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Where Did the Gospel of John Get Its Stories?

In my previous two posts I’ve talked about how John is very different from the other three Gospels, the “Synoptics” — both in the stories it tells and the way it tells them.  That leads to the natural question.  Where did “John” (whoever the author was) get his stories from?   It’s widely assumed he didn’t make them all up — and he certainly didn’t make up the ones found in other Gospels, since they were written before him.   Then where did his stories come from?

Did Some of them — the ones they have in common —  come from the Synoptics themselves?   The traditional answer is yes, since he was writing later.  But then the issue is why he didn’t use *more* of the stories, including the ones that would have especially suited his purposes, and why he so drastically changed the ones he (allegedly) borrowed.

But the prior question is whether there is sufficient *evidence* to suggest he used the Synoptics.  It is absolutely not good enough to think he must have because they were around before he started writing.  In the ancient world books did not circulate like they do today.  Now, when a book gets published, every bookstore in the country puts it out, the exact same book in every detail,on the same day.  In the ancient world, books that had been known  in one part of the world or even one community or other may not have been known at *all* in another one for *decades* (even centuries!).

So is there evidence of whether John knew the Synoptics?  As it turns out, the question is somewhat thorny, and entire books have been devoted to it.  One rather famous NT scholar that some of you may have heard of, Moody Smith, my longtime colleague from Duke who passed away a few years ago, spent much of his life dealing with it,   This was his Major research passion.  His best book on the matter, should you be interested in checking it out, is called John Among the Gospels.

o I’m not going to to into depth or deal with all of complexities here, I will instead simply indicate why many scholars continue to be persuaded that John did not know the Synoptics — or at least that if he did know them he did not use them as sources. I do so while acknowledging that our blog member and well-known New Testament scholar, another Dukie!, Mark Goodacre is writing a book, now as we speak, arguing that John *did* know the Synoptics.  (And yes, there is no need to ask me!  I *will* indeed look into whether Mark is interesting in posting on his views for us, and possibly I will interact with them my self. But he will probably want to wait till the book comes out — if he wants to do it at all — since that will help generate some buzz about the book.)

For this discussion here I simply need to stress the point that the principal grounds for assuming that one document from antiquity served as a source for another is their wide-ranging similarities: when they tell the same stories and do so in the same way, they are likely to be literarily related to one another (i.e., one was borrowing from another)  Thus Matthew, Mark, and Luke must have sources in common because they agree with one another on a number of occasions, often word for word — sentences at a time.  You can’t get that without authors having the same sources, either one of them copying the other or both of them copying the same third source that no longer survives.

This is not the case for the Fourth Gospel. As I have pointed out, most of John’s stories outside of the Passion narrative are found only in John, whereas most of the stories in the Synoptics are not found in John.  Even more, when John *shares* stories with the Synoptics (say, the cleansing of the Temple, or the trial before Pilate), they *lack* precisely the features that make us realize that the Synoptics all had common sources: extensive word foword agreements.  A few agreements here and there are not, as a rule convincing: different people telling the same story often will use the same words, even the same phrases: but it doesn’t mean that one of these people had heard the *other* tell it.  She may have heard it from someone else.  If, however, she writes a paragraph that is exactly like someone else’s version, well, that’s good evidence she was copying it.  That’s precisely what we do not get with John and the Synoptics.

How then can we account for the similar stories that John and the Synoptics tell on occasion?  It may be simplest to explain them as …

This is a key issue for understanding the Gospels of the New Testament — our only real sources for knowing what Jesus said and did.  In other words, it’s important stuff.  To keep reading, all you need to is belong to the blog.  Joining is easy.  And every penny of the small membership fee you pay goes to help those in need, a growing army these days.  So think about joining!  If you can’t afford it just now, send me an email and we’ll work it out with you.

