Saturday, May 19, 2018

A horse of another color

1. I recently listened to the debate between Lydia McGrew and Craig Evans. The debate concerns the reliability of John's Gospel in relation to the Synoptics, with special emphasis on the sayings of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel:

2. One issue is whether Craig is forthcoming about his real position. Does he engage in dissimulation? Does he adopt a more conservative posture when his position is attacked from the right (e.g. Lydia McGrew) but revert to a more "moderate" position when attacked from the left (e.g. Bart Ehrman)? And does the "moderate" position he took in his debate with Ehrman represent his real position? You can compare what he said in the debate with Lydia with what he said in the debate with Ehrman:

I find his response to Lydia slippery. He oscillates between more conservative statements and more liberal statements. Early on he denied that John is "making up stuff". Yet as the debate progressed, it's clear that he does think John is making up stuff. So Evans seems to be shading what he initially said to create a very different impression when he comes under fire from the right. 

This is potentially damaging because conspiracy theorists like Dan Brown have successfully fostered the popular suspicion that churchmen and Bible scholars are privy to trade secrets about the Christian faith which they don't divulge to the laity. They say what they really think when talking to fellow members of the NT guild, but when addressing the laity, they make more conservative noises. If the laity ever got wind of the trade secrets, they'd know the game is up. The secrecy of Dan Wallace–as well as the two-faced (?) policy of Craig Evans plays right into that suspicion. 

3. Then there are substantive issues. One is recasting the issue in terms of verbatim sayings of Jesus. In reference to Bart Ehrman-style criticisms, that has validity, but in reference to McGrew-style criticisms, that amounts to a diversionary tactic. In the conflict between Evans, Licona, and Wallace on the one hand, and the McGrews on the other, here's the real issue:

Do the sayings of Jesus originate in real events during the ministry of Christ, or do the sayings and corresponding events originate in fictional backstories? 

Liberal/critical scholarship dates the Synoptics to 80-100 AD, and John's Gospel to the first quarter of the 2C. At the time of writing, the church/Johannine community had developed certain rites and doctrines. The Gospels were written to provide a backstory for these subsequent developments. The Gospel writers invent sayings and events that provide impeccable theological pedigree for subsequent theological developments in the life of the church.

On this view, sayings and events attributed to Jesus in the Gospels are retrojected fictions. A way to backdate and legitimate rites and doctrines that originated decades later. 

By contrast, the position of the McGrews, as I understand it, is that sayings of Jesus in the Gospels are occasioned by real events in the life of Christ. In the case of John's Gospel, they originate in the actual setting in which they are situated. In a sense, the events are primary. Jesus says what he does because he's responding to a particular situation, or responding to a questioner, or responding to an accuser. And in John's Gospel, the sayings are typically grounded in specific settings, where the linkage is tight.

In the Synoptics, you have some free-floating sayings. However, these still originated in the public ministry of Christ. They may have become detached because the Synoptic writers don't know or remember the original setting, or because they sometimes rearrange material topically rather than chronologically. But even in that case, they still originated at a particular time and place in the ministry of Christ, even if they've become detached from the historical context. Their theological paternity goes back to statements occasioned by actual events in the life of Christ. That stands in contrast to the liberal/critical view, where actions and sayings attributed to Jesus were fabricated by the author to retroactively validate rites and doctrines that evolved long after the event. 

Were sayings of Jesus occasioned by incidents in the life of the church, or were they occasioned by incidents in the life of Christ? Were sayings of Jesus the product of their ostensible setting, or the creative product of authors who invent suitable settings? Does the teaching of Christ grow out of the historical setting of his ministry, or does an imaginary setting grow out of the historical setting of the church, decades later? That's the basic issue, and not whether the words of Christ have been summarized or paraphrased. 

For instance, Luke and John emphasize the physicality of the Resurrection. Are those scenes factual or fictional? Did they represent real events or retrojections? 

4. On a related issue is the source of the "I am" statements. Evans indicated that the author of John is adapting wisdom statements from Sirach and putting them on the lips of Jesus. That raises several issues. 

Although there's a tendency to put the "I am" statements on one basket, John records different kinds of "I am" statements:

Absolute/Yahwistic "I am" statements.

The best known may be Jn 8:58. Another one is Jn 10:30. But let's consider one that receives less attention:

So Jesus said to them, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am” (Jn 8:28). 

Considered in isolation, that's an enigmatic statement. What's the connection between "I am" and "lifted up"? Why would they know that he's "I am" after he's "lifted up"? The explanation is background material in Isaiah:

In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up (Isa 6:1)

“Now I will arise,” says the Lord, “now I will lift myself up; now I will be exalted (Isa 33:10).

For thus says the One who is high and lifted up (Isa 57:15).

Behold, my servant shall act wisely; he shall be high and lifted up, and shall be exalted (Isa 52:13).

"I am" in Jn 8:28 evokes a characteristic Yahwistic appellation in Isaiah while "lifted up" is a double entendre. It alludes to the cross, but it also alludes to the exalted status of Yahweh–as well as the exaltation of the Suffering Servant.

