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So What Sources for Jesus’ Life *Were* Used in the Fourth Gospel?

I have been providing the evidence that the Gospel of John is not a single composition written by a single author sitting down to produce the account at a single time, but is made up of written sources that have all been edited together into the finished product. (See my previous two posts.)

Now I can say something about these sources of Jesus’ life, teachings, miracles, death, and resurrection.  Again, this is taken from my Introduction to the NT.


Thus the theory of written sources behind the Fourth Gospel can explain many of the literary problems of the narrative. These sources obviously no longer survive. What can we say about them?

Character of the Sources in John

(1) The Signs Source. Some of the seams that we have observed appear to suggest that the author incorporated a source that described the signs of Jesus, written to persuade people that he was the messiah, the Son of God. There are seven “signs” in the Gospel; it is possible that these were all original to the source. You may recall that “seven” is the perfect number, the number of God: is it an accident that there were seven signs?

The source may have simply described the signs that Jesus did, in sequence, enumerating them as it went (“This is the first sign that Jesus did,” “This is the second sign,” etc.). If so, the evangelist kept the first two enumerations (2:11 and 4:54) but for some unknown reason eliminated the others. Keeping the first two, however, left a seam in his narrative, since Jesus does other “signs” between them (2:23).

This source may well have concluded after its most impressive sign, the raising of Lazarus, with the words that are now found in 20.30-31: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.  But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”  The book of signs, then, would have been some kind of missionary tractate designed to  …

What I’m laying out here is a view widely known among scholars and scarcely known at all by anyone else.  Want to have the inside scoop?  Join the blog!

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The Social History Behind the Fourth Gospel
The Most Intriguing Evidence that John Used Sources



  1. Avatar
    godspell  April 1, 2020

    Is this multi-author model, in your opinion, more likely to be true of John’s gospel than of the synoptics? The synoptic gospels certainly all have earlier sources–Matthew and Luke draw heavily from Mark and Q, and Mark is unlikely to have gotten everything from oral tradition. But we can perceive a strong authorial voice in all three. Are you saying you are not sure you see such a voice in John? That there was, in fact no “John” in the sense of just one person combining his own vision with earlier sources, to create a coherent whole? That this gospel was a collective effort from a community?

    I can see how this would be a controversial view in many quarters. But I can also see some basis for it.

    Which makes me wonder if my perennial dislike for “John” has been directed at a nonexistent person.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 3, 2020

      Yes, I suppose it’s a similar situation; the difference, as I’ll try to show, is that with John the different sources have different theologial views.

      • Avatar
        godspell  April 3, 2020

        Reading over John, I did notice some conflicts I hadn’t seen before–as already discussed, John’s Jesus seems to be clearly identfied as a pre-existent divine being, and there is no indication anyone other than Jesus can work miracles/signs. But at one point (John 10:34), Jesus is justifying his apparent claims to divinity by saying that it’s accepted Jewish belief that the faithful may aspire to a form of godhood.

        This doesn’t seem to match with the overall theme that Jesus alone among all who walk the earth is divine. It’s closer to Mark’s Jesus, where ‘the least in the Kingdom of Heaven’ is greater than John the Baptist, even though no one born of woman is greater than John.

        It’s a confused theology. Mixed signals.

  2. NulliusInVerba
    NulliusInVerba  April 1, 2020

    1. I have no Greek but I am curious about one word in your translation of 20.30-31 above. Is the Greek sense of the word “Now” what we might say as “Thereafter” in English? Or “Additionally” in English? Or something else? I am trying to discern how the author sequences the “other” signs in his narrative.

    2. In your final paragraph above you note that there wasn’t a single author but rather there was a single redactor. Do you think that final redactor was also the redactor of Revelation and, if yes, was he the sole redactor?

    3. Do you think the Prologue may have had its beginnings in Gnosticism?

    Thank you.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 3, 2020

      1. It’s a particle that typically means something like, so, at all events, thus, then, therefore…. 2. definitely not. Their eschatological views are very much at odds. 3. These days’ it’s pretty well agreed that Gnosticism is a later development; many Gnostics loved the prologue of John though!

  3. Avatar
    Scott  April 1, 2020

    Are there differences in the language between the joined
    pieces of “cloth” that suggest the presence of multiple authors?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 3, 2020

      Some. The Prologue is a very different style from the rest of the Gospel, e.g., But the linguistic differences don’t help *that* much for the other sources.

