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The myth of the sock puppet Jesus

There is a myth about the Gospel of John that keeps popping up. If you are interested in biblical studies and read this kind of thing much, even at a somewhat popular level, I'll wager you've heard this myth. It goes something like this: The voice of Jesus in John is so much like the voice of the narrator that it is often difficult to tell which one is supposed to be speaking.

This creates a picture of a narrator in John who is, at a minimum, careless about distinguishing his own words from those of Jesus himself. In such a Gospel of John, we are meant to think, the author frequently wanders heedlessly back and forth between his own thoughts and the thoughts of Jesus, not considering it important to distinguish what things were actually said by Jesus from his own glosses.

In his commentary on John, Craig Keener makes a classic statement of this claim:

[I]n the Fourth Gospel, one is often scarce able to discern whether Jesus or the narrator is speaking (and perhaps for good reason, since the narrator believes himself inspired by the Paraclete who continues Jesus’ mission). (The Gospel of John: A Commentary, pp. 78-79)

"Often scarce able to discern." Interesting. Keener expressly attributes this alleged pattern to the fact that John would have considered himself inspired by the Holy Spirit, which apparently is supposed to make it okay for him to be careless about letting the reader know when a passage represents Jesus' own, recognizable, historical teaching while here on earth and when it represents the author's own supposedly Spirit-inspired musings upon that teaching.

A sock puppet is a phony character on the Internet whom a person invents to channel his own thoughts to the public while giving the appearance that someone else is speaking. A sock puppet differs from an alias or nom de plume in that a sock puppet will appear in the same Internet context (e.g., the same combox thread) as the person writing under his own name or under the name everyone already knows him by. The sock puppet will then agree with his creator and make it appear that an independent mind is reinforcing the opinions and ideas in question.

According to the view I'm answering, John treats Jesus as a manipulable character who acts as a voice to transmit the thoughts that are coming into John's own mind, thus giving them a greater authority for the reader than they would have if they were unambiguously those of the narrator (as in the preface to the Gospel). John supposedly thinks this is all right to do because he believes himself inspired by the Holy Spirit anyway.

But the claim that there is such a pattern of ambiguity in John's gospel is a myth. I have no doubt that it is a myth that Keener and others believe, but unfortunately those who promulgate it do not stop to ask themselves, "Just how often is one scarce able to discern whether Jesus or the narrator is supposedly speaking in John?" They might get a surprise if they did.

A clue to a possible source of the myth can be found in this paragraph from an on-line article that is by no means "liberal" and that anyone might stumble upon while researching John's gospel:

The Gospel of John is written in a style of Greek quite different from the synoptics. The range of vocabulary is smaller. There is frequent parataxis (use of coordinate clauses rather than subordinate clauses). Asyndeton frequently occurs. Related to paragraph (7) above, there is little difference between the words that are ascribed to Jesus and the words of the Evangelist. Example: try to determine in John 3:1-21 where the words of Jesus to Nicodemus end and the interpretive comments of the Evangelist begin.

Paragraph 7 in the article concerns the typical use of symbolism and double meaning in the Gospel. This paragraph is about the Greek style of John, a topic I dealt with in the previous post in this series. Then comes the slightly ambiguous sentence, "There is little difference between the words that are ascribed to Jesus and the words of the Evangelist." Does this mean only that the Greek style of the words unambiguously attributed to Jesus in the Gospel is similar to the Greek style of the words unambiguously attributed to the narrator? Or does it mean that, as Keener says, one is often scarcely able to tell whether, in the Gospel, words are being attributed to Jesus or not? The follow-up sentence about John 3:1-21 would understandably lead the reader to think that the author (W. Hall Harris of Dallas Theological Seminary) is saying the latter. And thus the myth goes on, probably fueled by a sheer confusion between the generic idea that I've treated in other posts--that the narrator's style is similar to Jesus' style--and the far more specific (and incorrect) claim that there are many places in John where it is literally difficult to tell whether the Gospel portrays Jesus or the narrator as speaking.

