How John Used Mark: Investigating the Methods of the Fourth Evangelist (Part 2)

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by Tim Widowfield

Part 2: A Markan Sandwich in John’s Gospel

The Denial of St Peter

The Denial of St Peter (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Scholars have long noted that both the gospel of John and the gospel of Mark interrupt the story of Peter’s denial with Jesus’ trial before the Sanhedrin (Mark) or interrogation before Annas (John). Both authors begin with Peter in the courtyard of the high priest late at night, pause the story to describe Jesus’ initial questioning before the Jewish authority, then resume the denial narrative. In other words, the author of John’s gospel has apparently used the same literary device found in Mark.

For New Testament scholars who think that John knew the Synoptics, especially Mark, this situation poses no problems. However, scholars who believe John did not know Mark must explain this evidence, which tends to indicate literary dependence. For example, they might argue that John and Mark:

  1. independently chose to use the intercalation (sandwich) technique to tell the two stories,
  2. used a pre-gospel Passion narrative in which this literary device existed,
  3. or knew the same oral tradition, which happened to contain the sandwich.

Comparing sandwiches

For the purposes of discussion, it’s helpful to see the sandwiches side by side.

Mark 14:53-72 (NRSV) John 18:12-27 (NRSV)
Introduction Introduction
[53] They took Jesus to the high priest; and all the chief priests, the elders, and the scribes were assembled. [12] So the soldiers, their officer, and the Jewish police arrested Jesus and bound him. [13] First they took him to Annas, who was the father-in-law of Caiaphas, the high priest that year. [14] Caiaphas was the one who had advised the Jews that it was better to have one person die for the people.
A.1 A.1
[54] Peter had followed him at a distance, right into the courtyard of the high priest; and he was sitting with the guards, warming himself at the fire. [15] Simon Peter and another disciple followed Jesus. Since that disciple was known to the high priest, he went with Jesus into the courtyard of the high priest, [16] but Peter was standing outside at the gate. So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out, spoke to the woman who guarded the gate, and brought Peter in. [17] The woman said to Peter, “You are not also one of this man’s disciples, are you?” He said, “I am not.” [18] Now the slaves and the police had made a charcoal fire because it was cold, and they were standing around it and warming themselves. Peter also was standing with them and warming himself.
[55] Now the chief priests and the whole council were looking for testimony against Jesus to put him to death; but they found none. [56] For many gave false testimony against him, and their testimony did not agree. [57] Some stood up and gave false testimony against him, saying, [58] “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands.'” [59] But even on this point their testimony did not agree. [60] Then the high priest stood up before them and asked Jesus, “Have you no answer? What is it that they testify against you?” [61] But he was silent and did not answer. Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” 62 Jesus said, “I am; and ‘you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.'” 63 Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, “Why do we still need witnesses? 64 You have heard his blasphemy! What is your decision?” All of them condemned him as deserving death. 65 Some began to spit on him, to blindfold him, and to strike him, saying to him, “Prophesy!” The guards also took him over and beat him. [19] Then the high priest questioned Jesus about his disciples and about his teaching. [20] Jesus answered, “I have spoken openly to the world; I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret. [21] Why do you ask me? Ask those who heard what I said to them; they know what I said.” [22] When he had said this, one of the police standing nearby struck Jesus on the face, saying, “Is that how you answer the high priest?” [23] Jesus answered, “If I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong. But if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?” [24] Then Annas sent him bound to Caiaphas the high priest.
A.2 A.2
[66] While Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the servant-girls of the high priest came by. [67] When she saw Peter warming himself, she stared at him and said, “You also were with Jesus, the man from Nazareth.” [68] But he denied it, saying, “I do not know or understand what you are talking about.” And he went out into the forecourt. Then the cock crowed. [69] And the servant-girl, on seeing him, began again to say to the bystanders, “This man is one of them.” [70] But again he denied it. Then after a little while the bystanders again said to Peter, “Certainly you are one of them; for you are a Galilean.” [71] But he began to curse, and he swore an oath, “I do not know this man you are talking about.” [72] At that moment the cock crowed for the second time. Then Peter remembered that Jesus had said to him, “Before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.” And he broke down and wept. [25] Now Simon Peter was standing and warming himself. They asked him, “You are not also one of his disciples, are you?” He denied it and said, “I am not.” [26] One of the slaves of the high priest, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, asked, “Did I not see you in the garden with him?” [27] Again Peter denied it, and at that moment the cock crowed.

