Wednesday, September 25, 2013

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.

Monday, September 23, 2013

John 1:35-51: Let's be Clear About Who Jesus Is

35The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, 36and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!”
37The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. 38When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” 39He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. 40One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. 41He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). 42He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).
43The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” 44Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” 46Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” 47When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” 48Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” 49Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” 50Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” 51And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” (NRSV)

As much as the prologue summarizes the gospel's presentation of Jesus' identity, this passage may be the clearest presentation of the identity of Jesus in the whole gospel. It begins by continuing where the prior section left off. John identifies Jesus to his disciples, declaring that he is the 'lamb of God.' Jesus is the one through whom God will bring a great deliverance, so go follow him!

Two disciples heard this, so they left. There's an air of excitement in this narrative. The two disciples, like Philip, later on, get up and eagerly follow Jesus, immediately submitting themselves to him. When they come after him Jesus turns and asks, 'what are you looking for?'[1] Another way to put it is, who do you think I will turn out to be? The disciples respond by calling him 'teacher' and a couple of verses later, 'Messiah.' As we will find out, neither of these identifications will prove completely adequate. However, the two disciples do respond correctly. They want to see where Jesus stays. Given the emphasis on remaining in and abiding with Jesus in the gospel as a whole, this response takes on a fuller meaning. It is being with Jesus, not with John, that brings fullness of life and spiritual experience.[2]

In the second scene we meet Nathanael and Philip. Philip presents Jesus as the fulfillment of Israel's hopes. Nathanael doubts, but goes to meet Jesus. Jesus reveals his identity by displaying his supernatural knowledge of Nathanael's past, and as von Wahlde points out, in the same vein as what we will see in John 4. Nathanael responds by identifying Jesus as the Messiah. This, to me, is where the text gets a little odd. Why would the demonstration of supernatural knowledge imply that Jesus was the davidic Messiah? Why not just a prophet? A prophetic Messiah does not seem to be in view here since the terms Son of God and King of Israel are used. This incongruity isn't picked up by commentators. I'm not sure why.[3]

In any event, as Moloney and von Wahlde have both clearly shown, this response is inadequate. Jesus identity goes beyond being the davidic Messiah (as the sign itself shows anyways). Jesus is the locus of divine activity and divine revelation. As Lincoln points out, this pericope functions as a call to move beyond prior religious convictions. Jewish categories, while not wrong, are not adequate for fully grasping who Jesus is.


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[1] Keener raises the possibility that this question might be hinting at divine status for Jesus, as seeking and following often had connotations of deity in Early Judaism. It's an extremely difficult matter to adjudicate and it depends largely on the degree to which you believe the gospel to be a unity. If it is the work of a single author, or very thoroughly and consistently edited, then I tilt towards thinking that Keener is on the right path. Similarly if this question was an insertion in a subsequent edition of the gospel. If a multi-author theory of composition is correct and this question comes from the earliest hand then it is less likely to have originally been a question implying Jesus' divinity. However, given the material that was added (according to von Wahlde, for example, verses 50 and 51), the question would have come to take on that additional meaning.

I have spent a lot of time recently in the first two volumes of von Wahlde's new commentary on John. His theory of composition has a lot to be said for it. I still have not made up my mind about whether or not to follow von Wahlde, but his understanding of the text did impact my thinking here. In a future post I will discuss his theory more fully since it impinges directly on my other current area of interest, the development of Christology, particularly the way it emphasizes divinity as something beyond messianic status.

[2] And McHugh may be correct in observing that Jesus is here presented as the source of divine wisdom.

[3] This makes me think that perhaps von Wahlde is incorrect in identifying this portion of the narrative to the first edition of John. If some of the material is original to the first source it has been reworked to set up the final two verses and does not stand alone well.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Exploring the Christian Way of Life: The Identity of Jesus Part 4

This is the fourth and final part of a paper on the identity of Jesus. Here are parts one, two, and three.

