Michael Bennett tells us why he thinks John's gospel did come first.
Since first beginning to study at theological college (Moore 1965-68) I have been taught that the Synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke were composed before John’s Gospel.
The evidence for this seems to rest on a number of proofs:
- It is argued that the “Word” theology of John Ch.1 is too advanced to have been written at an early date. John may have also have been influenced by the Jewish philosopher Philo (d. 50A.D.) who also emphasised the central role of the “Word” in the Old Testament scriptures.
- John 21:18-19 refers to death of Peter. It is argued that this could not have been written until after the Neronian persecutions of 64 A.D.
- Most telling is the statement by the early church father, Irenaeus: “John, the disciple of the Lord, who leaned on his breast, published a Gospel while he was resident at Ephesus in Asia.”(Against Heresies iii.1.2) When John moved to Ephesus is unknown (and even disputed), but it was probably precipitated by the approaching fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. This seems to point to a late date of composition.
But as D.A. Carson admits, “almost any date between AD 55 and AD 95 is possible.” (Commentary on John’s Gospel Eerdmans p82) and adds “More by way of default than anything else, I tentatively hold to a date about AD 80”.
But in recent times, through pastoral ministry of the Word, I have begun to doubt this basic thesis that John was written after the Synoptic Gospels. My doubts began as I was considering the raising of Lazarus in John Ch.11. Here we have surely the most stupendous of all Jesus’ miracles, apart from his own resurrection.
The man born blind says about his own healing, “Nobody has ever heard of opening the eyes of a man born blind” (John 9:32), but in the case of Lazarus we have the reconstruction of every organ, every cell of a human body. For four days Lazarus has lain in his tomb, with every cell of his body beginning to die and decompose. (Carson comments that Jews, unlike the Egyptians, did not practice embalming, but spices were added to the tomb to reduce the odour (p417). If this is so, it would make the apparent embalming of Jesus body highly unusual for the culture.) John makes it clear that Jesus stayed where he was for two days so that, by the time he arrived at the tomb, Lazarus had been buried for four days (John 11:6). Jesus is deliberately setting out to do a miracle close by Jerusalem which no person can gainsay. The sisters are there; the disciples are there; so are many visitors from Jerusalem who have come down to comfort the sisters (John 11:19).
It was Jesus’ normal practice to downplay his miracles, ordering the healed person not to tell anyone, and even taking the sufferer to a private place to effect healing. But there is none of that here. This is open, public and deliberate. He even tells Martha, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” (John 11:40). Such a statement is so rare from Jesus’ lips that he immediately offers a word of explanation to God for saying it: “Father, I know that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.” (John 11:42).
My main point is this: Why is this incredible and strategic miracle not mentioned or even hinted at by any of the Synoptic writers? How could these three Gospel writers, whom we know borrowed from each other to some degree, never have thought, “Hang on, something important is missing here!” Peter is there at the raising of Lazarus if we accept him to be the source of Mark’s Gospel; there is no reason for Matthew not to be there; Luke is not there, but since he assures us he has carefully consulted with the eye-witnesses (Luke 1:1-4) he is in a sense there in the eyes of those beholding the seemingly impossible. How could Luke, whose trustworthiness as an historian of first rank has not seriously been challenged since the publication of W. M. Ramsay’s St. Paul the Traveller and Roman Citizen (1895), and who has an eye for detail, such as Jesus’ sweat of blood in the Garden of Gethsemane, have missed such an elephant sized detail, or considered it not important enough to have been included in his account? As a physician, the scope of this miracle must have arrested his attention.
I can come up with only one reason that makes sense - that John’s account of this event was already written and in circulation, and that the other gospel writers, out of deference to John, have deliberately chosen not to include it. I am not saying that John’s Gospel as a whole was written at this time, but that substantial sections were written and known. These sections would include the turning of water into wine, the healing of the man born blind, the feet washing, the whole of the upper room teaching and prayer, all the “I am” sayings and much more.
The underlying assertion here, that John’s Gospel was written largely to Christians (in churches) and not essentially as an evangelistic tract for non-Christians, is borne out by a correct translation of John 20:31:
“But these things are written that you may go on believing that Jesus is the Christ, and that by believing you might have life in his name.”(As pointed out by Paul Barnett in The Shepherd King, p311)
It is worth recalling that the earliest manuscript of the New Testament we have, the John Ryland’s fragment, dated 100-150AD, is from John’s Gospel (Part of Ch.18).
I will suggest soon a two-stage process by which I believe John may have been written, but first I need to point out an unusual feature about this gospel:
John seems to be writing on behalf of what we may term a “confirming body”, at least a group of people who are reviewing his narrative writing, and giving their imprimatur to it. We hear their voice first at the very beginning, in 1:14:
“We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (Do we hear an echo of Jesus’ unusual words to Martha?). This group seem to be saying, “We have been eye-witnesses to what follows, and can vouch for it”.
