Reliability of the Gospel of John?

Hi all!
I was watching a debate with Bart Erhmann (sp?) and found it very thought provoking. As a Christian, I don’t have satisfactory explanations for his claims about the reliability of the Gospel of John. Why none of the other gospels portrays Jesus as God so clearly as in the gospel of John? How come they didn’t write down important declarations like " I am the the resurrection and the life" or “I am the way, the life, the truth”.
Any explanations to satisfy an agnostic’s heart?

Thank you!


Inspired by your question I turned to one of my favorite theologians, N. T. Wright to see what he had to say. It also gave me an excuse to crack open his new book (I am always looking for any excuse really).

Here are some thoughts from his book The New Testament in its World.

I think part of your answer lies in the intention of the authors. What was John trying to do that the others were not trying to do. In one way or another they were all trying to pass on Christ’s teachings and events as they happened. But, they were also providing lenses through which they were interpreting and understanding the events they experienced.

In the case of John, he was writing a new Genesis. We can see this from the opening line of John, “In the beginning was the word…” The tie in here is that the one who made the world has now entered it in order to remake it.

He was also writing a new Exodus. In fact, John 1:14 says that Jesus “tabernacled” in our midst. Clearly a theme taken right out of Exodus. This, to my mind, explains the emphasis of the “I am” statements, showing a unity between the God of Genesis and Exodus and Jesus.

John was also writing a new Pentecost, the fulfillment of Israel’s hope, the renewing of creation. The coming of the creator to do what only he could do.

Mark was mainly concerned with challenging the world with a crucified king and writing an account of what it meant to be a follower of Jesus, a disciple. Luke was addressing the educated Greeks of his day and interpreting the impact of God’s purposes through the Messiah for the wider world. This is one reason why they tell different stories in different ways.

I thank God we were given multiple perspectives on Christ and his doings. It gives a much fuller picture of who he is.

Most of what I have written here can be found in chapter 27 of the above mentioned book. I hope you found it helpful.


Thank you, Joshua!
I like the way you see it and even agree with it. But I can understand why people are skeptical about the reliability of the gospel of John. From a non-Christian perspective, it is “interesting” to see that all the other 3 gospels have stories that are very much alike but John tells some extra powerful ones.


I could see that being a question for sure. Matthew, Mark, and Luke, of course, are called the synoptic Gospels for a reason. There are an incredible number of similarities between them. In part because it is believed that Matthew and Luke used material from Mark. I do not think, however, that just because another account contains non-contradictory information not contained in the others would be a good argument against its veracity. Especially considering multiple people giving accounts from multiple perspectives. There is a lot that John does not contain that the others do. It doesn’t seem like he is trying to pile a bunch of extra bits on. There is a lot he actually seems to leave out.

Do you have someone asking you this specific question?


@nivea.roubaud Great question :slight_smile: Part of the answer, in addition to what @Joshua_Hansen said, is that the other Gospels do declare Jesus’ deity, but in a different way that John. In the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) Jesus refers to Himself as the Son of Man 80 times. Jesus and the Gospel writers knew that this was a reference to a title from the book of Daniel, which referred to a highly exalted individual with attributes akin to God’s own.

Also, in the synoptics Jesus forgives a man’s sins. No one, and I mean no one, can forgive sins except God alone in Judaism, which Jesus knew perfectly well. Jesus was making a clear claim to divinity.

There are other examples as well if you study in more detail, but those show that if we look a little closer the synoptics are screaming that Jesus is God.

Mark 2:6-12 - Now some teachers of the law were sitting there, thinking to themselves, 7 “Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?”

8 Immediately Jesus knew in his spirit that this was what they were thinking in their hearts, and he said to them, “Why are you thinking these things? 9 Which is easier: to say to this paralyzed man, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up, take your mat and walk’? 10 But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” So he said to the man, 11 “I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.” 12 He got up, took his mat and walked out in full view of them all. This amazed everyone and they praised God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!”

Daniel 7:13-15 - “In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. 14 He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.

Jesus was very subtle in that he was always opening his identity to those with eyes to see, but he wasn’t opening it so blatantly that everybody would come and make him king. He had to steer a very narrow course in disclosing his identity, not just openly saying, “I’m the Messiah, I’m the King of the World. Come and acknowledge me as King.” He didn’t talk like that.

