Bible - Scholars on John's Gospel

gospel john

John's Gospel poses a theological dilemma for Bible scholars who question its historical reliability.

Mark, Matthew and Luke ('synoptic' gospels) present a substantially different account and chronology of Jesus' life, than John. Much of the Jesus' narrative in John is simply missing from the synoptics.

Content unique to John's Gospel, and not covered in the synoptics:

  • I Am statements
  • Jesus' crucifixion date
  • The Nicodemus encounter
  • Samaritan woman
  • The royal official
  • The invalid at the pool of Bethesda
  • Man born blind
  • The Lazarus family

Below are Bible scholars and academics who based on their writings, hold to a non-traditional view on John's gospel, or the Bible in general.

Louis Ruprecht Born 1961 Louis Ruprecht
Louis Ruprecht proposes John intentionally and radically re-interpreted the story of Jesus' life in order to subvert and replace Mark's Gospel (and the other Synoptics) – and his Gospel won out in later Christianity.
Louis A. Ruprecht, This Tragic Gospel: How John Corrupted the Heart of Christianity (San Francisco: Wiley, 2008)
Craig Keener Born 1960 Craig Keener
Craig Keener states that writing history in antiquity was a serious issue. History was supposed to be truthful and based on proper research. However, redacting or paraphrasing the words of characters was a normal rhetorical practice.

While good historians would not fabricate historical events, they could enhance their narratives for literary, moralistic and political purposes, or alter or add explanatory details.
Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2003), pp.18-22
Samuel Byrskog Born 1957 Samuel Byrskog
Richard Bauckham on Samuel Byrskog:

Richard Bauckham explains that ancient historians were convinced that true history could only be written while events were still within living memory, based on the oral reports of eyewitnesses, preferably including themselves.

Ancient historiography ideally required eyewitness testimony, that is, oral testimony was preferable to written sources. Besides, the ideal eyewitness was not a dispassionate observer, but an active participant in the events, who was able to understand and interpret the significance of what he had witnessed, i.e., the eyewitness was able to provide an insider perspective.
Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), pp.8-11
Joel Green Born 1956 Joel Green
Joel Green explains the aim of history writing in antiquity was to persuade readers to a particular reading of the past. In addition, "all history writing (whether by the NT evangelists or modern historians) is partial – that is, incomplete and per-spectival" because:

  • historians make choices about what to include and exclude, and
  • past events were ordered in a causal sequence to draw on the significance of the past
Joel B. Green, "Historicisms and Historiography", in Joel B. Green, Jeannine K. Brown and Nicholas Perrin (eds.), Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (2nd edn; Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2013), p.385
Bart Ehrman Born 1955 Bart Ehrman
The gospel of John was the last canonical Gospel to be written, probably around AD 90-95. Traditionally, it was ascribed to John the son of Zebedee, but today most Bible scholars doubt the authorship [of John's Gospel].
Bart D. Ehman, A Brief Introduction to the New Testament

The Gospels are not reliable historical sources because the Gospel writers were "not interested in providing the brute facts of history for impartial observers" but in promoting faith in Jesus.
Bart Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings (5th edn; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), p.243
Richard Burridge Born 1955 Richard Burridge
Richard Burridge has made a compelling case for viewing the Gospels as ancient biographies or bioi ("lives"). Examining ten Graeco-Roman bio-graphies written before, and ten after the four Gospels, Burridge concludes the Gospels fit the pattern of the Graeco-Roman bios.

Burridge makes the point that the author of John is fully entitled to put 'words into Jesus' mouth' so long as they reflect the sentiment and feeling.

Some modern studies assume that if there is 'fiction' in the gospels, then they are inauthentic or unreliable. However, closer attention to literary criticism shows that no one wrote a classical biography to provide a documented historical text as we might capture something with a tape recorder, but rather in an attempt to get 'inside' the person.

Thus, John's stress on 'truth' is not about documented fact but the higher truth of who Jesus is, which is why he writes in a biographical format. For him, Jesus is 'the way, the truth and the life', so his Jesus says these words.

