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The realism of Jesus' dialogues in John

Scholars will sometimes imply that the dialogues in John are artificial by saying that the misunderstandings of Jesus’ interlocutors provide an opportunity for Jesus to develop his theological ideas further. Even when a scholar does not say so explicitly, it is difficult to avoid hearing the implication that John at least partially invented the audience confusions, questions, and interruptions to “set up” Jesus’ further theological expositions, as if the interlocutors are two-dimensional stooges. For example, with reference to how John “develops” Jesus’ “discourses,” Craig Keener says,

As Dodd and others have noted, John develops most of his discourses the same way: Jesus’ statement, then the objection or question of a misunderstanding interlocutor, and finally a discourse (either complete in itself or including other interlocutions). John usually limits speaking characters to two (a unified group counting as a single chorus) in his major discourse sections, as in Greek drama. (The Gospel of John: A Commentary, p. 68)
This gives a rather surprisingly artifical impression.

Similarly, Keener says, “Such misunderstanding serves as a dramatic technique allowing the primary teacher the occasion to expound the point more fully” (p. 546). (Digression: As I’ve noted in other posts on John, scholars have a special, just-constructed-for-John use of the term “discourses” that includes conversations. This definition is not applied to the Synoptics, which is then used to argue that there are lots more “long discourses” in John than in the Synoptics--an instance of the kind of strange reasoning with which NT scholarship is unfortunately rife. Keener’s description here shows part of the rationale for this just-for-John definition of “discourses.” Scholars believe that there is a special pattern that unites the conversations and speeches in John that is artificial in appearance and distinctively Johannine.)

Certainly there are cases where Jesus uses the misunderstanding of an interlocutor as an opportunity for further explanation. But so would any good teacher in literal history. It is rather frustrating that the relevance and aptness of Jesus’ answers, even their cleverness, should be taken as an opportunity to imply that the dialogue is constructed rather than naturally occurring. Indeed, it is worth asking what, precisely, a dialogue between a good teacher, known for extremely cryptic statements, and either a confused or a hostile interlocutor would look like if it were recognizably historical, and how that would differ from what we have in John.

In the dialogue with Nicodemus, Nicodemus does ask how a man can enter again into his mother’s womb and be born (John 3.4), and Jesus does answer by saying that one needs to be born of the Spirit (John 3.5). In one of the final conversations with his disciples before his crucifixion, Jesus almost seems deliberately to provoke a baffled question by telling his disciples that they know where he is going and the way to go there (John 14.4). Thomas, in perhaps understandable exasperation, says that this is not so. They do not know where he is going, so how can they know the way? (John 14.5) Jesus immediately picks up on the opportunity to utter, “I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father but through me.” (John 14.6)

Does the aptness of these bits of dialogue cast doubt upon their recognizable historicity? Not at all. All four Gospels show that Jesus was a rather frustrating person, given as he was to cryptic sayings. He probably knew very well how to interact with his disciples in precisely this way, and did so intentionally.

Moreover, the implication that the dialogues in John appear artificial through an overly pat consonance between question and answer, misunderstanding or interruption, and further explanation rests on cherry-picked data. The dialogues, looked at more carefully, have the somewhat random characteristics of realistic conversation, and there are many places in John where interruptions and misunderstandings do not really further the topic previously under discussion at all. The woman at the well in John 4.19-20 changes the subject entirely. When Jesus gets too close to her personal life, she veers off into flattering him by calling him a prophet and asking him where he thinks they should worship. Jesus allows her to change the subject and follows her into the new topic, prophesying the destruction of Jerusalem (and Gerizim) and saying that the true worshipers are those who worship God in spirit and in truth. In John 7.34, Jesus says that they will seek and not find him. His listeners muse over what he is saying: Is he saying that he will go and teach the Greeks in the diaspora? This misunderstanding does not further the conversation at all. It is the end of that particular discussion.

The so-called “Light of the World Discourse” is a particularly good example of the rocky, realistic properties of the conversations in John. Jesus declares that he is the light of the world, but in John 8.13, the interruption takes the conversation in a different direction from what Jesus was following before. There actually is no dialogue or discourse at all on how or whether Jesus is the light of the world. The hostile listeners “go meta” by accusing Jesus of arrogance for testifying of himself. They may be remembering something Jesus said during a different feast (John 5.31) in which he said that his testimony is not true if he testifies of himself, attempting to use those words against him. As with the woman at the well, Jesus follows them into the new topic and discusses his right to testify of himself. In vs. 21, Jesus says that he is going away and that they cannot follow him. They wonder (vs. 22) whether he will kill himself. In his reply (vss. 23-24), Jesus does not really explain his misunderstood words about going away. By the time we reach vs. 48, some in the crowd are simply angry (probably because Jesus told them that the devil rather than Abraham was their father in vs. 44) and utter a contentless insult. This is not the only time that Jesus encounters hecklers. In this case, Jesus answers the insult (that he is demon possessed) directly and keeps repeating that they are dishonoring him, adding the claim that anyone who obeys his word will never see death. This hardly looks like an artificial dialogue. The disrespect of the crowd in this chapter and Jesus’ sometimes stubborn, angry, and insulting responses hardly give the impression of an unruffled sage engaging in a smooth dialogue with a two-dimensional “chorus” constructed as a literary foil.

Someone in the grip of the theory that John constructs dialogues to give Jesus a chance to develop theological themes might think that Martha’s misunderstanding of Jesus’ promise to raise Lazarus (John 11.24) is too good to be true, a literarily constructed set-up for Jesus to say, “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11.25). But upon further reflection, one should realize that it was quite natural for her to think that Jesus was referring to the resurrection at the last day, a common view in Jewish thought at the time, as N. T. Wright has shown. And in the larger picture, Martha’s misunderstandings in the passage as a whole are quite realistic. Her boldness and practicality when she remonstrates with Jesus about opening the tomb, on the grounds that Lazarus’ body must stink by this time (John 11.39), are entirely consistent with her personality as portrayed both in John and in Luke 10.38-42. Martha certainly doesn’t look like a two-dimensional interlocutor that John has constructed for Jesus to bounce sage-like sayings off of.

