His Testimony is Truthyish

His Testimony is Truthyish August 13, 2013

The Gospel of John may be the first Gospel that we know of to bring the question of its author’s credentials into the work itself (the Gospel of Luke does something similar, with its emphasis on the author’s research, but it may or may not be earlier than John).

In the period not long after this, we would see a proliferation of Gospels, letters, and other works appealing to named apostles in order to vouchsafe the new ideas that they were introducing.

The author/editor of the Gospel of John very cleverly puts no specific name to the source that is supposed to vouchsafe its reliability, making it impossible for anyone to contradict him. (This issue would not exist in a slightly later period, when living people with connections to members of the first generation of Christians were few and far between, if not already deceased). But other than that, the Gospel of John fits the pattern we find in later times: it introduces radically new ideas, and offers an eyewitness who allegedly knew Jesus as guarantor of this teaching.

What should we make of this? Should the Gospel of John be seen as the last recollection of an eyewitness, filtered through age and editing, as some claim? Or should it be seen rather as a first step in the direction of appealing to apostles and eyewitnesses to introduce new innovations, in an attempt to get them accepted?

What do readers think? I admit to having gone back and forth on this, and even wonder sometimes if there may not be a bit of both, i.e. some actual historical recollections independent of the other Gospels, eventually embedded in a text which also introduces significant innovations, which its author seeks to support through an allusive appeal to authority.

For discussion of the Gospel of John and history elsewhere in the blogosphere, see the recent posts by Michael Kruger and Joel Watts.

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  • Jeff

    Well, certainly the testimony of Papias and Polycarp (albeit filtered through secondary sources) seems pertinent at establishing whether the author of John was himself an eyewitness or a literary fiction; i.e., the Gospel doesn’t exist in isolation, and we do have some independent attestation as to its origin, or at least to its author.
    Related but unrelated to this — has the possibility ever been raised that the Hebrew sayings document that Papias alleges Matthew compiled is related to, or identical to, Q?

  • I find the Bauckman arguments that Krueger cites unpersuasive.

  • It’s been a while since I considered this – I just read (scanned) Hurtado’s essay on interactive diversity here. John as a character is celebrated in art as the devoted ‘other disciple’. I have such an image on my wall. The head of this youth is looking upward at an angle indicating adoration. One might question the reality of a witness who is so devoted. One might question his reliability. One might consider him a cipher for oneself – a frame, like one of those carnival frames, into which we are to put ourselves. No doubt there is a poet here, and one who knew the ancient texts of Israel very well and could appropriate them with love while also indicating their fulfillment (not just in Jesus, but by implication in ‘the son’, Israel, and in ‘the children’, us.) I see no reason why this young person in the year 30 CE, perhaps a teenager, should not develop his sensitive and poetic understanding into a full gospel.

  • Chris Eyre

    The Fourth Gospel sets out (not just in the preamble) to establish Jesus as conforming to Philo’s interpretation of “Logos” in very many respects (indeed, Philo can be taken as providing the whole Christological framework for the gospel). I think for this reason it needs to be read primarily as theology rather than history. Some of the incidents reported, however, may have a kernel of truth – I have in mind particularly the hostile reaction to his mother in 2:4 as “against interest”. Likewise the pericope adulterae, even though probably not original.

  • Here is the result of my studies on gJohn:

    1) The original gJohn (2/3 of the canonical one) was written fairly early (75-80) by a Gentile Christian from Asia Minor with the full knowledge of gMark. The timeline of that original gJohn is similar of the one in gMark. ‘Jesus in Galilee’ was curtailed but ‘Jesus in Judea (=Jerusalem)’ was considerably enlarged.
    The gospel ended then at 20:10

    2) The gospel was then greatly expanded with some reshuffling after gLuke was known.
    The gospel ended then at 20:23

    3) The gospel was later added on after ‘Acts’ got known.
    The gospel ended then at 20:31

    4) Finally the gospel was completed when presbyter John (aka John the elder) died in very old age.
    The gospel ended then at 21:25

    All explanations starting here:

    Cordially, Bernard

  • I wanted to post on Michael Kruger’s blog but it does not seem to accept comments from somebody like me. Did I miss something?
    Cordially, Bernard

  • markmatson


    Interesting. My own research has tended to find both independence and some solid (even preferential) connection to historical features of Jesus in the 4th gospel (as so much in the John Jesus and History section of SBL has noted over its rich series of papers). The author’s emphasis on eyewitness testimony certainly wants to make that connection — whether one believes in it at face value or not. (similar to the emphasis on eyewitness contact on the part of the disciples as they replace Judas in the 12 just before Pentecost — the emphasis is there)

    But what struck me in the way you framed this was an article/paper I remember by Moody Smith where he suggested perhaps the 4th gospel might be seen as the first apocryphal gospel. That is, that GJohn does seem to be distinctively different than the other 3 gospels, and in ways that move it closer to forms we find in later apocryphal gospels.

    Just thinking.

    • Thanks for reminding me of that Moody Smith piece – I think I remember reading it too!

  • Guest

    I really have no idea, but I saw a book in a secondhand book store which suggested the gospel of John had copied from pharisee sources that were hostile to Jesus. It’s called Jesus and the Jews: Pharisaic Tradition in John

    Alan Watson I wonder if you’ve read it/heard of it, and what did you think?

    • That rings a bell from my student days, as something I came across but don’t think I found persuasive. But I regret that I am sketchy on the details after so much time.

