How John Used Mark: Investigating the Methods of the Fourth Evangelist (Part 3)

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by Tim Widowfield

Part 3: John Displaces and Rewrites the Cleansing of the Temple

Cleansing the Temple (Quarter from Augustinian...
Cleansing the Temple (Quarter from Augustinian polyptych). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

All four evangelists recount Jesus’ cleansing of the temple at Jerusalem. The Synoptics (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) place the event during the week before the crucifixion, while John sets it near the very start of Jesus’ ministry. In the ancient church, many, if not most, commentators assumed these accounts of disturbances at the temple described two different events. In fact, you can find apologists today who claim Jesus did it every time he went to Jerusalem, which — if we harmonize John with the other three — suggests that it happened three times or more.

At this point, we’re not going to cover all the detailed reasons that most scholars now believe the pericopae in John and the Synoptics refer to the same event. Nor will we dwell for long on the arguments concerning whether John knew Mark or a pre-Markan oral tradition. As I’ve said many times before, I maintain that John knew the written gospel of Mark. In this case, he used Mark’s account of the cleansing, but he moved it in time and changed it in form and substance for theological reasons.


John agrees with the Synoptics on several basic elements. Jesus arrives in Jerusalem during the time of the Passover, enters the temple’s outer courtyard, and begins to make a scene. We have similar vocabulary in both versions, including the words for “tables” [τράπεζα (trapeza)] and “money changers” [κολλυβιστῶν (kollybistōn)].

In the Johannine and Markan versions, Jesus is wholly successful. John says he drove them “all” [πάντας (pantas)] out, while Mark claims that nobody could carry a vessel through the temple. Both evangelists concur that for a period of time, just before Passover, Jesus single-handedly blocked all temple trade. On the other hand, parts of John’s story diverge from the Markan source. For example, in John’s version we have not just birds and money changers, but large, domesticated animals: sheep and oxen. Did you ever wonder whether they really had livestock pens in the temple courtyard? Andrew Lincoln, in his commentary on the Gospel of John notes:

John’s addition of animals as large as cows has produced some questions about its verisimilitude. Jewish sources fail to mention such animals in the temple precincts and their excrement would have caused problems of pollution of the sacred site. (Lincoln, 2005, p. 137, emphasis mine)

For scholars who think John contains actual eyewitness material, these sorts of puzzles usually elicit a shrug and a “Why not?” However, those of us who are unencumbered by the anxiety of historicity may rightly ask: “Why did John embellish upon the legend? What is the significance behind Jesus’ driving out the sacrificial animals? Is it a portent of the passing of the age of sacrifice (post 70 CE) or is it something else?”

Another important difference between the Fourth Gospel and Mark is the interpretation given afterward. In John’s theology, Jesus is the new temple. People gain access to God (including the forgiveness of sins) through the body of Christ, which was raised again on the third day. While most scholars view this analysis as deriving from early Christians’ post-Easter interpretation of Jesus’ Passion and death, I would go a step further. It seems to me that the Fourth Evangelist is talking about an earthly temple that no longer exists and that he may never have seen, and that the temple cleansing in John is a re-interpretation of an early Christian myth.

Vessels and pouring things out of them

As I described in the first part of this series, our experimental approach suggests 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.” We look for signs of dependence, especially the phenomenon of verbal affinity, then attempt carefully to discern how and why John changed Mark.

vessel [σκεῦος (skeuos)] — Mark 11:16, John 19:29. The Greek word skeuos in its singular form can mean vessel, implement, or “thing.” In its plural form it means “property” or perhaps simply “stuff.” In all four gospels, the singular form occurs only twice: once in Mark’s temple cleansing and once in John’s Passion story. Mark says that Jesus prevented anyone from carrying a skeuos (KJV: vessel, NIV: merchandise) through the outer courtyard. John writes about a skeuos (KJV: vessel, NIV: jar) full of vinegar at Golgotha.

to pour out [ἐκχέω, (ekcheo)] — Mark 14:24, John 2:15

“. . . διαθήκης τὸ ἐκχυννόμενον ὑπὲρ πολλῶν . . .” — Mark 14:24. The verb “to pour out” occurs only once in Mark, with reference to the wine at the Lord’s supper. Jesus says it is his blood of the covenant, poured out for many.

