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Translating Revelation Gooder

By Garrett Best

In the last post, I briefly discussed the solecisms of Revelation. If you didn’t read the last post or want the summary version, a solecism is a grammatical irregularity in the morpho-syntax of a sentence. Revelation has the reputation of having the worst Greek in the New Testament. The book contains numerous grammatical irregularities.

One of the main debates concerning the solecisms in Revelation is whether the author intended them or not. Many have argued that that they are unintentional on the part of the author. Give him a break; Greek is not his first language they say. The irregularities are slips or instances of unsuccessful bilingualism. It happens. The author is thinking in Hebrew/Aramaic while writing in Greek and accidentally produces several grammatical mistakes.

Others have argued the solecisms are intentional. I find this to be a very provocative idea- that an ancient author intentionally employed ungrammatical syntax for a specific purpose. Today, authors and screenwriters commonly use intentional solecism. For example, the 2011 film The Help was based on a 2009 novel by that name, and the main character Aibileen Clark famously coined a popular solecism that became associated with the novel and film: “You is kind. You is smart. You is important.” The author employed the solecism to give the story the historical realism of the diction of an African American woman living in Mississippi in the 1960s. Kathryn Stockett knew that was grammatically incorrect when she wrote it, but she intentionally used it for a purpose. So the idea that an ancient author did something similar is not unreasonable.

Allen Callahan argued the author intentionally did violence to the language to subvert the colonizing powers of empire. G.K. Beale has argued the solecisms point to Old Testament allusions. Others have wondered if the solecisms were meant to give the document an “ecstatic” feel.

Regardless of authorial intention, the solecisms had an effect on the original recipients of the Apocalypse. Are we robbing modern day readers of having the experience of first century hearers by producing grammatically pristine English translations of Revelation?

For example, in the last post, I chose a random example from Rev. 3:12. There, I noted that John uses the nominative participle ἡ καταβαίνουσα to modify the genitive phrase τῆς καινῆς Ἰερουσαλὴμ. Because the participle is modifying a genitive antecedent, it should be in the genitive (τῆς καταβαινούσης).

Modern English translations smooth over the solecism:

  • “the new Jerusalem that comes down from my God out of heaven” (NRSV)
  • “the new Jerusalem, which is coming down out of heaven from my God” (NIV)
  • “the new Jerusalem, which comes down from my God out of heaven” (ESV)
  • “the New Jerusalem that comes down out of heaven from my God.” (CEB)

You would never know there’s a solecism here. Perhaps it would be more reflective of the original text to translate it: “the new Jerusalem, that come down” or “the new Jerusalem, which coming down” to indicate the awkwardness and dissonance of the underlying Greek.

I personally am on-the-fence about Beale’s suggestion that the solecisms point to Old Testament allusions as the correct explanation for all the solecisms. I do think this might explain some (maybe many) of the solecisms such as Rev. 1:4 and 1:5. However, if Beale is even partially right, then by having grammatically correct English translations, modern day readers are missing out on a significant literary device the author has embedded within the very fabric of the Greek syntax of Revelation.

Or maybe I’m crazy and Revelation is complicated enough without adding ungrammaticality to the picture. Maybe I should just keep my crazy ideas to myself.

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The Greek of Revelation

By: Garrett Best

Note: A solecism is a grammatical mistake in the morpho-syntax of a sentence (Example: “You is one of three people reading this blog.” In that sentence, ‘is’ is a solecism because the correct form would be ‘are’).

As early as the third century C.E., Dionysius of Alexandria said about the Greek of Revelation: “I observe his style (διάλεκτον) and that his use of the Greek language (ἑλληνίζουσαν) is not accurate (οὐκ ἀκριβῶς), but that he employs barbarous idioms (ἰδιώμασίν τε βαρβαρικοῖς χρώμενον), in some places committing downright solecisms (σολοικίζοντα).” (Eusebius Hist. eccl. 7.25.26-27)

In a recent monograph, Laurențiu Moț has calculated that scholars have proposed as many as 232 individual solecisms in Revelation. While the real number is not nearly that high, there are many solecisms in Revelation adding to the mystery and already complicated nature of understanding this apocalyptic work. What kind of solecisms do we find in Revelation? There are singulars for plurals and vice versa; disagreements in case, number, and gender; incorrect use of prepositions; and, incongruent use of verbal tenses and moods. Although scholars disagree as to which individual occurrences constitute solecism, all scholars agree there are many solecisms. After Moț analyses all proposed solecisms, he concludes there are 45 actual solecisms. Other scholars would identify more.

