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The Virgin Birth and the Gospel of John

I have pointed out that our earliest Gospel, Mark, not only is lacking a story of the virgin birth but also tells a story that seems to run precisely counter to the idea that Jesus’ mother knew that his birth was miraculous, unlike the later Gospels of Matthew and Luke.  It is striking to note that even though these two later Gospels know about a virgin birth,  our latest canonical Gospel, John, does not know about it.   This was not a doctrine that everyone knew about – even toward the end of the first century. Casual readers of John often assume that it presupposes the virgin birth (it never says anything about it, one way or the other) because they themselves are familiar with the idea, and think that John must be as well.  So they typically read the virgin birth into an account that in fact completely lacks it. As is well known, John’s Gospel begins ... THE REST OF THIS POST IS FOR MEMBERS ONLY.  If you don't belong yet, REMEMBER: THE END [...]

2020-04-03T14:12:15-04:00December 28th, 2014|Canonical Gospels|

Why Was the Gospel of John Attributed to John?

Some of the same objections to Matthew having written the First Gospel apply to John the son of Zebedee having written the Fourth.   Unlike Matthew, John did not copy any of our other Gospel sources, and so that’s not the problem that it is for Matthew (who surely, if he was an eyewitness, would not have taken his stories about Jesus from what he found in someone else’s written text).   But there is an even higher probability, bordering on certainty, that John the son of Zebedee could not write.  He was a fisherman from rural Galilee.  Fishermen were not educated.  They were very low class peasants.  John would never have gone to school.   Where he lived, there *were* no schools.  He never would have learned to read.  Let alone learned to write.  Let alone learned to write in Greek.  Let alone learned to write sophisticated, philosophically informed prose narratives in Greek.   I think there is virtually no chance that the historical John of Zebedee wrote the Gospel. So why did our anonymous editor living a [...]

2020-04-03T14:17:35-04:00December 2nd, 2014|Canonical Gospels, History of Christianity (100-300CE)|

Did the Beloved Disciple Write the Gospel of John?

I have started a series of posts dealing with the authorship of the Gospels – specifically, why they were eventually named Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.   My first point, in my previous post and in this one, is that the books are completely anonymous.  Their authors never divulge their names.   Eventually I may want to address the question of why that is.  But for now, my point is that despite what people might commonly think, the books are anonymous. I pointed out yesterday that even though the author of Luke does not tell us his name, he does write in the first person (“I”/ “we”) in the opening of his Gospel.  That never happens in either Matthew or Mark, but it does happen again in the Gospel of John.  In fact, it is widely claimed – sometimes even by scholars who should know better – that the author identifies himself as the “beloved disciple” who appears several times in the Gospel of John, and only in this Gospel. On a number of occasions the author [...]

2020-04-03T14:21:13-04:00November 14th, 2014|Canonical Gospels|

Jesus as God in the Synoptics

This, I believe, will be my final post on an issue that changed my mind about while doing the research for How Jesus Became God.   This last one is a big one – for me, at least.   And it’s not one that I develop at length in the book in any one place, since it covers a span of material.   Here’s the deal: Until a year ago I would have said – and frequently did say, in the classroom, in public lectures, and in my writings – that Jesus is portrayed as God in the Gospel of John but not, definitely not, in the other Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke.   I would point out that only in John did Jesus say such things as “Before Abraham, I am” (8:58; taking upon himself the name of God, as given to Moses in Exodus 3); his Jewish opponents knew full well what he was saying: they take up stones to stone him.   Later he says “I and the Father are one” (10:30)  Again, the Jews break [...]

2017-12-14T23:25:03-05:00April 13th, 2014|Book Discussions, Canonical Gospels|

John from a Socio-Historical Perspective

Now that I have explained what the socio-historical method is in general terms (in my previous post) I can go on to show how it can be applied to a particular Gospel, in this case, the Gospel of John.  Again, none of this is new and fresh scholarship that I myself came up with; two of the real pioneers of this method were two of the greats of New Testament interpretation in the latter part of the twentieth century, both of whom, remarkably, taught at Union Theological Seminary in New York (taught, in fact, some of my good friends!), the Protestant scholar J. Louis Martyn, and the Roman Catholic scholar, Raymond Brown.   Their views ended up being a more or less consensus position for many years, and continues to be prominent among teachers of the NT still today. **************************************************************** The Gospel of John from a Socio-Historical Perspective The place to begin is by examining the different thematic emphases evident in different stories, which ultimately may derive from different sources, and to consider the kinds of [...]

2017-12-14T23:31:09-05:00March 22nd, 2014|Canonical Gospels, Public Forum|

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. ****************************************************************** 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 [...]

