Historical Problems in the Fourth Gospel -- By: Everett F. Harrison

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 116:463 (Jul 1959)
Article: Historical Problems in the Fourth Gospel
Author: Everett F. Harrison


Historical Problems in the Fourth Gospel

Everett F. Harrison

[Editor’s Note: This article is the second installment of the W. H. Griffith Thomas Memorial Lectures on the subject, “The Fourth Gospel in Relation to the Synoptics,” given November 19–21, 1958, at the Dallas Theological Seminary, by Dr. Harrison.]

One of the complaints against the Fourth Gospel is that John has departed from the pattern of the Synoptics in factual matters about which the tradition must have been clear. The representation of the Baptist is one of the sore spots. It is sometimes alleged that by the time the Fourth Gospel was written the church was menaced by a continuing movement centered in veneration for this man. At Ephesus Paul found certain disciples who had received John’s baptism. Recalling that Ephesus is the traditional point of origin for the Fourth Gospel, one might conclude that the writer, conscious of this movement in his own locale, so constructed his account as to make John entirely subordinate to Jesus of Nazareth. In line with this, he makes the Baptist say regarding Jesus, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” This is specious criticism, but is it true?

The Synoptics report Jesus’ generous praise of John, but they also cite His statement that one who is least in the kingdom is greater than he. This is our clue for the understanding of the portrayal in the Fourth Gospel. We are to see that the Baptist’s limitation is not personal but dispensational. He belongs to the old order. As the friend of the bridegroom, he prepares for the wedding, but another participates therein. The law and the prophets were until John. As the leading function of the law was to prepare the way for the gospel, so John—who is closely associated with the law—can only prepare. As the last and greatest of the prophets, he must point men to the greater One to come. John can prepare disciples for Jesus, but cannot be one himself. The lesser must serve the greater.

A second problem relates to the disciples of Jesus, many of whom served under the Baptist originally. The difficulty here is that in the Synoptics the call of these men is located in Galilee, with no mention of previous contact, whereas in the Fourth Gospel several of them are pictured as following Jesus in Judea at an earlier date. To be sure, both the Synoptic and Johannine records agree in many things—the fact that Jesus had disciples, that they were twelve in number, all chosen by the Lord, that Judas was the betrayer, that the group as a whole were Galileans. Still, the problem stated above cries out for settlement. Must one account be wrong for the other to be correct? The very readiness of the fishermen to leave their nets and resp...

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