No gospel was written the way modern books are. The evangelist did not sit at a desk, surrounded by scrolls, and write a gospel. In the first place, there were no desks in the ancient world. They did not appear until the Middle Ages in monastic scriptoriums. Ancient composition techniques differ greatly from ours. We compose in private, in silence, on a blank piece of paper or computer screen.
A gospel is like an archaeological site. At ground level is the gospel we read in the New Testament. The next level down are various editions, then further down possible sources, and at the bottom the oral tradition. The Fourth Gospel is an excellent example of this layering of a composition. As the various layers or editions evolved, editorial inconsistencies, at times apparent contradictions, crept into the composition. These inconsistencies and contradictions provide the clues to the Gospel’s layering.
The ancient world is an oral one, an out loud environment. Composition took place in speech, often dictated to a scribe. One searched one’s memory, not other scrolls. Composition means to place (posit) things together (com), that is, to arrange parts or pieces drawn from memory in order. The ancients commonly used the metaphor of weaving for composition.
A gospel is like an archaeological site. At ground level is the gospel we read in the New Testament. The next level down are various editions, then further down possible sources, and at the bottom the oral tradition. The Fourth Gospel is an excellent example of this layering of a composition.
Ground Level: The Canonical Gospel
A few simple observations indicate that the canonical version of the Fourth Gospel, the one in the New Testament, was not the original version of the Gospel.
The Gospel’s famous prologue has all the earmarks of a later addition. Its style and vocabulary differ from the Gospel. It introduces several themes not picked up in the Gospel narrative, most famously, the Word. After the prologue, Jesus is never again referred to as the Word. Two prose notes about John the Baptist (1:6-8 and 1:15) are awkwardly inserted into the poetic structure. An earlier version of the Gospel started with John the Baptist.
John 21 is not the Gospel’s original ending. That chapter differs in style from the rest of the Gospel. It attempts to resolve the status of Peter and the beloved student. This really reflects tensions between communities who look to Peter and those who look to the beloved student, an early second-century situation. The editor of this chapter constructed a new ending for the chapter and the Gospel:
“Jesus of course did many other things. If they were all to be recorded in detail, I doubt that the entire world would hold the books that would have to be written” (21:25).
This ending was constructed from John 20:30-31 which was the Gospel’s original ending.
At the end of chapter 14 Jesus says, “Rise, let us go hence” (14:31) and yet the discourse goes on for three more chapters. Chapters 15-16 repeat themes from chapters 13 and 14. Therefore, chapters 15-17 were added later.
Level One: First Edition
We can now dig down below the ground level to the first level of our archaeological dig. This earliest version of the Fourth Gospel began with John the Baptist. It featured a ministry in Galilee, trip to Jerusalem, Jesus’ death, and an empty tomb story, concluding with,
“Although Jesus performed many more signs for his disciples to see than could be written down in this book, these are written down so you will come to believe that Jesus is the Anointed One, the son of God—and by believing this have life in his name” (20:30-31).
This is a much shorter narrative than the canonical version (ground level) and strongly resembles the narrative outline of the Gospel of Mark, the earliest written gospel. Therefore, we need to think of at least two editions of the Fourth Gospel: an early edition composed around 80 to 90 CE and a later edition about 125 CE, which became part of the Testament canon.
This process is not unusual. We think of the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke as two gospels separate from that of Mark because the Gospel of Mark survived. But Matthew and Luke are really editions of Mark, and their authors probably did not expect Mark to survive after their new editions.
This complicated editorial process means that we should not think of a single author, but of a series of authors and/or editors. The version of the Fourth Gospel that appears in our New Testament is the product of a group with a singular point view, not an individual. And it grew into its present form over a considerable period.
In sorting through the layers of an archaeological site, items are often found out of place, and the site needs to be reconstructed. In a few places, the geography of the Fourth Gospel indicates that several chapters are out of order.
Cleansing the Temple
Following the Wedding at Cana (2:1-12), Jesus suddenly departs for Jerusalem where he drives the sellers of sacrificial animals and money changers out of temple. When the Judeans ask what evidence he can produce to demonstrate his right to do this, he responds, “Destroy this temple and I’ll raise it up in three days” (2:19). The next story is a dialogue with the Pharisee Nicodemus that turns into a monologue about rebirth (3:1-21).
At the conclusion of Jesus’ monologue, the narrator remarks: “After this Jesus and his disciples went to Judea” (3:22). Since after the cleansing of temple there is no notice of his movement away from Judea, why does he have to go to Judea? Was he not already there? Apparently not.