Luke expands upon Jesus salvific role more fully in his announcement story. Fitzmyer is very perceptive in this regard, subsuming soteriology under Christology.[1] Jesus is the controlling category and his salvific action flows out of his personal identity. In the Magnificat in Luke 1:46-56 there is the repeated theme of mercy. God is showing his mercy to Israel through Jesus. It is by God’s merciful act through Jesus that God would fulfill the promises to Israel.[2] Jesus was the coming redeemer. This is fully consonant with the Jewish messianic expectations described above. This was his role, from conception.[3] Verses 52-53 give the clearest explanation of Jesus program: ‘52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty’ (NRSV). Jesus was going to bring divine victory, but its primary goal was to right the wrongs that evil had brought on the earth. This is what salvation for Israel would look like. It was not going to be a time where they assumed the dominant position and were the super powers of the world.[4] God wasn't solely judging Rome and other Gentile powers. He was judging evil oppressors of every stripe. The tables were to be turned and the poor and the weak were to be favored by God. This is the new life brought by Jesus. It may be tempting to read a text like John 1 and treat evil abstractly as “darkness,” but Luke allows no such thing. Evil reigns wherever there is poverty and oppression. Jesus acts like the good king, stepping in and saying no, stopping the perpetrators of evil, and giving his people a new opportunity for life. “This is not to obliterate the powerful so that the lowly can achieve the positions of honor and privilege to which they previously had no access. Rather, God is at work in individual lives (like Mary) and in the social order as a whole in order to subvert the very structure of society that supports and perpetuates such distinctions.”[5] Jesus was going to be the king of a new society where injustice had no place and everyone was accepted, both Jew and Gentile.[6] The Gentiles were finally being grafted into God’s people, into Israel, through Jesus.[7]

And this is where it all comes together. Who was and is Jesus? He was the first century Jewish Messiah, primarily of the kingly, but also of the prophetic mold. However, while there are many touch points with Jewish expectation, he avoided some of the key ones. In particular, some Jews were expecting the Messiah to lead a violent revolution against Rome.[8] The gospel writers portray him as leading a different kind of revolution. Political, but in a different sense. The exile was ending, as many Jews were hoping, but it wasn't the result of an overthrow of Rome by God.[9] A bigger enemy was out there and it had ensnared people, Jewish and Gentile alike. The enemy was Satan, evil incarnate.[10] Jew and Gentile alike needed to be saved from the effects of their sins. A massive work of liberation needed to be done. And Jesus the messiah did it, through his life, death, and resurrection. He was leading the battle, defeating evil in whatever guise it came. Like the prophets of old, he exposed injustice and would perform many signs which proclaimed the rule of God and the end of the rule of Satan. And, as we've hinted, he would need to be a teacher, like Moses. Kingdom building isn't easy and old habits die hard. The people need to know how to live in this new found victory. They would need to know how to live as one people, one family, Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female. Peace is coming. The promise to Abraham is being fulfilled. Jesus will be on the throne until all of this is accomplished in its fullness. Then, the keys to the kingdom will be handed over to the Father and the new age will arrive.

What has proceeded is just a sketch, providing many avenues for further exploration. A brief overview was needed to help provide a fuller picture to fit all of the individual pieces into. Before we start working through individual themes in detail we have to deal with one other major issue. The confession of the church in later centuries has differed in both emphasis and content from the conclusions of our study. Why has the church made Jesus seem less Jewish and focused so strongly on divinity? We will examine some of the major creeds and theologians from throughout the millennia exploring how much warrant they can claim for their portraits of Jesus.

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[1] Fitzmyer 1970 pp. 219-27.

[2] See esp. 1:56.

[3] Green 1997 p. 100. The rest of what follows builds on his excellent analysis of this passage.

[4] There may be an explicit contrast here with the (Pharisaic?) ideology of Ps. of Sol. See further Bock 1994 p.146 n. 10 and his references. 

[5] Green 1997, p. 105.

[6] I think that’s the clear point of the reference to the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham. 

[7] We must remember the Jewish shape of the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham. See esp. Romans 9-11. Wright 1991 pp. 231-57 is a good starting place for further reading.

[8] While this may not be completely obvious from second temple Jewish writings, it is from history.

[9] This was almost universally hoped for even if some did not advocate violent revolution.

[10] For more on this theme and what follows, Wright 1996, pp. 446-67 is critical.

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For Further Reading:

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Exploring the Christian Way of Life: The Identity of Jesus Part 3

This is part three of a paper on the identity of Jesus. Here are part one and part two.

We’re getting there in our portrait of Jesus, but we still have more work to do. Mark may provide us with the major brushstrokes, as indeed what we have said could have been drawn from Matthew, Mark, Luke, or Paul (e.g., Rom 1:1-7). What does John have to say? The prologue (John 1:1-18) contains the fullest summary of John’s vision of Jesus. Those 18 verses provide us with several avenues for exploration, but I want to focus on one in particular. First, let’s look at the first 5 verses.