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The Most Intriguing Evidence that John Used Sources
Is This the Same Jesus? John and the Synoptics (part 2)



  1. Avatar
    billgraham1961  March 30, 2020

    I enjoyed reading this post. It is refreshing to come back to this scholarly biblical analysis after a few years of forgotten neglect. I look forward to more insight ahead. Thank you for keeping this up!

  2. Avatar
    thelad2  March 30, 2020

    Hey, Bart. About these “sources.” From your own writings, we know that Christians were making up or improving upon stories about Jesus from a very early date. The multiple reworkings of Mark‘s gospel material by Matthew And Luke are good examples. Knowing that these authors had no trouble playing a bit loose with each other’s works, why do we assume that the differences In the canonical gospels can be explained away by the authors use of alternate source material? Isn’t it just as likely that in many cases, these very creative evangelists were just making up Jesus stories as they went along?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 31, 2020

      That’s possible too, yes indeed. But I would say changing a story is not the same as making one up, and the one thing we have solid evidence for is these authors changing stories they inherited; they did that all the time. It’s much more difficult to prove that they simply made up the stories that are in their accounts but not in the others. It’s certainly possible they did, but there’s no way to show it.

  3. Avatar
    Diane  March 30, 2020

    This is good food for thought. This post *almost* touches on a subject of current interest for me, the changing concept of a “book” or “work” in antiquity. I am eagerly awaiting the arrival of Matthew Larson’s book “Gospels Before the Book,” which looks at a work such as the gospel of Mark less as a finished, closed book and more as a collection of notes (lecture notes?) on which Matthew expands.

    My interest in the general topic was piqued when work on my bachelor’s thesis (on “The Deuteronomistic Historian”) was derailed by discovering David Carr’s “Writing on the Tablet of the Heart,” which discusses the purpose of at least some ancient written work as basically mnemonic devices used for acquiring the memory “database” necessary to transmit an oral culture. With literacy rates in the low single digits, the memorization and recitation of texts was the primary means of dispersal. Indeed, once the literacy rate among the general populace is pointed out, it is impossible to see written “books” as having been created for any other purpose–not to be generally ‘read,’ but to provide expert storytellers with reference material. In the case of the theory that the Deuteronomistic History was written (compiled? Redacted?) in order to create a reverse-engineered culture history and narrative in order to support the ambitions of King Josiah, what would be the point of creating a written work when almost no one could read it? Oral recitation of memorized texts is the point.

    This discussion of John and the Synoptics slots right in. While the Deuteronomistic History was altered and expanded (and elided) over centuries, and the gospels were created/finalized in a much shorter period of time, the process must have had certain similarities.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 31, 2020

      If you’re interested in memory and oral tradition, you may want to look at my book Jesus Before the Gospels. I should have called it something else. It’s really about memory adn how it affects traditions passed along by word of mouth.

  4. Avatar
    AstaKask  March 30, 2020

    Very interesting, especially regarding breaking the poetic pattern in the original. I read that the same is true of the hymn in Philippians, that the words “on the Cross” break the rhythm and so may be an interpolation. Is this true?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 31, 2020

      Yes, it is usually thought so.

      • Avatar
        AstaKask  April 1, 2020

        So do we know if the interpolation was from Paul or some later scribe?

        • Bart
          Bart  April 1, 2020

          sorry — I never have the full thread for a comment, so I’m not sure which interpolation you’re referring to (and either will most other readers of the blog!)

          • Avatar
            AstaKask  April 1, 2020

            Do we know if the interpolation in the Philippians hymn (“on the cross”) was inserted by Paul or by a later scribe?

          • Bart
            Bart  April 3, 2020

            Almost certainly by Paul: it’s one of his major emphases.

  5. Avatar
    OsamaIslam  March 30, 2020

    Considering that John is profoundly theological, maybe we should look at the version of Christianity in the Roman world during that time (85-100 CE). It would make sense that John’s theology is far more advanced than the synoptics because Christianity outgrew them and the stories there (synoptics) are not interesting enough for the gentiles. I’m sure that the author did not intend to write any sort of a historical account of Jesus’ life, so I’m lead to believe that John wrote his account (stories) based solely on oral tradition.

