In the Gospel of Mark, the first four disciples that Jesus calls to follow him (akoloutheō) are Simon, Andrew, James, and John (Mark 1:16-20). All four of those men were fishing on the Sea of Galilee when Jesus walked by and all four of them dropped their nets to follow him. Both the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke include this calling narrative. Matthew (4:18-22) follows Mark’s version almost verbatim while Luke (5:1-11) makes some rather interesting changes.1 Despite their differences, all three of the Synoptics are univocal in their portrayal of Jesus’ disciples as fishermen and that this is what they were doing when Jesus found them.
But not the Gospel of John. While we may infer their status as fishermen from the end of the Gospel (21:1-4),2 we do not get this impression from the beginning. And this is because the calling narrative of John’s Gospel looks nothing like that of Mark’s.
Disciples of John the Baptist
One of the main differences between the Markan calling narrative and the Johannine narrative is its location. Whereas in Mark the setting is the Sea of Galilee (Mark 1:16), in John the setting is “in Bethany across the Jordan” (John 1:28). While the exact location of this Bethany is disputed3 it is clear that it is not in Galilee (cf. 1:43). Rather, John’s work is generally associated with the region of Perea, an area under the control of Herod Antipas who also ruled the region of Galilee.4 In the Johannine Gospel, John baptizes in Bethany and in “Aenon near Salim” (3:23), another town whose location is unknown but from the given context is somewhere near the Judean countryside and close to sufficient water for Jesus to perform baptisms (3:22).
With the Sea of Galilee not in the picture, there are no fishers for Jesus to call to become fishers of people (Mark 1:17). So from where do Jesus’ first disciples originate? According to the Johannine author, some of Jesus’ first disciples were actually disciples of John the Baptist!
The next day [cf. John 1:29-34] John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed [ēkolouthēsan; cf. Mark 1:18] Jesus (John 1:35-37).
In what follows (1:38-42) we discover that one of the disciples’ name is Andrew and that he has a brother named Simon (1:40). So Andrew is in the Gospel of John a disciple of John the Baptist before he begins following Jesus. This detail – one that seems rather important – is nowhere to be found in the Markan text.
The calling of Simon in the Gospel of John consequently differs from what we find in the Gospel of Mark. Rather than being found fishing in the Sea of Galilee with Andrew, he is instead in a location other than where both Jesus and Andrew were (cf. 1:39). The narrative thus has Simon coming to find Jesus at the prompting of Andrew rather than Jesus finding Simon and calling him himself (1:41-42).5
Substituting James and John
Another striking difference between the Markan and Johannine calling narratives is that John’s Gospel makes no mention of the calling of James and John. In fact, James and John are only alluded to with the moniker “the sons of Zebedee” (John 21:12; cf. Mark 1:19-20). In each of the Synoptic Gospels their calling plays an important part of the narrative and they as characters engage in conversations with Jesus that result in teaching moments about the fate of Jesus’ followers (i.e. Mark 10:35-45). Yet in John’s Gospel they are mentioned but once and then not even by their own names but by their father’s.
Instead of a calling narrative concerning James and John we find a calling narrative about Philip and Nathanael. Philip is known from the Synoptic Gospels where we find him mentioned in the list of disciples (Mark 3:18; Matthew 10:3; Luke 6:14). Nathanael on the other hand is not attested in the Synoptics at all and is wholly a Johannine character. But he is surely a member of the Twelve since he is among those listed in 21:2 which include disciples about whom we know from the Synoptics like Simon, Thomas, and James and John.
The narrative structure of 1:43-51 is similar to that of 1:37-42.
Nathanael’s amazement at Jesus’ insights is to acknowledge that he is “the Son of God” and “the King of Israel” (1:49). Yet Jesus is quick to say that compared to what Nathanael will see, Jesus’ statement in 1:47 (cf. 1:48) is small peanuts (1:50): “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man” (1:51). This plays into the Johannine motif of the role that signs play in having faith in Jesus (John 20:30-31; cf. 21:24-25).
An Attempt to Reconcile
The Johannine calling narratives reveal that their author wrote with theological and rhetorical interests at heart. Because of this, the Markan and Johannine narratives are in direct conflict with one another. But this has not prevented attempts to reconcile the tensions. For example, Eric Lyons in a post entitled “When Did Jesus Call the First Apostles?”7 claims that “John is describing a totally separate incident from the one the synoptists describe.” The Synoptic narratives are about the call of the disciples to become apostles whereas the Johannine narrative is about their relationship to Jesus as Messiah.
John records Peter and Andrew’s first meeting with the Christ. The synoptists, however, testify of a later meeting, when Jesus called them at the Sea of Galilee to become “fishers of men.”
But this apologetic only results in a more confusing narrative and doesn’t take the language of John’s Gospel seriously.
