Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else believe on account of the works themselves.

John 14:10,11

Twice before in this Gospel Jesus has said words to this effect:

5:36, The works I do bear witness about me that the Father has sent me.

And 10:25, 37-38.

The works that I do in my Father's name bear witness about me…. If I am not doing the works of my Father then do not believe me; but if I do them, even if you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.

But those words before were spoken to the Jewish leaders who were not believing him. These words in John 14 are not spoken to antagonists, but to disciples, friends, men who supposedly already believed in him. But Philip has just said, “Show us the Father.” His request echoes prayer of Moses to the Lord God, “Show me your glory,” and Philip probably intended it as an expression of faith and confidence in Jesus. But to Jesus, Philip's request that he show them the Father revealed a crack in all their faith, a weakness, a fragility — something critical that they all had missed. They of all people should have known by now that the Father's glory had been shown to them all along through Jesus himself. So, he exhorts them to believe using the same language he used when addressing the unbelieving Jews.

Everyone who believes needs to know why he believes. It is not unspiritual to have reasons for your faith, it is necessary. This is the job of apologetics, which is to show the reasons why we believe—to show reasons to unbelievers in order to lead them to faith, and to show reasons to believers in order to strengthen and undergird their faith. The reason for this is that faith, by definition, is in something that can't be seen, felt, or proven beyond doubt. The disciples could see Jesus, but they could not see the Father. They had to take it by faith that in hearing Jesus and seeing his works they were hearing the Father's words and seeing the Father's works.

Clearly Jesus preferred that their belief should rest on the manifest truth that his teachings came from God. But understanding that people need to see a demonstration of that truth in action, he called on the disciples also to let the undeniable works that he has done direct their faith towards him.

Apologetics: Two Approaches

There are basically two kinds of apologetics, two approaches—or rather two directions from which to approach faith. One is called presuppositional apologetics, the other classical or evidential apologetics.

Presuppositional apologetics is about your starting point, your presuppositions. (Bear with me please, because I'm going to be using this word a lot here.) Presuppositions are the assumptions you make about what can and what cannot be true. Before you can know anything, learn anything, believe anything, you have to pre-suppose that some things are true that can't be proven, including the idea that some things are true and other things are not, and whether we can know anything. Everyone has presuppositions—but most people don't know what they are. Some presuppositions are self-evident, such as, “I exist.” You can't meaningfully deny that. But not all presuppositions are like that, and as L. Russ Bush says in A Handbook for Christian Philosophy, “No presupposition should be accepted if it cannot be justified. We should be able to give some reason for anything we believe. Our reasons may not be absolutely conclusive, but no assumption could be maintained as true if it had no rational basis at all.”

If our presuppositions are false or faulty, our reasoning is going to follow suit, and it is going to affect how we live. For example, if we believe that the material world is an illusion and not real it is likely to impede our scientific study of the world. On the other hand, if we believe that the only reality is material it is likely to rule out any kind of spiritual meaning that is rational.

But who determines what is true? Presuppositional apologetics seeks to show that God alone is the determiner of truth, and if that's not true then there is no truth.

Classical apologetics, on the other hand, recognizes that, (A) truth is reasonable and (B) truth always makes a mark and leaves evidence. Therefore it seeks to construct arguments from reason and from evidence that point to the reality of God and the truth of the good news of Jesus Christ.

Practitioners of these two styles or approaches to apologetics are often at odds with one another and have vigorous, even bitter debates over which approach is more effective and even whether the other approach is valid. But in these verses I've just read, Jesus validates both approaches to the defense of the faith. And the Gospel of John, in its own 1st century Palestinian Christian way, employs both of these styles of argument.

Logos: The Presuppositional Argument in John.

It begins in the very first verse: In the beginning was the Word, the Logos. Here is the ground not only of all truth, but of all our knowledge of truth. What is a word? When spoken it is more than a sound, when thought it is more even than an idea. It is the expression of thought, idea, plan—indeed, of existence—first to the one who conceives it; and then it becomes a communication from the one who originates it to a receiver. Above all, a word must make sense. It is rational.  

All words have their origin in the first Word, and the word is not an it, but a Who. The Word was with God, and the Word was God. All things were made by Him and without him was not anything made that was made.  So, reality is rational, not absurd, and to speak of meaning is not nonsense. It is rational because the universe proceeds from an articulate, coherent mind, the ultimate Mind.

