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The voice of the Master--Pure Style

In several places Michael Licona has pushed for a highly flexible view of John's willingness to change Jesus' words and even the events of Jesus' life. He calls it "adapting the traditions about Jesus" and gives the impression that it is widely granted among all Johannine scholars that John "adapted the traditions about Jesus," without specifying that the extent to which scholars think that John "adapted the traditions" varies widely and that the more controversial claims about John's "adaptations" are by no means universally accepted, especially among conservative, evangelical scholars.

Almost every time he argues for John's "adaptations," he will talk about the way Jesus talks in John, especially in the Greek. I've already quoted some of these statements in earlier posts, but I'm going to re-quote a couple of them here, because this post is going to be about geeky Greek stuff.

Here is one statement, from Licona's Why Are There Differences in the Gospels?

I have read John’s Gospel and 1 John many times in their original language, Greek. It is clear to me, at least, that the vocabulary and style of both strongly suggest that the same person composed them. If I am correct, one must choose either that John conformed his language to sound like Jesus in his letter or that John has recast Jesus’s teachings in his own words. Since Jesus in John’s Gospel teaches with an idiom that differs from how he sounds in the Synoptics about as much as British English differs idiomatically from the English of North Americans living in the Deep South, the latter option seems more plausible. (endnote 13, p. 239)

Of course, it scarcely follows from the fact that the same person composed John and I John that the author of John has done any sort of systematic recasting of Jesus' teaching in his own words. The entire force of Licona's argument here rests upon the latter part of the paragraph--namely, the claim that Jesus' own idiom in John is significantly different from that in the Synoptic Gospels and significantly the same as that in I John.

Similarly, in a post in the context of Craig Evans's controversial statements about the "I am" sayings, Licona said this:

To see [John's adaptation of the Jesus tradition] in action, I recommend reading through the Synoptic Gospels several times in Greek. Then read John’s Gospel and 1 John several times in Greek. (One can also observe this in English but it is far clearer and even more striking in Greek.) One will observe a few items relevant to this discussion: Although the message is the same, the way Jesus “sounds” in John is very different than the way He “sounds” in the Synoptics.

The way Jesus “sounds” in John’s Gospel sounds very much like how John “sounds” in 1 John. That is, the grammar, vocabulary, and overall style of writing in both are strikingly similar.

Number 2 could be because John adjusted his style to be similar to his Master after spending much time with him. This would be similar to how some married couples adapt their laughs and expressions to one another over time. The other option and the one believed by most scholars is that John paraphrased Jesus using his own style. The reason scholars go with this latter view is because Jesus “sounds” so differently in John than in the Synoptics.

My approach to such claims has been an eclectic one. If you follow the other posts in this sub-series (here, here, and here) on "the way Jesus talks," you'll see how I have chipped away at these sweeping claims in various ways. I showed that Jesus actually often talks in the same way in John and the synoptic gospels, contra Evans and Licona. I showed that there are various allegedly "Johannine" words and themes that show up in the synoptics, and vice versa. I showed that some of the claims about distinctively "Johannine" phrases are actually just the result of scholarly illusion, since there isn't even a statistically significant difference between the appearance of the terms in question. (This is true, for example, of the allegation that it is "Johannine" for Jesus to address his disciples as "children.") And I discussed the way that selectivity of material and the desire to emphasize themes by selection (not by putting words in Jesus' mouth) can account for a great many of the alleged differences. In this regard I emphasized the importance of not thinking that John's or the Synoptists' portrayal of Jesus' teaching is presented as a representative sample of how often Jesus used a particular word or phrase or addressed a particular topic.

But what about all that Greek stuff? How can non-experts deal with the claim to esoteric knowledge if they don't read Greek? What about this claim concerning Jesus' "accent"?

Here we need to boil it down. It doesn't count as an "accent" for Jesus to talk about the concept of bearing witness to the truth or of others who bear witness to his mission from God. That's a thematic matter, though of course John might at times, in a normal, non-systematic fashion, have substituted a synonym in his description of what Jesus said. (So might the synoptic authors.)

What sorts of things are really left when we have dealt with scholarly illusions and thematic matters of emphasis and selection?

In this post I am going to give a sample of what's left. If I don't happen to include your favorite "Johannine" Greek idiom, please consider how my comments here (mutatis mutandis) apply to it. And here's the short version: These purely verbal matters are so trivial that even if the author of John had unconsciously tended to express Jesus' use of conjunctions or repetition in a way that was somewhat more characteristic of his own modes of speech than of Jesus' modes of speech, that could truly be a matter of minor paraphrase in a way that would leave Jesus' sayings completely recognizable and would not be anything remotely like the invention that is being foisted upon us under the phony aegis of the term "paraphrase." (See this post on the fact that a continuum issue should not be allowed to pressure people into accepting invention under the guise of "paraphrase.")

However (continuing the short version of what I'll be arguing here), there actually isn't any particular reason to think that John, more than the synoptics, paraphrased Jesus' idiom in such a way that Jesus "sounded more like" John himself than like the historic Jesus. In fact, given the Aramaic flavor of several of the characteristic "Johannine" verbal idioms, it's plausible that John is giving us something particularly close to the way that Jesus actually spoke, though often (perhaps) translated from Aramaic into an Aramaic-styled Greek.

Herewith, some examples.

Adversative kai

In John, we often find the Greek word kai (usually translated "and") used as an all-purpose conjunction, including in places where it seems to have the meaning "but" or "and yet." This is known as the adversative kai, and it seems to be much more prevalent in John than in the synoptic Gospels. It occurs both in Jesus' speech and in the narrator's voice. E.g.,

He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. He came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him. (John 1:10-11, NASB)

Obviously, the last "and" in each clause is meant to have a contrastive meaning. Despite the fact that the Word made the world, the world did not know him. Despite the fact that he came to his own, his own did not receive him.

