On the historical reliability of the Gospel of John by Professor Christopher Tuckett of Oxford University

For interested readers here is a balanced assessment of the historical reliability of the Gospel of John by one of the worlds most respected New Testament scholars. His view is probably shared by the overwhelming majority of specialists in the field. 

I think it is important for Muslims (and Christians!) to be aware of what responsible biblical scholars are saying about the gospel of John. This gospel more than any other has laid the christological foundation for later beliefs about Jesus. Yet surprisingly even conservative Christian scholars no longer believe that Jesus actually said the words attributed to him in John.

I think it is important we study these scholars works and learn the reasons why historians have reached their conclusions rather than just cite them as ‘authorities’.

Professor Tuckett writes:

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 third century) that, whereas the other Gospel writers gave the ‘bodily‘ facts about Jesus, ‘John wrote a spiritual Gospel’ (cited by Eusebius, E.H. 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. There are differences at the more superficial level of dates and places, for example in John, Jesus ‘cleanses’ the temple early in his ministry; in the synoptics it is much later. In John, Jesus is active for much longer in Jerusalem; in the synoptics, Jesus is in Jerusalem for only one final week of his life. In John, Jesus dies on the eve of Passover, in the synoptics he dies on the feast of Passover itself. But there are also differences in the whole mode and content of Jesus‘ own teaching: instead of the short pithy sayings and the parables which characterise the synoptic presentation of Jesus’ teaching, John’s Jesus teaches in long discourses with none of the parables so characteristic of the synoptics. So too, categories such as the ‘kingdom of God’, which is so prominent in the synoptics, rarely appear in John; in turn other categories, such as teaching about ‘eternal life’, dominate the picture in John. But the area where this difference is most prominent is precisely the area of Christology.

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. The Johannine Jesus by contrast is far more explicit about himself so that his teaching focuses on his own person far more directly. John’s Jesus makes himself the object of faith far more explicitly that in the synoptics. John 14:1 is typical: ‘Believe in God, believe also in me’; cf. also 20:31. In the synoptics the motif occurs only in Matthew 18:6 (‘these little ones who believe in me’) which is almost certainly due to Matthew’s redaction (the Markan parallel in Mark 9:42 lacks the phrase ‘who believe in me’). And he teaches quite openly about himself and the importance of his own role on God’s plan, supremely in the great ‘I am…‘ sayings which come throughout the Gospel.

In line with this, the beginning and end of the Gospel focus directly and explicitly on the person of Jesus. Thus the prologue of the Gospel (1:1-18) speaks of Jesus as the Word of God; and in what is probably the ending of at least one version of the Gospel, it is stated that the book has been written ‘so that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God’ (20:31).

So too the figure of Jesus is portrayed in a more exalted role throughout the story. Jesus is fully in control of all the events concerned. His miracles highlight his person, and indeed at times Jesus acts in order to highlight even more his activity. Thus in chapter 11, when Lazarus falls ill and dies, Jesus is portrayed as deliberately delaying going to heal him in order apparently to make the miracle of raising him all the more stupendous (11:4, 15). John describes what appears to be a vestige of the agony scene in Gethsemane (12:37); but in John there seems to be no real agony on Jesus’ part and Jesus displays unbounded and unquestioning confidence in God. So too, in the account of Jesus‘ actual death, little if anything is made of Jesus‘ suffering. Jesus admits to thirst on the cross, but only in order to fulfil scripture (19:28); and his final word is no agonized cry of dereliction, as in Mark, but a statement of supreme confidence: ‘it is finished‘ (19:30). Above all, it is John that we get the two most explicit statements in the New Testament about the divinity of Jesus. Moreover they come at key points in the narrative – at the beginning and at the end – encompassing the whole story in a powerful inclusio. Thus the first verse of the prologue affirms that the Word was not only in the beginning ‘with God’, but in some sense also ‘was God‘ (1:1); and Thomas at the end of the story openly confesses Jesus as ‘my Lord and my God’ (20:28). 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. (By ‘authentic’ accounts I mean here historically accurate representations of what Jesus himself actually said and did. The theological ‘authenticity’ of John’s account is quite another matter). The differences between the two are too deep seated and wide ranging for such a position to be sustainable. If there is a choice, it is almost certainly to be made in favour of the synoptic picture, at least in broadly general terms. The Johannine picture then presents us with a view of the Jesus tradition which has been heavily coloured and influenced by John and his own situation.

Extract from Christopher Tuckett, Christology and the New Testament pp.151-152, in chapter 9: ‘The Gospel of John’.

Screenshot 2019-08-11 at 14.19.59


Categories: Christianity, Christology, Gospels, History, New Testament scholarship, Recommended reading, Scholars

9 replies

  1. And yet you use sayings of Jesus from the G of John whenever it suits your exclusivist agenda.

    • Ehrman says that even though it’s unreliable, it still has information in it which is true.
      Furthermore we have the Qur’an which calls itself a quality control over the previous ‘scriptures’ (Q 5:48) and hence we have another source we use to validate the true from the false. And yes we know you don’t believe in the Qur’an but that’s not the point. The point is WE DO. And if it really is from God then the point still stands. So we use a theological approach, not a historical one for the latter. Ehrman is fine with that.

  2. All the differences that Professor Tuckett mentions between the Synoptic gospels and the Gospel according to John have been answered for years by more conservative Biblical scholars and apologists.

    But, it is ironic that Muslims use (abuse) the Gospel according to John and the paraclete passages to try and attempt to say that Muhammad was prophesied by Jesus. One of the weakest arguments of all Muslim apologetic / Da’wa efforts.

