If you were to ask my dad how he became a Christian, he would no doubt tell you about his friend who handed him a King James Version New Testament and asked him to read the Gospel of John. As a single dad in his early 30s, struggling to raise his two daughters, coming home after working a long day at the garage usually meant corralling my sisters for dinner, forcing them to do their homework, and then maybe watching some television before hitting the hay. But my dad, who has never been an avid reader, stayed up night after night until he had read through the entirety of the Gospel of John. When he finished, he prayed and accepted Jesus Christ as his savior. His life was never the same.
Why the Gospel of John? Why not one of the other three canonical Gospels? Why not one of the numerous epistles? Why not the book of Revelation? Though I’m not sure why my dad’s friend asked him to read through that particular book of the New Testament, I can think of at least two reasons why he may have chosen it. First, John’s is the only Gospel whose explicitpurpose seems to have been evangelistic: the miraculous signs recorded within it “are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31). What better book to convince someone that they should believe in Jesus than one written specifically for that purpose? Second, the Gospel of John is a relatively easy work to read. Its Greek text is simple enough that students who’ve completed at least two semesters of Koine can readily translate large sections of it, though they may want to keep a copy of Metzger’s Lexical Aids for Students of New Testament Greek handy. Though the ease with which one can read a work in Greek is not necessarily an indication of how well it translates into English, the Gospel of John in most English translations is eminently readable.
It is for these reasons and more that the Gospel of John is probably one of the most read books of the New Testament. A survey conducted by Bible Gateway indicated that the top three books of the Bible read on their website in 2013 were the Psalms, the Gospel of Matthew, and the Gospel of John. Data also show that in 2013 the most searched for Bible verse was John 3:16, perhaps one of the most famous verses in the entire New Testament. John’s Gospel looms large in the hearts and minds of Christians, its theology shaping how the faithful understand the person of Jesus Christ. But it may come as a surprise to many – Christian and non-Christian alike – that although John’s Gospel enjoys a kind of prestige today, early in Christian history this wasn’t always the case.
The Early Reception of John
Of the four canonical Gospels, John’s seems to have been the last written. There are a couple of reasons for thinking this. First, while the Gospel of John interacts with material in the Synoptic tradition, none of the Synoptics specifically interact with any uniquely Johannine material. This suggests that the Synoptics came before the Gospel of John. Second, an early Christian tradition asserts Synoptic priority over John. The bishop Irenaeus, writing in the late second century CE, asserted that the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke had already been written when “John, the disciple of the Lord, who also had leaned upon His breast, did himself publish a Gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia.” This view of Synoptic priority over John was far and away the most common in early Christianity. Taken together, these two reasons establish the likelihood that the Gospel of John was the last of the canonical Gospels to have been written.
This leads naturally to another question: when was it written? This is a more complicated question and involves the dating of the Synoptics. Space does not allow for a full discussion of the dating of the Synoptics, but the prevailing wisdom of New Testament scholars is that the Gospel of Mark was written sometime around 70 CE. Since it appears that the Matthean author used the Gospel of Mark as one of his sources, he must have written his Gospel after Mark’s, perhaps sometime around 75 or 80 CE. Luke also seems to have used Mark as a source and can be dated to around the same period or, perhaps, 80 or 85 CE. If it is the case that John’s Gospel appeared after the Synoptics and that the last of the Synoptic Gospels wasn’t written until the 80s CE, then this would place the writing of the Gospel of John to sometime in the late 80s or, more likely, sometime in the 90s CE.