Here is Jesus using the adversative kai.

That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit....Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know and testify of what we have seen, and you do not accept our testimony. John 3:6,11

The contrastive meaning would lead one to think that verse 6 means, "That which is born of the flesh is flesh, but that which is born of the spirit is spirit." The last "and" in verse 11 expresses the meaning "and yet."

There are quite a few more examples in John. Some occur in the one ambiguous segment (to which I'll return in my next post) where it is difficult to tell whether the narrator has taken over in John 3--e.g., 3:19, 32. Many more occur in words clearly being attributed to Jesus: 5:39, 43, 44. More examples: 6:36; 7:19, 30, 36; 8:52; 9:27; 10:25, 39; 12:34, 35, 47; 18:11; 20:29.

Now, if Jesus was not speaking Greek anyway in many scenes (though he may have been in the dialogue with Nicodemus), a decision made by John about how to render his conjunctions is a translation decision in any event, just as it is when Matthew, Mark, or Luke translates his conjunctions. There is no reason to think that the greater variety of conjunctions used in the synoptics is a better translation of Jesus' Aramaic than the ubiquitous kai in John. If John tended to use the adversative kai more often than Jesus did and hence tended to translate Jesus' contrastive meanings using kai particularly often, this is a perfect example of something so purely and trivially stylistic that it hardly should make us think that John is in any way less historical than the synoptics, Any translator may do such a thing.

But in this case there is reason to think that John's Greek is likely to be an especially good representation of what Jesus said. Here is Edwin Abbott's comment on this point:

[I]t is certain that our Lord, speaking in Aramaic, used the ambiguous vaw, capable of meaning “and” or “and yet,” and certain also that any Greek translators of Aramaic Christian traditions or of Hebrew Gospels would have the alternative of rendering vaw, when used in the latter sense, either literally by [kai] or freely by words meaning “but,” “however” etc. There results a reasonable probability that John, writing many years after the circulation of the Synoptic Tradition, which seldom uses the Hebraic [kai] in the sense of “and yet,” deliberately resorted to it as one of many means of forcing his readers to reflect on the many-sidedness of the Lord’s doctrine and on the occasional inadequacy of the letter o the earliest Gospels to reproduce the living word. Whatever may have been his motive, or motives, the fact remains that he uses--with a frequency and boldness unparalleled in the Synoptists--the Greek additive conjunction in a non-Greek adversative fashion to introduce adversative clauses with a suddenness that heightens the sense of paradox. Edwin Abott, Johannine Grammar, p. 139

In other words, there is a similarly all-purpose Aramaic conjunction, vaw or waw, which would function in the way that kai functions in John's usage. That is, it could mean either "and" or "and yet/but." And Jesus, when he was speaking Aramaic, would very probably have used that conjunction, making John's translation even more literal than one involving a greater variety of conjunctions in Greek.

Some scholars insist that there is a pun in Jesus' discussion with Nicodemus in chapter 3 (on the word usually translated "born again") that works only in Greek. This may be used to argue that John must have invented the scene (if we insist that Jesus wouldn't have spoken Greek), though it can just as well be used to argue that Jesus and Nicodemus (whose name is Greek) were indeed speaking Greek on this occasion. I myself am a tad dubious about the objective existence of the pun. Maybe it's there and maybe it's being read in.

But suppose that on that occasion Jesus was speaking Greek. Is it not fairly plausible that Jesus' own Greek would have been Aramaic-flavored? In that case, what is to hinder him from having used the adversative kai himself?

Once again, I am not saying that this has to be the case or that to concede otherwise would be to be forced into accepting all the other major alterations that go under the heading of "Johannine adaptation." Indeed, I insist to the contrary. Minor, recognizable verbal paraphrase is perfectly fine and very plausibly does happen in the Gospels, both for Jesus' words and for the words of others, and it's no big deal. What I am saying is that we have no more reason to think it's happening in the case of John's adversative kai and some reason to think that John may be giving us Jesus' words particularly closely by means of this Semitic-flavored Greek idiom.


Asyndeton means the absence of a conjunction in a place or series of places where one would otherwise expect conjunctions. Simply put, asyndeton is a kind of choppiness of expression. It can sometimes be very effective rhetorically and is used by orators deliberately. One of the most famous instances comes from Winston Churchill:

We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.

The Gospel of John has a high degree of asyndeton, in the narrative itself, in the theological discussions by the narrator, and in the words of Jesus. I will even give an example below from someone else's words in the gospel. Asyndeton is statistically a good deal more frequent (here I am including the narrative of events) in John than in the other Gospels. Vern Poythress has a long, technical paper on the frequency of asyndeton in John here. My only complaint (as a researcher) is that he gives a lot of examples from the event narrative and virtually none from Jesus' words, but the latter are easy to find for oneself. Poythress says that asyndeton is almost a default form of connection in the Gospel of John, which is definitely not true of the other Gospels.

Here are instances from the narrator's theological discourse:

For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. (John 1:17)

No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father's side,he has made him known. (John 1:18)

Here's an instance from the confession of Nathanael when he first meets Jesus:

Nathanael answered him, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” (John 1:49)

Here are a few from well-known words of Jesus in the Gospel of John:

“Do not let your heart be troubled; believe in God, believe also in Me." (John 14:1)
"Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Do not let your heart be troubled, nor let it be fearful." (John 14:27)
"I am the vine; you are the branches." (John 15:5)
"Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth." (John 17:17)

It's even been said that John 15:1-17 can be seen almost as one long asyndeton, even though there are numerous uses of kai. The point is that that passage contains very few connectives in between Jesus' injunctions and comments to his disciples. Of course, the same is true of the beatitudes in Matthew 5, but one might expect more subordinating conjunctions in John 15:1-17 since it is not merely a list of blessings. Reading John 15 in a translation like the NASB gives one a sense of that choppy and also repetitive style, involving lots of "ands" and lots of places with no conjunction, that is often called Johannine. (I'll return to the repetition below.)

