|The Historical Jesus
Gospel is the latest of the four main Gospels. Scholars have argued for
centuries about the exact date it might have been written. As recently as
the 1985 one well-known scholar (J A T Robinson) put it as early as around
65. But most agree that it reached its final form no earlier than 100.
Many think it was written around 20 years later than that.
From the earliest times John's Gospel
has been recognised as very different from the other three (usually known
as the Synoptic Gospels from the Greek synoptikos, meaning "having
a common view of") which are similar to each other in form, outline and
Not only does John's Gospel have a
different feel in terms of how it treats the person of Jesus, but it is
clearly a different type of writing altogether. Some specific differences
Jesus isn't portrayed as saying much about how we should behave.
That is, moral and ethical issues are given a back seat.
The other gospels contain quite a number of accounts in which
Jesus casts out demons. John's Gospel has none.
One of the characteristics of the Synoptic Jesus is that he
regularly interacts and eats with disreputable people. He doesn't do
that in John's Gospel - the tax collectors, whores and poor people don't
get a show.
The Gospel features Jewish priests and those of Pharisaic group.
But it doesn't mention the Sadducees, Zealots, or Jewish scholars or
In John's Gospel, Jesus performs "signs" specifically in order to
demonstrate that he is the Son of God. In the Synoptics, he refuses to
do this - and the teaching that he is the Son of God is somewhat
ambiguous and mixed up with the title of "Son of Man."
John's Gospel contains long discourses by Jesus, reported as
though they were taken down verbatim. Nothing like these appears in the
other three Gospels.
All the gospels are more concerned with imparting a certain view
of Jesus than with telling us "what really happened" - what we today
call history. John's Gospel contains little history. It is much more
like an extended theological tract. The author's main concern is with
theology. The opening section is an excellent example of this sort of
These and many other differences were
recognised as early as Clement of Alexandria (died about 215).
But I am here concerned mainly with the
historical Jesus. Only some 20 percent of the Synoptic Gospels can be
classed as what Jesus really said or did. Almost none of this material
appears in John's Gospel. In short, however convincing the contents of
John's may seem, very little of it is confirmed by the other gospel
In such a situation one might hope that
other contemporary authorities might back up John's Gospel. For example,
the work of the Hebrew-Roman Josephus predates John's Gospel by about 20
years. He witnessed many events in Palestine in the second half of the
first century. He wrote a history of events before and during his
lifetime. But it's clear that he often exaggerates and relies on
unsatisfactory information. Despite that, he provides our only detailed
record of Palestine and the times during which Jesus lived and died. Once
historians have made allowances for his methods, and taken into account
his private motivations, a good historical record remains.
Some of Josephus' information backs up
the gospels. That Jesus lived is confirmed (though later Christians have
probably tampered with the relevant passage). John the Baptist gets a
larger mention than Jesus. And many of the smaller details about rulers of
the time are included by Josephus, some of them showing up errors by the
gospel authors. But by-and-large, the gospels - and especially John's
Gospel - stand alone. Because they are not backed up by external sources,
they don't meet the requirements of top-class historical documents.
They should therefore be carefully
examined if they are to serve as a good Christian source of a Jesus of
history. Scepticism is the watchword in this respect.
All this is not to say categorically
that John's Gospel isn't authentic history through and through. Perhaps
it's better history than the Synoptics, as some have claimed. But the
problem is that nobody can prove it. The book may be excellent theology.
But it isn't good history in the sense that historians at large would
class it as such. The Synoptic Gospels in contrast have much information
in common. This helps sort out their theology from their history. But we
have no other sources to confirm most of what is in John's Gospel.
Many Christians nevertheless hang onto
it with what I think is considerable desperation. It seems to me that they
do so because they approve of its theology, not because they can make a
good case for it being "what Jesus really said and did". There is nothing
intrinsically wrong with that.
On the other hand, unless theology is in
some sense based upon the Jesus of history, it can't rightly claim any
more authority than any other religious or philosophical system.
Christianity has always claimed to be based upon a real man, who actually
existed and who really did say and do certain things. This claim
supercedes all other claims. The Christian faith is, in other words, not a
man-made system of belief. Its basics are founded upon something that
That John's Gospel isn't good history is
a comparatively recent discovery. Only in the last two hundred years has a
majority of Christian scholars agreed on this fact. For many centuries
Christians of all persuasions have taken the long speeches of Jesus as
verbatim accounts of what Jesus said. Many still do. It was supposed that
they were recorded or remembered by that young disciple who fled naked
when Jesus was arrested (Mark 14.51). In other words, Christian tradition
took precedence over history in authenticating the life of Jesus.