Its late appearance in the first century partially explains why it is largely ignored in so much of the second. Without adequate time to circulate among Christian communities, its use in them is minimal. There are allusions to the Gospel of John in the epistles of Ignatius (110 CE), the Epistle of Barnabas(140 CE), and theMartyrdom of Polycarp(167 CE). Yet in these we find no direct citation and some of the allusions are tenuous as best. More importantly, we find no references to “John” as the Gospel’s author. It is Irenaeus, who we mentioned above, that first ascribes authorship of the fourth canonical Gospel to the disciple John. Another possible reason why the Gospel of John makes few appearances in the literature of the early second century is that “that were hesitations in using it due to some suspicions concerning its orthodoxy.” The Gospel had become a favorite of various Gnostic sects, including Tatian, a disciple of Justin Martyr turned heretic akin to Valentinius, whose Diatessaron sought to harmonize the four canonical Gospels by fitting the Synoptics into the general rubric of the Gospel of John.
By the end of the second century and into the third John’s Gospel becomes quoted more often than at earlier times, and not only simply among Gnostics. The Muratorian Canon, an accounting of the books regarded as scripture by Christians, claims that John’s Gospel was written after the apostle had been prompted by both the other disciples and bishops. The apostle Andrew told John that he “should write down everything in his own name” and that “all of them should review it.” Metzger observes that the author of the Muratorian Canon’s idea “was to endow the Gospel of John with the combined authority of the twelve apostles.” Consequently, “not only is the authority of the apostle [John] claimed for it, but also that of the entire group of the disciples, which implied also a preeminence over the Synoptics.” If this document dates to the beginning of the third century, then we have evidence that the rehabilitation of John’s Gospel was well underway.
The Early Reception of Mark
As we already noted, the Gospel of Mark was likely the first of the canonical Gospels to have been written. Among its first interpreters were the authors of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Around ninety percent of Mark’s material is reproduced in Matthew and about fifty percent in Luke. However, both Matthew and Luke represent significant revisions and expansions of Markan material and eclipsed the Gospel of Mark in usage such that through much of Christian history Mark’s Gospel “was of little independent significance. This is readily seen in the frequency with which the Gospel of Mark is referenced (i.e. alluded to or cited) among the church fathers.
|References to the Canonical Gospels in the Church Fathers||Matthew||Mark||Luke||John|
|1st cent. to Clement of Alexandria||3,900||1,400||3,300||2,000|
|3rd cent. (excluding Origen)||3,600||250||1,000||1,600|
|Origen (3rd cent.)||8,000||650||3,000||5,000|
Brenda Deen Schildgen concludes, “The virtual absence of Mark in the first centuries of Christian writing demonstrates that despite the gospel’s presence in the canon, it was not treated equally with the others, let alone with any special deference.” This should be perplexing, especially considering the tradition derived from Papias that Mark’s Gospel was based upon the preaching of the apostle Peter. Given Peter’s status in the early Christian movement, would not a Gospel based upon his remembrances be weighed heavily? That is what one might expect but nevertheless it is not what happened. But why?
Michael Kok suggests a few reasons Mark’s Gospel, despite “the weight of Petrine authority” with which it had been imbued, failed to capture the attention of early Christians: “The reason for this limited use may lie in Mark’s glaring absences.” These include the lack of any “lofty Christological language” as one finds in the Gospel of John, the exclusion of the Sermon on the Mount that one finds in Matthew, the infancy narratives one finds in Matthew and Luke, and the fuller resurrection accounts found in Matthew, Luke, and John. Since so much of Mark is reproduced in both Matthew and Luke, Mark’s Gospel became a redundancy. And “[o]nce Mark became one more written Gospel included in a collection,” writes Joanna Dewey, “it failed to interest the church, or at least its leaders.” This is also clearly seen in the use of lectionaries which favored the Gospels of Matthew and John over the Gospel of Mark. Thus, in church gatherings, readings of Mark were sparse whereas the fuller Gospels of Matthew and John were read with regularity.
