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Some Comments on Writing Introductions with Special Attention to John

Studying JohnI’m planning to start doing some discussion of Bible passages using Google Hangouts on Air during the coming year. Basically, I’m going to work through material I intend to use in Sunday School. One may ask why I’m doing this, considering that the last time I tried, I had little success. Well, the difference is that before we just created a hangout and waited for discussion. In this case, if necessary, I’m just going to talk through the material I’ve prepared and record it for my YouTube channel. This will be my personal channel, which I’ve been neglecting for some time, not my business channel. Thus whether anybody shows up or not I’ll be talking! (Could be a sign of insanity.) Watch for more information here.

I’m planning to follow the recent book Meditations on According to John by Herold Weiss, which approaches the book thematically. It’s that approach that I like. I will not necessarily agree with everything in the source book, but I’ll stick with the general structure. I’ll be consulting other materials, of course. Right now I’m reading The Gospel According to John (Revised) by Leon Morris in the New International Commentary on the New Testament series.

Introductions to Bible books are a very interesting art form. One has to cover a broad range of material and draw on many parallels (or not) as well as many themes from the book in order to provide some generalities to help the user in study. The readers, on the other hand, will not necessarily be prepared to hear all of that yet, because they haven’t yet read the book. I recall one of seminary professors remarking that he wanted to offer Introduction to the New Testament and Introduction to the Old Testament as senior rather than freshman religion courses. He thought students were not ready to appreciate a good introduction until they’d been exposed to, and struggled with, more of the questions. He was only partially saying this tongue-in-cheek. I know that I’ve enjoyed reading Old Testament introductions and theologies much more since I completed my MA program than I ever did as an undergraduate.

But the art of introduction is to provide the material without completely putting the reader to sleep, and come to some conclusions without losing your entire reading public. The problem is that by now there are so many theories on each book of the Bible that it’s very hard to sort through them all, classify them, decide what needs to be covered in detail, and then focus in on a conclusion. And then, suppose you’re wrong! What happens the someone’s understanding of the book ? We consider context important, and this sets the context, but it’s also easy to place a book in the wrong place.

For example, was the gospel of John written before or after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE? The consensus indicates it was written later, but there are a number of clues in the book that point to an earlier date. Then there are multiple theories for the origins of the book. Does it involve sources, or was it written more or less as is? How many sources and what did they contain? And whether or not there were sources, who was the author, and if you have sources, who authored them and who was the final redactor? All of these questions have an impact on how you will understand the book.

I’m reading conflicting introductions right now. Leon Morris leans toward Johannine authorship of the gospel and the epistles, and also toward an early date. Herold Weiss tends to see sources, a late date, and an unknown author. I kind of like that as I get to look at both sides. And the thing is that I find lots of reason to doubt almost all conclusions. In this sort of a mass of theories with evidence light on the ground doubt is a very reasonable position!

I consider myself a defender of biblical criticism. I appreciate such methods as form, source, and redaction criticism. The problem is that to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. To a biblical scholar with form criticism on his mind, everything is an orally transmitted pericope. To a biblical scholar with redaction criticism on the brain, everything appears to have been added by one redactor or another. And with all due (dis)honor to William of Okham, entities are multiplied all across the landscape. I believe there is orally transmitted material in scripture. I believe there are books that are constructed from sources. In fact, Samuel-Kings identifies sources. I believe that there have been redactors. But the details are very hard to pin down.  The more general ones can be stated with some certainty, though not beyond reasonable doubt. the more detailed the conclusion, the less certain one can be.

Now in the gospel of John, I’m not sure that there are really sources in the classic sense of the word. It seems to me to be a rather heavily united work. Are there stress lines? Yes. I see some places where it doesn’t seem to be sewn together as well as we might like. But after publishing more than 125 books, I can’t count the number of times I’ve told an author, “You’re transition here doesn’t make any sense.” Books written by human beings don’t always meet the criteria of the theology professor in the ivory tower. That’s because it’s hard to find the Bible book written by someone in an ivory tower!

So was John written by the apostle John or another eyewitness? Is it valuable in studying the historical Jesus? First, let me note that I’m quite weary of reading discussions that hinge entirely on preconceptions about historicity. One senses that certain scholars don’t want any of the gospels to be written by eyewitnesses, because that would suggest too much historicity in the life of Jesus. It’s easier to dismiss if we don’t have actual eyewitness reports. On the other hand we have folks who must conclude that the gospels were written by eyewitnesses because they must be history. We can determine who was the author based on the evidence (if there’s enough) without necessarily giving up everything else.

