Essays on the Historical Jesus

Evan Powell
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2.  The Ur-John Thesis


The findings of the last chapter raised three fundamental questions, one of which we have already posed—how is it that a text which looks so much like the missing ending of Mark came to be attached as an awkward appendix to the Gospel of John? The other two questions, equally mystifying, have been held in abeyance until now:

1. Who in the Jesus movement could have been in a position of sufficient authority and stature to publish a full-throttle denunciation of the integrity and moral character of Peter?

2. Is it not evident that this document, or at least substantial narrative portions thereof, was composed prior to the martyrdom of Peter? For who would dare to publish a gospel castigating the moral integrity of a leading apostle who had been crucified in the footsteps of Jesus? And once published, how could such an unsavory missive have gained traction in a late first-century Church in which the pro-Petrine Synoptic tradition had already established currency?

There is one solution that resolves all of these questions: There is a primitive narrative gospel embedded in the present canonical Gospel of John that was indeed written prior to the death of Peter. It was written by John, son of Zebedee, who in the mid first-century was competing with Peter for leadership authority in the Jesus movement. Much of the document that he produced survives to this day, reasonably intact as originally composed. It has been extensively overlaid with the advanced interpretive materials that make canonical John appear to be a late work of theology. The objective of this chapter will be to demonstrate the existence of this embedded primitive gospel as a discrete literary work, and to illustrate a method by which it can be isolated from the canonical text of John, restoring it to its original form. This narrative was, in essence, the first edition of the Gospel of John. It will be referred to henceforth as Ur-John.

Overview of the Ur-John Theory

Sometime during the decades of the 40s or 50s, John, son of Zebedee set down in writing his recollections of Jesus. As one of the original twelve disciples, John had traveled with Jesus from the outset of his public mission. What he wrote would become the only surviving document to be composed by anyone who had actually known Jesus personally. Since he was one of Jesus’ closest associates, few were in a position to challenge his account. The document that he produced was a narrative gospel, the first primitive edition of what would evolve into the canonical Gospel of John, hence the designation Ur-John. Ur-John was written in Aramaic, the common language of Jesus and his followers. It would not be translated into Greek until after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE.

U-John was written before the Church had formulated its theological interpretations of Jesus’ life and death, and prior to the development of the Synoptic traditions. Accordingly, much of what appeared in Ur-John was incompatible with the politics and theology of the evolving Church. It gave an account of Jesus that was politically problematic for a movement trying to survive under Roman rule. Ur-John had been uncomfortably frank concerning Jesus’ messianic aspirations for the kingship of Israel; it had been too candid that his kingly aspirations challenging the authority of Caesar were the reason for his arrest and execution. By the decade of the 60s, the budding Church had no interest in continuing to air hints that there had been an anti-Roman bias in the message of Jesus, and it was this that had led to his execution. The Synoptic writers, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, had carefully written most of it out of their gospels. They were promoting the idea that Jesus had been accused of blasphemy and condemned by the Jews for this offense. As blasphemy was a religious crime of no consequence to the Romans, this Synoptic tale was designed to neutralize any notion that Jesus had been condemned for an offense against Roman authority. But Ur-John made no mention of blasphemy; it was clear in Ur-John that Jesus had committed only one capital offense—the promotion of his kingship of Israel as a direct affront to Roman rule. As long as Ur-John was allowed to circulate in its original form, it would serve as an uncomfortable reminder of Jesus’ political objectives.

According to Ur-John, Jesus commenced his public mission in Jerusalem with the highly theatrical Temple cleansing. He immediately began to encounter political hostility in Jerusalem that would cause him to relocate to Galilee to escape the threats he was facing in Judea. Ur-John was also candid about Jesus competing directly with John the Baptizer. At the time Ur-John was composed, the Baptizer’s movement was still very much alive and the followers of Jesus and the Baptizer were engaged in lively debate over who was the true messiah. The problem for the Church’s evolving interpretation was that if the Baptizer’s followers had not recognized Jesus as the anointed one, then he had not performed his Church-proclaimed role as the forerunner who was to herald Jesus as the Son of God.

Ur-John’s account of Jesus posed other problems as well. In Ur-John, Jesus is referred to as messiah and King of the Jews, but never Son of man or Son of God. Contemporary scholarship holds that Son of man was a favored self-reference of Jesus due to its prevalence in the Synoptic gospels, but there is no evidence of it in Ur-John. Nor is there any indication that Jesus spoke much of the kingdom of God, or that he taught in parables. Ur-John is silent on Jesus casting out demons, and it makes no mention of him befriending tax collectors. Ur-John contained no thought that Jesus would return in a triumphant second coming. The author knew nothing of Jesus initiating the bread and wine ritual at the last supper. Ur-John had no awareness of a midnight trial before the Jewish Sanhedrin the night of Jesus’ arrest or a dispute between Jesus and the Jewish authorities over blasphemy. According to Ur-John, Jesus was put to death for promoting his messiahship and proclaiming himself to be King of the Jews. In short, John son of Zebedee’s recollections of Jesus were radically and disturbingly different than the stories offered by Matthew, Mark, and Luke.

Beyond all of this, Ur-John contained what can only be described as a scathing assessment of Peter, a disciple for whom the author of Ur-John had no respect. He wrote in part to convince readers that Peter was morally bankrupt and untrustworthy as a leader of the movement. We can only surmise what might have led to this conflict, but the most obvious inference is that the author of Ur-John was in competition with Peter over who would lead the movement, who was the greatest disciple, and who would ultimately win the right to define the legacy of Jesus. The author of Ur-John wanted Peter’s followers to renounce his leadership and join what he claimed to be the true Jesus movement led by himself, the “disciple whom Jesus loved.”

The Gospel of Mark was a decisive first response to Ur-John.  Written in the late 60s, it was designed to “correct” the many factual and political shortcomings of Ur-John. Mark introduced the prominent theme of the messianic secret to neutralize Ur-John’s dangerous inference that Jesus had been actively promoting his messianic status in order to restore a sovereign kingdom of Israel. Mark also relocated the entire public mission of Jesus to rural Galilee, with the intent of isolating him in a politically inconsequential theater. According to Mark, Jesus not only avoided Jerusalem until the last week of his life, he never once set foot in Sepphoris and Tiberias, the two centers of political power in Galilee. No one would ever imagine from Mark’s rural itinerary that Jesus had ever intended to confront ruling authorities.

Mark also revised the chronology of events to claim that Jesus’ mission in Galilee commenced only after the Baptizer was no longer active, thus eliminating the possibility that the two were ever in competition. Mark introduced the inoffensive and conveniently ambiguous title Son of man in order to neutralize remembrances of Jesus as messiah and king. He replaced Ur-John’s explicit kingship references with the non-confrontational concept that Jesus had been promoting a spiritual, apolitical kingdom of God. While Ur-John remembered a Jesus who boldly proclaimed his messiahship, Mark would offer his readers a misunderstood Jesus who had intentionally obscured his message with parables meant to be understood only by those who had ears to hear—his spiritual message was cloaked in mystery by design. According to Mark, Jesus was condemned for blasphemy by the Jewish council, a charge of no concern to the Romans. Mark’s Gospel would show Jesus socializing amiably with Roman tax collectors and encouraging the people to render tribute (taxes) to Caesar. At the cross, Mark would depict a faithful Roman centurion declaring Jesus to be the Son of God. From beginning to end, Mark’s Gospel offered a politically sanitized Jesus, an account fit for Roman consumption. Luke and Matthew would follow, fleshing out Mark’s fictionalized pro-Roman sketch of Jesus with new parables, healings, moral teachings, miraculous events, and mythical infancy narratives, all designed to amplify the image of Jesus as one who had been wholly unconcerned about the Roman occupation of the promised land. 

Mark would also craft a vigorous response to Ur-John’s personal attack on Peter. He would portray John and his brother James as self-serving glory seekers who were subordinate to Peter (Mk 10:35-41). He would castigate the disciples for debating who among them was the greatest, but would candidly place John in the crosshairs of the admonishment (9:33-42). He would turn the tables on Ur-John’s sordid accusation that Peter denied Jesus three times, not by refuting it but by resolving it with three absolutions and three pronouncements by Jesus that Peter was to be the anointed leader of the movement—the one to feed the sheep that had been scattered.

The concluding scene that originally appeared beyond Mark 16:8 was the story that now appears in John 21:1-19, less the obvious editorial accommodations required to attach it to Ur-John. Mark’s aggressive finale was a brilliant conclusion to his gospel from the perspective of both literary structure and the ecclesial promotion of Peter’s authority. But when the first draft appeared, it was immediately obvious to leaders of the movement that the writings of Ur-John and Mark were at contentious loggerheads; if the Gospel of Mark were to be published in its initial form, the unsavory internal political conflict between Peter and John would be visibly exposed to the world. Some creative genius in the leadership realized that a transfer of Mark’s dramatic ending to Ur-John would neutralize John’s anti-Petrine rhetoric, eliminate the embarrassing spectacle of the movement being saddled with dueling gospels, and sweep the hostility between two prominent disciples under the rug.