    “John chapters 14, 15, and 16 – the comforter, the parakletos, the one called alongside to help, the helper, the advocate. Because of Surah 61:6 and the claim that “Ahmad” is in the gospel, Muslims try to find that “Ahmad” ( احمد – meaning, “praised one”, another form of Muhammad (محمد) in these passages by claiming that the “Paraclete” / parakletos / παρακλητος (the helper, comforter, counselor) was originally “periklutos” (praised one).

    John 14:16-17

    John 14:26;

    John 15:26;

    John 16:7

    There is no evidence of any textual change from Periklutos to Paraklatos. Muslims have to claim that originally the text said, “periklytos”, but that someone later changed it.

    However, there is no textual variant that would point to any evidence of periklutos in those texts in john 14 or 16.

    παρακλητος – the helper, the comforter, the one called alongside to help

    περικλυτος – “praised one” big difference.

    And there is no textual evidence in any manuscript that backs up “periklutos” (praised one).

    Dr. White makes an excellent point about the vowels in Greek being part of the word. This is about the Holy Spirit when Jesus ascends to the Father (see also Acts 2:33-36); it is not about someone coming 600 years later. John 13-17 is a consistent whole. It is Trinitarian in structure; describes the different roles of Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and how they relate to one another. How they relate to one another in speaking to one another, communicating, etc. speaks of personal relationship and person-hood. that is why “person” describes the three-ness of the Trinity, and nature/substance describes the Oneness of the Trinity. another comforter of the same kind, Greek: allos / αλλος will be with believers forever (John 14:16) He will be in the disciples; in believers. (John 14:17) This verse alone defeats the Muslim’s arguments for the John 14 and 16 and Ahmad argument, because Muhammad cannot be “in” the disciples nor any Christian in the future.
    The world cannot see the Holy Spirit, but the world, the people knew Muhammad as a man – Muslims who accepted him as a prophet and the Quryaish pagans who rejected him and fought battles and wars and caravan raids against him. His life was “of this world”, physical, and in the context of much war. “Spirit” is not human, He is Spirit (John 14:17; 14:26; 16:13) dwells within believers – John 14:17 – “He abides with you and will be in you.” That alone makes it impossible for the paraclete to be Muhammad of Arabia. The paraclete is called, “the Holy Spirit”, and “the Spirit of Truth”. He is a spirit, not a man, like Muhammad. The Holy Spirit will bring to remembrance all things (John 14:26) that Jesus taught, yet there is nothing much in the Qur’an from Jesus’ teaching or the NT. There is no quote from the New Testament. The Qur’an knows nothing as quotes from NT – no new info. (there are references to Jesus as Al Masih, virgin born, son of Mary, taught the gospel, was given the “Injeel”, did miracles, etc. yes, but no direct quotes.) No quotes; only phrases like: Jesus is the Messiah, virgin born, prophet, “a Word from Allah”, a spirit from Allah. John 15:26 – proceeds from the Father. This is Deity language – proceeding out from the Father. Paraclete is sent by Jesus (John 15:26 – “I will send to you from the Father”) Testifies to Jesus (John 15:27) and glorifies Jesus. (John 16:14) if Muhammad is sent by Jesus then Jesus is God; since only God sends prophets. Guides the disciples into all the truth, not people 600 years later.


  3. More on the total defeat of Muslim arguments trying to use John 14 and 16 and the Paraclete passages:

    “First, there is absolutely no ancient textual evidence among all of the over 5,600 Greek manuscripts to place the word periclytos (“praised one”) in place of paraclete (“helper”).

    2 For a Muslim to argue that the correct reading should be periclytos instead of paraclete, shows his lack of understanding of the actual Greek text and the reliability of the copying of the New Testament.

    Second, in the same passage, Jesus explicitly identified the “Helper” as the Holy Spirit: “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send, will teach you,” (John 14:26). Therefore, with all due respect, the Muslim argument is already defeated. Third, this “Helper” was given to Jesus’ apostles (the “you” in John 14:16) not to Arabs living over 550 years later! It was given to those who “have been with . . . [him] from the beginning” (John 15:27; cf. Acts 1:22; Luke 1:1-2). However, Muhammad was not one of Jesus’ apostles.

    Fourth, this “Helper” was to abide with them “forever” (John 16), but Muhammad has been dead for over thirteen centuries! Fifth, Jesus told the disciples, “You know Him [the Helper]” (v. 17), but the apostles did not know Muhammad. He was not born until over 500 years later! Sixth, Jesus also told the disciples that the Helper would be “in you” (v. 17). How Muhammad could be “in” the disciples stretches all credibility. This reference of being “in” the disciples clearly is a reference to the Holy Spirit’s role of dwelling inside believers as the context of John (John 14:16-26) and the rest of the New Testament (Ephesians 1:13; 4:30) indicates.

    from Ryan Turner at CARN, linked to in this article:


  4. To thee We sent the Scripture in truth, confirming the scripture that came before it, and guarding it in safety: so judge between them by what Allah hath revealed, and follow not their vain desires, diverging from the Truth that hath come to thee. To each among you have we prescribed a law and an open way. If Allah had so willed, He would have made you a single people, but (His plan is) to test you in what He hath given you: so strive as in a race in all virtues. The goal of you all is to Allah; it is He that will show you the truth of the matters in which ye dispute;

    Surah 5:48 Yusuf Ali translation

  5. Scholarly defense of the Gospel according to John. (B.F. Westcott, Leon Morris, J. B. Lightfoot, Kostenberger, Lenski, Hendrickson)

    I would also add D. A. Carson and Craig Blomberg works to the very good article by David Waltz:


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