The Enigmatic Origins of the Gospel of John (and Eyewitness Testimony)

The Enigmatic Origins of the Gospel of John (and Eyewitness Testimony) March 8, 2016

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(This post is a continuation of my last one, addressing some arguments by Catholic Biblical scholar Brant Pitre. Although reading the two posts together makes for a stronger and more cohesive argument, the current post does stand on its own.)


In my last post, I discussed Brant Pitre’s response to a question about eyewitness testimony to the life of Jesus. Having suggested the evangelist Matthew as a qualifying figure here—that is, the person to whom the gospel bearng his name is ascribed, assumed to be the publican Matthew mentioned therein—Pitre had also noted that

the Gospel of John itself explicitly states that it was “written” by the Beloved Disciple, an eyewitness to Jesus who was present at the crucifixion (John 21:20-24, cf. 19:35).

Like the authorship of Matthew, however, this is precisely the question. Of course, things are somewhat different here, in that while the gospel of Matthew itself doesn’t make any type of authorship or eyewitness claim—even if all extant manuscripts of it bear a title like “(Gospel) according to Matthew”⁸—the gospel of John, in the current form we have it, does do so.

In John 19:35, following the piercing of Jesus’ side on the cross, we find “He who saw this has testified so that you also may believe. His testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth”; and in 21:24, following an interaction between Jesus and the unnamed “beloved disciple,” we read “This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true.”

My intention here isn’t to delve into the contested identity of this beloved disciple; though I do believe that there’s a strong case than is usually recognized that the original intention of these verses was to identify this person specifically as John, son of Zebedee. (See my comments here for more.) That being said though, I also mentioned in my last post that a few scholars believe that one or both of these particular eyewitness testimony verses are in fact secondary additions to a more original “edition” of the gospel.⁹

But there’s a sense in which the question here isn’t so much who this eyewitness/beloved disciple is—or even whether these verses are later additions or not—but whether these claims of eyewitness testimony are in fact actually truthful in the first place; or, rather, what exactly these claims even mean.

And he who has seen has testified, and his testimony is true [ἀληθινός]; and he knows that he is telling the truth, so that you also may believe. (John 19:35)

This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true. But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written. (John 21:24-25)

In these final lines of the gospel, we find an important development: from 19:35’s “he knows (that he tells the truth)” to “we know that his testimony is true.” Here the language exhibits an even broader attempt at self-authentication. But if it’s the eyewitness himself who’s writing the gospel, how exactly do we “know” this his testimony is true? Or, perhaps more importantly, who is this “we” that knows it’s true? (In these verses alone we find third-person [“This is the disciple”], and then first-person plural [“we know”], and finally first-person singular [“I suppose”]. Are we to imagine a band of brethren looking over the beloved disciple’s shoulder, giving him approval as he writes—who lapses into their collective voice here, though immediately after this falling back to first person singular [“I suppose”]?)

While I’ll return to this interplay between first-person singular and plural here in a moment, we should also note that at least some of the language in these sections can be understood to draw on broader literary/rhetorical conventions. For example, 21:25’s claim that Jesus did other deeds and that “if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” has an instructive parallel in the minor tractate Soferim of the Talmud: “If all the heavens were sheets of paper, and all the trees were pens for writing, and all the seas were ink, that would not suffice to write down the wisdom I have received from my teachers.”¹⁰

Similarly, the writer in John might be said to participate in rhetorical conventions about eyewitnesses testimony and of truth and falsehood therein, too.¹¹ᵃ For example, at the beginning of the gospel of Luke, mentioning prior Christian accounts which had attempted to relate the eyewitness testimony of the earliest Christians, Luke writes “I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you . . . so that you may have certainity [ἀσφάλεια] concerning the things about which you have been instructed” (Luke 1:3-4).

It’s commonly recognized that Luke’s language here bears close similarities with that of other Hellenistic works.¹¹ᵇ Particularly relevant among these is the prologue of Plutarch’s Septem Sapientium Convivium (Symposium of the Seven Sages)—especially interesting as the work as a whole is clearly fictional, written from the imagined perspective of a participant of a non-historical symposium:

It seems fairly certain, Nicarchus, that the lapse of time will bring about much obscurity [σκότος] and complete uncertainty [ἀσάφεια] regarding actual events, if at the present time . . . false [ψευδής] accounts that have been concocted obtain credence. For, in the first place, the dinner was not a dinner of the Seven alone, as you and your friends have been told, but of more than twice that number, including myself; for I was on intimate terms with Periander by virtue of my profession…

The speech of the narrator here has other close connections, in works that are intended to be straightforwardly understood as “historical.” For example, the late 1st century Jewish historian Josephus writes of his book Jewish War that “having known by experience the war which we Jews waged against the Romans . . . I was constrained to narrate it in detail in order to refute those who in their writings were doing outrage to the truth” (Jewish Antiquities 1.4, translation Thackeray).

