“THEY TOOK THE WORDS RIGHT OUT OF MY MOUTH”: Does John 3:16-17 Record the Words of Jesus or of John the Evangelist?
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© 2013, by John Tors. All Rights Reserved.
One sometimes has to wonder if the raison d’être of Bible scholars is to “spen[d] their time in nothing else but either to tell or to hear some new thing” (Acts 17:21). How else can we account for the bizarre idea championed by some of them that Jesus did not speak the words recorded in John 3:16-17 in His conversation with Nicodemus? How does one look at what seems to be a continuous speech of Jesus from John 3:10b-21 and conclude that vv.16-17 are not, in fact, part of this speech but are John the author’s commentary inserted into the midst of Jesus’ words? Yet there are scholars who assert this very thing. Some of them even have the chutzpah to proclaim that the view that 3:16-17 consists of the words of Jesus is an outright error. Let us, therefore, examine the case put forth by these scholars (herein after, for convenience, referred to simply as the “scholar”).
It is true, of course, that the Koine Greek in which the Gospel According to John was originally written had no quotation marks, nor, of course, the red letters indicating Jesus’ words that around found in some modern printed Bibles. This does not mean, however, that there are no indications in the book regarding who is speaking. As one peruses this Gospel book, he will observe that John is, in fact, careful to show when a new speaker begins to speak. Consider, for example, the conversations in John 1:35-50 (bolding added):
Again, the next day, John stood with two of his disciples. And looking at Jesus as He walked, he said, “Behold the Lamb of God!”
The two disciples heard him speak, and they followed Jesus. Then Jesus turned, and seeing them following, said to them, “What do you seek?”
They said to Him, “Rabbi” (which is to say, when translated, Teacher), “where are You staying?”
He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where He was staying, and remained with Him that day (now it was about the tenth hour).
One of the two who heard John speak, and followed Him, was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his own brother Simon, and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated, the Christ). And he brought him to Jesus.
Now when Jesus looked at him, He said, “You are Simon the son of Jonah. You shall be called Cephas” (which is translated, A Stone).
The following day Jesus wanted to go to Galilee, and He found Philip and said to him, “Follow Me.” Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found Him of whom Moses in the law, and also the prophets, wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”
And Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
Philip said to him, “Come and see.”
Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward Him, and said of him, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom is no deceit!”
Nathanael said to Him, “How do You know me?”
Jesus answered and said to him, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.”
Nathanael answered and said to Him, “Rabbi, You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”
Jesus answered and said to him, “Because I said to you, ‘I saw you under the fig tree,’ do you believe? You will see greater things than these.” And He said to him, “Most assuredly, I say to you, hereafter you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”
What we see here, as shown by the bolding, is that John is careful to distinguish when a new speaker begins speaking in a conversation, (Lo and behold, he is able to do this even without quotation marks and red letters!) and this practice is carefully followed throughout the book. Yet there is no indication whatsoever that a new speaker begins to speak in 3:16-17, or that Jesus resumes speaking in 3:18.
Now, the scholar might argue that an “editorial comment” inserted by the author himself is not part of a conversation and therefore John would not follow his usual practice in such cases, but they would be wrong. Throughout his book, John inserts a number of editorial comments into the middle of conversations, at 5:18, 6:6, 6:64, 8:27, 10:6, 12:33, 13:11, and 21:19. Let us look at a few of these, and we will see something interesting (the editorial comments are bolded):
When Jesus knew in Himself that His disciples complained about this, He said to them, “Does this offend you? What then if you should see the Son of Man ascend where He was before? It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing. The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life. But there are some of you who do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the beginning who they were who did not believe, and who would betray Him. And He said, “Therefore I have said to you that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted to him by My Father.” (John 6:61-65)
And Jesus said to them, “Just what I have been saying to you from the beginning. I have many things to say and to judge concerning you, but He who sent Me is true; and I speak to the world those things which I heard from Him.”
They did not understand that He spoke to them of the Father.
Then Jesus said to them, “When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am He … (John 8:25b-28a)
Jesus said to him, “Feed My sheep. Most assuredly, I say to you, when you were younger, you girded yourself and walked where you wished; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish.” This He spoke, signifying by what death he would glorify God. And when He had spoken this, He said to him, “Follow Me.” (John 21:17b-19)
We see that when John interrupts Jesus’ speech with an editorial comment, he always explicitly mentions when Jesus’ words resume (as shown by the underlining above). And he does this every single time. We can conclude, therefore, that had 3:16-17 been an editorial comment by John, he would have followed it with something like “And Jesus said” at the beginning of 3:18, as he does in every case where he inserts an editorial comment. The fact that there is no “and Jesus said” statement at 3:18 makes it clear that 3:16-17 is not John’s commentary but is part of the speech being spoken by Jesus Himself here.
The two facts we have thus far seen constitute conclusive evidence that John 3:16-17 are the words of Jesus Himself, not of John. Now, the scholar who wishes to argue for the contrary view must adduce countervailing evidence strong enough to override what we have just seen, to make his case even possible. Let us now consider the evidence the scholar offers. There are three claims:
- The verb tense throughout Jesus’ speech in John 3 has been the present, but in John 3:16, the tense switches to the past to describe an event that, at the time at which Jesus was speaking, had yet to happen.
- In the Gospel According to John, Jesus very rarely calls God θεός (theos = “God”).
