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Internal Discrepancies in the Gospel of John

Yesterday I answered a question about whether some of the discrepancies in Luke-Acts are due to the author having used a variety of sources that had different views.  The blog member who asked the question also wanted to know if this happened in other books from antiquity.  Just sticking with the Bible, the answer is: Yes indeed!    Here is what I say about the same issue with respect to the Gospel of John, in my textbook on the New Testament.

 

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Authors who compose their books by splicing several sources together don’t always neatly cover up their handiwork but sometimes leave literary seams. The Fourth Evangelist was not a sloppy literary seamster, but he did leave a few traces of his work, which become evident as you study his final product with care. Here are several illustrations.

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Are Contradictions the Real Point?
Why Does Luke Appear to Contradict Himself?

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Comments

  1. Lev
    Lev  June 26, 2018

    Very interesting. Is there any indication that the two sources were written by two different authors? I understand textual analysis can sometimes reveal this in word patterns of usage. If not, would this mean the same author writing both accounts at different times, and then weaving them together in the final edit?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 26, 2018

      The passages are too brief to do any convincing stylistic analysis, I’m afraid.

    • AlbertHodges  June 26, 2018

      Actually, maybe Dr. Ehrman is being too nit-picky here. For example, the reference to “going into Judea” since they were already in Jerusalem a part of Judea, is such an example. Jesus and the Apostles were ALL from Galilee. Some of them had ties to Jerusalem surely but it is not likely that all of them did. If I flew into London, the capital of England, I might EASILY say “I am going out into England” as I left London to travel through the rest of England. Same as if visitors to the US landed into New York might be excited because their going out into the US as they start around the country. This is an example of Dr. Ehrman gagging at gnats and swallowing camels.

      The other examples could also be explained in a similar manner.

      However, if your goal is to try to lay the groundwork that the Gospel of John was NOT written by an eye-witness, finding these types of “traces” may not ring true, but they help with the narrative being built, which is the whole point here from the good Doctor’s post to begin with.

      In my humble opinion.

      • Bart
        Bart  June 27, 2018

        It’d be like my saying that I left Durham to go into North Carolina. I just would never say that, since I would already be *in* North Carolina. Can you imagine someone saying that? I *could* say that I left Durham to go to Virginia, though.

        • AlbertHodges  June 27, 2018

          Right, Dr. Ehrman. However, you are living in Durham so there would be nothing new for you. For Galileans or visitors from another country/region, they do not have the experiential knowledge from living in Jerusalem. Many of us have some knowledge of other key places (New York, London, Rome, etc.) but not from an experience pov. So when I first traveled to NYC by air, I was in NY. When I checked into my hotel, looked around the area, had dinner, etc., the nest day when I started my actual touring, I could have EASILY said, I was going into New York.

          Same if I go to Rome. Once I travel outside of the airport/hotel area, I could EASILY say, I am going into Italy. You are being nit-picky, in my opinion, not because of the wording issue, but because you are trying to undermine the idea that the Gospel of John was written by an eyewitness to the events.

          Respectfully said, in my humble opinion.

          • Bart
            Bart  June 29, 2018

            No, I don’t know anyone who would say, while driving out of Rome, “Now I’m going to Italy.”

        • Altosackbuteer
          Altosackbuteer  June 29, 2018

          Professor, I am in the middle of a volume of midrashic commentaries on the Book of 1 Kings.

          The first chapters of course deal with the construction of the 1st Temple by Solomon. The commentaries say that at that time, the territory allotted to the Tribe of Benjamin at the time of the conquest of the Land of Canaan abutted the future Jerusalem. Furthermore, the commentaries say that a corner of the footprint of the Temple Mount was considered part of Eretz Binyamin, not Eretz Yehuda.

          I offer this as a way of reconciling the difficulty you pointed out about how Jesus could leave Jerusalem in order to “go into Judea.” Perhaps the author understood the old tradition of the tribal boundaries and therefore made no error.

          By the way, I’m a fan of the new, automatic limits. Each posting is word-counted, and the number of daily postings are counted, up to 3. Good!