Similarly, elsewhere Josephus proclaims “[m]y qualification as historian of the war was that I had been a personal participant [αὐτουργός] in many—and an eyewitness [αὐτόπτης] of most—of the events; in short, nothing whatever was said or done of which I was ignorant. Surely, then, one cannot but regard as audacious the attempt of these critics to challenge my veracity” (Against Apion, 1.55).¹²

In his Against Apion, Josephus sharply criticizes other less reliable accounts of the war, that “[w]e have actually had so-called histories even of our recent war published by persons who never visited the sites nor were anywhere near the actions described, but, having put together a few hearsay reports, have, with the gross impudence of drunken revellers, miscalled their productions by the name of history” (1.46). Yet turning to Josephus’ main account itself, we find several extremely questionable reports—including precisely where he explicitly appeals to eyewitnesses!

In the sixth book of the Jewish War, he recounts the dire situation that the citizens of Jerusalem found themselves in during its siege, forced to eat their own clothing for lack of other food. In 6.199, however, he intimates at a far greater type of depravity that at least one citizen was reduced to:

But why tell of the shameless resort to inanimate articles of food induced by the famine, seeing that I am here about to describe an act unparalleled in the history whether of Greeks or barbarians [ἔργον οἷον μήτε παρ’ Ἕλλησιν μήτε παρὰ βαρβάροις ἱστόρηται], and as horrible to relate as it is incredible to hear? For my part, for fear that posterity might suspect me of monstrous fabrication, I would gladly have omitted this tragedy, had I not innumerable witnesses [ἄπειροι μάρτυρες] among my contemporaries. (Translation by Thackeray)

Having claimed credibility of this report, then, Josephus goes so far as to name the actual individual involved here—”Mary, daughter of Eleazar, of the village of Bethezuba”—and even purports to recount her very words right before the horror: this Mary “[seized] her child, an infant at the breast,” and

“Poor babe,” she cried, “amidst war, famine, and sedition, to what end should I preserve you? With the Romans slavery awaits us, should we live until they come; but famine is forestalling slavery, and more cruel than both are the rebels. Come, be food for me—to the rebels an avenging fury, and to the world the only horror yet lacking among the calamities of the Jews.” (Jewish War 6.200; translation slightly modified from Thackeray)

However, the historicity of this incident is widely disputed; especially as fanciful accounts of cannibalism during wartime were a stock literary motif.¹³

Similarly, shortly after this in the same book, Josephus describes the foreboding appearance of a celestial army in the skies before the revolt/war began:

on the twenty-first of the month Artemisium, there appeared a miraculous/divine [δαιμόνιος] phenomenon, passing belief [μεῖζον πίστεως]; and what will be related would have seemed a tall-tale [τερατεία] had it not been told by those who saw it [εἰ μὴ καὶ παρὰ τοῖς θεασαμένοις ἱστόρητο] and for the subsequent calamities which deserved to be so signalized. For before sunset throughout all parts of the country chariots were seen in the air and armed battalions hurtling through the clouds and encompassing the cities.

Beyond mere skepticism of the content of eyewitness testimony,¹⁴ again we have to exercise caution when considering the very idea/claim of (purported) eyewitness testimony itself. Further in this regard—and returning to the gospel of John and New Testament—we also can’t take instances of “I” or “we” at face value. This is especially important when considering some of the first-person claims in some New Testament texts that are regularly thought by scholars to be pseudepigraphical—that is, forged in someone else’s name: think of the epistles of Peter here (1 Peter’s “I have written this short letter…” or 2 Peter’s “We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain”), or the “pastoral” epistles in the name of Paul (1 and 2 Timothy, Titus).¹⁵


Such and such things must have happened to the Messiah; Jesus was the Messiah; therefore such and such things happened to him. (David Strauss, The Life of Jesus Critically Examined, 84.)