“. . . τῶν κολλυβιστῶν ἐξέχεεν τὸ κέρμα . . .” — John 2:15. This word occurs only once in John. Jesus pours out the coins of the money changers.

While I won’t deny the slim possibility that John moved the “vessel” reference in Mark’s gospel from the cleansing to the Passion, it seems rather unlikely. Recent English translations of Mark 11:16 have rendered skeuos as a sort of generic object, not as a vessel (i.e., a container or jar), and I think that’s correct. The ESV says that he forbade everyone from carrying “anything” through the temple, which doubtless captures the correct sense in Mark.

On the other hand, the “poured out” references have more tantalizing connections. Just before the Fourth Evangelist links the temple and its destruction to Jesus and his destruction and resurrection, we have the image of his “pouring out” the coins of the money changers. This symbolic act, not found in the Synoptics, signifies not only the end of temple trade, but prefigures the ultimate end of the temple itself.

In Mark 14:24, Jesus’ blood “poured out” (symbolized by the wine) refers to the crucifixion and the atonement (“a ransom for many” — cf. Mark 10:45). And yet, although we may find it tempting to correlate the two symbolic actions, I think the connection is tenuous at best.

Driving out

In the section John added to the story of the cleansing we have the vivid image of Jesus driving large sacrificial animals out of the temple.

drive out vs. cast out

σχοινίων πάντας ἐξέβαλεν ἐκ τοῦ — John 2:15 [exebalen]

πνεῦμα αὐτὸν ἐκβάλλει εἰς τὴν — Mark 1:12 [ekballei]

The verb “to cast out” occurs often in the Synoptics with reference to Jesus’ casting out of demons. At other times, the same word appears as the verb meaning “to drive out.” In the first case, evil spirits are being shooed away, while in the second, something or someone is being conducted to another location. The difference is subtle, but clear. Curiously, the sense in which the Fourth Evangelist uses it in the cleansing pericope is the same sense in which Mark uses it in the story of the spirit driving Jesus into the wilderness.

I submit that it is no accident that John has moved a story in which Jesus exercises his authority in the temple to the beginning of his gospel. It replaces the story of the temptation in the wilderness in which the Spirit conducted Jesus into the desert with a story of the Messiah driving out sheep and oxen.

Different kinds of animals

The animals listed in the Fourth Gospel differ from the beasts in Mark’s temptation story in that they are suitable for sacrifice. In Mark they are not; they’re wild and unclean.

wild animals vs. sheep and oxen

καὶ ἦν μετὰ τῶν θηρίων — Mark 1:3 [wild beasts]

τά τε πρόβατα καὶ τοὺς βόας — John 2:15 [sheep . . . oxen]

Patristic writers as well as a few modern exegetes have proposed that Mark’s allusion to the beasts in the wilderness signals a return to the harmony and peace in the Garden of Eden. However, R. T. France explains (correctly) that the angels are present in order to provide “protective ministry” for Jesus.

Biblical usage suggests, therefore, that θηρία [thēria] are to be understood, where there is no indication to the contrary, as hostile and dangerous to humans, who need protection from them. . . It is through the protection of the angels (as in Ps. 91:11-13) that Jesus is able to survive μετὰ τῶν θηρίων. (France, 2002, pp. 86-87)

John’s implausible addition of the large farm animals on the temple grounds allows the evangelist to correct the story of Jesus’ trial in the wilderness. Instead of the story of a solitary Jesus who is driven into the desert and who must rely on ministering angels to protect him from dangerous, unclean beasts, we have instead a public Jesus, a powerful figure who drives compliant, ritually clean animals out of the temple.

Prophecies about the temple and the resurrection

In the Synoptics (at least in Mark and Luke), the disturbance in the temple convinces the chief priests and scribes that they must destroy Jesus. But the Fourth Evangelist uses the story to put a prophecy on the lips of Jesus concerning the destruction of a temple — i.e., his body — which he claimed he would rebuild in three days. In the vast majority of English translations, readers would never know that the Gospels use two different words for temple.

