Thursday, April 19, 2018

Silly Putty Jesus

At a 2000 meeting of the SBL, Dan Wallace read a paper ("Ipsissima Vox and the Seven Words from the Cross: A Test Case for John’s Use of the Tradition"). Wallace's 2000 address may well be building on his 1999 address, so they go together. Hence, this is a sequel to my previous post:

Somebody might object that I'm quoting and commenting on unpublished presentations. However, the Christian faith is not supposed to operate like a secret society, where there's one message for the rank-and-file, and a different message for favored initiates. Christianity is a public religion. It's the same message for everyone, believers and unbelievers alike. There is no disciplina arcana. Christianity isn't supposed to have a dichotomy between what is said from the pulpit, for popular consumption, and what the preacher really believes–which he only shares with fellow elites. 

My hypothesis is that instead of seven discrete words from the cross, the gospels actually record four. This reduction comes through two avenues: one text-critical and one redactional. That is to say, I regard Luke’s first saying [Lk 23:34] as a later addition, and I take the last two words in John as this evangelist’s version of two of the utterances found in the synoptic tradition.

From what I've read, Lk 23:34 may well be  a scribal gloss or scribal interpolation. I don't have a problem with that part of Wallace's address. 

Narrative plot. John’s plot is the most highly developed of all the gospels. 

i) I suppose you could put it that way, but it's misleading. Too literary. Why not say John often has the most historical detail, including a fuller chronology? 

Since so much Scripture is narrative, it can be convenient to borrow terms that drama critics and literary use to analyze plays and novels. But we need to maintain the distinction between fiction and nonfiction. 

ii) This goes to a larger issue. Because the Bible is a text, Bible scholars have a textual orientation. That's legitimate and necessary up to a point. There are, however, different kinds of texts. John's Gospel and Pilgrim's Progress are both texts. In addition, they are both narratives. However, John's Gospel is referential in a way that Pilgrim's Progress is not. As a fictional story, Pilgrim's Progress is self-enclosed world.  

By contrast, a text like John's Gospel originates in real-world events. A witness to history. John's Gospel is a window, not a painting. The narrative isn't like the composition of a painting, which is self-referential. The narrative points outside itself. 

There has been much discussion, from the second century to the twentieth, as to how these seven words should be arranged.2 Those who are prone to see them all as authentic dominical sayings still have some difficulty in the proper chronological sequence, though the most common arrangement is 2, 3, 5, 1, 6, 7, 4. Our point here is that the assumption of authenticity is almost always the foundation on which seven sayings are in view.

The fourth word, the final word from the cross, can now be examined. Both Matthew and Mark record this final cry as simply an inarticulate “loud cry.” Luke says that Jesus proclaimed, “Into your hands I commit my spirit” and John has “it is finished” as the final utterance...Luke’s and John’s final sayings—“Into your hands I commit my spirit” and “it is finished”—are victorious words of the one who accomplished the task set before him. What Matthew and Mark record only as an inarticulate cry, Luke and John give form to. Luke’s “into your hands I commit my spirit” is probably closest to the tradition, while John’s “it is finished” transforms this into the language of accomplishment that is a subtheme of John’s gospel, as we saw earlier. 

We need to guard against treating Jesus' words from the cross as literature. For instance, does someone dying know when he's about to die? Someone who's dying may sense that the end is near. He may know that he could expire at any moment. He may feel himself slipping away, at which point he assumes that this is the moment of death, and he may say something that's appropriate to go out on. 

Yet there may be several moments like that, where he passes in and out of consciousness. The fact that he says something that sounds like he intended that to be the very last thing he says doesn't mean that's the very last thing he says, for depending on his condition, he may be intermittently lucid. The words on the cross aren't scripted. Jesus isn't a character in a play who has the perfect closing statement to round out that scene. Not unless you think the Gospels are inspirational hagiographies. 

My proposal is this: the Johannine Jesus’ “I thirst” (John 19:28) is a dynamic equivalent transformation of “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 

Designations like the Johannine Jesus can be innocuous descriptors for the record of Jesus in the respective Gospels, but it becomes dangerous when that means each Gospel has a designer Jesus. 

A flat reading of the language here not only misses a Leitmotiv in John but also necessarily imports a meaning that is foreign to this evangelist..Thirst in John fundamentally involves a double entendre.19 To thirst in John means to be devoid of the Spirit, to stand in the place of the sinner, to be abandoned by God.

Although John's Gospel contains irony and double entendres, that's context-dependent. And the fact that John uses theological metaphors about thirst and water doesn't mean you turn every episode using that imagery into a parable. In John's Gospel, there's real water, like the body of water used by disciples of John the Baptist. There's real wine. Real bread. Sometimes Jesus is really hungry and thirsty. John's Gospel isn't an allegory like the Inferno or Pilgrim's Progress. It's not a fictional plot with a set of internal relations. 

But why would John feel the need to make such a substitution? As many authors note, the cross in John is seen as Christ’s moment of glory—even of his enthronement. “Jesus hangs on the cross not as a sufferer, but as the hidden ‘king’...” 27 But more on that later. Suffice it to say here that, as Brown notes, “the theme of Ps 22:[1] which has Jesus forsaken by God would be irreconcilable with Johannine christology.”28 Thus, instead of screaming out29 the question of his abandonment by God with a great voice, the Johannine Jesus makes a statement that is nevertheless pregnant with the same spiritual ramifications as Psalm 22:1.

On Wallace's interpretation, the four Gospels reflect divergent Christologies. John crosses out Ps 22:1 because the Johannine Jesus wouldn't say something like that–even if that's what Jesus actually said. Wallace is driving a wedge between the historical Jesus and the Johannine Jesus. Crafting a Christ of faith who doesn't match up with the Jesus of history. 

In Matthew-Mark, when Jesus quotes Psalm 22:1, people think he’s calling for Elijah to come and save him (a common Jewish expectation). But Matthew-Mark do not make clear why, therefore, wine is then offered to Jesus. John not only does not mention Psalm 22:1, he also does not mention Elijah. His treatment of Elijah, in fact, is more subdued than that of the synoptic gospels (occurring only in the Jewish interrogation of John the Baptist in chapter one). Further, to introduce Elijah’s name here would be to diminish Jesus as being in control of his own circumstances. John consistently paints a portrait of Jesus in which he is seen at all times to be the master of his own fate, in complete control of his own destiny. Even a perception of a cry for Elijah might disrupt that picture.

This reduces the Johannine Jesus to a storybook character who only says what the narrator allows him to say. The narrator composes speeches which he puts in the mouth of Jesus. That's a classically and quintessentially liberal view of the Gospels. And at that juncture the canonical Gospels blend into the apocryphal Gospels. 

However, there is another thematic layer in John that would seem to prevent the evangelist from saying this kind of thing: the Spirit is given to the disciples in John, not to God. And the Spirit could not be given until Jesus was glorified (John 7:39). Thus, the glorification of Jesus, seen in his death and articulated by his last utterance of “it is finished,” is the very thing that permits the release of the Spirit.

Is the Holy Spirit trapped inside the body of Jesus? Can the Sprit only escape when the host dies? 

The last breath is simply an idiom for death, based on the practical association between breathing, expiration, and death. 

Second, John’s method opens up some other possibilities to ponder. Is, for example, John 15:1-17 (the story of the vine and the branches) a transformation of the parable of the soils— perhaps to make the organic connection between Jesus and his followers explicit (something that the original parable could not do)? There are many parallels between John 15 and the parable of the soils on a deep theological level, though the surface of course looks quite different.43 John 15 has come as close to a parable as anything in the Fourth Gospel; there is thus the possibility that it is a repackaged parable. 

Yes, there are some conceptual affinities between the parable of the sower and the parable of the true vine. There's no reason to think that means the Johannine narrator rewrote the Synoptic parable of the sower. Rather, it's much more natural to think Jesus used the same basal agricultural metaphor to compose two different parables. 

And what about John 14:1-3? If we start with John’s basic realized eschatology and his focus on believers as opposed to outsiders, what remains of the Olivet Discourse is present and heavenly comfort to believers.

Is Wallace suggesting that the author of John rewrote the Olivet Discourse, then put that speech on the lips of Jesus? Wallace is treating Jesus like a character in novel or play who says what the novelist or dramatist makes the character say. A Jesus who's the literary artifact of the narrator. A Jesus who only exists and acts in the self-contained universe of the fictional plot. 