What fascinates me about the solecisms in Revelation is that for the most part, you can demonstrate the author knows how to write correct Greek, but for whatever reason uses irregular forms and constructions on many occasions.

I’ll provide two examples that demonstrate what I’m talking about:

  • In Rev. 3:12, John uses the feminine nominative participle ἡ καταβαίνουσα to modify the genitive phrase τῆς καινῆς Ἰερουσαλὴμ. Because the participle is modifying a genitive antecedent, it should be in the genitive (τῆς καταβαινούσης). The fascinating thing is that John uses the participial form of καταβαίνω five times elsewhere and in each occurrence, uses it correctly (10:1; 18:1; 20:1; 21:2, 10). In 21:2, there is an almost identical phrase as 3:12, and it’s correct. Fascinating.
  • In Rev. 21:9, John uses the genitive participle τῶν γεμόντων to modify the accusative phrase τὰς ἑπτὰ φιάλας. It should be in the accusative form (τὰς γεμούσας). The fascinating thing is that John uses the feminine participial form correctly elsewhere (4:6; 5:8; 15:7), and in 5:8 and 15:7, he uses the accusative form γεμούσας to modify φιάλας. Fascinating.

What Accounts for the Solecisms? (The main scholarly explanations)

  1. Semitic Transfer
    • There’s several different versions of the Semitic transfer explanation, but they all have in common that Greek is the author’s second (or third) language, and the solecisms are instances when his primary Semitic language (Hebrew and/or Aramaic) comes through the Greek. R.H. Charles famously wrote, “While he writes in Greek, he thinks in Hebrew” (Apocalypse, 1:cxliii).
  2. Greek Idiolect
    • Other scholars explain the solecisms without recourse to Hebrew or Aramaic since the writer was writing in Greek to Greek speakers. There are examples of the same kinds of errors occurring in other Greek literature (especially the papyri) which clearly cannot be considered to be influenced by Semitic languages. Rather than resulting from unsuccessful bilingualism, the Greek should be considered a Greek idiolect within possible 1st century Koine registers, no matter how rare it is judged to be.
  3. Anti-Imperial Rhetoric
    • Allen Callahan argued that the author seems to know how to use correct grammar which means the solecisms appear to be intentional. He argues the author was intentionally employing insurgent language. The solecisms are part of the author’s anti-imperial subaltern voice. He intentionally transgressed the grammatical rules of the colonizing power.
  4. Old Testament Allusions
    • G.K. Beale has made a provocative argument that is fleshed out in his commentary. He argues that the solecisms are meant to point to OT allusions. The irregular syntax causes dissonance which points the hearers to an OT passage. Beale takes his cue from the most famous solecisms in Revelation 1:4 and 1:5. Beale argues the solecism in 1:4 occurs because the author is alluding to Ex. 3:14, and the solecism in 1:5 occurs because the author is quoting from Psalm 89 (88 LXX). For the example listed earlier in 3:12, Beale believes the solecism is due to an allusion to Isaiah 64:1.
  5. Prophetic Ecstacy
    • A few authors have suggested that the syntax gives the document an “ecstatic” feel and thus lends credibility to John’s authority as a prophet. I have yet to find substantiation for this claim.
  6. Another Explanation?
    • In my opinion, there is more work to be done on this particular topic. Perhaps the truth is a complicated mixture of several different explanations. I don’t think the last word has been said on the solecisms of Revelation. I, for one, find the solecisms to be a fascinating phenomenon in the NT.

Stay tuned for my musings on the implications of this phenomenon for English translations.

Podcasts for Students of Scripture

Recently a friend asked me to recommend some of my favorite podcasts. Most of the podcasts I listen to are in the world of Biblical studies. Instead of just sharing with my friend privately, I thought I’d share my recommendations publicly in case anyone else is interested.

