2012-11-04

The Gospel of John as a Unified Work

by Neil Godfrey

Read almost any commentary on the Gospel of John and one learns that the conventional wisdom is that this Gospel is littered with sure signs that it has been pieced together over time by several authors, revisers or editors. One of the most obvious indicators of this strikes most readers when they read the speeches of Jesus at the Last Supper. He interrupts himself to say, “Arise, let us go from here”, but instead of going anywhere he merely continues with another lengthy monologue. “No doubt” we are reading the results of clumsy editing.

Look at the exchange between Nicodemus and Jesus. Surely here we see another indication of an editor clumsily stitching a speech about being born again into pre-existing scene between Jesus and the Pharisee. Nicodemus starts the conversation easily enough but then Jesus appears rudely to ignore his words and launches immediately into a jarring proclamation about his need to be born again.

And what are readers to make of that apparently meaningless reference to the time of day — “it was about the tenth hour” — when the first disciples of Jesus are said to go to the place where Jesus was staying?

One moment Jesus is in Jerusalem, and the next, without any explanation, he is suddenly in Galilee again.

Surely only a committee of editors working independently over time could have produced such a disjointed work.

Not so, says Thomas L. Brodie in his 625 page volume, The Gospel According to John: A Literary and Theological Commentary.

This Gospel is well known for its portrayal of Jesus speaking in ambiguities and symbolism that confuse his literary characters, such as Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman at the well. We know his characters utter words whose deeper meanings are hidden from them, such as when Caiaphas announces that it is better for one man to die than risk the overthrow of the entire nation.

What Brodie asks and explores in depth is this: What if the author was playing with his readers in the same way, and that the apparent contradictions, sudden breaks and confused and sometimes apparently meaningless references are signs of him doing just this? Is the uninitiated reader going to find the Gospel as meaningless, disjointed and confused as did Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman when they first encountered Jesus?

It’s an intriguing thought. It reminds me of critics who suggest the Gospel of Mark is itself a parable for the initiated reader to decipher.

I have often pointed out that I cannot buy the common reason used to claim that the final chapter (21) was a later addition to a Gospel that originally concluded at chapter 20. My reasoning has been based on the quite common ancient literary practice of adding an epilogue or a “second” ending to various works, histories included. But Brodie goes much farther than any of that. He shows that without chapter 21 there would be several loose ends left dangling in the preceding chapters. One of these is the rehabilitation of Peter. In this Gospel there is no other indication that Peter is ever restored: he does not weep as he does in the Synoptics.

But most startling of all is Brodie’s observation that in this last chapter there are no verbs or nouns to indicate that any of the disciples saw Jesus! This opens up a whole new possibility for interpretation. The message is operating at an entirely spiritual level, and there is no conflict with Jesus’ earlier admonitions that seeing him was not necessary for faith. When the disciples say they are going fishing, there is no need to interpret that as a mood of dejected failure. It is a symbolic act, with a force that can only be fully grasped when one realizes that in this Gospel there was no previous indicator that any of the disciples had been fishermen before their calling.

As for the tenth hour, Brodie points out the evidently symbolic meaning of that number and its appropriate association with the disciples finding completion by entering into the home of Jesus.

And when Jesus says, “Arise, let us move on from here”, he is not speaking of a literal motion any more than he is speaking of a literal rebirth to Nicodemus. He is moving to a higher level of spiritual comprehension in his discourse.

I have about 600 more pages to read, however. And a few more posts to do before I do that. Can’t wait.

 

  • 2012-11-05 00:50:15 UTC - 00:50 | Permalink

    I don’t understand how the rehabilitation of Peter ties up any loose ends in the story. If anything, it makes things more confusing. What exactly has Peter done to prove himself? He denied Jesus in Chapter 18. He lost a footrace with the Beloved Disciple in Ch. 20, for Chrissakes! And why has the Beloved Disciple been so unceremoniously shunted to the side in Ch. 21?

    • 2012-11-05 06:42:26 UTC - 06:42 | Permalink

      Brodie has this discomforting proclivity for questioning conventional wisdoms. He writes of Peter’s role in this gospel as follows:

      Nor is the evangelist opposed to Peter. On the contrary, he gives him a leading role (1:40-42; 6:68-69, and esp. chap. 21). Yet, without any hostility, he puts Peter in his place; he shows him as one who, for all his importance, is subject to the greater realities of love and spirit. This is the purpose of the healthy interplay between Peter and the beloved disciple (13:23-24; 20:1-10; 21:7, 20-23); Peter is a leader, but he depends on the (Spirit-like) beloved disciple. Peter’s limitations and vulnerability are underlined by the fact that in various ways he is associated or shadowed by the character of Judas (6:68-71; 13:2, 6; 13:21, 28; 18:2-3, 10-11; cf. 18:15-16). The Peter who eventually learns from the beloved could just as easily have gone the way of Judas.