In him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness and enlightens everyone coming into the world. So then, when the Word (the Logos) becomes flesh and dwells among us, he is accessible. He makes sense. And his presence makes everything else make sense.

Therefore, when he comes into the world and the world does not know him and his own people do not receive him, there is another issue at work. It is not because what he is saying is not comprehensible. It is not because he himself is beyond knowing. It is not because he is not making sense. Darkness is at work. John uses here a word that has a double meaning, and both meanings apply: The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not—and the Greek word is katalambano, to comprehend. The darkness did not comprehend the light, neither in the sense of understanding it, nor in the sense of overcoming or quenching it.

Nevertheless, throughout the Gospel Jesus appeals to his hearers, primarily to the Jews, on the basis that as the recipients of the Word of God they should be able to put 2 and 2 together to see that he is the one the Scriptures in which they believe has been pointing toward all along.

John 5:39

You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life, and it is they that bear witness about me.

He speaks directly to them, not as one who is under the authority of Scripture but as one who himself has authority over Scripture. The prophets of the Old Testament made it clear that they were speaking not their own words but those of God with the announcement, “Thus says the Lord.” But Jesus is different. It's true that periodically he makes it clear, as he does in John 8:28, “I do nothing on my own authority, but speak just as the Father has taught me.” But on the other hand, he repeatedly says, without any other qualification, “Truly, truly I say to you,” emphasis on the personal pronoun "I."

In John 8:31 he said to those who were beginning to believe, “If you abide/remain/dwell in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” In other words, if we accept the presupposition that Jesus is telling us the truth about himself and about God—and make no mistake, those two things are completely interconnected and you cannot accept what he says about one without accepting the other—so if we accept what Jesus is saying, and keep on listening and seeking understanding, not only will everything become clear, but we will also begin finding freedom from the real chains that are binding us and precluding us from experiencing abundant life: the chains of sin.

It's true that he was telling them some incredible things that we wouldn't be able to accept from just anyone. Jesus recognized that a naked assertion of authority is not a sufficient ground on which to base belief. John 5:31. “If I alone bear witness about myself, my testimony is not deemed true.” Why should they believe what he said? Because he had witnesses to back up his claims. Verses 33f: “You sent to John (the Baptist) and he has borne witness to the truth…. He was a burning and shining lamp, and you were willing to rejoice for a while in his light.” So, he calls their attention to his acknowledgement by someone whose spiritual authority they recognized and accepted—up to a certain point.

He also called upon the witness of Moses, verse 45, “If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote of me.” These people, spiritual leaders of the nation, had exhaustively studied the writings of Moses and knew very well of the Prophet that Moses said would one day come, and they should have been able to recognize that Jesus completely fit the profile.

Also, Jesus said, verse 37, “The Father who sent me has himself borne witness about me.” There is a problem with that witness, though. Jesus continued, “His voice you have never heard, his form you have never seen, and you do not have his word abiding in you for you do not believe the one whom he has sent.” Their presuppositions about the one God would send, what he would and would not do and say, kept them from being able to accept or even hear the voice of God, even if God spoke out loud—which he does at one point (in chapter 12). How did people who heard it respond? Some said, “An angel spoke to him.” Most said, “No, that was just thunder.” So here's a question for you: If you were to hear the voice of God speak aloud from the heavens, would you be able to accept that, or do your presuppositions prevent you from believing that's even possible?

Jesus goes on to point out a glaring inconsistency in their presuppositions. Verse 43: “I have come in my Father's name and you do not receive me. If another comes in his own name, you will receive him.” The historian Josephus confirms that there were a number of men with messianic pretentions in the decades leading up to the Jewish revolt that led to the Romans massacring Jews and demolishing the Temple. But what's interesting is how Jesus calls out their motives: “How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?” He says their presuppositions are determined by their desire for glory from one another, which on one level is about pride, but more seriously it's about power. Glory is exaltation, being lifted up. Getting glory from one another is about exercising power over one another. They were willing to give a hearing to men who came in their own names, because these men could be controlled and swayed by the institutional power structures because they need their power. But Jesus, coming in the name of God whom he called his Father, not only could not be controlled by the power structures, his coming threatened their very existence. It is hard to hear the truth when your assumptions are based on self-interest and not on truth.