Jn 8:28 combines these Isaiah motifs. They will know that Jesus is Yahweh when he's exalted, because the wording and imagery trades on related statements about Yahweh and messiah in Isaiah. The disciples (and readers) are supposed to be able to pick up on the OT parallels and relate them to the crucifixion, Resurrection, and Ascension. 

But this means the background of the "I am" statement in Jn 8:28 isn't Sirach but Isaiah. By the same token, "I am" statements in 8:58 and 10:30 have their background, not in Sirach, but Deut 32:39 and Isa 40-48, as scholars like Bauckham have documented. 

Why redirect attention to an (alleged) "I am" Wisdom tradition when an "I am" Yahweh tradition is so close at hand? 

5. In addition, these Johannine sayings of Jesus are embedded in specific settings. You can't separate the saying from the setting if the setting is fictional. The authenticity of the sayings  derive from the authenticity of the settings. 

6. Then there are what might be called 

Instrumental "I am" statements 

about Jesus as the resurrection, way, truth, and life. Jesus as the source of salvation. Jesus as the source of eternal life. Jesus as the source of the general resurrection. 

How does that derive from Sirach? Are these distinctive Wisdom categories? 

Finally, you have 

Metaphorical "I am" statements

about Jesus as the vine, bread of life, light of the world, shepherd, and sheep-gate. 

It's unclear why these statements need to derive from a Wisdom tradition in Sirach. The "bread" imagery has its background in Pentateuchal wilderness accounts about the manna, while the "light" imagery has its background in the Pentateuchal creation account. 

The shepherd imagery has generic OT antecedents. Yahweh as the shepherd of Israel, or individual Jews like David. Likewise, the vine imagery is a stock OT metaphor. Where's the presumption that any of this derives from Sirach?

In addition, these sayings are given a specific historical setting (e.g. Jn 6; 8-9; 11). 

Keep in mind that figurative statements about Jesus aren't unique to John's Gospel. Jesus as the "stone" and Jesus as the "bridegroom" occur in the Synoptics. 

Is it the contention of Evans that first-person constructions involving metaphors are modeled on Sirach? If so, I'd like to see the evidence. 

7. John's Gospel contains many editorial asides in which the narrator quotes a statement by Jesus, then offers a parenthetical comment to the reader to clarify the meaning. That explicitly distinguishes the words of the narrator from the words of Jesus. Does Evans think that's a deceptive literary device?


  1. John 8:12 is an appeal to Isaiah 9:2. What Jesus says in 8:12 is connected to the comments of his critics in chapters 7-9. He's responding to what they said in chapter 7, and the discussion that follows is a reaction, in part, to what he said in 8:12. I discuss the significance of 8:12 for all three chapters (John 7-9) in a post here.

  2. I wd. also note that there were several straightforward inaccuracies in Evans's statements. I plan to expand upon these when I write up a post next week. (Got some other things going on this weekend.)

    He inaccurately stated that "I am the light of the world" begins an "I am discourse" in which Jesus goes "on and on" for many verses. On the contrary. "I am the light of the world" is in a *single verse* immediately followed not by his saying more on that subject but rather by a heated dialogue with the crowd over testimony to oneself. He said that there were seven (!) "I am discourses" in John's gospel in which he says some "I am" statement and then goes on for many verses on that subject. This is flat-out false. Arguably there is only one (the Bread of Life). Virtually all of the "I am" sayings, either with or without predicate, occur either immediately before or at the end of dialogue or, at most (in the case of "I am the true vine" (about eight verses) and "I am the good shepherd" (about twelve verses)) before fairly *short* expositions on the theme that are in no way unusually long. Several of the *very ones* he cited as allegedly initiating "discourses" are in fact single verses! Not only "I am the light of the world" but also "I am the way, the truth, and the life" and "I am the resurrection and the life." He literally stated falsely that there are seven "I am discourses" in John. This is just unequivocally inaccurate.

    He also stated falsely that there is an "I am way of speaking" that is characteristic of Lady Wisdom in the Wisdom literature. At another point in the discussion he specifically cited Sirach 24. At no point in Sirach 24, Proverbs 8, nor any other personification of Wisdom does she use an "I am" saying to describe herself--"I am this" and "I am that" followed by an attribute. (Sirach 24:24, which is translated with "I am the mother of fair love" actually has an understood verb.) This was another outright historical falsehood.

    If one read my transcript one would see that in 2012 he made another outright false statement--that there were church fathers who rejected the canonicity of John because it could not be harmonized with the synoptics. False. There were the Alogi, as Epiphanius called them, about whom we know only because they were opposed by the Church Fathers. They were heretics who denied the Logos doctrine of John and tried to use alleged problems with harmonization as part of their program against John, which was theologically motivated. But they were not church fathers.

