Thursday, November 04, 2010

Independent Witness in Gospel of John – Part 1

In debates regarding the Resurrection, Christian apologists will mention (in part) a historical method including “multiple independent sources” as having a higher likelihood of historicity. The “independent sources” often cited regarding the post-Resurrection appearances are Paul (1 Cor. 15:3-8), and the four gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

We understand Markan priority—that Matthew and Luke utilized Mark in writing their Gospels. This raises the question of their “independence.” (Although Mark lists no post-Resurrection appearances, so to some extent, Matthew and Luke would still need to be addressed regarding any homogeny.) I was recently asked regarding the Gospel of John.

We recognize the differences and conflicts between the Synoptic Gospels and John—indeed we draw upon those dissimilarities to point out contradictions: Jesus clearing the temple at the end of his ministry in the Synoptics, (Mark 11:15-19; Matt. 21:12-13; Luke 19:45-46) but at the beginning in John. (John 2:13-17). Or the discrepancies in the names and calling of the twelve disciples. Or the three year ministry of John compared to the one-year ministry in the Synoptics.

Yet as we point out how John is unlike Mark, Matthew and Luke--are we providing greater weight to its independence? Are we furnishing sustenance to the apologists’ claim that John is an “independent source”?

The short answer is (as with all biblical issues!): “Yes. And No.” John borrows from a variety of sources, as well as interjecting stories for doctrinal purposes, rather than historicity. Making it not just “one independent source” but a “multiple independent source” within itself. However, since “multiple independent sources” is only one part of this historical method, when we look to whether it is an eyewitness account, and how “independent” it is, John does not help the Resurrection apologists on many fronts.

This will take three blog entries to unpack:

1) What is the Gospel of John?
2) How does John differ from the Synoptics?
3) Does John support the apologetic claims?

Date John Written

Traditionally dated 90 – 110 CE; making it later and most likely after the other three canonical Gospels. Some reasons cited include the higher Christology (the indication Jesus proclaimed himself equal to God), no Sadducees (who were eliminated in 70 CE), and the lack of immediacy in eschatology.

A strong argument (in my opinion) are the verses indicating Christians would be kicked out of the synagogues. John 9:22, 12:42, 16:2. Although specifics are not easily determined, it would appear sometime around 90 CE in some locales, Jewish Christians were forbidden from entering or participating in synagogues. If so, these verses demonstrate knowledge regarding the eviction, and thus were written after.

The papyrus scrap P52 that contains a portion of John on a codex has been dated 125 – 150 CE; thus the range for the Gospel being 90 – 110 CE.

In contrast, Papias (writing from 110 – 140 CE), a disciple of John, indicates knowledge of three Gospels—Mark, Matthew and Gospel of the Hebrews, but does not mention a Gospel written by John.*

*Papias wrote five (5) books, and we only have a few paragraphs from his writing. It is possible he discussed a Gospel of John in writing we do not have, but no author up to the time of Eusebius associates Papias with a Gospel of John.

As always in biblical discussions, there are scholars who disagree. Evan Powell in The Unfinished Gospel argues John was first among the gospels, and at an earlier date.


Literary Integrity

The dating works only if the Gospel is a cohesive whole; if an amalgamation of other works, (which I think it is), then at best we can only date portions, and stab at when it was edited together. There are three reasons to see a combination of different works:

1) The Signs Gospel. Scholars have long noted miracles in the first 11 chapters that have no parallel in the Synoptics:

a) Water into Wine,
b) Healing Capernaum nobleman’s son,
c) Heal paralytic at Bethesda Pool
d) Heal blind man with mud and washing in pool
e) Lazarus raised from the dead
f) Voice from heaven not at Baptism or Transfiguration.

This has caused scholars to reasonably speculate John utilized some source listing these signs. (As I have previously discussed, Mark indicates Jesus saying he won’t give any sign, [Mark 8:12], Matthew & Luke indicate only one (1) sign [Matt. 16:4; Luke 11:29] whereas John’s incorporation of the Signs Gospel gives numerous signs.)

And John 5:2, part of the Signs Gospel, uses the verb, “There is by the Sheep Gate a pool…” with a present tense. Thus it was written prior to the sacking of Jerusalem, in the 60’s CE, but later incorporated in this book referring to events in the 90’s CE.

2) Anomalies in the writing.

There are scholarly discussions whether the order has been transposed in numerous chapters. Some argue it has; others give explanations for why it has not. I will give one example. In John 6:1, it states “Jesus went over the Sea of Galilee” and then in John 6:3, going up a mountain. The problem is this: John 5 ends with Jesus in Jerusalem (far to the south and on the same side of Galilee as the mountains! Why would Jesus cross over to get to the same side? This would indicate the introductory statement was left in a later-added passage. (On occasion, the Gospel writers demonstrate fatigue in copying, giving details in the original work that do not make sense in their copy.)

Another fascinating item is found in the last phrase of John 14:31, when Jesus states, “Get up, let us go from here.” This passage in context is in the middle of a long discourse. (You will see pages of red if your Bible is a red-letter edition.) In Chapter 14, Jesus has been talking about love, keeping commandments and the coming of the Holy Spirit, and in Chapter 15, he continues to talk about being the vine, love and keeping commandments.

Why, in the middle of it, would he make the statement about leaving? Read chapters 14 & 15—there is no reason for this statement. The editor is combining two (2) sources, one of which ended at 14:31.