  • ναός (naos) — The temple structure itself. The place where God “caused his name to dwell.”
  • ἱερῷ (hierō) — The entire temple complex, including the naos, the courtyards, and outlying buildings.

The story switches focus from the temple courtyard in which the disturbance is taking place to the future of “this temple.”

Λύσατε τὸν ναὸν τοῦτον, καὶ ἐν τρισὶν ἡμέραις ἐγερῶ αὐτόν.

Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.

The crowd presumes he’s talking about the naos, but Jesus is speaking figuratively about his own body. Hence, it’s a prediction of his bodily resurrection. Curiously, during Mark’s version of the Sanhedrin trial and later again at the crucifixion, this supposedly misunderstood prophecy is repeated. John provides the spoken prophecy that’s missing in Mark, but omits the later references during the Passion.

At the trial:

“We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple [τὸν ναὸν τοῦτον] that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands.’” (Mark 14:58, ESV)

At the crucifixion:

And those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads and saying, “Aha! You who would destroy the temple [τὸν ναὸν] and rebuild it in three days, save yourself, and come down from the cross!” (Mark 15:29-30, ESV)

Note that John refers to the naos only here in this prophecy at the end of the temple cleansing story. Throughout the rest of the gospel, he refers to the heirō.

Consider the points of contact in these three verses.

John 2:19a Λύσατε τὸν ναὸν τοῦτον
Lusate ton
Destroy this temple
Mark 14:58a Ἐγὼ καταλύσω τὸν ναὸν τοῦτον τὸν χειροποίητον
Egō katalysō ton naon touton ton cheiropoiēton
I will destroy this temple made with hands
Mark 15:29a Οὐὰ ὁ καταλύων τὸν ναὸν
Oua ho katalyōn ton naon
Aha! The one destroying the temple
John 2:19b καὶ ἐν τρισὶν ἡμέραις ἐγερῶ αὐτόν.
kai en trisin hēmerais egerō auton.
and in three days I will raise it up.
Mark 14:58b καὶ διὰ τριῶν ἡμερῶν ἄλλον ἀχειροποίητον οἰκοδομήσω.
kai dia triōn hēmerōn allon acheiropoiēton oikodomēsō.
and in three days another I will build not made with hands.
Mark 15:29b καὶ οἰκοδομῶν ἐν τρισὶν ἡμέραις . . .
kai oikodomōn en trisin hēmerais . . .
and building [it] in three days . . .

The similarity in the vocabulary and especially the structure of John 2:19 and the verses in Mark strongly suggest a literary dependence. We can best explain the Fourth Evangelist’s divergences as a correction and clarification of what he found in Mark. John is engaged in a kind of dialog with Mark, as if to say, “Here’s what Jesus really said and really meant.” Hence, John imagines that Jesus must have said “raise” and not “build,” and that while he predicted the destruction of the temple, he never said that he himself would destroy it. (In fact, he uses the imperative as a conditional — “[If you] destroy this temple, [then] I will raise it up.”)

Mark tells us that the accusation (14:58) at the trial was a lie and that Jesus’ accusers couldn’t even get their stories straight.

14:57 Some stood up and began to give false testimony against Him, saying,

14:58 “We heard Him say, ‘I will destroy this temple made with hands, and in three days I will build another made without hands.'”

14:59 Not even in this respect was their testimony consistent. (NASB)

What, exactly, is the falsehood in verse 58? In Mark’s gospel, Jesus predicted the destruction of the temple and its “great buildings” (see chapter 13, The Olivet Discourse), using the passive voice. However, readers will have known he was talking about the Romans who wrought that destruction. So it would appear that Mark is implying that Jesus’ accusers mashed together the prediction of his resurrection from the dead with his prophecy that the temple would be destroyed. The lie must have been who was going to destroy the temple. And because they misunderstood the resurrection prediction, they thought Jesus was going to rebuild it by some supernatural means in three days.

But make no mistake, these two predictions (supposedly mashed together by the crowd) are vatacinia ex eventu. Any rational analysis of their origins must start with the most obvious explanation: that they are inventions after the fact. Is it possible that Jesus predicted either the destruction of the temple or his supposed resurrection? Perhaps. But it is much more likely that Christians created these predictions after 70 CE.

