Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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The Historical Jesus
Signs in John's Gospel

Some of the best-known miracle tales occur in John's Gospel. They are recounted with considerable verve and colour. But you will notice that when they are examined for their historical accuracy either only the bare bones survive or the stories are left out altogether.

Some commentators deal with accounts like the turning of water into wine (the "Miracle at Cana") as miracles performed by Jesus. Others think that the author of John's Gospel didn't mean us to take his material in this way, but intended the stories as signs to convince potential converts of the second century that Jesus was indeed God's "Anointed."

Those who prefer to interpret the accounts as signs usually come up with seven passages of John's Gospel (at which point it's worth remembering that the number 7 was indicative to Jewish people and many others of a special happening):

1. The wedding at Cana (2.1-11);
2. The cure of the Imperial official's son (4.46-54);
3. The cure of the man by the pool (5.1-9);
4. The feeding of five thousand people (6.1-15);
5. When Jesus walked on water (6.16-21);
6. Curing the man who was born blind (9.1-8);
7. The reviving of Lazarus (11.1-44).

John's author is up-front about his motives. In 20.30-31 he makes it plain that these signs (usually translated as "miracles" into English from the Greek semeia) "have been written in order that you may trust [usually translated "believe" from the Greek pisteuo] that Jesus is the Messiah."

In noting this, it's useful to recall that the authors of the Gospels approached history very differently from today's methods:

  • For them, there was nothing wrong in embroidering what we would call "the facts." Although it's hard for us to understand it, the way they thought was fundamentally different from our modern need to work out "what really happened." John's Gospel pays attention, I think, to those events which back up its author's theology. That they actually happened in the same way that the author knew he'd had breakfast was incidental. What was useful was that the accounts backed up the right theology. If they backed up that right theology, then they must have happened. It was right theology which mattered to John's author - not right history.
  • If an Old Testament which fitted a story could be found, then that passage was confirmation that the story was true. (Recall that "true" has no necessary connection with history or "what really happened.) For example:

    - The Messiah was to bring an age of abundance to a people mostly living on or just below the breadline. So a man who could change water into wine and feed five thousand hungry pilgrims must have been the Messiah. Or it demonstrated that, just as God gave the Jews manna in the wilderness, so too could Jesus feed his people out in the countryside. A more direct parallel is 2 Kings 4.42-44 where, as one can immediately recognise, even the wording is similar.

    - An Old Testament theme is that God brings light and life to his people (Psalm 27.1 and many others). One of John's favourite themes is that Jesus is the light of the world. How fitting that the Messiah should heal not just a blind man, but a man who had never seen light at all! Given this type of thinking, it's hardly surprising that Christians should come to think of Jesus as God's son.

Such instances could be multiplied many times over. The main point, however, is that John's seven signs are not put there to prove an historical or scientific point about miracles. We can say with almost absolute certainty that such a concern would not have occurred to the author of John's Gospel.

Having said this, are any of the seven signs history? That is, do they contain material which gives us information about "what really happened"?

One way of proceeding is to check if John's material is contained in any of the other Gospels. If so, perhaps it has come from the Q Source, or from Mark or somewhere else like the Gospel of Thomas.

First, note that some of this group of signs have no parallels at all in the other Gospels - the Wedding story, that of the man born blind and the raising of Lazarus.

Second, the remaining passages have recognisable versions in the other Gospels:

The Imperial Official's Son - Matthew 8.5-13; Luke 7.1-10. John's version is simpler than the parallels, but the story is recognisably the same.

The Cure at the Pool - There are faint echoes of this tale in Mark 2.1-12; Matthew 9.1-8; Luke 5.17-26.

Feeding Five Thousand - The accounts in Matthew 14.13-21; Mark 6.30-44; and Luke 9.10-17 are clearly similar.

Walking on Water - The same story with very different details occurs in Matthew 14.22.-23 and Mark 6.45-52.

As far as I can tell most authorities agree that the passages from John's Gospel, though they are similar, are almost certainly not taken from the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke). It would seem that all four versions have been taken from sources which precede the earliest Gospels. But John's material is too dissimilar to have come from the Synoptics.

This reminds us that the period before the year 70 (when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem) probably saw the passing down of several strands of oral tradition from person to person, and from group to group. If that is true, and it seems almost certain, one puzzle is why Paul's letters contain very little material which we can trace back to the Gospels. We don't know why he didn't quote an oral tradition which must have been alive at the time he was writing his letters. But all four Gospel authors definitely had access to it.

So the best we can say of John's seven signs is that some of them appear to based on oral material to which the author had access. I'm told that the material doesn't bear the marks of having been written down before John used it, which would mean that it had been passed on by word of mouth for at least 70 years. 

This doesn't mean that we automatically can't trust it as an account of "what really happened." Even uneducated people of those times preserved verbal information remarkably well. But it's highly likely that in the process of transmission it was embroidered a good deal, that it lost some authentic detail and that it may have had its main focus modified. In that case, all we can reliably expect to find in each case is the skeleton of an event, heavily overgrown by weeds of interpretation. John's author wove his elaborate theology into that more primitive growth.

My conclusion is that John's Gospel is an excellent introduction to the theology of the Church of the second century. It contains, as the seven signs demonstrate, some elements of earlier interpretation of the meaning of Jesus by the first Christians (although they thought of themselves as Jews). But it doesn't contain nearly as much good history as the other three Gospels.

See also: Signs Gospel and John's Gospel

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