Monday, April 7, 2008

The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple by Richard Bauckham

I just finished reading The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple: Narrative, History, and Theology in the Gospel of John by Richard Bauckham. Great book. I like Richard Bauckham because he is not afraid to think outside of the scholarly concensus. He offers fresh looks at old issues and makes you walk away thinking, "Now I don't know what I believe."

Case in point, The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple pretty much deconstructs the scholarly concensus on reading the Gospel of John. I just finished reading two books based on Raymond Brown's interpretation of John. Raymond Brown's two volumes on John in the Anchor Bible Commentary, followed by his volume on the Epistles of John in the same series and his book, The Community of the Beloved Disciple, revolutionized the way scholars read John. Bauckham's book refutes a lot of the conclusions drawn by Brown and others.

In an essay titled "The Gospel of John: The Legacy of Raymond E. Brown and Beyond" (included in Life in Abundance: Studies of John's Gospel in Tribute to Raymond E. Brown) Francis Maloney says that the major issues in current Johannine theology are: (1) the religious environment forming the background of the Gospel, (2) the Johannine community, (3) the possibility of redaction criticism of the Gospel, (4) Johannine christology and the historical Jesus, (5) creativity in John, (6) canonical criticism of the Gospel, (7) characterization, (8) symbolism, (9) (postmodern) hermeneutics and (10) interaction with a wider range of scholarship. Bauckham deals with the first 8 of these directly. He argues that the closest literary genre to the Gospels is the ancient bios, roughly similar (yet with important differenences) to the modern biography. He adds that a "two-level" reading of John is methodologically suspect because there exists in history no literary genre dedicated to that sort of function. Further, he says that there is no historical evidence for a sectarian "Johannine community," and that the evidence from the Gospel itself suggests that it was intended to be read by a wide audience. Finally, he argues that "the beloved disciple" is not presented as an ideal disciple, but as an ideal eye-witness, strenthening the Gospel's claim to be real history. (Baukham also deals with other issues in addition to these.)

The major strength of Baukham's book is that it restores credibility to the idea that John contains real history. As I prepare for my upcoming sermon series on John, I am still going to use Raymond Brown's commentary (and probably those of Francis Maloney, Craig Keener, and D.A. Carson), but I will be more aware of some of its shortcomings. Brown had some revolutionary ideas, many of which have been validated by further research, but some of which have been shown to be questionable. I appreciate the red flags raised by Richard Bauckham.

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