He was quiet. He was subtle. And he would make claims that were explicit in certain settings and implicit in others. And only when the time was right—mainly when he was on trial for his life, and they said, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the living God?”—did he say, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man coming with great power and glory.” So he confessed his open deity right at the point where he knew he would be crucified for it.


No one specifically, but I thought that I wouldn’t have known how to answer the question! It was really triggered by this debate I watched.
Thank you again, Joshua. I thoroughly appreciate your contributions here at the RZIM CONNECT. You are very insightful.


Very helpful indeed! Thank you so much!

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@nivea.roubaud Glad it helped :slight_smile: May you know Christ more and more as you pray, study and worship the Lord.

Nivea, were you watching the debate online? Do you have a link for it? I’d love to watch it myself.

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Someone correct me if I am wrong, but when I read this in Mark a while ago I realized this was the only time Jesus showed the Pharisees a miracle to prove Himself to them. Then when they kept asking for signs, he denied them. He gave them every opportunity to believe Him but they chose not to. No one is without guilt. That’s the message I got from that.

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Yes! It was part of The Big Conversation by Unbelievable?.


Great discussion going on here! Thank you @nivea.roubaud for bringing it to Connect! I haven’t had a chance to watch the debate yet, and hope to do that this week.

I would like to add that Jesus did receive worship and title as God in the following exchanges:

Matthew 16:13-17

When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”

They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”

Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven.

The High Priest uses Jesus’s claim to declare Him guilty in Mark 14:60-63

Then the high priest stood up before them and asked Jesus, “Are you not going to answer? What is this testimony that these men are bringing against you?” But Jesus remained silent and gave no answer.

Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?”

“I am,” said Jesus. “And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.”

The high priest tore his clothes.“Why do we need any more witnesses?” he asked.

Before His ascension, He declares to fulfilling all Scripture in Luke 24:44-49

He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses the Prophets and the Psalms.”

Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

We do label Matthew, Mark and Luke as the synoptic gospels, which is a term referring to “with the same vision”. John’s gospel was written about 20 years later to give emphasis on what Jesus meant. He also wanted to counter the Greek philosophies and false gospels circulating at the time (around tender new churches) which are mentioned by Paul in his letters:
2 Corinthians 11:4
Galatians 1:6-9
Colossians 2:8


@nivea.roubaud Thanks for sharing the link for the debate. I’ve enjoyed pondering this.

I’m puzzled by one of Bart Erhman’s points. Around the one hour mark, he and Peter Williams were discussing Jesus’s claims to divinity in John. Bart Erhman asked why Mark, which he considers the earliest gospel, doesn’t record these statements. He facetiously suggested that Mark didn’t see them as important, but then he said:

For most people, for most critical scholars, a more plausible explanation is that over time the Christians’ understanding of Jesus changed, and they started seeing Him as less of just a human messiah and more as some kind of divine being over time. And as they saw Him that way, they recorded His words in those ways.

However, five minutes later Bart Erhman said, “I think Mark does see Jesus as divine.” This seems to negate his point that John contains specific claims to deity and Mark doesn’t because the church’s view of Christ changed between the writing of the two gospels. Am I missing something here?

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Thanks! I’ll take a look at that too. He was so vehement at saying that the other gospels do not see Jesus as divine!!

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In the debate Bart Erhman asked why Mark didn’t record Jesus’s verbal claims to deity. Thanks, @SeanO and @BloomHere, for detailing what Jesus did say in the synoptics. That helps a lot.

I’m still curious why Matthew, Mark, and Luke didn’t say more. Does Philippians 2:6-8 (ESV) shed some light on this?

who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

Jesus didn’t make as many verbal claims to deity as we wish He did because that wasn’t His purpose in His first coming. Even the things He said in John are slightly veiled. He didn’t come on the scene and announce, “I am God!” the way Bart Erhman wishes He did.

But Bart Erhman also mentioned other people have said, “I am God.” Lunatics have said this. Did the writers of the synoptic gospels focus more on Jesus’s actions because His deeds prove more than a verbal claim of deity? John 14:11 (ESV) says,

“Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else believe on account of the works themselves.”

It’s easy to record a verbal claim to deity. It’s harder to demonstrate Jesus’s deity through an intricate tapestry of His deeds connected to Old Testament types and prophecies, so this proves more.

