The Gospel of John and Historicity

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I have a few posts I want to do that will take a good deal more work than I'm willing to do right now, so I'm resorting to the old "repost something written a while ago" trick. I have lots of stuff from my old website that I'd eventually like to get transferred over here, so I might be doing this again the next time I feel the urge not to come up with anything new. I originally wrote the basis of this post for a listserv discussion whose context I don't remember, and I sent the message on 23 April 2001. I revised it on 20 January, 2003 and posted it to my website. I haven't changed any of the substance this time around, though I have reformatted it a bit and added links to the scriptures referenced. [I'm struck by how different my writing sounds after three years, not just in terms of readability (which I think has improved a lot) but even vocabulary. Remember this phenomenon for when I talk about Pauline authorship of the later letters attributed to him, often declared to be in a style incompatible with being his work.]

Some people claim that the gospel of John is a much later retelling of the story of Jesus� life that is only loosely connected to the actual life of Jesus of Nazareth. The arguments for this view often beg the question, but I�m less concerned in this writing with refuting the reasons for thinking this (negative reasons against the arguments) and more with positive reasons to resist this view. This gospel seems to assume the other gospels at many points, and that explains much of the differences, which fits quite well with the view that John was written to expand and explain much of what just appears in the other gospels. This often involves leaving out details that the reader would already be familiar with, and it usually also involves fuller accounts of the meaning and explanation behind some basic themes about Jesus� identity and mission. This fits nicely with the traditional authorship of the apostle John, writing significantly later than the other gospels to expand on them regarding things they don�t cover or explain fully or things whose theological punch they don�t develop. This is so obvious to someone open to the traditional view that one must wonder how anyone can ignore this point without ignoring much of the gospel of John.

One key theme throughout the book is truth. How can the author focus so much on truth while hypocritically fabricating so much of the contents of the book? The kind of hypocrisy this view would require of the author doesn�t fit too well with the incredible moral fiber of the author of this book. Consider some examples.

The book starts with a description of what might be called "the continuity of Christian truth" (I believe D.A. Carson's term). John 1:14-18 discusses this one called Jesus, full of grace and truth. John testified about him, declaring his fulfillment of prophecy from past speakers of truth. The law was given through Moses, and grace and truth are now realized through Jesus Christ, and since no one has seen the Father, this only begotten God �- this Jesus Christ �- is the only one who is revealing God. He has explained him. This places Jesus in a long line of truth-speakers, placing truth as crucial to the book from the outset.

The book ends with a comment about the contents of the book:

This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and wrote these things, and we know that his testimony is true. And there are many other things, which if they were written in detail I suppose that even the world would not contain the books that would be written. �- John 21:24-25

The purpose of preparing disciples to be witnesses to the truth is a central theme (e.g. John 15:26-27; 16:12-15). The truth of the contents of the book is of utmost concern to the writer, and the testimony to these things from the disciple whom Jesus loved is crucial for the writer (whether the writer is that disciple or not). John 10:40-42 shows the importance (to the writer) of witnesses to events in a specific setting.

Lots of people claim that they can trace development of theology from the earlier writings of the New Testament to the later ones such as John. According to the more extreme examples of this sort of view, that would make the gospel of John rife with new themes and theological claims that don�t appear in the earlier New Testament writings. The author of John is well aware of a growth in theological reflection and understanding throughout the first century. On one level, some kind of development of theology is acknowledged within all the gospels. Mark especially notes that the disciples did not understand things, and their understanding took time. John emphasizes quite strongly exactly the same thing. Jesus points out that the Spirit would lead his disciples into all truth. This is clearly portrayed in the book not as innovations in theology but a development in understanding, which requires that at least seeds of the truth were available all along.

So when he was raised from the dead his disciples remembered that he said this, and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken. �- John 2:22

For as yet they did not understand the scripture that he must rise again from the dead. �- John 20:9

Those are only two examples. Much of Jesus� final discourse to his disciples in chapters 14-17 and much of the preceding encounters with Jewish leaders can provide similar examples.

