The question of the historical credibility of the New Testament portrayal of Jesus probably seems a little intimidating to most of us. This is not for any lack of scholarly authors who assure us that the best historical research is on the side of the general reliability of the Gospel accounts. It is that we have to couple this with the fact there are many other scholarly authors who are far more skeptical about these same Gospels. Not having the time or resources to conduct extensive research on the subject, we may feel at a loss to even hope to be able to articulate a solid basis for which view we find more believable.
The picture is not quite so opaque as we might imagine it, however. Even if we are not trained historians, we are still generally reasonable people. We have generally reasonable criteria for judging the credibility of many kinds of reports claimed as historical, and in most cases with a little thought we can be reasonably confident of such judgments, even without a detailed evaluation of the scholarly arguments involved. Thus, while most of us are probably not prepared to offer any solid historical proof that the Apollo moon landings really happened, for example, or that Hitler really orchestrated the killing of millions of Jews, we are nevertheless quite confident that these things are true, because the large-scale conspiracy theory alternatives to these views are simply too far-fetched to be considered credible. On the other hand, we know to be somewhat wary of various anecdotes we may hear about George Washington’s youth or about some one-liner being attributed to Yogi Berra, because even though these things may be quite plausible, we also realize how easily a mistaken account of this nature could spread, even without any kind of conspiracy being involved. Our understanding of human nature gives us a reasonable ability to discern these kinds of things.
I see no reason not to apply the same kind of common-sense discernment to the subject of the historical Jesus and the question of whether he really said and did basically what the New Testament Gospels attribute to him. While the nature of ancient history is such that we may never be able to claim absolute proof for any one particular view, we can still take a reasonable look at the various options and try to obtain a better understanding of the rational basis or starting point for whatever we end up believing.
The first potential view of the New Testament Gospel accounts of Jesus is that they are primarily legendary in nature. In other words, it is not that their authors (whoever they were and whenever they wrote) were intentionally deceitful; it is just that they sincerely reported the traditions they had heard without realizing that those traditions had likely undergone substantial modification and embellishment over the years. If it is not uncommon even today to hear a legendary story about George Washington repeated in all sincerity as if it were factual, how much more would we expect these ancient Gospel writers to fall prey to the same kind of naivete?
The popularity of this view, at least in its pure form which attributes complete sincerity to the Gospel writers, is strictly among those who have not carefully considered the Gospel accounts themselves. It is true that the actions and sayings of Jesus were first spread by oral tradition, probably at least a few decades before they were written down in the form we currently have them in the Gospels. It is also true that the Gospel accounts do not explicitly name their own authors, and that we cannot be sure exactly when they were written. But the nature of the accounts themselves absolutely contradicts the idea that their authors were unacquainted with the historical facts and simply collected and reiterated various legendary traditions they sincerely believed to be true. The author of Luke, for example, clearly claimed to have investigated these things “carefully from the beginning” (Luke 1:3), after getting the details handed down to him from actual “eyewitnesses” (Luke 1:2). Even more striking is the case of John, which ironically is the Gospel usually deemed least historical by the critics. But the author of this book clearly claimed not just to have interviewed eyewitnesses (like Luke), but to have actually been a first-hand eyewitness himself:
. . . the disciple whom Jesus loved . . . the one also who had leaned back on His bosom at the supper and said, “Lord, who is the one who betrays You?” . . . This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and wrote these things. . . .
– John 21:20, 24 (NASB)
There is virtually no doubt that this amounts to a claim by the author to be the Apostle John. In any case, even if a different disciple could possibly be intended here, the fact remains that the author clearly claimed to be one of Jesus’ most intimate acquaintances who personally saw and heard the things that he reported. Obviously, such a claim could not be made with sincerity if it were not true.
It could be argued, of course, that this claim at the conclusion of the book might not have been in the original account, but was added later by a scribe or possibly even a wholesale redactor. It is almost indisputable that this sort of addition did occasionally take place, as shown even by two passages in this very book which are not present in the earliest manuscripts and are therefore very probably the result of later addition. No ancient manuscript has ever been found to suggest that these particular verses at the conclusion of John are such an addition, however.
Beyond this lack of evidence against the genuineness of the claim at the end of the book, the real argument for the nature of the Gospel of John being a purported eyewitness account is in the way in which the actions and sayings of Jesus are reported all through the book. This is a very important point. The author of John wrote his book like a genuine (though admittedly selective) first-hand biography. Like the other three Gospels, his account is limited to those incidents that could have actually been physically observed by Jesus’ close disciples or their associates, for example. It does not describe any incidents from Jesus’ private life that might have been expected to circulate in a legendary or other non-historical tradition.
Even more tellingly, John did not compile his account as an unconnected series of isolated sayings and short narratives. This is important because a series of isolated episodes is precisely the form that a sincere compilation of various traditions that had sprung up through legendary development would have to take. (Think of a collection of sayings attributed to Confucius or Yogi Berra, for example.) Interestingly enough, this is generally the style of the various apocryphal “Gospels” that cropped up later in the history of the church. The famous Gospel of Thomas, for example, which is grouped together with the four canonical Gospels in the writings of the Jesus Seminar, is simply a collection of individual sayings of Jesus or very short conversations that have no chronological or geographical context whatsoever. It is exactly what we would expect for a recording of oral traditions (whether accurate or not) rather than for a carefully researched eyewitness account.
