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


Anonymous said...

Hi Charlie,

In the early chapters, for much of his material, it looks to me like the author of John took names and incidents he found in the other gospels, wrote his own versions, commented theologically on them, and also created his own independent theological narrative about the Son of God. It looks like he did not attempt an historical narrative - but he did use life events. There’s probably more than one author based on conflicting info regarding Jesus and water baptism and eating Jesus’ flesh and blood.

Do you generally agree with that interpretation?

1:6 A man named John --- testified to the light
1:19, 24 The Jews (Pharisees) sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to John --- to ask ‘Who are you?’
1:28 This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing
1:29, 35 The next day he (John) saw Jesus --- Here is the lamb of God
1:43-51 The next day in Galilee --- Philip and Nathanial, ‘We found the Son of God’

2:1-11 The third day, a wedding in Cana of Galilee --- the water becomes wine
2:12 After this he went down to Capernaum with his mother…brothers…disciples
2:13 Jesus went to Jerusalem before Passover
2:15 He drove all sellers out of the temple with a whip of cords --- In 3 days I will raise it up

3:1-15 Nicodemus, the Pharisee, came to Jesus by night --- rebirth by water and spirit
3:16-21 Theological commentary - God so loved the world
3:22-30 Jesus/disciples went into Judean countryside --- He must increase, I (JBap) must decrease
3:31-36 Theolgoical commentary - The Father has placed all things in the hands of the Son

4:4-30, 39-42 He came to a Samaritan city (Sychar), a woman at Jacob’s well --- I am the Messiah
4:31-38 Theological commentary - I have food to eat
4:43-54 After two days he went to Galilee in Cana --- Your son will live, the royal official believed

5:1 There was a festival, Jesus went up to Jerusalem
5:2-18 Paralyzed man, take it up and walk --- breaking the Sabbath, calling God his Father
5:19-47 Theological commentary - the coming hour is now hear

6:1-3, 5-14 Then the other side of the sea, 5000 fed --- this is indeed the prophet to come
6:4, 15 Theological commentary - Passover near, about to make him King by force
6:15 Then he withdrew to the mountain
6:16-27 Jesus came walking on the sea --- work for the food that endures for eternal life
6:28-71 Theological commentary - Bread of life

Gene Stecher
Chambersburg, Pa.

Charles Hedrick said...

Good Morning Gene,
If the author of John has a copy of the other gospels in front of him/her when s/he wrote, then the author has deliberately revised the synoptic tradition. I am more of the opinion that John does not know the synoptic gospels. I do agree, however, that there is more than one hand and mind at work creating the narrative in John. I argued in an article that the so-called "asides" in John (intrusive commentary frequently correcting the principal story line) are the place to begin studying John. These intrusive comments qualify the principal narrator as "unreliable." see "Authorial Presence and Narrator in John. Commentary and Story," in Gospel Origins and Christian Beginnings (Goehring, Hedrick, Sanders and Betz, eds.; Polebridge, 1990),64-93.