Tuesday 10 April 2012

John’s portrayal of Jesus is so different to that of the Synoptics that some scholars have no confidence in its historicity. Discuss.

1. Introduction

Clement of Alexandriawho lived in the second half of the 2nd Century A.D. describedJohn’s gospel as ‘spiritual’ in comparison to the Synoptics.[1]

Thedifference in perspective, among other considerations, has led some scholars toconclude that John’s[2]account is not historically reliable. The aim here is not to discuss everyfactor that scholars consider in their analysis of reliability, but rather tofocus on the debate of historicity in regard to the presentation of JesusChrist in John’s Gospel.

Section2 of this essay will review the main factors that cause scholars to reject thehistoricity of John; section 3 will move on to analyse these positions.

2. Synoptics vs. John

Thereare many differences between the Gospel of John and the Synoptics; The mainones being John’s omission of important events in Jesus’ life, and John’spresentation of Jesus’ teaching:

2.1. John’s Omissions

It is worth stating that there are many themes andevents that are common to John’s Gospel and the Synoptics.[3]However, as the differences have been highlighted more frequently by thosequestioning John’s historicity, it will benefit the discussion to highlightsome of John’s notable omissions. John does not include the virgin birth, thebaptism, temptation and transfiguration of Jesus, healing of the demonoppressed or the lepers, the parables, and other sections of the Passion. Inaddition, the Fourth Gospel often focuses on the ministry of Jesus in Jerusalem rather than in Galilee. Thereis speculation about whether or not John used the Synoptics as source materialfor his Gospel. Conversely, there are many who argue that John’s traditionscame to him though other sources altogether.[4]As such,scholars rightly question where the author obtained his material. The answer tothis question will of course have a bearing on the issue of historicity.

2.2. Christ the Teacher

Ithas been mentioned above that John omitted some of the important eventsincluded in the Synoptic Gospels. However, another very striking difference isto do with the content and style of Jesus’ teaching. The Fourth Gospel portraysJesus’ teaching as Rabbinic; philosophical in comparison to his teaching inMatthew, Mark and Luke. The famous ‘I am’ statements are unique to this Gospel,along with contrasting binary statements, for example the use of ‘light’ and ‘darkness’in John’s prologue. In addition, there are significantly more sayings acknowledgingJesus’ divine status with the Father. Such factors have persuaded some scholarsthat John is not historical reliability.

3. Main Schools of Thought

Donald Guthrie helpfully identifies fourcategories of opinion on John’s historicity: those who believe John isindependent of, interpretive of, a substitute for, or supplementary to theSynoptics.[5]Below we will review some of these positions.

3.1. Independent

As mentioned above some scholars believe itunlikely that John used Mark, or the other Synoptics as source material for hisGospel. Stephen Barton argues for the Gospel’s independence from the diversityof content:

Theaccounts of the life of Jesus are irreducibly diverse. Each has an integrity ofits own. As redaction criticism and (more recently) narrative criticism havehelped us to see, we have to speak of‘the Jesus of Matthew’, ‘the Jesus of Mark’, and so on.[6]

An independent interpretation of the FourthGospel can imply that the author used other written sources apart from theSynoptics. Conversely, this position can lead scholars to a differentconclusion: that John did not use other written sources, but rather oral traditionsthat could be, hypothetically, reliable. James Dunn criticises scholars whobelieve John used written sources as having a ‘post-printing press literarymind-set’[7].By arguing for John’s reliance on oral tradition Dunn explains the‘Synoptic-like material’[8]in the Fourth Gospel.

Dunn also affirms theunique but yet reliable account of Jesus’ life found in John. So it is evidentthat a belief in independent source material, of whatever type, does notnecessarily affect scholars’ opinions about the historicity of John’sGospel.

