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Thursday, August 03, 2006 

The Triumph of the Gospel of John in American Evangelicalism: Introduction

Ever since the rise of higher biblical criticism, scholars have been quick to point out the striking differences between the synoptic gospels and the Gospel of John in regards to the figure of Jesus. The following are some of the well-known ones:

1.) In contrast to the synoptic portrait of a Jesus who proclaims the coming of God's kingdom (Mk1:15/Mt 4:17; Mk 9:1/Lk 9:27, Lk 21:31, cf Mk 13), the author(s) of John's Gospel depict a Jesus who constantly proclaims himself (e.g., Jn6ff; 7:38; 8:12,58; 10:7-10; 11:25-26; 14:6; 15:1-6) as the means to salvation. To provide a bit more of a perspective consider the synoptic data concerning the occurances of "kingdom of God" and its equivalent Matthean version "kingdom of heaven" versus the gospel of John's data:

Synoptics-92 (59 "kingdom of God" and 33 "kingdom of heaven")
Gospel of John-2 (both of which occur in the context of Jesus' conversation with Nicodemus in chapter 3)

The gospel of John's use of the phrase(s) occurs about 2 percent of that of the synoptic's usage.

2.) The chronology of the synoptics and John are quite different. Whereas the synoptics present Jesus' mission as lasting at about a year, John 's presentation seems to indicate a possible two or even three year ministry. One of the major examples of a diachronic discrepancy between the synoptics and John includes the relocation of the temple incident during the passion week in the synoptic versions (Mk 11:12-19 and par.) to the beginning of Jesus' mission (Jn 2:20-22). Another major example is the difference concerning the time of Jesus' death. The synoptics indicate that Jesus died on the day of passover (Mk 14-15 and par.) after the meal but the gospel of John places Jesus' death at the time the passover lambs were being slaughtered, i.e. before the actual passover meal. (Jn 18:28; 19:14)

3.) The method of teaching is quite distinct between the synoptics and John. The synoptics present a Jesus who instructs through parables, aphorisms, riddles, etc. However, John's Jesus regularly engages in lengthy monologues and lacks the forms of teaching found in the synoptics.

4.) The gospel of John is significantly more theologically colored. One prime example is the difference in interpretation of the feeding of the 5000. When one compares the synoptic verisons (Mk 6:38ff and par.) with John's own account (Jn 6ff) the theological elaboration in the latter's account is striking.

It is this last point that is particularly troublesome since it exhibits the extent that the post-Easter proclamation has been retrojected into the Jesus tradition by the author(s) of John. Of course the synoptics are not entirely free of this element but John seems infused at every point in his gospel by a post-Easter reflection of the exalted Christ. Because of this those who are not of a conservative bent tend to dimiss the gospel of John as containing valuable history. Any history that is contained in John's gospel would be minimal at best and even harder to retrieve. Those who would wish to use the gospel of John as a source for reconstructing the historical Jesus should pay account to the late Raymond Brown's words:

"...subsequent development, no matter how homogeneous, is something that is refractive when one's purpose is to establish scientifically the exact circumstances of the ministry of Jesus. And so, although I think that the Fourth Gospel reflects historical memories of Jesus, the greater extent of the theological reshaping of those memories makes Johannine material harder to use in the quest for the historical Jesus than most Synoptic material." (Raymond Brown, An Introduction to the Gospel of John, p. 107)

However, though the synoptics differ considerably from the gospel of John and probably contain more information historically in regards to the figure of Jesus of Nazareth, this gospel has held a place of dominance throughout history in regards to the formulation of Christian faith. For example, its importance for the first few centuries of Christianity in the ensuing Christological debates cannot be understated (though it had to be wrestled constantly from the hands of Gnostic Christians). But even today, especially among American Evangelicalism, the presentation of Jesus found in the gospel of John is by far the dominant one. And so in this new series of posts (which may or may not be posted consecutively) I will look at the evidence which I believe indicates this and then explain why I have some problems with this particular appropriation of one aspect of the Jesus tradition by a majority of Christians today, namely, the one found in the gospel of John.

One other big difference is that there is no Eucharist in John.

It is hard to know why the author chose to leave it out.

Yes John 6 is interesting because the synoptic account it builds on is a miraculous sign of the kingdom and yet in John 6:26 the significance of the feeding and the sign is downplayed as a distraction to Christology.

