Saturday, 2 April 2011

A critical introduction to the gospels - Part 2 (John)

We now turn our attention to John's gospel.  This comes from a quite different tradition from Matthew, Mark and Luke.

Liberals and conservatives alike have long agreed that John was written either in the 90s or in the early years of the second century.  It is clear that the traditional claim that St John the apostle wrote the gospel is not tenable.


John was not written by St John the apostle

There are several arguments that militate against the traditional ascription of the gospel to the apostle John:

1.  If, as seems likely, Jesus was crucified in 30 AD and appointed his disciples a couple of years before that, St John must have been born before 10 AD at the very latest.  He would therefore have been, at a conservative estimate, in his 80s by the time that John was written.  Some people in the ancient world did live into their 80s, and it may be possible to push back the date of the gospel’s composition by a few years.  All things considered, however, the chances are that St John the apostle would have died before John was composed.

2.  John as it stands is markedly anti-Jewish, and it is difficult to imagine it coming from the pen of someone of Jewish birth.

3.  John shows a knowledge of Greek or Hellenised Jewish philosophy which seems incongruous in a Galilean fisherman (which is what St John was).

4.  John’s depiction of Jesus is somewhat less grounded in historical fact than that of the synoptics.

5.  Most importantly, there are a number of important clues that John was put together from pre-existing sources and traditions: it does not seem to have been composed on the basis of personal knowledge.

In the light of this, it would seem reasonable to abandon the theory that John was written by St John the apostle.  How, then, did it come to be known as the gospel of John?  The ascription to ‘John’ was possibly a deliberate fraud, an attempt to link St John with a text which in actual fact had nothing to do with him.  Two other alternative explanations exist, however.  They are not mutually exclusive.


John and the beloved disciple

The later chapters of John refer several times to ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’. The synoptics make no mention of this mysterious figure, but Jn. 21.24 claims that he endorsed some or all of the contents of John.

The rest of the gospel does not tell us much about the beloved disciple.  Jn. 13.23-26 claims that he reclined on Jesus’ bosom and conversed secretly with him at the Last Supper, but how seriously these verses are to be taken as a piece of historical reportage is uncertain.  At Jn 19.25-27, Jesus commits his mother to his care as he hangs on the cross, an episode which is again likely to be figurative rather than factual; and he may very well be the eyewitness alluded to at 19.31-35, a passage with a greater claim to historicity.  At 20.1-10, he is presented as a witness to the empty tomb on Easter day, and at 21.1-14 he sees the resurrected Jesus with a group of the other disciples.

It is possible that there was in Jesus’ entourage a disciple who came to be known in some circles as ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’.  He may have wound up in a community in Asia Minor, where John was probably written, and passed on his memories of Jesus’ ministry to his own disciples.  After his death - perhaps many years after his death - these disciples would have used elements of his testimony, together with legends that had grown up around him and a variety of other material, to compose John's gospel.

Who was the beloved disciple?  It is tempting - and reasonable - to assume that he was one of the twelve apostles.  If so, he cannot have been Judas, and John leaves us in no doubt that he was not St Peter: this leaves us with ten possible candidates.  In the synoptic gospels, we find a tradition that the brothers James and John were, together with St Peter, members of Jesus’ innermost circle.  If the beloved disciple was St John, we have a ready explanation as to how John's gospel came to acquire its present title.  In this case, St John would have indirectly contributed to John, even if he did not write it.

On the other hand, it is possible that the beloved disciple was not one of the Twelve - for if he had been, why is John so shy about identifying him as such?  One interesting theory identifies him with the ‘other disciple’ mentioned at 18.15f - like the beloved disciple elsewhere, the ‘other disciple’ is both mysteriously unnamed in the text (because he was assumed to be known to the gospel’s readership?) and closely associated with St Peter.  In this case, the beloved disciple would have been a friend of the high priest based in Jerusalem.  This would explain his absence from the chapters set in Galilee and his ability to observe the passion at close quarters.  Whether or not this particular theory is true, it is certainly possible that the beloved disciple was a follower of Jesus who did not belong to the Twelve.  There is no reason why he should not have been called John - it was a common enough Jewish name.


