John 3:16 – Now what do you say to THAT,
you stupid heathen?

I’m sure I am not the only one who wonders what “John 3:16” zealots are thinking. You see them everywhere, plastering this biblical verse on everything from sports placards to ‘Jesus Rifles.’ Now, unless your head is stuck in quarterback Tim Tebow’s eyeblack, you know John 3:16 says: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”

So, that’s what it says. Now . . . what do you say? Seriously. Tell me, and if it’s good, I’ll add it to this column. In the meantime, here’s my take on how Muslims should answer this challenge.

To begin with, let’s break this down. How many criticisms can you think of? I can count one, two, but when I get to “buckle my shoe” my head begins to swim. We’ve got unreliability of the Bible, illegitimate use of capitalization to imply divine son-ship, and calculated misuse of the words, “only,” “begotten,” and “son.” We’ve also got a teasing qualifier, “that whoever believes . . .” Oh, and hey, we’ve got a collection plate, so pass it around and give it back when it’s full. Hug your neighbor, kiss the bride (don’t, please don’t – with the direction some churches are taking, the bride could be a man for all you know), shake your hands at the sky and invite the Holy Spirit to invade your body and tickle your fancy. Which is basically all that Christianity really is for some people: a social group with a church for a clubhouse — can I have a “Hallelujah”? (Hebrew for “Praise God” – not to be confused with “Hal’s uvula” which my best guess is Koiné Greek for “Stop sucking the wafer and chew it like it’s meat!” Bet you didn’t know that religious tidbit, huh? Well, that’s why you’re laity, and I have a degree in rambling). So . . . all done with our little religious revival? Good. Now . . . sit down, shaddup, and take notes. (And to think that some people believe there’s no such thing as ‘speaking in tongues’ in Islam. Hah! They’ve just never met me when three espressos have braided my spinal cord and thrown the ‘chipmunk’ center of my temporal lobes into epileptic fasciculation.)

So, to begin with, who the hummus is “John”? The disciple? Enh. Good guess, but that’s all it is – a guess. Bart D. Ehrman tells us, “Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John did not write the Gospels.”[i] Furthermore, “Of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament, only eight almost certainly go back to the author whose name they bear: the seven undisputed letters of Paul (Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon) and the Revelation of John (although we aren’t sure who this John was).”[ii]

The famous biblical scholar, Graham Stanton, agrees. Wait a minute . . . I’m a doctor, so I guess I have to say he concurs. Impressive word-smithing, huh? I’ll autograph magazine covers later. Back to Mr. Stanton: “The gospels, unlike most Graeco-Roman writings, are anonymous. The familiar headings which give the name of an author (‘The Gospel according to . . .’) were not part of the original manuscripts, for they were added only early in the second century.”[iii] Added by whom? “By unknown figures in the early church. In most cases, the names are guesses or perhaps the result of pious wishes.”[iv] Which is, of course, the level of scholastic accuracy we seek in an alleged book of revelation.

But wait a minute: Does this mean “The gospel according to John” wasn’t written by John? Uh, yeah. Yup, that’s exactly what it means. As Ehrman tells us, “Yeah, buddy, you’d better believe it.” No, I’m misquoting. Okay, okay, I made it up. What Ehrman actually wrote was, “Most scholars today have abandoned these identifications, and recognize that the books were written by otherwise unknown but relatively well-educated Greek-speaking (and writing) Christians during the second half of the first century.”[v]

Ooo-kay. So that’s what scholars say, and that’s the problem. Scholars adhere to the weight of the evidence; priests and clergy adhere to the weight of their religious turf. Scholars deal with inconvenient things like evidence-based analysis and historical truth. Clergy, for the most part, parrot their religious teachings come Hell or high holy water. If they didn’t, they would lose their congregations and their cushy benefits. I mean, we’re talking ten percent, here. By the way, is that collection plate full yet?

So multiple sources acknowledge there is no evidence, other than questionable testimonies of second-century authors, to suggest that the disciple John was the author of the Gospel of “John.”[vi],[vii] Why? Just guessing here, but it could have something to do with the fact that John died before ‘his’ gospel was written. Trust me, I’m a doctor – rigor mortis cramps a writer’s style (pun definitely intended). The disciple John is believed to have died in or around 98 CE,[viii] whereas the Gospel of John was written twelve years later, circa 110 CE.[ix]

Another line of reasoning is that Acts 4:13 tells us that John was “unlettered.” In other words, illiterate. So whoever Luke (Paul’s companion), Mark (Peter’s secretary), and John (the unknown, but certainly not the illiterate, long-dead one) were, we have no reason to believe any of the gospels were authored by Jesus’ disciples. Yee-ouch. That definitely hitches the theological underwear high and tight, into places we would rather not think about.

