Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The voice of Jesus and John

1. One issue regarding the authenticity of John's Gospel is similarity between the voice of Jesus and the voice of John (the narrator). Conversely, the difference between the voice of the Johannine Jesus and the voice of the Synoptic Jesus.

Explanations range along a continuum. At one end is the view that John's Gospel is pious fiction. The whole thing was fabricated by the anonymous writer.

Less radical is the view that the author rewrote the sayings of Jesus to impose stylistic uniformity on his Gospel. 

2. On one hand, there's the danger of exaggerating the difference between Jesus and John. 

i) For instance:

Reynolds lists about 150 words that are placed on Jesus' lips in John but are never used elsewhere by the Evangelist. Not a few of these are sufficiently general that they would have been as appropriate in the Evangelists's narrative as in Jesus' discourse.  D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (IVP 1991), 45. 

ii) Commentators typically think we can distinguish the words of Jesus from the words of the narrator in Jn 3. They think the narrator takes over at v16. So John's style is less homogenous than the objection assumes. 

3. The difference can be accounted for in part by demographic and geographic factors entirely consistent with the historicity of John and the Synoptics alike. For instance:

The location and setting of most of John's discourses differ from those in which the Synoptics take interest…Some variation in style may occur because in the Synoptics Jesus converses especially "with the country people of Galilee," whereas "in the Fourth Gospel he disputes with the religious leaders of Jerusalem or talks intimately to the inner circle of his disciples". 

Further, although only John reports lengthy interchanges between Jesus and Jerusalem leaders, there can be no question that interchanges occurred, especially during Passion Week, and they were undoubtedly longer than the Synoptics report.

Most scholars hold that Jesus used mainly Aramaic when he conducted his ministry in the rural parts of Galilee, But at times he probably taught in Greek, the regional trade language and language of the urban centers. He lived in a multilingual society, even if most people were not equally proficient in both Greek and Aramaic. C. Keener, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Hendrickson 2003), 1:76-78.

4. In addition, the Matthew and Luke are basically a collage of disparate materials: monologues, dialogues, prosaic teaching, parables, miracles, exorcisms, travels, &c. Moreover, Matthew and Luke are crammed with this disparate material.

By contrast, John is far more selective. He takes more time to cover less ground. That in itself results in a pronounced stylistic difference, but it's not "stylistic" in the rhetorical sense of how to word things.

5. What is meant by the distinctive Johannine style, anyway? In John's Gospel and 1 John, the author is repetitious. His style is often an extension or elaboration of his favorite key words, key metaphors, and key motifs from the OT. He rings the changes on these elements. 

But what's the source of those elements? It's possible that this reflects his own observation and cast of mind. But it's equally possible that Jesus is the source of his key words, metaphors, and OT motifs. 

6. Sometimes one person's speech imitates another person's speech. A paradigm example is how the syntax and diction of kids will imitate their parents or older siblings. 

7. Bishop Robinson (The Priority of John) has argued that Jesus and John were probably cousins. 

According to the Gospels, John's hometown was Capernaum while Christ's hometown was Nazareth. These are only 20 miles apart. At a time when people travelled on foot, that's not a great distance.  

Therefore, it's quite possible that Jesus and John were childhood friends. If so, Jesus may have made a profound impression on John during his formative years. Jesus has an overwhelmingly dominant personality. And if he was a older cousin, one can imagine John, as a boy, looking up to Jesus, as an inspirational role model. 

Even if you think this is too conjectural to lay much weight on, it brings out the fact that we know next to nothing about the background of the disciples. About their social life before Jesus summoned them. It's not something we can rule out. And there's no presumption against it. 

8. In my experience, people are apt to recount the same anecdotes. Although we experience life like a continuous movie reel, we remember and interpret our lives by mental snapshots. Particular events of personal significance that we use as a frame of reference. 

In that respect, John's Gospel is consistent with an eyewitness account. A naturally selective focus on events that stand out in his mind. If you spend much time around older relatives, they have a habit of repeating a handful of anecdotes. These are paradigmatic experiences. John's Gospel is like that.

9. Assuming that John authored the Fourth Gospel, how could we envision the process of composition? Was he hunched over a desk, manually writing his biography? I doubt that.

More likely, he dictated his memoirs to a scribe. Other Christians may have been in attendance when he did that, listening to him reminisce about Jesus. They might have asked him questions. The scribe would record the answer, but not the  question.

If the process was basically along those lines, then John's Gospel is a transcription of oral history. A record of the spoken word. If so, the spoken word has a different flow than the written word. Who said what–the speaker or the narrator–may sometimes seem blended insofar as there won't be the explicit literary transitions you have in a history or biography that originated in a written text from the outset. That's not a stylistic difference in the rhetorical sense of how to express things, but a difference in medium between the spoken word and the written word. 

