The Gospel Of John
he Good News that Jesus preached is found in four books of the New Testament: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The first three are called the Synoptic Gospels because they are so similar. John is quite different and problematic.
All four gospels were written in Greek by unidentified writers who did not know Jesus personally, but who got their information from people who lived several generations after Jesus himself. The actual witnesses to Jesus’ ministry did not think it necessary to write about the life of Jesus because they were certain that he would return soon after his death by crucifixion. Thus, a good deal of time elapsed before the gospels were actually written, a fact that accounts for many of the differences between them. The original texts have long been lost; our earliest copies date from several centuries after Jesus’ death.
Destruction of Jerusalem, David Roberts, 1850
Each gospel was written for a specific purpose and audience. The Gospel of Mark was written first, at the time of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple by the Romans after a failed Jewish rebellion which dates it to 70 CE. Mark was probably meant to remind followers that Jesus was the long-awaited Jewish Messiah and that he had predicted that the Temple would be destroyed which would be a sign that his Second Coming was imminent. This gospel emphasizes Jesus’ mighty works during his life in order to console and convince believers that he could restore Israel as God’s gift to the world and that the gentile world would be blessed as well through his Chosen People.
The Gospel of Matthew was written around 85 CE to appeal to a Jewish audience. For that reason Matthew repeatedly shows Jesus in conflict with Pharisees over the Law. He asserts that Jesus is the Messiah and therefore the correct interpreter of the Law. He stresses that Jesus came to complete the Law and was therefore a loyal Jew, and by inference, so were his Jewish followers. He traces Jesus’ genealogy back to Abraham to support this claim. The story Matthew tells would strike a familiar chord with all Jews because he constructs the story using parallels with Jewish history. Matthew used Mark as a guide to his story, as well as a source called “Q” which contain parables and aphorisms used by Jesus, and a third source unique to himself, often called “M.”
The Gospel of Luke was written in polished Greek not long after Matthew, perhaps between 85 and 90 CE. It was written specifically for gentiles or non-Jews. Therefore, its chronology begins with Adam, the first man, and ends with the life of Jesus. Jesus acts charitably to gentiles in this narrative. Importantly, Luke does not envision a Second Coming, instead reinterpreting traditional prophecy to make the Kingdom of God exist “within you,” that is, within anyone who believes and follows the teachings of Jesus. Luke used Mark, Matthew, and “Q” as well as material unique to himself (“L”). The similarities between Mark, Matthew, and Luke have resulted in their appellation as the “synoptic” gospels due to their general agreement.
Finally, the Gospel of John was probably written around 95 CE. It is mystical, poetic, highly symbolic, and sometimes angry in tone. It is markedly different from the other three which will be illustrated in the discussion below. It is also probably the best-loved of the four gospels. It is a key component of Old Christianity.
For whom it was written is still a matter of debate. It undoubtedly has several authors and was assembled over time. But its main thrust is clear. The recurring, often angry, use of the phrase “the Jews” - an astonishing 61 times - is a clue. The word “believe” - appearing an equally astonishing 84 times - and the total absence of the word “faith” are also clues. It might have been written for unbelieving Jews or for unbelieving gentiles. However, this website prefers the interpretation that it was written by a Jew or Jews in protest of their expulsion from a synagogue because of their belief that Jesus was the Messiah. John describes three instances of such expulsions. This latter interpretation is the basis of this commentary.
Because this gospel was not written to memorialize the actual life of Jesus, but rather for the purpose of convincing Jews that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah, the gospel contains disturbing variances from the Synoptics. Much of the content is historically inaccurate. We note that when Albert Schweitzer wrote his seminal study, The Quest of the Historical Jesus in 1906 (second edition, 1913) he did not refer to John at all. And a modern scholar has claimed, “I do not believe I can make a case for a single word attributed to Jesus in the Fourth Gospel to be a literal word actually spoken by the historic Jesus…” (John Shelby Spong, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, 1992).
Since John’s gospel was not written to give an accurate historical account of the ministry of Jesus, we believe that it should be deleted from the canon as a New Christianity is created. The Synoptic gospels also were written to appeal to particular audiences, but the chances that they contain true recollections of the historical Jesus are much better. Most modern readers will not possess a scholarly understanding of the fourth gospel that might help them interpret it correctly as a protest piece. They will simply read the narrative as true history and believe it as the gospel asks them to. But they will believe a fiction, not reality.
