Home > The earliest testimony > A Difference of Perspective

A Difference of Perspective

April 24th, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

An Excerpt From Chapter VII of How to Live Forever

…Based on this analysis, Tacitus provides an independent Roman witness to the death of Christ. So, in addition to the four written narratives depicting the crucifixion which were drawn from witnesses sympathetic to Christ, Josephus strongly infers concurrence among the Jewish opposition, and Tacitus confirms the official Roman agreement. Three separate societies with conflicting objectives, yet all three substantiate the fact of Christ’s death by order of the Roman Governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate. Having established this material fact, let us examine the four Gospel narratives, each based upon eyewitness testimony, for the details.

Raphael, Christ's Charge to St. Peter

Raphael, Christ's Charge to St. Peter

2. A Difference of Perspective

Ancient testimony agrees that Matthew wrote the first Gospel account in the Hebrew language[1]. This premise strongly infers that Matthew’s Gospel was written when the church was still primarily comprised of converted Jews, before the first major missionary works were begun among the gentiles. So Matthew was written by an Hebrew to a Jewish audience. The same testimony indicates that Mark was written by Peter’s interpreter[2] to an audience that Peter could not address directly. The most likely scenario is that Mark translated Peter’s oral message into Latin during Peter’s stay in Rome, but wrote the Gospel of Mark in Greek with the idea that most literate Romans were also fluent in Greek. Mark, then, was written by an Hebrew for a Roman audience. Paul’s companion Luke was a gentile physician, considered a part of Greek culture before his conversion. Since he accompanied Paul[3] on missionary journeys through Greece and proconsular Asia, we must assume that Luke wrote his works to the Greek world at large.

During the forty’s and fifty’s AD, when the Synoptic Gospels were written, Christians were being persecuted by the Jewish nation, but still enjoyed toleration as a sect of Judaism in the Roman world. The Temple stood on Mount Zion in Jerusalem, and the high priest and ruling council (Sanhedrin) administered much of Judean policy on behalf of their Roman overlords. Intrinsic to the Gospel writers of this era was the attitude of hope among Christians for one day making peace with their Jewish cousins. Even for those Christians among the gentiles, the plight of the church of Jerusalem, which included Jesus’ family and many of those who walked with Jesus in this world, was of great consequence. Much of the book of Matthew, in particular, is dedicated to pleading the case for Christ’s fulfillment of messianic prophecy to an audience steeped in the Jewish scripture.

But John wrote a Gospel nearly forty years after the other three. By this time, John had returned from exile on the isle of Patmos under Domitian, and was living among the gentiles in Ephesus[4], the capitol of proconsular Asia. Most of John’s closest friends had already paid for their Christianity with their lives. His master Jesus had been crucified, his own brother James beheaded by Agrippa, Peter and Paul had shed martyr’s blood for Nero, and James, the brother of Christ, had been one of the last Christians executed by the Jewish rulers of Judea. The Jewish nation had ceased to exist, the Temple had been thrown down, and Christians were hoping rather for an end of persecution by the Romans, having already survived Nero and Domitian. As we have already shown, the basic premise that John wrote the fourth Gospel is supported by the Muratorian Fragment, the Anti-Marcionite Prologue to John, as well as the writings of church fathers Irenaeus, Theophilus of Antioch, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Eusebius[5]. So why did John feel the need, in his last years, to write a fourth Gospel in addition to the three that had been written?

John certainly knew of the existing Gospels. Matthew was written to the Jews while John was an elder of the church in Jerusalem. Clement of Rome had an in-depth knowledge of two or three of the Synoptics during the ninety’s AD, and he clearly assumed these Gospels were recognized as authoritative in Corinth of Achaia (Greece) as well. Papias summarized the origins of Matthew and Mark from Hierapolis in proconsular Asia shortly after Clement, also assuming that the identity of these Gospels was common knowledge. It would be absurd and perverse to imagine that John could have remained uninformed at Ephesus during the ninety’s AD. And it would defy the direct evidence of ancient testimony concerning the Gospel of John. Clement of Alexandria avers that John sought to enhance the message of the first three Gospels, “But John, the last of all, seeing that what was corporeal was set forth in the [Synoptic] Gospels, on the entreaty of his intimate friends, and inspired by the Spirit, composed a spiritual Gospel.” (Hypotyposes, as cited by Eusebius, Eccl. Hist., VI, xiv, 7). Irenaeus, after providing the order in which the four Gospels were written[6], states that John “seeks, by the proclamation of the Gospel, to remove that error which by Cerinthus had been disseminated among men” (Adv. Hær. III, xi, 1), and “The disciple of the Lord therefore desiring to put an end to all such doctrines, and to establish the rule of truth in the Church…thus commenced His teaching in the Gospel” (ibid). Combining these statements leads to the explanation that John was aware of the three Synoptic Gospels, but that heretical doctrines had crept into the church that were not addressed by Matthew, Mark or Luke. At the encouragement of his friends and associates, John wrote the fourth Gospel to clarify the teachings of Christ, to prevent the errors of Cerinthus and others. The Muratorian Canon confirms the notion that John was encouraged by his fellow disciples and bishops to compose this Gospel, and this explanation seems to account for the relationship between Gospel of John and the Synoptics.