  • Roger Parvus

    think the author may have really been convinced that the source of his gospel was
    an eyewitness. But in this sense: the ex-Marcionite Apelles based his gospel (the
    Phaneroseis) on the revelations of
    his prophetess associate Philumena. And, according to Philumena, her source of information
    was a phantasma who appeared to her and sometimes stated he was Christ,
    sometimes Paul. Now if the leaders of a church were willing to vouch for such a
    gospel (“We know that his testimony is true – Jn. 21:24), would not their congregation
    receive it as the gospel of an eyewitness?

    • What we find in the Gospel is something quite different: the insertion of an individual, the “disciple whom Jesus loved,” into stories known from other sources. So we are dealing with a claim that an individual was present for events occurring in history, rather than it being claimed that a supernatural being was revealing things that could not be so known, as we find in some other texts.

      Of course, this is not an either/or situation. It has been suggested that some of the sayings projected back onto Jesus in the Gospel of John might have originated with Christian prophets, and thus have been understood for that reason to be the words of Christ even though the historical Jesus never said them.

      • Roger Parvus


        You wrote: “So we are dealing with a claim that an individual was present for events occurring in history…”

        Yes, but Apelles did view Jesus and Paul as historical. But whereas his former teacher Marcion tried to uncover Paul’s gospel by using scissors on GLuke, Apelles—after repudiating Marcion—apparently tried to obtain it from Paul himself via Philumena.

        This scenario of seeing Paul as the Beloved Disciple is similar to the one Michael Goulder proposed in his article “An Old Friend Incognito.” Goulder held that for the author of the Fourth Gospel Paul was not a former persecutor of the church, but a dearly beloved disciple. But the possibility that the author was an ex-Marcionite apparently never occurred to Goulder. That bit of information would have helped his case, for Marcionites didn’t accept Acts of the Apostles or buy into the proto-orthodox claim that Paul had once been a persecutor of the church.

        An ex-Marcionite author for the original Fourth Gospel would change our perspective of it in many ways. It might explain, for example, the mildly dualistic and gnostic character of GJohn. And why that gospel is so hard on the Jews, calling all their former shepherds “thieves and bandits.” Apelles held that the Jewish Scriptures were in large part fables and falsehoods. And it might explain too why although the Johannine Jesus speaks of his coming ascension “back to where he was before,” the text as it stands lacks an Ascension scene. Epiphanius says that Apelles’ version of the Ascension was unacceptable to orthodox Christians. Curious too that, according to Hippolytus, Apelles taught that Jesus “showed them (his disciples) the prints of the nails and the wound in his side, desirous of persuading them that he was in truth no phantom, but was present in the flesh.” (The Refutation of All Heresies, 7,26). As you know, GJohn’s account of the passion includes a side wound.

        So could Apelles’ no longer extant “Manifestations” (Phaneroseis) be the Signs Source behind canonical GJohn (as in: “Jesus did this the first of his *signs* in Cana in Galilee so *manifested* his glory”)? Is it conceivable that the mid-2nd century proto-orthodox church could have vouched for any form of a gospel written by a former Marcionite? Perhaps, for Apelles did repudiate Marcion’s ditheism, docetism, and rigorism. So he could have been one of those former Marcionites who Polycarp brought back to proto-orthodoxy: “He (Polycarp) it was who, coming to Rome in the time of Anicetus, caused many to turn away from the aforesaid heretics (Valentinus and Marcion) to the church of God… (Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.3.4). Such a reconciliation could explain too why Irenaeus, who mentions the names of so many heretics and heresies, is absolutely silent about Apelles and his community. Only later, after the death of Apelles, did the proto-orthodox undertake to denigrate him.

        • Having Marcionites produce this Gospel, which in its present form is at odds with Marcionism, seems unnecessarily complex as well as unsubstantiated. Would you care to offer some explanation of why you view this Gospel in the way you do, and what evidence leads you to your conclusions?

          • Roger Parvus

            You wrote: “Having Marcionites produce this Gospel, which in its present form is at odds with Marcionism, seems unnecessarily complex as well as unsubstantiated.”

            But who said anything about Marcionites being the author of it? If you look back over my two previous comments you will see that the author I proposed for it was Apelles, an EX-Marcionite, a FORMER Marcionite, someone who BROKE with Marcion and REPUDIATED his gospel, his dithieism, his docetism and his rigorism. I don’t know how I could have made it any clearer. And should we be surprised if the gospel of someone who turned against Marcion was, as you say, “at odds with Marcionism?’

            If it takes me three tries just to get you to grasp the difference between a Marcionite and an ex-Marcionite, I can see that I’m not going to have the patience for this. I won’t waste any more of your time.


          • I apologize for not reading your speculations more closely. But the question remains: do you have any evidence to offer, or just speculations?

  • thomasshen

    (Note: I am writing as a layman).
    Since I know you have Mandaic scriptures as a project, and since people (including myself) have observed that the Gospel of John has a style that seems curiously similar to Mandaic scripture (especially when reading John 1), I can’t help myself asking you if this similarity could be a sign that “the beloved disciple” (real or supposed) was Mandaic or a former disciple of John the Baptist? … which might even explain the particularities of the Gospel of John vis-à-vis the synoptics?

    • That possibility was explored extensively in the 20th century, in particular in German scholarship, since they had translations of Mandaean texts which were not available in English (and in some cases still are not). It was, I think, taken too far, beyond what the evidence can substantiate. But it is a subject that needs to be revisited, and doing that myself has moved from my long list of things to do to my list of things that I am contracted to do within the next few years! 🙂