Tuesday, April 03, 2007

John or The Fourth Evangelist: Part II

[The point of this post is to draw in both Critical and Conservative Bible scholars for, particularly, a discussion of The Gospel of John. I am not such a scholar, and I am posting my view on this - based on the work of others- to kick off that discussion. Certainly, it would be nice to have a good discussion of this here - or an "elsewhere" I am looking to create]

As the Catholic Encyclopedia points out:

The authenticity and authority of St. John's Gospel form the great battlefield of present N. T. criticism. They had been attacked as early as 1792 by a certain Evanson. The majority of contemporary critics incline to Harnack's view, which is that the Fourth Gospel was composed by John the Presbyter or the "elder" referred to in a fragment by Papias, and asserted by the Harnackians to be distinct from the Apostle and a disciple of the latter.
I think there are theological reasons for this assault on the authorship of John: as pointed out by the Catholic Encyclopedia article, John is mainly a theological work - not primarily an historical one - and it destroys the modern view that the divinity, and therefore the divine authority, of Jesus is a creation of the post-Apostolic church.

This part of the post will not be comprehensive - I would hope the reader will follow the links to the many much longer articles on the topic. However, I will try to at least deal with Ben's statement quoted in Part I:
I'm willing to concede more room than many of my colleagues for 'apostolic' authorship of many contested NT texts, but it is almost inconceivable (based on internal evidence alone) that, for instance, the Fourth Gospel was written by the Beloved Disciple who was John son of Zebedee.
To draw the distinction very sharply, I think it is almost inconceivable that scholars would discount the universal early church testimony to the authorship of the fourth Gospel by just that son of Zebedee based on the arguments I have seen presented. I offer the following resources for those wishing to investigate the Conservative arguments against the Critical view of John :
  • The Introduction to the section on John in B.W. Johnson's New Testament Commentary Vol. III (1886):
    If, then, John did not write the Fourth Gospel, it must have been written about the time he died by a great Unknown, the mightiest mind of the Gospel historians and palmed off on the men who knew John personally and had been educated at his feet as the genuine composition of the last of the apostles. This must have been done so skillfully that no dissenting voice in the Church protested against the fraud!
    This expresses exactly why I hold Critical scholars to a high level of proof if they are going to say the Apostle John's authorship of John is "inconceivable".

  • For a discussion of the difference between an anonymous work and a pseudoepigraphic one go here:
    "Until recently, most scholars tacitly assumed that the four gospels first circulated anonymously and that the present titles were first attached to them about A.D. 125 . . . Now, however, this consensus has been vigorously challenged by Martin Hengel. Hengel examines the practice of book distribution in the ancient world, where titles were necessary to identify a work to which any reference was made . . . Tertullian contends that "a work ought not to be recognized, which holds not its head erect ... which gives no promise of credibility from the fullness of its title and the just profession of its author." Hengel argues that as soon as two or more gospels were publicly read in any one church--a phenomenon that certainly occurred, he thinks, not later than A.D. 100--it would have been necessary to distinguish between them by some such device as a title. The unanimity of the attributions in the second century cannot be explained by anything other than the assumption that the titles were part of the works from the beginning. It is inconceivable, he argues, that the Gospels could circulate anonymously for up to sixty years, and then in the second century suddenly display unanimous attribution to certain authors . . . Hengel concludes that the four canonical gospels were never even formally anonymous.
  • "Background to the Study of John":
    Views on the authorship, origin, and historicity of the Fourth Gospel have changed drastically over the last century and a half. One hundred fifty years ago, if one had asked a New Testament scholar which of the four gospels gave us the most information about the life and ministry of Jesus, the answer would almost invariably have been, “The Gospel of John.” Today if one asks a typical New Testament scholar the same question, the Gospel of John would be the last choice as a source of information about Jesus (if it was viewed as having anything to say about this topic at all) . . . This state of affairs held sway until only about two decades ago. Things have now begun to change again with regard to views on the Fourth Gospel as a legitimate source for information about Jesus’ life and ministry.
  • "Major Differences Between John and the Synoptic Gospels"
  • Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel of John
  • "The Gospel of John: Introduction, Argument, Outline"
I will follow this last by Daniel Wallace, primarily, for sake of unity throughout the series: unless otherwise stated it is almost all a direct quote, paraphrase, and/or re-arrangement of Wallace's argument. Since Ben mentioned the internal evidence as adequate (and seemingly overwhelming) to prove the Apostle John was not the book's author, I will focus there (and leave the reader to look at the external evidence in the links on their own).

