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


  1. Hi Charlie,

    Great topic! I recall that my seminary professors back in the 60's taught that John was mostly theology and not much history, but I can't recall the history of that way of thinking. Do you know the names of the scholars who first advocated that way of interpreting John?

    Over the years I've wondered about order of events, however, particularly "the confrontation at the Temple," which appears early in John's narrative, but not until the beginning of the last week in Mark, who is followed by Matt and Luke. I think it's possible that Jesus was initially radicalized by John the Baptist. Some see John's baptism as a very public challenge to the authority of the temple for direct access to God (e.g., Crossan, Who Killed Jesus?).

    You will notice that I've used "confrontation" instead of the usual "cleansing" to describe Jesus activity, with the meaning of eliminating the temple rather than changing it.

    There is also the parable of the barren fig tree (Luke 13) to consider. If we understand the fig tree as a symbol for the Temple (e.g., Mark 11), the owner (God?) wants to destroy the tree after three years since it has produced no fruit; the caretaker wants to give it another year. The length of Jesus' public activity in John is generally thought of as 3 years. Jesus, of course, did not get another year to try to effect the change. Yes, all very hypothetical.

    In any case, all the gospels seem to agree that the temple authorities viewed Jesus as a threat. Was death more likely to come after three years or one week?

    I love trying to figure this stuff out?

    Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

    1. Hi Gene,
      Likely the historical reliability of John was first challenged by D. F Strauss (Life of Jesus, 1835-36), who described the gospels as mythological and the discourses of Jesus in John as free compositions of the evangelist. F. C. Bauer said that John was not intended as a historical account but rather as the presentation of an idea [meaning I take it that the author was not trying to write history] 1846.
      See Feine, Behm, Kuemmel, Introduction to the NT, p. 140.

  2. One general comment made about the Bible by Thomas Thompson in The Mythic Past (preface) which he extended to the gospels in a later book caught my attention some years ago. "We can say now with considerable confidence that the Bible is not the history of anyone's past. The story of the chosen and rejected Israel that it presents is a philosophical metaphor of a mankind that has lost its way. The tradition itself is a discourse about recognizing that way. In our historicizing of this tradition, we have lost sight of the Bible's intellectual centre, as well as our own. The question of origins which has dominated modern research into the Bible belongs to theology rather an to history."
    Dennis Dean Carpenter
    Dahlonega, Ga.