Strengthening April DeConick’s Case that John’s Gospel Opposed Vision Mystics; and another word for John knowing Mark

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by Neil Godfrey

Capernaum synagogue

In my posts last month addressing mystical visionary ascents into heaven among Second Temple Jews and early Christians, I made passing references to April DeConick’s Voices of the Mystics. In this book DeConick argues a case that the school responsible for the Fourth Gospel was writing in some form of dialogue with those following the ideology behind the Gospel of Thomas. Recall among the closing scenes in the Gospel of John that Thomas is singled out as the arch-sceptic who will not believe unless he sees. Jesus allows him to see, but then commends all Christians who believe without seeing.

I will save the details of DeConick’s argument for another post. Here I will discuss one small episode in John’s gospel that DeConick does not include in her book, but it struck me just now how potentially supportive of her thesis this detail is. It also leads to additional indications that the author of John knew the Gospel of Mark.

In John 6 we read of a Jesus miraculously feeding the five thousand with five loaves and two fish. This scene appears in the Gospel of Mark (chapter 6), too. In the Gospel of Mark the scene is repeated with a feeding of four thousand (chapter 8), following which Pharisees challenge Jesus asking for a sign to prove to them that he is the Messiah. Jesus says he will show them no sign, and immediately following that exchange he embarks with his disciples with just one loaf of bread in the boat. A discussion follows about the meaning of leaven and symbolic as opposed to literal bread. Then Jesus leads his disciples away from the Sea of Galilee and up to the Mount Hermon area, in the region of Caesarea Philippi. It is there that Jesus asks his disciples if they can see who he really is, and where Peter confesses he is the Christ. This confession is followed by Jesus taking Peter, James and John up to the mountain where they experience the vision of the glorified Christ.

Between May and August last year I posted a series of posts (included within this archive) discussing an article by Rick Strelan, The Fallen Watchers and the Disciples in Mark, in the Journal for the Study of Pseudepigrapha, 20 (1999) 73-92. I was intrigued by Strelan’s argument that the Caesarea Philippi and Mount Hermon region was considered the gateway between heaven and earth. It was the place where angels descended and ascended between the two places. In the Enochian tradition of Second Temple Judaism this was the place where the human experienced the divine. Anyone familiar with this Enochian motif would have recognized the significance of Jesus’ transfiguration — and the vision of the three favoured disciples — at this particular place.

Now read the Gospel of John chapter 6 with this background in mind and note the same narrative structural outline, and at the same time a rebuttal of key memorable sections in the Gospel of Mark’s account.

It begins (verse 23) after the miraculous feeding of the 5000.

Note the double emphasis in this passage that the following scene takes place in Capernaum. And not only in Capernaum, but in a synagogue in Capernaum — as far as one can be removed from all that might be associated with the vision-tainted region of Caesarea Philippi and Mount Hermon.

Note how following the miracle of mass feeding Jesus is challenged (as per Mark) to show a sign so the Jews can believe in him.

Note how Jesus refuses to give a visible sign for all the world to see.

The following discussion centres on bread. Compare the focus on the single loaf of bread in Mark at the same point in the narrative structure. In each case the bread clearly represent Christ or the body of Christ, the church, and identity with Christ through the eating of the bread.

There are also references to “seeing” and being saved by “hearing” and faith as distinct from “seeing”. All this is noted by DeConick, if I recall. But my point is that the entire narrative surrounding those statements is making a point salvation is not be mystical ascents, not by seeing Christ (in vision, but not even in the flesh), but by hearing and believing.

Then comes Peter’s “confession”. It is in a synagogue in Capernaum! Any association of this confession with a vision of Jesus glorified is firmly shut out from readers of this gospel. There is no transfiguration in association with this confession. Yet there is discussion about “seeing” Christ being in vain while those who hear and believe are saved, as DeConick observes.

There is a little more that I will save till after the following extracts from John 6:

[23] (Howbeit there came other boats from Tiberias nigh unto the place where they did eat bread, after that the Lord had given thanks:)

[24] When the people therefore saw that Jesus was not there, neither his disciples, they also took shipping, and came to Capernaum, seeking for Jesus.

. . . . . . . . . .

[30] They said therefore unto him, What sign shewest thou then, that we may see, and believe thee? what dost thou work?

[31] Our fathers did eat manna in the desert; as it is written, He gave them bread from heaven to eat.

