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Only one Jesus: The voice of the Master--the alleged problem

This post inaugurates a sub-series within my series on the Gospel of John. This sub-series will investigate and respond to the claim that there is something suspicious about the similarities between the way that Jesus talks in John and the way that John writes (as narrator and in I John), on the one hand, and, on the other, the differences between the way that Jesus talks in John and the way that he talks in the synoptic Gospels.

These twin comparisons are used to support some rather radical theses. Leon Morris (Studies in the Fourth Gospel, pp. 265ff) points out that some scholars have used these claims about the way that Jesus talks to argue against authorship of John by an eyewitness.

Others, such as Craig Evans, use the alleged problem of the way Jesus talks to support a general doubt about the historicity of John's portrait of Jesus. Here is a quotation (podcast here, searchable transcript here) from the second half of his recent debate with me on the Unbelievable show:

And so, you have virtually nothing (I think there are a few verses in Matthew 11, which could be exceptional), virtually nothing in Matthew, Mark, and Luke that sounds like, and looks like, Jesus in the Gospel of John. So, we have to ask as historians, at this point, is there just some other Jesus we just didn't know about? Does Jesus simply just behave and talk very differently in some circumstances (maybe when he's down south, when he's in Samaria, Judea, in and out of Jerusalem and Bethany)? Or, is it a lot more due to the way the Evangelist chooses to write the story? And I opt with the latter.

I think it is the same Jesus, and I think he is presented very differently . . . and I guess I’m counting votes: it's three to one. Matthew, Mark, and Luke present him a certain way; John presents him a very different way. And I suspect, given the parallels with Wisdom literature, for example, that John is presenting Jesus in a much more interpretive light.

These are quite strong statements about alleged discrepancy between the portraits of Jesus in John and the synoptic Gospels. Evans even implies that Jesus "behaves" very differently in John and the synoptics, with the implication that John's portrait of how Jesus behaves is historically questionable, a point to which my earlier posts on the unity of Jesus' personality in the Gospels are relevant. They are quite consonant with Evans's doubts in 2012 about the historicity of John, and I was glad (at last) for him to speak this relatively clearly in our encounter in 2018.

I countered, referring to material that I am now drawing out in this series, that the portrait of Jesus is actually clearly the same in John and the synoptics and that "we can tell that by reading them; that's not just something we believe by faith. That's actually right there in the text of the documents."

Evans was having none of it and replied,

Well, I think that's not a very realistic understanding of John. And that's the reason why the vast majority of scholars don't see it that way. John does present Jesus in a very different way. I agree that it's the same Jesus, but the portraits in John and the Synoptics are very different.

We should remember here that Evans's comments in 2012 strongly dehistoricized John's gospel in general terms. There he said that it was a "horse of another color altogether" from the synoptic Gospels. He agreed with Bart Ehrman's summary that it is "metaphorical" and hence should not be used as an historical source for the life of Jesus. And he expressly listed various "I am" statements (such as "I am the true vine") and said that these "derive from Jesus" but "not because he walked around and said them" but rather because they were the result of the reflections of the "community" upon Jesus' other, historical teaching.

Another usefully clear statement of the alleged problem of how Jesus talks in John and the synoptics comes from Michael Licona, at that time writing in defense of Evans when a part of Evans's 2012 comments had come to light.

In his commentary on John, [Craig] Keener said that “all” Johannine scholars acknowledge Johannine adaptation of the Jesus tradition. To see this in action, I recommend reading through the Synoptic Gospels several times in Greek. Then read John’s Gospel and 1 John several times in Greek. (One can also observe this in English but it is far clearer and even more striking in Greek.) One will observe a few items relevant to this discussion:

Although the message is the same, the way Jesus “sounds” in John is very different than the way He “sounds” in the Synoptics.

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

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

Licona says, referring to Craig Keener's commentary on John, that this is an argument that John "adapted" the "Jesus tradition," which is rather vague. The context in Licona's post is the argument that Jesus did not claim to be God "publicly and in such a clear manner as we find John reporting" but rather taught his own deity only "implicitly" as in the synoptics. (At that time Licona said that he was agnostic on this position but was merely explaining the arguments that "many scholars" think support it. More recently he has said that it is the position that he would accept "if a gun were put to his head." See around 9:30 here.)

