The Four Gospels & The Fourth Gospel: Working Considerations


When it comes to the exegesis of the gospels, it is clear that there are distinct differences between the Synoptics and the Fourth Gospel. These have given rise to many an hypothesis regarding their relationship (D. Moody Smith, John Among the Gospels). Much more hypothesizing has been done regarding the relationships of the Synoptics to one another. In this article we will outline briefly our conclusions regarding the Synoptics, then more extensively regarding the Fourth Gospel.

Before we engage the Fourth Gospel, we turn our attention to the “Synoptic Problem.“ On the question of priority, we are persuaded that the Gospel of Mark has best claim. After this we are a bit out of sync with the mainstream (sic) of scholarship. We are not persuaded that ‘Q’ is a document, although we have extensively explored ‘Q’ as an hypothesis. Our exegesis will never turn on whether or not an underlying saying in the Synoptic tradition comes from Q or not. We have entertained many versions of the Two- and Four-Document hypotheses and have come away unsatisfied with hypothetical ‘Q.’ For sure, it is no longer an ‘assured result’ of modern criticism. At least, we are not assured. Nor are we alone. There are a growing number of scholars who have become disillusioned with current ways of framing questions regarding the Synoptic problem, particularly Q. Even if ‘Q’ is a hypothetical document we do not believe it is possible to do certain kinds of speculative sociological exegesis that has been done with it.

None of our exegesis is determined by a working hypothesis of the Synoptics, although we do try to consider many hypotheses when working on any given text. At the present we favor Markan priority, Matthean use of Mark and Lukan use of Matthew. (See the remarkable work of the Research Team of the International Institute for Gospel Studies in their book, Beyond the Q Impasse: Luke’s Use of Matthew.) We do not believe that the Fourth Gospel was dependent on any version of the written Synoptics.

The modern quest for the historical Jesus has relegated the Fourth Gospel to the most distant part of the back forty. Since D.F. Strauss (The Life of Jesus Critically Examined) in 1835 first placed the gospels in the context of ‘myth,’ the quest for the historical Jesus has cleanly separated the Synoptics from the Johannine gospel. Albert Schweitzer sealed this effort when he observed the challenges remaining for the interpreter after Strauss (The Quest of the Historical Jesus), namely, that we are forced to choose between the portraits of the Synoptics or the Fourth Gospel but that we cannot have both at the same time. The Fourth Gospel was perceived as mythical, non-eschatological and had little historical value. This judgement has all but secured a permanent place in modern Jesus studies.

We will take a different approach to the Fourth Gospel. Yes, the Fourth Gospel is quite different from the Synoptics but the question must be raised anew regarding the use of the Fourth Gospel and the Synoptics for historical Jesus research. Particularly since the work of the redaction critics on the Synoptic gospels, it has been shown that all of the evangelists write with their own theological tendencies and that there is no ‘pure’ history in the Synoptics. All four gospels are then placed on a level playing field.

It is a commonplace these days to observe that Judaism and Hellenism had a mutual influence on one another and that they should not be kept in strict boxes, particularly during the pre- and post-Maccabean eras. However, it does make a difference when interpreting ancient Christian literature of unknown provenance whether one sees primarily a Hellenistic orientation or a Jewish one. Prior to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, scholars could only conclude that the language of the Fourth Gospel had its most logical antecedents in the metaphysics of ancient Hellenism and its stepchild, Gnosticism. The hermeneutical implications of this move are staggering. The ‘dualism’ of the Fourth Gospel draws its antecedents from Greek and Iranian cosmology more than Hebrew Scriptures. Jesus speaks metaphysically and much of what he says on this interpretation can be termed either ego-maniacal or delusional. Since there is no way Jesus could have spoken this way, the Fourth Gospel is terminally reduced to Johannine theology.

However, since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, much has been done to place the Fourth Gospel in a Jewish context (James H. Charlesworth, John and the Dead Sea Scrolls). Analysis of the Fourth Gospel in the light of Samaritanism has also confirmed the conclusion that the Gospel according to John has definite Jewish antecedents. This is a fundamental axiom for us in our exegesis. In spite of this, Introductions to the New Testament continue to see the Fourth Gospel as a late first century or early second century proto-Gnostic document. Kasemann went so far as to suggest that the church made a mistake when it included the Fourth Gospel in its canon (The Testament of Jesus).