  4. Avatar
    SteveEastin@abaci.com  April 1, 2020

    I know you’ve heard the hypothesis that Lazarus was the Beloved Disciple. There are some interesting points to this hypothesis, all of which I’m sure you’re aware. First, Lazarus is the only male disciple where John explicitly states that Jesus loved him. Second, Peter’s question about whether the Beloved Disciple would die seems weird unless it was referring to someone who had previously died and was raised. In this context, the question makes perfect sense. Can someone who was raised die again?

    I know it would be strange for the book to refer to both Lazarus and the Beloved Disciple if they were the same person. However, could this be one of those ‘seam’ issues?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 3, 2020

      Interesting idea. They certainly come from different sources. But that in effect is the problem. Whoever mentioned the Beloved Disciples doesn’t say anything about Lazarus and whoever wrote the signs source doesn’t say anything about the Beloved Disciple, so there’s no evidence that either author had even *heard* of the other character, let alone identified them as the same person.

  5. Avatar
    James Chalmers  April 1, 2020

    Someone who thinks that Luke had Matthew, and that there was no Q, might say “Q is just such good stuff it just must have been preserved. Some believer somewhere just must have liked it and preserved it.” But here you show that there are six or more sources John drew on, all very good stuff, and all disappeared. Ergo, there’s no presumption whatever Q couldn’t have existed because it’s no longer extant. No burden of proof rests on the shoulders of proponents of the Q hypothesis; there’s nothing improbable about Q’s disappearance.

    • Avatar
      godspell  April 5, 2020

      Well no, of course not. Copying things is time-consuming. Parchment and ink cost money. Most people can’t even write.

      Let’s imagine Matthew and Luke (for all their shortcomings) are just better written and organized than Q was–shaping the material into new forms that people found more satisfying on a number of levels, more applicable to the devotional needs of various communities.

      You’re not going to go on endlessly copying sources that are, in the main, preserved in a more useful form elsewhere. Nobody is thinking in terms of historical documentation, having different versions of the same story to cross-reference–or even if someone is thinking that, they aren’t making enough copies to keep the original source from disappearing.

      There might well be material in Q that isn’t in Matthew and Luke, but it might have been considered less relevant–or even bothersome in some way. An older version of the story, that reflected an older view of Jesus, rendered increasingly obsolescent as Christianity evolved into new forms.

      I doubt very much we’d read these earlier sources and think “Wow, this is much better than the gospels we have.” We’d find them fascinating for all the information they provided, but they probably weren’t very good as *books.*

      Publishing has always been a merciless business–even when the people engaged in it aren’t making any money. Probably even worse in that case.

      Now as Christians got more numerous, there were more and more literate Christians, and therefore more people who could copy out older books. Had that not been the case, we’d have lost far more than Q and whatever sources went into Mark and John’s gospels.

  6. Avatar
    veritas  April 1, 2020

    On a side note, Bart. I am near the end of your book, Forged. I see that you mention, scholars usually date Acts around 85 ce or so, page 208 of the book. I compared the date to a John MacArthur NIV study Bible. He says, ” some believe Luke wrote Acts after the fall of Jerusalem, 70 AD, his death was probably in the mid-eighties). It is more likely,however, that he wrote much earlier, before the end of Paul’s first Roman inprisonment ( ca. a.d. 60-62 ). That date, he continues, is the most natural explanation for the abrupt ending of Acts–which leaves Paul awaiting trial before Caesar. Surely Luke, he continues, who devoted more than half of Acts to Paul’s ministry, wou;ld have given the outcome of that trial, and described Paul’s subsequent ministry, second imprisonment ( cf. 2Ti 4;11) and death, if those events had happened before he wrote Acts. Luke’s silence about such notable events as the martyrdom of James, head of the Jerusalem church (a.d. 62 according to the Jewish historian Josephus ), the persecution under Nero (a.d 64 ) and the fall of Jerusalem (a.d. 70 ) also suggests he wrote Acts before those events transpired. This is verbatim as it appears in his study Bible. My question Bart, how would you address someone like MacArthur, who many believe to be a credible evangelical, that his dates do not correspond with what you have researched but consequently makes a strong case ? I know he is not a scholar, but obviously reads what scholars write. When you say scholars, in your book, are you including Christian scholars as well or mostly liberal scholars? I am really interested in your view of this, because when most lay people see these discrepancies they are left to their own ability to figure it out, and well, most of us do not study the Bible like you do or can comprehend its meanings. Thanks sooooooo much for guiding me/us in truth.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 3, 2020