Circumstances were such that the authors of Mark and Ur-John were both amenable to the proposed modifications. It was the latter half of the 60s and the martyrdom of Peter had changed everything; Ur-John’s contention that Peter did not have the moral fortitude to die for the movement had been rendered absurd. It was clear to all that Ur-John would require a major correction to its interpretation of Peter if the document were to have any credibility going forward. Meanwhile, though Mark’s literary genius was to be permanently compromised by the severing of his brilliant finale, he could take satisfaction in realizing that his work would be used to neuter Ur-John’s offensive denigration of Peter, and transform Ur-John into what the world would ironically interpret as a pro-Petrine work.

Accordingly, with the compromise negotiated, the movement’s leadership authorized radical edits to the conclusions on both gospels that resulted in the truncation of Mark at 16:8 and the appending of an edited version of Mark’s conclusion to Ur-John. Since Ur-John only existed in Aramaic at the time, Mark’s severed finale which had been composed initially in Greek was rendered in Aramaic and appended to Ur-John, contributing to the impression of its authentic Johannine pedigree. Sometime soon after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE, the Aramaic Ur-John with Mark’s finale attached as an appendix was translated for the first time in its entirety into Greek.

Mark’s appendix would eventually become known in the canonical edition as John 21. It was the first of many editorial expansions to Ur-John that would follow during the final decades of the first century, all of which would be composed in Greek for insertion into the Greek edition. It was this bilingual evolution of the text that causes some scholars to assume the entire work was originally composed in Greek, and others to observe that it has noteworthy signs of Aramaic influence.

The emerging institutional Church hoped that these late first century Greek amplifications and corrections would transform Ur-John’s problematic remembrances of Jesus into a work of theological grandeur that would mask its historical roots. The strategy worked. Within three hundred years, the Roman Empire would adopt Christianity as the official state religion. And biblical scholars two thousand years later would underestimate the historical relevance of the Fourth Gospel due to its advanced theology, while continuing to sift and sort the whitewashed Synoptic traditions in a futile quest for the historical Jesus.

Despite academic preoccupation with the Synoptic Gospels in the modern Jesus quest, many scholars detect the presence of an early tradition in John, commonly referred to as the “signs source” or “Signs Gospel.” However, the idea that it was an established and influential gospel in wide circulation prior to Mark, and that Mark could have been written in response to it, is rarely considered. That the lost ending of Mark and John 21 are related literary events does not cross the threshold of academic awareness. The possibility that these two gospels were motivated by political crossfire within the Jesus movement is never discussed. Most importantly, there is no realization that significant portions of Ur-John survive to this day largely intact, embedded within canonical John’s many theological overlays and editorial corrections.

Ur-John and the Evolution of the Fourth Gospel

If material from Ur-John still exists intact we must establish a method by which that early text can be reliably extracted from the Fourth Gospel. We will also require proof that the extracted text does indeed constitute material from a unique and original composition. This can be accomplished, but it will require that we set aside conventional assumptions about how the canonical text evolved. Scholars commonly acknowledge that John’s Gospel underwent several edits and that an early signs source was relied upon by the author. It is further assumed that the final canonical edition is the work of a person commonly known as the Fourth Evangelist. The notion that there was a Fourth Evangelist or a final redactor carries with it the assumption that the ultimate canonical edition was compiled by a single individual who was at liberty to write/edit whatever he wished with the intent of producing a thematically coherent work. However, a straightforward reading of John does not support such a conclusion—there are simply too many contradictions and incoherent passages to suppose that a single editor had control of the final product.

Let us consider an alternative. Ur-John was either composed by John son of Zebedee or (perhaps more likely) developed under his supervision with the assistance of a talented writer/editor. Clearly the hand of an experienced writer is evident in the Ur-John composition, and there is no reason to suppose that John, allegedly a fisherman by trade, would have possessed such unique and, at the time, rare literary skill. On the other hand, Ur-John does not represent any of the disciples as fishermen. This tradition does not appear until Mark, and there is a possibility that Mark created the story to support the theme of the disciples becoming fishers of men. Since little is actually known about John, son of Zebedee, there is no way to judge the degree of literacy he may have possessed. However, if he was literate and had been afforded the benefit of education it would help to explain his stature and influence in the primitive movement.

By all accounts, John son of Zebedee was one of Jesus’ closest confidantes; he is the only person to have written about Jesus who had actually met him. As such the writings of John were regarded as authoritative and sacrosanct. No second-generation editor would have had the authority or the audacity to erase or alter the words of John. Nevertheless, the Ur-John composition was an embarrassment for the budding Church. Ur-John’s condemnation of Peter would have been intolerable for the pro-Petrine faction that came to dominate the movement in the last third of the first century. In theory the movement could have simply declared Ur-John’s anti-Petrine vitriol to be unacceptable and banned its use or propagation. Yet it did not do so. It chose instead to append John 21, thereby transforming it from an anti-Petrine screed to a pro-Petrine proclamation. By adding John 21, the Church salvaged the document for continued use. The most apparent explanation for this move would be that John’s stature as one of the original twelve disciples, and (we may presume) his popularity among some important delegation of believers, guaranteed his gospel’s survival.

However, even with the political hostility between Peter and John swept under the rug, Ur-John’s problematic portrait of Jesus had to be mitigated in some manner. The solution was to insert numerous corrective glosses and newly evolved theological reinterpretations into the narrative. The ultimate effect of these insertions was to subordinate the narrative elements of Ur-John that pertained to Jesus’ earthly activities, and to refocus the work as a theological meditation on the eternal nature of Jesus. Whatever historical roots the story of Jesus had would be viewed as secondary concerns.

Canonical John is the end product that includes an array of editorial expansions added to Ur-John in stages over a period of three to four decades, from 70 CE to perhaps as late as 110 CE. These expansions came from the hands of several different editors, each of whom acted on the premise that adding new corrective or explanatory material to the existing text was permitted, but altering or deleting material that had already been published was not. This series of additions created literary confusion and internal contradictions that the Church allowed to let stand as they evolved. No final edit was performed to achieve theological unity or literary coherence, which is why there is none in canonical John.

In short, there was no Fourth Evangelist or final redactor. Rather than imagining John as the product of a single literary mind, it is better viewed as an evolved collection of countervailing traditions that have been interwoven to obscure their respective origins. Corrections and theological interpretations were simply inserted into the original text without deleting or modifying the original. It was the best compromise possible under the circumstances, managed and sanctioned by the movement’s leadership.

Much of the text of Ur-John was retained intact out of deference to John’s apostolic authority. So it survives to this day, embedded in the canonical gospel. Accordingly, there is a method by which the Gospel of John can be reverse engineered, the editorial insertions identified, and the original Ur-John layer isolated and reconstructed. This procedure will be outlined below. In the end, we will find that about 52% of the canonical Gospel of John is derived from the original Ur-John document, and about 48% is corrections and expansions. The appending of John 21 and the subsequent insertion of many later corrections/expansions almost doubled the length of the original work. The final result was a canonical edition that opens with a dramatic vision of Jesus as a pre-existence eternal being and ends with a resounding proclamation that Peter was the anointed leader of the movement. By design, the original Ur-John narrative was rendered mute and almost invisible.

Isolating the Ur-John Text

When the Fourth Gospel is interpreted in this light its many contradictory and incoherent passages are easier to resolve, and the existence of an undisturbed primitive narrative overlaid with corrections and new interpretations becomes evident. Classic examples of simple editorial insertions are these:

1 Now when the Lord knew that the Pharisees had heard that Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples than John, (although Jesus himself did not baptize, but only his disciples.) 3 he left Judea and departed again to Galilee. (4:1-3).

Moses gave you circumcision (not that it is from Moses, but from the fathers), and you circumcise a man upon the sabbath. (7:22)

Throughout this chapter, text presumed to have originated in Ur-John will be rendered in bold, while editorial glosses will be italicized/underlined in order to make the insertions obvious. Notice that in the two passages above, if we were to assume that they were composed by a single author we might wonder why he was so confused. Writing was a slow process and materials were expensive; why would the author not take time to say it correctly at the outset before putting the ink to the papyrus? For example, the author of 7:22 could easily have written, “The fathers gave you circumcision, and you circumcise a man upon the Sabbath,” thereby eliminating the need to correct himself. Yet what survived in this text is the clearly erroneous phrase “Moses gave you circumcision”[1] followed by the required correction. The editor who inserted the correction was no doubt aware of this. The difficulty could have been avoided if he had been at liberty to alter the original text and delete the erroneous phrase. That the editor did not have the latitude to make even this simple correction indicates that the editor viewed the original text as inviolable. For interpreters of John’s Gospel, it is helpful to recognize that errors even as egregious as this were allowed to stand as originally composed; the only remedy available to the editor was to insert a corrective gloss.

