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I've heard that there is a recent trend to see the Fourth Gospel - despite its obvious theological purpose as compared to especially Luke - as actually more chronological than the Synoptics. Wikipedia seems to rely pretty heavily on arguments by John Robinson for this position. Are there other more recent pieces of scholarship that support this position?

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up vote 7 down vote accepted

A few sources that might be helpful on this are as follows:

  1. Andreas Köstenberger A Theology of John's Gospel and Letters: The Word, the Christ, the Son of God
  2. D. A. Carson The Gospel According to John
  3. Mark Strauss Four Portraits, One Jesus

Köstenberger argues extensively for the historicity of John's gospel. He surveys the history of scholarship in Johannine studies in his first chapter, "Johannine Theology and the Historical Setting of John's Gospel and Letters." Particularly helpful sections in this chapter include 1.3 Prolegomena, 2.1.2 The Quest for the Historical Setting of John's Gospel, and Chronology of Jesus' Ministry in John's Gospel. He spends more time on the historical setting of the gospel itself than he does on the relationship to the Synoptics. If he does cover that question in more detail elsewhere, I can't remember it. I highly recommend Köstenberger's work to anyone interested in Johannine studies. He also has a commentary on John's gospel, but I don't have ready access to that.

Carson includes a ten page discussion of the relationship between John's Gospel and the Synoptics (pp. 49-58). I have only skimmed this section, but it really appears that Carson argues for the interlocking nature of the historical events recorded in the Synoptics and John's gospel. For instance, see below:

The lessons gleaned from this pattern of interlocking traditions have some bearing on the larger array of perceived chronological and other contradictions that lie between John and the Synoptics. In particular, one must constantly ask whether there is some larger historical reality that supports both the witness of John and the witness of one or more of the Synoptics. (p. 55)

And then later:

More generally, though the Christological distinctiveness of John's gospel should not be denied, it should not be exaggerated. True, only this Gospel explicitly designates Jesus 'God' (1:1, 18; 20:28); but this Gospel also insists not only on Jesus' humanity but on his profound subordination to the Father (cf. especially the notes on 5:16-30). Conversely, the Synoptists, for all their portrayal of Jesus as a man, portray him as the one who has the right to forgive sins (Mk. 2:1-13 par. -- and who can forgive sins but God alone?), and relate parables in which Jesus transparently takes on the metaphorical role most commonly assigned to God in the Old Testament. (p. 57)

Carson concludes as follows regarding the relationship of John's gospel to the Synoptics:

In short, the variegated relationship that John enjoys with the Synoptic Gospels, far from calling into question the Fourth Gospel's essential authenticity, on close inspection either supports it or allows for it on every hand. (p. 58)

I only mentioned Strauss because he has some helpful (though basic) discussion of the chronology of Jesus' ministry that incorporates material from both John and the Synoptics, including some helpful charts that highlight chronological references in John and how they fit within an overall chronology (pp. 405-408).

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A belated welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics! From your profile, it seems you're more qualified to answer this than I am, so I look forward to your review of the book. ;-) – Jon Ericson Nov 5 '11 at 19:09
Thank for the recommendation! – Soldarnal Nov 5 '11 at 19:36

If such scholarship exists, I don't know about it. But there is a slightly nuanced position that suggests that the material in the Fourth Gospel has at least as much, if not more, historical weight than the Synoptics. What you seem to be asking for is scholar who takes John's chronology over, say, Mark's every time. That seems a tall order since the prevailing theory seems to be that no New Testament text was as uptight about chronology as we are today.

An excellent example of a scholar who puts a great deal of faith in the historical accuracy of the stories in John is Ben Witherington III who has proposed the rather novel theory that the Beloved Disciple is Lazarus. If so, the material in John is as intimate a portrait of Jesus as could possibly be imagined. How many biographies are written by someone the subject has raised from the dead?

Almost everyone believes that John was written independently of the Synoptics and may not have even had access to them. That means that John provides important confirmation of details of Jesus' life when it includes stories that overlap. (For instance, the story of the woman anointing Jesus' feet in John 12:1-8 and Mark 14:3-9.) But where they disagree, we must pick and choose based on the evidence (and our theory of the how the texts came to be written).