The Johannine narrative takes place over a series of days (1:29, 1:35, 1:43, 2:1), culminating in Jesus’ appearance with “his disciples” (2:2) at a wedding in the Galilean city of Cana (2:1-11). Undoubtedly, among his disciples were Andrew, Simon, Philip, and Nathanael who had just interacted with Jesus both temporally in the days before and narratively in the preceding context. In the narratives that follow, there is no sense that these disciples have abandoned Jesus for the Sea of Galilee: they follow him to Capernaum (2:12), to Jerusalem (2:13-25), and so on. At what point does Jesus have to go back to Galilee to call the disciples to be “fishers of people”? As Raymond Brown noted,
The standard harmonization is that Jesus first called the disciples as John narrates but that they subsequently returned to their normal life in Galilee until Jesus came there to recall them to service, as the Synoptics narrate. There may be some basic truth in this reconstruction but it goes considerably beyond the evidence of the Gospels themselves. In John, once the disciples are called, they remain Jesus’ disciples without the slightest suggestion of their returning to normal livelihood. Nor in the Synoptic account of the call in Galilee is there any indication that these men have seen Jesus before.8
In other words, the Gospel narratives do not allow any such reconciliation. In both, the disciples continue with Jesus without interruption. Lyons contrived explanation simply doesn’t work.
No Harmonization Needed
In truth, no harmonization is needed. If the Johannine author was working from traditional material then it is clear that there was a version of Jesus’ first interactions with Andrew and Peter that differ from that found in the Markan narrative. And if the author was working with some version of Mark or Luke9 then he has clearly reshaped preexisting narratives to suit his own particular purposes, especially with regards to his rather high Christology. In either case, a harmonization simply isn’t possible. The authors of the Gospels of Mark and John were clearly writing with different criteria in mind.10 These are portraits, not snapshots, of Jesus. And they are portraits painted with the brushes of later authors in historical situations different from Jesus’ own.
1 Not only does Luke’s version of the calling narrative come after Jesus heals Simon’s mother-in-law, in the narrative it is stated that Jesus gets into Simon’s boat (Andrew is nowhere to be found) and that James and John were Simon’s fishing partners!
2 The Johannine addendum shares particular similarities with the Lukan calling narrative of Luke 5:1-11. For example, in both the Lukan and Johannine accounts we see Simon mentioned without Andrew and we also find James and John, although they are referred to as “the sons of Zebedee” (John 21:2). Both accounts also include a miraculous haul of fish (John 21:6; cf. Luke 5:5-6) as well as a specific response from Simon (John 21:7; cf. Luke 5:8).
3 See Rainer Riesner, “Bethany Beyond Jordan,” in David N. Freedman, editor, Anchor Bible Dictionary (Doubleday, 1992), 1:703-705.
4 See Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Baker Academic, 2003), 1:449-451.
5 There may be more going on with Simon’s name change in John 1:42 from “Simon son of John” to “‘Cephas’ (which is translated Peter).” Not only is it Andrew rather than Simon who affirms that Jesus is the Messiah (1:41; cf. Matthew 16:16), Simon’s change of name to Cephas/Peter occurs far earlier in the Johannine narrative than in the Matthean. Bradford Blaine, Jr. has suggested some Christological motivations for “transplanting the naming episode to the front” of the Gospel of John.
First, Jesus has not met Peter and yet knows enough about him to give him the name “Cephas” which means “rock.” In this way, “John highlights both Jesus general foreknowledge (cf. 4:25; 6:6; 14:26; 16:30, etc.) and his specific foreknowledge concerning the fates of the disciples (14:16; 15:20 and 16:32).
Second, Peter’s statement of Jesus’ identity and that he is the one who has “the words of eternal life” (6:68-69) in the midst of many of Jesus’ disciples leaving him (6:66-67; cf. 6:60-65) serves as a “profession of loyalty in a time of crisis” and not simply as a confession like what we find in the Matthean text. Jesus’ role as Messiah has already been acknowledged (1:41) and the name change is not connected to a Petrine confession. In other words, the Johannine Jesus has already established Peter’s faithfulness.
Third, “by bringing the name change to the front of the Gospel but leaving the confession [i.e. 6:68-69] in its ‘original’ context…John introduces the familiar character of Peter without letting him overshadow Andrew, Philip, and Nathanael.” Consequently, the Johannine author creates “a powerful chain of witness” in the earliest stages of Jesus’ ministry.
See Bradford B. Blaine, Jr., Peter in the Gospel of John: The Making of an Authentic Disciple (Society of Biblical Literature, 2007), 38-39.
6 If we compare Andrew’s statement to Peter – “We have found the Messiah” (1:41) – with Philip’s statement to Nathanael – “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth” (1:45) – we see an example of narrative exposition. Philip in essence explains what the word “Messiah” means to the Johannine community: the one about who the Hebrew scriptures wrote, seen in its fullness in Jesus of Nazareth. So then for this community there is no doubt who the Messiah is: it is Jesus!
7 Eric Lyons, “When Did Jesus Call the First Apostles?” (2007), apologeticpress.org. Accessed 16 January 2018.
8 Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John (I-XII) (Doubleday, 1966), 77.
9 There is some evidence that John may have known of the Synoptic Gospels of Mark and Luke, including both direct verbal parallels and knowledge of Synoptic episodes. See L. Michael White, Scripting Jesus: The Gospels in Rewrite (HarperOne, 2010), 354-355. See also Thomas L. Brodie, The Quest for the Origin of John’s Gospel: A Source-Oriented Approach (OUP, 1993), 67-120.
10 The clearest sign of this is that there is not even a whiff of the secrecy motif that is so prevalent in Mark’s Gospel found in John’s. From the outset, Jesus is declared to be the Messiah and the one about whom the Hebrew scriptures had foretold (John 1:41, 45). This is absent from Mark’s Gospel as virtually no human characters – especially not the disciples – understand who Jesus is.
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