taken from: http://www.sbl-site.org/SBL/Reviews/6apr21.html
Published in JBL 115/4
Van Belle, Gilbert
The Signs Source in the Fourth Gospel: Historical Survey and Critical
Evaluation of the Semeia Hypothesis
BETL 116. Louvain: Leuven University Press, 1994. Pp. xiv + 503. BF 2500,00.
Reviewer: Robert T. Fortna, Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, NY 12601
This work attempts a massive refutation of the signs-source hypothesis. As
its chief target, I hardly know whether to be flattered or simply puzzled by
its publication. It is twenty-five years since my version of the
signs-source hypothesis appeared, reviving and refining Bultmann's theory,
and most scholars have long since made up their minds about its validity and
usefulness. One reason for this work's appearance only now is the prodigious
effort that has gone into it; virtually every study that somehow discusses
the hypothesis has been read, criticized, and infinitesimally
cross-referenced. Another, and perhaps the controlling, reason is the role
this work seeks to play in the on-going campaign of the Leuven school to
establish Johannine dependence on the Synoptic Gospels. It is curious,
however, that such a study should be needed. The signs-gospel hypothesis is
an attempt, inter alia, to account for the synoptic-like matter in the
Fourth Gospel if, as many believe, it made no significant use of the
Synoptics. But if such use is maintained, as above all at Leuven, the
hypothesis--of a nonextant document, reconstructed solely by internal
analysis of the text of the Fourth Gospel--need not be refuted, it is simply
obviated. In more ways than one, then, this book is an exercise in scholarly
It is a revision and major expansion of Van Belle's 160-page licentiate
thesis, published in 1975 as De Semeia-Bron in het Vierde Evangelie, a
simply factual account of the "Origin and Growth of [the] Hypothesis." In
the new work's preface, Van Belle indicates that its enlargement was
commissioned by his mentor, Prof. Franz Neirynck, the acknowledged leader of
the Leuven agenda. It seems to be another phase, perhaps the capstone, in
the edifice that the Leuven school has slowly and implacably been building
over the past decades or more, a monument (a triumphal arch?) to the Fourth
Evangelist's intricate re-use of the Synoptics.
A triumphalist tone--the epic of the attendant collapse of the signs-source
hypothesis--is sounded in the preface, by means of a handful of small but
telling distortions. Van Belle cites a growing number of "Voices raised . .
. against the avowed self-evidence of the signs source" and adds that "even
Fortna, who continues to defend a pre-Johannine signs gospel, now concedes .
. . that [it] has never been universally accepted" (p. vii--emphases added).
Yet in the body of the work he correctly acknowledges more than once that I
(obviously!) do not claim the theory to be self-evident or hold that it ever
has been anything like "universally accepted."
But let us turn to the merits of the work itself. It begins with by far the
most exhaustive study of the history--and prehistory--of the idea of a signs
source, up through the publication of Bultmann's great commentary in 1941
(chapter 1). The second chapter initially surveys reviews of that
commentary, in both its German and English editions, with a roughly balanced
number of scholars convinced and unconvinced, and then considers the "style
criticism" of Johannine source analysis. Van Belle subtitles the latter
section "The Unity of the Gospel of John," accepting without question the
most exaggerated claims of stylistic analysis, in particular E. Ruckstuhl's.
In fact, the unity of a document, however defined, can never be established
stylistically; only specific attempts to show literary complexity, by
distinguishing source and redaction, can be falsified. Is there here, then,
and in the passion with which the Leuven scholars advocate Johannine use of
the Synoptics, perhaps an unwitting, conservative desire to reaffirm the
unity and the ultimate simplicity of the four-gospel canon?
Chapter 3 traces "The Spread of R. Bultmann's Hypothesis," seeking to
illustrate what H.-P. Heerkerens has exaggeratedly called its "triumphal
procession . . . [a] consensus . . . interconfessional as well as
international." The fourth chapter, which in shorter form concluded the 1975
Flemish edition by extending the portrayal of that "spread" principally
through a brief examination of my 1970 work, now and far more extensively
explores its sequel published in 1988. The exposition is eminently fair. A
selection of scholarly reaction follows, along with a brief description of
other contributors to the hypothesis.
The two chapters added for the present work are both designed to show how
the tide has turned against the hypothesis. Chapter 5 musters every possible
voice, almost sixty pages, of "Opposition to the Semeia Hypothesis" at the
end of which comes a special section, six "Negative Reactions to R. T.
Fortna's [1988 study]," outbalancing the two "positive reactions" that alone
were cited in chapter 4. (Although Van Belle footnotes the comments that
qualify most of these allegedly negative reactions and thereby produce a
spectrum of opinion, he gives no more subtle assessment of them than
"Negative.") The sixth and final chapter briefly "evaluates" the
signs-source hypothesis, merely summarizing and then briefly "criticizing"
(that is, rejecting) it.
Two appendices follow: (1) A rather tendentious analysis of "The Johannine
Sêmeia" (for example, all but equating "Sêmeion and Ergon" and asserting
"The Unity of Signs and Discourses"--in both cases seeking to refute major
instances of the hypothesis's fundamental distinction between pre-Johannine
and Johannine); and (2) a discussion and comparative listing of "Johannine
Style Characteristics." A sixty-page bibliography (based on Van Belle's 1988
Johannine Bibliography 1966-1985, mostly up-dated to 1994) and three indexes
complete the volume.
At points the work is all but unreadable; there is often a subject or work
that can be fully explored only by searching out, via notices buried in the
footnotes, other sections of the book. But that is tolerable compared to my
basic criticism--that in laying out the recent debate Van Belle resorts to a
simplistic citing of selected voices pro and con and gives as much weight to
their number as to the substance of their argument.
Despite its unmanageability, this book will provide a definitive tracking of
the elaborate argument during this century over the hypothesis in question.
But no doubt the debate will continue, in particular whether a Johannine use
of the Synoptics, however creatively imagined, can usefully and validly
explain the Fourth Gospel's complex genius. (4/96)
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