“This Howling Conflict between Mark and John”

Yet so many Christians don’t seem to have a clue   

Even when I was a teenage Bible enthusiast, I didn’t trust the gospel of John; there was something phony about his Jesus. Then one of my religion professors at college remarked that John’s Jesus “…always walks three feet above the ground—he isn’t real.” It was years later that I heard about the famous jab that Mary McCarthy leveled at Lillian Hellman, during an interview with Dick Cavett: “Every word she wrote was a lie, including and and the.” Could this apply as well to the author of John’s gospel?

In fact, Richard Carrier has said of the Beloved Disciple—found only in the Fourth Gospel: “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 (Jn. 21:24). In plain terms, that’s simply a lie.” (On the Historicity of Jesus, p. 500) Indeed, Carrier calls it pretty well, that John is “a complete fabrication, of no historical value in discerning the historicity of Jesus.” (p. 505)

One of the Plodding Apologists who trolls the DC Blog recently scolded me for referencing Carrier’s works, because the latter, he said, “…has an axe to grind.” How ironic is that. Christian apologists, fervent defenders of an indefensible ancient cult, are World Champion Axe Grinders! Yes, Carrier is an atheist, but at the beginning of On the Historicity of Jesus he explains how he was persuaded to tackle the ‘Jesus problem,’ after it has been so thoroughly botched by generations of Christian scholars.

Moreover, he has an edge on objectivity: “…I have no vested interest in proving Jesus did not exist. It makes no difference to me if he did…Believers, by contrast, and their apologists in the scholarly community, cannot say the same. For them, if Jesus didn’t exist, then their entire world view topples…they need Jesus to be real, but I don’t need Jesus to be a myth.” (p. xii)

Even if calling John a liar sounds just too shocking, the case can be made that the Christian faith was actually damaged by the Fourth Gospel. That’s the argument presented by Christian scholar Louis A. Ruprecht, Jr., in his 2008 book, This Tragic Gospel: How John Corrupted the Heart of Christianity.

But how can that be? Even if there wasn’t a Beloved Disciple, there is a Beloved Gospel—and that would be John, in which Jesus has a superhuman commanding presence. Well, as seen through the eyes of adoring faith. For those who aren’t so adoring, that ‘commanding presence’ looks more like bragging, insufferable egregious egotism. Which is what can happen—as in John’s case—when the author isn’t even trying to depict a real human. Ruprecht notes that John was appalled by Mark’s version of Jesus, and was determined to replace it. He argues that Mark was schooled in Greek tragedy (citing, among others, the work of Dennis MacDonald, The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark), and constructed his Jesus story accordingly, i.e., he made Jesus a real human who agonized over his fate; Mark assumed that even the Son of God could do that.

But John would have none of it; a human Jesus was out of the question. As an exercise to shock Christians out of faith-complacency, I suggest that they read Mark and John back-to-back. It should jump out at them, “this howling conflict between Mark and John,” as Ruprecht puts it. If they aren’t puzzled—if they aren’t alarmed—then they’re not paying attention. Someone is lying about their Jesus.

Ruprecht suggests that essential qualities were lost when John manhandled Mark:

“Mark's gospel insists that it takes a tragedy to inspire the most powerful tragic emotions, like pity, fear, and compassion. The heart of this tragic gospel is Jesus’s agonized prayer in Gethsemane, his desire to avoid this kind of death. The irony of later Christian history is that when John rejected tragedy as a genre, and the description of Gethsemane as a prayer garden, and pity as an emotion compatible with salvation, then he unwittingly cut the heart out of Christian compassion. All that was left was fear.” (p. 36)

Ruprecht believes we can get to the heart of the matter—trying to grasp the agendas of the gospel writers—by careful study of their Gethsemane accounts. And he provides this, with his own translations, in a 40-page section of the book; he brings eloquence and candor to the task. Yes, he is correct to refer to the ‘anguished prayer of Jesus’ in Mark’s Gethsemane account, which can be seen in contrast to Jesus' own claims about prayer in Mark 11:22-23:

“Jesus answered them, ‘Have faith in God. Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you.”

