Sunday, September 17, 2017

I Am

A friend asked me about why the Synoptics don't include the "I am" statements of Jesus, and the views of Craig Evans on John's Gospel. 

Evans is mainly a Synoptic scholar. He rejects inerrancy. He's in the camp of those who argue for the "basic historical reliability" of the Synoptics. At the same time, he thinks John's Gospel contains historical "nuggets".

Some scholars claim John's Gospel has a Wisdom Christology. I disagree. So does Richard Bauckham. 

So Evans compares statements of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel to the character of wisdom in Proverbs 8. But that's a very different genre. In that case, Lady Wisdom is a metaphor. A personification. In the Fourth Gospel, Jesus is not a figurative personification but a real person in time and space (but in another respect, preexisting the world of time and space). 

It's true that people don't normally go around making "I am" statements like Jesus does, but that's because Jesus is not an ordinary person. Some of his "I am" statements evoke OT motifs, like the manna in the wilderness, Yahweh as the shepherd of Israel, Yahweh as the Creator of light in Gen 1, climaxing with the absolute "I am" statement in Jn 8:58, which triggers associations with the burning bush episode as well as proclamations in Isa 40-48 regarding Yahweh's unique deity. Likewise, Jesus is "life" because he's the life-giving Creator God of Gen 1. 

These statements don't come out of the blue. They have their background in OT themes about God and God's history with the people of Israel. Jesus is in continuity with that. 

It's only unrealistic for Jesus to say things like that about himself if he's merely human. But that's the point: he's making statements that put him on the same plane as Yahweh. And it has an a fortiori quality, from the lesser shadows of OT history to the sunrise of the Incarnation. 

At the same time, Evans said in one of his debates that he's very hesitant to discount the historicity of Gospel accounts because NT scholars have, in the past, made fools of themselves by prematurely discounting the historicity of Gospel incidents, only to have some archeological discovery confirm the disputed incident. He mentioned something from the Dead Sea Scrolls that paralleled a statement in whatever Gospel it was, thus debunking the critical view that this statement was invented whole cloth, having no connection with the thought-world of the historical Jesus. 

Evans is on the cutting edge of biblical archeology. I believe he makes annual trips to Israel, to inspect archeological digs. He frequently mentions archeological findings that confirm statements in the Gospels or corroborate the setting. 

Part of the difference between John's Gospel and the Synoptics is that the Synoptics are cramming everything they know about Jesus into what will fit on a scroll. There are chunks of material jammed together to get it all said. The Synoptics are dense-packed.

By contrast, John is more selective. The pace is more leisurely. That's in part because the Synoptics have already covered a lot of ground, so he doesn't need to repeat the basics. As a result, John's Gospel has more of a narrative emphasis. Gives the reader more of the setting for each episode. The time and place. Who said what when. Who did what when. 

This is part reflects someone recalling what he saw. It's in his mind's eye. The impression made by the Synoptics on the reader is more about hearing what was said; the impression made by John's Gospel in the reader is more about seeing what took place. It's easier for the reader of John's Gospel to visualize the action. It has more atmospheric detail.

i) In the Synoptic Gospels, the sayings of Jesus are often detached from their original setting. In many cases we don't know when and where they were originally spoken. Matthew and Luke in particular like to group similar sayings. That makes them easier to find or easier to remember.

In John's Gospel, by contrast, the sayings of Jesus are always moored in the original setting. And they grow out of the original setting. Unlike the Synoptics, John doesn't have free-floating sayings of Jesus. 

So one reason John records sayings the Synoptics omit is because he records the occasion when Jesus said these things. They go together. 

ii) Assuming traditional authorship, there's a concentric data-base. On the outer circle is Luke, who relies on secondhand information throughout. That's not a bad thing. For instance, suppose a WWII vet writes a memoir about his experience. That will be authentic, but narrow. By contrast, suppose a journalist who was not a vet interviews Churchill, Eisenhower, Marshall, MacArthur, Patton, and Ridgeway. That will give the reader a far broader view of the war.

iii) Mark is arguably one circle in from Luke. Since Jerusalem was his hometown, and his mother's home was a house-church frequented by the apostles, Mark probably had some firsthand knowledge regarding the public ministry of Christ whenever Jesus blew into town. And it's possible that Mark was in the crowds that followed Jesus around Palestine. He also had access to some of the Eleven.

iv) Matthew occupies the inner circle. As a member of the Eleven, he has much more firsthand knowledge than Mark. So he supplements Mark's Gospel. Although he uses Mark's Gospel as an outline, he may well have been one of Mark's informants. If so, when he's quoting Mark, he's quoting himself!

v) John occupies the inmost circle. Christ's most trusted disciple. Spent more time with Jesus than any other disciple. 