(An ironic twist of the Fourth Gospel is that while it is the most recently written of the four, our earliest fragment of any gospel comes from John. That fragment is Parchment 52, which recounts part of the trial of Jesus before Pontius Pilate. Parchment 52 is dated to about 125 CE although there is controversy surrounding that date. Parchment 52 may be viewed in the John Rylands Library in Manchester, UK.)
The Rylands Library, Manchester, U.K.
Historic Background to John
From the start of the Christian era, there was tension between Jews who believed and followed Jesus as the Messiah (they were not “Christians” yet; it was too early) and traditional Jews. Recall that early on Saul had persecuted followers of Jesus. In addition, most Jews could not believe that someone who had been crucified as a criminal was the Messiah. They conceived of the Messiah in David-like terms, a mighty military leader who would also offer wise, poetic counsel, someone who would have ejected the hated Romans from the Promised Land.
In the great Jewish-Zealot revolt against Rome in 66-73 CE, historians believe that the Jewish followers of Jesus did not take part, remembering that Jesus had said, “…all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matt 26:52). After Jerusalem was destroyed along with the Second Temple, many Jews fled, many were sold into slavery, many more were forcibly dispersed around the Mediterranean littoral. This “Dispersion," or "Diaspora,” was regarded as an “end of the world” event to most Jews and for Judaism. “Next year, Jerusalem” became the constant Jewish lament for the next two millennia. Early “Christians,” for their part, distanced themselves from the Jews so as not to incur any further wrath from Roman authorities. Relations between traditional Jews and Jewish believers in Jesus-as-Messiah became hostile.
The traditional Jewish leaders assembled in the seacoast city of Jamnia sometime between 85 and 90 C.E. to agree on a new order of synagogue worship, the Temple having been destroyed. At that conference a clause was added to the traditional Eighteen Benedictions, which is perhaps the most important and often-repeated prayer in synagogue worship. To Benediction number 12 which cursed “heretics,” now was added “and Nazarites,” certainly referring to followers of Jesus of Nazareth. Followers of Jesus were to be expelled from the synagogues as Jewish heretics.
Destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem, F. Hayez, 1867
The most probable explanation of the source of the Fourth Gospel, then, is that it was written by one of those early Jewish-Christians who was being expelled from the traditional synagogue just a few years after the Council of Jamnia. The author(s) sought to convince their Jewish compatriots that Jesus was the Messiah and to “believe,” in him as such. The word “believe” occurs in John a remarkable 84 times. A testament to the difficulty the writers encountered in that endeavor is found in the anger simmering throughout the narrative.
For Greek Christians who didn’t know the purpose behind the writing of the fourth gospel, “belief” became the guide to “salvation.” This interpretation distorted Jesus’ entire message. Belief is necessary, of course, but it must lead to actions for those seeking God’s approval.
The most distinguishing characteristic of John’s gospel is its clear anti-Judaism. Anti-Judaism infects all of the gospels to some extent, but in John it is full-blown. The sneering, angry phrase “the Jews” appears here 61 times! One can see the overall thrust of the gospel when one adds the 84 occurrences of “believe.” Clearly, the author(s) are upset that many fellow Jews do not regard Jesus as the Messiah nor do they accept his message.
The historic impact of John’s anger at his old coreligionists has been enormous. Readers of the gospel come away infected with anger towards “the Jews,” not understanding the fact that John was not anti-Semitic. He was angry at a religion that was excluding his group and specifically at the leaders of that religion. Nevertheless, there can be no doubt that the Gospel of John has been a major source of anti-Semitism historically, leading to the deplorable description "Christ killers." If one were to simply sit down and read it today without understanding its historic context, one could reach that conclusion even now. For that reason, John is still a dangerous gospel.
Now let us refer to scriptural proofs in the Gospel of John that will illustrate its various peculiarities and especially its strong bias against Judaism.