But there is another, deeper, more sinister reason why our assumptions will not permit us to be open to the truth Jesus is preaching. Back to Chapter 8, beginning with verse 39:

They answered him, “Abraham is our Father.” Jesus said to them, “If you were Abraham's children, you would be doing the works Abraham did, but now you seek to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. This is not what Abraham did. You are doing the works your father did…. Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father's desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies. But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me. Which one of you convicts me of sin? If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me? Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God.”

This searing critique by Jesus of his critics is certainly among the harshest things he ever said, but it's important not to miss how this all fits with the presuppositional apologetics of John: There is a moral component to our assumptions that can outweigh the rational. And notice who, according to Jesus, is in control of his enemies' assumptions: “You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father's desires. He… has nothing to do with the truth because there is no truth in him.” Therefore, “Because I tell the truth, you do not believe me.” Is Jesus saying that a supernatural power is at play that prevents them from accepting truth? Yes, but see how that power works through their presuppositions. These men have made a prior commitment to untruth—although they probably didn't see it that way. Therefore, when Jesus told them truth, even though no one could find any error in what he said (which is at least part of what Jesus meant when he said, “Which one of you convicts me of sin?”), they rejected his teachings out of hand and gave it no consideration.

Again, these are the men who were in control of the power structures of their day, but Jesus said behind them was a greater power who is interested in keeping them all in darkness. In John 12:31, Jesus says, “Now is the judgement of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out.” And then in verse 36 he admonishes the people, those who haven't yet followed their leaders to reject him, “The light is among you for a little while longer. Walk while you have the light, lest darkness overtake you. The one who walks in the darkness does not know where he is going. While you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become sons of light.”

But Jesus' own disciples, the 11 remaining in the room after Judas Iscariot departed, were certainly not children of the devil or sons of darkness. They truly were his followers, so to them he did not argue the point, he said simply, “Believe me.” Not, as you might expect here, “believe IN me” (that is said elsewhere), but “believe ME,” to believe what he has said because it is true. So that what Jesus has taught them about himself and his mission and his relationship with the Father is either the truth, or it is a lie, or it comprises the ravings of a maniac. But they had been close to him. They knew he was no maniac, and they knew he was no liar. On the basis of honest, realistic, unbiased presuppositions, they should have known what he is saying is true.

Signs: The Evidential Argument in John

But Jesus doesn't stop there but says that they can and should believe because of the works he does, which he says are the works of the Father who dwells in him. Jesus in the Gospel of John uses the word “works,” which is an all-encompassing word for everything he did, but we particularly associate it with the miracles he performed. The truth is that whatever he did was by the power and will of God so there really shouldn't be a distinction between one or the other, but it's a distinction we make.

So, Jesus says to look at his works and find a way to believe. From a three-year-long ministry in which Jesus interacted with literally thousands of people, the writer of the Gospel chose 7 of these works of Jesus that impressed him above all others. He called them signs. I've already talked about them in our study on the 7 Signs.

1 - In changing water to wine, he showed his competence.

2 - In healing the royal official's son, he showed his authority.

3 - In healing the lame man, he manifested his oneness with God.

4 - In feeding the multitudes, he showed his empathy.

5 - In walking on the water, he demonstrated his command of nature.

6 - In healing the man born blind, he exercised the sovereign purpose of God.

7 - But when he raised Lazarus from the dead, he showed that all of these things, including his power over death, were driven by his compassion; that he who came to deliver us from death first had to suffer and be grieved with it himself.

In all these works, all these signs, Jesus is revealed as the help of the helpless and the hope of the hopeless.

The question now is, is all of this—Jesus words and his works—is all of this sufficient for us to believe? But wait a minute. How do we know that Jesus said and did these things? How do we know that any of this ever happened? How do we know this discussion even took place?

The Witness of John's Gospel

If you have been following along with our study in the Gospel of John you have seen how important in this Gospel is the theme of witness. The whole point of this Gospel is to relate a witness to Jesus that had not yet been heard.  

