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The Case for a Proto-Gospel

Recovering the Common Written Source Behind Mark and John


Gary Greenberg

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.

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6. The Mission Begins


6 The Mission Begins

In Chapters 2 and 3 I have attempted to show that John 5–6 contains a long sequence of discrete story units and that each one has a parallel in Mark that unfolds, with only trivial exceptions, in the same sequential order as John. A key difference between the two gospel sequences is that John presents the events as contiguous while Mark has several breaks in the narrative where other stories intrude.

The start of Mark’s parallel agreement with John 5–6 begins with the healing of the paralytic on the mat at Mark 2:1. In this chapter I will examine those portions of Mark, John and Luke that precede the healing of the paralytic. This material encompasses all of Mark 1, John 1–4 and Luke 3:1–5:16 (omitting Luke’s infancy and childhood narratives). On a schematic level, these gospel portions can be divided into two major story lines, 1) the relationship between Jesus and John the Baptist and 2) the early stages of Jesus’ missionary activity, culminating in the first acts that bring him wide-scale public attention.

On the surface, John 1–4 looks nothing much like Mark 1. Still, we can find a few touch points, such as the Isaiah quotation, similarities in the proclamation of John the Baptist, variations on the baptism of Jesus, and a sequence of two stories in which Jesus encounters two sets of named disciples (although the story settings...

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