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The Social History Behind the Fourth Gospel

The New Testament Gospels can be studied like any other piece of literature, since they are, of course, literary texts.  And so over the years scholars have applied a number of literary approaches to unpack the meanings of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.   But in a number of ways these books are different from most literature we encounter otherwise, for example, from antiquity, the writings of Homer or Virgil, or, from the modern world, Dickens, Virginia Woolf, or, well, J. K. Rowling.  These authors and their works are very different from each other, of course.  But the books they write are fiction.  The Gospels are different.

They do, of course, contain numerous fictional elements, and they certainly can be studied following the same literary methods one would use for other texts (on the basic level, looking for plot, subplot, theme, character development etc etc.).   But they are, in addition, historical texts, more like historical fiction, I suppose, but not designed to be “fiction” probably — designed to be history but (whether wittingly or not) constructed they way “stories” are, i.e., fiction.   But stories that are are describing real historical figures (at least *some* are historical): Jesus, his disciples, Herod, Caiaphas, Pontius Pilate, and so on.

For that reason they can be studied not only as literature but also as historical sources that can provide actual information about happened in the past, as it has been described from another time and place.

These are two different enterprises:  studying a Gospel as literature is not the same as plumbing it for historical information, thought the two approaches do overlap in places.

But the Gospels are historical in yet another sense   These historical narratives were produced by authors living in later times and in different contexts and who were heavily shaped by their own backgrounds and contexts.  And so in some ways the Gospels can be studied not only as literary texts, and not only also  as historical sources of information about what they are describing, but also for insights they provide into the historical situations in which they were produced.  In some ways they are as helpful for understanding the historical situation of the time they are being written in as for understanding the historical situation they are being written about.

And even more than that….

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The Divergent Views of Christ in John
So What Sources for Jesus’ Life *Were* Used in the Fourth Gospel?



  1. Avatar
    Phillipos98  April 7, 2020

    I love this «thread» Dr. Ehrman!
    Are you planning to post on the Johannine epistles in relation to the community as well?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 8, 2020

      Yup, that’ll be after I finish the Gospel, then I’ll let Hugo Mendez go after it!

  2. Avatar
    Tempo1936  April 7, 2020

    When you read John and Paul there are so many incredible claims about Jesus like creator of all things, forgives all sins so everyone can have a relationship w God, etc. Was there any other writer who made such grand claims about an unknown peasant? Was this unique in history?

  3. Avatar
    GeoffClifton  April 7, 2020

    Thank you for a fascinating blog, Dr Ehrman. In a Catholic magazine my wife gets, The Tablet, there has been a minor debate about how the term Ioudaioi should be translated in John’s gospel – as Jews or Judaeans. The latest contribution, citing John Ashton’s ‘Understanding the Fourth Gospel’ (1991), argues that the context strongly suggests it should be rendered as ‘Jews’. I guess this will have a bearing on the Johannine community’s agenda and social history. PS. I’ve just taken delivery of your new book, which has cheered me up no end, in these otherwise dark days. Many thanks and keep safe everyone.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 8, 2020

      Yup, old and hard-fought debate. I go with “Jews.” The opponents of the Gospel writer are almost certainly not living in Judea.

  4. Avatar
    clerrance2005  April 9, 2020

    Prof Ehrman,
    I researched the name ‘Jesus’ and gathered a whole lot. In summary ‘Jesus’ is an English rendition of Latin ‘Iesus’, Greek ‘Iesous’ of the Hebrew name ‘Yeshua’. Other sources say that ‘Yeshua’ transliterates ‘Joshua’ (same as Joshua in OT) in English. So how come we don’t simply call ‘Yeshua’ ‘Joshua’ in English but still maintain the Greek form?

    Q1. Simply put, how did we move from ‘Yeshua’ to Jesus, but someway somehow ‘Joshua’ in the OT maintain ‘Joshua’ even in the NT, if Joshua = Yeshua = same meaning (Yah is salvation)

    Q2. Did the name Zeus influence the name ‘Ieosus/ Iesus’ in any way?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 10, 2020

      Good question. But it’s because English is Indo-European (related to Greek and Latin) rather than Semitic (related to hebrew and Aramaic). Joshua is retained in the OT because it is a translation of the Hebrew, not Greek. And no, Zeus and Jesus are not etymologically related.

      • Avatar
        clerrance2005  April 10, 2020

        Prof Ehrman, please bear with me here because this has been one of my top questions.

        So when the OT ‘Joshua’ is referenced in the Greek Scriptures (NT) in Hebrew 4:8 – [ If Joshua had given the people the rest that God had promised, God would not have spoken later about another day ]

        Is the Joshua in this verse also ‘Iesous’/ Iesus in the Greek and Latin NT respectively since it is an OT/ Hebrew name residing in the NT?

        If it is so, how come that particular verse (Hebrews 4:8) evolves back to Joshua in the English rendition instead of Jesus? Shouldn’t it have followed the same thread where the name would have been rendered Iesous/ Iesus in the Greek/ Latin text and eventually Jesus in English. In that case, we would have had in the English text ‘Joshua’ in the OT (because it is an English rendition of the Hebrew) and ‘Jesus’ (English translation of the Greek/Latin form of the OT character present in the NT) rather in Hebrews 4:8 for the same personality?

        • Bart
          Bart  April 12, 2020

          Yes, the Septuagint renders the Hebrew “Joshua” with the Greek word “Jesus.” Modern NT translators tend to use the term Joshua when referring to the fellow inthe book of Joshua so as not to confuse readers into thinking they are talking about Jesus of Narazareth. Trnaslatrors have to make all kinds of hard decisions! (Another one: the Book of Jude could just as well be called the Book of Judas!!)

  5. Avatar
    usmcdrjohn  May 1, 2020

    Dr. Ehrman:
    I have read a convincing article on the Internet that the Gospel of John story of water to wine was only symbolizing the gift of Jesus’s life wherein Jews were cleaning their hands with water through the huge jugs of water outside the wedding but Jesus (when his time comes) brings forth wine. Is this interpretation a scholarly agreed upon thought?


    • Bart
      Bart  May 3, 2020

      It’s usually thought to show that Jesus surpasses Jewish cleansing rituals (since wine is better than water) and demonstrates that he has divine powers (since only God can make wine out of non-wine).

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