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An introduction to St John's Gospel - St Paul's Theological Centre

Saturday 17th January 2009

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, spoke to students of St Paul's Theological Centre, London, about St John's gospel. This is an edited version of the transcript of the first of his two talks:

St John's Gospel has had a very strange time during the 20th Century. At almost any time between 100 years ago and 50 years ago, the story that you would have heard from a lot of scholars about the fourth gospel would have gone something like this:

"St John's Gospel is clearly written in the second century. It's not by an eye witness. It is a piece of textual composition with quite a complicated history where an early level of very, very speculative and rather unorthodox theology has been uneasily married to a later editor's work smoothing it all out. It was very, very popular with Gnostic heretics in the second century and the mainstream church took quite a long time to accept it in its full integrity. As a source for history, it's very unreliable and it presents us with a highly complex theology whose relationship with the Synoptic gospels and with St Paul is pretty difficult to work out."

Now one of the interesting things about the last half century or so is that more or less every element in that scholarly consensus has been questioned at best and demolished at worst.

It is a helpful warning that when any New Testament scholar talks about the established results of biblical scholarship you need to have your red lights flashing. This is really a very unreliable way of approaching it and I want to take some of those assumptions and show how they've been undermined or challenged

But let me just give you one story which I think illustrates some of the misunderstandings of the fourth gospel that have sometimes been around.

You'll remember in St John's Gospel the story of what happens with the crippled person at the Pool of Bethesda in Jerusalem.

'There is in Jerusalem a pool with five porticos...' (John 5:2)

'Well,' said scholars of a certain generation, '...that is manifestly an allegory. It's about the five senses or perhaps it's about the five books of Moses or something like that.'

But, sure enough, very embarrassingly, excavations in Jerusalem during the later 20th Century revealed a large pool with five chambers – just by the sheep gate in Jerusalem.

Some of you may even have seen the ruins of this quite big complex of public baths inside the sheep gate with the five chambers and five big arches.

So that's a kind of warning shot not to assume you know what St John is doing in his gospel.

But let's take the simplest question first of all: the date.

As I say, it was widely assumed a century or so ago that St John's Gospel must have been written in the second century at least.

Why? Because it shows quite a complex, advanced theology. It begins, as you might say, in heaven: In the beginning was the Word.

It starts with the assumption that if you relate to Jesus, you don't simply relate to another human being, you relate to the eternal self-expression of God.

And the argument went: 'Surely, that's something people only worked out rather late in the day? It must have taken them nearly 100 years to come to that sort of conclusion, mustn't it?'

What has unsettled that kind of assumption has been a mixture of understanding more deeply what's going on in the New Testament overall and some bits of very straightforward history.

The earliest surviving piece of the New Testament on paper (or on papyrus rather), can be dated with some confidence before 120 AD. That is an extract from St John's Gospel.

Because this was found in Egypt, and St John's Gospel almost certainly wasn't written in Egypt, you can begin to trace it back...

The year 120AD is about the latest it can be. So it was in Egypt by 120... It must have been copied several times... so that takes us 10 years' back.

It probably came from Asia Minor, where it must have spread from one church to another... These things don't happen overnight... let's give that another 10 years.

You're already back to 100 and counting, so to speak. So simply on the grounds of what people were familiar with, and using the texts that were around in the earliest days of the church, it would be very, very unsafe to say that St John's Gospel was written after 100 AD – very unsafe.

And again, people have said there aren't very many quotations from St John's gospel in the earliest Christian writings outside the New Testament, but what you do have is quite a number of what you might call echoes or allusions which sound very John-shaped.

Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch at the beginning of the second century, one of the most formidable theologians of that[ continued from previous page}

period, whose letters on his way to be martyred in Rome are among the earliest surviving Christian documents, never gives you a quote from St John's gospel.

Yet he speaks about 'the word coming out of silence', he speaks about being 'born not of blood but of Spirit' and if he hasn't read the fourth gospel, then he's been talking to somebody who has.

And in a way it's that kind of thing (the allusion not the quotation) which suggests how widely diffused the Gospel already was.

Just as we in conversation might refer to a passage of the Bible that we perhaps don't remember very exactly, but we've been familiar with for a long time, and we expect somebody else to be familiar with, so when people allude in this general way, that does suggest it's already part of the common deposit. It's not new.

In writing an article for the newspaper, if I wanted to respond to something somebody else had said a week before, I'd need to get the words right. It would be new, I'd have to get it straight.

