Marcan and Johannine chronology.

The historical and literary questions.

On the surface, the chronologies of the respective gospels of Mark and John could scarcely differ from one another more than they do. Some of these differences are:

  • Mark portrays Jesus as going up to Jerusalem once, while John has him going back and forth between Judea and Galilee several times.
  • Mark begins the ministry of Jesus after the imprisonment of John the baptist, while John shows Jesus baptizing and ministering well before John was imprisoned.
  • Mark places the temple incident in his passion week, while John places it at a much earlier visit to Jerusalem.
  • Mark places the anointing of Jesus by a woman some two days before the feast of Passover, while John places it some six days before the Passover.
  • Mark has Jesus crucified after the Passover meal, while John has Jesus crucified before the Passover meal.

On this page I intend to study the Marcan and Johannine chronologies, and how they relate to each other. My inspiration in this study is a pair of books written about other topics, but which touch upon these chronological issues. One of these books is The Priority of John, by J. A. T. Robinson, specifically the chapter on the chronology of the ministry of Jesus on pages 123-157. The other book is The Gospels for All Christians, edited by Richard Bauckham, specifically the article by Bauckham himself called John for Readers of Mark, on pages 147-171.

What I find interesting about these books is how the views of Robinson, from an historical point of view, and those of Bauckham, from a literary point of view, seem to dovetail somewhat.

J. A. T. Robinson.

Robinson argues that both John and Mark (as well as the other two synoptic gospels) presume a ministry of roughly two years, from the spring of 28 to the spring of 30, and on page 157 offers a useful chart summarizing the ministry of Jesus in tabular form. I begin with his explanatory paragraph on page 156 of The Priority of John:

Let me end with a chronological table of the ministry of Jesus. Though many of the datings are of course approximate I believe we may have a good deal more confidence in it than most modern scholarship, starting from the Synoptists and dismissing John, would suggest was possible. The days of the month are taken from the dates of the festivals in the years concerned correlated with the notices of Jesus' movements in the Fourth Gospel. It coincides almost exactly, and quite independently, with the chronology worked out by Schein.*

* Robinson refers to a chronological schema that Schein drew up for private circulation as a support for his position in Following the Way.

His table, then, is as follows:

27 autumn (?) Appearance of John the Baptist
28 March (?)
October 23-31
Baptism of Jesus
In Cana and Capernaum
In Jerusalem before, and during,
   Passover and the feast of Unleavened
   Bread (April 28-May 5)
In Judaea baptizing
Arrest of John the Baptist
Departure for Galilee
In Galilee
In Jerusalem for Tabernacles
In Galilee
29 early (?)
October 15
December 20-27
Death of John the Baptist
Desert feeding, before Passover
   (April 18)
In Phoenicia, Ituraea and Galilee
In Jerusalem for Tabernacles
   (October 12-19)
In Judaea and Peraea
In Jerusalem for Dedication
In Bethany beyond Jordan
30 February (?)
April 2-6
April 7
In Bethany in Judaea
In Ephraim
In Bethany and Jerusalem

The one change that I might like to make to this historical reconstruction is to move the death of John the baptist from early in 29 to late in 28. I am not overly confident about this move yet, and it may lead to contradictions of which I am not yet aware, but it would make better sense alongside the literary reconstruction that Bauckham presents, since John is supposedly already dead by the time of the feast of Tabernacles of 28 (John 5.35 and Mark 6.14-29).

Richard Bauckham.

The hypothesis that Bauckham proposes is intriguing. He argues that the author of John not only knew the gospel of Mark, but also intended for his own gospel to complement, and occasionally correct, that of Mark. Bauckham traces certain indications that John has left for his readers, telling them how to relate his gospel to that of Mark. The main correlations that Bauckham proposes I summarize in his own words.

Richard Bauckham, The Gospels for All Christians, pages 150-151:

In this chapter we shall argue that two of John's parenthetical explanations (3:24; 11:2) are intended specifically for readers/hearers who also knew Mark's Gospel. The functions of these two explanations, which are otherwise very difficult to understand, become clear when they are recognized as indications of the way readers/hearers who also know Mark's Gospel are to relate John's narrative to Mark. One of these explanations (3:24) serves to relate John's chronological sequence to Mark's; the other (11:2) serves to identify a named character in John as one already known anonymously to readers of Mark.

