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, even conservative Christian scholars no longer believe that Jesus actually said the words attributed to him in John. So here is a selection of top New Testament scholars and their assessment of the problem of John. None of these academics is particularly ‘liberal’ and they are representative of the broad consensus of biblical scholarship. I think it is important we study such texts and learn the reasons why historians have reached their conclusions rather than just cite them as ‘authorities’. I would also encourage readers to obtain copies of these books and read them through for themselves. (The following sections are extracts from my book Jesus as Western Scholars See Him – with my comments added.)
The Gospel of John
by Professor Christopher Tuckett of Oxford University
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’. Tuckett is Professor of New Testament Studies at the University of Oxford.
Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony
by Richard Bauckham.
Evangelical scholar Professor Richard Bauckham in his recent book on the gospels argues that the fourth gospel stems from an eyewitness to the ministry of Jesus, namely, the disciple John. At the same time, however, Bauckham also acknowledges the differences between the fourth gospel and the Synoptics and argues that John is a more reflective and a highly interpreted account of the life and ministry of Jesus. Regarding the canonical gospels in general.
‘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.’ (Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, 2006, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., p. 411.)
Regarding the gospel of John specifically, Bauckham says:
‘All scholars, whatever their views of the redactional work of the Synoptic Evangelists and of the historical reliability of the Gospel of John, agree that the latter presents a much more thoroughly and extensively interpreted version of the story of Jesus.’ (Ibid. p. 410.)
‘The concurrence of historiographic and theological concepts of witness in John’s Gospel is wholly appropriate to the historical uniqueness of the subject matter, which as historical requires historiographic rendering but in its disclosure of God also demands that the witness to it speak of God. In this Gospel we have the idiosyncratic testimony of a disciple whose relationship to the events, to Jesus, was distinctive and different. It is a view from outside the circles from which other Gospel traditions largely derive, and it is the perspective of a man who was deeply but distinctively formed by his own experience of the events. In its origins and in its reflective maturation this testimony is idiosyncratic, and its truth is not distinguishable from its idiosyncrasy. As with all testimony, even that of the law court, there is a point beyond which corroboration cannot go, and only the witness can vouch for the truth of his own witness.’ (Ibid p. 411.)
According to Bauckham, the eyewitness author of the gospel of John did not just simply rehash mere eyewitness reports, but he also offered his highly reflective interpretations and understanding of the events:
‘… we can also apply the contrast between Mark (or the Synoptics in general) and John more widely. The greater selectivity of events recorded, the more continuous narrative with its more strongly delineated plot, the lengthy discourses and debates – all these distinctive features of the Gospel of John, as compared with the Synoptics, are what make possible the much fuller development of the author’s own interpretation of Jesus and his story, just as comparable features of the works of the Greco-Roman historians enable the expression of their own understanding of the history, making their works more than mere reports of what the eyewitnesses said. But in the case of the Gospel of John these characteristics are linked with its claim to be entirely the testimony of an author who was himself an eyewitness. In this case, the whole historiographic process of eyewitness observation and participation, interrogation of other eyewitnesses, arrangement and narrativization in the formation of an integrated and rhetorically persuasive work – all this was the work of an eyewitness, whose interpretation was, of course, in play at every level of the process, but in what one might think of as a cumulative manner, such that the finished Gospel has a high degree of highly reflective interpretation.
The eyewitness claim justifies this degree of interpretation for a context in which the direct reports of the eyewitnesses were the most highly valued forms of testimony to Jesus. In the case of the other Gospels it was important that the form of the eyewitness testimonies was preserved in the Gospels. The more reflective interpretive Gospel of John does not, by contrast, assimilate the eyewitness reports beyond recognition into its own elaboration of the story, but is, as it stands, the way one eyewitness understood what he and others had seen. The author’s eyewitness status authorizes the interpretation [again, really? Is this not just post-modernism?]. Thus, whereas scholars have often supposed that this Gospel could not have been written by an eyewitness because of its high degree of interpretation of the events and the words of Jesus, by contrast with the Synoptics, in fact the high degree of interpretation is appropriate precisely because this is the only one of the canonical Gospels that claims eyewitness authorship.’ (Ibid. pp. 410 – 411.)