In the first four or five hundred years
of the Church's life, the entire New Testament was accepted as having come
direct from God. The gospels, and
John's Gospel in particular, were therefore used as the basis for much
early theology. John's Gospel took precedence over the Synoptic Gospels
probably because it seemed to early theologians and Church leaders to
contain detailed information about Jesus. I don't think it is going too
far to say that traditional Christian theology is largely derived from
John's Gospel differs from the Synoptic
Gospels in some other ways also. For example, Luke's Gospel and the Acts
of the Apostles show an affinity with Greek culture and some ignorance of
Jewish culture. The author of John's Gospel, in contrast, seems
well-informed about Jewish doctrines and practices.
Despite this affinity to Jewish
culture, the Gospel is strongly anti-Jewish. The Synoptic Gospels also
contain some anti-Jewish material, but in them this element is much more
muted. It seems that this stance - which appears deplorable to us today -
may have been stimulated by conflict with Hebrew authorities in the very
early years when the first Christians still thought of themselves as
Hebrew. It may also have been stimulated by occasional persecutions of
Jewish people by Roman authorities, in particular in the late first and
early second centuries. These persecutions may have given Christians
encouragement in their prejudice.
One scholar suggests, with considerable
credibility, that this anti-Semitism came about because John's author may
have been part of a group of Jewish Christians expelled from a Jewish
synagogue congregation towards the end of the first century (see John
Interestingly, Steve Mason shows how Josephus writings survived to a great
extent because they were used to reinforce early Christian anti-Semitism
The other Gospels, Matthew in
particular, contain indications of a conflict between the first Christians
and Jewish authorities - but only John's Gospel is clearly anti-Jewish.
Unfortunately for us all, Christian anti-Semitism over the centuries has
been encouraged because the Bible has been seen as God's revelation. If
the Bible - and especially John's Gospel as the most "accurate" and most
"complete" piece of the New Testament - is perceived like this, there is
ample (though, it turns out, unjustified) reason for Christians to think
in anti-Semitic terms.
Other features - such as the use of the
Greek word kosmos to denote the entire civilised world - indicate
that the community for whom this Gospel was written might already have
been perceiving themselves in the context of the Roman Empire, rather than
as a small sect still essentially part of the Middle-Eastern Jewish
In selecting those parts of John's
Gospel for inclusion as good history, I have tried to be generous. But
John's material differs so radically from the Synoptics that it has proved
difficult to include any but a small part of the total.
Take John's account of John the Baptist
as an example, which I have left out of the historical part of John's
Gospel. The outline is similar to the Synoptic accounts. But detail is so
different that the Johannine version can't be harmonised with the other
gospels. Details such as 1.28, "All this took place in Bethany on the far
side of the Jordan" are not confirmed by the Synoptics. Because John's
Gospel is our only source for this information we can't say that it's good
history. It may be - we just don't know.
In this respect, then, we can confirm
through John  that Jesus had some sort of connection with John the
Baptist. (Note that this Gospel has no account of his baptism by John the
Baptist, although it's easy to assume that John's reported words in
1.31-34 means that he did baptise Jesus.) And  we can suppose that some
of John's followers attached themselves to Jesus (1.35-37). More than that
is to stretch the available evidence too far.
Then again: John's Gospel confirms that
Jesus attacked the money changers and sellers of animals in the Temple.
But this event is placed right at the beginning of the Gospel, not towards
the end as in the Synoptics. In addition, it doesn't take much of an eye
to recognise heavy insertion of theology by John's author in comparison
with the plainer accounts of the other Gospels. He says, for example,
"Destroy this temple and I will resurrect it in three days" - so giving
place to early theology about the resurrection after three days.
Such examples could be multiplied. But
the conclusion is the same as that for the non-historical parts of the
Synoptic Gospels which, though they may be "what really happened,"
don't meet the criteria for good history. The author of John's Gospel no
doubt used older traditional sources for some of his records - but, if so,
not much of it matches the sources used by the authors of Mark, Matthew
His primary purpose, it seems, was not
to write history but to interpret the theological meaning of the life and
person of Jesus for his group of Christians. This he did with long
theological discourses for which there is zero evidence that they were
what Jesus actually said. They are his own thoughts expressed as the words
of Jesus. He also made his own theological points by arranging the order
of events according to his personal scheme (as did all the gospel
In short, the Gospel of John contains
almost no good history and therefore shouldn't be used as information
about what Jesus really did and said. It wasn't designed to be history and
we shouldn't read it that way. It's actually a theological treatise and as
such may be most useful.
So if we want to know more about what
some very early Christians thought about Jesus, it's a good guide. But if
we want to interpret Jesus for ourselves, I think it's better to stick
with the historical information we can sift out from John's Gospel and the
 Recall that John's Gospel was
written after 100. Recall also that the author of the Gospel thought about
history very differently from us today. He would not have thought it
dishonest to "write back" into his gospel events which happened a long
time after Jesus died.
 Josephus and the New Testament, Hendrickson, 2003