  3. In short, Evans frequently makes outright erroneous statements with great confidence and is then deferred to on the grounds of his status and is not checked. He went on at great length in this debate about the suspiciousness of the long discourses in John, solely on the grounds of length. The longest such discourse is the Farewell Discourse. At a loss for what (plural) "I am discourses" he could mean (aside from the Bread of Life), I decided to defend the historicity of the Farewell Discourse. (It contains "I am the true vine" as one portion and, in a part broken up by dialogue, "I am the way, the truth and the life," plus being the longest discourse in John.) Justin, having believed uncritically Evans's falsehood that there are seven "I am discourses" in John, then attempted to correct me (!) for talking about the Farewell Discourse when Evans was allegedly discussing the different "I am discourses." Evans then piously declared that he was not questioning the historicity of the Farewell Discourse, though earlier he had listed "I am the way, the truth, and the life" as dubious on the (erroneous) grounds that it allegedly inaugurates a thematic discourse. (And in 2012 he had questioned "I am the true vine" and expressly listed it as something invented by the "Johannine community" because that is what Jesus is "to us.")

    So he was constantly shifting, changing his statements even within this very debate, and making factually false statements, then using those falsehoods to bolster further dodges. It was quite astonishing, really. One has to check everything.

  4. I listened to the first 20 minutes or so, the amount of dissembling that took place on Evan's part was very disappointing. I remember hearing you clarify numerous times, "give me a yes or a no, are the events and the words in the gospels historical." HE would then try to deflect and fudge on the issue. It was like listening to presidential candidates in debates. They say a lot of words, but they aren't saying much of anything. Very disappointing. It makes me question how much of NT scholarship is made up of bad reasoning piled on top of bad reasoning.

  5. *gospel of John* not *gospels*

  6. "It makes me question how much of NT scholarship is made up of bad reasoning piled on top of bad reasoning."

    A lot. A huge amount.

    And a lot of taking in each other's laundry, too. For example: In the two (and so far I know of only two) places where Dr. William Lane Craig accepts fictionalizing devices, he will say that this was "allowed by the standards of the time." Similarly, he and Kevin Harris uncritically accepted a popular-level article by Craig Evans in which Evans gives this silly interpretation of Matthew 13:52 and misuses the word "chreia," as he did on the podcast debate. (I've pre-emptively written a post on that "chreia" theory.) I'm afraid it just doesn't seem to me that the generally much *sounder* scholars are doing their due diligence and checking when the less-sound scholars make confident declarations about the standards of the time and so forth. It's very unfortunate.

    In Evans's case, of course, his questioning of the historicity of John is pretty far out there, as his 2012 comments showed. But as Steve points out, he tried to obscure that in this debate. If you get time to listen to the whole thing, you'll find that he started to come out and say more what he really thinks toward the end--that the portrait of Jesus is "veeeerrry different" between John and the synoptics, so much so that if we tried to take them both as historical we would have to wonder if there was just "some different Jesus we didn't know about." He used a crazy argument from silence concerning discourses and the portrait of Jesus in John, saying that he's "counting votes" and it's "three against one." Things like that. The truth started to come out.

  7. After all is said and done - we have to start with the Gospel of John being "God-breathed" and inerrant and therefore historically accurate in all the details and "I am" sayings.

    In having to think about this a lot - as Muslims are using both liberal scholars and moderate scholars and even those associated with conservative scholarship - these modern scholarly (both among conservatives like Craig Evans and Mike Licona, etc. (D. A. Carson ?, Dan Wallace ?) arguments to attack the Gospel of John and the "I am" sayings - they are saying that as a historical principle, because the other gospels don't repeat them or have them anywhere close, they are saying that one witness is not enough to say that they are historically reliable.

    It seems that after all is said is done, the best policy to have is to start with the Gospel of John being "God-breathed", resulting in inerrancy, and the quality of being God-breathed leads to the fact that the details are historical truth that really happened and Jesus actually did say all those sayings. It seems that the Gospel of John focuses on historical events that the inner circle of the disciples were more privy to. (Peter, John, James, Andrew) - but that also seems to mean that maybe what we know of Papias' statement about Mark being Peter's sermons - maybe Peter reserved his other knowledge of eyewitness events with Jesus to help John write his gospel. Peter had to have know about these events in John - the question is why Mark does not record more of them. (there is some indication by Mark 6:50 of an "I am" statement; and the feeding of the 5 thousand being in all four gospels.)

  8. Well, one doesn't need to do it deductively like that, though, in order to get away from the passage-by-passage method. The problem with current scholars, including some evangelicals (quote-unquote) is that they think we have to develop amnesia after every instance where we confirm historicity. This is incredibly poor historical methodology, in a totally "secular" sense. It's as though we can't use induction. They attempt to cordon off the fact that John is so precise about, e.g., topography from any inference about the unique sayings of Jesus in his gospel. This is a horrible method. Instead, we should gather data about the kind of author he was and the kind of document he was writing, and this allows us to infer the reliability of the document as an individual source. This then applies to portions that we don't happen to have some separate argument for. Again, that's not a religious doctrine. That's just common sense.