updating Jesus as times change: hey, it’s in the Bible

updating Jesus as times change: hey, it’s in the Bible October 1, 2013

The idea that God was “updated” is not restricted to the OT, a topic we’ve looked at in several recent posts, focusing on the work of Mark S. Smith (begin here with several follow up posts). Smith’s work suggests that post-exilic priest-scribes revised and edited older traditions in order to contemporize God as new circumstances and challenges arose.

In this post, we’ll look briefly at the work of NT scholar James D. G. Dunn and his identification of a large swath of gospel material as giving literary expression to pre-existing oral traditions. Through the course of his research Dunn investigates all four gospels. Our focus will remain on the Gospel of John.

What Dunn has found in his study of the fourth gospel is that the fourth evangelist retold, re-worked, and elaborated quite freely upon the traditions he was familiar with in order to address the contemporary concerns of his own religious in-group.

In The Oral Gospel Tradition, Dunn acknowledges that most scholars agree the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) are more historically oriented than the Gospel of John. But based on what researchers have found when studying the transmission of stories in oral cultures, Dunn explains that even within the (more historical) synoptic gospels, what readers encounter are traditions of the sayings of Jesus and “not the saying itself” (307).

If this applies to the synoptic gospels, it applies to the Gospel of John with greater force.

Building on studies by C. H. Dodd and others, Dunn marshals an persuasive list of loose correspondences between John and the Synoptics, correspondences that are certainly tight enough to establish links to synoptic material but interestingly loose enough to render “John’s direct dependence on one or more of the Synoptics as such highly unlikely” (163).

In other words, some are convinced that the evangelist is drawing on earlier traditions. Even so, the fourth evangelist only possessed “knowledge of Synoptic-like tradition but not of the Synoptic version of it” (145, emphasis added; see also 185–86):

According to Dunn, what we have in the Gospel of John includes considerable elaboration on various oral traditions that were still in circulation about Jesus. Dunn explains:

John or his tradition felt free to document Jesus’ mission with parabolic stories and not only actual remembered events. . . . John may have concluded that to bring out the full significance of Jesus’ mission he had to retell the tradition in bolder ways that brought out that significance more clearly (183).

John’s Gospel shows just how diverse and varied the Jesus tradition could become in its various retellings. . . John’s Gospel shows clearly the degree to which the memory of Jesus could be, and was, informed by subsequent insight and conviction, and shaped to portray Jesus as the Johannine author(s) or communities now saw him or wanted to present him to their contemporaries. . . At one and the same time, however, John demonstrated that for the remembered Jesus to continue to be seen as relevant to subsequent generations, the way he was remembered would have to be adaptable if the same Jesus was to speak to these generations (195).

What if the OT is not the only part of scripture that was updated and revised by later writers to contemporize scripture, making it fit with sensibilities of later times? In this post, we took a brief look at James D. G. Dunn’s research suggesting that the gospel of Jesus Christ has been updated and revised in controlled but creative attempts to contemporize the Christian proclamation of good news. The motivation was to make it more amenable to current habits of thinking. The gospels, and in particular the Gospel of John, appear to display analogous features to the updating and revising witnessed in the OT.

Today’s post is by Carlos Bovell, whom many of you know from some previous posts here. Carlos is a graduate of Westminster Theological Seminary and The Institute for Christian Studies, Toronto. He is also the author of Inerrancy and the Spiritual Formation of Younger Evangelicals (2007), By Good and Necessary Consequence: A Preliminary Genealogy of Biblical Foundationalism (2009), an edited volume, Interdisciplinary Perspectives on the Authority of Scripture (2011), and Rehabilitating Inerrancy in a Culture of Fear.

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  • Andrew Dowling

    Clearly all of the Gospels reflect this; written to fit/reflect the circumstances and experiences of the community they were written in. Which isn’t a bad thing, but readers of the Gospels can understand a lot more IMO if they seek to understand the context in which they were likely written.