To this end, Stanton poses a compelling question: “Was the eventual decision to accept Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John correct? Today it is generally agreed that neither Matthew nor John was written by an apostle. And Mark and Luke may not have been associates of the apostles.”[x]

Professor Ehrman is more blunt: “Critical scholars are fairly unified today in thinking that Matthew did not write the First Gospel or John the Fourth, that Peter did not write 2 Peter and possibly not 1 Peter. No other book of the New Testament claims to be written by one of Jesus’ earthly disciples.”[xi] Why, then, do our bibles label the four gospels as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John? Some scholars suggest something similar to branding—the modern advertising term for the commercial practice of soliciting celebrity endorsements to sell a product.[xii] Second-century Christians who favored these four gospels had a choice—either acknowledge the gospels’ anonymous authorship or fake it. The bluff proved irresistible, and they chose to assign the gospels to apostolic authorities, thereby illegitimately “branding” the gospels as authoritative.

So let’s see—we have no evidence any book of the Bible, gospels included, were authored by Jesus’ disciples. Furthermore, most scholars accept Paul’s authorship in only half of the works attributed to him. Regardless of who authored what, corruptions and inconsistencies have resulted in more manuscript variants than words in the New Testament. Lastly, even scholars of textual criticism fail to agree.[xiii] Why? Because “considerations depend, it will be seen, upon probabilities, and sometimes the textual critic must weigh one set of probabilities against another.”[xiv] Furthermore, with regard to the more complex textual problems, “the probabilities are much more evenly divided and the critic must sometimes be content with choosing the least unsatisfactory reading or even admitting that there is no clear basis for choice at all.”[xv]

Expanding on this thought, “Occasionally, none of the variant readings will commend itself as original, and one [i.e., a textual critic] will be compelled either to choose the reading that is judged to be the least unsatisfactory or to indulge in conjectural emendation.”[xvi] Hmm. Conjectural emendation, conjectural emendation—isn’t that scholar-talk for “educated guess”?

So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that, just as Jeremiah bemoaned the “false pens” of the Old Testament scribes, the third-century church father, Origen, bemoaned the “false pens” of New Testament scribes: “The differences among the manuscripts have become great, either through the negligence of some copyists or through the perverse audacity of others; they either neglect to check over what they have transcribed, or, in the process of checking, they make additions or deletions as they please.”[xvii] Now, that was the voice of a third-century church father, commenting on just the first couple hundred years of Christianity. We have to wonder how much worse the situation has degenerated since then. And that will be the subject of the next article in this series. But for now, there are two conclusions:

1) “John 3:16” should really be labeled “Somebody (we know not who) 3:16”;

2) I really need to start drinking decaf.

[i] Ehrman, Bart D. 2009. Jesus, Interrupted. HarperOne. p. 5.

[ii] Ehrman, Bart D. Jesus, Interrupted. p. 112.

[iii] Stanton, Graham N. 1989. The Gospels and Jesus. Oxford University Press. p. 19.

[iv] Funk, Robert W., Roy W. Hoover, and the Jesus Seminar. The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus. p. 20.

[v] Ehrman, Bart D. 2005. Lost Christianities. Oxford University Press. p. 235.

[vi] Kee, Howard Clark (Notes and References by). 1993. The Cambridge Annotated Study Bible, New Revised Standard Version. Cambridge University Press. Introduction to gospel of “John.”

[vii] Butler, Trent C. (General Editor). Holman Bible Dictionary. Nashville: Holman Bible Publishers. Under “John, the Gospel of.”

[viii] Easton, M. G., M.A., D.D. Easton’s Bible Dictionary. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers. Under “John the Apostle.”

[ix] Goodspeed, Edgar J. 1946. How to Read the Bible. The John C. Winston Company. p. 227.

[x] Stanton, Graham N. pp. 134–135.

[xi] Ehrman, Bart D. Lost Christianities. p. 236.

[xii] Ibid., p. 235.

[xiii] Metzger, Bruce M. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. Introduction, p. 14.

[xiv] Ibid., p. 11.

[xv] Metzger, Bruce M. and Ehrman, Bart D. The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration. p. 316.

[xvi] Ibid., p. 343.

[xvii] Metzger, Bruce M. 1963. “Explicit References in the Works of Origen to Variant Readings in New Testament Manuscripts,” in J. N. Birdsall and R. W. Thomson (ed.), Biblical And Patristic Studies In Memory Of Robert Pierce Casey. Herder: Frieburg. pp. 78–79.