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Dancing with the distinguished professor--Post III--Back to the positive evidence

It was a notable feature of my recent debate with Craig Evans (podcast here) that I dealt in details and new information, whereas Evans dealt mostly in generalities, repeated over and over again, and occasionally false specific statements. (See my earlier posts on the debate here and here.)

I want at this point to return to some of the specific things I said in the debate, defending the reliability of John, which I hope to return to in later posts and discuss at more length. I won't transcribe all of those comments but will give times for them and summaries so that readers can go to those places and listen. At minute 37:50, I talked about the artificiality of the distinction between John and the synoptics concerning the length of Jesus' discourses. I mentioned there a chart (see here) by the unitarian James Drummond in which compares the length of Jesus' uninterrupted speech in Matthew to that of Jesus in John and shows that the "Jesus who goes on and on for many verses in John as opposed to the synoptics" is an invention of scholarship rather than a fact of what we actually find in the text.

At minute 38:30 I talk about an article by Richard Bauckham in which he points out that a more connected speaking style would appear more realistic in any event. We should certainly not think that Jesus spoke always in aphorisms! That article is called "Historiographical Characteristics of the Gospel of John" (unfortunately not available in full-text to the public) and contains a lot of other interesting information about the apparent historicity of John, including the fascinating remark that, in John more than in the synoptics, we always know precisely where Jesus is located. I want to emphasize again, as I did in the debate, that I'm not trying to "appropriate" Bauckham in such a way as to imply that he and I would agree concerning the recognizable historicity of all that Jesus says in John. But Bauckham's arguments are what they are and may well support a stronger position than he is personally willing to endorse.

Beginning at about minute 39 I mention several aspects of the Farewell Discourse that are paralleled in the synoptic Gospels, even verbally. Nor are these the only interesting verbal and close conceptual parallels between Jesus' sayings in John and in the synoptics. I was able only to give a couple of examples. I pointed out the double undesigned coincidence connecting the foot washing in John to Luke concerning the Last Supper, which I discuss in Hidden in Plain View. I point out the parallel between Matthew 7:7 and John 16:24, which (as I mention) is right smack in the middle of the longest uninterrupted discourse spoken by Jesus in the entire gospel:

Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. (Matt. 7:7)

Until now you have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full. (John 16:24)

I also compare these:

And you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. (Mark 13:13)

Because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. (John 15:19)

I then squeezed in, before Justin moved us on, the fact that when Jesus said, "I am the true vine" in John 16, he may have been walking past vineyards in Jerusalem.

At minute 48 I referred to Craig Blomberg's interesting discussion in The Historical Reliability of John's Gospel (p. 127) of the historicity of the Bread of Life discourse, on which all of Craig Evans's remarks in this debate cast doubt. Blomberg suggests that Jesus may have given an organized, midrashic commentary on Old Testament passages, starting at vs. 31 with the crowd's own Old Testament citation, plausibly of Psalm 78:24, and continuing in vs. 45 with Jesus' own citation of (probably) Isaiah 54:13. As Blomberg points out, the fact that here Jesus is teaching in a synagogue makes it all the more plausible that he historically gave a sermon substantially like this one on this occasion. He also mentions that the synoptics never even attempt to tell us what Jesus said when he preached in the synagogues, though they confirm that he often taught there. (Mark 1:21-22, Luke 4:16-21 and elsewhere.)

At about minute 53:55 I point out that, so far from confusing his own interpretive words with those of Jesus, the author of John is repeatedly scrupulous to distinguish his own gloss from Jesus' words. Here are several examples, though I had no time to give these in the debate:

John 2:18-21 The narrator stops in an aside to explain that Jesus was speaking of the Temple of his body when he told the Jewish leaders, "Destroy this Temple, and in three days I will raise it up." The narrator does not put an explicit reference to the resurrection into Jesus' mouth but leaves the allusion cryptic, as Jesus presumably intended it to be.