And again in 1:16:
“From the fullness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another.”
Whose is this voice, “we”?
We hear their voice again if we turn right to the very end of the Gospel. After a not-too-veiled reference to John as the “disciple whom Jesus loved”, the “we” group add their stamp of approval to what he has written:
“This is the disciple who testifies to these things, and who wrote them down. And we know that his testimony is true.” (John 21:24).
C.K.Barrett comments: “The ‘we’ is to be taken with full seriousness; there exists an apostolic church capable of verifying and affirming the apostolic witness”.
There is one other unusual reference in John which also may be the voice of the group standing behind John. In the middle of Jesus’ well known discussion with Nicodemus, the famous “born again” passage, we strike this:
“I tell you the truth, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, yet you people do not accept our testimony.” (John 3:11).
This statement leaps from the page. Although it begins with “I tell you the truth...” suggesting Jesus is speaking, the rest of the verse does not sound like something Jesus would say, especially not in the context of John’s Gospel. In this gospel Jesus speaks on his own authority from beginning to end. It contains the seven “I am” teachings, as well as at least five other uses of “I am”. Jesus never refers to his teaching as that held by himself and his disciples in some form of shared collaboration. It is hard to avoid the impression the imprimatur group is making itself heard at this point as well. They seem to be saying, “We Apostles give eye-witness testimony to what we have seen, heard and know to be true. The trouble with you Pharisees (like Nicodemus) is that you will not face up to the clear evidence!”
One colleague objected to this idea of John largely being written first. “Surely each Gospel writer had his own agenda, his own purpose in writing”. Let us examine this statement. What was Mark’s purpose in writing? He tells us in the very first verse: His purpose was to present ...”Jesus Christ, the Son of God”. He does this, in part, by presenting us with demonstrations of Jesus’ authority and power - teaching, healing, casting out evil spirits, calming the storm etc. If Mark’s declared purpose is to present Jesus to us as the Son of God, I argue that nothing would have suited his purpose better than to include the raising of Lazarus, four days dead! Why does he not include it? The example he does include is of a twelve year old girl, only dead for a short time, of whom Jesus says, “The girl is not dead but asleep.” (Mark 5:39). Surely the raising of Lazarus would have been a much more powerful example to use? Why does he not?
Putting all this together, I would like to present the following as a suggestion as to how John’s Gospel may have been written in two stages:
How John’s Gospel came to be written
From the very birthday of the Christian Church on the Day of Pentecost, there would have been a desperate need for written material regarding the life, times and teaching of Jesus. The account of that dramatic Pentecost day in Acts 2:7-11 informs us of visitors from far-flung corners of the Roman Empire, even from Rome itself, who heard the gospel, were converted and baptised at that time. Eventually, they would have returned to their homes, bringing with them a verbal account about Jesus. Many of them would have witnessed his death. Few of them would have actually seen the risen Christ, for Peter later tells Cornelius, “He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen- by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.” (Acts 10:41)
These early converts returned to their foreign homes as the first Christian converts, and shared what with their families and associates? Their knowledge of Jesus’ previous three years of life and ministry must have been sketchy to them at best, much of it based on word-of-mouth accounts and gossip.
In the meantime, within the first ten years after Pentecost, the church began to mushroom from Jerusalem to Judea to Samaria and the world, as the Lord had commissioned. Within that decade the Jerusalem church is scattered (Acts 8:1), except for the apostles. The gospel reaches Samaria (Acts 8:9f), Saul is chasing believers as far away as Damascus (Acts 9), Cornelius is the first full-blown Gentile to be converted and a church is apparently established in Caesarea (Acts 10), and then the flood-gates to the Gentile world are open.
Probably by the year 40AD the gospel has reached Antioch (Acts 11:19f), the third largest city in the Roman Empire, and a major trading centre. Paul by now is evangelising in Tarsus. By God’s grace, the gospel has an expansionary life of its own.
The Apostles must have seen the desperate need for reliable information to be provided to these infant churches, and in return must have received urgent requests for the same. The supply of eye-witnesses (and remember this did not included the Apostles who remained in Jerusalem) could only spread so far, and no doubt some doubtful legends about Jesus were beginning to do the rounds.
