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The Myth of the Monologuing Jesus

Last Saturday, August 11, I did another webinar on Apologetics Academy covering much of the material that readers will have already seen in this series on John. Here on Youtube is the recording of that webinar, called "Only One Jesus."

I have also created a portal page including links to all of my (and Tim's) webinars on Apologetics Academy, so if you're looking for a particular one or just want to see what else I've done in that venue, have a look.

The webinar got slightly ahead of the detailed blog series in the interests of covering a wide variety of topics. One topic I covered there that I have only touched upon yet here is what I call the Myth of the Monologuing Jesus. This is the idea that in John, Jesus talks for much longer at a time than he does in the Synoptics; this is then taken to be a sign of (you guessed it) the relatively looser historicity of John. The so-called "long Johannine discourses" are treated as ipso facto evidence of John's greater willingness to put words in the mouth of Jesus.

As I mentioned in this post, in my debate with Craig Evans this April, he made an outright blunder when asserting the Myth of the Monologuing Jesus, as one can see in the transcript of the debate. Dr. Evans referred early on to the so-called "lengthy discourses" and to the "I am discourses." At a certain point, the host asked him to clarify:

Justin Brierley to Craig Evans, April, 2018: Just for all those who are not as familiar as you obviously are with these texts, could you just remind us what some of those statements are in that I Am discourse?

Dr. Evans was only too happy to oblige:

Craig A. Evans: Of course. In John’s Gospel, and this is one of the most distinctive features about John, is where Jesus just begins to speak at length, you have nothing like this in the Synoptics, in Matthew, Mark, or Luke. But in John, Jesus will say, “I Am the light of the world,” and he’ll go on and on and on for many verses…these are the “I am” discourses, and there’re about seven of them, and they’re very thematic, very theological…

It's rather interesting to see how many errors could be packed into such a short statement. First of all (discussion below), it is not true that Jesus appears to speak at length more in John than in the Synoptics. Second, in neither verse (John 8:12, John 9:5) where Jesus says "I am the light of the world" does he "go on and on and on for many verses." In John 8:12, not only does a dialogue immediately follow, it isn't even about the statement that Jesus is the light of the world, so that saying does not even introduce a theme of the dialogue! In John 9:5, he immediately heals a blind man, and the narrative of the miracle is what follows the saying.

Third, there are not seven places in John where Jesus utters an "I am" saying and then "goes on and on and on for many verses." The nearest thing to such a thing is one discourse in John 6 on his being the Bread of Life.

It would be difficult for Evans to have been more incorrect, on a sheerly factual level, in this statement about Jesus as a monologuing fellow in the Gospel of John.

It is sometimes noted that some Johannine scholars include Jesus' extended dialogues in the concept of "discourses" and that, once this is done, one gets more "discourses" in John than if one had limited oneself to places where Jesus is speaking alone. See the list of nine "Johannine discourses" on p. 2 here, for example, including Jesus' dialogue with Nicodemus and with the Samaritan woman as "discourses" and his dialogues on testimony and authority with the Jewish leaders in John 5 and John 8. This list, I would note, does not actually connect seven of the so-called "discourses" with "I am" sayings in any event, but only three, though "I am" sayings do occur at various points within the material listed as "discourses" (such as in the Farewell Discourse).

If dialogues, even thematic dialogues, count as "discourses," then we also have such "discourses" in the Synoptic Gospels. Mark 10:35-45 then should be called, by the same standard, a "thematic Markan discourse" on the subject of servant leadership, when James and John come to Jesus desiring to be placed on his right and left hand. Matthew 16:13-20 is, on this odd definition of "discourse," a Matthean discourse on the subject of the identity of Jesus Christ (a rather "Johannine" theme, come to think of it). And perhaps the entirety of Matthew 22:15-46, in which various groups of Jesus' opponents ask him testing questions and he silences them, should be called a "discourse" on Jesus' authority and knowledge of the Scriptures.

There is something methodologically extremely dubious about inventing a special use of the term "discourse," applying it to John selectively, and then talking with astonishment about how many discourses we have in John!

Such a usage is confusing as well because some ancient authors did invent speeches (where this is used in the ordinary sense of a continuous speech by a single person), though others disapproved of this practice. The conflation of dialogues with speeches (in the ordinary sense) in John can then intersect with the idea that "making up speeches" was accepted in the "ancient world," so that, if people get the idea that John has more long speeches by Jesus than do the Synoptics, they may think it especially likely that John invented material.