To ask whether Jesus actually ever spoke these words is to miss the point completely. This is neither a lie nor a fiction; it is simply a way of bringing out the truth about the subject which the author wishes to tell the audience.
Richard Burridge, What Are the Gospels?: A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography (2004, Cambridge University Press)
Dean of King's College, London. Leading expert on the Gospels
Dale Martin Born 1954 Dale Martin
Dale Martin claims the Gospels are not biographies. There is nothing about Jesus' childhood, psychological development, and so on; but historical narratives and hence we should approach the Gospels as modern historians.
Dale Martin, New Testament History and Literature, pp.79-80

The New Testament is simply not a reliable source for the history of Jesus or early Christianity when taken at face value.
Dale Martin, New Testament History and Literature (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012), p.180
Daniel Wallace Born 1952 Daniel B. Wallace
In my spiritual and academic journeys, I have learned that it is imperative for Christians to pursue truth at all costs.
Daniel B. Wallace
Ben Witherington III Born 1951 Ben Witherington III
Most of my material, with rare exception, is taken from Mark or Q. Thus, I will start with what are probably our earliest sources and go into later material, if it confirms hints in the authentic synoptic material or if it helps make sense of that data.

I will not be dealing with material such as the "I AM" discourses in the fourth Gospel [John's Gospel] because it is difficult to argue on the basis of the historical-critical method that they go back to a "Sitz im Leben Jesu" (setting in life).

Even when we can get back to such a "Sitz im Leben Jesu" from Mark or Q, what can be recovered is often only the substance of what Jesus said or did, although sometimes we are able to recover his very words.
Ben Witherington III, The Christology of Jesus, Chapter 1: Methodological and Historical Considerations, p.30
American Evangelical New Testament scholar. Professor of New Testament Interpretation at Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky. Ordained minister in the United Methodist Church
N. T. Wright Born 1948 N. T. Wright
It is possible, it seems, to affirm everything the creed says - especially Jesus's "divine" status and his bodily resurrection—but to know nothing of what the gospel writers were trying to say. Something is seriously wrong here.
N.T. Wright, How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels
Christopher M. Tuckett Born 1948 Christopher M Tuckett
The picture of Jesus in John is in many respects very different from the picture in the other three, so-called 'synoptic', Gospels.

Furthermore, most would agree that, in general terms, the synoptic picture is more likely to reflect the realities of Jesus' own time, and the Johannine account represents an (at times) extensive rewriting of the Jesus tradition by a later Christian, profoundly influenced by his own ideas and circumstances.

Thus in reading all the Gospels, we have to be aware of the fact that we are reading accounts of Jesus' life as mediated by later Christians, and hence we may learn much, if not more, about the latter as about Jesus himself in studying the Gospel texts.
Christopher M Tuckett, Christology and the New Testament: Jesus and His Earliest Followers, (Edinburgh University Press 2001) pp.105-106

When we turn from the synoptic Gospels [Matthew, Mark and Luke] to the Fourth Gospel [John], we move in some respects into a different world.

The differences between John and the synoptics have long been recognised, reference often being made in this context to the famous statement of Clement of Alexandria (early 3rd century) that, whereas the other Gospel writers gave the 'bodily' facts about Jesus, 'John wrote a spiritual Gospel' (cited by Eusebius, HE. 6.14.7).

Although the differences between John and the synoptics can perhaps be exaggerated, there can be no denying that at many levels John presents a radically different presentation of the life and ministry of Jesus.

In general terms, the synoptic Jesus says very little explicitly about himself: his preaching is about God, the kingdom of God, the nature of God's demands, etc. John thus presents Jesus explicitly in far more exalted terms than anything we find in the synoptic Gospels.

In terms simply of historical reliability or 'authenticity', it seems impossible to maintain that both John and the synoptics can be presenting us with equally 'authentic' accounts of Jesus' own life.

If there is a choice, it is almost certainly to be made in favour of the synoptic picture, at least in broadly general terms.
Christopher Tuckett, Christology and the New Testament pp.151-152
Professor of New Testament Studies. University of Oxford.
Richard Bauckham Born 1946 Richard Bauckham
Richard Bauckham argues that the Gospels belong to a particular subset of the ancient biography – the historiography, which contains a greater amount of history. Bauckham makes a convincing case that as an ancient biography, the Gospel of John closely resembles a historiography – more so than even the Synoptics. In essence, therefore, the Gospel of John is an ancient Graeco-Roman biography with strong historiographical features.
Richard Bauckham, "Historiographical Characteristics of the Gospel of John", NTS 53 (2007): pp.17-36

In all four Gospels we have the history of Jesus only in the form of testimony, the testimony of involved participants who responded in faith to the disclosure of God in these events. In testimony fact and interpretation are inextricable; in this testimony empirical sight and spiritual perception are inseparable.