The Apostles, therefore, commissioned the Apostle John to write material which could be provided to the churches, which would be reliable, accurate and able to be used for teaching. Before being distributed, these writings would be checked and authenticated by the other apostolic witnesses. John was a natural choice. He was one of the first fishermen to be chosen by Jesus, he was there as the only apostle at the cross and outran Peter to the empty tomb, so he knew the whole story from beginning to end. He was also one of the inner three of Peter, James and John. He was well educated as far as we can tell from his writings, had contacts in high places (John 18:15), and had a “way with words”. Most importantly, he had a phenomenal memory and recall for even the most complex teachings of Jesus, aided in this, as Jesus promised, by the Holy Spirit (John 14:26), but was able to express the works and words of Jesus in quite simple language and vocabulary, accessible to all.
The urgency of the situation did not afford John the luxury of writing what we would call a full-blown gospel. What he gradually composed I will call “Episodes in the Life of Jesus”. These Episodes would usually begin with some incident in the life of Jesus. It might be a miracle (like the raising of Lazarus, or the feeding of the 5000), or an event (like the washing of the disciple’s feet) or a personal encounter (like that with Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman or the “Greeks” in 12:20). These incidents would then be springboards into extended accounts of Jesus’ teaching, teachings which would be expressed in quite simple language, yet very stretching and at times complex in content. These would have represented excellent teaching materials for the infant churches, providing accurate information about the life of Jesus, as well as teaching material which was solid enough to be used for some time.
So, the meeting with the Samaritan woman provided a vehicle for teaching on the “Living Water”, and the need for evangelism of the “ripe harvest”; that with Nicodemus led onto talk of being “Born Again”; the feeding of the 5000 led onto a long description of the “Bread of Life”; the raising of Lazarus to teaching on resurrection and after life; the enquiry by the Greeks has Jesus teaching about a seed that falls to the ground; teaching on humility in leadership flows naturally from the feet washing; and so on.
Whether these Episodes were distributed separately or grouped together into a sort of “Draft Gospel” we can only imagine.
As previously mentioned, these Episodes were checked and authenticated by the other apostles, whose presence may be discerned in the several “we” passages. The most striking of these comes in John 21:24:
“This is the disciple who testifies to these things and wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true.” The “we”, I propose, refers to the other apostles.
At a later time, but probably before the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans in 70AD, it became clear to the church leaders there were large sections of the life and ministry of Jesus which were not covered by John’s Episodes. The birth of Jesus was not included, nor, strangely, the Last Supper. John’s Episodes focussed largely on the Jerusalem ministry of Jesus, so there were large gaps in the account of his time in Galilee. Also many of the miracles, parables and teaching of Jesus (such as the Sower and the Sermon on the Mount) were not included. Remember, the gospel writers had to record onto scrolls, not books, which were then copied by hand onto other scrolls, an expensive process. The linear length of available scrolls would have been a limiting factor. (Is this why Mark’s Gospel ends so abruptly?)
The so-called Synoptic gospel writers of Matthew, Mark and Luke therefore composed their accounts to provide for this need and to “fill in the gaps”, but out of deference to John and the apostles’ authentication of his work, they studiously avoided repeating or duplicating what John had already included. (The most obvious exception to this is the Feeding of the 5000, which is included in all four gospels. This four-fold inclusion probably confirms the strategic importance of this miracle, pointing to Jesus as the Moses-like prophet of Deuteronomy 18:15.)
After the fall of Jerusalem, John then moved to Ephesus. Of this time, Irenaeus, an early church father, records,
“Afterwards, John, the disciple of the Lord, who also leaned upon his breast, did himself publish a gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia.” Notice Irenaeus does not say John wrote or composed a gospel, but that he published one. (Or “issued” - P. Barnett.)
John constructed an amalgamation of his Episodes in the Life of Jesus, though making some additions. The “Prologue” (John 1:1-18) may have been added at this time, as many writers feel the Prologue expresses a more developed theology than may have been possible pre-70AD - this is debatable; several reference to time lapses may have been included to smooth out the narrative, such as “the next day”, “on the third day”, and “after this”. The reference to the subsequent death of Peter could also have been added at this time (John 21:19).
So, John’s gospel was written both first and last.
This two-phase authorship of John is not particularly novel. Leon Morris, for instance, makes the comment:
“A number of scholars have argued for an early date for part at any rate of the tradition embodied in this Gospel and a late date for its actual composition”. (Marshall, Morgan and Scott commentary p34.)
And Paul Barnett in John, the Shepherd King (Aquila Press), adds in a similar vein:
“It is likely John began to write his Gospel in the forties and fifties in Palestine...” “He had brought his incomplete Gospel with him (to Ephesus), but he may have “issued” it soon afterwards with some changes suitable for the new situation” (pp 338-339).
Michael Bennett trained at Moore College. He developed the Christianity Explained course, and from 1985 - 1996 he worked with the Scripture Union organization, further developing and promoting the course.