    This especially is necessary when looking at the massive conflicts shown in both John and the Synoptics pitting Jesus (a Jew) against ‘the Jews” or Jewish leaders. Much of this dialogue reflected the conflicts existing between the evangelist’s early Christian community and post-2nd Temple Judaism. This follows into the accounts of the Passion Narrative. To take Pilate’s “reluctant executioner” role in the Gospels (which almost exonerate Pilate and pit the majority of blame upon the Jews) as straight history is almost laughable.

  • Some solid examples would have made this post much more compelling.

  • James

    What do Isaiah, John the Evangelist, G. K. Chesterton, and C. S. Lewis have in common? They are seers. Their writings speak with clarity to the current crises of their day but also look prophetically to the future, note trends and make universal applications. Not to downgrade the unique contribution of biblical revelation…

  • Hopaulius

    Of course human apprehension of the the absolute and eternal God changes. I won’t say it grows, progresses, or improves, for to assess this is above my pay grade. But I do think it’s important to make a distinction between what humans apprehend or imagine that we apprehend, and that which is beyond our apprehension.

  • Here is the most profound statement of today: For some reason, the picture of Jesus on the cover of Dunn’s book looks quite scary. 🙂

  • Rick

    “Dunn explains that even within the (more historical) synoptic gospels, what readers encounter are traditions of the sayings of Jesus and “not the saying itself”

    Michael Kruger has a different take, citing some work by Richard Baukham:

    “Bauckham argues that John bears certain characteristics that his readers would have understood as historiographical—meaning they would have understood it to be a work of history. And these characteristics are actually more prominent in John than in the Synoptics. Let me just mention three of them.
    1. Topography/Geography…2. Eyewitness Testimony…3. Length of Discourses. While scholars suggest that John’s gospel must be embellished because the discourses are so much longer than the Synoptics, Bauckham makes almost the opposite point, namely that the Synoptics are more likely abbreviated versions of longer speeches. The Synoptic gospels give evidence of being summaries or condensed version of Jesus’ actual teachings (they are not for this reason unreliable; this was just what historians sometimes had to do). This leads to the rather surprising reality that John’s lengthy discourses are, historically speaking, more realistic than the Synoptics. They capture more accurately what Jesus would have probably sounded like.
    All of these considerations leave us with a rather counter-intuitive conclusion—at least from the perspective of modern critical scholarship—namely that John’s gospel actually contains clearer historiographical credentials than the Synoptics. After all the hits that John’s gospel has taken over the years, this is remarkable fact. It is a reminder, once again, that the “consensus” of the academy has its limitations. Indeed, sometimes the truth lies in the opposite direction.”


    • Andrew Dowling

      “The Synoptic gospels give evidence of being summaries or condensed
      version of Jesus’ actual teachings (they are not for this reason
      unreliable; this was just what historians sometimes had to do). This
      leads to the rather surprising reality that John’s lengthy discourses
      are, historically speaking, more realistic than the Synoptics. They
      capture more accurately what Jesus would have probably sounded like.”

      I concur that the Johanine tradition outlines more familiarity with Palestinian geography and timelines than the Synoptics (namely Mark, since Luke and Matthew use Mark’s basic story as their backbone), but the above quote is frankly way off track.

      First off, the oral tradition that began after Jesus’s death would’ve consisted of short memorable stories and sayings the apostles recollected, not long discourses . . .this has been shown to be the vehicle of oral tradition throughout the world. Long discourses attributed by ancient writers are practically always the creation of the writer, not something remembered.

      2ndly, The Jesus of John’s discourses sounds like a Platonic philosopher, not a 1st century Jewish peasant. The Synoptics show a Jesus using VERY different language (John doesn’t even contain parables, which were clearly a tool used by the historical Jesus as remembered by his followers) and theological outlook. The idea that the Synoptic tradition is an abbreviated version of the Johanine one . . wow . . I thought I had heard all of the apologetic arguments seeking to explain the differences between John and the Synoptics but this takes the cake.