Once again, as I have said throughout this post: If the author of John tended to think and speak somewhat more choppily than Jesus did and eliminated some of Jesus' conjunctions in recounting his words, this would still fall well within the range of ordinary paraphrase, garden-variety paraphrase, and would hardly justify some general notion that the Gospel of John is less literally, historically faithful than the other Gospels in its portrait of Jesus. After all, the authors of the Synoptic Gospels also probably had to translate Jesus' words into Greek, and it's extremely difficult to find evidence that Jesus spoke less choppy Aramaic than John portrays in his Greek style.

But there is another point. As with the adversative kai, asyndeton is also more Aramaic than it is Greek. Leon Morris states,

Asyndeton...is common in Aramaic (though not in Hebrew, so this is an Aramaism, not simply a characteristic of Semitic languages). Studies in the Fourth Gospel, p. 222

The same point about Aramaic was also noted by C.F. Burney and used by him as part of an argument for the (almost certainly false) conclusion that the Gospel of John was originally written in Aramaic. That asyndeton is characteristic of Aramaic is noted as well by E.P. Sanders (apropos of the somewhat higher degree of asyndeton in Mark than in the other synoptic Gospels).

But once again, if asyndeton is characteristic of Aramaic, and if Jesus was often speaking Aramaic (or at times speaking a Greek which would itself have been influenced by Jesus' own Aramaic-speaking background), why should we think that the asyndeton in the words of Jesus in John is not literal and original? We should be all the more open to this possibility since these are sayings and discourses unique to John in any event, so there is not even a direct contrast or conflict between John's Greek version of Jesus' words at these points and a version in the Synoptics.

Just as...so

There are sayings by Jesus in both John and the Synoptic Gospels in which he makes a comparison: "Just as [this], so [that]." Here's one from Luke:

For as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so will the Son of Man be to this generation. (Luke 11:30)

An oddity in John is that he will often (though not always) use a different word for "so" in this sequence than the usual Greek. The Greek for "as" or "just as" is kathōs, and John uses this. But the usual Greek word for "so" or "just so" in such a comparison--found in Luke, in the Septuagint version of the Psalms and Proverbs--is houtōs. Instead, John will repeatedly use (perhaps this will not come as a surprise) his all-purpose kai. Stylistically, this creates a situation in which "so" is rendered as "also."

For example, here are Jesus' words in John 6:

As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me. (John 6:57)

And a more rigidly literal translation of the Greek into English would leave out the word "so" altogether.

Other examples in Jesus' words occur in 13:15, 33; 15:9; 17:18; 20:21. (But in Jesus' words in John 15:4--" As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me"--John uses the more normal Greek houtōs for "so.") The kathōs...kai construction occurs also in I John 2:18 and 4:17. In I John 2:6 John uses both kai and houtōs (he is repeating his meaning) to convey the concept of "so," presumably for variety.

It is worth noting that the use of kai after kathōs in the sense of "also" is not unique to John. It is also found in Paul's writings, though Paul tends to put the two words right next to one another in his Greek:

Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you. Ephesians 4:32

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her. (Ephesians 5:25)

In both of these the meaning "just as, so also" is conveyed by the phrase kathōs kai. So by no means was the idiomatic use of kai unknown outside of John to express this meaning of "so" or "even so." I have not been able to find clear evidence that it is distinctly Aramaic or Semitic (unless Paul's use of it is considered such evidence).

In any event, once again, the sayings of Jesus in which this construction occurs are unique to John, and since we are merely talking about Greek synonyms in a context where Jesus was probably not originally speaking Greek in any event, what we seem to have is a translation choice for a slightly unusual translation on the part of John where we would expect, say, Luke to have made a different translation choice. John's certainly cannot be taken to be less historical or more "adaptive" than Luke's.

Verily, verily

It is well-known that in the Synoptics Jesus will introduce a saying with "Truly" (sometimes translated "verily") whereas in John he will introduce sayings with this same word doubled--"Verily, verily." Both are the Greek transliteration of Hebrew "amen." Jesus follows either of these with, "I say unto you."

Here we do indeed have a statistical pattern. Jesus uses the "verily" expression many times both in John and in the Synoptics, but he always says it only once in the Synoptics and always says it twice in John. The material is not overlapping. That is, the Synoptics and John are telling about different sayings. Nonetheless, the characteristic stylistic pattern is quite consistent in each and is different. The example references are too many to type out. Here are a few of each:

Single "verily":

Matt. 5:18, 10:15, 18:3, Mark 3:28, Luke 4:24, 23:43

Double "verily":

John 1:51, 5:29, 8:34, 10:1, 16:20, 21:18,

and many more of each.

So which is it? Did Jesus always say, "Verily, I say unto you" or "Verily, verily, I say unto you"? Did the Synoptic authors drop one, or did John add one? Or did Jesus sometimes do it one way and sometimes the other? (I note here that this isn't a matter of Jesus' allegedly "sounding like John." We don't find "verily, verily" either in the narrator of the Gospel or in the Johannine epistles but only in the words of Jesus.)