Witness is a word of the courtroom. To be a witness is to declare pertinent facts of which one has direct knowledge. The noun “witness” is used 14 times and the verb “to witness” is used 33 times—far more often than any other writer in the Bible. Why? Because the writer of this Gospel believes that the truth of who is Jesus is established by witness, by testimony. John's self-described purpose in writing is to persuade the reader that Jesus is the Messiah and the Son of God. It is no exaggeration to say that millions have been so persuaded by the witness of this Gospel.

When the opposing side in a case is confronted by a strong and persuasive witness, and they can't overturn the testimony, then their go-to strategy is to attack the witness. That's what the skeptical, unbelieving world does with the Gospel of John. The attack on this Gospel in particular has been going on with intensity for more than 200 years. Over this period of time the skeptics have changed and adapted their attack. They've had to, because archeology and new studies have brought to light information that tended to lend credence to John rather than damage it. But in general, their story has stayed pretty much the same.

There are many representatives of this view, including one who is currently "popular" (if that's the right word), ex-evangelical turned agnostic critic Bart Ehrman. But the one I'll choose for my example here is John Shelby Spong, a retired Episcopalian bishop and scholar, a theologian whose first principle is that Theism, belief in a God who is there, is dead and that God-talk is meaningless.  (That's in his book, A New Christianity for a New World published in 1998.) He was a charter member of the Jesus Seminar—a group that ran for about 20 years and whose mission essentially was to discredit historic belief in Jesus Christ and redefine him in a way more acceptable to the modern mind.

In 2013 Spong published another book (he wrote a lot of books) called The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic. In an article in the Huffington Post1 he summarized his argument in 6 points.

1.     The Gospel of John was not written by John or any disciple of Jesus, but by at least 3 writer/editors over a period of 25-30 years in the 2nd century.

2.     Jesus never spoke a single word attributed to him in this Gospel. Not even one.

3.     The characters described are literary creations of the authors, i.e., fictional.

4.     The miracles, the 7 signs, never happened.

5.     The authors never intended the miracles stories and all the rest  to be taken literally.

6.     “Texts that undergird the doctrine of the deity of Christ…have nothing to do with an external God entering humanity in the person of Jesus, but are rather attempts to describe the experience of … a mystical oneness with God… Not about the divine becoming human so much as it is about the human becoming divine.”

In other words, it is Gnostic. And the truth is, the Gnostics of the 2nd century did like this Gospel and tried to co-opt it for themselves.

The whole argument reminds me of a line from a movie I watched recently. In the scene, a lawyer is trying to defend a man against a slam-dunk murder charge. The man summarizes his lawyer's case: “He told them to look not at the facts, but at the meaning of the facts. Then he told them the facts had no meaning.”

The fact is that Spong's arguments all rest on one bedrock presupposition: There is no God who is there, no personal God who dwells apart from the universe of natural, material cause-and-effect. Because there is no such God, then there are no miracles, and since these things never happened, there is no need for real witnesses who lived during the time of Jesus.

Now, can these presuppositions be proven with either logic or evidence? No, not without circular reasoning.

But arguments like these have shaken the faith of many. What shall we say to them? Do we have to assume that the Bible is inspired and infallible in order to accept its testimony? But if we do, wouldn't that require the same kind of circular argument we're criticizing here?

Let me invite you into the courtroom to see if our witness's testimony can stand up under scrutiny. But first let's talk about presuppositions. If there is no God outside of natural cause and effect then there are no such things as miracles. In this view we know that miraculous events never happened because miraculous events never happen.

But what if there were miracles? How would we know if we already defined them out of existence?

Let me propose a different presupposition: If something happens, it must be possible. Whether it is a credible story depends upon the credibility of the witness, not the circularity of our presuppositions.

And by the way, what do we mean by the word “miracle” anyway? We've pointed out in our exposition that this Gospel never uses the word—that is, the Greek word that in the other Gospels is translated “miracle.” It uses the word “sign” and the word “works.” The important thing to the writer is not how it's done, but where it comes from (God) and what it means. But since we're so focused on “the how” as the distinguishing feature of these things, let's try this as a working definition: A miracle is an extraordinary event that cannot be adequately explained by natural, observable causes and effects, and which may be interpreted as a divine act.

Now let's put that together with the whole rationale for considering testimony in the first place: Honest people will report what they have witnessed, whereas a dishonest witness will twist or shade or even invent facts—in other words, lie. What we want to know is, can we trust the author of this book to give us a true, authentic, and factual witness about Jesus?