One last early tradition about the authorship of the gospel of John should be considered: this is what’s said in the Muratorian fragment. The Muratorian fragment (or Muratorian canon) is preserved only in a 7th century Latin manuscript, but based on internal evidence is regularly held to be a copy of a text originally written in the 2nd century. A list and discussion of various authoritative early Christian texts—accepting the inspiration of all of the works of the New Testament canon familiar to us today, with only a couple of differences—it has a fascinating claim about the circumstances of the original composition of the gospel of John:

The fourth of the gospels is of John, one of the disciples. To his fellow-disciples and bishops, who were encouraging him, he said: “Fast with me today for three days, and whatever will be revealed to each of us, let us tell to one another.” The same night it was revealed to Andrew, one of the apostles, that all should certify what John wrote in his own name.¹⁶ᵃ

Here the composition of the gospel is cast in a manifestly supernatural guise, being prompted by “whatever will be revealed (revelatum).” It’s unclear precisely what the implications of this are. However, although this isn’t well-known as a historically authentic account, there are several interesting things about it. New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham argues for the derivation of this tradition from Papias,¹⁶ᵇ which would certainly make it an extremely early one—the earliest, in fact.

Again, it’s not exactly clear what the process of “revelation” hinted at in the Muratorian fragment and/or Papias entails. But is there a sense in which “whatever will be revealed to each of us” suggests a broader type of revelation through some sort of religious experience: one not limited to, say, remembrance of Jesus’ actual historical deeds and teachings, but almost closer to a type of “channeling” of new revelation in a way?¹⁷ And if this reflects an accurate memory of some sort of similar process of composition, wouldn’t this open a path of explanation for why the portrait of Jesus in the gospel of John—especially his sayings—diverges so sharply from that of the Synoptic gospels?

To the extent to which the gospel of John unfolds as an ostensibly historical narrative,¹⁸ a corollary suggestion here (if the Muratorian/Papian tradition is indeed onto something) might be that these disciples believed that they had been transported to a sort of alternate past reality and history: one in which what were in actuality novel developments in the understanding of the nature of Jesus—having emerged in the ensuing decades after Jesus’ death—were thought to be retroactively “recoverable” from the past.¹⁹

If this were anywhere near true, this would obviously have radical implications for our understanding of the internal ascription of the gospel to the beloved disciple as eyewitness—much less to say John. Although the Muratorian/Papian tradition suggests that the historical apostle John was heavily involved in the collective decision to give his “imprimatur” to the gospel bearing his name, the specific scenario it envisions might actually be in some tension with the type of eyewitness claim(s) made in the gospel itself.²⁰

To be sure, in many ways the idea that the gospel of John especially reflects theological and Christological developments that developed in the decades following Jesus’ death was one of the dominant scholarly views in the latter part of the 20th century—with J. Louis Martyn’s History and Theology in the Fourth Gospel as the most influential work here—and remains so.

Yet these developments (and their projection back to the historical character of Jesus) have rarely been explored in light of authorial/editorial religious experience; nor is this practice frequently examined in light of ancient concepts of truthfulness²¹ vis-à-vis issues of genre—an issue I broach in my Note 19 and Note 20 here, and which I’ll explore at much greater length in my next post.

⁂       ⁂       ⁂



Notes

[8] See Gathercole, “The Titles of the Gospels in the Earliest New Testament Manuscripts” for a study of the early manuscripts and their superscriptions.

[9] See recently Armin Baum, “The Original Epilogue (John 20:30-31), the Secondary Appendix (21:1-23), and the Editorial Epilogues (21:24-25) of John’s Gospel,” and Culpepper, “John 21:24-25: The Johannine Sphragis.” In an earlier publication Culpepper had gone so far as to suggest that every one of John’s references to the beloved disciple “seems to be a secondary addition to earlier tradition”—that they are “relatively late, Johannine additions to earlier tradition” (John, the Son of Zebedee: The Life of a Legend, 72).

For more on differing editions of John, etc., see Urban C. von Wahlde’s “The Composition of the Gospel of John” (in his Gnosticism, Docetism, and the Judaisms of the First Century: The Search for the Wider Context of the Johannine Literature and Why It Matters), which proposes and discusses three successive editions; Culpepper, “The Relationship between the Gospel of John and 1 John”; Herman Waetjen’s The Gospel of the Beloved Disciple: A Work in Two Editions; and Paul Anderson’s The Riddles of the Fourth Gospel: An Introduction to John. For more studies on the ending of John and other verses see Köstenberger, “‘I Suppose’ (οἶμαι): The Conclusion of John’s Gospel in Its Literary and Historical Context.”

