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Signs in the Gospel of John

For many decades now there have been scholars who have been convinced that the Gospel of John is based, in large part, on written, but no-longer surviving, sources.   It is much debated whether John relied on the Synoptic Gospels for any of its stories, or whether in fact its author had ever read (or even heard of) Matthew, Mark, and Luke.

There are very few verbatim overlaps between John and the others, and outside of the Passion narrative there is not a lot of overlap in the stories told.  Somewhat like the Synoptics John does have the healing of a Capernaum official’s son, the feeding of the 5000, and the walking on the water – all told in striking different ways.  John’s four other miracles (which he doesn’t call miracles, but “signs”) are unique to his account (including the favorite miracle on college campuses everywhere, the turning of water into wine, and the favorite of most Hollyood screen writers, the raising of Lazarus).

Moreover, the teachings of Jesus are highly distinctive in John.  Almost nothing that Jesus teaches in the Synoptics can be found in John (there is not a single parable in John!) and almost nothing of Jesus’ teaching in John can be found in the Synoptics.

I’m among the scholars who thinks that John probably had not read the Synoptics.  If he had read them, then he wasn’t following them for his accounts.   I may change my mind about this one.  It’s not a view I’m completely convinced by.  But it’s been my view for many years.

That doesn’t mean, however, that John was without its own sources though.   One source that scholars have isolated (this too is much debated) ….

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The Temptation Narrative Missing from John
The Community Behind the Gospel of John: Part 2



  1. Avatar
    rbrtbaumgardner  May 23, 2015

    I am catching up on threads and wondered while reading the thread on “just wants to sell books” if you allow yourself to speculate, Bart, and do you share those speculations if you do? I enjoy speculation if it is based on some evidence and is identified for what it is. Sometimes speculation leads to discovery. On the other hand, I also enjoy getting solid facts, which are often in short supply or aren’t given nearly enough attention and importance when they are available.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 25, 2015

      I do on occasion — but I usually warn the reader that’s what I’m doing.

  2. Avatar
    Ed  May 23, 2015

    Excellent read. I just completed a Bible Study on the Gospel of John, and preached a sermon series on the Seven Signs. I wish I had read this post prior to the series. Thank you for sharing.

  3. Avatar
    Todd  May 23, 2015

    I just want to mention that there is a writer and scholar who has focused on the writings of John for many years. He is neither progressive nor fundamentslist. He is a linguistic Expert and bases much of his writings on linguistic analysis. He maintains that the writer of John’s gospel is John The Presbyter or the elder, writing from Ephesus and who also wrote the “Revelation” and the letters 1&2. This John the Presbyter, he indicates was an eyewitness to Jesus when John was a young man.

    The author is James David Audlin. Two books are involved with this: The Gospel of John vols 1 and 2, and The Writings of John The Presbyter. These are large volumes, not cheap, and contain Audlin’s own translation (much fro the Aramaic sources and extensive commentary with considerable historical and linguistic analysis.

    I find his writings on John very well done.

    James Audlin is not an “academic” in the sense of being a paid university teacher and lecturer, but does his research and writing in seclusion, so to speak.

    Are you aware of him and his work? If not, I can arrange for him to send you some PDFs of his books when he returns from his current trip to Patmos and Ephesus and Jerusalem.

    The books are also available through Amazon and other sources. I think it would be good to give his position a good read…he is no amateur in any way.

  4. Avatar
    Steefen  May 23, 2015

    Dr. Bart Ehrman: John’s four other miracles (which he doesn’t call miracles, but “signs”) are unique to his account (including (1) the favorite miracle on college campuses everywhere, the turning of water into wine, and (2) the favorite of most Hollyood screen writers, the raising of Lazarus).

    Steefen: What are the other two?

    • Avatar
      Steefen  May 25, 2015

      The seven signs are:[2]

      u – Changing water into wine in John 2:1-11
      nu – Healing the royal official’s son in Capernaum in John 4:46-54
      Healing the paralytic at Bethesda in John 5:1-18
      nu – Feeding the 5000 in John 6:5-14
      nu – Jesus’ walk on water in John 6:16-24
      Healing the man born blind in John 9:1-7
      u – Raising of Lazarus in John 11:1-45

      So the other two that are unique are Healing the paralytic and Healing the blind man, as listed above.

      The seven signs are seen by some scholars and theologians as evidence of new creation theology in the Gospel of John, the resurrection of Jesus being the implied eighth sign, indicating a week of creation and then a new creation beginning with the resurrection.