Here is another instance. In Four Portraits, One Jesus by Mark Strauss, on p. 300: "Jesus' style of speaking so resembles the narrator's that sometimes it is difficult to tell when Jesus stop speaking and the narrator starts." By p. 394, this has become, "As we noted in chapter 10, it is often difficult to tell when Jesus stops speaking and the narrator begins." I want to stress that Strauss goes on to make several good points in the immediate context of this latter statement and that he emphasizes that it would not be historically justified to say that the unique discourses in John are fictional. But he has made his own job harder by the incorrect statement that it is "often difficult to tell when Jesus stops speaking and the narrator begins."

I will not be surprised if someone on the "literary device" side of the aisle who wants to criticize this post says that I simply do not understand that the biblical scholars in question are merely referring to the general claim that the narrator's style is often similar to Jesus' style or that Jesus' style is often similar to the narrator's style. But Keener certainly says something stronger than that, as does Strauss, and I'm sure readers can come up with many more examples. It would be illicit for any scholar to write so as to give a stronger impression and then accuse someone who disagrees of "not understanding" by shifting to a more defensible claim upon being challenged. The myth that it is often difficult to tell whether in the Gospel Jesus or the narrator is supposed to be speaking is indeed promulgated within NT studies, and it won't do to evade criticisms of this myth by shifting ground to a different claim that has, in any event, been dealt with on its own terms. My strong suspicion is that the myth of the sock puppet Jesus has continued precisely because of vagueness in the discipline, so that the general claim of style similarity is "bundled in" with the stronger claim that it is literally often hard to tell whether or not Jesus is supposed to be speaking in the Gospel. But such carelessness, if that is indeed the cause, is a bad habit and should be challenged in the name of clear thinking.

For in point of fact, the passage that is so often cited in John 3 is the only place in the entire gospel of John where it is actually difficult to tell whether, in the Gospel, words are being attributed to Jesus or to the narrator. I have not even been able to find any other specific passages where critics claim that there is such an un-clarity concerning Jesus (see below on one passage involving John the Baptist), though I wouldn't attribute much authority to that in any event. As we have seen, critics will say things that are unsupportable.

I can say for a fact, and will stand by it after countless readings of the Gospel of John, that there aren't actually any other places in the Gospel where it's hard to tell whether the author is attributing words to Jesus or speaking them in his own voice. You can verify this by reading the gospel for yourself.

One passage is hardly "often"!

It is true that in this one passage (John 3:10-21), the reader is understandably inclined to think that, somewhere along the way, after verse 12 where Jesus is unambiguously speaking and probably after verse 15, the words are no longer those of Jesus but rather the further reflections of the narrator. But it's hard to tell exactly where this happens or whether it happens. Perhaps Jesus is speaking all the way up through verse 21. In a world without quotation marks, this sort of confusion can occur, though I stress again that this is the only place in John where Jesus' words appear to stop and the narrator's reflections begin without some marker such as a change of scene or other indicator in the text.

Keener even mistakenly cites F.F. Bruce in support of the "often scarce able to discern" claim. After the sentence, "[I]n the Fourth Gospel, one is often scarce able to discern whether Jesus or the narrator is speaking," Keener has footnote 219, which says, "This point is also conceded by Bruce." Keener here cites F.F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable, p. 57. But on p. 57 Bruce does not say anything so strong, though he does use a plural. Bruce says,

[T]here is no doubt that the fourth evangelist has his own very distinctive style, which colours not only his own meditations and comments, but the sayings of Jesus and of John the Baptist....[I]t is antecedently probable that a disciple who had penetrated so deeply into our Lord's mind should have been unconsciously influenced by His style, so that it coloured all that he wrote. Partly because of this, it is, at times, difficult to decide where the Master's words end and where the disciple's meditations begin.

"At times" is not the same thing as "often." Indeed, sometimes one will even use a plural when there is only one instance involved. Likely Keener was citing Bruce from memory; I'm sure there was no intention to misrepresent. But the elevation of Bruce's more modest "at times" to "often" reminds one a bit of the game of telephone or of the way that the size of a fish grows as the story of its catching is told and retold.

