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More of the History Behind the Gospel of John

In the last post I began to discuss what we can know about the history of the community that produced (or that produced someone who produced) the Gospel of John.  My argument is that you can use hints in the Gospel to reconstruct what appears to have happened in the community in which and for which it was produced, and reconstructing what these events were can help make sense of how and why the distinctive views of the Gospel developed (or rather, the *various* views, some found in one of its sources, others in another).

To make best sense of this post it will probably be of some use to read the preceding one.  Again I am taking this discussion from my textbook on the New Testament.



Stage Three: Against the Synagogue

Sociologists have studied a number of religious communities that have been excluded from larger social groups and forced to carry on their communal activities on their own.  The findings of these various studies are of some interest for understanding how the views of the Johannine community appear to have developed with the passing of time.

Religious groups (sometimes called “sects”) that split off from larger communities often feel persecuted — many times with considerable justification — and build ideological walls around themselves for protection.  That is to say, a kind of fortress mentality develops, in which the small splinter group begins to think that…

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WAS there a Community behind the Gospel and Letters of John? Guest Post by Hugo Mendez
The History Behind John’s Gospel



  1. Avatar
    godspell  April 13, 2020

    Very persuasive analysis–one can see the same thing occur in secular groups, like political movements of various types, communes, utopians, splinter cells of various radical organizations. The deepest anger is always felt against those who are closest. (I might observe that Socrates and his followers seemed to feel far more anger against Athens than Sparta, even though the latter was threatening their collective existence, and Athens seemed quite aware of its gadfly’s contempt.)

    However, wouldn’t the traditions that Mark, Matthew and John came from have a similar background of rejection by the larger Jewish community? Matthew also shows considerable animus towards unconverted Jews, but Luke has much less, and Mark doesn’t seem to really feel anger towards anyone but those who personally attacked Jesus. Even that is fairly muted (because it was all God’s will).

    To be clear–the theory is that John’s gospel began as writings of a Jewish community of believers in Jesus, who were expelled from their synagogue for proclaiming him Messiah, those writings were passed over time to gentile converts, one/several of them pieced the sources together, changing them in certain respects, perhaps adding to them, until the work we now have took form (minus the Pericope Aduterae)?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 14, 2020

      Yes, similar experiences may well have happened in other places, though the details would be different in each case. Matthew may be the closest analogy to John’s. But we don’t have any specific references there to them being excluded frmo the synatogue.

      • Avatar
        godspell  April 14, 2020

        Maybe the community that produced John was more cut off from other Christians as well? That would explain it being so different from the synoptics.

        Probably not an original idea, but those are thin on the ground in this area of study.

        • Avatar
          dkstalnaker  May 8, 2020

          I’m familiar with the Synoptic Gospels having common sources that is, Matthew and Luke drawing from Mark and Q. John is different from the others. My question is, do you think that the gospel writers were aware of each other? Do you have evidence one way or another?

          • Bart
            Bart  May 10, 2020

            Do you mean personally acquainted. No, I don’t think so. They were evidently living in different places at different times…

  2. Avatar
    jhudson217  April 13, 2020

    Is there any evidence of these early sects adopting names in the way that a modern Catholic Church does? The main reason for this thought has to do with the doubting Thomas story that only appears in John. To me it reads as if the Johannine sect is calling out another sect (perhaps named for Thomas) as being weak in their faith. I’ve also wondered if the Johannine sect might have been known as James the Beloved; so not to be confused with the church in Jerusalem, started by James the brother of Jesus.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 14, 2020

      Ah, good question. No, no evidence of that (First Baptist Church of Corinth, kind of thing!)

  3. Avatar
    gsilver  April 13, 2020

    Do you think it is possible that the Johannine Christians took existing stories about Jesus’ polemic regarding the pharisaic school (that are represented in the synoptics), and extended it to “the Jews” because of their social exclusion from the synagogue?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 14, 2020

      Yes indeed! I think something like that is exactly what happened.

      • Avatar
        gsilver  April 14, 2020

        Thanks for the response!

        On another note, you mention that social exclusion can lead to a dichotomy of ‘us’ VS ‘them’ which is represented by light VS darkness.

        I was wondering if you think it is possible to reconstruct such a socio-historical context for the Ephesians Epistle? I am particularly thinking about 4.8-14.

        • Bart
          Bart  April 15, 2020

          Yes, I deal with that in my textbook on the NT. Most of the focus though has been on ch. 2, widely seen as the core of the letter, and indicating (broadly speaking ) that the largely gentile community needed to be open, accepting, and accommodating to the Jews in their midst. But certainly the “gifts” in teh community can help situate the passage in the historical context of the Pauline communities, especialy when one compares *these* gifts (in a letter written after Paul, in his name) to those mentioned by Paul himself in 1 Corinthians 12.