John the writer didn�t just acknowledge this distinction between what the disciples (including, most likely him as John the apostle, in my view) understood at the time and what they took a longer time to come to understand. He emphasized this distinction. This indicates that he is being quite careful to avoid anachronism. He makes all these asides about what the disciples didn't understand at the time (but had available to them in that Jesus was talking about it in a not-so-plain way). This makes the distinction quite plain. Then it seems strange to suppose that so much of this gospel is just plain made up. His whole point is that it took time for the disciples to come to understand much of what Jesus did and taught (and perhaps even much of how he went about these endeavors). If he painstakingly notes as asides what wasn't known at the time, why think most of the book was made up and not available at the time?

This explains (rather than undermines) the whole point of John's gospel. Mark and the other synoptics were written at a time when the disciples hadn't arrived at as much of an understanding of lots of Jesus' actions and teachings. John wrote a gospel a bit later to add to the account, given a fuller understanding.

This point is stregthened by the numerous other features of Mark (or the other synoptics) that get explained if John is historically reliable. For example, three items in Mark seem odd alone but are explained by John's treatment of an extensive ministry in Galilee not mentioned in the synoptics. Mark 14:49 speaks of Jesus' constant teaching in the temple but doesn't ever explain when that was. Mk 10:32 reports that the disciples were fearful of their journey southward. If Jesus had had no contact with the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem, just the fact of heading south shouldn't seem so fearsome. Then the ease of securing the colt (Mk 11:1-7) and upper room (Mk 14:12-16) get explained if Jesus had contacts in the Jerusalem area. Mark doesn't explain any of these things. John's treatment of the Jerusalem ministry would provide the missing explanation.

John 2:19 is a claim by Jesus, found only in John, regarding the destruction of the temple. Mark 14:58 and 15:29 assume this statement. Mark gives no reason why Jesus needed to be brought to Pilate. John does (18:31). Mark shows Peter in the courtyard of the high priest (14:54, 66-72) but doesn't explain how he got there. John explains it (18:15-18). The call of the disciples in Mark 4:18-22 seems very mysterious, with these guys seemingly following for no reason. It makes much more sense historically if Jesus knew them first, and they knew much of him, as John 1 explains.

Additionally, there's the point that John's developed Christology is by no means too late a development in early Christianity, since the closest parallels are in Philippians 2:5-11 and Colossians 1:15-20, passages many scholars (especially the most liberal ones) take to be older hymns from early Christianity adopted by Paul in his letters. I think it may well be that they are hymns adopted for later use by Paul, though that doesn't mean he didn't write the originals. Either way, the writer of John is clearly in touch with the wider church, and if the liberal scholars are right about those two passages then John's Christology is not that late at all.

3 Comments

I agree w/pretty much everything here. I recently read John, and what struck me most inasmuch as differences w/the synoptics were the following (w/the exception of the Logos passages in the beginning)three things. One, that Jesus is often on the run. In one passage, he actually runs away from stone-throwers, which seems a bit undignified. In I believe two other passages he has to high-tail it as well, but no one is throwing stones. I believe he slips out when things look problematic. In the other gospels, he seems to have known when there will be trouble in certain places and just doesn't go there. Second, Jesus is more brazen about his divinity in John than in any other gospel. Third, the phrase 'the jews' is used in a special sense (although I don't think it anti-semitic, for the same reasons you laid out elsewhere). One problem I have with what you say is about the emphasis on truth. The concept of 'truth' in those times was a bit looser then, just as the concept of authorship was. The writer of John may well have fudged some details in order to get at a deeper spiritual truth, but he certainly wouldn't have thought of this as lying. To repeat, much of John could be made up, inasfar as events, but this could be instrumental as a means of expressing spiritual truths that the author of John thought lacking in the synoptics. I don't really disagree, however, that supposing the events in John true do explain some things in the synoptics, but, supposing some events in John false do explain the theological divergence w/some of the synoptics. Anyways, a bit rambly, sorry...

These are interesting observations. Jesus ducks out now and then in the synoptics, but it is more common in John, at least before he heads to Jerusalem the final time. Then he seems to welcome conflict. John gives a reason for the earlier behavior -- that his time had not yet come -- so he even knows that he's emphasizing this.