Johannine Christology as “Filter”
The rehabilitation of the Gospel of John under the watchful eye of Irenaeus and the slow demise of the Gospel of Mark in the third century set the stage for the events of the fourth century at Nicaea. There, in 325 CE, one of the many issues addressed was the nature of Jesus. That he was fully human was affirmed by the Synoptic tradition. But the Johannine prologue opened with the claim that Jesus, the preexistent Logos, was also divine. And so, while Jesus had been considered fully human thanks to the works of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the Johannine Gospel made it clear he was also divine. It was then through that filter that Markan Christology was evaluated for Mark, being canonical, could not be presenting a Jesus other than the Jesus John presents. In a cruel twist of historical irony, the Gospel that had been written closest to the era of Jesus and the disciples was made subject to the Gospel written the farthest from them.
It is this historical accident, born from the creation of a canon, that the language in Mark that betrays the notion that its vision of Jesus is one of full divinity is reinterpreted to mean the Markan author considered him divine. Johannine Christology became the filter through which the Synoptic Gospels were read, effectively muting the author of the Gospel of Mark. But this need not be how we read the Gospel today. While a canonical reading of the Gospel is useful, particularly for theological readings, in terms of historical criticism, we must begin reading the Gospel of Mark on its own terms. This series will seek to explore Markan Christology and will specifically consider texts from Mark’s Gospel traditionally used to demonstrate the divinity of Jesus. “This is my Son, the Beloved,” the voice from the sky declared in Mark 1:11. For Mark, what does it mean to be God’s son? That is the question driving this series.
This story is based upon my memory of how my dad explained his conversion to me. It has been some time since I’ve heard him tell it but I’m confident I’ve gotten it mostly correct. Eventually I need to interview him and record what he says.
Unless otherwise noted, all biblical references are from the New Revised Standard Version.
For a ranking of New Testament literature by readability in Koine Greek, see E.J. Pond, “Books of the New Testament, ranked according to their difficulty in Greek” (10.23.18), koineworkbook.wordpress.com.
For example, both the Gospel of Mark (11:15-19) and the Gospel of John (2:12-22) have the cleansing of the temple scene; both Mark (2:1-12) and John (5:2-18) have the pericope of the healing of the paralytic; both Mark (6:30-44) and John (6:5-14) have the feeding of the five thousand; etc.
Whether or not the Johannine author had access to the Synoptic Gospels is a matter for debate. L. Michael White argues that “the Gospel of John both knew and depended on one or more of the Synoptic Gospels (probably Mark and Luke, at least) as well as other early Gospel materials.” See White, Scripting Jesus: The Gospels in Rewrite (HarperOne, 2010), 353. Cf. White, 352-355; Joel Marcus, Mark 1-8, The Anchor Yale Bible (Doubleday, 2000), 53-54; René Kieffer, “John,” in John Barton and John Muddiman, eds., The Oxford Bible Commentary (Oxford University Press, 2001), 960; Robert Kysar, “John, the Gospel of,” in David Noel Freeman, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (Doubleday, 1992), 3:923-925.
Against Heresies, 3.1.1.
See Michael Kok, The Beloved Apostle? The Transformation of the Apostle John into the Fourth Evangelist (Cascade Books, 2017), xii.
Marcus, Mark 1-8, 37-39; John R. Donahue and Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Mark, Sacra Pagina vol. 2 (The Liturgical Press, 2002), 41-46; Christopher B. Zeichmann, “The Date of Mark’s Gospel apart from the Temple and Rumors of War: The Taxation Episode (12:13-17) as Evidence,” The Catholic Bible Quarterly, vol. 79 no. 3 (July 2017), 422-437. For a defense of a date far earlier than 70 CE, see James G. Crossley, The Date of Mark’s Gospel: Insights from the Law in Earliest Christianity (T&T Clark International, 2004); cf. D.A. Carson and Douglas Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament, second edition (Zondervan, 2005), 180-182.
For a defense of Markan priority, see Craig A. Evans, “The Two Source Hypothesis,” in Stanley E. Porter and Bryan R. Dyer, eds., The Synoptic Problem: Four Views (Baker Academic, 2016), 28-35; Mark Goodacre, “The Farrer Hypothesis,” in Porter and Dyer, 48-51; Keith F. Nickle, The Synoptic Gospels: An Introduction, revised and expanded (Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 88-92.