The "adaptation," then, in view in that post of Licona's would, in the nature of the case, take the form of John's crafting scenes in which Jesus claims more clearly to be God than he does in the synoptic gospels. These scenes themselves occur nowhere in the synoptic gospels. In the Johannine scenes, Jesus' claims are intimately interwoven with surrounding dialogue, and the clarity of his claims is the reason for his nearly being stoned on two occasions. The misuse of the word "paraphrase" (Licona says this activity of John would be like a "modern paraphrase") obscures the degree of invention that would be involved.

In passing, I should comment on the odd use of Keener: Licona invokes Craig Keener's name here for the claim that John "adapts" the "Jesus tradition," in the context of a post defending Evans for his 2012 remarks on the "I am" sayings. Licona goes so far as to say dramatically that, if evangelicals were to "clean house" in light of concerns about Evans's statements, Keener would "find himself out on the street," though he does not say clearly why he thinks so. Though I no doubt have many disagreements with Keener concerning the Gospel of John, I have been unable to find anywhere where Keener rejects the recognizable historicity of Jesus' unique Johannine claims to deity. In the full comment that Licona mentions from Keener's commentary, Keener says merely this: "[A]ll scholars acknowledge some adaptation and conformity with Johannine idiom." (Commentary on John, p. 52) The emphasis on "some" is original in Keener, indicating the range of possible viewpoints from a minimal degree of idiomatic rewording onward. This brief comment is parenthetical within a paragraph whose emphasis is upon historicity and the possibility (which Keener apparently takes seriously) that the author, or at least the person whose testimony lies significantly behind the Gospel, was an eyewitness. Just two sentences before this parenthetical remark, Keener says,

But if the author of the fourth Gospel, its tradition or its nucleus were himself an eyewitness--a view very much disputed in recent years but consonant with the claims of the Gospels itself...--independence from the Synoptic tradition would not call into question its essential reliability; indeed, it could (in the documentary sense) make the Fourth Gospel a step closer to the historical Jesus than the Synoptics are. If [presumably meaning “even if”] the Fourth Gospel was not dictated by but nevertheless depends on an eyewitness, its basic claims concerning events remain at least on an historical par with the Synoptics. (p. 52)

Keener's emphasis there is on the importance of the question of authorship to the issue of historicity.

Keener has a long discussion of speech material in John (Commentary pp. 53-80), which in my opinion does cast an unnecessary degree of question upon the historicity of the things Jesus says in John yet does not draw any clear conclusions about specific passages. Moreover, Keener is cautious and ambivalent in his conclusion of that section, saying only that "disentangling history and theology in the Fourth Gospel's discourses by traditional critical methodologies is a particularly difficult task and one that is in most cases unhelpfully speculative." (p. 80)

While I consider Keener to be far too quick to think that John "narrates theologically" and have argued against several of his specific claims to that effect, as of now I do not have sufficient reason to believe that he agrees with the position Licona is explaining in his post and some reason to think the contrary. Keener's wording in the portions of his commentary on John chapters 8 and 10 does not include a rousing defense of the recognizable historicity of the scenes, but he appears at least cautiously optimistic on the point. See, e.g., his reference on p. 772 to "some evidence, though not coercive" that "Before Abraham was, I am" was attributed to Jesus prior to John's Gospel. On p. 301 he alludes to the theory that John was "quite interpretive, even more than we argued in our chapter on the discourses," thus making a distinction between the view he views himself as taking in the earlier chapter and a looser view that someone could take.

I would of course be disappointed if I were to discover that Keener does take the position under discussion in Licona's post. Nor am I saying that such a thing is beyond the realm of possibility. But until and unless there is further evidence to that effect, it is important to point out that he does not seem to have endorsed it.