      • Rick

        Bauckham does not claim, and in fact says John the Elder (who is the writer according to Bauckham) states this, that the Gospel of John does not claim to be an exhaustive account. If John was written last, he allows the Synoptics to state of aspects of the story.

        He says of the writer: “I think John adopted a different approach to representing the teaching of Jesus in a narrative. He includes traditional sayings of Jesus but expands on them in extensive, reflective interpretation. The much greater interpretative element in John is actually quite coherent with my claim that this is the only Gospel to have been actually written by an eyewitness. Precisely because he had been close to Jesus he felt qualified to interpret Jesus”

        Bauckham also emphasizes: “But if ‘the real Jesus’ is the person the Gospels, in their very diversity as well as their commonality, portray for us and enable us to know, then the real Jesus must be more than the Jesus of any of the Gospels. An important function of the plurality of the Gospels is to keep us constantly aware of this. If each of the four is in its own way a valid portrayal of Jesus, then we cannot evade the fact that none is complete, that the perspective of each is just one perspective among several…By presenting us with four portrayals that are not harmonized already for us, the texts keep us seeking the Jesus to whom all four portrayals are reliable but not exhaustive witnesses.”

        • Andrew Dowling

          “The much greater interpretative element in John is actually quite
          coherent with my claim that this is the only Gospel to have been
          actually written by an eyewitness. Precisely because he had been close
          to Jesus he felt qualified to interpret Jesus”

          This is pure unsubstantiated speculation to serve a theological point. John doesn’t just expand on the Synoptics; they present at times very different emphases and theological angles. Ancient writers felt qualified to interpret Jesus all the time . . just see the Gnostic Gospels with their expanded Jesus discourses. That says nothing of the author having “known” Jesus.

          As for the last paragraph, I actually love the Gospel of John and don’t think it should be disregarded or belittled. But concurrently, to argue that it contains as much or more historically valid material of what Jesus said does just not gel with sound historical examinations of the Gospels.

          • Rick

            As N.T. Wright has said, just as the Synoptics contain more theological elements than previously recognized, so to we should revisit John in light of the possibility that it contains more historical elements than previously recognized.
            Scot McKnight also states that there is a notable (not huge, but notable) interest in scholarly circles for returning to a new look at John.

          • Andrew Dowling

            “just as the Synoptics contain more theological elements than previously recognized”

            When were the Synoptics not recognized as having many theological elements?

            “so to we should revisit John in light of the possibility that it contains more historical elements than previously recognized.”

            The “re-visiting” of John goes back over 50 years. I agree with Brown and others that John, likely developed over a large amount of time (with the end result making it the ‘newest’ Gospel in its finished form with the possible exception of Luke) by various authors, has its ‘roots’ in an early layer of a likely eye-witness. As I said, I think John’s timeline, geographic routes, and certain elements of the Johanine Passion Narrative are more plausible historically than what is found in the Synoptics.

            But the further developments/add-ons to John that arose over a period of time, for reasons both theological and practical for the community that it came forth from in the post-Temple era, render much of that early layer very faded and hard to penetrate. The wide majority of NT scholars, and almost all scholars not operating in a very conservative academic environment, retain the belief that the Synoptics contain much better information on the historical Jesus through its use and transmission of the oral tradition than John. Especially when talking about the words that are attributed to Jesus in John . . .the discourses are literary creations and not carried over from the oral tradition.

          • Rick

            “The wide majority of NT scholars, and almost all scholars not operating in a very conservative academic environment…”

            As Scot McKnight has mentioned to you before:

            “how in the world can one measure “majority”? Do we have a group of voters? Do we read a list of commentaries or NT introductions? Do we count traditional scholars in the history of scholarship? When it comes to authorship questions, we don’t have anything like a majority. What we ought to focus on is the evidence and how compelling that evidence is for a given viewpoint.”

