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Tuesday, September 06, 2005

John's Gospel and the Historical Jesus

For many (me included) John's gospel is of little use for studying the historical Jesus. But it is particularly interesting that NT Wright makes little use of John in his big Jesus book. I think this issue, if I remember rightly was also raised by Crossan in debate with Wright. Michael Bird noted that at the Edinburgh Dogmatics conference NT Wright was pushed on the use of John's gospel and added that it was a bit of a problem for Wright. So just a couple of related questions. One for Michael: what did Wright have to say about this in Edinburgh? The other more open: as there are a few Wright fans out there what do you think of using John's gospel as a source for the historical Jesus?


Anonymous Pete Phillips said...

Hi James,
I'm sorry that you feel the Gospel is of little use for historical Jesus research. I agree with you that what John says he says theologically - however, I don't think that needs to limit the use of the text. I remember the 'discussions' in the Johannine Seminar at BNTC a couple of years ago when we discussed Maurice Casey's book on John's historicity. Needless to say, the Johannine scholars don't think it's all as cut and dried as Maurice does. The Gospel does provide a tradition - possibly even one with a trajectory common to the Synoptics, or even with Paul, and as such can provide important understandings about the historical Jesus. Of course, that is unless you think the Synoptics or the alleged Q should be regarded as non-theological. Is there really that much less theology in Luke or Matthew than there is in John. I know its not so rich but don't they spin Jesus as well? And of course which flavour of Q do you want to use? Of course, one of the huge sticking points with John for you might be his antithesis between law and grace - a Pauline link? I am not so sure you can get a law-observant Jesus from John (or any of the canonical gospels???)!


September 07, 2005

Blogger Michael F. Bird said...

James, I might blog on this topic later in the week when I have time. I can't remember now everything that Wright said about John (although I did feel sorry for the poor chap since he was being grilled by systematic theologians on historical issues!). I was more concerned with the fact that Wright wore sandals and socks to a conference! To date, the biggest influences on my view of history and John have come from James Dunn, Martin Hengel and Craig Blomberg, so I like to be "critically optimistic" (which sounds a bit like military intelligence). In sum, I think there is a tradition of somekind embedded within John, but it is thrown in a very definite theological trajectory. Like Peter says, issues of history, tradition, and theology in John (and identifying which is which) is not cut and dry.

September 07, 2005

Anonymous steph said...

nakedness is glorious but Wright's bare knees ...

September 07, 2005

Blogger J. B. Hood said...


I think the points where John intersects with the Synoptics and other early Christian witness are especially interesting. The centrality of the Cross is one of these--especially the cross-bearing, self-sacrificial approach to which Jesus calls his followers, modeled on his own cruciform life and death (12:23-27, possibly 13:12-15; parallels in Synoptics and of course in Paul abound; Hebrews 13:12-16, I Jn 3:16-19, etc). Seems inescapable that such a view was part of Jesus' ministry and part of what he called his followers to live.

As far as NTW's comments, they simply reflect the discipline more than the man. From a theological standpoint there's a danger that if we privilege historical study (in the Caird sense) and somehow then mitigate John as a result, we lose the critical breadth of the Canon and wind up with a de facto canon within the canon; Mark and Q leading the charge; Matt, Luke and then (far behind) John relegated to the rear.

That is probably of less interest in a scholarly context; but I suppose NTW is bound by the canons of the academy, even if he is a bishop. Que lastima. Would his books have taken a very different turn after NTPG (John would have fit in nicely in worldview discussion) if he had incorporated JnG?

September 07, 2005

Blogger James Crossley said...

Ok, I think it is only fair I respond and forgive me for lumping things together.

John's gospel alone has something like a fully divine Christ. There is nothing like those Christological conflicts in the synoptics. It seems to me to be unlikely that these disputes would not leave their trace on the synoptic tradition. I don't think the other traditions are non-theological or that theological equals useless for the historical Jesus: that approach borders on the impossible as I think we'd all agree. I would see it as a question of what is historically plausible in given contexts.

