by Gary Greenberg
«New Testament scholars believe with near unanimity that the substantial differences in style, content, and verbal description between the gospel of John and the other three canonical gospels preclude any literary relationship between John and any of the others based on a written copy of at least one of them. This is not to say that John doesn’t know several stories that also appear in the other three gospels, but that such familiarity, they say, is based primarily on oral traditions circulating in the Christian communities, some of which may perhaps derive directly from one or more of the other three gospels. John’s lack of a written copy of at least one of the other three gospels, they suggest, accounts for much of the difference in content and verbal agreement. John’s style, however, is often attributed to his different theological perceptions about Jesus and the gospel message.
Based on my new theory of Johannine composition, introduced below, I will propose in the present work that Mark, John and Luke all knew a now-lost written proto-gospel. (I am not in any way challenging the consensus view that Matthew and Luke both knew Mark.) Excluding speech monologues—parables, discourses, “I Am” sayings, prophecies, and similar teachings—this lost text included most of the stories about the adult Jesus that appear in all four canonical gospels and served as the source text for those stories. This doesn’t mean that the proto-gospel didn’t also have some of those specialized speeches but only that I will not be exploring that aspect of the gospels in this study. And, to be clear, many of the stories in the proto-gospel do include speeches by Jesus, but that they do so primarily in the context of interaction with other individuals, such as conflicts, debates or discussions. Because such a large percentage of stories in the four canonical gospels can be traced back to this earlier written source, I think it appropriate to refer to this proto-gospel as the “Alpha Gospel.”
The theory behind my thesis is that the author of John had profound theological disagreements with how this proto-gospel presented the gospel message and depicted the character and nature of Jesus, the apostles, and other disciples, and this disagreement led the author of John to do a major rewrite of the earlier gospel such that the new version better reflected the author’s own theological perspective. (Mark and Luke also had some theological problems and made some changes, but far less so than John.)
It is my contention that we can reverse-engineer the composition of John’s gospel and show what specific elements of other Jesus stories he found offensive and what methodology he used to make changes to the source material such that John’s version of many of Mark’s stories often look nothing like Mark’s versions of the same proto-gospel episode. I make my case by identifying specific theological themes in John, and by cross-referencing Johannine stories to Mark and Luke. Further below, I will outline the theological themes that mattered to John and the editorial practices that I suggest he followed.
The chief and very powerful argument against my thesis is that John’s gospel looks very little like the other three gospels as to either verbal agreements or story content. Those familiar with how John differs from Mark (see below) know what a high evidentiary bar I must get past in order to make my case. To prove my thesis, I must convincingly demonstrate the following three propositions.
(1) John knows such a large number of stories also known to Mark that he must have been familiar with either Mark or Mark’s source.
(2) The stories known to both Mark and John demonstrate such a substantial amount of sequential agreement that the alignment can only be explained if John knew a written version of either Mark or Mark’s source.
(3) John couldn’t have obtained his parallel content from Mark or Luke. There is a minor side issue as to whether Luke knew John that I will also address. If it should be agreed that the first two points are proven but not the third, then Mark becomes the default written source for John (either directly from Mark or indirectly through Luke) and constitutes the proto-gospel behind the other three.
The difficulty I must overcome is how to show that Mark and John know so many of the same stories when there is so little verbal agreement in the two gospels and that so few stories in John look very much like those in Mark.
At the conclusion of my study I will argue that almost every non-speech episode in John has a literary parallel in Mark and that the two gospels agree on sequential order in approximately two-thirds of such stories. Additionally, in several stories outside of the sequential order (and an explanation for why those stories are out of order will be provided) we will see that several details within the stories also follow a common sequential order. In a moment, I’ll explain my methodology and approach but let me first discuss some matters concerning the literary relations that do or don’t exist among the four gospels.»