      • RoHa
        2012-11-05 09:15:53 UTC - 09:15 | Permalink

        So far it seems that the message is that the beloved disciple is superior to Peter. If the Gospel of John is for a bunch of people who follow the bd, why would the author want to rehabilitate Peter?

        • 2012-11-05 09:33:43 UTC - 09:33 | Permalink

          The Gospel of John is not about a bunch of people following the bd. It’s about people who are as symbolic as the bd and the literary character of Jesus himself. It’s not about temples, fishing, flesh, births, geographical places, wine, water, mothers, fig trees, — we err greatly if we fall into the same trap as do the literary characters like Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman and interpret its words literally.

          • RoHa
            2012-11-05 13:05:45 UTC - 13:05 | Permalink

            Not about people following the bd, but for people following the (symbolic/imaginary) bd. (I’m thinking of a “Johanine community”sort of thing.) If the G of J was for a particular group who did not think much of Peter, why would the author want to rehabilitate Peter?

            • 2012-11-05 15:10:03 UTC - 15:10 | Permalink

              Your question arises from the old framework. Stop thinking ‘communities’. They are a hangover from the old oral tradition model. Think authors. Creative authors. Stop thinking of Peter as a rival leader with variable reputations among imaginary communities. The only Peter we know is the literary construct. Our discussion only rests on solid ground when we stick with the data — that is the literary constructs. If there is anything else in the real world that they represent then that has now been lost so cannot enter the equation.

              • RoHa
                2012-11-06 09:06:20 UTC - 09:06 | Permalink

                “Stop thinking ‘communities’. … Think authors. Creative authors.”

                Fair enough, but surely those authors had an audience in mind, and the audience would have been some sort of Christians. And to be Christians, they must have had some ideas about what the teachings were before they read the book.

                “Stop thinking of Peter as a rival leader with variable reputations among imaginary communities. The only Peter we know is the literary construct.”

                So why rehabilitate him? Is it for a literary purpose?

              • 2012-11-06 09:30:11 UTC - 09:30 | Permalink

                Literary analysis has long been a foreign exercise for many biblical scholars and publications. But it opens up a whole new way of understanding the Gospels and early Christianity. I believe it is the most valid approach to the study of the evidence for Christian origins since it addresses the data as we have it with an absolute minimum of speculative assumptions (e.g. about the audience, about the historicity of events or persons narrated). Literary analysis enables us to begin to understand exactly what the Gospels are. That gives the historian a solid starting point for the exploration of Christian origins.

  • RoHa
    2012-11-05 09:12:54 UTC - 09:12 | Permalink

    “I have often pointed out that I cannot buy the common reason used to claim that the final chapter (21) was a later addition to a Gospel that originally concluded at chapter 20. My reasoning has been based on the quite common ancient literary practice of adding an epilogue or a “second” ending to various works, histories included”

    If this is on the site, could you give me a few links to it, please? I can’t find it, and I’d like to read it.

  • RoHa
    2012-11-05 09:24:11 UTC - 09:24 | Permalink

    “What if the author was playing with his readers in the same way, and that the apparent contradictions, sudden breaks and confused and sometimes apparently meaningless references are signs of him doing just this? Is the uninitiated reader going to find the Gospel as meaningless, disjointed and confused as did Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman when they first encountered Jesus?”

    I have to say that this sounds like a desperate excuse to me.

    “This thing is badly written. It doesn’t hang together.”
    “It isn’t badly written. The incoherence is intentional. The author is playing with you.”

    Well, maybe. Or maybe it is just badly written. I would have to read Brodie to find out why he thinks it isn’t what it looks like.

    • 2012-11-05 12:52:29 UTC - 12:52 | Permalink

      The reason I favour the conclusions of the literary analysis is because it’s an analysis that does produce explanatory power. The so-called infelicities can be demonstrated to have artistic and theological structure. That would not be possible if the apparent crudities really were the result of literary incompetence.

      It is the prevailing evolutionary models that rest on the assumption that the gospel narratives originated as almost random-like scraps of cloth that a series of master-knitters attempted to find ways to join together that has kept so much scholarly focus on the small units of text with the result they have failed to appreciate the texts as literary wholes.

    • 2012-11-05 15:37:48 UTC - 15:37 | Permalink

      RoHa: “Well, maybe. Or maybe it is just badly written. I would have to read Brodie to find out why he thinks it isn’t what it looks like.”