First of all, who is this author? We've been calling him John and assuming he is a son of Zebedee, the Galilean fisherman who in the Synoptic Gospels is always paired with his brother Jacob (better known to us as James) and closely linked also with Simon Peter. But his name is never called in the book, whose authorship is—like all the other Gospels—anonymous. And yet the name of John and only his name has been attached to it by the earliest churches going back to the 2nd century. There are several ancient sources for this, but my favorite one is also the strongest because this source would have direct knowledge of what he's talking about. Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons in Gaul (present day France), had spent time in Asia Minor as a young man and had learned at the feet of Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna.

Polycarp had himself as a young man been a student of the aged Apostle John and was the source for Irenaeus's affirmation that John was the author of the Gospel that bears his name. This is important because some brands of Gnostics of the 2nd century had tried to hijack that Gospel for their own, while others like the anti-Semitic heretic Marcion tried to repudiate it and deny that it was inspired Scripture. Irenaeus, writing against them in his books Against Heresies showed unwavering confidence that this Gospel was written by the Apostle who was supposed to have written it. This is not just about somebody knew somebody who knew somebody. This is a chain of witness with a valid, traceable provenance. (And the reason I like this is because I got to play Polycarp in a motion picture by that name and got to learn so much more about him than I ever would have otherwise. Because of his relationship with John, Irenaeus considered him the last living link to Christ in his lifetime.)

I could go on with other evidence that the early church overwhelmingly agreed that John is the author of this Gospel, but for some reason the testimony of the people who first accredited this Gospel, who themselves were not more than two to three generations removed from its origin, is not sufficient for the critics, because those people weren't "scientific" in their evaluation process. They still raise numerous objections: Why is this Gospel so dramatically different in style and content from the Synoptic Gospels? If this Gospel was written by John, why does it omit some stories in which John plays a prominent role in the Synoptics? And so on. I think most if not all of these questions have been answered as we've proceeded through this study.

The Synoptics record, preserve, and transmit in writing the teachings and deeds of Jesus that had first been memorized by his disciples and transmitted orally at the beginnings of the Christian movement. An explicit record of this is in the Book of Acts 2:42, “They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching….” The teaching methodology of that period did not involve taking notes but memorizing large swaths of material. For that purpose, the material was broken into manageable, stylized, pre-formatted segments. The Synoptics each have their own themes and distinctives, but they are all marked not only by a common pool of material but a shared approach to its presentation.

John's Gospel, though, stands by itself because it is not the memory and testimony of the larger Christian community, but presents itself as the memory of one Christian who, after a lifelong meditation on the incomparable person of Jesus Christ, commits his own testimony to writing. He is deliberately not following the format of the Gospels that were already in circulation toward the end of the 1st century. They have filled that need abundantly. John writes, first of all, for a community that needs to understand his perspective of Jesus in the face of the trials, temptations, and opposition they face; and beyond that, he writes for all times to persuade readers that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, so that by believing we may have life in his name. It is no more complex than that, and that, I believe, is absolutely sufficient to explain the many significant but ultimately non-contradictory differences between John and the Synoptics.

The real challenge, I think, is for the critics to explain why there is so much harmony and similarity between John's Gospel and the Synoptics—especially if they think it was written by men who did not think the facts about Jesus mattered and that the whole book is essentially an extravagant extended parable. According to critics like John Shelby Spong, the entire book is a literary invention, a fabricated pseudo-history written not by one brilliant author but essentially by a committee with an agenda to promote a kind of spirituality completely alien to the Christianity that was already beginning to win over the Roman world. AND, we are supposed to prefer this non-historical vision of Christ and believe in the truth of its fictional portrayal. After all, they say, this author—or should we say “these authors”—aren't concerned with facts, just with theological truth.

Then why is the book so packed with facts? Could it be that the author is... an eyewitness?

John the Eyewitness

While he remains anonymous and breaks only occasionally into the first person—only plural: “WE beheld his glory”—it makes sense that a certain unnamed disciple who keeps showing up at crucial times, especially in the second half of the book, is the author himself.

(By the way, that word “beheld” is an important one that speaks of eyewitness. The Greek word carries with it the idea of seeing something with one's own eyes. But back to the unnamed disciple.)