For example, I’m not nearly as excited about eyewitness testimony as it seems everyone else is. This comes from my experience with storytelling and hearing. My mother is now 96 years old, and we can sit down with various family members and get into some amazing disagreements about what went on. I remember a rare occasion in a recent discussion when I disagreed with my mother on something that happened and she said, “You know, I think you’re right.” That was astounding. Normally I defer to her because, quite frankly, she has a better memory than I do. But as I compare my memory with the stories others in the family tell, and compare their memory in turn with what others remember, I find that human memory is rather fallible, especially as our lives move forward. Since our family seems to be fairly long lived on both sides, I’ve had plenty of opportunity to hear stories evolve over time.

But perhaps a better parallel to oral transmission of stories in the gospels is my experience in church discussing reports of contemporary miracles. These stories also change. Persons with more authority in the group tend to tell the most authoritative version, and other people’s stories will converge toward theirs. Over time, there will be different versions. If you were there, you may not recognize the story by the time a few years have passed.

As a result, I no longer conclude that if we have eyewitnesses, we somehow have a reasonably accurate history, and if we are hearing from the next generation, we immediately do not. Rather, stories can achieve new highs or new lows within hours or days when humans are involved. In my opinion, there is history to be derived from the gospels, but since our kind of history is not what the gospel writers were aiming at, it’s not surprising that it’s hard to achieve. The question is how well the achieved their own aims.

And so we come to the question of whether any gospel, and particularly the gospel of John, were written as history. The answer, in my view, is yes and no. The problem is that we tend to take this as a binary question with an easy “yes” or “no” answer. No, I don’t think any gospel writer sat down to write history. By that I mean that they did not have as their primary consideration recording of facts in historical sequence for the purpose of providing a precise view of what happened. But that doesn’t mean that they didn’t care what happened at all. What they were interested in was in presenting the meaning of what happened. God has intervened in history and has been present in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. What does this mean? Now to get to the second question means that you have to have some basis in actual events, but your presentation and what you think is important may be different.

In this I take an example from preachers’ stories used as illustrations. There are some stories that have been repeated many times and now exist in many different versions. But generally differences come from the lesson the preacher wants to take from that illustration. The story will be shaped to its final purpose. That may annoy a consistency freak (and I confess to being disturbed by stories that exist in more than one version), but it’s natural human story telling. Thus we get different numbers of demoniacs when Jesus crosses the sea, or different numbers of times that the cock crows, or that Peter denies Jesus. I think efforts to reconcile this stuff are doomed to failure and of no practical value. In fact, they are some of the best evidence that we’re dealing with real stories told by real people. If someone made it all up, they’d be more consistent.

So I’m open to the idea that John the apostle wrote the gospel, and that it does, in fact, contribute to our knowledge of the historical Jesus. But I’m more interested in how it contributes to our understanding (rooted in history, yes, but not stuck there) of who Jesus was and is. Interestingly enough, I find that when I read Weiss’s essays, I don’t suddenly find that I must reject his conclusions if I change my mind about the dating of the book. (I haven’t changed my mind about the date, but I might, and I don’t hold my current view of a late date very tightly.)

As i study the book I’m going to be focusing on theology, but always mindful of history. I’m really enjoying the journey so far.

PS: A couple of resources from Energion Publications on this topic.


Meditations on According to John

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  1. Steve Kindle says:

    Henry, two great quotes come to mind. One from Nietzsche, “There are not facts, only interpretations.” And one from the towering Samuel Sandmel. I quote from his inaugural address assuming the presidency of the SBL, “We might for our purposes define parallelomania as that extravagance among scholars which first overdoes the supposed similarity in passages and then proceeds to
    describe source and derivation as if implying literary connection flowing in an inevitable or predetermined direction.” In another context I remember him saying that some higher critics write with such confidence that it is as if they were peeking over the editor’s shoulder.

    Your caution is exemplary. It is possible to hold two contradictory thoughts simultaneously.

  2. Steve Kindle says:

    For me, the entire Gospel of John is a meditation on the meaning of Jesus post resurrection. I’m not concerned with the historical factuality, of say, the raising of Lazarus (curiously, not a Synoptic story). The truth of this story is revealed in the “I am the resurrection and the life.” This story was told to reveal the present meaning of Jesus to his disciples. I used to discount John because I could not factor in the contradictory details (Matthew, Mark and Luke against John), such as the cleansing of the Temple at the beginning Jesus’ ministry, and the early Judean ministry. But when I began to see the Gospel as “meaning,” not history, it has become my favorite. It answers the question for me, “What is the meaning of Jesus for today?” The answer is that he is for us today as his disciples understood him to be through the Gospel of John.

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