How John Used Mark: Investigating the Methods of the Fourth Evangelist (Part 1)

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by Tim Widowfield

Part 1: Turning Mark Inside Out

In a comment to Neil’s post, Discovering the Sources for the First Gospel, 3 — Criteria, from way back in May of 2012, I introduced a way to explain how the Fourth Evangelist may have used the Gospel of Mark. It might not be a novel approach — there is no new thing under the sun — and I certainly don’t have access to all the commentaries and exegeses on John. However, it’s new to me.

English: John the Evangelist, miniature, Gospe...
English: John the Evangelist, miniature, Gospel Book, Vatopedi monastery, cod. 16 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For simplicity’s sake, here’s my comment, with some minor edits:

In Mark 15:37, Jesus “breathes his last.” In the following verse the temple curtain is torn from top to bottom. And in verse 39, the centurion declares him to be the Son of God.

Key words to notice in verse 15:36 are (1) ἐσχίσθη (eschisthē) — “was torn” and (2) ἄνωθεν (anōthen) — “from [the] top.” A close, literal translation of the verse might be: “And the veil of the temple was torn in two from the top to the bottom.”

In John, conversely, at the beginning of the crucifixion (19:23) the soldiers take Jesus’ belongings and split them among themselves. They divide his garments into four equal piles, but they notice that Jesus’ tunic is formed of a single piece of woven fabric without seams. John says that the tunic was “seamless from the top (anōthen), woven throughout all.” And in the next verse, they decide not to tear (σχίσωμεν (schisōmen)) the tunic, but cast lots for it instead. It was not torn.

The garment John describes has reminded several commentators of the priestly vestment described by Josephus: “Now this vesture was not composed of two pieces, nor was it sewed together upon the shoulders and the sides, but it was one long vestment so woven as to have an aperture for the neck; not an oblique one, but parted all along the breast and the back.” (http://www.ccel.org/j/josephus/works/ant-3.htm)

So John has taken a story about the rending of the temple veil that occurs at the end of the crucifixion and created a new story about a special garment taken from Jesus (with allusions to the vestment of high priest), which is not torn. John’s curious detail about division into four parts could be another allusion to the veil of the temple, which was said to have been woven from four different colors, each symbolizing one of the four elements that make up the world. (See http://www.margaretbarker.com/Papers/BeyondtheVeil.pdf)

Margaret Barker says that the the high priest would take off the vestment (which was also woven from the same four colors as the veil) before entering the Holy of Holies, passing through the veil. In the ritual, the priest bore the name of YHWH and in a sense became the Lord. Barker writes: “He took off this robe when he entered the holy of holies because the robe was the visible form of one who entered the holy of holies. In the Epistle to the Hebrews, which explores the theme of Jesus as the high priest, there is the otherwise enigmatic line: his flesh was the veil of the temple (Heb.10.20). In other words, the veil was matter which made visible whatever passed through it from the world beyond the veil. Those who shed the earthly garments, on the other side of the veil, were robed in garments of glory. In other words, they became divine.” (See http://www.marquette.edu/maqom/veil.html)

We can imagine why John didn’t like the story of the rending of the curtain. As Barker explains, the veil separated the terrestrial from the celestial realm. John also ignores the crack in the firmament that Mark says appeared at the Baptism. In both cases we have portents of the eschaton. If John was promoting a gospel of realized eschatology, then stories about the inbreaking of the supernatural world (including exorcisms) had to be deleted or re-imagined.

In a nutshell, I suggest that a key to understanding John’s rewrite of Mark is to find similar passages in which the Fourth Evangelist took an idea from his predecessor and turned it on its head.

Ashes! Ashes! We all fall down.

Can we find other similar instances of John’s upside-down, inside-out rewriting of Mark in the Passion narrative? I believe so. As you no doubt recall, John omits the scene of the agony in Gethsemane. But is it possible John found building blocks lying within that unused material? Let’s take a closer look.

Below, I’ve lined up the two gospels with John’s narrative in chapter 18, running from verse 1 through 8. The corresponding verses in Mark mostly run in reverse order touching on 14:32, then 14:43, 36, 35, and 34. (Note: All quoted scripture in this post comes from the NASB.)

