Gary Greenberg's blog on biblical studies and related matters

The Case for a Proto-Gospel and John’s Editorial Techniques

In my previous post on The case for a Proto-Gospel I outlined the theological reasons behind John’s rewriting of Mark’s source document. In this post I will examine some of John’s editorial practices that frequently make it hard to recognize his use of a story appearing in Mark.

A major Johannine practice was to take multiple stories that shared a similar theme or some other common story details and integrating them into a single narrative such that the constituent stories no longer look like the original versions.

John 5, for example, deals with the theme of Jesus’ authority, and in The Case for a Proto-Gospel,  I lay out several indications that John has taken three stories known to Mark, each of which dealt problematically (from John’s perspective) with the question of Jesus’ authority, and combined the three stories into a new single narrative that addressed all of John’s concerns. The narrative as reformulated looks nothing like Mark’s several stories, but, as I show, there are numerous allusions to Mark’s stories and several clues that clearly suggest that John knew all three Markan stories and had rewritten them for theological purposes. I’ll explain how John went about this in subsequent posts.

Another technique used by John is to split off a problematic piece of a story and place it in a different context and occasionally altering the purpose of the verse, while rewriting the existing story to cover up the removal. There are numerous examples of this throughout John. I’ll take one instance here.

In John’s theology, Jesus is above the law and won’t portray him as defending his actions under the law. In Mark, Jesus defends his healing on the Sabbath by trying to show that Jesus’ actions fell within the law. In John’s Sabbath healing story in John 5, when Jesus is accused of violating the Sabbath law by healing, John first substitutes a theological defense indicating that he works directly under the authority of the Father and, implicitly, not required to act under the law. Second, he takes what appears to be a legal defense present in his source material, and moves it out of John 5 and places it at a later time in John 7, where he uses the language of  defense not to defend himself but to accuse the authorities of not understanding their own law. John, here, has changed the context of the legal argument. Not only has it been separated from the argument over Jesus’ authority to heal on the Sabbath, it has been transformed from a legal defense of his actions to an attack on his critics for not knowing the law.

In other instances, John takes one story and inserts it into another story where it serves a different function. This is not quite the same as splitting a piece of the story off. There are numerous examples of John doing both things, but the practice is not always easily detectable.

In Mark, for instance, there is a story about Jesus going to a synagogue where the congregation knows the names of Jesus’ family members and the congregation rejects Jesus. Mark is vague about why they rejected Jesus and says Jesus lost his powers. Implicit is that Jesus failed to heal somebody.

John would have objected both to using healing as a sign of authority and to the inability of Jesus to do anything he wanted. So John made some changes to Mark’s story. He, too, portrays Jesus going to a synagogue where the congregation knows the members of Jesus’ family by name but the details are different. John makes no effort to use his powers. Instead he teaches.

What he teaches appears to be a Johannine version of the Eucharist, telling the congregation that they have to eat Jesus in order to obtain eternal life, The congregation finds Jesus’ teaching too difficult to accept and rejects him. At the same time, John’s account of the Last Supper has no Eucharist teaching. John has replaced the failure of Jesus to heal with a failure of Jesus to convince through words, and inserted a story from elsewhere in the underlying source into the synagogue story to explain what words the congregation rejected.

 Another technique John uses is to take a source incident that contains a problematic claim that suggests one set of facts, and attach a gloss to the story that casts the event in a different light. For example, in John’s version of the chasing of the money-changers, Jesus makes the controversial claim that if the Temple were torn down it would be rebuilt. “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” John adds, “But he was speaking of the temple of his body.”

This addition, however, is an aside to the reader. It is not a statement Jesus makes to his critics. For the reader, though, it radically alters the context of Jesus’ remark. At the time John wrote his gospel, the Temple had been destroyed by the Romans. John’s gloss absolves Jesus of any need to rebuild the physical Temple. John, as I show in the book, frequently uses glosses to change the context of events that could be considered inconsistent with his theology.

The last practice I want to mention here concerns the treatment of the apostles. John very much opposes Mark’s depiction of the apostles as uncomprehending, especially with regard to Peter. When he encounters a Markan story with a negative depiction of the apostles he makes changes to the story. One of his more interesting techniques is to replace the apostles with persons other than the disciples.

In Mark, for instance, immediately after his first version of the miracle of the loaves, he says (as a commentary on the apostles behavior) that the disciples failed to understand the meaning of the loaves. In Mark’s second version of the miracle of the loaves, Jesus directly chastise the apostles for not understanding the meaning of the miracles.

John has only one miracle of the loaves and immediately after that episode, he omits Mark’s criticism of the apostles. But he then substitutes a different set of witnesses to the miracle, members of the crowd who ate the bread. It is these different witnesses that Jesus chastises for not understanding the meaning of the miracle.

In the above examples, I presented relatively condensed versions of various episodes in Mark and John. In subsequent posts I will explore several stories in a more expansive manner and show how John’s theological biases and editorial practices come into play when altering stories from Mark’s source.


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