The Gospel of John as a Source for the Historical Jesus: ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ chapter 9

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by Neil Godfrey

Page 11 of the Introduction to ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ explains that one of hopes of its collection of essays

is to open a direct discussion of the question of historicity [of Jesus] much in the spirit of the more than decade-long discourse and debate by the European Seminar on Methodology in Israel’s History, which has been so profitably engaged in regard to the historicity of figures and narratives of the Hebrew Bible and the related construction of a history of ancient Palestine.

I understand that to mean that the book will introduce readers to a discussion of the question of the historicity of Jesus and a related construction of a history of Christian origins. All chapters till now have addressed this question from a range of perspectives.

So it is with disappointment that I finish reading chapter 9 without any further insights into the question of Jesus’ historicity or any further introduction to discussions of methods and interpretations that impinge upon the historicity of Jesus. James Crossley at no point raises the question of Jesus’ historicity (except in passing to mention the names of Thomas Thompson, Robert Price and Richard Carrier as the raising their voices through the Jesus Project to this effect.)

Crossley’s chapter belongs with a publication that takes the historicity of Jesus for granted and that lacks any interest in challenging that assumption. It is entirely about the value of the Gospel of John as a source — compared with the Synoptic Gospels — for scholars who are seeking to reconstruct the historical Jesus.

The Introduction to this volume in fact gives a most adequate synopsis of Crossley’s argument. This is available online at The Bible and Interpretation site. Scroll down to the subheading “The Rewritten Bible” to locate it. But if you’re too lazy to do that here is a copy of the relevant section, but I have broken the single paragraph up for easier reading:

This third and final section of the book borders on the eclectic. The first essay by James Crossley, “Can John’s Gospel Really Be Used to Reconstruct a Life of Jesus? An Assessment of Recent Trends and a Defence of a Traditional View”, begins by pointing to the long-standing habit of New Testament scholarship, prior to the last decade, of avoiding the Gospel of John in discussions of the historical Jesus.

In more recent years, however, the work of the British scholar, William Bauckham, on the “eyewitness” and on the Gospel of John as the work of such, the situation has changed considerably and this change is placed within the broader cultural anxiety and conflict over the growing influence of evangelical and conservative religion on the one hand and secularism on the other. In dealing with Bauckham’s understanding of the importance of eyewitnesses for the Gospel of John, Crossley takes up the pericope dealing with Sabbath disputes in Mark 2-3 and the representation of Jesus in John 5 as a divine figure, who recommends the breaking of biblical Sabbath laws.

While Crossley points out that it is theoretically possible that both accounts are fictitious, he argues that if one of these versions were to reflect a typical halakhic dispute, it would undoubtedly be that found in the synoptic gospels, rather than that in John’s story, which so clearly reflects Christian rather than Jewish interests and perspectives.

Crossley, taking up Bauckham’s claim that the raising of Lazarus, found only in John’s gospel, is a more logical provocation that might lead to Jesus’ execution than the story of cleansing the temple as the bearing cause as presented by Mark, points out the obvious problem that the history-defying miracle of raising Lazarus from the dead cannot be understood other than as fictive.

John 3’s story of Nicodemus is then taken up to show how John can be useful for sketching the development of the Jesus tradition in an effort to reflect later concerns. He also points out that Bauckham’s method seeks to affirm the historical accuracy of “unique, unusual, memorable and salient events” and is, thus, intrinsically problematic, particularly if this method were applied equally to other unique episodes of the gospel.

Even if one grants that John’s gospel is based in the memory of an eyewitness, the problems of historical accuracy and creativity are not thereby lessened. Turning to the more systematic treatment of these questions by the Society of Biblical Literature project on John, Jesus and History, Crossley sees a definite tendency to make the arguments too general, leaving out as they do specific and critical details.

Seeing John’s figure of Jesus in such vague and generalized categories as that of an eschatological prophet, a wisdom-related teacher or even a Cynic Jesus, Crossley points out that describing Jesus with the help of such categories hardly makes that figure more useful for the question of historicity.