      It’s a very long story, but it seems pretty clear that Mark’s Gospel was written after the fall of Jerusalem in 70CE, and that it had been in circulation a long time before both Matthew and Luke had access to and studied it. So it’s usually thought this would be 10-15 years after Mark. The actual move of scholarship today is to argue that Acts is dependent to some extent on Josephus and was written around 120, making Luke around then too. McCarthur is assuming that Luke would expplicitly refer to events that occurred *after* the date of the period he is narrating, but that doesn’t make sense. Why would someone narrativing a story about NYC in the 1980s discuss 9/11?

      • Avatar
        veritas  April 3, 2020

        I am sorry Bart, i am not following. Help me understand. I know you speed read and may of misread? MacArthur states those events occurred later and Luke does not narrate them because they did not happen yet. Thus the reason for being written earlier rather than later. You say, why would someone narrating a story about NYC in the 80″s discuss 9/11? Exactly, he wouldn’t, but isn’t that the point MacArthur is making ? Luke had to write earlier because those events had not occurred yet. Alternatively, if the events had already occurred, Luke’s writings would be dated later rather than earlier. Another scenario, as you mentioned Mark’s gospel. You say, *clearly* it had to be written after the fall of Jerusalem (70 ce). Again MacArthur says, ” Evangelical scholars have suggested dates for the writing of Mark’s gospel ranging from 50 to 70 AD. A date before the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple is required by the comment of Jesus in Mark 13; 2. He continues, Luke’s gospel was *clearly* written before Acts ( Ac 1; 1-3 ). The date for the writings of Acts can probably be fixed at about a.d 63, because that is shortly after the narrative ends. It is therefore likely, though not certain, Mark was written at an early date, probably sometime in the 50 s. I have asterisked the word clearly, to show you both use it in convincing fashion.

        • Bart
          Bart  April 5, 2020

          Ah, I do speed read and miss things, but I think you missed this one. What I’m saying is: suppose someone writing a book in 2020 about NYC in 1980. Why would he be inclined to mention what happened at 9/11? The period his *story* is about takes place before 9/11. So you might think of a reaason that he might *allude* to what was going to happen later, after the story was over, but he wouldn’t necessarily mention the attack on the World Trade Center (e.g.) if his book is about soething that happened twenty years earlier.

          And it’s a bit silly, isn’t it, to say that a narrative was written right at the point where the narrative ends? How many history books do that? People say that all the time about Acts, but it makes no sense to me. Lots of biographies and histories end years, decades, centuries before the author was writing.

          • Avatar
            veritas  April 5, 2020

            Bart, I see your POV. Because you hear this argument often as you state and makes no sense to you does it then become a personal view rather than a factual claim? Thanks for your patience, I am really trying to make sense of many things.

          • Bart
            Bart  April 6, 2020

            Well all views that a person has is a personal view! But the question is which view strikes you as more compelling. Do you think that an author in 2010 writing about events that took place entirely in 1983 will in the course of his narrative *probably* refer to an event that took place in 2001? Most people will asnwer that question no. And there’s a way to check. Simply read all teh books written in 2010 about events that all took place in the early 1980s and see how many times they refer to something that happened twenty years later.

    • Lev
      Lev  April 3, 2020

      Veritas, there are non-evangelical scholars such as John A T Robinson and Albert Schweitzer who also argue for a c62 date for Acts. Robinson places Mark earlier, with a primitive version emerging in the 40s. IIRC Schweitzer places Mark in the year 60 (in Rome, where Luke also writes Acts).

      • Avatar
        veritas  April 5, 2020

        Thanks Lev for chiming in. What I was trying to establish in these dates is not so much the actual date, which can be difficult, rather how does a layperson come to conclude or choose what to believe since very good scholars, of all backgrounds disagree themselves on these issues. Maybe these dates are not as important as I am making them out to be. Schweitzer is a brilliant studious man, would he not be credible/dismissed today for his reasoning ? Convincing arguments are held by many. Does it come down to personal conviction ?