  1. Unbelievable with Justin Brierley
    • This is absolutely my favorite podcast! In each episode, Justin brings together two people (and in many episodes two reputable scholars) to debate both sides of an issue. Justin is an excellent host and most of the time the discussions are civil and informative. He has had scholars such at N.T. Wright, James D. G. Dunn, James Crossley, Gary Habermas, Tim Keller, Larry Hurtado, Richard Bauckham, Bart Ehrman, Craig Evans, Robert Gagnon, John Walton, Craig Keener, and many others on his show. Each episode is about an 1 hour and 20 minutes long. I usually fast forward through the advertisements and commercial breaks.
  2. OnScript with Matthew Bates and Matthew Lynch
    • These guys interview recently published scholars about their research. If you’re like me and don’t have time to read all the newest books, these guys will help you out! Each interview is about an hour long.
  3. Kingdom Roots with Scot McKnight
  4. NTPod (A Historical Approach to the New Testament) with Mark Goodacre
  5. Theology in the Raw with Preston Sprinkle
  6. Word Matters with Trevin Wax and Brandon Smith
    • This podcast is sponsored by the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB). Each episode is about 15-20 minutes long, and they usually tackle a thorny Biblical passage like “Who were the Nephilim in Gen. 6?” or “Why did Jesus say to hate your father or mother?”
  7. The Paulcast with Kurt Willems
    • This podcast is all about the Apostle Paul. The episodes are usually about 40 minutes long. Listening to these podcasts will give you some idea of where current Pauline scholarship is with regard to Paul in his Jewish and Greco-Roman context. He occasionally interviews published scholars and those interviews tend to be my favorite episodes.
  8. Read Scripture with Jonathan Collins and Tim Mackie
    • I LOVE what the Bible Project is about. They exist to encourage people to read their Bibles and read them well. They have developed a reading plan that includes informational videos to help you understand various texts and issues in the Bible. This podcast is just another accompanying resource to all the other great things they make available to the church for free.

What have I missed? Feel free to comment and suggest podcasts that you find helpful!

 

Want to Understand the Old Testament Better? Read This Book…

Book Recommendation by Garrett Best

Sandra Richter, Epic of Eden: A Christian Entry into the Old Testament. IVP Academic, 2008. (233 pages)

Okay, so I’m a few years late discovering this book. I happened upon it at a Half Price Books store, but I guess better late than never.

I often hear Christians bemoan the fact that they don’t know, or better yet, don’t understand the Old Testament. Even Christians who regularly read the Bible can’t seem to understand the point of all the names, dates, genealogies, wars, kingdoms, and kings. They can’t keep all the super-powers and centuries together. Was it they Egyptians, Amorites, Moabites, Jebusites, Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, or Babylonians? Was it the 9th century or the 7th? And, what’s the point of it all anyway?!

Richter calls this the “dysfunctional closet syndrome”. We all have a dysfunctional closet somewhere in our lives: “clothes hanging from their hangers, accessories dangling from the shelves, shoes piled in disarray on the floor.” (18) Given her years in ministry and teaching, she has found this is a great way to express the way most Christians think about the Old Testament. We may know facts about people and dates and times, but we don’t really know how to get it in order. We know David killed Goliath, Cain killed Abel, Noah saved the animals, and David committed adultery with Bathsheba, but we don’t quite understand the point of those stories. So, we end up closing off this closet and opening it as little as possible, only when necessary.

Richter to the rescue. “My goal in writing this book, therefore, is to deal a mortal blow to the dysfunctional closet syndrome. I am convinced that the key to the problem above is order. Until a believer is able to organize what they know about the Old Testament meaningfully, they cannot use it… So my goal in this book is to provide structure. Metaphorically speaking, to pick the clothes up off the floor, get some hangers, a pole and some hooks, and help you build a closet of your very own.” (19)

What I loved about this book is that it has something for everyone, the novice and the mature Christian alike. Even if you’ve read the Old Testament before and basically understood it, there will still be gems in the book. She has included detailed footnotes for those who want to dig deeper. However, this book will be most beneficial to Christians who find it difficult to understand the basic story of the Old Testament and to understand why that story is important to new covenant Christians. Richter provides a “general law” through which to read the whole Bible and give the story some order. She traces this general law through a series of covenants God made with five different men to affect his plan of redemption for the world.

There were a few things I especially loved about this book. First and foremost, it is a book chock full of good theology. Not all theology is good theology. Richter has a knack for good, big-picture theology. She understands the grand story of the Bible and she communicates it effectively and engagingly. The book contains many charts and diagrams that aid in getting a fuller picture of the grand narrative of Scripture. You will leave this book with an appreciation of Jesus messiah as the “son of Abraham, the son of David” (Matt. 1:1) rather than the view of many evangelicals that Jesus is “my personal savior here to tell me how to get to heaven”. Richter helps us transcend these naive views with a more mature faith in Christ informed by the whole of Scripture.

