What if John wrote first?

In Star Wars: A New Hope, the character Han Solo was confronted by an intimidating bounty hunter, Greedo. In the original cut of the film, Han shot Greedo before things could get out of hand. This fit with the anti-hero arc, Han was the scoundrel with a heart of gold. In later recuts of the film, Greedo shot first. And so in nerd circles, people lament, ‘Han Shot First.’

And this raises an interesting question, what if John wrote first? I’m actually of the opinion that Matthew’s gospel was written first, but Paul Anderson (among the few scholars who read and digested J.A.T. Robinson’s The Priority of John) mentions a startling line of argument:

[I]f John was produced in an isolated region, it may be easier to infer that three traditions [Matthew, Mark, and Luke] might have overlooked John than to believe that John has overlooked all three of the Synoptic traditions.

The rest of the paper is okay. If that idea catches on, it would be great to hear Bible scholars lament the death of their elaborate source critical theories, “Mark wrote first!”

Jesus the Good Shepherd

Mark’s Jesus

A common claim in New Testament studies is that Mark’s gospel must be first because it apparently contains the least developed understanding of Jesus, but John’s gospel was last because it clearly refers to Jesus’ divinity.

The problem with this is that Mark’s gospel alludes to and presupposes Jesus’ divinity by what it makes plain throughout its pages. The problem is that these assumptions only surface by means of certain allusions. In other words, Mark believes in Jesus’ divinity, but he only expresses this by “telling it slant.”[1]

Mark 6 and Psalm 23

In Mark 6, the story of the feeding of the five thousand has some wonderful allusions to the twenty-third Psalm. I recommend that you read the Psalm and the section of Mark in the ESV below:

Psalms 23:1-6 ESV A Psalm of David. The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. (2)   He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. (3) He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.   (4) Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.   (5) You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. (6) Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.




















Mark 6:34-52 ESV When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them many things. (35) And when it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, “This is a desolate place, and the hour is now late. (36) Send them away to go into the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.” (37)   But he answered them, “You give them something to eat.” And they said to him, “Shall we go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread and give it to them to eat?”   (38) And he said to them, “How many loaves do you have? Go and see.” And when they had found out, they said, “Five, and two fish.” (39)   Then he commanded them all to sit down in groups on the green grass. (40) So they sat down in groups, by hundreds and by fifties. (41) And taking the five loaves and the two fish he looked up to heaven and said a blessing and broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples to set before the people. And he divided the two fish among them all. (42) And they all ate and were satisfied. (43)   And they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. (44) And those who ate the loaves were five thousand men. (45) Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. (46) And after he had taken leave of them, he went up on the mountain to pray.   (47) And when evening came, the boat was out on the sea, and he was alone on the land. (48)   And he saw that they were making headway painfully, for the wind was against them. And about the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. He meant to pass by them,   (49) but when they saw him walking on the sea they thought it was a ghost, and cried out, (50)   for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.” (51) And he got into the boat with them, and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, (52) for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.

If you compared the above texts you may have noted that Jesus:

  1. Has compassion for people who were as a sheep without a shepherd
  2. That he teaches them (presumably about repentance/righteousness and God’s kingdom as in the rest of Mark)
  3. Has people sit in green grass beside the water
  4. Feeds them
  5. Calms (stills) the waters of the sea
  6. Tells them not to fear sinking (the sea symbolizes chaos and death, see Jonah)

Mark adds the “green grass” bit where it is missing in the other gospels. Also, his is the only gospel that connects the description of the people as sheep without a shepherd to the story of feeding of the five thousand. This is significant for two reasons:

  1. It shows us Mark’s rhetorical point: Jesus is a shepherd like the Lord.
  2. It shows us that, despite claims to the contrary, the gospel writers were not literarily unsophisticated.

The point I wish to focus on is the first. Mark’s gospel, in my estimation, is an expanded statement of the Christian gospel and a manual for repentance (Mark 1:1 and Mark 1:14-17).

In Mark 6, Jesus is presented as having characteristics that make him utterly trustworthy. He is portrayed as utterly competent to guide humanity into life in the house of God. Therefore, part of the Christian gospel is the competence of Jesus. Jesus, according to Mark, is at minimally a human being who is supremely capable of being a broker bringing humanity to God. Maximally, Jesus is presented as the divine Shepherd incarnate.

Concluding Devotional Postscript

For the Christian who accepts the truth of the gospel, this section in Mark is especially valuable. For one, Mark 6 depicts Jesus beyond just a man to know about. He is presented as the most trustworthy figure on the scene of human history. This means that all of his teachings can be relied upon as a foundation for a life of eternal safety.

Second, Mark 6 helps us look back to Psalm 23 as a wonderful summary of the type of life Jesus offers to those who place their confidence in him and faithfully base their lives upon his teachings (see Matthew 7:24-27 and John 8:31-32).

While Psalm 23 not thematically central to the New Testament, over time it has emerged as one of the most significant portions of the Old Testament for Christian living. Learning to read it as a picture of our life with Christ can be a powerful motivating myth for our daily lives. A challenging spiritual exercise might be spending a week looking for ways that God provides each element of the Psalm for you as you attempt to follow Christ.


[1] This is a reference to a poem by Emily Dickinson:

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —

Success in Circuit lies

Too bright for our infirm Delight

The Truth’s superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased

With explanation kind

The Truth must dazzle gradually

Or every man be blind —