[10] Although this text is itself late, there are earlier parallels. Blaine, Peter in the Gospel of John: The Making of an Authentic Disciple, 179 n. 70, cites similar language in Philo, On the Posterity of Cain 43—though in a different context. Closer to the original context, see also Dionysius of Halicarnassus’ Critical Essays, on Demosthenes (58):

I would have given you examples of what I have said but for the risk of becoming a bore, especially as it is you that I am addressing. . . . If god preserves us, we shall present you in a subsequent treatise with an even longer and more remarkable account than this of his genius in the treatment of subject-matter. (Quoted from Köstenberger, “The Genre of the Fourth Gospel and Greco-Roman Literary Conventions”)

Referring to the gospel of John vis-à-vis the statement of Dionysius of Halicarnassus here, Köstenberger speaks of a “‘we’ of authoritative testimony”—again relevant to John 21:24 itself.

[11a] Andrew Lincoln, commenting on Samuel Byrskog’s Story as History – History as Story: The Gospel Tradition in the Context of Ancient Oral History (and referring to “autopsy” in the sense of the collation of eyewitness testimony), writes that

Byrskog is sometimes overoptimistic in his assessment of how far claims to autopsy represented actual practice, but he is clear that such claims became sufficiently widespread that they were found to be necessary as part of the rhetorical arsenal of those who wanted to be able to legitimate the accounts they produced in order to persuade their audiences (2000, 199–223). What appears to be a generic marker of factuality may turn out to function quite differently. In ancient literature, as Alexander (1998, 398) also shows, “the autopsia-convention, which is primarily designed to provide reassurance about the factuality of a geographical narrative, can just as easily be subverted to encourage the reader to collude in the creation of fiction.” Byrskog’s overall investigation, then, actually supports the view that informed readers of the Fourth Gospel would have been familiar with eyewitness elements in a narrative functioning as an apologetic and literary device helping to lend it verisimilitude (“‘We Know That His Testimony Is True’: Johannine Truth Claims and Historicity,” 182)

[11b] See especially the work of Loveday Alexander, including “The Preface to Acts and the Historians” (The Preface to Luke’s Gospel: Literary Convention and Social Context in Luke 1.1-4 and Acts 1.1); Schmidt, “Rhetorical Influences and Genre: Luke’s Preface and the Rhetoric of Hellenistic Historiography.” See Moessner,  “The Lukan Prologues in the Light of Ancient Narrative Hermeneutics: Παρηκολουθηκότι and the Credentialed Author” and “Dionysius’s Narrative ‘Arrangement’ (οἰκονοµία) as the Hermeneutical Key to Luke’s Re-Vision of the ‘Many’.” Another useful study here is the volume Prologues to Ancient and Medieval History: A Reader (eds. Lake and Dutton).

[12] As for the latter statement, Loveday Alexander (The Preface to Luke’s Gospel, 38) points to how strikingly similar this is to what’s claimed by Polybius (Histories III 4.13): “I was not only an eyewitness (αὐτόπτης) of most, but in some cases a participant (συνεργός) and even a director (χειριστής) of others.”

More generally, at the end of Jewish War itself, Josephus writes

Here we close the history, which we promised to relate with perfect accuracy for the information of those who wish to learn how this war was waged by the Romans against the Jews. . . . as concerning truth, I would not hesitate boldly to assert that, throughout the entire narrative, this has been my single aim

See also Moessner, “’Eyewitnesses,’ ‘Informed Contemporaries,’ and ‘Unknowing Inquirers’: Josephus’ Criteria for Authentic Historiography and the Meaning of παρακολουθέω.”

[13] For a short statement with citations on Biblical and Near Eastern instances of this motif, see The City Besieged: Siege and Its Manifestations in the Ancient Near East, 61-62.

Similarly, Harrill, “Cannibalistic Language in the Fourth Gospel and Greco-Roman Polemics of Factionalism (John 6:52-66),” refers to the work of Honora Chapman on this issue—for whom the Mary of Josephus’ tale is “a conflation of several Euripidean mothers: Agave, Andromache, and Medea” (“‘By the Waters of Babylon’: Josephus and Greek Poetry,” 143)—and Harrill notes that ‘[d]espite Josephus’s claim to “describe an act unparalleled in the history of either the Greeks or the barbarians”‘, this motif

circulated widely as a wartime topos of horror: Josephus, Ant. 13.345-47; Philo, Praem. 134-35 (reference to Thyestes’ cannibalism); Herodotus 3.11; Lev 26:29; Deut 28:52-59; 2 Kgs 6:25-29; Jer 19:9; Ezek 5:9-10; Lam 2:20; 4:10; Bar 2:2-3. Cf. L.A.B. 25.9 (OTP 2:335-36); 1 En. 7.4-6 (OTP 1:16); and Manfred Oeming, ‘”Ich habe einen Greis gegessen’: Kannibalismus und Autophagie als Topos der Kreigsnotschilderung in der Kilamuwa-Inscrift, Zeile 5-8, im Alten Orient und im Alten Testament,” BN 47 (1989): 90-106.