Second, Richter has a way of dealing with controversial issues in Old Testament studies in a respectful and helpful way. She helps move the conversation forward without getting mired in the disagreements. Heated debates over the controversial issues have obscured us from understanding the story of the Old Testament. Was the creation in Genesis seven twenty-four hour days or millions of years? Did characters in the Bible really live to be several 100’s of years old? Did the exodus event happen at the early date or the late date? Was Noah’s flood local or universal? Richter is able to address these issues and others in a way that is respectful to those who won’t see eye to eye with her conclusions. She is able to take these “controversial issues” and show their import in the story of redemption.

Third, Richter aptly incorporates epigraphy and archaeology from the Ancient Near East in order to bring to life the world and culture of the Old Testament. Richter makes the material accessible and interesting. She certainly has the right credentials to do this. Most chapters have a section where Richter delves into the real time and real space of the people she is discussing. In order to understand the Old Testament, we must understand the culture of ancient Israel.

With any book, there will be negatives. There will certainly be some who won’t agree with some of Richter’s interpretations, but this should not take away from the overall value of the book. One shortfall of the book is that it has the ambitious undertaking of summarizing the entire Old Testament story in 233 pages. In one sense, the book falls short because no 233 page summary of the Old Testament could ever be adequate. In another sense, this book is as good a summary as could be done in such a succinct, engaging manner. Although Richter is attempting to summarize the Old Testament, there are some notable absences of important Old Testament material. I don’t recall any mention of the Wisdom Literature. How does Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, or Job fit into the grand narrative of Scripture? Unfortunately, Richter does not deal with this.

Despite the shortfalls, Richter fulfills her general purpose of providing a basic framework to understand the Old Testament, and not just understanding it, but making that story our own. I am grateful for having stumbled upon this book. I highly recommend it.

 

 

A Scathing Letter To A Preacher Who Doesn’t Read

By Garrett Best

Sometimes you stumble upon gems like this from the past. John Wesley was one of the most influential Christian thinkers in Europe and North America in the eighteenth century. He was an Anglican minister who lived from 1701-1791. He is credited with beginning the Methodist Church and several other Methodist-heritage churches. His teachings were also instrumental in the formation of the holiness movement and Pentecostalism.

In 1760, Wesley wrote a letter to a preacher named John Premboth. Here is an exert from the letter:

“What has exceedingly hurt you in time past, nay, and I fear, to this day, is lack of reading.  I scarce ever knew a preacher who read so little.  And perhaps, by neglecting it, you have lost the taste for it.  Hence your talent in preaching does not increase.  It is just the same as it was seven years ago.  It is lively, but not deep; there is little variety; there is no compass of thought.  Reading only can supply this, with meditation and daily prayer.  You wrong yourself greatly by omitting this.  You can never be a deep preacher without it, any more than a thorough Christian.  Oh begin!  Fix some part of every day for private exercise.  You may acquire the taste which you have not; what is tedious at first will afterward be pleasant.  Whether you like it or not, read and pray daily.  It is for your life; there is no other way; else you will be a trifler all your days, and a pretty, superficial preacher.  Do justice to your own soul; give it time and means to grow.  Do not starve yourself any longer.  Take up your cross and be a Christian altogether.  Then will all the children of God rejoice (not grieve) over you, and in particular yours.”

NOTE: I have attempted to trace this letter down. Apparently, it was first published in the Arminian Magazine in 1780. I encountered this letter in Ben Witherington III’s Is There a Doctor in the House? (pg. 71, 2011). It is also printed in Letters Along the Way by Don Carson and John Woodbridge (pg. 169, 1993).

The Gospels and Inspiration

By Garrett Best

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been blogging about literary relationships among the four Gospels. I wanted to conclude this series by reflecting on the implications this discussion has for how we think about the inspiration of the Scriptures.

God has chosen to give us four canonical Gospels in Scripture. In one sense, they are four separate Gospels, each with their own authors, who organized the material and wrote in their own style and in their own words. At the same time, these four Gospels are four witnesses to the one gospel of Jesus Christ. Through Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and only through these four do we have access to the one gospel of Jesus Christ.

There’s no getting around it. Matthew, Mark, and Luke are very similar to one another and John is different from the other three. I believe that the evidence suggests that Mark was the first Gospel to be written and Matthew and Luke both independently used Mark and another Gospel, referred to as Q, in order to write their Gospels. I believe this scenario best explains why the first three Gospels are so similar. It also partially explains why John’s Gospel is so different. John wasn’t copying from Mark and Q as were Matthew and Luke. John wasn’t drinking from the Synoptic Gospel koolaid.

