We're making big changes. Please try out the beta site at beta.ccel.org and send us feedback. Thank you!
« Prev Introduction Next »


THOSE whose knowledge of the Life of Jesus has been acquired merely from Religious Instruction or from attendance at church services, or from a “Bible History” designed for use in schools, do not realise how much of it is based entirely upon the Fourth Gospel. If we did not possess this, we should know nothing at all about the marriage-feast at Cana, about the cure of the sick man who had lain for thirty-eight years by the Pool of Bethesda, about the gift of sight to the man who was born blind, about the raising of Lazarus, about the washing of the disciples’ feet on the last evening of Jesus’ life, and about the spear being thrust into the side of the crucified Lord. As regards the expulsion of the dealers and money-changers from the fore court of the Temple, our knowledge would be to the effect that it happened not at the beginning, but at the end, of Jesus’ public ministry. Of Jesus’ capture we should only have the report that it was effected by a band of armed men despatched by the Jewish authorities, not that it was carried out by the Roman soldiers. The day of Jesus’ death would be known to us as the day after, not the day before, the evening on which the Jews ate the paschal lamb. In the case of the crucifixion of Jesus, we should know no more than that, of all his followers, only a number of women looked on from a distance; we should not be 4aware that his mother and his beloved disciple stood by the cross and received a message from his lips.

These few observations are sufficient in themselves to give us pause to think. Why do the first three Evangelists tell us nothing of all that the Fourth is able to report? Did these things not come within the range of their experience? Yet at most of the events we have mentioned all those are reported to have been present who after wards became apostles; about the others also they must have received very soon afterwards quite definite information, and through them in due course, or through intermediaries, the authors of our Gospels. Or can it be that they had some reason for passing over the information in question? And yet how gladly would they have incorporated it in their books! This same information would surely have served the purpose which they had in view in the whole of their literary undertaking—that of making the figure of their Master shine forth in the brightest light—better almost than all that they have included in their narratives!

Why then did they not introduce it? Did they really have no experience of these episodes, though not indeed because they did not happen? We cannot avoid the question. Nor can we dispose of it off-hand, either in the affirmative or in the negative, by a few considerations. Nothing but a general review of the differences between the Fourth Gospel and the first three will enable us to supply the answer. And, first, these differences must be determined without any prepossessions whatever in favour of one or the other story; secondly, attempts to reconcile the two accounts, in spite of their divergences, must be made and tested; and then only after such attempts have failed shall we be called upon to decide definitely which of the two is the more trustworthy.


We say more trustworthy. The obvious thing to say would seem to be, Which account deserves to be trusted altogether? But that would not only be unwise for general reasons—because, for instance, an untrustworthy account is not always the necessary alternative to a thoroughly trustworthy one—but also because the matter is not really presented to us in this way. Should the scales turn in favour of the first three Gospels, we are still obliged to bear in mind continually such evidence as that produced by Wernle, for example, in the first number of this series (Religionsgeschichtliche Volksbücher), concerning the Sources for the Life of Jesus, which shows that none of these was composed by a man who saw Jesus’ ministry with his own eyes, and that their trustworthiness is subject to considerable limitations. If the Fourth Gospel deserve preference, its author would certainly appear to have been an eyewitness of the work of Jesus. But even then the possibility arises—and those who accept this view fully avail themselves of it—that in his recollection of events much of his material became dislocated or was more or less seriously obscured.

After comparing the Fourth Gospel with the first three as regards its trustworthiness, our study must advance to an ever wider investigation of its peculiar character, and must then bring to light its deeper roots in the conceptions and ideas prevailing at the time. Later, in Part II. of the present work, we shall have to come to some conclusion as to the author, and the time in which this book and the writings related to it—all supposed to have been written by the same Apostle John—were composed. Finally, we shall have to show the abiding value of these works. Thus, at first we have to enter upon an enumeration of those special points in which the Fourth Gospel differs from the other three. This 6enumeration might easily be thought a somewhat external matter. The task, however, cannot be avoided because it is of primary importance to find our general bearings. Only gradually can the special peculiarities of the book from higher points of view be summed up in such a way as to present consistent pictures. As regards each particular narrative of the Gospel, therefore, we cannot say at once all that is to be said about it. On the contrary, many narratives will come up for discussion in very many places, our purpose being to show at each stage of our inquiry some new phase which helps to elucidate the question under consideration.

But, on the whole, we are concerned with nothing less than the question, What picture ought we ourselves to form of Jesus? The Fourth Gospel sketches the picture in a very pronounced and quite peculiar way, and no one can pass on without deciding for or against it. The main question with regard to this is whether its features accord with the figure of Jesus as he really existed upon earth, or whether such have been added as were derived from a different, and perhaps even a non-Christian, type of piety and view of the world. Here we have the reasons for including in the present series of books on the history of religion a particularly detailed, treatment of this remarkable book, which has already been called the most wonderful riddle—that is to say, the riddle most replete with what is inconceivable—of all the books of the New Testament.

Turning now to our actual investigation, in accordance with general usage we shall gladly retain the name John (shortened to Jn.) to describe the author, just as in the case of the three other Evangelists we keep the names Matthew (Mt.), Mark (Mk.), Luke (Lk.). Strictly speaking, we should have always to put these names in quotation marks; 7but that would certainly prove wearisome. Mt., Mk., and Lk. have received in scientific theology the common name “Synoptics,” because their gospels, in virtue of their far-reaching agreement, may be regarded or “viewed together” with one glance (Synopsis means “common view”). But even as regards this, it will be borne in mind that the agreement is by no means complete. Only on the whole, and only in comparison with Jn., is it apparent. Where it is found on a particular point, for the sake of simplicity we shall refer only to the Evangelist who gives what is presumably the most original form of a report, that is to say in most cases (though not always) Mk., as representing that which appears in all three Synoptics, Mt. being referred to mostly for those discourses of Jesus not preserved in Mk., or given by Mk. in a less original form. From Lk., therefore, for the most part, only such sections will be cited as are not found in Mk. and Mt.

The parallel passages from the other Gospels, which we do not quote, will be found on the margin of most Bibles, either by the side of the verse itself which forms part of a discourse, or at the head of a section to which it belongs. In a more convenient form they may be seen at a glance in a “Synopsis,” where they are always printed side by side (see the appended list of books). In addition, however, a copy of the New Testament will be indispensable, because, as one can easily understand, in a Synopsis the context in which a passage stands in the Gospel of which it forms part is not always clear.

At the least, it seems to us to be a matter of urgent necessity that the reader should have a New Testament by his side. Nothing could be further from our wishes than that people should be prepared, or think themselves condemned, to believe our assertions without testing them. 8And yet it is not possible always to print the whole section of the Bible on which they are based.

By inserting the number of the chapters and verses in the text of this book, we shall, we believe, be studying the reader’s convenience better than by giving the references at the foot of the page or at the end of the work. Those who are not interested in them will not, we hope, allow themselves to be distracted by them or think that for their own convenience they should have been omitted altogether, but will be prepared to pass over them. There are some readers—and we hope they are many—who will wish to turn them up, and it may even happen that one of those who in the first instance has felt the numbers to be distracting will suddenly have to be included in the other class of readers. If we had done as he at first wished he would now find himself obliged to search rather helplessly in a Bible with which he is perhaps not very familiar.—An f. after a verse-number refers only to the following verse.11The headings to the subdivisions of chapters were added after the book was already in print, to make it more convenient for readers to use. Consequently, the first words of a new section often follow immediately upon the last words of the preceding section without any regard to the heading.

« Prev Introduction Next »

| Define | Popups: Login | Register | Prev Next | Help |