2020-04-03T17:15:42-04:00March 19th, 2014|Canonical Gospels|

More on John from a Redactional Perspective

In the previous post I started to give the evidence that the Gospel of John is based on previously existing sources (probably written – that it ultimately goes back to oral sources goes without saying) (even though I just said it). The argument for sources is a cumulative one, and in my judgment this third one clinches the deal. Again, from my textbook: ************************************************************** The two preceding arguments may not seem all that persuasive by themselves. The third kind of evidence, however, should give us pause. For it is the inconsistencies of John's narrative itself -- literary "seams," as they might be called -- that provide the strongest evidence that the author of John used several written sources when producing his account. (3) The Presence of Literary Seams. If I were to sew two pieces of cloth together, everyone would know. I am a lousy seamster, and the connections would be plain for the world to see. Some authors who splice their sources together are obvious as well, in that they don't cover up their [...]

2020-04-03T17:15:56-04:00March 18th, 2014|Canonical Gospels|

John from a Redactional Perspective

In my previous post I asked whether many of you were getting tired of this discussion of methods of analysis, in relationship to the Gospel of John. Almost everyone who replied wanted me to continue, and so I do! I move on to the question of whether redaction criticism can be useful for studying the Fourth Gospel. This will take two posts. Again, I am drawing from my textbook, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction…. ********************************************************* The Gospel of John from a Redactional Perspective As we have seen in our earlier discussions, redaction criticism works to understand how an author has utilized his or her sources. Scholars have successfully used the method with the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, where we can posit two sources with reasonable certainty (Mark and Q). The method is somewhat more tenuous in the case of the Fourth Gospel, since this author's sources are more difficult to reconstruct. Still, John must have derived his stories about Jesus from somewhere (assuming that he didn't make them all up). What sources, then, [...]

2020-04-03T17:16:46-04:00March 17th, 2014|Canonical Gospels|

More on John from a Comparative Perspective

Continuing my thread on methods for studying the Gospels. In yesterday’s post I began to talk about the “Comparative method” and showed how, in comparison with the Synoptics, just how different John is, purely in terms of contents. But even when John and the Synoptics contain similar stories (e.g., miracles; teachings; passion narrative) they are very different. That’s what I try to show in this excerpt today. ************************************************************ Comparison of Emphases The differences between John and the Synoptics are perhaps even more striking in stories that they have in common. You can see the differences yourself simply by taking any story of the Synoptics that is also told in John, and comparing the two accounts carefully. A thorough and detailed study of this phenomenon throughout the entire Gospel would reveal several fundamental differences. Here I will emphasize two of them, differences that affect a large number of the stories of Jesus' deeds and words. First, the deeds. Jesus does not do as many miracles in John as he does in the Synoptics, but the ones [...]

2017-12-25T12:31:27-05:00March 13th, 2014|Canonical Gospels|

The Gospel of John from a Comparative Perspective

So far in my discussion of John’s Gospel I have tried to show how different methods of analysis can tell us different things. And so I’ve talked about the literary-historical method, which determines the literary genre of a work and asks how that genre is used in its historical context, and the thematic method, which ignores genre and simply looks for outstanding themes of a work, for example in its opening chapters and in its speeches. Now I move on to a comparative method, to which I will devote two posts. After this I will post on how a redactional method also can be applied to John, and then end this thread with a brand-new method, that I have not yet talked about, explained, or justified – the socio-historical method. So there is still more fun to come. Here is what I say in my textbook about John from a comparative point of view, part one. ********************************************************* The Gospel of John from a Comparative Perspective One of the most striking features of the Fourth Gospel [...]

2020-04-03T17:16:55-04:00March 12th, 2014|Canonical Gospels|

The Gospel of John from a Thematic Perspective

In previous posts I’ve discussed how a literary-historical approach to John can yield interesting results. Other methods of analysis are available as well. Here I discuss another one that I have not yet explained, but should be understandable simply from the following extract from my textbook. I call this other method, simply, the “thematic” approach. Here is what I say about it, in relation to the Gospel of John. ********************************************* The Gospel of John from a Thematic Perspective Whereas the literary-historical approach to the Gospels focuses on the conventions of the biographical genre, and so determines how a book portrays its main character through the unfolding of the plot as he interacts with those around him, the thematic approach isolates prominent themes at key points of the narrative, and traces their presence throughout, more or less overlooking questions of plot and character interaction. If we were to examine John from a strictly thematic point of view, we might look at some of the salient motifs established at the outset of its narratives (since biographies set [...]

2020-04-03T17:17:19-04:00March 11th, 2014|Canonical Gospels|

More Literary-Historical Perspectives on John

Here I continue showing how a literary-historical method can be applied to the Gospel of John, before (in later posts) showing how it can be studied following the other methods as well. ************************************************** Since ancient biographies typically established the character traits of the protagonist at the outset of the narrative, it is perhaps best to assume that an ancient reader, once he or she realized that this book is a biography of Jesus, would be inclined to read the rest of the story in light of what is stated about him here in the mystical reflection at the outset. This is no biography of a mere mortal. Its subject is one who was with God in eternity past, who was himself divine, who created the universe, who was God's self-revelation to the world, who came to earth to bring light out of darkness and truth out of error, a divine being who became human to dwell here and reveal the truth about God. This Gospel will present a view of Jesus that is far and [...]

