The Man Who Saw

by Lydia McGrew, analytic philosopher and author of Hidden in Plain View and The Mirror or the Mask

Speedy Summary:

Too many scholars, even some evangelicals, put an implied asterisk next to the historicity of the Gospel of John. They will say that John is a horse of another color from the other Gospels, meaning that it is less historical. But a wealth of evidence shows that John’s intention is fully historical and that he succeeds in giving us the truth about Jesus from an eyewitness perspective.

Synoptic Gospels

Matthew, Mark, and Luke, called “Synoptic” because they, in contrast to John, cover so much similar material in the life of Jesus.


The authors of the four Gospels.

Is John a “horse of another color”?

In case you haven’t heard, the Gospel of John is different from Matthew, Mark, and Luke. But then again, maybe you’ve noticed this already! The other three Gospels often tell the same stories, sometimes even in similar words, while John goes his own way, often giving us information about what Jesus did and said that is found nowhere in the three Synoptic Gospels. Most of us who think of ourselves as evangelical Christians, especially if we self-identify as conservative Christians, never thought that that made John less historical, though. Not even a little bit. But you might be surprised at how widespread that view is, even among some scholars normally thought of as evangelical. For example, Craig A. Evans has said, when challenged by skeptic Bart Ehrman,

I suspect we don’t have too much difference on John. My view is the gospel of John is a horse of another color altogether. It’s a different genre.... So, I don’t disagree with you too much on that point. I think John is studded with historical details. Maybe you called them nuggets. That’s not a bad way of describing John. But I think the Synoptics are more than just some nuggets.

Evans has also said,

The principle source for material from which we may derive a portrait of the historical Jesus are the three Synoptic gospels--Matthew, Mark and Luke. They are called Synoptic because they overlap a lot, and we can see them together, which is what the Greek word means, see them together in parallel columns. John’s Gospel is another matter. What genre is it? It’s not another Synoptic Gospel, as some would like to think. All agree that there is some history in John, but is it primarily history, or is it something else?

See more here.

These questions about John’s robust historicity are understandably troubling to Christians for whom the Gospel is no less beloved than the other three, and often regarded as a great favorite. Do we really have to place these kinds of brackets around John because he might be of a partially non-historical genre?

For that matter, the Synoptic Gospels haven’t fared all that well when it comes to scholarly claims that they contain deliberate historical alterations. I have documented and rebutted such claims extensively, some of them from evangelical scholars whose names might be surprising, in my most recent book, The Mirror or the Mask. But John definitely comes in for an extra helping of doubt. (For free on-line material on these subjects, see here, here, and here.)

The wonderful thing is, though, that all this skepticism is misplaced. In fact, John demonstrates his historical intention constantly, both in his explicit statements (e.g., John 19:35) and in many subtle details. Having just finished one book defending the historicity of the Gospels, I’m working on another, entirely on the Gospel of John. The next book is to be called The Eye of the Beholder. (Just so there’s no misunderstanding: The Mirror or the Mask already contains material on the Gospel of John. The next book will contain more, including replies to objections specific to John. And The Mirror or the Mask sets the stage for The Eye of the Beholder by clearing away misconceptions about the alleged genre of the Gospels generally and the supposed literary license that the evangelists thought they had. Spoiler: They didn’t think they had a license to change the facts!)  I’ve drafted the sections responding to many objections that are raised against John’s full historicity, and now I’m turning back to the positive evidence for it. I’m running into a good problem: I have almost too much material, an embarrassment of riches. I hardly know where to start. So in this post I’m just going to give a few of the great, subtle points that I’ve come across. Some of these arguments I came up with myself. Some I am bringing back to light from a book called Studies in the Fourth Gospel by the late New Testament scholar Leon Morris, now out of print but available used. Morris has especially great sections in Chapter 3, “Was the Author an Eyewitness?”