But I might very well, writing an article for the newspaper say, use a phrase like 'the marriage of true minds' (Shakespeare).

Everybody vaguely remembers doing a bit of Shakespeare at school, and perhaps they did the sonnet about the marriage of true minds.

That's the kind of middle distance reference which suggests here in Syria at the beginning of the second century quite a lot of people are already familiar with St John's Gospel or something very, very like it.

So it now looks as if AD100 is not the earliest but the latest in which this gospel can come.

The Gospel has quite a bit to say about people being thrown out of synagogues and rejected by the Jewish people. And that might suggest that another fixed point in the story is the first moment at which Jewish rabbinical authorities began to exclude Christian believers from synagogues – a point at which the so-called 'Benediction of the Heretics' was introduced into Jewish daily prayers. That is where every morning you thank God that you're not a heretic including a Nazarene, a Christian.

That's probably around AD90, so it could be that between 90 and 100 is the safest kind of location of the Gospel.

But there is also the possibility that the language about being thrown out of synagogues and excluded from the Jewish community goes back a little bit further – and doesn't just depend on what happened in AD90.

So if I had to come down on that question of the date I'd be inclined to say between 70 and 100 – probably later rather than earlier during that period.

Where's it from and who's it from?

Second century sources in Asia Minor (which was a major Christian centre of course at that point) have quite a bit to say about John, and the tradition he represents, and the Gospel.

And there's a very solid and I think pretty convincing body of evidence that suggests that somewhere in Asia Minor is quite a likely place for the Gospel to have been written.

The Apostle John is associated with Ephesus in Christian tradition from again that very early stage.

And from probably the second quarter of the second century we have some records of people's first hand memories of the Apostle John and some others who were still passing on eye witness first hand recollections from the apostles in Asia Minor. So there is quite a good chance that it's Asia Minor and that it is associated with John.

But who's John?

Well, the obvious answer is John, son of Zebedee (Peter, James and John, you know, the big three of the synoptic gospels) and that's what's been taken for granted by the huge majority of Christians throughout the centuries.

Here is a document claiming eye witness relationship with Jesus, it's under the name of John, we know Jesus had an Apostle called John, so what's the problem?

Well, there are one or two little local difficulties about this. One is that in the second century our sources around 140, 150, mention two people called John who lived in Ephesus who'd been disciples of Jesus.

One of them is John son of Zebedee, the other is simply referred to as John the Elder.

And it's not absolutely clear which of these two might be associated with the Gospel because John the Elder is described as a disciple of the Lord, had first hand eye witness contact, but was not one of the 12.

So it might be that the author was not John son of Zebedee, the fisherman, it's John the Elder whoever he was.

Now the Gospel presents itself very clearly as an eye witness report and you'll remember some of the passages in which that comes over most dramatically and most powerfully

For example, chapter 19, verse 35: 'The man who saw it has given testimony and his testimony is true. He knows he tells the truth and he testifies so that you also may believe', which is presumably an editorial comment just reminding you at this point in the story of the crucifixion that this is eye witness stuff.

Likewise, in John 21: 24: 'This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true.'

And the disciple who's being talked about there in John 21 is the one described as 'the disciple Jesus loved', just as in chapter 19 we've already seen the disciple Jesus loved at the cross with Mary, the mother of Jesus.

So it looks very much as if the claim is that the chap who wrote this is the disciple Jesus loved, this John son of Zebedee.

Or is it this other mysterious John the Elder?

Well, 'we don't know' is the short answer to that.

People say John son of Zebedee is a north country fisherman and couldn't have written a book as sophisticated as the Gospel of John, so it must be somebody else who was cleverer.

I sort of worry a little bit about that. Nearly all rabbis in first century Palestine actually had jobs – you know, manual jobs – as well, like St Paul being a tent maker.

So this 'illiterate north country fisherman' might be a bit of a figment of the imagination. Don't take it for granted that because John son of Zebedee is a member of a family that has a fishing business, he couldn't necessarily read or write, or work out the ideas of the Gospel. So that's a bit of a caution.

And the other point which carries some weight (with me I must admit) is the beloved disciple, the disciple Jesus loved, is involved throughout the fourth gospel very, very closely with the 12.

He's there with Peter, he's there at the Last Supper, he's in all the places where actually John son of Zebedee is in the other gospels and there's not very much hint that somehow, mysteriously, some other bloke has been drafted in.

So at the end of the day (this is a very old fashioned sort of conclusion), I still think there's a lot to be said for John son of Zebedee as the author of the fourth gospel.

