Bart Ehrman claims that the Gospel of John is testimony to the existence of traditions or sources about the life of Jesus that were independent of anything that was known to the other Gospels. Therefore, so it is implied, the Gospel of John is a witness to Jesus that stands independently of the other Gospels.
When they do tell the same stories (for example, the cleansing of the Temple, the betrayal of Judas, the trial before Pilate, the crucifixion and resurrection narratives) they do so in different language (without verbatim overlaps) and with radically different conceptions. It is simplest to assume that John had his own sources for his accounts. (Did Jesus Exist? p. 259)
Bart Ehrman is a scholar so he does not make this claim lightly. He footnotes it to a source, a scholarly source no less:
Robert Kysar, John the Maverick Gospel, 3rd ed. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007) (this links to an online preview)
And that’s it. A book is cited. Authority. Learning. No argument. If Ehrman had given a slight nod to the fact that scholars are in fact divided over the question of John’s dependence upon the Synoptics, he makes it clear that the “reality” is that there is really no question that the fourth gospel is truly an independent source. (Presumably Ehrman thinks scholars are divided over the nature of the reality about the Gospels.)
To begin with, there are solid reasons for doubting that the Gospel of John is based on Mark or on either of the other two earlier Gospels, even though the matter is debated among scholars. But the reality is that most of the stories told about Jesus in the synoptic Gospels are missing from John, just as most of John’s stories, including his accounts of Jesus’s teachings, are missing from the synoptics.
Can you imagine the response of a scholar like Ehrman toward a mythicist who cited a single work that expressed but one side of a contentious scholarly issue in order to make their argument look authoritative? “Quote mining!” would surely be the criminal charge.
But let’s examine one of the examples of the way John’s version of a Synoptic anecdote is so “radically different” and thus presumably derived from a non-Synoptic source.
Simplest to assume . . . ignorance
Bart Ehrman says the differences between the Gospel of John and a synoptic gospel are so radical that “it is simplest to assume” that they drew upon quite different sources.
Don’t biblical scholars talk to each other? Why did Ehrman not refer to the abundantly published studies by his peers that address the way writers of the era imitated and re-wrote their literary sources?
The question is critical. Studies in recent years have demonstrated decisively that ancient authors imitated or re-adapted literary source material in ways that made it look quite different from the original. Indeed, more often than not, the art of imitation that was most valued was one that shunned verbal and thematic similarities.
Ehrman has apparently never heard of any of this scholarship, or if he has, has declared that it is “simplest to assume” ignorance of it and pronounce, instead, that the primary author of the Gospel of John drew upon an otherwise unattested oral tradition that knew nothing of the synoptic Gospels.
Let’s examine that assumption with a case study of the “cleansing of the Temple”.
The Cleansing of the Temple in Mark and John
Why is the Gospel of John so very much alike the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) yet so completely unlike them? It’s a bit like asking why Virgil’s epic poem of the founding of the Roman race by Aeneas of Troy is so alike yet so completely unlike Homer’s epics, the Iliad and Odyssey.
Homer wrote of the Trojan War from the Greek perspective. His second epic, the Odyssey, followed the ventures of a Greek hero. Virgil took the opposite perspective. His hero, Aeneas, was a Trojan. The values Virgil expressed in his epic are in many ways utterly unlike those found in Homer. Virgil speaks of his hero founding a race whose laws and values would be the new civilizing benchmark for the entire world. Homer’s Odysseus only wanted personal revenge against those who had attempted to rob him of his wife and household. Odysseus was in many ways a failure by comparison with Aeneas. Odysseus suffered so many more calamities on his way home and finally lost his entire crew. Aeneas, so much more abundantly blessed by the gods, bypassed hazardous passageways and monsters like Scylla and Charybdis. Yet every scholar, and every innocent layperson, who has read both of Homer’s epics and then Virgil’s Aeneid knows that Virgil was imitating or re-writing Homer.
That’s how authors worked in those days. Imitation, reversal and transvaluation (the same, reversing ‘the same’ and going beyond ‘the same’). Some scholars have suggested that what we can observe in the wider literary world of the day might also be relevant for the gospel literature of the same period. The authors of the gospels might have conformed to the literary conventions of their time.