      John Marsh and Stephen Smalley, have credibly suggested six initial signs (the walking on the water not a sign in itself), and the seventh sign as the crucifixion.

      John Hutchinson[5] and E. W. Bullinger have emphasized the sequence of eight signs; concluding with the great harvest of fish in John 21:1-14.

  5. Pattycake1974
    Pattycake1974  May 23, 2015

    Jesus was clairvoyant in all 4 Gospels. I really think this is significant to the memory of Jesus and the origin of miracle stories. If he was clairvoyant, I can understand how people thought he was a prophet or divine. He had to have done something significant to spur such great interest other than just being a good orator. People that dismiss psychic ability can’t understand the relevance of this concept. Prophets from the Old Testament had to give proof of their claims. I can’t believe they could just say, “Hey, I’m a prophet!”, without some sort of demonstration proving it.

    • Avatar
      godspell  May 26, 2015

      Because human beings never give credence to the claims of charlatans? You ever hear tell of televangelism?

      Not that I am calling the Old Testament prophets charlatans, but they wouldn’t need to be. The fact is, the stories about them were written down so long after the people in question had lived, we can not in any way be certain that they made those prophecies–or that history was not rewritten to fit the prophecies. And there’s a lot of scholarship to suggest that happened.

      Jesus made a number of prophecies, no doubt–but even though his story was written down a shorter period of time after his death, still more than long enough for some retro-fitting to take place. And anyway, didn’t he prophecy that the world as we knew it was coming to an end? That God was coming to rule the world, either in his lifetime, or the lifetimes of those listening to him? That did not happen.

      The prophecies he made were mainly quite vague and allegorical, and could be interpreted in a number of ways (and have been). And so have the quatrains of Nostradamus. There’s no way to prove or disprove the accuracy of a prophetic statement that isn’t extremely specific and easily understood. Perhaps he did predict the destruction of the temple–but he didn’t predict the Romans would destroy it. Given the political situation in Palestine, you wouldn’t have needed supernatural abillities to guess that was a real possibility, but that wasn’t what he said. He said he’d destroy it and then rebuild it. He didn’t. Not literally. Allegorically, perhaps–doesn’t count. Self-fulfilling prophecies never do.

      There were many wonder-workers and self-styled prophets in this time period. There are many in this time period. The fact that some people believed them can’t possibly prove they were all right, or that any of them were.

      Jesus was prescient in saying that many false prophets would come after him (assuming he did say that), but that was not exactly a shot in the dark, was it?

      It is not necessary to assume Jesus had no extraordinary abilities–he was clearly an extraordinary man, with tremendous charisma, and powers of persuasion. He also had a remarkable and original mind. But there is no possible way to prove he was anything other than a man with the normal powers of a man. No claims made of him that have not been made of many others we do not currently accept to have been divine beings.

      • Avatar
        godspell  May 26, 2015

        To clarify a clumsily written sentence, I’m saying that there are still people making fantastic claims, who find large audiences ready to believe them, in modern times–and not all these claims are religious in nature (for example, there are people claiming the historical Jesus was a hoax). The fact that someone was believed does not prove he or she was a true prophet. And most people of Jesus’ time clearly did not believe him, or he would not have been crucified and then largely forgotten by all but a handful of followers for such a long time.

        • Pattycake1974
          Pattycake1974  May 28, 2015

          What about Ezekiel’s prophecy to Nebuchadnezzar that he would destroy Tyre? If it was written after the fact, I think Ezekiel would have done a better job prophesying. After 13 years of attempting to take Tyre, Ezekiel basically says to Nebuchadnezzar, ‘You know what, forget that prophecy, here’s another one.’ So I don’t think that account is written after the fact. Even though Ezekiel wasn’t entirely correct, he was still viewed as a prophet. Also, it’s my understanding that the Prophets replaced the Urim and Thummin. I think this shows the deep belief in the power of divination and people who demonstrated clairvoyance were seen as special.

          When I say Jesus was a Prophet, I don’t mean to say that he could predict everything with 100% accuracy. I’m talking about stories like the woman at the well where Jesus told her how many husbands she had and how he could perceive their thoughts. If he was demonstrating the “divine” gift of clairvoyance, then I can see how those around him embellished his memory. As far as the prediction of the destruction of the Temple, Jesus went on to say how the disciples would be persecuted because of him. How could he have known, for sure, all of the horrible things the disciples went through? Isn’t Mark dated by some scholars before the destruction of the Temple? If you don’t believe in this sort of thing, then it’s not a possibility in your mind. I do believe clairvoyance is real for many reasons, but no one is correct at all times.