It's not surprising that he records some sayings which the Synoptics don't, because he was on the scene more often than Matthew was, much less Mark, much less Luke. We'd expect him to record more if he was present on more occasions. 


  1. The following is from Dorothy Sayers's essay "A Debt to Cyrus," and is arguing along the same lines.

    Take, for example, the notorious dispute about the Gospel according to St. John.
    Into the details of that dispute I do not propose to go. I only want to point out that the arguments used are such as no critic would ever dream of applying to a modern book of memoirs written by one real person about another. The defects imputed to St. John would be virtues in Mr. Jones, and the value and authenticity of Mr. Jones's contribution to literature would be proved by the same arguments that are used to undermine the authenticity of St. John.
    Suppose, for example, Mr. Bernard Shaw were now to publish a volume of reminiscences about Mr. William Archer: would anybody object that the account must be received with suspicion because most of Archer's other contemporaries were dead, or because the style of G.B.S. was very unlike that of a Times obituary notice, or because the book contained a great many intimate conversations not recorded in previous memoirs, and left out a number of facts that could easily be ascertained by reference to the Dictionary of National Biography? Or if Mr. Shaw (being a less vigorous octogenarian than he happily is) had dictated part of his material to a respectable clergyman, who had himself added a special note to say that Shaw was the real author and that readers might rely on the accuracy of the memoirs since, after all, Shaw was a close friend of Archer's and ought to know--should we feel that these two worthy men were thereby revealed as self-confessed liars, and dismiss their joint work as a valueless fabrication? Probably not; but then Mr. Shaw is a real person, and lives, not in the Bible, but in Westminster. The time has not come to doubt him. He is already a legend, but not yet a myth; two thousand years hence, perhaps--


  2. [Cont.]

    Let us pretend for a moment that Jesus is a “real” person who died within living memory, and that John is a “real” author, producing a “real” book; what sort of announcement shall we look for in the literary page of an ordinary newspaper? Let us put together a brief review, altering some of the names a little, to prevent that “Bible” feeling.

    Memoirs of Jesus Christ. By John BAR-ZEBEDEE; edited by the Rev. John Elder, Vicar of St. Faith's, Ephesus. (Kirk. 7s. 6d.)

    The general public has had to wait a long time for these intimate personal impressions of a great preacher, though the substance of them has for many years been familiarly known in Church circles. The friends of Mr. Bar-Zebedee have frequently urged the octogenarian divine to commit his early memories to paper; this he has now done, with the assistance and under the careful editorship of the Vicar of St. Faith's. The book fulfills a long-felt want.
    Very little has actually been put in print about the striking personality who exercised so great an influence upon the last generation. The little anonymous collections of “Sayings” by “Q” is now, of course, out of print and unobtainable. This is the less regrettable in that the greater part of it has been embodied in Mr. J. Marks's brief obituary study and in the subsequent biographies of Mr. Matthews and Mr. Lucas (who, unhappily, was unable to complete his companion volume of the Acts of the Apostles). But hitherto, all these reports have been compiled at second hand. Now for the first time comes the testimony of a close friend of Jesus, and, as we should expect, it offers a wealth of fresh material.
    With great good judgment, Mr. Bar-Zebedee has refrained from going over old ground, except for the purpose of tidying up the chronology which, in previous accounts, was conspicuously lacking. Thus, he makes it plain that Jesus paid at least two visits to Jerusalem during the three years of His ministry--a circumstance which clears up a number of confusing points in the narrative of His arrest; and the two examinations in the ecclesiastical courts are at last clearly distinguished. Many new episodes are related; in particular, it has now become possible to reveal the facts about the mysterious affair at Bethany, hitherto discreetly veiled out of consideration for the surviving members of the Lazarus family, whom rumour had subjected to much vulgar curiosity and political embarrassment. But the most interesting and important portions of the book are those devoted to Christ's lectures in the Temple and the theological and philosophical instructions given privately to His followers. These, naturally, differ considerably in matter and manner from the open-air “talks” delivered before a mixed audience, and shed a flood of new light, both on the massive intellectual equipment of the preacher and on the truly astonishing nature of His claim to authority. Mr. Bar-Zebedee interprets and comments upon these remarkable discourses with considerable learning, and with the inttimate understanding of one familiar with his Master's habits of thought.
    Finally, the author of these memoirs reveals himself as that delightful rara avis, a “born writer.” He commands a fine economy and precision in the use of dialogue; his character-sketches (as in the delicate comedy of the blind beggar at the Pool of Siloam) are little masterpieces of quiet humour, while his descriptions of the Meal in the Upper Room, the visit of Simon Bar-Jonah and himself to the Sepulchre, and the last uncanny encounter by the Lake of Tiberias are distinguished by an atmospheric quality which places this account of the Nazarene in a category apart.

    How reasonable it all sounds, in the journalese jargon to which we have grown accustomed!