One of the major objections to the authenticity of the Gospel of John is the fact that John leaves out many of the incidents included in the Synoptic Gospels, while adding much material not present in the Synoptics. Based upon these differences, some aver that John contradicts the Synoptic Gospels, unaware of their contents. This they offer as proof that the Gospels, or at least some of them, were fabrications, not based upon actual eyewitness testimony at all. But a much better fitting solution has already been provided by those who were the intimates of John’s intimates. If John’s purpose was to add recollections, observations, and reflections of his own; things that he had contemplated for forty years after the Synoptics were written, would he necessarily reiterate all of the material that he was trying to augment? He took it for granted that we had already received the genealogies of Christ from Matthew and Luke, he had no news of theological consequence to add to Christ’s nativity, and it was pointless to mention Christ’s prophecies concerning the destruction of Jerusalem after the fact[7]. Rather than providing a mechanical report of events and times, John’s purpose was to give insight into his Lord’s compassion concerning those for whom he had died. For this reason he supplements the accounts of Matthew, Mark, and Luke with four chapters of Christ’s teaching on the night of his arrest (John, Chapters 14-17) as well as the anecdote of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet (John 13:1-17). This doesn’t mean that John was contradicting the other Gospel narratives. It means that he was trying to show us parts of Christ’s life that had never before been revealed, and to explain the deeper significance of those same events to those of us who never had the opportunity of walking with Christ.

Even though John had been raised a Jew, he had been living among the “Greeks” or gentiles for many years. We probably have to assume that his target audience was gentile, and that his amanuensis (Papias?) was also a gentile. For this reason, John is the only Gospel writer who never even mentions the Feast of unleavened Bread. He refers to all the events of this festive time as “Passover”, trying to keep it simple for his gentile readers. Appendix IV devotes eight pages of discussion to determination of the basic practices for the Passover, Feast of Unleavened Bread, and offering of First Fruits during the time of Christ. And these pages never discuss the manner in which Passover affected the intercalation of months for leap-years (Passover could not fall on a Monday, Wednesday, or Friday), or the Great Sabbath on which the lamb was chosen (Shabbat HaGadol), or even the recitation of the Hallel (Psalms 113-118). What a distraction these eight pages of instruction on Jewish festival rites would have been to the intended audience of John’s Gospel. It was not John’s purpose to proselytize converts for Judaism, but to provide answers for Christians.

So John glosses over his references to the rites of Judaism, feeling no need to burden with technical details a readership that would not include many doctors of the Jewish law. He uses the terms “Passover” and “Sabbath” as the most familiar to his non-Jewish audience[a]. And he alone of the Gospel writers appears to count the hours of the day for Jesus’ hearing with Pilate from midnight, the beginning of the official Roman day[b]. Whether this timekeeping convention was common practice throughout the Roman judiciary or whether it varied by province is hard to say. But it seems likely that this was the accepted practice for legal proceedings in proconsular Asia[c], where the Gospel of John was written. So the Gospel of John followed the convention of the Roman courts in proconsular Asia to describe Jesus’ Roman trial before Pilate to a Greco-Roman audience. The difference in perspective between John and the authors of the Synoptic Gospels will be evident in nearly every instance of overlapping material. Careful examination will allow you to perceive that John’s motive always centers on further revealing the risen Christ. Having gained this understanding, let us proceed to examine Christ’s execution.

3. The Crucifixion

Starting with the Synoptic Gospels (See Appendix IV for Chronology):




31After they had mocked him, they took off the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him. 32As they were going out, they met a man from Cyrene, named Simon, and they forced him to carry the cross.

-Chapter 27 (NIV)

20And when they had mocked him, they took off the purple robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him. 21A certain man from Cyrene, Simon, the father of Alexander and Rufus, was passing by on his way in from the country, and they forced him to carry the cross.