The temple disturbance scene being moved to John 2 allows the Lazarus episode to be the reason for the crucifixion (11:53). It is no longer clearly a political matter that brings him before the Romans (as there is no kingdom of God mentioned). It is pure religious scheming over the resurrection and the possibility of too many people 'believing in him'.

All of this reflects the debates Christians and Jews were having later in the century. Chris, have you read Martyn's work on the Fourth Gospel (I have forgotten the exact title..Theology and the Fourth Gospel maybe)? It is brief yet eye-opening. He attempts to show especially in the narrative additions to the synoptic accounts how John is directly reflecting the debates with the Jews at the time of separation. He builds from 9:22 and the 'excommunication' from the synagogue over calling Jesus the Christ. In the synoptics of course this is either true or false but doesn't get you kicked out of a synagogue.

As to the popularity of John this can be blamed on the reformation. Melanchthon says it does no good to understand Christ's life if you don't understand it purpose 'for us' which of course leans on Paul's theology with John's Jesus. The real forerunner of John dependence for evangelicals was Calvin who basically claims that John is written to 'clarify' the synoptics so we wouldn't miss the real theological point i.e. get distracted by imitation or teachings.


You are right that there is no explicit reference to the eucharist. The reason there is not a eucharist meal in John's passion narrative is, again, because of the different dates of Jesus' death between John's account and that of the synoptics. The synoptics clearly indicate that Jesus' last meal with his disciples was a passover meal. However, Jesus' meal in John's gospel could not have been passsover since his death is at the time the lambs are being slaughtered in preperation for passover. Nevertheless, there are traces of the eucharist elsewhere in the gospel of John, particularly in chapter 6 which many consider to be a kind of midrashic interpretation of the eucharist.


I have not read Martyn's work, but Raymond Brown refers to it several times in his "Introduction to the Gospel of John." I must admit that I have not read much literature on the gospel of John since it is admittedly my least favorite of the gospels. Thanks for the key insight concerning Calvin's point about the gospel of John "clarifying" the synoptics.

Hey Chris,

Inspired by your post, I put up a small side discussion concerning the "I am" material in John.

I'm delighted that you're posting on this topic! From time to time I feel like I ought to justify my dismissal of evidence from John, but I haven't provided a detailed explanation of why. Now I can just point people to your series!

… the extent that the post-Easter proclamation has been retrojected into the Jesus tradition by the author(s) of John.


Re the historical information contained in John —
Some scholars (following C.H. Dodd) believe there is some accurate historical data found in John but not the synoptics. For example:

• the synoptics have Jesus ministering only in Jerusalem until the last week of his life. John's account of other forays into Jerusalem is probably correct;

• the length of Jesus' ministry was likely longer than one would gather from the synoptics;

• Jesus and John may have both carried on a ministry of baptism at the same time, per John 4:1f.

Where John is least likely, in my view, is on christology — the very place where evangelicals rely on John so heavily!

Re Steven's question —
I find Barrett's explanation attractive. He says John deliberately dehistoricized Jesus in order to heighten the appearance of transcendance. This included passing over Jesus' baptism and the institution of the Lord's Supper.

(After all, John could have included it, but simply dated it one day earlier, in anticipation of Passover.)

According to Barrett (mind you, I'm heavily paraphrasing here!), John felt that recording the historical event might have rooted it at a specific point in space and time; but he wanted to emphasize Jesus' immanent presence everywhere at all times. Thus (rather bizarrely) John provides an extended theological meditation on eating Jesus' flesh and drinking his blood, without any direct mention of the commemorative meal itself!

I'm sure it's a speculative explanation, but I like it because it seems consistent with the general tenor of John's Gospel. This notion of deliberately dehistoricizing Jesus explains why the Gospel of John leaves me cold at many points … as it does you.

Oops! Re my first bullet — that should read, "the synoptics have Jesus _never_ ministering in Jerusalem _until_ the last week of his life."