Before we get fixated on the trivial difference between one and two "amens," we should notice that this is actually a similarity of style, considered even at a slightly broader level, between the "synoptic Jesus" and the "Johannine Jesus." After all, it's a pretty striking thing for this man to go around introducing his own sayings in this emphatic and distinctive way, whether he says one "amen" or two at the outset. The voice of Jesus is notably similar in both. And the sheer number and variety of contexts in which John and the synoptics show him doing so shows agreement between them that he did it a lot.

As to one "verily" or two, here is some interesting independent evidence (mentioned in an earlier post) that at least sometimes he doubled introductory words for emphasis: In the Synoptic Gospels Jesus twice repeats the name of someone he is addressing at the beginning of an earnest statement to that person. In Luke 22, Jesus is addressing Peter:

Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you (pl.), that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers. (Luke 22:31-32)

Something similar happens with Martha:

But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:41-42)

There is, in fact, something rather Semitic about the repetition of the names and also about the repetition of "amen." While not used at the beginning of a saying, "Amen and amen" is used several times for final emphasis in the Psalms: Psalm 41:13, 72:19, 89:52.

While it is possible that John added a second "verily" to some of Jesus' sayings, it is also entirely plausible that Jesus emphatically used it twice on various occasions.


There is no doubt that when Jesus speaks in the Gospel of John he is repetitive, and repetitive in a distinctive way. Jesus' redundancy is probably part of what has given rise to the Myth of the Monologuing Jesus, which I'll address in a later post. It is not true that there are more "long, long discourses" where Jesus "goes on and on for many verses" in John than in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, in particular). There are at least as many long sections of Jesus' speech in the Synoptics (if not more) than there are in John. But it is true that Jesus in John speaks in a peculiarly thematically repetitive way when speaks for a segment of verses. In fact, one might almost say that the relative lack of subordinating logical connectives in the style of Jesus' discourse in John is made up for by thematic repetition. This makes what Jesus says both cohesive and emphatic, but not hierarchically structured. He just comes back to the same words and phrases over and and over again. At times (particularly in the Farewell Discourse) one word will be introduced while he's still discussing a different theme, and then the new word will be repeated as he moves into a section focused on that theme. (For example, "commandment" is introduced in John 15:10 while "abide" is still a thematic word. Then "commandment" takes over for several verses, though "abide" crops back up in vs. 16. "Fruit" was a major theme at the beginning of the section, fades in importance for a bit, and comes back into view in vs. 16 along with "abide.")

A long quotation is perhaps in order here. One cannot exactly say that Jesus meanders, but he does repeat himself. Reading aloud makes the stylistic point even clearer:

I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. These things I command you, so that you will love one another. (John 15:1-17)

Similarly, notice in John 6:35ff how Jesus keeps coming back to the phrase "raise him [or it] up on the last day"--four times. Or look at John 5:19-30 and the repeated use of the word "judgement" and of statements such as that the Father has given the Son the power of judgement and that the Son will raise the dead at the last day. There is a circular quality to Jesus' speech in these places. He says the same things again and again in (very) slightly different ways or in a different order.

In Matthew 5 (to take one example) Jesus' sayings are briefer, more memorable, and more aphoristic. They are pithy. Even if he repeats similar concepts (famously in the Beatitudes but also in thematic sections like 5:17-20) he does so in ways that vary so clearly and memorably that there is no sense of circling. He may make his point twice about entering into life maimed rather than having all one's members and going to hell, but in one verse he'll do it with a hand illustration and in another verse with an eye.

Moreover, just to keep on going as far as one can with this, there is something of the same circling, repetitive style in the epistle of I John. Like here:

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us— that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. (I John 1:1-3)

Or here:

They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us. But you have been anointed by the Holy One, and you all have knowledge. I write to you, not because you do not know the truth, but because you know it, and because no lie is of the truth. Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son. No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also. Let what you heard from the beginning abide in you. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, then you too will abide in the Son and in the Father. (I John 2:19-24)

The stylistic similarity is unmistakable, and presumably this is the kind of thing that has impressed Licona so much and caused him (and many others) to conclude that John in particular has made a major "adaptation" of the voice of Jesus to make it more like his own--more so than the synoptic authors. Once one thinks of such a stylistic adaptation as large-scale enough, that loosens up (though even then it need not) one's willingness to accept John's making other changes--inventing dialogue, inventing sayings as inspired by completely different sayings, making up speeches, and so forth.

Now let's look at an alternative theory. The obvious alternative is that John's style (and themes--see the reference to "abiding" in I John) were influenced by Jesus rather than that John makes Jesus sound like himself. Strictly speaking, the two are not entirely mutually exclusive. Jesus may have been, historically, much more redundant than in the discourses in the Synoptics, and hence have spoken more like I John, but that doesn't preclude John's having remembered and reported him as repeating a phrase or a point on a given occasion somewhat more often than he actually did. Most of us would be hard-pressed to remember precisely how many times (was it three or four?) a teacher repeated the injunction to read the syllabus before e-mailing him.

In any event, Licona rejects the hypothesis that John sounds like Jesus rather than vice versa because of the difference from the Synoptics:

The reason scholars go with this latter view [that John paraphrased Jesus using his own style] is because Jesus “sounds” so differently in John than in the Synoptics.

Again, this wouldn't be such a big deal if "paraphrased using his own style" meant just what it sounds like and no more, but as we have seen again and again, it is used to mean much more. In fact, in the very context of that last quote, Licona is discussing the theory that many of the "I am" statements did not occur in an historically recognizable way as found in John.

But consider the following points: If one were trying to memorize and write down what Jesus said in a memorable form, would one be likely to include redundancy? Wouldn't that be the first thing to go in an oral memorization of phrases?

