Thursday, March 16, 2017

Does John tell us anything about the historical Jesus?

Who is speaking in John 3:16? Is it Jesus, or is it the narrator? There are no quotation marks in Greek, so the translators have to rely on the context to determine the limits of a speech. Note that in the ESV and NKJ, Jesus is speaking in John 3:16, while in the NIV and RSV, the narrator is speaking.

This illustrates one of the key distinctives of the fourth gospel: in the Gospel of John, Jesus sounds more like the narrator than like the Jesus of the Synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke). He sounds so much like the narrator that it is often difficult to tell who is speaking. Furthermore, instead of the rather disjointed collection of short stories we find in the Synoptics, John consists of long, smooth discourses which develop themes interwoven throughout the entire gospel. 

These features of John have led many scholars to conclude that in this gospel, we do not hear the voice of the historical Jesus. Instead, we hear the voice of later Christian theologians expressing their theology by putting words into Jesus’ mouth.  Thus the Gospel of John tells us much about the Christ of faith, but virtually nothing about the Jesus of history.

However, there is another explanation for the distinctive form of John’s gospel. First, we have to understand that the ancients viewed history writing differently than modern people do. In an essay entitled, “How to Write History,” the 2nd century writer Lucian criticizes those he considers bad historians:
Another of them has compiled a bare record of the events and set it down on paper, completely prosaic and ordinary, such as a soldier or artisan or pedlar following the army might have put together as a diary of daily events. However, this amateur was not so bad—it was quite obvious at the beginning what he was, and his work has cleared the ground for some future historian of taste and ability. (16)
Note that this is precisely the sort of history a modern researcher would be delighted to find! For Lucian, however, “a bare record of the events” barely qualifies as history at all. Lucian is very concerned that historians do not invent or manufacture their facts. Nevertheless, he insists that once historians have acquired their facts, they should fashion and shape them, much like a sculptor.
The writer of history should be like ... one of the ... sculptors—they certainly never manufactured their own gold or silver or ivory or their other material; no, their material was before them, put into their hands ... and they confined themselves to fashioning it, sawing the ivory, polishing, glueing, aligning it, setting it off with the gold, and their art lay in handling their material properly. The task of the historian is similar: to give a fine arrangement to events and illuminate them as vividly as possible. And when a man who has heard him thinks thereafter that he is actually seeing what is being described and then praises him—then it is that the work of ... history is perfect and has received its proper praise. (50-51)
Note that Lucian is interested in truth. The “fashioning” Lucian envisions is not to distort the truth; it is to make the truth more vivid and accessible to the reader. Lucian understands that a good story, which is faithful to the facts, can communicate the truth of an event better than “a bare record.”

Now let us return again to the Gospel of John. Consider these words from Richard Bauckham (Cambridge):
There is at least one sense in which the Gospel of John resembles Greco-Roman historiography more closely than the Synoptic Gospels do. ... [John] presents a much more thoroughly and extensively interpreted version of the story of Jesus. Though the writers of the Synoptic Gospels incorporate and fashion their sources into an integrated whole ... they remain close to the ways in which the eyewitnesses told their stories and transmitted the sayings of Jesus. They are collections of such stories and sayings, selected, combined, arranged, and adapted, but with only a relatively small degree of freely created interpretive comment and addition. They have preserved the formal character of their sources to a much greater extent than most Greco-Roman historians did. The latter generally assimilated their sources into seamless, comprehensive narratives strongly expressive of their own developed interpretations of the history they related. ... Thus, whereas scholars have often supposed that [John] could not have been written by an eyewitness because of its high degree of interpretation of the events and the words of Jesus ... in fact the high degree of interpretation is appropriate precisely because this is the only one of the canonical Gospels that claims eyewitness authorship. (410-11)
Consider how different the authorial perspective is in Luke vs. John:
Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word have handed them down to us, it seemed fitting for me as well, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in consecutive order, most excellent Theophilus; so that you might know the exact truth about the things you have been taught. (Luke 1:1-4)
And he who has seen has borne witness, and his witness is true; and he knows that he is telling the truth, so that you also may believe. (John 19:35)
In summary, it is certainly true that in the fourth Gospel, we encounter Jesus as interpreted by the author. But the author is free to do this because, unlike Luke, he knew Jesus! He is not simply passing on traditions he received from the eyewitnesses. He was one of the eyewitnesses! He reclined against Jesus at the last supper (13:23), he stood at the foot of the cross and watched Jesus die (19:26-27, 35), and he entered the tomb and found it empty (20:2-8). He is qualified to tell us who Jesus is.

According to the Gospel of John, the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith are one and the same.


[I am currently teaching an adult Sunday School class at the Offerings campus of the First UMC church in Lexington. We meet at 11:20 in the building adjacent to the church. If you are in the area, we would love to have you join us! This post is part of a series of notes I am writing as I teach the class. Click here to read them all.]

1 comment:

Debbie said...

When I read the Bible, I read it as from God. I realize God used human authors, with all their different personalities and writing styles and interests, but the entirety of the writing is God-breathed. It can be interesting to note the different styles of the human writers, but what makes the Bible a living and powerful book is that it is God's words spoken through human authors. A simple idea, I know, but I care not a whit what even the greatest of men tell me. I want to hear what God says. I can count on that, even to death.