Issues with John
John has a problem. Actually, John has a number of problems. The articles below explore the internal and external evidence of the many issues pertaining to the Fourth Gospel which as been traditionally attributed to John (either the Apostle or an Elder). First of all, John cannot be regarded as having the same level of reliability as the Synoptic Gospels. The first article, John vs the Synoptics, provides a detailed overview the contrast of the Fourth Gospel with respect to the Synoptic Gospels.
“Few scholars would regard John as a source for information regarding Jesus life and ministry in any degree comparable to the Synoptics… John’s gospel cannot be regarded as a source for the life and the teaching of Jesus of the same order as the Synoptics… We shall certainly want to call upon John’s gospel as a source, but mostly as a secondary source to supplement or corroborate the testimony of the Synoptic tradition.” (James D. G. Dunn, Jesus Remembered, Christianity in the Making, Volume 1, Paperback Edition, 2019, Page 165-167)
Craig Keener, an even more contemporary Scholar who is known for citing more sources than other scholars, also acknowledged the contradiction of John with the Synoptics in his two-volume commentary on John, stating:
A close examination of the Fourth Gospel reveals that John has rearranged many details, apparently in the service of his symbolic message. This is especially clear in the Passion Narrative, where direct conflicts with the presumably widely known passion tradition fulfill symbolic narrative functions. John’s long discourses are of a different genre than the sayings collections in Q or even Mark’s long “apocalyptic” discourse. Such features naturally invite us to question the nature of this Gospel’s historicity; certainly he is not writing a work of the exact historiographic nature of Luke-Acts.
(Keener, Craig S.. The Gospel of John : 2 Volumes (pp. 42-43). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.)
In identifying issues of John with respect to the Synoptic Gospels many points of contrast can be observed. These include the very different picture of Jesus ministry and the striking difference in Jesus style of speaking. In the Synoptics, Jesus’ principal theme is the Kingdom of God and he rarely speaks of himself. However in John, the discourses are centered around proclamations that Jesus makes about himself. For example the striking “I am” self-assertions’ are only found in John and there is no reason why these statements would be omitted from the other Gospels if these were indeed uttered by Jesus. As James Dunn has attested, The only obvious conclusion is that the ‘I am’ sayings cannot be traced back as such to Jesus himself. As the scholar C. H. Dodd has attested..
“We may now say with confidence that for strictly historical material, with the minimum of subjective interpretation we must not go to the Fourth Gospel… it is to the Synoptic Gospels that we must go if we which to recover the oldest and purest tradition of the facts. These Gospels coincide, overlap, diverge, confirm and contradict one another in a way that is at first simply perplexing. But out of these curious interrelations of the three it has been possible to deduce a gradually increasing mass of probable conclusions about the earlier sources upon which they rest.” (C. H. Dodd, The Authority of the Bible, Second Harper Tourchbook Edition, 1962 p. 215)
Turning to Jesus’ discourses, we see an extreme contrast between the Synoptics and the Fourth Gospel.
The reader of the Synoptics will agree with Justin Martyr’s verdict when, speaking of ‘the very doctrine delivered by Christ himself,’ he says: ‘Short and pithy are his discourses; no sophist was he ‘ (Apol. 1:14). The Johannine discourses impress one as discursive and dialectical, a limited number of great themes being repeated again and again on the most varied occasions. Yet, while this distinction is broadly true, our Gospel is not lacking in just such concise and axiomatic sayings as characterize Jesus’ speech in the Synoptics. No doubt to the casual reader they are almost lost in the Evangelist’s elaboration of them, but a more careful study reveals them dotted here and there like gems in a cunningly wrought setting. In the Synoptics the most characteristic and fascinating of Jesus’ discourses are the parables. But the Fourth Gospel does not contain a single true parable, the only passages which approach the parabolic form being rather ‘allegories’ or figurative discourses. (G. H. C. Macgregor, The Gospel Of John, Harper and Brothers, New York, 1928, p. xvi – xvii)
A carful review of John will also reveal that the various characters including, Jesus, the narrator, and others are stylistically identical in speech. Moreover, the contrast with the Synoptics is really just one of many issues with John. The Fourth Gospel has numerous others issues associated with embellishments, contradictions, authorship, dating, philosophical subordinate aims, and dislocations. These are outlined in the following articles…
Progressive Embellishment of John
In the article, Progressive Embellishment of John, 8 parallel cases are examined which show progressive embellishment through the Gospel tradition in the order of Luke→Mark→Matthew→John, the least reliable.