There have been many ways of seeing this Jewish context. One might cite Bowman’s attempt to place the Fourth Gospel in the context of Purim (The Fourth Gospel and the Jews). Less extreme one could refer to Cullmann’s thesis (The Johannine Circle) regarding the heritage of the Johannine community from (the poorly termed) ‘heterodox Judaism.’ Or Peder Borgen’s fine exegesis of John 6 and its parallels to Alexandrian synagogue patterns of thought (Bread From Heaven). Or the work of C.K. Barrett (The Gospel of John and Judaism). One might also cite the works that demonstrate the Jesus/Moses parallelism in the Fourth Gospel, e.g., T.F. Glasson, Moses in the Fourth Gospel, or Marie-Emile Boismard Moses or Jesus. For us, however, it is to the work of C.H. Dodd that cements both the Jewish context and the historical validity of the Johannine Gospel.

In Historical Tradition in the Fourth Gospel Dodd detailed an argument for the historical validity of the narrative framework of the Fourth Gospel that has not to our knowledge been refuted. In addition, Dodd’s research also demonstrates how there are, embedded within the Johannine discourses, ‘nuggets’ which have parallels to certain Synoptic sayings. Late Bishop J.A.T. Robinson (The Priority of John) has built on Dodd’s great insights and sought to challenge even further the Synoptic hegemony for Jesus research. While Robinson’s work may be out of the mainstream, Dodd’s is not.

In the late nineteenth century, B.F. Wescott put the argument this way:

1. The author was a Jew
2. The author was a Palestinian Jew
3. The author was an eye-witness
4. The author was one of the Twelve
5. The author was John, son of Zebedee

We have already said we agree with Wescott on point number one. We also agree with him on point number two and along with Cullmann (Circle) we would trace this author especially to the environs of Jerusalem. The work of Dodd allows us the luxury of also affirming Wescott’s third thesis. There is every indication that whoever is behind the Fourth Gospel knew Jesus both before and after his crucifixion and resurrection.

But we part company at number four. The evidence for some sort of apostolic authorship can only be based on the desire of certain figures in the early church who sought apostolic validation of the Fourth Gospel. We know of the popularity of the Fourth Gospel in certain impolitic ‘christian’ movements in the second century. Since the Fourth Gospel had no apostolic pedigree, in order to rescue it from the hands of the heretics, the early fathers perceived a Zebedean pedigree, based no doubt on the confusion of a number of figures residing at Ephesus at the turn of the second century (Alan Culpepper, John: The Son of Zebedee).

Exegetically, Pierson Parker has dismantled this hypothesis with his list of things said in the Fourth Gospel that a Galilean like John, the son of Zebedee would or could not say (“John the Son of Zebedee and the Fourth Gospel”). As the spotlight has shifted away from Zebedean authorship, other figures in the first Christian communities have been offered as potential candidates. No candidate has a lock in current research. We think that this author chose to remain anonymous for his/her own reasons.

In addition to this, J.L. Martyn argued a thesis which has now become an axiom in Johannine Scholarship, viz, the Fourth Gospel must be read on two levels, on the level of the life of Jesus and on the level of the life experience of the Johannine community in relation to Judaism (History and Theology in the Fourth Gospel). We heartily agree and would also suggest that the same principle may and can be applied to each of the Four Gospels. They yield a rich harvest of information about the life and conditions, theology and practice of the first century Christian communities. But the Gospels bear witness, not to a myth, but to a human being, Jesus from Nazareth. And each in their own way has preserved for us the vivid memory of their experiences with Jesus.

Finally we would note the anti-Petrine polemic implied in the Fourth Gospel. This polemic is, we believe, due to a number of reasons, not the least of which was that the Johannine author objected to the apocalypticizing of the Jesus tradition, as was done by the ‘other’ Jewish Christian community in Jerusalem, centered around Peter and James. The critique of ‘Petrine’ authority in this gospel might send shivers down the spine of those invested in apostolic succession but it is there nonetheless.

The Fourth Gospel will continue to interest us on the level of history, but we enter the caveat: none of this is necessary for mimetic theory. Because we use the Fourth Gospel as a witness to both the pre-crucified and the post-risen Jesus we are comfortable reading the Fourth Gospel in the light of what it may be saying in regard to mimetic theory and vice versa.