The Case for a Proto-Gospel

Recovering the Common Written Source Behind Mark and John

by Gary Greenberg (Author)
©2022 Monographs XVIII, 720 Pages
Series: Studies in Biblical Literature, Volume 172


In this landmark study of the literary relationship between the gospel of John and the synoptic gospels, Gary Greenberg presents compelling evidence for the existence of a written pre-canonical Alpha gospel that contained almost all of the main episodes in the adult life of Jesus (excluding major speeches, such as discourses, parables, and "I Am" sayings) and which became the written source for the core biography of Jesus in Mark, Luke, John, and Matthew. While Mark used the Alpha gospel with only slight variations, John had profound theological disagreements with it, objecting to its theological message about how to obtain eternal life, the depiction of Jesus, and other matters. This induced him to rewrite the Alpha gospel so that it conformed to his own very different theological agenda. Consequently, John’s gospel functions as a thorough theological critique of Mark, but the changes he introduced made it difficult to see how he and Mark worked from the same written source. By using John’s theological concerns as a filter for reading and understanding what objections John would have with Mark’s Jesus stories, The Case for a Proto-Gospel reverse-engineers the editorial path taken by John and reconstructs the content of the Alpha gospel. Finally, the author discusses the relationship of the other two synoptic gospels to the Alpha gospel, asserting that Luke also knew the Alpha gospel but used Mark as his primary source, and that while Matthew did not know the Alpha gospel, his use of Mark as a primary source ensured that his core biography of Jesus also derived from this earlier source.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Tables
  • Usage Notes
  • Editor’s Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • 1. The Problem of Mark Versus John
  • The Synoptic Problem
  • The Q Problem
  • The Luke-John Problem
  • Why Luke and Not Matthew?
  • Johannine Source Issues
  • Do Differences in Mark and John Preclude a Common Written Source?
  • Identifying John’s Editorial Practices
  • Methodological Approach
  • The Scope of This Study
  • 2. A Trail of Breadcrumbs
  • A Road Map Through John 6 and Mark
  • Act I: Prelude (John 5–6:4; Mark-B 3:1–19; Mark-A 6:32–34)
  • Act 2: The Miracle of the Loaves (John 6:5–13, 15b–17; Mark-A 6:35–46; Mark-B 8:1–9)
  • Act 3: Crossing the Stormy Sea (John 6:18–24; Mark-A 6:47–51b; Mark-B 4:35–41)
  • Continuity Problems in Mark
  • Act 4: The Discourse on Bread (John 6:25–59, Mark-B 8:10–21, 8:34–9:1; Mark-A 6:51c–52)
  • Act 5: Who Is Jesus? (John 6:14–15a, 60–71; Mark-B 8:27–33; Mark-A 6:14–16)
  • John’s Apostle Filter
  • Luke’s Variations from Mark
  • The Sequential Evidence
  • Summary
  • 3. The Paralytic on the Mat
  • The Man on the Mat in Mark 2:1–12
  • The Man on the Mat in John 5
  • Comparing John and Mark re Healing the Paralytic
  • Reconciling the Differences Between John and Mark
  • The Mekhilta Sabbetta of Rabbi Ishmael
  • A Sabbath Argument in John 7
  • Separating John’s Sabbath Stories from His Paralytic on the Mat Story
  • Mark’s Sabbath Violation Stories (Mark 2:23–3:6)
  • Mark’s Sabbath Elements in John
  • Expanding the Prelude to John 6
  • Summary
  • 4. True Kindred and the Devil
  • Mark’s “True Family” Sandwich (Mark 3:20–35)
  • True Family in John 8:31–59
  • The Transition from John 8 to John 9
  • Healing a Blind Man
  • A Proposed Link Between John 8:31–59 and John 9
  • Healing a Blind Man: Mark and John Compared
  • The Original Narrative Sequence of Events
  • Summary
  • 5. You Can’t Go Home Again
  • The Rejection Story in Mark 6:1–6
  • The Rejection Story in Luke 4:16–30
  • The Rejection Story in Matthew 13:54–58
  • John’s Variations on the Rejection Story
  • The Prophet Without Honor (John 4:44, Mark 6:4, Luke 4:24)
  • They Don’t Believe (John 6:36, Mark 6:6)
  • Knowing the Family of Jesus (John 6:42, Mark 6:3, Luke 4:22)
  • The Man of Learning (John 7:15; Mark 6:2)
  • Luke 4:30 and John 10:39 (or John 7:30)
  • A Homiletic Structure in John and Luke
  • The Names of Jesus’ Parents
  • In What Town Was Jesus Rejected?