I am sure there are Christians that feel that all this literary interdependence talk is just academic hogwash concocted by liberal scholars who don’t believe in the inspiration of the Scriptures in the first place. After all, why even talk literary relationships and a hypothetical Q document when the similarities among the Synoptics are due to their shared inspiration by the Holy Spirit? Couldn’t the similarities be explained because the Holy Spirit is truly the author of Matthew, Mark, and Luke? Well, yes and no.

Have we really thought through the implications of that question? If the similarities among the Gospels are due to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, what do the differences among the Gospels say about the Holy Spirit and inspiration? I don’t believe these are questions dreamed up in the ivory tower of the academy. These are the questions the text invites us to ask. Any reader of the first three Gospels would notice the remarkable similarities, and they would also notice that the Gospel of John is different. Why? And, what does all this mean about the inspiration of Scripture?

I believe that the Bible contains the inspired words of God and is the primary witness to the incarnated Word of God, Jesus the Christ. I believe when we read Scripture, we are reading the words that God has breathed. I believe and affirm that “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17) I believe in the inspiration of the Scriptures.

I think this affirmation is where the real questions begin. If Matthew and Luke contain the God-breathed words inspired by the Holy Spirit, why would Matthew and Luke need to copy Mark? Assuming the tradition that the author of Matthew is the Apostle Matthew, why would an Apostle need copy nearly 90% of the Gospel written by a non-Apostle, Mark? If Mark is moved by the Holy Spirit to speak, why is his Greek style inferior to the other Gospels? Wouldn’t the Holy Spirit speak in perfect Greek grammar and syntax? Why do Matthew and Luke have different orders of the three temptations given to Jesus in the wilderness? If the same Spirit is inspiring all four Gospel writers, why is John so different from the other three? And, these are just a few questions we might ask.

Maybe another way to look at it is, how much of the four Gospels is the Holy Spirit responsible for and how much of the Gospels is man responsible for? Asked another way, how much Matthew is behind Matthew’s Gospel? And, how much Holy Spirit is behind Matthew’s Gospel?

I love teaching the Gospels, but I find that sometimes Christians are troubled by these kinds of questions as if a threat is being posed to the inspiration of the Scriptures. I was teaching on the Gospel of John and throughout the class I continuously pointed out the uniqueness of John’s Gospel. I referred to the author as a “literary artist” who has crafted his own way of telling the gospel of Jesus. I have no problem saying the author “wrote” or “embedded certain motifs within” this Gospel and is responsible for the content. Several weeks into the class, someone approached me because they were concerned I might give the impression that the writer of John’s Gospel was more responsible for the content than the Holy Spirit. So, in what sense is John the author? And, in what sense is the Holy Spirit the author?

Any serious attempt to deal with this subject has to take two things seriously. First, it must take seriously the teaching of Scripture and the historic position of the Christian Church that the Scriptures are inspired by the Holy Spirit and are the very words of God. Secondly, it must take seriously the phenomenon of Scripture itself which includes the similarities and dissimilarities of the Gospels.

The introduction to Luke’s Gospel is significant:

Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught. (Luke 1:1-4)

If the historic tradition is correct then Luke is the author of this Gospel. Luke was not an original eyewitness of Jesus. He was a traveling companion of Paul (cf. Col. 4:14). In the introduction to Luke, he makes it clear that the information he has received comes from “eyewitnesses and ministers of the word.” Luke had to investigate. He had to “follow all things closely”. This means that in order to write the Gospel According to Luke, he wasn’t being fed what to write by the Holy Spirit. He also admits that he has organized the material. The introduction of Luke says that the author is responsible for investigating, collecting, organizing, and writing the material.

What this means is that God was not interested in human stenographers. However inspiration works, Luke was not merely a typewriter for the Holy Spirit. God chose to preserve the message of the Gospel through the investigations, words, vocabularies, styles, organizational methods, and themes of four holy men.

Accepting a theory of interdependence of the Gospels does not deny the inspiration of the Scriptures. It does deny that the Scriptures were dictated through the Holy Spirit to their human authors. It means that Matthew had a very significant role in the material contained in the Gospel According to Matthew. We do not lessen God’s role when we emphasize Matthew’s. Instead, we honor the process that God has chosen. Matthew is responsible for the content of Matthew’s Gospel, and at the same time, Matthew’s words are the words of God.

