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John: An Introduction to Urban von Wahlde's Theory of Composition

The week of September 9th I took a staycation. One of the things I did during that time was to begin to engage with Urban von Wahlde's recent commentary on the gospel of John. I am keenly interested in the Christology of John, so I wanted to get one more recent commentary. In my first two posts, which cover the first 34 verses of the gospel, I had not commented at all on any of the source theories as I by and large found them unsubstantiated. It seems clear that there is some sort of editing process, but I did not think anyone had provided adequate criteria for determining what material came from what literary strata.

Enter von Wahlde's commentary. He has provided both criteria and an explanatory framework for studying the composition history of the gospel. At the moment I am not yet certain if von Wahlde is correct, but if he is, it marks a major advancement in our understanding of the development of early Christology (and impacts our doctrine of Scripture as well). Along with Keener and Moloney he will be one of my primary dialogue partners. For that dialogue to be understandable to the reader, she or he must know a bit about his theory particularly as it relates to Christology, so the rest of the post will be dedicated to that. Also, at times I will write special additional posts looking in depth at his proposals for particular passages.

von Wahlde proposes a four stage process that resulted in three editions of the gospel of John, with the composition of 1 John representing the third of the four stages. The first stage is the writing of the first edition of the gospel of John. This was probably written quite early (pre-60 CE) and preserves many independent and likely historical traditions about Jesus. The Christology of the first edition is typical of early Jewish Christians focused on the messianic status of Jesus. The opposition to Jesus grows as the narrative moves along. The primary opponents are chief priests, Levites, and Pharisees.

The second stage is the production of a second edition by another member of the community some time after the community had split off from the synagogue, probably in the 60s. This edition is marked by a lack of interest in the teachings of Jesus. The Christology is much higher as Jesus' divine identity is emphasized. In fact, theology in general and Christology in particular could be said to be the primary focus of the second edition. Jesus' death isn't cast as atoning, but as preparatory for Jesus' provision of the Spirit to his followers. The Spirit cleanses from sin and brings about new life with God. Additionally, Jesus and the Father exhibit a very tight relationship. It is still a relationship of sender and sent, but it is very close. This heavy theological focus is probably accounted for by the split with the synagogue. The leaders are no longer Pharisees or priests, but simply Jews. They oppose Jesus vehemently from the get go and cause the people to live in fear of them and in fear of being cast out of the synagogue over Christological matters.

At this point problems develop in the community. The second edition becomes misinterpreted by some and 1 John is written after they left the community. They expanded on the emphasis of receipt of Jesus' Spirit and its sanctifying work denying unique status for Jesus. Believers could attain the same level of divine sonship. They also noticed the lack of atonement theology in the second edition and then concluded that Jesus did not actually do anything to save humanity. This, again, was achieved by the Spirit.

Both 1 John and the third edition of the gospel sought to correct this interpretation of the second edition. 1 John was written first, probably by the beloved disciple, and then following his death, his followers revised the gospel to produce the third edition. Both 1 John and the third edition are characterized by an affirmation of the high Christology of the second edition while also introducing an apocalyptic element into the gospel. Jesus' role as a sacrifice for sin and liberator are also emphasized. The Pneumatology is also toned down a little, stressing that believers receive a share in the Spirit, not reception of the whole Spirit as the schismatics claimed. Jesus relationship to the Father is even closer and his overall status is emphasized even more through the addition of the 'I AMs'.

I think all of this is a perfectly plausible account. I want to stress, too, that most of what I presented are the results of von Wahlde's analysis not his method for distinguishing editions (though things like terminology are key criteria). Like all theories it stands and falls on its exegetical insight. We will regularly test it along the way, starting with 1:35-51.


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