That being said, in a couple of instances we have more solid evidence of actual cannibalism during wars/sieges; for instance during the Siege of Leningrad in World War II. Speaking of reports from the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD)—the main Soviet law enforcement agency—the Wiki article notes that “[b]y December 1942, the NKVD arrested 2,105 [sic] cannibals dividing them into two legal categories: corpse-eating (trupoyedstvo) and person-eating (lyudoyedstvo).”

A citation here refers to Anna Reid’s Leningrad: The Epic Siege of World War II, 1941-1944. In consulting this, we can see that “2,105” was supposed to be 2,015. The relevant section of

Altogether, police only arrested twenty-six people for cannibalism in December [1941], but the number shot up to 356 in January and 612 in February. It halved to 300 in March and April, then rose again slightly in May before falling off steeply through June and July.²⁶ By December 1942, when the phenomenon finally tailed off, 2,015 ‘cannibals’ had been arrested in total.²⁷ (288)

…with the footnotes here reading

26. Report to Zhdanov from Kubatkin of 2 June 1942, in ibid., doc. 75, p. 322.

27. This number is derived from Leningrad NKVD chief Kubatkin’s series of reports to Zhdanov and to Beria. A report by the prosecutor’s office (Dzeniskevich, ed., Leningrad v osade, doc. 195) gives a figure of 1,979.

Beyond these reports, in terms of non-official eyewitness testimony, Lisa Kirschenbaum discusses several relevant things in her book on the siege. Kirschenbaum writes of one Nikolai Gorshkov, whose diary we have

substantiated these rumors [of cannibalism] with the account of an “eyewitness,” who described seeing, along the Obvodnyi Canal, the “upper part of a female corpse” apparently butchered by cannibals. (The Legacy of the Siege of Leningrad, 1941-1995: Myth, Memories, and Monuments, 239,

However, in the way that she frames all this discussion, we can see that she retains a healthy skepticism here:

Not surprisingly, “eyewitness” accounts of cannibalism remain extremely rare. Some, like that of Nina Abramova, eight years old when the siege began, mix rumor, fear, and ambiguous observation. Abramova recounted how the caretaker (dvornik) of her building spotted a pair of shoes belonging to one of the children along with a “suspicious bag” under the bed of a resident, who had asked her to come up and clean the floor. The caretaker “immediately made a statement to the police.” Rather than doubting the plausibility of the story – why call the caretaker to the scene of the crime? – Abramova asserted her standing as eyewitness: “And then I saw it: two policemen came down the stairway with a woman between them. The residents of the house said that she was going to be shot for cannibalism.” In Abramova’s reminiscences, this somewhat dubious eyewitness account set the stage for a more direct brush with cannibalism that established, paradoxically, not Leningraders’ depravity but the solidity of family ties in the most fearful of times.  (240-41)

[14] The unreliability of eyewitness testimony is expressed as early as Thucydides, who writes that the composition of his history was “a laborious task, because those who were eye-witnesses of the several events did not give the same reports about the same things, but reports varying according to their championship of one side or the other, or according to their recollection” (1.22.4). For several studies of this relevant specifically to early Christianity and the New Testament, see Redman, “How Accurate Are Eyewitnesses? Bauckham and the Eyewitnesses in the Light of Psychological Research” and McIver, “Eyewitnesses as Guarantors of the Accuracy of the Gospel Traditions in the Light of Psychological Research.”

[15] There’s an especially interesting case in the Acts of the Apostles—especially the shift to plural “we” that occurs starting at chapter 16 (and is found in 16:10-17; 20:5-15; 21:1-18; 27:1-28:16), giving the impression of an account by someone who actually accompanied Paul on his journeys. Whether this was really so, or if this is fictionalized narrative that appropriated the persona of a(n imagined) participant/eyewitness, is a matter of debate, however. On this and other related issues that have been raised in this post, see Campbell, “The Narrator as ‘He,’ ‘Me,’ and ‘We’: Grammatical Person in Ancient Histories and in the Acts of the Apostles”; The “We” Passages in the Acts of the Apostles: The Narrator as Narrative Character; Keener, “First-Person Claims in Some Ancient Historians and Acts.” For more on authorial and eyewitness claims in Greek literature vis-à-vis the gospel of John, see Jackson, “Ancient Self-Referential Conventions and Their Implications for the Authorship and Integrity of the Gospel of John.”