The most obvious difference between John’s and Mark’s account of the “Temple cleansing” episode is their place in their respective narratives. (I refer to the two gospels as Mark and John for convenience, though we know they are not the real authors.) Mark’s scene is near the end and is the trigger that led the religious authorities to find a way to kill Jesus. John’s is at the beginning of his gospel and has no conspiratorial consequences. So is it likely that John really knew and adapted Mark’s narrative?
Yes. For the following reasons:
- Both scenes contain the same details and actions in the same order
- Both follow the same story structure
- The differences are readily explained by reference to the different theological interests of the gospels
(See the end of this post for a table comparing the two accounts.)
The above three features are typical of the way other authors of the day used their source materials. I am referring back here to my recent posts on Adam Winn’s book about literary mimesis in the era of the Gospels and the criteria Winn and others have proposed to detect literary borrowing: Discovering the soruces for the first gospel: Criteria.
Look at the similarity of details. If there were truly a tradition of this event that was completely independent from the one we read in Mark’s Gospel, we would expect differences of details and narrative sequences. John adds more details to those found in Mark, but we expect stories to be embellished over time in the re-telling. It is significant that he includes the same details as we read in Mark, and in the same order.
- Both accounts open at exactly the same point. It is a Passover season. Jesus comes to Jerusalem and goes to the temple. Jesus goes up to the Temple and “finds” something there — compare Mark’s introductory scene of Jesus “going to” the fig tree and “finding” nothing on it;
- Independent reports of events are likely to have different starting and concluding points;
- We have not only John’s repetition of details applicable directly related to the temple, but also his use of motifs found in Mark’s fig-tree cursing episode either side of the temple incident. See “5” below.
- Jesus in both accounts overthrows the tables. Then in both we read, in couplet form, references to the moneychangers and to those who sold doves;
- A real event spawning different independent reports would be portrayed with different emphases, different details noticed, and certainly not in the same order. John has embellished Mark’s account but he also maintains the same details as Mark and in the same order.
- Jesus next speaks of his or his father’s “house” with a quotation from scripture. John’s scriptural allusion is to Zechariah 14:21 which can be translated as a complaint that God’s house is filled with merchandise (See Christopher Tuckett’s discussion in The Book of Zechariah and Its Influence — a Google-book preview.)
- This is followed by a reference in both narratives to the destruction of Jesus: Mark speaks of the destruction of Jesus; John of the destruction of the Temple — which is said also to be Jesus. Here John has taken a cue from Mark’s later discussion of the destruction of the temple being a metaphor for the destruction of the body of Jesus when Jesus is on “trial” before the high priest.
- Following this scene both narratives speak of the disciples of Jesus “remembering” something: Mark has them “remembering” Jesus’ curse of the fig tree; John has them remember Jesus’ words after his resurrection.
The details above are, I believe, arguably distinctive, numerous, and sequential and thus best explained as John adapting the story found in Mark. And those little echoes in John of the motifs found in Mark’s inclusio cursing of the fig-tree are surely a smoking gun.
Look also at the larger structure of the narrative units:
- Both begin with a sudden entry into the city at the Passover season
- Both open and close with scenes involving Jesus “going to”, “finding” and disciples “remembering”, and these motifs are likewise linked to a repeat of the opening and closing statements about the setting being Passover, and Jesus entering the city and coming to the temple.
- Both have Jesus immediately begin with casting out the sinners. No preparatory discussion of his observations, confrontations, thoughts.
- The action of casting out is followed by a scripture quotation
- Both scenes are related in hindsight and misunderstood statements about the death and resurrection of Jesus
So the sequence of the way the story and it meaning unfold is the same in both Gospels.
What of the differences? Can they be explained? I think so.
1. Common but hidden scriptural source
One notable difference between the two is the word Jesus speaks when he casts out the moneychangers. Mark has Jesus charge them with making the temple “a den of thieves” while John says they made the place a centre “for merchandise”. But even here one can see Mark’s influence upon the story as told by John. Mark’s scene is taken in part from the image of Zechariah 14:21 that says a Canaanite or just as likely, a trader or merchant, shall not be allowed into the house of God.
And there shall no longer be a trader in the house of the LORD of hosts on that day.