          • Andrew Dowling

            I don’t have a methodological list, but I do (at the risk of sounding pompous) know a good number of NT/Gospels biblical scholars’ respective views on this. And they all share my contention (heck, my contention was formed through reading their work!).

            The only ones who don’t . . come from very conservative institutes, save very few outliers like Hurtado.
            Unless one finds this theologically troubling (hence the constant apologetics from Reformed and conservative evangelical writers), I don’t see how this is controversial as it’s so widely accepted that John by and large holds less reliably historical material about Jesus when it comes to Jesus’s dialogue and what he says (and one could also point to the ‘Signs’ . . something like the raising of Lazarus, if viewed as historical, was simply ‘missed’ by the Synoptic tradition? . . . .really???). This is only a debate in conservative circles.

          • C Bovell


            Although our other thread ended on a conciliatory note, you’d probably want to know that Dunn does not think that the Lazarus story is historical. He sees it as a “parabolic” story, symbolic of the kinds of miracles Jesus either performed during his ministry or would have been capable of performing given who he was.

            Grace and peace,

    • C Bovell

      Bauckham seems to go too far in his effort to preserve tradition. Dunn agrees with Bauckham’s basic point that “the traditions were originated and formulated by named eyewitnesses.” Where he differs from Bauckham is how he (Dunn) does “not see much evidence for the view that the Jesus tradition was transmitted in the name of the original eyewitnesses.” By contrast, Dunn concludes: “[M]any of the small churches outside the main centers . . . must have been at several removes from the eyewitnesses, so that the ‘reliability’ of their knowledge of Jesus’ mission and teaching would have been dependent on the reliability of the oral tradition which the founding evangelist (Epaphras, etc.) provided for them” (228).

      • Rick

        “Bauckham seems to go too far in his effort to preserve tradition.”

        Baukham in fact states: “That may sound like a return to something quite like the traditional view, and I don’t mind saying it is. But the key difference lies in the arguments used for such a view. The old paradigm didn’t really go in much for arguments…”

        You mentioned Dunn does “not see much evidence for the view that the Jesus tradition was transmitted in the name of the original eyewitnesses.”
        Bauckam writes: “The ancients had strong opinions about how history should be written. It must be based on eyewitness testimony. The good historian should either have been an eyewitness himself or he should have met and interviewed people who were eyewitnesses. Good historical writing should incorporate the accounts of eyewitnesses at first or secondhand. This is why the ancients thought that real history had to be contemporary history, written when eyewitnesses were still available. Their approach to history was quite like what he call oral history. This means, I think, that readers of the Gospels would expect these writings to embody eyewitness testimony and they would be alert to indications of who the eyewitnesses were.”

        • C Bovell

          Dunn accepts much of what Bauckham has had to say. It is just that as Dunn has extensively studied the transmission process–insofar as it can be discerned through what actually has come down to us–it became clear to him that Bauckham has pressed his case beyond the evidence.

          • Rick

            Clearly Bauckham would disagree, on the basis of his extensive studies.

          • C Bovell

            The disagreement may not be as stark as it first appears. Dunn himself is quick to point out that their views (i.e., Bauckham’s and Dunn’s) are actually very similar, the differences between them being more a matter of emphasis.

            NT scholar I. H. Marshall agrees:

            “So although there is some criticism by Bauckham of Dunn’s scepticism regarding a continuing role for the eyewitnesses, he is in fact an ally and not an opponent when it comes to analysis of the Gospel material. We are dealing with comparatively minor differences between allies who form a solid phalanx against the mistaken view of the tradition that they are opposing” (“A New Consensus on Oral Tradition?,’ JSHJ, 6 [2008]: 190).

