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Sources of the Fourth Gospel

I have given evidence so far 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. Here I lay out a bit more information about the sources that appear to lie behind this account of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.

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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).

 

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The Socio-Historical Method
More on John from a Redactional Perspective

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    Swalrath  March 20, 2014

    Thank you for your extraordinary work! As mentioned by others, I feel its ok to take longer breaks between posts to balance with your many other responsibilities. I’d rather know we are all strolling together on an extended journey rather than sprinting to some unknown destination. No one is saying, “are we there yet?”! Safe travels!

  2. Avatar
    z8000783  March 20, 2014

    “We have already seen that the Prologue to the Gospel appears to have been derived from a source, possibly an early Christian hymn to Christ..”

    I got the impression you were saying (in a number of different places) that Jesus as God evolved through the gospels at various times such as at the crucifixion, his baptism, his birth and so on and late on in the story. Yet this this hymn says is is and always was God and you are saying it’s early. Was this a general perception of Jesus early on? When are we talking about exactly?

    I’m sure you will cover this in the new book which I will be getting but also curious now.

  3. Avatar
    JamesFouassier  March 20, 2014

    Professor, I’m fascinated by the question of the identity of the Beloved Disciple. I tend toward Lazarus. He and his family lived in Jerusalem and had a home there, Jesus seemed to have a special relationship with him and his family, he very well may have been a priest or temple attendant (hence the “young man” wearing only a cloak that was pulled off, leaving him naked in the Garden), and young enough to beat Peter to the grave but, being a priest, not suffering ritual defilement by entering, until Peter arrived and assured him that there was no body inside. What kept me from embracing the identity more thoroughly is the fact that the Author specifically names Lazarus in several places yet in others refers to the Beloved Disciple. Multiple sources may explain this. Is it reasonable to presume that one of the sources may know the man as Lazarus and another know him as the Beloved Disciple ?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  March 22, 2014

      That’s one of the common theories! But not as common as that it was John the son of Zebedee — since Lazareus was not known to be one of the twelve disciples.

  4. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  March 20, 2014

    Due to the presence of Biblical contradictions, the pasting together of multiple sources, starting with the Old Testament (Documentary Hypothesis), seems to be a frequent approach to writing Bible books. Do we have much evidence that the pasting together of multiple sources was a frequent way of writing ancient books or is this mostly found in Bible books? If pasting were a frequent phenomenon in the authorship of ancient books, then it seems likely that such pasting would carry over to Bible books as well. If pasting were not a frequent phenomenon in ancient books, then why did so much of it occur with Bible books?

    The pasting process reminds me of the way many of us wrote our first school papers copying and pasting together different articles from the World Book Encyclopedia.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  March 22, 2014

      We do have evidence for other *Christian* books from antiquity (very good evidence), but I’m not familiar enough with other literatures to be able to say offhand. Great question.

  5. Avatar
    JBSeth1  March 21, 2014

    Hi Bart,

    I’m particularly enjoying your most recent posts on the Gospel of John. This is the Gospel, that I’ve heard the least about, from a literary- historical perspective. Thanks for sharing this information with us.

    I have a question about a point you made on a post several days ago. You made this point on your initial post of, “John from a Redactional Perspective”. In this post, you make the point that it seems unlikely that the writers of the Gospel of John copied from the synoptic Gospels, due to the many differences between these documents.

    However, you also pointed out that it also seems unlikely, do to the complexities of the time required in the ancient world to, write, produce and distribute a document such as a Gospel.

    My question is in regards to your second point. Doesn’t this same point make it unlikely that the 3 synoptic Gospels were either copied from one or more written sources, such as “Q”, or from each other? Wouldn’t the authors of the Synoptic Gospels have the exact same issue?

    John

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  March 22, 2014

      Not sure if htis will answer your question, but books did circulate in the ancient world, of course, and the question of whether one book was used as a source of another has to be based principally on their verbal similarities. John doesn’t have many with the Synoptics.

  6. Avatar
    fishician  March 21, 2014

    Re the last story in John about Peter and (supposedly) John: Jesus had prophesied the end of the age in their lifetime, but the original disciples were dying off and people were losing faith (per 2 Thess. and 2 Peter). Could it be that there was a rumor that John was still alive and therefore Jesus’ prediction could yet be true – perhaps even that John would not die (John 21:23) – and this story was added to put an end to that rumor? Any extra-Biblical sources that address the rumor mentioned in 21:23?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  March 22, 2014

      It’s usually thought that he had died after it was recorded that Jesus said “What if he lives till I return?” and the editorial note was added in response to that.