John 7:37-39 Jesus invites anyone who is thirsty to come to him for rivers of living water springing up from within. The narrator pauses to explain that Jesus was referring to the Holy Spirit, whom those who believed would receive later. Even though he believes that this was Jesus' meaning, he does not put it into Jesus' mouth.

John 13:10-11 Jesus says, "You are clean, but not all." The narrator explains in his own voice that the "not all" was referring to Judas Iscariot.

On this topic I have an excellent quotation from D.A. Carson:

More important, there is quite substantial evidence not only that Jesus spoke cryptically at times, and that his cryptic utterances were not properly understood until after his resurrection/exaltation and his sending of the Paraclete; but also that John faithfully preserved the distinction between what Jesus said that was not understood, and the understanding that finally came to the disciples much later (e.g. John 2:18-22; 7:37-39; 12:16; 16:12f., 25; 21:18- 23; compare Luke 24:6-8, 44-49). It is not at all obvious that John is confused on this matter. One might even argue plausibly that anyone who preserves this distinction so faithfully and explicitly is trying to gain credence for what he is saying; and if he errs in this matter it will be because of an unconscious slip, not by design. D.A. Carson "Historical Tradition in the Fourth Gospel," 1981

At about 1:07:50 I let rip with a comment that is worth transcribing. This is the part that Evans then referred to as a mere assertion (!) that the portrait of Jesus in John is clearly the same person as the portrait of Jesus in the synoptics:

The nature and personality of Jesus are clearly the same in all four Gospels. And I have many, many examples of this but here in the time we have I can’t give them in detail. His use of sarcasm, his modes of thought, his rapier-sharp wit, his love for his friends, his weeping with compassion, his ability to read thoughts, even his characteristic metaphors and turns of phrase, his use of object lessons. John’s presentation of Jesus is actually very strikingly the same as the synoptics. And the differences between them are exaggerated and incorrectly stated by critical scholarship. By the use of vivid vignettes, John shows us not an allegorical abstraction but a solid and intensely real person, and he is the same person we meet in the synoptic Gospels. And we can tell that by reading them. That’s not just something we believe by faith. That’s actually right there in the text and in the documents.

Later I hope to elaborate on all of these points in other posts with specific examples. These are all supportable by specifics. I squeeze in a couple of examples at the very end (1:10:09). One is Jesus' way of talking about Sabbath controversies in Luke 13 and in John 7. I discussed that in detail in a post here. I also mention Jesus' physical gesture of looking up to heaven in prayer--a characteristic Jewish gesture that Jesus makes into a personal indication of his relationship with the Father. See Mark 7:34, John 11:41, John 17:1.

Finally, I mention these pages in Stanley Leathes's book, which were invaluable to me in prepping for this debate. All of my older sources were given to me by Esteemed Husband, who (as all know well) is a great advocate of reviving the heritage of the past in biblical studies.

There is much else I could comment on concerning the debate, including Evans's strange attempt at patronization (about minute 45ff, where he suggests that I have never heard of the theory of Markan priority and the two-source hypothesis) and my response, but I'll leave those to interested listeners to find for themselves.

The Gospel of John is a wonderful, historical resource. It is not the problem child of the New Testament but rather an intimate portrait of the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I am grateful to God for the gift of the Gospel of John, not solely as a theological meditation but, perhaps even more importantly, as an historical source. Defending it as such would not be an unworthy life's work.