10. I'd add that many of the shorter statements of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel (e.g. the "I am" sayings) are aphoristic sayings in simple, and frequently picturesque language. There's no obvious incentive for John to rewrite them. No reason they couldn't reproduce what he actually said in the way he said it. 


  1. I have found it useful to see how much a sheer bias in favor of the synoptic gospels factors into what is "allowed" to be used from John. *Allegedly* a big part of the supposed "problem" with John's reliability in reproducing Jesus' words is this resemblance between Jesus' voice in John and John's own voice (e.g., in 1 John). There are lots of problems with that, as you've shown here and as Rob Bowman also lays out in his recent piece. For example, the fact that John *never* attributes to Jesus himself a saying in which Jesus calls himself "the Word." Yet referring to him as "the Word" is a big theological deal for John. So if John was "making Jesus in his own image," why do we find this difference? And other similar points.

    The additional point I'm making here, though, is that the bias against uniquely Johannine material is playing a big role, above and beyond the supposed resemblances between Jesus' voice and John's voice.

    For example, in Mike Licona's recent lecture on Jesus' claims to deity, it looks like he doesn't use either "Before Abraham was, I am" or "I and the father are one." (I haven't watched every minute of the lecture, so I'm open to correction if I missed it.) Now, presumably this is because he's trying to be scrupulous about the doubts that "scholars" (e.g., Craig Evans) have cast upon the historicity of those sayings in a recognizably similar form. But he *does* allow himself to use John 5:27, where Jesus says that the Father has given the "Son of Man" authority to execute judgement. In fact, Licona makes a big deal about how this is an independent attestation to Jesus' emphatic claims for himself as the Son of Man, which he takes to be claims to deity.

    But if you look at the verses surrounding John 5:27, you find plenty of allegedly "Johannine" themes and emphases. For example, 5:24 sounds a lot like John 3:16. 5:26 has the "Johannine" emphasis upon life. And 5:31-37 go on and on about "witness" and "testimony," which are huge Johannine words.

    So why is 5:27 exempt from the broadscale skepticism concerning Jesus' teachings in John, since it is embedded in a connected discourse full of allegedly Johannine language?

    There is only one possible answer: It's because Jesus also calls himself the Son of Man in the synoptics.

    So the synoptics are always treated as the historical standard, and John is arraigned before the bar of the synoptics so that they can tell us whether or not to be shaky and unsure about something in John.

    This follows from no defensible principle of historical scholarship or research. It is purely a matter of fashionable prejudice against John treated *as a source in his own right*.

  2. "Less radical is the view that the author rewrote the sayings of Jesus to impose stylistic uniformity on his Gospel."

    In between this and the view that the *entire* gospel is pious fiction is the idea that the teachings unique to John (such as "I and the father are one") never occurred in any recognizable form and that these teachings are made up. But supposedly they are made up in such a way as to be doctrinally consistent with and extensions and elaborations of the kinds of things that are said in the synoptic gospels--e.g., Jesus' "Son of Man" sayings in the synoptics. As you have pointed out in another post, this would mean that the surrounding circumstances, such as the dialogue with the Jews and their attempts to stone Jesus, must also be invented. This is apparently the view of Craig Evans as expressed in the video with Ehrman, though Evans has attempted to characterize it as the view that John "paraphrased" the teachings of Jesus. But of course this would not be "paraphrase" in any recognizable sense. For that matter, it is unclear why one would even use the word "redaction" for this. The phrase "redact the tradition" comes in handy here, since "the tradition" in question would be, in this instance, totally unavailable to us. We have no record other than John's of several of these incidents and hence have nothing to which to compare them to see *what* he was supposedly "redacting" in order to make Jesus sound "more Johannine." Hence, saying that these incidents are "redacting the tradition" makes it impossible to know what happened at all or what the original, true incidents were like. Then again, since part of the argument is that Jesus would not have spoken so clearly as to say "I and my father are one," it looks like there *was* no "tradition" for John to "redact" of Jesus saying something like this but merely an invention based upon the general notion that Jesus was God, derived only from the synoptics or from "traditions" that went into the synoptics--such as Jesus' claim to forgive sins.

    Again, when they refer to this as redaction, much less paraphrase, they are using these words in very confusing senses.

    This position doesn't quite say that the entirety of John is pious fiction, but it definitely means that some very important portions of John are much like pious fiction, though allegedly pious fiction based on *something* or other--perhaps just the events that happened in the synoptics!