In contrast, John’s writing never presents any action or saying of Jesus “out of the blue” as if simply recalling a disconnected tradition. It is not, “One time Jesus said such-and-such, and one time He did this-and-that, and another time He said thus-and-so.” Rather, John took great care to anchor virtually everything he reported about Jesus in terms of both its chronological relationship and its geographical setting, so that the whole account forms a single coherent biographical narrative. This can be clearly seen by studying the book as a whole, noting its natural breakdown into constituent episodes and considering the connecting detail and other historical framework given for each. (I have provided just such a breakdown in the appendix of this paper, and I strongly encourage everyone to read it in order to grasp the full force of this argument.)
Once the nature and style of the Gospel of John is carefully considered, the conclusion is obvious. The account itself rules out the theory that the author or final editor was sincerely reporting legendary incidents spread by oral tradition that he simply assumed to be true. In fact, it argues against any theory that the writer did not intend his account to be taken as a historically accurate report of what he had seen and heard. (This would include the occasionally suggested ideas that the Gospels were intended to be taken as a kind of moral fable or as a retelling of some sort of prophetic vision, for example.) Rather, the author’s careful historical situating of each action and teaching of Jesus that he reported is a clear claim to have been able to recall all this detail from first-hand experience, having been with Jesus as these things were happening, just as he explicitly stated in his conclusion of the account.
If it is not reasonable to view the Gospels as basically sincere reporting of traditions that had undergone legendary development, then we must ask whether their authors were guilty of at least some amount of outright dishonest propaganda in their reports. Perhaps they followed the general pattern of the traditions they had heard but made up the historical and chronological details (as well as the claim to have been an eyewitness in the case of John) just to make their accounts seem more believable. Whatever their motives, and whatever the mixture of truth and falsehood in their final products, their testimony involved at least some amount of blatant fabrication, and they knew it.
Unfortunately, it must be acknowledged as a ground rule that evidence against an account containing any fabrication is necessarily somewhat subjective. Some sort of conspiracy theory can always be postulated to cast doubt on the testimony no matter how well it is corroborated by others. The difficulty is in where to draw the line between reasonable and unreasonable doubt. Very few people would consider it reasonable to postulate a grand undiscovered cover-up by the early church of a secret marriage between Jesus and Mary Magdalene, for example, in spite of that idea’s appearance in a recent novel and movie. This is not because we assume the early church fathers’ moral integrity was such that none of them could possibly have been involved in something like this; it is because we are rightly skeptical of their motivation and ability to pull off such a coordinated deception. Unfortunately, fabrications on a smaller scale are not so easily ruled out. So the fundamental question is, what is the scale of the deception that must have been involved on this theory that the New Testament Gospels involved some seriously dishonest propaganda?
The first point to make with regards to this question is that if the historical details in the Gospels were fabricated, then their authors were certainly very motivated to make quite an effort in this attempt. A related point is that they were also able to do a remarkably good job of this. This does not take a lot of research to realize. The amount of such detail in the Gospel of John, for example (see appendix), is not something that could have been easily fabricated by just anyone, nor is it matched by the competing non-canonical accounts. The author of John was clearly either personally very familiar with the geography and location of various towns in the regions of Galilee and Judea, or else he did an impressive amount of research to make his story all fit together. He was also quite familiar with Jewish feasts and customs. In addition, he mentioned in passing several details about the configuration of Jerusalem and of the Jewish temple, which is significant because this temple had been utterly destroyed in 70 AD, prior to the writing of this book.
To cite just one example of this kind of detail, John’s casual mention of the pool of Bethesda having five porticoes (John 5:2) has been confirmed by modern archaeology. Interestingly enough, it turns out this rather odd number of porticoes is explained by this actually having been a pair of twin pools, with porticoes occupying not only all four sides of the pair, but also the partition between them. Nor is this sort of detail confined to the Gospel of John. Luke’s account of the missionary journeys of Paul is especially impressive in its large amount of historical detail, which suggests he had indeed done his research carefully. While this does not prove that he exercised a similar degree of responsibility in his reporting of the life of Jesus, it is certainly a point in his favor as a credible biographer. The idea that the Gospel authors were intentionally deceptive in their accounts is therefore not something that ought to be casually proposed, given the accurate way they tended to write about the historical details that can now be verified.
In addition to considering the apparent integrity of Gospel authors themselves, there is also the matter of how their accounts were received. This is another important point. The evidence certainly seems to suggest that the New Testament Gospels “caught on” fairly quickly in the early church, not only as historically credible sources, but even as canonical Scripture. Though fundamental consensus on the entire New Testament canon was arguably not achieved until the 4th century AD, there can be little doubt that the four Gospels were widely recognized as canonical by the mid-to-late 2nd century. This in turn leaves little doubt (except to those prepared to accept the grandest of conspiracy theories) that the mid-to-late 2nd-century church genuinely believed the Gospel accounts to be honest and sincere. If they were fabricated near the turn of the 1st and 2nd centuries (as is generally proposed by those who view them as dishonest), then those responsible for their fabrication were apparently not only very careful in their research and writing, but also very successful at keeping their hoax a secret from the following generation.
