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[John_Lit] Fortna reviews Van Belle "The Signs Source..."

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  • Wieland Willker
    taken from: http://www.sbl-site.org/SBL/Reviews/6apr21.htmlPublished in JBL 115/4Van Belle, Gilbert The Signs Source in the Fourth Gospel: Historical
    Message 1 of 2 , Jul 15, 1999
      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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    • Paul Anderson
      Thank you, Weiland, for including Fortna s review of van Belle s work. It is spirited, but one should still look at it personally, as well as Fortna s work,
      Message 2 of 2 , Aug 3, 1999
        Thank you, Weiland, for including Fortna's review of van Belle's work. It
        is spirited, but one should still look at it personally, as well as
        Fortna's work, in making a judgment.

        My own work evaluates the source theories argued by Bultmann and scholars
        preceding and following him, and it applies all of his evidence
        (stylistic, contextual and theological) to the text of John 6 (where four
        of his five sources should be present). The distribution is absolutely
        non indicative, and I find no evidence that there was any non-johannine
        source upon which John was based.

        Neither do I find evidence of dependence upon Mark compelling at all --
        although I detect an "interfluential" set of relationships with the
        pre-Marcan material.

        You may consider the findings in further detail in chapters 3-7 of _The
        Christology of the Fourth Gospel_ (Trinity Press International, 1997).


        Paul Anderson
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