      I do need to read Brodie (sounds like my cup of tea), but at first blush he seems to doing with John what scholars started doing with Mark long ago. Is a Mark clumsy (stubby-fingered) stenographer or is he a clever author who knows exactly what he’s doing?

      RoHa: “The incoherence is intentional.” (“. . . sounds like a desperate excuse to me.”)

      That isn’t the argument, though, is it? Perhaps it appears to be incoherent to us because we aren’t reading it the same way that John intended it or the way his first readers understood it.

      • RoHa
        2012-11-06 09:12:37 UTC - 09:12 | Permalink

        “Perhaps it appears to be incoherent to us because we aren’t reading it the same way that John intended it or the way his first readers understood it.”

        But since we don’t know how John intended it to be read, or the way his first readers understood it, we have to guess. And one drawback of the guessing process is that we could end up reading into it connections or implications that were not put in by the author.

        That is why I would need to read Brodie to see how he supports his case that “the so-called infelicities can be demonstrated to have artistic and theological structure”.

  • 2012-11-05 15:38:31 UTC - 15:38 | Permalink

    After years of study, I understand gJohn was a work in progress from about 75 to 105.
    At first, the author had knowledge of gMark (and only that gospel) and wrote the original gospel keeping close to the script of gMark (but not the Christology!), ending at 20:10.
    John_the_Baptist => In Galilee => Feeding_of_the_5000 => Walking_on_water => In Galilee => In Judea/Jerusalem => Across_the_Jordan => Royal_welcome_into_Jerusalem => Disturbance_in_the_temple => Last_supper => Judas’_betrayal & Jesus’_arrest => Interrogation_by_the_high_priest and Peter’s_three_denials => Trial_by_Pilate_&_crowd and Barabbas => Crucifixion_as_”King_of_the_Jews” => Burial => Post_Sabbath_empty_tomb
    The gospel was then fairly coherent and did not have many discontinuities & oddities as found in the canonical version.
    Then after gLuke became known, there were considerable additions and some reshuffling. Also the ending was extended up to 20:23.
    Then after “Acts” was known, a few minor additions and again the ending was extended up to 20:31.
    The epilogue was added by another author than the previous one(s) and was not witnessed in all the ancient copies of the gospel (Irenaeus & Tertullian), which probably means the gospel started to be published before the death of the “beloved disciple” (BD).
    Before the death of that (alleged) disciple, BD was considered dear to Christ because of his longivity, and therefore the better disciple. But after the death, the author of the epilogue decided to get orthodox on the matter (the death of BD “proved” he was not kept alive by divine intervention to be there when the Kingdom comes).
    The theology of gJohn went through evolution. At first there was no bodily resurrection in the future for Christians and a second coming only for Jesus’ disciples. Rather, realized eschatology and the “true” Christians (a la gJohn & 1John) staying alive. Then, progressively, the gospel will fall in line with orthodoxy against the beliefs of the “Thomassan” sect.
    All explained here: http://historical-jesus.info/jnintro.html
    Bernard D Muller

    • 2012-11-05 16:59:30 UTC - 16:59 | Permalink

      One of the disadvantages of “years of study” along a particular pathway is that it can sometimes build up an immunity against new ideas and challenges to the core assumptions of those many years of study.

      A major symptom of this condition is the tendency to merely repeat one’s own arguments and an apparent inability to engage forthrightly with the evidence and logic of the new.

      It’s a warning sign that the fruits of one’s “years of study” are about to decompose in the waste heap.

      • 2012-11-06 10:20:08 UTC - 10:20 | Permalink

        Why did you delete two of my posts. Am I banned from Vridar?
        Bernard D. Muller

        • 2012-11-06 10:31:13 UTC - 10:31 | Permalink

          I trashed them because I judged them to be vacuous, contentious and generally inconsistent with comment policy as has been spelled out here in recent posts and is available in the Comments and Moderation page linked in the right hand column. Admittedly my opinion was coloured somewhat by my past experiences of exchanges with you that proved to be a waste of time.

  • Roger Parvus
    2012-11-06 06:04:46 UTC - 06:04 | Permalink

    For reasons unrelated to the disjointedness of the Fourth Gospel I think it is a proto-orthodox reworking of the Manifestations of the ex-Marcionite Apelles. And if I am right about that, its disjointedness and final chapter would fit as proto-orthodox interventions needed to correct or supplement Apellean doctrine. Its conclusion (“It is the disciple who testifies to these things… and we know that his testimony is true.” – Jn. 21:24) would fit as the proto-orthodox voucher of Polycarp and Co for this new gospel. The voucher would have been useful both because of the new gospel’s likely resemblance to the original Apellean Gospel and because the “living and surviving voice” of the beloved disciple had reached mid-second century Christianity in such a questionable way, i.e., via the phantom boy who appeared to Apelles’ prophetess associate Philumena.