John the Elder

The second solution avoids speculating on the difficult question of the beloved disciple and looks instead at the evidence of a group of early Christian writings both inside and outside the New Testament.

It has traditionally been believed that St John the apostle wrote John's gospel near the end of his life, in the 90s, at Ephesus.  That St John was still active in that area at that time is considered to be proven by the testimony of the second-century Christian writer Irenaeus.  Irenaeus’ evidence is regarded as being particularly reliable because he had personally known another early Church leader called Polycarp, and Polycarp was believed to have been a disciple of St John himself.

In fact, things are not quite so simple. Irenaeus, who came from Smyrna in Asia Minor and may have been born around 140, actually makes the following claims:

1.  St John the apostle lived in Ephesus until the reign of the Emperor Trajan (98-117).
2.  Some church leaders in Asia Minor were still boasting of their acquaintance with St John in Irenaeus’ own day.
3.  Some of those leaders had also met other apostles.
4.  More specifically, Polycarp, the former bishop of Smyrna, had ‘mixed with many people who had seen our Lord’ and been ‘taught by apostles’.
5.  Irenaeus had met Polycarp ‘in the early part of my life’. Polycarp (who died in or around 167) was by then an old man.
6.  Some (unidentified) people had told Irenaeus that Polycarp had told them an anecdote about St John the apostle based upon his personal acquaintance with the latter.

Some features of Irenaeus’ testimony are rather suspicious.  It is just about possible that one of Jesus’ apostles lived into the reign of Trajan, but such longevity was unusual in the ancient world.  It is also possible that someone who had met that apostle in his youth would still be alive in Irenaeus’ time.  Irenaeus, however, claims that a number of church leaders in Asia Minor claimed to have met a number of Jesus’ apostles - and that is very difficult to believe.  Moreover, Irenaeus does nothing for the credibility of his claims when he tells us that the church leaders in question were affirming that the apostles whom they had known had told them that Jesus was over 50 when he died - a very strange claim which contradicts what the gospels tell us and is accepted by no modern Jesus scholar.

At this point, we might attempt to cut our losses.  We might concede that Irenaeus or his informants were exaggerating, but nevertheless accept that Polycarp had personally known St John, and that Irenaeus therefore had access to accurate information about the apostle.  But there are problems here too.  Our only direct evidence relating to Polycarp - two of his own writings, a letter sent to him by Ignatius of Antioch, and an account of his martyrdom - make no mention of his alleged acquaintance with St John.  This is somewhat surprising: even if he had not been in the habit of boasting about it himself, it would have been appropriate to mention it in the martyrdom story, and it is the sort of thing that Ignatius was given to mentioning.  It is also significant that John is the only gospel (indeed, one of the only New Testament books) which Polycarp does not quote from in his surviving works.  This is difficult to explain if Polycarp really did have a personal association with its author.

The likelihood that Polycarp had known St John diminishes still further when we consider that, according to the testimony of another early Christian writer called Papias (c.120-130), there were two prominent figures in the early church called John.  As well as St John the Apostle, there was also apparently a church leader called John the Elder.  It is perfectly possible that Polycarp had known this John, and that Irenaeus, not knowing Polycarp very well and writing over half a century later, failed to distinguish between the two men.  (Papias appears to describe John the Elder as a ‘disciple of the Lord’, but it is unlikely that John the Elder had known Jesus, and the text of the relevant passage may well be corrupt.)

Some interesting additional evidence is provided by the New Testament itself.  The gospel of John and 1-3 John (collectively known as the ‘Johannine corpus’) are similar in their language and their theological outlook, and many scholars believe that they emerged from the same circle of people, the so-called ‘Johannine community’ - a group of early Christians who revered a leader called John and composed works in his name.  (It is unlikely that one person composed all the works, since they have significant differences as well as similarities.)  Since 2 and 3 John both claim specifically to come from the pen of ‘the Elder’, the John in question may very well have been John the Elder.  Though it is not usually regarded as being a fully-fledged member of the Johannine corpus, Revelation has some important points of similarity with John's gospel and 1-3 John, and it too is associated with someone called John.  If, as seems quite likely, this John is John the Elder, it is significant that he is portrayed as having a particular concern for the churches of Asia Minor, among which the church at Ephesus is mentioned first - cf. the testimony of Irenaeus.


