Once More: The Fictions of the Beloved Disciple and Johannine Community

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by Neil Godfrey

Free for all who are interested: Sage publishers have made one of their recently published articles open access:

Méndez, H. (2020). “Did the Johannine Community Exist?” Journal for the Study of the New Testament, 42(3), 350–374.


Speaking of devils, the same themes of false (literary) communities and false witnesses (Beloved Disciple) have been addressed very recently on this blog:

Only “yesterday” we spoke of Nanine Charbonnel’s and Philip Davies’ points about ideal “New Israel” types of communities:

Similarly with the Dead Sea Scrolls. Many are written as pseudepigraphs, in the names of the patriarchs, or of the prophets. They appear to be a new type of literature at variance from what we are familiar with in the Old Testament collection. The scrolls indicate the presence of a particular community and a leader, the Teacher of Righteousness. Many assume both of these to be a literal group and a historical leader. Yet we have no way of proving either thought. As the “community” in the scrolls in fact an ideal community, a “new Israel”? (Charbonnel does not make the specific connection with Philip Davies but the same possibility can be seen underlying some of his discussion of the meaning of “Israel” — see What do we mean by Israel?) Are we reading a literary creation of a visionary utopia rather than a historical account of an actual group of persons?

A Midrashic Hypothesis for the Gospels

And last month we looked at David Litwa’s case for the Beloved Disciple in the Gospel of John being a literary fiction:

Litwa notes a huge problem facing the author of the fourth gospel. He was introducing radically new material into the life of Jesus. Believers were familiar with the Gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke, so how to get away with changing the temple cleansing episode from the end to the beginning of the gospel, and how to introduce the raising of Lazarus, with any chance that they would be accepted?

The solution: Introduce a character who was more mature spiritually than any other disciple, the closest favourite of Jesus, one so beloved that his credibility could not be doubted.

Depicting the trustworthiness of this character is vital, for this disciple is also presented as a key source for the fourth gospel itself and therefore an authority for its distinctive presentation of Jesus’s identity”. . . .

We do not need to speculate about the identity of the Beloved Disciple to realize his function: to validate the fourth gospel’s vivid and alternative presentation of Jesus.

(Litwa, 197)

Review, part 15. Eyewitnesses and the Beloved Disciple (Litwa: How the Gospels Became History)

So it seems like the seasonal time to draw attention to Hugo Méndez’s article. Candida Moss has already brought it to the attention of a vastly wider audience through the Daily Beast with Everyone’s Favorite Gospel is a Forgery.

One point I found particularly interesting in the Méndez article was the discussion of criteria for identifying literary relationships. “If only”, I thought. If only we applied the same principles to the Testimonium Flavianum, that passage in Josephus that discusses Jesus. Yes, some words in that passage are “Josephan” but it does not follow that the passage itself or some part of it was originally by Josephus. But that’s another story.

If you are too pressed for time to read the entire article here are a few sections that I saw as highlights:

External controls — not forgotten

there is no external evidence that can act as a control on imaginative reconstruction. (Bauckham 2007:13-14) (p. 351)

An independent control is a fundamental principle of historical inquiry. In the same paragraph Bauckham seems to imply (correct me if I have misinterpreted him) that it does not apply to historical Jesus studies because criteria or authenticity and “critical methodological reflection” make up for its absence. But it is heartening whenever one does see the principle surface in biblical studies.

The existence of a distinctive Johannine community of Christians has been founded on a combination of the common defining features of the Gospel of John and the three Johannine epistles. The epistles even take readers into a world of visiting elders and isolated persons and groups in a sea of heresy. But:

features of the epistles that would seem to ‘demand’ the existence of such a community – their similarities to the gospel and their references to a network of churches – can instead be explained by two devices of pseudepigraphal writing: imitation of style and verisimilitude.

As an “independent control” for his analysis Méndez compares the way scholars treat the deutero-Paulines and their “obvious” attempts to create fictional communities:

Similarly, the deutero-Paulines presuppose concrete situations and address specific communities or individuals (e.g., the Colossians, Timothy). Since these letters ‘were probably not sent … as part of a continuing relationship of direct and indirect communication’ (Lieu 2014: 129), however, recent studies caution against incorporating these details into historical reconstructions. The same details are more likely verisimilitudes – literary fictions mimicking features of Paul’s genuine correspondence:

[O]n the assumption of pseudonymity, a pseudepigrapher poses as the apostle Paul in order to write a letter to the Colossians, who, in turn, are fictional addressees masking an unknown actual group of recipients, about a situation which may well prove to be as much a construct as the author (Paul) and the recipients (the Colossians) … [one must] take into account the pseudepigraphal attempt to achieve a ‘reality effect’ by employing tropes and concerns from authentic Pauline letters to lend the forged writing an air of verisimilitude (Lincicum 2017: 172).

(p. 352 f)

Similarly for the imagined author of the Johannine epistles (and gospel) and the related community:

This figure was invented by the author of John as an authenticating device for his gospel and was later coopted by the author(s) of the epistles in support of other agendas.6 In this case, the narrative world built around that figure – a community of house-churches linked by emissaries – should be seen for what it is: a literary invention. We have no external evidence for the network envisioned by the epistles because no such network existed. (p. 353)

Another “independent control” Méndez points out:

If these texts [Gospels of Matthew and Mark] show signs of literary contact, their similarities would neither require nor demonstrate the existence of a Johannine community. Scholars do not insist that Mark and Matthew were written within a single community; literary borrowing provides a sufficient explanation for their overlap. (p. 354)


Then we have a most significant detail that should be applied across the board in any discussion of intertextuality, mimesis, forgery, pseudepigrapha, literary influence. . . .

The problem with this objection is that ‘the absence of agreement … says nothing about the presence of agreement’ when assessing literary relationships (Goodacre 2012: 36). A literary relationship exists between texts whether one is 5% derivative from the other or 95% derivative. Indeed, ‘only one direct-connect parallel is required to demonstrate literary dependence between two documents’ (Zamfir and Verheyden 2016: 260). This is especially true since plagiarists and imitators are known to incorporate language selectively and to rework whatever language they do choose to incorporate at different rates.12 In short, the only positive evidence one can offer against literary dependence is the absence of similarity – not the presence of differences. (p. 355)

Midrash and direction of borrowing

We’ve also been talking lately about the meaning of midrash and its application to the gospels so it is of further interest to read in the same article:

Consider the first site of overlap between John and 1 John: their opening lines. The gospel has strong, independent motivations for using the phrase ἐν ἀρχῇ in its first clause. The expression is one of several parallels to LXX Gen. 1 in the prologue – a passage Boyarin (2001: 243-84) characterizes as a midrash on the creation account. The term ἀρχή also appears in the first clause of Mark – a generic template for John, with which the text’s author was likely familiar: ‘the beginning [ἀρχὴ] of the gospel of Jesus Christ’ (1.1). (358)

(That passage is another illustration of how to determine the direction of borrowing.)

The power of the anonymous witness 

Méndez delivers a fascinating discussion of the likely reasons for the various artifices in the Johannine gospel and epistles.

One little detail he brings out is the contrast between “John’s” message of eternal life being available now in contrast to the Gospel of Mark’s’ teaching that it is a future hope. Once again I start to wonder about the Gospel of John’s avoidance of apocalyptic themes associated with the Temple destruction. What did the “coming of the kingdom” mean to the first readers of Mark’s gospel?

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Neil Godfrey

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