          • Rick

            Good quote. Thanks

  • Bill Norton

    As is customary with this blog, the headline is both deliberately provocative and unfortunately misleading. Second, the author presumes readers are in agreement with Smith’s assertion (which is not at all new, by the way, just repurposed through Smith’s lenses) that post-exilic scribes tuned up the OT. Third, this assumes Smith and scholars before him are right. As far as I know, to open-minded folks, that conclusion is still in doubt. In the end, this post’s content didn’t fulfill the promise of the headline, which is a failure in any medium. Once the author of this blog and his surrogates finish undermining the text formerly known as Scripture, it seems to me all they’ll have left is a belief in themselves. But maybe that’s where they started.

    • C Bovell

      Who said anything about the Bible being “formerly known as Scripture”? Perhaps you mean something like: “What you have written, Carlos, is at variance with the doctrine of Scripture that I presently have and that really irks me.” I am not trying to undermine the biblical texts but understand them.

      • Bill Norton

        To what end are you seeking to understand biblical texts? Will this enlarge your faith? deepen your commitment to your beliefs? or is this what scholars do?

        Based on the highlighted portions in your blogpost (and those were just your interpretations of another author’s writing) the NT authors sound like Norman Mailer embellishing the facts in of Gary Gilmore’s execution to make “Executioner’s Song” more readable. Except he wanted to pass the book of as non-fiction but that didn’t fly.

        Also, I don’t know how Dunn could write a line like “john or his tradition felt free…” That calls for a full stop for this reader. How could Dunn know what they felt.

        As far as whether your work undermines the text, how much of your work has challenged Scripture or found the Bible wanting or lacking? How much of these findings have you published? Is there a text you’ve scrutinized that remains intact, either in wording or meaning?

        • C Bovell

          Forgive me if I’m misreading you, but your line of inquiry is beginning to sound accusatory.

          In all my work, my wish is to understand the biblical texts better so I can worship God more faithfully in spirit and truth. My hope is always that God will deepen my trust in him (and by extension that of other believers who take an interest in my work).

          Some may fear that posts like this one challenge specific theological positions regarding the doctrine of scripture (bibliology), but even if they do, it does not automatically follow that they undermine scripture.

          • Bill Norton

            Yes, you are misreading me. No, I am not being accusatory.

            I should know better than to initiate an exchange via email. This medium lacks the capacity to account for inflection and genuine tone and the real give and take of dialogue.

            In another time and another place, I would appreciate seeing a demonstration of your last paragraph. Please don’t read that as a challenge. It is not. I really would like to see how authoring these challenges affects the author’s walk with Christ. Of course, that would entail first learning how someone relates to Christ and how that relationship affects their lives.

            What I never have seen so far in critical texts is how the author/s implement their critiques in their daily faith lives.

            Anyway, I tried earlier to confess that I had succumbed to the temptation to be snarky when I appropriated a book title to coin the phrase text formerly known as scripture. That snarkiness is one of my enduring gripes about Dr. Enns’ blog. And I fell into the trap. I was wrong to use the term that way and for that I apologize.

          • C Bovell

            Apology accepted. I am not sure how I could “show” you how I’ve tried to be critical and spiritual at the same time. All I can think to do is invite you to read any of my books or articles and critique what you find. (I believe there’s still an older article of mine on how to use an OT text for preaching circulating online for free somewhere.)

            Perhaps you’d be interested to know that (believe it or not) I actually receive emails thanking me profusely for my work and explaining that if it were not for reading the kind of work I do, struggling believers would have given up on faith entirely. So there is a place in the Kingdom for what Pete’s blog, for example, sets out to do.

            Grace and peace,


    • peteenns

      I feel you are misrepresenting things here, perhaps unwittingly. Could you point me to “openminded folks” (historians/archaeologists) who argue that Israel’s faith was monotheistic from the beginning?

      Also, to say that Smith’s work constitutes “assertions” is inaccurate, since he has written numerous books and articles arguing the point. You are free not to accept his conclusions, but than it should be on the basis of either (1) arguing something better or (2) ignoring Smith and then holding to another view regardless. But accusing Smith of merely asserting is not a truthful statement.