3.2. Interpretive

When we read the FourthGospel, we are listening both to tradition and to a new and uniqueinterpretation of that tradition . . . the traditional materials have not beenquoted, but rather newly interpreted by the composer for his own time and inresponse to forces exerted on him in his own milieu.[9]

JamesMartyn sees the Fourth Gospel as an interpretation of the Synoptics. As theGospel was written later, it is believed that the change in style and contentreflected the issues that had developed in the early church. Therefore it wasspecifically designed to combat contemporary problems. The use of the title‘The Jews’ has been used to support this position. Scholars have argued thatJohn 9 was created as an encouragement to Christians who were being cast out ofthe synagogue as a result of the Benediction against Heretics[10].To further consolidate this point Martyn also argues that chapter 9 wasconstructed as a drama in a similar format to dramas of the day.[11]Martyn’s account of chapter 9 includes the comment that verses 8-41 were added‘by someone’[12]later. Presumably the verses added were not intended to be historical, but ratherdramatic. Thus Martyn, among other scholars, doubts John’s historicity becauseof its divergence from the Synoptics, and because of its seeming relevance to 1stand 2nd century Christian issues. On the other hand, Dunn accepts that Johnincludes interpretive elements in his Gospel, but upholds the oral Jesustraditions, and therefore defends John’s historicity.

Consequently, like to those convinced of John’s independence from theSynoptics, those who believe John is an interpretation of Synoptic material canbe led to either disregard or uphold John’s historicity, dependent onindividual scholarly persuasion.

3.2.1. The Hellenistic School

Anothercamp within the interpretive school of Johannine scholars arethose that believe the Fourth gospel is a Hellenised Gospel for Greek readers. Thisis most obvious in the prologue, where the author uses the word ‘Logos’ todescribe Jesus. In using this term some are convinced that the author wasinfluenced by Philo of Alexandria, a Hellenistic Jew and contemporary of Jesus.Others, such as Dunn agree with this but also argue that the Gospel is rootedfirmly in Jewish tradition, and was also influenced by Second-Temple Wisdomtheology[13].

Even so, some scholars believe the purpose ofthe Fourth Gospel is a philosophical interpretation of Jesus’ teaching. Sometherefore conclude that they cannot accept the historical reliability of Jesus’statements. This is further consolidated, it is thought, by the emphasis on theSpirit of God, and Jesus’ statements such as ‘I and The Father are one’ (Jn.10:30), which indicates the beginnings of a Trinitarian understanding oftheology. A Trinitarian theology, some argue, was a later development of thechurch and was not the original message of Christ. These scholars usually giveJohn a late date of c.120 A.D. and posit an evolutionary Christology. However,scholars persuaded of John’s Hellenistic elements do not necessarily allquestion the Gospel’s historicity, Dunn being an example.

3.2.1. Gnostic Discourses

It is Gnostic languagewhen Satan is called “The god of this world” (2 Cor. 4:4), the “ruler of thisworld” (Jn. 12:31; 14:30; 16:11) . . . the terminology in which dualism isexpressed shows extensive Gnostic influence. This is most apparent in John,whose language is governed by antithesis “light-darkness”[14]

Scrutinisingthe Gospel through the medium of Form Criticism Rudolf Bultmann believed he wasable to decipher the redactional elements from the historical. In Bultmann’sestimation John’s Gospel was not a historical text. As can be seen from thequote above he believed that it was an amalgamation of different traditionsincluding Gnostic teaching. However, Dunn presents a different view:

For all the freedom theFourth Evangelist displays in his presentation of Jesus and despite all thedifferences from the Synoptics, John’s Gospel is far closer to them than it isto the apocryphal Gospels.[15]

Dunnbuilds on this point arguing that the Gnostic and apocryphal texts weredifferent in that a ‘Gospel’ as a genre was an account primarily of the deathand resurrection of Jesus. Even though John does often use a different style oflanguage and teaching, the purpose of the Gospel is very similar to that of theSynoptics. Unlike the Gnostic Gospels from the 2nd century, Johndoes not aim to give a purely philosophical account of Jesus’ teaching, but ratherto affirm as strongly as the Synoptics the historicity of Jesus’ death andresurrection.

3.3. Supplementary

Lastly,some scholars see John’s Gospel as supplementary to the Synoptics. It is hardto deny that John was aware of at least some of the Synoptic text. If the authorwere not, it would be difficult to explain why he used the same Gospel outlineas the Synoptics, which was, in the 1st century, a new genre ofwriting.[16]Equally, if the Synoptics were not known to him, and he wished to create a‘new’ Gospel, would he not have created something very different?