In addition to correcting factual errors, the editors have inserted corrective interpretations when they believed the text as written might not reflect well on Jesus. An example:

11:39 Jesus said, "Take away the stone." Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, "Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days." 40 Jesus said to her, "Did I not tell you that if you would believe you would see the glory of God?" 41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, "Father, I thank thee that thou hast heard me. 42 I knew that thou hearest me always, but I have said this on account of the people standing by, that they may believe that thou didst send me." 43 When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, "Laz'arus, come out."  

Here it is apparent that Jesus’ initial statement, “Father, I thank thee that thou hast heard me,” might be construed that on occasion the Father does not hear him, or that there was some doubt in Jesus’ mind concerning the Father’s response. The editors evidently felt it important to clarify that Jesus was always heard and that he harbored no doubts in this regard. However, in their somewhat clumsy attempt to clarify they created the odd spectacle of Jesus explaining to the Father why he had just said what he did. As we will see, editorial glosses that attempt to explain why something was just done or said are common throughout the Fourth Gospel.

That 11:42 is an editorial annotation is not as obvious as the previous two examples. What further indication is there that it is an inserted gloss? Note that it ends with the phrase thou didst send me. The concept of Jesus as one who was sent from the Father is a prominent feature of late first-century Johannine theology. It appears frequently in the theological expansions to the narrative, but it does not exist in Ur-John. Its use in v. 42 is an indication that the verse is an editorial insert. Once v. 42 is lifted out, the text is restored to its apparent original form.

Most of the editorial inserts in John are not intended to correct an error but rather to reinterpret a saying or event, imbuing it with new theological meaning, as this example illustrates:

4:13 Jesus said to her, "Every one who drinks of this water will thirst again, 14 but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life." 15 The woman said to him, "Sir, give me this water, that I may not thirst, nor come here to draw."

As the concept of Jesus as the one who was sent does not exist in Ur-John, neither does the phrase eternal life; rather, it occurs only in text that appears to have been glossed into the pre-existing narrative as it does here. Notice that in 4:15 the woman hears and responds directly to Jesus’ comment about the relief of thirst, but she is unaware of the promise of eternal life. When the italicized/underlined phrase is lifted out the remaining text in bold reads more naturally, apparently as originally composed. In this case the editors saw an opportunity to integrate Ur-John’s story of Jesus at the well with the theological construct of eternal life that evolved later in the first century. Insertions such as this tend to obscure the fact that the simple narrative and the advanced theological interpretation came from different chronological stages of development.

Another example of editorial embellishment for the purpose of theological amplification is found in John 7:

7:37 On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and proclaimed, "If any one thirst, let him come to me and drink. 38 He who believes in me, as the scripture has said, `Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water.'" 39 Now this he said about the Spirit, which those who believed in him were to receive; for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified. 40 When they heard these words, some of the people said, "This is really the prophet." 41 Others said, "This is the Christ." But some said, "Is the Christ to come from Galilee? 42 Has not the scripture said that the Christ is descended from David, and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David was?" 43 So there was a division among the people over him.

In this passage, v. 39 constitutes another explanation of Jesus’ prior statement. In this instance the explanation is told in the voice of the narrator, rather than the voice of Jesus himself as in the prayer prior to the raising of Lazarus (11:42). The insert is intended to upgrade the passage and bring it into theological harmony with other later expansions that occur elsewhere in the gospel. The ideas that appear in v. 39—the receiving of the Spirit and the glorification of Jesus—are components of late first century theology. Notice once again that if v. 39 is lifted out, the remaining text reads as if undisturbed.

Another example of theological amplification by an editor appears in the following dialogue:

4:19 The woman said to him, "Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. 20 Our fathers worshiped on this mountain; and you say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship." 21 Jesus said to her, "Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. 22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth." 25 The woman said to him, "I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ); when he comes, he will show us all things." 26 Jesus said to her, "I who speak to you am he."

In v. 21, Jesus says “the hour is coming,” but in v. 23 he utters the convoluted phrase, “the hour is coming and now is” which signals an update to the previous statement. Why would a correction be required here? The declaration of Jesus in v. 21 could be construed as saying that the time will come when the woman will not worship at all—neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. The editor inserts a clarification that those who worship will do so in spirit and truth, and that worship will not be related to a specific holy place. As in the previous insert the editor introduces the concept of the spirit, a common element in the editorial insertions.  Once again, notice that lifting out vv. 23-24 causes the remaining text to read with greater coherence—the woman’s response in v. 25 naturally follows from Jesus’ statement that salvation is from the Jews in v. 22, but she shows no awareness of the commentary in vv. 23-24.

Once one is aware that the Fourth Gospel contains frequent corrections or parenthetic theological interpretations from the pens of later editors, many of them become obvious. As odd as it may seem, much of the text of Ur-John can be identified and isolated using the RSV English translation without reference to the original Greek. Indeed, there is a significant advantage to performing the reconstruction from the RSV English, as will become obvious at the end of this chapter. For example, this long passage 9:13-32 is from Ur-John, with the exception of a suspicious interpretation in vv. 22-23, which by now will stand out as a distinctive commentary that disrupts the flow of the storyline:

9:13 They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. 14 Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the clay and opened his eyes. 15 The Pharisees again asked him how he had received his sight. And he said to them, "He put clay on my eyes, and I washed, and I see." 16 Some of the Pharisees said, "This man is not from God, for he does not keep the sabbath." But others said, "How can a man who is a sinner do such signs?" There was a division among them. 17 So they again said to the blind man, "What do you say about him, since he has opened your eyes?" He said, "He is a prophet." 18 the Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight, until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight, 19 and asked them, "Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?" 20 His parents answered, "We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; 21 but how he now sees we do not know, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age, he will speak for himself." 22 His parents said this because they feared the Jews, for the Jews had already agreed that if any one should confess him to be Christ, he was to be put out of the synagogue. 23 Therefore his parents said, "He is of age, ask him."  24 So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and said to him, "Give God the praise; we know that this man is a sinner."25 He answered, "Whether he is a sinner, I do not know; one thing I know, that though I was blind, now I see." 26 They said to him, "What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?" 27 He answered them, "I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you too want to become his disciples?" 28 And they reviled him, saying, "You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. 29 We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from." 30 The man answered, "Why, this is a marvel! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. 31 We know that God does not listen to sinners, but if any one is a worshiper of God and does his will, God listens to him. 32 Never since the world began has it been heard that any one opened the eyes of a man born blind. 33 If this man were not from God, he could do nothing." 34 They answered him, "You were born in utter sin, and would you teach us?" And they cast him out.

The author of Ur-John compiled this series of simple dialogues with the intent of letting them stand on their own at face value. Even to the casual English reader verses 22-23 stand out as anomalous—suddenly the author steps out of the narrative and offers his own politicized interpretation. It is followed by a redundant v. 23 designed to return the reader to the disrupted narrative. Once again, when verses 22-23 are lifted out the remaining text reads coherently, for the action in v. 24 follows directly from v. 21.

Though vv. 22-23 appears in English translation to be an editorial gloss, the Greek helps shed further light. The phrase put out of the synagogue is translated from a rare term aposynagogos, a word that appears only three times in the NT. All three are in the Gospel of John (9:22, 12:42 and 16:2.) But more to the point, all three appear in passages that appear to be corrections or enhancements. In its second occurrence in 12:42 put out of the synagogue appears within the context of two corrections in sequence:  

12:36b When Jesus had said this, he departed and hid himself from them. 37 Though he had done so many signs before them, yet they did not believe in him; 38 it was that the word spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: "Lord, who has believed our report, and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?" 39 Therefore they could not believe. For Isaiah again said, 40 "He has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart, lest they should see with their eyes and perceive with their heart, and turn for me to heal them." 41 Isaiah said this because he saw his glory and spoke of him. 42 Nevertheless many even of the authorities believed in him, but for fear of the Pharisees they did not confess it, lest they should be put out of the synagogue: 43 for they loved the praise of men more than the praise of God.

In this passage the quotation from Isaiah cited by the author of Ur-John in 12:38 does not resonate as a compelling example of fulfilled prophecy, so editors elected to insert a more convincing alternative. Moreover, Ur-John’s report that Jesus had done “many signs” that were nevertheless insufficient to inspire belief could not be allowed to stand without correction. So editors inserted a clarification that many actually did believe after all, but were afraid to admit it. Yet here again, they leave the problematic language in place and amend it with corrections; they undoubtedly would have preferred to substitute the more persuasive Isaiah quotation for the anemic one and thereby rendered the passage more coherent. Evidently they were not at liberty to do so.