  • Determining the Sequential Location of the Story
  • Why Is This Story in the Gospels?
  • Summary
  • 6. The Mission Begins
  • Malachi and John the Baptist
  • John’s Prologue and the Baptist Cycle
  • The Four Disciples Problem
  • The Two Signs Problem
  • The Coming of John the Baptist (CS1–CS5)
  • The Proclamation About the One to Come (CS6)
  • The Baptism of Jesus (CS7–CS9)
  • Jesus, the Son of Joseph (CS11)
  • The Temptation in the Wilderness
  • Beginning of the Galilean Ministry (CS14)
  • Call of the First Four Disciples (CS10, CS12, CS13, CS22–25)
  • Jesus’ First Public Acclaim (CS16–18)
  • Jesus’ Second Sign (CS19)
  • The Second Public Recognition of Jesus (CS20)
  • Jesus Proclaims the Gospel (CS21)
  • After the Second Missionary Tour
  • Healing a Leper (CS26–27)
  • Leftovers
  • Summary
  • 7. Jesus’ Last Visit to Jerusalem
  • The Triumphal Entry
  • Mark’s Jerusalem Visit and John’s Parallels
  • The Johannine Parallels to Mark’s Temple Encounters
  • Mark’s Temple Encounters with No Johannine Parallels
  • To the Jordan
  • Lifting Up the Son of Man
  • John and the Brothers of Jesus
  • Who Moved the Last Jerusalem Visit?
  • Summary
  • 8. The Plot to Kill Jesus
  • The Analytic Structure
  • The Jewish Council Plots Jesus’ Death (CS1)
  • The Anointing at Bethany (CS2–12)
  • John’s First Insertions into the Narrative Structure
  • Judas Decides to Betray Jesus (CS13–14)
  • Preparation for the Last Supper with the Disciples (CS15)
  • The Eucharist Ceremony (CS23)
  • Jesus Predicts That a Disciple Will Betray Him (CS16–22)
  • Jesus Predicts Peter Will Deny Him Three Times Before the Cock Crows (CS24–26)
  • John’s Second Insertion into the Narrative Structure
  • Jesus Goes to the Mount of Olives with His Disciples (CS27)
  • The Cup the Father Gave Jesus (CS28–31)
  • Jesus Arrested (CS32–39)
  • Peter Denies Jesus Three Times (CS40–42, 45–49)
  • Nighttime Proceedings Before the High Priest (CS43)
  • Authorities Strike and Mock Jesus
  • Guards Strike Jesus (CS44)
  • Morning Proceeding Before High Priest (CS50)
  • Jesus Taken to Pilate (CS51)
  • Summary
  • 9. The Jewish Trial of Jesus
  • The Jewish Proceedings in Mark and Luke Compared
  • The Interrogation in John
  • Additional Hidden Trial Scenes in John
  • Summary
  • 10. The Lazarus Conundrum
  • The Raising of Lazarus in John 11:1–44
  • Luke’s Lazarus Parable (Luke 16:19–31)
  • Mark and Lazarus
  • Did Mark Know the Parable of Lazarus?
  • The Anointing at Bethany
  • The Mary/Martha Problem
  • Summary
  • 11. The Roman Proceedings
  • An Overview of the Roman Proceedings Before Pilate
  • Act I. The Interrogation of Jesus
  • Act II. The Barabbas Incident
  • Act III. The Mockery of Jesus
  • Act IV. The Argument Over Crucifixion
  • Act V. The Decision
  • Reconstructing the Roman Proceeding According to the Proposed Common Source
  • 12. The Crucifixion
  • The Journey to Skull
  • The Crucifixion
  • A Gap in John
  • Jesus’ Last Moments
  • The Named Women
  • The Three Mockeries of Jesus
  • Supernatural Occurrences
  • Jesus and His Mother
  • The Time of the Crucifixion
  • The Centurion
  • Summary
  • 13. The Day of Preparation
  • What Calendar Did the Evangelists Use?
  • Passover and the Festival of Unleavened Bread
  • Passover Chronology in Mark, Luke and John
  • What and When Was the Day of Preparation?
  • Dating the Last Supper
  • The Origin Locale of the Proposed Common Source
  • Summary
  • 14. The Resurrection
  • The Burial
  • The Empty Tomb
  • The Road to Emmaus
  • The Road to Emmaus in John
  • Jesus’ Appearance to the Apostles in Luke (24:36–49)
  • Jesus’ First Appearance to the Apostles in John (20:19–23)
  • Jesus’ Second Appearance to the Apostles in John (20:24–29)
  • Jesus’ Third Appearance to the Apostles in John (21:1–23)
  • Reconstructing the Appearance of Jesus to the Apostles
  • The Rest of John 21
  • The Galilee Paradox
  • Summary
  • 15. The Proto-gospel Restored with Brief Commentary
  • Overview of the Reconstructed Proto-gospel
  • 16. Proving the Case for a Proto-gospel
  • Statistical Overview of the Proto-gospel
  • Sequential Agreements
  • Did John Know Mark?
  • The Problem of Luke and John Versus Mark
  • Did Luke Know John?
  • Did John Know Luke?
  • Summary
  • Index
  • Series Index