Note that Bauckham does not deny the “highly reflective interpretational” status of the gospel of John. He only justifies it by arguing that the author was an eyewitness.
In light of the above, even if we are to accept the fourth gospel as a product of an eyewitness, it does not mean that we can simply read off from its surface the words attributed to Jesus as if Jesus literally uttered them in his historical ministry.
What are the Gospels?
by Richard Burridge
The Revd Professor Richard Burridge is Dean of King’s College, London and a leading expert on the gospels. He has written the standard work on the gospels entitled: What Are the Gospels?: A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography (2004, Cambridge University Press).
‘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 (John 14.16). 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.’
pp 67-68 in Jesus now and then published by SPCK 2004.
I strongly disagree with Dr. Burridge when he says: ‘To ask whether Jesus actually ever spoke these words is to miss the point completely’. I believe that if we wish to do responsible Jesus research then this is precisely the kind of question we must ask.
A greater preponderance of ‘fiction’ in the Gospel of John?
Dr John Drane is an Evangelical theologian who is probably best known for his two best- selling books on the Bible, Introducing the Old Testament and Introducing the New Testament (both published by Lion in the UK and Fortress Press in the US).
He is also an adjunct professor in New Testament and Practical theology at Fuller Theological Seminary, California as well as being a Visiting Scholar at Spurgeon’s College in London and a Visiting Fellow of St John’s College, Durham.
John Drane, a student of F. F. Bruce, concludes:
. . . they [New Testament gospels] are certainly carefully crafted narratives aiming to tell the story of Jesus’ life and teaching. As such, they are not to be judged by the standards of scientific enquiry, but according to the practises of story telling, in which the ‘truth’ of a narrative is to be judged as a whole on its own terms, rather than in relation to notions of truth and falsehood drawn from some other sphere of human endeavour. 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. They knew that both artists and historians operate under similar constraints as they seek to balance fact with fictional elaboration, and that the telling of a good story . . . depends on the coherent combination of both these elements. While all four gospels contain factual and fictive elements, the fourth gospel appears to have a greater preponderance of the latter.
John Drane, Introducing the New Testament, Lion Publishing Plc. Revised Edition. 1999 pp. 210-211
The Evangelical Problem of the Gospel of John
Ben Witherington III is a celebrated American Evangelical New Testament scholar. He is Professor of New Testament Interpretation at Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky, and an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church. He has written over thirty books and has made many appearances on radio and television programs.
He was interviewed by Lee Strobel for The Case for Christ a book popular with fundamentalist evangelicals. Strobel calls him an “expert”, a “leading scholar” possessing ”impeccable academic credentials”.
In Witherington’s major academic work The Christology of Jesus he says this:
‘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] because it is difficult to argue on the basis of the historical-critical method that they go back to a Sitz im Leben Jesu. 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.’
From Ben Witherington III’s The Christology of Jesus, Chapter 1: Methodological and Historical Considerations, page 30. (Emphasis added)
Some brief comments,
1) Witherington’s reluctance to utilise the ‘I Am’ statements in John is quite unremarkable in itself, and follows the consensus of virtually all other NT scholars. What is significant in my view is the fact the Witherington is one of the leading faces of American evangelical Christianity which often looks to him for a scholarly validation of their theology (see for example chapter 7 of The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel). But as this quote demonstrates, he is in considerable doubt concerning the historical value of the discourses in John which, significantly, contain the highest Christology of any of the four gospels.
2) Even in the earliest recoverable Jesus material in Mark and Q Witherington demonstrates typical scholarly reserve and knows that only ‘sometimes’ can we recover Jesus’ actual words. This caution is a world way from ubiquitous evangelical and fundamentalist use of the gospels which give the impression that they all contain only the actual words of Jesus himself. At least some of Evangelicalism’s best scholars know that this is not the case.
Extract from my book Jesus as Western Scholars See Him