While these two verses, John 3.24 and 11.2, are the main Johannine features that Bauckham brings to light, he also splices the narratives of Mark and John together across the two texts, showing how reader or hearer of John would most naturally understand its relationship to Mark. I present this spliced effect across five points, the first and last of which are the two main hooks, John 3.24 and 11.2.

Not yet cast into prison.

But let us begin with John 3.24. After reporting in 3.22 the baptisms that Jesus was effecting along with his disciples in Judea, and then mentioning in 3.23 that John the baptist was simultaneously baptizing in Aenon near Salim, John goes on to say:

Ουπω γαρ ην βεβλημενος εις την φυλακην ο Ιωαννης.

For John had not yet been cast into the prison.

Our first reaction as careful readers is that of course John has not yet been thrown in prison; he is still baptizing! This comment in 3.24 is, as a matter of fact, supremely redundant.

Unless one is prepared to admit, with Bauckham, that John is actually tipping his hat to the gospel of Mark. This comment has the effect, as Bauckham argues, of placing all of John 1.19-4.43 between Mark 1.12-13 (the temptation of Jesus) and 1.14-15 (the preaching of Jesus, coming into Galilee after the imprisonment of John). Compare Mark 1.14a with John 4.43:

Μετα δε το παραδοθηναι τον Ιωαννην ηλθεν ο Ιησους εις την Γαλιλαιαν.

And after the delivering up of John Jesus went into Galilee.

Μετα δε τας δυο ημερας εξηλθεν εκειθεν εις την Γαλιλαιαν.

And after two days he went out from there into Galilee.

Bauckham remarks on page 154:

John 3:24 enables readers/hearers familiar with Mark's narrative to continue to place John's narrative in correct relationship to it, by indicating that they are still in the period between Mark 1:13 and Mark 1:14.

The function of John 3:24 is not, therefore, merely that of precluding the impression that John's narrative is at this point inconsistent with Mark's. It also serves to make quite clear the way in which the narrative of John's first four chapters is designed to dovetail into Mark's, such that John 1:19-4:43 fits into a putative gap that readers/hearers of John who also know Mark are obliged by John to postulate between Mark 1:13 and Mark 1:14.

Actually, since John 4.44-54 describes the healing of the son of a royal official as only the second sign (verse 54, the first sign being the turning of water to wine in 2.1-11), we ought to think of this incident as preceding Mark 1.14-15 too.

The lamp that was burning.

So now we turn to the first part of the Galilean ministry as Mark narrates it, from 1.14-15 (the preaching of Jesus) to 6.6b-13 (the mission of the twelve), and really up through 6.29, since 6.14-29 is a nonchronological flashback of the death of John the baptist. John has nothing to parallel this stretch of events (unless we count the healing of the son of the official), but rather picks up with Jesus going back to Jerusalem in 5.1. Bauckham argues on page 156:

First, Mark narrates what the twelve did when Jesus sent them out on mission (6:7-13, 30), with no indication of what Jesus himself did meantime, whereas John narrates a visit of Jesus to Jerusalem in which no mention is made of the disciples (John 5). Secondly, during this visit to Jerusalem, Jesus refers to John the Baptist's ministry as now past (John 5:33-35), while the death of the Baptist, which this reference most naturally presupposes, is an event of which readers of Mark have been informed precisely at the corresponding point in Mark's narrative, immediately prior to the feeding of the five thousand (Mark 6:13-29).

Another dovetailing of Marcan and Johannine events. While the disciples are out on their mission, Jesus is in Jerusalem, alone, for a visit which takes up the whole of John 5. During this visit, Jesus refers in 5.35 to John the baptist in a way which makes the most sense if John is already dead...:

Εκεινος ην ο λυχνος ο καιομενος και φαινων....

That man was the lamp that was burning and lighting.... the very same narrative point in which Mark is narrating, as a flashback, the death of John the baptist (6.14-29)!

A pair of signs.

Which brings us to the most obvious point of contact between these two gospels before the passion narrative. Both gospels narrate the feeding of the five thousand and the subsequent walking on water. Bauckham, page 155:

For such readers/hearers, the feeding of the five thousand and the walking on the water (John 6:1-21, and the dialogue and consequent events in 6.22-7.9; Mark 6:31-53), which are the only events narrated by both evangelists prior to Jesus' final week in Jerusalem, divide the Galilean ministry narrated by Mark into two parts.