The Jesus of the Gospel of John rails against “the Jews,” strangely disregarding the fact that he himself was a Jew. The description of the Jewish elite in the Synoptics –“the scribes and Pharisees” – changes to “the Jews” in John. Yet the author of John was probably an ethnic Jew himself, so his anger is actually directed at a religion and its leadership that is rejecting him and others who believe differently. It is an important distinction and one that is easily lost on a casual reader.
But the historical Jesus was certainly not anti-Jewish, and he certainly did not say to the Chosen People the preposterous: “You [Jews] belong to your father, the Devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires”! (8:44) John changes the Chosen People into an Accursed People, the Devil’s spawn! This is simply an unacceptable interpretation of the position of the historical Jesus, and it has caused much subsequent murderous history. Deep prejudice against Judaism eventually resulted in the Holocaust. Its genesis is to be found in the first century and in this gospel.
We must compare this quote with quotes found in the Synoptic Gospels to see how irreconcilable John is with their accounts. In Matthew 5:17 we read Jesus saying, “Do not think I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” This demonstrates that Jesus was a loyal Jew, living fully within the prophetic tradition. On this point – whether Jesus was a loyal Jew or not – the Synoptic Gospels cannot be reconciled with John.
Here are examples of how John the gospel writer distances himself from and disparages “the Jews”:
Nearby stood six stone water jars, the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing…(2:6)
To Nicodemus: …you people do not accept our testimony. (3:11) (Actually, this is the thesis of the entire gospel.)
Because Jesus was doing these things on the Sabbath, the Jews persecuted him. (5:16)
For this reason the Jews tried all the harder to kill him… (5:18)
Then the Jews began to argue sharply among themselves… (6:52)
At these words the Jews were again divided. (10:19)
The Jews gathered around him… (10:24)
Again, the Jews picked up stones to stone him... (10:31)
…many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, put their faith in him. (11:43)
…Jesus no longer moved about publicly among the Jews. (11:54)
He has blinded [the Jews’] eyes and deadened their hearts… (12:40) [John is quoting Isaiah approvingly.]
“I have spoken openly to the world,” Jesus replied. “I always taught at the synagogues or at the temple, where all the Jews come together.” (18:20)
Finally, and most incredibly, John has the Jews crucify Jesus, not the Romans!
Then he [Pilate] handed him over to them [the Jews] to be crucified. (19:16)
This is certainly false. If somehow Pilate had handed Jesus over to the temple leaders to be executed (an illegality), he would have been executed in the Jewish way, by stoning. But Jesus was crucified, the preferred Roman method of execution of those guilty of sedition. Here John is the major source of the historic calumny that the Jews were “Christ killers.”
2. Expulsion from the synagogue
The Gospel of John mentions expulsion from the synagogue three times. That is significant.
His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue.” (9:22, John’s account of The Man Born Blind.)
Nevertheless many, even of the authorities, believed in him. But because of the Pharisees they did not confess it for fear that they would be put out of the synagogue… (12:42)
I have said these things to you to keep you from stumbling. They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God. (16:1, 2)
Here we glimpse the whole purpose of the writing of the Gospel of John: The Jewish followers of Jesus are being expelled from the synagogue (traditionally thought to be in Ephesus) as heretics. The writer’s anger - evident throughout - is reflected in the following:
Yet you refuse to come to me to have life. (5:40)
I know that you do not have the love of God in your hearts. (5:42)
I have come in my father’s name, and you do not accept me. (5:43)
But as I told you, you have seen me and still you do not believe. (6:36)
3. Jesus is God
The equation of Jesus with God is famously made in the Prologue of John’s gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (1:1) The theme recurs throughout John’s gospel.
No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God… (1:18 NIV only)
…before Abraham was born, I am! (8:58) (and six other “I am” claims. God identifies Himself in the Old Testament this way.)
Then the man said, ‘Lord, I believe,’ and he worshiped him. (9:38)
I and the Father are one. (10:30)
…the Father is in me and I [am] in the Father. (10:38)
Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father... I am in the Father and the Father is in me. (14:9-10)
And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began. (17:5)
…you loved me before the creation of the world. (17:24)
My Lord and my God! (20:28) (as asserted by Thomas after having put his hand into Jesus’ wounded side.)