E. P. Sanders on the temple prophecies

As you know, many NT scholars have claimed to be able to “see behind” the actual, physical text, past the imagined stream of “rich” oral tradition, all the way back to the historical Jesus. For example, Ed Sanders believes the temple cleansing event really occurred. Of course, he doesn’t think Jesus halted all traffic in the vast, sprawling courtyard, but insists something “must have” happened. He posits a small, symbolic demonstration.

On the subject of the false testimony in Mark’s trial scene, Sanders writes:

The reports of what was said at the trial scene are notoriously difficult to verify. In fact, it may even be wondered whether or not the entire ‘trial’ before the high priest and others is largely fictional. Even if the entire scene were composed after Easter, however, it would still seem likely that this specific accusation is based on an accurate memory of the principal point on which Jesus offended many of his contemporaries. (Sanders, 1985, p. 71, emphasis mine)

He thinks it isn’t something Christians would have made up. He can imagine no “functional origin” for such a charge.

For one thing, it leads nowhere. According to the evangelists, the testimony of the witnesses as to what Jesus said did not agree, and the charge was apparently dropped. (Sanders, 1985, p. 72, emphasis mine)

Sanders is wrong. True, in Mark 14:59, no one’s testimony agreed. However, in Matthew’s gospel we learn:

26:59  Now the chief priests and the whole Council kept trying to obtain false testimony against Jesus, so that they might put Him to death.

26:60  They did not find any, even though many false witnesses came forward. But later on two came forward

26:61  and said, “This man stated, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God and to rebuild it in three days.'”(NASB)

The evangelists agree that all testimony against Jesus was false. But in Matthew, at least, two liars came forward whose testimony agreed, condemning Jesus with the charge of threatening the sanctuary.

We may also doubt Sanders’ suggestion that the charge in Mark “was apparently dropped.” Mark’s gospel presents the proceedings at the Sanhedrin as illegitimate at every level, with numerous irregularities, including (see: Hooker, 1991, p. 354ff.)

  • Meeting at night.
  • Meeting on a holiday.
  • Accepting evidence not corroborated by witnesses (in Mark).
  • Asking questions of Jesus not related to testimony (“Are you the Son of the Blessed?”)
  • Declaring a verdict without waiting for a day to pass.

Alert readers will remind me that we know of these rules only from the Mishna, post-70 CE. However, Mark’s readers will likely have recognized Jesus’ hearing as a kangaroo court. And what’s more, after illegally declaring him guilty of blasphemy, the Jewish authorities present a different trumped-up charge to Pilate, that of sedition.

Sanders concludes:

One can imagine a subsequent Christian penning de novo the scene in which Jesus is charged with blasphemy for claiming to be the Son of God (Mark 14.61-64), but it is hard to imagine a purely fictional origin for the accusation that he threatened to destroy the temple. (Sanders, 1985, p. 72, emphasis mine)

As we noted above, Sanders is impressed that “the charge was apparently dropped” (an incorrect assumption, as we have seen), but more than that:

For one thing, it leads nowhere. . . For another, the implication of physical insurrection which the charge seems to contain would scarcely have been something that a Christian author would spontaneously have thought of. (Sanders, 1985, p. 72)

We’ve seen many times before the dangers of musing about what people in antiquity would and would not have thought of. In this case, for example, it requires very little imagination to realize that the two charges — the alleged threat to the temple and the accusation of blasphemy — are related.

Profanation of the temple as blasphemy

First, let’s dispel this idea that no Christian author would dream up the scenario of the messiah predicting the destruction of the temple, followed by the hounding of his enemies. Two useful models for such an event occur in Jeremiah 26, in which God tells the prophet to stand up and speak in the temple. The prophet announces that they must all repent or else the entire city will end up in ruins (like Shiloh).

26:11  Then the priests and the prophets said to the princes and to all the people, “This man deserves the sentence of death, because he has prophesied against this city, as you have heard with your own ears.” (RSV, emphasis mine)

Jeremiah manages to escape death, but only after appealing to the princes and the people, who eventually realize that he is merely acting as God’s messenger. At the end of the chapter we learn of another prophet, Uriah, who prophesied against the holy city. He fled for his life and hid in Egypt; however, King Jehoiakim sent agents to find and retrieve him.