To help evaluate the feasibility of such a thing being pulled off, it is instructive to compare the canonical Gospels with the non-canonical ones. Already by the time of the late 2nd century when the canonical Gospels were apparently recognized as Scripture, at least one non-canonical account of the sayings of Jesus had also been written, namely the Gospel of Thomas (as already referred to in the previous section). But neither it nor any of the later apocryphal “Gospels” ever received serious consideration by the early church except in a few small splinter groups, most notably the Gnostics, who were apparently responsible for the majority of the non-canonical accounts.
At least one major reason for this is not difficult to discover. Quite simply, the historical credibility of these apocryphal works is just on a blatantly lower level than that of the four canonical Gospels. None of them is of the genre or style of an extended biographical account like the canonical Gospels are. (Again, refer to the appendix for evidence of this nature in the Gospel of John.) None of them have the kind of verifiable historical detail that mark the canonical Gospels. In fact, none of the Gnostic “Gospels” contain anything more than short, disconnected bits of narrative at all. Their character is almost unanimously of a kind that reasonable people would consider highly suspect. For example, many of them overtly claim to reveal the previously “secret” sayings of Jesus, as though there had been an overall conspiracy in the church before they were written. In sharp contrast to such dubious claims of secrecy, the New Testament clearly proclaims that the events and sayings of Jesus were well-known and “not done in a corner” (Acts 26:26). In fact, it is this very publicity of knowledge about Jesus that argues perhaps most convincingly against the true Gospels being a fabrication.
To see why this is so, consider the kind of environment that would be conducive to the spread of religious fabrications. In particular, this would tend to happen in circumstances where people are open to receiving completely new revelation, without having prior commitment to a different set of beliefs. Thus, the followers of Muhammed had no reason to be skeptical of the revelation he claimed to have been given in the Qur’an, for there was no prior tradition of the teachings of Muhammed for them to follow instead. The followers of Joseph Smith had no reason to be skeptical of the revelation he claimed to have been given in the Book of Mormon, for there was no prior tradition of the teachings of Joseph Smith for them to follow instead. But the beginnings of Christianity are an entirely different story. Belief in Jesus Christ as the Son of God who died and rose again, and whose life and words were to be treasured and remembered, did not begin with the writing of the Gospels. By the time the Gospels were written, the oral traditions about Jesus had spread virtually across the whole Roman Empire. Nor was this spread in any way under the control of a visionary leader like Paul. The epistle to Rome (of which Paul’s authorship is undisputed, even by the most skeptical scholars) makes it clear that Christianity had already spread to that city without Paul’s direct involvement (Rom. 1:13, 15:23). Luke corroborates this in the book of Acts, as well as giving other examples of Christianity’s rapid spread apart from the apostles (e.g., Acts 11:19-21).
What this means is that if the 1st-century church had played fast and loose with the oral traditions about the life of Jesus, so that they had undergone serious modification and development by the time the Gospels were written, then it is highly probable that the tradition would have diversified and developed in many different ways all across the Roman Empire. The fabrication of a set of Gospels that supported one branch of the tradition would probably have been roundly rejected by at least some of the other branches. This is especially likely if one of these branches (i.e., a Palestinian branch) was geographically and chronologically close enough to the historical Jesus to have escaped much of the legendary development in its traditions. But this did not happen. No particular region or other serious part of Christianity rejected the historicity of canonical Gospels (though some minor factions did argue for others being worthwhile as well). Nor is there any evidence that the 2nd-century Christians who affirmed their canonical status were aware of anything insincere or problematic in the origins of these Gospels, as though their predecessors had had to fight to get them so widely accepted.
With all this in mind, we can begin to grasp the scale of the deception that must have been perpetrated on the early Christians on the theory that the Gospels contained significant fabrication. In order for this theory to be valid, the following difficulties would all stand in need of a suitable explanation:
1) The difficulty in imagining why the Gospel writers would be so motivated to fabricate so much historical detail, when none of the other religious accounts of the time bothered to go to such an extent. (Was there some intense and particularly historical, rather than merely theological, controversy going on about the life of Jesus that their fabrications were intended to settle? If so, where is the evidence for such a thing?)
2) The difficulty in imagining how the Gospel writers could have been so plausible in their recording of incidental historical details, achieving a level of accuracy that would have necessitated extensive research into geography and history if the Gospels were not really based on eyewitness accounts.
3) The difficulty in imagining how the Gospel writers could have been so successful in convincing such a geographically widespread, thriving religion to accept their accounts as reliable, unless the early church already had a substantially unified oral tradition about Jesus that the Gospel writers confirmed. But if the church already had a unified view of Jesus, it makes the difficulty of explaining why there was such a powerful motivation for fabrication all that much more puzzling, as discussed in point #1.