Bruce's reference both to the words of Jesus and to the words of John the Baptist may help to explain where Bruce's own somewhat confusing plural "at times" came from. There is one other passage in John chapter 3 (I find it interesting that it occurs in the same chapter) where someone's words probably end without a clear marker. These are the words of John the Baptist, which begin at verse 27. The question then is whether the author is trying to give the impression that John the Baptist is still speaking in verses 31ff, in a rather lofty meditation on the fact that Jesus comes from above, that Jesus is the Son, and that the Father has placed all things into his hands.

Here I am inclined to think that the difficulty is far less than the difficulty in verses 16-21 and that the simplest approach is just to deny that things are all that ambiguous. It is true that John the Baptist did know that Jesus was the Son of God (John 1:34), probably from the voice from heaven at Jesus' baptism (Mark 1:11). He also seems to have had an idea that Jesus was a pre-existent being (John 1:30). Nonetheless, the musings in John 3:31-36 are much more the kinds of things that Jesus says in this Gospel about himself than the things John the Baptist seems to have known about him at the time or said about him. John the Baptist is probably not speaking after verse 30. Indeed, the saying, "He must increase, and I must decrease" (verse 30) makes a perfect rounding-off of John's own words. The rest, I think we can say with a moderate degree of confidence, is the narrator's meditation, in which he echoes the things Jesus taught about himself. And the narrator was not trying to put the words in John the Baptist's mouth at all.

I now have told a number of people to go ahead and read these passages in John 3, recognize the ambiguity in that one place in Jesus' speech, and inoculate themselves against the unwarranted conclusions that are drawn. If you never noticed it before, go ahead and notice it and get past it so you aren't shocked and susceptible to the suggestion, "Oh, after all, maybe John does make up Jesus' speeches in his gospel as if Jesus were a literary character."

If we activate our real-world imagination we can envisage a day (again, these two passages occur in the same chapter) on which John the evangelist was particularly contemplative and inclined to interpolate his own theological reflections with his narrative of events. If he was using an amanuensis, the amanuensis may have simply written what he said without attempting to ascertain who was speaking. Again, there would have been no quotation marks in the original text.

The point far more worth remarking is that this is very rare in the document, occurring precisely once apiece with Jesus and John the Baptist, and nowhere else.

In fact, as D.A. Carson has pointed out, in several other places the author is particularly scrupulous to separate his own gloss from the words of Jesus. Such explicit distinctions occur in the following places:

John 2:19-22: Jesus says to the Jewish leaders, "Destroy this Temple, and in three days I will raise it up." They do not understand. The narrator glosses that Jesus was speaking of the Temple of his body and that his disciples understood this only after the resurrection.

John 7:37ff: Jesus says that anyone who believes in him will have living water welling up within him. The narrator glosses this, unambiguously in his own voice, as a reference to the Holy Spirit, who was not yet given. He does not put an explicit reference to the Holy Spirit into the mouth of Jesus here, presumably because Jesus was no more explicit on that occasion.

John 13:10-11: Jesus says that one who has washed needs only to wash his feet and is then completely clean. He adds that the disciples are clean, but "not all." The narrator glosses this "not all" as a cryptic reference to Judas. Again, the implication is that the narrator is recording Jesus' actual words and clarifying by adding what is unambiguously his own gloss.

John 21:21-23: This passage records a statement Jesus made to Peter concerning the beloved disciple: "If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you." Apparently this saying had been remembered and had caused some speculation that the beloved disciple would live until Jesus returned. The narrator is careful to emphasize, in his own voice as narrator, that this is a mere hypothetical statement by Jesus and does not really amount to saying that the disciple would live until Jesus' return.

That is not to mention other places where Jesus expressly says that he is speaking or acting in ways that the disciples will not understand until later, and the narrator just leaves this as-is, making no attempt to put more explanation into Jesus' mouth. E.g. John 13:7, John 16:12.

