John v. the Synoptics
The argument against historical value from the differences between the Gospel of John and the Synoptics run roughly along these lines:
- The traditional or orthodox Christian view is that the Gospel of John was written by an eyewitness, and that the Synoptic Gospels were either written by eyewitnesses or based on eyewitness testimony.
- There are marked differences in style, purpose, and content between the Synoptic Gospels and the Gospel of John.
- Therefore if the Synoptic Gospels have historical value, the Gospel of John does not.
- Also therefore, the Gospel of John was probably not written by an eyewitness.
This argument assumes that the gospels should all contain roughly the same material and that they are validated by covering the same material as each other. A review of Matthew, Mark, and Luke shows that they cover much of the same material; if an expectation of a further gospel – or what constitutes a valid and reliable gospel – is based on the similarity of these three, then we would expect a fourth gospel to repeat the same parables, sayings, and miracles as the previous three. A review of the Gospel of John shows that it does not. Why the difference?
An early record is preserved by Eusebius in his History of the Church, in which he referenced Clement of Alexandria’s work Outlines. This work contained notes on many early Christian writings both inside and outside the canon. Eusebius summarizes Clement’s comments on the Gospels:
Clement has found room for a tradition of the primitive authorities of the Church regarding the order of the Gospels. (Skipping discussion of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and other writings; it only bears mentioning for present purposes that the Synoptic Gospels were recorded as having been written before John.) Last of all, aware that the physical facts had been recorded in the gospels, encouraged by his pupils and irresistibly moved by the Spirit, John wrote a spiritual gospel. (History of the Church 6.14, based on Clement of Alexandria who lived circa 150A.D. – 215A.D.).
Here an early church document specifically addresses the differences between the Synoptic Gospels and the Gospel of John. John was familiar with the Synoptic Gospels and was of the view that those facts already covered by the Synoptics did not need to be covered again. With this in mind, he purposed to record mainly those things which had not been previously recorded. This addresses the objection that the Synoptics and the Gospel of John can be pitted against each other as if they reasonably could have been expected to recount the same material in the same way. It addresses the view that their differences are an unexpected phenomenon which tells against the reliability of the latter. On the contrary, it shows that the Gospel of John’s character is meant to be supplementary, not because of any disagreement with the previous books, but on account of their incompleteness in what they do not address. It shows that the fourth gospel did not consider that the life and teachings of Christ were adequately addressed by the previously-written books. In fact, the text indicates in two places that even this additional information did not exhaust the material that could be written about Christ (at 20:30 and 21:35). In this way, the authors twice made known their intention to add to our knowledge of Christ, not to content themselves with repeating things that had already been recorded.
Scholars consider the last chapter of the Gospel of John to be an appendix, a later addition. The beginning of the appendix in Chapter 21 is marked by the fact that the previous chapter contains what seems intended as the conclusion to the book: “Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:30-31). These words bring the previous twenty chapters to a fitting close and would have suitably ended the book. Notably similar thoughts are employed as the final words of the book (John 21:25), adding strength to the claim that John 20:30-31 was the original ending. The material in between is then considered an appendix, having a different writing style and content than the rest. It also includes the statement “We know that his testimony is true” (John 21:24), which can hardly have come from a single author or from the same writing session as the rest of the material. Instead, it indicates that the previous material had been reviewed by those writing the appendix. Based on the appendix, some modern scholarship has suggested that the book was written by a community of authors rather than a single individual. Scholars also noted that the Gospel of John was written decades after the events described and that it shows other signs of early editing in the received text besides the appendix. On the basis of these arguments, traditional authorship is disowned and historical value is denied.
The argument against historical value from the appendix and other signs of editing runs roughly along these lines:
- The traditional or orthodox Christian view is that the Gospel of John was written by John.
- Because of the inclusion of the appendix, a single author/unrevised view is untenable. Because of signs of editing at an unknown date by an unknown person, the historical value cannot be trusted.
- Therefore the traditional or orthodox view is untenable and the historical value is denied.
This argument assumes that the view of the ancient church was that John was the single author of the Gospel of John. However, that is a very simplified version of the early church’s view on the subject. Here is an early written record of how the Gospel of John came to be written:
When his fellow-disciples and bishops encouraged him, John said, “Fast along with me three days from today, and whatever may be revealed to each, let us relate it one to another.” The same night it was revealed to Andrew, one of the apostles, that John in his own name should write down everything and that they should all revise it. (from the Muratorian Canon, likely dates ranging from 170 A.D. – 200 A.D based on internal evidence)
Here the history of the church specifically addresses the community of authors: it was John and his fellow disciples, of whom Andrew is also named, being another of Jesus’ twelve hand-selected apostles and Simon Peter’s brother. It shows that the review and editing that occurred were not performed by a later group without the knowledge or consent of the author, but that the community nature of writing this gospel was part of the intent of the original author. It also shows that the editors were not distant in time and knowledge, but were likewise acquainted first-hand with the events in question, so that the editors’ comment “We know that his testimony is true” (John 21:24) comes from those with direct knowledge of the events and who were independent witnesses of the things recorded. This gives the Gospel of John the character of something both written by a witness and verified by other witnesses: the appendix provides a second attestation to the truth of the contents. Rather than being historically weaker than the Synoptics which have each other for corroboration, the Gospel of John is uniquely situated in that more than one person with direct knowledge was involved in writing and editing the text. In referring to the original author as a witness and adding that they know his testimony is true, they make reference to the legal system of their day and meet the standard that a thing should be accepted on the testimony of two or three witnesses. While Matthew, Mark, and Luke are three witnesses for many events recorded amongst them, historically, the Gospel of John is the only one of the Gospels which can stand alone in meeting the standards of evidence of its day for “two or three witnesses” based on the nature of the appendix: it is the confirmation of other people with direct knowledge.
Planned soon: addressing the arguments against the reliability of the Gospel of John based on its theological perspective.