Luke→John, Johannine Dependence on Luke
Summarized are 18 passages exhibiting a literary relationship between John and Luke. The evidence refutes views of priority or literary independence of John.
John vs. the Synoptics
The article, John vs the Synoptics, provides an overview of issues with the Fourth Gospel in contrast with the Synoptic Gospels
Embellishments of John
- Seven (7) titles given in the second half of Chapter 1
- Seven (7) “I am” Statements of John
- Proclamations that Jesus is Messiah and that he will be crucified and raised
- After the feeding of 5000, who did the crowds think Jesus was?
- Cleansing of the Temple
- Raising of Lazarus
- The anointing of Jesus by a woman
- The betrayal and arrest of Jesus
- Jesus before Pilate
- Jesus back before Pilate
- The crucifixion of Jesus
- The burial of Jesus
Contradictions of John
30+ contradictions of the Fourth Gospel are detailed in Contradictions of John. While a creative explanation might resolve a handful of these, there are clearly a significant number of contradictions in the Fourth Gospel.
Origen’s Commentary on John
Origen’s Commentary on John shows clearly that Origen, one of the most prominent Christian theologians and church Father’s of the 3rd century, regarded the Fourth Gospel as more symbolic than historic. With respect to the discourse in John, Origen said, “We shall not hesitate to find Gospel in such discourse also as is not narrative but hortatory and intended to strengthen belief in the mission of Jesus” (Origen, Commentary on John, Book 1, Ch 5). In the article, many excerpts are provided from Origen’s Commentary on John. Some of his chapter headings include such statements as follows:
- THE DISCREPANCY BETWEEN JOHN AND THE FIRST THREE GOSPELS AT THIS PART OF THE NARRATIVE, LITERALLY READ, THE NARRATIVES CANNOT BE HARMONIZED: THEY MUST BE INTERPRETED SPIRITUALLY (Book X, Ch 2)
- SCRIPTURE CONTAINS MANY CONTRADICTIONS, AND MANY STATEMENTS WHICH ARE NOT LITERALLY TRUE, BUT MUST BE READ SPIRITUALLY AND MYSTICALLY (Book X, Ch 4)
- THE STORY OF THE PURGING OF THE TEMPLE SPIRITUALIZED. TAKEN LITERALLY, IT PRESENTS SOME VERY DIFFICULT AND UNLIKELY FEATURES (Book X, Ch 16)
- THE NAME OF THE PLACE WHERE JOHN BAPTIZED IS NOT BETHANY, AS IN MOST COPIES, BUT BETHABARA. PROOF OF THIS. ATTENTION IS TO BE PAID TO THE PROPER NAMES IN SCRIPTURE, WHICH ARE OFTEN WRITTEN INACCURATELY, AND ARE OF IMPORTANCE FOR INTERPRETATION (Book VI, Ch 5)
Devised Literary Structure of John
Devised Literary Structure of John, reveals how John is carefully designed and provides an overview of the structure of the Fourth Gospel. In John, each story has been coordinated with the other parts of the narrative. The Gospel is shot through with intertextual connections and contains a riddling character as it is meant to tease the intelligence and entice its readers. The pervasive theme of misunderstanding is addressed in detail in which Jesus speaks in a provocative and ambiguous manner and is repeatedly misunderstood by his enemies or followers. The widespread use of irony and symbolism is also summarized as well as the narrator and point of view with respect to how the Gospel narrative is crafted. A detailed overview of the structure of the Fourth Gospel is given in reference to Tim Macke’s (the Founder of Bible Project) presentation of John, who likens the Fourth Gospel to the Matrix movie being a masterfully engineered work. Structural evidences of the Fourth Gospel being a devised literary work are also summarized.