    Just some thoughts occurred to me while reading.
    Looking forward to the next post.

    Stay safe!

  6. Avatar
    veritas  March 30, 2020

    You are precisely correct about the verses ( 6-8,15) in the gospel of John, in that they don’t belong. The poetic flow of the message is interrupted by the mention of John the Baptist in between. Would definitely seem like an insert. But I thought these authors( whoever they were) were highly literate Greek scholars, would they not have noticed these obvious mistakes and then the church fathers who canonized these books as Scripture ? You are a thorn, Bart, but I love it!😊

    • Bart
      Bart  March 31, 2020

      It’s amazing what people don’t see — even experts (even scientists!) — if they aren’t looking for it.

  7. Avatar
    psauer  March 30, 2020

    I agree with the previous comment with regards to a return to scholarly analysis. Being “hunkered down” made me break out some old books from my Wheaton days….. CH Dodd, Joachim Jeremias, Leon Morris, Ramsey, Tenney, CKBarrett. It reminded me of my quest for truth and learning to accept “unanswered questions”. I am excited to hear from current scholarship. Thank you for your scholarship.

  8. Avatar
    James Chalmers  March 30, 2020

    I’m seeing a connection between Goodacre’s attempt to show John had the syntopics (or some of them) and his earlier work purporting to show Luke had Matthew. What’s common to both an assumption that an author can have a document at hand and yet revise it so extensively that latter-day readers infer that he couldn’t have had it.
    Am I wrong about this?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 31, 2020

      Yes, I’d say that we all would agree that’s possible. In each individual caase one has to decide whether it makes the best sense of the evidence, or if — in this case — there are better explanations.

  9. Avatar
    dljohnston0890  March 30, 2020

    Question, or 2 if that’s ok with you.

    Why do many scholars date John’s gospel at the very end of the first century after the Synoptics?

    Also, a bit of a tangent, is their any evidence to suggest that any of the older prophets, and maybe some first century prophets, used hallucinogenic substances to be more “prophetic”? I’m of course thinking of King Saul described as behaving like a prophet while acting all crazy (1 Samuel 10:10, 11; 19:24) as well as Ezekiel’s trippy visions.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 31, 2020

      1. It is usually thought that the theological views are far more sophisticated nad developed, and development takes time. Plus even in earliest Christainity it was recognized that John as the late comer.

      2. None.

    • Avatar
      theomajor  April 3, 2020

      “Why do many scholars date John’s gospel at the very end of the first century after the Synoptics?” It would appear to be largely for convenience. If the Gospel really was formed this late then the story must have been distorted since this John is not the same apostle who walked with Messiah, and he used marginalised sources (cf. Egerton 2). I think we can all agree this was the last of the “four”.

  10. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  March 30, 2020

    I know from reading your “Lost Scriptures” that there are some early Gospels that did not make it into the Bible. Considering how different traditions develop so frequently, with there being about 45,000 different Protestant denominations/traditions, what is surprising is not that John and the Synoptics came from different traditions, but rather that there are not even more different early Gospels out there. It’s sort of the way humans do things.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 31, 2020

      Right! According to Luke 1:1-4, there once were. Oh we’d love to get our grubby paws on a few of them!

  11. Avatar
    godspell  March 30, 2020

    Some writers just enjoy repetition for its own sake–Tolstoy is a good example. His great translators, Pevear and Volokhonsky, talk in their introduction about how they avoided doing what earlier translators did, looking for synonyms to avoid repetition–to be faithful to the text, you need to deal with the fact that Tolstoy repeats himself a lot, uses the same words over and over, and fully intends to do so. And in any event, if ‘John’ cared about repetition, why borrow text that repeats what he’s already said, or will say later on? Prose writers who have a poetic side to them are often guilty of this, and that certainly includes John.