As we shall see below, Chapters 14 through 17 constitute the largest continuous series of editorial expansions to Ur-John; the third occurrence of aposynagogos appears in this block of material at 16:2. The term aposynagogos is widely assumed by scholars to refer to an expulsion of Jewish Christian believers from the synagogues in the late first century as a result of the birkat ha-minim (Benediction Against Heretics), which appeared sometime in that era. The presence of aposynagogos in the Gospel of John is one indicator that scholars have relied upon to date John to 90 CE or later. While it is reasonable to suppose that aposynagogos may have been related to the birkat ha-minim, all three of its occurrences in the Fourth Gospel are in the context of an editor’s insertion. Thus the presence of aposynagogos cannot be relied upon to date the original text. However, it does indicate that a pre-existing narrative gospel was in circulation, and that some (and probably most) of the theological expansion to the gospel occurred toward the end of the century or beyond.

Larger Editorial Expansions

So far we have considered small editorial corrections or amplifications that consist of a phrase or a sentence or two. Yet there are also far more lengthy insertions that consist of major theological reflections on the nature of Jesus. Related to this is the fact that when one correction or reinterpretation was inserted into the original narrative, that particular editorial breach often created an opportunity for further embellishment, resulting in a series of inserts in sequence. To illustrate, in the following passage verses 5:17-18 introduce a concept that does not exist at all in 5:1-16—the editor adds that the Jews did not simply “persecute” Jesus over disagreement on points of Sabbath law as stated in v. 16, but they wanted to kill him for blasphemy. This has nothing to do with the story in 1-16, the entire purpose of which was to document a dispute between Jesus and his adversaries over Sabbath law. In vv. 17-18, the editor abruptly hijacks the story to harmonize it with the Synoptic gospels’ contention that Jesus had been condemned by the Jewish elite for blasphemy. This insert most likely ended with v. 18, for it fully accomplishes its purpose at that point. Then beginning at v. 19 we find a long monologue of Jesus that is a series of reflections on the nature of the relationship between God the Father and Jesus the Son, a subject tangentially related to the charge of blasphemy:

5:1 After this there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 2 Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Hebrew called Beth-za'tha, which has five porticoes. 3 In these lay a multitude of invalids, blind, lame, paralyzed. 5 One man was there, who had been ill for thirty-eight years. 6 When Jesus saw him and knew that he had been lying there a long time, he said to him, "Do you want to be healed?" 7 The sick man answered him, "Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is troubled, and while I am going another steps down before me." 8 Jesus said to him, "Rise, take up your pallet, and walk." 9 And at once the man was healed, and he took up his pallet and walked. Now that day was the sabbath. 10 So the Jews said to the man who was cured, "It is the sabbath, it is not lawful for you to carry your pallet." 11 But he answered them, "The man who healed me said to me, `Take up your pallet, and walk.'" 12 They asked him, "Who is the man who said to you, `Take up your pallet, and walk'?" 13 Now the man who had been healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had withdrawn, as there was a crowd in the place. 14 Afterward, Jesus found him in the temple, and said to him, "See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse befall you." 15 The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had healed him. 16 And this was why the Jews persecuted Jesus, because he did this on the sabbath.  17 But Jesus answered them, "My Father is working still, and I am working." 18 This was why the Jews sought all the more to kill him, because he not only broke the sabbath but also called God his Father, making himself equal with God.

19 Jesus said to them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever he does, that the Son does likewise. 20 For the Father loves the Son, and shows him all that he himself is doing; and greater works than these will he show him, that you may marvel. 21 For as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whom he will. 22 The Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son, 23 that all may honor the Son, even as they honor the Father. He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him. 24 Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears my word and believes him who sent me, has eternal life; he does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life. 25 Truly, truly, I say to you, the hour is coming, and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. 26 For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself, 27 and has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of man. 28 Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice 29 and come forth, those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of judgment. 30 I can do nothing on my own authority; as I hear, I judge; and my judgment is just, because I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me.

31 If I bear witness to myself, my testimony is not true; 32 there is another who bears witness to me, and I know that the testimony which he bears to me is true. 33 You sent to John, and he has borne witness to the truth. 34 Not that the testimony which I receive is from man; but I say this that you may be saved. 35 He was a burning and shining lamp, and you were willing to rejoice for a while in his light. 36 But the testimony which I have is greater than that of John; for the works which the Father has granted me to accomplish, these very works which I am doing, bear me witness that the Father has sent me. 37 And the Father who sent me has himself borne witness to me. His voice you have never heard, his form you have never seen; 38 and you do not have his word abiding in you, for you do not believe him whom he has sent. 39 You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me; 40 yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. 41 I do not receive glory from men. 42 But I know that you have not the love of God within you. 43 I have come in my Father's name, and you do not receive me; if another comes in his own name, him you will receive. 44 How can you believe, who receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God? 45 Do not think that I shall accuse you to the Father; it is Moses who accuses you, on whom you set your hope. 46 If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote of me. 47 But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?”

This lengthy monologue in 5:19-47 consists of two smaller compositions in sequence. The first composition (vv. 19-30) is a collection of sayings that address Jesus’ relationship to the Father. Jesus refers to himself in the third person in 19-23, the first person in 24, reverting to the third person again in 25-29, and ending on the first person in 30. In the first three sayings, vv. 19, 24, and 25, Jesus opens with the distinctive double amen (truly, truly I say to you). Since in each case the double amen introduces sayings that are told in alternating third-person and first-person, it appears that these are independent sayings that have been strung together by the editor. Moreover, this section contains variant forms of the same essential sayings.  Compare vv. 21-22 with vv. 26-27:

21 For as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whom he will. 22 The Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son,

26 For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself, 27 and has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of man.

Similarly, verses 25 and 28-29 are variants of the same saying:

25  the hour is coming, and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.

28  for the hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice 29 and come forth, those who have done good, to the resurrection of life,

Since the editor presents a series of similar but not quite redundant sayings, the most obvious inference is that his primary objective was to document several sayings variants that were in circulation at the time, rather than to compile a coherent discourse that Jesus might actually have uttered. Though the speech appears verbose, it is repetitive by design. It is unlike the concise conversational dialogue of Jesus typically found in Ur-John.

The second composition in the monologue begins at v. 31 with the key term bear witness. Jesus claims that he cannot bear witness to himself (v. 31), that there is another who does bear witness (v. 32), that John the baptizer has borne witness (v. 33), that the works Jesus performs bear witness (v. 36), that the Father bears witness (v. 37), and that the scriptures bear witness (v. 39). All of this is delivered in the first person, and there are no formulaic double amens as there are in the first composition. On the other hand, there are several logical non sequiturs in v. 34, v. 37, and vv. 41-42 that compromise the lucidity of the presentation. Indeed, v. 34 appears to be an inserted correction—one editor modifying another editor’s work (as is typical of inserts, if we lift v. 34 out, verses 33 and 35 have an improved coherence).

Since the second composition in vv. 31-47 is not directly related to the first in vv. 19-30, it may have been composed by a different editor and inserted at a different time. There is evidence in the Greek to support this inference. Notice that the English verb to send appears seven times in 5:19-47—three times in the first composition and four times in the second. In the first it is translated from the Greek verb pempo (vv. 23, 24, 30). However, in the second section, three of the four are translated from the Greek apostello (vv. 33, 36, 38); pempo is used only once in v. 22.

Apostello and pempo both occur frequently in the Fourth Gospel, 28 times and 33 times respectively. Scholars have not been able to detect any differences in meaning or nuance between them, so they appear to be interchangeable synonyms. On occasion their use in John appears to be random, but in many cases it does not. In chapters 14 through 16 pempo is used six times in sequence while apostello is not used at all; but then in chapter 17 apostello appears seven times in a row, and pempo not once. These clusters cause one to suspect the hand of more than one editor, each with a stylistic preference for either apostello or pempo. In the present case, the exclusive use of pempo in the first section of the monologue and the predominant use of apostello in the second leads one to suspect that these may be two separate inserts composed by different editors.

Therefore, in John 5 we can detect multiple stages of compositional evolution. Verses 1-16 originated in Ur-John; vv. 17-18 consist of two inserted corrections to Ur-John that created an editorial breach in the narrative; vv. 19-30 were composed at a later time and inserted by an editor who saw the disruption of the narrative at vv. 17-18 as an opportunity to expand further on the nature of Jesus. Finally, vv. 31-47 appears most likely to have been a separate insertion composed by a different editor. Thus John 5 is a collection of discrete writings from at least two and perhaps three or four authors in sequence. As it turns out, this is not the only example of this phenomenon in the Fourth Gospel.