It's particularly remarkable that those like Licona and others who often talk about "the gist" (and then use it to justify all sorts of major inventions) should think that John is the one who has probably adapted the voice of Jesus here. Indeed, it's a sign of the power that sheer bias against John exercises in New Testament studies. For if we are to speak of writing "the gist" of what Jesus said, surely the elimination of redundancy would be a perfect technique for that purpose. Suppose, just as a thought experiment, that when Jesus spoke of cutting off your hand and cutting out your eye so as to enter into life, as found in the Synoptics, he actually gave a several-verse short discourse, "Johannine" in style, in which he said several additional times that it is better to enter into life maimed than to go to hell with all one's members intact. If his disciples were memorizing "the gist" of what he said, something like what we find in Matt. 5:29-30 is exactly what we might find--quite faithful to what he did say, recognizable and historical, only shorter.

I find it rather surprising that this point isn't made more often. Good teachers often repeat. Ordinary people often repeat. (Notice some time how often you repeat when speaking.) Great preachers often repeat. Repetition is natural in ordinary language and is also a known technique to impress a point upon one's audience. It is antecedently not improbable at all that Jesus was far more repetitive, historically, than he appears to be in the discourses in the Synoptic Gospels, and hence more "Johannine."

One person who has made a somewhat similar point is Richard Bauckham.

The way [the Synoptic Gospels] represent what Jesus said on such occasions is mostly by means of a collection of Jesus’ aphorisms and parables, sometimes with explicit thematic structuring of the material, sometimes more loosely grouped according to topic or catchword.

A point that historical Jesus scholars rarely make is that this cannot have been how Jesus actually taught. If Jesus did, as Mark represents (4.1), address the crowds from a boat on the lake of Galilee, he cannot have spoken merely the three parables Mark attributes to him on this occasion or even the larger collection of parables that Matthew provides. The issue here is not what Jesus said on a specific occasion, but the way in which Jesus generally taught. He must have taught in a much more discursive and expatiating way than the Synoptic Gospels attribute to him. The aphorisms and parables were the carefully composed distillations of his teaching, put into memorable form for hearers to take away with them. They could not have been more than a small proportion of what Jesus actually said (and writers and hearers/readers of Gospels would readily understand this). But not surprisingly they were what were remembered and were available to the Gospel writers. It was these that they therefore used when they wished to represent Jesus engaged in teaching....

Formally, [the] teaching or discourse material [in John] is quite varied, but it has in common the negative characteristic that it does not consist of collections of the kind of aphorisms and parables the Synoptics provide. Aphorisms and short parables, even sayings we also find in the Synoptics and sayings that would not have been out of place on the lips of Mark’s, Matthew’s or Luke’s Jesus, are found,
but they are scattered through the discourse material and in many cases embedded in it. The main point to be made here is that, formally speaking, Johannine discourses and dialogues could well be regarded as more realistic than the typical Synoptic presentation of his teaching. ("Historiographical Characteristics of the Gospel of John," pp. 31-32)

Someone may look up the article and find that Bauckham isn't entirely agreeing with me, either. So I wouldn't want to seem to be quoting him out of context. In keeping with a fact I have noted before, that Bauckham's work is a mixed bag and that he sometimes partially undermines his own excellent points, Bauckham exaggerates the artificial nature of both John's and the Synoptic authors' process of composition. For example, eliminating redundancy in Jesus' teaching would not make the Synoptic discourses "carefully composed" in the sense that Bauckham seems to intend. And he later says, "In one sense, John’s presentation is more realistic than theirs, but at the same time it required much more than theirs did the putting of words into Jesus’ mouth." (p. 33)

But why should it? That statement is especially surprising coming from Bauckham, who has done so much to defend the conclusion that the author of John was an eyewitness of Jesus' ministry! If, as Bauckham says, "As representations of the way Jesus taught, the conversations, dialogues and discourses of John’s Gospel are quite historically credible" (p. 33), why should they not simply be historical, full stop? Historical in the sense that a faithful report from a truthful witness with an excellent memory is historical. That need not mean that they are verbatim, but we are certainly in no position whatsoever to say that they are in any important sense "artificial" (a term Bauckham uses for both the Synoptic and the Johannine representation of Jesus' speech) or that they required to any especially great extent "putting of words in Jesus' mouth." They could well be the Beloved Disciple's quite close, even if not tape-recorded, memories of how Jesus really taught.

In any event, while Bauckham himself is apparently not willing to draw this conclusion, his argument tends to support it. Discursive, repetitive speech is quite normal in good teaching and preaching, and there is no reason to take John as less historical for attributing it to Jesus while the Synoptic authors present a more aphoristic style. Surely we should not be under the impression that Jesus always spoke in aphorisms.

The most likely scenario is an eclectic one. Jesus probably spoke differently at different times. (Leon Morris expressly considers the possibility that Jesus sometimes spoke more aphoristically to make his sayings easier to memorize and spoke more discursively at other times. Studies in the Fourth Gospel, pp. 133-137) The Synoptic authors probably eliminated Jesus' redundancy in some places. And John may have added some redundancy in his memorial reconstructions of Jesus' teachings on different occasions from those reported in the Synoptics.


Too often, the fact that the Bible was written in unfamiliar languages is used to silence non-experts. If you don't read Greek fluently, how can you possibly be qualified to question the conclusions of the experts? When the experts want your opinion on the literal factuality of the Gospel of John, they will give it to you. This insider-outsider thinking has made it difficult for others even to find out the meaning of, much less question, the claim that John must have heavily adapted Jesus' speech, or even more broadly must have adapted "the Jesus tradition." In this way non sequiturs are allowed to flourish unchecked by outside questioning. (Let me add here that I strongly encourage readers to look into my own claims in this post. I'm not telling you just to take my word, either. I can't recommend too highly on-line Greek tools such as the Greek text analysis tool at Biblehub.com.)

