Monday, November 08, 2010

Independent Witness in Gospel of John – Part 2

How does the Gospel of John differ from the other three canonical Gospels?

The simple fact: these accounts contradict each other. They contain different details (including different statements, additional items, and fewer items), as well as a general demonstration of increased mythology. Now…Christian apologists and inerrantists have proposed resolutions for these contradictions; whether those resolutions are satisfactory depend on one’s standard of proof for determining contradictions. If one uses the least possible standard—“any logical possibility, no matter how inane”—then these resolutions may be satisfactory. If one uses even the slightly higher standard we normally use—“which is more likely: a contradiction or not”—then many of these remain contradictions.

However, a word of caution. A contradiction does NOT render the entire account non-historical; dissimilarities in accounts happen all the time. Did we arrive at the party at 7:00 p.m. or 7:15 p.m.? Two people giving different times would never cause us to dismiss any arrival at all—we understand such disagreements happen all the time.

These contradictions are instructive on four points:

1) Question accounts as to credibility. Sometimes people read the word “credibility” and assume it to be an affront on one’s character. How many times have we heard the dichotomy, “The disciples were either complete fabricators or completely 100% accurate”?

“Credibility” is not only deliberate falsehood, but includes one’s ability to observe, remember and recall the events. A witness 10 feet from an occurrence is more credible than a witness 1000 feet away, due to ability to observe. Both can be earnestly honest; yet the closer witness is considered more credible. Writing down accounts even 1 year after an event can be inaccurate, because of memory lapses, or external influences. Now imagine if the account was 5 years later. Or 10. Or 30.

2) Question accounts as to reliability. Stronger than the first point—if the contradiction is on a key element where the witness benefits from the contradiction, we inherently consider that less reliable.

Imagine if a person was accused of a crime that occurred at 7:05 p.m.; an unbiased witness indicates the accused arrived at the party at 7:00 p.m. The perpetrator’s claim, “I arrived at 7:15 p.m.” is considered unreliable (absent any confirming evidence), because they are very likely saying it to exonerate themselves.

The more important the issue, the greater we scrutinize the motive behind the contradiction.

3) Demonstrate distrust in source. Here we have an interesting situation where Matthew and Luke utilize Mark as a written source. To the extent they disagree with their source and write something contrary, the more one wonders whether historicity or doctrine has become the motive.

Why are they disagreeing with their source? Did they hear something different? Are they supplementing or supplanting the previous sources?

4) Finally, I believe these contradictions demonstrate how John used other sources—specifically Matthew and Luke—in compiling his gospel account of the passion and resurrection. For that, we need to dig a little deeper…

Let’s look at some examples.

The Placard

Mark 15:26 records the statement above Jesus was, “The King of the Judeans.”
Matthew 27:37 adds, “This is Jesus, the King of the Judeans.”
Luke 23:38 reduces it back to “This is the King of the Judeans.” (In Greek, Latin and Hebrew!)
John 19:19 expands it to “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Judeans.”

Of course, the inerrantist could claim the sign said, “This is Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Judeans” and each author only chose to include some; no author included it all:

Mark: This is Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Judeans.
Matthew: This is Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Judeans.
Luke: This is Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Judeans.
John: This is Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Judeans.

But is likely? Or is it far more likely Matthew added a portion on, Luke took out what he deemed unnecessary—“Jesus”—but added even more by listing other languages, and John, aware of both Matthew and Luke, combined both to give the most complete coverage? Remember, if one is going to say John is “independent,” this entails having to explain why Mark, Matthew and Luke all chose to ignore part of the sign.

Which brings us to a brief digression—what do we mean by “independent?” It is not enough for it to merely mean “another.” By this word—“independent”—we mean the author developed the material from a source different than the other authors. It is not independent if John used Matthew. Or John used the same source as Matthew. Or John heard about Matthew and included it. It must be John, without any interjection from Matthew or Matthew’s sources, (or Mark or Luke). It is John recounting on his own.

This needs highlighting because often the apologist will get so caught up arguing for John’s independence through differences, that they fail to realize this undercuts the historicity of the other accounts. If John, independently remembered the sign with the full saying, then Mark, Matthew or Luke either didn’t know about it (meaning they lose credibility) or knew about it and deliberately reduced what they knew (meaning they lose reliability.) Either way, these contradictions may support independence (somewhat) but begin to tear at historicity.

