Friday, March 25, 2011

JI: John Versus the Synoptics

The third chapter of JI focuses not on specific contradictions, but on deep-seated, large-scale conflicts in viewpoint among New Testament writers. Ehrman dedicates 15 pages just to disparities between John and the synoptic gospels—Matthew, Mark and Luke. (Scholars think Matthew and Luke used Mark and an unknown "Q document" as sources, hence their similarity.) He points out differences in content, differences in emphasis, and differences in Jesus' teachings and miracles.

Here are just some of the important events never mentioned in John:
  • Jesus' birth of a virgin in Bethlehem
  • His baptism and wilderness temptation
  • Preaching that God's kingdom is at hand
  • Telling parables of any kind
  • Casting out demons
  • The Transfiguration
  • The Last Supper and crucifixion trial
Instead, we have things like:
  • Jesus as the Word of God in human form
  • Seven "signs" meant to demonstrate his power
  • The washing of the disciples' feet
  • Constant statements about himself (e.g. "I am the bread of life")
  • Long speeches instead of wise proverbs
Ehrman argues that when Christians lump together various doctrines, they obscure the views of the individual authors. He says:
"The idea that Jesus preexisted his birth and that he was a divine being who became human is found only in the Gospel of John; the idea that he was born of a virgin is found only in Matthew and Luke. ...Mark doesn't say anything about either. The story starts with Jesus as an adult, and Mark gives no indication of the circumstances of his birth. If your only Gospel was Mark—and in the early church, for some Christians it was the only Gospel—you would have no idea that Jesus' birth was unusual in any way, that his mother was a virgin, or that he existed before appearing on earth."
Not only that, but Matthew just says Jesus was a virgin and leaves it at that, mistakenly calling it a fulfillment of Isaiah 7:14. Luke, however, specifically says that Jesus was born of a virgin because he was the Son of God.

Jesus' teachings in Mark also contrast starkly with his teachings as portrayed in John. In Mark, he teaches little about himself, and he never claims to be divine in any way—he's mentioned as the "son of God," but the term had several meanings. Instead Jesus emphasizes a coming apocalypse, and that people should quickly repent before he returns to judge the world. However, in John he says nothing about the kingdom of God approaching, but rather preaches about himself, saying that "I and the Father are one" and "I am the way, the truth and the life." Why this sudden shift in tone? Ehrman explains:
"For many historical critics it makes sense that John, the Gospel that was written last, no longer speaks about the imminent appearance on earth of the Son of Man to sit in judgment on the earth, to usher in the utopian kingdom. In Mark Jesus predicts that the end will come right away, during his own generation, while his disciples are still alive (Mark 9:1; 13:30). By the time John was written, probably from 90 to 95 CE, that earlier generation had died out and most if not all the disciples were already dead. ... What does one do with the teaching about an eternal kingdom here on earth if it never comes? One reinterprets the teaching. The way John reinterprets it is by altering the basic conceptualization."
This is accomplished by reimagining the "kingdom of God" as a rebirth "from above" (see John 3:3–6; I'll cover this in a later post) rather than something that will descend to earth.

Finally, we have the miracles of Jesus. In the synoptics, their purpose was to show Jesus' compassion and the arrival of God's kingdom to those who already believed. However, he refuses to do them to make people accept his God-given authority, and he even tells those who have been healed not to spread the word. In fact, the reason Satan tempts Jesus to throw himself off the Temple is because when the angels caught him, his power would be revealed to the many Jews in the vicinity. But in John, revealing his authority is the whole reason Jesus does his signs:
"In John's Gospel, Jesus' spectacular deeds are called signs, not miracles. And they are performed precisely to prove who Jesus is, to convince people to believe in him. Claiming to be the 'Bread of Life,' he performs the sign of the loaves to feed the crowds (John 6); claiming to be the 'Light of the World,' he does the sign of healing the man born blind (John 9); claiming to be the 'Resurrection and the Life,' he does the sign of raising Lazarus from the dead (John 11)."
John's version of Jesus' miracles is summarized perfectly in John 4:48 when he says, "Unless you see signs and miracles, you will not believe," and later John himself states this as his purpose in recording Jesus' signs.

The disparity in outlooks between John and the synoptics could hardly be more obvious. What's remarkable is that a lot of Christians don't even realize that John is particularly different from the other gospels. It just goes to show how much people can miss when they aren't really looking.

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