Cherry picking is one of the major banes of New Testament studies. For example, I've shown that several claims of "development" in the Gospels rely on cherry picking. (See here and here.)

Cherry picking passes without serious challenge in NT scholarship often because too many scholars in the discipline lack the analytical epistemology training to ask whether the data is cherry picked. There is also an unfortunate tendency to assume that, if some scholar can think up a theory, that theory is automatically epistemically respectable. Hence, the mere suggestion that John "develops" his dialogues by "having" the interlocutors ask questions that Jesus can answer, and one or two apparent examples, are treated as enough to make the theory a very live contender indeed.

What all this points to is the need for fresh perspectives on NT studies and a higher degree of rigor in evaluating proposed theories. It would also be extremely helpful if scholars would come out and say more explicitly and clearly what they are getting at and what they think a given evangelist did. Then we could decide whether the theory in question is supported by the evidence. I hope to bring that fresh perspective in my blog posts, Facebook posts, and next two books.

Be on the lookout for The Mirror or the Mask: Liberating the Gospels from Literary Devices, available for pre-order November 20 of this year and coming out physically in December.

This post itself has been a draft of material that is slated to appear perhaps a year later in The Eye of the Beholder, entirely on the Gospel of John.

Be sure to follow my public content on Facebook for updates! (You do not have to be a Facebook "friend" to follow public content, though it appears that you do need to have a Facebook account of your own and be logged in.)

Comments (30)

Ironically, I read one scholar (no longer remember the source, alas!) who made the opposite observation: In general, the dominical "discourses" in the Gospels have been shortened rather than expanded. You can read them aloud in a few minutes or less, yet they represent what was probably hours of teaching in the original setting.

There is also an unfortunate tendency to assume that, if some scholar can think up a theory, that theory is automatically epistemically respectable.

There is something I would like to ask about that. People often accuse the Gospel writers of making things up. Of course, none of the writers actually say that they are doing this, and it is undeniably true that the Gospels were regarded by Christians as works of history, or, at least, we have no evidence that they were ever seen as anything else. So those who make the accusation about fabrication are indulging in speculation at best. And the more elaborate the speculation is, the less likely it is to be true. So if a “scholar” has an elaborate idea about why a particular scene in one of the Gospels was invented, he is even more likely to be wrong than if he just guessed that the scene had been invented, without giving any particular reason.

Is that the right way of thinking about it? I just want to be clear about the epistemology.

And the more elaborate the speculation is, the less likely it is to be true. So if a “scholar” has an elaborate idea about why a particular scene in one of the Gospels was invented, he is even more likely to be wrong than if he just guessed that the scene had been invented, without giving any particular reason.

Is that the right way of thinking about it? I just want to be clear about the epistemology.

Excellent question, to which the answer is a bit long. The answer is that there are advantages and disadvantages to hypothesizing a motive for an evangelist to invent a passage.

In general, the more elaborate one makes one's hypothesis on a given set of background evidence, the lower its probability.

But there's a bit more to it than that: Imagine it in the context of a murder mystery. Suppose that Bob is found dead. Suppose that Lestrade suggests out of the blue that Jim, who has always seemed quite harmless, killed Bob. Naturally the first thing that comes to mind is, "Why in the world would Jim do a thing like that?"

If Lestrade suggests *no* motive, then his theory that Jim is the murderer appears explanatorily powerless. It looks like he just suggested Jim more or less at random, or perhaps for some extremely weak reason such as that Jim lives near where the murder happened. And it may look like he's suggesting an unmotivated murder, which is psychologically implausible.

In this context, if Lestrade suggests that Bob was blackmailing Jim, then that moves things forward *if* (and this is crucial) he can provide independent evidence for that further claim.

If he has no evidence for it, then the blackmail suggestion is just an epicycle added to the original, arbitrary hypothesis, and it doesn't help Lestrade. It just looks like he's piling one wild, unsupported allegation on top of another.

So suggestion of a motive can be epistemically helpful. But only if the motive appears credible on independent grounds. Perhaps the suggestion may prompt or remind us of evidence that we already have for the existence of that motive, for example. Or perhaps the person takes the opportunity to bring forward some new evidence to that effect.

But suggestion of a motive just burdens the original hypothesis by making it more elaborate if there is no evidence for the suggested motive.

Consider how this applies to an alleged fictionalization in the Gospels.

Take the example of the risen Jesus breathing on his disciples in John 20 and saying, "Receive the Holy Spirit." I am sorry to say that this is a real example. Scholars, including three evangelical scholars I know of (Keener and Licona and Gary Burge) have suggested that perhaps or even probably John made this up.

At first blush, this appears as random as Lestrade's suggestion that Jim is the murderer without any motive. Why in the world would John do a thing like that? And why in the world do you, Mr. Scholar, pick *that* particular detail to question the historicity of? It's not even a miracle, except insofar as the resurrection itself is a miracle, but allegedly you, Evangelical Scholar, don't think that the resurrection itself is invented. So how did you even *pick* this incident to question? There is no contradiction or apparent contradiction. The Synoptics don't report it, but it would be the most blatant argument from silence to take them to be contradicting it because they don't report it. Do you just go around randomly picking scenes in the Gospel of John to suggest are fabrication? And did John the evangelist just go around randomly making stuff up for no reason?

Perhaps realizing that they must give their theory some appearance of explanatory oomph, they further suggest a motive: Allegedly John wished to "allude to Pentecost" but, for reasons utterly unexplained, felt constrained to end his Gospel without narrating the real events of Pentecost. (I still swear I am not making this up. I can cite you page numbers.) Also, in John Jesus has made many "Paraclete promises" of the coming of the Holy Ghost, and John wished for dramatic reasons to show the fulfillment of these promises within the narrative of his Gospel, but, once again, he wasn't going to narrate the events at Pentecost when they were actually fulfilled.

