|The Historical Jesus
Signs in John's Gospel
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
- 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
- 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
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
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
See also: Signs Gospel and