In reading through the late Bishop John Shelby Spong's book on "Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism" he writes about the Gospel of John containing a reference to the high priestly prayer of Jesus (John 17):

The words of Jesus, coming as they do in elaborate discourse, show evidence of long theological development and cannot possibly have been the literal words of the historic Jesus. In what is called the high priestly prayer (chap. 17), for example, Jesus reportedly says "that they may know thee, the only true God and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent." Strange it would be indeed if Jesus of Nazareth had talked about himself in the third person and in theological terms that did not emerge until the latter part of the first century. In the synoptic tradition, Jesus enjoyed silence upon those who would broadcast his divine origin or his secret identity. In the Fourth Gospel, however, this identity was all but shouted from the rooftops. (p. 186)

Is this text from John's Gospel to be understood as containing redacted, but still verbatim accounts? Are there any examples of people talking about themselves in the third person, using their own name for emphasis?

  • 1
    please add the text you are referring to.
    – steveowen
    Sep 15, 2021 at 23:38
  • The word of God has no need to be 'rescued'. It needs to be studied and it needs to be believed. Just because a certain person is not capable of extempore utterance does not mean nobody else is.
    – Nigel J
    Sep 16, 2021 at 6:21
  • 1
    It would be great if you can quote a larger text along with what exact position is held by Shelby, concerning the historicity of the John's gospel. Does he say it is a later tradition and not authentic gospel of John? I am all for believing the whole Gospel narrative as midrash by John. But Shelby was an atheist/agnostic who rejected the historical resurrection of Christ.
    – Michael16
    Sep 17, 2021 at 15:08
  • I edited the above to include more of what Bishop Spong wrote. From a form critical perspective would it be possible to defend this section of the Gospel of John as reflecting the historiographical method of Lucian of Samosata "On Writing History" (39) that: "The one task of the historian is to describe things exactly as they happened."? Midrash was a technique for commenting on ancient scripture. But I'm not sure that is what the editor of the Gospel of John has in mind.
    – Jess
    Sep 17, 2021 at 21:31

3 Answers 3


This is one of the very few cases where I would agree with (some of) Shelby Spong BUT for quite different reasons.

Unlike Spong, I have no reason to doubt that what is recorded in john 17 are the words of Jesus, albeit, in summary form.

That Jesus' prayer was almost certainly much longer that the summary found in John 17 is demonstrated by at least two facts:

  • Jesus prayed for hours throughout the night before being arrested. That is, He prayed for much longer than the prayer in John 17 takes to read.
  • Other parts of the the same prayer that are not recorded in John 17 are found in Matt 26 where Jesus prayed, "If it is possible that the cup be taken from me ..." (V36-44).

Thus, while the words of Jesus are recorded in John 17, it is in abbreviated form - there was possibly much more that was not necessary for us to know.

  • +1 Our answers seem best when combined.
    – Perry Webb
    Sep 16, 2021 at 8:56
  • So the Holy Spirit (John 14:26, 16:13-15) was unable to accomplish this? Sep 17, 2021 at 15:30
  • @RevelationLad - "unable to accomplish" what? John says that he did not record everything that Jesus did in John 21:25.
    – Dottard
    Sep 17, 2021 at 21:08
  • It is fascinating how you can twist the statement John did not record everything, into an admission what he did record was something other than what Jesus did say (and ignore John saying Jesus said the Holy Spirit would remind them of everything He said). Sep 17, 2021 at 22:41
  • @RevelationLad - John 21:25 - Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written. What is being "twisted"? AND - what was the Holy Spirit unable to accomplish? Two questions unanswered!
    – Dottard
    Sep 17, 2021 at 23:29

While I disagree with Shelby's claim and believe John 17 gives a historically accurate account of what Jesus said, there is evidence that that discourses had to summarize what was said to fit into the Gospels and Acts.

Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written. (John 21:25, ESV)

Here is what John word about the historical accuracy of his accounts.

This is the disciple who is bearing witness about these things, and who has written these things, and we know that his testimony is true. (John 21:24, ESV)

And you also will bear witness, because you have been with me from the beginning. (John 15:27, ESV)

 He who saw it has borne witness—his testimony is true, and he knows that he is telling the truth—that you also may believe. (John 19:35, ESV)

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— 2 the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us— 3 that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. (1 John 1:1–3, ESV)

While it is true that Jesus was probably speaking Hebrew/Aramaic, it was accurately translated into Greek. The use of third person may mean an indirect quote because of translation, or Jesus my have used third person. Note: John in his gospel used third person for himself. And, Paul sometimes used third person of himself.

Jesus' use of Jesus Christ in the discourse is probably a matter of clarity in the point. It definitely showed he intended his prayer to be heard by the disciples.

Also see In John 3:16 why the shift to aorist and perfect tense verbs?.

  • Thanks. In particular I was thinking about how likely is a person going to mention their name in a third person style in prayer or communication with others? I suspect that is something that Donald Trump might do (admittedly not the best example for comparison). However, I'm looking at less egotistical examples that could be used from a form critical perspective in the support that this passage contains, in an abbreviated manner, the exact words of Jesus.
    – Jess
    Sep 16, 2021 at 17:39
  • @Jess See edit.
    – Perry Webb
    Sep 16, 2021 at 18:30
  • I agree - this is also an excellent answer. +1.
    – Dottard
    Sep 17, 2021 at 23:30

I take issue with Shelby's bold proclamations that it "cannot possibly have been the literal words of the historic Jesus".

This type of boast is never good on topics like these.

Having said that, if you've read John's writings as thoroughly, and as many times as most obsessive Christians :), and also the words of Jesus in all books, you will notice they are different in John's books.

John speaks in a unique way. He is very black & white with little middle ground, a very little grey. It's quite striking and even off-putting sometimes.

Note in 1 John 4

7Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.

6whoever knows God listens to us; but whoever is not from God does not listen to us

Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God.

It's like in Logic 101...All cows with spots...

These are absolute Assertions. But are they really Absolute? A Logician might say reality allows wiggle room in the premises that the conclusion does not allow.

A person can acknowledge that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh and still not be a True Christian if they acknowledge some of the other awful Heresies.

John speaks like this and when he quotes Jesus - Jesus also speaks like this.

Jesus does speak like this sometimes in the synoptic gospels but not as stark as in John. Also, in his epistle, James, the brother of Jesus speaks a heck of a lot like Jesus does in the Synoptics suggesting James may have heard a lifetime of Jesus drilling his ideas into James at the dinner table :)

BTW, this way of speaking in black & white has always caused me to doubt, at least a little bit, that this John wrote Revelation (but because it's Old Testament-style prophetic message, I think it deserves some allowance).

Anyway, it's an interesting question and demonstrates the latitude the apostles were given in order to bring the message to us.

  • Hi James, welcome to BH-Stack Exchange, we are glad you are here. Please be sure to take the site tour and read our code of conduct. Thanks! Sep 16, 2021 at 7:36
  • Hi James. Part of the problem is that those who write about what others have said will often filter out what they think is not relevant. For example, I could write two different accounts of what Martin Luther wrote about on a given subject. In one account, I could use some really foul words that make him sound like a jerk. In another account, I could make him sound angelic. Both accounts could still be verbatim accounts.
    – Jess
    Sep 16, 2021 at 17:48

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