4) The difficulty in imagining how the objections of those who lived in Palestine, and presumably would have realized that the Gospels contained fabrication, could so quickly have been lost on the early church, so that within about 50 or 75 years of the writing of the Gospels, nobody seemed to be aware of any controversy surrounding them.
While we must again concede that the nature of ancient historical evidence is necessarily subjective and difficult to claim as an actual proof, I believe the four difficulties raised here are substantial, and that they do cast serious doubt on the theory that the Gospel accounts are examples of dishonest propaganda. The scale of conspiracy that this theory necessarily involves makes it almost as difficult to accept as the rival theory that the Gospel writers were sincerely recording legendary traditions.
In spite of the difficulties with the alternative theories to the Gospels being considered generally reliable, it would still be a bit premature to reach a conclusion until we have faced the 800-pound gorilla in the room: The Gospel accounts are chock-full of miracles. (And not only the type of miracles that could possibly be explained as mere coincidences or psychological effects, either, but also many that involve real, bona-fide subversions of the laws of nature.) How can any account that includes such miraculous claims be treated as historically credible? Is this not enough to make the alternative theories more likely, in spite of their difficulties? In practice, we are usually quite justified in rejecting other claims of the paranormal or miraculous without further investigation. Why should our treatment of the Gospels be any different?
The first issue this brings up is the question of how much evidence would be needed to substantiate the claim of a miracle. Experience tells us that human nature often has a gullible streak in this regard, with some people willing to believe almost any claim of the miraculous without requiring any credible evidence whatsoever. On the other hand, it is possible to go too far to the opposite extreme, too. The philosophy of David Hume that no amount of evidence could ever be enough to support the claim of a miracle is not rational. The primary reason we are skeptical of most miracle claims is precisely because so many such claims can be and have been investigated, implying that evidence does indeed play a role in this issue. The fact that no case has yet been found (as far as I am aware) to provide unequivocal support for the claim of an absolute miracle does not make miracles impossible by definition.
Of course, those of us who are open to the possibility that there is an all-powerful God who actually matters in our lives (and I consider it quite reasonable to believe that there is) are really in no position to deny the possibility that such a God could perform miracles. But it is important to note that this does not require us to abandon our skepticism regarding the vast majority of miracle claims. To the contrary, it is this very basis for our belief in miracles that allows us to maintain a generally skeptical attitude. If we understood miracles as random or haphazard events in which the laws of nature were subverted for no apparent reason, then we would have to be equally open to each and every miracle claim until the evidence was examined to rule that particular claim out. But if we understand miracles as special occasions in which God deliberately and purposively subverts the laws of nature for an intelligent reason, then we have a good rationale for being highly skeptical of random miracle claims.
What reason could God possibly have to subvert His own laws of nature and perform a genuine miracle? At least one primary reason suggested by the Bible seems to be that He did so at certain significant points in history in order to authenticate some new revelation He was giving to man. While a full study of all of these key points in history is beyond the scope of this paper, it is obvious that if the Gospels are right, then this purpose for miracles would reach its most important climax with the coming of Jesus. As the very Son of God made human flesh, He is the one who claimed to be God’s supreme revelation to man (e.g., Matt. 11:27, John 14:9-10). Therefore, so the Gospel accounts would have us believe, God authenticated His message by means of miraculous signs and wonders. The miracles Jesus and His disciples performed were in no way haphazard or arbitrary, they were done for the specific purpose of showing that He was indeed who He claimed to be.
While none of this discussion about the purpose for Jesus’ miracles proves that they were genuine, it does show why we might very reasonably wish to investigate the evidence for these particular miracles far more carefully or openly than for most, rather than just casually dismissing them as ordinary, random miracle claims. There is certainly nothing ordinary about who the Jesus reported in the Gospels claimed to be: the prophesied Messiah, the supreme revelation of God to man, and indeed even the very sinless Son of God. If we are open to the possibility of such a thing being true, then it is only reasonable to believe God might have authenticated this astounding claim in an equally astounding way, and it would be foolhardy to dismiss the evidence simply on the grounds that it includes miraculous claims. After all, if the Gospels did not include miraculous claims, perhaps nobody would object to their credibility, but then neither would anybody care one way or the other. We would have no reason to believe that the accurately reported statements of Jesus about Himself were actually true.
That all this still seems somewhat incredible I would certainly not deny. How can we objectively weigh the plausibility of either Jesus’ claims about Himself as related in the Gospels or of the miracles God supposedly performed to authenticate Him? It is very difficult, to say the least. Nevertheless, it seems unreasonable to deny that the all-powerful God might have used miracles (at least on certain occasions) to authenticate His revelation to man. And if that is a genuine possibility, then it is also certainly reasonable to compare the miracle claims of the Gospels with those of other religions. We should not expect the miracle claims of all religions to be equally valid. Rather, we should expect that only in the cases where God truly revealed Himself to man would there turn out to be credible evidence for miracles. I have presented the reasons why I believe Christianity’s account of miracles in the Gospels seems to be neither legendary nor fraudulent in nature, but rather historically credible. If any other religion or belief has better claims for miracles, let them present their case.
