>Since I hold a view almost diametrically opposed to the above (namely,
>John is primarily a literary development, obviously within the framework
>specific and new philosophical horizon, of Synoptic material found in all
>three Synoptic Gospels, with no special favoring of Mark, and with
>no independent connection with the historical Jesus), I wonder if you
>state in a few sentences what reasons you would give against my
>Also, on the question of historicity, I wonder precisely what you mean by
>position taken above? Let me put it this way: to what (if any) extent
>you allow that much of John is also "fictional" in the broad sense of
>term, confected or theological narrative? In other words (or perhaps, in
>addition), how significant, in the end, is a possible, occasional
>of the Johannine data in the hard facts of the Jesus of history? How
>irreconcilable are our two points of view?
Thank you for your question, I'm sure you are aware you are not alone in
your view, as I would consider it the prevalent opinion among scholars in
recent years. I'll probably be working on these matters for some time,
but in addition to The Christology of the Fourth Gospel (see esp. ch. 8),
a couple of other essays on my approach you might consider include
"Cognitive Origins of John's Christological Unity and Disunity" in
Horizons in Biblical Theology, June 1995; and "The Sitz im Leben of the
Johannine Bread of Life Discourse and its Evolving Context" in Critical
Readings of John 6 (ed. Alan Culpepper, Leiden, 1997).
In reference to your question, the literary advances made on analyzing
John over the last two decades are very significant. They show how its
narrative functions rhetorically and theologically, and offer something
solid the interpreter can engage meaningfully. However,
historical-critical issues remain to be addressed precisely because the
genre of John is not fictional, but interpretive history. At least, the
redactor claims it is, and it shows many signs of historical consciousness
as well as being spiritualized. In that sense, John is a dramatized
history rather than an historicized drama (see my treatment of that in the
book, for instance). Then again, such a view has real problems too, but
proving something is fiction is far more difficult than acknowledging the
literary aspects of a passage, whether or not it may have been rooted in
Here are some of the ways John's historicity (when compared with the
Synoptics) seems plausible and implausible:
-- Did Jesus minister only one year and travel to Jerusalem once, and then
get killed, or did he mininster over several years and go to Jerusalem
several times? The latter is likely, supporting John versus the
Synoptics. Likewise, no historical knowledge is required to connect the
Temple cleansing with the arrest and death of Jesus; Mark probably put all
the Jerusalem material at the end, and what a great "explanation" (was it
fictional or conjectural?) for why Jesus was put to death! He created a
disturbance in the Temple. Conversely, people being threatenned by the
raising of Lazarus and wanting to put Jesus (and Lazarus!) to death would
have been an unlikely set of events to concoct.
-- Was the supper moved to Thursday in John for imagined "theological"
reasons, or was it crafted within Mark (followed by Matthew and Luke) to
support a Christianized Passover meal, complete with words of the
institution, in support of emerging Christian traditions? Using the
criterion of dissimilarity, John's rendering seems more authentic
(likewise, the confession of Peter and views of ministry).
-- Were markers of time and non-symbolic detail in John added for
"realism" reasons, or do they reflect content from oral traditions which
have been retained in the material and at times (but often not!) expanded
upon theologically? The Marcan material omitted by Matthew and Luke often
is precisely this sort of illustrative material, so, given Marcan
priority, this fact suggests the proximity of at least some of John's
material to the oral tradition (which may have enjoyed an interfluential
relationship with the pre-Marcan material), and thus its primitivity.
Scholars' failure to notice degrees of symbolization and theologization in
John often leads to the unsupported explanation: "For theological reasons,
the evangelist did x or y."
Then again, the Synoptics seem more plausible on these matters:
-- Jesus spoke on the Kingdom of God and in parables, but John has only
two Kingdom sayings (chs. 3 and 18), and both of them are corrective.
Further, John's Jesus speaks in long, I Am discourses rather than in
parables, leading one to conclude (with Müssner) that the Jesus in John
speaks in Johannine paraphrase rather than in the language of the
historical Jesus. I agree, largely. Then again, look at Linda Bridges'
work and the many aphorisms in John within the larger discourses; there is
some Jesus material there.
-- Jesus is presented as doing no exorcisms in John, contra the Synoptics,
and the Synoptic material is probably more representative of Jesus'
ministry. I agree. Then again, if the Fourth Evangelist was aware of
Mark, perhaps his material was crafted so as to not be duplicative, which
might explain not only those absences, but the addition of two miracles
before those mentioned in Mark 1, as well as some other material felt to
be missing (transfiguration, agony in Gethsemene, etc.). John certainly
corrects the other gospels (not just a back water signs source, see Jn.
6:26) theologically, and perhaps an augmentation-of-Mark theory might
account for some of the differences rather than assuming too facilely
-- Three against one causes John to lose out on historical matters, and
besides, the Synoptics give us the facts, whereas John's presentation is a
"spiritual" one. Right? Not so fast...if Matthew and Luke used Mark (as
I believe they did) what we have is a difference between the Marcan
perspective and the Johannine (two bi-optic traditions). Further, Mark is
a collector (Papias said Mark got down his material correctly, but in the
wrong order; why does he make that statement?) of material and an
organizer of it according to his narratorial and theological (not
necessarily historical) purposes. Given the epistemological origins of
John's theology of encounter (see ch. 7 of the book), John's spiritualized
perspective may reflect radically its proximity to the events narrated,
rather than distance, even though it is finalized late.
Given the facts that a) evidence for sources in John is absent, b) that
contact with Mark seems interfluential rather than derivative, c) that
much of the detail in John appears to have a root in history rather than
literary interest, d) that the dialectical character of the material is
suggestive of first-order thought rather than second-order transmission of
material (the epistles), e) and given the fact that Luke appears to have
been dependent on the Johannine oral tradition, a fresh look at the
historical character of the Johannine tradition seems due.
Thanks so much for the good questions, Leonard; sorry to be laborious.
Paul N. Anderson
Associate Professor of Biblical and Quaker Studies
George Fox University
Newberg, OR 97132