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The Nature of John’s Signs Source

I have given one of the major pieces of evidence that there was a Signs Source that was used by the author of the Gospel of John, a written document that enumerated seven miraculous deeds of Jesus that were designed to show that he was a divine being, the Son of God.   There is another piece of evidence.  It is the concluding comment of chapter 20 of the Gospel, which I have already quoted a couple of times:

“Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, but these are written so that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you might have life in his name.” (20:30-31)

The reason this verse seems to suggest the existence of a signs source is that it doesn’t really make very much sense where it now occurs, at the end of the stories of Jesus’ resurrection (Note: as I’ve indicated before, scholars frequently think that chapter 21 of John was tacked on later, in a second edition; the Gospel probably originally ended with 20:31 – which does indeed seem like a wrapping up statement).   That’s because there in fact have not been any signs discussed in over ten chapters!  The last sign was the raising of Lazarus in ch. 11.   Why, ten chapters later, would the author then start talking about “many other signs” when he hasn’t even been talking about signs?

Sometimes it is thought that this is because…

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The Death of Judas in the NT
Some Evidence for a Signs Source in John

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    cestmarrant  May 28, 2015

    really interesting! i love this level of detail. thank you 🙂

  2. Avatar
    godspell  May 28, 2015

    It’s easy to forget that early Christianity had many currents running through it. There would have been texts aimed at convincing the less sophisticated–that the more sophisticated believers might not necessarily openly scoff at, but would not literally believe.

    Origen drew a clear line between literal and allegorical meaning in Contra Celsum–indicating that even in 248 AD, there were many who did not think everything in the gospels happened exactly as described. How much more true might that have been in 48 AD?

  3. gmatthews
    gmatthews  May 28, 2015

    I’ve looked into these different Greek tenses before and I find it interesting how they could tack on a couple of letters to change tense whereas in English it sometimes takes an extra verb or two to convey past, present or future action. You’re obviously the expert on this, but is it possible the aorist tense in English is something closer to:

    “so that you have come to believe”

    That would be like our past perfect (I think). You used the word “might” in your translation, but it seems like that would be at odds with something coming to completion as you put it.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 30, 2015

      No, it can’t mean that because it is in the subjunctive mood.

  4. Avatar
    toejam  May 28, 2015

    Great post. Re: your thought on the textual variant in 20:31: It’s a tantalizing hypothesis, but no more likely than it just coming about due to a scribal slip-up.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 30, 2015

      Yes, true. My question is always “what led to a scribal slip?” If anything.

  5. Avatar
    Wilusa  May 28, 2015

    Fascinating! But…I gather the more “recent” manuscript is the one that has the aorist version. So it’s *possible* the scribe just made a copying error, right?

  6. Avatar
    dtkline  May 29, 2015

    I remember Alan Culpepper talking about this back during my seminary days – that is, the aorist in 20:31 – but I don’t know if he ever published about it or included it in Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel. I do know that we didn’t talk about it in relation to the Signs Gospel as a source for Jn.

    I’ve just joined your blog, Dr. Ehrmann, and have enjoyed your popular texts for awhile now.

  7. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  May 29, 2015

    I can’t believe that you are so productive with these blogs. Surely, as I have said before, there must be at least three of you or else your golf game is really suffering.

    So, John, like Mark, had a subsequent scribe attach an ending. I guess adding to and making changes in books was more common in ancient times than it is now, as was attributing authorship to more famous authors ….

  8. Avatar
    randal  May 30, 2015

    When would you date the sign source? Since John was written toward the end of the 1st century, it seems to me that the Mark, Q, M, and L would go back further and be closer to the historical Jesus. If you were on the Jesus Seminar would your put the 7 signs in red, pink, grey or black as far as Jesus words?

    • Avatar
      randal  May 30, 2015

      I need to clarify my second sentence “the sources for Mark, Q, M, and L” would go back further.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 1, 2015

      Well, if John was written near the end of the first century, say 90-95, I suppose the signs source would have been much earlier. What, maybe two or three decades? Don’t really know!

  9. Avatar
    dragonfly  June 1, 2015

    You’re right, it’s not really a slam dunk case. But I’ll accept it as a reasonable probability. Is there any evidence to dispute a signs source?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 1, 2015

      REally it’s more of a *lack* of evidence that there was such a source.

  10. Avatar
    Luke9733  May 13, 2016

    I’m not sure if my question is going to seem perfectly sensible right way or seem really off the wall – my question is has anyone (that you know of) ever tried to argue that Mark had access to the same signs source that John did?

    My reason for that question is I noticed a lot of similarities between the two miracles John and Mark share (feeding of the 5,000 and walking on water). In each Gospel, the miracle of walking on water immediately follows the feeding of the 5,000. And there’s a lot of matching details in the stories (each mentions 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish, 12 baskets of leftovers and 5,000 people; the stories of Jesus walking on water both contain the quote “it is I; do not be afraid.”)

    This all could be explained if John was copying from Mark, but the problem is that this seems to be an aberration. John usually doesn’t match Mark chronologically or in small details the way he does here (sometimes even placing a shared detail like the disturbance at the temple at a completely different point in the narrative).

    When I tried to figure out why John seems to follow Mark rather closely here but not elsewhere, I thought perhaps John isn’t copying from Mark, but instead both Mark and John are using the same source (the signs source) for these two miracles.

    Have any historians made this argument before? And also, what do you think about the probability of this scenario?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 13, 2016

      I’m not familiar with anyone arguing it, but I’d be amazed if no one has! My own sense is that there were a variety of sources floating around at the time, and the only way to show that one author was using another is by demonstrating otherwise-hard-to-explain similarities (for example, word-for-word agreements), as opposed to similarities that are readily explained on teh grounds that there are a lot of similar stories being told, and often the same stories, by word of mouth.

  11. Avatar
    Theonedue  June 17, 2016

    Say the apostle John or Peter were to have read a copy of Mark or Matthew during 60-70 a.d (and going under the assumption that the empty tomb story is unhistorical and the appearances of Jesus to the apostles/women are unhistorical as well, and also assuming the originals are what we read today ). Do you think they would have reacted violently and said something like “What!? Jesus was buried in a pit, not in some wealthy Jew’s tomb!? There were no angels, and he did not appear in front of all of us.” Or would he have appreciated the lies/legends since it is better evidence of the faith? Christians seem to think that the apostles would have debunked all legends if the original gospels contained them. Thanks.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 18, 2016

      My point is that they would not have known where or how he was buried.

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