The Gospel of John Displays Characteristics of Ancient Historiography

Often neglected in genre studies is the Gospel of John. Present scholarship tends to view Matthew and Mark as examples of ancient biographies. Luke is also often placed in this genre, though some point to its connection with Acts and see the two works as representative of ancient historiography. The Gospel of John, to the extent it is discussed, is usually mentioned along with Mathew and Mark as an example of ancient biography. The link is not usually dwelled on because many commentators view the fourth Gospel as much more concerned with theology than history.

Leave it to Richard Bauckham to directly challenge such a dismissive approach to the Gospel of John. In his recent book, The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple, he looks through fresh eyes at the Gospel of John and seeks to understand what genre influences exerted themselves on the fourth Gospel. Bauckham’s conclusion is that “far from appearing the least historical of the four Gospels, to a competent contemporary reader John’s Gospel will have seemed the closest to meeting the exacting demands of ancient historiography.” Id. at 95. His conclusions rest on six relevant characteristics.


Though often not realized in practice, ancient historians were expected to demonstrate “thorough knowledge” of the places where the events of their narrative occurred. As Bauckham notes “the case for regarding [the Gospel of John] as the most geographically reliable of the Gospels has been very persuasively made.” Id. at 96. Although the Gospel of John has fewer distinct events than the other three Gospels, it recounts them with greater geographical specificity.


The Gospel of John reveals a number of chronological pinpoints, such as Jewish festivals and specific references to numbers of days related to events in the narrative. “Since a large part of the action takes place either at named temple festivals or in strict relation to the last of them, a large part of the Gospel’s whole narrative is very precisely dated.” Id. at 100. Only the Gospel of Luke has any comparable interest in pinpointing its narrative by time references. This is reminiscent of ancient historiography.


Ancient historians were expected to exercise appropriate selectivity when choosing what to write about. Bauckham believes this explains to a large degree why the Gospel of John is so different from the Synoptic Gospels. John, for example, narrates only eight miracle stories, though doubtless many more were available to him. There are also fewer incidents of Jesus teaching than in the Synoptic Gospels. This allows John to emphasize what he considers the most important of the accounts and the teachings of Jesus. “While John’s selectivity is doubtless guided by judgments of relative importance, it also secures the desirable historiographical goal of variety.” Id. at 104.

Narrative Asides

As defined by Bauckham, “[n]arrative asides are intrusions of the narrator’s voice into the narrative, commenting on the story or telling about the story rather than telling the story.” Id. Although the count of narrative asides is difficult to precisely pin down, it appears that the Gospel of John has about ten times as many as the Gospel of Luke (the highest among the Synoptics). Although more investigation needs to be done, this indicates a greater affinity with ancient historiography.

Eyewitness Testimony

The use of eyewitness evidence was considered an important part of ancient historiography. In Bauckham’s view, all of the gospels place great importance on their use of eyewitness testimony. John, however, explicitly claims to be written by a disciple of Jesus.

Discourses and Dialogues

This is Bauckham’s longest section, which is necessitated by the complex labyrinth of opinion and background related to the use of speeches in ancient historiography. In essence, ancient historians were, at a minimum, expected to recite speeches that were “appropriate” for the speaker and setting. According to Bauckham, the Gospel of John is faithful to this principle. “Just as he has selected a small number of events in order to give them far more extended treatment than such events receive in the Synoptics, so he has selected a small number of traditional sayings or usages of Jesus and played them out much more extensively. This is his way of meeting the historiographical requirement of speeches that are appropriate on the lips of the pre-Easter Jesus.” Id. at 112.


In many respects – the preface being an obvious exception – the Gospel of John has striking similarities with the defining elements of ancient historiography. This does not mean that the Gospel of John can be defined only in those terms. Rather, Bauckham concludes that the “historiographical characteristics discussed [in this section] align John closely with those ancient biographies that display some features typical of historiographical best practice and most closely resemble works of historiography.” Id.


Steven Carr said…
'In many respects – the preface being an obvious exception – the Gospel of John has striking similarities with the defining elements of ancient historiography.'

Which other ancient histories never name the author?
Layman said…

Is it your contention that every other ancient history names its author in the text? Do you have any authority for that?