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (John 1:1-5 NRSV)

According to John 1:1, Jesus is the word, or the revelation of God, his intentionality.[1] In other words, Jesus is God’s fullest expression of himself. The emphasis on illumination is expressed in an apocalyptic term: light.[2] Jesus is the light, the life bringing light. This light brings life both here and now and in the age to come. The light was opposed, but the darkness could not overcome the light. Jesus was victorious. It is also expressed in two other terms in John 1:14, truth and grace. Here, given the emphasis of the rest of the prologue, I believe we are to understand that truth is revelatory; not logical[3] nor purely propositional.[4] This gives the impetus for this paper as argued in the introduction. One must understand God as he is revealed in Jesus, and one must understand Jesus as God has presented him to us, as the first century Jewish Messiah, crucified, raised from the dead, ascended to the right hand of God, and embodied in and by the church. Through those acts God reveals the fullness of his love and grace. God graciously gave the law through Moses, but the grace and light that came with that revelation is surpassed by the light and grace made visible in Jesus. In him God’s mercy, compassion, and – to put it in a Pauline form – paradoxical wisdom are on full display. Jesus reveals God in many ways, but it is in the cross that he is the fullest revelation.

Is that in agreement with Mark? One aspect of the baptism that we have not discussed is the question of divinity. Does the ‘sonship’ language imply some sort divinity? Collins and Collins argue that the term Son of God took on that aspect as time progressed during the second temple period.[5] Mark, in all likelihood, was written to a Gentile audience and they too would have understood both the sonship language and the descent of the dove to imply Jesus' divinity in some sense.[6] In fact they likely would have read it as the moment in which Jesus became divine, a god in disguise.[7] Is that in line with Mark’s intentions? Did Jesus become divine at his baptism? Hurtado argues that Mark is about the unveiling of Jesus' divinity. He is at his baptism proclaimed to be divine. However, he is never proclaimed God’s son by a human until after his crucifixion in Mark 15:39.[8] The motif of the hiddenness of Jesus identity is strong in Mark. His divinity is only fully unveiled in his death on the cross. This aspect of Mark’s understanding of Jesus is consistent with the Johannine prologue. While I think the scales tip against Mark having seen Jesus as merely human prior to his baptism, he has seemed to have picked up on the hiddenness motif from Homer.[9] Perhaps, among other reasons, it is to correct this possible ambiguity that Matthew and Luke add infancy narratives, to stress Jesus' divinity from the moment he enfleshed himself.[10]  As Hurtado notes, this motive is certainly behind the narrative inventions of the second century infancy gospels.[11]

Otherwise the origin narratives in Matthew and Luke are in agreement with what we have seen. France argues that Mt. 1:1-4:11 is an extended argument that Jesus is the messiah.[12] The title, ‘Christ’ is used in 1:1, 16, 17, 18, and 2:4. The genealogy of Matthew is a royal genealogy centered on both David and Abraham. As Davies and Allison point out, Jesus has come to end the exile. This uses a schema of history common to that of the apocalypses.[13] This emphasizes Jesus' role as the delivering king, the one who through whom God would fulfill the promises to Abraham and David, understood eschatologically. This again, is a shared emphasis with Mark. Matthew goes on, however, to fill out the picture a little more in the announcement to Joseph. He is told by the angel, in verse 21, that Jesus will “save his people from their sins.” There is a strong spiritual dimension to Jesus’ activity. He wasn’t there to lead a revolution against Rome, primarily.[14] He came to lead a revolution against evil.

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[1] Calvin, ad loc. Similarly Moloney 1999.

[2] This and much of the rest of the analysis is an extension of what is found in Keener 2003 passim.

[3] By this I don’t mean ‘illogical,’ rather simply that John doesn’t care about Lessing’s ditch.

[4] Revelatory and propositional are overlapping categories and not inherently contradictory. My point is that one cannot abstract God’s revelation of Jesus from the mode.


[6] The description is reminiscent of scenes in the Illiad and the Odyssey as argued by Dixon 2009, esp. 765-69.

[7] Ibid. 770.

[8] Hurtado 2003 pp. 288-89.

[9] I wish I could be more definitive, but I have no compelling reason other than the fact that Mark was accepted widely by a proto-orthodox church which clearly believed Jesus was the embodiment of the divine Son and that the narrative does seem to hint at a prior choice and having been pleased with Jesus as noted above. Dixon’s argument is very strong. The reception history, though, cannot be taken lightly and hence I do not follow Dixon at this point. 

[10] Davies and Allison 1988 see a close tie between the virginal conception by Mary and divine Christology. See 200-02. They also urge against an adoptionist reading of Mark 1:9-11 and parallels in their analysis of the baptism, though they do not consider a Homeric background. See 331-34. 

[11] Hurtado 2003, 449 on the Protoevangelium of James, 451 on the Infancy Gospel of Thomas.

[12] France 2007 p. 25.

[13] Davies and Allison 1988 p. 187 note Dan 9:24-7, 1 En. 93:3-10, 91:12-17, and 2 Bar. 67:1-74:4. 

[14] Ibid. p. 210.