Aside from Keener, specifically, it is certainly not the case that all scholars agree that the unique Johannine scenes in which Jesus indicates his deity most clearly did not literally occur in an historically recognizable fashion. Craig Blomberg, for example, offers an unambiguous historical defense of these scenes and sayings in The Historical Reliability of John's Gospel (pp. 159-160, 163-164). He also specifically defends the substantial historicity of the Bread of Life discourse (pp. 122-127) and much other such unique Johannine material.

The dismissals of John's historical portrait of Jesus discussed here are extremely strong conclusions to draw from the alleged problem of how Jesus speaks in John, and they are not by any means endorsed by all evangelical scholars (even if we restrict ourselves to those who happen to be alive right now), but that alleged problem has indeed frequently been used to draw such strong conclusions.

To make the argument (and the response I will be giving in the next few posts) clearer, I note in particular Licona's statement that scholars reject the explanation that John himself learned to talk/write like Jesus on the grounds that Jesus speaks too differently in John from the way that he speaks in the synoptic Gospels. This allegedly calls the historicity of the voice of Jesus in John into question in a way that cannot be answered by hypothesizing that John developed a mode of writing (or dictating) that resembled Jesus' mode of speech. Licona expands upon this argument in an endnote in Why Are There Differences in the Gospels?, making an analogy to major differences in accent:

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

Once again, it is important to remember that "recasting Jesus' teachings in his own words" does not always mean something as minimal as it might appear to mean. Licona applies this concept elsewhere to what (on the argument there) would have to involve the substantial invention of sayings, dialogue, etc. Certainly Evans 2012 was arguing for substantial invention on the part of the "Johannine community" to show that "he is for us the way, the truth, the life, the true vine. He is the bread of life, and so on. And so that gets presented in a very creative, dramatic, and metaphorical way, in what we now call the Gospel of John." And Evans 2018 says, in no small part based on this argument about how Jesus sounds, that the portrait of Jesus in John is "very different" from that in the synoptic Gospels and that there is "virtually nothing in Matthew, Mark, and Luke that sounds like, and looks like, Jesus in the Gospel of John."

So it is important to examine this question of whether Jesus in John really "speaks so differently" from Jesus in the synoptics and what the "Johannine" manner of Jesus' speech does and does not imply.

Having laid out the alleged problem and given quotes from critics in this post, I will use the next several posts to lay out some interesting and surprising positive evidence of continuity between Jesus' manner of speaking in John and the synoptic Gospels.

Comments (11)

and I guess I’m counting votes: it's three to one. Matthew, Mark, and Luke present him a certain way; John presents him a very different way.

Because there is an enormous amount of borrowing between Matthew, Mark, and Luke, you can't simply "count" them as three. You would have to separate out all of the passages in which they have substantial agreement, and count only the portions in which they are clearly independent as "additional" to the one primary book. And then you get a lot less than three, you might even get less than two (i.e. one and a fraction, though I haven't attempted to figure it out).

And because John clearly wrote his gospel intending to fill gaps left by his predecessors, it is necessary to assume that he is going to have different material. And not just that he would provide more instances of Jesus doing the same things that the Synoptics have, but more likely showing Jesus doing things that the Synoptics did not show Jesus doing, because he wanted to supplement the record. So, it's not like John was written independently from the prior works - having less of direct overlap would be intentional rather than a matter of random chance.

Furthermore, everyone who speaks in public frequently, to different audiences, exhibits major differences in how they speak, from one situation to another. Sometimes a person is pensive, sometimes confident, sometimes angry, sometimes meek, sometimes erudite, sometimes bull-headed, sometimes short and cryptic, sometimes at length and explanatory. If two reporters followed Julius Caesar around and wrote a novella-length bio, with the first most impressed with (and thus most focused on) his dealings with public personages, where the other was most struck by his personal relationships and his actions and words to friends (and personal enemies), you would probably get very different pictures of "the real Caesar", even though every word in both bios would be entirely accurate. While there are, by and large, some elements of speaking that would probably carry through in both facets of his life (some idioms, but not all), and some phrase structures), there would also be no certain and predictable ways we could say, before hand, which sorts of similarities would have to be present if both accounts are entirely true. All we could say for sure is that there is likely to be considerable overlap between the two, but which elements of speech and action must overlap, we could not say, from one subject person to the next.