          Also, when I looked up information about Besh’t, I found that he may have been using plants and other various forms of holistic medicine to help people with illnesses. If this type of medicine did work, then it’s not much of a stretch to see how people, who did not understand it, thought God empowered him to be a healer. That’s why I think Jesus demonstrated something more than charisma, and it was beyond their understanding.

  6. Avatar
    Steefen  May 23, 2015

    There is something wrong about the raising of Lazarus only appearing in the Gospel of John (written during the reign of Emperor Domitian). How can something that great be left out of Mark, Matthew, and Luke?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 25, 2015

      Right! It probalby wasn’t widely known.

      • Avatar
        Steefen  May 25, 2015

        It was not widely known. That is so unlike you, professor. What is like you: the lack of multiple attestation means it is probably an interpolation or it did not happen. Why are we not getting that response?

        Jn 11: 7 – He said to his disciples, let’s go back to Judea. So, each offspring community of disciples after Jesus’ death would have to preserve this account.

        Jn 11: 16 Thomas said let’s go with Jesus because those people who wanted to stone Jesus will stone him when he returns to help Lazarus. Let’s go die with Jesus. [Dr. Ehrman, this means some of Jesus’ enemies would have caught up with Jesus at Lazarus’ grave site.]

        18Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, about two miles off; 19and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary, to console them concerning their brother.

        Dear Doctor Ehrman, please help us understand your reply: the resurrection of Lazarus was not widely known given all the disciples were there, all those to console the sisters of Lazarus were there, and all communities of disciples would have learned of this great sign.

        Here, Jesus is Isis for resurrecting Lazarus but more so Jesus is Osiris, the Resurrection (and the bread of heaven to the extent Osiris is tied to the planting of wheat and the sprouting of wheat after wheat has been buried in the earth).

        25Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, 26and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die. Do you believe this?”

        Here, the writer of John is saying Osiris is no longer the resurrection but Jesus is the resurrection.

        On the first day of the Festival of Ploughing, where the goddess Isis appeared in her shrine where she was stripped naked, paste made from the grain were placed in her bed and moistened with water, representing the fecund earth. All of these sacred rituals were “climaxed by the eating of sacramental god, the eucharist by which the celebrants were transformed, in their persuasion, into replicas of their god-man” (Larson 20)

        Here: John 6: 32 and 51, speaking of bread of Heaven are sourced from the former Egyptian Moses and from the wheat ploughing associated with Isis, Osiris, and Resurrection.

        Conclusion: without multiple attestation that the raising of Lazarus was a real event, it is a literary event to bring in Exodus and the popular Isis cult of Rome.

        • Bart
          Bart  May 26, 2015

          I’m not saying it happened. I don’t think it did. I’m saying that the story was not widely known.

          • Avatar
            Steefen  May 26, 2015

            You are really hurting the feelings of Christians.

            – Jesus wasn’t the “leading man” who saved a woman from being stoned to death.
            – Jesus did not raise Lazarus.

            Interruption for a more important but related point: Wikipedia says:

            Biblical scholar Bart D. Ehrman relates that in the introduction to his textbook on the New Testament, he describes an important figure from the first century without first revealing he is writing about Apollonius of Tyana:

            … Apollonius of Tyana raised the dead.

            Ehrman goes on to explain that Apollonius was a real person and that his followers believed Jesus to be a fraud.

            Dr. Ehrman, was the raising of the dead by Apollonius of Tyana (born 15 died 100) more widely known?

            John says he raised the dead in front of all of his disciples. Without this appearing in Mark, Matthew, and Luke, it probably did not make it into Oral Tradition or Q source. This leaves us with the possibility that the Lazarus account only dates to when it was written. Apparently, Jesus had to best Apollonius and that is part of the reason why the resurrection of Lazarus appears in John.

          • Bart
            Bart  May 27, 2015

            it’s not clear how widely known Apollonius was in antiquity.

          • Avatar
            godspell  May 28, 2015

            Responding to Steefan–it’s not clear Jesus was ‘responding’ to anyone by reputedly raising the dead. Those stories are most likely a response to the tradition in the Jewish scriptures of Elijah and Elisha raising the dead. We know Jesus was strongly identified with Elijah–believed by some to be Elijah resurrected. In the story of the Transfiguration, he is seen communing with Elijah and Moses (as apparent equals).