[16a] Translation quoted from Richard Bauckham’s The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple: Narrative, History, and Theology in the Gospel of John, 59, “slightly adapted” from Grant, Second-Century Christianity.

[16b] Cf. the section “Papias and the Muratorian Canon” (58f.) in Bauckham’s The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple.

[17] See Note 19.

[18] I’m aware that putting it this simply encroaches on a contentious area of debate in some ways. See especially, though, the work that’s emerged from the Society of Biblical Literature’s “John, Jesus, and History” Group, especially the two volumes of John, Jesus, and History (eds. Anderson, Just and Thatcher). See also Bauckham, “Historiographical Characteristics of the Gospel of John,” and the multi-response article “John versus Jesus? Reviews of The Fourth Gospel and the Quest for Jesus by Paul N. Anderson and the Author’s Response” in the Journal of Greco-Roman Christianity and Judaism. Most recently see the volume The Gospel of John as Genre Mosaic (cf. Becker, “John 13 as Counter-Memory: How the Fourth Gospel Revises Early Christian Historiography”?). 

[19] I’m also somewhat thinking of Wolfhart Pannenberg’s Christological arguments here, where Jesus’ postmortem exaltation has a retroactive effect in having changed the past.

As for other traditions that hint at this process, we might look toward Paraclete traditions, e.g. in John 14:26, where “the Advocate [Paraclete], the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name” will “teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you [ὑμᾶς διδάξει πάντα καὶ ὑπομνήσει ὑμᾶς πάντα ἃ εἶπον ὑμῖν ἐγώ].” At least the latter part here suggests merely a sort of historical remembrance (presumably of Jesus’ actual earthly sayings); though we still have the first part to consider here, as well as the possibility of etiology and/or apologetics, too.

And verses like John 16:13 are even more amenable to the broader revelation framework: “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” (Recalling John 14:26, John 15:26 identifies the “Spirit of truth” as the “Advocate.”) Catrin Williams argues that

Most Johannine commentators opt for the view that in [John] 16.12-15, as in 14.25-26, the primary function of the Paraclete is to interpret the already existing revelation of the earthly Jesus; this is often due to scholars’ reluctance to entertain the possibility that John ascribes to the Spirit the communication of new, post-Easter revelation. (“Unveiling Revelation: The Spirit-Paraclete and Apocalyptic Disclosure in the Gospel of John,” 122)

1 John 2:27 might also be mentioned here:

As for you, the anointing [χρίσμα] that you received from him abides in you, and so you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things [διδάσκει ὑμᾶς περὶ πάντων], and is true and is not a lie [καὶ ἀληθές ἐστιν καὶ οὐκ ἔστιν ψεῦδος], and just as it has taught you, abide in him.

With this in particular, we again think of the historiographical truth vs. falsehood concerns, which have been discussed above. (More on this below.)

Also, there shouldn’t be much more skepticism that early Christians would presume to speak for Jesus—even if this includes things that the actual historical Jesus didn’t say—than that others would speak for Wisdom or Isis, et al. I mention these two figures in particular because several writings that speak for them are well-known for being aretalogical: that is, including many statements of “I am…” and frequently praising their own virtues. Jackson, in his article mentioned above (“Ancient Self-Referential Conventions and Their Implications for the Authorship and Integrity of the Gospel of John”), writes that

Autobiographies in the first person were reserved for divinities (aretalogy) and for humans of their stature or otherwise somehow in contact with them (kings, prophets, visionaries, and the like).

Of course, the gospel of John is by no means an autobiography. But is there something about the sort of self-authentication that John 20:24 hints at—as well as the “Advocate” and/or “anointing” traditions—that might be connected with this? Several things are interesting in this regard: for one, the fact that Jesus’ lofty first-person claims (and self-praise) dominate in the gospel of John. And isn’t there a sort of undercurrent theme of a kind of assimilation of Jesus’ nature and the disciples’?

Besides verses like John 10:34-36, we might also think again of 1 John 2:27, where the “anointing” will teach disciples “about all things”—just as in John 16:30, the disciples say to Jesus that “we know that you know all things [οἴδαμεν ὅτι οἶδας πάντα].” (See also 2 Corinthians 1:21-22.)

