Status of “The Gospel of John”


The publisher was readying another press run, and insisted that the entire thing had to be repaginated to make the interior margins at least one inch. This is a BEASTLY chore. I informed them that I would do it myself (not the publisher) because of all the foreign language fonts and my perfectionistic nature. And, since repaginating throws off the indexes, they will have to be redone. The publisher also wants a thematic index, which would be more time, though I agree it would be useful. And I was abroad for most of this month, costing precious time.

So, the summation is that this is a major undertaking, and I’m working 10+ hours every day trying to get it all done. But, when it’s finished, the book will have nearly 100 pages of new text, and maybe that thematic index besides. If you’re waiting to order your copy, I’m sorry for the wait, but it will be worth it. I expect it to be back in publication in about three weeks.

In the meanwhile, I have about twenty other books available; use the dropdown menu in the black bar on this page to navigate to fiction, nonfiction, and collections.

–James David Audlin

Second Edition of THE GOSPEL OF JOHN On Sale!

The Second Edition of The Gospel of John is now on sale.

This translation is the first in two thousand years to attempt a restoration of the original version of the gospel text. Several portions are out of proper sequence in the familiar version, probably from when the manuscript was transported from Jerusalem to Pontus and then Ephesus. After that, the leaders of the nascent Christian religion cut passages out that conflicted with their dogma of Jesus as a Roman-style godling, and they also added other passages.

Gospel of John Second EditionThis is a fresh translation, besides, from the original Greek. It is also unique among translations because the extremely early Aramaic version of the Gospel of John was also constantly reviewed, and sometimes that version is the basis for the translation, rather than the Greek. This Aramaic version is so old that some Christian denominations consider it the original. And remember, Jesus and his friends all spoke Aramaic!

Besides, there are some six hundred pages of introduction and commentaries to guide the reader through the intricacies of this text. It gives the deeper meanings of words and discusses their implications. It gives the famous classical works that the gospel paraphrases – Homer’s Odyssey, Plato’s Republic, and Euripides’s Bacchae, amongst others.

What’s new in the Second Edition?

Several of the blogs below will give you a taste of the additional material – what Jesus and Mary were really saying to each other outside the tomb of resurrection, for instance – and it was definitely not “Do not touch me!”

Click on “Books by James David Audlin” in the black bar above, and navigate to “Nonfiction by James David Audlin”. There, you will find an introduction to this masterwork and links for ordering your own copy.

Who Wrote and Who Wrecked the Gospel of John?

This blog entry discusses the identities of the amanuensis of the Gospel of John (that is, the “ghostwriter” who took down the oral recollections of Lazarus, the Beloved Disciple, who was the eyewitness behind the gospel, and drafted the gospel’s original version), and the redactor of the final version (who made it conform to the later organized Christian religion’s dogma and creed). This is a revision of a section of the introduction to The Gospel of John, my restoration of that original text. You will find ordering information here.


In concluding this discussion we may wish to speculate on the actual identity of the amanuensis, despite the paucity of extant clues, and even though his very existence is theoretical (albeit his existence is pretty clearly necessary by logic). If an amanuensis was involved in the creation of the original gospel, as seems all but certain, he was extremely well educated in the Greek classics, but apparently not the Latin (which are not quoted), so he was from the Eastern (not Western) half of the Roman Empire. And he was both artistic and meticulous in his work. His name almost certainly was John (Ἰωαννης), and thus it is his name that became associated with the gospel, not that of the Beloved Disciple, if the conclusion above is correct that the Beloved Disciple is most likely Lazarus.

That this gospel may be named after the amanuensis and not the eyewitness is more than mere hypothesis. It is clearly the case with the Gospel of Mark, named after the amanuensis John Mark who (as was noted above, quoting Eusebius’s reference to John the Presbyter’s remarks) put it together from Peter’s oral reminiscences. And it is also the case with the Gospel of Luke, whose author clearly states in the opening verses that his work was that of reading earlier gospels and collating his own version therefrom on behalf of his employer, whom he refers to as Theophilus (“Lover/Friend of God”) – the work of an amanuensis.

The best conclusion is that the amanuensis of the Fourth Gospel is the mysterious first-century figure known to us as John the Presbyter, sometimes called John the Elder. This John is the self-named author of II and III John, and almost certainly I John too, though probably jointly with Lazarus; there is also a surviving small fragment of a fourth letter. These letters bear very strong similarities in style, vocabulary, and subject to the gospel.

Papias was a student of John the Presbyter; his five-volume Exposition of the Sayings of the Lord, of which just quotations survive, is a main source for what little we know about the man. Eusebius in his History of the Church paraphrases Papias in a way that associates John the Presbyter with the disciples’ oral recollections of Jesus, which fits well with the scenario described above. Similarly, a ninth-century Latin text, the Codex Vaticanus Reg. lat. 14, says: Evangelium Iohannis manifestum et datum est ecclesiis ab Johanne adhuc in corpore constituto; sicut Papias nomine, Hieropolitanus, discipulus Johannis carus, in exotericis, id est in extremis quinque libris retulit; descripsit vero evangelium dictante Johanne recte verum. (“The Gospel of John was published and given to the churches by John [the Presbyter] when he was in the flesh; so a beloved disciple of John, Papias, named [by John as the bishop] of Hierapolis, recalled in Exotericis, the last of [his] five books; John in fact wrote the gospel down faithfully from the correct truth dictated to him.”)

There being no other strong (or weak) candidates, I feel confident enough about identifying as John the Presbyter the John to whom the early Christian leaders always and universally attributed the main authorship of the gospel that I have put his name on the title page of the gospel text, on page 99.

After the Beloved Disciple and amanuensis were no longer involved, the gospel manuscript was somehow passed to the very early Christian community in Pontus (on the south shore of the Black Sea, in what is now Turkey) and from them into the hands of John the Presbyter’s student Papias.

During its peregrinations, large blocs of material in the manuscript got inadvertently disordered. Since these displaced “partitions” generally contain a similar volume of writing, scholar Rudolf Bultmann proposed that the displacements occurred within a single manuscript that had been written on papyrus sheets of about the same length. As examples of these displacements: Chapter 2:1-12 (which begins “On the third day…”) clearly should go between 4:45 and 46b. The sixth chapter clearly should follow immediately on 4:54. Jesus telling the disciples to get up and leave with him at the end of chapter 14 clearly should be the end of the Last Supper discourse, not followed by two more chapters of it. The same “partition theory” may explain why the trial interview of Jesus by Caiaphas is missing from the text; it may have filled one page exactly, and that page went missing at around this time.

A reasonable hypothesis to explain the same-length displacements is that the original draft of the gospel was prepared in the form of a codex: not a scroll, but something like a modern book, with writing on both sides of pages that were then sewn together; a method that in the late first century was just beginning to appear. It would have been something very much like the manuscript from which comes Rylands P52, a surviving fragment (see the image of it on the back cover of this volume), which dates to no later than the early second century, and could have been produced as early as 90 C.E. (Another theory is that the earliest complete manuscript of the original gospel was composed on scrap ends cut from finished scrolls and sold relatively inexpensively.)

Given its age, it is not inconceivable that P52 comes from the manuscript of the original gospel, the writing of the amanuensis himself. The handwriting is neat and careful, but it lacks a professional secretary’s stylistic finesse and flourish, suggesting that it was not scribed with publication in mind but rather for use as a careful private-use working copy. Since P52 was found in Egypt, it could be hypothesized that the amanuensis, escaping Jerusalem around the time of its destruction in 70 C.E., had it with him in his travels that eventually took him to Patmos. Unfortunately, the verses it contains are not among those that would show signs of redaction, which makes it impossible to say whether this was the version prepared by the amanuensis or that produced by the later redactor.

