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
Missouri State University