In synoptic gospels, the cleansing of the temple leads to the plot to kill Jesus. This episode is indeed provocative and makes sense as the inaugural event provoking Jesus’ execution. But at the beginning of a gospel narrative it makes little sense. At some point in the editing of the Fourth Gospel, it was moved from before the last meal to its present place. In the final edition, the raising of Lazarus now foretells the Gospel’s ending. Removing the temple story in chapter 2 allows the geography to flow correctly, thus indicating that the temple story is out of place.
Where is Jesus?
Chapter 6 also appears out of place. At the beginning of that chapter, “Jesus crossed to the far side of the Sea of Galilee” (6:1), but at the beginning at chapter 5, Jesus had gone up to Jerusalem. There is no notice of a return to Galilee, so how can he cross the Sea of Galilee if he is in Judea?
At the end of chapter 4, Jesus “returned from Judea to Galilee” (4:54). Chapter 6 fits perfectly at this point. So the order should be chapters 4, 6, and 5. In this way the geography flows perfectly.
Why do ordinary readers not spot these dislocations? They are not looking for them. They read for religious reasons, often for inspiration. Dislocations are not on their mind. But once you track the geography, the displacements begin to pop up.
At the Bottom: Sources
At times in an archaeological dig, one comes across an item that seems to come from somewhere else. Ancient authors, like modern authors, used sources, but they have a different attitude towards them. If moderns do not put quotes around the sources they use, they will be accused of plagiarism. The ancients had a much more open attitude about sources. Without copyright laws, what’s the problem? All the evangelists used sources without acknowledging them.
At the conclusion of the first miracle story, the changing of water into wine at the marriage feast at Cana, the narrator remarks, “Jesus performed this sign, his first, in Cana, Galilee” (2:11). At the conclusion of the second miracle, the healing of the official’s son, it reads: “Jesus performed this second sign after he had returned from Judea to Galilee” (4:54).
Somebody is counting, yet only these two miracle stories are numbered. Several scholars have suggested that the author is using a collection of miracle stories and that perhaps more of the miracles were numbered. The conclusion of this source may also well be the conclusion to the first edition of the Gospel:
“Although Jesus performed many more signs for his disciples to see than could be written down in this book, these are written down so you will come to believe that Jesus is the Anointed One, the son of God—and by believing this have life in his name” (20:30-1).
The Fourth Gospel does not use the standard words used by the synoptics for a miracle, i.e., ‘words’, ‘powers’, or ‘miracle’, but refers to them as ‘signs’ whose purpose is to show that Jesus is the Anointed. This use of ‘sign’ is unique to the Fourth Gospel. In form the miracle stories in the Fourth Gospel are like those of the synoptic tradition, which indicates that they derive from an early oral tradition. These miracle stories are very different from Jesus’ long speeches about himself and his relation to the Father, which are so characteristic of the Fourth Gospel
While clearly the author of the Fourth Gospel used a collection of miracle stories called signs, the extent of that collection is debated. Robert Fortna has proposed a reconstructed source that he thinks is the earliest form of a gospel on which the evangelist was dependent. This reconstruction is readily available as “The Signs Gospel” in the Complete Gospels.
Layer upon Layer
The tradition of the Fourth Gospel sought to preserve and pass on a unique insight about Jesus. The extensive father/son language, unique to the Fourth Gospel, is at the center of this insight. Jesus the son, as the father’s agent, acts in his behalf. The union of father and son is the basis of the union of Jesus and the believers. By participating in that union, believers gain life everlasting.
“My father’s intent is that all those who see the son and believe in him will have unending life, and I’ll raise them on the last day” (6:-40).
Modern Christians tend to think of life everlasting or eternal life as the equivalent of life after death. While that is clearly implied in the phrase, it is not the primary meaning. Eternal life or life everlasting is participation NOW in the unending life of God. Union with father/son is love, which is the experience of eternal life. Everything is reduced to love.
“I am giving you a new commandment: love each other. Just as I’ve loved you, you are to love each other. Then everyone will recognize you as my disciples—if you love each other” (13:34-35).
Loving one another is replicating in the life of the community the unity of the father and the son. This unique understanding of Jesus is the achievement of the Gospel’s first edition.
Out of an oral tradition came a collection of miracles stories called signs that attested to Jesus the Anointed. Later from the Signs Collection an author built a gospel narrative with a unique insight about Jesus as the father’s son. An even later editor or editors added other materials, a new beginning prologue and a concluding chapter arguing for the priority of the beloved student’s unique insight against the claims of the followers of Peter. In all this editing, combining, and rearranging, the geography got a bit messed up.
But most importantly the unique insight was preserved.