However, Bultmann’s excellent conjecture does not answer all of the textual displacements. Within several lengthy passages which as a whole are complete (though not necessarily in their proper locations, per Bultmann) there are sentences and phrases that are also clearly badly disordered. The theory described above, involving the eyewitness and the amanuensis, could well account for this. Most likely, the gospel was originally drafted with multiple columns, and the collation of material in these columns into a united narrative was never completed by the amanuensis, and the later redactor finished this work, though often the insertions are not in what would seem the proper and intended location. Thus in this matter too we see here again signs of its incomplete state.

Eventually Papias acquired the papers of his former teacher, John the Presbyter, from the Christians in Pontus. Immediately after speaking about John as faithfully writing from dictation (as quoted above), the Codex Vaticanus Reg. lat. 14 goes on to say: Marcion haereticus cum ab eo fuisset improbatus eo quod contraria sentiebat, abjectus est. A Johanne is vero scripta vel epistolas ad eum pertulerat a fratribus qui in Ponto fuerunt. (“Marcion, the heretic, when he had been rejected by him [Papias] because he [Marcion] had suggested contrary matters, was expelled. He [Papias] had even brought him [Marcion] the writings and letters by John from the brothers who were in Pontus.”)

This tells us that Papias had vainly hoped Marcion might refine the roughed-out Gospel of John before expelling him for heresy. Indeed, Marcion was experienced with this kind of work, having turned out an extensively revised version of the Gospel of Luke. After failing to engage Marcion, Papias apparently next turned to his elder colleague Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna. That he asked Marcion first, despite the theological differences that eventually caused them to split, suggests that Papias had serious reservations about how Polycarp would revise the gospel. The reservations may cohere with what we can see in the text was done to the gospel, as discussed throughout this work.

Tertullian and Irenæus (who studied with Polycarp) both confirm that he was a student of John the Apostle, which could be a reference to John the Presbyter; the two were often confused. Polycarp’s only known surviving work, a letter to the Christian community in Philippi, is of exactly the high Christology that we find in the final version of the Gospel of John. The letter is bristling with quotations and paraphrases from New Testament writings, reminiscent of the quotations inserted by the redactor into the gospel’s final version. What is more, David Trobisch has persuasively argued that Polycarp was a significant figure in the editing and finalizing of the New Testament into the form in which we have it today; he could well have given the Fourth Gospel a thorough makeover as part of this overall task.

This redactor revised the text (as left by the Beloved Disciple and the amanuensis), mainly to make it conform to the doctrine of the organized Christian religion, and to add phrases aimed at emphasizing the orthodoxy of a high Christology. It was at this point, for instance, that anything suggesting that Jesus was the bridegroom at Cana and that the Beloved Disciple was Jesus’s son/stepson (especially 19:27) was extracted. By now the nascent Jesus movement was establishing itself as a new religion separate from Judaism; even without the breakup of the Jewish core of the Jesus movement in the destruction of Jerusalem by Rome in 70, the evidence is clear that the views held by that Jewish core were already on the wane in favor of the Pauline perspective featuring this “high Christology”. Thus, the redactor probably was in his own thinking simply taking what appeared to him as a rough draft and correcting what he assumed were mistakes, and making sharper and more specific various vague statements (that appeared to the redactor to be) about Jesus’s divinity. No doubt he believed that the eyewitness would have approved of these refinements. The redactor is also probably the one who smoothed out some abrupt textual transitions caused by displacement, by adding some (often clumsy) bridges; an example is how he filled a transitional gap at 4:46a.

This redactor may have been responsible for some or all of various glosses that provide Greek translations of Aramaic or Hebrew words. It is unlikely that they were added by the amanuensis, since often they are incorrect, calling Aramaic “Hebrew” and providing not-quite-correct translations into Greek. The amanuensis seems to have been at least acquainted with Aramaic, and in any case had the fluent Beloved Disciple to consult with; there is no reason to suppose this redactor knew any Aramaic.

The redactor certainly also added several “This was to fulfill” verses referring to passages in the Tanakh (Old Testament) – the kind of clumsy technique used in the Synoptic gospels; these additions are quite unlike the work of the amanuensis, who seamlessly and intricately integrated his references to the Tanakh into the text.

Probably soon after the redactor had done his work some copyist inserted the Lucan narrative at 7:53-8:11, since many early manuscripts of the gospel lack it altogether. Though an interesting episode, it clearly does not belong in this gospel.

The intention of this book is to peel away, layer by layer as it were, these post-Beloved-Disciple distortions of his gospel, until we reach something as close to his Ur-text, the original version, as possible – and then with considerable and conservative care, as much as is possible, completing the refinement of the original gospel that the Beloved Disciple did not do himself.

Introduction to a New Translation of the Gospel of John

Note: The following is a rough draft of the first three parts of the introduction to James David Audlin’s translation-in-progress of the Gospel of John. Comments are welcome!

Yes, this may be rather “dry” to some readers, but it is hoped that those interested in the origins of the New Testament will find it interesting.

More sections of this introduction will follow.

See also a previous blog, below, To Inhabit and Possess: Revolutionary Bible Translation.


 I: The Authorship of the Gospel of John

The Fourth Gospel is the only one in the canonical New Testament that claims to be an eyewitness account. The identity of this eyewitness is not given in the text as we have it; he is made known to us only as “the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved.” However, early church leaders are unanimous in ascribing its authorship to someone by the name of John; in fact, this is one of the strongest such ascriptions in the New Testament. Eusebius, for instance, identifies the Beloved Disciple as John, and says he died at Patmos – which happens to be where another Johannine text, the Revelation, was composed.

Despite this early and persistent testimony, many hypotheses have been proposed as to who the eyewitness, the Beloved Disciple, was. These range from one of the sons of Zebedee to Lazarus and even Mary Magdalene. My view is that the Beloved Disciple was John Mark, and that he was the son of Jesus.

The circumlocution “the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved” appears to be a modest way on the part of this eyewitness of avoiding the self-referential “I” (έγω), the way today someone might put “this writer” or “the undersigned”. The eyewitness uses such a roundabout in order to keep the emphasis on Jesus rather than on the mere teller of the story: with this phrase, even in speaking of himself he is speaking of Jesus (“the one whom Jesus loved”). If my hypothesis that he is the son of Jesus is correct, then even more as such he would understandably want to avoid people attaching undue significance to him as some kind of “divine son” instead of on Jesus.

More importantly, this circumlocution also avoids an unfortunate jangling with ΈΓΩ ΈΙΜΙ, “I AM”, which is the Greek rendering of one of the seven most sacred names for God in the Torah; אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה, often translated “I Am What I Am”, but literally “I Shall Be What I Shall Be”, though implying the past and present tenses too. Clearly our eyewitness wanted to avoid using the first person singular in referring to his own self, so that all “I am” phrases would be in the mouth of Jesus, and theologically significant.

In 14:6, Jesus paraphrases Isaiah 35:8 to say he is The Way to ΈΓΩ ΈΙΜΙ. (In 1:23, John the Baptist quotes the Septuagint version of Isaiah 40:3 to say he is the voice crying in the wilderness “Make straight the Way of the Lord”, the voice that precedes the Way. So significant was the phrase in the earliest days of this spiritual movement that, according to Acts they called themselves The Way.) This phrase ΈΓΩ ΈΙΜΙ occurs in several critical scenes, such as 6:20 (as Jesus walks beside the Sea of Galilee during a storm), 6:48, 51 (speaking of his flesh and blood), 8:28, 8:58 and 13:19 (which draw the connection between God and Jesus), 18:6 (his arrest). It also occurs in another Johannine text, the Revelation (at 1:8 and 4:8), in the past, present, and future tenses in Greek, but probably conscious of the phrase’s Hebrew origin.

