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.
Hi Charlie, hope you're high and dry. It's been raining like crazy around here and the temp is down 20 degrees. Thanks for your continuing challenges to our imaginations with GJohn.
I'm not sure that we have to choose between GMark and GJohn. Would that be any different than choosing between the Book of discipline of the United Methodist Church and the Book of Mormon of the Church of the Latter Day Saints? All four represent faith communities. All four examples are incredibly diverse, but they all claim some saving grace in the name of Jesus the Christ. In other words, each proponent expects a similar outcome, even though they are being catapulted from very different spaces.
So it more or less becomes a matter of personal comfort. Do you want to (1) choose Jesus over Moses or Elijah (2) hear the eternal Word give an I am the light speech (3) read angel delivered golden plates of new revelations (4) or keep a detailed rule book of bishops' directives in your pocket. Or perhaps, holistically, each one has a positive contribution to make.
Good Morning Gene,
Dry and much cooler. We were in the 40s last night.
Thanks for pushing me on my either/or statement.
I have no doubt that the literature you mention does have a positive contribution to make--as would the ancient Manichaean hymns (worth reading by the way). But I am asking a different question than (as you suggested) "with which are you more comfortable?"
My question was "What was the Judean man, Jesus, actually like and which of these two ancient texts (Mark or John) accurately preserves aspect of his personal history? " Given that as the question, 250 years of critical scholarship have invalidated John as a reliable source. Many of the Baptist hymns that I have committed to memory through the years still fill me with emotion (music does that) but I do not think that they tell me anything about Jesus as historical man.
Thanks for reminding me about the historical question.
As much as I would like it to be different, I guess I see GMark as being mostly theology, but it certainly has a greater historical orientation than the other three options I considered.
I don't think that theology is always disconnected from history, as it would appear in GJohn. The first half of Mark, as I see it, leads up to the Transfiguration where the disciples are faced with the choice of Jesus or Moses and Elijah. That's theology, but it could also have been an historical question that came to some folks' minds when they got to know Jesus.
So, to my way of thinking, while GMark may preserve aspects of Jesus personal history, it may also preserve aspects of historical reactions (theology) to Jesus, while GJohn seems to be almost totally a reaction to the resurrection belief.
Do you think that some of the theology in Mark may also be historically based?
Hi Charlie, sorry to be a pest.
On the matter of historical theology, I was wondering about the hypothetical
document Q (Matt/Luke) and the temptation story contained therein. I recall that Dr. Funk included the gray voted temptations as part of the reds/pinks of the first edition of the Gospel of Jesus (I don't have the second edition). Would you agree that the temptation story is historically based theology, or perhaps Funk was simply saying that, as we all are, the historical Jesus had to deal with temptation?
Good Morning Gene,
I agree with you. Mark is a theological account of the career of Jesus. Mark's story (in my view) is a romantic rendering of what the career of Jesus was like constructed out of oral tradition, and possibly a Passion Narrative Mark inherited from the tradition. Historians of the Jesus tradition for various reasons find the traditions in the Marcan Gospel more reliable and easier to detect as sources for the earlier period of Jesus' career. They are easier to detect because Mark is not in total control of the material. John on the other hand has so thoroughly blended theology and history it is hard to see where one begins and the other ends.
By definition history is not theology, it seems to me. They are different ways of describing reality. So if there are theological formulations from an earlier period in Mark (and there are some; the Passion Narrative is likely an example) it would not give us unvarnished data about Jesus' career; it would be data about how someone earlier than Mark made theological sense out of something Jesus said or did.
It strikes me that though the Jesus of Mark is much to be preferred over the high Christology of John, that I have difficulty taking Mark very seriously as a writer of history. With poor grammar and some real holes in the story, he creates a magnificent passion narrative to flesh out the suffering servant songs of Isaiah but does any part of that actually match up to the historical events?
Thanks for the question. I had to go to the books to check it out. Mark 1:12-13 is printed in plain type, meaning that it is the invention of the author of Mark and not traditional (5 Gospels). In the traditional Q temptation narrative (Matt 4:1-11 = Luke 4:1-13) the dialogue with Satan is printed in plain type and the sayings of Jesus in black, meaning that the story is the invention of the "author" of Q and the sayings attributed to Jesus were also invented (Acts of Jesus). However in Acts of Jesus Mark 1:12-13 and Q 4:1-2 (i.e., Luke) parts of those verses showing Jesus being "tested" are printed in grey, meaning that it is perfectly plausible to some of the Fellows that Jesus had second thoughts as he began his public career (Acts of Jesus). I only have the first edition of the Gospel of Jesus, and have no idea why Funk printed the entire temptation account there. You will notice, that he did not do that for the Lord's Prayer, for example (p. 21).
You wrote: "By definition history is not theology, it seems to me." Would you say, however, that theology developed before the crucifixion is historically based, and theology developed after the crucifixion is mythologically based. What might be historically based: how about, on the negative side, Jesus' possession by the chief demon, or, on the positive side, choosing Jesus over Moses and Elijah?
Good Morning Gene,
I think historical description and theological description are two totally different exercises--apples and oranges as it were. History is describing what happened with no interpretive elaboration. Theology is a religious interpretation of what happened. For example, to say Jesus was killed by crucifixion is an attempt at describing what happened--of course it may or may not be correct. In other words it can be verified or falsified. But to say that Jesus died for our sins is theology. The statement can neither be verified nor falsified.
I don't understand your second question. I know of no narrative about Jesus being possessed by a chief demon. He was, however, accused of having a demon (e.g. John 7:20; 8:48, 52). Choosing Jesus over Moses and Elijah does not give me enough information to address.
I'm stuck in the problem of trying to say complex things in an abbreviated way. I'm saying that there may be two types of theological description relative to Jesus: formulations before the crucifixion, during the time of Jesus' personal history, and formulations after the crucifixion, during the time of belief in his resurrection.
I'm trying to understand if you think that NT statements can be separated in that way. For example, the accusation by the Pharisees that Jesus was controlled by Beelzebul is among the pink/red votes of the JS. Such an accusation, to my mind, is a theological statement, and it is also pre-crucifixion, i.e., part of his personal history.
In Mark, Jesus' personal history builds toward the Transfiguration where his followers are challenged to choose between him and Moses/Elijah. Clearly, Mark thinks that this issue, this theological statement, was at the heart of Jesus' personal history.
Do you agree that such theological observations were alive during Jesus' personal history?
Sorry to be so slow about getting the point. In my view theologizing about Jesus likely began with the crucifixion. The death of Jesus was the great crisis of confidence among his followers. If the idea existed before the crucifixion that he was messiah, it was not likely that it was yet a supernatural title (for example, Cyrus, the king of Persia was called the messiah [i.e., the anointed]). With the death of Jesus some accounting needed to be given for his death. Why would God allow his anointed to die (see Acts 2:29-36)?
Is it historically possible that Jesus was accused of being demon possessed? The answer is yes, if it was intended as a slur or insult. On the other hand, is it historically possible that someone who sincerely believed that there was such a thing as demons could accuse Jesus of actually being possessed by a demonic force (or for that matter being possessed by the spirit of God)? The answer again is yes, and such a statement would have been a "theological" statement. But it would not have been capable of verification or falsification, and it had value only for the person making the claim. And most important the theological statement says nothing about the nature of Jesus (except perhaps that he was disliked). So to assert that Jesus was possessed by the Spirit of God (or a demon) tells us nothing about the personal history of Jesus.
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