On the issue of fudging details, whether I agree with you depends on what you mean (or really how far you'd go with it). If there really are looser standards, then it doesn't seem as if John is dishonest simply because he uses those looser standards (and this would apply to any biblical author). On one level, we all say false things all the time (or at least things most people would consider false -- some people want to do the work in semantics rather than pragmatics, which I sometimes think is better), and no one questions our veracity (e.g. "the sun rises" or "this table is flat" or "there's no beer in the fridge" when there's a puddle).
More relevant to things generally biblical, there are rounded numbers (e.g. the common 40 or the famous Chronicles rounding of pi to 3 by measuring the circumference at three times the diameter).

I'm not sure which things in John you mean, but something like this certainly goes on there. For instance, the emphasis on the conflicts over Jesus' identity necessitates presenting a partial picture of the people involved, which might be misleading if it were the only source. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus present a more complex picture of the reactions of the Jewish leaders to Jesus, so there is some balance, but by and large we only see the ones who were opposes to Jesus, and we only see them in the ways that they were opposed to Jesus. It turns out that there was more agreement than not between Jesus and the Pharisees, and we see some of this in the conflicts between the Pharisees and the priestly leaders and Saducees in Acts over how to treat the Christians. The main idea here is that John is painting a picture of a real conflict between Jesus and a vocal element of the Jewish leadership of the time, one that eventually won out. It somewhat ignores the more complicated picture of things in many places to make that point, but that doesn't mean it's inaccurate, just imprecise, but it's an imprecision appropriate to what he's doing and therefore not dishonest.

On more historical matters I would say similar things. There are details in John that aren't in the synoptics and vice versa. None of this really turns out to be a "p and not-p" contradiction, as I've heard many people insist, but if you look at one account up against another they seem to be suggesting different things. I think that may be because one gospel writer might have incomplete information but it might just be a different emphasis for a theological purpose or because the precise details are less important for the place of the particular narrative in that gospel.

Saying that there was an angel there when there are two is not inaccurate. It's just imprecise. Saying it was a man in a white robe or two men in white would be similar (I don't remember offhand which gospels say what.) I had a conversation with a couple Mormon missionaries on the way to campus one day, and I did most of the talking with one guy. I could describe that in terms of my conversation with him or as a conversation with them, and both would be honest and factually correct. It would just depend on my purposes for framing it one way or the other.

I dealt with some of these issues in a post a couple months ago (and see the post following it also). I'm not sure if you were reading my blog then. (I didn't see any comments from you until later, I think.) I don't expect you to follow me in the ethical issues there, but I explain in a slightly different way some of the things behind the approach I take to these historical/factual detail issues.

So I don't immediately know which kind of issue you meant, but all this was to say that I may or may not agree with you, depending on which sort of thing you mean. I don't think you have to conceive of these things as errors or as giving false information to acknowledge these differences in the accounts or in a more simplified way something is presented in John (e.g. for the sake of clarifying the heart of a dispute) when compared with a more complicated situation in real life.

When I was reading through this morning's sermon passage (John 7:37-52), I noticed two other sorts of issues that might be described as fudging on the details but shouldn't be described as inaccurate. John sometimes places words on the mouths of the Pharisees or the disciples. He doesn't mean that there's a chorus of people all chiming in with the same line at once. You might think he's fudging the details in putting the words in the mouth of all of them at once. They might not all have held exactly the view he has them say, or they might have expressed it in different ways, but it's a sentiment they generally hold, and John's saying that they said something on that order to Jesus.

A second element of this is that sometimes conversations get compressed or summarized. When the Pharisees say something to Jesus in John, they may have said a bunch of different things that John is summarizing. Most scholars think all the gospel writers did this sort of thing with Jesus' own teachings, which together with the likelihood that he said similar things at different times will explain the divergent accounts of his sayings in different gospels. This also explains why some steps of an argument might be left out, as I think happens at least a few times in John. Some people might see this as fudging on the details, but it was probably standard convention at the time for historiographic writings.

Nowadays when journalists do that sort of thing (as has been done to me) it really is dishonest, because we assume a quote from someone is a precise description of what the person said, and we also assume that the person setting it up conveys the context well enough that the reader shouldn't assume it's being taken out of context. Journalists have failed on both counts when interviewing me and quoting me. In the first century, however, the convention seems to have been that capturing the sense of what someone said and giving some sense of the context is enough, even if precise details or qualifications would be necessary to report it with modern conventions.

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