But in the earliest, patristic period of Israelite religion the phrase אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה was more than just a way of referring to God; it was in itself a statement about the presence of God in each of us. The phrase almost definitely was an expansion of the most sacred name for God, יהוה. Scholars agree that the pronunciation of this name has been lost for millennia, and hence for millennia, in reading the Hebrew text of the Torah aloud, it has been the practice to say אֲדֹנָי (’Adonai, “my Lord”) in its place. Today it is often vocalized as “Yahweh” or “Jehovah”, but both of these are simply guesses.

As to the original pronunciation, Josephus provides a significant clue in the fifth chapter of his Jewish Wars, “τὰ ἱερὰ γράμματα ταῦτα δ’ ἐστὶ φωνήεντα τέσσαρα” (“[engraved with] the holy letters, and they are four vowels”). To utter these four letters, represented in English as YHWH, is not to speak an ordinary human word, not to vocalize at all, but to emit a whisper, a soft exhalation. For this Word is the Word, the Word before all others (έν αρχη), the Λογος (John 1:1ff) through which all things were made. If our breath is the name of God, then that would explain why אֲדֹנָי (’Adonai) was said in place of the Name in reading the Torah aloud: it, unlike an exhalation, would have been audible to the listeners.

This exhalation is the breath/spirit/wind that יהוה, YHWH (God), breathed across the surface of the waters (Genesis 1:2). By breathing his Name into Adam’s nostrils (Genesis 2:7), God gave the gift of a נֶפֶש, nephesh, a breath/soul, hence the gift of life, to him – and so, by extension, all living things, including you and me.

It is the faint sound of breathing, the קֹול דְּמָמָה דַקָּה that Elijah heard in the cave where he had hidden, wanting to die. It is the breath that יהוה breathed into the dry bones of Israel (Ezekiel 37). It is the wind-spirit-breath that God will breathe out upon all flesh in time to come (Joel 2:28f).

It is the wind-breath-spirit that comes down from the sky/heaven (όυρανος) in the form of a whirlwind (reading περισσοτερος [whirlwind] instead of περιστερας [dove]; I believe the Synoptics perpetrated a malapropism and that the Gospel of John was later “fixed” to cohere with it) when John the Baptist baptizes Jesus (John 1:32).

It is the same πνευμα from God that blows through the room where the apostles have gathered (Acts 2), such that their own exhalations as they speak are comprehensible in every language of the world, reversing the calamity of Babel (Genesis11), and paralleling Jesus’s own baptism as they themselves are baptized with the רוּחַ of God in fulfillment of Jesus’s promise (John 14:16f) that the Spirit/Breath will come and enter them. So it is that Jesus tells Nikodemos that one cannot enter the Realm of God without being born not only from water (amniotic fluid) but from above (άνωθεν), from the wind-breath-spirit of God.

Thus, from the patristic period through Jesus’s time and after, it was believed that the breath was the very presence of the Spirit of God within us: to inhale was to receive the gift of a living soul from God, and to exhale was to extol God with that Name that God breathed into us; further, breathing upon others conferred the Spirit/Breath of God on them and could heal their infirmities as well. What is more, as in the Native American “visible breath” tradition, we must always be truthful in our speech because to speak is to breathe the Name of God (“I AM the way, the truth, and the life”).

In this sense, the Name appears in several critical passages of the gospel. In 1:32, as John the Baptist baptizes Jesus the Πνευμα, the Wind/Breath/Spirit of God descends from heaven like a whirlwind. In 19:30 Jesus breathes out the wind/breath/spirit within him for the last time as he dies. In 20:22 Jesus exhales on the disciples and says “Receive the πνεθμα άγιον (the sacred breath/spirit – equivalent in Greek to רוּחַ (Ruach); by exhaling he proves he is alive, he heals them, he blesses them, he fills them with the Name and Spirit of God.

And thus it is that I believe our eyewitness preferred not to speak of himself in the first person singular.


However, in other places in the gospel the lack of a clear reference to the Beloved Disciple is among the means by which a late redactor of the gospel text excised references in the text to Jesus’s status as a husband and father, no doubt in order not to undercut a desire to present Jesus as divine.

As an example of these apparent excisions let us take the miracle at Cana. It makes no sense that Jesus’s mother tells him to provide more wine for the wedding banquet if he and she (plus, so we are told, the disciples) are merely guests at the wedding. This inadequate explanation was clearly supplied by the redactor, I believe, after he excised from the text any reference to Jesus’s actual role at the wedding, as the bridegroom. That role would make it his responsibility (as his mother reminds him) to replenish the wine for the guests. What is more, what the steward says to the bridegroom is only really funny if the bridegroom is Jesus. And, finally this scene is one of several parallels between the beginning and the conclusion of the gospel, in what is often called A-B-A symmetry or “inclusio”.

This first of his miracles, at his own wedding, is clearly meant to presage the last of his miracles, his resurrection, which is also a divine hierogamy. And, of course, the earthly wine at Cana anticipates the spiritual vine and wine imagery in the final chapters of the gospel. This was so obviously intended as one of a considerable number of “inclusio” parallels between the beginning and end of the gospel that the excision becomes fairly obvious to the critical reader.

Another obvious example of such an excision of Jesus’s familial relationships occurs in John 19:26-27, in which Jesus assigns his own filial responsibility for his mother to the Beloved Disciple. The gospel names three women named Mary as present at Jesus’s crucifixion: his mother, his aunt, and Mary Magdalene. [Note that Papias and Hegesippus, writing in the second century, say Clopas is the brother of Joseph (Jesus’s father). If so, then this second Mary is Jesus’s paternal aunt by marriage.] In a passage from the noncanonical Gospel of Philip closely paralleling this one, the Magdalene is referred to as Jesus’s companion; not merely his wife but (so the word suggests in contemporary literature) his partner or colleague. So we have immediate family to witness and discharge the responsibility bequeathed by the dying man. The form of the charge to his relatives comes in the form of parallelism, though as we have it it appears incomplete –


He said to his mother, “Woman, behold your son.”

Then he said to the disciple, “[___], behold your mother.”


The lacuna is best filled in with either the word “son” (ύιος) or the disciple’s name; clearly something has been suppressed here by the final editors of the text to hide the identity of the disciple. Surely, and especially in his dying moments, Jesus is going to hand off that responsibility to a close family member. It is not likely a brother of Jesus, since the wording strongly suggests Jesus is designating with his words a new mother-son relationship, and such a brother already has the same mother. Thus it makes sense to assume that he is giving to his son this filial responsibility for his mother; i.e., his son’s grandmother.

What is more, in both the Cana and crucifixion scenes the text has Jesus address his mother as “woman” (γυνη), a rather strange salutation that scholars have struggled for centuries to explain. I believe that further obvious parallelism has been weeded out by the redactor, and the two verses originally said something like this:


He said to his mother, “Mother, behold your son.”

Then he said to his son, “Son, behold your mother.”