Probably the most significant class of remaining difficulties on this subject is what we might call the harmonization problem. Anyone who has carefully read through the Gospel accounts is well aware that there are significant details where the different authors seem at first glance to disagree. Whose genealogy of Jesus is correct, Matthew’s or Luke’s? Did Jesus curse the fig tree before He cleansed the temple (Mark 11:14) or after (Matt. 21:19)? Did Mary anoint Jesus two days before the Passover (Mark 14:1) or six (John 12:1)? The list could go on.
While I do not deny that there are some real puzzles in this category, some of which may even serve to enlighten our understanding of how to interpret the Gospel accounts, the harmonization problem is not as severe as it might seem. Most good commentaries point out the difficulties and suggest what are usually quite plausible possible solutions that casual readers might not have otherwise considered. Many of the supposed contradictions disappear when we rightly understand the nature of the Gospels. For example, in most cases the Gospels do not purport to relate the exact words of Jesus (which would be impossible anyway since Jesus probably spoke in Aramaic rather than Greek), but simply a reliable summary or paraphrase. Also, the three Synoptic Gospels were never intended to be strictly sequential (in most cases they do not provide the kind of chronological framework that is almost universally present in John), but rather frequently bounce back and forth in time, sometimes even within what seems to be a single episode.
More importantly, the topic at hand is not the absolute inerrancy of the Gospel accounts (however we may qualify or define that term), but rather their historical credibility. I have not suggested in this paper that John made absolutely no mistake in his record of the life of Jesus. I have suggested only that the evidence points to his sincere reporting of what he recalled from first-hand experience, without intentionally fabricating any details. In other words, his testimony is basically reliable. The picture of Jesus that he paints is generally true to what Jesus actually said and did, even if John might possibly have misremembered a few details.
Of course, this does not mean that John or the other Gospel authors necessarily did make any such minor mistakes. It may be that all of the apparent contradictions would be fully resolved if we knew all the facts. But the point is, the question of whether the Gospels are inerrant or not is an altogether different issue than the question of whether they are historically credible or not. The question of inerrancy can only be decided on theological and Biblical grounds, not on historical grounds. But we can show no basis for Christian theological and Biblical argument to begin with unless we can first show the Gospels to be a generally reliable and faithful testimony about what Jesus taught and who He claimed to be. So it is simply not logical to make the question of the historical credibility of the Gospels depend upon a presupposition that they must also be inerrant. The evidence for general historical credibility must be considered on its own merits.
On this issue of whether or not the Gospels are generally credible and relatively faithful to the actual historical Jesus, the apparent contradictions are really not a serious difficulty. Anyone who reads a harmony of the four Gospels will quickly see that they are in fundamental agreement with each other far, far more than they are in disagreement. And the number of apparent disagreements is not really surprising, either, but instead even lends positive support for the character of the Gospels as honest testimonies. Any four biographies of the same person could be expected to have various apparent disagreements if their authors were being honest and did not collude with one another. Some of the apparent disagreements in such accounts might be due to sincere mistakes, though most would probably spring simply from different perspectives or emphases and could therefore be legitimately harmonized if all the facts were known.
As the title of this paper suggests, it seems to me that the most reasonable basic approach to the Gospel accounts of the life of Jesus is to view them as a generally accurate picture, for the reasons I have described. This view is admittedly not without some difficulties, but the alternatives simply do not seem as credible to me.
At the same time, I fully acknowledge that the historical line of evidence is but one of many reasons for believing the Bible to be true. Other common reasons might include personal experience of forgiveness, of knowing people whose lives have been dramatically changed, and of seeing deep and meaningful truths in the Bible that seem to defy human invention. In the end, if Jesus really is the risen Lord as the Gospels claim, then it is not surprising that the Holy Spirit could give testimony to this fact in a variety of ways to different people, meeting the specific doubts and needs of each individual who truly and honestly seeks a relationship with Him. So I do not disparage these other reasons for belief, nor do I claim that the evidence I have presented is of the form that ought to fully convince every person, or that it amounts to an actual proof and is thus the practical end of the story. My aim is certainly not to discourage anyone who still has questions or doubts about this topic from trying to dig deeper into either the areas I have touched upon or into different lines of reasoning altogether. Rather, I strongly encourage it, and I hope this paper will serve as motivation to do so.
After all, a belief that is not willing to be tested is probably not worth having, and could in fact be downright dangerous to our very eternal destiny. But a belief that is true has no reason to fear the changes it may have to undergo through the process of testing, but rather only reason to rejoice. “We can do nothing against the truth, but only for the truth” (2 Cor. 13:8).
The style of John’s Gospel is a clear claim to be a biographical, historical account rather than a simple collection of legendary stories believed by the author. This is illustrated in the following breakdown of the entire book into its constituent narrative episodes or pericopes, with notes on how John clearly established the historical setting of each. He not only recalled the chronological relationships between events, but he also reported many other ancillary geographical and historical details as well, such as would not be preserved in a loose oral tradition that could potentially give rise to legendary development, and such as could not likely have been fabricated without monumental research and effort.
