Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Historical Tradition in the Fourth Gospel

The fourth Gospel (John) is the latest of the four canonical gospels. Its "tone" (i.e., its ideas, style, and manner of expression throughout the text) is remarkably different from the earliest gospel, Mark.  Compared to Mark, John breathes the rarified air of a high Christology and a religious tradition completely different from Mark, Matthew and Luke.  Their narratives rarely overlap in content, and on the rare occasions that they do John's version has little in common with the Markan narrative and its characterization of Jesus. For example, compare the healing of the lame man (Mark 2:1-12 and John 5:2-18), where John tells a very different story, which has few similarities to Mark.  And in the story of Jesus walking on the water (Mark 6:45-52 and John 6:16-21), where John's version is much shorter and only superficially similar.
               I have described John 1:1-18 as a confession, and indeed it is, but it is also unabashed mythical (not historical) language (compare Philippians 2:5-11), which sets the tone for the Gospel of John.  In general Myth is a story about gods and heroes in a time and place not recognizable as our own.  Myth is about creation and origins; it is an "attempt to explain creation, divinity, and religion."  History is about what actually happened in the past, and historical description is based on evidence available to a neutral third party.  This event, described at the opening of the gospel, is not historical in the sense that it takes place in common space and time; it occurs for the most part in the primordium—i. e., earliest origins and events taking place before the world and time began.  It describes the event on the basis of the faith of the author.  Plato, however, regarded all the Greek myths told by the Greek poets as "made up" stories; hence they were things that never happened in the past.
               The character of John is such that critical historians attempt to rehabilitate its history by appealing to its rare similarities with the synoptic gospels, and in this way arguing that it is possible that "within the material shared by John and the synoptics" the author of John had access to an "independent and primitive tradition" about Jesus (Raymond Brown, The Gospel According to John, 2 vols. Doubleday, 1966, 1: xlviii).  It is virtually impossible to harmonize the linguistic interests of the Judean Jesus of Mark with the language of John's Jesus.  For example, the striking dualisms in John, light/darkness (1:5), truth/falsehood (8:44-45), Spirit/flesh (3:6), above/below (8:23), do not fit the language world of the Judean Jesus of Mark, even though they are, in part, shared with the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were contemporary with Jesus.
               Nevertheless John is not without its historical value, even though critical scholars generally recognize that it tells us virtually nothing about Jesus, the Judean man who lived more than a generation earlier than the writing of John.  Its value lies in the fact that the Gospel of John attests a very different type of Christianity at the end of the first century from what we find portrayed in the synoptic gospels a generation, or more, earlier; John represents a type of Christianity, which draws on different traditions some of which are likely as early as the synoptic tradition.  John demonstrates that a wide breadth of responses to the Judean man, and ideas about him continued to proliferate.  The Jesus traditions in the first century were pluralistic, rich, complex, contradictory, and none could claim exclusivity.
               There are remarkable differences between John and the synoptic gospels; here are a few of the most notable:
Synoptics: John:
John baptizes Jesus with water.
John observes Jesus baptized by the spirit.
Jesus tells parables. John has no parables.
Jesus' message announced the kingdom of God. The kingdom barely mentioned.
Last meal Jesus says my body/blood given for you. At the last meal Jesus washes disciples' feet.
Jesus performs exorcisms. There are no exorcisms in John.
               In describing who Jesus actually was, one must make an either or decision between Mark and John.  As Albert Schweitzer saw at the beginning of the twentieth century, one must choose either the Jesus of Mark (which he incorrectly regarded as history) or the Jesus of John's gospel.  A middle path of harmonizing the two is not a historical solution.  Hence, since the beginning of the twentieth century the Gospel of John has been discredited as a historical source for Jesus, the Judean man who lived at the end of the first third of the first century.
What do you think about giving up the popular Jesus of the Gospel of John for Mark's Judean Jesus?
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University
See: Hedrick, When History and Faith Collide (Wipf & Stock, 1999), 30-47.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Does John know the difference between History and Faith?