Internal Evidence of Authorship

Against John's authorship: Wallace traces three areas:
  1. the identification of the “beloved disciple,”: Although the identification of the beloved disciple with the apostle John has been alleged as a proof of Johannine authorship, one problem plagues this certitude: would any writer be so arrogant as to identify himself in such a manner?
    • However, not only is ἀγαπάω rather than φιλέω used in this designation (suggesting more of a commendation of the subject than the object), but
    • John, in his old age, might well have adopted an affectionate term given to him by others in this self-description. “Far from it being an evidence of arrogance, as is so often suggested, it may perhaps be regarded as a sign of modesty" -- Guthrie

  2. apparent contradictions with the synoptic material: Where John and the synoptics do overlap (only 8-10% of the time), there seem to be inherent contradictions, especially in three areas: the cleansing of the temple, the presentation of dominical sayings, and the chronology of the Lord’s supper.
    • Although John places the temple cleansing early in Jesus’ ministry, there is no necessary chronological indicator in John 2. Thus, John may have moved it forward for theological/motif reasons. Further, there is a good possibility that Jesus cleansed the temple twice
    • Although the Johannine Jesus speaks with a different voice than the synoptic Jesus, only if we assume both that (a) only ipsissima verba constitute authentic dominical sayings and (b) Jesus must speak the same way, regardless of his audience or locale (Galilee in the synoptics, Judea in John especially), does this criticism hold water. In our view, John has indeed hellenized the voice of Jesus for the sake of his largely Gentile audience. But this is not to deny his accuracy, for he basically gives us the ipsissima vox, not the ipsissima verba of Jesus.
    • The Lord’s Supper in John does pose major historical difficulties with the presentation in the first three gospels.
      • Wallace leaves it at saying that there are solutions available which, in the final analysis, may indeed show independence, but not contradiction; and suggests particularly reading H. W. Hoehner, Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ, 76-90; and I. H. Marshall, Last Supper and Lord’s Supper, 30-56.
      • Deffinbaugh also dismisses this while giving resourses:
        There are many technical questions involved in the timing of this meal, which are of much interest to scholars, but not of much profit to our exposition. Suffice it to say that John is not really interested in such matters, either. He must have read the Synoptic Gospels before he wrote this Gospel, and yet he did not see it profitable to clarify every apparent discrepancy. For a more careful look into these issues and possible solutions, see D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John, pp. 455-458.
      • Johnson, however, says:
        To the same conclusions the Hebraic style of the book bears testimony. Dr. Ewald, the greatest Hebrew scholar of the nineteenth century, declares “The Greek language of our author bears the strongest marks of a genuine Hebrew who, born among the Jews of the Holy Land, and having grown up among them, had learned the Greek language in later life, but still exhibits in the midst of the whole the spirit and air of his native tongue.”
For John's authorship: Ben implied that the internal evidence runs against the Apostle John writing John; but there is positive internal evidence for his authorship to go with the rebuttals of the evidence against above.
  1. Westcott's Concentric Proofs which according to Harris have never been refuted - only ignored.

