Monday, September 12, 2005

The Gospel of John and the Historical Jesus

(The following blog is based on a question [or challenge] posed by James Crossley at Earliest Christianity).

The utility of John’s Gospel in relation to historical Jesus research elicits a range of responses. On the one end of the spectrum there is Maurice Casey (Is John’s Gospel True?) who contends that John is of no value for historical Jesus study. Alternatively, Craig Blomberg (The Historical Reliability of John’s Gospel) urges that John should be taken as a reliable witness to Jesus. The dominant approach in scholarship is that several episodes and sayings in John may go back to Jesus’ ministry, but on the whole there is a large scale preference for the Synoptics in historical Jesus research. John Meier regards John’s gospel as an exercise in ‘systematic theology’. What follows are my prima facie thoughts on John’s Gospel and historical Jesus research.

1. A first issue is that of Johannine dependence or independence from the Synoptic (esp. Mark). I would contend (with Ashton, Bauckham and Mackay) that John knows of Mark and interfaces with it at times, however, he does not have literary dependency on Mark and also has access to independent traditions.

2. John at times appears to reflect the situation of his own day in a post-70 era and perhaps after Christians have been expelled from Jewish synagogues. There is evident in the strong invective polemics against the Jews (though not anti-semitic and simply part and parcel of normal intra-Jewish sectarian in-fighting), and perhaps most noticeable in the reference to disciples being dis-synagogued (9.22; 12.42).

3. One must be conscious of the significant and detailed differences between John and the Synoptics as well. In John the disciples are portrayed fairly positively, whereas in Mark there are fairly mixed impressions one gets about them. There is the question of dating of the last supper on either Passover or eve of the Passover. Did Jesus ‘cleanse’ the temple at the commencement of his ministry (John 2) or at the end of it (Mark 11)? John’s unique material is well known, the “I am” sayings, the various discourse (e.g. upper room), narratives peculiar to John (e.g. Nicodemus, Samaritan Woman, Lazarus), and the use of ‘eternal life’ instead of ‘the kingdom of God. At the same time these differences should not be pressed too far. Much of the material which appears to be distinctly Johannine actually parallels similar traditions in the Synoptics:

• The “I am” sayings resonate with the “I” sayings of Mk 6:50; Mt 9:13/Lk 5:32; Mt 12.28/Lk 11:20.
• The “I am the good shepherd” discourse of Jn 10:1-21 comports with the picture of Jesus as a Shepherd in Mt 18:12-14/ Lk 15:3-7 (Q) and his sympathy for the masses who have no Shepherd-leader in Mk 6:34.
• In Jn 12:25 the threat of losing and keeping one’s life correlates with similar warnings in the Synoptics (e.g. Mk 8:35; Mt 10:39; Lk 9:24; 14:26).
• The Father-Son theme that dominates the Fourth Gospel can also be found in the Synoptics (e.g. Mt 10:32; Lk 23:34; Mt 11:25-27; 13:16-17/Lk 10:23 [Q]).
• Even the notion of Jesus as a Son in the sense of being a divine emissary is not limited to John but emerges in the parable of the tenants (Mk 12:1-12).
• The theme of ‘eternal life’ rather than the ‘kingdom of God’ is different from the Synoptics, however, in Mk 10:24, 30, eternal life could function as a synonym for the kingdom of God.
• The unique knowledge that Jesus has of the Father in John is likewise present in Q (cf. Jn 5:20; and the ‘Johannine Thunderbolt’ of Mt 11:25-27; 13:16-17/Lk 10:23 [Q]). One should consider the arguments of Edwin Broadhead who has provided an interesting list of parallel sayings between John and Q. Perhaps they drew on a common pool of tradition.
• John, like Mark, arguably has his own Messianic secret motif where the nature of Jesus’ messiahship is only gradually disclosed (Jn 1:41, 49; 4:25; 6:15).
• The discourses of Jesus in John are plausible if understood as Johannine elaborations of Jesus’ self-disclosure and explanation of his parables to his disciples privately (cf. Mk 4:10-11; 7:17). The present form of these discourses could be an exposition or midrash of such sayings.

On the purported huge Christological chasm between John and the Synoptics, Eugene Boring points out that Mark’s Gospel has a fairly high Christology itself and utilizes a large amount of God language for Jesus. John has no doubt moulded and cast his presentation of Jesus along the lines of Jewish wisdom traditions, but such a framework can be traced back to Jesus himself (cf. Mt 8:20 [cf. 1 En 42:1-3]; 12:42; 13:54).

