How the Gospel of John Uses and Completes the Gospel of Mark

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by Neil Godfrey

I skip ahead to the fourth paper of the first day of the Memory and the Reception of Jesus in Early Christianity Conference (10th-11th June 2016, St Mary’s University):

  • Helen Bond
    Helen Bond

    “The Reception of Jesus in the Gospel of John” by Helen Bond

I will return in the next post to the third and the discussion following. Bond’s topic I find much more interesting.

We can see how the Gospels of Matthew and Luke used the Gospel of Mark: they copied much of it and only slightly revised other parts. But that was not the way authors of that time normally used other texts. Matthew and Luke are unusual. Ancient authors were taught to add material, to omit and to re-arrange their source texts, even if only to produce something distinctively fresh and new. The Gospel of John has much more in common with other literature of the day in the way it uses its source material (Mark) and it is Matthew and Luke that are the outliers.

The blame for scholars in recent decades having had a difficult time accepting the idea that John was indebted to the synoptic gospels, in particular Mark, can be laid at the feet of form criticism. Form critics approached the gospels as if they were fundamentally copy and compilation documents. Their authors were transcribing other source and artlessly sticking them together to look like some sort of narrative. This view has not always been the common one, and once again it is being challenged by scholars who specialize in narrative criticism. Form critics have believed John could not possibly have known of Mark because its story segments are so alien to anything found in Mark. Narrative critics have always seen things differently and read John as a most artful composition, with even its awkward scene changes being the consciously constructed as rhetorical devices. Not that the gospel as we have it now was written in one go since there are nonetheless indications that the author returned a number of times to revise and add to it. Recall the second ending tagged on apparently as an afterthought, for example.

So how could John be so different from Mark yet still be dependent upon Mark? Helen Bond’s answer makes a lot of sense to me. The author of the fourth gospel knew the Gospel of Mark intimately, possibly so well we can imagine he knew it by heart. He had long reflected on Mark; had assimilated it into his own thinking and thought deeply, long and often, about its many facets and themes and messages. He was thus in a position to re-write it inside out, bringing to the fore his own meditations arising from its scenes and sayings.

Thus we find . . . .

John had no need to copy Mark’s exorcism episodes, because he realized Mark’s Jesus was in fact the conqueror of the ruler of the world — all of Mark’s episodic defeats of demons were subsumed under the direct presentation of Jesus as the one who defeated all powers.

John had no need to present John the Baptist as the Elijah because he had arrived at a new eschatology rendering Mark’s obsolete.

John had no need for a transfiguration scene because his Jesus was shown to be the ruler of all throughout the gospel.

Specific stories and sayings in Mark are broadened out in John to large thematic discussions. Mark’s Jesus spoke of serving all to be the first of all; John has a whole scene demonstrating this — the foot washing. Similarly the eucharist and baptism and holy spirit narratives in Mark are replaced by lengthy discussions of the meaning of the eucharist, of baptism and of the holy spirit.

The crucifixion scene in John takes up and develops ideas that are only muted in Mark. Example, Mark has the titulus crucis declaring Jesus to be the King of the Jews while John takes this detail and makes it a controlling metaphor of Jesus’ trial before Pilate.

It is often said that John’s trial scene owes little to those found in the synoptics but Helen Bond disagrees. Rather, the argument is advanced that the “Synoptic Jewish Trial” is scattered throughout John:

  • Mark’s Sanhedrin trial (prior to Jesus being sent to Pilate) is the source of John 11’s portrayal of the Sanhedrin condemning Jesus after the raising of Lazarus
  • Mark’s witnesses accusing Jesus of threatening to destroy the temple is expanded in John 2 with Jesus declaring just that
  • The question of Messiahship in Luke 22:67-70 is found in John 10.
  • Jesus announcement that his judges would see the Son of Man in the heavenly realm is transferred in John to chapter 1.

Bond compares the viewpoint of the renowned Raymond Brown who argued that John’s trial scene was more historically accurate than those in the synoptics because the author of John had to have relied upon eyewitnesses, whereas in the synoptic versions we know that the disciples had fled the scene and could not have relayed the events that are written there. The synoptic authors instead cobbled together a more convoluted trial scene(s) by drawing upon recollections of disparate scenes throughout Jesus’ life. (Brown apparently was so steeped in form-critical assumptions and unable to seriously consider John as a creative author rewriting Markan themes that he argued that he only knew of the cleansing of the Temple story from an isolated account on a single leaf or sheet and not as part of a narrative — hence his placing it at the beginning of the gospel and not at the end as in Mark.)

Helen Bond believes that John could only have used and played with Mark these ways if he knew Mark intimately and had pondered it deeply.

How was the Gospel of John received?

