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 Mark interrupt the story of Peter’s denial with Jesus’ hearing before the Sanhedrin (Mark) or Annas (John). Both authors begin with Peter in the courtyard in the predawn hours, 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 Mark, this situation poses no problems. However, scholars who believe John did not know the Synoptics must explain this evidence, which would tend to indicate literary dependence. For example, they might argue that John and Mark:

  1. independently chose to use the intercalation 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’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 would be strong evidence that John used Mark. And that’s true of scholars who see no reason why 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 sholars have never settled on the issue of Johanine independence.

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

On the other hand, Robert Forta . . .

However, Craig A. Evans is not convinced.  He prefers to imagine a pre-Markan, pre-Johanine “tradition,” that both evangelists tapped into.


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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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14 thoughts on “How John Used Mark: Investigating the Methods of the Fourth Evangelist (Part 2)”

  1. 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.

    1. 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.

      1. 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.

  2. JW:
    “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.


  3. 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

    1. 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”?

      1. 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.

    1. Matthias Klinghardt proposes that (i) a ‘pre-canonical’ Mark was written first based on a gospel that Marcion had (that Klinghard calls ‘Mcn’, that he thinks Marcion may have acquired ie, not written); (ii) a pre-canonical Matthew was then developed based on both that Mcn and that pre-canonical Mark; then (iii) a pre-canonical John was develop based on the previous three; then (iv) a pre-canonical Luke was produced based on the previous four; then (v) someone redacted those four pre-canonical texts to produced the ones we know know, or something close to them.

    2. Possible shouldn’t be confused with probable and we shouldn’t complicate things to no good end. Speculation in=Speculation out. Two centuries of the Logienquelle nonsense is bad enough, we don’t need anymore specious inventions.

      What Tim has presented here is elegant and simple. The thing I like most is it puts the spotlight on the authors and their agency: they are not simply redacting the material of others; they are being truly creative. They may all be as mad as a box of frogs; but I can appreciate their content as literature and their command of language and material. There is a Tuscan proverb traduttori traditori, translators traitors, which is also very much applicable here: so much is obscured or lost in even the most benevolent translation, something that most mainstream scholars seem incapable of producing.

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