All scholars, whatever their views of the redactional work of the Synoptic Evangelists and of the historical reliability of the Gospel of John, agree [John's Gospel] presents a much more thoroughly and extensively interpreted version of the story of Jesus.
Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, 2006, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., pp.410-411
John Drane Born 1946 John Drane
The [New Testament gospels] are certainly carefully crafted narratives aiming to tell the story of Jesus' life and teaching.

The early Christian communities clearly had no problem in accepting that within the gospel traditions there would be a subtle combination of factual and fictional elements.

Had they not done so, they would certainly not have tolerated the existence of four gospels which, for all their similarities, are sufficiently different from one another as to defy all attempts at producing one harmonized, factual version of the life and teachings of Jesus from them.

While all four gospels contain factual fictive elements, the fourth gospel appears to have a greater preponderance of the latter [i.e. fiction].
John Drane, Introducing the New Testament, Lion Publishing Plc. Revised Edition. 1999 pp.210-211
John Drane, a prominent conservative evangelical scholar. Student of F. F. Bruce
Maurice Casey 1942–2014 Maurice Casey
John's Gospel is profoundly untrue, both historically and theologically, because it provides an inaccurate account of the life and ministry of Jesus, and adopts an anti-Jewish stance.
Maurice Casey, Is John's Gospel True? (London: Routledge, 1996)
James D. G. Dunn Born 1939 James D. G. Dunn
But if we are to submit our speculations to the text [New Testament] and build our theology only with the bricks provided by careful exegesis we cannot say with any confidence that Jesus knew himself to be divine, the pre-existent Son of God.
James D. G. Dunn, Christology in the Making: A New Testament Inquiry into the Origins of the Doctrine of the Incarnation p.32
R. C. Sproul 1939-2017 R.C. Sproul
There is no more direct statement or more clear affirmation of the deity of Christ to be found anywhere in Scripture than in the first verse of John's Gospel.
R.C. Sproul, Who Is Jesus?

The Bible is clear enough for any Christian to understand its basic meaning; nevertheless, the Word of God in every generation becomes distorted and misunderstood. These distortions happen not because there is something wrong with the clarity of the Word of God but because there is something wrong with us.
R.C. Sproul, Matthew
Theologian. Author. Ordained pastor in Presbyterian Church
E. P. Sanders Born 1937 E. P. Sanders
It is impossible to think that Jesus spent his short ministry teaching in two such completely different ways, conveying such different contents, and there were simply two traditions, each going back to Jesus, one transmitting 50 per cent of what he said and another one the other 50 per cent, with almost no overlaps.

Consequently, for the last 150 or so years, scholars have had to choose.

They have almost unanimously, and I think entirely correctly, concluded that the teachings of the historical Jesus is to be sought in the synoptic gospels [Mark, Matthew, Luke] and that John represents an 'advanced theological development', in which meditations on the person and work of Christ are presented in the first person, as if Jesus said them.
E.P. Sanders, The Historical Figure Of Jesus, 1993, Penguin Books, pp.70-71
John Spong Born 1931 John Shelby Spong
The Christian story did not drop from heaven fully written. It grew and developed year by year over a period of 42 to 70 years. That is not what most Christians have been taught to think, but it is factual. Christianity has always been an evolving story. It was never, even in the New Testament, a finished story.
John Shelby Spong, Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy: A Journey into a New Christianity Through the Doorway of Matthew's Gospel

The Gospels are 1st century narrations based on 1st century interpretations. Therefore they are a 1st century filtering of the experience of Jesus. They have never been other than that.

One must never identify the text with the revelation or the messenger with the message. That has been the major error in our 2000 years of Christian history.