According to Helen Bond John’s story had to have been familiar, to have been known to be legitimate, for it to be accepted in the first place. John was written for those who share his cultural “memory”. John and his “Christians” saw themselves as spirit-filled interpreters.

As for the different date of the crucifixion (synoptics crucify Jesus on Passover but John the day before), Bond suggests there were long two different traditions about the date of the crucifixion. John and Paul chose to interpret the crucifixion as the Passover Lamb, Mark as the Passover Seder. In reality Jesus was most likely crucified some days before the Passover but for theological reasons people reframed the moment to coincide with the Passover.

After the fall of the temple and given mounting social conflicts (John’s “Christians” in intensifying conflict with the synagogue Jews) it was easy to come to see Jesus as a new Temple, and a complete replacement of all that was once dear to them. This view of Jesus was a simple coping strategy. And we see indicators in John that the gospel was revised over time by the author.

John vis à vis Mark

The opening chapter of John contains clear allusions to the opening chapter of Genesis. In the beginning. . . . etc. Mark’s gospel also begins with “arche”, the “beginning”. John has developed and expanded upon Mark’s introduction.

At the end of John we read about Jesus having performed many other signs not mentioned in the gospel. The indication is that the author and his audience do know of other gospel accounts, such as Mark’s.

John also concludes with indications that it had been written by the ideal disciple and eyewitness. These suggestions raise the possibility that other gospel versions will come along but that readers can be prepared to downplay these rival literary efforts. John’s witness is superior and unable to be compared in any future effort.

John 3:24 drops the gratuitous reference to John not yet being put in prison. Why? Presumably the readers knew of a gospel narrative in which John was imprisoned so in the fourth gospel we read explanations for these readers. John is helping readers with a knowledge of Mark to fit things together.

Similarly John 2:12 makes the rather pointless observation that Jesus went with his biological family and disciples down to Capernaum for a few days. Again, why? There is no obvious point in John, according to Bond. The explanation appears to be once again that the author is explaining to readers how to fit the narrative chronologically into their recollection of Mark.

Finally, John 7:1 says that Jesus went around Galilee — presumably another sync marker with the synoptic gospel.

John can be read as a gospel that completes Mark’s gospel.  Bond refers to Bauckham’s observation that John in places appears to be correcting Mark. So the cleansing of the Temple is moved to the beginning; the anointing of Bethany is shifted to an earlier time; and of course John stresses the point that Jesus carried his own cross. There would appear to be little reason to make this point unless elsewhere there was an extant competing tradition.

Not to be underestimated is that John imitates the synoptic biographical genre.

John brings out and develops themes and significances that are found in Mark only in embryonic form.

John appear to be content to allow new and old traditions to exist side by side. Example: Mark’s Kingdom language has disappeared from John but the Kingdom theme appears as a major theme in John 3 (the meeting with Nicodemus where the discussion centres on how one can see the Kingdom of God and the need for baptism to do so.)

But in John 20:30 we read that whatever is written in other gospels, it is what is written in John that will guarantee everlasting life! Mark was a worthy book, worth deep meditation, but it could not give eternal life as John did.

The differences between the two gospels may be accounted for by social setting: Mark of the diaspora in wake of fall of temple and introduction of gentiles into the church; John at t time of mounting conflict with Jews and being cast out of synagogues, or some other church crisis. Mark’s setting led to a gospel that had too little to offer for the Christians of John’s setting.

Bond suggests another explanation for the differences. Mark being written about 70 CE could still appeal to fervent hopes of the coming kingdom in the wake of Jerusalem’s fall, but that was a harder ask for John much later. John had to reinterpret the prophecies of Jesus.

My own view is that Mark’s prophetic announcements (in the mouth of Jesus) about the coming of his kingdom were well understood as metaphorical images in the tradition of apocalyptic literature of the day. The kingdom had indeed come with God’s judgement on the Temple. John is not really revising anything, according to this view. He is simply making explicit or “literal” what the Markan apocalyptic metaphors spoke about.

Bond concludes with a comment on the relationship between Peter and the Beloved Disciple. Recall that Papias not long after John was written is on record as having associated a gospel of Mark with Peter. If our canonical Mark had been associated with Peter then when we read in John about the Beloved Disciple out-doing Peter (e.g. the race to the tomb) then we may indeed be reading about John putting the gospel of Mark in a place inferior to his.

John 20:31 — note the perfect form of graphein, “it is written” — a common reference to Scriptures and thus possibly a subtle hint by the author that John is to be read as Scripture!

Such are my notes. They are far from being a transcript. To get the full picture and correct any flawed notes of mine above, listen to the original. . . . .