[32] Then Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Moses gave you not that bread from heaven; but my Father giveth you the true bread from heaven.

[33] For the bread of God is he which cometh down from heaven, and giveth life unto the world.

[34] Then said they unto him, Lord, evermore give us this bread.

[35] And Jesus said unto them, I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst.

[36] But I said unto you, That ye also have seen me, and believe not.

. . . . . .

[45] It is written in the prophets, And they shall be all taught of God. Every man therefore that hath heard, and hath learned of the Father, cometh unto me.

[46] Not that any man hath seen the Father, save he which is of God, he hath seen the Father.

[47] Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me hath everlasting life.

[48] I am that bread of life.

[49] Your fathers did eat manna in the wilderness, and are dead.

[50] This is the bread which cometh down from heaven, that a man may eat thereof, and not die.

[51] I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever: and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.

[52] The Jews therefore strove among themselves, saying, How can this man give us his flesh to eat?

[53] Then Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you.

[54] Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day.

[55] For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed.

[56] He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him.

[57] As the living Father hath sent me, and I live by the Father: so he that eateth me, even he shall live by me.

[58] This is that bread which came down from heaven: not as your fathers did eat manna, and are dead: he that eateth of this bread shall live for ever.

[59] These things said he in the synagogue, as he taught in Capernaum.

[60] Many therefore of his disciples, when they had heard this, said, This is an hard saying; who can hear it?

[61] When Jesus knew in himself that his disciples murmured at it, he said unto them, Doth this offend you?

[62] What and if ye shall see the Son of man ascend up where he was before?

[63] It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing: the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life.

[64] But there are some of you that believe not. For Jesus knew from the beginning who they were that believed not, and who should betray him.

[65] And he said, Therefore said I unto you, that no man can come unto me, except it were given unto him of my Father.

[66] From that time many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him.

[67] Then said Jesus unto the twelve, Will ye also go away?

[68] Then Simon Peter answered him, Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life.

[69] And we believe and are sure that thou art that Christ, the Son of the living God.

[70] Jesus answered them, Have not I chosen you twelve, and one of you is a devil?

[71] He spake of Judas Iscariot the son of Simon: for he it was that should betray him, being one of the twelve

Seen through the hypothesis of DeConick that John is writing in opposition to vision mysticism, one begins to see additional indications that John is also in dialogue with the Gospel of Mark and its positive leanings to such mysticism as indicated by the very significant location of Mount Hermon for the scene of the confession and transfiguration event itself.

Further – – –

At the transfiguration vision of Christ by Peter in Mark, Peter fumbles for words and offers to build three tabernacles, one each for Jesus, Moses and Elijah.

— What follows Peter’s confession in John is the feast of tabernacles.

After the transfiguration vision in Mark, Jesus speaks again of his determination to go to Jerusalem and to be killed there. The first time Jesus had declared this intention (after Peter’s confession) Peter and the disciples insisted that Jesus must by no means go to Jerusalem.

— What follows in the Gospel of John is Jesus avoiding Judea and Jerusalem in order to avoid being killed (at that time). His brethren, on the other hand, were urging Jesus to go to Jerusalem.

John 7:

[1] After these things Jesus walked in Galilee: for he would not walk in Jewry, because the Jews sought to kill him.

[2] Now the Jews’ feast of tabernacles was at hand.

[3] His brethren therefore said unto him, Depart hence, and go into Judaea, that thy disciples also may see the works that thou doest.

All of this strikes me as a lot of narrative structural coincidences between the Gospels of Mark and John. I have yet to read detailed arguments by those scholars who do argue that John knew Mark, but I would expect to find the above points addressed in some of those works.

Caesarea philippi 1886
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Neil Godfrey

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2 thoughts on “Strengthening April DeConick’s Case that John’s Gospel Opposed Vision Mystics; and another word for John knowing Mark”

  1. John is totally writing in dialog with and, in part, against Mark. The reason why is the way Mark rewrote the Signs Gospel. He rewrote it using, in large part, the first layer of GTh. (Of course, keep in mind that it was actually Secret Mark that was written in this manner–canonical GMk is a later redaction of this original version.)

    Mark’s gospel was a gnostic interpretation (some might say re-interpretation) of this early version of GTh, so John is sort of speaking to two traditions at the same time: Mark’s unique uses of the early Thomasine traditions, and the Thomasine tradition itself.

