Today’s question, Is Craig Evans’ view of the Gospel of John correct?
Excellent question. Bart Ehrman is the professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Craig Evans is the professor of religious studies at Houston Baptist University. One of you raised this issue from a debate that happened between Bart Ehrman and Craig Evans. I gave the link to the video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ueRIdrlZsvs). Watch this video from time 1:34:12 to understand the views of Mr.Craig. In this debate, Bart Ehrman asks Mr.Craig, “In the gospel of John, Jesus says a lot of ‘I AM’ sayings, very famous sayings,
‘Before Abraham was, I am’
‘I am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to me but by me’
‘I am the bread of life’
‘I am the light of the world’ etc
At one point, of course, he says, the father and I are one. My question to you is,
Do you think the historical Jesus really said these things?”
Dr.Craig Evans responds: “I think most of these things were not uttered as we find them by the historical Jesus. I suspect we don’t have too much of a difference on John. My view is that the Gospel of John is a horse of another color all together. It is a different genre. John is often compared to wisdom literature. It is like wisdom is personified. Hochma. Lady wisdom or in Greek sophia. She wanders the streets. She calls out to the people. She does things. Nobody would read that and think, did you see wisdom going down the street the other day? Nobody would think that it is a literal person. What is mysterious to me about John is once you say that perhaps we should interpret the I am statements as, ‘He is confessions’, He is the light of the world, He is the truth, He is the bread of life, confession of the Johannine community that likely generated that version of the gospel. John is a gigantic parable. …that makes John so tricky”. At that point, Bart Ehrman gets to smile and say, ‘So, now we can toss out John’.
What Mr.Craig Evans says is very troubling and dangerous. Before I talk about his views, let us take a brief look at the Gospel of John.
There are 4 gospels in the New Testament. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The first three, Matthew, Mark and Luke are called Synoptics because of their similarities to each other. They have similar content. But the Gospel of John is different. There is something grandeur about its content and style. The theme itself is mind-boggling: God himself came to us in Jesus.
Who is the author of this gospel? When was this gospel written? To answer these two questions, let us see the internal evidence and external evidence.
Let us start with internal evidence.
John was one of the twelve disciples of Lord Jesus Christ. He was the younger of the two sons of Zebedee. Mark 1:20 says that John and his brother James were preparing their nets when Jesus called them. Their father Zebedee and their hired servants were in the boat. They were rich enough to hire servants. Their mother’s name was Salome (Mark 15:40, Matt 27:56). Matthew 27:55 informs us that Salome was supporting Jesus’s needs during his ministry. She was a rich woman who provided financial support to Jesus. John was born in a rich family. At the time of Jesus, as it is now, Jews would put a lot of emphasis on education, especially the rich Jews. They were sending their children for higher education as far as Alexandria and Rome. John was probably helping his family’s fishing industry on the sea of Galilee and was also learning from the best teachers of his time.
Bart Ehrman says, ‘no way’. According to Bart Ehrman, the glorious Greek language in the Gospel of John and its philosophical framework cannot be ascribed to a simple fisherman like John. He cites Acts 4:13. In Acts chapter 4, we see John and Peter boldly preaching the gospel of Christ in Jerusalem. They were summoned before the Sanhedrin, the supreme religious council of the Jews. They were warned not to preach about Jesus of Nazareth. They reply, ‘We cannot be silent. We cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard’. Note these words. What we have seen and heard. John was preaching about the things he had seen and heard. He was not preaching from somebody else’s experiences. He was testifying about his own experiences with Christ. His gospel came out of his sermons. It is easy to write a book when you are a preacher. You preach 10 sermons and it will become a book. John first preached about Christ and later his preaching material went into his Gospel and epistles. Evangelists love preaching sermons and writing books. There is no reason to assume that John, the passionate preacher in Acts 4, did not sit down to write a gospel.
Acts 4:13 informs us that the members of the Sanhedrin were astonished to witness the courage of Peter and John, because they could see that they were ordinary men with no special training in the Scriptures. In the Greek, it says, they were ‘agrammatoi’. They were unschooled in rabbinical tradition. Today, anyone can talk like a theologian. We don’t find it surprising. But in ancient times, only theologians would give speeches on theological matters. John and Peter were giving passionate speeches on theological subjects. That does not mean they were illiterate. It means they were not trained in theological subjects like rabbis and priests. That is why the council members of Sanhedrin were shocked at their wisdom because they were not trained like Apostle Paul.