The Longest Insert

The largest continuous string of editorial insertions in John is chs. 14 through 17. What evidence leads to this conclusion? The first clue is that when chs. 14-17 are lifted out of the gospel, the narrative that ends at 13:38 and resumes at 18:1 appears to be unbroken. John 13 ends with Jesus predicting Peter’s denial, and ch. 18 opens with Jesus and the disciples relocating to the garden, called Gethsemene in the Synoptic Gospels:

13:36 Simon Peter said to him, "Lord, where are you going?" Jesus answered, "Where I am going you cannot follow me now; but you shall follow afterward." 37 Peter said to him, "Lord, why cannot I follow you now? I will lay down my life for you." 38 Jesus answered, "Will you lay down your life for me? Truly, truly, I say to you, the cock will not crow, till you have denied me three times.

18:1 When Jesus had spoken these words, he went forth with his disciples across the Kidron valley, where there was a garden, which he and his disciples entered.

Notice that in the Gospel of Mark this sequence of events is presented as a continuous unbroken narrative:

14:29 Peter said to him, "Even though they all fall away, I will not." 30 And Jesus said to him, "Truly, I say to you, this very night, before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times." 31 But he said vehemently, "If I must die with you, I will not deny you." And they all said the same. 32 And they went to a place which was called Gethsem'ane; and he said to his disciples, "Sit here, while I pray."

Mark’s account of Jesus relocating to the garden immediately after his prediction of Peter’s denials was written in the late 60s. This increases the likelihood that the final verses of John 13 and the opening verses of John 18 originally existed as a continuous text in Ur-John into which chs. 14 through 17 were subsequently inserted. Assuming this to be the case, the author of Mark, writing in response to Ur-John, simply followed the itinerary of Ur-John with the intent of reinterpreting it in a pro-Petrine manner. (Mark assures us that all of the disciples “said the same,” so according to Mark the abandonment of Jesus was not a unique moral failing of Peter alone, as it is in Ur-John).

Furthermore, chs. 14-17 replicate the pattern we found in John 5. These chapters consist of a series of discrete insertions, mostly likely by at least two editors, over time. The first sign of this occurs at the end of ch. 14, where the monologue of Jesus concludes with the words “Rise, let us go hence” (14:31). However, Jesus and the disciples do no rise and go anywhere until 18:1. Since this phrase anticipates the action in 18:1, we may presume that ch. 14 was composed as the first of several insertions, and that chs. 15-17 had not yet been composed and added to the gospel at the time that ch. 14 was being inserted.

Chapters 14-17 have several features that make them stand out as independent literary compositions including the following:

Absence of the phrase the Jews.  The Gospel of John is well known for its anti-Semitic language. The phrase “the Jews” occurs 63 times in John. On many occasions it is used in a disparaging or derogatory fashion, as the Jews are depicted as adversaries out to kill Jesus (e.g., 5:18, 7:1, 10:31, 18:36). But the term is also used in a neutral or even positive context. In six instances it occurs in the title of Jesus as “King of the Jews.” Neutral usage includes statements such as “the Passover of the Jews was at hand” (2:13), and “the Jews disputed among themselves” (6:52). The Jews are viewed favorably in various instances, including “salvation is from the Jews” (4:22), “Jesus then said to the Jews who had believed in him, ‘If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples,’” (8:31), and  “many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them” (11:19).

The relevant observation here is that despite the focus on the Jews throughout the Gospel of John, whether in a positive, neutral or negative context, the phrase is absent in five chapters:  chs. 14-17, and the appendix ch. 21. There are sixteen chapters in which the Jews appears, averaging about four occurrences per chapter. Thus it is striking that John contains four chapters in sequence that avoid all reference to the Jews. It is not for lack of potential context, for 16:2-3 states, “They will put you out of the synagogues; indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God. And they will do this because they have not known the Father, nor me.” These verses afford opportunity to make explicit reference to the Jews as is done throughout the gospel. But it does not occur here. The fact that chs. 14-17 do not refer to the Jews in any context suggests that this material was composed by editors who did not care to echo or propagate the original author’s preoccupation with the Jews.

Absence of the titles Son of God, Son of man, messiah, the Christ. Chapters 14-17 contain no references to Jesus as the Son of God or the Son of man, though these titles appear nine times and thirteen times respectively elsewhere in John. The Aramaic term messiah appears only twice in John, and in both instances an editorial note clarifies that it means Christ. The most favored title for Jesus in the Fourth Gospel is the Christ. This phrase with the definite article occurs fourteen times, the large majority of them in Ur-John. In addition there are two references to Jesus Christ, one in the prologue (1:17) and one at 17:3 (the only instance in the four NT gospels in which Jesus refers to himself in the third person as Jesus Christ). There are three uses of Christ without the definite article. The absence of all of these titles in chs. 14-16, and the absence of them all except the peculiar use of Jesus Christ in ch. 17, suggests that this material was developed out of a different tradition than the rest of the gospel.

The world, and the light of the world. The term world (cosmos) appears 80 times in John; almost half of those, 38, are concentrated in chs. 14-17. Thus the editors of this text had a focus on the world as the stage upon which the act of redemption was being played out. The word cosmos appears almost ten times per chapter in chs. 14-17, compared to 2.4 times per chapter in the rest of the gospel. Yet despite this noteworthy focus on the world, Jesus is never referred to in these chapters as the light of the world. The prominent Johannine theological concepts of spiritual light and darkness, introduced with great fanfare in the prologue, do not exist in chs. 14-17.

Collectively the absence of the ubiquitous phrase the Jews, the titles Son of God and Son of man, and any reference to light and darkness, suggest that chs. 14-17 were composed by editors under different ideological influences than was the original author.

The Counselor and Spirit of truth.  The Greek term parákl?tos is variously rendered in English Bible translations as advocate, comforter, encourager, or as in the present Revised Standard Version, counselor. This rare term for the Holy Spirit appears only four times in John and nowhere else in the New Testament. Similarly, the synonymous term Spirit of truth appears only three times in John, and nowhere else in the NT. However, the deployment of these terms in John is not random; all seven occurrences are located in chs. 14, 15, and 16.  On two occasions Counselor and Spirit of truth appear in the same sentence:

14:16 And I will pray the Father, and he will give you another Counselor, to be with you forever, 17 even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive

14:25 These things I have spoken to you, while I am still with you. 26 But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.

15:26 But when the Counselor comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness to me

16:7 Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.

16:13 When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.

The fact that these unique terms are isolated to these three chapters is further evidence that they are later insertions. This inference is justified not only from the rarity of the terms themselves, but from the two different contexts in which they appear in chs 14 and 16 respectively. In ch. 14, the parákl?tos acts as an agent who brings forgotten words of Jesus to memory. The sayings in ch. 14 are represented as words spoken by Jesus while he was on earth (14:25). In essence, Jesus claims that the role of the parákl?tos is to bring to memory words that had been spoken to the disciples, but that had been subsequently forgotten.

This seems odd in the extreme until we realize that the editors were confronting a difficult issue: the text of Ur-John had been circulating for decades and the community of believers was well aware of its contents. On what grounds could the gospel be suddenly augmented with new sayings? The answer is here—the insertions are justified by the authority of the parákl?tos. The sayings in ch. 14 are legitimate additions to the gospel because they are authentic forgotten sayings of Jesus brought to remembrance by the Holy Spirit. Presumably, the author of Ur-John would have included them had he remembered to do so.

Yet this is not the end of the story. The notion that the parákl?tos brings to remembrance words spoken by the earthly Jesus changes materially in ch. 16 wherein Jesus declares “I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you. (16:4). This indicates that we now have a group of sayings that were not spoken by Jesus when he was on earth. In a key passage in ch. 16, Jesus reveals that more sayings are to come:

16:12 I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. 13 When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.

Thus in ch. 16 the role of the Spirit of truth is not to bring to remembrance words previously spoken by Jesus, but to reveal new sayings never spoken by the earthly Jesus. By establishing the premise that new words of Jesus will continue to be revealed by the Spirit of truth, the Church editors were justifying the ongoing expansion of the gospel. Moreover, the two different rationales in ch. 14 and 16 imply a temporal sequence of the insertions: since the material in ch. 14 is presented as forgotten words of Jesus newly remembered and the material in chs. 15 and 16 consists of newly revealed sayings never previously spoken, it is evident that these comprise inserts at two different stages of development.

Related to this, there is a corollary observation that is central to the Ur-John thesis: The primitive church evidently needed a compelling rationale to justify the new material being added to Ur-John. This indicates that Ur-John had attained something close to the status of scripture, otherwise the revelatory authority of the Holy Spirit would not have been required to amend it. That Ur-John had attained scriptural gravitas and could be appended only by the authority of the Holy Spirit is consistent with the earlier observations that the text was inviolable and could not be deleted, even in cases obvious error. There is therefore all the more reason to suspect that much of the original text of Ur-John remains largely intact, embedded in the Fourth Gospel.