Most scholars that I've read, hold that John was compiled rather late (but no later than 125 and probably much earlier). Thus the order of the stories do not reflect the historical chronology as well as they might in Mark. (The cleansing of the Temple might have been moved to the front of the Fourth Gospel for thematic reasons, for instance.) On the other hand, if the stories in John are from an early source (whether Lazarus or John son of Zebedee or some other eyewitness), it may have more authentic details related to chronology. Perhaps the most important timing difference is John 13:1 (ESV):

Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.

Mark 14:12 (ESV):

And on the first day of Unleavened Bread, when they sacrificed the Passover lamb, his disciples said to him, “Where will you have us go and prepare for you to eat the Passover?”

So was the Last Supper a Passover meal or was it the day before the Feast of the Passover? If you take John's material as largely ahistorical, the answer is it was a Passover meal. However, if the stories recorded in John have a historical basis, there's a strong case to be made that Mark and other witnesses misunderstood that Jesus celebrated the feast early or had a meal that only resembled the Passover meal. (And of course there are many attempts to reconcile the stories as well. These also assume the detail in John is reliable.)

[But perhaps there is scholarship I don't know about that supports even a chronological ordering in John.]

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Considering Passovers is interesting here - the Synoptics have one, while John has more (three, four?). The chronology in the Synoptics seems a little simplified with just Galilee then Jerusalem. But I like your point "no New Testament text was as uptight about chronology as we are today." Quite right :) – ed. Nov 6 '11 at 8:53
Also... just a thought since you've sparked my interest :) John must have known at least some shared traditions (Mark, proto-Mark...?) with the Synoptics, for example: he seems to assume that his readers will know about John the Baptist's fate while he never describes it (c.f. John 3:24). – ed. Nov 6 '11 at 8:57
@ed: Hmmm... from that point, I could see arguing for either a very early date (because John's death could be "current events" like 9/11 is now) or a much later date (because the fate of John would be recorded elsewhere). – Jon Ericson Nov 7 '11 at 16:54

If John has an "obvious theological purpose" then, in my view, the default position should be that, although no doubt authentic, it is not likely to be more chronologically correct than are the synoptic gospels. At various times, three different hypotheses have been put forward to explain the sources of John's Gospel:

  1. The 'beloved disciple' was actually the author of John. This is an attractive option that would mean that John's author actually knew the correct chronology of events and was seeking to correct the synoptic accounts. This hypothesis no longer has much support among New Testament scholars.
  2. The author used a now-lost 'Signs Source' for much of the material in his Gospel. This hypothesis was put forward by Rudolf Bultmann in 1941 and was influential during most of the second half of the twentieth century.
  3. The author used one of more of the synoptic gospels as his source but felt free to alter details and the chronology of events, to suit his theological and political purposes. This is the view held by many critical scholars in the twenty first century.

John A. T. Robinson (1919-1983) reflects a much earlier position in New Testament thinking. He concludes John was written quite early, sometime between AD 40 and AD 65 or later, and plausibly within the lifetime of John the apostle. This view has not been taken up among most modern scholars of Biblical historicism.

Carson (The Gospel According to John, 1991), a slightly more recent author than Robinson, argues for the historicity of John but says (pages 22-23) there are several chronological difficulties that must be addressed, in particular the chronology of the passion, which seems so ideosyncratic that it has generated complex theories to explain the differences.

Köstenberger also argues for the historicity of John in Encountering John (2001), so clearly there continue to be those who hold this view into the twenty first century. However, he says (page 200) that John's entire gospel is as much a commentary on the significance of Jesus' life as it is a simple record of what Jesus said and did. Does this mean that Köstenberger accepts that, while no doubt historically accurate, events may have been reordered to suit a theological purpose?

Robert Kysar (John, the Maverick Gospel, third edition (2007), pages 9-10) points out that the Last Supper was a Passover celebration in the synoptic gospels, but that in the fourth gospel Jesus was crucified at the very time the Passover lambs were being slain for the Passover feast that would follow. Kysar suggests this parallel to be a deliberate allusion to the nature of Jesus' death. He also associates this with the words of the Baptist in John 1:29: "Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world." There is a clear theological purpose here.

In the synoptic gospels, the Cleansing of the Temple is the last public act of Jesus and the "last straw" that results in his opponents seeking to have him crucified (Mark 11:18). As Kyser points out (page 11), in John's Gospel it is the raising of Lazarus that is the trigger for the determination to arrest Jesus. The Cleansing of the Temple is moved out of the way in the narrative, to the beginning of Jesus' public mission.

As demonstrated above, most recent scholarship on John's Gospel does not support the view that it is more chronologically correct than the synoptic gospels.

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