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Tracing a theme through John

by
15 August 2014

Henry Wansbrough is unconvinced by a temple argument

King of the Jews: Temple theology in John's Gospel
Margaret Barker
SPCK £50
(978-0-281-06967-5)
Church Times Bookshop £45 (Use code CT640 )

MARGARET BARKER is a distinguished independent scholar, a former President of the Society for Old Testament Study, and the recipient of a Lambeth doctorate. Her speciality is temple theology, and her researches have certainly made important contributions to the understanding of the beginnings of Christian liturgy.

Her theme in this book is the difference between first-temple and second-temple theology. She maintains that the former was dominated by the figure of the priest-king Melchizedek, and the latter by the figure of Moses, and that the Johannine Jesus is an attempt to restore the rightful balance. The book consists of two parts. The first, preparatory part has short chapters on the Jews in John, and on the figure of Moses, followed by a long chapter on the figure of the king in the New Testament. The second part applies the theme, chapter by chapter, to the Gospel according to John.

The learning displayed and the comprehensive knowledge of Jewish, Christian, and Gnostic texts of the first centuries of Christianity is staggering, but the trouble is that all this learning swirls around in a way that makes it difficult for the reader to keep feet on the ground. Many points and assertions are supported merely by reference to the author's previous publications, making it difficult to control their solidity (e.g. the interpretation of the seven trumpets of Revelation as referring to different periods of Roman rule in Palestine). Particularly vulnerable is the claim that "another framework of John's Gospel is the Book of Revelation" - a statement that required considerable expansion.

One principal difficulty is that this wide range of literature is treated as a single body without regard for the dates. So, on page 3, Jesus's community is said to have used the words of the Didache (composed at the end of the first century). On page 289, the quotation of 1 Enoch in the Letter of Barnabas shows "that it was known and used by the early Christians, and so almost certainly by Jesus"; there are two large jumps here.

There are two large jumps also when it is asserted that Nicodemus was in the Temple when Jesus drove out the traders at Passover (pages 12-13); and further massive leaps when the man born blind is said to claim to have become "one of the sons of God, an angel who bore the Name and so was part of its presence", simply because he identifies himself in John 9.9 by the phrase that can be read as the divine name as well as the simpler and more apposite "That is me" or "I am the one."

Confidence is not inspired by the statement that both the Pool of Bethesda and the Pool of Siloam, which feature so largely in John's account of the ministry of Jesus in Jerusalem, are outside the city of Jerusalem (page 289); both are within the city.

Vast as is Barker's knowledge of early Christianity and its contemporary Jewish literature, her use of this literature would have been more secure had it included preliminary discussion of two problems that are normally considered crucial in Johannine studies, and which have been enormously disputed: the process of composition of the Gospel, and the identity of "the Jews" in John. The snippets of discussion on this latter problem on pages 2-3 and pages 23-33 are entirely inadequate, and buckle under the weight later laid upon them.
 

Fr Henry Wansbrough OSB is a monk of Ampleforth, emeritus Master of St Benet's Hall, Oxford, and a member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission.

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