I find a similar analogy in the mystery of the incarnation of Jesus. How is Jesus fully God and fully man? I affirm it, but don’t fully understand it. When we de-emphasize the humanity of Christ, we are left with a divine Son who cannot sympathize with or redeem our humanity. When we de-emphasize the divinity of Christ, we are left with a good, moral teacher who has no real authority over our lives. So it is with the inspiration of the Scriptures. When we over-emphasize the role of the Holy Spirit, we are left with humans that are merely stenographers. When we over-emphasize the role of the writers, we have a wonderful book written by men which are not the words of God. The Gospels are both fully human and fully divine. They are the words of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John which are the very words of God. This is a tension I am quite satisfied living with.

Why Is The Gospel of John So Different From The Others? (Pt. 2)

By Garrett Best

Since John was written, believers and unbelievers have pondered why John’s Gospel is so different from the other three. I explored a few of the differences in the last post if you missed it.

In this post, I’m going to attempt to explore a few of the complexities involved in the discussion of why John is so dissimilar from the other Gospels.

Did John Know The Synoptics?

This has been a very debated topic. If John was aware of the Synoptic Gospels, then he has intentionally given a very unique presentation. If John was unaware of the Synoptics, then this might explain why his presentation was so different. He didn’t have access to them to use as sources.

Was John independent of or dependent on the Synoptics? There are heavy hitters on both sides of the dependence/independence debate. Recently, Richard Bauckham has argued that John was written as a complement to the Gospel of Mark and that John expected the readers of John to be familiar with Mark (“John for Readers of Mark” in The Gospels for All Christians, pg. 147-71).

In 1972, C.K. Barrett argued that John was dependent on the Synoptics. Barrett points out that no one really believes John was dependent on Matthew; however, there are cases to be made for John’s use of Luke and/or Mark. Consider these parallels between John and Luke:

  • Mary and Martha of Bethany (Jn. 11:1-12:8; Lk. 10:38-42)
  • High priest Annas (Jn. 18:13, 24; Lk. 3:2; Acts 4:6)
  • The entrance of Satan into Judas (Jn. 13:2, 27; Lk. 22:3)
  • Predictions of Peter’s denials at the Last Supper (Jn. 13:38; Lk. 22:34)
  • The servant of the high priest who lost his ear at the arrest (Jn. 18:10; Lk. 22:50)
  • Two angels at the tomb (Jn. 20:12; Lk. 24:4)

Barrett believed there are even stronger arguments for John’s knowledge of Mark. Barrett even believed that John was intentionally correcting Mark’s account at certain points, such as the timing of Jesus’ ministry in relation to the ministry of John the Baptist (Jn. 3:24; Mk. 1:14-5) and the identity of the person who carried the cross of Jesus (Jn. 19:17; Mk. 15:21). There are also parallel sayings between John and Mark:

  • Jesus’ prediction to destroy the temple and raise it in three days (Jn. 2:19; Mk. 15:48)
  • Jesus statement that a prophet has no honor in his own country (Jn. 4:43-44; Mk. 6:4)
  • Jesus teaching that those who love their life will lose it (Jn. 12:25; Mk. 8:34-35)

Frans Neirynck has argued that the parallels in the crucifixion and resurrection accounts argue for dependence (“John and the Synoptics: The Empty Tomb Stories,” NTS 30 (1984): 161-87).

While Bauckham, Barrett, and Nierynck should not be dismissed lightly, the parallels and similarities between John and the Synoptics hardly prove dependence. They merely point to the fact that John was using traditions that interlocked with the Synoptic traditions. Over 90% of Mark is found in Matthew and Luke which points toward literary dependence. No more than 10% of John parallels the Synoptics which is not a strong case for literary dependence. One troubling tendency of those like Barrett who have argued for literary dependence is that they must see all of the differences in John from the other three as deliberate “corrections” to the Synoptic Gospels. Thus, John has been seen as a polemical correction to the Synoptics by many of those who have argued for literary dependence.

On the other hand, Percival Gardner-Smith and C.H. Dodd have been the most prominent advocates of independence. Gardner-Smith argued in the 1930s that there were very few verbal similarities between John and the Synoptics. Where there were similarities, it could very easily be due to common knowledge of the Jesus tradition rather than literary dependence.