Misunderstanding of John
The article Misunderstanding of John examines how the Forth Gospel is the cause of endless confusion and speculation throughout the centuries. It is on account of the ambiguity intrinsic throughout the Fourth Gospel, and it’s highly cryptic design, that John is the cause for so many errors regarding theological speculations. The article demonstrates how easy to fall for errors and to misuse the Gospel of John when taking single verses out of context and addresses the methodology of identifying clarifications that are provided in the fuller dialogue before and after the particular verse or phrase being quoted. The misunderstanding of various statements in John serves as the primary grounding for such errors as Trinitarianism, Modalism (Oneness doctrine), and Arianism. Although taking an overly literal approach is something the author did not indent the reader to do, particular theological camps doing so, use John to defend misguided assertions about the preexistence, divinity and a literal oneness of essence/identity of Jesus with the One God and Father.
John and Philosophy
Critical Scholarship on the Fourth Gospel in relation to contemporary philosophy at the time John was written including Alexandrian Philosophy and Gnosticism is summarized in the article John and Philosophy. The Fourth Gospel can be understood properly only as the Evangelist’s attempt to interpret the Christian faith to the Church of his own day — a largely Gentile Church, probably early in the first decade of the second century. By the time it was completed, the Apostolic Age had passed or was passing away, the bonds with Judaism had been definitely broken, and a Church now largely Gentile had become the custodian of a religion which, severed from its historical origins, was unfolding itself into a far wider significance. John alters the perspective of the earlier Gospels, and looking at Jesus’ life across the intervening years reads into words and incidents the point of view of this later period.
Numerous subordinate aims are summarized. There can be little doubt that certain polemical aims can be traced in the Gospel. The controversial tone of Jesus’ discourses as reported by John is intelligible only if they are related to the contemporary situation of the Church in John’s own day, and treated as the Evangelist’s attempt to repel attacks, to which Christianity was subject, in the early years of the second century. Influences and parallels with respect to various philosophical schools and ideas are also summarized.
Dislocations of John
In several places, internal evidence raises a strong suspicion that sections of the gospel (John) are not in the right order. A growing weight of opinion finds the explanation in a theory of displacement of leaves. Some attribute this to an accident which could be further manuscript after the writers death, and the carelessness of the editor who regrouped the scattered leaves. Others, with greater probability, think that the writer left his manuscript imperfectly arranged, and the reference in which he was held by his disciple prevented any change in the manuscripts as it had been left, beyond a few words here and there. The discovery that, in several of the passages where rearrangement is required on internal grounds, the displaced sections are, as regards length, multiples of a fixed unit.
Literary unity of the Fourth Gospel has been challenged upon the ground that a careful reading of the text reveals numerous seams and sutures. The force of this argument has been greatly reduced by the general recognition that several considerable displacements have taken place in the text. When the gospel is read through, in spite of the general impression of unity, certain indications of disunity and dislocation are found. Theories of textual displacement as well as commonly identified redactions are also summarized in the article Dislocations of John.
James Moffett’s translation of the New Testament attempted to arrange the sections of John in the correct order. An overview of Moffett’s work as well of his translation and arrangement of John is included in the article.
Authorship of John
In the article Authorship of John, Critical Scholarship on the authorship of the Fourth Gospel is provided. The external evidence includes the lateness of the evidence for the full recognition of the gospel, the date of the gospel, authorship in tradition, and John, the Elder of Ephesus. Other considerations include internal evidence such as literary structure, reference within the Gospel to the ‘beloved disciple,’ the relation of the Appendix to the question of authorship. The composition of the Gospel gives hints about the process by which it has come about.
In accordance with what can be observed by its composition, it is clear that at least three persons have played their part in reducing the Fourth Gospel to its present form. The first being responsible for some of the source material: the figure of the Witness, the ‘ Disciple whom Jesus loved. The Witness must remain shrouded in his self-chosen anonymity. The second person being the Evangelist himself who is the author in the true sense of the word, who has stamped upon the book the marks of his genius and welded it into an organic whole. The third person/group is a later redactor who is responsible for many interpolations as well as the added chapter 21 (known as the Appendix). The Redactor evidently felt free to rearrange the order of the sections, and also, it may be, to interpolate a certain amount of new material and to emphasize certain polemical topics.
