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The Divergent Views of Christ in John

Now that I have explained what the socio-historical method is in general terms (in my previous post) I can go on to show how it can be applied to a particular Gospel, in this case, the Gospel of John.  Again, none of this is new and fresh scholarship that I myself came up with; two of the real pioneers of this method were two of the greats of New Testament interpretation in the latter part of the twentieth century, both of whom, remarkably, taught at Union Theological Seminary in New York (taught, in fact, some of my good friends!), the Protestant scholar J. Louis Martyn, and the Roman Catholic scholar, Raymond Brown.   Their views ended up being a more or less consensus position for many years, and continues to be prominent among teachers of the NT still today.

This is how I explain the matter in my Introduction to the New Testament


The Gospel of John from a Socio-Historical Perspective

The place to begin is by examining the different thematic emphases evident in different stories, which ultimately may derive from different sources, and to consider the kinds of social worlds that they appear to presuppose.  I might start by reminding you of one of the distinctive features of this Gospel, namely, the exalted view of Jesus that is emphasized in so many of its narratives.  But you may have noticed in your own reading of the Gospel that not every story shares this exalted perspective.  In fact, a number of John’s stories portray Jesus not as an elevated divine being come from heaven, but as a very human character.  To use the jargon employed by historians of Christian doctrine, portions of this narrative evidence a “high” christology, in which Jesus is portrayed as fully divine, and others evidence a “low” christology, in which he is portrayed as human, and nothing more.

In the modern world, many Christians subscribe to both a high and a low christology, in which Jesus is thought to be …

Anyone who is a member of the blog can keep reading this post — where I lay out some significant information about the Gospel of John, that the vast majority of people who have read the Gospel (even if they’ve read it countless times) have never heard of.  It’s easy to be a member: we are giving away two-month free memberships!  So join!

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The History Behind John’s Gospel
The Social History Behind the Fourth Gospel



  1. Avatar
    Jonney38  April 8, 2020

    Absolutely fascinating explanation.

  2. Avatar
    pkoutoul  April 8, 2020

    I’m finding this thread fascinating. I’m hanging on the edge of my seat, waiting for each new installment.

  3. Avatar
    godspell  April 8, 2020

    John 4:22. “Salvation comes from the Jews.” This reallys sticks out in a gospel that seems to go out of its way to excoriate and condemn the Jews as a group. Christianity’s relationship with Judaism has always been very Jekyll/Hyde, hasn’t it?

    Question–does John’s gospel always use the same language to designate the Jews as a group? It’s clear in many cases from context that it is sections of the Jewish leadership being condemned, but they are being referred to (at least in translation) as if they represent all Jews who are not actively following Jesus, or at least listening to him respectfully. (And they can go from listening respectfully to picking up stones to throw at him in the span of one passage.)

    There’s a widespread Christian notion (which Jesus would not have agreed with) that you are not really guilty of anything until you’ve heard the gospel message and rejected it. Until then, you get a pass. After that, you’re damned. Hence the old joke about the savage being told by the missionary that now he’s heard the gospel preached, he has to accept it in its entirety or go to hell, whereas previously he would have just gone to limbo when he died, even if he lived basically the same life–and he responds “So why did you tell me?”

    So it could be that in John’s gospel, we’re getting different versions of this idea, spread out over time. When the earlier sources were written, there was still hope most Jews could be converted, but by the time the gospel in its present form was completed, that was clearly never going to happen. It’s conflicted about the Jews, because Jesus is incontrovertibly Jewish himself, but the most serious opposition to Jesus and his followers came from Jews (because nobody else paid much attention to him while he was alive, at least not before Pilate).

    • Bart
      Bart  April 10, 2020

      John generally uses the term “the Jews” as if he is not one of them — just as Jesus in the Gospel speaks to “the Jews” aobut “YOUR law,” as if he didn’t keep it; and often it is a term of derogation, used against Jesus’ enemies (as if his own disciples were not Jews, let alone he himself). It comes to an ugly climax in John 8. At the same time, he acknowledges that salvation came *from* the Jews. The problem in John is that “the Jews” rejected the salvation that emerged from their midst.

      • Avatar
        godspell  April 10, 2020

        The factionalism of Judaism can be hard to understand–“We are all one people, and Chosen by God, but some of us are more Chosen than others.” It was normal for Jews to argue with each other, and the arguments didn’t normally turn bloody, but they could get very bitter.