  7. Avatar
    leepooltdhh  April 1, 2020

    Do you think any of the sources used by the writer of the Gospel of John or the writers of the other Gospels (Q for instance) will ever be discovered? Similar to the Dead Sea Scrolls, the finds at Nag Hamadi, or the finds at Oxyrhynchus.

  8. Avatar
    doug  April 1, 2020

    In John when Jesus indicates that Peter will be martyred for his faith, is this an indication that Peter may have already been martyred for his faith and that John’s source knew about it?

  9. Avatar
    forthfading  April 1, 2020

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Based on what Scholars know of first century Judaism and the movement of apocalypticisim, would Jesus have been seen as unique in his first century context? What I’m asking is if when Jesus came to teach or preach to the Jews that made up the towns and villages, would they have viewed him as a unique individual or would he have been seen as just one of many apocalyptic preachers? I think most Christians assume Jesus would have been revolutionary to all that heard him because of how the gospels portray him and because in their view he is divine. The more I read your scholarly work concerning the historical Jesus the more I question how revolutionary or unique he actually was outside of his core believers and followers.

    Thanks, Jay

    • Bart
      Bart  April 3, 2020

      They would have seen him as one as many. But the guyy in my local church isn’t as compelling as Billy Graham, even if their theology is the same. And so the difference may be rooted more in charisma than theology.

  10. Avatar
    schreiberbrett  April 1, 2020

    Although John is quite different from the Synoptic Gospels, there are details in the passion narrative that appear in all four gospels: an ear is cut off, Peter denies three times, “Are you the king of the Jews?”, Barabbas is spared, Joseph of Aramithea requests the body.

    Did all four canonical gospels have a common source (or multiple) for these events?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 3, 2020

      They don’t appear to be literarily *borrowing* from teh same source (since there aren’t extenseive word for word agreements). My sense is that these are simply stories commonly told that lots of Christians knew about.

  11. Robert
    Robert  April 1, 2020

    Bart: “There are seven “signs” in the Gospel; it is possible that these were all original to the source. You may recall that “seven” is the perfect number, the number of God: is it an accident that there were seven signs?”

    It’s neither an accident, nor is it even true. The very first (2,18) and the very last use (20,30) of the word ‘sign’ in the gospel refer at least indirectly to Jesus’ resurrection, which would be at least an 8th sign. Of course you also do not want to count the signs done in Jerusalem (2,23 3,1) nor the miraculous catch of fish, which you believe was a later, at least tertiary addition, but are we really supposed to believe an original sign source would leave out the resurrection?

    Only the first and second signs in Galilee, each after coming and coming again from Judea, are counted (no reference to a 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th signs) and some of your select 7 miraculous signs do not even use the word ‘sign’ in the accounts, let alone draw attention to a perfect or magical (and fictitious!) number seven.

    By the way, if you still haven’t read it, I still highly recommend Gilbert Van Belle’s, The Signs Source in the Fourth Gospel. Historical Survey and Critical Evaluation of the Semeia Hypothesis. Bibliotheca Ephemeridum Theologicarum Lovaniensium, 96. Leuven, University Press, 1994, 503 pages.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 3, 2020

      As you know, lots of sources left out the resurrection. And the resurrection in the Gospels is not a sign Jesus did. It was a sign God did. And so the theory behinds the Signs Source traditionally is that it is a list of signs to prove that Jesus proved his identity during his life time. I’m not completely wedded to it, but I still find it convincing. I assume van Belle disagrees.

      • Robert
        Robert  April 3, 2020

        But in the gospel of John, the resurrection is the very first sign spoken of. You can always speculate that this is only a later editorial addition to an earlier signs source, but it is mere speculation pretending to find earlier sources. Van Belle, and the rest of the Louvain school, is generally skeptical of such speculation and he documents in great detail so many conflicting attempts to reconstruct earlier sources or editions or stages stages of redaction; all of which disagree wildly because it is such a speculative enterprise. One must still contend with the actual, final form of the text as finalized by whomever created the current version. It is difficult enough to understand the final text in its reconstructed historical context. We can agree there were no doubt earlier sources, but that cannot be the focus of a sober historico-critical method. Likewise, a linguistic analysis demonstrates a rather consistent style across most of the gospel. Even Raymond Brown admits this. The magical number 7 is a very weak argument for identifying a specific source.