In modern times the authorship of the fourth Gospel has been the subject of rigorous investigation. The discussion has now been in process for nearly a hundred years and is by no means closed; but the weight of scholarly opinion is settling down to a conviction that the traditional theory must be abandoned. The fourth Gospel, cannot be attributed to the Apostle John, and the real secret of its authorship seems to be irrecoverably lost. Many attempts have been made in recent times to connect it with some particular name; but with our scanty knowledge of the early history of the church, they are hazardous at the best.
Dating of John
The approximate dating of the Fourth Gospel including the rationale for the estimated range of dates is provided in Dating of John. Excerpts from several notable scholars are included who define a early and late limit for when John was written in consideration of both internal and external evidence. The dating range of this established scholarship aiming for a high level of objectivity is from 90-140 A.D. Some propose a tighter likely range being approximately the first two decades of the second century (100-120 A.D.). John was composed last and it’s composition date is significantly later than the Synoptics, being most likely a product of the second century.
Dating of John P52 Error
The discovery and publication in the 1930s of a papyrus fragment known as P52 influenced some scholars to believe that John was written earlier than the mid second century which was the consensus of many scholars at that time. P52 is a small scrap about the size of a credit card and represents the earliest physical evidence that exists for the Gospel of John (containing lines from John 18:31-33). It has since been determined the P52 dating is likely 25-100 years later than initially dated. This puts P52 more likely in the range of 150-225 A.D. / C.E.
Dating of John P52 Error exposes how recent scholarship has an erroneous dependence on an early date of the P52 fragment as the basis for dating the Fourth Gospel. Any recent scholarship since 1935 that bases a dating on John on the presumption that the P52 fragment is dated to the early second century should be discounted. Thus the excellent scholarship of the early 20th century on the dating of John referenced in the previous article, Dating of John stands as the most realistic estimate. More recent scholarship that bases the dating of John on an assumption of an early date of P52 should be considered fallacious.
As Brent Nogbri, has stated in his paper, “The Use and Abuse of P52: Papyrological Pitfalls in the Dating of the Fourth Gospel” (Harvard Theological Review 98:1, 23–48), critical readers of the New Testament, often use John Rylands Greek Papyrus, known as as P52, in inappropriate ways, and we should stop doing so. Example of misuse of P52 by popular scholars in recent history are included in the article as well as a summary of the updated dating and scholarship on P52.
Issues with the Dating of John before 100 A.D.
Fundamentalists and conservative scholars are motivated to assign as early a date as possible to the Gospel of John. Some even go as far as to affirm a date before 70 A.D. However, there are numerous reasons why objective established scholarship of the early 20th century affirms a date after 100 A.D. Issues with Dating John Before 100 AD covers those issues with dating John before 100 A.D. as well as additional issues with dating John before 90 A.D., additional issues with dating John before 80 A.D., and problems with arguments dating John before 70 A.D.
Of principal consideration that disqualifies an early dating of John is the lack of awareness and quotation of John in early Christian writings. Up to the middle of the second century there is nothing to prove, or even suggest, that ‘John was recognized as a Gospel. With respect to Justin Martyr, a church leader who wrote in the mid-second century, there is barely three potential references to John, although there is approximately 170 citations or references to the Synoptic Gospels.
Those who date John before 100 A.D. are biased to presume the the earliest date possible whereas the range of 100-120 A.D. is a less-biased mid-range estimate that doesn’t push the date up to the the very front end of a larger plausible range of 90-140 A.D. Also, the Fourth Gospel being directed to philosophically minded Jews and Greeks of the 2nd Century is further evidence of a date after 100 A.D.