Equating Jesus with God thus leads directly to the doctrine of the Trinity, a huge stumbling block to Christians throughout history. It is a false doctrine. Look at the evidence. The oldest writings in the New Testament, the letters of Paul, do not support the deification of Jesus. (The lone exception is found in Philippians 2:6 but that reference is ordinarily thought to be a part of an early hymn.) All of Paul’s other references to Jesus make him subordinate to God. Matthew, Mark, and Luke portray him as the Son of God and the Messiah, but not as God himself. Only John takes this theological leap. Could it be that Paul and the authors of the Synoptics, writing earlier than John, somehow missed this stunning truth? It’s very unlikely.
Early church fathers recognized these apparent contradictions in Christology and argued about them. The doctrine of the Trinity became a political decision at the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE in response to the Emperor Constantine’s demand that Christians harmonize their theology and overcome their disagreements over Jesus' divinity. The doctrine of the Trinity, therefore, was a political decision.
First Ecumenical Council [Nicaea], V. Surikov, 1876
There is no doubt that the doctrine of the Trinity harmonized the four gospels, but it laid a doctrinal goose egg that has caused dissension forever after. Trying to explain the contradiction of “three separate entities that are the same” and to bring that belief into accord with other aspects of Christian theology has made Christianity theology difficult and obscurantist.
It should be noted that even John is not always consistent in equating Jesus and God. There are a number of passages that point to Jesus as a subordinate Son such as:
We have seen the glory...of the one and only Son.... (1:14)
...I testify that this is the Son of God. (1:34)
…because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. (3:18)
The Father loves the Son…. (3:35)
For the Father loves the Son.... (5:20)
…I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God… (11:27)
…for the Father is greater than I. (14:28b)
…Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God… (20:31)
Reconciling these contradictory passages is perhaps the chief reason why Christianity historically has been obsessed with doctrine rather than with ethical practice. Christian theology could easily be described a "obscurantist."
4. Salvation through belief in Jesus
First we should examine the whole idea that simple “belief” leads to “salvation.” The fundamental problem with this approach is that belief can vary in intensity. One can believe so strongly that one’s whole life can be affected. Or one can hold a weak belief that yields no consequence. This website argues that one’s belief must be strong enough to affect actions in order to please God. That is the correct definition of “faith.” Christians and Jews all usually accept the formula that "faith saves," not "belief."
As background, we note that the Synoptics offer a variety of paths to salvation. Matthew declares that whoever feeds the hungry, offers drink to the thirsty, or takes in a stranger is righteous before God. Notice that these are actions. Mark and Luke insist on repentance. Jesus himself most often references having faith. If we define faith as above, we see that belief is a necessary but insufficient qualification. It is only part of the formula. Belief must be strong enough to compel one to act in accordance with God’s perceived will for that person. Jesus, like all prophets, wanted people to act righteously. But simple “belief” can be so weak that it commands no action. That is why simply “believing” is unacceptable. We note that the word “faith” does not appear even once in the Gospel of John.
Here are examples of John's call "to believe."
…everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. (3:15)
Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name he gave the right to become children of God… (1:12)
And the famous, "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life." (3:16)
Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. (3:18)
Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him. (3:36)
…whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life. (5:24)
Jesus answered: ‘the work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.’ (6:29)
‘For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.’ (6:40)
...the one who believes has eternal life. (6:47)
Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him. (7:38)
He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. (11:25)
But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (20:31) (Again, this is the thesis of the entire gospel.)
In summary, John is concerned with belief due to the unbelief of his fellow Jews who had rejected Jesus as Messiah.
John’s preoccupation with belief in Jesus as the Messiah is illustrated in his odd report of the Last Supper. There, near the conclusion of his lengthy final soliloquy, Jesus is reported by John as saying to his disciples, “You believe at last!” (16:31) How odd that the disciples, who had followed Jesus for at least several years and had witnessed many works expressly meant to impress, are yet said to have doubted Jesus until this final event. How odd that they were earlier reported to have believed after Jesus' first miracle at Cana, "...his disciples believed in him." (2:11) Rather, it is likely that this exclamation expresses John’s own desire for his unbelieving synagogue companions’ conversion upon reading his gospel: “You believe at last!”
