Did Jesus go around Galilee and Judaea saying things like “before Abraham was born, I AM?” Did he say “I am the way, and the truth, and the life”? And what about all the other exulted I AM claims made by Jesus yet found only in the last gospel to be written, the gospel of John.
Evangelical apologist and New Testament scholar Mike Licona has just published an article on his blog addressing this question and patronisingly dismissing recent objections to his views:
ARE WE READING AN ADAPTED FORM OF JESUS’ TEACHINGS IN JOHN’S GOSPEL?
By Mike Licona Posted September 29, 2017 In Blog 2
At one point in the essay Licona gives us his view of John vis-à-vis the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke):
John is often communicating Jesus’ teachings in a manner closer to a modern paraphrase than a literal translation. Stated differently, John will often recast Jesus saying something explicitly the Synoptics have Him saying implicitly. For example, one does not observe Jesus making his “I am” statements in the Synoptics that are so prominent in John, such as “Before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58). That’s a pretty clear claim to deity. Mark presents Jesus as deity through His deeds and even some of the things He says about Himself. But nothing is nearly as overt as we find in John. Granted, the Synoptics do not preserve everything Jesus said. However, if Jesus is cryptic in public even pertaining to His claim to be Messiah as He is in Mark–hence the “Messianic Secret,” we would not expect for Jesus to be claiming to be God publicly and in such a clear manner as we find John reporting. Those are just some of the reasons why scholars see John adapting Jesus’ teachings. Jesus’ precise words (ipsissima verba) may not be preserved in John but His voice (ipsissima vox) certainly is.
So to summarize one vital point: according to Licona Jesus did not actually say the famous ‘I am’ statements attributed to him by John. But it doesn’t really matter as he supposedly claimed to be God in the synoptics anyway.
So John, we can fairly conclude, is giving us a false unhistorical picture of Jesus in at least two important respects:
i) the historical Jesus that we see in Mark was very guarded in public even about claims to be the Messiah (a human figure in the Jewish Bible). By contrast John invents an historical narrative where Jesus went around Galilee and Judaea publicly telling the world who he was from the rooftops.
ii) the historical Jesus of the synoptics never uttered the I am statements found in John. John made these words up that Jesus never actually spoke.
Licona states ‘this is the position of the majority of New Testament scholars, and that probably includes the majority of evangelical New Testament scholars as well.’
Lydia, indignantly replies:
This is, pace Licona, still a very low view of John’s accuracy, even after the backtrack. And if John made up the “I am” statements, the doubts of his accuracy are cast far wider than even those statements. As far as what we have to “be comfortable with,” foot-stomping and saying, “We have to be comfortable with that” is pointless. It does not take the place of a good argument for what God, and John, actually did. What it comes to is, “If God gave us factually crappy gospels, we have to live with that, and I’m going to deem anybody impious who is bothered by the possibility.” This is faux piety.
I had the exact same feelings when as a Christian I first became aware of New Testament scholar’s views of John’s gospel, views shared by virtually all serious historians outside of fundamentalist seminaries in the US. Lydia correctly smells a rat here. Licona wants to have his cake and eat it: to continue to believe the gospels are the reliable Word of God yet simultaneously be a good NT scholar and admit that Jesus did not actually say things that have always been central to evangelical preaching and apologetics. In other words John is not historically reliable at these points. Yet Licona wants to have it both ways.
There is one important question that Licona does not address (dare not?) but is surely pressing:
If John can ‘adapt’ the sayings of Jesus in the manner described then is it not also probable that the synoptic gospels also adapted their stories too? Maybe they put words into the mouth of Jesus that historically he didn’t actually say?
The implications here are enormous.
In fact such a conclusion is supported by Professor Christopher Tuckett of the University of Oxford: