other gospels:
The problem here is to figure out why, while the synoptic writers overlapped substantially with one another and seem to reflect a common core of fundamental Jesus works and deeds, John's material doesn't overlap nearly as much, and there does seem a fairly substantial difference between the John material and the synoptic material.

Note that John's miracles almost all take place in Jerusalem, and the part of Jesus teaching John gives is likewise mostly Jerusalem material.  This is an important way in which John supplements the Synoptics.  The Synoptics deal mostly with Galilee miracles and teaching. Would this make a difference?  I think so.  My teaching at NSU is a lot different from what I might do at a conference or from what I say if I am a guest speaker when I go back to California.  For Jesus too the many trips to Jerusalem meant a change from the usual ministry in Galilee.  And notice how much this adds!  John alone really gives you the background to conflicts with Jerusalem authorities.  John records progressively greater miracles and emphasizes far more greatly the conflicts of Jesus and the Jewish authorities involving the temple (cf. the Chapter 10 account of the Feast of Dedication).

John does occasionally deal with Galilean events, e.g., the water into wine at Cana and the healing of a man's son.  But he does this for a reason.  These are the first and second miracles Jesus did.  Notice John's words, "And his disciples believed on him."  This helps explain why, later, they left their nets to follow more closely.  One other Galilean event overlaps: the feeding five thousand.  This account is almost identical with Mark's in detail, but John adds an important discourse.

The events John includes supplement nicely then those included in Synoptics.  But what about characters portrayed?  What about John the Baptist, Thomas, John himself--and, most importantly, Jesus?

Notice the questions put to Jesus in the Gospel of John and the answers he gives.  Is this consistent with the synoptic picture of Jesus' technique in dealing with questions?  Of course it is.  It's the typical Jesus question and answer exchange, compare the "give unto Caeasar" story with the "woman in adultery" story.

What about the miracles Jesus performs?  Are the miracles described in the Gospel of John consistent with the miracles of the Synoptics?  Of course.  Compare John 7:21-23 and Matthew 12:9-14: both dealing with Sabbath healings.

Is the Christology of the Gospel of John consistent with the Christology of the other gospels, i.e. does John seem to have the same view of who and what Jesus is as the synoptic writers?  Here, of course, is a major controversy between conservative and liberal scholars--and it's a question I'll leave my students to think about and to discuss in class.

In Chapters 13-17 John includes many words of Jesus not found in the other gospels.  Are the teachings here consistent with the rest of Jesus' teaching?  How do you explain the fact that the other gospels do not include any direct reference to these ideas? 

Note that the synoptic gospels all contain the apostles' question, "why do you speak to them in parables?"--a suggestion that Jesus taught those "without" in a way different from the way he taught his disciples.   Here, Jesus is speaking more directly, yet still using parable type of imagery.  What we've got seems a contrast between public teaching and private conversation.  In some ways, this method is typical of ancient teachers.  Aristotle, for instance is said to have two types of teaching, esoteric (for those on the inside) and exoteric (for general publication).  With Aristotle, we have only esoteric teaching! In John, what we're probably getting here is Jesus' esoteric teaching, while in the Synoptics we have the exoteric teaching.

Especially important in these chapters is the way John treats the Last Supper. The Last Supper was a Passover meal. As today, it was a long meal with lots of singing, the telling of the Exodus story and different ceremonial things to eat, e.g., unleavened bread, wine, lamb.  The actual supper takes place before some of the ceremonial elements.  Only a very small part of this Passover service is included in the Synoptics, e.g., the last bit with the unleavened bread and the last cup of wine reserved for the coming messiah (well, they say Elijah today). 

Jesus gives these elements new meaning, and they become the central sacrament of the church (mass/communion).  But do you notice something odd?  John does not include this part of the feast!  No "this is my body", etc.  Not important to John?  No, these things are very important (cf. John 6:53-58).  How do you explain his leaving these things out?  The most likely explanation is that he doesn't need to repeat a part of the story Christians hear every Sunday.

John only goes over synoptic events if he has something important to add.  And he does have something to add to the story of the events of the Last Supper, e.g. foot-washing.  This is important!  What were disciples arguing about at last supper, according to Luke?  Who would be greatest!  John doesn't include argument, but he does show part of Jesus answer.  Also, Jesus command to "love one another as I have loved you: by this shall all know that ye are my disciples" goes to the heart of this argument.

How does John's treatment of the trial, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus differ from that of the Synoptics?  How do we explain these differences?
All these things show John as a supplement to the Synoptics, but, perhaps the most important way in which John is a supplement to Synoptics is in which it clarifies choice: why some followed Jesus and why others didn’t.

It makes it more clear why Jesus was a problem for Jewish leaders:

1.     His claim to be Messiah created a legitimate fear that Romans would come and take away city and sanctuary.

2.     Jesus was plain provocative: note his actions at Feast of Dedication, Hanukkah, in John 10:23.  They ask him, “if you’re Christ tell us plainly.”  Jesus ends up saying “I and my Father are one.”

But John insists that the real problems are spiritual:

1.    Truth makes us uncomfortable ("Men love darkness because their deeds are evil.")
2.    Peer pressure ("How can ye believe which receive honor one of another?")
3.    More peer pressure (Fear of being cast out of synagogue)
4.    Following Jesus is too hard (note the "hard sayings").
And yet plenty to keep people following as well. Consider the following:
One final compare/contrast to the Synoptics: John's portrayal of  the resurrection.  For all the gospels, the resurrection is supremely important, marking the start of something new.  But John is more upbeat than the Synoptics.  Matthew shows the Jews still covering up.  Mark and Luke show the failure of even the disciples to stand with Jesus and their slowness to understand.  John--well, they still betray him and they are still slow to understand, but look at that last scene!  The story of Peter's denial and ultimate restoration is a clear indication of one of main strengths of Christianity: it's the great "Mulligan" religion.

And, I suppose, if anything needed to be added to the Gospel message, this would be it.  But, as John said, this is still only the beginning.  Note the similar idea in Mark's gospel, the opening words of which seem to indicate that the story of Jesus is only  "the beginning of the Gospel." John puts the reminder at the end: this in only the beginning.  And as it turned out--well, as they used to say at the end of the old radio and television shows, stay tuned.