Mark John
14:32a They came to a place named Gethsemane; 18:1 When Jesus had spoken these words, He went forth with His disciples over the ravine of the Kidron, where there was a garden, in which He entered with His disciples.
14:32b and He said to His disciples, “Sit here until I have prayed.” (The NIV tells translates John 18:1 as they wished it were written: “When he had finished praying . . .” Of course, John’s gospel never uses the noun for prayer or the verb to pray.)
18:2 Now Judas also, who was betraying Him, knew the place, for Jesus had often met there with His disciples.
Agony in the Garden – 14:33-42 [Agony Omitted]
14:43a And immediately, while he was still speaking,
14:43b Judas came, one of the twelve, and with him a crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the scribes and the elders. 18:3 Judas then, having received the Roman cohort and officers from the chief priests and the Pharisees, came there with lanterns and torches and weapons.
Judas’ Kiss of Betrayal – 14:44-45 [Kiss Omitted]
14:36 And he said, “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.”
18:4 So Jesus, knowing all the things that were coming upon Him, went forth and said to them, “Whom do you seek?”
(The will of Jesus is not to “take the cup.”) (Jesus does not ask to be relieved of his awful burden, but meets his fate head on. Here the will of Jesus and the will of God are in concert.)
18:5 They answered Him, “Jesus the Nazarene.” He said to them, “I am He.” And Judas also, who was betraying Him, was standing with them.
14:35a And going a little farther, 18:6a So when He said to them, “I am He,” they drew back
14:35b he fell on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. 18:6b and fell to the ground.
18:7 Therefore He again asked them, “Whom do you seek?” And they said, “Jesus the Nazarene.”
14:34a And he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death. 18:8a Jesus answered, “I told you that I am He; 

(Jesus stands before the soldiers and speaks boldly)
14:34b Remain here and watch.” 18:8b so if you seek Me, let these go their way,”
(Mark’s Jesus asks his favorite disciples to stay and watch. John’s Jesus demands that the soldiers let all of his disciples go. This is the center of a sort of “trans-gospel reverse chiastic structure.”)

More graphically, we can show the relationship between the two texts like this:





18:4a Jesus, knowing all that would happen to him
18:6 they drew back and fell to the ground
18:8a I told you that I am he
18:8b let these men go
14:34b Remain here
14:34a My soul is very sorrowful, even to death.
14:35 going a little farther, he fell on the ground
14:36 Yet not what I will, but what you will.
Foreknowledge and consent vs. grim acquiescence  Who fell down?  Defiance or Sorrow? Stay or go?

A. Foreknowledge and consent vs. grim acquiescence

In Mark, Jesus clearly does not desire to go through with the plan, but accedes to God’s will. Mark stresses the idea that Jesus obeys God, even though it will lead to torture and death. Jesus’ internal struggle portrayed in Gethsemane has no corollary in John, because his Jesus has known and accepted the plan from the beginning. Jesus’ oneness with the Father explains his foreknowledge.

For John, the Son and the Father are both committed to the plan, while for Mark, Jesus is the obedient, albeit reluctant, sacrifice. Mark’s Jesus pushes away the cup. Conversely, John’s Jesus accepts it gladly — was there ever any doubt?

B. Who fell down?

John, as we have seen, has no use for the Agony in the Garden scene. However, he did find a use for some of its constituent parts. Instead of Jesus walking forward and falling on the ground (earth, γῆς (gēs)), John invents a story of the armed cohort stumbling backward and falling to the ground (ground, χαμαὶ (chamai)). [Note: Only John uses the word chamai (and only twice) in the NT.]

C. Defiance or sorrow?

Christians often describe the scene in the garden with the word “agony.” Mark uses the word περίλυπος/perilupos, or “engulfed in sorrow,” to the point of death. John’s gospel, on the other hand, is fully invested in the idea that Jesus knows the future and is a willing participant in the Passion.

D. Should I stay or should I go?

Mark has Jesus ask his disciples to stay and pray. John’s Jesus demands that the cohort let his disciples go. In the fourth gospel, Jesus remains in control of the situation. Unlike Mark’s disciples who flee the scene (either clothed or naked), the disciples in John owe their freedom to an assertive Jesus. So what if Peter drew his sword? Let them go!