It is an insight that today is still feared and resisted. But let it be clearly stated, the Gospels are not in any literal sense holy, they are not accurate, and they are not to be confused with reality.
John Shelby Spong, Why Christianity Must Change or Die: A Bishop Speaks to Believers In Exile
Retired bishop of Episcopal Church. Theologian. Author
Louis Martyn Born 1925 Louis Martyn
With two historical stages in the Gospel of John, in which the later history of the so-called "Johannine community" takes priority over the earlier history of Jesus' life and ministry.
James Louis Martyn, History and Theology in the Fourth Gospel (3rd edn.; Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2003 [orig. 1968])

Richard Bauckham on Louis Martyn:

Many scholars assume the Jesus traditions passed through a long process of anonymous oral tradition in the early Christian communities and reached the Evangelists only at a late stage in this process.

Further, Martyn proposed the Evangelists augmented [increased] the traditions so they reflect the 'setting in life' of the communities they lived in.
Richard Bauckham (ed.), The Gospels for All Christians: Rethinking the Gospel Audiences (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998)
Bruce Metzger 1914-2007 Bruce M. Metzger
Over time, "tastes begin to shift from oral to written sources." "By the close of the second century lists begin to be drawn up of books that had come to be regarded as authoritative Christian Scriptures."

These lists were "judgments purposely delivered in order to delineate the limits of the canon." Even so, there's a lot we don't know.

"Opinions differ as to which part of the NT was first in attaining general recognition as authoritative in the Church . . . [but it] seems to be that the Gospel was recognized first, then Pauline Epistles."

Many in the church had much of the NT and considered it authoritative from ~170 AD [or 140 years after Jesus' crucifixion]. "By the close of the second century ... we can see the outline of what may be described as the nucleus of the New Testament . . . by the end of the third century and beginning of the fourth century, the great majority of the 27 books that still later came to be widely regarded as the canonical NT were almost universally acknowledged to be authoritative."

Later (in 367 AD) [or 337 years after Jesus' crucifixion], Athanasius was first to list the exact 27 books of our NT.
Bruce M. Metzger. The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance. Clarendon Paperbacks (2017)
Leon Morris 1914-2006 Leon Lamb Morris
It has often been held that he [John's Gospel] wrote to supplement the Synoptic Gospels (Eusebius, HE 6.14.7). According to this view he had these Gospels before him and was dissatisfied with some aspects. Since he [John] had further knowledge himself, he decided to make it available to the Christian public.

Against this, the widespread conviction at the present time that John is completely independent of the Synoptics.

I do not see how any theory that John knew the Synoptics can be made to stand up [i.e. John did not know of the Synoptics, and is independent].
Leon Morris. The Gospel according to John, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. (1995) p.30
New Testament scholar

One must always regard with healthy respect the objection that says, "If Jesus was as he is depicted in Matthew and Mark and Luke, he cannot have been as he is depicted in John. The two [depictions] are incompatible."
Leon Morris. The Gospel according to John, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. (1995) p.38
New Testament scholar
F. F. Bruce 1910-1990 F. F. Bruce
One thing must be emphatically stated. The New Testament books did not become authoritative for the Church because they were formally included in a canonical list; on the contrary, the Church included them in her canon because she already regarded them as divinely inspired, recognizing their innate worth and generally apostolic authority, direct or indirect.
F. F. Bruce, Frederick Fyvie Bruce (1994). The Gospel of John: Introduction, Exposition, Notes, p.105, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing

I think Paul would roll over in his grave if he knew we were turning his letters into torah.
F. F. Bruce
Rudolf Bultmann 1884-1976 Rudolf Bultmann
Richard Bauckham on Rudolf Bultmann:

On John's Gospel, Rudolf Bultmann advocates the "informal, uncontrolled tradition", the prevalent model, legacy of traditional form criticism which states:

A long period of oral transmission in the churches intervened between whatever the eyewitnesses said and the Jesus traditions as they reached the Evangelists.

No doubt the eyewitnesses started the process of oral tradition, but it passed through many re-tellings, re-formulations, and expansions before the Evangelists [Mark, Matthew, Luke, John] themselves did their own editorial work on it.
Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, p.240
Alfred Wikenhauser 1883-1960 Alfred Wikenhauser
If it was John's intention to supplement the Synoptics, he would certainly have shown clearly how his account was to be harmonized with theirs [i.e. John is an independent text].
Alfred Wikenhauser. New Testament Introduction, New York (1958), p.301
German Catholic Theologian. Professor of New Testament, University of Freiburg
Supporting annotation appear in [square brackets]

Paul Williams, Jesus as Western Scholars See Him, 2013
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