Comments (13)

It's a pretty good article until the end. Toward the end Wenham begins doing a sort of "on the one hand, but on the other hand" thing in which he will start by giving a sort of Leathes-style argument that John's accounts are historical and dovetail with the concepts taught by Jesus in the synoptics. But then he'll stop and suggest that it could equally well be explained by one of these (sigh) broad ipsissima vox "paraphrase" things where what is *clearly* a different incident in John is a so-called "paraphrase" of something in the synoptics. Examples include, e.g., Matthew 7:14 (which refers to a path leading to life) and John 14:6, "I am the way, the truth, and the life." But the latter occurs in a different context than the former and just would not be a "paraphrase" thereof. Jesus says, "I am the way" in response to Thomas's saying that they don't know where he's going and therefore cannot know the way. Jesus assures him that he himself is the way. Whereas Matthew 7:14 is a part of a warning about not following the way that leads to destruction but rather a narrow way that leads to life. The semantic content is quite notably different. Yet Wenham suggests:

On the basis of this evidence the conclusion could be that the Synoptics and John are so close that there is no reason to deny that Jesus said exactly what John says he said. But the conclusion could also be that John has paraphrased Jesus' words in order to make their meaning crystal clear, not least in the light of all the controversy that he was writing to combat: he wanted to bring out the christological significance of what Jesus had said about the narrow way, because he wanted to refute those who were putting Jesus down.

As is all too common, Wenham does not consider a *narrow* ipsissima vox view. If we want to show our sophistication and prove that we don't think that it had to be absolutely verbatim, we can agree that Jesus might have said, in response to Thomas, and in Aramaic, "I am the way that leads to life. Follow me and live. No man comes to the Father unless he follows me," or something like that, which is slightly different from the wording in John. But it would still be part of a recognizable incident and not a "paraphrase" of a quite different saying in Matthew. And if, as the first part of the paragraph acknowledges, "There is no reason to deny" that Jesus at least uttered, "I am the way" in such a narrrow ipsissima vox, recognizable fashion, in that dialogue context, then the other conclusion--that John invented it in that context in order to elevate Jesus' status to "refute those who were putting Jesus down" is actually not as good an explanation! It is more complex and completely unnecessary.

That article is indicative of just how confused people who ought to know better are about this misuse of the term "paraphrase." It's really rather disturbing.

By the way, for readers who don't know, that article is by David Wenham, not by John Wenham, author of Easter Enigma.

Wenham's argument at that point also shows the extremely one-sided and biased treatment that John gets, even among conservative scholars. After all, given the "composite" view that so many scholars take toward the Sermon on the Mount, why not go the other direction? Why not say that the saying to Thomas was far closer to ipsissima verba and that Matthew changed it and included it in a composite of Jesus' sayings in the Sermon on the Mount? Or why not say, more harmonistically, that Jesus said something longer in response to Thomas, including the comparison between the broad and narrow ways, that John recorded part of it in its original setting, and that Matthew collected the other part in his aphoristic composite, the Sermon on the Mount. But no. It's always *John* who is suggested to be doing this wonky so-called "paraphrase," even sometimes apparently sticking things into *particular settings* in response to *particular questions* or *particular dialogue or action*, for some theological agenda, which leaves us once again with a fuzzy Johannine Jesus.

To my mind it's sheer bias.

There is no more reason to get all persnickety about saying over and over again that Jesus might not have "spoken these exact words" and then making implausible hypotheses for the I am sayings than for the Beatitudes.

I believe John had three sons: Gordon, David, and Peter. Gordon became an OT scholar while David become a NT scholar. Don't know what Peter became.

As I recall, it was David who cared for his father in his final years.

JW Wenham's Easter Enigma is an excellent book that gives very plausible harmonizations of the resurrection accounts. Doubtless it would be considered by the enlightened purveyors of modern criticism as a benighted throwback to English scholarship from the 18th and 19th centuries (even though the work was published in the 50s or 60s IIRC). It's a book I think my namesake could have heartily endorsed.

Has anyone heard of this?

The Johannine Discourses and the Teaching of Jesus in the Synoptics. By Philipp F. Bartholomä.
Texte und Arbeiten zum neutestamentlichen Zeitalter 57. Tübingen: Francke,
2012, xiii

I have not read it. I do note, interestingly, from the introduction that "discourses" is expansively defined so that it includes dialogues! That's pretty convenient, huh? And highly misleading if someone is going to say, "Jesus just starts talking and then goes on and on and on for many verses" about a passage in which, you know, Jesus has a dialogue with people and does not "go on and on and on for many verses." Looks like this sort of misleading wordplay has a history.