This also demonstrates the editor is utilizing written sources. Think about it; imagine a person writing down this speech 5 or 10 or 20 years later. The powerful images of keeping God’s commandments, of loving each other, of the vine and the Holy Spirit could be remembered. But would the writer remember and include this non-sequitur phrase, “Get up, let us go from here”? Or would it more likely be forgotten amongst the common themes?

The only reason to include it was it’s being in a document being copied.

3) The third question of literary integrity, going to the heart of our resurrection discussion, is John 21. It is a chapter, added after the original conclusion of chapter 20.

In Chapter 19, we complete the death of Jesus, moving to Chapter 20 for the appearances. First Mary Magdalene sees the empty tomb, informs Peter and the “other disciple,” who all go running to the tomb. The men leave; Mary stays weeping and is rewarded with an angelic appearance, and Jesus himself.

That night Jesus appears to the disciples (minus Thomas) in a shut room, shows them his hands and side, and breathes the Holy Spirit into them. (No Pentecost here!) Eight days later, Jesus again appears in the shut room, this time tells Thomas to touch his wounds, and then the chapter finishes as follows:
And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name. (John 20:30-31 NKJV)

This has all the hallmarks of wrapping up a book.

Chapter 21 starts off with some disciples returning to their occupations as fisherman! In direct contrast to Matthew’s Great Commission, or Acts’ having them hang around Jerusalem, this divergent story discusses the disciples return to Galilee. It acts as if Chapter 20 never happened; Peter doesn’t even recognize Jesus.

There are additional thematic differences—the “sons of Zebedee” are not mentioned before, indeed the author has not been identified until 21:24. At least part acknowledges being a different writer than other parts. Peter is treated generally negatively throughout the rest of John; here is treated extremely positively. And there is a hint the writer knows that claiming John as the author would be a problem, as John is dead. See John 21:23.

For these reasons, the general consensus among scholars is that Chapter 21 is an add-on.

In the next blog entry, I will address John’s independence (and some dependence) regarding the Synoptics, but I believe I have demonstrated John has internal multiple sources. How independent they are may depend on one’s theological point-of-view.

One final note before we leave John…


As much as we debate who wrote the Gospels, it is more enlightening to contemplate who the gospels were written to. Who was the intended audience, and what was the author intending to demonstrate to them? Why did the author think this particular point was necessary to be emphasized?

In looking at the Johannine corpus, it would appear one issue being addressed was docetism--the belief Jesus did not have flesh. He appeared like a person--a really, really good hologram, worthy of Star Trek--but his feet did not leave prints in the sand. Not having flesh means he couldn’t technically die, nor obviously be resurrected. See 1 John 4:2-3 and 2 John 7 for direct statements intended to refute this belief.

I will leave it at that, and pick up the discussion in a later entry. (Unless you are thinking ahead. About the only Gospel referring to scars and touching scars was John. Because you can’t scar spirit; only flesh scars…)


  1. Since Eusebius didn't think that Papias was very bright, I have to believe that the reason he quoted the passages dealing with Mark and Matthew is because of their historical importance as the earliest witnesses to the authorship tradition. I also have to believe that he would have seen any references to writings by John or Luke as similarly important.

  2. You really do make the subject come alive, Dagood.

  3. Let me ask this question. Suppose I claim John as an eyewitness. You can't plausibly argue that with Mark, Matthew, and Luke. There are obvious things that reveal these are not eyewitness accounts. In the case of John we don't have a good argument that I know of that John was an eyewitness. You can say that some things in the text are consistent with the claim that he's an eyewitness, but nothing that shows that in fact he was an eyewitness. Maybe his descriptions of the land are accurate. Maybe his descriptions of Jewish practice are accurate. We expect that from an eyewitness, but this doesn't prove he is an eyewitness.

    But is there anything like what we have from the synoptics that shows definitely he is not an eyewitness?

  4. Jon,

    It depends on one’s definition of “definitely.” I would argue it is extremely unlikely, but of course, one could always argue it is logically possible. That the author, while an eyewitness, happened to exaggerate certain claims, or make up certain instances, or get a particular item incorrect.

    First, as this is a compilation, one would have to determine what parts are being claimed as written by the eyewitness. As I stated, John 14:31 is strong evidence the editors combined written sources. Second, if one claims John as eyewitness, we lose the Synoptics due to the numerous differences. Assuming we are not using the contradictions (i.e. assume that John is correct and the Synoptics are wrong), we still have the following problems:

    Clearing of the Temple John 2:14-16. This is a mythical event based upon Mark. It would be impossible for one person, or even a small band, to clear out the entire temple area. (An area larger than 12 soccer fields!). No eyewitness would include it.

    Messiah from Bethlehem John 7:42. Incorrect application of prophecy, based upon Matthew.

    Joseph of Arimathea John 19:38. Joseph is a mythical person, made up by Mark. No eyewitness would include him.

    Jewish execution John 18:31. The author is incorrect. Jews could execute. They just wouldn’t crucify, and since the Jesus story needs Jesus crucified, the author makes up this inaccuracy.

    Hearsay John 19:35. At best it claims to be information from an eyewitness; not written by the eyewitness themselves.

    Age A weaker argument, but I would note we have no knowledge of this writing, even to the time of Papias (110 CE at the earliest.) Even giving the generous date of 125 CE to P52, we have a later document. Given the life expectancy, it would be unusual (not impossible) for a person to live into their 90’s to write this Gospel.