Finally, we should examine the second segment of the formula expressed in John that one must “believe in Jesus.” In John’s interpretation of events, Jesus becomes the only way one can find God. He is the one and only route to “salvation.” This viewpoint is unique and largely absent from the Synoptics. (We will show how this assertion also appears in the Apostle Paul’s theology and why modern scholars believe it was not Paul’s intent.) Also, believing in Jesus leads to worship of Jesus. In the Synoptic Gospels Jesus never asks to be worshiped. His strongest statement in that regard is “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” (Mark 10:18, Luke 18:19)
If Paul and John’s intent was to say, “Believe in Jesus of Nazareth – not Zeus or Isis,” we could accept that. But that’s not what Christians have ever said. They have stopped at simple “belief.”
The assertion that Jesus is the only way has been the source of much Christian intolerance in history. If one were a righteous Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu or pagan, it made no difference. Hell was that person’s destination. No matter how pious, right-thinking, right-acting, or gracious that person was, the non-belief in Jesus-as-Gateway trumped everything else; they were told that they were going to Hell. This is, perhaps, the most offensive aspect of Christianity to non-Christians and is rejected by many modern Christians as exclusionary, contrary to the values of a loving god, and contrary to Scripture correctly understood.
If Jesus taught a universal doctrine of righteousness, as seems to be the case in the Synoptics, a theology of "only Jesus" is incorrect. It is especially objectionable as the world shrinks in size as it modernizes.
5. Salvation through the Eucharist
Upon close examination of the Gospel of John we find more confusing statements about salvation. In addition to “belief in Jesus,” the Gospel of John adds a second requirement for salvation – to eat his flesh and drink his blood: “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.” (6:54) This straightforward and clear command is hardly metaphorical. How does it fit into the “belief” theme? (And does anyone really think that a ritual leads to salvation?) And, as if to contradict his very command, according to John, at the Last Supper no bread or wine is even eaten or mentioned! Did Jesus forget? No, this is simply one more sign of the confusing presentation of events in this gospel.
6. Signs or Miracles?
The miracles that Jesus performed in the Synoptic Gospels are done out of compassion. He didn’t want to call attention to these acts because presumably his humility prevented him from doing so. Also, it would detract from his teaching about “the Kingdom of God.” (Luke 4:43) Apparently Jesus couldn’t resist helping people in need. When asked to perform a miracle as a sign of his power and authority, however, Jesus refused: “Why does this generation seek a sign? Truly, I say to you, no sign shall be given to this generation.” (Mark 8:12)
Jesus Healing the Blind, N. Poussin, 1650
In John, however, miracles are performed as signs precisely to impress onlookers with whom Jesus is rather than out of compassion. It begins with the disciples who are the first ones to be wowed: “What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.” (2:11b) Other examples:
Unless you people [Jews] see signs and wonders… you will never believe. (4:48)
…a great crowd followed him because they saw the signs he had performed by healing the sick. (6:2)
Of the man born blind, “…this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.” (9:3)
The miracles I do in my Father’s name speak for me. (10:25)
...Do not believe me unless I do the works of my Father. But if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works.… (10:37-38)
Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the miracles themselves. (14:11)
Are Jesus’ miracles signs of his divinity or simply human acts of compassion? These positions are irreconcilable. We must choose between them.
There is only one ethical teaching by Jesus in the Gospel of John and it consists of three sentences. This paucity of such material alone makes the Gospel of John suspect as we compare its version of Jesus with the intense attention the Jesus of the Synoptics devotes to ethical behavior. In John we must read the whole book before we come to the one ethical discussion, and that is when Jesus is talking to his disciples at the Last Supper. He commands them in all of three sentences:
A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. All men will know that you are my disciples if you love one another. (13:34-35)
There is no refinement of or elaboration on this love as compared to that described in the Synoptics where Jesus gives many examples of love in action, such as turning the other cheek, praying for one’s enemies, forgiving one’s assailants, walking the extra mile, and aiding the stranger in need.
How can it be that Jesus can be so passionate and eloquent in the Synoptics, so rich in examples, but be so shallow in John? How can he give deep elucidations in the Synoptics and exactly three sentences in John, followed by a change in topic? We hold that it is because the author of John has created a Jesus who is not interested in ethics, but one who instead will carry John’s protest about his own expulsion from the synagogue.