26:23  . . . and they fetched Uriah from Egypt and brought him to King Jehoiakim, who slew him with the sword and cast his dead body into the burial place of the common people. (RSV)

Early Christians would have known these stories and likely understood them as foreshadowing Jesus’ prediction of the final devastation of Jerusalem at the hand of the Romans. And what was the “reward” for warning the people about the wrath to come? Anger. Bitter accusations. And the sentence of death.

We should understand that their rage came not simply from being targeted as complicit in an unjust, unrighteous temple establishment, but even more so from the strong belief that the temple, the naos, was the dwelling place of God’s name. It was the holiest place on earth, and profaning it was equivalent to blasphemy. In his PhD dissertation, The Problem of Blasphemy, Jerry Truex put it succinctly:

To assault a temple, as Antiochus did [i.e., Antiochus IV Epiphanes who profaned the holy altar with “abominations”], was as direct as humanly possible to striking a transcendent deity. When he plundered and profaned the Temple, he attacked and blasphemed the very Name that dwelled there. Hence, one need not vocalize the Name to profane it, since blaspheming the Temple is to blaspheme the Name. (Truex, 2001, p. 149)

Any hint of an attack on the temple, e.g., a repeat of the events in 167 BCE — which of course is exactly what Mark has Jesus prophesy in 13:14 with the “abomination of desolation” — would have sparked a response from the authorities.

Again, I don’t wish to suggest that Jesus actually predicted the destruction of the temple. The simplest, most straightforward solution comes from the evidence we have at hand. Nothing in Paul’s writings would lead us to think that Jesus had ever threatened the temple, even symbolically. We first see such predictions after 70 CE (presuming, as I do that most scholars are correct in their dating of Mark). Gospel writers, including the Fourth Evangelist, took these legends, via Mark, adapting them as needed for their own purposes.

However, I would also not wish to suggest that this straightforward explanation of the evidence is anything like the consensus. No, the consensus, if there is one, revolves around imagined memories and “rich” oral traditions that are implied in the texts.

Entities multiplied beyond by necessity

According to Dodd’s logic, we would have to judge Mark 15:29 as grammatically inferior Mark 14:58, and therefore reject it as non-Markan.

In the book, Historical Jesus: What Can We Know and How Can We Know It?, Anthony Le Donne writes:

It is entirely possible that Jesus’ prediction of the temple’s destruction was invented by Christian storytellers after the historical temple fell in 70 CE. Even so, there is good reason to believe that the historical Jesus did, in fact, make such a claim and that he viewed the temple in apocalyptic categories. (Le Donne, 2011, p. 126)

Le Donne agrees with C. H. Dodd, who in Historical Tradition in the Fourth Gospel argued that the text in John could not have arisen from the text in Mark, so there must have been a common, shared oral tradition. Dodd wrote:

The question of the relation between Matthew and Mark need not here be discussed. It is doubtful whether it could be answered in terms of the simple formula that Matthew ‘edited’ Mark. That John’s version is derived from either is in no way probable. His sentence is of a different mint. His form is simpler than either of the others, and his ἐν τρισὶν ἡμέραις [en trisin hēmerais] is certainly inferior grammatically to Mark’s διὰ τριῶν ἡμερῶν [kai dia triōn hēmerōn] as an expression for lapse of time. (Dodd, 1963, p. 90)

Here, Dodd was appealing to the rule of thumb that if anything, John would have improved Mark’s grammar, that no one having seen “dia” would have then have written “en” as the preposition indicating the passage of time. However, in 15:29, Mark himself uses en trisin hēmerais — exactly the same phrase used in John 2:19. According to Dodd’s logic, we would have to judge Mark 15:29 as grammatically inferior Mark 14:58, and therefore reject it as non-Markan.