So, under these (inexplicable and utterly contrived) constraints, John "had" Jesus breathe and utter these words in order to "allude to Pentecost" and bear the narrative and dramatic weight of fulfilling the "Paraclete promises" within his own Gospel.

Now, there is not the faintest bit of independent evidence for this bizarre theory. The scholar who brings it forward has given a weak pretense of giving his theory explanatory power, but at the cost of saddling himself with further utterly unsupported elaborations. (Like Lestrade suggesting without a shred of evidence that Bob was blackmailing Jim.)

And it's worse: For now these further elaborations are also subject to falsification in themselves--to counterevidence. For example, the "Paraclete promises" in John *cannot* be fulfilled by this post-resurrection appearance, since Jesus says repeatedly that he will send the Comforter when he *goes away* and indeed that he has to *go away* in order for the Comforter to come! So this incident does not even *appear* to fulfill the promises of the Comforter, since Jesus is standing right there. (Honestly, I can hardly believe we even need to say such obvious things.)

So, to answer your question: Adding a motive isn't always a bad thing epistemically; indeed, it's quite reasonable for an audience to request a motive, and a motiveless allegation, especially an allegation of a strange act like making up a story (or committing a murder) is at a great epistemic disadvantage. But suggesting a motive becomes an epistemic detriment to a theory if the motive one suggests is not plausible independently.

Steve Hays, excellent point. I've been struck recently by how likely it is that that's true about shortening. The entire Sermon on the Mount can be read aloud without hurrying in fifteen minutes. (Look up Alexander Scourby doing it in a posh English accent.) I doubt it's much longer in the original Greek, or in Aramaic, whichever of those Jesus was speaking. All of John 13-17, including narrative, dialogue, the high priestly prayer, the whole works, can be read in 25 minutes.

Thanks for the comprehensive reply, Lydia. As we know, there is often suspicion about John's Gospel in general and the “I am” sayings in particular. The accusation of making things up becomes especially elaborate in the case where Jesus goes to Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles. It is there that Jesus urges people to come to him and drink (John 7:37) and also declares that he is the light of the world (John (8:12). Those two sayings seem particularly suited to that occasion, since the Feast of Tabernacles involves the pouring out of water and the lighting of candles.

So according to the sceptical view, John has not only put words in Jesus’ mouth but also created an elaborate scenario in which the sayings would be appropriate. So the hypothesis of fabrication has become even more fanciful. But we know that Jesus was very conscious of his surroundings. His teachings in the Synoptics (which are much more likely to be accepted as genuine) are packed with imagery drawn from Jesus’ environment. So it would be entirely plausible for Jesus, given what we know about him, to tailor his comments to a particular setting.

On the other hand, we have no independent knowledge of John's ability to fabricate stories in the elaborate way that the sceptics are suggesting. So is that where background knowledge and plausibility established on independent grounds comes into it?

Right, not only his ability but also his motivation to do so. The idea that John was "that kind of author" is postulated more or less out of thin air. And in fact, there is reason against it, as both The Mirror or the Mask and the Eye of the Beholder will argue. John's constant awareness of place, including obscure place names that would mean little to his readers, John's mention of pointless details, his emphasis on truth (!), and many other such factors all point to his being concerned with historical truth and telling his story much in the way that a person will tell oral history--like a veteran telling you his memories about the Gulf War. Oral history may include irrelevancies, but those very irrelevancies are evidence that these are real memories.

This, of course, is why I spend so much space in The Mirror or the Mask (and also have done so in my blog posts here) on claims about "alternative ancient views of truth" and "the genre of Greco-Roman biography" and other such claims.

It is *those* claims that are meant to bear the weight of making such claims about what the Gospel authors were like independently plausible.

In other words, the theorists believe that once we accept their view of the "genre" of the Gospels (and some would say even more so the genre of John) we will more or less expect such fabrication to crop up willy-nilly at various points where it is theologically and literarily appropriate. At that point all that they think they have to provide are conjectures about what would "look good" theologically or literarily if it were added. These are sometimes extremely thin and implausible in themselves. I pointed that out above in the example about Jesus breathing on the disciples and the supposed "fulfillment" of the promises of the Comforter. *Even if* John were the sort of author to make things up, why would he have put in, or left in, all of those statements that Jesus must *go away* before the Comforter comes and then make up a scene *while Jesus is there* with the intention of "fulfilling" them? The theory does not even make sense on its own terms! And I could give more such examples. For example, two scholars (Dan Wallace and Mike Licona) say that John made up "I thirst" as a replacement for, "My God, why have you forsaken me?" According to Wallace, this was because the Johannine theme of the cross as a glorious triumph would be marred by literally narrating that Jesus said "I thirst." This is ridiculous *even on its own terms*. If John felt that strongly about making the cross look like a glorious triumph and hence not expressing human suffering, he would not have put in "I thirst" *at all*! To the reader it certainly appears to be a literal narration of Jesus expressing thirst, so that ruins his supposed "literary themes" in any event. Some highly secret intention on John's part that only a couple of scholars can decipher 2,000 years later hardly salvages his expression of those themes.

So they are extremely bad at conjecture, even on their own literary terms. But they attempt to provide background evidence to give themselves license to go hunting for such things by all the talk about ancient views of truth and genre and the applicability of all of this to the Gospels, and this is why I've done so much work to refute those claims as well.

Would it be too harsh to call these Gospel "scholar" hypothesizers by the term "conspiracy theorists"?

At first, when I read Lydia's comment

For example, the "Paraclete promises" in John *cannot* be fulfilled by this post-resurrection appearance, since Jesus says repeatedly that he will send the Comforter when he *goes away* and indeed that he has to *go away* in order for the Comforter to come! So this incident does not even *appear* to fulfill the promises of the Comforter, since Jesus is standing right there. (Honestly, I can hardly believe we even need to say such obvious things.)

I responded with the common saying "you can't make this stuff up", but then I realized THEY ARE making this stuff up. And then I immediately realized the double-meaning in "this stuff": what I meant is that nobody would make up a fictional story having as characters scholars who routinely AND with general acclaim make up hypotheses that are that bad as hypotheses, because the writer who wrote such blather would lose his readers, since his readers would be unable to maintain the necessary phase of "suspended disbelief about characters who not only come up with idiotic hypotheses, but are also applauded for it instead of being laughed out of academia. (Unless he was writing satire - but then, you can't satirize in the post-post modern world anymore either, where people write "some men have a uterus" intending to be serious).

But then I recalled that even conspiracy theorists get large, even massive followings on occasion. A hallmark of the conspiracy theorist is that when the theorist is presented with some troubling factoid that doesn't quite fit with the narrative, he goes on to invent a still more implausible epicycle to "explain away" the troublesome datum. And ... is this not a description of what we see happening with these Johannine scholars?

By the way, Lydia: since I studied Ptolemy's astronomy, I get the reference to an "epicycle." Is the term still in common use enough so that generally people get the point? Or is it now a term entirely divorced from its root and constituting a floating reference point, where people only get it's sense from the pejorative way it is used and nothing more?

Ironically, I read one scholar (no longer remember the source, alas!) who made the opposite observation: In general, the dominical "discourses" in the Gospels have been shortened rather than expanded. You can read them aloud in a few minutes or less, yet they represent what was probably hours of teaching in the original setting.

Steve, I have often thought the same thing: The so-called "great teacher" model of Jesus is recognized and allowed to have been a great teacher, and this seemingly includes the ability to have large crowds hung spell-bound upon his speaking. And, undeniably, he sometimes did so for multiple hours at a time. And, also undeniably, he had "events" of teaching crowds many different times. And yet, the "scholars" find it difficult to avoid saying that the Gospel writers needed to "expand" upon what Jesus said, as if they didn't quite have enough material of his OWN words. And they can't even imagine Jesus repeating himself (between different teaching events) sometimes verbatim, and sometimes nearly (but not quite) verbatim.

One can suggest, then, that these "scholars" have never had the opportunity to study under a very good teacher (much less a great one), and that this might explain the quality of their "scholarship?" For all good teachers repeat themselves, and then re-explain themselves with a slightly different angle to flesh out the student's grasp of the new idea.

Thanks again, Lydia. A very useful point of comparison is provided by the Gnostic works. If you want to see what "set-up" dialogue really looks like then you need only look to the Gnostic works. One particularly instructive example is The Sophia of Jesus Christ. I won't try linking to it, but if you google it, you can easily read it online. You immediately know that something is wrong when it tells you that the Mount of Olives is in Galilee (in the first paragraph). It's clear that the author has some awareness of the Gospel traditions but no real understanding of the original setting. It's also interesting to see how the author name-drops the disciples. This is done in a mechanical way as if to prove that the author knows the names of the disciples. So first Philip asks a question, then Matthew, then Thomas, then Mary (but without distinguishing this Mary from the others with the same name).

Anyway, when you read something like that and then read the real Gospels, you just *know* the difference between the real thing and the fake.

Excellent point about the gnostic Gospels.

Tony, the structure of the theories does resemble that of conspiracy theories, but they are not recognized as such if the scholars is broadly considered evangelical and is esteemed in other ways. There is terrible outrage when one makes the comparison. I think the reasons they are not recognized as such in that case are things like this: 1) The broadly evangelical scholar will often not bring out these specific theories when he's talking to a popular audience. You have to go dig into his commentaries or other works to find out what he means by a word like "flexibility." So the audience who doesn't hear these specifics has no idea how far the scholar would actually go. 2) The broadly evangelical scholar will often insist, both in scholarly and in popular works, that he defends the reliability of the Gospels, and will sometimes make good statements that *do* defend the reliability of the Gospels. This creates the impression that it is only secular skeptics who make up or even take very seriously such bizarre theories. 3) Even when the broadly evangelical scholar advocates such bizarre theories, he will often do so in strangely roundabout language that is hard to decipher. He doesn't come out and state what he means clearly. This might consist simply of throwing in a lot of words like "may" or "perhaps" and then taking offense if someone attributes the theory to him or even says that he "suggests" the theory. But it can be even more obscure than that. In the case of the theory about Jesus breathing on the disciples, Dr. Keener has a sentence here or there in the midst of spelling out (at some length) the bizarre theory where he will suddenly say, "There may have been an earlier encounter with the Holy Spirit that lies behind this passage." What does that mean? Does that mean he thinks there *was* (or "may have been") a real historical incident that looks like this event in John? Who knows? So it can be extremely hard to pin them down.

Because of all of that and just the general respect these scholars have as defenders of the faith, pointing out the craziness of these theories that they (at least) take extremely seriously and treat as extremely plausible is a pretty thankless task and tends to upset people. And using the phrase "conspiracy theory" only makes that outrage worse. But epistemically, I'm afraid it's a pretty good analogy. Only, I must say, most conspiracy theories are better-constructed to give what epistemologists call "high likelihood." In other words, even as made-up theories go, these are especially implausible because they often lack explanatory power.

Lydia, first let me express my heartfelt graditude for all your research. I am a student of theology at Fordham N.Y who has found your work on this issue profoundly helpful and one which has strengthened my faith greatly as a devout Roman Catholic. Also let me apologise here for any errors in grammer as my screanreader, I am blind, has some hardship in navigating this page. You make a great point about details and statements extent throughout the four Gospells and placenames in John which affirm Papius's reporting that these are eyewitness reports. Here is my question- do you think John could have been commiting some of these dialogues to writing like Mathew who had the ability, presumably as a taxcollecter to write in shorthand, or do you think that these texts were primarily although not exclusively of course commited to memory? The reason why I ask is I have wondered if there are clues in the Koine Greek of John and Mathew's discourses or dialogues which might look as though they were translations from a Hebrew or Aramaic sourse. Furthermore, I believe you have done a great job pointed out that arguments from silence don't fit the bill. I can see why for example John would not have to include the Sermon on the Mount as it had been included earlier. I was wondering why Mathew, who was present as an eyewitness wouldn't have included any of the "I am statements" in abridgement in his work. Perhaps, I have concluded, taking Mathew's gospel as the first, the body of Mathew's dialogues comprise a record of Northern dialogues and John, having some presumed connection with the south a series of Southern dialogues. Thus perhaps audience directed a different body of sayings from Our Lord and His own representation of His mission to these audiences.

Thanks for your comments, John, and for your encouragement!

It's funny that you should ask about written notes, as I have just been writing and thinking a bit about this at the point that I've reached in my book version of the John material, which will hopefully come out some time in 2020. (Right now we're getting out The Mirror or the Mask, which also contains quite a bit of material on the Gospel of John.)

We obviously can only conjecture whether any written notes existed of the unique material in John prior to its being written down fully in the Fourth Gospel. Given that I think the Fourth Gospel was written when John was quite old, it seems to me quite likely that some written notes existed prior to his putting his memories into Gospel form.

One conjecture that seems to me not implausible is that John could write notes himself and did so in notebooks quite early--say, shortly after Jesus' resurrection and ascension. Generally the writer of the group is thought to have been Matthew. Shorthand was known at the time, and Matthew as a tax collector may have had to interview people about their income and so forth and take notes. That is John Wenham's view. But Wenham also takes it as a given that the other main disciples could read and write. (I note here that Greek language was separated from Greek philosophy and literature expressly in Jewish thought of the time and that Jewish fathers could teach their sons the Greek language while entirely avoiding the taint, as they viewed it, of wider Greek culture.) Another possibility is that, if John did not write or did not write easily, he may have "cornered" a more literate member of the Christian community early on to make notes of the material he wanted to use in his own preaching. That John had an amanuensis who took down dictation of the Gospel is often taken as a given among scholars who take traditional authorship seriously. What is less often considered is that he may have had an earlier amanuensis to take down notes, at least of Jesus' teaching, rather than waiting decades to have anything at all written down. Whether such notes would have been in Aramaic or Greek we don't know, since we are conjecturing their existence in any event. But scholars appear to have no hesitation about conjecturing the existence of notes lying behind the Synoptics, so I see no reason why John should be left out in that regard.

In general, though, I think we have evidence that John had an excellent memory--probably aural as well as visual. D. A. Carson points out that John would have been using this material in his own preaching. While Carson doesn't draw the moral, I would note that using this material in his preaching from early on would tend to solidify it in his own memory. "Oral tradition" is of value for fixing the tradition in the mind of the eyewitness as well as in the minds of his hearers.

As to why Matthew and Mark do not include the "I am" sayings, I think that in history, biblical studies, and classics we need to recapture a concept that I call the randomness of saliency. What stands out to one person and imperatively needs to be recorded is not the same thing as what stands out to another person. Sometimes there is no more detailed theory that is justified, and the demand for a more specific explanation about why someone *didn't* include something can lead us astray. My husband has some astonishing examples he can give from secular history in this regard. A contemporary memoir about Lincoln and the Civil War includes no mention of the Emancipation Proclamation. Marco Polo's writings about China include no mention of the Great Wall. And so forth. It just turns out that our own idea of what someone would have included if it had been true is often wrong, and we need to calibrate accordingly. Matthew, Mark, and Luke did not necessarily have our own apologetic interests driving their selection of material. Moreover, however you solve the Synoptic puzzle (you and Wenham accept Matthean priority, while of course the majority view is that of Markan priority), there is some degree of literary dependence going on somewhere, and this will tend to apply especially to selection of material.

John was obviously emphasizing the theme of Jesus' deity and other themes considered "typically Johannine," such as light and darkness and so forth. This directed him to include historical material that emphasized these themes.

We should also remember that John includes far *fewer* scenes than the Synoptics do. Their emphasis seems to have been upon broad coverage while his emphasis was upon in-depth coverage of fewer scenes. Neither one is claiming that its coverage is typical. E.g. John does not claim that Jesus spoke of himself as "sent from the father" with the statistical frequency represented by the incidents reported in John's Gospel. It may be that John picked out and reported most of those because they were of interest to him.

I myself do not make a great deal out of the southern vs. northern distinction, because I think that John traveled with Jesus to and in Galilee and that the other disciples traveled with Jesus to and in Jerusalem. In fact, John itself shows the other disciples being with Jesus in Jerusalem at various times. It simultaneously shows the author as well aware of various scenes taking place in Galilee.

The one place where I think audience mattered was in Jesus' open statement to the Samaritan woman that he was the Messiah. Given Samaritan views of the Messiah as less military than Jewish ideas, this was less of a problem for him to say to her than to a Jewish audience. (This is also the view of Craig Blomberg, according to his book The Reliability of John's Gospel.)

Hence the so-called "messianic secret" was a result of Jesus' attempt to avoid giving hot-headed Jewish audiences the idea that he was coming as a military deliverer.

It's extremely important there, however, to distinguish his claiming to be God from his claiming to be the Messiah. Scholars *wrongly* think that, if Jesus avoided direct claims to be the Messiah he would have so much the more avoided direct claims to be God. (Mike Licona has expressly made this "so much the more" argument.) This is incorrect. It was not per se expected that the Messiah would be God. In fact, for a man with a human history to claim to be God was blasphemy on the Jewish view. Claiming to be the Messiah might induce a Jewish audience to try to make him king. But claiming to be God simply induced a Jewish audience to try to stone him. There was no misunderstanding, but there was a great deal of outrage.