It depends on what you mean by 'historicity' in a way. As Q says John wants a Jesus who speaks today to his situation. Martyn tries to show how he takes a synoptic narrative and allows Jesus to "apply" it in a sense to his situation. What would Jesus "do" or "teach" is shown and need not be imagined. (Martyn's work was that rare work that actually appeared to be a breakthrough in understanding, not just for novelty's sake and perhaps it's even correct:) )

But as I always remind Q as I chase him around blogosphere chiding him, you must let go of the fetish of a "historical Jesus" as if he were normative, some Jesus according to the flesh. The synoptics no less then John present us with the risen Christ of the apostolic teaching who is known by the Spirit (a mythic Jesus more than his own history). This "known Jesus" as opposed to some "excavated and as yet unknown Jesus" is the Jesus of our faith.

How can one get comfortable with such phrases from Q claiming "where John is least likely is Christology?" What does this even mean? the formation of some (truncated) Synoptic sect? Who is teaching whom here? This sort of speculation seems woefully deficient on the Spirit of the Lord by which we know Christ. Historical Jesus stuff is intriguing but as it drifts into theological hubris it is naive(Wright) or misguided (pick a name, but leave Q out this time for charity's sake).

Embrace the myth!

You know I enjoy dialoguing with you, and I find your perspective both legitimate and rich in potential. That said … you're crossing the line into rude in the above comment, whereas I am unfailingly respectful of you.

You must let go of the fetish of a "historical Jesus" as if he were normative, some Jesus according to the flesh.

First, Bultmann's interpretation of the phrase, "we no longer regard Jesus according to the flesh" is very dubious from an exegetical perspective.

Moreover, first century Christians manifestly were interested in the history of Jesus' life, or the synoptic tradition would never have been documented. Why record Jesus' sayings and deeds if they were of no significance after he was raised from the dead?

I simply do not buy the extreme scepticism that says we cannot know anything significant about the historical Jesus. Even a sceptic like Bultmann believed we could recover a great deal of Jesus' teaching; and E.P. Sanders (a sceptic of a different sort) believes we can know certain key deeds from Jesus' life, which shed much light on the Jesus of history.

Thus it is neither naive nor misguided to believe we can recover a critical mass of information about the historical Jesus.

Finally, I see no need to apologize for making the historical Jesus normative for Christian faith. It is gratuitously insulting to describe that position as a fetish. Jesus is our exemplar and our Lord: not Paul or James or any other interpreter of the Christ event.

To say that the Spirit leads us into the true knowledge of Jesus without any reference to the Gospel record — that, in my view, is a naive, misguided, and heterodox stance on which to take one's stand.

But honestly, I would prefer that we not call one another names.

Q, sorry, no personal offense intended, but I do find the project naive or theologically misguided just as taking John as straightforwardly historical would be. The issue is not what can we recover of the historical Jesus, it is what is the religious/theological value of it once found. I think it provides a questionable foundation (or none at all) for the faith.

I do not see how the historical Jesus is normative apart from the apostolic witness. As if we could know the significance of Jesus from his biography fortunately left behind in a mess of gobbledy-gook. Surely the synoptic gospels are not trying to emphasize the biography of the historical Jesus. The character there is the risen Jesus they knew walking the earth to much the same extent as it is in John.

I don't think they would conceive of themselves as following or writing about the political, social, spiritual teachings or even acts of a past historical prophet. They are interested in the mythic element of his coming, acts, death, and resurrection. Are we to treat them as though they are really trying to communicate the real historical events and sayings and those alone are to guide us? All the rest are uninspired and unfortunate accretions? That John rightly valued Jesus but just for the wrong reasons.

We eventually get to the absurdity of a historical Jesus who had a 'Christology' that would have prevented him from following the Jesus of the Gospels, don't we? (That's how your comment about John struck me.) But this is true of John and also the synoptics. Now what are we to do? Whose Christology should we believe? I should think that we would follow the teachings of the myth-writers themselves as they knew his significance. We can't follow the teachings of, say, Allison's historically reconstructed Jesus, but rather the witnesses of the rez'd Jesus. The latter is the only one worth knowing (I think you would agree Paul at least means this much evidenced in his proclamation).

Without their experience and interpretations, I think Jesus is no more important then any other ancient teacher and perhaps less so (cf. Allison). And he would surely have been lost to history if his followers didn't go mythic.

If one wants to deny that Jesus' christology was different than ours then I think they are being naive (how I often view Wright's project). And if one thinks that it was different and we should simply found our religion on that then I think it is misguided and unrecognizable as anything apostolic.

