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December 6, 2012

The Gospel of John, a revisionist Gospel?

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John has been described as the spiritual gospel, and the maverick gospel, but perhaps, because John has (either deliberately or inadvertently) revised the Markan tradition, we should think of it as a revisionist gospel. John treats the synoptic tradition as a whole similar to the way Matthew and Luke treat Mark’s narrative, meaning that they freely change and revise Mark’s text (compare Mark 8:11-12 with Matt 12:38-42 and Luke 11:29-32 on the issue of did Jesus give a sign to validate himself). In particular compare Mark’s view of why Jesus used parables (Mark 4:11-12) with the revisions in Matthew (13:10-17) and Luke (8:10).

Here is some Brief Data on the Gospel of John:

Date: Today the composition of John is dated to the last decade of the first century because of an early papyrus fragment of John (P52) containing part of John 18:31-33, 37-38, but in the past some dated it to the late second century and believed it to have been written by the 2nd century Gnostic, Cerinthus. Today the composition of John dates in the last decade of the first century because P52 dates so early in the second century.
Mark, the earliest gospel (dating around 70), and John, the latest of the canonical four, share very little common material, but what they do share appears in the same order in each gospel, yet with remarkable differences. For example, compare:
    • Lame man (Mk 2:1-12 = Jn 5:1-9)
    • Feeding the 5000 (Mk 6:32-44 = Jn 6:1-15)
    • Walking on the Water (Mk 6:45-52 = Jn 6:16-21)
    • Anointing at Bethany (Mk 14:3-9 = 12:1-8)

There are striking differences between the narratives of Mark and John. In fact, truth be told, Mark and John are more unlike than alike. The differences prompt the question: what actually happened in the public career of Jesus? Here are just a few of the differences:

  • Was Jesus baptized by water (Mk 1:9-11) or the spirit (Jn 1:29-34)? There is no water baptism of Jesus in the Gospel of John.
  • Does Jesus’ public career overlap the public career of John the Baptist (Jn 3:22-30) or not (Mk 1:14-15)? In John’s Gospel Jesus and John the Baptizer are competitors, making and baptizing followers at the same time, but in Mark John is put in jail before Jesus launches his public career.
  • Did Jesus “cleanse” the Jewish temple at the beginning (Jn 2:25-30) or end of his public career (Mk 11:15-19)?
  • Did Jesus perform exorcisms—driving out evil spirits (Mk 3:21-27; Lk 11:20 = Mt 12:28) or not (Jn)? No record of exorcisms is found in the Gospel of John.
  • Was Jesus’ public career one year, plus/minus (Mark has one Passover), or three years, plus/minus (John has three Passovers (Jn 2:13; 11:55; 18:28)?
  • Did Jesus make only one trip to Jerusalem during his career (Mk 10:1, 17, 32; 11:1, 15), or five trips (Jn 2:13, 23; 5:1; 7:10; 11:7, 18; 12:12)?
  • Was Jesus’ last meal with his disciples a traditional Jewish Passover celebration (Mark14:12, 22-25) or not (Jn 13:1-20)? In John Jesus is crucified before the Passover celebration: 19:14, 31, 42.
  • Does Jesus give a sign to validate his authority? Jesus’ public career in John is accompanied by numerous signs 2:1-12:50; cf. 2:1-22; 4:46-54), but in Mark (8:11-13) Jesus refuses to give a sign.
  • In Mark, Jesus’ major opponents were Pharisees and Sadducees, but in John his major opponents were described as a group called “the Jews” (sometimes translated Judahites). Such a group is not found in Mark.

Two Significant Shifts from Markan theology are evident in John:

What was Jesus like? In Mark Jesus is portrayed as a Jewish man from Nazareth; his debates with scribes and Pharisees are “Jewish family” arguments. In John he is only a Jewish man in appearance; he actually originated with God and came from God (Jn 1:1-18).
Why did Jesus have to die? Mark agrees with Paul: In Mark Jesus died in order to give his life as a ransom for many (Mk 10:45; Rom 5:8-11). In John, on the other hand, Jesus’ death is his supreme moment of glorification in which the world ruler is cast out (Jn 12:27-36; 13:31-32). What brings salvation in John is the “illumination” that Jesus brings from the Father (8:12; 12:35-36). Believing in him as the witness to the Father brings eternal life (11:25-26).

Mark and John, as the canonical gospel book ends of the Jesus traditions, are different on most everything, but they did agree on at least one thing: that a story about the virgin birth of Jesus was not significant for explaining who Jesus was.

The remarkable differences between the canonical gospels are seldom seen by an average churchgoer, because they read the gospels selectively under the influence of a clerical Master Narrative about Jesus, a legacy from 4th century Christian orthodoxy. The Master Narrative goes something like this:

Jesus was the Jewish Messiah and Son of God. He was born of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and was attested by God with mighty works and wonders and signs. He was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and was buried, and on the third day rose from the dead ascending into heaven, where he sits on the right hand of the Father. He will come again to judge the living and the dead.

This is not the story told by any of the canonical gospels. In fact the Master Narrative does not exist as such in any one early Christian gospel. The gospel writers show no evidence that they knew it. The clerical Master Narrative exists alongside the four canonical gospels as yet a fifth way of understanding the story about Jesus. Since the 4th century it has remained the preferred and popular story about Jesus, most of us unconsciously absorb in Sunday School, catechism classes, and sermons. Escape from the influence of this ersatz Master Narrative is only possible by reading the gospels comparatively. How many of you read the gospels using a gospel synopsis?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Posted by Charles Hedrick at 9:38am

Dr. Hedrick
At a JSOR at Rock Hill SC, I believe it was 1999, you suggested at a break that I use a synopsis. I immediately bought one, Kurt Aland’s, and have used it since. Extremely valuable! I also like New Gospel Parallels. I recently purchased the synopsis of the JS but, probably because I am more familiar with Aland’s, it is a bit odd to navigate, so it just sits. I aspire to a Greek synopsis, but that is quite a few declensions away, though I do try to use an English/Greek NT.
Dennis Dean Carpenter
Dahlonega, Ga.
Posted by Dennis Dean Carpenter on 12/7/2012 at 2:49pm
Hi Dennis,
Thanks for your testimonial about the Synopsis of the Four Gospels. I suppose if we could get more church folk to read the gospels in that format eventually it would result in a biblically literate reader of the New Testament. And that fact might force the clergy to turn to a synopsis, which should produce interesting results. But if you recall, it requires a bit of effort to get yourself oriented in the arrangement of the parallel texts, so only those who are really interested expend the time in mastering the format.
Posted by Charles Hedrick on 12/10/2012 at 3:19pm

Very Interesting comparisons, Charlie. Thanks.
Ed (Edward R. Smith)
Posted by Edward R. Smith on 12/7/2012 at 12:19pm