In this series I have anatomized and classified various things that might be meant by "Johannine idiom." Different themes, characteristic words, and here (allegedly the part that outsiders aren't qualified to discuss) Greek idiom and other purely stylistic features. I have tried to point out what evidence there really is for a difference in Jesus' speech, especially in this post.

What we have seen is that, when it comes to an argument for a significantly more "adapted" and less literally historical "Johannine Jesus" (than Jesus in the Synoptics), due to the way Jesus talks, there is no there there. Looked at in its detail, the argument that John is much more "interpretive" and hence less historical than the Synoptics dissolves. Sometimes the points can even be turned on their heads, and we have reason to believe that John's portrait of how Jesus spoke may well be the closest of all to the literal voice of the Master. In other cases, where there may be different translation choices made on the part of John or the Synoptic authors, there is no reason to think of theirs as canonical or more historical while John's are more interpretive. And none of the points in any event support larger claims such as that the "I am" sayings in John are "paraphrases" (i.e., theologically inspired, ahistorical inventions) based upon different historical events as shown in the Synoptics.

In the next two posts I will be examining in more detail two myths about Jesus in John. The first I'll debunk is the myth of the sock puppet Jesus--the claim that we often find it difficult to tell in John whether Jesus or the narrator is speaking. The next will be the myth of the monologuing Jesus--the claim that Jesus in John "goes on and on for many verses" more than in the synoptic Gospels.

Comments (9)

Fine work as usual, Lydia.

I wonder how much secular history could survive the acid of this textual skepticism. It need not even be ancient. Even when actual audio or video recordings exist, real questions and ambiguities remain; I need only mention the rabbit hole of the JFK assassination, which has driven many a man to distraction.

Perhaps some enterprising critic, a couple hundred years from now, will conjure, out of the dispute concerning the doubted inclusion of the phrase "under God" in Lincoln's original draft of the Gettysburg Address, an intricate tale of how that Address was, in fact, the invention of later Radical Republicans with a conspiratorial and proto-socialist cast of mind. Or maybe Obama birther conspiracies will return to bedevil our descendants, with that politician presented, with his successor, as a secret agent of Slavic powers.

Point being that there is no reason to confine skepticism of documents from history only to the field of Biblical criticism. How confident can we really be that Socrates or Muhammad even existed?

Okay, I'm being a little silly with these examples, but in my experience, this critical posture (the Da Vinci Code Mindset, we might call it) has gained a level of popularity without anyone really thinking through what it implies for the rest of (non-sacred) history.

Can the psychlogical element be pressed too hard? Perhaps not. John uniquely, insists that he is loved by his Master. John was a sycophant of tge highest order, and rightly so. If one is going to fawn after a mentor, then the Son of God is the one to go with. There are a bunch of little J. Petersons running around today who sound like him,imagine how how close the manner and speech would be if J. Pete took one (one barely past puberty) under his wing as his personal favorite for 3 years!

Even if John developed his own style as he matured, wouldn't his previous adulation and presumed period of imitation make it much easier to nail the actual words of Jesus when he wrote his account?

In other words, the other dusciples took in Jesus' words and wisdom; john took in Jesus. He wanted to become Him, not just ape His ethic.

If I had to choose the disciple who would be less likely to futz with the ipsissima verba of the Beloved Teacher, I would go with John.

I wonder how much secular history could survive the acid of this textual skepticism.

What's generally happening when they try to apply it to some ancient history (Plutarch, for example) is that the theories are much too fancy. To begin with, alleged contradictions are multiplied by wooden readings. This is particularly ironic, since supposedly it's those from my side of the aisle (as it were) who, according to the theorists, are the "wooden literalists." But on the contrary, it's the theorists who read Plutarch and say, "He puts all of these events on the same day." Then you read Plutarch and realize that he doesn't say what day the events took place on, that he definitely doesn't *put* them all on the same day, and that he's just narrating briefly and without specifying a day. This happened, this happened, this happened. Next, after multiplying contradictions, you get the refusal (whether for made-up contradictions or for things that really do seem like discrepancies on the face of it) to attribute these to getting new info. or to forgetfulness or even to propaganda--any of those ordinary causes. Instead, you get an incredibly "fancy" theory: Plutarch knew that these happened on different days but made them all happen on the same day as a literary device. Plutarch knew that this guy really said x but made this other guy say it in a different version of the story as a literary device. And so forth.

*Usually* it doesn't get too corrosive with Plutarch, in the sense of erasing whole events, because (to be honest) it's to some degree been determined ahead of time with all of these documents just how corrosive the method will be. The conclusion is implicitly there already as a kind of telos toward which the method is directed. In the case of Plutarch, the end toward which the method is guided is that, at least with regard to Plutarchan Lives written about relatively recent figures (relative to Plutarch), all of the "big events" happened but various ancillary details and events can be concluded at the drop of the hat to have been changed as part of "applying compositional devices."

This is more or less the same pre-determined end in the case of the synoptic Gospels, but with a difference: Basically, in all of the Gospels, the *goal* of applying these literary devices and theories is to "explain" alleged discrepancies that have been fastened upon by critical scholars. This means that the amount of invention that is concluded may vary pretty widely depending on how skeptical critical scholars of the past have been. When it comes to the synoptics and Jesus' ministry, for example, the skepticism will go so far as changing the time of an occurrence, maybe making up an event here or there (such as a so-called "doublet" of Jesus' healing the blind). But when it comes to the infancy narratives in the Gospels, the theorists will be "open" to their being made up almost out of whole cloth except for the overlap. Not because this arises naturally out of some genre consideration, but because the infancy narratives have been subject to especially intense criticism by critical scholars, because they don't have a lot of overlap, and because Robert Gundry paved the way back in the 80's.