Contested Status of John
The article Contested Status of John addresses the contested status of John in the second century. The Fourth Gospel not attested by Paul, who clearly had an affinity with Luke and Acts, nor is it well attested by Justin Martyr or other church fathers before the late second century. Rather than being affirmed, the the Fourth Gospel was contested or not used by various early Christian leaders and groups. Gaius and other “Alogians” where were Orthodox for the most part, accepted the Synoptic Gospels while rejecting the Fourth Gospel. Additionally, the Ebionites and Marcion did not use John although they exhibited a heavy reliance on Luke. Clement of Alexandria who was a predecessor to Origen claimed that John was a “Spiritual Gospel” and Origen later elaborated that John was not to be taken literarily and was more symbolic than historical. Irenaeus, who acknowledged that others rejected John, is the only second century proto-orthodox “Church Father” that attests to John being a Gospel of equal standing with the other three Gospels, and this comes only in the last couple of decades of the second century (180-200 A.D.).
Justin Martyr favored Luke over John
Evidence is provided demonstrating that Justin Martyr favored Luke and disfavored John in the article Justin Martyr Favored Luke over John. Many of the quotations of Justin Martyr exhibit him quoting with Luke with special emphasis while there is no trace of a recognition of a Gospel like John.
Additionally, the evidence before Justin, the relation of Barnabas and John, Marcion, and Papius not being a hearer of John is also summarized. The pseudepigraphal gospel of Barnabas is a precursor to John resembles it in many points. With respect to the so-called imitations of John by Justin, these are likely imitations of Barnabas. It appears that when Justin seems to be alluding to John, he is really alluding to the Old Testament, or Barnabas, or some Christian tradition different from John, and often earlier than John. When Justin teaches what is practically the doctrine of the Fourth Gospel, he supports it, not by what can easily be found in the John, but by what can hardly, with any show of reason, be found in the three Synoptics. As regards Logos-doctrine, his views are alien from John. These three distinct lines of evidence converge to the conclusion that Justin either did not know John, or, as is more probable, knew it, but regarded it with suspicion, partly because it contradicted Luke his favorite Gospel.
Critical Scholarship of John
Key references of Critical Scholarship are provided with quotes, excerpts and internet archive book links (free to view online) in the article Critical Scholarship of John. What is summarized is the general consensus of New Testament scholarship of the early 20th century which was the product a century of Christian critical scholarship focused on John. Much if this scholarship is well summarized in the book Fourth Gospel in Recent Criticism and Interpretation by Wilbert Francis Howard, edited by C.K. Barrett, as well as other books featured from other prominent Christian scholars. It is this scholarship that the recent scholar James D.G. Dunn refers to when he says in “On the whole then, the position is unchanged” on what had “become more axiomatic” for New testament Scholarship with regards to the historical value of the Fourth Gospel:
“In 1847 F. C. Baur produced a powerful case for his conclusion that the Fourth Gospel was never intended to be ‘a strictly historical Gospel’. Given the strength of Baur’s critique, the inevitable conclusion could hardly be avoided: John’s Gospel is determined much more by John’s own theological than by historical concerns. Consequently it cannot be regarded as a good source for the life of Jesus. The conclusion by no means became established straight away. But for those at the forefront of the ‘quest of the historical Jesus’ the die had been cast. The differences between John and the others, which had previously been glossed over, could no longer be ignored. It was no longer possible to treat all four Gospels on the same level. If the first three Gospels were historical, albeit in qualified measure, then such were these differences that John’s Gospel could no longer be regarded as historical. Over the next hundred years the character of John’s Gospel as a theological, rather than a historical document, became more and more axiomatic for NT scholarship.” (James D. G. Dunn, Christianity in the Making, Volume 1, Jesus Remembered, Paperback Edition, 2019, Pages 40-41)
“Few scholars would regard John as a source for information regarding Jesus life and ministry in any degree comparable to the Synoptics…. On the whole then, the position is unchanged: John’s gospel cannot be regarded as a source for the life and the teaching of Jesus of the same order as the Synoptics… We shall certainly want to call upon John’s gospel as a source, but mostly as a secondary source to supplement or corroborate the testimony of the Synoptic tradition.” (James D. G. Dunn, Christianity in the Making, Volume 1, Jesus Remembered, Paperback Edition, 2019, Page 165, 167)