The first part of the Galilean ministry narrated by Mark is, as we have seen, Mark 1.14-6.29. Then comes the feeding of the five thousand and walking on water in 6.30-52, then the second part of the Galilean ministry in 6.53-9.50.

Judea and beyond the Jordan.

Bauckham comments on page 156:

The second part of the Galilean ministry in Mark (6:54-9:50)... is summarized by John in a single sentence (7:1a), which very clearly implies a significant period of ministry left wholly unnarrated by John. According to John's explicit chronology (6:4; 7:2) a period of six months in Galilee is here left entirely unnarrated by John.

John 7.1a:

Και μετα ταυτα περιεπατει ο Ιησους εν τη Γαλιλαια.

And after these things Jesus was walking around in Galilee.

So how does Mark wrap up the Galilean ministry of Jesus? Mark 10.1ab:

Και εκειθεν αναστας ερχεται....

  1. ...εις τα ορια της Ιουδαιας....
  2. ...και περαν του Ιορδανου.

And from there having risen up he goes....

  1. ...into the borders of Judea....
  2. ...and beyond the Jordan.

Mark merely mentions going into Judea, then he has Jesus going beyond the Jordan, where we must understand Mark 10.1c-31 to take place. John 7.10-39, then, rounds out the mention of Judea, filling in for us what Jesus was doing there before he proceeded beyond the Jordan. As for Mark 10.1b-31, which Mark narrates as taking place beyond the Jordan, Bauckham notes on page 157:

For readers/hearers of John who were also familiar with Mark, what John narrates in 7:10-10:39 would fill out Mark's mere indication that, at the conclusion of his Galilean ministry, Jesus "left that place [Capernaum] and went to the region of Judea" (Mark 10:1a), while the account of Jesus' ministry in the region "beyond the Jordan" (Mark 10:1) which follows in Mark (10:1-31) would be summarized by John's brief reference to this period (John 10:40-42).

As we have seen before, where Mark is verbose John summarizes, and vice versa. John 10.40-42, the Johannine summary of Jesus beyond the Jordan:

Και απηλθεν παλιν περαν του Ιορδανου εις τον τοπον οπου ην Ιωαννης το πρωτον βαπτιζων, και εμεινεν εκει. και πολλοι ηλθον προς αυτον και ελεγον οτι Ιωαννης μεν σημειον εποιησεν ουδεν, παντα δε οσα ειπεν Ιωαννης περι τουτου αληθη ην. και πολλοι επιστευσαν εις αυτον εκει.

And he went away again beyond the Jordan into the place where John had first been baptizing, and he remained there. And many came to him and said that John did no sign, but as many things as John said about this man were true. And many believed into him there.

And it was Mary.

Which brings us right up to the second main Johannine feature that tips off Bauckham that the Johannine narrative is to a point presuming the Marcan. Bauckham cites John 11.2 as his verse, but I offer 11.1-2 for context:

Ην δε τις ασθενων, Λαζαρος απο Βηθανιας, εκ της κωμης Μαριας και Μαρθας της αδελφης αυτης. ην δε Μαριαμ η αλειψασα τον κυριον μυρω και εκμαξασα τους ποδας αυτου ταις θριξιν αυτης, ης ο αδελφος Λαζαρος ησθενει.

But a certain man was sick, Lazarus from Bethany, from the village of Mary and Martha her sister. And it was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair whose brother Lazarus was sick.

What an odd reference, if all that we read is John. Mary does not perform this service for Jesus until John 12.1-8, and here she is being introduced by her as-yet unperformed action. Moreover, the reader or hearer of John is apparently expected to know Lazarus only as from the village of Mary, and Martha only as the sister of Mary. Then Lazarus is also called the brother of Mary. All things, then, depend on Mary.