In fact, in this gospel as we have it Jesus always refers to women as “woman”: besides his mother he does so to the Samaritan woman (4:21) and to Mary Magdalene (20:15). The latter, too, may be a revision of the text to avoid clearly stating how Jesus was associated with the Magdalene. She is described as elevated to a special status in the Pistis Sophia (a noncanonical gospel-like text probably composed in the second century), and also in the noncanonical Gospel of Philip, which calls her his companion, and says the disciples are envious of how he often kisses her often on the mouth; such kissing is not mere romance but an exchange of breaths among spiritual companions. Certainly his calling her “Mary” at the Resurrection (20:16) carries a strong implication of not just love but an equality of companionship, as does her response, to embrace him. Jesus’s words “Μη μου άπτου”, “Leave off from embracing me,” clearly directing her to cease for now from an embrace she is already giving him, because he wants her to go tell the brothers that he has risen, were badly mistranslated in Jerome’s Vulgate as “Noli me tangere”, “Do not touch me”, resulting in centuries of misogynistic mistranslation.

Far from being misogynistic, the resurrection scene in chapter 20 is fairly bristling with marriage imagery, complementing other passages in the gospel that make it clear that Mary was Jesus’s wife or companion. There are clear allusions to the beginning of Genesis and the Song of Songs, and even to the Odyssey. There is besides some clear paralleling between Jesus’s conversation with Mary and the first conversation he holds in the gospel, with the disciples of John the Baptist. Every word is calibrated to tell the reader that this scene is critically important. Thus, if Mary is in some sense his wife, it makes considerable sense that she seeks out their son, the Beloved Disciple, and his best friend Simon (nicknamed Peter).

The Beloved Disciple is specifically named in four scenes, and each of these scenes gives us a clue about him. At the Last Supper he shares a couch with Jesus, which it was custom for a father to do with his young son. At the Crucifixion the Beloved Disciple is given filial responsibility for Jesus’s mother, again suggesting he is Jesus’s son. At the Resurrection Mary calls him to the empty tomb, accompanied by Simon Peter, suggesting family responsibility for the deceased. And at the Sea of Galilee Jesus prophesies about Simon Peter’s and the Beloved Disciple’s future.

While most of the gospel does not specifically refer to the Beloved Disciple as an active presence, there is reason to believe that the eyewitness served his purpose by recounting the extended conversations he heard. If as I believe Barabbas (Son of the Father) is the Beloved Disciple, Jesus’s son, that would explain how the private audience with the consul, Pontius Pilate, was observed and recounted in the gospel: because, charged like his father with a crime, he was there. And a few scenes, most notably that of Mary Magdalene with Jesus at the Resurrection (John 20:1-18), are quite clearly his passing on to his own disciples what his mother, Mary Magdalene, had told him.

So we have an eyewitness widely attested to be named John who is beloved by Jesus, close as well to Mary Magdalene, and probably their son.


John Mark, best remembered for his appearances in the Acts of the Apostles, fits this description well.

We know from Acts 12:12 that John Mark’s mother is named Mary, and that she has a house in Jerusalem. He is brought from Jerusalem to accompany Saul (later Paul) and Barnabas, apparently mostly at the latter’s insistence. At first, the latter two men work closely together.

Joseph Barnabas, a Levite, sells property he owns in his native Cyprus and provides the proceeds to the highly Jewish Jerusalem branch of this new religious movement centered around Jesus. He introduces Saul to them, and later, often with Saul (later Paul), he evangelizes throughout the Roman Empire, especially in Cyprus and nearby Antioch. His cognomen “Barnabas” is given an obviously incorrect etymology in Acts (as “Son of Encouragement”), but it is far more likely to come from the Aramaic בר נביא, bar naḇyā, “the Son of the Prophet”. This name suggests he too is a close relative of Jesus. Colossians 4:10 suggests that he and John Mark are cousins.

Saul, also changed his name from that ethnically Jewish one to the etymologically unrelated “Paul”, much more cosmopolitan in the Roman Empire, much more palatable to the gentiles he hoped to convert. As this name-change suggests, he was at odds with the new movement’s very Jewish leadership in Jerusalem, which comprised in particular members of Jesus’s own family and his closest associates. Saul wants to Hellenize this movement, mainly by getting rid of such Jewish requirements as kosher diet and circumcision, and by turning Jesus into a typical Roman man-god: a man who declares his own divinity as did the Roman emperors, a god who dies and is resurrected, leaving behind mystical rites involving wine-blood and bread-body to invoke the deity’s presence, as did Dionysus.

When he takes Saul with him to evangelize, Joseph Barnabas brings John Mark along from Jerusalem (Acts 12:25). But in almost its next breath (13:6) Acts tells us about a “Jewish false prophet” in Paphos, then the Cypriot capital city, called Bar-Jesus – calling to mind Barabbas. The text that follows isn’t clear; this individual may or may not be the same as another “false prophet”, Elymas (Arabic for “Wise One”), who tried to turn Sergius Paulus, the Roman proconsul in Cyprus, away from the faith represented by Barnabas and Paul. So critical is the confrontation with Bar-Jesus and Elymas (who may or may not be the same person) that from this point on in Acts Saul is referred to as “Paul”, taking the name from Sergius Paulus. Moreover, from this point on (at least according to the book of Acts, but there is little reason to doubt this, since the sheer numbers of converts racked up by Paul conferred on him considerable authority in the early church) he takes over the missionary leadership from Barnabas.

This is more than a simple name-change; it is a signal of the intended nature of the man’s missionary activities and, ultimately, his plan to control and even mold the nature of the Jesus-centered spiritual movement. Saul’s original name was ethnically Jewish, and “Paul” would sound much more cosmopolitan in the Roman Empire, much more palatable to the gentiles he hoped to convert. He was at odds with the new movement’s very Jewish leadership in Jerusalem, which comprised in particular members of Jesus’s own family and his closest associates, and this name-change is emblematic of his break not just with this leadership but with all things Jewish.

As Paul, he seeks to Hellenize this movement, mainly by getting rid of such Jewish requirements as kosher diet and circumcision, and by turning Jesus into a typical Roman man-god, fully human yet fully divine.

The Jesus-centered religious movement was at the time rife with controversy.  Acts tells us (15:1) that the Jerusalemite contingent demanded that Barnabas and Paul require their converts to go through the Jewish ritual of circumcision. What is more, the two were summoned to Jerusalem, where they met with the elders for a rather stormy conference. It ended with a compromise mainly proposed by James, the brother of Jesus, and giving Paul and Barnabas pretty much freedom to do what they wanted. These two men, by their astonishing success at evangelizing, couldn’t be denied, and the Jerusalemite leaders knew it; their only card was the imprimatur of their good will. Feeling vindicated, the two returned to Antioch and preached. However then a rift developed between them and they separated – permanently.

This rift almost certainly was precipitated in part by the so-called Incident at Antioch of which Paul speaks at length in his letter to the Galatean church. In the letter (Galatians 2:11-14) Paul accuses the apostle Simon, better known by his nickname “Peter”, of refusing to eat a meal with gentile (i.e., non-Jewish) Christians in Antioch. Paul goes on to charge Peter with hypocrisy, claiming he has adopted a cushy gentile lifestyle, “not like a Jew”, and yet he demands gentile converts to accept traditional Jewish requirements, including kosher diet and cicrumcision. Even Paul’s friend, colleague, and mentor Joseph Barnabas sides with the Jerusalemite leadership.

But the wedge that actually drives the two men apart is John Mark. Acts (15:36-40) tells us that Paul alleges John Mark “had deserted them in Pamphylia and not accompanied them in the work” of evangelizing; therefore, he refuses to travel with John Mark any longer. Barnabas, on the other hand, still wants John Mark to come with them. So vehement is this argument between Paul and Barnabas that Saul no longer has any relations with the Jerusalemites, including Barnabas. Now calling himself Paul, he goes deep into the Roman world with his own highly Romanized brand of the faith.