Both authors have suspended the action outside in the courtyard in order to describe the questioning of Jesus, suggesting that the events occurred at the same time. As you no doubt already know, Mark often used such literary intercalations to great effect. He begins to tell one story, then leaves us hanging while he tells another, then returns for the punch line.

Of course, the observant reader or listener will pick up on the connections between the bread and the filling. In this case, Mark finally has Jesus tell someone in authority the whole truth: He is the Messiah. While Jesus is admitting his identity to the Sanhedrin, Mark tells us that Peter was denying his identity as a disciple. In addition, while the guards beat a now silent Jesus, whom they mockingly ask to prophesy, Peter is fulfilling prophecy through his threefold denial.

John used Mark?

John’s story differs in details, but retains the same structure and some of the same elements. In particular, they both use the same word for “warming himself” — θερμαινόμενος (thermainomenos) — to frame the interrogation scene. One would think that presence of an unusual word in both texts, along with the same literary/narrative device is strong evidence that John used Mark. And that’s true of scholars who see no reason John wouldn’t have been aware of at least one of the other gospels.

In fact, Norman Perrin in The New Testament, an Introduction: Proclamation and Parenesis, Myth and History, cited the double sandwich phenomenon as a key reason for thinking John knew Mark. He pointed to doubts in recent scholarship that a pre-Markan passion narrative actually existed. More likely, Mark did not inherit the passion story, but instead wrote it.

But there is a strong case that Mark himself originally composed this account of the trial at night before the Jewish authorities and then set it in the context of the story of Peter’s denial. If this is so, the evangelist John must necessarily have known the gospel of Mark. (Perrin, p. 228, emphasis mine)

Perrin, incidentally, reminds us that scholars have never settled on the issue of Johanine independence.

That question has never been answered by a consensus of scholarly opinion. (Perrin, p. 226)

John didn’t use Mark?

However, Craig A. Evans is not convinced. He prefers to imagine a pre-Markan, pre-Johanine “tradition,” that both evangelists tapped into. If anything, he argues, it looks as if Mark copied John. As evidence, he points to the almost clumsy way John has written his version.

What in John is a very wooden and obvious seam in which all of the key words are repeated with the least amount of variation appears in Mark in a much more smoothed out version. . . . Why does John almost “codify” what in Mark is less obvious? Thus the seam, if taken in isolation, and if explained in terms of literary dependence one way or another, is better explained as a Marcan improvement upon a very wooden and obvious seam in John rather than as an instance where John betrays his dependence on Mark. (p. 247, “Peter Warming Himself”, JBL 101, No. 2)

Explaining John’s changes

I argue that John knew Mark’s gospel, rearranged it according to his own sensibilities, and re-imagined it according to his own needs. The presence of the specific word “θερμαινόμενος” (warming himself) in both texts along with the sandwich structure strongly suggests literary dependence.

John recognized the structure of the Markan account as an intercalation, but found it unbalanced. So he moved one of the spoken denials to the first section. Evans finds the results more “wooden,” but John was familiar with the frequent use of resumptive repetition in the Hebrew Bible — specifically, repetition to denote simultaneity. The evangelist understood Mark’s account as a single narrative block, with two stories being told at the same time. We should view it as a narrative method rather than a redactional seam.

Note the fact that Peter’s denials in both accounts include two spoken denials and one denial the author refers to indirectly.

Mark 14:70 — δὲ πάλιν ἠρνεῖτο — Again he denied it.

John 18:27 — πάλιν οὖν ἠρνήσατο Πέτρος — Again Peter denied it.

Moreover Peter’s spoken denials follow a pattern in both Mark and John, but John has changed that pattern.

Mark 14:68 — Οὔτε οἶδα οὔτε ἐπίσταμαι σὺ τί λέγεις. — I do not know or understand what you’re saying to me.

Mark 14:71 — Οὐκ οἶδα τὸν ἄνθρωπον τοῦτον ὃν λέγετε. — I do not know this man of whom you speak.

John 18:17 — Οὐκ εἰμί. — I am not.

John 18:25 — Οὐκ εἰμί. — I am not.

(Ironically, the first time the word οἶδα (oida) appears in Mark, a demon is confessing the true nature of Jesus — he “knows” who he is. Now Peter is using the same word to deny he knows Jesus.)