Had Evans indeed intended any such highly confusing, potentially misleading, technical usage in answer to a question expressly designed by the host to clarify Evans's own meaning of the phrase "I am discourses" for a lay audience, he should of course have said so very explicitly so as not to be open to the charge of misleading.

But it's much worse than that: Evans expressly said something that locked himself out of claiming that he was using that technical meaning. For he expressly characterized the so-called "I am discourses" as places in which Jesus himself gives an "I am" saying and then Jesus himself "goes on and on and on for many verses," which simply is not an accurate description of dialogues.

To make it worse, several of both Jesus' actual discourses (in the non-technical sense) and his dialogues range over a variety of topics. The Farewell Discourse (the longest in John) certainly does, and the dialogue with the woman at the well does not stick to one theme either, partly because the woman herself changes the subject. So some of the dialogues/discourses/whatevers in John are not so "very thematic" as all that.

When seven discourses are listed in John (see here), this is done in such a strange way that it includes some things that are not discourses and excludes things that are (like the Farewell Discourse). And once again, only three begin with an "I am" saying.

Evans's own picture of the Johannine Jesus as a monologuist illustrates the danger of the ad hoc, just-for-John use of "discourses" to include dialogues. Apparently Prof. Evans was so carried away by his own terminology that he actually thought that all of the passages designated by scholars like himself by this eccentric use of "discourses" in the Gospel of John are indeed places where Jesus "goes on and on and on for many verses," which is not the case.

Making things even stranger and more muddled, when I suggested that he might be thinking of the Farewell Discourse (which contains a couple of "I am" sayings and the longest period of uninterrupted speech by Jesus in John, and hence is the second-best candidate for meeting his criteria), Evans expressly said that he was not speaking of the Farewell Discourse at all (search "Upper Room Discourse" here). Apparently it was only the ever-elusive "I am discourses" whose historicity he was questioning.

Evans's statements about lengthy discourses in John are impossible to salvage, from any angle.

But now let's zero in on the question of how long Jesus speaks, uninterrupted, in John and in the Synoptics. As it happens, we have data on that, and there are not more verses of recorded, uninterrupted speech by Jesus in John than in the Synoptics. As discussed by the Unitarian James Drummond (here), in An Inquiry into the Character and Authorship of the Fourth Gospel (1903), Matthew wins the prize for the longest speeches by Jesus. Here is part of Drummond's data:

Passages containing more than 3 verses of Jesus' uninterrupted speech and less than 10:

16 in Matthew; 20 in John

More than 10 and less than 20:

8 in Matthew; 3 in John

More than 20:

4 in Matthew; 3 in John

To get more specific, the longest uninterrupted passages of Jesus’ speech are in Matthew: 93 verses (Olivet Discourse) and 107 verses (Sermon on the Mount). The longest uninterrupted segment in John is a portion of the Farewell Discourse: 52 verses. Notice, by the way, that this is only an uninterrupted portion of what is known as the Farewell Discourse. What is generally called by that name is not, in fact, several chapters of entirely uninterrupted speech by Jesus. There is dialogue interspersed at points (the end of chapter 13, 14:7ff, several places in chapter 16).

At one point, it seemed as if Evans might have thought that an answer to this point from Drummond arises from the fact that many scholars think that the Sermon on the Mount (for example) is composite. He said,

And I go back to what she said about the longer discourses in Matthew. The problem here is these discourses have been constructed out of disparate materials. And she mentioned the Sermon on the Mount, that's a great example of it. When you look at Luke, the parallel there, and it’s half a chapter, it's Luke 6:20-49, the so-called Sermon the Plain, and in Matthew it becomes three chapters, five, six and seven. And all critical scholars of the Synoptics, and I mean evangelicals, not just, you know, non-evangelicals, recognize this assembling, this constructing of these discourses out of materials.

As I pointed out at the time, if one wishes to raise the possibility that Matthew's Sermon on the Mount contains some composite elements (that it is in part a collection of sayings that Jesus said at different times), one might as well allow this possibility for, say, John's Farewell Discourse as well, since it covers a variety of topics. I'm more inclined toward the view that neither of them is (which is a distinctly minority view for the Sermon on the Mount, I acknowledge); the Farewell Discourse does have some more "time stamps" scattered throughout it than does the Sermon on the Mount.

