The fight for the fourth gospel

To say that Paul Anderson “writes a lot” would be like saying dolphins “swim pretty often.” For more than 20 years, Anderson has been publishing his voluminous research on the Gospel of John. While he started out working on John’s Christology, his current goal focuses on the Jesus of history in the Gospel of John, challenging nearly two centuries of “scholarly consensus.”

By Michael Richeson

Scholars over the last 150 years have driven a wedge between the historical and the spiritual in their scientific quests for Jesus. John, because it is both different and highly theological, has become the “Outcast Gospel.” The result has been what Paul Anderson, professor of biblical studies, calls “the dehistoricization of John” and the “de-Johannification of Jesus.” “John is kicked off limits because it’s different,” Anderson said. “But John has more archeological detail than the other gospels combined. It’s the only gospel written by someone claiming to be an eyewitness. John has an independent perspective on Jesus with its own claims to historicity.”

Anderson argues that John is intentionally different. He points to John 20:30-31 and 21:25 as John’s acknowledgement that Jesus did many other noteworthy things recorded elsewhere, but John specifically wrote in order to cause people to believe in Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God.

It is this personal appeal of John’s writing that has held Anderson’s attention beyond his scholarly interests.

“The reader becomes part of the story,” Anderson said. “People are invited into the divine family as they respond in faith to Christ Jesus. John has been called the “Quaker Gospel.” It’s also been called the “Lutheran,” the “Wesleyan,” the “Catholic” and the “Baptist Gospel.” It’s been a favorite in Christianity.”

This Christian favorite has long been the odd-one-out among scholars, but it wasn’t until the mid-1800s that John’s writings really began being dismissed when it came to Jesus studies. German scholars led the way in claiming that John was mythology more than history. This led to a continuing trend of using the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) as the primary database for studying Jesus.

“If John is intentionally different from the Synoptics, especially Mark, then using Synoptic criteria to judge John is critically incorrect,” Anderson said.

Anderson also claims to have discovered an overlooked first-century clue to John’s apostolic authorship. Modern scholars contend that the first time John is connected to the Gospel is around 180 A.D. But in Acts 4:19-20, Anderson argues that Luke connects a Johannine cliché, “we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard,” with the Apostle John (see 1 Jn. 1:3).

“Luke connects John with the Johannine tradition,” Anderson said, “introducing a first-century clue to John’s origin that has been overlooked on all sides of the debate. I also think Luke borrowed from John and that Luke 1:2 is a ‘thank you’ to Johannine tradition. John and Mark are the Bi-Optic Gospels. Matthew and Luke build upon Mark; John builds around Mark.”

Anderson has also developed his own theory of John’s composition and relations to other traditions, which he calls “a Bi-Optic Hypothesis,” a theory gaining international interest (

Anderson’s research led to his co-founding the John, Jesus and History Group at the national Society of Biblical Literature meetings a decade ago. Anderson serves as its co-chair and editor of its three volumes. This has led to a growing wave of changing sentiment toward the Fourth Gospel.

“Scholars are no longer leaving John out of Jesus studies,” Anderson said. “People are at least a little less willing to go with the old consensus as they used to be.”

James Charlesworth, a leading Jesus and Qumran Scholar at Princeton, said Anderson’s book, The Fourth Gospel and the Quest for Jesus, “is more than an exhortation to include John in the study of the historical Jesus; it is a polemic against the myopic use of the Synoptics.”

Rather than taking sides on conservative-liberal debates, Anderson simply wants to critically think about all the evidence to get to the truth. Even his classrooms become testing grounds for his research conclusions.

“All truth is God’s truth,” he said. “I share the strengths and weaknesses of my ideas with students, and sometimes they point things out that change my mind. The truth is liberating.”

Anderson and well-known Jesus Seminar scholar Marcus Borg will hold two public symposiums to discuss the latest scholarship on the Synoptic Gospels and John at Reedwood Friends Church in Portland, Ore., May 19 from 6:30 – 8 p.m. and May 22 from 2 – 5 p.m.