        It starts out as a family fight. But the Christian side of the argument is inherited by pagans, who don’t see Jews as kindred, however wrong in their beliefs. There was, I strongly believe, pagan hostility towards Jews well before Christianity, but it was the inherited rage of Jews who accepted Jesus as Messiah towards their unconvinced (and often judgmental) brethren that gave it a focal point. Which is not to say it couldn’t have found another one. Plenty of atheists have been anti-semites. Some of the very worst.

        We never have to look far to find reasons to hate those who differ. Or just make them up. Jesus knew all about that. But if he’d known he’d end up being one of those reasons…… 🙁

      • fefferdan
        fefferdan  April 12, 2020

        Bart: “The problem in John is that ‘the Jews’ rejected the salvation that emerged from their midst.” — And yet for John there is no way for salvation to come other than by the Jews rejecting Jesus so that he can be crucified! This is a paradox for all of the gospel writers I think. They praise God for sending Jesus to die, yet blame the Jews for rejecting him. Paul comes closest to dealing with the paradox, I think, in 1 Cor 2.7-8 “we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.” In this sense, is Paul less anti-Jewish than the writers of the gospels?

        • Bart
          Bart  April 13, 2020

          My view is that Paul is not anti-jewish at all. He sees himself as a true and committed Jew, standing fully in the jewish tradition.

      • Avatar
        njmason  April 19, 2020

        “Although its scathing portrayal of the Jews has opened John to charges of anti-Semitism, a careful reading reveals “the Jews” to be a class designation, not a religious or ethnic grouping; rather than denoting adherents to Judaism in general, the term primarily refers to the hereditary Temple religious authorities.” Jerome H. Neyrey. NRSV footnotes.

        • Bart
          Bart  April 19, 2020

          Yes, I completely disagree with that. How can it not be a religious / ethnic grouping if Jesus speaking to “the Jews” says “your law”? The Law of MOses was precisely what made Jews a distictive religious / ethnic grouping. And it clearly does *not* typically refer only to Temple religious authorities in the New Testament.

  4. Avatar
    fishician  April 8, 2020

    In re Jesus as the lamb of God: Passover was more about escape from slavery in Egypt than forgiveness of sins; Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) was more about sin and forgiveness (at least in my understanding). So it makes sense for Jesus to lead his disciples into Jerusalem at Passover, since he was expecting God to vanquish the oppressors and establish His kingdom. Did the Jews of Jesus’ day think of the Passover lamb in terms of forgiveness of sins, or was that a spin the Christians put on it, after the expected kingdom did not arrive, and they re-interpreted Jesus’ death?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 10, 2020

      Yes, that’s a Christian spin. A kind of strange one, but very prominent, starting, apparently, already with Paul (“Christ our Passover was sacrificed for us”)

  5. Rick
    Rick  April 8, 2020

    To quote Mr. Spock…. fascinating!

  6. Avatar
    AstaKask  April 8, 2020

    Do we know how old the term “Lamb of God” is? Does Paul use it, or connect Jesus with the Passover lamb?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 10, 2020

      If first occurs in reference to Jesus in the Gospel of John. Paul does call Jesus “the Passover” who was “sacrificed” though, and in that context (as in several others) it appears to mean “Passover lamb” (rather than the Passover festival or the Passover meal).

  7. Avatar
    AWNPalestine  April 8, 2020

    New to the blog, and thanks for this post. Why would it be important to trace the origins of these sources/stories in the first place from a fundamentalist’s perspective? Given that the trinity is a mystery alleging that Jesus (PBUH) is both God and man at the same time. The disparate stories in John (and the synoptic gospels as well) contain their own internal logic consistent with the fundamentalists view of the Trinity.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 10, 2020

      From a fundamentalists’ perspective, you’re right, it wouldn’t matter at all. But for understaning the *history* of early Christianity (rather than being concerned only with the inerrant words that are printed) it’s very important indeed.

  8. Avatar
    brenmcg  April 8, 2020

    There are a lot of parallels between 1John3 and John 8.

    Epistle “By this it may be seen who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not do right is not of God, nor he who does not love his brother.” / Gospel “If God were your Father, you would love me, … You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires”
    Epistle “He who commits sin is of the devil; for the devil has sinned from the beginning” / Gospel ” You are of your father the devil …He was a murderer from the beginning”
    Epistle “For this is the message which you have heard from the beginning” / Gospel “what I have told you from the beginning”

    So much so that it should be taken that the writer of one had read the other.