    You and DeConick are completely correct that John has his own sayings tradition, and views the Thomasine tradition with a great deal of suspicion. Much of GJn is a preservation of the Signs Source, and polemical, Johannine-dialogue-tradition inserts into the spaces in the narrative where Mark made his changes (though this is not always the case.)

    John is also writing against Cerinthus, remember. On my blog, I have showed how Cerinthus is the author of Q (which was a narrative gospel we now call “The Gospel of Peter”). But Cerinthus, too, used GTh–I suspect he used a second edition of GTh, one that came after the one that Mark used.

    Here is the post where I summarize the GTh sayings found in GMk and in Q:


    I have also just posted a new entry on how Mark’s Jesus is a specifically “embodied” Jesus:


    John was a bit wary of this, and disliked Cerinthus’ emphasis on Jesus’ human nature, but was especially opposed to Mark’s Adoptionism (which Cerinthus borrowed). He isn’t out to eliminate the idea of an embodied Jesus, but he wants to emphasize his divine nature. Hence the somewhat ambiguous support in John for Jesus’ earthly embodiment, at least as portrayed in GMk and Q/GPet.

    Sorry for the information-dump here, but I’m currently digging the elements of the Signs Gospel out of GMk and this ties in directly with some of the themes I’ll be blogging about soon. I will also be giving DeConick’s work a great deal of attention. Just letting you know you are definitely on the right track here 🙂

  2. First I want to thank you for a truly valuable and insightful essay. I am a supporter of the Pagels, DeConick, Riley school via Thomas and the Gospel of John. Also DeConick’s position in Voices of the Mystics. which you strengthen beautifully. DeConick clarifies her position(s) via Skinner via Thomas in this fashion which I think also applies to John v Mark.

    “2. My position has been and continues to be that the author of the gospel of John is aware of the type of vision and ascent mysticism that came to be associated with the Thomasine traditions in Syria, and he is polemicizing against them. I have not and do not maintain that the author of the gospel of John knew or read the gospel of Thomas. In fact, the entire first chapter of my book Voices of the Mystics is devoted to discussing the concept of developing TRADITIONS that eventually get embedded in our gospels. The competition is between the Johannine and Thomasine traditions and the communities who “owned” these traditions. It is not a competition between their gospels as literary compositions. If I have read Pagels correctly, she too argues that the author of John knew and thoroughly disagreed with the type of exegesis of the Genesis story offered in the gospel of Thomas, that he was engaged in a clash of traditions and polemics against the specific patterns of exegesis preserved in the gospel of Thomas, not the gospel of Thomas itself (Beyond Belief, p. 479).

    3. I don’t perceive of these communities as some isolated churches somewhere in the ancient world. The use of Johannine and Thomasine community language is chosen in order to indicate the communal nature of these developing traditions, not a church that had a sign on the front lawn that said “The Church of John” or “The Church of Thomas”. In fact, I think that the Thomasine community was the very early apostolic tradition in eastern Syria. In other words, Christianity in Syria early on would have appeared very much along the lines of the theology we find in the gospel of Thomas. As for John, it represents at least two types of Christianity – a pre-final-redactor Christianity and a post-final-redactor Christianity – a form of Christianity as it was being practiced in Alexandria and another form of Christianity as it was being practiced in, I think, western Syria and perhaps Asia Minor. I’m still working this aspect out.”


    I think the same applies to John v Mark. In reading Dewey, the general consensus is now that John was written independently of the Synoptic texts-as written sources-.. However I am convinced John was written with knowledge of the Synoptic (foundationally Marcan) tradition in mind and is polemicizing against it as well. Your essay brings up the intriguing thought that John knew Mark far better than most modern scholars are willing to admit. In any event, he seems aware of many important traditions because John is polemical in the extreme.

    Which is one reason I am not fond of it, especially in his demonization of the Jews, while simultaneously appropriating all THEIR sacred traditions and investing it in Christ alone.

    A dangerous document that has caused great pain in the world, despite its literary and spiritual brilliance. And independent of its corruption of who Jesus really was. IMO Thomas captures far more the truth of Jesus than John. Logos is a seductive idea but essentially primitive. Read Kabir or any other great mystic and see the galactic distance between a truly illumined person, and one who thinks he is, but is not. (John).

    A very long shadow, indeed.

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