Several essays by Robin Griffith-Jones may be of interest here: his “Transformation by a Text: The Gospel of John” and “Apocalyptic Mystagogy: Rebirth-from-above in the Reception of John’s Gospel.” He begins the latter by quoting Wayne Meeks that the gospel of John “functions for its readers in precisely the same way that the epiphany of its hero functions within its narratives and dialogues.” Griffith-Jones writes of the gospel as “a tool of mystagogy, cast as a narrative” (“Transformation by a Text,” 105). Robert Hall writes that “[l]ike the Paraclete, the Fourth Gospel serves to remind its readers of the words and deeds of Jesus and to interpret them properly,” and—perhaps most relevant—”[s]ince the Gospel performs precisely those functions it attributes to the backward glance of the Spirit, in all likelihood it is a manifestation of the retrospective work of the Spirit.” (Revealed Histories: Techniques for Ancient Jewish and Christian Historiography, 222).

The interest and/or cognizance of the gospel of John in its own power and authority might be connected with the book of Revelation in several ways: see for example Revelation 1:3, “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of the prophecy, and blessed are those who hear and who keep what is written in it.” I’ll discuss this issue at much greater length in my next post.

(Cf. also Revelation 19:10’s connection of testimony and the “spirit of prophecy.” Finally, many non-canonical writings—especially those that fall into the category “Gnostic”—dwell on the theme of uncovering [recovering?] Jesus’ hidden revelations and/or nature, as well as an assimilation to divine nature. In this regards perhaps the section “Was John the First Apocryphal Gospel?” in D. Moody Smith, “The Problem of John and the Synoptics in Light of the Relation between Apocryphal and Canonical Gospels” is relevant.)

Some of the things I’ve suggested here need further study in light of Greek ideas of inspiration and composition, and also the unclear boundaries between “history” and “fiction.” I think especially of what’s said of the bard Demodocus in Odyssey 8.487f.:

Demodocus, I praise you beyond all mortals. Either the Muse, the child of Zeus, or Apollo taught [ἐδίδαξε] you. For exceedingly rightly you sing the fate of the Achaeans, all the things they did and suffered and all their toils [ὅσσ᾽ ἔρξαν τ᾽ ἔπαθόν τε καὶ ὅσσ᾽ ἐμόγησαν], as though somehow you yourself were present or heard from another.

Marincola, discussing ancient Greek ideas of poetic inspiration, writes

in Homer . . . the authority to narrate the story comes from the inspiration of the Muses. Odysseus, in the passage above, equates Demodocus’ song inspired by Apollo or the Muses with eyewitness and experience. So too, the poet of the Iliad invokes the Muses before enumerating the Greek forces, calling on them as goddesses ‘who are present and know all things’ [ὑμεῖς γὰρ θεαί ἐστε πάρεστέ τε ἴστέ τε πάντα], and as such are superior to mortals who ‘have heard only the rumour of it, and know nothing’. (Authority and Tradition in Ancient Historiography, 63-64)

(For more on this see Murray, “Poetic Inspiration in Early Greece.”)

Again recall John 16:30, where Jesus is confirmed to “know all things,” and as such passes this on to the disciples, leading them into truth (John 14:26; 1 John 2:27). (Interestingly, in Hesiod’s Theogony, the Muses declare “we know how to say many false things [ψεύδεα] similar to genuine ones, but we know, when we wish, how to proclaim true things [ἀληθέα]” [27-28]. We might see this alongside 1 John 2:27, where again the “anointing” which “teaches . . . about all things” is said to be “true and is not a lie [ἀληθές . . . καὶ οὐκ ἔστιν ψεῦδος] “)

In terms of an interface with “actual” history, Marincola writes that “[t]he ancient historian did not, like the epic or didactic poet, profess inspiration or omniscience, nor did he swear an oath to the truth of his words” (Authority and Tradition, 5; on oaths here see Torrance, “Swearing Oaths in the Authorial Person”). Yet is it possible to push this distinction too far? Bracketing the first element (inspiration) for the time being, while perhaps the historians did not formally deliver oaths here, there was certainly a pretense of truth-telling; and in any case the ancient historians were dissected and criticized in so doing (or not).

