Monday, April 21, 2008

The Johannine Question by Martin Hengel

I recently finished reading Richard Bauckham's The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple. Throughout, he referred to Martin Hengel's book, The Johannine Question, so I thought I should give it a read. Excellent decision on my part, if I do say so. Hengel is arguably the premier scholar of our time when it comes to Second Temple Judaism and Christian origins, and his work on the authorship/background of John is excellent.

There are two major opinions with regard to the authorship of the Fourth Gospel. The conservative position, held by Carson, Keener, Kostenberger, and others, is that John the son of Zebedee (or someone close to him) wrote/edited the gospel. The more progressive position, held by (the deceased) Raymond Brown and others, is that the author(s) are unknown and that the Fourth Gospel and Epistles of John tell us more about a "Johannine" community than they do about Jesus. There are, of course, mediating positions, but these two extremes are the most common views.

Hengel offers another solution to the question, namely that "John the elder," a mysterious figure mentioned by Papias (as quoted by Eusebius) wrote the Gospel and that over time he was confused with the more prominent John the son of Zebedee. According to Hengel, John the elder was a young man during the ministry of Jesus, taught in Ephesus after the resurrection, wrote the Fourth Gospel, I, II, and III John (and perhaps Revelation), and was one of the last eyewitnesses to pass away (probably at an old age). Bauckham follows this theory and adds that perhaps John the elder was a disciple of John the son of Zebedee, further adding to the historical confusion.

In my opinion, the best part of Hengel's book is his evaluation of the more "liberal" views that the Fourth Gospel is a cut-and-paste collection of anecdotes put together by a series of redactors over a long period of time. Hengel shows that this is extremely unlikely. However, I wish he had interacted more with the more conservative position. The only discussion that I saw in the book was an allusion in a footnote to a tradition that John the son of Zebedee was martyred at a young age (before the Fourth Gospel could have been written) and a reference to a 1962 JBL article written by P. Parker.

I wasn't convinced by Hengel's arguments that "John the elder" wrote the Gospel. It seems to me that if John was prominant enough in the church to have produced 4 or 5 books of the New Testament canon, more steps would have been taken to distinguish him from John the son of Zebedee. The early church went to great lengths to distinguish between James the brother of Jesus and James the son of Zebedee, and between the numerous guys named "Judas." It seems odd that this guy John the elder would fall off of the historical map. (Note also the distinction in the Synoptics between John the Baptist and John the son of Zebedee. If it weren't for the latter John, perhaps John the Baptist would just be known as "John.")

After reading The Community of the Beloved Disciple by Raymond Brown, Life in Abundance: Studies in John's Gospel in Tribute to Raymond Brown edited by John R. Donahue, The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple by Richard Bauckham, and The Johannine Question by Martin Hengel, I am pretty convinced that there is good reason to attribute the Fourth Gospel to John the son of Zebedee.


Nathan P. Gilmour said...

I tend to be of the Raymond Brown camp, but I suppose that's mainly because the text of John itself never names the disciple-whom-Jesus-loved. Perhaps that's a bit of simple-minded biblicism, but I suppose I'm no less susceptible to that than an English teacher might be.

Matt said...

Thanks for the post! As an English professor you bring a unique skill set to the table in the Johannine discussion.

If you have an interest in this area, I would be curious to hear your take on the role of the beloved disciple in the narrative.

I like Richard Bauckham's idea that he is "the ideal witness." He reclines next to Jesus at the last supper, he is the only disciple at the cross, he seems to understand the significance of the empty tomb before Peter, and he recognizes the risen Lord before Peter. The author seems to present the beloved disciple as witness to all of the significant events in Jesus' life. Thus, his tesimony is reliable.

Your thoughts? What role do you think he plays in the narrative?

Anonymous said...

Dear Matt the English teacher?

This is Dec. 28. 2012, some 4 years after your post and the two oomments.

I have only a few minutes, but would like to thank you for your comments on Bauckham and Hengel.

Just checked Nelson's Concordance a year or so ago,and found that the brothers Zebedee are always mentioned in tandem throughout the Synoptics, with the exception of only 2 sayings. John's Gospel never mentions the BD along with another disciple except when he is mentioned with Peter, his rival.

I would agree with you that it is rather unlikely that John the Presbyter is the BD, but it seems to me, based on my reading of chapter 21 on April 17, 2010 that the real BD is Nathaniel! I realized then that the unnamed disciples of chaps. 1 and 21 are simply disciples whose name Nathaniel has forgotten when he wrote the Gospel! He is a Jewish person who may have studied Talmud, i.e. fig tree, Charlesworth, but he was more of a prophet like the Baptist than a scholar. He did not plan out the entire Gospel before he wrote it, but penned it spontaneously trying to remember the major episodes of Jesus's life, thus the discrepancies etc.

Robert Rhea The Johannine Son of Man, Oscar Cullmann's ATHANT series, Zuerich, 1990, written for J. L Martyn and R. E. Brown.