Episode 1 - Introduction and Testimony of John the Baptist (1:1-28)
John’s statements were made “in Bethany beyond the Jordan” (1:28). The absolute chronology is not given, but these events are fixed relative to the following episode by the phrase, “the next day,” introducing that episode (1:29).
Episode 2 - Disciples Introduced to Jesus (1:29-51)
The connection to the previous episode implies these events happened in Bethany, and they were also as Jesus was preparing to go to Galilee (1:43). Chronologically, the events occurred over several clearly-specified consecutive days after the previous episode (1:29, 35, 43). Note also the detail concerning the time of day in one case: “about the tenth hour” (1:39).
Episode 3 - Water to Wine (2:1-11)
This happened “in Cana of Galilee” (2:1, 11) on “the third day” (2:1, presumably referring to the third day after the previous episode). Note also the detail concerning the number and size of the waterpots (2:6), which would be somewhat surprising if the story was simply a legendary tale not connected to a historical event.
Episode 4 - Cleansing of Temple (2:12-22)
This happened at the Passover feast in Jerusalem (2:13). Even more significantly, it was after Jesus had gone from Cana (where He was in the previous episode) to Capernaum and stayed there for “a few days” (2:12). Note that there would be no reason for the connecting v. 12 to appear in the text at all if it was just a matter of stringing together a series of legendary beliefs. This verse clearly implies that the writer of John knows the precise chronological connection between the two episodes.
Episode 5 - Conversation with Nicodemus (2:23-3:21)
Again there is a narrative connection to the previous episode clarifying that this conversation happened while Jesus was at the Passover feast in Jerusalem (2:23).
Episode 6 - John the Baptist’s Last Testimony (3:22-36)
These statements by John were made after the events of the previous episode (2:22) somewhere in the region of Judea, specifically in Aenon near Salim (2:22, 23). Note also the geographical detail of there being much water here (2:23).
Episode 7 - Conversation with Samaritan Woman (4:1-45)
This conversation happened after the events of the previous episode (4:1, which speaks of the Pharisees hearing about the fact related in 3:26), at Jacob’s well (4:6) in the city of Sychar (4:5) as Jesus was going from Judea to Galilee (4:3). Note also the detail that Jesus stayed in that place two days (4:40, 43) before finally going to Galilee (4:43, 45), as well as the fact that the Galileans had also been at the feast (4:45), showing the chronological connection all the way back to the beginning of chapter 2.
Episode 8 - Healing of Nobleman’s Son (4:46-54)
This happened in Cana of Galilee (4:46) after Jesus came to Galilee as related in the previous episode (4:47). Note also the geographical detail that the nobleman himself was from Capernaum (4:46).
Episode 9 - Healing at Bethesda (5:1-47)
This happened in Jerusalem at another feast, after the previous episode (5:1). Again there is much geographical detail, such as the specific gate that the pool of Bethesda was by, and the fact that it had five porticoes (5:2), as well as the specific number of years (38) the man had been ill (5:5).
Episode 10 - Feeding of 5000 (6:1-14)
This happened after the previous episode, when Jesus went back to the other side of the Sea of Galilee (6:1). The setting was on a mountain (6:3), and the time of year was a little before the Passover (6:4).
Episode 11 - Walking on Water and Subsequent Teaching (6:15-71)
This happened the very evening after the previous episode (6:15, 16), starting with Jesus on the same mountain (6:15). The disciples were crossing from there to Capernaum (6:17), which is also where they arrived (6:21, 24). Jesus subsequently taught “the next day” (6:22) in the synagogue of Capernaum (6:59).
Episode 12 - Teaching at Feast of Booths (7:1-8:59)
This episode records Jesus’ teaching following the previous episode (7:1) at the Feast of Booths (7:2), though He remained in Galilee at first (7:9, 10) and did not begin teaching until the middle of the feast (7:14). Most of the teaching recorded in this episode is from the last day of the feast (7:37) and occurred in the treasury of the temple (8:20).
Episode 13 - Healing of Blind Man and Subsequent Teaching (9:1-10:21)
This incident occurred after Jesus left the temple from the previous narrative (8:59), as He was “passing by” (9:1). The exact location is not recorded, but it is clearly still in Jerusalem, and He instructs the blind man to wash in the specific pool of Siloam (9:7).
Episode 14 - Teaching at Feast of Dedication (10:22-42)
This occurred in the temple in Jerusalem, specifically in the portico of Solomon (10:23), at the Feast of Dedication (i.e., Hanukkah) “at that time” (10:22), which coincides with this feast being next on the Jewish calendar after the Feast of Booths from chapters 7 through the first part of 10. Whether or not Jesus went back to Galilee during the period between the two feasts is not explicitly mentioned, but afterwards He is specifically said to have gone back to the place where John was baptizing beyond the Jordan (10:40).
