Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Is John's gospel historical?

One stock objection to the historicity of John’s Gospel is the stylistic uniformity of John. Both direct and indirect discourse are rendered in the same idiom. Speakers don’t have a distinctive voice. They all sound like the narrator. As such, we’re not hearing the actual voice of Jesus in the narrative; rather, we’re hearing the voice of the anonymous narrator, who uses the character of Jesus as a mouthpiece for his own theology.

Even if we identify the narrator with the beloved disciple, the beloved disciple is, himself, a fictitious character, a literary device. Or so goes the argument. On this view, the narrator composes monologues and dialogues which he puts on the lips of Jesus and other characters.

Other issues aside, let’s see how well this stacks up to the actual phenomena of the Fourth Gospel. Take this lengthy dialogue:

John 8

 12 Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” 13 So the Pharisees said to him, “You are bearing witness about yourself; your testimony is not true.” 14 Jesus answered, “Even if I do bear witness about myself, my testimony is true, for I know where I came from and where I am going, but you do not know where I come from or where I am going. 15 You judge according to the flesh; I judge no one. 16 Yet even if I do judge, my judgment is true, for it is not I alone who judge, but I and the Father who sent me. 17 In your Law it is written that the testimony of two people is true. 18 I am the one who bears witness about myself, and the Father who sent me bears witness about me.” 19 They said to him therefore, “Where is your Father?” Jesus answered, “You know neither me nor my Father. If you knew me, you would know my Father also.” 20 These words he spoke in the treasury, as he taught in the temple; but no one arrested him, because his hour had not yet come.
 21 So he said to them again, “I am going away, and you will seek me, and you will die in your sin. Where I am going, you cannot come.” 22 So the Jews said, “Will he kill himself, since he says, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come’?” 23 He said to them, “You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world. 24 I told you that you would die in your sins, for unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins.” 25 So they said to him, “Who are you?” Jesus said to them, “Just what I have been telling you from the beginning. 26 I have much to say about you and much to judge, but he who sent me is true, and I declare to the world what I have heard from him.” 27 They did not understand that he had been speaking to them about the Father. 28 So Jesus said to them, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own authority, but speak just as the Father taught me. 29 And he who sent me is with me. He has not left me alone, for I always do the things that are pleasing to him.” 30 As he was saying these things, many believed in him.
 31 So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” 33 They answered him, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?”
 34 Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. 35 The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. 36 So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. 37 I know that you are offspring of Abraham; yet you seek to kill me because my word finds no place in you. 38 I speak of what I have seen with my Father, and you do what you have heard from your father.”
 39 They answered him, “Abraham is our father.” Jesus said to them, “If you were Abraham's children, you would be doing the works Abraham did, 40 but now you seek to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. This is not what Abraham did. 41 You are doing the works your father did.” They said to him, “We were not born of sexual immorality. We have one Father—even God.” 42 Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and I am here. I came not of my own accord, but he sent me. 43 Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. 44 You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father's desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies. 45 But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me. 46 Which one of you convicts me of sin? If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me? 47 Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God.”
 48 The Jews answered him, “Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?” 49 Jesus answered, “I do not have a demon, but I honor my Father, and you dishonor me. 50 Yet I do not seek my own glory; there is One who seeks it, and he is the judge. 51 Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.” 52 The Jews said to him, “Now we know that you have a demon! Abraham died, as did the prophets, yet you say, ‘If anyone keeps my word, he will never taste death.’ 53 Are you greater than our father Abraham, who died? And the prophets died! Who do you make yourself out to be?” 54 Jesus answered, “If I glorify myself, my glory is nothing. It is my Father who glorifies me, of whom you say, ‘He is our God.’ 55 But you have not known him. I know him. If I were to say that I do not know him, I would be a liar like you, but I do know him and I keep his word. 56 Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.” 57 So the Jews said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” 58 Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” 59 So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple.

In several respects, this doesn’t read like a tightly-scripted dialogue.

i) If the narrator were composing serene, lofty platitudes for the spiritual edification of his audience, why would he write this acidic exchange? It doesn’t make for pleasant reading.

ii) Apropos (i), it degenerates into a very personal and rather unseemly squabble between Jesus and his adversaries. And this is how real enemies talk. The sneering, spite, bluster, innuendo, gossip. The schoolyard taunts about Christ’s paternity.

iii) And, in order to vindicate his mission and ministry, Jesus must, to some degree, come down to their level to set the record straight.

iii) Likewise, there’s a ragged quality to the dialogue. The twists and turns. If the narrator were making this up as a set-piece, we’d expect a more shapely rounded form, with nice linear flow and smooth transitions.  When we get instead is the digressive quality of a real debate.

So this is all very realistic.