    1John3 begins with “Every one who commits sin commits lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. You know that he appeared to take away sins, and in him there is no sin”
    The moral here is the same as the Pericope Adulterae – that one can’t claim to be a practitioner or teacher or upholder of the law if you are yourself sinful.

    If 1st John is written second, and given the close parallels, isn’t it likely the writer of the epistle had read the PA?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 10, 2020

      It is quite easy to have a similar moral teaching without knowing a narrative that conveys it. There aren’t any allusions to the story or signficant verbal parallels to in in 1 John.

      • Avatar
        brenmcg  April 12, 2020

        No but it would mean that if the PA were just a nice story floating around about Jesus that scribes wanted to add in to the gospels, there would be two books of the NT with close parallels to each other, where one had the same moral teaching as the PA but the other was lacking. It would be the obvious place to insert the PA and quite the happy coincidence.

        I think it should be another tick in the pro-PA originality column.

        • Bart
          Bart  April 12, 2020

          Yup, that happens a lot. The Golden rule is taught by the parable of the good samaritan, but the parable of the good samaritan is found only in Luke. The fact an ancient Christian repeats the golden rule doesn’t mean he knew the parable of the good samaritan.

          • Avatar
            brenmcg  April 13, 2020

            No, but if there were many copies of Luke missing the good samaritan and there was a question of its originality, and if furthermore there was a letter in the NT with close parallels to Luke 10, then the presence of the golden rule in that letter, positioned correctly with respect to those parallels, it would be suggestive of the originality of the parable to Luke 10.

          • Bart
            Bart  April 13, 2020

            I’d say not. I don’t think you’re thinking of enough equally viable options. (You seem to be trying to find evidence for a view you already have rather than considering all the options and searching for the most plausible.)

          • Avatar
            brenmcg  April 14, 2020

            Yes other possibilities but the argument would be based on the belief that the original author is more likely to want to preserve parralel structures than a later one who just wants to add in a story he likes somewhere into the gospels.

  9. Avatar
    Stewiegriffin  April 8, 2020

    Do you think John was hinting at a gay Jesus with the inclusion of the beloved disciple? Not that there’a anything wrong with that.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 10, 2020

      I’d say definitely not, given how “love” is used in the NT and other early Christian sources generally.

  10. stevedemarco
    stevedemarco  April 8, 2020

    If the historical Jesus called himself God or claimed to be equal with God would that be blasphemy in his day? If someone or a community called Jesus God would they be subject to punishment for blasphemy?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 10, 2020

      Yes, it would be blasphemy for a human to say that.

      • stevedemarco
        stevedemarco  April 10, 2020

        Could the argument be made that the Jesus followers did not say, publicly, that Jesus was God because of the fear of being charged with blasphemy? Could the same argument be made for the writers of Matthew, Mark, and Luke? I’m not saying that’s what happen but that’s the only explanation, outside of the Christology being developed overtime, for Jesus not calling himself God in the synoptics.

        • Bart
          Bart  April 12, 2020

          I would say it’s possible, yes. But then the question is: “What would make me think so?” Strictly speaking they coudl have thought *anything* about Jesus and not talked about it, since … we only have what they talked about. But we do have *suggestions* about things they said (nothing suggests, for, example, that they thought he was a Martian; but hey, it’s possible), and so all we can do is look for evidence and follow the reasoning to the end. I would also say that calling your religious leader God is probably not conceivable first century Isreal, and outsdie of Israel would not be a problem of religious blasphemy but of political competition with the Emperor, known as the Son of God.

  11. Avatar
    Jumbo  April 8, 2020

    When Paul is urging Xtn unity in 1Cor he says (paraphrased) don’t say I belong to Appollos or Paul but all of us belong to Christ … in the context of this post do you think he addressing this Division as a basic view of who Jesus was? Or do you think he is addressing less fundamental differences (E.g The law and Christians, just natural rivalries about who was the greater Xtn Teacher and more “real”)… I know he doesn’t really address what those differences are … but if it was THAT fundamental would he likely have addressed it …? Or no ? It matters in this context if they all (or Paul and Appolos) more or less agree on Jesus as man n’ God and differ on the practices vs differing on who he is. It also goes to the heart of his disagreements with the Jesusalem church – Judaism vs not right? He DOESNT flip his stuff at them because they understand Jesus differently … but over practice … right? Don’t you think he would at least refer to that heretical view if the Jerusalem Xtns were saying differently?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 10, 2020

      The issues that Paul has with these people are never explicitly Christological; they have to do with understaning the nature of apostleshiop, authority (esp. Paul’s!), spiritual power, the nature of life in this age, and the reality of the coming resurrection.