It seems unlikely that John should have accidentally adopted these same literary patterns from an oral source. No, Mark invented the sandwich framework and the narrative background — i.e., Peter warming himself by the fire (so that his face is visible), the courtyard full of unsympathetic people, the patterns of denial, etc.

John needed to change the accusations leveled at Peter so that he can logically answer “I am not.” In Mark, Peter is accused of being “one of them” or being “with that Nazarene.” In response he swears, “I do not know . . .” But John changes the accusations to negative interrogatives, e.g.,  “Aren’t you also one of his disciples?”

Οὐκ εἰμί (ouk eimi) is the opposite of what Jesus says in Mark’s trial scene. While it’s true that John has Jesus say, “Ἐγώ εἰμι (Egō eimi; I am),” throughout his gospel, he doesn’t say it here. So Peter’s “I am not” in John is a mirror of Jesus’ “I am” in Mark.

Foreshadowing in John

John adds an unusual word in verse 18:18, but you’d never know it from the NIV translation.

It was cold, and the servants and officials stood around a fire they had made to keep warm. Peter also was standing with them, warming himself. (NIV)

What’s missing is the kind of fire they had built. The word ἀνθρακιὰν (anthrakian) refers to a charcoal fire or as older translations put it, “a fire of coals.” This word reappears in 21:8.

As soon then as they were come to land, they saw a fire of coals there, and fish laid thereon, and bread. (KJV)

The word ties the two stories together. At the night of the trial, Peter is standing by a charcoal fire just before he denies Jesus three times. Now we have another ἀνθρακιὰν (anthrakian), apparently lit by Jesus, complete with fish and bread on the side. After the meal Jesus asks three times if Peter loves him, and Peter affirms his love.

Foreshadowing in Mark

Once we’ve noticed that John is using Mark in a way that expands the original story, we can see a likely tie-in from the scene directly before the trial in Mark. Consider these verses:

Mark 14:51-52 — And there followed him a certain young man, having a linen cloth cast about his naked body; and the young men laid hold on him: and he left the linen cloth, and fled from them naked. (KJV)

John 21:7 — Therefore that disciple whom Jesus loved saith unto Peter, It is the Lord. Now when Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he girt his fisher’s coat unto him, (for he was naked,) and did cast himself into the sea. (KJV)

The word γυμνὸς (gymnos), meaning “naked,” appears in only once in Mark and once in John. In Mark, an anonymous young man loses his garment and runs away naked. In John, Peter starts out naked, then gathers his garment about his body, and runs toward Jesus. In Mark a fleeing naked man precedes Peter’s denials. In John, Peter’s efforts to get dressed and move toward Jesus precede his declarations of love. As we’ve noted before, we continually find narrative echoes of Mark in John, but often running in the opposite direction or “inside out.”

Putting it all together

With all the foregoing in mind, we can now look at the last chapter of John in a new light. Besides serving as a witness to the third and final post-resurrection appearance, the narrative undoes the damage that occurred after the arrest. But to understand how chapter 21 and Peter’s denials work together we need to bring in Mark’s gospel as well. We saw that Peter’s “I am not” statements mirror Jesus’ “I am” declaration in Mark’s trial scene. And we saw how the beginning of Peter’s rehabilitation begins with the undoing or rewinding of Mark 14:52.

The charcoal fires connect the two pericopae in John’s gospel. A fire of coals among enemies in the chilly night sets the stage for Peter’s betrayal. A fire of coals among friends at sunrise is the setting for Peter’s reconciliation.


Given the interdependence between John’s last chapter and the events related earlier, the question naturally arises whether it makes any sense to continue to argue that it was a later addition. I now think chapter 21 is integral to the gospel, and that much of its narrative was foreshadowed in the earlier story of Peter’s denial. John has edited Mark’s tradition, modifying it to fit his framework, which includes deliberate, direct parallels between the betrayal and the reconciliation pericopae.

Mark’s gospel ends with frightened women who say nothing to anyone. The fate of Peter is left hanging. Conversely, John’s gospel ends with a risen Jesus who has reconciled Peter to himself in a climactic scene of repentance and forgiveness.

