Gary Greenberg's blog on biblical studies and related matters

The Case for a Proto-Gospel and John’s Theological Biases

While it is almost universally recognized that Matthew and Luke used Mark as their prime source of information for their respective gospels, it is also well recognized that Matthew and Luke frequently add to, omit or change details present in Mark’s source story, occasionally in significant ways. This is largely attributed to Matthew and Luke editing Mark to fit their respective theological agendas. Yet, when stories in John appear to intersect with stories in the synoptic gospels, John is rarely accorded the same privilege.

While there is obviously a vast library of writings describing John’s theology and how it might differ from the synoptic gospels, there appears to be almost no effort to apply John’s theological principles to any of the synoptic gospels, using the theology as a filter for examining what changes John would likely have made if he knew the story. While there may be an isolated comparison between a Johannine story and a synoptic story here and there, I believe The Case for a Proto-Gospel presents the first scholarly study to provide a full-scale systemic look at all of John and how his theological principles interact with the synoptic gospel stories.

In this post, I will outline how John’s theological concerns can function as a filter for reading the synoptic gospels, which enables us to identify theological problems that would bother John and require corrections if he were to edit the synoptic story. In the next post, I’ll identify some of the editorial techniques John used to make these corrections. In subsequent posts, I’ll examine various synoptic stories and show how John’s theology and editorial practice come together to transform synoptic stories into Johannine versions that share the same underlying story elements present in the synoptic story but which often looks so different from the synoptic story.

John has certain identifiable theological biases about the nature of the gospel message, the authority of Jesus, and the behavior of his disciples. (I use the term “bias” here in a non-pejorative manner, signifying only a tendency toward a particular theological direction.) I propose that whenever John encountered a source story that either disagreed with his position or left a potential for undermining his theological agenda he took editorial steps to change the nature of the underlying story. Given the nature of the problem and the steps taken, changes could make John’s version of events look very different from that in the source versions. Here are what I believe to be the primary theological concerns that motivated John to make changes.

a) The only way to obtain eternal life is to accept that Jesus was sent by the Father to make eternal life available. According to John, Jesus said,

  • You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life (emphasis added).[1]
  • For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.[2]
  • This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.[3]

If a source story suggested that there was some other way to obtain eternal life, such as following the law,[4] giving to the poor,[5] or loving your neighbor[6] then John would have to find a way to edit the source story to reflect the same story but substituting John’s explanation as to how to obtain eternal life. This is quite a significant change to an existing story and such changes could make it difficult to see that they are both based on the same principle, how to obtain eternal life.

b) All judgment has been given by the Father to Jesus. According to John, Jesus said,

  • The Father judges no one but has given all judgment to the Son, so that all may honor the Son just as they honor the Father. Anyone who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him (emphasis added).[7]
  • Yet even if I do judge, my judgment is valid; for it is not I alone who judge, but I and the Father who sent me.[8]
  • I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.[9]

This authority places Jesus outside and above the law.  John’s Jesus is not bound by the law and doesn’t defend himself by showing that his actions fall within the law. Any story that shows Jesus defending his actions under the law or which indicates that Jesus does not have full authority to make all judgments would have to be modified.

In Mark, for example, Jesus makes a legal argument to justify his authority to heal on the Sabbath.[10] In John, when Jesus is accused of violating the Sabbath law by healing, Jesus makes a theological argument that places him above the law to justify his actions. “My Father is still working, and I also am working.”[11] This answer shows that Jesus is not bound by the law and can act outside of the law. But, since John eliminates all of the legal defenses in Mark’s story, it is hard to see that John and Mark are telling the same story in principle, why Jesus is allowed to heal on the Sabbath.

c) One should have faith in Jesus because of his words and not because of his signs. According to John, Jesus said,

  • Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.[12]
  • The one who comes from heaven is above all. He testifies to what he has seen and heard, yet no one accepts his testimony. Whoever has accepted his testimony has certified this, that God is true.[13]
  • Very truly, I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgment, but has passed from death to life.[14]

An important facet of John’s teaching is that faith in Jesus should come from the words he speaks and not from the performance of his signs, particularly exorcisms. In the first of the quotes just cited, John was responding to a royal official’s request to heal his son. John tested the man to see if he required proof of Jesus’ power or if he had faith. The man passed the test and Jesus healed the child.