The two issues, I believe, were related. My contention is that John Mark, without the blessing of Paul or Barnabas and possibly with the support of the Jerusalemite leadership, was putting himself forward as the son of Jesus (hence “Bar-Jesus”), as the dynastic “heir apparent” to the messianic claim of Jesus. This was no doubt a political effort to strengthen the power of the Jerusalem contingent of the religious movement, and besides to blunt, at least to some degree, the crushing Roman hegemony in the eastern Mediterranean.

This set John Mark’s goals at odds with Paul’s. John Mark clearly sided with his Jewish friends and relatives in Jerusalem, hence against the Roman Empire, to which Paul was reaching out. Likewise, by insisting on observing Jewish law, Peter and the other apostles were likewise (in Paul’s view) failing to recognize the great potential this religious movement had to gain gentile converts throughout the empire.

Paul, evidently, decided at a go to have done with everyone in the Jerusalem group – including Peter, including James the brother of Jesus, including John Mark the son of Jesus. Freed from their constraining influence, he continued in his preaching and letter-writing to recast Jesus in the mold of a Roman god. Barnabas continued his evangelizing too, but not with the same success as Paul.

John Mark went on to take an elder statesman role, writing letters to the churches, as did not only Paul but his uncles James and Judas, brothers of Jesus and leaders of the Jerusalemite faction. These letters far more than Paul’s are clearly directed to a Jewish audience.

The Revelation, written during his last years on the island of Patmos, speaks outrage against the evil Roman Empire and against the Pauline approach of watering down the Jewishness of the Jesus-centered movement to make it more palatable to gentiles.

And, also in these elder years, John Mark reminisced about his experiences as a disciple. Ironically, his memories of a very human Jesus, a husband and father, were eventually tampered with in order to create a gospel whose final version is the best example of the very “high christology” he did not espouse. Still, it is certainly due to this meddling that the gospel was made part of the canon in the increasingly Pauline, Romanized church, and very possibly that it survives at all.


II: A Theory as to the Devolution of the Gospel Text

The Gospel of John was clearly written ignorant of both the Gospel of Mark and the “Q” gospel (the hypothetical gospel that, besides Mark, was also a source from which Matthew and Luke took material), as well as their descendants, the gospels of Matthew and Luke. It contains several episodes in Jesus’s ministry that are also described in that Synoptic family of gospels, but in John they are told in an entirely different way.

Yet the reverse is also true; the Synoptic gospels appear to have been written by people unaware of the Gospel of John, since they do not incorporate any of several episodes that are unique to the latter, or adopt any of the amplifications found in John of several episodes also found in the Synoptics.

The second fact is borne out by the general agreement of scholars that the Gospel of John was promulgated relatively later than the other three canonical gospels. The first fact, however, supports theorizing an early date of composition for the gospel, at least in its Ur-text stage.

There can be little argument about an early (initial) composition for John. The very fact that it is, or was based on, an eyewitness account points to an early date.  So too do the number of close parallels to passages in the Dead Sea Scrolls (e.g., the passage in the Rule of the Community, “And by his [God’s] knowledge everything has been brought into being; and everything that exists he established according to his purpose; and apart from him nothing has been done.”, which is very close to John 1:3). What is more, there is no reference to the destruction by the Romans of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., again suggesting an early (first) composition. (Unlike other scholars, I don’t see any implicit reference to this destruction in 2:19-22, but rather an inclusio with 20:8-9. Both 2:19-22 and 11:48 probably reflect legitimate fears that were widely felt at the time – for Titus’s razing of the temple certainly was not unexpected.)

Charles Hill, in The Johannine Corpus in the Early Church, convincingly finds evidence that the gospel was read and referred to as early as the year 90, and that such early fathers as Ignatius and Polycarp were aware of it. This, too, forces us to settle on an early composition date.

Finally, the textual evidence for the Gospel of John is older and more reliable than that for any other New Testament text: the Rylands Library Papyrus P52, for instance, is the oldest manuscript fragment of any canonical New Testament text; dating from the first half of the second century, it contains portions of John 18:31-33 and 37-38 that give the text exactly as it is found in later, complete manuscripts. Other early fragments of John also vary little if at all from the gospel text as we have it now. Thus we must conclude that, if there was such a provenance so early of the final version of the Gospel of John, then composition of the gospel had to be relatively early.

These facts strongly suggest that the Gospel of John was, at least in its Ur-text, composed soon after the life of Jesus, before the Synoptics had become widely read – and yet that it did not gain wide publication until after the Synoptic Gospels had been written, such that the Synoptics were uninfluenced by the Gospel of John. The question this scenario raises is: What changes did the text of the Gospel of John go through during the time from its original composition (by, or transcribing the oral reminiscences of, the eyewitness, the Beloved Disciple) to the as-we-have-it-today final version?

Any fully satisfactory theory of the origination of the Gospel of John must also account somehow for the apparent similarities to some fragmentary noncanonical gospels that bear some resemblance to John, including the so-called Egerton Gospel. This question will be taken up in the notes to the translation of the restored original Gospel of John that follows.


Following is how I believe the Gospel of John achieved its present form. This discussion may be summarized by naming the agencies thus: 1) The eyewitness, 2) An amanuensis?, 3) An editor, 4) A redactor.

I think the Beloved Disciple, as an eyewitness to Jesus’s ministry, often reminisced about Jesus, and either he wrote his recollections down in at best a somewhat chronologically ordered fashion, or else an amanuensis transcribed them in as ordered a manner as possible, or a combination of both. It is not typically human nature to reminisce in chronological order; the scenario is much more likely that the Beloved Disciple simply remembered events during the ministry of Jesus as they occurred to him, and thus that he or his disciple(s) wrote them down in a haphazard manner. It would also be typical of human nature that he spoke of the same events more than once, providing different details each time, and that he or his amanuensis (or amanuenses) then later went back to add notes to accounts already written down.

The Beloved Disciple was most likely also the author of the three Letters of John, and possibly of the Revelation, which would mean he was certainly as a writer capable of composing the Gospel of John. The hypothesis that an amanuensis (or amanuenses) actually wrote down the oral reminiscences of the Beloved Disciple is at this time unprovable one way or the other, but it doesn’t matter, since whether he wrote down his reminiscences himself or an amanuensis did does not change the overall theory being proposed here. All we need to know is this first stage resulted in a written compilation of eyewitness accounts of various events in Jesus’s ministry, possibly to some degree in chronological order but possibly not, and probably with various additions scribbled into the margins to be smoothed into the text of the finished gospel when it came time to prepare it. The jumbled nature of this earliest version of the gospel helps account for some of the textual displacements within it.

What language this Ur-text was composed in is unclear. Sseveral words or phrases are in Aramaic, the lingua franca of Palestine at that time. And most of the references to the Tanakh (Jewish Bible, or Christian Old Testament) seem based on the original in Hebrew (the mother of the Aramaic language), not the Septuagint (the late Jewish translation of the Tanakh into Greek). Certainly some passages that are confusing in Greek become much clearer when back-translated into Aramaic or when read from the Peshitta, an early Aramaic translation of the New Testament; Jesus’s statement at John 8:39 (q.v.) is one of these.

Yet there is a considerable reliance throughout on not only Greek language in the text (especially the prologue), but on Greek literature (for instance, the allusions to Herakleitos and Plotinus in the prologue and to the Odyssey in chapter 20). While the references to the πνευμα and the רוּחַ work equally well in either language (since both mean wind/breath/spirit), some doubles entendres, such as ανωθεν (meaning either “from above” or “again”) in John 3:3 only exist in Greek. (This raises a side question of whether Jesus spoke with Nikodemos in Greek even though they were both local Jews and thus more likely inclined to speak in either Aramaic or Hebrew.) The Beloved Disciple, like Jesus and most reasonably well educated Jewish males at that time in that region, would have been fluent in Greek, Aramaic, Hebrew, and probably Latin as well. My theory is that there was some back-and-forth between Aramaic and Greek in this first stage of gospel composition, with the intention and trend being toward finalizing it in the latter language.