Table 2.1: Raymond Brown’s alignments between John 6, Mark, 6 and Mark 8

Table 2.2: Scenes breakdown in John 6 and Mark

Table 2.3: Numerical data for the miracle of the loaves

Table 2.4: Scenes in John 6 and Mark following same narrative order

Table 2.5: Proposed scene order in underlying source behind John 6 and Mark

Table 5.1: Hometown verse parallels in John, Mark and Luke

Table 5.2: Comparison of John 6:31–50 (Bread of Life) to Luke 4:16–27 (The Hometown Rejection Story)

Table 5.3: Thematic parallels between Luke 4:16–27 (Hometown Rejection) and John 6:31–50 (Bread of Life)

Table 6.1: Scenes breakdown in Mark 1, John 1–4, Luke 3:1–5:16

Table 6.2: The first five scenes in Mark, John, and Luke (CS1–CS5)

Table 6.3: Scenes from Mark 1, John 1–4, and Luke 3:1–5:16 included in the proposed common source

Table 7.1: Mark’s temple encounters and Johannine parallels

Table 7.2: Jesus’ last visit to Jerusalem: Parallels in John, Mark and Luke.

←xi | xii→

Table 8.1: Scenes breakdown in Mark, John, and Luke: From the plot to kill Jesus to the handover to Pilate

Table 8.2: The Eucharist scene in Mark, Luke, and Paul

Table 11.1: Overview of the Roman proceeding in Mark, Luke, and John

Table 11.2: The Roman proceedings in the proposed common source

Table 12.1: The crucifixion story in Mark, Luke, and John

Table 12.2: The triple agreements in the crucifixion story

Table 12.3: The crucifixion story as reconstructed in the proposed common source

Table 13.1: Schematic of conflicts between Roman and Jewish calendars in the gospels

Table 15.1: The proto-gospel restored, with points of contact in Mark, John, and Luke

Usage Notes

Unless otherwise indicated, all biblical quotes are from the New Revised Standard Version. As a matter of history, we do not know who the actual authors of the gospels were, but, based on long-standing traditions, it is a matter of scholarly convention to refer to the authors by the names of Mark, Luke, Matthew, and John, and the gospels attributed to each are frequently identified by those names. I follow that practice in this volume and whether the name used refers to the author or the gospel attributed to that author should be determined by the context in which the name appears. That I continue to associate these four names with the gospel authors does not mean that I agree with these traditional identifications.

Editor’s Preface

More than ever the horizons in biblical literature are being expanded beyond that which is immediately imagined; important new methodological, theological, and hermeneutical directions are being explored, often resulting in significant contributions to the world of biblical scholarship. It is an exciting time for the academy as engagement in biblical studies continues to be heightened.

This series seeks to make available to scholars and institutions, scholarship of a high order, and which will make a significant contribution to the ongoing biblical discourse. This series includes established and innovative directions, covering general and particular areas in biblical study. For every volume considered for this series, we explore the question as to whether the study will push the horizons of biblical scholarship. The answer must be yes for inclusion.

In this volume, Gary Greenberg argues the case for a Proto-Gospel, where both the Gospels of John and Mark are independently reliant on a common written source. In this break from the established conventions, the author constructs his arguments on the basis of three factors, namely a sizeable number of stories in John that have a substantial number of parallels in Mark; a number of sequential agreements in the order of these parallel stories, and, perhaps importantly, the idea that John does not rely on either Mark or Luke as the principal source for these parallel stories. Using a statistical analysis and citing the large number of ←xv | xvi→common pericopes, Greenberg demonstrates what he argues to be the high degree of probability for a literary relationship between John and Mark based on a written source. This study is certain to generate ongoing discourse, particularly given the evidence that the author adduces. Given the theological implications, this study will certainly invite further conversation.

The horizon has been expanded.

Hemchand Gossai

Series Editor


Portions of this manuscript have previously appeared in my book Proving Jesus’ Authority in Mark and John: overlooked evidence of a synoptic relationship, published by Cambridge Scholars Publishing in 2018. It is used herein with the permission of Cambridge Scholars Publishing, for which I am grateful.


The Problem of Mark Versus John

New Testament scholars believe with near unanimity that the substantial differences in style, content, and verbal description between the gospel of John and the other three canonical gospels preclude any literary relationship between John and any of the others based on a written copy of at least one of them. This is not to say that John doesn’t know several stories that also appear in the other three gospels, but that such familiarity, they say, is based primarily on oral traditions circulating in the Christian communities, some of which may perhaps derive directly from one or more of the other three gospels. John’s lack of a written copy of at least one of the other three gospels, they suggest, accounts for much of the difference in content and verbal agreement. John’s style, however, is often attributed to his different theological perceptions about Jesus and the gospel message.

Based on my new theory of Johannine composition, introduced below, I will propose in the present work that Mark, John and Luke all knew a now-lost written proto-gospel. (I am not in any way challenging the consensus view that Matthew and Luke both knew Mark.) Excluding speech monologues—parables, discourses, “I Am” sayings, prophecies, and similar teachings—this lost text included most of the stories about the adult Jesus that appear in all four canonical gospels and served as the source text for those stories. This doesn’t mean that the ←1 | 2→proto-gospel didn’t also have some of those specialized speeches but only that I will not be exploring that aspect of the gospels in this study. And, to be clear, many of the stories in the proto-gospel do include speeches by Jesus, but that they do so primarily in the context of interaction with other individuals, such as conflicts, debates or discussions. Because such a large percentage of stories in the four canonical gospels can be traced back to this earlier written source, I think it appropriate to refer to this proto-gospel as the “Alpha Gospel.”

The theory behind my thesis is that the author of John had profound theological disagreements with how this proto-gospel presented the gospel message and depicted the character and nature of Jesus, the apostles, and other disciples, and this disagreement led the author of John to do a major rewrite of the earlier gospel such that the new version better reflected the author’s own theological perspective. (Mark and Luke also had some theological problems and made some changes, but far less so than John.)