Shall I not drink it?

Besides reusing the falling down motif (in a scene reminiscent of The Benny Hill Show), John also reuses the allusion to the cup, but directly contradicts Mark.

Jesus Declines the Cup (at Gethsemane) Jesus Accepts the Cup (at the Arrest)
14:36 And he said, “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” 18:11 So Jesus said to Peter, “Put the sword into the sheath; the cup which the Father has given Me, shall I not drink it?
(In Mark, Jesus subordinates his own will to the will of God. Jesus is obedient.) (In John, Jesus does not push away the cup, but instead accepts it willingly.)

John’s Jesus is thus a full participant in the plan, not a submissive servant doing something he would rather not do. Jesus’ explicit reference to taking the cup and drinking from it demonstrates John’s familiarity with and rejection of the Markan account.

The narrative purpose of Judas Iscariot

John has no use for the Judas Kiss, because for him, Jesus has taken control of the situation. He draws attention to his own presence. As in the whole of the Fourth Gospel, Jesus is the proclaimer and the proclaimed.

In the Fourth Gospel, Judas the Betrayer leads the cohort to the garden. In the Synoptics, Judas points out who Jesus is by planting a kiss. However, in John, Jesus takes command of the situation, announcing his identity. This difference, incidentally, will greatly affect John’s narrative of the trial before the Sanhedrin.

In both narrative alternatives, Judas has special knowledge. In Mark, he is able to identify Jesus (signified by his kiss), while in John he knows where the teacher and his disciples meet at night and can thus lead the cohort to him. Mark’s narrative implies that the authorities wish to single out the leader, Jesus, and arrest him. We understand and accept that the disciples run away without being followed. The target is Jesus. Strike the shepherd and the sheep shall flee.

In John, by contrast, the target of the arrest is arguably the whole crew: the rabble-rouser and his followers. Jesus clearly shares that notion, because he petitions for their release. “[I]f you seek Me,” he demands, “let these go their way.”

John has no use for the Judas Kiss, because for him, Jesus has taken control of the situation. He draws attention to his own presence. As in the whole of the Fourth Gospel, Jesus is the proclaimer and the proclaimed.


John frequently contradicts Mark’s account of the arrest, trial, and crucifixion. His references to specific events, which he turns inside out, and to specific words and concepts, which he reuses in order to make specific theological points, indicate a familiarity with and rejection of the synoptic passion account, not the possession of an independent source.

In the next post, we’ll look at how John reused a Markan sandwich to tell a different story in the trial of Jesus.

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Tim Widowfield

Tim is a retired vagabond who lives with his wife and multiple cats in a 20-year-old motor home. To read more about Tim, see our About page.

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26 thoughts on “How John Used Mark: Investigating the Methods of the Fourth Evangelist (Part 1)”

    1. That’s a common explanation. I don’t think you can call it a consensus, but probably a slim majority of scholars think that John knew of some of the traditions that appear in Mark, but not the written gospel of Mark itself.

      I will argue in future posts that John shows a knowledge of specific, relatively unusual, Greek words as well as narrative sequences that are better explained by a familiarity with Mark’s gospel.

      1. Hi Tim, I’m interested in learning more about your future posts that deal with John’s knowledge of specifics in Mark’s gospel. Where do I find the continuation to this topic?

    1. In reply I wrote the following:

      The above article does not offer any example of part of the gospels that “do not fit well” but even “debunks” the supposedly “exalted image” the evangelists wished to portray. It does hint, however, that one such instance might be the rejection of Jesus by his family in his home-town.

      Yet that particular instance is indeed a classic trope Jewish writers had long used of exalted “men of God” — and various versions of it are also found in the wider Hellenistic literature. Ever since Abel, Joseph, Moses, Jephthah, David, . . . it is standard for an author to demonstrate the greatness of the pious by showing how he endured lack of recognition and even rejection, especially by his own. Far from debunking or running counter to a supposedly obvious desire to exalt a hero, such a trope always serves to increase the readers’ admiration of the godly hero. It is necessary for the godly to suffer rejection and even persecution. That’s their job description. (It also fulfills the prophecy of the “Suffering Servant”.)