          • Avatar
            gsilver  April 16, 2020

            That makes sense, but I realised I made a typo! I meant to write 5.8-14! I shall retype the question with that.

            On another note, you mention that social exclusion can lead to a dichotomy of ‘us’ VS ‘them’ which is represented by light VS darkness. I was wondering if you think it is possible to reconstruct such a socio-historical context for the Ephesians Epistle? I am particularly thinking about 5.8-14.

            8 For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light— 9 for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true. 10 Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord. 11 Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. 12 For it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly; 13 but everything exposed by the light becomes visible, 14 for everything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says,

            “Sleeper, awake!
            Rise from the dead,
            and Christ will shine on you.”

          • Bart
            Bart  April 17, 2020

            My sense is than since all the Christian traditions emerged out of an apocalyptic view, the apocalypstic dualisms were deeply rooted, and then repurposed as views changed. But yes, these views aer definitely apocalyptic, but very similar to ones you can find in Jewish texts.

  4. Avatar
    AWNPalestine  April 13, 2020

    Thanks Bart. It seems obvious based on the OT that the Jews would reject a crucified messiah. Furthermore, they would reject defying jesus in the johanine understanding of the divinity of jesus even if they had some exaltation theology. Do you agree that John’s gospel being the latest coincides with the jewish followers of jesus petering out overtime because they could not reconcile this new interpretation and it was not supported by the OT? Also as an aside what can you say about  “I and the Father are one” (10:30) from a linguistic view. Can the Greek word in the context of the verse mean one in purpose rather than in essence? Given jesus also said to the disciples he and them were one. How is this reconciled?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 14, 2020

      I’m afraid I can answer only one question at a time. Yes, I think John’s Gospel shows that most of the peole in the communty at the time were not Jewish, since most jews simply could not accept a crucified messiah.

  5. Avatar
    tjohnston1@insight.rr.com  April 14, 2020

    Couldn’t Jesus in the Book of John and the Synoptic Gospels both be saying not only he was God, but we all are (part of) God, and in this way all universal? “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” “And whoever welcomes in my name one such child as this, welcomes me.” “Give to others and God will give to you.” “Be careful how you speak to others or be prepared for God to say the same to you.” “Treat others as you expect to be treated.” “No one knows the time of my coming same the Father alone.” “Be extremely careful because I am coming back at a time you do not know and in a way you least expect me.” The examples are countless.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 14, 2020

      My sense is that early Jews and Christians (including Jesus and the Gospel writers) understood that htere was a very serious division between mortals and God, teh created and the creator, even if, in some sense mortals have an element of the divine in them (e.g., when God “breathed” his “breath” into Adam. So people may have a divine element, but they are not part of God the way, say, Christ, in Christian thinking, was part of God.

  6. Avatar
    Tim_Cottingham  April 14, 2020

    Hi Bart! Please forgive me for the unrelated questions but I’d appreciate your insights on two questions:

    – When is the FIRST use of the YHWH יהוה Tetragrammaton in our earliest and best copies of the Old Testament?

    – In your opinion, why does the Tetragrammaton NOT feature in any of the New Testament scriptures? Even the ones written by Jews?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 14, 2020

      It is in all the Hebrew copies we have, an not in the NT because they were not written in Hebrew.

  7. kt@rg.no
    kt@rg.no  April 14, 2020

    If the 19th blessing (a curse of the Minim and the Nozerim) in the Synnagoge, the Birkat Ha Minim included the Judeo-Christians at that time, this would at least mean an exclusion of a whole community, a whole system of belief completely.

    For me, a non scholar, I can easily get an idea of how devestating that would have been for a Judeo-Christian at the end of the 1st century who participated the prayers in the Synnagoge and had to read the blessings, even the 19th which was a direct curse of what this person believed in.

    If such assumption is right, that this 19th blessing was among others also adressed to the Christians, I can also see how «urgant» it would be to explain Jesus’ devinity, and perhaps connect him to one of the essense of God(like this «YHWH») in the Hebrew Bible which was more «devide»/had more faculties (names), included more, than the greek translated God, the Christians later adopted. So, why do I mean it was important for them to make such attempts and efforts? In my understanding there seemed to be an interconnection between Judaism and the Judeo Christian branch, and how they percieved themself in relation with Judaim since they continued to practise the religion within the Jewish community and Synnagoges.

    I’m tempted to think that these «Johannine Christians» were influenced of a rather rapid evolvement of a more hostile and confrontable environment between the Judeo Christians and the Jewish religious environment at the end of the 1st. century, along with other roman/hellenistic ideas which flourished, rather than all other Jewish sects around at that time.