            The story of him raising the little girl in Mark–is that so hard to believe? She could have been in a coma, or an catatonic trance. We know people have many times been buried alive. Some would have said “It’s not a miracle, she just wasn’t really dead”, but some would have believed it was a miracle. We can’t know what might have given rise to that story, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be based on nothing but other stories–all stories are ultimately based on something. It can’t all be copying somebody else’s story.

            It starts as something real, and grows over time, aided by the memory of earlier stories, which themselves might have had a kernel of truth to them. We make our own realities, but we don’t make them up out of whole cloth.

            In “Jesus: A Historian’s View of the Gospels”, Michael Grant mentioned that there were stories of Jewish ‘wonder rabbis’, which often sounded no less amazing than those of Jesus. And they were not necessarily meant to be taken literally–they were an expression of how amazing this man was, how his holiness inspired people, how he made people feel in his presence.

            A good story is not a lie, simply because it didn’t happen just the way you told it. Not unless you’re using it to fool people, which I don’t think the gospel writers were. Not intentionally, at least.

  7. Avatar
    Steefen  May 23, 2015

    I would like to give this post a 4.9, so, I’m going to give it a 5 star rating.

    #1 As mentioned in my book, Heron/Hero of Alexandria, an inventory, made a vase that could poor water when tilted one way and pour wine when tilted another way. Because Vespasian was in Alexandria before going to Rome for crowning as emperor, the famed Heron/Hero and/or his inventions could have found their way into Flavian empire literature. Vespasian fulfilled the sign of the star prophecy “of the Jews.” Vespasian fulfilled the sign of giving sight to the blind by using his saliva as Jesus did. Vespasian fulfilled the sign of making the lame walk. Entertaining the powerful Roman general, emperor in waiting, Hero/Heron’s party trick/miracle could have been put in the hands of Vespasian or his entourage.

    #2 Jesus is not the messiah of the temporal world, he is a heavenly messiah who requires people’s consumption of his body and blood. I’m looking at: The “Son of Man” is Jesus’ own self-description—he uses the title twelve times in the Gospel of John (1:51; 3:13, 14; 5:27; 6:27, 53, 62; 8:28; 9:35; 12:23; 13:31; in 12:34 his language is quoted back to him).

    Here is the contrast of Son of Man and Messiah:

    John 12: 33 But He was saying this to indicate the kind of death by which He was to die. 34The crowd then answered Him, “We have heard out of the Law that the Messiah/Christ is to remain forever; and how can You say, ‘The Son of Man must be lifted up’? Who is this Son of Man?”

    In the Synoptics, Jesus tells John the Baptist he is the one for which all have been waiting. More specifically, the blind man asks, who is the Son of Man. Jesus answers, the one before you is the Son of Man.

    In the Synoptics the Son of Man is in first person and third person. In John, the Son of Man is glorified when Judas leaves to betray him. In the Synoptics, we have the Great Tribulation before the glorification of the Son of Man.

    • Avatar
      Steefen  May 23, 2015

      correction: Heron/Hero of Alexandria, an inventor,
      ~ ~ ~
      Jesus needs signs that he is
      a) son of God
      b) messiah – I don’t think the Jews were looking for a spiritual messiah, especially the Galileans who had Judah the Galilean trying to usher in a temporal, political revolt
      c) son of Man – Jesus’ self-identification
      ~ ~ ~
      With what I wrote above, John either did not read the Synoptics or he was disregarding their claim that Jesus was

      Son of Man in 1st person;

      but tragedy strikes making him unable to live out the roll to glorification after the tribulation. He is crucified (resurrects and ascends to heaven, abandoning the fulfillment of the temporal messiah, leaving no political provisions for the Tribulation during the Jewish Revolt and destruction of the Temple),

      then Son of Man is spoken of in the third person in the things that were to take place after Jesus’ ascension.

      There is no speaking of the Son of Man in the third person in John. John’s omission of the signs for the coming of the Son of Man is shocking, if not an affront to the orthodoxy of the Synoptics.

      • Avatar
        Steefen  May 25, 2015

        (Sorry about the 30-min. delay: lights in the neighborhood went out for about 25 minutes)

        Gospel according to John is written during Domitian’s reign and the reference to the Tribulation of armies surrounding Jerusalem and the Temple being destroyed is absent from that gospel.