What is John telling us if not that the anonymous woman in Mark 14.3-9 is in fact Mary, whom in Mark remains anonymous despite the high praise of 14.9? Bauckham, pages 163-164:

The narrative functions performed by verses 1-2 together are two: (1) They introduce three important characters, who enter the Gospel's narrative at this point, by identifying one of them, Mary, as the woman about whom hearers/readers already know the story of her anointing of Jesus, and the others as her siblings. (2) They distinguish the Bethany where the three reside from the other Bethany in the Fourth Gospel, "Bethany beyond Jordan" (1:28), where Jesus is at this point in the narrative (10:40-42). The knowledge presupposed in the implied readers/hearers by these two functions is knowledge that readers/hearers of Mark have: they know of a woman who anointed Jesus in the Bethany that is near Jerusalem (Mark 14:3-9; cf. 11:1, 11). Readers/hearers of Luke would not have the required knowledge, since it is not the sisters Martha and Mary (Luke 10:38-42, not located in Bethany) of whom readers/hearers of John 11:1-2 are expected to have heard, but a woman who anointed Jesus in Bethany near Jerusalem.

We are now in passion week, in which section Mark and John overlap the most. The ministry of Jesus, if we read both gospels side by side, becomes a unified whole whose parts alternately come from one or the other, or occasionally both, of these gospels. And this arrangement appears quite intentional on the part of John.

Literary and historical chronology of Mark and John.

I offer here a block-by-block sequence of the gospels of Mark and John, showing how they alternate, and occasionally overlap, their chronological sequences. This sequence is my own creation, but based on my readings of Robinson and Bauckham.

Block. Notes.
Mark 1.1. The Marcan prologue.
John 1.1-18. The Johannine prologue.
Mark 1.2-13. John the baptist and Jesus. The baptism of Jesus. The temptation. March of 28?
John 1.19-4.54. John the baptist and Jesus. John 1.32-33 presupposes, but does not narrate, the baptism. John 3.24 tells us that John the baptist is not yet in prison; both John and Jesus are baptizing simultaneously. Then Jesus goes into Galilee in 4.43-45. April and May of 28.
Mark 1.14-6.29. Mark 1.14a tells us that John the baptist is now in prison, and 1.14b has Jesus coming into Galilee. The ministry in Galilee, part 1. In Mark 6.12-13 the disciples leave Jesus to go preach. So Jesus is understood to be alone now. Then 6.14-29 narrates the death of John the baptist as a nonchronological flashback. June through October of 28.
John 5.1-47. The healing of the sick man by the pool in Jerusalem, and ensuing dialogue. Jesus alone is mentioned, not his disciples. John 5.33-36 presupposes the death of John the baptist. October of 28. The events of November of 28 through March of 29 are not narrated.
Mark 6.30-52. The feeding of the five thousand and the walking on water. April of 29.
John 6.1-7.9. The feeding of the five thousand and the walking on water. Ensuing dialogue. John 7.1 summarizes about six months in Galilee (between the Passover in 6.4 and the feast of Tabernacles in 7.2). April through October of 29.
Mark 6.53-10.1a. The ministry in Galilee, part 2. Mark 10.1a has Jesus coming into Judea. April through October of 29.
John 7.10-10.39. Ministry in Judea. November through December of 29.
Mark 10.1b-31. Jesus goes to the region beyond the Jordan. January of 30.
John 10.40-11.54. Brief summary of activities beyond the Jordan, then in Bethany for the raising of Lazarus. Then Jesus departs for Ephraim in 11.54. January through March of 30.
Mark 10.32-52. On the way to Jerusalem, through Jericho. (Secret Mark 1, the raising of a dead man, inserted between 10.34 and 10.35; Secret Mark 2 inserted between 10.46a and 10.46b.) March and April of 30.
John 11.55-12.11. Just before the Passover, the Jews debate whether or not Jesus will go to Jerusalem for the feast. Jesus spends a bit of time in Bethany. March and April of 30.
Mark 11.1-10. Jesus sends disciples ahead from Bethany to Jerusalem. The triumphal entry. April of 30.
John 12.12-19. The triumphal entry. April of 30.
Mark 11.11-16.8. The passion week and resurrection. A Galilean appearance to the disciples, especially Peter, is promised in 14.28 and 16.7. But our current text of Mark stops at 16.8, short of any appearances by the risen Lord. April of 30.
John 12.20-20.10. The passion week and resurrection, with both Judean appearances and a Galilean appearance. April of 30.

The chronologies of Mark and John are not so difficult to coordinate after all. There are occasional blanks, and occasional tensions, but no more than the usual ambiguity of ancient chronological reconstructions. That is not to say that this reconstruction is proved by its own cogency. But I do not think it can be claimed that the gospel chronologies are irreconcilable.