Question: The Jesus Legend persuaded me that the Gospels are generally reliable. But I remain very skeptical of the reliability of the Gospel of John. It was written long after the Synoptics, and its view of Jesus barely resembles that of the Synoptics. The main reason this skepticism of John’s Gospel is significant is that we only find Jesus identified as God in John. In the Synoptics, Jesus emphasized his distinctness from the Father, and he said he came to lead people to worship the Father, not to worship him. It seems to me, therefore, that John made Jesus into an idol, and Christians have been worshiping him and praying to him as an idol ever since. How would you respond to this?
Answer: Thanks for your honest question. I’ll say four things in response.
First, while space prevented Paul and I from addressing the historicity of the book of John in The Jesus Legend, we do believe a solid case can be made defending this position. In fact, after almost a century of widespread scholarly skepticism toward John, there is a significant trend among academics over the last few decades toward a more conservative assessment of this work. And while older scholarship typically placed John in the very late first century or even early to mid second century, many now argue that we have no reason to date John much later than the Synoptics. Some are even now arguing that John may be the first Gospel! There are many reasons for this change, but I’ll just share two.
First, one primary reason John was dated so late is that the linguistic style resembles certain second century gnostic texts. With the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls (1945), however, we found out that this distinctive style was around way before the time of Jesus! Along the same lines, one primary reason John was deemed unreliable was that we had very little archeological corroboration of his narrative. In the last several decades, however, we have had several significant findings that do just this.
This isn’t to deny that John presents a much more “theologized” picture of Jesus than the Gospels. In this sense John’s view of Jesus is not as “historical” as the Synoptics. But this doesn’t mean his over-all portrait isn’t substantially anchored in history. For two representative examples of scholars defending the historicity of John, see C. Bloomberg, The Historical Reliability of John’s Gospel: Issues and Commentary (IVP, 2001) and C. Keener, The Gospel of John: A Commentary, 2 Vols (Hendrickson, 2003).
Second, I would deny that the Synoptics present a less divine Jesus than does the Gospel of John. Yes, Jesus’ divinity is more overt in John — this, some argue, is one of the reasons he wrote his supplementary Gospel. But the Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels is nevertheless fully divine. For example, Jesus inspires, and accepts, worship. Yet, every first century Jew knew that worship is appropriate only to God. So too, in a number of different ways, Jesus puts himself in the position of Yahweh in the OT. For example, Yahweh is the bridegroom courting Israel to be his bride throughout the OT, yet Jesus speaks of himself in these terms in the Synoptics. So too, all Jews knew that Yahweh alone is the Judge of all humans, yet Jesus puts himself in this position in the Synoptics (e.g. Matt. 25:31-45). And many scholars argue that when Jesus calls 12 apostles, he was intentionally paralleling Yahweh’s call of the 12 tribes of Israel in the OT. And there are dozens of similar indications that could be given. The divinity of Jesus is definitely more concealed in the Synoptics than it is in John, and this undoubtedly reflects the fact the historical Jesus kept his divine identity “under wraps” through most of his ministry — probably to prevent being prematurely arrested and executed. But the divinity is present nonetheless.
Third, I would deny that the Jesus of John’s Gospel is less distinct from the Father than he is in the Synoptics. In John, Jesus over and over says things like, “I have been sent by the Father,” “I came down from the Father,” “I will go back to the Father,” “I glory the Father,” “I don’t do my will, but the will of the Father,” etc, just as he does in the Synoptic Gospels. I say this to demonstrate that, for Jesus to distinguish himself from the Father is not the same as distinguishing himself from a full claim to divinity. The paradoxical way Jesus both identifies himself as divine while distinguishing himself from the Father was one of the primary things that eventually led the Church to arrive at the doctrine of the Trinity.
Finally, and perhaps most forcefully, the earliest Christian witness to Jesus is not the Synoptic Gospels, but Paul. And Paul has a thoroughly divine Jesus! He not only calls Jesus “God” several times (Rom. 9:5; Tit. 2:13), he consistently ascribes activities and titles to Jesus that belong only to God. For example, for Paul, Jesus is the Creator of all, the Judge of all and the Savior of all — all things that are ascribed to Yahweh in the OT and that every orthodox first century Jew knew could only be ascribed to God. And, as with the Synoptics and John, Paul makes Jesus an object of worship as well as the one we pray too — which, again, every Jew knew was appropriate only to God. What’s really interesting is that the way Paul writes these things makes it clear that this is the way all Christians at the time viewed Jesus. For example, he makes an off-hand comment that the Corinthians, “with all the saints everywhere, call upon the name of the Lord,” referring to Jesus (1 Cor. 1:7). In Jewish contexts, the phrase “call upon” meant to worship and pray. So it’s clear that from the start, Jesus was viewed by his followers to be God Incarnate.
And so, I submit you’ve got very good reason to accept that Jesus is the embodiment of God himself on earth. Worshiping and praying to Jesus is not idolatry. It’s rather the only appropriate response to the one in whom God became a human! For a very solid overview of all the material in the NT supporting this view, I strongly recommend M. Bowman Jr. and J. E. Komoszewski, Putting Jesus in His Place: The Case for the Deity of Christ (Kregel, 2007).