With John, the willingness to envisage invention goes much further, because John is especially doubted by critical scholarship and because he is different from the other gospels.

So in a sense there is not really one method that is consistently applied so as to be equally corrosive everywhere. This is not because the method itself is really sensitive to objective features of the text but rather because previous scholarly skepticism in the discipline provide a de facto kind of template for where and how far the method of attributing changes, invention, or devices is applied.

This point also helps to explain what I have called utterly unforced errors. For example, there really is no contradiction in Jesus' having breathed on the disciples after his resurrection and said, "Receive the Holy Spirit." That doesn't contradict anything in any of the other documents. So why does it come in for so much questioning? Because it had *already* come in for a lot of questioning by theologically-inclined commentators who were worrying about how it fit theologically with Pentecost and who were already inclined to believe that John invents things. Why in the world would anyone question that Jesus said, "I thirst?" It's antecedently plausible in a crucifixion and doesn't contradict anything else. Well, not because there is some known, recognizable literary device at work in that passage. Rather because at some point critical scholars had decided that there were different "tendencies" in the portrayal of Jesus' personality in his crucifixion, and Jesus is supposed to be more "in control" and glorified, etc., in his crucifixion in John, and "I thirst" didn't fit that narrative. Plus there had been a tendency in scholarship for some reason to try to whittle down the total number of sayings recorded from Jesus on the cross. So Wallace's totally unforced error concerning "I thirst" as a "dynamic equivalent transformation" of "My God, why have you forsaken me?" is a part of that lineage of critical over-interpretation and lack of real-world imagination concerning the sayings on the cross.

The evangelical scholars are just coming along and going straight to the places where various other scholars (many of them certainly non-evangelical) have to some degree arbitrarily doubted the historicity of certain incidents, and then they are trying to find ways to "explain" these places. But unfortunately those ways are far too complex, chiefly because they are not willing just to say that the doubt directed toward the passages is arbitrary and exaggerated.

But at the same time, the evangelical scholars have their own built-in limits. We won't find any of them any time soon saying that the resurrection itself was an "elaboration." Just lots of the specifics of the resurrection appearances, up to questioning the occurrence of some entire appearances.

It's rather disconcerting to see simultaneously how ad hoc all of this is and also how many laymen simply do not realize how ad hoc it is. Some layman are really going to believe (and I think many of the scholars have convinced themselves) that this is all arising independently from true scholarly insight.

I was reading C.S. Lewis and he once said (in a book called Christian Reflections), "The minds you daily meet have been conditioned by the same studies and prevalent opinions as your own. That may mislead you."

Do you think this has happened in biblical scholarship? Also, could this happen in other disciplines?

Cameron, I think it is undoubtedly true that this happens in biblical scholarship and in virtually all other disciplines. It is a feature of human nature that a person's mind will, unless conscious care is taken, gradually bend toward the mental framework of those around you who are the leaders if they are perceived as good, or sympathetic, or admirable, etc. It is quite natural to believe that the leading professors in your field, who are not only brilliant but also thoughtful and who listen to you and who praise you for your good work, are also basically right in how they go about explaining matters.

I think it was on display, rather blatantly, in that video of William Lane Craig's in which he joked about his professor teasing Craig (and effectively mocking others) for the attitude of taking the bible at face value. Craig gives the appearance (which is supported by his other work) that he more or less absorbed by osmosis the general attitude that the gospels cannot be read as face-value eye witness accounts, reported as basically factual events that took place as reported. The mockery he hints at from his professor for such a "naive" attitude is clearly such a widespread phenomenon that it doesn't need to be explained or justified. And it clearly affects new students, who are trained (by and large below the level of conscious thought) to view such naive attitudes as being childish, silly, bumpkin-ish, and therefore not to be granted a place at the table. It is then reinforced by the way rewards are granted in the profession - articles published, books published and paid for, assistantships and professorships granted - with nary a voice in favor of taking the gospels at face value allowed a seat at the table - conditioning the student to shy clear of even THINKING questions like "what if we applied the same historical standards to other works, would this theory hold up?"

And, interestingly, not all of this process is meant intentionally to undermine honest scholarship: it happens in all fields that some questions are considered too unlikely to be worth bothering about, even for the purpose of proving them wrong, because there is no sufficient pay-off for spending time on them. Real scientists don't bother spending time disproving astrology, it's not worth the time: the prior probability of it is so low that you are guaranteed a very small pay-off from spending the time on a positive proof that it is all nonsense. Leaders in a field inevitably exercise gateway control of both money and other incentives on the topics studied, and perforce do so at least in part with a view to return-on-investment (as perceived). And it is impossible to base such return-on-investment decisions on scientifically definitive analysis of what new topics will pay off, that's essence of the uncertainty of future discovery. But what is dispiriting is that the origin of the attitude in biblical scholarship that the gospels cannot be taken at face value was so unjustified, so baseless, so poverty-stricken as scholarship: while it does not (exactly) surprise us that liberal scholars took to the ideas like ducks take to water (given their ulterior commitments), it boggles the mind that so-called "conservative" scholars would do so some 80 or 100 years after their liberal opponents did, just as the liberal views had become so ridiculous as to defeat parody.

Yes, such echoing can happen almost anywhere.

I think what confuses evangelical biblical scholars is that to some extent they are bucking the zeitgeist. This causes them to assume that they have remained free of the biases of that zeitgeist. After all, the reason Pannenberg was poking the young WLC was because WLC was defending the historicity of the gospels! I've actually recently been looking at the version of the dissertation to which Pannenberg referred, because WLC published it as a book later after he had to cut some parts out for the dissertation version. It is indeed quite "conservative," and as Pannenberg noted, there isn't a single place where he concludes that the resurrection accounts are ahistorical.

