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
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
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
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).
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
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.
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
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) .
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
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 and
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.
 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