    Frankly, I find John quite monotonous at times. He is constantly making the same points, over and over again, and not subtly for the most part. He seems to live in mortal fear somebody will fail to see what he’s driving at. Mark is very indirect by comparison. He tries to avoid spelling things out too much. He wants you to read between the lines. But John doesn’t trust the reader that much.

    • Avatar
      theomajor  April 3, 2020

      Regarding repetition in John I would agree, but I draw the conclusion that this is divine inspiration because what he emphasises are the mysteries which perplex readers to this day as they do not bother to read the book which came before the New Testament.

  12. Avatar
    Stephen  March 30, 2020

    It’s possible of course that John knew the synoptics and rejected them as a false gospel. That would also explain why he doesn’t quote them or refer to them, right?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 31, 2020

      Sure. It’s possible that he read all sorts of other things as well. The question of history is never simply what *may* conceivably have happened, but what more probably happened, and, importantly, what makes us think so.

      • Avatar
        Stephen  March 31, 2020

        Understood. I was just pointing out that John “knowing the synoptics” might mean something other than having them spread out before him as he composed.

  13. Avatar
    wje  March 30, 2020

    Good evening, Bart. How are things out there with the virus? Quick question about the Greek original writing. What does the word “word” mean in Greek? Does it mean an actual composition of letters? Was this phrase ” the word made flesh” meant to imply that Jesus was a written document come to life?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 31, 2020

      1. Dire; 2. There are a couple of words for “word” in Greek. The one used here is “logos” which can mean a range of things with various nuances: “word” “thought” “reason” “rationality” “the element of divine rationality that infuses all things” and … and other things. John seems to mean something like “the self-expression of God that shows who he really is and that is how he manifests himself to anything outside of himself and by which he created the material universe became a human being”

  14. Avatar
    GeoffClifton  March 31, 2020

    I hope everyone on the Blog is keeping well in these difficult times. I have always had a fascination for the Johanine community, and would love to know exactly who they were and where they lived. Clearly Greek was their first language and the ‘Word’ poem suggests someone among them was fairly well versed in Greek philosophical thought. But I expect these matters will be dealt with in later posts. PS looking forward to receiving my copy of Professor Ehrmans new book any day now.

  15. Avatar
    clerrance2005  March 31, 2020

    Prof Ehrman,
    In a debate between Greg Stafford and Dr. White, Greg Stafford seems to have alluded that the verse John 1:1( 1 “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God – NIV) in the earlier form of the Greek reads ‘ and the Word was ‘a’ God.

    Please can you kindly clarify whether there is an ‘a’ or the text reads like how I referenced earlier. If Stafford is wrong, what could be the reason for which he holds such view on the verse.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 1, 2020

      It’s a complicated grammatical issue, but most grammarians agree that the syntax indicates that “God” should be understood as definite rather than indefinite (a god) because of the syntax (it doesn’t have the definite article — Greek doesn’t use an indefinite one — but the way the sentence is worded indicates that it is definite)

  16. Avatar
    clerrance2005  March 31, 2020

    Prof Ehrman,
    What English Bible version today in your opinion brings us closer to the earliest form of the Hebrew and Greek texts for the Old Testament and New Testament respectively.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 1, 2020

      I think the NRSV is the best of the lot. I especially like it in a reference edition, such as the HarperCollins Study Bible.