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  • Clarke Owens
    2014-04-20 14:39:31 UTC - 14:39 | Permalink

    The discussion of the intercalation parallel is very interesting, as are the “mirror images” (mirror image is the reverse of the original). As someone who has argued for the internal similarities, implying influence, between the raising of Lazarus in John, and the “stopover in Bethany” episodes in the synoptics, I’m sympathetic to your position. It surprises me to read of fairly widespread skepticism of synoptic influence on John, because in the world of literary criticism there is typically no doubt of influence where there are even many fewer correspondences than these. But then, it seems NT scholarship operates according to its own rules.

    • Tim Widowfield
      2014-04-20 15:45:49 UTC - 15:45 | Permalink

      Clarke wrote: “But then, it seems NT scholarship operates according to its own rules.”

      I wish I could find it, but somewhere I read that NT scholars are accustomed to seeing the word-for-word copying in the Synoptics, and have wrongly applied this standard for determining influences. I continually see conservative scholars use vocabulary comparisons to conclude that John didn’t use Mark as a source — as if Luke’s and Matthew’s cribbing were the standard practice.

      If John wanted to correct Mark (or Luke), we should expect him to change what he found, leaving only echoes of the original.

      Just one more thing about the special rules in NT scholarship. You can find hundreds of arguments from scholars about the differences between the Temple cleansing in John vs. Mark. Is it the same event? Is it historically more likely that it happened on Jesus’ first trip to Jerusalem?

      But rarely does anyone discuss why John might have moved the story to the beginning. It just doesn’t seem all that important to them. Most conservative scholars now think John is independent and historically reliable, so they spend most of their time explaining away the differences in what Jesus said.

      Some of them still cling to the idea that there were two cleansings. Even “mainstream” scholars seem much less interested in the stories as they are and focus instead on the “actual events” they might refer to.

      • Neil Godfrey
        2014-04-20 22:45:41 UTC - 22:45 | Permalink

        If John wanted to correct Mark (or Luke), we should expect him to change what he found, leaving only echoes of the original.

        Exactly. And/or leave a discreet flag to point to the original. Matthew’s and Luke’s copying of large chunks of Mark near-verbatim is the exception, not the rule, in ancient intertextuality.

  • 2014-04-20 17:01:59 UTC - 17:01 | Permalink

    “John” is primarily a reaction to “Mark”. The issue is Source of supposed evidence for Jesus. “Mark”, following Paul, is revelation. “John” in reaction is supposed historical witness.

    Since “Mark” consists primarily of the impossible we can be certain that it does not have a source of historical witness. Therefore “Mark’s” 1st century Christianity, like Paul’s, had a claimed source of revelation. “John’s” second century Christianity, in reaction to “Mark”, claims a source of historical witness.

    All of your observations above revolve around this difference between “Mark” and “John”. For instance, “Mark’s” Jesus is silent during his supposed trial and tribulation = no historical witness (so to speak), you learn about it through revelation. “John’s” Jesus converts into the primary advocate for himself = historical witness. Both would be rolling stones around their empty tomes if they knew/could have foreseen that they would be placed in Canon with the other.


  • Kunigunde Kreuzerin
    2014-04-22 12:24:00 UTC - 12:24 | Permalink

    Thanks, very interesting.

  • 2014-05-04 19:25:01 UTC - 19:25 | Permalink

    Its all very interesting but it seems what is missing is the greater point in all this. The Holy Spirit of God which moved the writers to provide for us that which we have in the gospels and throughout the entire Bible. Now you can accept that premise or reject it. One should never underestimate the Word of God and the Power of God. Jesus Himself often said such things as ” …and the scriptures cannot be broken” when citing passages from the Old Testament. So while it may be interesting to discuss why we have what we have there, to not receive the Word of God as the the Word of God makes the whole discussion quite empty and vain. ” I have come into the world to testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.” ….Jesus (John 18:37) God Bless

    • Tim Widowfield
      2014-05-04 20:24:40 UTC - 20:24 | Permalink

      Mark: “So while it may be interesting to discuss why we have what we have there, to not receive the Word of God as the the Word of God makes the whole discussion quite empty and vain.”

      How would I know it’s the word of God and why do you capitalize “Word”?

      • 2014-05-05 18:32:50 UTC - 18:32 | Permalink

        Well Tim, good question. Jesus told us in John 8 that “those who are of God, hear God’s Words”. It is the Spirit of God that bears witness of the Word of God in the hearts of the people of God. I hope you are able to discern the difference between the teachings of men and the teachings of God.

        • reboho
          2014-05-06 15:37:47 UTC - 15:37 | Permalink

          Visions of a snake swallowing its tail…

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