The phrase “my commandment(s).” This rare and authoritative phrase is placed on the lips of Jesus only four times in the gospels—twice in John 14 and twice more in John 15. That Jesus is depicted as issuing commandments in the manner of God suggest an evolved theological tradition. Since this distinctive construct appears only in chs. 14 and 15 it contributes further to the impression that this is a late and isolated literary tradition, for if Jesus were remembered by the author of the original gospel as one who issued commandments he would likely have mentioned it on other occasions.

The phrase “in my name.” Chapters 14-16 are also noteworthy for the fact that Jesus begins to use the phrase in my name:

Whatever you ask in my name (14:13)

If you ask anything in my name (14:14)

Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name (14:26)

Whatever you ask the Father in my name (15:16)

He will give it to you in my name (16:23)

Hitherto you have asked nothing in my name (16:24)

In that day you will ask in my name (16:26)

This formulaic phrase spoken in the first person occurs seven times in chs. 14-16, but nowhere else in John. Beyond this there are only three uses of the third person variant in his name (1:12, 2:23, 20:31). It is another indication that the text reflects a later tradition and been subsequently inserted into its present position.

John 17

As ch. 14 is the first of several expansions, so ch. 17, the Intercessory Prayer, is an independent literary unit and the last of the series of insertions in the block of chs. 14-17.  Chapter 17 was evidently composed by a different editor than those who compiled chs. 14-16.  Many of its themes appear elsewhere in the gospel, so it is not particularly incongruous. Yet it is a free-standing literary unit. It is the only significant prayer of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel. It contains the highest sustained Christological meditation on the nature of Jesus found in John, rivaled only by the prologue, both of which represent Jesus as an eternal being. It also portrays to an unparalleled degree the intimate union of God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the redeemed of the world who are no longer of the world. 

From a grammatical perspective, ch. 17’s literary independence is evident from the fact that it contains numerous terms or phrases otherwise unknown in the Fourth Gospel, including the only true God (v. 3), Holy Father (v. 11), son of perdition (v. 12), the evil one (v. 15), sanctify them in truth (v. 17), consecrated in truth (v. 19), foundation of the world (v. 24), and righteous Father (v. 25). Verse 17:3 is the only instance in the NT in which Jesus refers to himself in the third person as Jesus Christ.

Chapter 17 is unique not only for a variety of terms and phrases that do not appear in the rest of John, but also for an absence of terms that are elsewhere prominent in John. There is no mention of the existence of the Holy Spirit or the parákl?tos, a remarkable omission in light of the key role the Spirit plays in chs. 14-16. One could not construct a theology of the Trinity based on this prayer. Nor is there any mention of judgment; the words judge and judgment appear 29 times in the rest of the gospel. It is striking that a lengthy Johannine prayer focused on the theme of redemption does not once mention judgment. Similarly, the metaphor of light is prominent in John. The word light appears 23 times including six times in the prologue; the concept of Jesus as the light of the world is central to the gospel. Yet ch. 17, a celebratory prayer declaring that the work Jesus was sent to do has been accomplished, fails to mention that Jesus has brought light into the world.

As noted previously, the verb apostello (to send) appears seven times in ch. 17, while the synonym pempo is not used at all. This stands in striking contrast to the exclusive use of pempo six times in chs. 14-16. This contributes to the impression that we see the hands of different editors in chs. 14-16 and ch. 17.

Chapter 17 opens with When Jesus had spoken these words, which is the identical phrase that opens ch.18. The replication of this phrase makes it appear as though the prayer was composed with the intent of inserting it just prior to 18:1. The phrase also indicates that the text is to be inserted at some point following a statement by Jesus. It is not likely that it would have been the next insert after ch. 14 which ends with “Rise, let us go hence,” which prefigures relocation rather than a prayer. Thus it appears that ch. 17 was inserted at a point in time after ch. 14 and some or all of chs. 15-16 had been incorporated.

Toward an Isolation of Ur-John: The Control Texts

By now it will appear that the Gospel of John looks very much like a primitive narrative that has been corrected and enhanced with new material inserted by a series of editors over a period of several decades. It will also appear that the editors took great care to preserve the original text. Obvious errors were left intact, and inserts of either a corrective or interpretive nature can be routinely lifted out to restore what appears to be a more coherent original narrative. And of great significance—the editors felt compelled to justify the theological enhancements of chs. 14-16 by declaring them to be revelations of the Holy Spirit.

If this theory of John’s compositional history is accurate, then we should be able to isolate the original gospel by locating and removing the interpretive inserts and glosses that appear to disrupt the underlying narrative. If this can be done with any degree of precision, the remaining text should approximate the scope and content of the original document composed or supervised (presumably) by John, son of Zebedee.

The nature of the insertions identified thus far suggests an obvious reconstruction procedure. It is clear that two significant blocks of text examined already, 5:17-47 and chs. 14-17, reflect the theology and grammatical predilections of later editors. In addition to these two blocks of text, we will assume that the prologue, 1:1-5, and 1:7-18, is also the work of late interpreters due to its obvious advanced Christology. Beyond this, three smaller but significant theological expositions exist at 3:11-21, 3:27-36, and 12:40-50. In tone, form, and content they are similar to the materials in the prologue, 5:17-47, and chs. 14-17. Collectively, these six blocks of text may be regarded as control texts, for they can be used as guides to the unique thought and grammar of the late first century editors.

To illustrate, many of the key words and concepts present in any one of these control text blocks are reproduced in one or more of the others. As examples, the idea of receiving testimony, or receiving Jesus or the words of Jesus appears in all six of the control texts at 1:11, 3:11, 3:27,32,33, 5:43, 12:48, and 17:8. The word joy is used exclusively in the control texts at 3:29, 15:11, 16:20,22,24, and 17:13. Similarly, the variant rejoice occurs in 3:29, 5:35, 14:28, 16:20, and 16:22. The concept of glory or glorification occurs repeatedly in 1:14, 5:41,44, 12:41, 14:13, 15:8, 16:14, and 17:1,4,5,10,22,24. The phrase eternal life occurs in five of the control text blocks at 3:15,16, 3:36, 5:24,39, 12:50, and 17:2,3. The word testimony appears in four of the control texts at 1:7, 3:11, 3:32,33, and 5:31,32,34,36.

Therefore, as an aid to identifying editorial inserts throughout the gospel, we may use the control texts as guides to the ideology and grammatical style of late first-century editors. When an idea or distinct grammatical feature of the control texts is found elsewhere in the gospel, we have good reason to examine its context for signs that it may have been inserted by the same editors who produced the control text material. To assess whether a replication was in fact an insert, we will ask two simple questions: Does the replication disrupt the logical continuity of the surrounding text? And does it exist within a free-standing literary unit that can be lifted out, with the result being an improved coherence of the surrounding text? If the evaluation passes both of these tests, we will tentatively identify the element in question as an insertion into a previously existing narrative.

For example, let us examine the famous New Commandment in 13:34-35. It comes to our attention because the language in 13:34-35 also appears twice in the control text ch. 15:

15:12  This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you

15:17  This I command you, to love one another.

Therefore we may ask, is there reason to believe that 13:34-35 was inserted, possibly by the editors who compiled ch. 15? The passage in context is as follows:

33 Little children, Yet a little while I am with you. You will seek me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, `Where I am going you cannot come.' 34 A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. 35 By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." 36 Simon Peter said to him, "Lord, where are you going?" Jesus answered, "Where I am going you cannot follow me now; but you shall follow afterward." 37 Peter said to him, "Lord, why cannot I follow you now? I will lay down my life for you." 38 Jesus answered, "Will you lay down your life for me? Truly, truly, I say to you, the cock will not crow, till you have denied me three times.

As we see, verses 34-35 do indeed disrupt the logical flow of the narrative. When we lift those verses out, Peter’s question in v. 36 can be seen as a direct and coherent response to Jesus’ statement in v. 33. On the other hand, the canonical passage at face value reads with some difficulty; we must suppose that Peter either did not hear Jesus, or that he perceives the New Commandment to be of little consequence compared to the disclosure that Jesus is going away. In either case, he ignores the New Commandment and instead wants to know where Jesus is going. The discontinuity is evident.

Since vv. 34-35 disrupt the logical flow of the narrative, since their removal produces a more coherent dialogue, and since the saying in question also appears in ch. 15, there are sufficient grounds to suppose (based on our proposed reconstruction procedure) that the New Commandment was an editorial gloss. The apparent motive would have been to harmonize a key part of the original gospel with the new material in ch 15. Seen in this light, the “new” takes on quite a different meaning. From our modern perspective the “New” Commandment is typically interpreted as one that Jesus intended to augment the traditional Ten Commandments. However, if this saying were inserted into a pre-existing narrative in the last decades of the first century, readers at the time would have interpreted the new to signify that this was a saying newly revealed and authorized by the parákl?tos that had never appeared in earlier editions of the Gospel of John.