Episode 15 - Raising of Lazarus (11:1-54)
The chronology of this episode is not definitively fixed, but the reference to the Jews having just tried to stone Jesus (11:8) and to His not being able to walk publicly among the Jews afterwards (11:54) are strong evidence that it occurred shortly after the previous episode (see 10:39). The location of the incident itself is clearly specified to be in Bethany (11:2). Many other geographical and chronological details are given, including the length of time He stayed where He was previously (11:6), how long Lazarus had been dead (11:17, 39), where Bethany was (11:18), that this was during the year(s) of Caiaphas’ priesthood (11:49), and that Jesus went from there into the country, to a city called Ephraim (11:54).
Episode 16 - Mary Anoints Jesus (11:55-12:11)
This event is clearly dated to six days before the Passover, again in Bethany (on the way to Jerusalem), after Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead (12:1).
Episode 17 - Triumphal Entry and Teaching before Passover (12:12-50)
This event is clearly specified as happening “the next day” from the previous episode, as Jesus entered Jerusalem. Other details include the nationality of those who prompted Jesus’ teaching by their seeking Him (12:20).
Episode 18 - Last Supper and Teaching of Disciples (13:1-17:26)
This episode contains the longest record of Jesus’ teaching in the book of John. This is not a splicing together of random sayings of Jesus, but is clearly specified to have happened all at one event (18:1) which was the Last Supper, before the Passover Feast in Jerusalem (13:1). Most of it happened after Judas had left (13:30).
Episode 19 - Betrayal and Crucifixion (18:1-19:42)
The geographical details of this episode include Jesus crossing the Kidron ravine and entering the garden (18:1), His being led from to Annas and Caiaphas and then to the Praetorium (18:13, 28) and Gabbatha, or “The Pavement” (19:12), and finally to Golgotha, or “The Place of a Skull” (19:17). The time of day is noted at various points (18:28, 19:14), as well as the day itself (19:14, 31). Other details that would be surprising on the theory of a legendary account include the three languages in which the inscription was written (19:20) and the garden in the place where He was crucified (19:41).
Episode 20 - Resurrection and Appearances (20:1-31)
The resurrection is clearly dated to the first day of the week, with the women coming to the tomb while it was still dark (20:1). Jesus’ various appearances and associated sayings are also clearly situated in both time and place, with the disciples returning home after seeing the empty tomb (20:10), but seeing Him and conversing with Him that very evening (20:19), and again eight days later (20:26).
Episode 21 - Final Call to Disciples at Galilee (21:1-25)
This episode is clearly stated to have taken place after the initial two appearances (21:14), at the Sea of Galilee (21:1). Other details that argue against this being a legendary incident include the distance the boat was from the shore (21:8), the number of fish caught (21:11), and the timing of the conversation being after they had finished breakfast (21:15).
|||Such authors would include F. F. Bruce, Craig Blomberg, N. T. Wright, and Ben
Witherington, to name a few. Two good examples of their relevant writings are Bruce’s
classic, but fairly concise and still quite useful, The New Testament Documents: Are They
Reliable? (InterVarsity Press, 5th ed., 1960) and Blomberg’s The Historical Reliability of
the Gospels (InterVarsity Press, 2nd ed., 2007). Bruce’s book is available online
(http://www.worldinvisible.com/library/ffbruce/ntdocrli/ntdocont.htm). A shorter article
by Blomberg entitled Jesus of Nazareth: How Historians can Know Him and Why it
Matters is also available online (http://www.henrycenter.org/files/blomberg.pdf).|
|||These authors would include Rudolf Bultmann, John Dominic Crossan (founder of the
well-known and very controversial Jesus Seminar), and Bart Ehrman, for example.|
|||The use of carefully relayed oral tradition in the spread of the Gospel message is
confirmed by the early Christian writers themselves, including Luke and Paul. For
example, see Luke 1:2; Acts 15:7; 1 Cor. 11:2, 23, 15:3, 11; Gal. 1:9; 1 Thess. 2:13; 2
Thess. 2:15, 3:6; 2 Tim. 2:2; Heb. 2:1, 3. This does not mean that the Gospel accounts
themselves were the very first attempts to record any of these traditions in written form,
of course. Luke 1:1 explicitly says there had been many prior compilations. Form
criticism of the New Testament suggests, to many scholars at least, that one such earlier
writing, commonly designated Q, was probably used as a common source by both
Matthew and Luke, and thus must have been written earlier than either of them. In any
case, the emphasis in most of the verses cited above is on how strictly the Gospel tradition
was preserved even in its oral form, not on any danger that it might be spreading out of
|||This is not to deny that John may well have had some assistance in the writing of his
account, perhaps to take dictation or possibly even to translate into smoother Greek than
he himself may have been capable of. The existence of such helpers is probably implied
by the phrase, “we know that his testimony is true,” in the latter half of John 21:24, for
|||The two passages are John 5:3b-4 (the clause about the angel stirring the water in the pool
of Bethesda) and 7:53-8:11 (the account of the woman caught in adultery). Virtually all
modern translations include notes explaining that these were probably not in the original
|||This refers to the Coptic Gospel of Thomas found at Nag Hammadi, not to be confused
with the fanciful Infancy Gospel of Thomas that purportedly describes Jesus’ boyhood.