It is my contention that we can reverse-engineer the composition of John’s gospel and show what specific elements of other Jesus stories he found offensive and what methodology he used to make changes to the source material such that John’s version of many of Mark’s stories often look nothing like Mark’s versions of the same proto-gospel episode. I make my case by identifying specific theological themes in John, and by cross-referencing Johannine stories to Mark and Luke. Further below, I will outline the theological themes that mattered to John and the editorial practices that I suggest he followed.

The chief and very powerful argument against my thesis is that John’s gospel looks very little like the other three gospels as to either verbal agreements or story content. Those familiar with how John differs from Mark (see below) know what a high evidentiary bar I must get past in order to make my case. To prove my thesis, I must convincingly demonstrate the following three propositions.

(1) John knows such a large number of stories also known to Mark that he must have been familiar with either Mark or Mark’s source.

(2) The stories known to both Mark and John demonstrate such a substantial amount of sequential agreement that the alignment can only be explained if John knew a written version of either Mark or Mark’s source.

(3) John couldn’t have obtained his parallel content from Mark or Luke. There is a minor side issue as to whether Luke knew John that I will also address. If it should be agreed that the first two points are proven but not the third, then Mark becomes the default written source for John (either directly from Mark or indirectly through Luke) and constitutes the proto-gospel behind the other three.

←2 |

The difficulty I must overcome is how to show that Mark and John know so many of the same stories when there is so little verbal agreement in the two gospels and that so few stories in John look very much like those in Mark.

At the conclusion of my study I will argue that almost every non-speech episode in John has a literary parallel in Mark and that the two gospels agree on sequential order in approximately two-thirds of such stories. Additionally, in several stories outside of the sequential order (and an explanation for why those stories are out of order will be provided) we will see that several details within the stories also follow a common sequential order. In a moment, I’ll explain my methodology and approach but let me first discuss some matters concerning the literary relations that do or don’t exist among the four gospels.

The Synoptic Problem

We call Matthew, Mark and Luke the synoptic gospels because if you read the three manuscripts in parallel to each other you find numerous stories in each that describe the same incident, use many of the same words, and appear in the same sequential order. Because of the substantial amount of agreement as to story content, word usage and sequential order it is almost universally accepted among scholars that some sort of literary relationship based on a written text must have existed. Defining this relationship is what we call “the synoptic problem.” Either the authors of all three gospels knew a common written source or two of the three knew a written version of at least one of the other two.

Further analysis shows that in almost every major instance where one of the three gospels departs from the word usage or sequential order followed in the other two, either Mark and Matthew agree against Luke, or Mark and Luke agree against Matthew. This strongly indicates that Mark is the hub gospel used as a written source by the other two. There are, however, a few occasions, usually referred to as the “minor agreements,” in which Matthew and Luke agree against Mark, leaving the accepted theory of Markan priority as less than a perfect solution. Nevertheless, it is almost universally accepted among New Testament scholars that Mark was the first gospel to be written and that Matthew and Luke used it as a source. Scholars refer to the collection of parallel stories in all three synoptic gospels as “the Triple Tradition.”

Raymond Brown noted that there are 661 verses in Mark, 1,068 in Matthew, and 1,149 in Luke.1 He estimated that 80% of Mark’s verses have parallels in Matthew and 65% have parallels in Luke.2 This means that half of Matthew and ←3 | 4→over one-third of Luke draw upon Mark as a source. Since Mark has no birth narrative, and if we don’t count the lengthy ones in Matthew and Luke, the percentage of Mark present in the other two gospels becomes significantly higher.

While Matthew and Luke appear to incorporate a large amount of material from Mark, there is no question that they also occasionally make wholesale changes to what Mark wrote. Luke’s versions, for example, of the “Rejection at Nazareth,”3 “Recruitment of the first disciples,”4 or the “Anointing at Bethany”5 look nothing at all like Mark’s versions of the same stories and depart significantly from Mark’s order of events.6 Compare also Matthew’s versions of “the healing of a man with a withered hand,”7 the “Jesus and Beelzebul accusation,”8 and “the Empty Tomb”9 with Mark’s versions of these stories.10 In all likelihood, if these very different versions of Mark’s stories appeared in John (but not in Matthew or Luke), they would probably be considered good examples of why John didn’t know a written version of Mark.

From the way Luke and Matthew handle Mark we can see over numerous incidents that neither had any problems with altering, correcting, amending, omitting or moving around Mark’s stories. Scholars attribute this either to Matthew and/or Luke having theological problems with what appeared in Mark or to one or the other trying to make a story read more sensibly or more clearly. So, such variations are not necessarily proof that one author did not use another author as a source. Similar actions by Mark and/or John with respect to their sources should be expected.

The Q Problem

In addition to the “triple tradition” scholars have also noticed that Matthew and Luke share a lot of material that isn’t present in Mark. While this other material doesn’t always appear in the same sequential order, there is a substantial amount of word agreement. Although containing some anecdotal material, this Matthew-Luke collection consists primarily of sayings by Jesus and its subject matter is largely (but not completely) outside the scope of this present study.

Brown estimates that about 220–235 verses that fall into this category.11 John S. Kloppenborg, one of the leading Q authorities, estimates that this collection of verses encompasses 106 textual units (as opposed to verses) and that about one-third of these units follow the same sequential order.12 This material makes up about 20% of Matthew and Luke and raises a question of whether Luke and Matthew have a literary relationship separate and apart from any connection to Mark.