Put another way the 'Lord' we follow is the Lord of the apostolic message not some historical figure we choose to ascribe Lordship to on independent grounds. As if we say "Yes on the paltry set of 'facts' we can validate, we can confirm that, indeed, Jesus is the Lord. And furthermore dispense with the rest of the witness of the gospels outside these facts as mythic accretions since 'We follow Jesus'."


I wish I had adequate time to respond to everything that you have said but as of right now I do not. Suffice it to say that my beef is not so much with John not being as historical as the synoptics (though I think in some respects this is a problem) but my concern is more with those who emphasize the distinct portrait of Jesus found in the gospel of John to the exclusion of other viable Jesus traditions. Peter Stuhlmacher highlights why this is onesideness on John presents a problem:

"This school (the Johannine school) had in part different and better historical data for its presentation than the Synoptics. But at the same time the Johannine circle developed considerable esoteric tendencies...the Johannine witness therefore needs to be consistently realigned with the Synoptics, the Pauline corpus and the OT, so that faith in Jesus Christ does not lose its historical roots or evaporate into an esoteric teaching about the true meaning of Christ."

Stulmacher, Biblical Theology: Retrospect and Prospect, "My Experience With Biblical Theology", p. 187.

• Chris:
That's a great quote from Stulmacher!

• David:

I appreciate the substantive response to my comment. This is why I enjoy dialoguing with you.

I'll respond to your questions as best I can while keeping it brief.

Are the synoptic Gospels biographies, judged by first-century standards? Dunn argues that they are; I recently posted an excerpt from him on the subject.

Is a (relatively) low christology non-apostolic? Not necessarily. I think the book of James reflects a stream of Jewish Christianity, including a (relatively) low christology. I might add that none of the Gospels were actually written by apostles (according to critical scholarship): so it's a bit simplistic to determine what is apostolic by reference to the Gospels.

The point is, there is arguably a spectrum of positions which may rightly be regarded as "apostolic". Second-century Jewish Christians professed the Lordship of Jesus without believing in his deity. In my view, it is legitimate for modern Christians to arrive at the same place.

Would Jesus have followed the Christ of the Gospels? Here you are correct in interpreting my general position. I believe Jesus would repudiate some of the attributes ascribed to him in John: pre-existence, deity.

I don't believe that Jesus believed in the Trinity! But I think Jesus would accept our profession of his Lordship, based on his claim that the eschaton was breaking into human history via his ministry. I regard that claim as part of the bedrock of the biblical data about Jesus.

I wonder, David, if you're willing to acknowledge any legitimacy to the position that Chris and I are staking out. I think your position is wrong, but I understand it is a legitimate reconstruction based on a part of the biblical data. Chris and I are doing something similar. Can you acknowledge as much?

I might add...

(1) Jesus does not tell a single parable in the entire Gospel of John. But according to the earlier three Gospels Jesus spoke to the people in parable upon parable. Also compare the earlier Gospel of Luke that mentions a parable about “Lazarus, a poor begger” who dies and goes to Abraham’s bosom and a rich man suffering in Hades begs that Lazarus be raised from the death and sent back to warn others but this Lazarus is not allowed to go because “they won’t believe even if someone is raised from the dead.” Compare that parable about a begger named Lazarus who does not return from the dead with the later version in the Gospel of John about a real person named “Lazarus,” who is not a begger this time, but himself a wealthy man who IS raised from the dead in a spectacular miracle at the end of Gospel of John that is found nowhere in the previous Gospels. The author of the Gospel of John even moves the “turning-of-the-tables-in-the-Temple” episode to the beginning of his new Gospel, to make room for his new story about the “raising of Lazarus” at its end, and to suggest that it was this new miracle that made the Pharisees determined to get rid of Jesus instead of the “turning of tables” episode as told in the earlier three Gospels.—E.T.B.

(2) Whereas the account of Jesus’ baptism in Mark 1:9 (cf. 1:4 and 10:18) leaves open the suspicion that John was greater than Jesus and that Jesus was sinful, John 1:29-34 and 3:26 eliminate these suspicions.

(3) Matthew 11:2-6 and Luke 7:18-23 agree that John the Baptist wavers in faith in Jesus as Messiah; but according to the Fourth Gospel (1:16, 29-34 and 3:27-30) John the Baptist recognizes Jesus as Messiah from first to last--even calling him “The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”

(4) According to the Synoptics, Jesus began his ministry only after John the Baptist had been imprisoned (Matthew 4:12, Mark 1:14, Luke 3:18-20), whereas according to the Fourth Gospel their ministries overlapped (3:22-30; 4:1-2), John the Baptist was not yet in prison when Jesus’ ministry began.