And I suspect, given the parallels with Wisdom literature, for example, that John is presenting Jesus in a much more interpretive light.

If John was capable of illustrating what Jesus was like by using comparisons with the Wisdom literature, Jesus was just as capable of using the Wisdom literature himself to make the very same points John was trying to make. He showed himself fully conversant with the Scriptures, so it's not like Jesus would not have known of the relevant passages. Nor was he hesitant about applying Scriptural passages to himself, as he showed in Luke with the two disciples going to Emmaus. So the strongest form of argument that could possibly be made here is on whether the Synoptics reported Jesus specifically using any Wisdom references, and even if not, it is a relatively weak conclusion because all one can say is that the Synoptic authors did not see fit to include such comments from Jesus (not that Jesus never said such things).

That "three to one" comment was one of the sillier things (though I'm afraid the competition is stiff) that Evans said in the debate, but it was very revealing. While NT scholars will get very uppity about the 2-source hypothesis (in fact, Evans implied gratuitously at one point that I was unaware of it) and the widely accepted literary dependence among the synoptics, once again it's a case of "any stick with which to beat John." When it comes to making some kind of argument from silence--this is in John but not in the synoptics--or argument from the presence of something in the synoptics but not in John (e.g., the parables), suddenly they treat the synoptics as if they are independent to an extent that they would deride as naive if it were used in a positive way by a more "conservative" interlocutor. Counting votes? Three to one? If I had said anything to that effect, the hoots of derision and the claims that I'm an ignorant hack who doesn't know about literary dependence among the synoptics could have been heard on the Internet from coast to coast. But Evans is given a free pass, for that as for other errors made in the course of the debate.

If John was capable of illustrating what Jesus was like by using comparisons with the Wisdom literature, Jesus was just as capable of using the Wisdom literature himself to make the very same points John was trying to make. He showed himself fully conversant with the Scriptures, so it's not like Jesus would not have known of the relevant passages. Nor was he hesitant about applying Scriptural passages to himself, as he showed in Luke with the two disciples going to Emmaus.

Right, including, wait for it, "Wisdom Literature". He identifies Himself as Wisdom in Matthew, Luke, and John, and later Paul identifies Him as God's Wisdom as well. Various examples of Jesus being identified with Wisdom can be found here. http://www.tektonics.org/jesusclaims/trinitydefense.php

Those like Evans saying it's not meant to be historical because Jesus is being compared to Wisdom are missing the point. He's being compared to Wisdom because that's who He is, and whom He claimed to be.

But it is important to remember as well that Evans greatly exaggerates the sense and way in which allegedly Jesus is being compared to Wisdom. His claim is that Jesus "sounds like" Wisdom in a highly specific sense. The impression he attempts to give is that the portions of the Gospel of John where Jesus uses the phrase "I am," and apparently especially "I am" with a predicate, are literally taking on a mode of speech that has close, specific, literary affinities with the "way Wisdom talks." If this were true, it would mean that, if historical, Jesus deliberately "put on" some kind of highly specific, exaggerated "Wisdom accent" or something, almost like one of us walking around trying very self-consciously and almost humorously to talk like a Shakespeare character or something over an extended period. This sounds rather odd when one thinks of it like that, and it is the reason why Evans gets mileage out of his claims for the idea that words here are being put into Jesus' mouth and that, if you had a video camera, you would not have seen Jesus saying, "I am this" and "I am that."

But the original premise is just faulty. In these passages Jesus does not "talk like Wisdom." There is no specific Wisdom mode of speech that he is taking on. Evans made a completely false statement when he said that it is specially characteristic of Lady Wisdom to go around saying, "I am this," "I am that," so that a phrase like, "I am the bread of life" would automatically "sound like Lady Wisdom" in some specialized and highly literary sense.