←4 | 5→

With only slightly less unanimity than there is for Markan priority, scholars believe that Matthew and Luke, working independently from each other, made use of a now-lost written manuscript that scholars have nicknamed Q (from the German word quelle, meaning “source.”) Although no portion of this supposed source has ever been discovered, a large field of Q studies has sprung up in New Testament scholarship, with reconstructed critical versions of the Q source being published and substantial debates over what should or shouldn’t be included within. It is considered by many scholars to be the equivalent of an early gospel.

In recent years, however, a strong and vocal dissent to the Q hypothesis has arisen from a small but growing community of scholars. Based on an earlier thesis known as the Farrar theory, Mark Goodacre and allies take the position that the agreements between Luke and Matthew arise from Luke’s use of Matthew’s gospel as a source.13 This would account not only for why Luke and Matthew share such common material but would also resolve the other problem of the “minor disagreements” of Matthew and Luke against Mark. If Luke used Matthew, then the minor disagreements with Mark would be the result of Luke occasionally using Matthew over Mark as a source.

In the course of this present work, I will make occasional references to Q. I am using it only in the sense of material common to Matthew and Luke but not present in Mark. I take no position as to whether Q was an earlier lost document or whether Luke copied from Matthew. Nevertheless, we should recognize that a very large majority of New Testament scholars routinely accept that two of the gospel authors made substantial use of a now-lost written gospel that preceded at least three (counting John) if not all four of the canonical gospels.

The Luke-John Problem

One known but surprisingly under-analyzed problem in source criticism concerns several parallels between Luke and John that not only agree with each other, but which occasionally agree with each other against Mark or contain information missing in Mark. To cite just a few examples out of many:

Both show a crowd asking John the Baptist if he is the messiah, a detail missing in Mark.14

Both show Jesus enabling Peter to catch a large load of fish, a miracle missing from Mark.15

Both include only one miracle of the loaves, referring to the same episode, but Mark has two such episodes.16

←5 | 6→

Both have a story about sisters named Mary and Martha interacting with Jesus, but Mark has no such story.17

Both contain an episode where a synagogue congregation knows Jesus’ father, Joseph, by name but mentions no other family members by name; in Mark’s parallel to Luke’s version, the congregation exhibits no knowledge of Jesus’ father and names only Jesus’ mother and brothers.18

Both show that in the course of Jesus’ Triumphal Entry to Jerusalem the Pharisees complained about the crowd’s behavior, a detail missing in Mark.

Both show Jesus lamenting the blindness of the Jewish authorities after the Triumphal Entry scene, a detail missing in Mark.19

Both show Jesus predicting that Peter will deny Jesus three times before the cock crows.20 Mark says the cock will crow twice.21

Both show Jews asking Jesus if he is the messiah and Jesus giving similar answers. In Luke, Jesus says, “If I tell you, you will not believe.”22 In John, Jesus says, “I have told you, and you do not believe.”23 Mark has no such reply.

Both show Pilate making three separate declarations declaring Jesus innocent of any wrongdoing, but Mark has no such declarations.24

Both show that the first time Jews called out for crucifixion they used the word “crucify” twice but Mark only has the word once.

These agreements at least hint at some sort of connection between Luke and John but we are left with no satisfactory explanation for how they come about or why Luke would depart from Mark’s language and somehow agree with John. One scholar who attempted to address this issue was F. Lamar Cribbs, who wrote a lengthy article on the Luke-John parallels.25 His solution, however, has been found wanting. He proposed that Luke was influenced by early Johannine traditions, and possibly knew an earlier draft of John, and attempted in his own gospel to reconcile differences between John and Mark.26

It will be my argument in the course of this work that the author of Luke is unlikely to have known John, and Luke’s departures from Mark in favor of John were due to Luke’s use of the proposed proto-gospel and his attempts to reconcile differences between Mark and the earlier source.

Why Luke and Not Matthew?

I have already indicated that, according to my thesis, Luke knew the proto-gospel but Matthew did not. The reason for that conclusion is that Luke and John both seem to know several of the same things that Mark does not know, and, on occasion, Luke and John agree against Mark on certain details. While it is true that ←6 | 7→Matthew knows many things that are not present in Mark, I have not found any evidence that there is any significant matching of that information with John. Since Matthew and Luke both use Mark as a source, their agreements with Mark do not advance the case for a proto-gospel. We require some differences that connect in some manner with John.

The issue in this study is primarily whether John knew Mark’s source, and agreements between Luke and John against Mark provide some clues. While it is conceivable that Matthew knew the proto-gospel, his lack of significant divergence from Mark in parallel to John leaves us with insufficient evidence to make out a case for Matthew’s knowledge of the Markan source. Nevertheless, because Matthew has so much material from Mark that, per my theory, Mark took from the proto-gospel, Matthew is at least indirectly, through Mark, a product of the proto-gospel. Should additional evidence come forward on behalf of Matthew’s knowledge, I would have no objection to adding him to the list of gospels directly influenced by the earlier source.

Johannine Source Issues

John’s gospel features an individual known as “the disciple whom Jesus loved,”27 routinely referred to by scholars as “the Beloved Disciple,” and at the end of the gospel the author says, “This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true.”28 John never mentions this individual by name and his identity is subject to substantial debate. He was apparently an important figure in the Johannine community who, according to John, died at some earlier point in time.29 So at least for this passage, the beloved disciple was not the author.

