August 21, 2014 by James Crossley
In recent years the use of John’s Gospel for historical Jesus studies has had some learned and mainstream advocates, especially Richard Bauckham and Paul Anderson (via the John, Jesus and History Project). Anderson has even called this a Fourth Quest for the historical Jesus (aside: I follow those who see the categorisation of the quests as a scholarly fiction but Anderson’s label shows how significant he sees this latest emphasis on John’s Gospel). I’m not going to give a point-by-point analysis of Bauckham, Anderson and others (though I have, and will, in other published work). Instead, I want to challenge some of the general points that have become prominent in recent years.
1. Some of those who think John’s Gospel is of minimal use for historical Jesus studies do so because they pit theology (John) versus history but the two are really mixed together (therefore: John is of value). I’m unconvinced that this criticism of not using John is valid. Maybe there are examples of scholars who pit history versus theology/literary skill/etc but I don’t think those who are cited as doing so (e.g. Casey) ever did this. Instead the argument for not using John went like this: we can date the historical location of a given type of theology and John’s theology was largely late first century/early second century. In other words, and put crudely, John’s Gospel, it would be argued, was part of debates that are obviously late first-century issues at the earliest, e.g. controversies over the deification of Jesus. For instance, John might construct a dispute between Jesus and ‘the Jews’ over whether Jesus was equal with God and over whether Sabbath can be overridden (John 5.1-18; cf. John 10.30-39) whereas another Sabbath dispute in the Gospel might (hypothetically speaking) reflect an Aramaic idiom and issues of how Sabbath laws should be upheld and interpreted (e.g. Mark 2.23-28). Without making official judgment on historicity, there is more chance of the latter (Mark 2.23-28) reflecting earlier tradition than the former (John 5.1-18). This is not to say that developments were neat and chronologically convenient (they weren’t) but rather that the issue in Johannine scholarship (or at least that discussed by some of those who want to rescue John for the historical Jesus) was one of contextualising and dating theological ideas and not pitting theology over against history.
2. John’s Gospel is an eyewitness testimony. The most important proponent of this view is Bauckham. Let’s for a moment assume that the Beloved Disciple (or whoever) was an eyewitness. If we want to apply this conclusion to the historical Jesus (we don’t have to, of course), then this does not get around some of the old difficulties: there is still water turned into wine, Lazarus is still said to have been raised from the dead and effectively the cause of Jesus’ death (rather than creating a disturbance in the Temple), the sword in Jesus’ side is still said to have produced blood and water, Jesus is still said to be equal with God, Thomas still calls Jesus ‘My Lord and my God’, the predictions of the imminent kingdom are still missing and replaced (cf. John 3), and so on. This is not the sort of Johannine material that will be easy to explain as ‘historically accurate’ and it is not easy to explain why such high Christology was ignored in the other Gospels if it was uttered by Jesus. It still remains easier to use the Temple disturbance (historically accurate or not) as a more plausible explanation for Jesus being put to death than a spectacular supernatural miracle of a very dead man, does it not? And that’s before we come to the potentially tricky issue of a once very dead man walking around Jerusalem. Eyewitness or not, how do we explain these striking differences from the Synoptics other than as Johannine developments?
It is difficult (despite Anderson’s efforts) to harmonise these differences and it is striking that Anderson and others have to work at a very general level of similarity between John and the Synoptics and/or historical Jesus portraits (e.g. Jesus challenged ‘institutions’, Jesus does things on the Sabbath, Jesus thought God’s reign was in the present and future, Jesus was a kind of holy man, Jesus was a healer, Jesus associated with women etc.). Some of these generalisations do not work at the level of detail in terms of what the historical Jesus (or earliest tradition) may or may not have done/said (e.g. kingdom of God, Sabbath disputes) or they are so general or obvious that they do not warrant a defence of John and historicity (e.g. Jesus challenged ‘institutions’, Jesus associated with women). The category ‘inauthentic’ (or a similar word) might still be useful despite some recent challenges: even though memory preservation or ‘gist’ of earlier material play an important role in generating and connecting with new ideas, at some point such ideas can become out-of-touch with the historical Jesus (or, as I prefer, earliest Palestinian tradition) – and a case in point is John 5.1-18.
In short, if John is dependent on eyewitness testimony then this is a very creative eyewitness.
3. John has historically and culturally credible information. Maybe there are some things we can see as part of earlier tradition (e.g. John the Baptist and Jesus working simultaneously, visiting Jerusalem more than once, archaeological details, date of the Passover, prediction of a rebuilt Temple etc.). Even so, some of these issues are again too general and sometimes just reflective of cultural practices, or could even be worked out from the Synoptics. For instance, repeated trips to Jerusalem could have been standard enough, assumed in (say) Mark (cf. Mark 11.2-6; 14.12-14), or not mentioned elsewhere simply because nothing exciting was thought to have happened. John’s use adds little and given that these trips to Jerusalem concern putting the Temple disturbance to the beginning of the Gospel and making the raising of Lazarus as the main cause of Jesus’ death then John’s use for historical reconstruction is again very limited. In terms of geography and architecture, this too is limited: John may simply have known the geography and architecture of the region, like a knowledgeable novelist. Certainly this has its own benefits but it tells us very little about the historical Jesus.