Sometimes he is called (in a phrase that many readers find uncomfortable for some reason) “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” He is with Andrew at Bethsaida beyond Jordan when they first meet Jesus. He is at the table in close proximity with Jesus when Jesus identifies Judas to him as the betrayer. He uses personal connections to get Peter into the High Priest's compound where Peter presently fulfills Jesus' prophecy that he would deny him thrice. He is at the cross with Jesus' mother when Jesus assigns him care of her. He runs ahead of Peter to see the empty tomb of Jesus but doesn't go in until after Peter. After the resurrection he is with Peter in a fishing boat and, after an incredible haul of fish, is the first to recognize the figure on the shore who urged them to try one more time was Jesus himself. Later he is also in the scene when Jesus speaks to Peter of the cost of following him.

Why should we believe this unnamed disciple is the author? Because he explicitly says so in 19:35 when he describes the separation of “blood and water” from the pierced side of Jesus. And he says so again in the next to the last verse of the book, when he is seconded by an editor writing for the community that says, “we know that his testimony is true.” And then in the very last verse, for the first and only time in the book he breaks his own rule and speaks in the first person singular: “I suppose the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” about all that Jesus did.

And by the way, the idea of an editor, indeed of a scribe or amanuensis who assisted in the writing of this book in no way takes away from its status as an eyewitness account. The use of a secretary who not only took verbatim dictation but aided in the writing and styling process was a common one in the ancient world, and common in the Christian world. Paul was assisted by Tertius in writing Romans, Sosthenes in writing 1 Corinthians, etc. If John used an amanuensis, and I think he did, it would go a long way toward explaining how a Galilean fisherman could come up with the elegant, profound simplicity of the Greek in this book.

But what evidence is there that he was truly an eyewitness?

First, there are the incidental facts and details that the author drops into the account seemingly for no other reason than that he remembers them. Places, for example. In the first two chapters there are mentioned four specific places, only one of which, Jerusalem, survived to be known by later generations, and one other that is named elsewhere besides the Gospel of John, Bethsaida. Only John tells us its significance, that it was the hometown of Andrew, Peter, and Philip, but again, it had disappeared from history until archeologists unearthed a site just a few years ago on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee that almost certainly is this ancient fishing town. And as for Bethany across the Jordan and the town of Cana, the likely locations for them are now known, but why should he bring them up? They are never mentioned again, and for many years, critics assumed that they were fictitious towns that didn't exist. There is only one pertinent reason to bring them up: to anchor the story in the real world that the author knew and was familiar with. There was a wedding in Cana where they ran out of wine and Jesus, at the bidding of his mother, quietly performed a miracle he did not plan to perform and did not want publicly known. And a few of Jesus' disciples had their first contact with him after being directed to him by John the Baptist in the vicinity of a place on the east bank of the Jordan River that history forgot but the writer remembered.

And speaking of John the Baptist, the brief but precise details the Gospel gives about him are completely corroborated by the Dead Sea Scrolls, discovered in the late 1940s. Scholar W. H. Brownlee says that, “the most astonishing result of all [of a study of the scrolls] is the validation of the Fourth Gospel as an authentic source concerning the Baptist.” K. Stendahl, ed. The Scrolls and the New Testament (London, 1958), 52.

Here's another factual detail, Chapter 2 verse 20: The Jews then said, “It has taken 46 years to build this temple, and you will raise it up in 3 days?” Interpreting a parabolic statement of Jesus literally, rather than taking it for the figure of speech it clearly is, they recite back how long it has taken to build the Temple, which by the way was under continuous construction until the year before it was destroyed by the Romans in A.D. 70. This is a time marker that is more specific than it needs to be, except that it's what they said. And incidentally, it dates this episode along with John's story of the cleansing of the Temple in A.D. 28 (which comports with Luke's dating of the ministry of John the Baptist in the 15th year of Tiberius when Pilate had become governor Judea). I've only gone through 2 chapters, but these examples can be multiplied throughout the book. When he names people, he distinguishes between men who might have the same name and is more specific than any Gospel writer. Who else tells us that Thomas was a twin? Who else tells us the full name of Judas ben Simon Iscariot? Why? It would seem to be pointless—unless it was a fact.