Why is John different to the Synoptics? Ben Witherington posits a reasonable answer: (a) John writes with a largely missionary purpose and parades a variety of figures in his Gospel including Samaritans, Jewish officials and Gentiles; (b) John drew on traditions not available to the Synoptic writers or else not in accordance with their outlines (e.g. Samaritan woman); and (c) John’s mode of presentation is more dramatic from that of the Synoptics. M.M. Thompson thinks of John as a “docudrama, a creative and dramatic interpretation of historical material.”

Martin Hengel has argued that the Fourth Gospel was authored by a resident of Jerusalem, who was an eye-witness to Jesus’ death, and later established a Christian community in Asia Minor. I would suggest that the fact that there are several places where the Beloved Disciple is invoked as the source and authenticator of material (19:35; 20:2-9; 21:24) indicates that at some point in the tradition eye-witness testimony was involved (Dunn 1991:358). Although the Beloved Disciple is, narratively speaking, an ‘ideal disciple’, he is not purely a symbolic character, but is regarded as a real person who validates the historical message of the Gospel (Charlesworth 1995). Lastly a sizable contingent of scholars recognizes that in the Fourth Gospel is a genuine deposit of historical information about Jesus which provides information concerning geography, individual sayings and events (see list in Blomberg 2001: 21).

John is clearly different from the Synoptics and the Johannine evangelist has taken the traditions he had access to and funnelled them through the trajectory of a christocentric Jewish wisdom theology and elaborated and explained much of the words and actions of Jesus for his audience. However, since the theological trajectory is sharp and so acute it is very hard (even harder than in the Synoptics) to determine exactly where history ends and theology begins, since the theological explication is woven so tightly around the tradition that in the fabric of the Gospel we have little chance of separating them (like trying to take the white out of grey!). As such John is definitely of use for historical Jesus study, but he is the second port of call and referred to as an arbiter or a consultant when needed. Thus John is fundamentally a narrative theology which has as it’s primary reference the ministry of the figure of Jesus in a pre-Easter setting, but the Johannine evangelist gives Jesus a theological microphone and a theological amplifier so that Jesus speaks more dramatically to Christians of his day, as indeed Jesus, through John, continues to speak with the same effect to Christians in our day as well!

Some bibliographic material that I have found helpful in the course of my studies:

Broadhead, Edwin K. 2001. “The Fourth Gospel and the Synoptic Saying Source: The Relation Reconsidered.” In Jesus in the Johannine Tradition. Edited by Robert T. Fortna & Tom Thatcher. Louisville: Westminster John Knox.

Charlesworth, James H. 1995. The Beloved Disciple: Whose Witness Validates the Gospel of John? Valley Forge: Trinity.

Dunn, James D. G. 1991. “John and the Oral Gospel Tradition.” In Jesus and the Oral Gospel Tradition. Edited by Henry Wansbrough. JSNT SS 64; Sheffield: JSOT.

Hengel, Martin. 1989. The Johannine Question. Philadelphia: Trinity.

Maloney, Francis J. 2000. ‘The Fourth Gospel and the Jesus of History.’ NTS 46: 42-58.

Smith, D. Moody. 1993. ‘Historical Issues and the Problem of John and the Synoptics.’ In From Jesus to John: Essays on Jesus and New Testament Christology. Edited by Martinus C. De Boer. FS Marinus de Jonge; Sheffield: JSOT Press. 252-67.

Thompson, M.M. 1996. “The Historical Jesus and the Johannine Christ.” In Exploring the Gospel of John: In Honor of D. Moody Smith. Edited by R. Alan Culpepper & C. Clifton Black. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster/John Knox.

Wenham, David. 1998. ‘A Historical View of John’s Gospel.’ Them 23: 5-21.

Witherington, Ben. 1995. John’s Wisdom: A Commentary on the Fourth Gospel. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster/John Knox.


eddie said...

When I think of the value the fourth gospel may have in historical Jesus study, I see it is quite limited. The main reason for this is that the teaching of Jesus within it is highly focused upon his identity. From my limited study and reading of the gospel, the whole narrative seems to be framed around Jesus identity both in his teaching and his encounters with the "Jews" which are often intricately linked together in narrative episodes. This fits with the stated purpose of the gospel, "that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have eternal life" (Jn 20.31)

The material of 14.15-17.26 is another thing though. And I would be very interested to see it intergrated into a portrait of the historical Jesus.

J. B. Hood said...

Thanks for that piece. It sounds as if the intellectual climate in Dingwall agrees with you. I especially like the last paragraph. More later on this theme perhaps...

TheBlueRaja said...

That was a wonderful post! Thanks, Michael!