Therefore, a supplementary view ofJohn’s Gospel fits better with the facts we have available to us. However, asupplementary view of this Gospel does not automatically imply that the Gospelis historically accurate. Yet, as John does use the Gospel genre as an outline,and presents us with some of the same events as the Synoptics, it would bereasonable to conclude, as Gurthrie does, that the author was aware of theSynoptic material and aimed to fill in the gaps from other sources he hadavailable to him, whether written or oral.

4. Conclusion

Ascan be seen from the analysis of various opinions above, it seems verydifficult to prove or disprove John’s historicity in the modern sense. This isbecause we do not have the source material that John used to construct hisnarrative. We also do not know with certainty when the Gospel was written, orby whom. Some scholars have allowed these factors to persuade them that theGospel’s historicity should be doubted. But, lack of outside evidence shouldnot be thought of as conflicting evidence.

Despite all the charges that havebeen brought against the Fourth Gospel, its parallel to the Synoptics is stillfar greater than other texts written about Jesus[17].This conclusion can be drawn from the fact that it was written as a ‘Gospel’,events are shared with the Synoptics and even though Jesus is not recorded ashaving told the same parables as those in the Synoptics, it is clear that heused parabolic phrases. In addition, in the early centuries of the church therewas no sustained attack on the authenticity of John’s Gospel. If it did presenta divergent theology, or present inaccurate history, it seems likely that othersections of the church with a more orthodox Jesus tradition would havechallenged its canonicity. The differences between John and the Synoptics werewell known to the early church, as can be deduced from the words of Clement ofAlexandria. But such knowledge did not cause Christians to question thehistoricity of John’s account.

Therefore, in conclusion, there havebeen many scholars who have believed John too different from the Synoptics tobe historically reliable. However, by contrast it can be argued that John istoo like the Synoptics to bedisregarded as such. Overall, the evidence seems to point in the direction ofthe latter.


1. Guthrie,Donald, New Testament Introduction: theGospels and Acts., Tyndale Press, 1965

2. Bultmann,Rudolf, Theology of the New Testament, Scribner, New York, 1951

3. Bultmann,Rudolf, Jesus and the Word, CollinsClear-Type Press, 1958

4. Martyn,James, History and Theology in the FourthGospel, John Knox Press, 2003

5. Scott,Ernest, Fourth Gospel: Its Purpose andTheology, Kessinger Publishing, 2003

6. Dunn,James, Jesus, Paul and the Gospels, Eerdmans,2011.

7. Eusebius,Ecclesiastical History

8. Drane,John, Introducing the New Testament,Lion Publishing, 1986

9. Achtemeier,P., Green, J., Thompson, M., (eds.), Introducingthe New Testament: Its Literature and Theology, Eerdmans, 2001

10. Brockmuehl,Markus. (ed.), The CambridgeCompanion to Jesus, Cambridge,2001

11. Gundry,Robert, A Survey of the New Testament, Zondervan,1970

[1] Eusebius, Eclesiastical History, vi. 14
[2] Forthe purposes of this discussion I will refer to the author of the Gospel as‘John’ in line with church tradition.
[3]Gurthrie, p. 263
[4] Achtemeier,Green, Thompson, (eds.), Introducing theNew Testament, p. 199
[5] Ibid., p. 273
[6] Barton, S., ‘Manygospels, one Jesus?’, in The CambridgeCompanion to Jesus, ed. Bockmuehl, M., p.177
[7] Dunn, J., Jesus,Paul and the Gospels, p.77
[8] Ibid., p. 77
[9] Martyn, J., Historyand Theology in the Fourth Gospel, p.30
[10] Gundry, R., ASurvay of the New Testament, p.262
[11] Ibid., p. 37
[12] Ibid., p. 37
[13] Dunn, p. 88
[14] Bultmann, R., The Theology of the New Testament, p.173
[15] Dunn, p. 74
[16] Dunn, p. 73
[17] NotablyGnostic texts

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