The fourth Gospel (John) is the latest of the four canonical gospels. Its "tone" (i.e., its ideas, style, and manner of expression throughout the text) is remarkably different from the earliest gospel, Mark. Compared to Mark, John breathes the rarified air of a high Christology and a religious tradition completely different from Mark, Matthew and Luke. Their narratives rarely overlap in content, and on the rare occasions that they do John's version has little in common with the Markan narrative and its characterization of Jesus. For example, compare the healing of the lame man (Mark 2:1-12 and John 5:2-18), where John tells a very different story, which has few similarities to Mark. And in the story of Jesus walking on the water (Mark 6:45-52 and John 6:16-21), where John's version is much shorter and only superficially similar.
I have described John 1:1-18 as a confession, and indeed it is, but it is also unabashed mythical (not historical) language (compare Philippians 2:5-11), which sets the tone for the Gospel of John. In general Myth is a story about gods and heroes in a time and place not recognizable as our own. Myth is about creation and origins; it is an "attempt to explain creation, divinity, and religion." History is about what actually happened in the past, and historical description is based on evidence available to a neutral third party. This event, described at the opening of the gospel, is not historical in the sense that it takes place in common space and time; it occurs for the most part in the primordium—i. e., earliest origins and events taking place before the world and time began. It describes the event on the basis of the faith of the author. Plato, however, regarded all the Greek myths told by the Greek poets as "made up" stories; hence they were things that never happened in the past.
The character of John is such that critical historians attempt to rehabilitate its history by appealing to its rare similarities with the synoptic gospels, and in this way arguing that it is possible that "within the material shared by John and the synoptics" the author of John had access to an "independent and primitive tradition" about Jesus (Raymond Brown, The Gospel According to John, 2 vols. Doubleday, 1966, 1: xlviii). It is virtually impossible to harmonize the linguistic interests of the Judean Jesus of Mark with the language of John's Jesus. For example, the striking dualisms in John, light/darkness (1:5), truth/falsehood (8:44-45), Spirit/flesh (3:6), above/below (8:23), do not fit the language world of the Judean Jesus of Mark, even though they are, in part, shared with the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were contemporary with Jesus.
Nevertheless John is not without its historical value, even though critical scholars generally recognize that it tells us virtually nothing about Jesus, the Judean man who lived more than a generation earlier than the writing of John. Its value lies in the fact that the Gospel of John attests a very different type of Christianity at the end of the first century from what we find portrayed in the synoptic gospels a generation, or more, earlier; John represents a type of Christianity, which draws on different traditions some of which are likely as early as the synoptic tradition. John demonstrates that a wide breadth of responses to the Judean man, and ideas about him continued to proliferate. The Jesus traditions in the first century were pluralistic, rich, complex, contradictory, and none could claim exclusivity.
There are remarkable differences between John and the synoptic gospels; here are a few of the most notable:
|John baptizes Jesus with water.
|John observes Jesus baptized by the spirit.
|Jesus tells parables.
|John has no parables.
|Jesus' message announced the kingdom of God.
|The kingdom barely mentioned.
|Last meal Jesus says my body/blood given for you.
|At the last meal Jesus washes disciples' feet.
|Jesus performs exorcisms.
|There are no exorcisms in John.
In describing who Jesus actually was, one must make an either or decision between Mark and John. As Albert Schweitzer saw at the beginning of the twentieth century, one must choose either the Jesus of Mark (which he incorrectly regarded as history) or the Jesus of John's gospel. A middle path of harmonizing the two is not a historical solution. Hence, since the beginning of the twentieth century the Gospel of John has been discredited as a historical source for Jesus, the Judean man who lived at the end of the first third of the first century.
What do you think about giving up the popular Jesus of the Gospel of John for Mark's Judean Jesus?
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University
See: Hedrick, When History and Faith Collide (Wipf & Stock, 1999), 30-47.