Does the flesh-and-blood author of the Gospel of John respect the difference between historical information and personal religious confession?  Or put another way: is the author aware when s/he shifts from historical description into a confession of faith?
            I am not proposing that we read John's mind.  The author of the gospel that readers know is a mental construct they develop in their own minds in response to reading the text.  I am asking if there are any literary features in the text, which suggest the flesh-and-blood author either was not aware of the crucial difference between historical information and confessional rhetoric, or that s/he did not regard the distinction as relevant.
            The answer, like everything in the history-of-Jesus research, depends on who you ask.  For example, the Jesus Seminar (JS) found that only one saying in John originated with Jesus (John 4:42).  With regard to the deeds of Jesus, the seminar only found a few features (in John 7:15; 18:12-13, 28; 19:1, 6, 18) that suggested a superficial knowledge of aspects of the historical career of Jesus.  That is a vastly different judgment from Craig S. Keener, for example, who argued that all four gospels are "historical biography" (The Gospel of John. A Commentary, Hendrickson, 2003, 33).
            From my perspective John's narrative frequently sacrifices history in the interest of confessional rhetoric.  For example, according to JS the cleansing of the temple in Mark 11:15-19 reflects, in part, aspects of an actual historical incident, but the JS found that the account of the same incident in John 2:13-22 was not grounded in history—in other words in John's narrative, theology trumps history.  Scholars generally think, however, that the cleansing of the temple was a historical event and Mark reported aspects of it in a more or less historical way.  Yet even the barest historical outlines of the incident are lost in John's religious rhetoric—at least according to the JS.
            Apparently John is more interested in right faith than in describing the career of Jesus from a historical perspective.  For example, John 1:1-18 is clearly a confessional statement.  The only bit of historical data in the section is the mention of John [the baptizer], the Judean prophet, whom the author of John co-opts as a Christian witness (1:6-8, 15), as also was the case in Matt 11:12-15, where he is not part of the Israelite old order, but part of the new (compare the parallel in Luke 16:16, where he is part of the old order).  John chapter one uses confessional language rather heavily (1:9-8, 15, 19, 20, 29, 32 34).
            The author interrupts the story about Jesus with confessional rhetoric in spite of the fact that it threatens the integrity of the narrative.  For example, in John 3:11 in the middle of the dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus the author suddenly breaks into confessional rhetoric:  John 3:11 begins as a part of Jesus' comment to Nicodemus, but then shifts into an accusation against those who do not "receive our witness."
Truly, truly I say to you [singular; to Nicodemus] that we [the evangelist and his community] speak of what we know and you [plural; to his opponents] do not receive our witness (John 3:11).
In John 3:12 the evangelist assumes the persona of speaker to continue the criticism of his opponents: "If I (the evangelist) have told you (plural) earthly things, and you (plural) do not believe, how will you (plural) believe if I tell you (plural) heavenly things?"  Immediately following, John 3:13-21 (speaking of Jesus in third person) is spoken by the evangelist reciting the confession of the community.  At this point the engagement of Jesus and Nicodemus (3:1-10) has been completely forgotten.
            Once again in John 3:31-36 the evangelist shifts into confession leaving behind John's answer to his disciples about Jesus baptizing beyond the Jordan (John 3:25-30).  In these two incidents the evangelist overrides description with confession.
            Another similar incident is John 4:22-24.  The evangelist intersperses a community confession (4:22-24) between two dangling ends of the discussion between Jesus and the Samaritan woman (i.e., 4:21/25).  As s/he does at John 7:22 where the evangelist intrudes into a statement by Jesus in order to correct what Jesus said (this latter phenomenon is part of a much larger problem in the Gospel of John).
            Judging from these few incidents it appears that the flesh-and-blood author of John was more interested in confessional rhetoric than s/he was in historical description.
How does it seem to you?
Charles W, Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Is the Gospel of John Historical Narrative?