Several translations of the Coptic Gospel of Thomas are available online. See the
wikipedia entry (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gospel_of_Thomas) for an up-to-date list.|
|||Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code advances this idea through one of its characters’
reading of the Gnostic (and not historically credible) Gospel of Philip, which does speak
of Christ having a special love for Mary, but probably does not actually imply anything
romantic in their relationship. (See Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels,
op. cit., p. 270.)|
|||For more information on this and other archeological confirmations of such historical details,
see Bruce (op. cit.), in the chapter entitled More Archaeological Evidence, or either of the
works by Blomberg (also op. cit.).|
|||See Bruce (op. cit.), in the chapter entitled The Writings of Luke.|
|||Iranaeus argued from the four New Testament Gospels being common knowledge in his
treatise Against Heresies around AD 180. A few years earlier Tatian had written a
complete harmony of the four Gospels, known as the Diatesseron, which further
substantiates their general acceptance within the community. See Bruce (op. cit.), in the
chapter entitled Canon of the New Testament, for more details.|
|||See Blomberg, Jesus of Nazareth: How Historians can Know Him and Why it Matters
(op. cit.), p. 23.|
|||This would include the aforementioned Gospel of Thomas, which begins as follows:
“These are the secret sayings which the living Jesus spoke and which Didymus Judas
Thomas wrote down.” The Gospel of Judas purports to record what Jesus told Judas
Iscariot in private, apparently because the other disciples were not spiritual enough to
understand it: “Knowing that Judas was reflecting upon something that was exalted,
Jesus said to him, ‘Step away from the others and I shall tell you the mysteries of the
kingdom.’” The Apocryphon of James is perhaps most blatant of all: “Since you asked
that I send you a secret book which was revealed to me and Peter by the Lord . . . I have
written it in the Hebrew alphabet and sent it to you, and you alone. But . . . take care not
to rehearse this text to many—this that the Savior did not wish to tell to all of us.”
Another well-known example is the Secret Gospel of Mark, which Mark allegedly wrote
in addition to his canonical Gospel. This document has not been preserved, but it is referred
to in fragmentary quotations in a letter purportedly by Clement arguing against its validity
by asserting (among other things) that Mark wrote no such thing, nor did he hint at any
secret doings or sayings of the Lord.|
|||The reasons for believing in the existence of God in the first place are beyond the scope
of this paper, but would include primarily (in my view) the cosmological argument (i.e.,
the idea that the existence of the natural universe instead of nothing requires a
supernatural first cause), the teleological argument (i.e., the idea that this creative first
cause must have had some purpose and design behind the creation, in order for it to be so
beautifully ordered and to eventually produce such meaningful creatures as human
beings), and the moral form of the anthropological argument (i.e., the idea that the
universal sense of right and wrong in humanity suggests that there is an actual difference
between the two, and that this difference cannot be explained by natural science alone).|
|||The Jews of Jesus’ time basically understood this purpose for miracles. They believed
Moses’ leadership and giving of the Law had been validated by God through miraculous signs,
and so they challenged Jesus to prove His claims the same way: “What then do You do
for a sign, so that we may see, and believe You? What work do you perform? Our
fathers ate manna in the wilderness. . .” (John 6:30-31). When John the Baptist sent to
Jesus wondering if He was the prophesied Messiah or not, Jesus responded, “Go and
report to John what you hear and see: the blind receive sight and the lame walk, the lepers
are cleansed and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up. . .” (Matt. 11:4-5). Peter confirmed
this same understanding of miracles, declaring that “Jesus the Nazarene [was] a man
attested to you by God with miracles and wonders and signs which God performed
through Him in your midst. . .” (Acts 2:22). And Paul said that Jesus was “declared the
Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead” (Rom. 1:4).|
|||I am not claiming this to be the only possible way to subdivide the Gospel of John into
various episodes. Others may prefer a breakdown with slightly more or fewer episodes,
for example, or with slightly different starting and ending points for some of the episodes
I have listed. Some scholars have also suggested that some of the episodes in John may
not be in strict chronological order after all, even though the chronological relationships
between most of them is firmly established. (See further note on the episode of the
cleansing of the temple.) Regardless, the point remains that the author clearly did take
care to establish some sort of historical framework for very nearly everything he reported.|
|||This is one of the few episodes in John that some scholars see as chronologically out of
place, since the Synoptic Gospels place the cleansing of the temple at the end of Jesus’
ministry rather than at the beginning. This is just possible even on a sincere reading of
John, since the chronology is only implied in this particular episode rather than explicitly
stated. But the implication is strong enough that most who are open to seeing John as
sincere are convinced that Jesus actually cleansed the temple twice, once at the beginning
of His ministry and again at the end. This explanation is also suggested by the different
words of Jesus recorded in John’s account versus that of the Synoptics. There is really
nothing surprising about this, since if Jesus felt it necessary to take such action on one
visit to Jerusalem, the same set of circumstances could certainly have very naturally led
Him to repeat it on another, with similar actions but a somewhat varied rebuke.|
This page copyright © 2009 Edward A. Morris. Created September 20, 2009. Last updated September 26, 2009.
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