I like this gem from Bishop Barron's Lenten Reflections (https://www.lentreflections.com/lent-day-39-2/):

The author of John’s Gospel stresses this dimension when he puts in the mouth of Caiaphas the words: “You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.”

Bonus points for not only insinuating the quotation of Caiaphas is a fabrication, but that the fabricator wasn't even St John.

The attack (here and elsewhere) on the Gospel of John is especially harmful to the Faith. Sticking with Bishop Barron's above example, the next verse after the one quoted reads:

And this he spoke not of himself: but being the high priest of that year, he prophesied that Jesus should die for the nation.

That is, this particular section of Scripture is a kind of double inspiration. The Spirit inspired Caiaphas to prophesy, and inspired St John to record the prophesy in the Gospel. By suggesting it is fabricated, the entire authority of the Gospel is undermined in a "double-whammy" kind of way.

Suggesting John is not the author is a similar "double-whammy" move, since at the end of his Gospel he writes:

This is that disciple who giveth testimony of these things, and hath written these things; and we know that his testimony is true.

But of course if the "author of John’s Gospel" isn't John, and "puts in the mouth" things the persons quoted did not say, it has been reduced to a collection of fictional aphorisms made up by some guy or other.

For that, Bishop Barron's short sentence stands as a pithy super-ninja against the inerrancy and infallability of Scripture, cloaked as insipid, saccharine devotion.

So, out of curiosity: If you said that Bishop Barron is insinuating that the evangelist made up the words of Caiaphas, would either he or his indignant followers tell you that you were misinterpreting him?

I certainly agree with you that that is what he is saying--that the author fabricated Caiaphas's words.

I'm just curious because in evangelical circles, when someone is admired, if you point out the obvious implications of what he writes in more stark terms, you often are told that (if it's some implication likely to upset readers) you have misrepresented him.

But perhaps this doesn't happen with Catholics as much.

P.S. Occasionally I have written a passage in which I use the phrase "the author of John's Gospel" while *not* meaning to imply that the author was not John. Usually when I do that I'm either "not getting into the question of authorship," maybe because I'm going to get into that question later, or I'm pointing something out that my reader should admit even if he thinks that some other *eyewitness* wrote the Gospel.

E.g. In several chapters of my John book I am trying to "woo" the conservative followers of Richard Bauckham who think that the Gospel was written by a different fellow named John who was also a disciple and eyewitness of Jesus' ministry. But I also argue for authorship by the son of Zebedee.

His fans do tend to be pretty prickly of any criticism whatsoever, but, no I don't think I am misreading him here. While he is often regarded as a conservative, he is a pretty thorough-going Balthasarian, and not just on the famous "dare we hope", but on things like Our Lord "learn[ing] his deepest identity and mission" at the Baptism, etc, etc. I'm not sure of HvB's views on Scripture in regard to authorship, but certainly his ability to interpret the Scripture was highly flexible and not much curbed by Sacred Tradition, something which Bishop Barron has certainly inherited.

Bishop Barron also frequently uses lines like, "the inspired author of Hebrews...". Now, I must admit that there is a lot more debate about the author of Hebrews, but color me old-fashioned if I pine for the day when clerics could write, "We make Our own these words of the Apostle of the Gentiles..."

Only, I must say, most conspiracy theories are better-constructed to give what epistemologists call "high likelihood."

Lydia, your sharp, dry wit is coming out to play again. I had a good laugh there.

But perhaps this doesn't happen with Catholics as much.

Sorry to say this, but most Catholics simply don't know anything useful about the Catholic position on biblical inerrancy. By and large, Catholics have been exposed to parish priests who are fully developed material heretics (i.e. THEY don't know that their training in the seminaries contradicts official Catholic doctrine), and who construct Sunday sermons in which any one (or more) of a hundred different versions of biblical errancy are not just claimed and defended, but insinuated and assumed and pushed without ever admitting to the position. Though there are plenty of still more leftward parishes and dioceses where the priests do openly state and claim biblical errancy and openly defend it.

As a result, the official position is (as far as I can tell, at least), quite the minority position, so much so that even most right-ward leaning Catholics would seriously hesitate to affirm what the actual Catholic position is, unless they were prepped and prompted by a preliminary explanation like "as St. Jerome said and was affirmed by Vatican Council I, (Dei Verbum)... " They simply are not aware of the actual historical doctrine.

Bishop Barron's strongest audience segment is most likely closely matched up with that very same right-ward leaning demographic that is somewhat educated, but not very well educated, about Catholic doctrine on it. It's kind of silly, because (a) the doctrine is itself not very hard to articulate or understand, and (b) not very hard to find in relatively recent sources (encyclicals of Leo XIII, Pius X, etc.

Just to be clear, I would explain the Catholic doctrine as follows:

That God so inspired the human authors of the Bible so that everything that He positively wanted in the written revelation of Scripture is there; nothing that He did not want there is there; and that in all of the books and in every part of every book, the human authors' primary meaning is true, (the primary meaning being but one of several layers of meaning intended by God and - sometimes - the other layers besides the primary meaning were not necessarily in the mind of the human authors). (The last point necessarily follows from the first two and the doctrine that God is Truth and cannot say what is false.) This inspiration by God is so intimate and complete that God is truly called the Author of Scripture, and yet the causality by God was to work through the understanding of the human writers so that they always grasped the truth present in the primary meaning of the passages they wrote, and intended to write them in part precisely because they recognized them as true. (Unlike Caiaphas above, who did not recognize the validity of the truth he was uttering.) The human writers were NOT God's amanuenses, merely writing whatever they were told without being able to affirm it of their own understanding, so they ALSO are truly authors of the books.

I suspect that many of Bishop Barron's supporters would indeed be outraged to be told that he does not teach in accordance with Catholic doctrine on this (or any) point, and as a result they would probably rush to defend him. I suspect also that the bishop himself believes that what he wrote is fully consistent with Catholic teaching. Since he is widely believed to be one of the good guys by conservative Catholics, I hesitate to say with any kind of confidence just how firmly he sits astride the fictionalizing cast of the above quotes. But it sure looks bad.