      As for the other details such as scenes that are plausibly attributable to the setting, or there being consistency of some sort of characterization — such details are standard fare in all enjoyable writing, as much fictive as historical.

      I am glad to hear the author does not have an axe to grind. Nor do I. I can also say that I have no personal interest at stake over the question. I would quite happily be persuaded Jesus did exist (indeed, I don’t know how to prove he didn’t). But it is refreshing to read a position argued civilly against the mythicist view. I have found uncivil types on both sides of the fence.

  1. Great article. Ever since I have read The Birth of Christianity by Crossan, I have been suspicious of John putting Mark on his head. His intercalation of Peter’s denial and Jesus’ affirmation may betray his knowledge of Mark and the synoptics. John is Elijah for Mark but not for John. Jesus seeks out the disciples in Mark while the disciples seek Jesus in John. But more intriguing is the way John changes Mark’s apocalyptic tone. While Jesus in Mark tells his disciples that “there are some who will not taste death until they see the Kingdom of God come with power”, John changes it to “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”. What is just for one or two in Mark is for anyone in John. But Mark isn’t the only victim. John seems to have changed certain scenarios in Matthew and Luke, where John sends his disciples to Jesus to see if he is the messiah to having jewish officials come to John to see if he is the Messiah. Both in Mark and John Isaiah is quoted, though different passages.

    1. Thanks. I agree with you on the intercalation of Peter’s denial with Jesus before the Sanhedrin. That will be the focus in the next part of this series.

      I often find it frustrating to read books on John written by scholars who are certain that John knew of some “other tradition” that may be just as historical as the Synoptics. It seems far more likely to me that John was familiar with the other three gospels and systematically corrected them based on theological reasons, not historical tradition.

      1. It is frustrating Tim, what other sources? I have considered a signs source but feel that John just uses the synoptics as his sources for a retelling of their material. Even the issue of faith and signs are put on their head, John ignores the fact that most miracles in Mark need the fuel of faith while in John Jesus provokes faith and Mark’s Jesus gives no sign while that is all what Jesus does in John. Is John the first to radically change and manipulate his sources in such a manner?

      2. I cannot read NT Greek or Aramaic, but have long supposed and stated that John was familiar with “synoptic material” from which he abstracts events or themes, and transforms them into a deification drama, rich in symbolism. Defenders of the FG have noted how accurately his material reflects an knowledge or memory of Judean detail, the “dwelt among us” aspect of the glory-beheld Logos. The most obvious difference is that the extrovert Exorcist-healer is replaced by the introvert Teacher-lecturer, an indirect confirmation of my still retained opinion that there was a real “magician” on Galilean earth who was transformed into a being from Heaven later on (not vice versa). The argument that Paul’s letters, earlier than all four gospels, reflect no biographical detail of a Jesus in the flesh is (a) not entirely correct and (b) largely irrelevant to the ostensible purposes of his correspondence. In examining fact or fiction in NT origins, we need to focus more closely on the book of Daniel.

  2. Tim,

    It’s a very good idea, and not very well known but not entirely unprecedented in the scholarship: Gregory Dunstan, “The Clothing of the Passion: Symbolism in the Passion Narrative of St. John,” in Search: A Church of Ireland Journal 22 (1999) 26-33 has published on the connection between the rending of the temple veil in Mark and Jesus’ clothing in John. I proposed a paper to the John, Jesus, and History section of the SBL last year with the tile “Parting The Veil: Uncovering John’s Use of Mark 15.38” but it wasn’t accepted. I was going to argue that John was engaging in a creative bit of interpretation: if Jesus’ body was the temple, as it says in John 2.21, then the veil of the temple was Jesus’ clothing. What got me started was D. Moody Smith’s argument that if John had known Mark, it’s unlikely he would have omitted the rending of the temple veil in his own account of the passion (John Among the Gospels 2e, 225). If Dunstan is right, though, then John hasn’t omitted it at all.

    1. Thanks for the interesting info. I would like to have read your rejected paper. Did they explain why they rejected your proposal?

      I think it’s useful to step back and compare, e.g., the typical scholarly treatment of Luke vs. John. Since the general consensus (with good reason) is that Luke copied a great deal from Mark, then when the author of the third gospel omits something from the narrative, we as, “What were the reasons for Luke’s omission?” Or if Luke adds some words here and there, or changes the location, we ask, “Why did he add that?”