John the Galilean Jew

It used to be thought that the theology of John was heavily influenced by Greek philosophy, mainly because of the Logos theme in the Prologue and the emphasis on the themes of truth, light vs. darkness, and so forth. And then they discovered the Dead Sea Scrolls and uncovered a large cache of writings on the same themes using the same kinds of language that were decidedly NOT Greek, but very, very Jewish. And then scholars began to notice once again how very, very Jewish the Gospel of John is. The author understands 1st century Judaism from the inside. His knowledge of the feasts and festivals and Sabbaths is flawless. C. H. Dodd, in his book Historical Tradition in the Fourth Gospel, conclusively demonstrates with a truckload of detail how the Gospel accurately depicts the physical, geographical, social, and religious environment of Palestinian Judaism.

We haven't gotten there in our study yet, but only John describes a preliminary informal hearing in which Jesus is brought before the ex-high priest Annas, where he is correctly named as the father-in-law of Caiaphas, the contemporary holder of that office. Which makes a lot of sense if we understand the honor and respect culture of that day.

All the Gospels tell us that Pilate interviewed Jesus, but only John gives any kind of detailed dialogue. The critics say it was all invented, but Craig S. Keener says in his book The Historical Reliability of the Gospels (2nd. ed., Erdmans, 2012), if John made it up he did an incredible job, because it “dovetails remarkably with Roman judicial procedure. Far from undermining confidence in John, his unique additions to the passion narrative—the formal charge and condemnation, the reference to Pilate as 'Caesar's friend' (i.e., legal representative), and the use of the tribunal seat—all serve only to strengthen it.”

Historical Errors and Contradictions?

But the critic comes back and says, What about historical errors and anachronisms? Sometimes they cast doubt on John's claim that the Romans retained the sole authority to put someone to death. But a passage in the Talmud states that capital punishment had been stripped from the Jews 40 years before the destruction of the temple in AD 70. Hmm. That would be about AD 30—about the same time, quite probably the same year that Jesus was crucified.

And what they're almost always referring to is John 9:22 where it says, “the Jews had already decreed that if anyone should confess Jesus to be Christ, he was to be put out of the synagogue.” But the policy of banning Christians from the synagogue, the birkath ha-minim (a curse on the heretics) did not emerge until AD 90. But Keener directs us to a study by Reuven Kimelman (“Birkat ha-minim and the Lack of Evidence for an Anti-Christian Jewish Prayer in Late Antiquity,” in Jewish and Christian Self-Definition, vol.2, ed. E. P. Sanders et al (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1981), 226-244) that points out what happened here was a local ban that applied only to Jerusalem, that the language John uses has nothing to do with the birkath, and that birkath ha-minim was never a single edict generally applied. Keener makes the observation that “this whole problem is in fact the creation of recent scholarship.”

But what about contradictions of fact between John and the other Gospels? Let's talk about one that gets a lot of attention: the discrepancies of time between Mark and John. Mark says Jesus was crucified at the 3rd hour, but John says 6th hour. Well, I wonder what kind of clocks they were using? Here's the thing: They weren't. We keep trying to interpret these things from the presupposition that the ancients had the same concern with clock time that we moderns have.

But Keener points out that “the widespread lack of precise time-keeping devices in the ancient world led to the practice of dividing the day into fourths so that people often did not worry about speaking any more specifically than this.” Thus, “it becomes plausible to interpret Mark's 3rd hour to mean any time between 9 am and noon. John's 'about the 6th hour' would also then refer to sometime before mid-day, perhaps within an hour or so. John does refer to the in-between hours elsewhere in his gospel, so that…he seems to be somewhat more precise than the Synoptics, but neither contradicts the other.”

But now let's look at two examples where John clearly knew more about history than his critics. I quote first from a 2011 article by Urban C. von Wahlde in the Biblical Archeology Review:

In John 5:2 the Pool of Bethesda is described as having five porticoes or colonnades. For centuries, scholars thought that the notion of a five-sided pool was purely symbolic, intended to represent the five books of the Torah that were somehow superseded by the miracle of Jesus. Beginning in the 1880s, however, archaeologists discovered the remains of a pool north of the Pool of Israel, and continuing excavation ultimately exposed a rectangular pool with a wall in the middle that divided it in two. With porticoes on the four sides of the pool and on the central wall, this was indeed a “five-sided” pool.