The second stage, I theorize, was that of revising and refining the gospel. A large portion of this was putting the reminiscences in chronological order, including inserting marginal glosses where they seemed best to go into the narrative flow. Either the Beloved Disciple himself or his amanuensis (or amanuenses) began to put these haphazard reminiscences into the shape of an ordered gospel. The poetic “Logos” prologue was composed and added to the gospel at this point, and the A-B-A symmetry, or “inclusio” structure was at least structured and partly if not completely fleshed out. I believe these latter refinements were mostly if not entirely provided by the Beloved Disciple, based on the following logic. Whoever it is who composed the prologue certainly also wrote the three Letters of John (and perhaps the Revelation). Given the considerable similarities in diction and theme between the gospel (the prologue in particular) and the letters, and given the strong attestation in the early church that the gospel and the letters were composed by someone named John, I assume the individual responsible for the prologue and the letters was John Mark, whom I believe to be the identity of the Beloved Disciple.

The editing and refining process, in my estimation, was never completed; the Beloved Disciple may have died or been killed by forces antithetical to this new religious movement (which were not few or powerless), or he may have simply abandoned the gospel-writing project for some reason. Thus at this point in my hypothesis there was a more or less complete gospel, but some passages were not properly edited and/or put in their proper locations. It will be my intent in this book to restore not the final version of the actual text that the Beloved Disciple left behind (before further modifications were wrought upon it by others), but the text that he intended to complete – a text, in fact, that has almost certainly never existed until now.

At this point, another individual whom I call the editor, clearly not the Beloved Disciple but associated with him, made changes to the Beloved Disciple’s monograph and added further material. This individual speaks directly to the reader with comments of his own at various points, such as at 20:30f and 21:24f – these two comments speak of the Beloved Disciple in the third person, making it clear that this editor holds the Beloved Disciple in high esteem. He probably composed and added chapter 21, either from rough notes left behind by the Beloved Disciple or else by basing it on his own memory of spoken recollections by the Beloved Disciple; this would explain the appendix nature and somewhat different style, and (with its implication of his death) may also explain why the Beloved Disciple did not complete work on the gospel.

It is probable that this editor put into the gospel other passages, such as 3:11-21 and 31-36, that were not necessarily intended by the Beloved Disciple to go into the gospel. My theory is that these passages actually were written reflections on the nature of Jesus by the Beloved Disciple, along the lines of I John and probably intended as another letter, such as IV John, of which only one sentence survives. The editor probably didn’t know better – either he was unaware that they weren’t intended to go into the gospel, or he was aware but he chose to use them anyway, as a good literary workman, placing somewhere in this magnum opus all of the precious writings left behind by the Beloved Disciple, even if they weren’t really meant to go into the gospel.

It is possible (but in my view much less likely) that this editor actually composed the prologue and added other non-gospel material with phraseology similar to the Letters of John; as noted above, it makes more sense that these texts were added by the Beloved Disciple himself. Finally, either this editor or the redactor (see below) also was responsible for various glosses to provide Greek translations of Aramaic or Hebrew words, to suggest fulfillments of passages in the Tanakh (Old Testament), and the like.

Also, at some point after the Beloved Disciple was no longer involved, large blocs of material got moved around (according to a theory first propounded by Rudolf Bultmann). Since many of these displaced “partitions” are of about the same length, a reasonable hypothesis is that the text of some early draft of the gospel was written on sheets of about the same length, perhaps relatively inexpensive scrap ends cut from finished scrolls and sold relatively inexpensively. As examples of these displacements: Chapter 2:1-11 (which begins “On the third day…”) clearly should go between 4:45 and 46b, and 3:25-30 probably follows 2:11. The sixth chapter clearly should follow immediately on 4:54. Jesus saying “Rise, let us go hence” at the end of chapter 14 clearly should be followed by 17:1 rather than two more chapters of Last Supper discourse. Someone at around this point, either the editor or the redactor (see below), put some (often clumsy) bridges into the texts to smooth over the gaps caused by displacement; an example of these is 4:46a.

The next stage in the development (or perhaps we should say the devolution) of the gospel text was conducted by an individual I refer to as the redactor. This person revised the text (as left by the Beloved Disciple, the amanuensis if any, and the editor) to remove all references to Jesus as a husband and father, and to change text or even add some phrases in order to heighten the “Christology” therein. It was at this point, for instance, that anything suggesting that Jesus was the bridegroom at Cana (chapter 2) and that the Beloved Disciple was Jesus’s son (especially 19:27) was extracted.

This redactor, or some copyist later yet, added the Lucan narrative at 7:53-8:11. Though an interesting episode, it clearly does not belong in this gospel.

At this point the Gospel of John had reached the form by which we know it today.

The intention of this book is to peel away, layer by layer as it were, these post-Beloved-Disciple distortions of his gospel, until we reach something as close to his Ur-text as possible – and then with considerable and conservative care, as much as is possible, completing the refinement of the original gospel that the Beloved Disciple did not do himself.


III: Relationship with Other Christian Scriptures


The earliest stage of the spiritual movement we now know as the Christian religion was marked by several significant factors. It was wholly a part of the Jewish faith, and did not (yet) consider itself a separate religion. It believed in the imminent arrival of the end of the world, or at least an overwhelming change in the nature of the created universe, within the lifetime of most people alive at the time. This belief imposed a certain pressure on the leadership of the movement to spread it as widely as possible – to save as many souls as it could before the end came – despite the fact that Judaism has never been by any means an evangelistic faith.

A man named Saul, associated with the Pharisees, after persecuting this new spiritual movement within the Jewish faith for some time, spoke and wrote often about a conversion experience, in which Jesus supposedly came to him in a vision. After this episode he switched sides, and began seeking to bring converts into the Jesus-centered movement. Saul started out among his fellow Jews, attempting to bring them to his particular understanding of the new Jesus-centered spiritual movement – but, far from achieving much success, he was himself subjected to persecution, at various times being imprisoned, badly beaten, and stoned to the point of death.

He shifted to a mission among the gentiles, who were of course far more plentiful in the Roman Empire, and in this he achieved astounding success. As part of this transition, he basically reinvented himself. Instead of proclaiming his pharisaical credentials he displayed his Roman citizenship. He changed his name from Saul, which sounded rather “ethnic” in those days just as it does now, to Paul. Though the two names are related only in terms of pronunciation, the latter sounded far more cosmopolitan to Roman citizens.

More importantly, Paul did not demand his gentile converts to follow the mitzvot (the laws of the Torah), even though he was supposedly converting them into a new movement within the Jewish faith, Most notably these laws included those requiring consumption only of kosher foods and the law that males had to be circumcised. Paul insisted that faith in Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God, replaced and obviated any need to follow these laws.  As his extant letters suggest, he did shift around somewhat in his views over time, but the overall thrust of his stance is that Jews joining the Jesus-centered movement were welcome to observe the mitzvot and gentiles were welcome not to observe them, but what really mattered was faith in Jesus, and to some degree the “good works” that serve as evidence of that faith.

Paul’s radical approach to evangelism did not sit well with the leaders of the movement in Jerusalem. Unlike Paul, they were close friends and relatives of Jesus, they had known Jesus personally, and had heard his teaching from his own lips. They were not happy with this upstart, who (in their perspective) based his missionary activities on a vision that ostensibly put him on a part with them as “knowing” Jesus. They felt he was watering down the faith to make it easier to gain converts. And, as an inevitable result, this ministry was astoundingly successful – to the point that Paul had a significant body of converts across the Roman Empire.