  2. Incidental Evidence:
    • The author uses the historical present more than any other gospel writer (161 times) and in such a way as to indicate vividness of portrayal. One should note the especially heavy use in chapter 4 and the passion narrative. This suggests the vivid recollections of an eyewitness.
    • In 19:35 and 21:24-25 the most natural reading of the text suggests that an eyewitness wrote the gospel. But this has been debated: “advocates of theories of authorship which deny an eyewitness author treat the clear testimony of this verse [21:24] as a redactional device.… By such a method any embarrassing evidence can be disposed of."
    • The beloved disciple shows up with Peter on several occasions; belongs to a group of seven in 21:2 (Peter, Thomas, Nathanael, the sons of Zebedee, and two others) — and here, he must be one of the last four unnamed disciples; and nowhere in this gospel does John the disciple appear by name (even though he is named twenty times in the synoptics). This strongly infers either that the author of this work was absolutely unaware of John the disciple—a possibility which seems quite remote—or he was John the disciple.
    • Independence from the synoptic tradition coupled with early and widespread acceptance by the church. The fact that over 90% of the material in this gospel is unique to itself, coupled with its early acceptance by the church, argues very strongly that it was authored by some authority. This, coupled with the further fact that John was widely employed in early gnostic circles yet was not thereby abandoned by the orthodox, argues quite compellingly that all quarters recognized its authority. A work not done by an apostle would hardly have met such a reception.
Going back to Johnson's statement quoted above: it will take far more proof than Critical scholars have presented up to now to overwhelm the external proof in the testimony of the early church; and the internal evidence which I think favors John as the author of John. Certainly, his authorship isn't "inconceivable".

Dating the Gospel of John

I am not going to go into this here. I will only state that I agree with John A.T. Robinson that John pre-dates the destruction of Jerusalem - I think it was written before 64 AD; and that John did not have access to the synoptics when he wrote it. There are many arguments on this in most of the quoted pieces and the reader can draw their own conclusion. The one conclusion, however, that I believe is impossible, based on manuscript evidence from 20th century archeology, is that John was written anywhere after the 90's.


  1. Sorry to take so long to respond. I appreciate your posts, and I'll write something longer in response, either here or on the Watchpost. You've raised some interesting issues, and I don't entirely disagree with you on some points (my hunch is that historical-critical scholars date John too late, for instance.)

    However I want to raise a general problem with your approach here. Scholars who ignore the Westcott proof are doing the most charitable thing. It's a very bad argument, one that I could use to prove that Shakespeare actually lived during the 15th century and was a member of Henry IV's court.

    And this is the problem. To what extent are you willing to generalize these methods of establishing authorship? Must an "anti-supernatural" bias be excluded when we're reading, from a scholarly perspective, the lives of the saints? Or more to the point, the Qu'ran? What about Homer? What conservative scholars seem to object to is that critical scholars use the same methods of reading for the Bible that they use with other historical texts. This is appropriate (not necessarily for the Church, but for the academy). If you want an exemption for the Bible, I don't see how you can deny one for any other sacred or historically significant text.

  2. Hi Ben

    Thanks for the response:

    Scholars who ignore the Westcott proof are doing the most charitable thing. It's a very bad argument, one that I could use to prove that Shakespeare actually lived during the 15th century and was a member of Henry IV's court.

    This is my problem. Conservative Christian scholars are this stupid? Maybe, but this would be a very good post for you to do for here (I will guest host it), Watchpost, or otherwise - refute it.

    Now either the internal evidence is as one-sided as you originally indicated, or as one-sided as Westcott (one of the finest Greek New Testament scholars ever) believes. Which is it? Are there internal evidences that run counter to the steps in the concentric proof?

    As to admission of supernatural evidence: I made it clear that I have no problem with secular and materialist scholars trying to work around the supernatural - Christian or not. I expect that.

    So my problem isnt with the academy, I stated it was with the church adopting secular/materialist viewpoints on scripture and the supernatural.

    Certainly, I will not out-of-hand deny the supernatural claims of anyone - you are correct I cannot. However, since I believe there are "principalities and powers" outside of God and His prophets, etc. - my acceptance of their supernatural claims may not make them happy either :-)

    The Ou'ran and the Bible are mutally exclusive when it comes to the person of Christ - so I cannot be particularly graceful, if pressed, about the source of Mohammad's revelation.

