Experimental Notes: The Fourth Gospel

I’ve been immersed in historical Jesus research and Markan studies for some time now and afraid to consider the great problem of the Fourth Gospel. For those who are not acquainted with the problems of harmonizing the Fourth Gospel and the synoptics (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), I will write about the problem some time (or you can look in one of Bart Ehrman’s books at your local bookstore [without buying it, I would recommend] to see the most skeptical view imaginable).

Anyway, I’m experimenting by posting some note here I’ve made for myself for further study and future writing. Some will be very familiar with the issues and understand everything I am referring to. Others will find some of this cryptic and perhaps alarming. Keep in mind, the problem of harmonizing the Fourth Gospel with the others will not go away by wishful thinking.

Anyway, I’ll write more about all this in the future, but for now, I’d love the hear feedback.

When you have wrestled for some time with the historical Yeshua in the gospels and then you come to Raymond Brown’s work on the Fourth Gospel, you feel as if at last there is hope for understanding.

The depths of the problem (how the synoptics and the Fourth Gospel can be talking about the same Yeshua and reflect the same early eyewitness experiences) call for some intricate theories toward a solution. Brown’s theories, as mediated and slightly improved by Francis Moloney in An Introduction to the Gospel of John (Raymond Brown, edited by Moloney), need not be rigth in every detail.

Yet they indicate first that the people behind the Fourth Gospel likely had a different perspective on a number of issues than the larger community behind the synoptics. That God would inspire a sect with significant but complementary differences in perspective from the larger Yeshua movement is at first hard to grasp. Yet in the Hebrew Bible, such varying perspectives are evident in, for example, the wisdom literature (the simplistic principle of retribution takes a beating in Job and Ecclesiastes, yet it would seem canonically that both are valuable and complementary ways of viewing wisdom).

Brown surmises four stages in the life of the communities that shaped the Fourth Gospel (I mix in a few of my ideas with his in this summary):

(1) Disciples of John the Baptist and a disciple known as the Beloved Disciple (with Yeshua from the beginning but not one of the twelve) write the story with a low christology (not yet understanding as in post-resurrection reflection) and a strong Moses-prophet and lamb-sacrifice view of Yeshua.

(2) A large group of Samaritans is brought into the community. This Johannine community faces expulsion from the synagogue and is forcibly separated from Judaism (whereas the Jerusalem congregation and its satellites were able to remain in much longer). The Johannine community likely regards the larger Yeshua movement as compromising in order to keep from being expelled.

(3) By the time the Johannine letters are written, the community has moved back toward conservatism. The mystical elements of the Fourth Gospel can be pushed too far into gnosticism and some did.

(4) By the time of Ignatius of Antioch, the Johannine community had made peace with the larger Yeshua movement. The mystical (Paraclete-dominated ecclesiology) has been largely lost in the attempt to centralize dogma (the movement lost its edge, but gained stability).

See Francis Moloney, Signs and Shadows
See Brown and Moloney, An Introduction to the Gospel of John, pp. 76-77, footnote 73 on surpassing vs. replacement

Life and judgment





“The consecrated place of encounter between God and human beings.” (Presence)

I might add: Temple

Yeshua as the presence incarnate surpasses (without replacing) the Temple.


About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
This entry was posted in Bible, Christian, messianic, Messianic Jewish, Messianic Judaism and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Experimental Notes: The Fourth Gospel

  1. Aaron says:

    If you like Brown’s theory on the development of the gospel of John, you might also be interested in the work of Robert Fortna (http://is.gd/annEE).

  2. I would also add: Witnesses (as I was wondering myself recently about the significance of “witnesses” in John).

    Brown’s list of the stages of life of the Johannine community is certainly intriguing. If you haven’t seen it yet, Richard Bauckham’s essay on The Pooh Community is both humorous and provocative.

  3. Adding to your comment on the Bible supporting different perspectives — also interesting is the person of John the Baptist, himself, whose style differed significantly from that of Yeshua, as reflected in Yeshua’s statement, “John came neither eating or drinking…the Son of Man came both eating and drinking…”. Some sources I’ve read identify John the Baptist with the Essenes, whereas Yeshua’s sayings seemed to be more in line with the Pharisees (except for some comments, such as not “let your yes be yes” etc). Yet, Yeshua praised John the Baptist as an inspired prophet of God, with a very significant role to play.

  4. gotscripture says:


    Ps. 118:8, Pr. 30:5-6 and many other verses warn against putting the authority of God’s word in subjection to non-Bible sources. But one has to take off their own shoes before they can take a walk in someone else’s moccasins and, similarly, when it comes to cases of The Bible vs. Tradition, one has to be willing to let go of the traditions of men in order to see the truth that is hidden in plain sight in the text of scripture.

    TheFourthGospel.com has a free eBook that just compares scripture with scripture in order to highlight the facts in the plain text of scripture that are usually overlooked about the “other disciple, whom Jesus loved”. You may want to weigh the testimony of scripture that the study cites regarding the one whom “Jesus loved” and may find it to be helpful as it encourages bible students to take seriously the admonition “prove all things”.

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