I hesitate to say with any kind of confidence just how firmly he sits astride the fictionalizing cast of the above quotes.

I would too. He tends to write in a pseudo-sophisticated way, so it is quite possible he was just conceding this ground and moving on to the point he wished to make. That would make it something like, "Whoever wrote or said this, it is useful to help me make this point I wish to make."

But even if granted, throwing unnecessary doubt on the reliability of the Gospels, while perhaps pleasing to a certain stripe of textual critic, undermines confidence in Scripture and in the Church overall, and here just to hasten on to some banal point about "scapgoating... outsiders."

I am not naive about the complicated textual history of the Bible, nor do you need to be to hold faithfully to the Catholic understanding of the Scriptures, but my experience has been much as Tony reports above, that the doctrinal position is "quite the minority position."

BTW, the origin of the quote is not the recent Lenten Reflection; it was recycled from (then) Fr Barron's book, the Priority of Christ.

He just keeps reusing it on Facebook, in these Lenten Reflections, etc, so he has has plenty of time and opportunity to think about it. Here is another interesting quote from the same work:

In a similar way, the literarily, spiritually, and theologically evolved portrait of Jesus is more instructive than any historical core, however carefully recovered. The Catholic instinct is not so much to assess the development by the origin as to appreciate the development as the full flowering of the origin.

Honestly, I think he is taking a swipe at the "historical-critical" practitioners here (which he had praised on the previous page), but at the expense of something else, something I think is basically the same error in a different tone. I would argue that historical-critical methodists seem almost always to have a certain pre-determined picture of what the "historical Jesus" must have been like, and much of the criticism seems to be aimed at establishing that their pet Jesus is the true one. I am over simplifying, but this is a comment...

Anyway, I think the Balthasarian hermeneutic of Scripture--one Bishop Barron explicitly subscribes to--that some passages are simply contradictory (at least as our limited minds can grasp them) and will not admit of synthesis, works much the same way. Where the contradictions cancel out, it leaves free ground for speculation, and that ground is always filled by some pre-determined, pet version of Jesus ready to provide the answer we wish to hear.

This Model Jesus (meant as in, economic model or climate model) is always constructed from a few cherry-picked quotes from Scripture and Tradition, and operates as a kind of Pyhtia, able to deliver fresh oracles on demand. And since they are the words of Christ, they trump all objections. Of course, you could have done things the old way, wrestling with the whole Deposit if Faith, and made an application of its unchanging doctrines to the particular circumstances, but that requires both Faith, with its inescapable existential tension, and making difficult judgments, with their inescapable moral weight. Consulting the “Oracle of Surprises” is much easier, and also much more likely to give you the answer you wanted all along, whether it be about an empty hell, divorce, death penalty…

In brief, both tactics are a sort of "What would Jesus do?" move, but where the "Jesus" we are asking is one tailor made to our own specifications.

In a similar way, the literarily, spiritually, and theologically evolved portrait of Jesus is more instructive than any historical core

I can't say for sure but I think he may be giving too much credit to “historical-critical” practitioners rather than taking a swipe at them. In other words, he accepts that they have largely demolished the Gospel portrait of Jesus and then tries to salvage what he can from the wreckage. And if that means believing in a fictional portrait of Jesus then so be it. But this presupposes that the results of critical scholarship should be trusted. And I don't think we need to make that concession.

There is an essay on Larry Hurtado’s blog in which he argues that John has basically given himself licence to make things up about Jesus, supposedly under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Now, I should say that I have found a lot of what Hurtado has written very interesting. But that particular essay could not be less convincing. So we really need to use our own judgement.

In a similar way, the literarily, spiritually, and theologically evolved portrait of Jesus is more instructive than any historical core, however carefully recovered.

Oh, wow, that's bad.

Yes, the "under the guidance of the Holy Spirit" thing is *rife* even in some evangelical circles. And it's flatly wrong. In fact, in John Jesus says that the Holy Spirit will bring to their remembrance what he *did* say, not that he will give them license to make Jesus say things he didn't say.

Moreover, the narrator repeatedly distinguishes his own interpretations from Jesus' historical words, making it clear that he does *not* consider himself licensed by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to blur that distinction.

In my debate with Craig Evans, Evans asked me if I thought the apostles thought that Jesus wanted them to interpret and teach and apply his words (something to that effect). I said of course I did, but that this is not the same thing as putting their own interpretations into Jesus' mouth.

This shouldn't really need to be said. I consider it incredibly insidious to blur that distinction.


I think you are right. Your reading fits better with the context.

In a similar way, the literarily, spiritually, and theologically evolved portrait of Jesus is more instructive than any historical core, however carefully recovered. The Catholic instinct is not so much to assess the development by the origin as to appreciate the development as the full flowering of the origin.

Egad, that's bad.

Effectively he is claiming that the picture derived by embellishing the record with fiction gives a better grasp of the truth than stating the truth. It implies, however, that Christians who read the Gospels have better access to the "real" truth than the Apostles did during the 3 years they were with Jesus, and therefore the words of the Evangelists are more to be believed and trusted than the words of Jesus! Turns out this represents not "Christianity" but "Evangelist-inanity."


Yep, but I'd almost say nope. So the view here by Bishop Barron, now that I've listened to the debate, isn't really that far off from Craig Evans. I am not sure if they share the same presuppositions, but at the end of the day, the Gospels (especially John) are reduced to a kind of historical core, around which the Ecangelists (in John's case read, "Johannine community") wove beautiful and elaborate tales. The tales themselves never happened, but they reveal a truth deeper and more "fully flowered" than what actually happened.

Taken that way, it could also be related to the critics that say St Paul "invented" Christianity, except those critics invariably mean that as a negative criticism while Evans and Barron are basically praising the Evangelists for it.