        Domitian, son of Vespasian and brother of Titus, did not fight against the Jews in the Jewish Revolt against Rome.
        If there were to be gospels circulating in Rome for the Early Christianity in Rome, why mention the military gospel, good news, of his father and brother. Take it out. And also, during Domitian’s reign, there were some sort of persecutions against Christians, Christians who probably were tied to Mark, Matthew, and Luke, reluctant or refusing the counter-gospel according to John.

  8. Avatar
    toejam  May 24, 2015

    I think John was almost certainly aware of synoptic traditions – e.g. in John 12:27, he denies that he will ask The Father for “his hour” to be removed from him – yet this is precisely what he does in the synoptic Gethsemane traditions.

  9. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  May 24, 2015

    Have you read Spong’s new book entitled “The Fourth Gospel”? He discusses much of this same material and in the Second Part of the book discusses “signs.” I understand that Spong does not have scholarly training but, like you, he has a gift for explaining stuff to lay readers.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 25, 2015

      No, I’m afraid I haven’t read it! You’d be amazed what I haven’t read….

  10. Avatar
    SteleDan  May 24, 2015

    You said you do not think John read the synoptics. Could you expand a little on why? There are places where there are certainly similarities, thieves at Calvary etc.

    Any thoughts on Louis A. Ruprecht’s hypothesis in “This Tragic Gospel”? I haven’t read it but it seems he focuses mostly on comparing the cowering fear of death Jesus has in Gethsemane in Mark with the Godlike confidence we see in John. He concludes that John must have read at least one of the Synoptics and altered the message to show a God instead of a man.

    I want to investigate the idea myself, because it explains both the similarities and the differences between John and the synoptics in 1 simple hypothesis. Is it worth looking into or is there something that makes it unlikely off the bat?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 25, 2015

      I think without verbatim agreements it’s impossible to know. And if he did know them, it’s odd he left so much of their material out (as in, virtually all of Jesus’ teachings! And most of his miracles.)

  11. Jeff
    Jeff  May 24, 2015

    The gospel of John is so at odds with the synoptics on so many different levels that one might conclude that the Jesus of John’s gospel is a different guy altogether. Here’s another stark example: as you noted, Bart, there is not a single parable in the gospel of John yet Matthew (13:34) asserts that Jesus taught the crowds EXCLUSIVELY with parables! Huh?

  12. Avatar
    jbjbjbjbjb  May 24, 2015

    Great post.
    Do you see this supposed divine claim in John’s gospel as “a” divine being or as “the” divine being? In either case, how was the title [human] Messiah or son of God divine per se?
    Rev 12:10 -> Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say:‘Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his [God’s] Messiah.


    • Bart
      Bart  May 25, 2015

      He’s certainly not claiming to be God the Father, as he clearly differentiates himself from the Father.

  13. Avatar
    Jason  May 24, 2015

    Why does the mass of scholarship seem to assume that John’s sources were primarily written rather than still in oral circulation (and continuing to evolve for another 70 or so years) like Mark’s? Is John so elegant and poetic in Koíne that it implies that he was surrounded by other scrolls and codices as he composed?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 25, 2015

      I’ll be giving some reasons anon. You might also search for John’s sources on the blog: I devoted some posts to it a while back.

  14. Avatar
    bobnaumann  May 25, 2015

    I’m glad you are taking on John. Do you think the Prologue was inspired by the Ode to Wisdom in Proverbs 8?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 26, 2015

      In part. And in part Genesis 1. Etc. See my discussoin in How Jesus Became God.

  15. Avatar
    flcombs  May 25, 2015

    “beneath the earth for three days and then reappear” etc.: what is your view of how the Jews counted days? I’ve seen comments elsewhere that “three days” by their counting could include partial days but a statement “three days and three nights” would be more literally three days as we think. So for example if Jesus was dead from Friday evening and rose Sunday moring (especially before dawn?) would that be a day and a half or what?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 26, 2015

      yeah, it’s a tricky business. I don’t have any insider knowledge. It’s usually said that any part of a day counts as a whole day…

  16. Avatar
    prestonp  June 7, 2018

    In the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus flat-out refuses to do signs in order to demonstrate his personal identity. Bart

    Luke 5:1-11

    “Do not be afraid; henceforth you will become catchers of men.

    In Mark 2:1-12

    But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” So he said to the man, 11 “I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.”

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