Brown says that prior to the development of biblical criticism, it was commonly thought that the gospel was the work of “John, the son of Zebedee,” one of the key members of the twelve apostles, and the gospel was written down shortly after his death30 Few scholars presently accept that identification. Brown adds that, questions of author identity aside, “there are features in the gospel that offer difficulty for any theory of unified authorship.”31 These include differences of Greek style, breaks and inconsistencies in sequence, repetitions in discourses, and passages ‘that clearly do not belong to their context.”32

Another problem is that the gospel appears to be completed at the end of John 20, which says, “But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have ←7 | 8→life in his name.”33 Yet it continues with new stories and teachings in John 21. It is commonly argued that John was composed in at least two stages, an initial gospel and at least one later edition by someone routinely referred to as “the Redactor.” Several scholars believe the Redactor added in John 1:1–18 and John 21 and made several editorial changes to the original version. Urban Von Wahlde has argued for at least three stages in the composition of John.34 Even among those who agree with the idea of multiple editions of the text, there are still disagreements as to which verses belong to which edition.35

Many scholars try to resolve some of the textual problems by moving passages and sections around to create a more fluid flow, although there is significant disagreement as to what should be moved and where it should be placed. Why John’s Redactor should have changed the location of several passages from where they were in the earlier edition is another issue that requires explanation. Several scholars have suggested it was the result of accidental displacement.36

While not all, or even most, scholars believe in such wholesale rearrangement, many of them would agree that, due to geographical and chronological issues, perhaps there should be a reversal in the order of John 5 and John 6.37 I address the issue of chronological displacement at various points in my study. As to John 5 and John 6, however, it is my argument later that they are in the proper and original sequential order as is.

Several scholars believe the compositional issues are due to the author’s use of a variety of source texts.38 Brown says the most influential form of source theory goes back to Rudolf Bultmann, who, he says, proposed three basic sources.39 One was a “signs” source, a collection of miracles, a few of which John extracted for his gospel.40 I challenge that thesis in the course of this work, showing that the miracles in John are all explainable through the use of the proto-gospel and that despite differences in appearance, are, for the most part, duplicates of those in Mark.

His second proposed source is referred to as the “Revelatory Discourse Source,” a collection of discourses attributed to Jesus, some of which were interspersed into John.41 In this study I don’t do a broad analysis of discourses or other speeches, although I do look at some associated issues here and there. With respect to John’s Discourse on Bread in John 6, though, I implicitly challenge the use of this “discourse source” at least with respect to this specific speech.

Bultmann’s third proposed source, according to Brown, is a Passion and Resurrection text similar to the synoptic gospel version but having some important differences.42 In my study I show that Mark, John, and Luke all drew upon the same Passion and Resurrection source, the proto-gospel.

←8 | 9→

All three of Bultmann’s propositions have been challenged in one way or another by various scholars. I will outline in the pages ahead my own theory of John’s compositional practices. First, however, let me briefly touch on the question of whether John’s differences from Mark preclude the idea of an earlier common source.

Do Differences in Mark and John Preclude a Common Written Source?

The gospel of John looks very different from the synoptic gospels. To begin with, there is far less verbal agreement between John and Mark than there is for Luke and Matthew. John has none of the synoptic parables, none of the synoptic exorcisms, none of the synoptic healing missions, and fewer miracles than in the synoptic gospels. John’s miracles, for the most part, look very different from those in Mark. At the same time, John introduces his own set of non-parable hard-to-understand teachings, none of which appear in the other gospels, and he introduces several “I Am” sayings that also do not appear in any of the other three gospels.

John’s gospel message is much more focused on the idea that the only way to eternal life is to believe in Jesus as the one sent by the Father to offer eternal life, a message that is less explicit and occasionally challenged in the synoptic gospels.43 John is often thought of as a more spiritual gospel than the others and one offering a higher degree of Christology than the others.

John also depicts a much longer mission by Jesus than do the synoptic gospels. In John the story unfolds over three Passovers; the other gospels include only one Passover. While the synoptic gospels place all of Jesus’ action in Galilee, up until the final week, John presents almost the entire mission taking place in Jerusalem, with very little activity in Galilee.

There are also significant chronological and sequential disagreements between John and the synoptic gospels. John, for example, places Jesus’ last visit to Jerusalem much earlier in time than the synoptic gospels do, and his version of the last visit looks nothing like the synoptic versions. John also places the chasing of the money-changers at the beginning of the mission rather than the end of the mission as in the synoptic gospels.

Particularly odd is that the three synoptic gospels all show Jesus bringing a child back to life (and Luke, alone, includes a second incident in which Jesus brings someone back to life) and that story is missing in John. At the same time John gives high importance to Jesus bringing the adult Lazarus back to life and that incident does not appear in the synoptic gospels.

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All this is not to say that there is no evidence of Johannine contact with a written synoptic gospel. Perhaps the most direct and troubling evidence for scholars rejecting such a connection is the Mark-John sequence of the “Miracle of the Loaves”44 and “Jesus walks on Water.”45 In Mark and John these two stories run one after the other, with very similar narrative bridges between the two events. (Luke omits the story of Jesus walking on water.)