A further troubling problem is that the command to love does not seem to be a core spiritual requirement, but rather the means to model a spiritual status to onlookers: “All men will know that you are my disciples if you love one another.” Even more objectionable is that the command to love one another is clearly restricted to the twelve disciples in the room: “I am not praying for the world, but for those you have given me, for they are yours.” (17:9) Here is the old narrow idea of love: love of your own family and tribe. But the real Jesus taught universal love and gave many examples of it, criticizing the customary view of love by asking “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?” (Matt. 5:46). Or in Luke: “Even ‘sinners’ love those who love them.” (Luke 6:32) Surely, the fuller treatment of a universal love in the Synoptics is more authentic. Again, the differences between the Synoptic Gospels and the Gospel of John are stark: we must choose between a love of other Christians only or a love of everyone, Christian or not. These different views cannot be harmonized.
When people questioned Jesus in the Synoptics, he usually answered with a question rather than assuming egotistic authority. This is a central attribute of Jewish rabbis and of successful people even today. No one likes arrogance. We recall the discussions of humility found in the Old Testament: “Now Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth.” (Numbers 12:3) Or Isaiah: “This is the one I esteem: he who is humble and contrite in spirit…” (Is. 66:2b) Micah declares, “And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8) We must also recall that Jesus went humbly to his own death.
But John’s Jesus shows no humility at all. John depicts an angry, bragging, and often querulous Jesus. The Synoptics display a much more attractive man, someone who almost never talks about himself. In John, that’s all Jesus talks about – himself. The Synoptics show Jesus to be magnetic; people loved to listen to him. They dropped whatever they were doing and ran after him, even into the hills, and even without thinking about food for the trek. Would people be attracted to an arrogant, irascible prophet? Of course not. Consider this quotation from the standpoint of ego: “I am the bread of life: He who comes to me will never go hungry.” (6:35) Wouldn’t it have seemed more Christ-like for Jesus to have said, “God is the bread of life; He who seeks God will never go hungry”?
But no, in John the ego reigns:
I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life. (8:12)
I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. (10:9)
I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me…and I lay down my life for the sheep. (10:14-15)
I am the resurrection and the life. (11:25)
I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the father except through me. (14:6)
I am the true vine.… (15:1)
Was the real Jesus humble or arrogant? We must choose.
9. Scriptural Oddities
There are many other oddities that should alert the reader that something is amiss with John’s gospel.
a. Did many believe Jesus’ message, or did few? In John, there is confusion on this point. John asserts: “Now while he was in Jerusalem at [his first reported] Passover Feast, many people saw the miraculous signs he was doing and believed in his name.” (2:23) And after Jesus has raised Lazarus: “Therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did [raised Lazarus], believed in him.” (11:45) But by the end of the Gospel, John reports that on his final visit to Jerusalem “even after Jesus had done all these miraculous signs in their presence, they still would not believe in him.” (12:37) This is John’s recurring complaint: most Jews didn’t believe in Jesus as Messiah.
b. John portrays Jesus as saying many times that “You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it” (14:14). Stated four times in the gospel, this forceful statement is obviously preposterous on its face (even though Christians still conclude their prayers on this hopeful note). Here are the quotations:
And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it. (14:13-14)
If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you. (15:7)
The Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. (15:16b)
I tell you the truth, my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. (16:23b)
It’s time to back away from this egocentric portrayal of Jesus as someone who has been empowered to grant any request and acknowledge that God answers only prayers that conform to His will for us.
c. There are also contradictions in John concerning God’s judgment, e.g.: “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world…” (3:17) but we later read: “Jesus said, ‘For judgment I have come into this world’…” (9:39). On this important topic, could the historical Jesus have been confused? Read more:
God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world…. (3:17)
…the Father judges no one, but has entrusted all judgment to the son…. (5:22)
And he has given him [Jesus] the authority to judge.… (5:27)
You judge by human standards; I pass judgment on no one. (8:15)
I have much to say in judgment of you. (8:26)
Jesus said, ‘For judgment I have come into this world’…. (9:39)
Now is the time for judgment on this world. (12:31)
For I did not come to judge the world, but to save it. (12:47)
d. Then there is the peculiar instance when Jesus gives his disciples powers ordinarily thought to belong only to God: “If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” (20:23)
This is an echo of Genesis 12:3 but can modern people believe this? In contrast, the Synoptics make clear that we are forgiven as we forgive others.
e. Another anomaly is that John presents the Jews of that time as completely unaware of some of the principal events in their own history: “They answered him, ‘We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be set free?’ ” (8:33) How could they have forgotten that Moses had led them out of Egyptian slavery, or that they had involuntarily sojourned “by the waters of Babylon”?