On the whole, though, Bartholomä's book is an entry on the traditional side. Despite that odd bit of terminology, he argues that the language of Jesus in John shares so many conceptual similarities to the language of Jesus in the Synoptics that there is no good reason to doubt that we have in the fourth Gospel an accurate representation of things he actually said. Some of the argument sounds strikingly like what one reads in Leathes's Appendix, though I do not believe he mentions Leathes's earlier work.

I sensed from the part I was able to see of the introduction in Google's advanced book function that he might be going in a *relatively* historical direction, but the intro. was mostly just laying out previous views. Just as it was going to get interesting I got the dreaded, "Your preview does not include pages 6-7" message.

The terminology is presumably not his own. I assume he is saying something that was said by others before himself--a kind of terminological perverseness in the discipline (as too many things are). He may be adopting it arguendo for purposes of giving his further discussion.

In Evans's case, of course, we do have that description, "Goes on and on and on for many verses" which is outright false in any case concerning most of the sayings he listed. As has happened several times now just in my acquaintance with his m.o. in debate, when Evans descends to particulars while articulating his dehistoricizing views of John, he just gets them wrong in the service of sounding more convincing. Talking about discourses in which Jesus "goes on and on and on for many verses" also gives a very different impression from, "For ideological reasons, some scholars have chosen to give a very strange and misleading name to some passages in John that are not discourses at all but rather dialogues in which Jesus speaks only for a few verses at a time at most and goes back and forth with a person or group, calling them 'discourses' because they are theologically freighted dialogues and because scholars want to call their historicity into question. Thus even the discussion with the woman at the well in John 4 gets called a 'discourse.' Of course, by this standard there are passages in the synoptics that would also be called 'discourses' though they never are called that so...wait, where was I going with this?" Bartholoma at least explains the bizarre terminology, though not in such entertaining terms.

To increase the weirdness factor, since Evans was attempting to go back and forth disorientingly between downplaying his own daring views and up-playing them, he actually chose to state that he did not mean to question the authenticity of the Farewell Discourse, which Bartholoma does list because, after all, it actually *is* a discourse. And of course its historicity is *often* questioned by critical scholars because of its length, its Johannine idiom, etc., etc., in precisely the way that Evans was talking about. Moreover, it actually does contain at least one "I am" phrase ("I am the true vine") and two if one chooses to tack on the dialogue at the beginning that contains "I am the way, the truth and the life," to both of which *sayings* Evans has denied historicity in 2012.

Of course, if dialogues are discourses (seriously?), then the alleged resemblance to Lady Wisdom is even less, if possible, since Lady Wisdom does not have dialogues.

Moreover, the fictionalization alleged is even stronger, since in that case the statements of the other people (e.g., the Jews) are being dramatically created to give Jesus a chance to make more theological statements. This isn't a paraphrase of *their* words, any more than it is a paraphrase of Jesus' words. It's just using them as dramatic props for extrapolations of Jesus' alleged theological views, put into Jesus' mouth in a created scene. This is what Evans was getting at with the term "dramatic" in 2012, when he said:

So you could say, theologically, these affirmations of who Jesus is in fact do derive from Jesus. Not because he walked around and said them. But because of what he did, what he said, what he did, and because of his resurrection. And so this community that comes together in the aftermath of Easter says, “You know what? This Jesus who said these various things, whose teaching we cling to and interpret and present and adapt and so on, he is for us the way, the truth, the life, the true vine. He is the bread of life,” and so on. And so that gets presented in a very creative, dramatic, and metaphorical way, in what we now call the Gospel of John.