There is a possible allusion in Jesus' words to Wisdom (making himself greater than Wisdom) when he says that the one who comes to him will never hunger or thirst again (John 6:35). There is one place in the Wisdom of Sirach where Wisdom says that anyone who eats from her will hunger for more and who drinks of her will thirst for more. This, if not a coincidence, would be readily accounted for by what Tony mentions--Jesus himself making an allusion.

But Evans definitely implies something both more extensive and more specific to the phrase "I am," that is simply his overcalling matters in order to make his claims seem better supported than they actually are.

In fact, I've been unable to find anyplace where Lady Wisdom goes around saying "I am this" and "I am that" or where "Ego eimi" is used in the Septuagint version of Wisdom literature. And as quoted previously, I also checked this with a Old Testament scholar who has also done work on (and accepts) the possibility that John's Christology was influenced by Wisdom literature.

Some of those parallels drawn by Witherington seem to me strained, btw.

One theological reason I think we need to be a bit cautious about the whole "identification of Jesus with Wisdom" claim is that Wisdom is expressly said to have been created, the first of all God's works. (Prov. 8:22) Insofar as one takes the "identification of Jesus with Lady Wisdom" too literally, it might well appear to support Arianism.

Some of those parallels drawn by Witherington seem to me strained, btw.

One theological reason I think we need to be a bit cautious about the whole "identification of Jesus with Wisdom" claim is that Wisdom is expressly said to have been created, the first of all God's works. (Prov. 8:22) Insofar as one takes the "identification of Jesus with Lady Wisdom" too literally, it might well appear to support Arianism.

The one that seemed strained to me was between Wisdom 1:4, and 1 Corinthians 2:7. I didn't notice others that seemed strained, but it has been a while since I read the whole article. Of what I've gone back over it the article seems convincing to me for the most part.

I don't see Jesus being identified with Wisdom any more problematic than Jesus being called "firstborn of all creation" as in Colossians 1:15.

I think I've studied the gospels enough over my life to put forth my opinions on this matter.

First, while there are different perspectives on Jesus between the synoptics and John, I don't see the magnitude of the difference that scholars see. This may indict my literary sensitivity, but unless people had prompted to me that the Jesus of the synoptics is different than the Jesus of John, I wouldn't really even think about it. This either means I'm a literary dullard or that I have a sort-of immunity to the modern scholarly aversion to harmonization.

Second, if I let the real world impinge on this discussion, I think about the many people I know, all quite ordinary, yet one could easily come up with multiple sets A, B, C, and D of writings discussing their doings, what they said, etc, such that scholars, to be consistent, would have to conclude that not all of A, B, C, and D are completely true or describing the same person.

Third, again letting the real world impinge, I've had discussions with the same pastor over years, and at time the pastor can be all fuzzy-wuzzy, or he can be sarcastic, or he can bring it with the pastoral admonitions. Again, this pastor is just a normal guy, not the Word made flesh. Again, I could collect his fuzzy-wuzzy sayings and artificially set them against his admonitions and say "these aren't from the same person!". But they are.

Fourth, looking in the mirror, I adopt what I say, and how I say it, along with my vocabulary, depending on the audience (just like normal people do). For clients, I am very dry and matter-of-fact. For theological matters, I can range (depending on mood) from being prosaic to writing like a 19th century English divine. For normal life, I'm stuck with 80s and 90s lingo. Yet I'm just one (normal nondescript) guy.

So my argument is that, if for normal people and normal situations we could easily manufacture texts that "clash", how much more so for a pivotal person in history, and especially if that pivotal person has a divine nature.

Psychologically, my response to modern scholarship is very general and (I hope) common-sensical. I've been told my approach is too simplistic and of course I'm a century or two behind the times, but again, I don't find modern scholarly arguments particularly forceful in this matter. Either I am correctly saying the emperor has not clothes, or I am hopelessly philistine.

Either I am correctly saying the emperor has not clothes, or I am hopelessly philistine.

Joe, You are correctly seeing it, and I can only implore your patience during the various posts in which I say it in more detail. However, they'll hopefully contain some interesting info. as well, esp. when I get into the positive parallels, which are pretty cool.

Ben, you say,

I don't see Jesus being identified with Wisdom any more problematic than Jesus being called "firstborn of all creation" as in Colossians 1:15.