An interesting shift (which I noted in an earlier post) took place in the decades since that time concerning the alleged "telescoping" in Luke 24. Whereas in the dissertation version the "telescoping" was, as clearly as such a thing can be, of the utterly harmless variety of merely telling things briefly, in recent years Dr. Craig has concluded that Luke really *put* all of the events on one day! I don't know if he's ever addressed this shift in his own thought or is even aware of it.

So I think that much of the mutual influence that is taking place is intramural, as it were, among evangelical scholars. All it takes is for one or two to accept some sort of dehistoricization, and the rest follow that lead on the assumption that so-and-so wouldn't do that if it weren't well-supported, since we know he is a conservative.

This is one reason why I oppose the literary device views so strongly, openly, and in such detail. And why I usually name names, at least concerning publicly available statements. Because I see this happening *among* the evangelical scholars. (There's a very strange idea out there that I've run into more than once that it's okay to say you oppose *views* but that you shouldn't give the name of the person who holds the view. This, of course, would make all scholarly work impossible. A scholar has to *cite* the person he is trying to refute. And it sounds annoyingly coy anyway: "Well, *some people*..." But sometimes this idea restricts what I am allowed to say in public forums such as interviews.)

I see the whole zeitgeist thing when I read older commentaries and compare them with newer commentaries. For example, Bishop Westcott's commentary on John (which gave a solid argument for John's authorship that has not been refuted in 125 years or so) goes through the text and takes the attitude that this is eyewitness stuff, recollections of John and those who told things to John. There is a humility to the commentary that I like very much, and this humility has Westcott analyzing what he thinks John is saying happened, and was said, and what took place. This is the "naive" view.

On the other hand, some modern commentaries I have don't seem to ask what happened, but instead talk about why the author of the fourth gospel (who was not likely John) put this here, shaped that in such and such a way, and ordered things. It is very clinical, and there is an implicit arrogance to treating the sacred text as some frog in a high school biology lab class. (They don't see it that way obviously.)

It still all boils down to: is Christianity true? If so, the so-called naive view is superior. If not, then the modern approach has no issues. But there is a massive circularity involved in taking a naturalistic view of things, analyzing the Bible for 200+ years under those naturalistic assumptions, and then turning around and trying to convince benighted fundamentalist types that "See! Modern scholarship has refuted your outdated notions!".

I'm very glad that in my 20s I learned to have confidence in my own thought and deductive processes so that I could evaluate scholarly claims and assumptions for myself. Otherwise I'd be swept away into naturalism and other banalities of the last 200 years.

One thing I like about Morris. He makes it quite clear that he's coming to the so-called "naive" view as a conclusion, not as an a priori assumption based upon theology. I have noticed again and again in trying to dialogue with contemporary evangelical scholars that they are almost literally psychologically incapable of believing that my objections to dehistoricization are based upon epistemology and historical considerations rather than theological worries. They will read some kind of a priori theology into my concerns even contrary to my express statements. When Licona wrote the one post last fall where he was defending Evans, he literally said that I was "angry" about the place in his book where he calls into question the appearance to Thomas and that this was because of my "view of inspiration." What?? He just got this out of his head. He apparently didn't even know that I had expressly disavowed being an inerrantist. (Once he was informed of it he then switched around and started asking why someone would listen to me more than to him since he claims to be an inerrantist.) In that post he claimed for himself the mantle of objective historical scholar going where the evidence leads.

In one e-mail exchange I had with a NT scholar I said in the second e-mail that I don't regard myself as an inerrantist, and it appeared that he didn't even read that. He started talking about views of inspiration, etc., right away with the clear assumption that this was where I was coming from.

But the problem here *is* a matter of where the evidence leads. For John to make up scenes and dialogues is a complicated thesis and requires more evidence than is given. Even to say that he changed the day of the crucifixion has to satisfy a serious burden of proof. It isn't enough just to hypothesize it out of the blue!

Anyway, getting back to Morris, he has this wonderfully objective manner but argues that this looks like the work of an honest eyewitness nonetheless. And he studied (I'm told) with C.K. Barrett, whom he mentions over and over again and who sounds like he was *very* liberal. Morris just came to different conclusions.

A point that historical Jesus scholars rarely make is that this cannot have been how Jesus actually taught. If Jesus did, as Mark represents (4.1), address the crowds from a boat on the lake of Galilee, he cannot have spoken merely the three parables Mark attributes to him on this occasion or even the larger collection of parables that Matthew provides.

This is an excellent point that Bauckham makes. If Jesus was preaching to a crowd basically all day, and this is why they could not merely be dismissed with a "that's all for now, folks" (i.e. the feeding of the 5,000), Jesus had to have said more than is recounted by the Synoptics. He had to have either repeated himself a great deal, or given a LOT more substantive material than the Synoptics mention (or both, of course). Either way, the Synoptics do not give us a clear picture of any truly long speaking event: either they leave out the repetition (and whether, like in John, it is a spiraling kind of swinging back through the same idea, with a slight twist), or leaving out many additional substantive points from which John could take his selections. If you didn't pay attention to how long Jesus sometimes taught, you would come away from the Synoptics with the completely false idea that Jesus nearly ALWAYS spoke in aphorisms, one-off, as people came to him with questions and situations. You would not have any direct sense at all of Jesus as a preacher who held audiences spell-bound for hours at a time. But this is part of why he made a name for himself and had the authorities in a tizzy. The people might come out from the towns to get healings, but then they stayed for the preaching. A mere healer presented no worries to the Pharisees and the priests, it was the healings in combination with the preaching. But the preaching was extended, not just a series of aphorisms.

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