Bart Ehrman’s views are highly presumptuous. I call it ‘soft bigotry of low expectations’. ‘You are a fisherman. Right? You wrote the Gospel of John? You must be kidding me. You are too dumb to write such a glorious Greek prose’. Modern religious scholars like Bart Ehrman look at the disciples with such prejudicial views. It is illogical.
John, who was born in a rich Jewish family, could have easily obtained education in a classical Greek institution. Or he would have taken the assistance of a highly educated person when he sat down to write his gospel.
Bart also should not relegate these disciples to perennial ignorance. John and Peter witnessed the resurrection of Christ. They became leaders in the early church. They probably thought, ‘Now we are no longer fishermen. We are leaders of a new religious movement. Let us go to a Jewish seminary and educate ourselves. It helps us to reach our Jewish brethren with the gospel. Let us also go to a Greek seminary and study Greek philosophies. It helps us to reach the Gentiles’. Many Christians do that today. ‘I just became a Christian. I want to work in the ministry. I will go to a seminary and study theology for a few years’. After medical school, I took a break and went to a Bible seminary to study theology. The disciples probably did something like that. After witnessing the resurrection of Jesus, they probably put their occupations aside, went to a Jewish seminary and became proficient in Jewish scriptures and Greek philosophy. Definitely we have no evidence that they never did. So, we should not say, ‘In Acts 4:13, you are illiterate. So, you must be illiterate for the rest of your life’. There is no logical connection. Bart Ehrman was just throwing his presumptions at the disciples.
He also says, We don’t find John’s name in the Gospel of John. That is true. That adds weight to the view that John actually wrote this gospel. A person producing a forgery in the name of John would make sure John’s name appears all over the gospel. But that is not the case. My mum wrote two books. You don’t find her name in those two books. I asked her, ‘Mum, why didn’t you write your name in the books you authored. I don’t see your name even on the cover page’. She told me, ‘Son, when people read these books, only Jesus should be glorified. My name should not draw their attention away from Jesus’. She was so humble that she would not even put her name in her books about Jesus. St.John took a similar approach. ‘I don’t want to put my name in this gospel, because only Jesus should be glorified in every page of my gospel’. John was too humble to put his own name in his gospel. John is mentioned twenty times in the other three gospels, and not even once in the gospel of John. He described himself as ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’ (John 21:20), and one ‘reclining on Jesus’ bosom (13:23). Out of the 12 disciples, only three disciples were in the inner circle – Peter, James and John. Peter is named in this gospel several times. So, he is not the author. James was martyred too early at the beginning of the church (Acts 12:2). So, he is not the author. That leaves us only John.
We read in John 21:24, ‘This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down.’ This author is testifying to the trustworthiness of his gospel. After the death of Jesus, John took care of Mary, the mother of Jesus. She moved with John’s family to Ephesus in Turkey. John can rely on Mary as the source of information on Jesus’ birth, childhood and adult life. He has Mary, mother of our Lord, as one of the best sources on the life of Jesus right in his home.
Apostle John was uniquely qualified to write the Gospel of John. He had many intimate experiences of witnessing the divine glory of Lord Jesus Christ. For example, he was one of the three disciples who witnessed the transfiguration of Jesus. What happened in the transfiguration? Jesus’s clothes became dazzling white. Moses and Elijah came to talk to him. A cloud appeared and a voice came from the cloud: ‘This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him’.
Moses represents the law, Elijah represents the prophets. When they were alive, both had theophanies. That means God appeared to Moses and Elijah in person. But they could not see his face. Now, on this mountain, both saw God’s face for the first time when they met Jesus. When you see Jesus, you see the face of God. Moses, Elijah and John: All three saw the face of God at the same time. God gave John that unique privilege. That is why John’s gospel is so powerful. This Jesus, whom Moses predicted, this Jesus, whom Elijah foreshadowed is God himself.
What happened then? A cloud appeared. The cloud symbolizes the presence of God in the Old Testament. Then there was a voice saying, ‘this is my beloved Son’. He is not a law giver like Moses. He is not a prophet like Elijah. He is the beloved Son of God. So, John was one of the three disciples who witnessed this magnificent divine glory of Lord Jesus Christ. It was so appropriate that he was chosen to write a gospel that emphasized the divinity of Jesus. The internal evidence clearly points us to John the disciple as the author of this gospel.
Bart Ehrman’s silly Telephone Game illustration
How did we get our New Testament? Bart Ehrman says it is like a telephone game. Get some kids and make them stand in a straight line. The first person whispers a brief story into the ear of the person standing to his or her right. Then that person whispers the story into the ear of the next person. Finally the last player listens to the story and tells us what he heard. Everyone in the crowd laughs out. Because he gives us an entirely different story from what we got from the first player.