  7. Avatar
    jhm  March 21, 2014

    If the author of this book couldn’t bring himself to alter his sources enough to make an internally consistent narrative, why do we think that any of the sources were altered at all? In other words, how are we sure that the author was an author at all (or to what degree?) and not more of an editor or compiler?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  March 22, 2014

      Well they would have *had* to be altered some since they were changed in order to be put into the book. But incsonsistencies happen all the time, even with modern authors. (My students are experts in making them!!!) One doesn’t always notice them until they are pointed out.

  8. cheito
    cheito  March 21, 2014

    DR Ehrman:

    According to John 21: 20, and 24 there’s one original source used to record the Gospel of John.
    The writer who used this source says in V-24, “this disciple testified and wrote these things.”
    It’s clear to me, if I believe this written testimony is literal and true, that the source is the disciple whom Jesus loved. The disciple who also leaned on Christ’s bosom and asked Him, who is the one who will betray you? This disciple testified and wrote the account recorded in John. Most likely John son of Zebedee.

    This is what is stated in Verses 20 and 24. Read below.

    V-20-Peter, turning around, saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them; the one who also had leaned back on His bosom at the supper and said, “Lord, who is the one who betrays You?”

    v:24-This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and wrote these things, and we know that his testimony is true.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  March 22, 2014

      Yes, that’s a common interpretatoin.

      • cheito
        cheito  March 22, 2014

        DR Ehrman:

        Do you agree with this interpretation? If not, why not?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  March 23, 2014

          sorry — which interpretation of what?

        • cheito
          cheito  March 23, 2014

          DR Ehrman:

          You replied, “Yes, that’s a common interpretation.” To my comment on John 21:20,24. (read below)
          I asked you, Do you agree with this interpretation? If not, why not?

          DR Ehrman:

          According to John 21: 20, and 24 there’s one original source used to record the Gospel of John.
          The writer who used this source says in V-24, “this disciple testified and wrote these things.”
          It’s clear to me, if I believe this written testimony is literal and true, that the source is the disciple whom Jesus loved. The disciple who also leaned on Christ’s bosom and asked Him, who is the one who will betray you? This disciple testified and wrote the account recorded in John. Most likely John son of Zebedee.

          This is what is stated in Verses 20 and 24. Read below.

          V-20-Peter, turning around, saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them; the one who also had leaned back on His bosom at the supper and said, “Lord, who is the one who betrays You?”

          v:24-This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and wrote these things, and we know that his testimony is true.

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  March 24, 2014

            Some authors refer to their connections with eyewitnesses in order to provide authorization for their accounts (it’s like a second-tier pseudepigraphon). So I don’t know if that’s what the author of the Fourth Gospel is doing or not. But I don’t see any compelling reason to assume that he wants you to think that hte Beloved Disciples is “Probably” John the Son of Zebedee.

  9. Avatar
    SJB  March 22, 2014

    Prof Ehrman

    Judging from the way Matthew and Luke treated Mark, and the way “John” treated his sources, it seems obvious they didn’t regard these sources as the inerrant Word of God. After all one doesn’t edit the Almighty!

  10. Avatar
    Beatle792  March 22, 2014

    While reading the preface to the gospel of John in my Catholic Bible (wedding gift), I noticed that it was thought that the prologue was written after the gospel was written and added later. They called the prologue a “hymn” btw. How do scholars determine it was added later? AND, do you have an opinion on when it was added?
    Oh… and what percentage of modern scholars think that the Apostle John actually wrote the 4th Gospel?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  March 22, 2014

      It’s largely because the most important term for Christ in the Prologue, LOGOS (= Word) never is referred to him in the rest of the Gospel, which makes it look like a different source. Added later because the Gospel “works” without the prologue, so appears to have been entire.

  11. Avatar
    FrankofBoulder  March 22, 2014

    I get your points about the fourth gospel. But… you seem to be saying that the gospel of John is just a patchwork of sources. You seem to be saying that there is no author or authors, but only an editor who put together earlier writings or sources, even though these supposed writings or sources aren’t known to exist and they don’t up show in any other gospel before or after.

    So… the gospel of John is a composite work, according to this theory? If the gospel of John is a patchwork, how did it all come together with a well-articulated high Christology? If the fourth gospel is just a jumble of sources, how did it manage to sustain its characteristic exalted tone?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  March 22, 2014

      There are bits not from sources, and these are not just editorial comments but actual writing tha puts it all together into a coherent whole.