In the Miracle of the Loaves episode, both authors agree that the crowd consisted of five thousand people, that the ordinary cost of feeding them would have been two hundred denarii, that Jesus started out with five loaves of bread and two fish, and that there were twelve baskets of leftovers. That’s a lot of numeric and verbal agreement. Luke and Matthew both omit the ordinary cost of feeding the crowd, giving John a superior numerical agreement with Mark than do the two other synoptic gospels.

In the Walking on Water miracle that follows almost immediately after, both authors agree that the disciples were initially frightened by the sight of Jesus on the water and he calmed them down by saying, “It is I; do not be afraid.” Both stories unfold in a similar manner and share a key phrase. The two sea stories include some key verbal agreement and common details. However, in mid-voyage across the sea, the two gospels diverge radically in what they depict next and the two gospels trail off in different directions.

The close verbal and sequential agreements in these two stories give scholars at least some pause in dismissing any written connection between John and the synoptic gospels but the overwhelming consensus remains firm: John did not know a written version of the synoptic gospels.

Then there are a couple of unusual verbal parallels between John and the synoptic gospels. In all four gospels, Jesus occasionally refers to himself as the “son of Man.” Throughout early Christianity, virtually the only description of Jesus as “son of man” comes from the four evangelists. If John has no written connection to the other gospels, where does his frequent use of “son of Man” come from?

Even more odd is the use of the term “day of Preparation” in connection with the death of Jesus. While all four gospels agree that Jesus died on the “day of Preparation” and this day fell just before the Sabbath, there is some disagreement amongst the authors as to what the term means. John says it is the day on which the Passover lamb is slaughtered. Mark says it is the day of preparation for the Sabbath. Luke appears noncommittal.

The problem, however, is that the term is supposed to be a Jewish term and Jews never used that expression. In reference to the start of a holiday they always ←10 | 11→referred to “Evening of …” but never “Day of …” Again, this is a term used only in the four gospels. How did John pick up such an unusual and odd phrase that appears elsewhere only in the synoptic gospels? This is certainly a question worth exploring.

There are also places where John exhibits verbal parallels to Mark in stories that look like the two gospels might have a point of contact but where the story details are often very different. In the story of John the Baptist, John cites the same Isaiah verse that Mark does.46 Later John’s version of the Baptist’s pronouncement about the one to come closely parallels Mark’s version and could be considered more faithful to Mark than the versions in Luke and Matthew.47 Although John’s version of the Baptist’s story departs in many ways from Mark, so do the versions present in Matthew and Luke.

In another example, compare the “Anointing in Bethany” as presented by Mark and John.48 There is little doubt that these two versions are related to each other. Both talk about the oil being worth three hundred denarii, both show complaints about the money being used for oil instead of for the poor, and in both Jesus says, “You always have the poor with you.” But when you look at the details of the two stories, they are almost nothing alike.

In Mark the oil is poured on the head; in John on the feet. In Mark there is no meal being served; in John there is. Other than Jesus, Mark doesn’t mention the names of anyone present except the owner of the house, “Simon the Leper;” John makes no mention of Simon but says Lazarus, Mary and Martha were present. Mark doesn’t say who complained; John says it was Judas but indicates that he was insincere and wanted to steal the money. Despite minimal verbal agreement, there is little doubt that both versions are based on the same story. In fact, John’s version is much closer to what Mark says than is Luke’s.49

Mark has a story about healing a paralytic sitting on a mat.50 In the course of the process, Jesus says, “stand up, take your mat and go to your home.” John has a story about Jesus healing a paralytic sitting on a mat and telling him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.”51 The words uttered by Jesus in both stories are virtually identical and one would initially see the two stories as based on a common source. But John’s story details look nothing like Mark’s.

The latter places the incident in Jesus’ home in Capernaum and John’s takes place by a pool in Jerusalem on a Sabbath. None of the actions taken by the people present in Mark’s story appear in John’s story. Scholars debate whether the two versions are based on the same common story or whether they are derived from independent unrelated stories. The consensus seems to be that the stories in Mark and John have no relationship to each other.

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Mark has a story known as the “Rejection at Nazareth,” although he never mentions the city by name.52 It is a short story (six verses) with several notable features. Jesus is in a synagogue, the congregation knows members of Jesus’ family by name, the congregation rejects Jesus, and Jesus says, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house [emphasis added].”

John has a story about Jesus in a synagogue, where the congregation knows members of Jesus’ family by name and rejects Jesus.53 John’s version of the story is missing the quote about prophets without honor, but the quote appears elsewhere in John, slightly altered and in a substantially different context. “[F];or Jesus himself had testified that a prophet has no honor in the prophet’s own country).”54

Although John has moved the quote elsewhere and altered it to eliminate the reference to Jesus’ family being among those who reject Jesus—to be fair, Matthew and Luke also drop the reference to Jesus’ family rejecting him55—the parallels between the two synagogue stories seem to suggest there should be a relationship. Yet, the stories in Mark and John look nothing alike. The settings and issues in conflict are very different.

In Mark, the family members mentioned by name are the mother “Mary” and her several sons, “James and Joses and Judas and Simon.” Mark makes no reference to even the existence of a father. In John, only the father “Joseph” is mentioned by name. In an interesting side issue, Luke agrees with John against Mark as to which family members were named. Despite using Mark as a source, Luke names only the father “Joseph.”56 A connection between Mark and John as to the Rejection at Nazareth flies under the academic radar.

