Some Thoughts on the Gospel of John, Part 1

The Rylands Papyrus, the earliest Gospel of John fragment, dated to about 125. Wikipedia

The Rylands Papyrus, the earliest Gospel of John fragment, dated to about 125. Wikipedia

In this series of posts I want to share some of my thinking about the gospel of John. I am well aware that there will be many who will disagree with what I have to say: Some will find me too credulous, I suppose, while others will find my ideas too “liberal”, that is, they will think that I do not hold a high enough vision of Scripture. Let me just say here, in my defence, that I disagree with both criticisms. A careful reading of what I say will show that there is much that I admit we do not, and probably cannot, know, and I am very willing to admit that many commonly held beliefs about the Gospel are wrong. On the other hand, I do believe that the Gospel of John is part of an inspired cannon, that it is the Word of God, and that it is therefore true. However, I do not hold to a simplistic view of truth, as will become apparent.

In this post I want to talk about how the Gospel came to be written, as I think that holds a clue to what many see as the problems of the Gospel. In the subsequent parts I want to look at those problems in several broad categories.

The first question to be addressed, then, is that of authorship/composition, because this will have serious implications on the questions of form later on. “Who wrote John’s Gospel?” Well, the obvious answer is John, but that is far too simplistic an answer, based on the common name for the book which is, in fact, a later attribution and not part of the work itself.

It is a fact (though unrecognised by many, if not most, Christians) That none of the gospels make any claim about who wrote them. While it may seem fairly safe to say that Luke’s Gospel was written by the same author as Acts, neither name Luke as author. That attribution seems to be due mainly to the way Acts shifts from talking about “them” to “us” in passages where Luke seems to be present. However, another explanation is possible: It has been suggested that among the many documents the author claims to have examined and used in creating his “orderly account” was Luke’s travel diary and that the shift may represent extended quotations from this.

So if all of the authorship attributions are traditional, what is the tradition that names John as author of the Gospel under consideration? The story is recounted via Eusebius (who quotes earlier, now lost, sources from Irenaeus and Clement of Alexandria) and tells how John, as an old man, was living in Ephesus and was urged by the elders there to commit what he knew to writing because they feared losing his knowledge and thought him to be the last surviving Apostle. Now this story seems quite likely–it has a ring of truth about it–and is also extremely early, so much so that there would likely have been people around who could have refuted it had it been wrong. Whether it was actually John who was responsible, it is clear from the internal evidence that we are dealing with an eye-witness account (the Gospel so states, very baldly), and it really doesn’t matter too much beyond that who it was. Still, it is useful to have a name to use when writing about it, so let us call the author John whilst holding in abeyance any firm conviction as to who John really was.

What seems to me to be important is that this is a later Gospel, therefore the one whose remembrances form it must be quite old. I say “the one whose remembrances form it” deliberately, because I am fairly convinced that that person and the one(s) who actually created the book are not the same. This is because of John 21:24 “This is the disciple who testifies of these things and wrote these things; and we know that his testimony is true”. “This is…” refers to the disciple in the previous story “whom Jesus loved”, who is, by all appearance, John. Thus this is the eyewitness who “wrote these things”, hence the author of the gospel, right? But then, who are the “we” who “know that his testimony is true”? Logically, this “we” would be the authors of the Gospel. Only, if that is the case, what did John write?

I think there is one scenario, in itself quite likely, that makes full sense of this verse. Let us assume that the tradition is true, that the elders have asked John to record his remembrances. John (or whoever) is, as we have said, quite old and so it would not have been at all unusual for him to use an amanuensis–that is, someone who would be more than a secretary but less than a ghost writer. It is easy to see the old man reminiscing, probably in no particular order, on his days with Jesus and one or more people sitting with him taking notes on wax tablets. Eventually they would have ended up with a pile of tales and, probably, John’s musings on their meaning (and perhaps they also added notes from sermons her had preached to them), from which they would have assembled the final book. Perhaps, by the time they got around to actually creating the final book, John had died and so could not affect the sequence they chose for the stories.

So now our troublesome verse would mean “John is the disciple who testified of these things and who wrote (composed, told?) these stories and we, who have compiled them into this book, know that he can be trusted”.

Next time I will look at how this idea of the composition method of the Gospel can help us to make sense of some of the “problems” with the flow of events in the Gospel, including the those disagreement of chronology with the synoptic gospels and with several “odd” statements in the Gospel itself.


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3 Responses to “Some Thoughts on the Gospel of John, Part 1”

  1. treegestalt Says:

    When you read ‘John’, it is clearly not a literal ‘What Jesus Said And Did’ kind of book. We have many quotations from Jesus in the synoptics; there’s a definite Aramaic way of putting things, a strong concise poetic style at work — and not a Greek theologian’s. Probably much of the gnarly content was from insights Jesus tried to convey to his closest disciples; but it clearly wasn’t the public prophetic message from the synoptics. The ‘your mother’ style of the debates with Judaic leaders was probably not the sort of thing said on either side. (But probably describes the underlying tone!)

    This is, the best as I can read it, a ‘meaning of what Jesus said and did’ book. Some of the weird chronology and evidently fictional (hence the rich detail, not ‘a sign of eyewitness origin’ at all, except in the tendency to mentally ‘edit’ very old memories with a ‘how it must have been’ sort of distortion) incidents may even have resulted from this being partly about things Jesus did after Resurrection… Hence the incident that would have certainly triggered the crucifixion comes at the beginning….?

    • thoughtfulspirituality Says:

      You are anticipating me, Treegestalt! I will have much to say on the chronology problems next time, including the cleansing of the temple incident, and I’ll try to show why I think it is in the wrong place (as far as the synoptics chronology goes, logically, and even textually).

      I’m not so sure that I agree with you about the helenistic type of argument: That was quite a common idea a while ago but more recently newer findings, including the Qumran documents, have shown much more of that sort of Greek logic in contemporary Judean writings. It may be that the rabinic writings avoided it, but clearly others in Judea did not.

      That said, I do agree that the book shows a lot more reflection on things, a longer perspective if you will, than the synoptics show. There is clearly more here than just what Jesus did and even said. What I hope to show, in the third post, is that some of the things that critics have said John “puts into Jesus’ mouth” are not that at all but John’s thoughts voiced for himself as commentary.

      Not sure why you say that “The ‘your mother’ style of the debates with Judaic leaders was probably not the sort of thing said on either side”–those seem quite true to the style of argumentation that is clearly seen in the writings of the rabbis. True it is a much more confrontational style than most of us “civilized” westerners are used to, but not so for other cultures and times.

      • treegestalt Says:

        True, I remember reading a debate, between Roger Williams and a traveling Quaker preacher, where they’re enthusiastically calling each other ‘liars’, having evidently no concept of ‘sees things differently’… And modern internet flame wars can show a similar tone, a similar neglect of substance in favor of hostility.

        I really don’t think ‘John’ is handling the substance of these debates as well as the synoptics. Even his idea of what a ‘messiah’ is — looks like something reworked for a different audience, in a time when radical Jewish nationalism has been decisively slapped down, could only be taken badly.

        All that interaction seems more plausible as a description of arguments — not between Jesus & Judean leaders — but between Christians and Jews after these had become separate & hostile groups.

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