  12. Avatar
    FrankofBoulder  March 22, 2014

    The gospel of John may well have incorporated previous writings or sources, but do those account for most of the gospel? There is a lot consistency to the gospel, which belies the notion that it’s a patchwork of disparate sources. How could a patchwork turn out so consistent overall? Jesus gives long exalted speeches that have the same kind of tone and message. Where did those speeches come from? They are too long and articulate to be oral traditions.

    The gospel of John presents a consistent image of Jesus. If the author(s) relied on oral traditions, why is the fourth gospel so different than the other gospels (which are also allegedly based on oral traditions)? The fourth gospel may have drawn on various sources, including the other gospels (hence, some of the same stories), but the author(s) of John’s gospel also did a lot of creative writing. Jesus’ speeches were probably fabricated for this gospel.

    Much of John’s gospel seems to be intended to revise the synoptics’ versions of Jesus. For instance, John’s gospel makes the specific point that Jesus was only speaking of his own body when he said the temple would be brought down and raised up. So, John does seem to have been well aware of the synoptic gospels.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  March 23, 2014

      Yes, John is not simply a patchwork. someone has edited and written it up, as with the other Gospels, which were also based on sources.

      • Avatar
        FrankofBoulder  March 24, 2014

        The gospel of John shows many signs of being a work of imagination. For instance, after Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, the gospel purports to tell us exactly what the Jewish leaders were saying in private:
        “The chief priests and the Pharisees gathered a council, and said, What do we? for this man doeth many signs…. Caiaphas…prophesied that Jesus should die for the nation,” etc. (John chapter11)

        How could the author(s) of John’s gospel possibly have known what the high priest and others were saying among themselves? The author couldn’t have known their private conversations. Obviously, this episode is made up. And, of course, if this episode was made up, much of the rest of the gospel could be made up, too. The far-fetched miracles, such as water into wine and Lazarus raised from the dead, as well as Jesus’ long verbatim speeches (without a stenographer present), suggest that John’s gospel wasn’t based on true events.

        An analogy:
        When I was a little boy, I loved the Davy Crockett TV show, which portrayed an idealized version of the frontiersman. As a boy, I enjoyed thinking that such a good, heroic man really lived. Later, when I got older, I realized the show was fictionalized. You can’t learn much about the real David Crockett from watching the TV show. Similarly, the gospel of John rolls out an unrealistic story that has little relation to the real Jesus. Like the Davy Crockett show, you can’t learn much about the real man from tall tales that idealize his life.

  13. Avatar
    FrankJay71  March 24, 2014

    Dr. Ehrman. If I understand some of your previous posts correctly, i think you are implying that whoever the author of the fourth gospel was, you don’t believe he intended us to understand that the ‘Beloved Disciple’ was John??
    Do you think the author had another specific disciple in mind? Or did he used the ‘Beloved Disciple’ as a literary device? Or is the something else the author was trying to do by not referring to the disciple by name, but aggrandizing him anytime he had the chance?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  March 25, 2014

      I’ve never been certain whether he is a literary device or an allegedly real figure. If the latter, there are lots of options of who he could be, but none of them overly compelling to me.

  14. Avatar
    Steefen  March 26, 2014

    Do you agree or find flaw/s in the arguments made by Steve Mason, once or present professor of history and Canada Research Chair in Greco Roman Cultural Interaction at York University, Toronto, in his book published by Baker Academic, Josephus and the New Testament? It was picked up in an article by Richard Carrier:.
    http://infidels.org/library/modern/richard_carrier/lukeandjosephus.html

    The argument is this: Luke used the works of Josephus as a source.

    Thank you, Dr. Ehrman.

  15. spencer290
    spencer290  October 2, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman, thank you for your dedication. I recently was told by a friend that since Joseph of Arimathea arranges for the burial of Jesus in all four gospels this validates the account. Isn’t this true? Especially since the account is present in John, whose author didn’t use Mark as a reference, right?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 4, 2019

      Matthew and Luke got their story from Mark; so there are actually two independent sources of information, Mark and John. That doesn’t make it true, but it’s a piece of evidence in its favor. Everyone will have noticed simply from the front page of our newspapers that two or two million people can say the same thing but it not be true!

      • spencer290
        spencer290  October 10, 2019

        Oh ya that makes sense, ok. Is there a way to know if Joseph of Arimathea arranges the burial of Jesus in Q?

        What resource would you recommend for me to really understand the gospels (ie. composition, origins, dating, etc.)?

        • Bart
          Bart  October 11, 2019

          No, he’s never mentioned in Q, or anywhere outside of Mark, John, and the sources that knew Mark and John. You might start with my book The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Ealry Christian Writings (I have discussions of all the gospels together, each of them separately, and bibliography for further reading at the end of each chapter)

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