    Of course, I could be wrong about the Apellean origin of the Fourth Gospel, so I am looking forward to your future posts on Brodie’s book.

    • 2012-11-06 07:00:43 UTC - 07:00 | Permalink

      You had some interesting ideas on the possible significance of Nathanael in the Gospel of John in your post, Is Paul the Beloved Disciple? Brodie makes some interesting observations about this Gospel’s presentation of Nathanael, too: he takes Nathanael as a representative of Jews who will be converted “in the last days”, but his arguments could (I think) be used in support of an identification of Nathanael and Paul. But I have only just received the book and won’t get a chance to read it completely for some time yet.

      I have often had an ambivalent relationship with Brodie’s work. At first glance I have been very attracted to his ideas, but on closer reading I have sometimes (not always) found his arguments leave me flat. (When I wrote of my excited anticipation of reading his commentary on John, in the back of my mind I found myself hoping I would not be disappointed again.) I have wondered if his imagination is over-active. But something I read in his recent work, Beyond the Quest, led me to wonder if I have tried to read his works too impatiently. Instead of starting at chapters that look like most interesting coverages of discrete sections of NT works, I have been taking the trouble to read carefully his introductions now, in particular his introductory chapters to Birthing. I think I am now beginning to see some of those once hastily read chapters may well carry a lot more substance than I had originally taken from them. He himself has conceded that some of his problem in the past is a failure to communicate some of his central thesis adequately.

      So I will be approaching his Commentary on John with interest, picking out selections that I think may make critical points. I will do them the best justice I can in my posts, and then ask myself where I stand in relation to his ideas in a year’s time. I am naturally biased towards any argument that makes a case for the gospels as coherent literary works in their own right, but I hope I am also conscious enough of that bias not to be blinded by it.

      • James D. Williams
        2012-11-07 05:59:14 UTC - 05:59 | Permalink

        Is Paul the Beloved Disciple?
        Nathana- EL … JO-Nathan …John (Paul). Disagreeing Web sources say no and yes as to an etymological connection between John and Johnathan.
        Insufficient etymologies to connect Lazarus to John.

        • 2012-11-07 06:37:48 UTC - 06:37 | Permalink

          Any serious discussion of the question will have to go well beyond “disagreeing web sources” and “etymological connections”.

  • fearfull poster
    2012-11-12 08:06:14 UTC - 08:06 | Permalink

    The GOJ as a the unmodified work of a single author is a hard idea to justify, given the disjointed narrative and abrupt changes in subject (see above for examples) and style (Jesus’ pronouncements stand out from the surrounding text, and could be seen as interpolations into the text).
    In the “last discourse”, thought by many to be an interpolation, since it is bracketed by Jesus’ statement about going and his actual going, The Paraclete phrases could be interpolated “prophesy ex eventu” about Menahem that was ambiguously translated into Greek from an Aramaic text. A proper name Menahem was treated as if it was a translatable noun.
    Jesus makes the prediction he has to die so that Paraclete can replace him and continue his works(paraphrase Jn14:16:… I will ask the Father, and he will give you a replacement Menahem ) (it is better for you that I go. For if I do not go, the Advocate will not come to you….), (Paraclete=Menahem, Hebrew.) This could be reference to Menahem (son of Judas, probably grandson of Hezekiah) the Siccariot leader and Messianic pretender mentioned by Josephus (Jewish War 2.433-434, Jewish War 2.442-448) and discussed in the Jerusalem Talmud ( …for today the Messiah was born.”He said to him, “What is his name?” “Menahem.” He said to him, “And what is his father’s name?” He said to him, “Hezekiah.” ..”‘. (Yerushalmi Berakhot 2:3. “The Talmud of the Land of Israel” translated by Tzvee Zahavy))
    The Paraclete phrases were originally Aramaic statements written to convince Jesus followers that Menahem was his legitimate successor. They were literally translated into Greek and ended up as interpolations into the Gospel of John If the above argument is accepted, then John is not a unitary text.
    The original phrases about Menahem should date to before his death in late 68 AD.

    —————
    Submitted on 2012/11/12 at 8:18 am

    For some christian sects, Paul/Saul could not have been the beloved disciple, since he was considered to be an accomplice to Jesus’ crucifixion.
    (See the unfortunately named Ethiopic Book of the Cock (Matzafa Dorho). (Exploring the Ethiopic “Book of the Cock”, An Apocryphal Passion Gospel from Late Antiquity Pierluigi Piovanelli The Harvard Theological Review Vol. 96, No. 4 (Oct., 2003), pp. 427-454))

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