What is the objective of this game? From the first player to the last player, the story has changed a lot. Then the teacher looks at us and says, ‘Little children, this is how misconceptions enter into our stories. You have seen how the story has changed from the first player to the last player. Professor Ehrman says, ‘Now guys, this is what happened to the Bible stories. From the people who lived at the time of Jesus to the people who wrote down the New Testament, the stories have changed a lot’
Let us look into this argument. First of all, look at the rules of this game? You must whisper. If you say it loud, this game will fail. That is not what happened to Gospel writers. When Lord Jesus Christ was preaching, thousands of people could listen to him. There was no whispering. John was standing right in front of Jesus when he was preaching all his sermons. John was standing right in front of Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration when God spoke out from heaven. John was standing right in front of Jesus when he was speaking from the cross.
The second rule of the telephone game is you are alone as you transmit the information from the preceding player to the succeeding player. You have no opportunity to check with the first player. The Gospel writers were not working in isolation. The apostles were living with Jesus and traveling with him from place to place. They were having group discussions after Jesus’s preaching. There was no scope for error.
Cognitive neuroscience increased our understanding of human memory a lot. Let me show you a diagram that helps you a lot to understand how memory works. There is working memory and long-term memory. They interact with each other. We put information into working memory using Visual-Spatial sketchpad and Phonological Loop. That information passes over into long-term memory. We also put information into long-term memory using Episodic memory, Semantic memory and Procedural memory.
Working memory is short-term memory. Using a phonological loop, you hear a speech, then you rehearse it and store it in your working memory. The apostles were listening to Jesus’s words and sermons, then they were also preaching those sermons to others. Using a visuospatial sketchpad, you store and process information in a visual or spatial form. That is what you see and what you experience. When we play the telephone game, we don’t have the benefit of a visual-Spatial sketchpad. When Jesus raised Lazarus from the grave, John was there to witness that miracle. It was a visual-spatial event for him.
Episodic memory: Memories of specific, individual events. It plays out like a little movie in your mind. How did your graduation go? Everything you did on your graduation day plays out like a little movie in your mind. That is episodic memory.
Semantic memory: Semantic memory is the memory about facts. Some facts just stick in your mind without any context. How much is 3 times 5? You say, ‘3 times 5 is 15’. It is a semantic memory. You don’t have to think about it much. It is the general knowledge about the world learned through repeated exposure to the information. You might be able to remember the very first time your teacher told you that in math class. You went to school that day, you sat at your seat, your teacher taught the multiplication table. That is episodic memory. There is a continuum between episodic memory and semantic memory. There is a part of the brain called hippocampus and a lot of facts and events can be stored in this area of our brains that will stay there for a lifetime.
Procedural memory: Procedural memory is the body’s mastery of a physical routine. Procedural memory comes when you do certain things on a routine. It is often called muscle memory. Let us say you are a cook. You cook the same thing for years. That recipe sticks in your mind. Your body acts accordingly. This procedural memory impacts your whole being.
Our long-term memory is based on information encoded in our brains using some or a combination of these memory systems.
John was a fisherman. He was fishing every day. His procedural memory is strong in that area. In John chapter 21, he was fishing on the sea of Galilee. This happened after the crucifixion of Lord Jesus Christ. That day they put their nets in the sea. They were not able to catch any fish. Then a stranger came to them and told them, ‘Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some’. To their amazement, they caught a large number of fish. The disciples did not recognize this stranger. But, John did. He told Peter, ‘It is the Lord’. John says, they sat down and counted the fish. It was 153. How can you remember that event?
John was fishing. It was his procedural memory.
He was one of the three intimate disciples of Christ. That is semantic memory. It just stayed in his mind as a fact.
‘That day when we saw Jesus, we caught 153 fish’. That is episodic memory. Everything that happened that day – he remembers like a little movie playing in his head.
Recently, I was talking to a Holocaust survivor. She told me she still remembers events that happened 80 years ago. She was a teenager. Around 9:00 am, she heard some footsteps. Then there was knocking on their door. Her sister opened the door. The Nazi officers walked inside, ordered her, her dad, her mum and her sister to leave to a train station; her dad and mum were separated in the train station. She remembers the horn of an oncoming train as they were leaving. She remembers the dress she was wearing.
She told me, ‘it feels like those events happened yesterday’. How can she remember things that happened 80 years ago? Because those painful events became episodic memories in her mind. Events that produce lots of emotions in us are more likely to be remembered than events that do not produce emotions.
