Can John’s Gospel be trusted? (John 20)

There are obvious and striking differences between the Gospel of John and the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke). These include:

  • John contains no narrative parabels, no account of the transfiguration, no record of the Lord’s Supper, no mention of Jesus’ temptation and no report of Jesus casting out demons.
  • John includes a vast amount of material not found in the synoptic tradition, such as the records of extended conversations with Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman and the disciples, as well as of significant miracles (e.g. the turming of water into wine and the resurrection of Lazarus).
  • John recounts an extensive Judean ministry for Jesus, including several visits to Jerusalem, whereas the Synoptic Gospels focus on His Galilean ministry.
  • Certain features of John’s presentation also rise chronological difficulties for understanding Jesus’ action in the temple (John 2) and the precise sequence of events during Passion Week.
  • Perhaps most significant, notable stylistic differences emerge between John’s Jesus, who discourses poetically on themes of light, life, witness and truth, and the synoptic Jesus, wo argues forcefully and consistently on the theme of the kingdom of God.

The accumulation of these differences has generated speculation regarding the historical reliability of this document as a testimony concerning Jesus (John 20:31). There are, however, significant reasons for believing John to be historically accurate:

  • In any attempt to assess the reliability of John, pride of place should be given to John’s own testimony about the nature of his literary endeavour. John alone among the Gospels provides an explicit statement of purpose (see John 20:30-31). This purpose statement reflects the writer’s intention to present selective accounts of Jesus’ ministry, aimed at persuading the reader that Jesus of Nazareth really is the promised Messiah. The apostle was well aware that Jesus did many other things, commenting at the close of his Gospel account. “And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written” (John 21:25). Many of the apparent omissions of John are thus essentially acknowledged by John and, therefore, are not to be considered as evidence against historicity.
  • No other Gospel addresses the theme of truth as frequently as John’s. He used a series of signs and a arade of witness to reinforce the main thesis of his work. The trustworthiness of these witness, including John’s own explicit claim to have been an eyewitness (John 19:35), is integral to his purpose and should remind the reader that accuracy was deeply important to this apostle and author.
  • This concern for accurate reporting is reflected in the exact recording of numbers (John 2:20, 21:11); the translation of foreign terms (John 1:38, 41, 20:16); and the precise depictions of persons, places and customs (John 2:6, 4:20, 5:2, 19:40).
  • A close reading of John reveals numerous agreements with the Synoptic Gospels, in terms both of broad themes and of specific details.

Modern readers of John are wise to refrain both from overstating the apparent contradictions and from excessive efforts at harmonizing John with the other Gospels. John successfully accomplishes his stated aim: to present an eloquent, accurate and persuasive testimony that Jesus is indeed the Messiah, the Son of God (John 20:31).

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