Even if I’m right in these theories about the motivation of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, I’m left with the question of why John wrote so differently. I know his audience, location, personality, and time of writing would have affected his style, but as @Joshua_Hansen mentioned, Luke had a unique audience. Why did Luke stay close to the synoptic tradition and John did not?

I’m not sure I’ll find answers to all my “why” questions, but they’re inspiring me to study the gospels, so I can’t lose. I welcome thoughts and direction as I investigate this.


Yes, these are great questions. I do wonder if John’s perspective came from his reflection on what Christ had done after many years. As mentioned by someone earlier, Mark was written very early, as were the others. John was written MUCH later. I wonder if, after all the work Paul had done, different things began to stand out for John. He began to get a revelation of some things he had missed earlier and the Holy Spirit began to put him into remembrance of things he had previously found unimportant. IF that is the case perhaps the other Gospel writers, not having the perspective afforded by many years of reflection, didn’t highlight because they didn’t understand them at the time their Gospels were written. Although, the did include somethings, being guided by the Holy Spirit, that clue us in to and confirm some of the things John is saying. Just some thoughts to spur on the discussion. These are great questions. I am interested in anything which makes us dig into the Gospels deeper.

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That is a veey good point in my opinion, @Jennifer_Wilkinson

@Joshua_Hansen It is a possibility, isn’t it? John was also the chosen one to have the visions revealed in Revelation.

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I’m so glad you’re inspired to study the gospels for yourself! In my experience you gain so much in taking the time to read through them, and really allow the Holy Spirit to reveal the Person of Christ. No matter how many times I read through the gospels, I am moved and new by fresh things I missed previously and how it meets me in the season of my life. The context of everything read is so valuable for full understanding.

I like the take the J Warner Wallace uses in his book, Cold Case Christianity. The disciples didn’t become Christian until after they had witnessed the life, ministry of Jesus, and they fully understood Him to be God incarnate through their resurrection witness. In the same thread, reading the Bible for ourselves brings us into an understanding that doesn’t come from anywhere else.

I was reading recently another interesting discussion on John. As I mentioned in my previous post on this thread, the early church was dealing with heretical invasions, and John wanted to encourage them to remain true to the Gospel of Christ. The heresy (just like now) was always attacking the identify of the Person of Christ.

I stumbled over a name of one of the heretical teachers. A Gnostic teacher, Cerinthus, had sought to infiltrate the church in Ephesus with his own brand of religion during John’s time. Paul even warns the Ephesian elders, before the fact, that false teachers would attack in Acts 20:28-31!

Bible Gateway encyclopedia has a brief overview of Cerinthus here.

@Jennifer_Wilkinson You wrote:

This seems to negate his point that John contains specific claims to deity and Mark doesn’t because the church’s view of Christ changed between the writing of the two gospels. Am I missing something here?

No, I’d say you are paying close attention! Greg Koukl will agree that conspiracy theorists often don’t stand up to their claims because they contradict themselves in the process.

It’s also valuable to consider that Paul’s letters to the churches, like your excellent Philippians 2 reference (which is believed to be an early hymn or creed of the church) which were written before John’s gospel, further clarify the dual nature of Christ being fully God and fully man. There is exceptional evidence for the Christian church’s belief in the deity of Christ before John’s gospel was written which still would be first century.

You asked a very thoughtful question:

Why did Luke stay close to the synoptic tradition and John did not?

It seems to me that Luke, a companion of Paul, was committed to accuracy, but, unlike John, lacked the full eye witness experience. Luke’s version is based on interviews of eye witnesses (including Mary, Jesus’s mother) and reported his findings with great historical data included as well (names of officials, rulers, and other historical details.)
I truly believe John’s emphasis was in maintaining the true identity of Christ which is essential to the Gospel message. As Paul mentions in 1 Corinthians 15.

Dr. Craig Blomberg, in his book, The Historical Reliability of John’s Gospel Issues and Commentary
makes the very interesting point that John assumed a great deal of core knowledge was already in circulation for his audience based on the pre-existing Gospels, and “John still provides many points of “interlocking” with the Synoptics.”

Blomberg further states that: “The recurring motif of ‘testimony’, presented in almost a forensic fashion, designed to convince people of the truth of Christianity (or bolster fledgling faith) and supported particularly by the contents and placement of the ‘beloved disciple’ passages, further reinforces John’s intent.”

OK…I’ve gone on long enough :grimacing: