Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The History of John

I've finished the next chapter in Terence Donaldson's Jews and Anti-Judaism in the New Testament.  It is on the Gospel of John and may be my post tomorrow.  But I was struck by the gap between the church and the academy when I read Donaldson's description of the current consensus on the "two-level" nature of John's Gospel.  I'm struck because I have to imagine that the vast majority of pastors in America, after reading this post, would say, "Consensus?  I've never even heard of that."  Or even more: "I completely disagree with that" or "That doesn't fit with the way I approach Scripture."

It is a microcosm of many issues, where the vast majority of experts in a particular subject who follow the standards of "objective" research have come to a particular perspective that is highly questioned on a popular level.  Then usually a counter-community of experts arises with a primary goal of arguing that the evidence can be read in a different way.  Such counter-guilds appear to be following the rules of research but they do so from a deductive rather than inductive perspective.  They start with their conclusion and go to the evidence to support it rather than starting with the evidence and drawing conclusions that seem to fit the data most straightforwardly. [1 postmodern footnote]

Enough preface.  And now, the "consensus" of experts on the history of the Gospel of John, forged primarily by Raymond Brown, a godly Roman Catholic who passed away a couple years ago.  The consensus is that John has two interpretive layers.  The one has to do with Jesus.  The other has to do with the individuals who produced John and their "community."

1. The Gospel of John has some seams...
... that seem to indicate that it was not written in one sitting.  Rather, it seems to have developed as a document over time. In 3:22 Jesus comes into Judea... but he has already been there since 2:13.  In 6:1 Jesus goes to the other side of Galilee... but he was not on this side before but in Jerusalem.  In 14:31 Jesus tells his disciples to get up... but he talks for three more chapters before they do.  Chapter 20 ends the book... but then it goes on and tells about the author of John in the third person in chapter 21. One that Donaldson doesn't mention is the fact that Jesus performs many signs (2:23; 3:2) in between his first (2:11) and second (4:54) signs.

It thus seems quite likely that the Gospel of John was written in stages and, since the last chapter talks about the beloved disciple as author, it would seem that John himself (remembering that we don't actually know it was John--the text never identifies the beloved disciple) was not the one who put it into its current form.

As an inspiration break, I don't see any of this as contradicting the idea of inspiration.  Editing can be inspired just as well as sitting down and writing.  It might, however, mess with unexamined assumptions we have.

2. The Beloved Disciple
The majority of John experts do not think that this was John the son of Zebedee but another follower of Jesus who was not one of the Twelve (Hengel suggested someone we know of called John the elder).  The Twelve do not play a major role in John and in fact Peter is subordinated to the beloved disciple in the narrative.  Given the prominence of Judea and Jerusalem in John, the majority consider this disciple to be from Judea rather than Galilee.

To some, the extra interest in John the Baptist suggests the author might have started as a follower of him.  At the same time, I would add, John de-emphasized the Baptist in a way that may say something about the situation at Ephesus and followers of JB even later when Paul was there (cf. Acts 19).

3. Expulsion from synagogue
The Gospel of John is quite distinct from the Synoptics in its theology.  It is, for example, far more dualistic.  Its Christology is more explicitly "high" than most of the rest of the New Testament.  In Brown's hypothesis (supplemented by J. Louis Martyn), John's group is eventually expelled from the Jewish synagogue.  In the majority hypothesis, it is unlikely at the time of Jesus that anyone would be expelled from a synagogue for believing Jesus was the Messiah.  The incidents with the blind man and his parents in John would thus reflect the situation of the community that produced the Gospel rather than incidents from the historical Jesus.

4. Arrival in Ephesus
Tradition has John at Ephesus, and the majority hypothesis is comfortable with the idea that John and his community might have left Judea around the time of the Jewish War and moved to Ephesus.

5. John reaches its current form.
After John's death, John 21 was added as an epilog, while additional material like chapters 15-17 was added.

Something like the preceding is the majority hypothesis.  Certainly it is subject to critique and evaluation.  Some parts seem more solid to me than others.  For example, that the Gospel of John developed in stages seems very likely to me because of the seams.  It also seems likely to me that it reached its current form after the death of the Beloved Disciple.  I am also very sympathetic to the idea that this disciple was not one of the Twelve, that he was from Judea, and that he died in Ephesus.

The two level reading of John is what I suspect may be the most controversial in pulpit and pew.  It implies that John is not straightforward history but is highly symbolic and a mixture of two histories--that of Jesus and that of one group of early believers.  I might mention that Richard Bauckham has recently questioned whether any of the gospels can be read as written for an individual community.

I thought you'd want to know ;-)

[1] No one is objective.  The theories of inductive research are always subject to critique and revision.  They often are at some point.


Angie Van De Merwe said...

We saw John's grave in Turkey (Ephesus).

FrGregACCA said...

The only difficulty I have with any of this is the notion that the beloved disciple is not John the son of Zebedee and the brother of James.

This seems to be the unanimous witness of the early Church, the question of "John the Beloved"/John the Apostle vs. "John the Elder" notwithstanding.

Rick said...


Although I disagree with his conclusions, Ben Witherington, for example, thinks that Lazarus was the author.

He writes:
"How did this Gospel come to be named according to John? My answer is a simple one—it is because John of Patmos was the final editor of this Gospel after the death of Lazarus. Once Domitian died, John returned to Ephesus and lived out his days. One of the things he did was edit and promulgate the Fourth Gospel on behalf of the Beloved Disciple... If I am right about all this it means that the historical figure of Lazarus is more important than we have previously imagined, both due to his role in founding churches in and round Ephesus and of course his role in the life of Jesus and Jesus’ mother. Jesus must have trusted him implicitly to hand over his mother to him when he died. Lazarus was far more than one more recipient of a miraculous healing by Jesus. He was “the one whom Jesus loved” as the very first reference to him in John 11 says. We have yet to take the measure of the man."

Again, I don't agree, but it is interesting.

John C. Gardner said...

Witherington reminds us that most ancient Christians would have not been able to read. Therefore, they would have heard(rather than have read) John's Gospel. They would have heard that Jesus loved Lazarus. Later, they would have heard about the Beloved Disciple. It would have seem reasonable to them that Lazarus=The Beloved Disciple. I am doing this from memory but that was part of the gist of Witherington's argument.

Nate said...

It always surprises me when "experts" knock down a groups beliefs and then acts surprised that a "counter-community of experts" arises. Unfortunately, not enough "christian experts" are pastoral enough to help the average person grapple with the objective research out there. To put it another way there is no bridge between academia and the lay person. We need more Godly people in academia reaching out to average person. But that would require getting out from behind a book.

Ken Schenck said...

FrGreg, Dionysius very early on suggested that the gospel was written either by John the son of Zebedee or John the elder. So the earliest tradition we have actually does not solidly vote for John of Zebedee.

As far as Lazarus, I can see the possibility but it is wildly speculative. It's the kind of thing you talk about on blogs or over coffee ;-)

Ken Schenck said...

Nate, there are a fair number of whacko scholars... I just shake my head after every yearly pilgrimage to the Society of Biblical Literature. And each scholar will tend to have their own idiosyncratic ideas that every other scholar shakes their heads at (like the idea of Lazarus writing John ;-).

But in this post, I'm not talking about these sorts of things. I'm talking about the consensus of those who know what they're talking about the most in such matters. This is symptomatic of American thinking and is highly problematic in outcome. In Christianity, it causes our children to lose their faith. In politics and economics, it leads to the mess we have in Washington.

The impact of presuppositions on ideology should open up possibilities rather than close them down. So our belief in the supernatural opens up the possibility for us to believe in miracles and the resurrection. However, the counter-experts of which I speak use presuppositions to shut down possibilities. In other words, their presuppositions function to lead them away from interpreting the data in the most likely ways.

My opinion...

Ken Schenck said...

I should add Nate, that I agree with you that academics sometimes are very bad at things like 1) knowing how the truth will impact the lives of others, 2) presenting the truth in ways that non-experts can accept and appropriate, 3) knowing what's really important in life.

If you can divide truth into meaning and significance, scholars are often bad at knowing the significance of what they know for others.