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Is the fourth gospel fiction?
Yes indeed it is! I’m going to make the case that, much as it is loved by the majority of Christians, the gospel attributed to John is in fact fiction. All those passages we know so well that are only found in the fourth gospel may well have a spiritual significance for the reader but should no longer be taken as gospel (excuse the pun); like:-
- the marriage in Cana when Jesus turned water into wine (2:1-12),
- the raising of Lazarus from the dead (11:1-44),
- his healing of the man born blind (9:1-38) ,
- and his long-distance healing of a nobleman’s son (4:46-54), never happened.
- John is also the only gospel to mention Nicodemus, who heard Jesus’ teaching that “Ye must be born again” (3:7)
- Jesus meeting a Samaritan woman at a well and asking her for water.
- Pilate asking his prisoner “What is truth?”
- The crucified Jesus asking his “beloved disciple ” to care for his mother
- The encounter with Doubting Thomas
- Mary Magdalene mistaking the risen Jesus for the gardener.(i)
Although I base my arguments on recent research of the Jesus Seminar in California (ii) such comments are far from new. Back in the third century the brilliant Egyptian teacher Origen wrote of John that “although he does not always tell he truth literally, he always tells the truth spiritually.” (iii)
Consider John 16:12-14 “16:12 “I have many more things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. 16:13 But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. For he will not speak on his own authority, but will speak whatever he hears, and will tell you what is to come. 16:14 He will glorify me, because he will receive from me what is mine and will tell it to you.”
In this passage, John admits pretty overtly that his teaching comes not from the historical Jesus but from the holy Spirit, one sent after Jesus to clarify and update his doctrine. We do not need to think very hard to see that this Holy Spirit is none other than the gospel writer himself. (iv)
I’d like to quote a very personal and movingpassage from Princeton Professor of Religion Elaine Pagels:
” I have always read the Gospel of John with fascination , and often with devotion. When I was fourteen, and had joined an evangelical Christian church, I found in the enthusiastic and committed gatherings and in John’s gospel, which my fellow Christians treasured, what I then craved – the assurance of belonging to the right group, the true “flock” that alone belonged to God. Like many people, I regarded John as the most spiritual of the four gospels, for in John, Jesus is not only a man but a mysterious, superhuman presence, and he tells his disciples to “love one another”. At the time, I did not dwell on disturbing undercurrents – that John alternates his assurance of God’s gracious life for those who “believe” with warnings that everyone who “does not believe is condemned already” to eternal death.” (v)
The Jesus Seminar is concerned with the “Historical Jesus” a topic about which many people have been thinking hard for at least 200 years, starting with David Strauss (see Don Cupitt‘s ‘Sea of Faith’)(vi), and Albert Schweitzer. The Jesus Seminar is in fact on the crest of the third wave of “Historical Jesus” investigators in the last two centuries. They claim
- John is relatively unimportant in the search for the Jesus of history because:-
- If John is historically accurate then the other three “synoptic” gospels can’t be, e.g.
- John has no birth or childhood stories, the others do
- John does not mention Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist, the others do
- In John Jesus speaks in long involved discourses, in the others he speaks in brief aphorisms or parables
- In John Jesus performs no exorcisms, in the others he is an exorcist
- In John Jesus himself is the subject of his own teaching, in the others his main theme is the coming Kingdom of God
- In John Jesus reflects extensively on his own mission and person, elsewhere Jesus has little to say about himself
- John’s Jesus has little to say about the poor and oppressed, in the others Jesus espouses their cause
- Did Jesus’ public ministry last 3 years (John) or 1 year (Mt, Mk,and Lk)?
- Was the temple incident early (John) or late (the others)?
- In John foot washing replaces the last supper of the other three.
Thus, looking for words that could be attributed directly to Jesus, the Fellows of the Jesus Seminar were unable to come up with any that could be traced back with certainty to the historical Jesus. (Except possibly John 4:44, which has synoptic parallels). They didn’t even have any parables to go on. They conclude “The words attributed to Jesus in the Fourth Gospel are the creation of the evangelist for the most part, and reflect the developed language of John’s Christian community.” (ii)
Going back to Origen, can John be true spiritually if he isn’t true literally? And going back to Pagels’ quote above, can Jesus really be “a mysterious, superhuman presence” or is he “only a man”?