      • Avatar
        Jumbo  April 10, 2020

        So …in your view the Jerusalem Church people who eventually enrage Paul and invoke his condemnation and contempt for other reasons, DO view Christ as more or less the same level of Divinity as Paul did? Don’t want to put words in your mouth.

        • Bart
          Bart  April 12, 2020

          No, I don’t think they thought of him as a pre-existent divine being who became a human; the earliest Jewish Xns thought of him as a human who had been exalted to the level of divinity.

  12. Avatar
    timcfix  April 9, 2020

    If Jesus is the Lamb of God, why was he taken out to the wilderness like the scapegoat? In reality neither lamb has a full life. One has a clean death and perhaps consumed during a ritual. The other is torn asunder in some unknown manner by ‘wild beast’ with its bones scattered never to be seem again.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 10, 2020

      I don’t think the image is meant to be taken literally or as an analogy that stands on all fours. It means that in one important sense he is the lamb of God. (The passover lamb, by the way, is different from the goat of Leviticus 16.

      • Lev
        Lev  April 10, 2020

        Do you think JBap (or the author of GJn) was deliberately mixing metaphors? As you point out, “Lamb of God” references the passover lamb, but the “takes away the sins” seems to reference the atonement goat.

        Perhaps whoever came up with this saying was trying to make a theological point? That Jesus represented the salvific properties of both the lamb and goat – the blood of the passover lamb marking those to be saved from the angel of death in the coming apocalypse, and the atonement goat that removes/takes away the sins of those marked by the blood?

        • Bart
          Bart  April 12, 2020

          It’s hard to figure out if it’s an intentional conflation of the two accounts/traditions or a muddling.

  13. Avatar
    thelad2  April 9, 2020

    Good morning, Bart. Hope you and yours are healthy. So, two totally random questions, but need your expertise. In your opinion, what is the best book (available for purchase) on Clement of Alexandria? Secondly, do you feel the “Secret Gospel of Mark” that Clement writes about is a Gnostic forgery or that perhaps it was part of the original gospel, excised for theological reasons? Thank you.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 10, 2020

      Maybe try the book by Eric Osborn. My suspicion is that the Secret Gospel is a modern forgery. I talk about it on teh blog: just search for Secret Gospel of mark.

      • Avatar
        thelad2  April 12, 2020

        Bart: Thanks, as always, for your time. Was surprised by your take that “Secret Mark” is a modern forgery…presumably perpetrated by Morton Smith? My surprise is based on what I took to be a general (though not universal) scholarly belief that the Clement letter is authentic. The origins of the gospel Clement quotes are far less certain. A good summary can be found at:
        Also, your colleague, James Tabor, in his Taborblog, has more recently echoed many of the same findings/beliefs found in the Nation article I reference. In any case, here’s wishing you the best in these sequestered times.

        • Bart
          Bart  April 13, 2020

          Nope, it is not a universal belief, but is very much debated. I have written on it several times, including in my book Lost Christainities (an entire chapter), and a later article in the Journal of Early Christian Studies.

  14. Avatar
    matheno-1  April 9, 2020

    Since in your view John (or at least significant parts of it) was originally an Aramaic composition, do you see any signs that it’s a translated work, like passages that are really difficult to translate, or are written in a more “broken” Greek? I always thought John had the best Greek of all the gospels.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 10, 2020

      No, I don’t think any part of John originated in Aramaic. It was almost certainly originally a Greek composition.

  15. fefferdan
    fefferdan  April 9, 2020

    I’ll be interested to learn about proposed theories as to what ‘led to changes in the community’s understanding of Jesus.’ Was the redactor unaware that one source presented a different Christology than the prolog for example? Follow-up question if I may: why a change in the community’s understanding, rather than simply diverse sources within the community?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 10, 2020

      1. We have no way of knowing. But it’s interesting that 99% of all readers have never noticed either! 2. I’m arguing for both: the different understandings of the community are reflected in different sources. (If they weren’t reflected in the sources, you wouldn’t be able to detect the change in understanding, since the author of the final piece wold simply implement his own understanding)

  16. Avatar
    Stephen  April 9, 2020

    Wouldn’t recognition of divergent views of Jesus in the sources work against the idea of a Johannine community with a congruent perspective over time?