      • Iskander Robertson  June 27, 2018

        “In John 2:23, Jesus is in Jerusalem, the capital of Judea. While there, he engages in a discussion with Nicodemus that lasts until 3:21. Then the text says, “After this Jesus and his disciples went into the land of Judea” (3:22). But they are already in the land of Judea, in fact, in its capital. Here, then, is another literary seam. (Some modern translations have gotten around this problem by mistranslating verse 22 to say that they went into the “countryside of Judea,” but this is not the meaning of the Greek word for “land.”)”

        //
        “If I flew into London, the capital of England, I might EASILY say “I am going out into England” as I left London to travel through the rest of England. ”

        if you are IN london, you will say ” i am going out to middlesex” ? london is in middlesex , why would you say, while IN london , ” i am going out to middlesex” ?

  2. JohnKesler  June 26, 2018

    One of my favorite inconsistencies is between John 3:22, 26 and the parenthetical comment in 4:2. The former verses clearly say that Jesus baptized, while the latter says that he did not. Dr. Ehrman, why would one source–or a redactor–find Jesus’ baptizing so objectionable?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 27, 2018

      In that case he was using a source that said Jesus had been baptizing, that he was then correcting (to say: not really!)

      • JohnKesler  June 27, 2018

        Do you have any ideas about *why* the “correction” was made?

        • Bart
          Bart  June 29, 2018

          Because the redactor was committed to the idea that Jesus himself did not do any baptisms.

  3. Telling
    Telling  June 26, 2018

    Bart,

    Elaine Pagels has laid out a pretty good case that the Gospel of John was written to knock down the Gospel of Thomas, citing that only this gospel (John) gives any signifiant mention to Thomas and typically puts him in a negative light, such as him “doubting” the arisen Jesus. Do you see any merit in that?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 27, 2018

      Yes, that’s a view put out earlier by Greg Riley. I’ve never found it convincing. You can have opposition to a Thomas tradition without having access to the Gospel of Thomas itself.

      • Telling
        Telling  June 29, 2018

        But could it be possible that the Gospel of John was written to counter support for inclusion of the Gospel of Thomas into the canon, the important number just “4” gospels closing the deal?

        • Bart
          Bart  June 29, 2018

          Sure, it’s possible. But we have no record of anyone suggesting that as a reason in antiquity. They didn’t need much of a reason other than the fact that hte views propounded in Thomas were not the ones that had gained wide acceptance.

  4. anthonygale  June 26, 2018

    I find some of the seams more surprising than others. On one hand I get it. The editing would have been a hard task and mistakes would be made. I make typos all the time when writing something as short as a blog comment. There might be good reasons for some seams. Jesus went from Jerusalem to the other side of the Sea of Galilee? Perhaps John was unfamiliar with the geography. If so, you wouldn’t expect John to catch that one. But how does someone write lets get up and leave and immediately procede to go into more lengthy discourse? It makes me wonder if perhaps they were aware of seams (some of them at least) and werent concerned about them.

  5. talmoore
    talmoore  June 26, 2018

    Are there significant theological or christological differences between accounts A and B?

  6. Wilusa  June 26, 2018

    I think we may sometimes forget how hard it was for writers in those days. Even *light* wasn’t as good as we have now. They had to deal with cumbersome scrolls. And if they were consulting sources, other people’s handwriting. At times, they were probably so fatigued that they couldn’t decipher some of their own handwriting!

  7. Tricia  June 26, 2018

    The way I’ve understood the Gospel of John is that it was written by the Johannine community generations after John was gone. Some of what it contains were actual experiences that only the Apostle John would know and recount. The sermons could have been evolved somewhat similarly, as a teaching (perhaps of John) within the community but then written and rewritten. Within that community also there had to be a Gnostic tendency (which I’ve read was quite influential in early churches) and so evidences itself in this Gospel as well. The question I have: what is the importance of knowing these geographic and timeline variations? Does it change the gist and point of view of what is written in the Gospel? Or is it just a way of disproving the inerrancy of scripture?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 27, 2018

      See today’s post — and then the ones to follow! (BTW: I don’t think an entire community wrote John; surely it was a person who did. And these days most scholars don’t think we can date Gnostics back as early as the first century; we don’t start getting gnostic writings until the 2nd.)