Claudio Moreschini and Enrico Norelli, Early Christian Greek and Latin Literature: A Literary History (Hendrickson Publishers, 2005), 1:47, 49; Howard Clarke, The Gospel of Matthew and Its Readers: A Historical Introduction to the First Gospel (Indiana University Press, 2003), xxii; J. Andrew Overman, Matthew’s Gospel and Formative Judaism: The Social World of the Matthean Community (Fortress Press, 1990), 6-34. For a defense of Matthean priority (a rarity in New Testament scholarship), see David Barrett Peabody, “The Two Gospel Hypothesis,” in Porter and Dyer, 67-88.
Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, Sacra Pagina vol. 3 (The Liturgical Press, 1991), 2-3; Philip Francis Esler, Community and Gospel in Luke-Acts: The Social and Political Motivations of Lucan Theology (Cambridge University Press, 1987), 27-29; Richard P. Thompson, “Luke-Acts: The Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles,” in David E. Aune, ed., The Blackwell Companion to the New Testament (Blackwell Publishing, 2010), 330-331.
Raymond E. Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament (Doubleday, 1997), 334; Donald A. Hagner, The New Testament: A Historical and Theological Introduction (Baker Academic, 2012), 290-291; Moreschini and Norelli, 1:80.
Ignatius, To the Ephesians 5; To the Romans 7; To the Philadelphians 7, 9. On the dating of Ignatius’ works, see Michael W. Holmes, ed., The Apostolic Fathers, second edition (Baker Book House, 1989), 82. Moreschini and Norelli note that within Ignatius’ epistles “are contacts with Johannine theology…but these do not seem to depend directly on the gospel.” See Moreschini and Norelli, 1:108.
Epistle of Barnabas 12.7. The allusion in the Epistle may be little more than reading it into the text. The author of the letter is directly referencing the story in the book of Numbers (21:4-8). On the dating of the Epistle, see Moreschini and Norelli, 1:124.
Martyrdom of Polycarp 8. On the dating of the Martyrdom, see Moreschini and Norelli, 215.
T.E. Pollard, “John, Gospel of,” in Angelo Di Beradino, ed., Encyclopedia of Ancient Christianity (IVP Academic, 2014), 2:418.
F.F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture (Intervarsity Press, 1988), 128; Pollard, “John, Gospel of,” in Di Beradino, 2:418.
Irenaeus, Against Heresies 1.28.1.
Bruce M. Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance (Clarendon Press, 1987), 114-115; Bruce, 127. Interestingly, while Tatian’s Diatessaron was the Gospel of the church in Syria, in the fifth century Christian leaders sought to destroy all available copies of it since Tatian by that time had become infamous as a heretic. See Moreschini and Norelli, 1:205.
Muratorian Canon, lines 14-16.
Pollard, “John, Gospel of,” in Di Beradino, 2:419.
On the dating of the Muratorian Canon and other issues, see Metzger, 193-194; James Patrick, Andrew of Bethsaida and the Johannine Circle: The Muratorian Tradition and the Gospel Text (Peter Lang Publishing, Inc., 2013), 40-41; Clare K. Rothschild, “The Muratorian Fragment as Roman Fake,” Novum Testamentum 60 (2018), 55-82.
Michael J. Kok, The Gospel on the Margins: The Reception of Mark in the Second Century (Fortress Press, 2015), 10.
Donahue and Harrington, 3.
These figures are taken from Brenda Deen Schildgen, Power and Prejudice: The Reception of the Gospel of Mark (Wayne State University Press, 1999), 40-41.
See Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 3.39.15-16.
Kok, The Gospel on the Margins, 9.
Kok, The Gospel on the Margins, 9.
Joanna Dewey, “The Survival of Mark’s Gospel: A Good Story?” Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 123 no. 3 (Autumn, 2004), 507.
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