In Mark, Jesus criticizes Peter at one point, calling him a Satan.57 In John, at a similar point in the narrative under similar circumstances, Jesus says, “Yet one of you is a devil” but he doesn’t say who that is.58 John adds a gloss saying that Jesus referred to Judas.59 It’s hard not to see that John’s version is a cleansing of what appears in Mark’s version.

Even without verbal agreements, we see stories in John that clearly have a parallel with Mark. Consider, for example, the chasing of the money-changers from the Temple.60 Mark places it in the last week of Jesus’ life; John places it two years earlier. In John, Jesus’ specific actions against the money-changers differs from those depicted in Mark, and Jesus’ words of rebuke to the money-changers are completely different in the two stories. There is no meaningful verbal agreement in the two accounts. Despite the lack of significant verbal agreement, and in the case of the money-changers a severe chronological and sequential disagreement, John’s story is easily recognizable as being based on the same incident Mark referred to.

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Mark has a story in which Jesus heals a blind man by rubbing his (Jesus’) saliva in the blind man’s eyes.61 Matthew and Luke both omit this story but John has an extensive story (all of John 9) about Jesus healing a blind man, and in this account Jesus mixes his saliva with dirt to make mud and heals the blind man by placing the saliva-infused mud on the man’s eyes.

This odd use of saliva to heal a blind man certainly seems like it should be based on a common story but other than the use of saliva in healing a blind man the two stories look nothing alike in their present formats and scholars debate whether they are based on the same story or derive from very different incidents. The consensus currently favors two separate unrelated derivations. But the use of saliva by Jesus in a healing process is certainly a very odd fact that seems to go against the usual depiction of Jesus’ powers and especially against the depiction of Jesus in John, who can raise someone to life with just a word or who can be in one city and cure someone’s severe illness in another city.

Mark and John each have one story about Jesus healing a deformed man on the Sabbath, but the details are very different and scholars generally reject a connection.

Mark has Jesus make three predictions about rising after he is killed. John has Jesus make three declarations that he will be raised up, but the wording is very different. Are they parallel declarations just using different words?

Little by little we begin to see several places where there seems to be a point of contact between Mark and John on a story but where, on the other hand, they disagree on narrative content. And in the course of this study we will look at a great many other such instances in greater detail. While one can explain a handful of such incidents with occasional verbal parallels based on oral traditions, what happens when points of contact begin to mushroom?

Is there a crossing point where one says there are too many such connections to be dismissed as coincidences? And what do we say if these many points of contact start to align in sequential agreement? Does this imply an underlying written source? Is there a pattern involved that explains why the story details disagree? Is there some reason why the details might disagree even if they were based on a common source?

So far, the traditional approach is to treat each occasion where there is a point of contact as an isolated event divorced from a larger collection of such incidents. The source-critical approach is heavily invested in verbal agreements as the chief tool for resolving the question of source relationships. But what happens when two authors share a source but one disagrees profusely with how the source interprets events and begins to rewrite stories? Can one prove that this is the case? That is the larger project taken up in the present work.

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Identifying John’s Editorial Practices

In making my case for the existence of a proto-gospel I will argue that John followed certain practices in composing his gospel and these practices made it extremely difficult to recognize how Mark and John frequently interacted with the same story or set of stories. However, once it is seen how these practices operate, one can more easily identify the steps that John took in his composition. The various practices fall into three broad categories:

Theological biases requiring changes to a source;

Editorial techniques for making changes;

One major change to the underlying plot (for a theological purpose) that causes several stories to be moved around and altered.

Theological Biases

John has certain identifiable theological biases about the nature of the gospel message, the nature of Jesus, and the behavior of his disciples. I propose that whenever John encountered a source story that either disagreed with his position or left a potential for undermining his theological agenda, he took editorial steps to change the nature of the underlying story. Given the nature of the problem and the steps taken, changes could make John’s version of events look very different from that in the source versions. Here are what I believe to be the primary theological concerns that motivated John to make changes.

(a) John believed that the only way to obtain eternal life is to accept that Jesus was sent by the Father to make eternal life available. According to John, Jesus said,

“You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life [emphasis added].”62

“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.”63

“This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.”64

If a source story suggested that there was some other way to obtain eternal life, such as following the law,65 giving to the poor,66 or loving your neighbor67 then John would want to either make substantial changes to the story or omit some or, occasionally, all the details.

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(b) John claimed that all judgment has been given by the Father to Jesus. According to John, Jesus said,

“The Father judges no one but has given all judgment to the Son, so that all may honor the Son just as they honor the Father. Anyone who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him [emphasis added].”68

“Yet even if I do judge, my judgment is valid; for it is not I alone who judge, but I and the Father who sent me.”69

“I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.”70


XVIII, 720
ISBN (Softcover)
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2020 (April)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2022. XVIII, 720 pp., 22 tables.

Biographical notes

Gary Greenberg (Author)

Gary Greenberg is the author of The Judas Brief and Proving Jesus’ Authority in Mark and John. He served for over a decade as the President of the Biblical Archaeology Society of New York. Presently retired, he holds a Juris Doctor degree from Seton Hall University.


Title: The Case for a Proto-Gospel
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740 pages