      • Tricia  June 27, 2018

        Well, a person or persons obviously wrote down the text. But to think that person or persons did it in isolation makes no sense. What about “in the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. …In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shined in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.” Doesn’t sound like Temple Judaism to me.

        • Bart
          Bart  June 29, 2018

          I certainly think the author was a member of a distinctive community, and that his theological views reflect those of the community.

  8. fishician  June 26, 2018

    Do you think the general illiteracy of the day played a role in this? 1. Most people couldn’t read these accounts and therefore no proofreading was taking place. 2. Since it was mostly an oral culture, maybe people just didn’t care about subtle discrepancies. They just enjoyed a good story. (For example, there are a lot of discrepancies in the Star Wars series – but you don’t notice them when you’re caught up in the story.)

    • Bart
      Bart  June 27, 2018

      Yes, I think all that’s right. Even today people read Luke-Acts and John and never notice the problems!

  9. Stephen  June 26, 2018

    Do we find examples of these kinds of variant readings combined side by side in other non-Biblical ancient Greek literature? Or is this a peculiarity of the Biblical material?

    thanks

    • Bart
      Bart  June 27, 2018

      I’m sure we do! But I’ve never studied other contemporary literature with this partciaulr question in mind. Maybe someone else can help?

  10. prestonp  June 26, 2018

    “The theology of a particular passage, or even an entire book, can hinge (in a significant, even radical way) on which textual variant is chosen; but to my knowledge that would never change any of the established Christian doctrines, because these are never based simply on one passage or another.” Bart

    If, as Bart says, the theology of an entire gospel hinges in a significant and radical way on which textual variant is chosen, let’s be perfectly clear, that necessarily threatens the core tenets of Christianity.

  11. XanderKastan  June 26, 2018

    If baptisms were performed in “the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” long before doctrine of the Trinity, what did they think was the relationship between those three? And how did that evolve into the Trinity?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 27, 2018

      Very long story! I try to explain it in my book How Jesus Became God, but it takes a chapter, not a comment!

      • XanderKastan  June 27, 2018

        Thanks. I have the audio book and will listen to last two chapters again with this in mind.

  12. tompicard
    tompicard  June 26, 2018

    regarding John 1:18
    NRSV –
    No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son,[e] who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.
    —-
    footnotes:
    (e) Other ancient authorities read It is an only Son, God, or It is the only Son

    Does this say Jesus is God or Jesus is distinct from God?

    if the verse is implying Jesus IS God, Isn’t it self-contradictory, ie; if Jesus IS God and, and since Jesus disciple saw him, then why does it begin by “No one has ever seen God”

  13. doug  June 26, 2018

    I sometimes feel sorry for people who want to believe the Bible is inerrant. I can imagine the Bible-bending that goes on to try to make the Bible all consistent – as if mere humans could explain the supposed “word of God” more clearly than the Bible they believe is perfect.

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  14. Robert  June 26, 2018

    What puzzles me is how the authors didn’t ( or couldn’t) see the discrepancies in their sources. Seems to me an author would want to fix things up to make a coherent story.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 27, 2018

      If they were modern Western authors, they certainly would! On the other hand ,they probably didn’t *see* them any more than students today see their own mistakes.

  15. Antonio40  June 26, 2018

    Very interesting, I understand now why some things (for all the beauty of the gospel according to whoever was John) did not make any sense to me. It was because the editing was not so God-inspired after all. Perhaps a guy was commisioned by the “central comitee” to write the stuff and then they changed some things for doctrinal and political reasons and the writer was not in a possition to overrule his (or her) bosses. So the final result is not entirely coherent. That happens now. I do not find probable that the guy they comissioned was so sloppy as to contradict himself so crassly, even if he was working with two different accounts.

    In the famous prologue “In the beggining was the word”, ¿would you translate logos as “reason” and not “word”? And when the writer speaks about “the light” what does he mean? Enlighment in an intellectual sense?

  16. prestonp  June 26, 2018

    Even at the age of 12, he was deeply interested in Scriptural matters. Clearly, Jesus loved the truth.

    The high priest questioned Jesus about his disciples and his teaching. Jesus answered him, “I have spoken openly to the world. I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret.”