    • Bart
      Bart  April 10, 2020

      Yes. It would argue for changes in perspective over time.

  17. Avatar
    AntiochusEpimanes  April 9, 2020

    Hey Bart,

    I’m going to ask an off-topic question concerning textual criticism, so I hope you’ll answer it. There is a mega-church that sometimes posts videos on Youtube, and they sometimes appeal to your writings, because you’re ‘as skeptical as they get.’ 😉 I don’t have access to ‘Misquoting Jesus,’ but they quoted a snippet from page 162, which states that “The oldest form of the text is no doubt very closely related to what the original author wrote.”

    This is their commentary on this quote. “Even critic Bart Ehrman, seeing how well the NT stands up and was transmitted to us today… even he would say that what we have is substantively what the original authors wrote.”

    Based on reading your material and listening to debates, I suspect that this is taken completely out of context, Am i correct?

    • Avatar
      AntiochusEpimanes  April 10, 2020

      I finally found a copy of the book… it appears to be on pg 61 (not pg 161) or pg 72, depending on the version. I’m not 100% sure, but it sounds like he’s accurately representing what you’re saying, unless I misunderstand your point here.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 10, 2020

      Not entirely out of context. My view is that we don’t *know* what the original authors wrote. That’s the entire problem. But as a working hypothesis it’s not implausible that we’re pretty darn close, and can do our work that way (you can’t interpret an author if you have zero idea what he said!). The issue is that conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists insist we have the very words of God. In many places we don’t know what the words actually were, even if we do think we have a very good idea most of them. That’s true, of course, for all ancient writings.

  18. Avatar
    Vlobascio  April 10, 2020

    Hi Bart, quick question (not related to post topic):

    The book of Acts ends with Paul’s imprisonment in Rome, not his death. Considering the book spends an awful lot of time talking about martyrs, and since Paul’s death is left out, doesn’t this mean the book was likely written before he died? Nero’s crackdown on Christians in Rome around 64 CE seems like a reasonable place to put Paul’s death (he was under house arrest) so wouldn’t that put the book’s original date sometime between ~61-64 CE?

    If that is true, what implications does that have on the dating of Luke?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 10, 2020

      I think the only martyrs are James (mentioned in passing) and Stephen, no? It’s interesting that scholarship today is moving toward seeing Acts as written as late as the 120s, to some extent because it is being argued that they author was familiar with the writings of Josephus. I’ve not been convinced yet, but I can see the draw of the argumebnt What virtually everyone agrees on is that Acts is the *second* volume of Luke’s two-volume wor to be written (as Acts 1:1-4 indicates), that Luke’s Gospel account is dependent on Mark’s, and that Mark’s account was written around 70-72 CE. So Luke has to be after Paul’s death. Why not mention it? The standard view, that I agree with, is that Luke absolutely did not *want* to talk about Paul being martyred because it would defeat a major theme of his narrative, that no matter *what* happened to Paul, nothing could stop his mission. Persecute him, run him out of town, stone him, imprison him: nothing can stop his preaching. His execution would have shown that in fact he could be stopped, and was.

      • Avatar
        Stephen  April 10, 2020

        Please discuss this topic of the later dating of Luke/Acts (and the possible influence of Josephus) when convenient in the blog. You might even invite some scholar who favors the later dating to make the case.

        Congrats on the success of the blog. Thanks for the opportunity to ask questions.

  19. Avatar
    Laurentiu  April 11, 2020

    Did Jesus,at the last supper , said eat my body and drink my blood?
    I think is the biggest question regarding the new testament.
    As for John,I always had the impression that john wrote first a traditional gospel, similar with the other 3,then enhanced it some years later.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 12, 2020

      I dont’ think he literally said that, no. It’s how later Christians remembered his last meal when they commemorated it every week. And no, there’s nothing to suggest John wrote a Gospel originally like the Synoptics (I think that’s what you mean?)

  20. Avatar
    chrisjpaxton@gmail.com  April 14, 2020

    I’m thoroughly enjoying the thread but for some reason I cannot find the post on ‘The Social History Behind the Fourth Gospel’. When I try to navigate to it, I get a 404 (document not found error). Was it inadvertently removed?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 15, 2020

      Ah, several others have said that. I’ll get it restored.

      • Avatar
        rblevins  April 15, 2020

        Same here, thanks. And thanks for this intriguing thread. Like someone else said, I’m on the edge of my seat and the fact that I can’t continue makes it even more torturous. 😉

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