They insisted that conversion to this movement required acceptance of the Jewish religious laws, since this was (in their thinking) a Jewish movement. However, whether they liked it or not, Paul’s very success at missionarying conferred on him considerable power in the movement. He appeared destined to eclipse their own leadership, as of course in due course he did. Therefore, they had no choice but to treat with him, and ultimately to give in to him. At a conference in Jerusalem a compromise was worked out, in which Paul was instructed to “remember the poor,” a particular emphasis on the part of Jesus that Paul was glad to agree to, and a pro forma insistence that his gentile converts merely observe the so-called Noachian Laws: to refrain from idolatry, fornication, and consuming flesh that has been cut away from a living creature.

But on the major unique factor in Paul’s presentation of the Jesus movement no compromise could be reached, and the Jerusalemite leaders had no power to stop it.

Paul’s  modus operandi was to portray Jesus as much as possible in terms that would be familiar and palatable to gentiles in the Roman Empire – and that meant as a Græco-Roman-style god. The raw materials he used to this effect were very much available.

There was, of course, already a long history of mortals being recognized as gods from the most ancient times, most often shortly after their death, but sometimes even during their lifetimes. The deification of Julius Cæsar upon his death, for instance, was still a recent event in the Empire. A popular cult that believed him a god grew rapidly after his assassination in 44 B.C.E., especially when a comet appeared so bright that it was visible by day. So massive was this public sentiment that the Roman Senate had no choice but to ratify the imperator’s deification.

A considerable number of kings and emperors, especially in these eastern lands, were said to have been born to virgin mothers.

Emperor Augustus had been given the title of Savior of the World, like Seleucid and other kings before him.

The Dionysian religion also provided some useful motifs (as has been noted by Hölderlin [1800] and many others). Dionysos was put on trial before a ruler; indeed, in Euripides’s play the two engage in a deep conversation on godhead, power, revolution, and the nature of truth. Dionysos is killed, and then resurrected from the dead by his father-god Zeus (or Jupiter [a name that with Jewish implications; it at least sounded to Jews as יה-Πατερ, Yah-Pater, God the Father, and may in fact even have come from such linguistic roots]). His dévotées communed with him by ingesting bread and wine said to have transubstantiated into his sacred flesh and blood.

Many of the popular Mystery Religions of the day had the kind of ordained priesthood that Judaism did not, plus a great deal of colorful pageantry. The Gnostic movement, which slightly predated the movement that became Christianity, provided the idea of a γνοσις, a core wisdom that just need to be said and believed to confer immortality on the individual.

With Græco-Roman brushes like these, Saul became Paul – and a Jewish rabbi named ישוע‎, Y’shuah (“Joshua” in English) who came to teach about God became Ἰησοῦς (“Jesus” in English), became God – and a מָשִׁיחַ (Mashiach, “Anointed One”, any priest or king who wisely guides or frees the people; even King Cyrus of Persia is proclaimed a Mashiach in the Tanakh) became the unique Χριστος (“Christ” in English).


Given this context, one can easily see that the canonical New Testament at best something of a compromise, more accurately a kind of battleground with corpses still littering the field.

The presence of Paul, like the Colossus of Rhodes, towers over the New Testament as we have it today. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke, the Acts of the Apostles, a number of genuine letters of Paul, plus more that are doubtfully his or most likely written by others under his name but still very much a part of his school of Christology, and the Letter to the Hebrews (which may be by Paul’s erstwhile associate Barnabas) comprise the vast majority of texts. The Gospel of Luke was tampered with, especially to give it a virgin birth narrative like Matthew’s. The Gospel of Mark was given a “happy ending” describing the resurrected Jesus, likewise to bring it into line with the Pauline school.

So overwhelming is this Pauline presence that, if the word “canonical” is attached to a text, it should be viewed with suspicion; this means it was approved by the Church Fathers in the second century, who around the time of the councils of Nicæa wholeheartedly promoted the Pauline Jesus, the Roman god Jesus, which Constantine famously used (in the first effort that can truly be called a “hail Mary” long-shot) to shore up his power over a crumbling Roman Empire. Inevitably it led to the Roman Catholic (and to a lesser degree the Orthodox) Church, which to this day is the presence of the still-living Roman Empire, with a Pope instead of an Emperor, but otherwise the same pomp paid for by poor parishioners worldwide, and the same heavy boot heel ready to suppress all independent thought.

In the words of the late Joseph Comblin, a liberation theologian who actually lived with the poor:  “Jesus did not found a religion, he didn’t establish rites, teach doctrines. …When did religion enter Christianity? When Jesus became an object of worship.”

That leaves as non-Pauline in the New Testament only two short letters from or attributed to his close friend Simon Peter, a letter each from his brothers James and Jude, three short letters from (in my theory) his son John Mark, the Revelation – and the Gospel of John.

The Gospel of John shows clear signs of a redactor, and we must give him credit that he clearly sought to keep his modifications as minimal as possible, to suppress any reference to Jesus as a husband and father, and to heighten the Christology of the work, all to bring it more or less into line with the Pauline Jesus-as-Roman-god theology that eventually won the day. If John’s gospel is an eyewitness account, especially coming out of the Jerusalemite faction, then that explains the hesitation to include it in the canon without such modifications.

The prototypical gospels – Mark, John, and Thomas – seem to me to have been originally written by members of Jesus’s family. These close relatives appear to have invented the genre, and it was later that the genre was used by the established Paul-Nicæa Christian religion as a mechanism of establishing and enforcing dogma. Mark and John underwent plenty of theological surgery before being placed in the canon, and Thomas was simply shunted aside for containing far too many logia of Jesus that would serve to undermine his Pauline transformation into a Roman deity.

It is hoped that, thanks to the redactor’s care not to do more damage than he deemed necessary, we can reverse this process of Paul-izing the gospel. It is hoped further that we can correct the many displacements and other textual problems. It is hoped that we can re-edit the prototypical eyewitness account that then emerges to create, at least hypothetically, the gospel that the Beloved Disciple, the son of Jesus, had hoped to leave behind in this world.


To Inhabit and Possess: Revolutionary Bible Translation

As I have often written in the past, when you read the Bible in translation, you are looking through someone else’s lenses – you are in fact trusting them to give you an accurate rendition in your language of what the Bible actually says in the original Hebrew or Greek. A poor translation shifts the meaning away from what was intended by the original writer of the scriptural text, as I shall demonstrate below. However, a particularly apt translation will not just put the actual meaning of the original text in the new language, but even evoke something of the emotional impact.

Consider, for instance, Isaiah 65:22. This verse is part of the third prophet whose orations are contained in the Biblical book by that name, specifically in chapters 56 through 66. This prophet, whose name we do not know today, wrote at a time when Cyrus, King of Persia, had conquered the waning superpower the Empire of Assyria, and told all those in captivity in Assyria that they could return to their homelands

The Assyrian conquest of Israel and Judah, though two or three generations back for the remnant that returned, was still vividly painful memory. Think of that evocative Psalm written by an exiled Jew in Assyria: “By the waters of Babylon we lay down and wept to remember thee, O Zion” (Psalm 137:1). Think of Ezekiel, the only Temple Priest to become a prophet, and the only prophet to prophesy in Assyria, who was forbidden by God from grieving for his wife when she died because at the same time the news of Jerusalem’s fall to Assyria had reached the Hebrews in their village of exile in Assyria. (God states through Ezekiel that this was to say that God did not grieve at this taking of the final bit of the Promised Land’s real estate because the People of God, the Hebrews, had already turned away from God.)