Off the top of my head, I don't recall Sallust's The Jugurthine War or The Conspiracy of Catiline naming the author. Also don't think Tacitus' Agricola does. Don't remember his Germania doing so either, but I could be wrong about that.

My memory could be wrong though, so I'd appreciate correction if it is.
Jason Pratt said…
Though if it comes to that, GosJohn would have another edge on any of the Synoptics, as the author at least identifies himself as being an important eyewitness in the story!

But, not someone considered authoritative enough to write on his own behalf, per his inclusion of Peter's question at the end and the authoritative sign-off by someone else at the end before his own final remark.

Unless Bauckham has changed his mind since his "Eyewitness" book, he and I would have a crucially different read on those closing few verses, though I think we'd both agree from the exchange between Peter and Jesus about the author that he wasn't someone who would normally be thought of as having apostolic authority to teach. Tis very mysterious and peculiar in several regards, not easily answered... {g}

Layman said…
how about Lazarus as a possible author?
Jason Pratt said…
I'd say there's definitely something up, somehow, with "Lazarus". If I recall correctly, Meta is a fan of the "Lazarus wrote GosJohn" theory, too.

Not my own theory, but it has some respectable and intriguing strengths to it. When my copy of B's new book arrives in a few days, I'll want to go back to his earlier attempts at analysis on the topic in his previous book, and then compare with where he is now. (I'll also be curious how his new book compares to Blomberg's well-researched analysis of historicity in GosJohn, which I have a high regard for.)

Layman said…
I am still curious whether (1) S. Carr has found authority stating that all ancient histories identified their authors by name in the text and (2) whether S. Carr contests my four examples of ancient historiography that do not identify their authors by name in the text.

Like I said, I could be wrong and would appreciate correct if that is the case.
zok said…
I am still curious whether (1) S. Carr has found authority stating that all ancient histories identified their authors by name in the text and (2) whether S. Carr contests my four examples of ancient historiography that do not identify their authors by name in the text.

Not sure this matters anyway. The point, as you explained, was that "the Gospel of John has striking similarities with the defining elements of ancient historiography." Whether any other ancient historians omitted their name from any particular books or not, the argument stands that John closely resembles a work of ancient history.
Layman said…
Good point.
John W. Loftus said…
If the Gospel of John was written by a disciple of Jesus then that person must have been a Jew.

How do you explain away the anti-Jewish nature of that gospel?

You should surely know what I mean without me telling you, since it is plainly obvious.

Layman said…

1. I don't accept "plainly obvious" characterizations from atheists with agendas and no expertise in the subject area.

2. I suppose you also deny that Paul was a Jew? Or you think he was pro-Judaism? The Gospel of John was written decades later, after Christianity and Judaism had moved further parts along their separate poths.
John W. Loftus said…
So, what we have is a gospel that is more geographically accurate than the others but not written by a disciple and actually wrong when it describes the Jews? That's WRONG about the Jews!

Could you please explain this or point me to where someone does?

Jason Pratt said…
John: {{How do you explain away the anti-Jewish nature of that gospel?}}

Not that I’m trying to “explain away” the characteristics of that text; but there’s a lot of positive rabbinic support in it, too. It’s actually the text that features the most rabbinic support of Jesus (the additional mention of Nicodemus being only the smallest and most obvious example.)

Consequently, I take GosJohn’s use of “the Jews” to be the equivalent of how I might refer to “Christians” when talking about nominal leaders whom I’m being critical of, to non-Christians. (I’ve done it in conversation with you on occasion, as I recall. {s}) It doesn’t mean I’m rejecting Christianity or Christians in general. Practically all the Johannine uses of the term can be understood in that fashion; some of them contextually can be understood no other way.

In short, I can explain it by taking account of more of the features of the text, dovetailing with features of the Synoptics (not-incidentally), and placing it within a realistic historical situation (also not-incidentally).

(I go into this topic in great detail in the KoS entries, where applicable.)

Not that this challenge has anything strictly to do with the topic of this particular post, of course...

Anonymous said…
When John uses the phrase "the Jews" isn't he simply playing to his Hellenistic audience in as far as that would have been a familiar epithet used by Greeks and Romans?

Popular Posts