But even if that were not the case, and we were taken back to the mysterious John the Elder, the claim for eye witness testimony is strong and clear and the continuity of witness and transmission of memory and tradition is also clear.

Again, there are obviously difficulties about this – and they're difficulties that have been noticed throughout the centuries.

John's Gospel has enormously long discourses. The Jesus of St John's Gospel doesn't immediately sound much like the Jesus of the other three gospels.

He doesn't tell many parables; he speaks not in complex terms; he doesn't use a technical vocabulary; but he delivers very intricate discourses of great depth and subtlety – not quite like the blunt, short, direct address of the Sermon on the Mount or whatever.

Can we really believe that this is something remembered word by word across several decades by John, son of Zebedee or John the Elder or whoever?

Is it eye witness in the sense that it's reporting exactly what Jesus said?

I suspect that there again we may just possibly be asking the wrong kind of question. And let me paint a picture here which carries some sort of conviction for me.

John, obviously, by the end of the first century is quite an old man. Like every member of his society and culture, he has a very good memory.

People in cultures like that have very powerful memories. They can remember long discourses and they're used to recalling quite extensive communications of various kinds.

At the same time, they are not, as it were, walking tape recorders, and their memory can also be filled out and expanded with what you might call mental footnotes.

But I'd like to think of John sitting in the middle of a group of his disciples and they say, 'Tell us about the time when Jesus was talking to Nicodemus.'

And John says, 'Nicodemus came to Jesus by night and Nicodemus said this and Jesus said that...'

Let's go to the text, because it's of course one of the very greatest in the Gospel.

As the conversation moves on, Jesus is talking to Nicodemus: 'No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven, the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert so the Son of Man must be lifted up so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.'

And I imagine John saying:

'And Jesus said to Nicodemus, "I spoke to you about earthly things and you don't believe. How will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?"'

Heavenly things...

'No one has gone into heaven except the Son of Man... Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness so that anyone who looked on it might have life... God so loved the world that he gave his Son...

And the disciples are thinking 'Is he quoting Jesus, or is he talking in his own right?'

Don't quite know...

And of course there are no inverted commas in Greek, so you don't quite know where it starts and stops – and I suspect there's a bit of that in the fourth gospel: people writing down the dictation of the old apostle and not being quite sure where the quotes stop and the reflection starts.

And that's all right– it's all the work of the Spirit – but if you wanted to go through the fourth gospel underlining exactly what is supposed to be said by Jesus and what's said by others, there are some borderline cases I think and that's one of them.

'God so loved the world that he gave his only Son...'

Is that less powerful and converting if it's the word of the evangelist rather than the word of Jesus himself?

The short answer I think is it's the word of the Holy Spirit whether it's a direct quote from Jesus or from the evangelist.

And when we move into those extraordinary discourses at the Last Supper (the farewell discourses in chapters 14 to 17) again I'm not quite sure I can put my hand on my heart and say, 'I'm certain exactly what's direct reporting and exactly what is a kind of mental footnote'.

I don't know, but I don't lose too much sleep over it. I do suspect that the great prayer of Jesus in chapter 17 is meant to be the prayer of Jesus because it is that – a prayer.

It's one piece, one composition and so I think that's a slightly different case.

But generally in the Gospel it's not easy to draw those lines with absolute clarity. And John 3:16 ff is a good example and John 3:31 ff is another good example.

Is that the Apostle quoting John the Baptist or is it the Apostle just ruminating? We don't know, but it's the Holy Spirit.

So, in terms of place and authorship and character, I think that there's still a very strong case to be made for seeing it as relatively early – as genuinely eye-witness-based as from someone who was very close to Jesus, but whose writing is informed by a sort of reflective penetration on the words he quotes.

The great Victorian poet Robert Browning wrote a wonderful piece called 'A Death in the Desert' in which he imagines the aged apostle hiding from persecution in a cave in the desert and reflecting on his Gospel and his memories of Jesus.

It's a fantastic poem and one of the great theological poems of the 19th Century. One of the lines in it is, 'What first was seen as points are now seen as stars.'

You see a sort of distant point in the sky, a little pinprick of light, and suddenly realise it's a star.

It's a whole world and Browning imagines St John looking back on his memories, each event, each saying – a sort of point of light.

And a lifetime of reflection has made him realise there's a whole world inside each one of these tiny dots of light.

I think that's a marvellous image for John's Gospel. We're not just looking at, as I say, a human tape recorder, we're looking at the witness, the testimony of someone who has had a lifetime of praying, thinking and absorbing the life changing memory of being in the company of Jesus.