-Chapter 15 (NIV)

26As they led him away, they seized Simon from Cyrene, who was on his way in from the country, and put the cross on him and made him carry it behind Jesus.

-Chapter 23 (NIV)

Here, the trial of Jesus has already occurred, and the verdict has been passed down. Jesus had been arrayed in the purple “royal” robe in mockery of his claim to be a king. All three authors document the name, Simon of Cyrene, in order to provide a verifiable detail to the reader. The incident has no other value to the narrative. Mark further identifies Simon by providing his lineage, a meaningless annotation unless this particular Simon and his family was somehow known by the intended audience of the first three Gospels, during the 50′s AD.  Was Simon’s oral testimony still available when the Synoptic Gospels were first published? Was he some notable personage whose family delighted in the honour that Simon held in consequence of having borne the cross of Christ[d]? The eyewitness John later records the same scene with no mention of this incident…


1.) Scripture taken from the Holy Bible, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society. All rights reserved throughout the world. Used by permission of International Bible Society.

NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION® and NIV® are registered trademarks of International Bible Society. Use of either trademark for the offering of goods or services requires the prior written consent of International Bible Society.

2.) Clement of Alexandria, Books of the Hypotyposes, as preserved in Eusebius, Eccl. Hist., VI, xiv, 7:

Translated by Rev. William Wilson, M.A. prior to 1885, (the publication date of the volumes in which it appeared, The Ante Nicene Fathers)

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1923. It may be copyrighted outside the U.S.

Clement of Alexandria at WikiSource

Clement of Alexandria at Christian Classics Ethereal Library

3.) Irenaeus, Against Heresies:

Translated by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson prior to 1885, (the publication date of the volumes in which it appeared, The Ante Nicene Fathers)

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1923. It may be copyrighted outside the U.S.

Irenaeus at WikiSource

Irenaeus at Christian Classics Ethereal Library

4.) Gaius Plinius Secundus (AD 23 – August 25, 79), The Natural History:

English translation by John Bostock and H. T. Riley, 1855;

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1923. It may be copyrighted outside the U.S.

Chapter 77 on Google Books:

Chapter 79 at Perseus:

5.) Galen, Commentaries on Hippocrates:

Translation by Joseph Barber Lightfoot, included in his five volume Apostolic Fathers, published in 1885.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1923. It may be copyrighted outside the U.S.

Lightfoot’s Apostolic Fathers on Google Books:

[a] According to Josephus, Titus invested Jerusalem when the city was full of pilgrims attending the Passover festival. (Wars, V, iii, 1; xiii, 7; VI, ix, 3). The besiegers had to be aware of this circumstance. Since there would likely be much talk in the Roman camp concerning the condition of the defending forces, the average Roman soldier would unavoidably learn some common name for this Jewish festival. It would have been logical for John to use these terms already adopted by the audience he wished to address.

[b] John’s reference to Pilate’s presentation of Jesus to the crowd in the sixth hour, “It was the day of Preparation of Passover Week, about the sixth hour” (John 19:14), must refer to a time before 9:00 in the morning, the time given by Mark for Jesus’ crucifixion, “It was the third hour [of daylight] when they crucified him.” (Mark 15:25). It is not reasonable to assume that John would have no knowledge of the chronology of Mark’s Gospel, which we have shown to have been universally accepted by the early church. It is far more likely that John, or his gentile amanuensis, adapted John’s eyewitness account of Jesus’ Roman trial to be more easily understandable to the expected audience. This audience would read Jesus’ trial as it read other Roman legal proceedings, according to Roman standards as set forth by the Elder Pliny in 77 AD: “The days have been computed by different people in different ways. The Babylonians reckoned from one sunrise to the next; the Athenians from one sunset to the next; the Umbrians from noon to noon; the multitude, universally, from light to darkness; the Roman priests and those who presided over the civil day, also the Egyptians and Hipparchus, from midnight to midnight…” (Pliny, Natural History, Book II, LXXIX (sometimes numbered LXXVII)). Hipparchus of Nicaea in Asia Minor recorded astronomical measurements in equinoctial hours from midnight. Apparently Pliny was indicating that certain Roman official events were logged in the same manner. So based upon this Roman custom for an official proceeding such as Jesus’ trial, the sixth hour would be the sixth from midnight, or 6:00 A.M. In a world before clocks were common, most unofficial correspondence would still refer to times with respect to the attitude of the sun in the sky (i.e. noon, dusk, an hour after noon, etc.), the only visible reference to time.

