Skip to main content

John: Genre and Historicity

In preparation, I have been slogging my way through page after page of introductions to the Gospel of John. At the same time My wife has asked me to prepare some material on ancient Greek, Roman, and Jewish history and culture to aid her Bible reading. So, I've red\ad David Aune's masterful study The New Testament in Its Literary Environment (Library of Early Christianity). This is probably not a popular view, but I believe that these types of background study are indispensable - even more important to New Testament study than knowledge of Greek.

One of the commentaries I plan on using to study John is the masterful work of Craig Keener. I think he's one of the two or three best active Evangelical New Testament scholars. What I appreciate is his strong emphasis on background and his effort to place John within the proper genre for analysis. Keener, along with Aune, consider John to be a biography.[1] Ancient biography could span from pure fiction to an account of a person's life that was firmly rooted in history.

Where does John fall on that spectrum? In John 21:24 the author insists on the historical reliability of his testimony. Clearly, this means that he is intending to portray Jesus in a way that was consistent with the life he actually lived. That is not to that he did not shape what he wrote or invent discourses, a procedure perfectly acceptable in ancient biography. In fact, inventing discourses would be a necessity, unless the disciples had truly remarkable memories.[2] Speeches had to be made up, and were created to be appropriate to the setting and appropriate to the character of the individual. Ancient biographies would have been very boring otherwise.

So how historically reliable is John? There's really no way to know. To side with Dale Allison, we don't have enough independent sources to confirm or deny the historicity of many pericopes. The criteria typically used are of some value but I think are often misapplied.[3] This is why Keener's and Aune's work is so important. Given the way biography typically was written in the ancient world and its connections to the synoptic gospels, there's little reason to believe that John invented large blocks of material wholesale in a way that would mislead us from understanding who Jesus was. He does indeed seem to have cast Jesus ministry in a very particular mold, but he seems to respect his source material. In my estimation, on the whole, John does portray Jesus accurately and give us real insight into his significance. Yes, John could be deceiving us, and there's no way we could ever know, but does the author of the gospel seem like a deceiver? Not to me.

-----------------------------------
[1] My biggest issue with Keener's work is that while depending on the work of Aune he obscures a distinction that Aune finds significant - that of biography from history. They were separate genres with separate conventions and expectations. When Keener discusses the historical reliability of John he sometimes draws analogies from ancient historiography.

[2] Keener discusses the ancient claims of the reliability of the memories of disciples of ancient teachers. While I believe that disciples could and probably did memorize teachers' sayings in a classroom setting or even public speeches, it is highly unlikely that they memorized disputes with other teachers or impromptu conversations. We need to deploy Keener's evidence cautiously.

[3] For example, multiple attestation in independent sources (e.g., of the crucifixion of Jesus by the Romans) does mean an even likely happened. However, given the paucity of independent sources, a lack of multiple attestation means very little as recently noted by deSilva.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Exploring the Christian Way of Life - The Identity of Jesus - Church History (Pre-Reformation) - Aquinas and Conclusion

When we reach Aquinas we come to the pinnacle of orthodoxy when it comes to the Trinity and Christology. Christology was important to Aquinas and he dedicated the first fifty-nine questions of Tertia Pars of his Summa Theologiae[1] to the topic. In many ways it is refreshing because he does not treat solely the more philosophical questions of who Jesus was that preoccupied theologians from the third century on. He also spent extended time on Jesus earthly ministry, death, resurrection, ascension, and glorification which was a major innovation.[2] Of course every possible topic of Trinitarian and ontological speculation is also probed. For the sake of space we will only hit some highlights.

Aquinas is clearly in step with the tradition that can be traced from Nicea, through Augustine and the Lombard, to the heart of the Middle Ages. One thing to briefly note is that even in his densest argumentation, Aquinas was not trying to prove elements of his theology via rational argument as that…

Exploring the Christian Way of Life - The Identity of Jesus - Church History (Pre-Reformation) - Irenaeus

Starting from Irenaeus, Christology, in some respects, moves on. A big part of this would have been due to the “gnostic” controversies. It became increasingly important to clarify the relationship between Father and Son and to minimize their distinctiveness, while still maintaining Jesus’ full humanity. From this point on, clashes over heresy about the nature of Christ and discussions related to Trinitarian theology dominate Christological discussion to the point that the original emphasis on Jesus’ Messianic identity fades to the background.[1] Maintaining the affirmation that Jesus was both human and divine was critical for Irenaeus and those after him because they saw that as the necessary grounds of salvation.[2]

Of particular interest to Irenaeus was the baptism of Jesus. What happened when he received the Spirit?[3] It was not the means by which the Word entered Jesus. He was not merely human before that point.[4] Rather it was a divinization of the human nature of Jesus, a nat…

End of Summer Review/Update

The school year is now upon us and I'll definitely not be posting the next two months. This summer didn't quite go to plan so I didn't get to do the blogging I was hoping to do. Specifically I was planning on blogging through 2 Thessalonians, but that didn't happen. It may happen late in the fall, but we will see. I may instead decide to pick up a different Pauline letter (perhaps 2 Corinthians). This is my last year of school  and by the fall of next year I should be back on a more regular blogging schedule.

A lack of blogging was not from a lack of productivity (although I'm sure my Pokemon Go playing did cut into my reading time a little bit). I've had a interesting summer learning about Medieval Christianity and specifically focusing on Peter Lombard and Thomas Aqunias. They'll both be featured in my next paper in Exploring the Christian Way which I hope to publish here in late January of 2017. 90% of the reading and 80% of the writing is done for that …