Joseph of Arimathea

Mark 15:43 states Joseph of Arimathea was a council member, waiting for the kingdom of God.
Matthew 27:57 demotes Joseph out of the council, making him a “rich man;” but elevates him to a disciple of Jesus.
Luke 23:50-51 places Joseph back on the council, but continues with Mark’s “waiting for the kingdom of god.”
John 19:38 doesn’t speak to Joseph’s income, nor being a council member, but John does go back to Matthew’s position Joseph was a disciple.

What we start to see is a pattern where Matthew tends to disagree with Mark. Luke attempts to combine combination of Mark and Matthew. John appears to pick and choose from Matthew and Luke (or both).

John’s use of Joseph is a strong indication this story was (at least in part) dependent on another source. Primarily because Joseph is a fictional character created by Mark. If John truly was independent from the Gospels, he may have utilized Nicodemus, but he never would have known to use Joseph. He never would have heard of him! The ONLY way for John to even know about Joseph is through the Synoptics.

The Tomb

Mark 15:46 says Joseph laid Jesus in a tomb.
Matt. 27:60 says it was Joseph’s new tomb.
Luke 23:53 agrees it was new (no one had ever been in it) but retracts from saying it was Joseph’s.
John 19:41 follows Luke, saying it was a new tomb, no mention of it being Joseph’s.

Again, we have the authors either not completely stating the facts, OR disagreeing with each other. Again, the inerrantist could claim it was “Joseph’s new tomb” but only Matthew provides the full description. Mark (our earliest source) left out the fact it was new and Joseph’s, Luke and John both leave out the fact it was Joseph’s.

Time and time and time again, we see discrepancies in these accounts. One, two or a few may cause us to scratch our heads. But when it becomes almost every single detail, we question the accuracy for the reasons state above: lack of credibility and reliability.

Resurrection Appearances

The meat of the problem. When reviewing from a chronological standpoint, we see the myth development, and how John conveniently falls into place following Luke, thus establishing both its late writing and its use of (at least) Luke as a source.

Mark, as well known, has no resurrection appearances. Although he implies them. The women see an angel in the tomb (I know it says, “young man;” it is probable Mark was implying this to be a heavenly apparition) who says, “Go tell the disciples that He (Jesus) is going before you into Galilee and there you will see Him as He said to you.” (Mark 16:7) This intones two facts:

1) Jesus is going to Galilee; and
2) The woman will see him.

And Mark ends it there.

Matthew, after reading Mark, does have Resurrection appearances. Matthew (following Mark) has women seeing the angel, who says (like Mark) “Go and tell the disciples that He is risen from the dead, is going before you into Galilee and there you will see him.” (Matt. 28:7)

On their way, Matthew recounts the women see Jesus (just like Mark implied) and the women then tell the disciples. The disciples go to Galilee, and Matthew recounts the appearance as follows:

Then the eleven disciples went away into Galilee, to the mountain which Jesus had appointed for them. When they saw Him, they worshiped Him; but some doubted. (Matt 28:16-17 NKJV)

Jesus gives the Great commission, and the Gospel ends.

I don’t think people realize how limited our earliest accounts are regarding resurrection appearances. Ask most Christians about these events, and they talk about the Road to Emmaus, Jesus appearing in the room, Doubting Thomas, Jesus at the Lake…yet all these events happen in later accounts.

Again (because this is important):

Mark has no appearances.
Matthew has two (2) appearances: One to the women to relay a message to the Disciples and one to the 11 disciples (minus Judas, of course) in Galilee. The astute reader will note that some of the 11 doubted!

[This may be a good time to discuss 1 Cor. 15:3-8, where Paul states Jesus appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve, then to 500 at once, then to James, then to all the apostles and finally to Paul. There is no time, place or detail. When did these occur? Where? What was said or done? Was it a vision or a physical appearance? Worse, this order contradicts every Gospel account. For our search on the independence of John, the passage provides no illumination.]

Our next chronological account is Luke.

Luke has a problem. Luke intends to convey that the Church initially began in Jerusalem. (Acts 1:12-14). But Mark implies Jesus wanted the disciples to go home to Galilee, and Matthew outright states Jesus saw them in Galilee. How does Luke get them back to Jerusalem?

Simple--he never has them go to Galilee in the first place. Notice how Luke modifies the story, beginning with what the Angel at the tomb says:

“Remember what Jesus said in Galilee about being raised again?” (Luke 24:6-7) You can almost hear Luke say, “No, no, no. Mark and Matthew got it all wrong. The Angel didn’t say, ‘Go to Galilee.’ Oh, my, no! The Angel said, ‘Remember what was said in Galilee.”