    If so, the Johannine Christians would then be more “christians at the end of the 1.st century” rather than a sectarian group? If all of my assumptions/guesses were (partly) right, then for me, the seemingly hostility against at least the Jewish religious (was that the term “Jews”????? all over that Gospel used in a negative term) and the urge to connect Jesus to the Hebrew expression of devinity mentioned above.

  8. Shahin
    Shahin  April 14, 2020

    Dear Prof Ehrman,
    I was wondering if Jesus did not peceive himself other than a Jew and did not mean to establish a new religion (Matthew 5:17 Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.)
    How could he talk about establishing a CHURCH in
    Matthew 16:18 “And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”
    What does Jesus meant by the “Church” in Matthew 16:18? There had been no Church when he was talking.
    Was there a Church when the text of Matthew was written and put it in the mouth of Jesus?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 14, 2020

      The difficulty is that Jesus almost certainly did not actually say everything attributed to him in teh Gospels. this is the heart and core of Gospel-research. Each saying has to be critically examined to see if it is likely jesus acdtually said it (I’ve devoted a lot of posts on this, if you wnat to search fo “historical Jesus”). I think it is entirely unlikely that Jesus said the words of Matthew 16:18, e.g. They presuppose a time when there already was a Christian church in place.

    • Colthrone
      Colthrone  April 17, 2020

      Don’t think of the word “church”. It’s too ‘English’ and Christian and modern. Think of the word “assembly” or “congregation” which is is what He would have said speaking in Hebrew or Aramaic. These are words and concepts used heavily throughout the Old Testament.

  9. Avatar
    petersonjulius  April 14, 2020

    Dear Bart, I just finished the Great Courses about NT.
    You have mentioned that in the Gospel of John alone Jesus is presented as God due to the evolving Oral traditions. But I see in Matthew, the author introduces Jesus as Immanuel – “God with us”. What is your comment on this?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 15, 2020

      It’s important to note: Matthew is quoting a verse from Isaiah, who was referring to a human king. “God with us” simply meant that through this person we will see the will and work of God, not that hte person *was* God.

      • Avatar
        petersonjulius  April 15, 2020

        Do you believe in the Virgin birth – Mary conceived by the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit?

        • Bart
          Bart  April 17, 2020

          I’m an agnostic/atheist, so no, I absolutely don’t. In the NT that idea is found only in Luke. (Matthew doesn’t say how it happened; none of the other authors mentions a virgin birth)

  10. Avatar
    mtavares  April 14, 2020

    The sociological aspect of this reminds me of a fascinating story told by a faculty member from the seminary I attended. He talks about how the official text of the Catholic Good Friday Liturgy up until 1959 actually used derogatory language toward Jewish people, and how Pope John XXIII literally crossed it out of a Medieval Missal before his first Good Friday mass as pope.

    It’s on Youtube titled “Dennis McManus on Jewish-Catholic Relations”:

  11. Avatar
    GeoffClifton  April 15, 2020

    Dear Professor Ehrman, are there any theories as to where the Johannine community relocated after they were kicked out of the synagogue? Did they remain in the general Palestine area or perhaps go to Asia Minor?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 15, 2020

      There has been speculation. But my view is that they were already in someplace in the Diaspora, and that is where they were kicked out of their local synagogue.

  12. Avatar
    Hogie2  April 16, 2020

    Very interesting series on the Gospel of John, thank you. The idea of the smaller rejected sect seeing the larger group as bad or evil and seeing itself as persecuted, sure brings back memories of going through a church split in my younger years as a youth pastor. One of the most emotionally upsetting times in my life. It all seems so silly 25 years later.

  13. sschullery
    sschullery  April 17, 2020

    Do you believe that there were “communities” that served comparable roles for the synoptics as we hypothesize for John? If so, what were they called? I only recall seeing the Johanine community referred to.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 19, 2020

      Yes, they are simply called the Matthean, Markan, and Lukan communities.

  14. Avatar
    Drew  April 22, 2020

    Bart, how are these books (or sections of the books) of the Bible dated? In other words, what methods do people utilize to arrive at the fact of say Mark being written around 70 CE?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 24, 2020

      You may want to search the blog for “dating of the Gospels” where I explain at greater length. Short story: if a book is mentioned by a later, datable author, it had to be written before that. If it mentions or alludes to a datable event, it had to be written *after* that. It is widely thought that Mark 13 alludes to the destruction of Jerusalem; but Mark was used as a source by Matthew who is alluded to by Ignatius in 110 CE. So Mark was probably closer to 70 than farther, and it’s usually dated right around then.

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