The sources and historical accuracy of John

I mentioned earlier that the text of John yields several valuable clues that the gospel was put together from pre-existing written and oral sources. These clues include the following:

1.  Jn 6.35-50, one of several passages in John in which a memorable saying beginning ‘I am’ is ascribed to Jesus, seems to contain the same narrative twice in somewhat different forms.  We may infer that the two narratives derive from a single earlier source.
2.  Something similar might be said about Jn 14 and 16 - there is some duplication in their contents, as well as a degree of inconsistency.  Jn 14 contains another ‘I am’ saying.
3.  There is a noticeable break between Jn 14 and Jn 15, as if the writer had left off using one source and gone on with another.  This observation, together with the two foregoing observations, suggests that John’s sources included a source which contained ‘I am’ speeches by Jesus.
4.  John records a series of major miracles performed by Jesus which he refers to several times as ‘signs’.  The first ‘sign’ is the turning of the water into wine at Cana (2.11).  Some minor miracles performed in Jerusalem are described as ‘signs’ at 2.23, but Jesus’ healing of the royal official’s son at Capernaum seems to be referred to at 4.54 as being only his second ‘sign’.
5.  Unlike other parts of John, the narratives concerning the ‘signs’ seem to draw on reliable early tradition and to have parallels in the synoptic gospels.  This and the preceding observation suggest that John made use of a pre-existing ‘signs source’.

One could go on to point out more irregularities in the text of John. Its famous prologue (‘In the beginning was the Word…’), for example, is stylistically and linguistically somewhat different from the rest of the gospel, and was probably added by an editor.  Something similar may be said of the gospel’s final chapters, which are tacked on to what seems to have been the original ending of the work (20.30f).  Several shorter passages - including the famous 3.16-21, 3.31-36, 5.25-29 and 12.44-50 - also seem to be slightly out of place in their present locations.

John has a reputation among both sceptics and believers for being historically inaccurate.  Much of its content is indeed unhistorical in the strict sense of the word: the ‘I am’ discourses, for example, are extended theological reflections rather than journalistic reports of sermons actually delivered by the historical Jesus.  On the other hand, a number of probably authentic sayings of Jesus are to be found embedded in the discourses placed in his mouth, such as the very important saying about the Temple found at 2.19, and casting the witness of John aside completely when seeking to reconstruct the career of the historical Jesus (as, for example, Geza Vermes does) is poor methodology.  It should be added that there are strong reasons for believing that most of the ‘signs’ which have been attributed to the hypothetical signs source have a historical basis.  At any rate, the signs source must (if it existed) have drawn on Palestinian traditions dating back to the period before 70, since its hypothetical contents show an accurate knowledge of the geography of Jerusalem before its destruction in that year.

It is also worth noting that the passion narrative of John may in some important respects be more accurate than the passion narratives in the synoptic gospels.  Notably, it places Jesus’ death on Passover rather than on Passover eve as the synoptics do, and this dating is widely considered by scholars to be more plausible.  One part of the passion narrative explicitly claims to be based on eyewitness testimony - 19.31-35, a curious incident which is not reported in the synoptics.  When Jesus was hanging dead on the cross, we are told, a Roman soldier pierced his side with a spear, and blood and water came flowing out.  A number of physicians have agreed that this episode is medically credible (the ‘water’ would have been pleural and pericardial fluid), though other scholars would see it as a fiction, perhaps intended to emphasise, against the claims of contemporary heretical sects, that Jesus had a real physical body.  Other passages like 20.1-7 (which involves the beloved disciple) contain circumstantial details which suggest that they may derive from eyewitness testimony - though, of course, credible circumstantial details are also characteristic of good fiction.

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