(5) According to Matthew 11:14, 17:13, and Mark 9:13, John the Baptist is Elijah, whereas John 1:21 denies this identification.

(6) In the Synoptics, Jesus visits Jerusalem only once, for a week, at the end of his life (Matthew 21-27, Mark 11-15, Luke 19-23), whereas in John Jesus makes four visits to Jerusalem (2:13, 5:1, 7114, 12:12), the last one being a stay of some six months up to his crucifixion. Thus in the Synoptics the main scene of Jesus’ ministry is in Galilee, whereas in John the main scene is in Judea and Jerusalem, with only occasional withdrawals to Galilee (John 2:1-12, 4:35-5:1, 6:1-7:14).

(7) According to Matthew (15:21-29, 16:13-20) and Mark (7:24-31, 8:27-30) Jesus makes two journeys to the North (Tyre and Sidon, and Caesarea-Philippi), whereas in Luke and John he makes no northern excursions.

(8) In the Synoptics there is only one Passover (Matthew 26:1; Mark 14:1; Luke 22:1), giving Jesus a ministry of about one year, whereas in John there are three, possibly four, Passovers (2:13; 5:17; 6:4; 11:55), giving Jesus a two-or- three-year ministry or more.

(9) In the Synoptics, Jesus cleanses the temple at the close of his ministry (Matthew 21:12-17; Mark 11:15-19, Luke 19:45-48), in John, at the beginning (2:13-22). And according to Matthew 21, Jesus cleanses the temple on Palm Sunday, according to Mark 11, on Palm Monday.

(10) In Mark 11:18 (and possibly Luke 19:47) Jesus’ cleansing of the temple motivates the Jewish authorities to kill Jesus, whereas in John 11:53 the motivation stems from Jesus’ raising of Lazarus, and the cleansing of the temple in John 2:13-22 has nothing to do with the final plot of the Jews.

(11) The Synoptics date Jesus’ crucifixion on the day of the Passover (Matthew 26:171 Mark 14:12, Luke 22:7), whereas John places it on the day before the Passover, and at a different hour of the day (John 13:1,29; 18:28; 19:14,31,42). [Biblical scholars suspect that the reason for changing the day and hour of Jesus’ death in the last written Gospel was to suit the theological notion of its author that Jesus was “The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world,” a notion the author preached early in his Gospel, putting it into the mouth of John the Baptist--and bringing it up again at the moment of Jesus’ death. Therefore he altered Jesus’ day and hour of execution so it would coincide with the day and hour the Passover lambs were being slain. Unfortunately, having altered the day (and hour) to try and make a theological point, the Johnnine author never concerned himself with the fact that Passover lambs were not slain for “sin.” The animal in the Hebrew Bible that did have the “sins of the people” placed on it was not a lamb at all, but a goat--neither was the goat slain but kept alive in order to carry away the sins of the people into the wilderness, i.e., the “scape goat.” I guess for the author of the Fourth Gospel, the lamb illustration was “close enough.”—E.T.B.]

(12) The Jesus of the Synoptics is a charismatic healer-exorcist and end-time Suffering Servant who suspects or perhaps believes himself destined to return as the Son of Man to inaugurate the supernatural kingdom of God (especially Matthew 10:23; Mark 10:18), whereas in the Fourth Gospel Jesus is the Son-of-Man-Logos incarnate on earth, the God-Man who exorcises no demons but who proclaims a sacramental, mystical, physical, churchly, eschatological doctrine of redemption. It’s “sacramental” because baptism and the Lord’s Supper produce “the new birth;” it’s “mystical” because these sacraments produce “union” with God and Christ (“we shall be one”); it’s “physical” because these sacraments are physical means that produce a physical effect, the glorification of the flesh to make the flesh capable of resurrection; it’s “churchly” because these sacraments must be administered by the church, for only in the church can the Spirit unite with the elements to produce salvation; and it’s “eschatological” because these sacraments produce the resurrection of the flesh.