And this is what Evans meant in the current debate when he said, concerning John,

It's dramatic, it's literary, but that doesn't mean the history is lost or that it no longer reflects Jesus actually taught.

Where phrases like "that doesn't mean the history is lost or that it no longer reflects what Jesus actually taught" are the sheerest obfuscation. When whole dialogues are invented, that is simply like an historical novel or partially fictionalized bio-pic or biography.

Moreover, it's a great irony that the attempted application of such theories to dialogues *decreases* the resemblance to Lady Wisdom, though Evans gives that resemblance as the reason for invoking the theory!

though they never are called that so...wait, where was I going with this?"

Ooooh, I love that! Nice put-down. Remind me never to get into an insult match with you.

Not because he walked around and said them. But because of what he did, what he said, what he did, and because of his resurrection. And so this community that comes together in the aftermath of Easter says, “You know what? This Jesus who said these various things, whose teaching we cling to and interpret and present and adapt and so on, he is for us the way, the truth, the life, the true vine.

It makes me positively ill trying to make my brain work so as to think along these lines. And, to be frank, I think this kind of thinking IS a kind of intellectual illness. To put the problem as simply as I can say it: this sort of thinking makes hash of the reality that those who said these things had to have come to think these specific things about Jesus through some specific set of causes and bases and reasons and avenues. There is nothing that Evans (and his ilk) offer for how they came to have these specific thoughts, nothing in the least bit useful. All they can possibly offer is the vaguest of "the Spirit moved them" without a shred of specificity to it. And that is totally bogus as a scholarly analysis of human behavior. It is, (for historical scholarship) a deus ex machina without any solid rationale. And it amounts to a theological preference for a vague, immaterial and untraceable divine action over a concrete, physical miracle, i.e. a set of theological assumptions that are unjustified and effectively amount to circular reasoning.

It is much more plausible, and much simpler, to claim that these people who formed the Johannine source thought along the lines of "the bread of life" and "the true vine" because they heard it from the horse's mouth, and that's what makes these metaphors so powerful to them that they want to repeat them. Being the simpler causal pathway, we OUGHT to prefer that account until something comes along to show us Christ didn't say them (i.e. not evidence that he "would not" have said them but evidence that he DID not say them).

Exactly. Now you're thinking like an actual historian.

The fact is that all of that stuff that Evans said back in 2012 is pretty standard among mainstream scholars. The Bartholoma dissertation linked above (I've now seen a very interesting reprint of its long introduction) makes that quite clear. Bartholoma appears to be going against the flow, actually, in pressing for more historicity, but since he's writing a dissertation he has to lay out at great and somewhat boring length the "standard" or "mainstream" view.

But the thing is that that sort of ahistorical, vague, mythologizing dismissal and attribution of behavior to the "Johannine community" used to be called "liberal scholarship" by any evangelical worth his salt. Any pastor or seminarian or seminary prof. at a conservative Bible college or seminary would have called that unambiguously a "liberal view of John" in, say, the year 1975.

And it was a liberal view that had been around for a long time, not the result of some new discovery. Nor has there been any such discovery in the meanwhile. (I dunno, the minutes of church meetings in Ephesus in the year 100 discussing how they were going to compose dialogues of Jesus to make theological points?)

What we are seeing is just an osmotic shift in standards, coupled with (right now) massive obfuscation.

And as I said in other comments, this is (I believe) because too many evangelical scholars don't sense that we should resist such a liberal view of John because it is poorly supported and poor history, not just because we are self-identified as theological conservatives.

From that point on, once we imply that one's only reason for resisting this is conservative closed-mindedness, Evans's prestige carries the day.

Be that as it may, there is absolutely no excuse for the current pretense that he isn't saying what he is saying, and honestly that is what is getting me most upset. *At least* let's be clear about what we are talking about, which is fictional segments (fairly large ones, too) of the Gospel of John, and a general dismissal of John's historicity, and then let people make up their minds about whether to accept that conclusion or not.

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