Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Gospel of John

I want to use some posts here to set out some thinking on John's Gospel as I am teaching it in Semester 1, 2013. Any thoughts you wish to make via comments will sharpen my thinking.

The first three gospels pose all sorts of interesting puzzles, not least their relationship to each other. But the puzzle is interesting because potentially it is solvable, since the three gospels tell pretty much the same story with common materials, so comparing the differences leads to some good proposals re solutions.

The fourth gospel, John's Gospel, poses a different kind of puzzle. It is so different to the first three gospels that we can scarcely use comparison between the first three and the fourth to solve the puzzle of the relationship between then. The vastness of the difference is the puzzle. "Where does John's Gospel come from?" is one way to pose the puzzle. It does not seem to come from any one, two or three of the Synoptic Gospels. If those gospels are any kind of guide to whom Jesus was and what he did, then we might also ask whether John's Gospel stems from Jesus. The Synoptics' Jesus is a parable-telling, demon-exorcising, prophetic figure in the mould of Moses, Elijah and Jeremiah who agonises through his last night before the cross. The Johannine Jesus shares none of these characteristics but does share with the Synoptics' Jesus continual clashing with Jewish authorities while healing and teaching his way through Judea and Galilee. At best we could say that if the Johannine Jesus is connected to the authentic, historical Jesus of Nazareth at least as strongly as the Synoptics' Jesus then "another side" to the historical Jesus is being disclosed to the reader.

This in fact is a line taken by Richard Bauckham as he argues that the author John of the gospel is not John the Son of Zebedee but another John, a Jerusalem-based disciple with an insider's view of Jesus' activities in Jerusalem. Perhaps it is the only line which can be taken in order to offer a plausible explanation of coherency between the Jesus presented in Synoptic perspective and the Jesus presented in Johannine perspective.

Bauckham consciously argues against the other plausible explanation (if I may describe as a single explanation a variety of proposals advanced on the basis of the great work on John by the giant Bultmann which are synthesised by John Ashton). In this explanation, John's Gospel is as much, if not more so, an account of the circumstances and trials of the Johannine community (the Christians gathered around the author or authors of the fourth gospel) as it is an account of the life and times of Jesus.

The great advantage of the second account is that it does not have to justify itself in the court of biography (creative fiction about Jesus doesn't matter because the gospel document serves to convey another history). The great challenge for the first account is that it does need to justify itself in the court of biography (which Bauckham, more than any other Johannine scholar I know, rises to): did Jesus speak and act thus and so, even in a seminal way? (For we might allow, on this first account, that the gospel writer so identifies with Jesus Christ that he - through the Spirit of Jesus - stretches the words Jesus spoke into a true interpretation which Jesus speaks through the author.)
(to be cont'd).

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