C.H. Dodd argued the case for independence more strongly in the 1960s. Dodd moved very carefully through every possible similarity between John and the Synoptics. He believed that the material in John was largely derived from oral tradition. Dodd asked whether “the coincidences of language or content go beyond what might be reasonably expected in works having behind them the general tradition of the early Church…” (Historical Tradition in the Fourth Gospel, 9). In other words, where John does appear similar to the Synoptics, it is not due to dependence, but rather to the fact that John independently made use of the same “general tradition” that was being passed on in the early church.

Gardner-Smith and Dodd were arguing in the 20th century when the form critical methods of Rudolph Bultmann still dominated and they had a heavy emphasis on oral traditions. The form critical methods of Bultmann have been largely abandoned and so while the works of Gardner-Smith and Dodd are still valuable, they place an overdue emphasis on oral traditions. The other fallacy in their work is that they seem to define “dependence” as literary dependence. This is a major assumption because dependence might come in several different forms including orality, memory, or performance.

Mutual Influence or “Interlocking Traditions”

Various scholars have tried to bypass the impasse of the dependence/independence debate.

Leon Morris has argued argued that John interlocks with Matthew, Mark, and Luke at various points. In several places, John provides material that explains the portrait given in the Synoptics. Morris points out that Jesus is crucified in the Synoptics because he is accused of having said “I will destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days” (Mk. 14:58; 15:29; Matt. 26:60-61; 27:40). However, there is no report in the Synoptics of Jesus having said this. There is a tradition in John of Jesus having made this claim (Jn. 2:19-21). This is an example where it is likely that John provides material that explains the picture found in the Synoptics (Studies in the Fourth Gospel, 61-62).

John portrays Jesus as spending much time in Jerusalem before his final week. This helps explain why the religious leaders were so hell bound on having Jesus crucified in the Synoptics. John’s account explains why the antagonism ramped up so quickly. Jesus had already clashed with them several times in Jerusalem making them look bad on their own turf.

Don Carson believes John may have known (and even read) Mark or Luke, but that John still decided to write his own Gospel. Andreas Köstenberger believes that John was aware of the Synoptic materials and drew upon the same eyewitness testimony as Mark and Luke, but has made a deliberately creative reworking of the material in order to make the message relevant in a new context. John’s purpose statement (20:31) necessitated that he transposed his own presentation over Mark and possibly Luke to create a new presentation of the Jesus tradition.

My Own Conclusion

Are you confused? Good. There’s no conclusive answer to the Johannine Question. Almost no two scholars say the same thing about John’s relationship to the Synoptics.

My own opinion is that John was aware of at least one of the Synoptic Gospels (probably Mark and maybe Luke). I reached this conclusion because of Richard Bauckham’s arguments in “For Whom Were the Gospels Written?” in The Gospels for All Christians, 1998, pg.s 9-48. While I think Bauckham may overstate his case at times, his basic thesis is instructive. Bauckham uses evidence from the first and second centuries to argue that the Christians were a tight knit community that had a high level of mobility and communication. The evidence we have in the New Testament shows that Christians were highly mobile (i.e. missionary journeys of Paul). This means that literature produced in the first century would have spread rather quickly. This explains why Matthew and Luke would’ve been able to take advantage of Mark’s Gospel. Mark spread quickly.

If scholars are right about the Gospel of John, the Gospel was the last to be written at the end of the first century in Ephesus. Given Bauckham’s thesis, it would have been impossible for John to live in a major city like Ephesus without being aware of one or more of the Synoptics, especially Mark, at the end of the first century.

I opine that John was aware of the Synoptics (most likely Mark), but intentionally provided his own account. His own presentation of Jesus incorporates decades of reflection upon the meaning and significance of Jesus. This means that while John is similar to the Synoptics in many ways and most likely knew of at least one of the Synoptic Gospels, he did not feel constrained by the other presentations.

If we believe John was written last sometime at the end of the first century, then John would have had nearly 60 years to reflect on the significance of Jesus and his teaching. John’s Gospel would be the product of decades of reflection and guidance by the Holy Spirit to understand the truths Jesus taught. It is also quite possible that John’s Gospel was an attempt to contextualize the gospel message in a style that would reach his particular audience. Because of the extended teaching portions, the memorable teachings like the “I AM” statements, some scholars have surmised that the distinct style is due to early Christian preaching. They believe that Gospel of John was basically an early sermon put down in writing. There may be something to that theory.