The Law is a good example. It is absolutely true that John's Jesus stands outside the law: he openly advocates breaking biblical Sabbath law for example. This is in complete contrast to the synoptic tradition. I have argued at some lenth (3 or so chapters in the Date of Mark) that every legal tradition in the synoptic tradition fits neatly into the broad spectrum of Jewish views at the time. These could get very heated and even deadly but still intra-Jewish.

As for Q, I'm in favour of it in title only. I am very agnostic as to what form it could take. I would only use it as shorthand for material particular to Lk and Mt. Nothing more than that. But it is useful as an independent witness.

Maurice can defend himself. While neither agreeing or disagreeing with him I would argue differently (assuming he hasn't made the following argument elsewhere). If we were left only with John we would have a law breaking fully divine (at least something that offends Jews) and is killed for raising Lazarus. This is far removed from the historical Jesus.

Of course some of the basics are there in John such as he was active in Galilee, had disciples, went to Jerusalem, crucified, and so on. That isn't that bad in terms of ancient history I suppose. You might get broader themes like the cross/following Jesus theme Jason mentions. But the more we focus on John the more we see that the details are more reflective of post-Jesus issues.

I'm sure you are right Jason that the issues with John reflect more the discipline. I would probably qualify this with more the sub discipline as there are many who aren't so keen on using John. Also, I suppose Wright has writtenthe main book from a conservative perspective which can hardly be ignored (although Burton Mack manages to do so). For some Xns (those here?) it is theology that counts more than history so there would be no need to put the value of Mark over John even if Mark has moreuse in historical Jesus studies.

Would NTW's Jesus have seemed different? That's a tricky one which only he can answer. I'm sure John would fit in somewhere (after all Wright would have a 'high Christology' if that's the right phrase for the historical Jesus and he has major parts of the law as redundant). But it remains very interesting for a scholar who seems to think all the synoptic traditions are historically reliable that John is relatively absent.

For your knowledge Michael there were others who sported shall we call it 'the Wright look' at the BNTC (not me I hasten to add). You're in the UK now so you'll have to get used to that particular fashion.

I'll answer your other question here Michael. I am not on the Sheffield University site. I joined last Feb on a short term contract but am now sorting out the details for this year.

September 07, 2005

Anonymous Christopher Shell said...

For my money, NTW recognises well (a) the major differences between John and the Synoptics, and also (b) the way those differences impact on questions of historicity. He says (as I remember) in JVG that he could have included discussion of John, but that this would have made it quite a different book, and somewhat too vast and unwieldy a project. In this lies the answer:why else would it be so hard to synthesise John and the Synoptics unless at least one of them were largely ahistorical?

The ahistorical nature of much of John is a major datum, and therefore has been majorly evident to many from a majorly early stage in 20th century scholarship. Its genuine historical value is a minor (and just as valid) datum, and - given that the evidence for it is less -became evident later. Sometimes it is given more emphasis since it is a later insight - the logic of which does not stand up. John actually in my view has more genuine first-generation material than any gospel apart from Mark, and should be dated accordingly - but this does not give the majority of it historical value.

September 09, 2005

Anonymous Christopher Shell said...

I also forgot to mention that NTW is often to be found standing in opposition to what he calls a rather silly period in recent American scholarship (in terms of the privileging by some of fragmentary & probably late gospels etc), and is well aware of the way some stereotyping folks (both sympathetic and unsympathetic to his cause) would see him as a defector if he seemed to take a dim view of the historicity of any of the gospels.

September 09, 2005

Blogger Geoff Hudson said...

Certainly I would recommend John's gospel for the study of the historical prophet. Indeed I would go further and suggest, partly because it is so different from the other three gospels, that it was originally a writing in the first person by the prophet himself. The writing was a mixture of theology important to the prophet, as in John 1, and events in the life of the prophet as in his recollection of the woman at the 'well' of John 4.

Geoff Hudson
233 The Long Shoot
CV11 6JH
Tel 024 7673 7417

October 13, 2005


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