(13) The necessity of being “born again” is something found only in the last written Gospel, John, and portrayed as a teaching delivered “at night” to a single person in John chapter 3, while everyone who doubts it is “damned already.” [sic]

Whereas according to the Synoptic Gospels Jesus spoke openly during the day to whomever asked him “how to inherit eternal life,” and placed obedience to inter-personal commandments, such as honoring one’s parents, and not stealing from other people, first and foremost on the list of “how to inherit eternal life,” i.e., rather than saying “ye must be born again.” Jesus also repeated as another Hebrew teacher had before him, that the whole of the law and the prophets could be summed up as “love God and your neighbor as yourself.” The Synoptic Gospel even agree that Jesus taught people to pray to God for direct forgiveness as in the “Our Father,” and that Jesus stressed the necessity of works above all, that being the basis of the separation of the “sheep and the goats” in the “final judgment” parable in Luke, and the basis of the teachings in the “Sermon on the Mount” as well. —E.T.B.

(14) In the Synoptics, especially in Mark (1:11, 25, 34, 441 9:9, etc.), Jesus keeps his Messiahship a secret so that as late as his entry into Jerusalem the multitudes hail him as a prophet (Matthew 21:10), whereas in the Fouth Gospel Jesus proclaims himself and is proclaimed and recognized as Messiah right from the first (1:16,29-34,41,45,49,51; 2:11,18; 3:13-30; 4:25-26,42; 5:18-47; 6:25-69; 7:28-29; 9:37; 10:25-26,30-36). [And only in the Fourth Gospel is John the Baptist portrayed declaring Jesus to be “The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” right from the first.—E.T.B.]

(15) Jesus’ concern for Israel as depicted in Matthew 10:5-6 and 15:24 is unknown to the Johannine Christ (John 5:45-471 8:31-47). Instead, more than sixty times the word(s) “Jews” and/or “The Jews,” are used to depict Jesus’ enemies, even by Jesus himself. [Since Jesus himself was a “Jew” the repeated use of such an eminently broad term makes greater sense if it was not spoken by the historical Jesus, but was a phrase that began coming up more often only after Jesus’ death, at a time when a rift continued to grow between Christian communities and “The Jews.”—E.T.B.]

(16) During the Lukan Pentecost (Luke 24:491 Acts 2:1-4) the Spirit comes directly upon the disciples without their having to be baptized, whereas in the Johannine Pentecost (John 20:19-23) the Spirit does not communicate himself directly but only as the second stage of Jesus’ baptism of the apostles--The foot-washing of the apostles by Jesus (John 13) being the first stage.

(17) In the Synoptics Jesus administers the elements at the Last Supper (Matthew 26:26 29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:14-26), whereas in John the Spirit comes only after the Ascension (John 7:31-39; 16:7) and therefore Jesus cannot distribute the elements, for the purposes of the elements is to convey the Spirit.

(18) In the Synoptics Jesus is under the Law (Matthew 5:17-20) and observes the Passover Meal (Matthew 26:17; Mark 14:12; Luke 22:7), whereas Jesus in John is not under the Law and therefore does not partake in the Passover Meal (John 13:1). Accordingly, John’s Jesus refers to “your Law” (John 8:17; 10:34; cf. 7:19; 18:31) and “their Law” (15:25).

(19) According to Matthew 16:19 and 18:18, Jesus during his lifetime gives the apostles authority to bind and loose (= forgive sins). Whereas in John 20:23 the authority to forgive sins can be conferred upon them only after they have been properly enlightened by the Spirit after Jesus’ resurrection.

SOURCE: Some Reflections on C. S. Lewis’ “Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism”
By Dr. A. J Mattill, Jr. [with additions by Edward T. Babinski]

[This article originally appeared without additions in The Journal of Faith and Thought, Spring, 1985, a publication that was distributed at Montclair State College, Montclair, New Jersey, and sponsored by the First Baptist Church of Montclair, N.J.]