The debate is summed up neatly by ex-evangelical preacher John Loftus:
“At best, scholars see the differences (between John’s gospel and the synoptics) as indicative of the fact that John’s Gospel is a theological elaboration of history, while still others see them as indicating it is wholly theological in nature with not much historical value at all when it comes to what Jesus taught….It is the truth of Jesus in retrospect rather than as expressed by Jesus at the time. It is expanded teaching of Jesus. Yet it is precisely because of John’s Jesus that we get a very high Christology today. John’s Jesus is quoted as saying “I and the father are one” (10:30), and “He who has seen me has seen the father” (14:9). But based on what we’ve seen, he never said those things. This is John’s Jesus speaking, not the historical Jesus. It came from an evolved understanding over decades about who Jesus was. This is the Christ of faith, not the Jesus of history.
“If they were part of the original words of Jesus himself, how could it be that only John has picked them up, and none of the others? I find it almost incredible that such sayings should have been neglected had they been known as a feature of Jesus’ teaching.” (vii)
What the believer loses by ‘downgrading’ John in the way I (as an atheist) am advocating, is quite considerable (See for example the verses below). But isn’t it best to take the Seminar’s critique on board rather than block it out and have it nibbling away at the back of your mind? It’s surely best to be intellectually honest and concentrate on what is being gained – a clearer view of the historical Jesus.. Even though the church can be guaranteed to carry on using John’s gospel as if nothing has happened, the hierarchy all learned about this and earlier critiques at theological college; they know the score, they’re just not too keen on you finding out about it ! (I wonder why?)
Some of the most quoted -but now downgraded- verses in the gospel attributed to John (possibly still very resonant and meaningful, but no longer be guaranteed to originate with Jesus):-
- “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” (14:6)
- “I am come that they might have life and that they may have it more abundantly” (10:10)
- “I and my father are one” (10:30)
- “Father, the hour is come; glorify thy son, that thy son may also glorify thee; as thou hast given him power over all flesh, that he should give eternal life to as many as thou hast given him” (17:1-2)
- “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son to the end that all who believe in him should not perish but have everlasting life” (3:16)
- “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (1:1)
- “I am the bread of life” (6:35)
- “I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep” (10:11)
The Alpha course is considerably undermined by this re-evaluation of the fourth gospel. Its credibility is also undermined because it unfortunately choses “dodgy” verses from the synoptics to build its case on too. The Jesus Seminar calculates that only about 18% of the 4 gospels’ sayings of Jesus are authentic. Hence my coining of the term “Residual Jesus”.
The significance of the fourth Gospel:
“Many scholars are now convinced that …it emerged from an intense debate at the end of the first century over who Jesus was.. It was written in the heat of controversy, to defend certain views of Jesus and to oppose others.” (Specifically the Gospel of Thomas) (vi)
The meaning of John’s powerful, spiritual gospel is by no means obvious. “Even its first generation of readers (c. 90-130 C.E.) disagreed about whether John was a true gospel or a false one and whether it should be part of the New Testament.” (viii)
(i) Kent, P. “Know your Bible Illustrated” Barbour (2007)
(ii) Funk, R., Hoover, R. and the Jesus Seminar “The Five gospels: What did Jesus Really Say?” Harper (1993) p.10-11
(iii) Origen “Commentary on John” 10:4-6
(iv) Price, R. M. “The incredible shrinking of the son of man: How reliable is the gospel tradition?” Prometheus (2003)
(v) Pagels, E. “Beyond Belief” Vintage books (2003)
(vi) Pagels op. cit. p.34
(vii) Loftus, J.W. “Why I became an Atheist: A former preacher rejects Christianity” Prometheus Books (2012) p.385 includes extracts from Dunn, J.D.G. “The Evidence for Jesus” Westminster Press (1985) p.31
(viii) Pagels op. cit. p.34