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
John's Gospel

This 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 content.

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 are:

  • 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 elders.

  • 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 development.

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 authors.

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 really happened.

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 this Gospel.

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 9.22) [1]. Interestingly, Steve Mason shows how Josephus writings survived to a great extent because they were used to reinforce early Christian anti-Semitism [2].

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 establishment.

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 [1] 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 [2] 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 and Luke.

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 authors).

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 Synoptic Gospels.
[1] 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.
[2] Josephus and the New Testament, Hendrickson, 2003

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