It seems more probable that John, very probably a Greek, was not too conversant with Jewish history.
f. Let us hope that Jesus meant spiritual death in this quotation: “Very truly I tell you, whoever obeys my word will never see death” (8:51). Most of us eventually die! Of course, if you wish, you can harmonize this by the traditional belief that the saints are only “resting” in their graves.
g. Election: This hoary belief, that God creates all people, but only elects a few as worthy enough to achieve salvation, is found throughout the Bible as well as in the writings and teachings of other ancient religions. Let’s face this squarely. Would a loving God create billions of humans and choose only a few to live with Him before they were even born, and condemn the majority to spiritual death or eternal damnation? No. God desires all to find and serve Him. Is God loving and just, or hateful and arbitrary? Below are John’s assertions that all is predestined and that Jesus has come simply to gather his elect:
This is the will of him who sent me – that I shall lose none of all that he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. (6:39)
No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day. (6:44)
…you do not believe because you are not my sheep. (10:26)
I have revealed you to those whom you gave me out of the world. (17:6)
h. Christ killers. John reports that Pilate sent Jesus to the Jews for execution. "Then he handed him over to them to be crucified" (19:16). This is false. He was crucified by the Romans.
10. Born Again
The Gospel of John is the only Gospel that speaks of the necessity of a second birth for salvation: “Jesus replied, ‘Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again’” (3:3). As powerful and popular as this doctrine is, it should be worrisome that the Synoptics do not call for a transformational experience of rebirth.
11. The Raising of Lazarus
This event, reported only in John’s gospel, was the direct cause of Jesus’ crucifixion, according to the author. John reports that the event was a landmark in establishing the fame of Jesus: “Therefore many of the Jews … put their faith in him.” (11:43)
The Raising of Lazarus, C. H. Bloch, 1870
According to John, this act alarmed the Jewish leaders so much that “…from that day on they plotted to take his life.” (11:53)
Yet the Synoptics don’t even mention Lazarus’ resurrection. Could it be that such a famous and momentous event with such stupendous consequences was unknown to Mark in 70 CE and Matthew and Luke in 85 CE, but only to John in 95 CE? Or did John make up this dramatic story? Perhaps we should view the Lazarus story as a literary device used to foreshadow the death and resurrection of Jesus. The Synoptics report that the decision to arrest Jesus was prompted by his cleansing of the Temple. Which account should be believed? Both cannot be accurate.
12. The Last Supper
Was the Last Supper served on Passover (as asserted in the Synoptics) or on the Day of Preparation which was the day before Passover (as asserted in John)? It can’t have occurred on both days. We must choose which version to believe.
[The Last Supper was the] …evening meal...just before the Passover Feast. (13:2 and 13:1)
It was the Day of Preparation of Passover Week... “Here is your king,” Pilate said to the Jews. (19:14)
[he] …gave up his spirit. Now, it was the Day of Preparation.... (19:30-31)
Because it was the Jewish Day of Preparation ...they laid Jesus there. (19:42)
And did Jesus institute communion (the bread and the wine) during the Last Supper (Synoptics), or did he wash his disciples' feet (John)? The Synoptics record one thing and John another.
Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet at the Last Supper
Ford Madox Brown, ca. 1852-1856
13. The Final Soliloquy
In the Gospel of John, the lovely and lengthy soliloquy Jesus gives at the Last Supper has no parallel in the Synoptics. This red-letter Farewell Discourse comprises more than 2,600 words. Can it be that all those words could have been recalled by John after 60-some years? Jesus’ speech ends at Chapter 18 when the gospel reverts to the usual method of reporting recalled segments of the actual words of Jesus, that is, short recalled statements surrounded by contextual support. Because of this, and since the soliloquy is a summation of John’s own unique theology, we can assume that the soliloquy is apocryphal (but that the succeeding Passion account, ironically, actually contains some historically accurate material).