[c] Absolute proof of this explanation would require obtaining written records of the proceedings for the Assizes of proconsular Asia during the ninety’s AD. Galen, born in Pergamos around 130 AD, assures us that his native proconsular Asia had adopted the Roman solar calendar, “But it is plainly necessary that the months should be reckoned not according to the moon, as in most of the Greek cities at the present time, but, according to the sun, as in all the Asiatic cities and in many of the nations, and so the year is reckoned by the Romans…” (Commentaries on Hippocrates, I, xvii). But had they also adopted the convention of counting official hours from midnight, after the manner of their native son Hipparchus? If the proceedings of the court routinely logged motions and verdicts to hours of an official day starting at midnight, then it would be natural for a resident of that community to also refer to Jesus’ trial by Pilate in these terms. The only extant record (of which I am aware) that provides corroboration for the customs of these times is the Letter of the Smyrnaeans concerning the Martyrdom of Polycarp. While residing in Ephesus, St. John appointed Polycarp Bishop of Smyrna, also in proconsular Asia (Irenaeus, Adv. Haer., III, iii, 4; Tertullian, The Prescription Against Heretics, XXXII), so there is a connection between John’s Gospel and this Letter based upon both personal association and proximity. According to this Letter of the Smyrnaeans, Polycarp was the twelfth and final martyr of a local persecution that developed in Smyrna, when Statius Quadratus was proconsul of Asia, probably during the reign of Antoninus Pius. Polycarp had been staying at a farm near the city, when he was apprehended on a Friday late in the evening (§ 7). His captors granted him two hours for prayer, as a courtesy, before taking him into custody. On the way back to the city, the arresting officers tried to persuade Polycarp to offer incense and so save himself. When they failed to persuade him, they “uttered threatening words and made him dismount with speed, so that he bruised his shin, as he got down from the carriage” (§ 8). Thence, he was taken straight to the stadium, which was full of people even at this late hour, due the nature of the trial and the notoriety of Polycarp as “the father of the Christians, the puller down of our gods” (§ 12). The Roman proconsul examined Polycarp through the night, and ordered him burned alive when he would neither worship Caesar nor revile the Christ. The interesting point is that the Smyrnaeans duly record Polycarp’s death “on the seventh before the kalends of March, on a great sabbath, at the eighth hour” (§ 21). I know that this time is not conclusive, but place yourself in the shoes of the Roman proconsul for a moment, and consider whether you think it more likely, after an all-night trial, to have executed Polycarp first thing in the morning, at 8:00 A.M., or whether you think the trial would have continued through most of the next day until Polycarp was executed eight hours after daylight, or 2:00 P.M. Remember that Polycarp was a confessed transgressor, and that the whole recorded dialogue of the trial consisted of the court urging him to repent, and Polycarp refusing. How many times can you exchange variations of “worship Caesar” or “revile the Christ” and “No, I refuse!” before the proceedings become redundant? If you believe that Polycarp was probably executed at 8:00 in the morning, then the Smyrnaeans are observing the same protocol as that proposed for St. John at Ephesus, sixty years earlier.

[d] The horizontal crossbeam actually carried by the victim was known as the patibulum. The upright post was the stipes.

[1] Papias, in Eusebius, Eccl. Hist, III, xxxix, 16; Irenaeus, Adv. Haer., III, i, 1; Origen, in Eusebius, Eccl. Hist, VI, xxv, 4; Jerome, Lives, III.

[2] Papias, in Eusebius, Eccl. Hist, III, xxxix, 14 – 15; Irenaeus, Adv. Haer., III, i, 1; x, 5; Clement of Alexandria, Comments on the First Epistle of Peter, From the Latin Translation of Cassiodorus, and Hypotyposes in Eusebius, Eccl. Hist., VI, xiv, 6; Origen, in Eusebius, Eccl. Hist, VI, xxv, 5; Jerome, Lives, VIII

[3] Irenaeus, Adv. Haer., III, i, 1; x, 1; Origen, in Eusebius, Eccl. Hist, VI, xxv, 6; Muratorian Fragment; Anti-Marcionite Prologue to Luke; Jerome, Lives, VII

[4] Polycrates, Epistle to Victor, in Eusebius, Eccl. Hist, V, xxiv

[5] Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book III, i, 1; Theophilus of Antioch, Ad Autolycum, II, xxii, Clement of Alexandria, in Eusebius, Eccl. Hist., VI, xiv, 7; Origen, in Eusebius, Eccl. Hist, VI, xxv, 6; Commentary on the Gospel of John, Book I, vi

[6] Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book III, i, 1

[7] Luke 19:41-44; 21:20-24; 23:27-31

  1. No comments yet.
  1. No trackbacks yet.