So, John the apostle had ample opportunities to accurately remember the events that happened during his association with Jesus. When we play a telephone game, we only use sensory memory that is so weak and transitory. There was no time to use any processes that involve long term memory. So, for Bart Ehrman to use this illustration is highly disingenuous. It is not applicable to the disciples who wrote the New Testament.
Then we should also consider the external evidence.
If you look at the available sources from the first 3 centuries of Christianity, how many people did say that John wrote this gospel? Many. How many people rejected the view that John wrote this gospel? None. I challenge both Bart Ehrman and Craig Evans to give me one source that rejected the view that John wrote this gospel.
Let us start with Irenaeus. His life was between 130-202 AD. He was a disciple of Polycarp, who was a disciple of John, who himself was a disciple of Jesus. John, who walked with Jesus, mentored Polycarp and Polycarp mentored Irenaeus. Around 180 AD, he wrote a 5 volume work called Against Heresies. You can still get this book today. Available on Amazon.com. It was a refutation of Gnosticism. For many centuries, scholars relied on the writings of Irenaeus to understand Gnosticism. His reputation grew after the 1940s, because In 1945, archeologists discovered a magnificent collection of gnostic literature near the town of Nag Hammadi in Egypt. After studying this gnostic library, scholars realized the accuracy of Irenaues’ portrayal of Gnostics. Irenaeus has such a great reputation. In his book, he accurately described his Gnostic opponents. Something we should all learn from Irenaeus: Don’t misrepresent your opponents. This Irenaeus explicitly names John as the author of the gospel.
He described the four gospels as four pillars of the Church. “It is not possible that the Gospels can be more or fewer in number than (the four) they are. For there are four zones of the world in which we live, four principal winds, while the Church is scattered throughout all the world, and the ‘pillar and ground’ of the Church is the Gospel and the spirit of life; it is fitting that it should have four pillars’ (3.11.8).
We should also know about Papias. Papias was a Greek Apostolic father. He was the Bishop of Hierapolis which is Pamukkale in modern Turkey. His life was between 60 to 130 AD. According to Irenaeus, Papias had known the Apostle John and his Gospel. John lived his later life in Ephesus. Pamukkale is not far from Ephesus. He knew John personally and accepted his gospel as accurate.
Many other church fathers also named John as the author of the fourth gospel. Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Dionysius of Alexandria, Eusebius, the writer of Muratorian Canon. These church fathers were scattered all over the world from Europe to Asia to Africa. That means the Gospel of John was widely read in the second century. I ask Bart Ehrman to name one Christian or non-Christian author from that period who questioned John’s authorship of the fourth gospel. Just name one. He is throwing out his own speculations and assumptions as facts of history. The internal evidence and the external evidence are strongly in favor of John as the author of the fourth gospel.
Bart Ehrman often says that his views are shared by most scholars in academia today. Off course. Today’s academia is driven by the view that God does not intervene in human affairs. If you agree that John is the author of this gospel, then you have to throw your weight behind John’s testimony that Jesus is God in human flesh. That would put a chill in any atheist professor’s spine. They don’t accept it. Their views are only their presumptions. They have no evidence to produce from the beginning of Christian history.
When was the Gospel of John written?
Then let us see the timing of the writing of this gospel. When was this Gospel written? First, the Internal Evidence.
The destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple in AD 70 were the most catastrophic events in Jewish history until the Holocaust in 20th century. Interestingly, the first temple was destroyed on August 30, 586 BC and the second temple was destroyed on August 30, AD 70.
Surprisingly, the New Testament is silent about these events. The best explanation for this silence is that the New Testament was completed before the destruction of the Second Temple.
Jesus predicted the fall of Jerusalem 37 years before it happened. Jesus described his own body superior to the structure of the temple. In John chapter 2, Jesus says, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up’. The author of this gospel gives his own comments about Jesus’s deeds and sayings. Bart Ehrman says that this gospel was written with an Anti-Jewish spirit. If that were so, and if this gospel were written after AD 70, that would be a perfect opportunity for this author to use temple destruction to nail Judaism. ‘Look, the Romans destroyed both Jesus and your temple. Your temple is gone. But only Jesus rose again from the dead just as he predicted.’ That would have been a great bragging time for the author.
But, you never find such ‘we told you so’ attitude in this gospel or any other book of the New Testament. That clearly points us to the writing of this gospel before AD 70.
Let me belabor this point with an example. Let us say, I visited New York City and visited the twin towers of the World Trade Center. During my visit I predicted their destruction, ‘These towers will be destroyed. Not one stone will be left over the other’.