The answer would, in part, depend on the reliability of the sources used by the author. John, however, is the latest Gospel dating near the end of the first century and some sixty years after the crucifixion of Jesus, which is considerably past the time of the eyewitnesses who participated in the events narrated in the gospel.  What is more compromising for John as historical narrative, however, is the matter that the author writes like a theologian rather than a historian.  The principal theological concerns of John's community are, in part, Christology (e.g. 1:1-51) and soteriology ("doctrine of salvation," e.g. 3:1-21).  The author is simply not concerned about the historical aspects of the narrative.  Hence, the gospel is narrated theology rather than historical narrative.
            Historical writing portrays life realistically, which is the opposite of idealistically and romantically.  Realism presents the reader with "a serious representation of contemporary everyday social reality against the background of a constant historical movement" (Eric Auerbach, Mimesis, 518).
            The author of the Gospel of John has no real interest in the passage of time and chronology—what I take Auerbach to mean by "constant historical movement."  Chronology is the sequence in which events occur.  A historian is principally interested in the exact order in which events take place; defining an accurate sequence of events helps the historian to understand the causes and effects of those events.  In short, there is no historical narration without chronology.
            One does find a chronological segment in John 11:55-20:29, where events appear to be loosely arranged on a sequential frame surrounding the Passover (11:55; 12:1; 12:12; 13:1; 19:14; 19:21; 20:1; 20:19; 20:26).  It may only be an artifice, however, for the real purpose of the arrangement is to provide a framework for a series of mini speeches and the crucifixion/resurrection account.  In John 14:31 at the conclusion of one series of mini speeches (13:31-14:31) Jesus says, "Rise, let us go hence."  Jesus and the disciples were reclining (13:2, 12, 23, 25) at a meal when he began (13:31) the series of speeches that culminated in the command to rise and go (14:31).  No one moves, however, and Jesus continues to make speeches (15:1-18:1).
            The first half of the Gospel (1:1-11:54) makes no attempt at producing a genuine chronological account.  It consists of a series of literary vignettes strung together by a limited series of connectives intended to suggest a chronology.  Here is a list of some of the author's faux chronological connectives.  They give an illusion of chronology, but are only literary connectives:
The next day (1:29, 35, 39, 43); the third day (2:1); the sixth hour (4:6); after two days (4:43); that day a Sabbath (5:9); a Passover (5:9); a Passover was at hand (6:4); When evening came (6:16); on the next day (6:22); feast of Tabernacles (7:2, 14, 37); early in the morning (8:2); feast of Dedication, it was winter (10:22); it was night (13:30);  stayed two days (11:6).
Most of the connectives are mere transitions, however:
After these things (3:22; 5:1; 6:1; 7:1; 19:38; 21:1); after this thing (2:12; 6:66;11:7; 19:28); now (2:23; 3:1; 5:2; 5:9; 11:1, 5, 17, 55; 12:20; 13:1; 18:25); therefore/then  (3:25; 4:1, 44; 6:52; 11:17; 18:28; 19:1); again (4:44; 8:12, 21; 10:7, 19); meanwhile (4:1).
            Events in the gospel narrative are fated, and the inevitable ending was controlled from the beginning.  Jesus tells his mother: "My hour has not yet come" (2:4).  This anticipation of the critical moment of the gospel is repeated throughout the narrative (7:5, 8; 5:25, 28; 8:20; 12:23, 31-33; 13:1, 31; 16:25, 32; 17:1).  Jesus is "not from this world" (8:23; 17:14, 16), but has been sent (5:30, 37, 38; 6:29, 38. 44; 7:16. 28, 8:16, 42) into it for the purposes of judgment (9:39): the casting out of the ruler of this world (12:31-33).
            Historical narrative, on the other hand, reflects a natural cause and effect system where events are not fated or preplanned, but are spontaneous and randomly occurring.  The author of John, however, organizes details and writes narrative and speeches from the perspective of a particular faith.  The author's faith perspective and how s/he understands "history" to proceed is clearly reflected in John 2:14-22; 12:12-16, and 20:3-9: in these segments events in the career of Jesus are, the author believes, controlled by scriptural prophecy.
Historical events are not controlled by means of prophecy.  Describing historical events as controlled by prophecy is arbitrarily imposing a religious plot on time, and is considered a theological interpretation of history.
Does this information say anything about the historical reliability of John?
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University