Also see my brief online article, taken from Bart Ehrman's lesson on a tape from The Learning Company, concerning, The "Born Again" Dialogue In the Gospel of John. Ehrman points out a reason to doubt the authenticity of the "born again" dialogue in that Gospel:

One might also point out that the Jesus found in the three synoptic Gospels taught a more "work-based" salvation than that found in either the Gospel of John or even in Paul (who, though writing early, never met Jesus of Nazareth and almost never cites him). So, I'd pit the "Synoptic Road to Salvation" against the Evangelical "Johnnine Road to Salvation," or the "Roman Road to Salvation" any day. (As I do in an appendix in a book I edited, Leaving the Fold: Testimonies of Former Fundamentalists)

The earliest writings that tell us what Jesus of Nazareth said and taught, do NOT say that Jesus of Nazareth preached it was necessary to believe in specific things about Jesus's divinity for instance, or his death, nor do they teach that it was necessary to "be born again" and "believe" rightly in order to inherit eternal life, but rather they portray Jesus as someone who stressed basic things like love of God and neighbor, obedience to the commandments, and forgiving others ("forgive us our tresspasses as we forgive those who tresspass against us") as the way to "inherit eternal life."

In the Gospel of Matthew Jesus says we are assured of God's forgiveness if we forgive others: "Forgive us our trespasses [Father God], as we forgive those who tresspass against us... For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you." (Matthew 6:12,14)

Other teachings of Jesus on how to inherit eternal life from the earliest Gospels stress obedience to the commandments:

[Jesus said] “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say to, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven. Ye have heard that it was said of them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.” (Matthew 5:17-22)

"Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets... Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them. Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity. Therefore whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and DOETH them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock."(Matthew 7:12,16-24)

The "sheep and the goats" are separated on the day of final judgment and the goats get eternally punished while the sheep are granted eternal life, based on their works/actions/deeds: "When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory: And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left. Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me. Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me. Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not. Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee? Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me. And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal." Matthew 25:31-46

“And behold, one came to Him and said, “Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may obtain eternal life?” And He said to him, “...if you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” He said to Him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not commit murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honor your father and mother; and You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 19:16-19)

An official asked him this question, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus answered him, “... You know the commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; you shall not kill; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; honor your father and your mother.’” And he replied, “All of these I have observed from my youth.” When Jesus heard this he said to him, “There is still one thing left for you: sell all that you have and distribute it to the poor, and you will have a treasure in heaven.” (Luke 18:18-22)

Lastly, note that Jesus in the earliest written Gospels didn't put only a negative spin on the heart, but also a positive one like when he taught that “The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart” (Luke 6:45 & Mat. 12:35), and when he taught that people ought to “Love God with all their heart,” (Mat. 22:37). How is that possible if the “heart” is “wicked and deceitful above all things?”

No doubt the “wickedness” of the “heart” as depicted in the book of Jeremiah, chapter 17, verse 9 (“The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked”) applies to some people at some times whenever they act deceitful and wicked, especially when they are at their lowest and weakest points. But to take the book of Jeremiah’s exaggerated ancient Near Eastern way of speaking, and bake it in an oven until it becomes as dry and hard as a brick of dogma, and make that brick a cornerstone of your theology, well, to do that takes a “heart” relatively dry of compassion and fair appraisals of others’ beliefs and actions.



P.S., More quotations, I am a collector, amassing them into manuscript form.

(The ‘Methodists’) demonstrate to secure, contented, happy mankind that it is really unhappy and desperate, and merely unwilling to realize that it is in severe straits it knows nothing at all about, from which only they can rescue it. Wherever there is health, strength, security, simplicity, they spy luscious fruit to gnaw at or to lay their pernicious eggs in. They make it their object first of all to drive men to inward despair, and then it is all theirs… The church must stop trying to act like a “spiritual pharmacist”--working to produce acute guilt, and then in effect saying, “We just happen to have the remedy for your guilt here in our pocket.”

Deitrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison [Bonhoeffer is a famed moderate Christian minister who was imprisoned by the Nazis for his opposition to Hitler. His books, including, The Cost of Discipleship have been praised and read by Evangelical Christians.]

Evangelical Christianity = Being made to feel sinful and guilty for not having felt sinful and guilty, in order that one might experience release from sin and guilt; Like donning lead boots and walking about in them until totally exhausted in order to have the exhilarating experience of taking them off again.

Conrad Hyers, Once-Born, Twice-Born Zen [Hyers is a moderate Evangelical Christian and former Chair of Religion at Gustavus Adolphus College]

The "Great Infidel", Robert G. Ingersoll did a fine treatment of this topic in his 1880 lecture, "What Must We Do To Be Saved".

Ingersoll compares what Jesus is reported as giving as conditions of salvation, verse by verse in Matthew, Mark and Luke, and then contrasts that with John. Totally different message.


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