While John’s Jesus does heal from time to time, John shows no healing missions. In the synoptic gospels healing missions are an important aspect of Jesus’ work and healings serve as proof that he has been authorized by god to act. In Mark, for example, Jesus proves he has the authority to forgive sin by healing.[15] As I show in The Case for a Proto-Gospel, John had substantial problems with Mark’s argument and significantly reworked the story so that Jesus words, not his healing, showed his authority to forgive sin. John goes further than Mark, though, and, as noted in the quoted passage, John has authority to make judgements on all matters, including forgiving sin but not limited to forgiving sin.

If John encountered such a story, he would have two objections. First, the story could be interpreted to limit Jesus’ authority over matters other than forgiving sin. Second, Jesus should not try to convince skeptics of his authority by healing. This doesn’t mean that Jesus’ miracles don’t or shouldn’t evoke wonder. But Jesus still wants people to have faith in him based on his words and not his works.

Therefore, when a synoptic story showed people coming to Jesus because of his signs and wonders, John would rewrite the story to diminish or eliminate the role of signs as proof. Because a sign is often a key portion of a synoptic story, its omission or diminution makes it difficult to see that John and the synoptic author work from a common story, about why a particular individual suffering from a similar problem came to Jesus.

d) The Disciples and certain others close to Jesus should not be depicted in a negative manner.

This principle extends also to Jesus’ family members and to the family of disciples. Here, we don’t have specific quotes from John. The evidence consists of comparisons with Mark. I should note that Luke, too, follows the same Johannine principle regarding the disciples, but he and John differ substantially as to how they alter stories depicting the disciples in a negative light. So neither can be the source for the other in this regard.

Mark frequently presents the disciples in a negative light, focusing on their frequent inability to understand Jesus’ message. After the second of Mark’s two miracles of the loaves, the disciples indicate they are hungry. Jesus said to them, “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened?”[16] Later, Peter rebukes Jesus for talking about dying and rising up. Jesus responds, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”[17]

In the bread incident, Mark’s Jesus  chastises the disciples for not understanding about the miracle of the loaves. John, in a story that appears to share the same roots as Mark, omits this rebuke to the disciples but, interestingly, he tells us about a different group of witnesses to the miracle and Jesus rebukes them for not understanding the meaning of the miracle. “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.”[18] The words are different but the function is the same. Where synoptic stories depict the disciples in a negative light, John would occasionally substitutes non-disciples for the disciples and assigns the negative behavior to them.

Elsewhere, in a parallel to the rebuke of Peter, John presents a different picture of what took place. In John, Peter correctly acknowledges the role of Jesus as the one bringing eternal life. “Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.’”[19]

Jesus responds in a complimentary manner, “Did I not choose you, the twelve? Yet one of you is a devil.”[20] John then adds a gloss, saying Jesus meant Judas was the devil. Note John’s trick here. The devil quote was used to compliment Peter for getting the divine role right where Mark has the devil accusation as an insult to Peter for getting the divine role wrong.

The above sets out some of the theological filters John used when reading synoptic stories. In my next post, I’ll talk about some of the techniques John used to edit his stories.


[1] John 5:39–40.

[2] John 3:16.

[3] John 6:40.

[4] Mark 10:19.

[5] Mark 10:21.

[6] Mark 12:31.

[7] John 5:22.

[8] John 8:15.

[9] John 9:39.

[10] Mark 2:4.

[11] John 5:17.

[12] John 4:48.

[13] John 3:31–33.

[14] John 5:24.

[15] Mark 2:10.

[16] Mark 8:17.

[17] Mark 8:33.

[18] John 6:26.

[19] John 6:68.

[20] John 6:70.


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