What is the Signs Source?
According to Robert Fortna “to many scholars there has seemed to lie behind the present text a protogospel that presented only Jesus’ signs, and a series of them, and did so wholly affirmatively” (1).
Like other pre-New Testament sources Q, L, M, the pre-John Signs Gospel is a hypothetical source that is held to have existed at one point in time before John wrote his gospel. Like the other hypotheticals it is widely accepted by New Testament historians today, as Bart Ehrman makes clear: “But scholars have long suspected that John had at his disposal an earlier written account of Jesus’ miracles (the so-called Signs Source), at least two accounts of Jesus’s long speeches (the Discourse Sources), and possibly another passion source as well” (2).
Another scholar Moody Smith agrees, writing that “It is now rather widely agreed that the Fourth Evangelist drew upon a miracle tradition or written source(s) substantially independent of the synoptics, whether or not he had any knowledge of one or more of those gospels. Since the epoch-making commentary of Rudolf Bultmann, the hypothesis of a semeia– (or miracle) source has gained rather wide acceptance” (3).
As for the exact dating it is not conclusive, but scholars have suggested that it must date before 70 AD since there is a reference to the Pool of Bethesda as still standing in 5:2. However, the Romans destroyed this pool in 70 AD suggesting that it must date earlier than that.
Why do scholars think the Signs Source really existed?
Via internal analysis of John 21:24 we read that the Beloved Disciple wrote an account of the life of Jesus, however this disciple died unexpectedly, hence a revised gospel needed to be written (21:23). It may be that John was the initial source of the Johannine tradition but was not the final writer of the tradition. As a result we are no longer looking for the identity of one writer but for multiple authors. It is likely that this process of authorship went through a development over a period of time and in several stages (4).
However, Kysar provides a detailed analysis, noting that “The most widely held proposal for a literary source is that of a signs source. A number of things in the gospel contribute to the effort to reconstruct such a source: The presence of the series of wonder stories in the narrative, the unique use of the word, semeia (“signs”), to designate such wonders, the numbering of the signs in 2:11 and 4:54, and the reference to signs in the conclusion of the gospel. It is further proposed that the delicate and complicated attitude toward the role of signs in nurturing faith found throughout the gospel is explained by the fact that the evangelist was using a collection of wonder stories which purported a view of signs about which there was some reservation on the part of the author of the gospel. What is proposed is that there was a collection of the wonders of Jesus circulating within the Johannine community prior to the writing of the gospel. Efforts to reconstruct such a signs source from the gospel vary. At one extreme is the argument that it contained not only the wonders narrated in the gospel, but also the calling of the disciples in 1:19-51 and a passion story. At the other extreme is the suggestion that the collection was little more than seven wonder stories told consecutively. Some such theory is embraced by a large number of Johannine scholars, but by no means has agreement been reached on such a proposal” (5).
Jesus’ miracles in the Signs Gospel.
According Norman Perrin “In 2:11 Jesus’ miracle at Cana is described as “the first of his signs.” Further signs are mentioned in general terms in 2:23, and in 4:54 the healing of the official’s son at Capernaum is described as “the second sign that Jesus did when he had come from Judea to Galilee.” Then 12:37 says, “Though he had done so many signs before them, yet they did not believe in him,” and this note is sounded again in the closing summary of the gospel proper, 20:30-31: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe…” The possibility that in his narrative up to 12:37 the evangelist had used a source other than the synoptic gospels or the tradition represented by those gospels is strengthened since all the other miracles in John that are not paralleled in the synoptic gospels occur before 12:37: the healing at the pool of Bethzatha (5:1-9); the healing of the blind man (9:1-12); the raising of Lazarus (11:1-44). These miracles are generally on a grander and more elaborate scale than those in the synoptic gospels and seem to go further in presenting Jesus as a Hellenistic “divine man.” Throughout the gospel until 12:37-38, and again in 20:30-31, the miracles are presented as intending to call forth faith: 2:11; 4:53; 6:14; 7:31; 11:45, 47b-48; 12:37-38; 20:31. Whereas in the synoptic gospels the emphasis is on faith as the prerequisite for miracles (e.g., Mark 6:5-6), here in the gospel of John miracles induce faith. These references not only contrast with the synoptic gospels, they also contrast with the remainder of the gospel of John itself. In 2:23-25 as in 4:48, Jesus repudiates the kind of faith induced by signs. The conversation with Nicodemus contrasts such faith unfavorably with rebirth “from above” and “of the spirit” (3:2, 3, 5-6). These factors make it very probable that the author of the gospel of John is using as a source and reinterpreting a book of signs that presents Jesus as a Hellenistic “divine man” whose miracles induce faith” (6).
Likewise, Fortna reasons along the same lines arguing that “the following deeds of Jesus, less the Johannine insertions they now contain, would have comprised the bulk of SQ: changing water into wine (2:1-11), healing an official’s son (4:46-54) and a lame man (5:2-9), feeding the multitude (6:1-14) – probably together with crossing the sea (6:15-25), giving sight to a blind man (9:1-8), and raising Lazarus (11:1-45). (Some would also include the catch of fish now found at 21:1-14.) An articulated series emerges from the reconstruction, not merely a gather of miracle stories, and a few other passages are also to be included: part of chap. 1 (at least the gathering of the first disciples in vv 35-49) as introduction and, as conclusion, 20:30-31a, and perhaps also parts of 12:37-41.” (7)
1. Fortna, R. The Anchor Bible Dictionary. p. 19.
2. Ehrman, B. 2012. Did Jesus Exist?
3. Moody, D. 2006. Johannine Christianity. p. 63.
4. Vermes, G. 2004. The authentic gospel of Jesus.
5. Kysar, R. The Anchor Bible Dictionary. p. 921-922
6. Perrin, N. 1974. The New Testament: An Introduction. p. 225.
7. Fortna, R. Ibid.