      On the other hand, many (most?) scholars presuppose that John is independent, and so the questions are different. A very common argument along these lines goes like this: “John would not have omitted [something in Mark, Matthew or Luke], because it is congenial to his point of view.” Or, to quote Bultmann:

      It is plain that John has not utilized the Synoptics, but a source, in which the same tradition was differently formed; his account cannot be understood as an independent editing of the Synoptics (or of one of them), since his departures cannot be traced back to the theological motifs that are characteristic of him. [The Gospel of John, p. 642-643]

      I would like to turn that argument around and say that if John is using the Synoptics, what kinds of literary devices is he using in his rewrite? If he omits the rending of the curtain, why would he do that? What theological reasons might John have had for moving the Temple Cleansing to the beginning of the gospel? Assuming he knew the Synoptic version of the baptism, why did he erase it from the record?

      We should note that one important method for determining John’s “theological motifs” is the analysis of the differences among the gospels. In other words, in those few cases in which we have a “quadruple tradition” it is instructive to see what John adds, modifies, or omits — and that’s true whether or not you think John is independent. Hence, to argue that John’s “departures” from the other three can’t be explained by his theological tendencies is rather circular.

      In the end, of course, dismissing Markan dependence by saying an omission or radical rewriting “cannot be understood” is an argument from incredulity.

      It’s unfortunate the the closest library to me that has Search: A Church of Ireland Journal is almost 200 miles away.

  3. TruthSurge did a series of videos on YouTube on the Jesus Myth – Excavating the Empty Tomb – IIANM. He made a claim I had been meaning to confirm but have procrastinated. He pointed out that Mark often used the Omniscient Narrator mode and that John dropped those passages or inserted the unnamed disciple. The Gethsemane pericope would be an example of that, I think.

    Perhaps John’s theology determined whether he omitted a story or put the disciple Jesus loved into it.

    1. Why do you want to hear our comments?

      ‘Catholic Cardinal Cormack Murphy-O’Connor declared in 2009 that atheists ‘were not fully human.’

      No Catholic has ever apologised for those remarks.

      That is what religious people think about atheists. They are not fully human.

      So why on earth are you interested in comments from beings that are ‘not fully human’?

        1. Does any “new” atheist claim to speak for all atheists?

          Can you point to any case in which a member of X speaks for all members of X? Even my Catholic friends often disagree with the Pope.

          What is the point of all this belly-aching about “new” atheists not being polite, not speaking for all non-believers, being too “arrogant,” etc.? That isn’t a rhetorical question, BTW. I’d really like to know the psychological basis.

          1. I’m on your side Tim. As a non-believer I dont even read much of the new atheists, though I have read several of Dawkin’s books, so I raise my brow when they are brought up by apologists of the faith. Atheism doesnt really need them; questioning the existence of the Gods dates way back before the new atheists. All the belly -aching is an attempt to attack the person rather than focus on the argument at hand, Argumentum Ad Hominem.

            1. The YouTube video’s summary includes this choice sentence: “They [the new atheists] are smug, irritating, dull, intolerant and profoundly anti-human we learn.”

              Just imagine how weepy these hipsters would be if they read Mencken or Diderot.

              Et ses mains ourdiraient les entrailles du prêtre,
              Au défaut d’un cordon pour étrangler les rois.

              (And his hands would plait the priest’s entrails,
              For want of a rope, to strangle kings.)

              –Denis Diderot

    2. Well, Laura, I would love to hear your comments relevant to this blog post. Unless, of course, you’re just doing the modern, Internet equivalent of sticking leaflets on people’s windshields.

    3. I wonder if you would be interested in reading anything by Daniel Dennet, Stephen Pinker, Michel Onfrey, A. C. Grayling, Tamas Pataki, David Mills, or posts here where I have discussed religion. I got the impression that the people in the Youtube conversation had not read much by “new atheists” or had only read quite selectively. What do you understand is the most positive view of life and everything held by any of the “new atheists”? I’m sure you can refer to their own printed words and not just pick a few lines from the Youtube conversation.

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