As an aside, it is difficult to conceive of a circumstance under which the Jesus movement would introduce a new saying of Jesus that commanded his disciples to love one another, except to rectify a situation in which that love was manifestly lacking. Thus, the New Commandment might reasonably be interpreted as the Church’s response to the hostility between the followers of two renowned pillars, John son of Zebedee and Peter. As we will examine later in this book, the tensions between John and Peter, and their respective adherents are palpable when the Gospel of Mark (with its original finale beyond 16:8 restored) is read against the text of Ur-John. The New Commandment makes perfect sense as an attempt by the budding Church to mollify this conflict, and to put a unified front on the Church’s representation of itself to the world.

The New Commandment is a comparatively glaring example because it is such a well-known saying of Jesus. But in many instances the reconstruction procedure relies upon more subtle uses of what might appear to be incidental grammar. As an example of this, let us look at the passage concerning the speech of Caiaphas:

11:47 So the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered the council, and said, "What are we to do? For this man performs many signs. 48 If we let him go on thus, every one will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation." 49 But one of them, Ca'iaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, "You know nothing at all; 50 you do not understand that it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish." 51 He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus should die for the nation, 52 and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad. 53 So from that day on they took counsel how to put him to death. 54 Jesus therefore no longer went about openly among the Jews, but went from there to the country near the wilderness, to a town called E'phraim; and there he stayed with the disciples.

Beginning at v. 51 we find the familiar technique in which the narrator pauses to explain or reflect upon a saying just spoken. This by itself is a flag indicating a potential insert. Yet there is nothing in the control texts concerning Caiaphas or his prophecies, so at first glance there would seem to be no reason to identify this statement as an editorial gloss based upon the prescribed procedure. However, upon closer examination we notice that Caiaphas did not say this of his own accord. A more literal translation would be he spoke not of himself, but in context it means that he did not speak out of his own impulse or intent. This is a highly unusual meaning to derive from the combination of the common Greek word apo and the personal pronoun. Apo appears hundreds of times in the NT, but it is typically translated from or of, as in “Philip was from Bethsaida” (1:44), Jesus of Nazareth (1:45), and “they were not far from land” (21:8). Yet in the Gospel of John it is used six times in this extremely unusual way in combination with the pronouns, causing the RSV translators to render the phrases as follows:

The Son can do nothing of his own accord (5:19)

I have not come of my own accord (7:28)

I came not of my own accord, but he sent me. (8:42)

I lay [my life] down of my own accord. (10:18)

He did not say this of his own accord. (11:51)

Do you say this of your own accord? (18:34)

These are the only six instances in the NT in which the RSV represents persons speaking or acting of their own accord. Notably, the first occurrence of this is found in the control text 5:19. The second, third, and fourth instances (7:28, 8:42, 10:18), are each within passages defined as editorial inserts on other grounds per the reconstruction procedure. Thus the odd usage appears to be a distinct grammatical idiosyncrasy of later editors, so its presence in 11:51 lends weight to the notion that this is an editorial gloss.

In addition, v. 52 ends with the children of God who are scattered abroad. The phrase children of God appears only twice in the Fourth Gospel. Its other use is in 1:12, the prologue. So we have a second grammatical correlation between this potential insert and the control texts. Beyond the grammatical evidence, verses 51-52 place a more universal theological interpretation on Caiaphas’ statement, so the motive for the insert is evident. Finally, if that language is lifted out the passage reads more coherently as if undisturbed. So the Ur-John reconstruction procedure defines these two verses as a later embellishment. Whether the last phrase in v. 50, “and that the whole nation should not perish,” is part of the gloss or original to Ur-John is less certain, so it has been rendered in standard text for that reason.

The Results of the Reconstruction

Methodically following this reconstruction procedure yields the following results: About 52% of the Fourth Gospel is defined as originating in Ur-John; almost 4% is ch. 21, the appendix added to Ur-John, and the remaining 44% consists of editorial corrections and theological amplifications that were inserted over several decades. There are a few isolated phrases and verses wherein the probability of origin is difficult to assess, but collectively they make up less than 1% of the total text. For the most part, the gospel separates easily like oil and water into the Ur-John layer and the editorial layer. The results of this reconstruction procedure are presented in the appendix The Text of the Gospel of Ur-John.

Proving the Validity of the Ur-John Reconstruction

Though the Gospel of John can be easily separated into an apparent Ur-John layer and an editorial layer based on the use of the control texts as guides to the proclivities of the later editors, critics will rightfully object to the circularity of the procedure. One cannot take a pair of scissors to the Gospel of John, methodically cut out all references that resemble advanced theological interpretation, end up with a more primitive looking narrative, and on that basis claim the narrative was indeed primitive.

All we have thus far is the observation that when apparently advanced elements are excised from the text, the logical continuity and coherence of the underlying narrative is routinely improved. This by itself is of no insignificant consequence. For it is normally not possible to define an arbitrary subset of grammatical or ideological elements appearing in any given work of literature, then methodically scan the work and remove all occurrences of those elements, and end up with the remaining text being more coherent than the piece with which one started. Nevertheless, this observation is insufficient, in and of itself, to establish that a primitive text has indeed been located and reconstructed. We require further independent evidence that the primitive narrative isolated from John did indeed originate as a wholly separate composition. The balance of this chapter will present the evidence in favor of the Ur-John theory.

The Aramaic Origin of Ur-John

If the Ur-John narrative was composed in the 40s or 50s it would have been composed in Aramaic. So the first question is whether there is evidence that the reconstructed Ur-John as presented herein was composed in Aramaic? There are at least two indicators:

1. Transliterations. Canonical John contains eight instances of Aramaic to Greek transliterations, which have been helpfully translated into Greek equivalents by the author:

1:38 And they said to him, "Rabbi" (which means Teacher), "where are you staying?

1:41 We have found the Messiah (which means Christ).

1:42: You shall be called Cephas" (which means Peter).

4:25  "I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ)

9:7 "Go, wash in the pool of Silo'am" (which means Sent).

19:13 at a place called The Pavement, and in Hebrew, Gab'batha.

19:17 to the place called the place of a skull, which is called in Hebrew Gol'gotha.

20:16 She turned and said to him in Hebrew, "Rab-bo'ni!" (which means Teacher).

The presence of Greek transliterations of Aramaic terms suggests that at some point a Greek translator was working with an Aramaic original. Scholars have tended to dismiss this as a curious oddity due to the overwhelming consensus that the Fourth Gospel is a late first- or early second-century work, and quite obviously written in Greek. However, all eight of these transliterations appear in the Ur-John layer, which is consistent with the theory that Ur-John originated as an Aramaic document.

2. The Presence of Asydeton. Asyndeton is a grammatical feature consisting of two or more phrases or sentences placed together without a connecting particle. A classic example is, “I came. I saw. I conquered.” According to C.K. Barrett, an expert in Biblical languages, asyndeton is common in Aramaic but not normally found in good Greek. Thus its presence in a NT Greek text suggests the possibility of Aramaic origin or influence. Barrett’s analysis of the Fourth Gospel identified thirty-six instances of asyndeton that he believed were indicative of potential Aramaic influence. When we cross-reference Barrett’s findings against our reconstruction of Ur-John, the data are as follows:

Occurrences of Asyndeton Layer

1:40, 42, 45, 47 Ur-John

2:17 Ur-John

4:6, 7, 30 Ur-John

5:12, 15 Ur-John

6:23 Ur-John

7:32, 41 Ur-John

8:27 Ur-John

9:9, 13, 16, 35, 40 Ur-John

10:21, 22 Ur-John

11:35, 44 Ur-John

12:22, 29 Ur-John

13:22, 23 Ur-John

16:19 Editorial Insertion

19:29 Ur-John

20:18, 26 Ur-John

21:3, 11, 12, 13, 17 Appendix

Of the thirty-six occurrences of asyndeton cited by Barrett, thirty are located in text determined by our reconstruction procedure to have originated in Ur-John. Five more appear in John 21, which under the present theory was appended to the Aramaic edition of Ur-John immediately after the appearance of Mark. Thus, thirty-five out of thirty-six came from the edition of Aramaic Ur-John that was extant at the time of the first Greek translation. Since the reconstruction method does not take the obscure grammatical construct of asyndeton into account as a factor in separating the Ur-John layer from the editorial inserts, it is striking that all but one of the thirty-six instances cited by Barrett are located either in the Ur-John layer or the appendix ch. 21.