That really is the heart of the Gospel, any gospel, but the fourth gospel in particular.

One or two other points about this overall framework... One is about style.

Back to John the illiterate fisherman. He couldn't have written a book like that? Well, actually, the language of John's Gospel is very, very simple. It's the ideas that are complicated.

The language is in many ways simpler than almost any other book of the New Testament. The vocabulary is quite small, the sentences are quite short, and some of them are quite clearly transmitted by and designed for repetition, memorising and repeating.

So, the one thing you can't say about John's Gospel is that it's a hugely sophisticated literary work in the classical style. The language is simple and direct, though you really do have to work quite hard.

If you look at the introduction to St Luke's Gospel, or at the letter to the Hebrews, you'll see what New Testament Greek looks like in the hands of somebody who's read probably rather too many textbooks.

St Luke in the first paragraph of his Gospel shows that he can write really sort of pompous civil service Greek of the most elaborate kind. He's read the books.

And the writer to the Hebrews, again, begins that massive, unrolling sentence about different times and different places. It's a great bit of Greek Beethoven. It's symphonic and grand and not very easy to follow and it goes on and on with lots of subordinate clauses.

And as for St Paul, well, St Paul had many virtues but writing crystal clear Greek was not one of them because St Paul is again striding up and down his prison cell with some poor secretary scratching away getting lost in the middle of the sentence, saying, 'No, no, that's not what I mean, hang on, um, did I have a verb in that sentence? Er, no, let's start that one again...'

...and the secretary scratching away and re-writing. Paul is thinking on his feet very dramatically.

John's Gospel is like neither of those. It's not pompous civil service stuff or elaborate rhetoric and it's not walking up and down muttering and trying to work out complicated ideas.

It's measured, it's careful, it's rhythmical and poetic. It's beautifully constructed, but it is extremely simple.

Just pick up the Gospel and pick somewhere literally at random... Ah yes, here we are – it's quite a good example really. It's Chapter 11, the raising of Lazarus.

I've got the Greek here, so let's take John 11:28 onwards...

So having said this, off she went and she called her sister Mary. 'The teacher's here' she said, 'He's asking for you'. Mary, hearing this, got up straight away. Off she went to him. Jesus hadn't yet come into the village. He was still at the place where Martha had met him".

It's as simple as it comes. It's very, very blunt, memorable, direct.

Even in the exalted prose of Jesus' discourses at the Last Supper, take another very familiar passage, 14, 15ff:

'If you love me, you will keep my commandments. I will ask the Father. He will give you another advocate to be with you for ever: the Spirit of truth.'

Now you can spend several weeks thinking about what that means, but one thing you can't complain about is the style. It's direct and simple.

And that is one of the important things about the fourth gospel. It's immensely rich at the level of language, but also it's not complex. It doesn't have a philosophical jargon in it at all.

As I said, it's got quite a small vocabulary and so the illiterate fisherman stuff doesn't really wash as far as language is concerned.

And as for the ideas, well, who knows what a fisherman may work out over 50 years of discipleship – or anybody for that matter.

John is very selective about what he tells us, that's another feature of the Gospel. It is obviously selective and indeed he tells us so himself famously at the very end of the Gospel – twice in fact at the end of Chapter 20 and Chapter 21.

In 20:30, we read:

Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples which are not recorded in this book, but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the son of God, and by believing you may have life in his name.

And at the end of 21:

Jesus did many other things as well, if every one of them were written down, I suppose even the whole world would not contain the books that would be written.

John is telling us this is a selective book. If you want the life and letters of Jesus of Nazareth in three volumes, this is not it. This is what you need to know to bring faith alive.

So rather than cataloguing a lot of miracles or a lot of parables or a lot of sayings, as the other Gospels perhaps do at times, clustering miracle stories together, John says, 'I'm going to give you a lot of different types of miracles. Here's a multiplication of loaves miracle, here's a raising of the dead miracle... That sort of thing.

He doesn't claim to be doing it all but these are the kinds of thing you need to know. Jesus is someone who does this sort of thing and this sort of thing and this sort of thing.

And that means that each of the miracle stories in John's Gospel has a kind of aura around it of reflection, controversy, interpretation – Jesus did this and this is what it meant.

The most dramatic example of that I suppose is the wonderfully extended story of the healing of the blind man in John chapter nine, though the raising of Lazarus bears on that as well.