Here’s the odd bit. What is the import of Jesus making such a statement in Galilee? In fact, Luke records Jesus stating it in Galilee (Luke 9:22) but also records Jesus stating this in either Samaria or Judea! (Luke 18:33) (It is unclear whether Jesus had reached Judea yet, but he was coming from Samaria.)

The ONLY reason Luke feels the need to include the word “Galilee” (since the place the statement was made is irrelevant) is to explain away the problem people associated the angel stating something about Galilee at the tomb.

Now the Luke has removed the pesky problem regarding “Go to Galilee” found in both Mark and Matthew, we continue with Luke’s story. Luke has the women go tell the Disciples (but includes nothing about Jesus appearing to the women because that would entail having to address the Galilean problem again. Remember, in Matthew the women were told by Jesus, “Get the boys up to Galilee.”).

Luke includes a scene where Jesus appears to two people on the Road to Emmaus. Once these two miraculously realize it is Jesus, they tromp off to the eleven Disciples who say, “We know—Jesus appeared to Peter!” (Luke 24:33-34) Oddly, Luke hasn’t recorded any appearance to Peter. Nor has Mark or Matthew.

At this moment Jesus teleports into the room. They think he is a spirit—so Jesus says, “Look at my hands and feet.” (Luke 24:39-40) [Is this Luke attempting to counter Matthew’s claim that “some doubted”?] He has a bit to eat, tells them to stay in Jerusalem, takes them out to Bethany, and floats into the sky. (In Luke’s next book, he provides the additional information that 40 days pass from the resurrection to the ascension, but no such time frame is provided for or even implied here. One wonders why Luke felt the need to add more time.)

At this point we can see why inerrantists spin circles attempting to align the accounts. Given a chronological mythical development, the Synoptic Gospels fall neatly into place. Attempting to claim historicity amongst them has the Jesus and angels telling the disciples to go this way and that, and the disciples traipsing up to Galilee and back to Jerusalem in one day, tying to figure out where Jesus is going to appear next.

Now on to John. Initially, we see a different start to the day. Instead of numerous women, we only have one—Mary Magdalene. She doesn’t see any angels, or hear any proclamations; she discovers an empty tomb. Tells the disciples resulting in Peter and the other disciple coming to the tomb. A story aligned with Matthew, with the embellishment of enhancing the “other disciple” as being equal with Peter.

The men leave and Mary Magdalene is crying. She sees two angels, and then Jesus. The Gospel of John is the only account of Mary’s individual meet-up with Jesus.

Independent? Well…not exactly. See, in every other Gospel, Mary Magdalene makes her appearance at Jesus’ death. (Luke does include her in a list of women who traveled with Jesus, but that’s it. (Luke 8:2)) Mark and Matthew give us no information about her—we wouldn’t even know she existed until the crucifixion. Luke’s information—Jesus kicked 7 demons out of her—is give as an aside, and nothing more is provided.

But come resurrection Sunday, Mary Magdalene is definitely included in all accounts regarding the tomb. Including John. How is it that John tells us nothing about this deep relationship with Jesus, yet (just like the other gospels) she makes her appearance here? This is the Gospel where Jesus cries over Lazarus’ death, Jesus washes disciple’s feet, Jesus engages in philosophical content with Nicodemus, numerous interpersonal relationships…but nothing about Mary Magdalene? The woman who was the first to see the empty tomb, and the only one who hung around the tomb crying?

John is aware of the Mary Magdalene inclusion in this part of the story from another source.

After this the Gospel of John follows Luke. Jesus appearing suddenly in locked room. Instead of showing “hands and feet” like Luke, John has Jesus saying “touch hands and side.” John is the only Gospel that includes the account regarding a Roman spear in the side of Jesus, so it makes sense John, unlike Luke, has Jesus say, “touch my side.”

Doubting Thomas is not present, at the first meeting (again, trying to clear up Matthew’s statement, “some doubted”?), but at the second meeting is convinced.

And the Gospel ends there.

John 21 is a separate account about the Disciples going back to Galilee, to their lives as fisherman, not recognizing Jesus, and the Jesus cooks them breakfast. John 21 is definitely independent—it doesn’t align with anyone. However, (more discussion in the next blog entry), John 21 causes difficulties with historicity.

It is a simple question—where does it chronologically fit in the other accounts? Anywhere you put it, it will contradict something else and either knock out another account’s historicity, or else lose its own.

A quick summary:

Mark: No appearances, “Look for me in Galilee.”
Matthew: Two brief appearances, follows Mark’s Galilean theme.
Luke: Dismantles Galilean statement to move appearances in upper room at Jerusalem. Jesus shows scars.
John: Appearances in upper room. Jesus shows scars.