Taking up the project’s discussion of specific features of John’s gospel, he also makes the obvious, but, for his argument, important point that the uniqueness of John’s departures from the other gospels also does not make them more useful for such questions of historicity, however much they might enlarge the discussion.

Finally, he takes up the often used apologetic premise that theology does not hold historical inaccuracies implicit. However, the argument is in fact largely a straw one to Crossley, who sees the primary opposition to John’s historicity in relation rather to the later historical matrix of that theology. In closing his paper, Crossley sees no reason to challenge the consensus that John’s gospel brings little new to the discussion of historicity.

Unfortunately that third last paragraph is an editor’s attempt to fudge Crossley’s chapter to make it sound more relevant to the theme of the book than it really is. Crossley is not discussing “the question of historicity” per se but the question of what the “the historical Jesus” was like and the sources that must guide us to know that — historicity of Jesus is an unquestioned given. Crossley is always comparing the Synoptic Gospels with the Gospel of John to argue that they portray a more plausible account of the (never questioned) historical Jesus.

The assumption of the historicity of Jesus is at no point addressed in this chapter.

The chapter is typical Crossley — the lengthy socio-historical background to the scholarship, the opportunity to strike more blows on behalf of his “Mark was composed in the 40s” thesis, the effort to persuade readers that his many arguments (dot-points?) make a strong case of “cumulative weight”, and  the too briefly justified (and sometimes contradictory) assumptions pulling the strings of his arguments.

I made many marginal notes as I read this chapter (as I do with most of what I read) but have nothing new to add to arguments I have made often enough before about the methods, the fallacies and the assumptions of many New Testament scholars. Perhaps another day I will draw again on this chapter as a lever to present them once again from a fresh perspective. Maybe I’m just in a mood for a rest this evening.

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Neil Godfrey

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2 thoughts on “The Gospel of John as a Source for the Historical Jesus: ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ chapter 9”

  1. JW:
    Based on your summary Crossley has the common fault of trying to use Literary Criticism as a replacement for Source Criticism. He needs to do less writing and more reading.

    The more useful information here is what the User is SELECTING as evidence. The material is secondary. The following is exponentially more useful than anything you showed Crossley as saying:

    c. 50 Paul = No interest in Historical Witness. Either it did not exist, was not available or he did not want it. Source is Revelation. General agreement of dating.

    c. 100 “Mark” = There was Historical Witness but it was not a source of information. Source is Revelation about Historical Witness. Multiple anachronisms support this date.

    c. 150 “John” = There was Historical Witness and it was a source of information. Direct thematic reaction to Paul/”Mark”. P/M say belief in Jesus based on Faith, not historical witness/evidence. “John” takes Historical Witnesses of “Mark” and converts them to belief in Jesus based on historical witness/evidence. Justin Martyr, orthodox Christian (historical witness based), has never heard of “John” (has also exorcised Paul from the record) c. 145.


    1. You won’t convince Crossley of this since he dates the Gospel of Mark before Paul’s letters — and he does so on the argument that several stories of Jesus arguing with the Pharisees reflect typical Jewish religious arguments and assume a situation that existed before the issues facing Paul arose.

      One little detail I am reminded of in his chapter — you refer to the Gospel of Mark’s anachronisms. Crossley — like many of his peers — refers to the anachronisms in the Gospel of John as evidence of its unreliability. But no mention is made of the anachronisms riddling the Synoptics.

      On literary criticism, the reason I myself use it in this context is because it is a means of assessing the nature of our sources, and this brings us to an understanding of how they came to be composed and why. This is a first step essential for an historian before embarking on treating the contents of their narratives as sources of historical information. If “literary analysis” demonstrates that the contents of their narratives are based on sources that are something quite other than literal historical events, then it is an invalid exercise for an historian to use their narratives as sources for historical events.

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