Had Jesus forgotten this in Gethsemane? Ruprecht:

“Faithful prayer was supposed to be a certainty. Now Mark hits us with a brand-new worry: perhaps Jesus is divided in his heart, or perhaps this naïve belief in the automatic power of prayer is the greatest Christian temptation. All things are possible with God. Jesus asks that the cup be taken away. Is not taken away. Full stop.” (p. 62)

John had no interest whatever in going there. Hence he doesn’t even mention—as do Matthew, Mark, and Luke—that Jesus was distraught, nor is there any report that the disciples fell asleep on the job. After all, John’s exaggerated Jesus had been present at the creation of the world; he can even say that he and the Father are one (John 10:30). Thus Jesus remains in control during the drama of the betrayal. It’s not even a superman performance since there is no division between himself and God: “John’s Jesus is a figure of astonishing resolve, timeless and immovable. Unlike Luke’s Jesus, he does not need to pray to gain resolve or self-control. He and the father are one, so he never needs to pray.” (p. 73)

• “John fights on many fronts at once. He is attempting to replace Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels, and he is working heroically to turn Mark’s gospel upside down.” (p. 71)

• “The Synoptic story of Gethsemane raised two critical questions that are nearly impossible to answer. First, if Jesus was alone when he prayed, then how can anyone know exactly what he said? Second, if Jesus was on such intimate terms with God, then how can their wills be so dramatically out of sync at the very end of the story? John’s evangel cuts the complicated Gordian knot of such questions with a very simple answer: Jesus didn’t pray that way.” (p. 74)

• “If the Synoptic story of Gethsemane is a story about praying in the face of temptation prior to betrayal, then John’s is no longer the same story at all.” (p. 74)

• “Though John borrows freely from the other gospels, he changes what he takes to suit his own purposes, and he does so always with an eye to replacing them.” (p. 75)

• “…John had to erase the dramatic episode that Mark located in Gethsemane—a powerful story about prayer and temptation, about the sheer humanity of Jesus’s doubts and the awful depth of his suffering. Mark’s tragedy hinges on the fact that we are witnesses to the collision between two wills, a tragic struggle for self-definition in which we are invited to participate and to recognize as our own. John simply cannot tell a story like that because his theology cannot allow for a collision of wills between Father and Son or for a divided picture of Jesus.” (p. 76) Remember these key words: his theology cannot allow.

Ruprecht notes that this glaring difference between the other gospels and John gave pause even to the early Christians: “…many of them wondered how John’s evangel could be compatible with the Synoptic gospels at all. Some wondered if John’s evangel should even be on the list of acceptable Christian readings. Some wondered if it was heretical. Some wondered how such anti-tragic story could be Christian—or even true.” (pp. 76-77) Or even true. No matter how much preachers and apologists resort to, “Oh, it’s a metaphor, it’s meant to be symbolic—you can’t take that literally,” the folks in the pews usually don’t want to hear that the gospels are inaccurate; that, after all, these famous texts didn’t get the story of Jesus quite right. They don’t want to hear that someone was just making stuff up. But that’s exactly what happened; when Ruprecht says of John that “his theology cannot allow”—that is, in fact, the method followed by all the gospel writers. They are guided by their own theologies, and created accordingly.

Ruprecht makes it starkly clear that Mark and John thought very differently about Jesus. And if modern readers—those who take the time to study these two gospels back-to-back—are shocked, so too, as Ruprecht has noted, were some ancient Christians. His advice about ‘historical habits’ is on target:

• “… we modern people must work very carefully, with more finally developed historical habits, to be able to feel the shock that John’s evangel might have created in an ancient Christian audience that knew and admired Mark’s version. The power of Marks performance has something to do with Jesus’s passionate humanity, something to do with compassion in the face of unimaginable suffering, and it has everything to do with tragedy. John turned all this upside down by writing an anti-tragic evangel in which Jesus’s humanity is muted and all compassion, much like the wavering disciples, has fled.” (p. 101)