Notice how Wallace says you can keep extending this principle to other dominical discourses in the Gospel of John. This is like the Jesus of the apocryphal Gospels. A Jesus who's the product of the author's theological imagination. A mouthpiece of the author's agenda. Instead of the Johannine narrator as a witness to an objective historical figure, the Johannine Jesus is a personification of the narrator. Yes, it may be based on a true story, but it undergoes legendary embellishment. Historical fiction, mixing fact and fancy.  


  1. It's worth noting that two of these theories--about "It is finished" and "I thirst"--have recently been published and cited to this paper by Wallace by Mike Licona in a 2017 book. Licona agrees with the theories, apparently. So in that sense, the material is not a secret, and it also appears that Wallace hasn't changed his mind on it, since Licona frequently thanks him throughout the book for his help, encouragement, e-mail responses, and so forth, and he apparently didn't mind Licona's citing these theories as his.

    The one about the Olivet Discourse just kills me. Jesus' words about going to prepare a place for us are *nothing like* the Olivet Discourse. If that is "ipsissima vox" (which some people literally call "paraphrase") then anything is. You could change Jesus' words about the Holy Spirit in John 14 to "I'll have the ham on rye" and call it his "very voice."

  2. Didn't Wallace say in that paper that he did not rate his confidence in his conclusions as very strong? A "C" or "C+" on the scale (analogy) that the UBS uses for certain textual readings (page 2 of the paper) ? Where a D is a the lowest and A and B are more confident in their conclusions?

    Also, in footnote 16, he alludes that he is a open to Jesus actually saying these words. The question is did John paint that portrait of Jesus in that way. Not an abstract painting (liberal scholarship like John Dominic Crossan), but not a photo either (i.e. David Farnell type of scholarship).

    1. i) Except for Lk 23:34, the question at issue wasn't the textual authenticity of the sayings, but whether Jesus ever said anything like the sayings attributed to him in the Gospels.

      ii) I don't see that disclaimer in footnote 16.

      iii) The Geisler/Farnell approach is a throwback to Harold Lindsell. Better at critique than offering a constructive alternative.

      I agree with you that the audio/videotape standard of historical accuracy is unrealistic. However, to play along with the painting metaphor, when Wallace talks about John's "dominical transmogrifications" and "radical repackaging of the dominical material", that isn't even representational art.

  3. Yes, ultimately, I know it was not a textual critical question. It was an analogy as Wallace indicates on page 2 and as I did in a parenthetical statement "(analogy)". The UBS use the A,B,C,D to indicate their certainty of their conclusions on this or that textual reading. A being the more certain indicator and D being less certain. Wallace, using this analogy, said he rated his certainty at a C or possibly a C+. I did not see this disclaimer in your review. In short, Wallace see's this as a possibility and not at the most probable level.

    Footnote 16, page 7 (at least the copy I got) says, "In my correspondence with several scholars over the thesis of this essay, a fundamental objection has been repeatedly raised. One scholar wrote that "it is altogether likely that a man dying on a cross would speak of his physical thirst." *I fully agree* But the issue in my mind is whether in John's portrait of Jesus such would be likely." (emphasis added) I also did not see this in your review.

    Ultimately, I disagree with Wallace here as I think this short statement could have been remembered quite well by John or whoever wrote the gospel of John (I think John had something to do with it, at least as a source). However, I do not see this as a essential doctrinal issue.

    Farnell is consistent and yes, like Harold Lindsell. Geisler, not so much. For example, Geisler states, "Further, why not assume the differences in the Gospels are due to the separate sources, individual interests, and creativity of the different authors?" (1) "Creativity?" What does he mean by that? Make stuff up? Probably not. But definitely the gospel writers write more than just bare history, but more literary-theological-history.

    Moreover, he endorses (more narrow than Wallace) ipsissima vox, stating, "Fourth, even if Jesus gave His discourses in Aramaic, historical reliability does not depend on having those exact words (ipsissima verba), as long as the Greek translation preserves the exact meaning (ipsissima vox). And, contrary to speculations of the critics, which are based on questionable presuppositions, there is no factual evidence that the meaning of Jesus is not preserved in the gospel records."(2)

    As far as sequence of events, Geisler holds that it is possible that there were two clensings. However, he states:

    None of the Gospels claim to be written in chronological sequence. Topical message, rather than sequence, orders the text. Within an overall chronology, if a pericope of the same event is placed in a different place, it may be serving a slightly different literary purpose." (3)

    Farnell, as far as I have read (i.e. Jesus Crisis), would not make these type of statements.