Dodd continues by saying that perhaps John used the verb to raise up instead of to construct in order to fit better his interpretation of the saying. So, essentially because John’s version is different and (using faulty logic similar to that above) more primitive, he concludes:

The most probable account of the matter is that a saying about the destruction of the temple was current in oral tradition, and was something of an embarrassment to the Church. (Dodd, 1963, pp. 90-91)

The first step in creating history is to convince ourselves of multiple attestation. Dodd provides a linguistic cover by claiming that it is “in no way probable” that John could have edited Mark and come up with v. 2:19. Once we’ve “proved” that Mark and John were independent, both using oral tradition in some way, we are free to imagine why the two accounts differ.

I would argue that plainly obvious theological and narrative reasons are sufficient to explain these differences, but I am not a New Testament scholar. Instead, we must imagine yet another force at work: namely, embarrassment. On such gossamer evidence Dodd has established the existence of oral tradition, multiple independent attestation, and embarrassment — and not just the embarrassment of John, but of “the Church.”

And before you bring up Occam’s Razor, I would remind you that without all these multiplied, imaginary entities, the whole framework vanishes. What? Do you hate history or something?

Triangulated trajectories and other scholarly fantasies

Here’s how Le Donne sums up the evidence:

Both evangelists seem to have included this saying in reaction to a previous (perhaps embarrassing) perception of Jesus. Both seem intent to counter act a similar perception — that Jesus claimed to be able to destroy the temple. This is evidence that these passages are reacting to an early and widespread memory of Jesus. So the Criterion of Embarrassment is warranted. On the basis of the above criteria, it is highly unlikely that this saying was invented by the early church. Rather it was remembered to have been uttered by Jesus himself. (Le Donne, 2011, p. 146, emphasis mine)

I highlighted the words above because Le Donne’s book is supposed to be a remarkable achievement. Barry Schwartz said it’s “at once a brilliant portrait of the historical Jesus and a valuable contribution to social memory scholarship.” But if you’re familiar at all with social memory, you’ll know that the paragraph above has nothing to do with it. In fact, you could easily replace those highlighted words with “tradition,” as in “an early and widespread tradition about Jesus” and “It was a tradition that Jesus himself had uttered the saying.”

The only difference Le Donne brings to the table is to provide new conjectures about the ways in which supposed events became presumed memories, which change over time within the stream of tradition. He calls the process memory refraction. As people remember and re-remember events (whether real or fictional), they become distorted. The sorts of distortion he specifically has in mind have to do with how humans remember within social frameworks.

. . .  I have described memory refraction as the way in which memories are altered to make them intelligible to the present. I am convinced that by analyzing conflicting interpretations in the gospels, the historian can plausibly suggest the historical memory that shaped these interpretations. (Le Donne, 2011, p. 126)

Le Donne has already decided that Mark’s and John’s accounts of Jesus and the destruction of the temple are independent. Not only that, but both evangelists have altered the original saying of Jesus to conform to the current social conditions of their respective groups. (In the past, we would have called it Sitz im Leben, but form criticism is terribly out of style). Are Mark and John covering up the truth?

Notice that in Mark’s narrative these “false” witnesses accuse Jesus of claiming the ability to destroy the temple. Mark does not call them liars; he only states that they were “inconsistent.” Given what Jesus says in Mark 13:1-2, the author would have a difficult time denying the accusation outright. However, Mark does aim to distance Jesus from this accusation. (Le Donne, 2011, p. 127, emphasis mine)

Does Le Donne have access to a different Gospel of Mark? Of course Mark calls them liars.

  • 14:55 — The Sanhedrin could find no evidence against Jesus.
  • 14:56 — Many bore false witness.  pseudomartureó ==> pseudo (false) martureó (witness)
  • 14:57 — Some bore false witness saying:
  • 14:58 — “I will destroy this temple . . .”

In what world are perjurers not liars? Le Donne misses the irony. They all had resolved to lie, but they couldn’t get their story straight.

For Le Donne, John and Mark “must have” altered the real (authentic?) saying of Jesus.

Considering what John has done with this saying, there is no better example in the gospels of a discrepancy between a saying by Jesus and the later interpretation of the saying. John’s reframing of this saying plainly illustrates the memory refraction that has occurred between Jesus’ original preaching and later preaching about Jesus. And yet, even though the saying proved embarrassing, John 2:19 includes Jesus’ saying all the same. (Le Donne, 2011, p. 128, italics his)

At this point he quotes E. P. Sanders. As we’ve discussed already, Sanders was certain the passages that contain these sayings indicate “very firm historical tradition.” He and Le Donne both believe it goes back to Jesus’ own belief in the imminent end of the age. So what did Jesus really say?