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Neil Godfrey

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9 thoughts on “How the Gospel of John Uses and Completes the Gospel of Mark”

  1. Thanks, Neil. It is nice to have these posts about Helen Bond and Christine Jacobi in a row. I think the modern narrative criticism and rethinking of the relations of the text of the gospels was one of the important causes which have brought the old source criticism and form criticism in a crisis. The memory theories seem to be attempts to reestablish the assumptions of historical traditions on a new basis.

    1. Damn. I was taking notes on a talk I had most looked forward to, one by Jens Schroter, only to find the video cuts off just as he begins the second and most important part of his paper! What a shame. Hope it can be retrieved.

  2. But if you accept the Two-Gospel Hypothesis then there are no outliers: Matthew was first, Luke copied some of Matthew and added some of his own material, Mark copied from Matthew and Luke and added a tiny bit of his own material. This is perfectly consistent with “Ancient authors were taught to add material, to omit and to re-arrange their source texts, even if only to produce something distinctively fresh and new.”. It is also consistent with early Church writers who claimed that the Gospels with genealogies were written first. More importantly it is consistent with the evidence that the order of Mark shows that he copied material alternately from Matthew and Luke, omitting most of the material concerning Jesus actual teachings.

      1. I came around to thinking the opposite after previously accepting Marcan priority. But when you consider that Christianity was at first a purely Jewish movement, it makes sense that Matthew should be the first, esp. given that the early Christian commentators claimed that Matthew was written first and originally written in Hebrew (presumably Aramaic.). Admittedly this is the only evidence we have an Aramaic Matthew, but then we don’t have any evidence at all for a Sayings Gospel (Q) or a Signs Gospel ever having existed. The closest we would get to Q would be Papias’ lost books, but they post-dated the canonical Gospels. Matthew is much more frequently quoted/alluded to in the Apostolic Fathers than Mark, though this could just be an artefact of Matthew containing so much more of Jesus teaching. Borrowings and identical wordings could be argued in either direction.

        Mark coming later would better match the trajectory of the early church from Jewish to a de-Judaized Gentile/Pauline church: Matthew and Luke suit a Jewish ‘church’, Mark and John which are stripped of most Jewish teachings while incorporating more pagan and Gnostic elements, match a later Gentile Church. (Although Luke accompanied Paul on his last journey there is nothing in his Gospel or in Acts to suggest that he agreed with Paul’s views, and the Gospel of Luke is heavily Jewish in its opening (not to mention that, like Jesus, Luke doesn’t display the misogyny that Paul does.)
        But in any case, the priority of the Gospels is probably something we’ll never know. I’m no expert so I could just as easily be mistaken. Regardless of the priority, what it probably does demonstrate is that, given the use they made of them, at least some of the Gospel writers didn’t consider earlier Gospel writers to have been divinely inspired or inerrant.

        1. The comparative textual detail of the arguments for Markan priority are pretty conclusive, I believe. See also the most thorough treatments by Wilke and Weisse (pioneers of the Markan priority hypothesis) that I recently translated. Matthew was “the most popular gospel” but there are ideological/political reasons for that. We need to distinguish between early church propaganda and invented claims about the gospel origins, too, and balance those claims against the textual and documentary evidence.

          Further, I cannot see any argument that is not circular that places the gospels as early as the first century. Christian teachings did not begin with gospel narratives. They are latecomers to the field — very late, I suspect. If the letters of Paul and the gospels were the foundation documents of the new church then we run into historical problems. They are not independently testified until the mid second century and by then we already have very different types of Christians who would not recognize their teachings. One small example: among many Christians the “last supper” was not a “last supper” and certainly did not use wine — it was not a memorial of Jesus’ death. Even that appears to have been a rival and possibly later introduction. How can that practice be explained if the church began with our Pauline letters and the canonical gospels?

          Christianity may have begun “Jewish” but I think more questions are answered if we imagine it beginning with the diaspora and gentile god-fearers.

          1. I’ll have to have a look at Wilke and Weisse’s book. You must certainly be right about the earliest Christianity not being based on the Gospels or Paul’s letters. Even from the Gospels we have, it is clear that (some) early Christians expected an imminent second coming so there would have been no motivation for making any kind of record. A delay in the return of Jesus combined with the deaths of the eyewitnesses would have prompted the recording of whatever could be remembered.
            But what I don’t understand about NT scholarship is this: if the text we have for the NT is rejected as late and corrupted by ideology, and the apostolic fathers are rejected as ‘biased’, on what can ANY theory about early Christian origins be based, given that all documentary evidence is taken to be tainted? Even arguments based on textual evidence would be tainted by the tendency for copyists to try and harmonise the wordings of the different Gospels. There is literally nothing left to theorize upon. Surely any decisions made about what is original and what corruptions have occurred depend purely on the researcher’s opinion, at an almost 2000 year remove from the time these writings were allegedly composed.

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