There is a constant tension among these works. The closer in similarity the story, the less likely the stories are independent. The less similarity, the less likely the stories are historical.

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


  1. Let us hypothesize (for the sake of argument) that some specific account of Jesus, resurrection, miracles and all, were actually historically true. Assuming (for whatever reason) that only so few people were willing and able to write about the event that only four survive to this day.

    What sorts of things would we expect to see?

    Obviously, once you accept that miracles can happen, it becomes impossible to really draw any conclusions about the past: there might be a miraculous explanation for anything, including both the historical truth of Jesus and anything we might read in the Gospels.

    Even so, it seems plausible that if we restrict our miracles to Jesus himself, there should be something we could say about what we would expect to see by ordinary historical standards.

  2. Thanks much for your research and typing this up, love this stuff. Curious if you have read Scripting Jesus by Dr. L Michael White which is a scholarly analysis of the development of the gospels.

    I'm about 1/3rd through that book and was able to attend a book release seminar at UT and hear Dr. White talk about his approach. I think it is a great analysis of the evolution of the stories with great detail and in a way that relates to your approach and underlying theory.

    The book has 44 pages of footnotes in the tiniest font ever, so it's quite a work with tons of additional other material being interacted with.

    I'm curious what some of your favorite sources are for the gospel authorship and development details.

    It's a shame that most Christians can't get the nuance of a developing faith story that is not a conspiracy to create a lie or just a product of wild copying errors.

    I was in a stealth baptist church service recently and was frustrated that most churches don't respect the bible as much as scholars who are willing to dig into context, textual, and historical analysis to see what all is there. Most believers are right to be afraid of how what they will find might affect their faith, but it keeps them from getting everything available from the text and clinging to their faulty assumptions about the reliability of the NT.

  3. Larry,

    I have been thinking about your comment. I started framing a response, but quickly saw it needs its own entry. After I finish up with John, here…

  4. TonyR,

    No, I haven’t read it, but a quick perusal on Amazon heightened my interest. I put it provincially on my “to read” list. Sadly, I see the Kindle version is not good. (I am finding this to be true with any scholarly work and many footnotes. Still easier for me to follow in paper version.)

    When it comes to what sources I use:

    I always review Udo Schnelle’s “History and Theology of New Testament Writings.” If discussing the context, I look at Malina’s “Social-Science Commentary.” If names come up, I refer to Bauckham’s Testimony.

    I also review Michael Turton’s commentary on Mark. On my blog list, you will see “Michael Turton.” Click on that and another click will lead you to the commentary.

    Goodacre’s “Case against Q” is helpful when discussing the synoptic problem, although I find myself referring to Dan Wallace’s on-line essay with the subject because he is a conservative Christian and it is the only thing I can get Conservative Christians to read! *grin*

    I am currently reading Licona’s new book on “The Resurrection of Jesus.”

  5. Cool. I'm looking forward to your post.

  6. Great post, DagoodS. I think the tension you point out between the independence and historicity of these works is quite profound.

    The analysis of Joseph of Arimathea confused me a bit.. you said
    "What we start to see is a pattern where Matthew tends to disagree with Mark. Luke attempts to combine combination of Mark and Matthew."

    However, the way you describe it in the preceding paragraph makes it seem like Luke is in complete agreement with Mark (i.e., Joseph was council member, waiting for the kingdom of god).

  7. ethinethin,

    You’re correct, when it comes to Joseph of Arimathea, Luke follows Mark (and unusually adds details.) I was thinking at the time I wrote that regarding Matthew’s additions of soldiers, seals, and zombies being removed by Luke, as well as Matthew’s additional minutiae regarding tomb ownership and placards.

    If you are interested, one can see why Luke chose Mark over Matthew here. Luke has a recurring theme throughout his Gospel against being rich. While Mark and Matthew mention polemics against rich people, they do not to the extent Luke does. Luke has nothing good to say about rich people.

    Further, Luke tends to write against Jews in Gentile cities (see Acts) but is not quite so harsh within Palestine. Luke is the only author to record Pharisees helping Jesus (Luke 13:31) as well as including Gamaliel’s support. Or at least neutrality. (Acts 5:34-40).

    For Luke, the trade-off between Mark’s council-member Joseph as compared to Matthew’s rich Joseph resulted in choosing Mark’s account. Interestingly, Luke goes out of his way to emphasize Joseph did not agree with Jesus’ conviction. Luke prefers a neutral or slightly supportive council member over a rich person.