John(s), Jesus, and History

John(s), Jesus, and History September 25, 2018

As I teach my class on the historical Jesus and work on my project related to the historical John the Baptist, I find myself revisiting the question of the historical value of the Gospel of John. One thing that is not noticed often enough is that a number of the early events and sayings that are mentioned are said to have occurred before John the Baptist was imprisoned or executed. That time frame certainly makes sense for the focus of Jesus’ activity being in Jerusalem in this Gospel. But it also offers the intriguing possibility that Jesus may still have been part of John’s movement at this stage, and that the words that he spoke may have been, if not “messages from John,” then at least more directly influenced by his mentor than perhaps some of his later words and teaching may have been. This include the statement that the temple will be destroyed, and the prediction that people will not worship on either Mount Gerazim or in Jerusalem.

I won’t go so far (at least, not yet) as to suggest that the Gospel of John’s distinctive style might owe as much to John the Baptist, if not more, as to the author of the Gospel. But the presence of similar key words in Mandaean sources, and even parables about a good shepherd and fishing, means that that idea at least deserves consideration, and is not at all as far fetched as it might initially appear. At the very least, however, the possibility that Mandaean sources can usefully tell us about the historical John the Baptist, and that the Gospel of John can usefully tell us about him as well as about Jesus, provided these sources are studied critically, are going to be major factors in the project I am currently engaged in. I look forward to talking about some of these things with students of mine, too, in my historical Jesus class, albeit in far less detail than the book will go into.

Of related interest may be posts by Scot McKnight and Bart Ehrman that relate to the Gospel of John and/or the historical Jesus.


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  • John MacDonald

    If the temple had become as corrupt as the gospels seem to indicate, it would certainly make sense for John the Baptist to predict its destruction as part of his moral or apocalyptic messages. John the Baptist certainly cried “foul play” when he saw it, which got him killed after all.

    • John MacDonald

      One last thought. As Derrida demonstrated, we always have to be careful about drawing conclusions about the sources for stories based on the content of those stories. For example, consider the Temple Cleansing story and the plethora of possible source-explanations for it:

      (1) Maybe the story is accurate and Jesus caused a disturbance at the temple.
      (2) On the other hand, maybe the episode never happened, because there would have been guards there to prevent such a disturbance. Maybe Mark was part of an anti-temple sect like the Qumran sect and so was presenting in the story the idea that just as it was no longer the season for figs (the withering of the fig tree story), so too was it no longer season for the temple (the temple tantrum being sandwiched between the fig story).
      (3) Maybe the story started out as a sermon Jesus liked to give about the corruption of the temple, and that sermon simply morphed over time into the temple cleansing episode that Mark inherited.
      (4) Maybe the temple cleansing episode started out as a dream someone had about Jesus, which morphed, over time, into the temple tantrum story that was passed down to Mark.
      (5) Maybe Mark was apologetically justifying after the fact that the Jews really didn’t need the temple, in the wake of its destruction by the Romans
      (6) And this could go on indefinitely …

      Anyway, Derrida’s point is that when we draw conclusions about sources that lie behind narratives we need to be very careful, because often times our analysis can just be wishful, lazy thinking.

      • Nick G

        And of course before Derrida, no-one had ever thought of taking a critical approach to narratives.

        • John MacDonald

          There’s nothing new in the approach. For instance, Kant is going to find something in Hume’s philosophy that is going to threaten to overthrow Hume’s position. Deconstruction comes about when something a System is trying to appropriate resists, and threatens to overthrow the system. For instance, there is going to be something about LGBTQ rights/love that is going to threaten to overthrow the traditional definition of marriage, and cause that definition to be “de-constructed,” and then provisionally “re-constructed” in a more inclusive way. As Derrida says, Deconstruction is Justice. The methodology is very old. It’s what Socrates did going around Athens and testing/questioning people’s definitions.

          • Nick G

            IOW, what’s true or useful in “deconstruction” is not new, and what’s new is a load of obfuscatory verbiage.

          • John MacDonald

            Derrida can turn a clear phrase when he wants to, lol. For instance, Heidegger was very concerned with how the nature of Truth had been appropriated and narrowed by Thomas and Luther to mean Certainty as Freedom From Doubt, because what had to be certain was the salvation of the soul. This is the model of truth as certainty free from doubt that Descartes inherited. Regarding Heidegger’s analysis, Derrida explains that:

            The hyperbolic hypothesis of the Evil Genius, to the contrary, gives way precisely before that which constitutes evil for Heidegger, the one who haunts spirit in all the forms of its destitution: the certainty of the cogito in the position of the subjectum and therefore absence of originary questioning, scientific methodologism, leveling, predominance of the quantitative, of extension and number – so many motifs which are “Cartesian” in type (Derrida, Of Spirit, 62-63)

            Of course, as Derrida points out, significant training in Contemporary Continental Philosophy and The History Of Philosophy is needed to follow Derrida’s arguments. The example Derrida gives is that you wouldn’t fault Einstein for being too complicated, lol

  • The Mouse Avenger

    Fascinating! ^_^ Most fascinating! 😀

  • BruceOcala

    I came across Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg’s “The Jewish Gospel of John: Discovering Jesus, King of All Israel” and was impressed with his analyses. $5 Kindle on Amazon was worth it. He indicates a strong Samaritan interest in the gospel, that this was one of the groups to whom the gospel was specifically reaching out, among other things. His take on the woman at the well in ch 5 was excellent also. Just FYI.