    We know that much of the knowledge and wisdom of Jesus came from the Father. Jesus said, “My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me,” Recall from the Gospel of John the Jewish religious leaders felt threatened by Jesus’ effectiveness with people. So much so, they conspired to arrest him because some people exclaimed, “This really is the Prophet.” Others said, “This is the Christ.” (John 7:40-41) However, what happened when the Temple officers were sent out to arrest Jesus?

    John 7:45-46 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

    The officers then came to the chief priests and Pharisees, who said to them, “Why did you not bring him?” The officers answered, “No one ever spoke like this man!”

    The Jewish religious leaders taught by quoting other highly-esteemed Jewish leaders of the past and their present. They also quoted oral traditions from ancient rabbis, using them as their authority. Meanwhile, Jesus taught them with God’s authority: “What I say, therefore, I say as the Father has told me.”

    And when he [Jesus] was twelve years old, they went up according to the custom of the feast. And after the days were completed, while they were returning, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. And his parents did not know it, but supposing him to be in the company, they went a day’s journey; and they began looking for him among their relatives and acquaintances. and when they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem, looking for him. Then, it occurred, after three days they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers and listening to them and questioning them. And all those listening to him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.

    On hearing these words, some of the people said, “This is truly the Prophet.” Others declared, “This is the Christ.”

    The Jews may have been expecting someone else to be their messiah, but here, just the power of His voice and words convinced some He was Christ.

    395

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    • flcombs  June 27, 2018

      Not sure of your point as charisma has never related to truth. Even David Koresh convinced people to follow him and die with him. They gave up their lives and fortunes to him. Did that prove his claims true or just he was very convincing? And there are many more examples.

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    • Pattylt  June 27, 2018

      I’m sorry, but are you asking a question or just trying to preach your faith? I’ve seen several comments now with nothing actually asking for clarification or questioning of Bart’s post. Am I missing something?

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  17. Iris Lohrengel  June 26, 2018

    The Gospel of John is very different from the Synoptic Gospels. Well, there is the Gospel of Mark and Q and some additional sources, L + M; it is assumed those Gospels emerged as the result of stories told about Jesus in oral tradition. John is rather philosophical. Did Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus really happen? Did Jesus really wash the feet of his disciples? Did he convey Jesus’ farewell speech such as it happened? Or did the author wanted to make a point, convey a teaching, an inner spiritual truth? So in that case, it’s not really historic nor meant to be (even some historic information might have been used). The theory that John used different sources, however, would make the Gospel historic since then one assumed that there are accounts, in addition to John, that reflect the material used by John.

  18. gavriel  June 27, 2018

    Is it possible to say something about the date of the individual sources? I understand that the conventional dating of the final edition is in the mid 90’ies.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 27, 2018

      Not the date, but something of the historical circumstances. I’ll say something about that in a future post.

  19. JoeRoark  June 27, 2018

    To point #3. Could other side of the Sea mean ‘far’ side, meaning that since Jerusalem was to the south and west of the Sea, going to the east side?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 29, 2018

      Interesting idea. But if the closest body of water was the (much larger) Dead Sea, it doesn’t seem to make sense that the author would use the lake up north as the spot from which to locate a move across the Jordan.

  20. tompicard
    tompicard  June 27, 2018

    there are different english translations of John 1:18
    Do you think it implies Jesus is God, or not?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 29, 2018

      The different translations are because there is a variant in the Greek text. In Orthodox Corruption of Scripture I argued that hte original text said “Son of God who is in the bosom of the Father,” NOT “God who is in the bosom of the Father.”

      • tompicard
        tompicard  June 29, 2018

        so then, . .
        do you agree that in John 1:18 the author is ‘probably impling’ Jesus is NOT God? {especially when considering the prior context ‘No one has ever seen God’ and the subsequent context ‘[the Son} has made [God] know}
        but verses 1-17 ‘probably/may imply’ Jesus is God?

        why would same author imply such contradiction? or do you know a way to reconcile these verses?

        • Bart
          Bart  July 1, 2018

          No, I’m not saying that. I’m saying John 1:18 did not explicitly call Jesus “God.” Whether the author thought he was God in some sense or another is a different question.

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