But in John chapter nine the sort of incident which Matthew, Mark and Luke deal with in three or four lines is highly dramatic narrative that extends over a whole chapter with, as various people have pointed out, remarkably realistic dialogue.

Dorothy Sayers when she wrote her wonderful series of radio plays on the life of Christ noted that you could put all that into a radio script without changing a word.

So John isn't out to give you a comprehensive picture of everything Jesus did, but this is what you need to know. Here is one kind of miracle, here is another kind of miracle.

There are at least three extraordinary gaps in John: there's no Christmas story, there's no transfiguration story and there's no story of the establishing of the Lord's Supper – important moments in Matthew and Luke and indeed two of them in Mark.

The transfiguration was the sort of pivot of the whole story, the revelation of the glory and the tragedy that's to come, the turning point of the narrative in the other three Gospels.

No Transfiguration story in John.

The Last Supper, which is the framework for the establishing of Holy Communion in the other three gospels.

No mention of the sharing of bread and wine in John. And of course, as I say, no Christmas story.

So what's going on? It raises the interesting question of whether John has read the other gospels and assumes his readers know them and actually I think the answer is yes, he did know at least St Luke's Gospel and yes, he does expect his readers to be familiar with other stories.

But those three are very interesting examples because you could say that rather than making them one episode in the narrative, John is telling the whole of his story to show that the Christmas event, the transfiguration event and the communion event are actually going on all the time.

The whole of the Gospel is about the word being flesh, God's communication being real embodied in us. The whole of the thing is a Christmas story, and the whole story is a transfiguration story

The revelation of God's glory is there from chapter one.

Right the way through it 'glory' is a word that's used again and again and again in the Gospel. And although there's no story of the establishing of holy communion, the great meditation in chapter six, which is the pivotal moment in John's Gospel – the story of the feeding of the 5,000 with the reflection on feeding on the word of God and taking Jesus into yourself as if you were eating him – that's there as if you like a hidden agenda in stories about other things.

So I think there's a quite deliberate move on the part of John to divert your attention from the incidents and to show you the incidents themselves are realities that run through the whole of Jesus' life. So it's another bit of the writing technique worth thinking about.

One or two other problems arise in thinking about the text and its style and movement overall, and I'll just touch on those before trying to wind up and get ready to move on to some deeper examination of the themes.

Here's one of the really difficult ones: is the Gospel of John anti-Semitic? These characters called 'the Jews' (40:17) appear throughout the Gospel as the opponents of Jesus and Jesus is extraordinarily harsh about them and towards them.

'You are of your father, the devil,' he says to them at one point. And 'the Jews' operate as this kind of nightmare, oppressive presence in the background.

People are afraid of 'the Jews'. The doors are shut for fear of 'the Jews'.

And it's not entirely surprising that in the Middle Ages and afterwards, texts from the fourth gospel could be picked up by Christians with anti-Semitic interests.

And in the 20th and 21st centuries, it has been extremely difficult and embarrassing to have these texts, if you like, highlighted against a background of what modern anti-Semitism means.

Is John guilty of demonising the Jews? Is he responsible for Christian anti-Semitism?

Well, the question's been put with tremendous force and passion in the last half century and more, and I think the answer is again quite a complex one.

The first thing to say is that of course John is writing in the context of a small Christian community with a larger Jewish parent community around it, which is very hostile.

I mentioned earlier the exclusions of Christians from the synagogue that were going on from AD90 onwards.

And so it's not simply a case of a Christian establishment looking down on Jewish neighbours – powerful Christians, weak Jews – but a question of a Christian minority with a Jewish religious establishment around it which is concerned to push it out. So bear that in mind.

But even if that is the case, of course that doesn't justify a deep negativity, a demonising of the Jews as a whole, and so one has to read very carefully.

You have to note for example that in the fourth chapter where Jesus is talking to the woman at the well in Samaria, he says, 'Salvation comes from the Jews'.

It's important that Jesus is Jewish and that is written large on every single page. Jesus and his associates are Jewish; they keep the Jewish law; the allusions made are to Jewish scripture; and salvation is from the Jews.

Even the rival claim of the Samaritans to have a sort of alternative tradition is in effect dismissed by Jesus.

Where the woman of Samaria says 'So, are you right or are we right?' and Jesus says, 'We're not into competing about who's right and who's wrong here, but I have to tell you the story is the Jewish story' and that's where we get the energy, the movement, the logic of what's happening.

You also have to note that the term clearly – in some contexts at least – means Judeans, the local people of the south, as opposed to Galileans in the north.

And the local people of the south, the Judean area, these are the ones who are most hostile to Jesus.