The argument that John would have considered himself justified in putting words into Jesus' mouth and making it unclear whether he or Jesus was speaking because of the role of the Holy Spirit is a weak one. John 14:26 says, "But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have told you." Notice that teaching and bringing to remembrance are two different activities. There is not the slightest indication here or anywhere else in Jesus' teaching about the Holy Spirit that the Paraclete's job is to inspire the disciples to write or speak as though something Jesus historically said has been brought to their remembrance when in fact it is an extrapolation from Jesus' teaching or a new insight that the Holy Spirit has taught them.

Ben Witherington has made a similar point, though I would quibble with his qualifier "basically":

Thus the Spirit is seen as a source of continuing revelation for the disciples, but that revelation is seen as ultimately going back to the exalted Jesus and is not confused with the role of reminding the disciples what Jesus has said during his earthly ministry. The words of the exalted Jesus are basically not conveyed in the farewell discourses, they are only promised as something the Spirit will bring when the Spirit comes to the disciple. John’s Wisdom: A Commentary on the Fourth Gospel, p. 253.

Leon Morris (Studies in the Fourth Gospel, p. 86) makes this interesting point: There is one place in the New Testament where Jesus expressly addresses issues that were afflicting churches contemporary with the writing of the document. That place is in Revelation, where Jesus gives messages to the seven churches of Asia Minor. But note what does not happen. The author of Revelation (who may well have been the author of the Gospel of John) does not say that Jesus addressed these issues while here on earth. He does not construct speeches of Jesus to put into his mouth in an historical, earthly context which could then be used to address these later groups and controversies. Rather, he states that the exalted Jesus appeared to him in a vision on the Island of Patmos, many decades later, and that he gave him these messages at that time. Regardless of how inclined the skeptical reader may be to accept the veridical nature of John's vision on Patmos, the point is that this is an entirely different procedure from attributing these words to Jesus on earth. And this different procedure was used despite the fact that John did apparently consider these to be words of Jesus which he was commissioned to pass on to the churches.

D.A. Carson's comment on these sorts of considerations is instructive:

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, emphasis added)

It is too much to expect that one blog post will put a stop to the propagation of the myth of the sock puppet Johannine Jesus. But it's a start, so be sure to share it!

Comments (8)

Any direct communication with Keener on this issue? He seems pretty willing to adjust his views when warranted, from my perspective as a follower of his work.

Yes, email Keener directly about this; I have on occasion and found him to be responsive and attentive.

Well, in this case (in this post) it is just a short sentence in one part of the commentary--a matter of failure to double-check the facts at most, including the mis-citation of Bruce. It makes a good example of the meme, to prove that the meme is indeed out there.

Honestly, I think Keener and I would have broader issues to discuss if we wanted to discuss, of which this is just a fairly small indication. For example, the issue (that I raised in a previous post) of saying that John "narrates theologically," and the specific examples allegedly given to support that. Or, also indicative, the repeated use of "the story world of John," with implication that this could vary from the real world--again, part of a general notion of historical looseness in John.

I remind myself that this commentary was published prior to Hidden in Plain View, which he endorsed. I would *like* to think that perhaps I moved him somewhat in a different directly (I hate to use "right" and "left" in these contexts, but "to the right," for want of a better phrase) by all of the undesigned coincidences that support John. But I don't want to be presumptuous about that.

The thing is, I don't flatter myself that someone as eminent as Craig Keener is sitting around reading every word I write. Getting in touch with him directly would be extremely delicate, because in a sense I would be asking him to do a fairly significant reboot of the *approach* to John that he advocated in a commentary, without knowing necessarily where he is at on those issues right now. It's not as though I would have something very targeted to suggest that he rethink or to ask his opinion about--this *one* passage. "Hey, have you thought of rethinking your approach to whether John narrates theologically, in light of my recent blog post series?" sounds a little uppity.