No one in the days of Third Isaiah and the generations immediately following, would have failed to feel in these prophecies the emotional pain of the Assyrian destruction of the Promised Land, the exile, and the anything but triumphant return to Jerusalem only to find battered ruins already overgrown with weeds and ruled by jackals.

A superior translator of this verse, Isaiah 65:22, will seek not just to translate, but to evoke the pain the Israelites felt. And in this many classical renderings into English succeed.

These renderings almost always uses either the word “inhabit” or “possess” in the first sentence; thus, for instance, the King James Version has it: “They shall not build, and another inhabit; they shall not plant, and another eat: for as the days of a tree are the days of my people, and mine elect.”

Most English translations of the Bible earlier than the King James likewise use “inhabit”, including the Great Bible (1540) and the Geneva Bible (1587). So too does John Wycliffe, who in 1395 published the first complete English translation: “Thei schulen not bilde housis, and an othir schal enhabite hem, thei schulen not plaunte, and an othir schal ete; for whi the daies of my puple schulen be after the daies of the tree, and the werkis of her hondis schulen be elde to my chosun men.”

A minority of these pre-King James translations use the word “possess” (with the older spelling, “possesse”); these include the Coverdale Bible (1535) and the Bishop’s Bible (1568).

It is almost universally forgotten today by all but scholars of the language is that both “inhabit” and “possess” are words that came into English from the French. That is to say, they were part of the overwhelming changes in the language that took it from the Anglo-Saxon of Beowulf and the Early English of Hugo de Masci (both nearly incomprehensible today to all but scholars) to the highly Frenchified language in which even Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales can be read by any intelligent reader today. These changes in the language were rapid – a linguistic invasion that was precipitated by the military invasion of the Norman Conquest of England in 1066.

Today the Norman Conquest is nothing more than ancient history for most people, to be read about in school books and quickly forgotten after the teacher’s examination.

However, at the time that these great English translations were undertaken (especially the earliest, Wycliffe), the Norman Conquest was relatively recent history — still vivid in the lives and minds of the English people, especially (for its bitter fruits) the common people. Still they would be seeing the signs of axe and fire in older structures, and still many folk, especially commoners in the rural countryside, would not understand the French words on the lips of more cosmopolitan city dwellers, particularly the nobility. In those days, the more citified, the more noble, the more educated an individual was, the more likely the person was to speak fluent French on a daily basis and to accept and benefit from the hegemony of the Roman Catholic Church.

The Roman Catholic Church was in these centuries an international power so pervasive that one must think of it as the direct continuation of the Roman Empire. It was not only responsible for taxing the British people further to plenish the coffers of the Vatican, but it directly manipulated  the government and politics of Great Britain to its advantage.

Of course, Bible translators were the linguistic scholars of their day, none more so than the body of preeminent scholars whom King James assembled, which company almost certainly included the greatest master ever  of the English language, William Shakespeare. Such scholars would be not simply aware of the Gallic and Catholic overtones of such words, but of the actual pain of collective memory that they would induce in those who were to read, or hear read aloud, their translations-in-progress. Thus, by implying the vivid collective agony of the Norman Conquest (if my theory is correct) and the then-current oppressiveness of the Roman Catholic Church, these translators were bringing considerable power to the prophecy of Isaiah.

Yet what is more these translators were often actively involved in movements rooted in the common people and aimed against the oppressive power of church and state. For, following the Norman Conquest, the stronger Roman Catholic presence in Great Britain meant a heavier subjugation of any freedom of expression and faith – and this oppression was founded on a determination to keep the common people ignorant of the contents of the Bible (which speak repeatedly against oppressive secular power!), mediating it only through a carefully controlled priesthood.

In this context, to translate the Bible into the vernacular was by its nature an act of rebellion, a kind of treason, against the Church that was determined to keep it in a Latin inaccessible to all but its own priests, the nobility who benefited from the Church’s protective embrace – and also, from the Church’s view unfortunately, scholars such as the Oxford professor John Wycliffe.

Wycliffe, the first to translate the entire Bible into English (though his associates apparently helped significantly with the Old Testament and parts of the New), was leader of the Lollards, who were opposed to this oppression by Rome. So hated was he that the Roman Catholic hegemony had his remains exhumed and burned and cast ignobly into a river.

Similarly, William Tyndale, first to translate the entire Bible into English from the original Hebrew and Greek (not the Latin Vulgate translation of Jerome), was executed for his role as a leader of the movement demanding reform first of the Roman Catholic and then the Anglican Church, after King Henry VIII nationalized it – continuing the same excesses and repressions, but keeping the power in his own hands, and the riches in his own coffers, rather than those of the Pope.

Tyndale wrote: “They [the Roman Catholic Church] have ordained that no man shall look on the Scripture, until he be noselled in heathen learning eight or nine years and armed with false principles, with which he is clean shut out of the understanding of the Scripture.” And: “I defy the Pope, and all his laws; and if God spares my life, ere many years, I will cause the boy that driveth the plow to know more of the Scriptures than thou [a priest who opposed Tyndale] dost!”

Thus, clearly, for translators such as these words like “inhabit” or “possess” words carried considerable evocative power. Such words were  in the language of France — not only England’s only conqueror in history, but a France completely under the hegemony of the Roman Catholic Church. Therefore, these words strongly brought to the subconscious mind the recent history of a powerful invader (the Norman Conquest) and the current situation of oppression (the Roman Catholic, and later the Anglican, Church) — especially in the minds and hearts of the common people to whom these translations were primarily addressed.

Through to the end of the fifteenth century, the French-derived English word “possess” simply meant “to hold”, “to  reside in”, without regard to the question of legal ownership; this latter implication came into the English word around 1500; and a little later, around 1530, the meaning of being filled with and taken over by devils came into provenance. Thus these two translations, Coverdale and Bishop’s, were certainly rendered with a conscious mind to these new overtones of meaning. Some of these translator-revolutionaries deliberately spoke of the Roman Catholic hegemony in diabolic terms.

Of course, every translation of the Bible is replete with such renderings that reflect the European collective mind far more than that of the Hebrew people. So to put “In the beginning” at the beginning of Genesis and the Gospel of Saint John reflects European philosophy of a creatio ex nihilo, even though the original Hebrew and Greek suggest a patterned reordering of a Creation that was chaotic but certainly already in existence. Thus the insertion of “son” into translations of John 3:16 (changing “For God so loved the world that he performed his unique act” into “gave his only son”), even though the Greek original does not have the word ύιος [son]) to pump up the Pauline trend of turning the itinerant rabbi Y’shuah into a Jesus with all the earmarks of the typical Roman emperor-god. Thus Jerome’s typically Roman misogyny, “Noli me tangere”, became the basis for the “Do not touch me” that many earlier translations have Jesus say to Mary Magdalene at his resurrection (John 20:17), even though the Greek, με μου άπτου, clearly means “cease from embracing me”.

These are but three examples of how translations through history of the Bible reflect then-current sensibilities.

The problem today is that either we live with the bitter fruits of certain renderings (for instance, the misogyny that is still far too common even in predominantly Christian countries), or we forget how particularly astute renderings — the use of French words, as an example — served to bring in the emotional baggage of then-recent history.

Current and future translators of the Bible (or of any text!) are wise to keep these matters in mind.


From the forthcoming book Ranting the Truth. Copyright © 2012 by James David Audlin. All rights reserved.

James David Audlin is preparing for publication a radical new translation of the Gospel of St. John.