So sometimes, it may be, one ought to translate the 'Judeans' rather than the 'Jews'.

Occasionally I've thought that the best way of translating it in some of the later chapters is 'the locals' because the point is not that 'the Jews' as a whole are diabolically hostile to Jesus, but the local people in Jerusalem and their leaders are diabolically hostile and show their parentage in the works of the Evil One.

So there are a number of things which ought to qualify any simple judgement that John is anti-Semitic, but I don't want to leave us feeling too comfortable about that.

There are lots of elements in the New Testament which have been used consistently to demonise and debase Jews, they are there. They come from a situation of bitter conflict between early Christians and their neighbouring Jewish communities and that's an historical fact and we can't get away from it.

That has absolutely damn all to do with how Christians relate to Jews and think of them theologically now I would say.

It has nothing to do with the kind of anti-Semitism that scrawl a kind of nightmarish trail of blood across the 20th century and still does today in many areas.

And yet there it is, and to be aware of it is to be aware of it.

These are dangerous texts. I'm sure if you'd gone up to St John and said, 'Do you realise that 20 centuries on, some of what you say is going to be used by people who want to kill Jews?' John would have been horrified.

But that's the history. That's where it comes from and it's part of the fact that Scripture – inspired as it is and a gift of God as it is – is nonetheless written in human language which can therefore be captured and distorted by human minds and human hearts.

So don't get too cosy about it and assume that it's all all right really. I don't think John is anti-Semitic in the modern sense, but the texts are there and they are explosive.

One last general thing about the actual narrative – the chronology of John. John clearly works to a slightly different chronology from that you find in the other gospels.

The most obvious example is of course the cleansing of the Temple. It's an event at the end of Jesus' ministry in the other three gospels. It's right at the beginning in John's Gospel.

There's also the famous or notorious conflict about whether Jesus was crucified on the day of Passover or the day before and you really do not want to know about the gallons of ink that have been expended on this in the last couple of hundred years and indeed further beyond that.

Now there are two ways you can approach that: John's narrative is very carefully planned and incidents are where they are for a good reason.

Therefore it may very well be that while the cleansing of the Temple happened at the end of Jesus' ministry, John wants to raise the curtain on Jesus' ministry with this dramatic story as if to say 'This will give you the clue for reading a lot of what's to come later.'

Likewise, it could be that in his account of the crucifixion he's making a particular kind of point about the relationship between Jesus and the Passover and the Paschal Lamb and a different point from the one that's being made elsewhere.

'They wanted to be able to eat the Passover' says John describing the High Priest's coming to Pilate on the morning of Good Friday and 'they want the body taken down early because the next day was a special Sabbath'.

John wants the right kind of distance, but also the right kind of relationship between Jesus and the sacrificed lamb of the Passover.

So perhaps he's got a reason for shuffling around a little bit the details in the other three gospels.

On the other hand, perhaps that's just how it was, and perhaps the eye witness element in John ought to lead us to take rather more seriously the idea that maybe the cleansing of the Temple was at the beginning and maybe he's right about the date of Passover.

I don't know. I think I feel differently about it on different days of the week. Either way, as I say, it's part of a responsible theological witness. It's not just idle shuffling of the pack.

So there are important things going on there, but in more general terms, it is very significant that John shows the pattern of Jesus' ministry as a sort of ebb and flow between Galilee and Jerusalem. It's a ministry extended over a longer time.

Jesus makes several visits to Jerusalem for Passover and other feasts, just as any pious Jew would have done, and the background of the Gospel therefore is more varied.

Many scholars I think would now agree that actually that's a rather more plausible picture of the ministry than the compressed version you find, let's say, in St Mark.

Mark is working always on this. It's a slightly kind of narrowly focused narrative – he's got a lot to get through in a short space.

So okay, here's the Galilee stuff, here's the Jerusalem stuff. Right. But he's not going to bother to move you backwards and forwards between Galilee and Jerusalem over the three year or four year cycle.

And I think that's probably right. I think it's extremely unlikely that the whole ministry of Jesus took place within just one year as Mark might lead you to believe.

I think it's extremely unlikely that Holy Week was the first time Jesus had been in Jerusalem for any feasts because, as I say, he was an observant Jew. He must have been there more than once.

The controversies between Jesus and the religious leadership, as represented in the earlier gospels, actually make far better sense if you imagine him encountering both in Galilee and in the heartland of orthodoxy and religious authority in Jerusalem.

So I rather think John is to be trusted on that timescale.

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