Anyone familiar with the Synoptic Gospels — Matthew, Mark, Luke — who then launches for the first time into the Gospel of John, or anyone familiar with the Gospel of John who launches into the Synoptic Gospels encounters a culture shock: John and the Synoptics are noticeably different. Those who think like the Synoptics wonder what has happened to their vocabulary and pet themes when they hit John, and it works the other way too.
James D.G. Dunn, in Neither Jew Nor Greek: A Contested Identity, examines the “reshaping of the gospel of Jesus” in chp 43 of his 3 volume set on the Beginnings of Christianity. This is tricky terrain and soggy turf for many conservatives who are trained to think the sayings of Jesus must be quotations and anything but accurate quotations are not “historical” and therefore not true. (Notable here is modernity’s way of framing what “truth’ means, but that’s another discussion to be had.) Let’s jump into Dunn’s chp to draw out his major conclusions, conclusions drawn from a patient survey of facts.
The differences between GJohn and GSynoptics are noticeable, e.g., virgin birth and logos incarnation, speeches and teaching vs. discourses and I am sayings. So what happened? How do we account for the stylistic and substance changes? Do we pretend — as some have said — that John was private teaching and the Synoptics public? (Read the Gospels and you will see this doesn’t work consistently.) What to say?
I will provide summary conclusions from Dunn, who proceeds carefully and boldly and challengingly for some. First, GJohn is deeply connected to the Jesus tradition the Synoptics drew from:
But we can be sufficiently confident that the Johannine tradition too goes back to the first disciples, and indeed, in this case, has retained a clearer memory of the overlap period than we could have deduced from the Synoptic tradition. A simple uniform rule that the Synoptic tradition is always more reliable than John’s is immediately ruled out. John’s version of the beginning of Jesus’ mission is itself an example of how the memory of that overlap was handled in at least one strand of earliest Christianity or in some churches (321).
GJohn is the result of a lengthy process and GJohn does things differently:
That is to say, the evidence of John’s Gospel itself suggests that we should not assume that he saw his role as simply recalling memories of actual events of Jesus’ mission, or simply reciting the earlier tradition, in the fashion of the Synoptics. John may have concluded that to bring out the full significance of Jesus’ mission he had to retell the tradition in bolder ways which brought out that significance more clearly (335).
In short, it is hard to doubt that John’s version of Jesus’ teaching is an elaboration of aphorisms, parables, motifs and themes remembered as characteristic of Jesus’teaching, as attested in the Synoptic tradition. At the same time, John’s version was not pure invention, nor did it arise solely out of Easter faith. Rather it was elaboration of typical things that Jesus was remembered as saying.…To criticize John’s procedure as inadmissible is to limit the task of the Evangelist to simply recording deeds and words of Jesus during his mission. But John evidently saw his task as something more the task of drawing out the fuller meaning of what Jesus had said (and done) by presenting that fuller understanding as the Spirit both reminding Jesus’ disciples of what Jesus had said and leading them into the fuller understanding of the truth made possible by Jesus’ resurrection and ascension (336-337).
Christology and discipleship both affirm the tradition about Jesus and open up fresh and fuller understandings of the same, so Jesus is Messiah and Son of God but also Logos and Wisdom. Discipleship is about following but also “faith” as abiding and love is opened up.
at to read and interpret John’s Gospel as though John had been trying to do the same as the Synoptics is to misread and misinterpret his Gospel. This remains the challenge for those who approach John’s Gospel from a conservative perspective: by so doing, they may be missing and distorting John’s message! The truth of Jesus, the story of his mission and its significance, was not expressed in only one way, as though the Gospel of Jesus Christ could be told only by strictly limiting the interpretation of the earliest Jesus tradition, the ways in which Jesus was remembered. It proved also acceptable that the character and themes of Jesus’ mission provided the basis for fuller and deeper reflection on what Jesus stood for and achieved — still the Gospel of Jesus Christ (369).
Some then will wonder what this does both to the red-letter mentality (it never was right, it always was modernity’s mindset) but also to something like the Gospel of Thomas, which is Dunn’s next section, but I will cut to the chase on this:
It is free-floating teaching, without substantive historical anchor. Nor are there any indications that Thomas’s distinctive message was itself part of the immediate impact made by Jesus. The basic narrative of Thomas is too distinctive and too different from the other first-century indications of the impact made by Jesus for us to find a root for the Thomas perspective in Jesus’ mission or the early oral Jesus tradition (400).
In short, in terms of genre and literary form, ‘Gospel’ may seem to be the most natural title for Thomas. But Thomas’s structure and content are so different from the ‘gospel’ as given definition by Paul and the canonical Gospels, that the ‘Gospel of Thomas‘ can and should be judged a misnomer. And if the title persists, as now well established, Thomas has to be judged to be a very different gospel from the Gospels of the NT. Its exclusion from the canon of the NT, the canon of the fourfold Jesus tradition, is both understandable and was entirely appropriate (402).