The other odd thing is this series of blog posts he has put up very recently about "ancient views" and literary devices. It hasn't really warranted response, which is why I haven't blogged about it, because much of what is in there is well-trodden ground, and he's even less clear about his own positions on the rather tame examples he's chosen (Jairus, the centurion, the fig tree) than Licona is. So there is nothing really to respond to. But some people seem to think that maybe in a roundabout way this short series of his is a response to me and/or Tim! It's difficult to see how, since it doesn't include any of the examples on which in particular I've disagreed with Keener himself--such as Jesus bearing his own cross or Jesus breathing on the disciples, or the Temple cleansing. And it's just full of platitudes and generalizations about "ancient standards" without clear statements of how precisely they apply. If indeed that short series is somehow supposed to lay to rest my recent work on literary device theories, I'm afraid it would not be a terribly good sign of the probability of interesting and fruitful dialogue.

In the case of Evans (in contrast) I decided to suggest to Justin Brierley that I debate Evans for a couple of reasons: First, Evans's public negative comments about John's historicity in 2012 were *very* sweeping. More sweeping, and by a margin, than anything Keener has written. Second, though I'm not really a person who likes the debate format, that was what Justin wanted. So I had to suggest someone as a foil for a debate, and since Licona refused, Evans was the next suggestion I thought of.

I've learned by negative experience that it can be a bad idea to e-mail someone and try to give the impression that one is just asking the person to reconsider one small thing or asking a question about one small thing when there are, in fact, a whole host of "things" in the air, so to speak, surrounding that one question. I gather that it can come across as disingenuous, and the ensuing conversation is difficult to predict. It is all the more difficult when one is unsure precisely how far the other person would go in a particular direction, and one doesn't want to jump to conclusions. Keener's own position may be in flux, which is one reason why I have tried to focus on his published, black-and-white statements. In scholarly terms, one can't go wrong by doing that.

Excellent article. I think Keener's "often" is an understandable interpretation of Bruce's "at times" (which is unfortunately much more vague than necessary, in light of the facts). But this just illustrates a problem I have seen often in Biblical Studies: ideas are repeated uncritically, without fact check. In a sense, it is somewhat understandable, because it takes a lot of time to do such fact checks. But this example illustrates the danger.

Yup, one sees that in the Mark Strauss discussion as well, though as I say, Strauss himself is careful to try to block any strong anti-historical conclusions from being drawn. Things just get repeated, and then it becomes part of an overall picture of John that is treated as a cumulative case for John's lesser historicity.

My strong suspicion is that the myth of the sock puppet Jesus has continued precisely because of vagueness in the discipline, so that the general claim of style similarity is "bundled in" with the stronger claim that it is literally often hard to tell whether or not Jesus is supposed to be speaking in the Gospel.

one is often scarce able to discern whether the "Jesus sock-puppet" theory or the "same style" theory is being used (and perhaps for good reason, since the scholars believe themselves directed by the Paraclete to muddy the waters sufficiently that nobody can defeat their unsupported theses.)

In all honesty, I doubt very much that Dr. Keener was trying to muddy the waters. But I do find a tendency in some scholarship toward what one might call "private meanings." That is, a sentence can be clear as crystal to the reader--after all, this sentence from Keener's commentary is quite clear on its face and expresses a common trope that one finds in many authors, including very conservative authors who presumably just borrowed it from someone else. But when a challenge is faced, it's tempting to suggest that the author may have privately "been thinking of" something more defensible, and it's difficult for people to accept that that really doesn't matter, because on its face, the sentence says something false, and it's not even linguistically ambiguous.

To give a different type of example, if I were to say, "There are many men in this church who beat their wives" when there was really only a single instance when a man in the church in question ended up being a wife beater, and someone challenges me on it, it isn't a legit thing for me to say, "Well, by 'beat' I meant 'behave high-handedly towards', and I was thinking both of the fact that Joe turned out to be a wife beater and the fact that there have been many other times when other men in the church have been high-handed and unpleasant towards their wives." I don't get to privatize the meaning of "beat" like that.

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