Reading Mark & John: Comparing our Earliest and Latest Sources
by James Tabor
Most critical biblical scholars are in agreement that Mark is our earliest gospel and John is the latest. What follows then, in terms of Matthew and Luke, which come in between, is that they are using Mark as their basic narrative source–thus the three of them, Mark, Matthew, and Luke, are called the Synoptic gospels. In other words, Matthew and Luke are “secondary” sources when they are following Mark, in that they, by and large, are recasting or interpreting Mark as their base text. One could even say that Matthew and Luke are “rewritten Mark.” This is not to say that Matthew and Luke have nothing to add to the historical Jesus tradition. Indeed they do. First, they both preserve, in two versions, another source, the one scholars call Q, which most are convinced is earlier than Mark. Second, even in their “redaction” or editing of Mark as a primary source, they sometimes bring in materials that are judged useful to the critical historian, and Luke in particular offers a large chunk of such materials that are unique to him alone.
John, in contrast, is not part of this editorial process and stands as a mostly independent witness to the Jesus tradition with an approach that seems in sharp contrast to Mark (or the Synoptics more generally). His stories are different, his chronology is different, and Jesus in John’s tradition speaks with a different vocabulary and subject matter, and he is viewed much more explicitly as a preexistent, heavenly, divine, Son of God. One might assume then, and many historians have taken just this approach, that John is of little value in reconstructing a critical historical view of Jesus.
I think this is a real mistake. In fact, I am among a growing group of scholars who are convinced that John in fact preserves a level of primitive tradition that Mark knows little about, and that without John’s contribution our knowledge of the historical Jesus would be seriously lacking. I am thinking of those of us who are part of the “John, Jesus, and History” Group at the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature. You can read more of the latest work here. My own most recent contribution on the “geography” of John in the light of archaeology you can access here and here. Also, it is demonstrably false to assume that Mark is somehow free of theology and is writing history. In fact, Mark is every bit as “theological” as John, and I am thoroughly convinced that he shares a view of Jesus that is highly influenced by Paul. So what is the historian, interested more in Jesus as a historical figure, to make of these different sources?
My own method and approach is to use Mark and John together to construct what I think is a coherent and plausible portrait of Jesus as apocalyptic messiah and proclaimer of the Kingdom of God, set in the context of the Baptist movement in 1st century Roman Palestine. I am further convinced that John likely knows Mark and is at times offering his own take on Mark’s presentation of Jesus, which he sees as supplementary rather than contradictory.
In my previous post “In Memory of Her,” I showed how Mark’s account of the unnamed woman who anointed Jesus before his death is supplemented by the different account int he gospel of John. Reading Mark and John together can often result in a composite account of an underlying set of traditions that sheds valuable light on what we know as a whole. I will offer some additional examples in the coming days.