We can see that this is the origin of Mark’s statement (not found in John) that Jesus let no such “trader” enter the temple after he cast them out. John has recognized the source of Mark’s “midrash”* and had Jesus quote it directly. If unsure about any of this have another look at Tuckett’s argument.
*(Dr Ehrman calls it midrash so who cares if Dr McGrath goes purple when I use the same word to describe the same thing)
2. Tables and chairs; tables and sitting
Another little detail — it is the little things that are often the telling clues — is that Mark speaks of Jesus overturning tables and chairs. John refers only to tables. No seats. But what John does do — unlike Mark — is describe the money-changers as “sitting” at the tables. Anyone else detect another whiff of smoke? If in doubt, have another look at the way Virgil imitated Homer.
3. Making the last scene the first
We know that John’s Jesus is always in control. He is not taken by others to be crucified, but those who are sent to take him fall backwards when they see him. Jesus gives himself up to them. He does not agonize in Gethsemane. He is in divine control of all that happens.
Mark’s account of the Temple action presents Jesus again in a totally controlling light. The leaders do not react by plotting to kill Jesus because of what he does in the Temple. Jesus, on the other hand, does cryptically tell them that he will give up his body for them to kill so he can resurrect it again.
I suspect there was another reason, too. John’s Gospel is anti-apocalyptic. Jesus is here now in the church. There is no “end time prophecy” of a second coming following the destruction of Jerusalem in John’s Gospel. Mark’s scene is often taken as a symbol of the destruction to come upon Jerusalem following the death of Jesus. John has removed it from any such context and presented it exclusively as a metaphor of the destruction of Jesus alone.
John has replaced Mark’s Temple scene with the miracle of the resurrection of Lazarus. This serves the same function as Mark’s Temple event — it is the catalyst that prompts the religious leaders to decide to kill Jesus. John has moved the Temple scene to the beginning of the gospel so its metaphor of the death of Jesus will hang over the entire narrative. What will prompt the leaders to kill Jesus is a life-giving miracle. Not a metaphor of destruction of Jesus (or even of the city of Jerusalem) but a sign of the life-giving goodness of God. One can read Mark and wonder if the priests had a right to kill Jesus for his temple act. One can’t read John without feeling the author’s savage picture of the incorrigible nature of the Jews.
Mark 11:11-21; 14:56-59
|11 And Jesus entered into Jerusalem [with Passover imminent], and into the temple: and when he had looked round about upon all things, and now the eventide was come, he went out unto Bethany with the twelve.12 And on the morrow, when they were come from Bethany, he was hungry:13 And seeing a fig tree afar off having leaves, he came, if haply he might find any thing thereon: and when he came to it, he found nothing but leaves; for the time of figs was not yet.. . . . .15 And they come to Jerusalem: and Jesus went into the temple, and began to cast out them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves;16 And would not suffer that any man should carry any vessel through the temple.17 And he taught, saying unto them, Is it not written, My house shall be called of all nations the house of prayer? but ye have made it a den of thieves.18 And the scribes and chief priests heard it, and sought how they might destroy him: for they feared him, because all the people was astonished at his doctrine.19 And when even was come, he went out of the city.20 And in the morning, as they passed by, they saw the fig tree dried up from the roots.21 And Peter calling to remembrance saith unto him, Master, behold, the fig tree which thou cursedst is withered away. . . .. . . . . . .56 For many bare false witness against him, but their witness agreed not together.57 And there arose certain, and bare false witness against him, saying,58 We heard him say, I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and within three days I will build another made without hands.59 But neither so did their witness agree together.||13 And the Jews’ passover was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.14 And found in the temple those that sold oxen and sheep and doves, and the changers of money sitting:15 And when he had made a scourge of small cords, he drove them all out of the temple, and the sheep, and the oxen; and poured out the changers’ money, and overthrew the tables;16 And said unto them that sold doves, Take these things hence; make not my Father’s house an house of merchandise.17 And his disciples remembered that it was written, The zeal of thine house hath eaten me up.18 Then answered the Jews and said unto him, What sign shewest thou unto us, seeing that thou doest these things?19 Jesus answered and said unto them, Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.20 Then said the Jews, Forty and six years was this temple in building, and wilt thou rear it up in three days?21 But he spake of the temple of his body.22 When therefore he was risen from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this unto them; and they believed the scripture, and the word which Jesus had said.|
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