    1. Norman L. Geisler, Christian Apologetics (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1976), 321.

    2. Norman L. Geisler, Systematic Theology, Volume One: Introduction, Bible (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 2002), 489.

    3. Norman L. Geisler, “John, Gospel Of,” Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, Baker Reference Library (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999), 393

    1. Okay, we have the same footnote.

    2. I don't have a problem with Wallace doubting the textual originality of Lk 23:34.

    3. The problem with footnote 16 is that Wallace's argument isn't confined to the 7 sayings on the cross. Rather, he's laid down an open-ended principle, which he himself extends to two other examples in John (14:1-3 & the parable of the true vine), and those are just samples. So virtually all the statements attributed to the Johannine Jesus are subject to his principle.

  4. I realize I'm commenting on an old thread here, and I would have said this when Cameron brought up these objections.

    The thing about ranking these (utterly crazy) conjectures at a "C+" or whatever is that it's way too high of a ranking and also that it is obviously just a cover-your-rear move. Scholars think they can bring up anything, however utterly nutso and however *completely at odds* with any sort of respect for the reliability of historical books, argue for it strenuously for page after page, and then get out of any sort of criticism just by throwing in some sort of disclaimer that says they aren't overwhelmingly confident of these crazy surmises. That's dodging. It verges on disingenuous. Wallace is confident enough of his utterly unjustified theories to give many arguments for them. Indeed, Licona speaks of the "I thirst" and "It is finished" "paraphrases" in *more confident* terms than many of his other theories in his book. Of these he uses some term like "it appears that John has..." or even just "John has..." (I don't have the pages in front of me, but it's something like that) rather than his more usual "perhaps" or "maybe." Licona treats these as established, and convincing other scholars to believe the theories is the obvious intent of Wallace's entire paper! In fact, it builds upon his *repeated* claims in the 1999 paper that John is to be *expected* to use a broader use of "ipsissima vox" than the synoptics. Wallace is even trying (overtly, as he makes clear in the 1999 paper) to move evangelical scholars further in this direction because he thinks they are too hidebound. Looks like he's succeeding.

    Footnote 16 is Wallace's *pushing back* against the scholars who are arguing with him. The words "I entirely agree" are being taken out of context if they are meant to indicate that Wallace is unsure of his conclusions. Very much to the contrary. The whole point of that is that Wallace realizes that in general a man dying on the cross might express thirst (that's what he "entirely agrees" with) but *doesn't* think and *won't* agree that John would record such a thing if it were an historical fact.

    Wallace's judgement in this paper is just absolutely dreadful.

    We need to stop giving people a free pass for their out-to-lunch conclusions because we claim that they are uncertain of their conclusions, even though they are the ones putting those conclusions out there for very serious scholarly consideration.

  5. Oh, one more point to add to my comment that is in moderation, if both are moderated through:

    On p. 166 of _Why Are There Differences in the Gospels_, Mike Licona says that Wallace "proposes that...the evangelist has reworked" the words "My God, why have you forsaken me" into "I am thirsty." Is it okay for Licona, who agrees with Wallace, to say that Wallace "proposes" this view but not okay for Wallace's critics to say that he argues for, endorses, proposes this view? If so, why the double standard? Nobody got up in arms when Licona published and endorsed these views from Wallace, quoting the "I rate it a C+" qualifier to say that Licona was misattributing the view to Wallace! When someone supports the view it appears okay to say that Wallace "proposes" it, but a critic is supposed to go waaaay out of his way to make it sound like Wallace isn't seriously proposing it at all, despite the fact that Wallace himself refers to it as part of "my hypothesis" (p. 2) and as "the thesis of this paper" (p. 6), "my thesis" (p. 12) and argues for it over a span of several pages, expressly rejecting alternatives. Footnote 16 (!) itself, in the course of rejecting the argument he has received from other scholars (see previous comment) refers to the theory about "I thirst" as "the thesis of this essay."

    This is pure partisan harassment of anyone who dares to criticize these theories.