14. The Crucifixion
Did Jesus experience agony during the crucifixion or not? Was John a Docetist, someone who believes that since God does not have a physical body, Jesus as the Son of God could not have had a physical body? According to Docetism, what people saw on the cross was a phantasm and the phantasm felt no pain.
Night at Golgotha, V.V. Vereshchagin, 1869
In Matthew and Mark Jesus seems fully human when he "cried out in a loud voice, 'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?'” (Matt. 27:46) And Jesus "cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit.” (Matt. 27:50) Here he seems to be a real man in real agony.
Yet in John Jesus seems unperturbed: “Jesus said, ‘I am thirsty.’ ” (19:28) And “…Jesus said, ‘It is finished.’ With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.” (19:30)
Jerusalem – It Is Finished, J. Gerome, 1867
Here John seems to present Jesus as someone who is not suffering, but simply playing out a role, suggesting Docetism. Again, his presentation of the life of Jesus seems peculiar. Again, we are called upon to make a decision in this instance, with rather enormous Christological consequences.
In conclusion, the weight of evidence shows such discrepancies between the Jesus portrayed in the Synoptic Gospels and the Jesus described in the Gospel of John that the two cannot be harmonized. The Synoptics have a much stronger claim to historical fact In contrast, John’s account seems written to carry a unique message in a particular moment in time, that “Christian” Jews, being expelled from the synagogue, wanted their brothers to believe that Jesus was the Messiah.
We must conclude that most of John’s account of Jesus is apocryphal. The Christian church should remove this false gospel from the canon. To recognize that the Gospel of John is apocryphal would return Christianity to its Founder’s simplicity and truth and:
• The confusing doctrine of the Trinity that teaches that Jesus is God would end. Ending discussions about doubtful claims that have political beginnings could allow more discussion about how to live in this world successfully, which is what God wants us to do.
• Christian intolerance of other faith traditions could end, insofar as other faith traditions embrace the core of Jesus' teachings: respect for all people, the rejection of sin, the practice of these values in the secular world, and prayer. Jesus should be venerated, not worshiped as God. Nowhere in the Synoptics does the real Jesus ask for worship. Christianity could be spread to seekers across the world if shorn of its objectionable personalization of God.
• Arguments about the Last Supper would be clarified. Jesus’ assertion that his followers should “eat my flesh and drink my blood” is quirky, attested to only once, and subsequently forgotten in John’s Last Supper. The Synoptics are more clear - this is a memorial meal.
• The roots of Christian anti-Semitism would disappear. Most people who read the Bible do not have a scholarly background. If one reads the Gospel of John without any knowledge of its context or authenticity, the overwhelming impact of so many negative references to “the Jews” cannot but create a sense of anti-Semitism. After nineteen hundred years of shameful anti-Semitism, let’s erase this hateful element.
• The striving for a “born again” experience would lessen. We should firmly adopt the proper translation which is “born from above,” a metaphor, if we wish to be modern and honest. (We do not reject the fact that some people have genuine spiritual experiences.)
• Christian prayers would not have to end with “In the name of Jesus.” That the repetition of a mantra will compel God to do what we ask is slightly absurd.
• Christian doctrine would be greatly simplified and ethical behavior would be emphasized. Jesus and all the prophets called for us to act right: to love our neighbor, to be kind, to be forgiving to restrain our anger and abandon our grudges, and to work at the task or calling that God has given each of us to do, guided by prayer and scripture reading. Trying to harmonize theologies that are fundamentally irreconcilable is a waste of time and energy. Such debates have sapped Christianity of its vitality and confused too many people. The world needs a powerful, unified Christianity, not a confusing and quirky compendium of conflicting propositions. The Jesus of the Synoptics is simple and clear.
The Synoptic Gospels show a self-effacing Jesus who is compassionate and interested in changing the ethical foundations of the world: ending cycles of violence by turning the other cheek, respecting women, turning sympathetic attention to those in society who are often forgotten, and asking for large measures of social justice -- all actions informed by prayer. This is the real Jesus.