- The word μονογενὴς (monogenēs) is used to describe Jesus in 3:16. The only other place in this Gospel book where monogenēs is used is in Chapter 1, which is clearly a narrative section in which the words are those of the author John, not of Jesus.
Let us begin with the second claim, viz. that Jesus very rarely uses the word theos in reference to God in this Gospel book. It is clear that any scholar who makes this claim has not bothered to check the facts. First, how does one define “rare”? It is meaningless without some standard of comparison. If the scholar means that Jesus’ usage of theos in John is rare when compared to His usage of the term in the Synoptic Gospel books, the claim is simply not true. In John, Jesus uses theos 38 times, which, at a rough estimate, is once in every 23 verses of His recorded words. This rate is about 20% less than in Mark and Luke (once in every 18 verses) but almost 50% more than in Matthew (once in every 34 verses).
However, this is a meaningless comparison for the issue at hand. The only relevant comparison for our question is how often Jesus uses theos in His speeches in the Gospel According to John compared to how often John the author uses theos in his narrative and commentary material in this book. After all, if one wishes to argue that 3:16-17 is John’s commentary, not Jesus’ words, based on the use of theos, he must show that John uses the word theos significantly more frequently in his narrative and commentary material than does Jesus in His speeches recorded herein.
Now, at a rough estimate, Jesus’ words and John’s narrative material make up about equal portions of the book (366 verses for the former and 369 verses for the latter). Yet in Jesus’ speeches, He uses theos 38 times, whereas John uses theos in his narrative and commentary material only 16 times! So theos is about 2.4 times more common in Jesus’ words than in John’s narrative and commentary material – which means that the use of theos, insofar as it provides evidence for either view, supports the view that 3:16-17 are Jesus’ words, not John’s commentary. The actual facts, then, show the exact opposite of what the scholar claims here!
It is exceedingly difficult to see how this mistake was made. About one half hour with a Bible and a concordance is all it takes to discover the facts outlined in the previous paragraph, so how does our scholar not realize it? And another half hour or so will bring to light John’s pattern of identifying the speakers described before that. It is hard not to conclude that our scholar is passing along “some new thing” he has heard without doing any fact checking or due diligence.
Now, if missing the truth about the supposed rarity of theos in Jesus’ words in John is lamentable, the claim that the only other place in the book where monogenēs appears is in Chapter 1, which is John’s words, is risible. In fact, the word monogenēs appears a total of four times in the Gospel According to John, in 1:14 and 1:18, which are indeed part of John’s narrative; in 3:16, the “disputed” verse; and 3:18 – 3:18, which by all accounts is the resumption of Jesus’ speech! So in 3:18, Jesus uses the very word monogenēs, the presence of which in 3:16 is supposed to show that it is not Jesus’ words, because Jesus supposedly doesn’t use this word – according to our scholar! Couldn’t the scholar have read ahead just one more verse?
The final line of evidence offered by our scholar is that the tense of the verbs, which in the rest of Jesus’ speech in Chapter 3 is the present, abruptly switches to the past in 3:16-17, and, furthermore, the past tense is used in 3:16-17 to describe an event or events that had not yet come to pass at the time of Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus. Is this true?
What verbs are in the past tense in 3:16-17? They are shown in bold below:
“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. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.”
What is the event that had not yet happened at the time of this conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus? Is it “God so loved”? This seems strange, as God’s love is ongoing, in the past, present, and future at all times. The matter is clarified when we understand that the Greek word translated “so” here (οὕτω) means not “so much” but “thus, in this way.” So Jesus is referring to a specific act of love on the part of God, viz. that “He gave His only begotten Son.” Is “gave His … Son,” then, the event that had not yet happened at the time of this conversation? Our scholar seems to think it is, apparently seeing it as a reference to the crucifixion.
Now, had John 3:16 said something like, “For God so loved the world that His Son died on the cross …” then the scholar would have a valid argument. But it does not say that. It says “gave,” and specifically “gave … His Son.” What does “gave His … Son” refer to? Any Christian with even a modicum of knowledge about the Bible should instantly recognize the combination of “to give” and “Son,” from Isaiah 9:6: “For unto us a Child is born; unto us a Son is given”! The Hebrew synonymous parallelism in this verse in Isaiah makes it clear that the giving of the Son is the birth of the Child, which we know as the Incarnation. God “gave His only begotten Son” when the Son became flesh and dwelt among us as the Babe in Bethlehem – which was certainly in the past at the time Jesus spoke to Nicodemus. Any doubt that the giving of the Son refers to the Incarnation is dispelled by the fact that Jesus explicates 3:16 in the following verse, in which “gave His … Son” is alternately described as “God … sent His Son into the world,” which is also rightly couched in the past tense. It is immensely difficult to see how our scholar missed something so obvious.
In sum, then, there cannot even be a debate about whether John 3:16-17 are the words of Jesus or not. There is no case at all that can be made that they are not. As we have seen, the absence of an explicit indication that Jesus is resuming speaking in 3:18 following John’s commentary, contra John’s consistent pattern that he always follows throughout his Gospel book, shows positively that 3:16-17 is not a commentary by John but are Jesus’ own words. Furthermore, we have seen that of the three counter arguments adduced, one is a blatant misunderstanding and the other two, if they carry any weight at all, also indicate that these are Jesus’ words, and not, as our scholar thinks, the opposite. That such an obviously wrong idea could gain traction among evangelical scholars is troubling indeed.