The twin towers were destroyed on September 11,2001. Suppose someone wrote a biography about my life. In one of the chapters, he writes about my visit to the New York City World Trade Center. The writer talks about my prediction about the destruction of the twin towers but says nothing about the actual destruction of the twin towers. What would be the best explanation for that omission? Most likely, this author wrote his biography before September 11, 2001. If it were written after 2001, this author would have emphasized the fact that the towers were destroyed just as predicted by Paul Kattupalli. So, this internal evidence clearly points us to a pre-AD 70 date to the writing of this gospel.
Then, let us see the External Evidence:
What do we learn from the manuscripts of this gospel?
John Rylands Papyrus (P52)
It is the oldest copy yet discovered of any portion of the New Testament. It is a tiny fragment of the Gospel of John containing verses from chapter 18. It was found in Egypt in 1920. Now, it resides in the John Rylands Library in Manchester, England. It is dated to the first half of the second century AD between AD 117 – 138. That means the Gospel of John must have been written much earlier than the first half of the second century. That is so astounding. Name one other book of antiquity with such proximity between the existing manuscript and it’s assumed original autograph.
So, External Evidence takes this gospel into the first century and Internal Evidence takes us before the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70.
Both internal and external evidence point to John as the author of this gospel. Both internal and external evidence point to a pre-AD 70 dating for the writing of this gospel. Since John was preaching incessantly around the city of Jerusalem right after the resurrection of Jesus, most likely he wrote this gospel within 10-20 years after the death of Jesus.
Bart Ehrman hates the gospel of John because it presents the divinity of Jesus.
“The crucial question is this: Is it possible that any of the early Christian forgeries made it into the New Testament? That some of the books of the New Testament were not written by the apostles whose names are attached to them? That some of Paul’s letters were not actually written by Paul, but by someone claiming to be Paul? That Peter’s letters were not written by Peter? That James and Jude did not write the books that bear their names? Or – a somewhat different case, as we will see – that the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were not actually written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John?
Scholars for over a hundred years have realized that in fact this is the case. The authors of some of the books of the New Testament were not who they claimed to be or who they have been supposed to be. In some instances that is because an anonymous writing, in which an author did not indicate who he was, was later named after someone who did not in fact write it. Matthew probably did not write Matthew, for example, or John, John; on the other hand, neither book actually claims to be written by a person named Matthew or John.” ( Ehrman, B. D. (2011). Forged: Writing in the Name of God–Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are. United States: HarperCollins.)
Bart Ehrman looks at Craig Evans and asks him, ‘Jesus said, ‘Before Abraham was, I am’, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life’, ‘I am the life and resurrection. My question to you is, “Do you think the historical Jesus really said these things?”
Bart Ehrman shot at the central doctrine of Christianity in the Gospel of John: the divinity of Jesus. How did Craig Evans respond? “I think most of these things were not uttered as we find them by the historical Jesus.”
John the apostle clearly pointed out that he testified what he heard from Jesus (John 21:24). Yet, Craig Evans says, ‘Jesus did not say those things. They were put in his mouth by someone else’.
He takes the same position Bart Ehrman takes. “I suspect we don’t have too much of a difference on John.” When a Christian scholar says he does not have too much of a difference from Bart Ehrman on these vital issues, that is shameful. Bart Ehrman thinks that John did not write the Gospel of John, someone else wrote it and used John’s name. Craig Evans believes the same. Bart Ehrman thinks that historical Jesus really did not make any claims to divinity. Someone else put those claims in his mouth. Craig Evans believes the same.
Craig Evans goes on to describe the Gospel of John as ‘horse of another color all together. It should not be taken literally. It is a gigantic parable. It is so tricky. Not surprisingly, then Bart Ehrman says, ‘I like what you said. Let us toss out John’.
Let us toss out John. That is the aim of these scholars. Toss out the Bible. As long as the Bible rules our lives as the Word of God, we will win. When we say that the Bible is just a human book, they will win.
You see, folks, this is the problem with scholars like Craig Evans and William Lane Craig. ‘Mr.William Lane Craig, what do you think about the book of Genesis. Is it real history?’ He says, no. It is only a metaphor. ‘Mr.Craig Evans, what do you think about the Gospel of John? It is real history?’. He replies, ‘No. It is not real history. It is only a metaphor’.
No wonder lots of Christians are losing confidence in the Bible as the literal word of God. But remember, these scholars are selling themselves into the opinions of atheists like Bart Ehrman. The evidence, both internal and external, point us to the trustworthiness of the gospel of John as a historical biography of Jesus penned by one of his closest disciples.
Roach, W. C., Geisler, N. L. (2012). Defending Inerrancy: Affirming the Accuracy of Scripture for a New Generation. United States: Baker Publishing Group.