      • Bill Norton

        Dr. Enns,
        Perhaps in academia, there is some significance in distinguishing between assertion and conclusion. In everyday life, if I assert something to be true, I mean I have done some thinking and some research, maybe even reached a conclusion. To state it or to publish it is to assert it. I may, however, be incorrect or off point. The fact that someone reaches a conclusion based on their interpretation of facts they gleaned using their own preferred tools doesn’t make the conclusions true.

        You read me incorrectly, misunderstand me, if you say, as you did, that I am accusing Smith of anything. That is far from an accurate conclusion/assertion, whichever word you prefer.

        As to your first point, I think you have shifted the argument to whether Israel has always been monotheistic and away from from my comment that not every scholar/historian agrees with the conclusion that editors rewrote the OT after the Babylonian exile. And by open minded I merely mean people who can hold two thoughts in their head. They can see arguments as both/and, rather than either/or.

        • Seraphim

          I enjoy Ben Sommer. The appendix of his book “Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel” argues persuasively for an extremely early origin for Israelite monotheism. He won a few awards for the book.

  • Bryan Hodge


    I’ve read your books before and so this is all familiar to me. I was wondering if you might clarify somethings for me?

    Can you let us know whether you are primarily using a diachronic or synchronic approach to understanding Scripture? I say “primarily” to ask which one wins out when you come to the conclusion that the Bible teaches something that has been updated. Is that “updated” in terms of itself or “updated” in terms of traditions within the culture (or both)?

    The problem I have with a lot of critical approaches that are popular within scholarly circles today is that they fail to use a synchronic approach and note whether the current context of a book, section of books, or canon carries previous implicatures that were held in its prehistory.

    For instance, Smith makes a note in the back of one of his books (I forgot which one, but can look it up at some point), that using polytheistic language assumes the idea that other gods exist. Unfortunately, that should have been the subject of his entire book rather than the rest of what he wrote. This is merely assumed by him. The fact of the matter is that implicatures don’t carry over into other contexts unless those contexts carry identical or similar referents. So if I have polytheistic language from a polytheistic text used in a work that teaches monotheism, then those implicatures obviously do not carry over. It’s like my saying, “Tyra Banks is the goddess of fashion” in an atheistic/monotheistic context, such is ours. My use of the word “goddess” does not carry the implicature “other gods or goddesses exist,” because the language is used in a different context and now just becomes idiomatic without those referents.

    Hence, how does one go about saying, “the Bible teaches X, Y, and Z that have been updated from U, V, and W” if, in fact, the Bible is one book that carries its own referents within that canonical context? Isn’t this a bait and switch number, where what you really mean by “the Bible” is “the individual traditions that the Bible has used, both in and outside the text that make up its parts”? But if that is true, then you are really just talking about the pre-biblical traditions that have been updated by the canon.

    This, in turn, seems to indicate that it really has to do with one’s view of canon, and whether the canon is the final word on what should be clarified, updated, etc. If not, I’m not sure any canon is worth its weight if it does not measure other canons/updates that follow it. So my question is this, Are you talking about the same Bible that evangelicals are talking about, or are you talking about some other “bible” that evangelicals never affirmed as sacred Scripture anyway?

    If that is true, that you are discussing another “bible” (albeit unknowingly, as scholarship in general makes this bait and switch all of the time), is it even possible to make a leap from the assumptions that the Bible updates traditions to fit culture rather than to hold the evangelical view that the Bible incorporates traditions as its language often in order to either affirm or correct those very traditions in the first place? In other words, if the Bible updates because it is the norm of all cultural traditions, past and present, how exactly would we update it? With what norm would we do so? And would it be the Bible anymore if we fit it into our own contextual referents and gave it our own implicatures?

    Thanks in advance.