Let’s take another example:

John 4

 1 Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples than John 2 (although Jesus himself did not baptize, but only his disciples), 3 he left Judea and departed again for Galilee. 4 And he had to pass through Samaria. 5 So he came to a town of Samaria called Sychar, near the field that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6 Jacob's well was there; so Jesus, wearied as he was from his journey, was sitting beside the well. It was about the sixth hour.
 7 A woman from Samaria came to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” 8 (For his disciples had gone away into the city to buy food.) 9 The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” (For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.) 10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” 11 The woman said to him, “Sir, you have nothing to draw water with, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12 Are you greater than our father Jacob? He gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did his sons and his livestock.” 13 Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” 15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I will not be thirsty or have to come here to draw water.”
 16 Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come here.” 17 The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; 18 for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband. What you have said is true.” 19 The woman said to him, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. 20 Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.” 21 Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. 22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” 25 The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ). When he comes, he will tell us all things.” 26 Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am he.”
 27 Just then his disciples came back. They marveled that he was talking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you seek?” or, “Why are you talking with her?” 28 So the woman left her water jar and went away into town and said to the people, 29 “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?” 30 They went out of the town and were coming to him.
 31 Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, saying, “Rabbi, eat.” 32 But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” 33 So the disciples said to one another, “Has anyone brought him something to eat?” 34 Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work. 35 Do you not say, ‘There are yet four months, then comes the harvest’? Look, I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see that the fields are white for harvest. 36 Already the one who reaps is receiving wages and gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. 37 For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ 38 I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.”

i) Unlike John 8, this isn’t petty or abrasive. Yet it reflects the free association of a real conversation, as the woman flits from one topic to another. Likewise, the abrupt break in their private exchange when the disciples show up. 

ii) The conversation also takes its cue from incidental details supplied by the concrete setting–the time of day, Jesus’ fatigue, Jesus’ thirst, a well, a mountain, farmland.

We wouldn’t expect a canned dialogue to have this topical, stream-of-consciousness quality.

iii) Likewise, the woman deflects Jesus’ probing statements about her personal life. She’s clearly caught off-guard. Tries to parry the veiled accusation by changing the subject. This is how real people improvise in real conversations.

Or take this little snippet:

John 7

 1 After this Jesus went about in Galilee. He would not go about in Judea, because the Jews were seeking to kill him. 2 Now the Jews' Feast of Booths was at hand. 3 So his brothers said to him, “Leave here and go to Judea, that your disciples also may see the works you are doing. 4 For no one works in secret if he seeks to be known openly. If you do these things, show yourself to the world.” 5 For not even his brothers believed in him. 6 Jesus said to them, “My time has not yet come, but your time is always here. 7 The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify about it that its works are evil. 8 You go up to the feast. I am not going up to this feast, for my time has not yet fully come.” 9 After saying this, he remained in Galilee.
 10 But after his brothers had gone up to the feast, then he also went up, not publicly but in private.

Isn’t this typical of families? Those who ought to know you best know you least? Never less helpful than when they try to be helpful. Dishing out unwanted, unsolicited advice.

Or Jesus’ last-minute change of plans. If the narrator were inventing scenes and speeches to further his theological agenda, this would be a pretty clumsy way of doing it.

In the end, Jesus takes their advice–but with a twist. He does it his own way. He avoids them. He goes up to Jerusalem, but not with them. Not given their attitude.

You can almost sense how tiresome he must find it having to explain himself to his stepbrothers. How many times has he had to do this?

Liberals think John’s Christology is too exalted to be authentic, yet this is all very human, don’t you think?

Then there’s the editorial aside in v5, where the narrator breaks in to clarify something for the benefit of the reader. But if the author was composing this from scratch, why is that literary expedient necessary? Why not write that into the story?

We could study other examples in the Fourth Gospel. Or examine these examples in more detail. I’m just illustrating a neglected feature of the Johannine narrative. 


  1. Perhaps the most human and poignant moment in all Scripture occurs in John's gospel.

    "Just as day was breaking, Jesus stood on the shore; yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, do you have any fish?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in, because of the quantity of fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved therefore said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on his outer garment, for he was stripped for work, and threw himself into the sea" (John 21:4-7).

    That wonderful and striking image, of the impetuous and impulsive Peter leaping out of the boat, unable in his bewildered excitement to bear another moment apart from the Lord . . . It has always captured my imagination.

    I suppose it could have been concocted, but has the distinct ring of truth, no?

    I always liked the fact that Jesus' two closest companions were John and Peter: the former intellectual and sensitive; the latter earthy and blustery.

  2. It seems to me that if the writer of John were making things up, he would have given a fuller explanation of what Jesus and Nathanael were referring to when Jesus said He saw him under the fig tree. Instead, commentators have to speculate. For example, that it was a reference to when Nathanael may have been meditating on the Scriptures and/or praying.

    We even have a church tradition that maybe Nathanael was born under a fig tree. But the author(s) of John leave us hanging. Almost as if the reference was common knowledge to everyone that it didn't need to be said. Which suggests, at least to me, that the book was written during or close to the first generation of Christians.

  3. 21When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about this man?” 22Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!” 23So the saying spread abroad among the brothersb that this disciple was not to die; yet Jesus did not say to him that he was not to die, but, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?”

    This passages suggests to me (rightly or wrongly), that the book was written during a time that was distant enough from the start of the church that Peter may have already died or been martyred. Yet, close enough to the first generation of Christians (or their final years) that it answers the puzzling question that people had as to why Peter had died when there seems to have been an understanding among the brethren that Peter would not die till Christ returned.