Anyway, the "nope" comes in (in my view at least) that I think once you start down this road, you do not get what might still be a kind of objective "Evangelist-inanity", the Jesus as related by the Evangelists, or even four, each Evangelist's "Jesus" taken separately, but N. Everyone is in effect reading their own custom Jesus out of the text. This Jesus always either:

1. Looks suspiciously like them (who knew Jesus that all along the "Jesus of history" and the "Jesus of Faith" were both really indistinguishable from a progressive college don with a Prius and a Coexist bumper sticker?!)

2. Or at least gives all the "right" answers to contemporary questions on climate change, sexual morality, religious freedom and tolerance, abortion etc.

For what its worth, I think this imaginary Jesus scenarion certainly can happen on the other side of the spectrum, but in practice it seems curbed somewhat in that those that take a more traditional view on the historicity of Scripture also tend to take a more conservative approach to the rest of Sacred Tradition, and bump more strongly into, "Yes, that is interesting, but the Church has always taught..."

In general, my impression has been that Catholic "conservatives" have been more "liberal" on matters of biblical studies than evangelicals have been. It's only in the last couple of decades that evangelicals have started compromising on these things, reinterpreting the concept of an error, and so forth. Whereas my impression was that Cardinal Ratzinger (later Benedict) was not exactly a super-conservative biblical scholar even though he was thought of as a hardline "conservative" Catholic. E.g. If my memory serves me, he thought large chunks of Daniel were written quite late.


Cardinal Ratzinger is fairly conservative liturgically, but much less so theologically, very much in the nouvelle théologie camp.

There is a very strange quirk of history in that after V2, the traditional Catholic "view" (if you can call it that) fell almost completely off the radar. With the Garigou-Langrange-types exiting the stage, anyone even a bit less liberal than Hans Kung and Karl Rahner was suddenly a "conservative". This is more or less how Balthasar and Ratzinger are both considered conservatives after the Council, when they were considered very much the progressive wing before.



Better than saying "Yes, but nope," is more like, "Yes, but it gets even worse..."

Thomas, I think there is one point we should bear in mind about scholarly (or is it “scholarly”) study of Jesus. Metaphysical presuppositions will have a huge impact on what people do. Those who don't believe that God had any involvement in what happened at the beginning of Christianity and those who do could almost be said to be practising two different disciplines. So an atheist scholar who goes looking for the “real” Jesus will have an approach that depends fundamentally on his atheism. He is looking for the “real” Jesus because he has decided in advance that he won't find Jesus the Son of God.

It is often said that disagreements about who the “real” Jesus was cast doubt on Christianity. But how could disagreements among atheists (or those who are taking an atheistic perspective) cast doubt on Christianity?

The scholarly study of Jesus can certainly be illuminating but we always need to be cautious about it. So it is useful to know about the apocalyptic thinking which was widespread in the late Second Temple period. As N.T. Wright has shown, apocalyptic thinking doesn't mean that people believed the world would end at any moment. According to the apocalyptic mindset, there was a heavenly realm which could intersect with the earthly realm. Events on earth were seen to have a cosmic significance. They were unfolding in accordance with a divine plan. This way of looking at things was often portrayed with vivid imagery which was not usually meant to be taken literally.

All that is useful background knowledge. But the secular scholars who declare that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet don't believe that there is any heavenly realm or any divine plan. Nor do they think that anyone could have visions which actually predict the future. So their “scholarship” has placed Jesus in the category of the delusional. But that is not the result of unbiased historical inquiry. It is the result that was predetermined by their atheistic perspective.

Cardinal Ratzinger is fairly conservative liturgically, but much less so theologically, very much in the nouvelle théologie camp.

There is a very strange quirk of history in that after V2, the traditional Catholic "view" (if you can call it that) fell almost completely off the radar. With the Garigou-Langrange-types exiting the stage, anyone even a bit less liberal than Hans Kung and Karl Rahner was suddenly a "conservative". This is more or less how Balthasar and Ratzinger are both considered conservatives after the Council, when they were considered very much the progressive wing before.

This is very true, ThomasL. One of the things that drives me bananas is the weird transfer of meaning of "conservative" with respect to people like Ratzinger and von Balthasar. And, at least to some degree, Wojtyla as well. I truly don't know how someone like a priest and theologian like Ratzinger could accept the term nouvelle théologie and not cringe every time he hears it, because "novel" and "Church teaching" are like oil and water. A theologian is supposed to quail and backtrack if someone says his ideas are "novel". I honestly think that somewhere in the early to mid 20th century there must have been an idiotic fad in the seminaries and schools (the ones supposedly orthodox, not the ones that had teachers like Teilhard de Chardin) teaching that "the way we used to teach theology is no longer OK because too many people don't accept it, so we have to come up with a new way of promoting the same old truths. Perhaps Ratzinger and Wojtyla believed that ANY way of trying to work at the truth is fine as long as you try not to go astray of the declared doctrines. If so, they were sadly mistaken. Whatever the case, Ratzinger's name continues to lend weight and coverage for the nouvelle théologie, and JPII managed to appoint as bishop and cardinal a shocking number of theological liberals of every possible stripe, while not upsetting doctrine most of the time in his encyclicals.

John's constant awareness of place, including obscure place names that would mean little to his readers, John's mention of pointless details, his emphasis on truth (!), and many other such factors all point to his being concerned with historical truth

I'm particularly looking forward to reading about that. The impression that John is recounting what actually happened is very strong. For example, when Jesus tells Judas to do what he has to do quickly and John mentions that some of the disciples thought Jesus was telling Judas to buy something for the feast: that is just the kind of quirky incident that you can imagine happening in real life. It would require real genius for a writer of fiction to invent that sort of detail. But I seriously doubt whether anyone was writing that kind of fiction 2000 years ago.


I was going to write something longer, but rather than the comments event further off-topic, I might just direct you to this very interesting biographical sketch by one of his students at the time of his election: https://bulletin.hds.harvard.edu/articles/autumn2005/theologian-pope

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