While in a future post I’m going to explore the boundaries of “myth,” “history” and “fiction” vis-à-vis ancient truth-telling at greater length, for the purposes of this post we might skip ahead to the time of Josephus. Here, we find some of the first explicit stirrings of (a theory of) what’s been called a particular scriptural historiography. In contrast to Marincola’s suggestion that “[t]he ancient historian did not, like the epic or didactic poet, profess inspiration profess inspiration or omniscience,” Josephus suggests that in terms of Biblical texts,

seeing that it is not open to anyone to write of their own accord, nor is there any disagreement present in what is written [μήτε τινὸς ἐν τοῖς γραφομένοις ἐνούσης διαφωνίας], but the prophets alone learned, by inspiration from God, what had happened in the distant and most ancient past and recorded plainly events in their own time just as they occurred—among us there are not thousands of books in disagreement and conflict with each other, but only twenty-two books, containing the record of all time, which are rightly trusted. (Against Apion 1.37-38; translation Barclay)

Barclay notes here that

This association of [Judean] historiography with prophets (cf. War 1.18; 6.109) is without parallel in Greek or Roman culture, where prophets (or Sibyls) might predict the future, under divine inspiration, but had no role in the genre of historiography. Similarly striking is the sense that those responsible for writing history learned it from God. “Learning” . . . suggests a passive subordination quite contrary to the Greek (esp. the Thucydidean) spirit of enquiry, which involved the critical testing of sources. (Flavius Josephus: Translation and Commentary, Volume 10: Against Apion, 28 n. 152; see  also Barclay, “Judean Historiography in Rome: Josephus and History in Contra Apionem, Book I” here.)

Again by a circumlocutious route arriving back at the New Testament, Robert Hall suggests—citing Windisch (Johannes und die Synoptiker)—that “[t]he Gospel of John presupposes its own canonicity,” and that

Like Josephus’ Jewish War and Luke-Acts, John fits perfectly the definition of interpretive prophetic history: the author relates events of his own time and interprets them by revelation. If Luke comes closer to presupposing the Spirit’s work in his actual writing than Josephus does, John comes closer still. The Johannine evangelist seeks not merely to uncover the real meaning of past events but also to lay bare the perfect revelation concealed in all that Jesus did and said. For him that highly significant segment of the past in which Jesus had lived was replete with revelations of the highest conceivable kind. His was the great task of unlocking that revelation by the Paraclete and making it known that his readers might have life. (Revealed Histories, 236)

This ties together some of the aforementioned themes nicely; though again this all awaits further discussion of ancient understandings of “myth” and “poetry” and “history” and “fiction” (especially in light of some of the things discussed in Hall’s monograph, and vis-à-vis other works like Douglas Templeton’s The New Testament as True Fiction).

[20] What I mean is that the relevant verses in John here (19:35; 21:24-25) give the more unambiguous impression of ironclad historical remembrances. Again I think of the opening salvo of Lincoln’s “‘We Know That His Testimony Is True'” here:

Historicity clearly impinges on the truth claims of the Fourth Gospel. If it could be shown that Jesus never existed, or that he probably did not proclaim the inbreaking of God’s rule through his mission, or that he was dragged kicking and screaming to his death, or that his followers’ belief in his resurrection can be decisively falsified, then there would be an important sense in which the Fourth Gospel was not true. (179)

Yet again—similar to what Lincoln goes on to discuss regarding the beloved disciple’s testimony as mentioned in the gospel itself—exactly what the Muratorian/Papian tradition is suggesting is unclear, re: “revelation.”

Does the mixed individual/collective scenario in the the Muratorian/Papian claim, that the revelation “that all [the apostles] should certify what John wrote in his own name” connect with John 21:24’s “This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true”? I realize it might seem inconsistent to both appeal to this tradition while rejecting aspects of it; but this is pretty much precisely what’s done in many similar situations, too.

Ultimately, what it comes down to here is the Muratorian fragment / Papias as a “witness” to this process of composition—something that it/he accepts the legitimacy of, if employed by the right authoritative figures (though presumably rejecting its use by others)—thus securing its extreme antiquity in early Christian practice. Again, though, this is only true if the fragment or Papias (or his source) wasn’t making an inference based solely on what the gospel of John itself says. This is why we need a closer study of the background of the Muratorian/Papian tradition, and possible cognate traditions.

[21] In terms of “truthfulness,” Maurice Casey’s monograph Is John’s Gospel True? asks the question in its title repeatedly; though he interacts little (or, really, not at all) with ancient Greek/Roman/Jewish ideas of truth-telling, deception, fiction, etc. Of course, Casey ultimately argues that due to its egregious anachronisms and other historical errors, John is “profoundly untrue.” Casey mentions an alternate view, however, premised on the belief that the gospel “was never intended to be historically accurate,” and notes that “[e]xplicitly or implicitly, this seems to have been the position of critical commentators who come in from a Christian perspective” (222).

I mention this only to illustrate a broader lack of attention to some of the issues of truthfulness that we could examine—and to suggest that looking at John in its ancient context here could have significant impact on how Christians (even Christian scholars) approach it.


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