  3. I tend to favor a hybrid view: The core of the gospel was written early, by an eyewitness, but the gospel was put into its final form by a later writer. Both internal and external evidence can be found to support this view.

    1) Internal: The details, the present tense, the identification of the "beloved disciple" as the author, as you mention, all point to eyewitness authorship.

    On the other hand, chronological anomalies suggest later editing: At the end of chapter 4 Jesus is in Galilee, in chapter 5 he goes to Jerusalem, but as chapter 6 begins he is still in Galilee, preparing to cross the Sea of Tiberias. In 6:22-40 he is talking to a crowd beside the sea, but then in verse 41, "the Jews" -- John's designation for Jesus' opponents in Jerusalem (see 7:1) -- "began to complain." There are other examples, notably placing the temple cleansing at the beginning of Jesus' ministry.

    Furthermore, John 21:24 makes a sharp distinction between the initial author -- the beloved disciple -- and the final editor: "This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true." Whether the "we" refers to a group of editors or to the editor and the initial readers, it draws a clear distinction between the gospel in its final form and the disciple who provided the written source. The most natural reading of 21:22-23 suggests that the beloved disciple had died, contrary to the expectations of the community. The gospel may have been produced by the community in order to keep his memories alive.

    Finally, the highly developed Christology argues for a late date, even as some stories from the gospel show the signs of early composition.

    External: The identification of John by the early church, combined with the (relatively) late distribution and acceptance of this gospel and the common belief among early Christians that this was written to supplement the other gospels suggest that a considerable time may have passed between the initial writing and the publication.

  4. Westcott's proof, at least from part III forward, falls apart completely unless you assume that details can only be captured by eyewitnesses and not by literary authors. A profusion of details is no argument for any kind of authorship; all we know is that the author liked details. In fact, some of the evidence in the proof actually argues against an eyewitness composition--conversations that happened in private (Jesus and Nicodemus, Jesus and the woman caught in adultery, the high priests plotting to kill Jesus) are recorded in the same voice as events that took place in public. This suggests to me, simply on the face of it, that the text as we have it was fashioned by an editorial hand (or hands) on the basis of earlier first-hand accounts.

    More to the point, by Westcott's purported proof, I could demonstrate that Homer was personally present at Troy--after all, there are all kinds of details that only an eyewitness would have seen! My point is that as soon as you apply this kind of reasoning to any text other than the Bible, it looks just ridiculous. If you want to claim some kind of special/inerrant inspiration for the text under discussion as a warrant of its particular claims to accuracy, you've just begged the question.

    The chronology of the crucifixion is another, perhaps more troubling matter. You've twice mentioned a scholar who thinks this isn't really a problem, but you haven't presented his argument. I am genuinely curious as to how two supposedly eyewitness accounts of Christ's death could contradict each other on the date in question. It's the most important point in the story. Either one or the other (or both) accounts were second-hand, or one or the other (probably John, but also possibly both) were deliberately falsifying the chronology to make a theological point. This is not good.

    At the same time, I take all the Gospels to be faithful witnesses to the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. I don't believe the Church should use historical-critical conclusions to establish its doctrine, but neither should it simply pretend that they don't matter or that they can be waved away.

    Brucea--I think I share your general view, on John 21 especially, which was obviously added by a later hand than the previous edition, which ends quite neatly in chapter 20. But I don't know that any model of composition solves the problem you mention of chronological disorder. Whether authorial or editorial, eyewitness or secondhand, whoever put the Gospel into its current form must have been aware of these inconsistencies. It really strikes me as a puzzle.


How to debate charitably (rules are links to more description of rule):
1. The Golden Rule
2. You cannot read minds
3. People are not evil
4. Debates are not for winning
5. You make mistakes
6. Not everyone cares as much as you
7. Engaging is hard work
8. Differences can be subtle
9. Give up quietly