2020-04-03T17:17:33-04:00March 9th, 2014|Canonical Gospels|

The Gospel of John from a Literary-Historical Perspective

I have talked so far about several of the methods scholars use in order to study the Gospels of the NT: the literary-historical,redactional, and comparative methods. As I’ve stressed, each of these can be used for any one Gospel (or for any other piece of writing, in theory). In my textbook, when I come to the Gospel of John, I show how they all can be applied to the *same* book, before introducing an altogether different method known as the socio-historical approach. I will explain all this in a series of posts, starting with this one. ********************************************************** As I have argued, historians are responsible not only for interpreting their ancient sources but also for justifying these interpretations. This is why I have self-consciously introduced and utilized different methods for each of the books we have studied: a literary-historical method for Mark, a redactional method for Matthew, a comparative method for Luke, and a thematic method for Acts. As I have indicated, there is no reason for a historian to restrict him or herself to any [...]

2020-04-03T17:17:40-04:00March 8th, 2014|Canonical Gospels|

Discrepancies *Inside* the Fourth Gospel

OK, back to contradictions. This thread (such as it is – so far there’s been no thread) began with a reader’s question of how there could be contradictions in the work of a single author? Was he just inattentive? Didn’t he care? Was he sloppy? In the previous post I pointed out that with someone like Paul, it was possible that he changed his mind about some things over the decade covered by his letters. But how about internal contradictions within a book? There are lots of these two? How can they be explained? In some instances they can be explained by the fact that an author has taken a variety of different sources and incorporated them into his writing. On occasion, these sources have discrepancies (sometimes very slight) between them, and the author for some reason or another did not choose to smooth them out. Or he didn’t notice them! (More on that in my next post.) A terrific set of examples comes from the Gospel of John. Most people reading John don’t see [...]

2020-04-03T18:06:12-04:00October 31st, 2013|Canonical Gospels, Reader’s Questions|

Spong’s New Book on John: Part 2

Yesterday I wrote a post in which I began to discuss the recent Huffington Post article by John Shelby Spong in which he discusses his new book on John; the book is called The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic and the article can be found this address: Today I will finish out what I started to say yesterday. Let me say again that I have long appreciated Spong’s work and am sympathetic to his mission. He is trying to do from inside the church something very similar to what I am trying to do outside of it: help educated lay people outside the field of biblical scholarship see what scholars – believers and non-believers alike – are saying about the New Testament. Since Spong is operating within the church, however, and sees himself as a Christian, some of his perspectives and goals are different from mine.   At the end of the day, he is interested in reforming Christianity in order to make it sensible for the twenty-first century.  That is not my [...]

Spong’s New Book on John

John Shelby Spong, former Episcopal bishop of New Jersey and highly controversial author (because of his skeptical views about the New Testament and traditional Christian doctrine) has just published a new book on the Gospel of John, called The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic. I have not read the book, but Spong has written an interesting article on it that appeared in the Huffington Post yesterday, at this address: In the article Spong summarizes the conclusions he advances in the book, based on an “intensive five-year long study.” He acknowledges that many of his findings are those that scholars have held for a long time. Spong himself is not trained as a biblical scholar but has made a very successful, and useful, career out of making scholarship known to a wider audience. So too, his goal in the book, in large measure, is to bring major scholarship to a general reader, a goal I obviously sympathize with deeply. The following are the points that he stresses in his HuPo article. I will [...]

The Christ-Poem in John

Arguably the best known and most influential passage dealing with Christology in the New Testament is the Prologue of the Gospel of John, 1:1-18. It is also probably the most studied and discussed passage – even more than the Christ poem in Philippians 2:6-11. The first eighteen verses of John are typically called the “Prologue” because they are clearly set apart from the rest of the Gospel as a kind of celebration of the main character of the book; these verses are written in a different writing style from the rest of the Gospel (lofty poetry), they contain key concepts not found in the rest of the Gospel (Christ as “the Word” made flesh), and yet they introduce well some of the most important views of the Gospel (the high view of Christ generally). And so it is widely thought that the author of the Fourth Gospel appended these verses as a Prologue, possibly after the rest of the book was written. It is widely thought, in fact, that the Gospel went through multiple editions, [...]

2020-04-03T18:47:39-04:00February 22nd, 2013|Book Discussions, Canonical Gospels, Early Christian Doctrine|

Problems with the NRSV (Part I)

My problems with the NRSV. One of the pleasures and difficulties I am finding with this blog is that it is oh so easy to get sidetracked from my original plan and intention.  The current series of posts was originally a response to the question of how Bruce Metzger reacted to my loss of faith.  (To anticipate the final answer: I don’t think he had much of a reaction at all!)   But instead of dealing with that question directly, I decided to use it as an opportunity to talk about my long-term relationship with Metzger; this has occupied a large number of posts. The most recent of those had to do with my work for/with him on the New Revised Standard Version.  In response to those posts, several people have asked me questions about the NRSV, and now I am dealing with/ responding to these.  But I promise: I will get back to the original question eventually! Problems with the NRSV On the NRSV, several people have wanted to know if I had problems with [...]

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