It would be hard to name a Bible verse that outranks John 3:16 as a Christian favorite: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Sounds so grand doesn’t it? What a lead-in: “God so loved the world…” Thus it is hard to spot the nasty theology here, but note the words, “that everyone who believes in him…” And John left no ambiguities; the context of John 3:16 includes John 3:18: “Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”

This text has fueled Christian arrogance and violence for centuries, and Ruprecht notes that it reflects John’s grudge against the Jews: “This is a prominent feature in John’s evangel, which goes to extraordinary links to intensify its polemic against a Jewish community that has seen Jesus but refused to believe in him…” (p. 72)

• “One of the many unique qualities of John’s evangel is the way he refers to “Jews” as a people with whom he shares no attachment. Even Jesus seems completely alienated from them. This kind of rhetoric bore a bitter harvest centuries later, when Christians came to power and exerted that power against, well, everyone else—but especially against Jews and Greeks.” (p. 112)

• “John’s evangel is an extended polemic against Jews who, in his severe judgment, saw Jesus in all his glory, heard him at first hand clearly explain who he was, and yet still refused to believe in him and what he promised. For such people, only darkness and condemnation are left.” (p. 121)

Part of the ‘bitter harvest centuries later’ was Martin Luther’s virulent anti-Jewish ranting, as Ruprecht notes: “Luther’s evolving anti-Semitism is legendary and assuredly represents one of the darkest chapters in this polemicist’s long career. Luther argues against the Jews precisely has John’s Jesus did.” (p. 166)

• “As his life and thought continued to mature and to harden, however, Luther’s hostility toward the Jewish people grew even fiercer. Jews become, in Luther’s later years, symbolic of everyone who had ever been given the chance to except the evangel and then rejected it. This is precisely how John saw the Jews, as we will recall, most notably in the ninth chapter of his evangel, when followers of Jesus are expelled from the synagogues. Luther’s rhetoric of damnation intensifies until it becomes almost hard to hear.” (p. 167)

Of course, as has been pointed out by many observers, it is so utterly unlikely that a Jewish Galilean peasant preacher could have been anti-Jewish. That just doesn’t make sense; but John was clueless about the ‘real’ Jesus—just as much as the apostle Paul was. He was drunk on his theology; that was what drove him.

And Martin Luther couldn’t get enough of it! Luther wrote this in his Preface to the New Testament: “… John’s gospel is the one, fine, true, and chief gospel, and is far, far to be preferred to the other three and placed high above them.”

Thus Ruprecht points out the truth of the subtitle of his book, How John Corrupted the Heart of Christianity:

• “Luther’s demotion of the synoptic Gospels is striking, to say the least. And his reasons are not hard to find. The fundamental theological revolution Luther unleashed was inspired by his complete agreement with John’s far more elevated Christology. The point to emphasize is Jesus’s divinity in the face of human fallenness.” (p. 173)

• “Gethsemane admits a level not just of humanity, but of actual doubt, and that Luther finds completely unacceptable in the Savior of humankind.” (p. 174)

• “Such an absolutizing view of the world will almost inevitably result in some pretty severe line-drawing. Many people—Jews, Greeks, even Roman Catholics—will eventually be excluded by such reasoning.” (p. 174)

• “… Luther’s Protestant polemics replace the language of forgiveness with that of judgment, damnation, and the stench of hell. John’s evangel is now to be used as a weapon in the fight against Mark’s more tragic, and more humane, version of Jesus’s doubt and demise.” (p. 174)

Ruprecht poses questions that most Christians never do: “How can you have Mark’s Gospel and John’s evangel both? How can Jesus be both a human being who died in despair on a cross and the Incarnate Logos who created the universe and all the people living in it?” (p. 123)

Unbeknown to most of the folks in the pews, the New Testament is a minefield of conflicting, contradictory theologies—as well as portraits of Jesus that cannot be reconciled. Oblivious to all this, they show up to worship. It’s comforting to hear nice verses read from the Good Book on Sunday morning. So there was a howling conflict between Mark and John? That would be too much information.

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 2016.

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