Well, to put it crassly, we're stuck with Colossians 1:15 from an apostle and have to fit it into our Christology. But the identification of Jesus with *specifically* "Wisdom in the Old Testament as portrayed in Wisdom Literature like the Book of Proverbs" is far more of an *indirect inference* with which we are not clearly stuck as the deliverance of direct revelation from the Holy Spirit. Therefore, if there is not good enough reason to saddle ourselves with Proverbs 8:22 as well, we might as well not do so. Not to mention the fact that the personification of Wisdom in the OT is feminine and Jesus is masculine. As I say, it's a fairly indirect literary inference that Jesus or for that matter John was trying to make any strong connection to *that figure*.

I've had discussions with the same pastor over years, and at time the pastor can be all fuzzy-wuzzy, or he can be sarcastic, or he can bring it with the pastoral admonitions. Again, this pastor is just a normal guy, not the Word made flesh. Again, I could collect his fuzzy-wuzzy sayings and artificially set them against his admonitions and say "these aren't from the same person!". But they are.

One thing I intend to emphasize repeatedly is that it's a faulty assumption to take any evangelist to be claiming to give a *representative sample* of Jesus' modes of speech, his themes, or his vocabulary. To do so would be to make it impossible for an evangelist to have themes or exercise selectivity. This is even true when it comes to geographical location. Note, for example, Evans's "suggestion" (which of course he intends the listener to reject as improbable):


Does Jesus simply just behave and talk very differently in some circumstances (maybe when he's down south, when he's in Samaria, Judea, in and out of Jerusalem and Bethany)? Or, is it a lot more due to the way the Evangelist chooses to write the story?

Well, when you put it that way...

If a person doesn't literally speak a different language in a different geographical part of the country, the conjecture seems odd that he "just behaves and talks very differently when he's down south..."

(Passing point: Samaria is not really "down south." I have little idea what Evans had in his mind at this point. The whole "deal" with Samaria is that it is south of Galilee but not as far south as Judea and that one passes *through* it to get "down south" to Jerusalem.)

I suppose it might happen that a person would have a different accent in a different part of the country, but Evans makes it sound strained.


But of course no one needs to say that John is claiming, even implicitly, to give a representative sample of "how Jesus talks" *even in* particular regions. John can be choosing to narrate particular conversations that Jesus has because a) they haven't been told before and b) John is interested in the subject matter.

The regional/cultural issue may be relevant for certain very specific topics. For example, it seems entirely plausible that Jesus was more willing to tell the woman at the well in John 4 openly that he was the Messiah because the Samaritans had different messianic expectations from the Galilean Jews.

But that is a very limited answer to a limited question.

If the issue is broader, such as why certain themes are addressed in John more often by Jesus, why John seems to talk so much more about the concept of "witness" or being "sent" than in the synoptics, then thematic selection makes sense as an explanation.

Well, to put it crassly, we're stuck with Colossians 1:15 from an apostle and have to fit it into our Christology. But the identification of Jesus with *specifically* "Wisdom in the Old Testament as portrayed in Wisdom Literature like the Book of Proverbs" is far more of an *indirect inference* with which we are not clearly stuck as the deliverance of direct revelation from the Holy Spirit. Therefore, if there is not good enough reason to saddle ourselves with Proverbs 8:22 as well, we might as well not do so. Not to mention the fact that the personification of Wisdom in the OT is feminine and Jesus is masculine. As I say, it's a fairly indirect literary inference that Jesus or for that matter John was trying to make any strong connection to *that figure*.

I had written up some of a response, but things have gotten a bit crazy around here with the weather. Due to that, and some other stuff I don't plan on responding more than this. I didn't want to just ignore and not post. You're someone who I take seriously, and someone who has taken my posts seriously, so I felt the need to at least let you know about that.

Maybe if this issue comes up again later can put some more serious effort into responding. Currently I view the cumulative case for Jesus being identified as Wisdom to be pretty strong, but I'm plenty open to being wrong on that too. None of my beliefs hang on that point being true.

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