Ehrman: “It is simplest to assume”? How the Gospel of John IS Dependent Upon Gospel of Mark

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by Neil Godfrey

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.)
  4. 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.
  5. 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:

  1. Both begin with a sudden entry into the city at the Passover season
  2. 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.
  3. Both have Jesus immediately begin with casting out the sinners. No preparatory discussion of his observations, confrontations, thoughts.
  4. The action of casting out is followed by a scripture quotation
  5. 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

John 2:13-22

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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Neil Godfrey

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16 thoughts on “Ehrman: “It is simplest to assume”? How the Gospel of John IS Dependent Upon Gospel of Mark”

  1. ‘Independent’ in Ehrman speak means they both heard it from the same source. If I read the Washington Post and you read the Washington Post (without telling me), and we both repeat what the Washington Post says, we then have independent multiple attestation of the truth of the Washington Post story.

  2. ‘It is simplest to assume that John had his own sources for his accounts.’

    This is just an assumption. Don’t you know that Ehrman never states it is a fact that John is independent? It is just an assumption. Ehrman would never hit a mythicist over the head with an assumption. He deals only in facts when it comes to dismantling mythicist arguments. I don’t know where you get the idea that whatever a historicist assumes is true, has to be regarded as true.

    If Ehrman had wanted to claim that it really was true, he would have given some arguments for its truth.

    1. Ehrmans claim actually _is_ simplest to assume, but only if your previous assumptions are that a) Jesus existed and b) that the gospel writers were merely historians, trying to dilligently pin down the oral traditions they happened to know about, and in no way contributed to the story from their own imagination. That is, only if you assume overall historicity in the first place, and keep holding on to it, does his argument seem possible, but it does not allow to come to a final conclusion contrary to the initial core assumption.

  3. On these webpages http://historical-jesus.info/jnintro.html I showed “John” (likely a Gentile Christian from Asia minor) started his gospel knowing about gMark, and only gMark. Then the gospel was expanded with some reshuffling after gLuke was known. Then expanded again after ‘Acts’ was known, then completed after presbyter John (an ex-temple priest who converted late to Christianity) died.
    I’ll take here the opportunity to declare, according to the internet commentaries on it, that Ehrman’s book is very shallow (i.e. “it is simplest to assume …”), not well researched, full of assumptions and no more than a repeat of simplistic arguments already heard from scholars.

  4. It is interesting that John just had no idea that the synoptic gospels placed the denial by Peter of Jesus at one moment in time, and had no idea that there were gospels which placed the demonstration in the Temple in the week before Jesus’s death.

    For John is independent of the Gospels. He is not changing the other Gospels storyline, because he is not aware of their storyline.

    He is getting his stories about the demonstration in the Temple and Peter’s denials from very early sources.

    Which means, according to Bart’s analysis, that it was those very early sources which must have moved the demonstration in the Temple to early in Jesus’s career, rather than late in his career.

    For it was not John who did that. He could not change something he was unaware of, what with him being independent.

    So if there were very early independent sources basically lying about when the demonstration happened, how does that help Bart’s claim that early, independent sources make things more historically likely?

  5. And, of course, the reason why Paul does not mention these things is that everybody knew all about all of these stories.

    All those independent sources, all telling everybody about everything, and everybody was still getting them from independent sources? What sort of rumour mill is that?

  6. You are examining the practice of borrowing and imitating. I think the more profound way of approaching the subject is through asking how, and why, the stories are different. Also, it seems that one ought to ask what purpose it serves, and who is it aimed at, or targetted, as in a polemic. And, again, whose vested interest is being defended? This goes without saying what the Christological nuances are that can be compared and evaluated. So, again in the “temple cleansings”. Different reasons are given for these episodes. John’s is a sign; a sign that is not supposed to happen according to the synoptics.

    1. Agree that these questions are all most important. My interest at the moment, however, was primarily in addressing the facile claim that John and Mark are independent. If we can see how John is derived from Mark then that also has an important implication — we really do have only one gospel told in four different ways. The next step is to explain the differences, asking how and why, as you rightly point out.

  7. I think John’s Gospel was a proto-orthodox reworking of the “Manifestations” of Apelles. If so, its author, as an ex-Marcionite, knew at least one other written gospel: the one that Marcion used.