A Greek Idiosyncrasy:  The Conjunction OUN

The Greek word oún is typically translated therefore, then or so. This conjunction occurs 526 times in the New Testament. Remarkably, 202 of those are in the Gospel of John. Since John comprises only 10% of the text of the NT, the fact that it contains almost 40% of the uses of oún means that those responsible for the Greek text of John used this word with four times the frequency as the average of all other NT writers. Not only does it occur with exceptional frequency, but C.K. Barrett points out that the author of John uses it in a very unusual way—it is often used without argumentative force and is instead used simply as a narrative link. Barrett sees this odd deployment of oún occurring 110 times in John, and only four times in the rest of the NT. He declares both the frequency and oddity of its use to be “an unmistakable feature of John’s style.”[2]

Under the Ur-John theory, the Aramaic edition of Ur-John with John 21 attached was translated into Greek for the first time in the 70s.  It would be highly unlikely that both the translator of the Aramaic Ur-John to Greek, and the subsequent editors who were responsible for major enhancements to the Greek text over the next forty years, would have used oún with the same peculiar frequency and manner, resulting in a uniform distribution of the word throughout the canonical Greek text. If the Ur-John theory is accurate, we should see a preponderance of the 202 occurrences of oún residing in either the Ur-John layer or the expansion layer. And this is indeed the case. When one cross-references the use of oún against the Ur-John reconstruction we discover that it appears 172 times in Ur-John plus John 21 (i.e., text translated from the final Aramaic edition), and only 30 times in the expansion layers that originated in Greek.

Therefore, the “unmistakable feature of John’s style” cited by Barrett can be isolated to the translator who was responsible for rendering the Aramaic Ur-John into Greek. This translator used oún at the extraordinary rate of about 16 times per chapter. Conversely, the subsequent editors who expanded the Greek edition used oún in a manner more consistent with other NT writers. When the theological expansions and corrections to John are isolated together, they comprise roughly 10 of the 21 chapters of the canonical text. With only 30 uses of oún, this word appears at the rate of about three times per chapter, a frequency similar to its use in Matthew (2.0 times per chapter), Luke (1.9), Acts (2.4), and Romans (3.0).

Apostello vs. Pempo: A Resolution of the Mystery

As noted previously, the Greek verbs apostello and pempo occur 28 times and 33 times respectively in John. Both are rendered to send in English, and according to Greek linguists they appear to be pure synonyms without any discernable differences in meaning or nuance, at least as used in the NT documents. Johannine scholars have tried to find a rationale for the alternating use of these two verbs, and have tended to write it off as a bid for stylistic diversity on the part of the author.

Once again, under the Ur-John theory, it would be highly unusual to find that both the translator of the Aramaic edition and all subsequent editors shared the same propensity to alternate randomly between apostello and pempo for stylistic reasons. One would expect that any given editor would have his/her own preference for one or the other. Thus the particular manners in which apostello and pempo have been deployed in the canonical text are of keen interest. Some of this has been touched upon already. Pempo occurs six times in sequence in chs. 14-16, then apostello is used seven times in sequence in ch. 17, a chapter that for may reasons appears to have come from a different hand than those who produced chs. 14-16. In John 5, the first section of the monologue (5:19-30) uses pempo three times exclusively, then the second section, which appears to be an independent composition (5:31-47) uses apostello three times and pempo once. So the usage of these terms is not random and is difficult to write off to a writer’s aesthetic impulse.

When we cross-reference the occurrences of apostello and pempo against the Ur-John reconstruction, we get striking results. First, the use of both apostello and pempo is overwhelmingly a feature of the editorial insertions. Apostello appears only seven times in Ur-John, and pempo does not occur at all. Together they appear fifty-four times in the inserted material. The reason is that the interpretation of Jesus as one who was sent from heaven does not exist in Ur-John. The seven uses of apostello in Ur-John occur only in routine, non-Christological contexts:

There was a man sent from God whose name was John (1:6)

the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem  (1:19)

Now they had been sent from the Pharisees (1:24)

I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor (4:38)

the chief priests and Pharisees sent officers to arrest him. (7:32)

the sisters sent to him, saying, "Lord, he whom you love is ill." (11:3)

Annas then sent him bound to Ca'iaphas the high priest. (18:24)

None of the 33 uses of pempo occur in Ur-John. Moreover, in each of the major blocks of inserted text that contain multiple uses of the verbs to send, we find that either apostello or pempo are used exclusively, with the exception of the one anomalous use of pempo in 5:37 as previously noted:

       Editor’s Insertion:         Apostello             Pempo

3:28-36

5:19-30

5:31-47

12:41-50

14

15

16

17

2

0

3

0

0

0

0

7

0

3

1

3

2

2

2

0


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

While one of the two verbs tends to be used exclusively within any given insert, there are two inserted verses that stand out as anomalies:

13:16 Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent [apostello] greater than he who sent [pempo] him.

20:21 Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent [apostello] me, even so I send [pempo] you."

In both of these verses the hand of a single editor is seen to use both verbs at once. So it may not be said that in all cases either apostello and pempo are used exclusively in any given insert. It may be said that when they appear together within a single insert as they do here and in 5:31-47, it is a noteworthy deviation from the norm. In these instances the editors may indeed have been opting for a bit of diversity for aesthetic reasons. Nevertheless, the data do not support the notion that apostello and pempo have been used throughout the gospel at random by a single author for stylistic diversity. Rather, it appears that as each editorial insert was composed, the editors responsible for them deployed whichever of the two verbs they were most accustomed to using.

Correlating the Grammatical Evidence

The advantage of performing the initial reconstruction of Ur-John using the RSV English translation now becomes clear. Most of the editorial expansions and corrections are obvious in English once they are pointed out, and approximately 97% of the text can be separated into either the Ur-John or editorial layers without reference to the Greek. In the remaining 3%, an examination of the Greek provides additional helpful information. However, the advantage to using the RSV translation is that it masks the idiosyncratic Greek grammar, eliminating it as an influencing factor in the reconstruction. Thus, the reconstruction can be accomplished without one being aware of the presence of asyndeton, or the oddly frequent use of oún. When one works with the English, one simply sees 61 uses of the verb to send, rather than 28 of apostello and 33 of pempo. Since reconstruction decisions are made without any awareness of Greek grammatical nuances, the fact that the final Ur-John reconstruction resolves a number of unrelated mysteries that are visible only in Greek is strong evidence that the procedure has indeed isolated a primitive text.

The present theory holds that Ur-John was composed in Aramaic, the appendix was added in Aramaic, and that Ur-John with the appendix was translated into Greek. Thus, 56% of the canonical text had an Aramaic origin, and 44% was composed in Greek for insertion into the Greek translation. It cannot be an accident that 35 out of the 36 instances of asyndeton that Barrett found in John are located in the 56% of the text that is presumed to have originated in Aramaic. Nor can it be an accident that 172 out of 202 of the uses of oún are also found just in the portion of canonical John that was translated from Aramaic. As the former is a common grammatical feature of Aramaic but rare in Greek, the latter an idiosyncratic quirk of the translator of the Aramaic edition to Greek, and neither visible in English, it is difficult to imagine how these unrelated features came to converge so dramatically in the reconstructed Ur-John, except by the theory proposed. Collectively, these data constitute compelling evidence that the Ur-John reconstruction has successfully isolated a primitive gospel that was translated from Aramaic. Note also that John 21 contains five instances of asyndeton and eight uses of oún. So the two grammatical oddities that we find concentrated in Ur-John exist in the appendix as well. The data are consistent with the theory that the appendix was attached to the early Aramaic edition.

Implications of the Ur-John Reconstruction

The discovery of a primitive gospel that predates the Synoptic tradition opens a new door for historical Jesus research. It also sheds new light on the evolution of Christian thought in the first century. As we will see in the next chapter, Ur-John gives us a glimpse of a Jesus more politically motivated than the Synoptic gospels would have us believe. In Ur-John, Jesus does not teach in parables, speak of the kingdom of God, or refer to himself as the Son of man. There is no report of conflict with the Jews over blasphemy, and no midnight trial before the Sanhedrin. The portrait in Ur-John will prompt many to wonder whether the Synoptic tradition in its entirety might better be viewed as a secondary rather than primary source of information about Jesus.

Ur-John is the missing link that allows us to conclude that the lost ending of Mark and the appearance of John 21 are related literary events. The fact that Ur-John was composed prior to Mark also allows us to interpret Mark in a new light—it can be read as essentially a rebuttal of Ur-John. Mark’s portrayal of James and John as self-serving glory seekers takes on new meaning when it is seen as a commentary on the moral integrity of the author of Ur-John (10:35-41). And with the story in John 21 restored to the end of Mark, it becomes clear that a key objective of Mark was to trump Ur-John’s unsavory account of Peter’s denials by transforming it into the foundation upon which Jesus ultimately declares Peter to be the anointed leader of the movement.

In the end, there is a great deal of evidence to support the conclusion that a primitive edition of John lies buried in the canonical text, and that this primitive account of Jesus pre-dates the Synoptic Gospels. In the next chapter we will examine what the author of Ur-John has to say about Jesus of Nazareth.



[1] According to Genesis 17:9-14, circumcision dates to the time of Abraham, not Moses.

[2] Barrett, St. John, p. 7