This essay is not about history—that is, it is not about what actually happened in the past. It is an essay on how we create the past. Every text contains the seeds of its own destruction; that is to say, every text contains points at which the integrity of the text breaks down and undermines itself. In short, these points render the text ambiguous, leaving a perplexed reader to ask, what's going on here?
Here are several examples; some are well known and others not so well known. John 4:2 is perhaps the best known since the statements are positioned one within the other. In John 4:1 the narrator informs the reader that it was common knowledge that Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples than John the Baptizer. In 4:2 a dissenting voice emerges dividing the sentence that begins in 4:1 (a subordinate clause) and concludes in 4:3 (the main clause). Clearly the dissenting voice disagrees with the narrator. The dissenter asserts that Jesus himself did not personally perform any baptisms, but the narrator equally assertively insists that he did perform baptisms, and that it was common knowledge that he did. Note that translators of the text recognize the disagreement, and place John 4:2 in parentheses. Who should we believe—the primary narrator of John or the dissenting voice that corrects the narrator?
By my count there are at least 121 of these "clarifications" in the text of John. Another example is found in the narrative of the feeding of the five thousand (John 6:5-14). The reader is told that the healings Jesus performed (the narrator calls them "signs") created a sensation, and as a result a great crowd followed him (John 6:2), which the reader later discovers numbered five thousand (John 6:10). Jesus takes 5 barley loaves and two fish and feeds this huge crowd and has five baskets of fragments left over from the barley loaves (John 6:13). The narrator's positive climax to the feeding story is that "when the people saw the sign," they confessed Jesus as "the prophet who is to come into the world" (John 6:14). Imagine the reader's surprise to learn a little later that the Jesus character in the narrative disagrees with the narrator's judgment: "Jesus answered them…you seek me not because you saw signs, but ate your fill of the loaves" (John 6:26). Should we believe the narrator or the Jesus character? Was the crowd persuaded by the sign they had witnessed or because their bellies were full (John 6:12)?
In John 7:22 again a dissenting voice interrupts a compound sentence by the Jesus character in the narrative: Jesus asserts to his interlocutors in the temple (the Judahites), "Moses gave you circumcision, and you circumcise a person on the Sabbath." Translators put the dissenting statement that follows in parentheses to show that it is not part of what Jesus said to the Judahites, but rather is an aside directly addressing the reader. The dissenting voice corrects the assertion of Jesus by saying, "not that it is from Moses but from the fathers." Those who prepared the critical Greek text found the dissenting voice so disruptive that they set the dissenting statement off with dashes, as they also did in John 4:2. Who should a reader of John think has provided the correct response: the Jesus character or the dissenting voice?
The phenomenon is not limited to the Gospel of John; another interesting disagreement is found in Mark 5:22-24, 35-43. A synagogue ruler (Jairus) implores Jesus to come heal his twelve year old daughter, who at that moment was at the point of death (5:23). Jesus goes with him (5:24), but he is delayed by another healing (5:25-34). At that moment Jairus received word that his daughter in the meanwhile had died (5:35), but Jesus ignored the report urging the synagogue ruler to "only believe" (5:36). Upon arriving at the home of Jairus loud lamentations are in progress because of the child's death (5:38). Before he sees the child, Jesus asserts to the mourners that "the child is not dead but sleeping" (5:39), and the mourners laughed at him (5:40). When they went into the building Jesus took the child by the hand and said "arise" and immediately the girl got up (5:41-42). Was the Jesus character correct and the girl only sleeping, or were the mourners correct and the girl was dead? In short the problem is this: is the story about the resuscitation of a dead child (i.e., the mourners were right), or is the story about the healing of a sick child (i.e., the Jesus character was right)?
The raw data of history are often contradictory forcing historians to choose between the more probable and the less probable. What eventually becomes history in these judgmental situations is what a preponderance of historians decides to call history. In the segment from Mark above the historical issue is: what is the nature of the story, a healing narrative or a story about the raising of a dead girl. In the Gospel of John the issue is which voice is the final authority for reading John: that of the primary narrator or that of the dissenter.
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University
Charles W. Hedrick, "Authorial Presence and Narrator in John. Commentary and Story" in Goehring, Hedrick, Sanders, and Betz, eds., Gospel Origins and Christian Beginnings (Sonoma, CA: Polebridge Press, 1990), 74-93.
Hedrick, "Miracle Stories as Literary Compositions: The Case of Jairus's Daughter," Perspectives in Religious Studies 20.3 (Fall 1993), 217-33.