One wonders in any event how in the world one would argue from the premise that the Sermon on the Mount is a composite and that none of the (actual) discourses in John is composite to the lesser historicity of the latter. How would such an argument even work, if one wanted to make it? If the Sermon on the Mount is composite, that hardly makes the sayings that go to make it up more likely to be recognizably historical, or to be founded on Matthew's reasonable belief that they are historical, than if it were not composite. And if some discourse or discourses in John are really to be understood as uttered all on a particular occasion, that does not raise the probability that they are more non-historical than the Sermon on the Mount or that John made them up as "extrapolations" of Jesus' other teaching. Why would any such thing follow? One could only try to get such an argument off the ground if Jesus were really inherently unlikely to talk for, say, the equivalent of 52 uninterrupted verses, which is certainly not true. If it were, I suppose that would be in turn an argument that the longest uninterrupted passage of Jesus' speaking in John is composite after all!

Then, too, the Sermon on the Mount is not the only discourse that is longer than the longest uninterrupted passage in John (there is also the Olivet Discourse in Matthew), nor is the Sermon on the Mount the only discourse that participates in a pattern showing Matthew to have at least as many "long talking periods" from Jesus as John does. Are all four of Matthew's more-than-twenty-verse discourses composite? Matthew 23:1-36 (the Woes to the Pharisees) looks pretty continuous and thematic, just to mention one. To get Jesus "really" portrayed as talking longer overall in John than in Matthew one would have to argue that so many of Matthew's medium-to-long discourses are so obviously composite and so many of John's are clearly not supposed to be composite that, when all is said and done, we find significantly more long periods of Jesus' uninterrupted speech that don't appear to be composite in John than we do in Matthew. That would be a hard sell.

This is all highly conjectural in all different directions, and the most obvious, simple, relevant point is that Jesus does not talk longer, uninterrupted, in John than in the Synoptic Gospels. The uniquely Johannine monologuer is simply a myth of scholarship.

As I discussed in a previous post, it seems plausible that the Myth of the Monologuing Jesus in John got started from a sense that Jesus is more repetitious in John and sticks to one topic somewhat more in John than in the Synoptics--that is, that he speaks less aphoristically in John, even though this is not the same thing as his "going on and on and on for many verses" in John but not in the Synoptics.

I dealt with Jesus' repetitiousness already there and will not repeat all that I said. But I will quote a relevant comment by Richard Bauckham:

The way [the Synoptic Gospels] represent what Jesus said on such occasions is mostly by means of a collection of Jesus’ aphorisms and parables, sometimes with explicit thematic structuring of the material, sometimes more loosely grouped according to topic or catchword.

A point that historical Jesus scholars rarely make is that this cannot have been how Jesus actually taught. If Jesus did, as Mark represents (4.1), address the crowds from a boat on the lake of Galilee, he cannot have spoken merely the three parables Mark attributes to him on this occasion or even the larger collection of parables that Matthew provides. The issue here is not what Jesus said on a specific occasion, but the way in which Jesus generally taught. He must have taught in a much more discursive and expatiating way than the Synoptic Gospels attribute to him....Formally, [the] teaching or discourse material [in John] is quite varied, but it has in common the negative characteristic that it does not consist of collections of the kind of aphorisms and parables the Synoptics provide. Aphorisms and short parables, even sayings we also find in the Synoptics and sayings that would not have been out of place on the lips of Mark’s, Matthew’s or Luke’s Jesus, are found, but they are scattered through the discourse material and in many cases embedded in it. The main point to be made here is that, formally speaking, Johannine discourses and dialogues could well be regarded as more realistic than the typical Synoptic presentation of his teaching.("Historiographical Characteristics of the Gospel of John," pp. 31-32)

Good teachers and preachers do repeat themselves, and it's at least as likely that the Synoptic, relatively non-repetitious speaking of Jesus represents the simple elimination of circling repetition as that the more repetitious style of Jesus in John represents anything non-historical about John. And in any event, this does not result in a Jesus who "goes on and on and on" in John but not in the Synoptics.

So next time someone asks you, "But what about those long, long speeches by Jesus in John?" now you know to reject the Myth of the Monologuing Johannine Jesus, just as you can reject the Myth of the Sock Puppet Jesus.

Comments (5)

Such evidence and logic is quite impressive, Lydia. The only real obstacles are CONSENSUS and Me-Tooism within the vaunted ACADEMY.

It doesn't speak well of certain types of scholarship when a "mere layman" such as yourself, armed with common sense and a willingness to look things up and be careful, can make a more convincing case than those who are the professionals in the field.

Joe, I get by with a little help from my (dead) friends. ;-)

And as a result, you can squash your opponents like a beatle. :-)

I'd rather convince them. But sadly, that doesn't look like happening.

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