    But Apelles did claim to have another source for his gospel: his prophetess associate Philumena. It was likely from her that he obtained the unique elements of his gospel. She claimed she received them via revelations from a phantom who appeared to her and sometimes said he was Christ, other times Paul.

    So does Philumena qualify as an independent witness? To those who accept her revelations as authentic she would. Alas, I am not one of those. And I expect that if Bart Ehrman knew his independent witness for the Fourth Gospel was a second-century prophetess, he too would scratch that witness from his list.

    1. Roger, I find your comments interesting, but not well developed. Have you read Hermann Detering? Anyway, please note that John’s gospel is originally based on signs, the very things that the synoptic forbid. Second, there are various tense differences on glory, glorified, has glorified, etc. in which some times the author (writer) refers to as to be in the future, and then strangely, it is something ongoing, or persistent. I have not yet found any writer who has tackled this problem. But, it concerns issues like multiple authorship, and dating, wherein the original manuscripts were kept private for some time while the contributors were working out the final version to be copied. My personal opinion, at this time, is that John was originally anti Jewish gnostic, and opposed to the Old Testament. This because he did not believe Elijah went to heaven, (John 3:13), or anyone else, Enoch. And because of his radical stance against Jews. His views were not tenable in the light of the current belief in the OT. So, he was outvoted, and others helped him to complete his gospel; the usual clearing house project prior to mass copying. Only now it contained many OT references. I think that no less than three persons collaborated in the project, and up to about six. I’m working on John, and have come upon many new things, from the constant prioneer work of others. Thank you for the contribution you have made about Apelles, and Philsophume.

      1. Ronald,

        There is a more developed explanation of my ideas about John’s Gospel in a series of posts I did last year entitled: “The Letters Supposedly Written by Ignatius of Antioch.” You can find it by plugging “Ignatius of Antioch” into the Vridar “Search” box. In posts six through ten of the series I argue an Apellean affiliation for Ignatius and explain why I think John’s Gospel is a reworked version of the Manifestations of Apelles.

  8. “One can no longer speak of a consensus against Johannine dependence on the Synoptics or, at least, on Mark. The reasons for the revival of interest in favor of John’s dependence are varied.”

    —New Testament scholar, Raymond Brown, in his book, The Death of the Messiah (1994), p. 76

    Gary: How many times have you heard conservative Christian apologists say that even if the authors of Luke and Matthew were dependent on Mark, the author of John was not. “Scholarship demonstrates that the Gospel of John is not dependent on the Synoptics, therefore we have at least two independent sources (Mark and John) for the Arrest, Trial, Crucifixion, and Resurrection stories found in the Gospels.”

    Not so fast, Christians!

    Scholars are currently divided on this issue. No one can claim either side of this argument as fact. We might have two independent sources for these stories, but it is also possible that the core story came from just one source: the author of the Gospel of Mark. If the core details of the Jesus’ Passion Story came solely from the anonymous author of the Gospel of Mark, whom the majority of scholars do not believe was an eyewitness or the associate of an eyewitness (ie., not John Mark), it is then possible that much or all of the Arrest scene, Trial scene, Crucifixion scene, and Resurrection scene are literary inventions, perfectly acceptable in Greco-Roman biographies!

    As long as the core story remained intact…that Jesus of Nazareth had been arrested by the Romans; tried and convicted of treason against Caesar; executed by crucifixion; buried in some manner; and shortly thereafter, his disciples believed that he appeared to them, in some fashion…the other details found in the Passion Narrative may be literary invention (fiction)!

    Think of that! It would certainly answer a lot of questions. Why does (the original) Resurrection Story in Mark have zero appearance stories? Why does the Gospel of Matthew, written a decade or so later, have appearances to the male disciples in Galilee, while the Gospel of Luke, also written a decade or so after Mark (whose author most scholars believe was not aware of Matthew’s gospel), has appearances only in Jerusalem and Judea? And why does the last Gospel written, John, have appearances in Jerusalem and Galilee as if the author had combined Matthew and Luke’s stories??? My, my, my. The evidence for a fantastical, never-heard-of-before-or-since Resurrection is much, much weaker than the average Christian layperson sitting in the pew on Sunday realizes!


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