Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Johannine asides

Liberals think the Gospel of John is pious fiction. Lofty theology detached from real history. I’m going to test this theory against some statements in the Fourth Gospel.

22 On the next day the crowd that remained on the other side of the sea saw that there had been only one boat there, and that Jesus had not entered the boat with his disciples, but that his disciples had gone away alone. 23 Other boats from Tiberias came near the place where they had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks. 24 So when the crowd saw that Jesus was not there, nor his disciples, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum, seeking Jesus.

25 When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” (Jn 6:22-25).

This is a cumbersome explanation–made more so by the parenthetical comment about the other boats. The reader already knows from earlier in the narrative how Jesus got across, but the crowd does not. It happened at night. They didn’t see it.

So we have this explanation about the source of their confusion. They know that Jesus didn’t take the same boat as the disciples. That much they saw. And that boat is gone. Until the other boats arrive, that’s it.

In addition, John pedantically distinguishes between the boat the disciples used and the other boats.

If John is writing pious fiction, why this unnecessary complication? Why this interlude? Why not have the crowd witness Jesus walk across the lake–either in broad daylight or under a full moon? Wouldn’t that be impressive?

Instead, the reader is treated to the kind of fastidious explanation you’d expect from a narrator who was there and went to great pains to sort out who did what, when, and where.

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 (Jn 7:1-10).

Commentators struggle over the discrepancy between what Jesus said and what he did. Did Jesus change his mind? Did Jesus lie to his stepbrothers?

The correct interpretation isn’t my immediate concern. I’d like to make a different point. If John was writing pious fiction, why would he interject this conspicuous aboutface into the story? He could smooth everything out with the stroke of a pen.

21 So these came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and asked him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” 22 Philip went and told Andrew; Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus Jn 12:21-22).

What a convoluted description! The Greeks come to Philip. The narrator throws in the extraneous detail about Philip’s address. After then talk to him, he–in turn–talks to Andrew. Then Philip and Andrew relay what the Greeks said to Jesus.

If John was writing pious fiction, why such a roundabout process? This only makes sense of that’s the way it actually happened.

2 In my Father's house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? (Jn 14:2).

Commentators puzzle over the fact that there’s no record of Jesus telling them that beforehand. They sometimes try to solve the problem by ingenious punctuation.

Of course, Jesus undoubtedly said many things to the disciples that went unrecorded. So that omission is not surprising.

But if John was writing pious fiction, wouldn’t we expect him to include that in the backstory? Why write fiction, then refer the read back to something he didn’t write?

These are just a few examples. The Fourth Gospel has lots of editorial asides like these.

John’s practice reminds me of a family reunion where the oldest relative sets the record straight. A younger relative begins to relate a bit of family lore, then the older relative jumps in to correct him.

John writes like an eyewitness who “sees” these events in his retentive memory–as if they happened yesterday–and painstakingly records what he saw and heard, complete with parenthetical comments to forestall any confusion on the part of those who weren’t there.


  1. John’s practice reminds me of a family reunion where the oldest relative sets the record straight. A younger relative begins to relate a bit of family lore, then the older relative jumps in to correct him.

    How true. And yet, it's not like the older brother is hitting the younger brothers over the head with his alleged further/deeper knowledge like a forger would do.

    This particular blog is about "Johannine asides" and I find it interesting how the book mentions many of the apostles in a passing manner. Not in a way a forgery might do it by trying to impress the readers with all the things the lesser known apostles did and said.

    1. Peter: (numerous times)

    2. Andrew: (Peter's brother) John 1:40; 6:8; 12:22

    3. James: John 21:2

    4. John: John 21:2

    5. Philip: John 1:43-48; 6:5-7; 12:21-22; 14:8-9

    6. Nathanael/Bartholomew: John 1:45-49; 21:2

    7. Thomas: John 11:16; 14:5; 20:24-29; 21:2

    8. Matthew: Not mentioned specifically, but might be one of those whom the author refers to when he says "two other of his disciples" in John 21:2.

    9. James son of Alphaeus: Not mentioned specifically, but might be one of those whom the author refers to when he says "two other of his disciples" in John 21:2.

    10. Thaddaeus/Judas/Lebbaeus son of James: John 14:22

    11. Simon the Zealot/Cananaean: Not mentioned specifically, but might be one of those whom the author refers to when he says "two other of his disciples" in John 21:2.

    12. Judas Iscariot: John 6:71; 12:4; 13:2, 26; 18:2-5

  2. I also find many of the arguments J.J. Blunt makes in his book Undesigned Coincidences intriguing.

    I have to say that some of the force of the arguments that Blunt makes are weakened if one takes into consideration how tradition in the early Christian community (during the times when the Gospels were being written) could account for some of the coincidences. Along with the theory of Markan Priority.

    Nevertheless some of the arguments make a good case that the best explanation is that the events really happened. For example when Blunt wrote:

    We read in St. John, that when Jesus had reached this desert place, He “lifted up his eyes and saw a great multitude come unto him, and he said unto Philip, Whence shall we buy bread that these may eat?” (6:5.) Why should this question have been directed to Philip in particular? If we had the Gospel of St. John and not the other Gospels, we should see no peculiar propriety in this choice, and should probably assign it to accident. If we had the other Gospels, and not that of St. John, we should not be put upon the inquiry, for they make no mention of the question having been addressed expressly to Philip. But, by comparing St. Luke with St. John, we discover the reason at once. By St. Luke, and by him alone, we are informed, that the desert place where the miracle was wrought “was belonging to Bethsaida.” (9:10.) By St. John we are informed, (though not in the passage where he relates the miracle, which is worthy of remark, but in another chapter altogether independent of it, ch. 1:44,) that “Philip was of Bethsaida.” To whom, then, could the question have been directed so properly as to him, who, being of the immediate neighbourhood, was the most likely to know where bread was to be bought? Here again, then, I maintain, we have strong indications of veracity in the case of a miracle itself; and I leave it to others, who may have ingenuity and inclination for the task, to weed out the falsehood of the miracle from the manifest reality of the circumstances which attend it, and to separate fiction from fact, which is in the very closest combination with it. -
    quotation from here.

    The entire book can be accessed HERE

    Unfortunately, I think website hosting the book is the Christadelphian cult. But I have no reason to think tampered with the text of the book.

    One can also download it at Archive.org HERE

    1. Tim McGrew has further elaborated the argument from undesigned coincidences.

    2. yeah, I guess I should have pointed that out too. :)

      Here's some links to his lectures on it that I've found.




    3. I've listened to some of McGrew's lectures on undesigned coincidences (I suspect one or two of them aren't linked above) and I think he makes more of some of them than he should because they can be accounted for by Markan priority. In fact, sometimes he specifically states that in his argument for gospel coincidences he's not assuming any position on the synoptic problem (whether Markan or Matthean or Lukan priority). I don't know why he doesn't only pick examples that would be less susceptible to explanation by appeal to Markan priority.