Jesus either threatened or predicted that God would put an end to the present temple: that is, that the end was at hand. If he said ‘I will destroy’, he saw himself as God’s agent. (Sanders, 1985, p. 73)

Le Donne essentially agrees. He imagines that:

. . . Jesus, armed with nothing but wit, wisdom, and an absurd claim concerning the temple was perceived as a threat to the power structure in Jerusalem. (Le Donne, 2011, p. 131)

The memories of Jesus’ actual claims “spiraled” out in a divergent pattern until they came to rest in the “counter-memories” in Mark’s and John’s gospels. Mark, he theorizes, distorted the saying into a false accusation. (Le Donne puts the word “false” in scare quotes because we know better.) John, however, turned it into a metaphor concerning his death and resurrection.

Please do not miss the beautiful irony here: It is when the editors of these stories disagree the most that we can most confidently postulate historical memory! The fact that the memories of Jesus were refracted (bent in different directions) is the very fact that allows the historian to postulate the historical event. (Le Donne, 2011, p. 130, italics his)

I have some other beautiful ironies I would like to share.

  1. Le Donne, in a book that purportedly focuses on postmodernism and social memory uses old fashioned authenticity criteria to reach the exact same conclusions as Sanders.
  2. Le Donne, as Sanders before him, has “revealed” a Jesus saying that completely contradicts what the gospel writers intended. It reminds me of HJ scholars who are convinced that Jesus was a disciple of John the Baptist, based on evidence that points in exactly the opposite direction.


“I still suspect John just adapted Mark to suit his own theological agenda.”
Neil Godfrey

Neil did a better job of explaining Le Donne’s hare-brained spiral-tree-triangulation theory in “Searching for a Good Fantasy: A Postmodernist’s Historical Jesus.” At the end of Neil’s post he writes: “I still suspect John just adapted Mark to suit his own theological agenda.” Yes. Exactly so.

Looking over the same set of data, Andrew Lincoln, rather than imagining Dodd’s, Sanders’, and Le Donne’s shimmering castles in the desert sand, simply writes:

The evangelist [John] has, however, thoroughly reworked the traditions, including the Synoptic tradition, with which he was familiar. (Lincoln, 2005, 145)

My task, as a reader of the gospels, is to try to understand why and how John made those changes. That’s what these posts have been about.

Other posts in this series:

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

How John Used Mark: Investigating the Methods of the Fourth Evangelist (Part 2)  A Markan Sandwich in John’s Gospel


Dodd, C. H.

Historical Tradition in the Fourth Gospel, University Press, 1965

France, R. T.

The Gospel of Mark (New International Greek Testament Commentary), 2002

Hooker, Morna D.

Gospel according to Saint Mark, The (Black’s New Testament Commentary), Baker Academic, 2009

Le Donne, Anthony

Historical Jesus: What Can We Know and How Can We Know It?, Eerdmans, 2011

Lincoln, Andrew

Gospel according to Saint John, The (Black’s New Testament Commentary), Baker Academic, 2005

Sanders, E. P.

Jesus and Judaism, Fortress Press, 1985

Truex, Jerry Duane

The Fourth Gospel and Early Jewish Understandings, Durham University, 2001

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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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3 thoughts on “How John Used Mark: Investigating the Methods of the Fourth Evangelist (Part 3)”

  1. Like oral traditions, the Q document, and other such phantoms, this memory theory schlock will linger on for years because it serves the purposes of both right and left. The right because it gives them another pseudo-scientific tool to get them back at supposed early, reliable facts about Jesus; the left because it gives them another pseudo-scientific tool to manufacture their feminist Jesuses, Marxist Jesuses, 21st Century social justice warrior Jesuses, and whatever other Jesuses they want.

    The only thing that might help deflate this garbage before it gets even more out of hand is if enough people start realizing just how similar these memory theory tactics are to the supposedly overthrown “criteria”, something that ought to be blatantly obvious to anyone.

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