  17. Avatar
    Zak1010  March 31, 2020

    Dr Ehrman

    I came across a book translated from Greek to Arabic reflecting letters of Athanasius. One of the letters deals with his explanation of the Holy Spirit and his clear ( at least to me ) theology about Christendom. Titled, the letters about the Holy Spirit to Serapion (not sure which Serapion, more than one — must do some digging).
    Athanasius explains that The Father is the All in all and through Jesus ( the Word ) and The Holy Spirit, he mediates. ( monotheism) It clearly puts Jesus, the Word in a special status with God the Father.
    This is really not a surprise since all prophet were sent with a mission preaching monotheism and held a special status with God the Father, and God worked through them as he did with Jesus.
    What is interesting is that Athanasius, elaborates that since the Jews rejected Jesus as the Messiah, he explains that the article of Faith for the Church was belief in God the Father, the Word ( Jesus) and the Holy Spirit. ( only because the Jews rejected Jesus and him being part of the article of faith) Basically God is the All in all and Jesus and the Holy Spirit are ambassadors of God. If you do do accept this and reject it then you are not part of Gods’ way. The ambassadors are representatives of God not deities worthy of worship. Believing in them is not the same as worshiping them.
    This is true for all the previous sent messengers, they were rejected by some and accepted by some, the ones who rejected never denied or rejected God. They rejected the messenger which is what the Jews did in Jesus’ time. That’s why Jesus had to be part of the article of faith.
    Interestingly, Athanasius discusses distancing himself with the Jews and the pagans in saying you must believe God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit all being on one side while the Jews only believe in God alone on the other, then goes on to distance himself from the pagans that believe in 1,2,3,4,5,10 or more Gods.

    Athanasius is highly regarded in Christendom and never points to Jesus as God and certainly did not point to Jesus as worthy of worship.

    The gospel according to John doesn’t seem to have much influence on Athanasius. Do you think he rejected or never accepted it? (much more to discuss)

    • Bart
      Bart  April 1, 2020

      Athanasius had a very firm view that Jesus was God adn deserved to be worshiped — it is one of the major points of all his authentic writings — and he revered the Gospel of John. I don’t know the work you’re referring to, whether it is actually by Athanasius, or just written by someone else in his name, whether it has been changed in the process of translation into Arabic, or anything else. But there is no ambiguity at all about where Athanasius himself stood on the deity of Christ – -he was a vehement anti-Arian, one of the most.

  18. Avatar
    brandon284  April 3, 2020

    Hi Dr. Ehrman,

    In a debate you had with Mike Licona a couple years back, he (Licona) claimed that Jesus and his disciples would have proclaimed Jesus’ teachings “over and over again” and that this essentially would’ve cemented his teachings in one’s memory. Licona claims this type of teaching would’ve been the standard for a Jewish Rabi of this time. Is this true? I don’t believe you two had much of a discussion on this point that he raised.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 5, 2020

      We don’t know what standard rabbis at the time did. We have almost zero evidence. It certainly does make sense that Jesus said the same thing lots of times, and that would be very helpful if the persons who heard him say those things were the ones who produced our accounts. But alas, our accounts were by different peole living 40-65 years later in a different country who didn’t know eyewitnesses. So it’s not a matter of Jesus’ teaching method but about the realities of sayings being passed along by word of mouth for decades, which is the topic of my book Jesus Before the Gospels (if you’re interested)

      • Avatar
        brandon284  April 8, 2020

        Thank you so much that was a very helpful response! This blog is truly an invaluable resource.

  19. Avatar
    DirkCampbell  May 4, 2020

    Great work Bart, many thanks. All fascinating. I’m hooked! A question about the word ‘logos’ – always translated as ‘the word’. ‘The word was with God and the word was God’ etc. This only comes in John I think and it’s central to the formation of Christian doctrine. But ‘logos’ doesn’t mean ‘word’, otherwise ‘logical’ would mean ‘verbal’. The Greek for ‘word’ is ‘lexi’ as in ‘lexicon’. ‘Logos’ in modern Greek means ’cause’, ‘reason’, ‘ratio’ as well as ‘speech’. Not ‘word’. Is it the same in ancient Greek?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 5, 2020

      Logos does mean “word,” and several other closely related things (language, speech, narrative, thought, reason). It is etymologically related to lexis — both come from legein, “to speak.” Lexis never occurs in the New Testament. The big question with John 1 is how much the philosophical discourse of the time has influenced the meaning of “logos” there, as in some of the Greek philolosphical schools (most famously Stoicism) “Logos” was thought to be the “divine reason” that infused all of the world (for Stoics, that is why it was impportant to live according to “reason,” because that put you in harmony with the world)

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