Now that was in the 1880s. But then, in 2004 was discovered the Pool of Siloam where the blind man of chapter 9 was told to go wash his eyes. Both of these pools were demolished by the Romans and completely effaced over time. Both of them were considered by critics to be legendary and the literary inventions of the writers of John who, as far as they were concerned, clearly knew nothing of Jerusalem. And once again, when facts are more fully known they confirm that the biblical writer had it right all along. Von Wahlde continues:

That both of these pools are mentioned only in the Gospel of John in the New Testament reflects John's intimate knowledge of Jerusalem before its destruction in A.D. 70. Jesus frequented sites such as Bethesda and Siloam because large numbers of people would be there. Both the blind man and the crippled man were hoping for healing. Jesus demonstrates his powers in both episodes, at the Pool of Bethesda simply by saying so. Bathing in the pool was unnecessary. His word was sufficient.

The skeptics tell us that the Gospel of John is a completely made up story that is telling us nothing about real events but only pointing us to a mystical union with an impersonal God. If that's true, one sure does have to fight through a lot of real historical facts in order to get there. Leon Morris writes in his excellent commentary on the Gospel of John (New International Commentary on the New Testament, Zondervan, 1971):

Too many critics have been content to lay it down dogmatically that John has written in this or that fashion. What they have not done is adduce evidence to prove the point. To lay it down that John has written theology not history can be countered by the simple device of saying John has written history but not theology. One dogmatic statement can be met by another. What is required here is evidence. And the evidence is that where he can be tested John is remarkably accurate. The inference is that he is accurate also in other places.

Morris goes on after discussing the nature of historical writing in the ancient world to conclude,

There is no doubt but that John is a careful and honest writer. If he tells us a certain thing happened we have no reason for thinking that this is simply a theological construction. The presumption must always be that John has a respect for the truth. To say otherwise is to depart from the standards , not of our own day only, but of the first century…. The very theological significance which John is trying to bring out demands that we take his history seriously.

Drawing Conclusions

So, let's draw some conclusions from the evidence. First, the writer of this Gospel was an eyewitness to the events and words he testifies, and the critics have not provided sufficient evidence to overturn the affirmation of reliable traditions that John the son of Zebedee, an apostle of Jesus Christ, and was an eyewitness of his resurrection, is the author.

How reliable is his testimony? Well, let's run him through some tests of any witness.

1.     Is the witness competent—both in personal capacity and in pertinent knowledge?  He accompanied him in his ministry travels, learned from him in public and private, was with him at his death, and was one of a dozen men who after Jesus was gone was accredited by all of Jesus' followers as being an eyewitness of his resurrection. So, let's acknowledge his competence.

2.     Is the witness biased? Well, on the obvious level, yes, he is biased toward Jesus. We would call him a friendly witness. But that also helps us gauge his truthfulness, because there are times when his testimony is not necessarily favorable to himself.

3.     Does the witness have a motive to lie? Only if he is deliberately putting forth a false narrative. But consider that willingly suffered terribly for his testimony—torture, banishment, and the threat of death, and the knowledge that all other 11 men who shared his testimony did die torturous deaths for it. That is a lot to pay for a deliberate falsehood. It does not seem credible that he would sustain a lie for all that.

4.     Is the witness's testimony consistent? Internally, unwaveringly so. Moreover, while it does not duplicate the testimony of the Synoptic Gospels except at a few points, it does not contradict them nor is contradicted by them; and where the accounts do intersect, they are coherent and recognizable as having a unity with them.     

5.     What is the character of the witness? Unimpeachable by all accounts.

6.     Can the witness's testimony be corroborated by demonstrable facts? As Leon Morris said, in every instance where John's testimony can be independently corroborated it has shown itself to be accurate.

There is no question that the Gospel of John challenges us in a lot of ways. The skeptics of our day, just like those of Jesus' day, try to cast a lot of shade on the story John tells. So let's come back to that room where Jesus had supper with his disciples and let him say to us what he said that evening to Philip and the others: "Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else believe on account of the works themselves."

May the Lord bless your faith. Amen.




in the Gospel of John

Garry D. Nation

Transcript from Video Bible Study

Gospel of John, Lesson 22

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