The Gospel of John: Jesus on Steroids

Theology Smothers History [by Dr. David Madison, a new team member here at DC.]

When I turn to the gospel of John, I always think of a famous insult that grew out of the bitter feud between Mary McCarthy and Lillian Hellmann, which probably has never been equaled in the history of American letters. McCarthy said of Hellmann, during a TV interview with Dick Cavett in 1980, “Every word she writes is a lie, including and and the.”

Maybe it’s not fair to say that every word John wrote was a lie, but why is it so tempting to say so? Indeed, Richard Carrier has remarked that John’s gospel is “a complete fabrication, of no historical value in discerning the historicity of Jesus.” [1] Carrier is blunt in pointing out, for example, that Lazarus is a character invented by John to play the role of Beloved Disciple (wholly unknown in the other three gospels): “John has clearly ‘inserted’ this figure into these stories he inherited from the Synoptics, and then claimed this new character as his ‘source’ who saw all these things (John. 21:24). In plain terms, that’s simply a lie.” [2]

As is the case with all theologians, John was confident that he wrote the truth, but his mind was riveted to a twisted extreme theology. More kindly it could be said that John wrote every word “under the influence”; he was inebriated by his exaggerated concept of Christ. The quote, “write drunk, edit sober” has gone viral as a Hemingway witticism, but sleuths have tracked it down to novelist Peter De Vries, one of whose characters (in the 1964 novel Reuben, Reuben) says: “Sometimes I write drunk and revise sober, and sometimes I write sober and revise drunk. But you have to have both elements in creation.”

John shows his sober side by providing a well-structured gospel, even though it is lopsided (chapters 1-12 cover three years, chapters 13-19 are about one day), but he was drunk on bad theology. He went far beyond the tales of Matthew, Mark, and Luke in his portrait of Jesus, which is saying a lot because these earlier three operated with heavy theological biases of their own. John wrote drunk in creating a leading man who was egregiously egotistical. It would be hard to come up with another character, fictional or otherwise, who is so full of himself.

David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was published by Tellectual Press in August 2016.

[1] Richard Carrier, On the Historicity of Jesus, p. 505.
[2] Ibid., p.505.