  12. Avatar
    longdistancerunner  April 2, 2020

    How do evangelicals like Franklin Graham and Falwell jr react to this kind of research?
    Clearly, neither of the bibles could be admissible in a court of law as evidence because of the uncertainties of authorship…
    Did the historical Jesus really have a twin brother ya think?
    I’m reading my 4th Bart Ehrman book.. enjoying it a lot …
    Pardon the dumb questions from a real intellectual dilettante…
    Just an old long distance runner ( Sept 28,1955)…
    I did memorize Waiting for Godot during the Hanover College 1979 cross country season ha
    On a long run along the Ohio River me and another guy would recite it running 6 minute pace ha
    Absolutely fascinating and thanks.

  13. Avatar
    RICHWEN90  April 2, 2020

    Whoever wrote the gospel of John should have prefaced with a disclaimer: “Any resemblance to the actual Jesus is entirely coincidental.” Seriously, John’s Jesus appears to verge perilously close to being a fictional character. I wonder whether pledging your life to someone’s fictionalized Jesus will get you into heaven?? Accept Jesus as your lord and master? What Jesus? Whose Jesus? Will the real Jesus please stand up?

  14. Avatar
    fishician  April 2, 2020

    The gospel of Luke is quite clear that he used other sources, I think the gospel of John is almost as clear about using earlier sources. Do we have early Christian writings that acknowledge or discuss their possible sources? Or do the early Christian writers just take them at face value without considering their sources?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 3, 2020

      Unfortuantely, no one ever tells us: now this is something I got from a source! Wish they had….

  15. Lev
    Lev  April 2, 2020

    “At some point it would have been combined with sayings of Jesus that related closely to the things he did, so that he not only feeds the 5000 but also claims to be the bread of life, he not only heals the blind but also claims to be the light of the world, he not only raises the dead but also claims to be the resurrection and the life.”

    Are there good reasons for believing that the 7 “I AM” statements that accompanied the 7 signs were not from the same author/source?

    Also, how are things with you and yours during this lockdown? I hope you are all well. Do you find it easy or difficult to focus and not get distracted with what is happening around us? Have you got any tips to remain focused? I’m finding it really hard to read more than a few pages before I become distracted with the news and the horror show we’re going through.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 3, 2020

      My sense is that the I Am sayings are from a later tradition.

      We’er all well. I have an unusual ability to stay focused, and I recommend workign hard at it. It’s a discipline that needs to be acquired and learned and practiced. Not easy! When your mind drifts, force it back!

  16. Avatar
    Stephen  April 2, 2020

    Does such textual analysis help us with timelines at all? I mean, can we say that one source seems older than another? Is it thought that the sources all post-date the synoptics or is that an open question?


  17. Avatar
    perseus1977  April 3, 2020

    Thank you for the post! Obviously these sources would predate gJohn (90-100 CE), but are there any clues that would help us narrow down the dating of this material?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 5, 2020

      Not many, I”m afraid. They don’t refer to contemporary events or other things that would help us locate them, other than to say that the cleansing of the Temple scene probably arose after 70 CE.

  18. stevedemarco
    stevedemarco  April 3, 2020

    Is it possible that a man by the name of John was the final editor and writer to the Gospel we have today? The reason I ask is we have the book of Revelation that is written by John of Patmos only to be assumed as the Apostle John. But we know that it’s not the case because it could be a different John. Could the same mistake happen here with the Gospel of John? That it was written by a man named John only to be confused later on to be the Apostle John.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 5, 2020

      Well, someone edited it, and it could have been someone named John. So it’s certainly possible. But what would make us think so? The author doesn’t use the name John (unlike the author of Revelation) it’s not called John for another hundred years

  19. fefferdan
    fefferdan  April 3, 2020

    Do you see all of John’s major sources as coming from the Johannine community? I ask because the seem to dovetail quite nicely with his approach, as distinct from the synoptic tradition.

  20. fefferdan
    fefferdan  April 3, 2020

    Another question that maybe you can help with here, Bart. Namely, this gospel’s attitude toward John that Baptist. In this gospel, the Baptist not only denies he is the Messiah but also that he is Elijah. Was the author familiar with any of the synoptic traditions, in which Jesus affirms that the Baptist was indeed the promised Elijah? Is there evidence that he was familiar with the synoptic tradition at all?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 5, 2020

      He was familiar with the idea apparently; but that doesn’t mean he got it from the Synoptics, since it would have been a widespread idea inthe Christian communities, which widely saw John as Jesus’ “forerunner”

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