Gospel of Glory: Major themes in Johannine theology
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THE difference in style and content between St John’s Gospel and the other three has been recognised since Antiquity. For the greater part of the Church’s history, it caused no problem, but was seen rather as an enrichment of our knowledge of Jesus; indeed, its explicit claim to contain eyewitness testimony gave the Fourth Gospel particular authority, and it has been the preferred source for “lives” of Jesus until quite recent times.
But since the advent of critical study the scene has shifted dramatically. At one extreme, the Gospel is now seen as the product of a distinctive community that reflected on the existing Jesus tradition and reworked it to produce an entirely different, if not actually heretical, version of Christianity. At the other, more conservative scholars have found reason to believe that John’s Gospel may preserve information about Jesus quite independent of the other Gospels and of considerable historical value.
Among the latter, Richard Bauckham, a scholar of considerable distinction and author of persuasive books arguing for a basis in eyewitness accounts behind all the canonical Gospels, has mounted a strong case that John’s Gospel is the work of “a personal disciple of Jesus, though not one of the Twelve, who has depicted himself as ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’”.
The genre of the Gospel (he argues) is that of a biography of a person who has recently died and which has to gain credibility by claiming eyewitness evidence; hence this disciple’s insistence on his own presence at certain moments in the narrative. During the half-century that followed the resurrection, this disciple will have reflected on the meaning of the life, work, and teaching of Jesus, just as (Bauckham assumes) the other Evangelists did, but independently of them, and then narrated them in a different idiom and a different conceptual framework.
Bauckham set this out in a book published in 2007, The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple. This new collection of essays explores some themes in the Gospel in the light of his reconstruction. Some, such as his discussion of “glory”, would stand as a thorough analysis of Johannine language, whatever view is taken of authorship or purpose. Others, however, such as those on “Individualism” or “Sacraments?” (both quotation marks and question mark stand in the chapter headings, indicating scepticism about some views that have been prominent in the recent past) are more directly addressed to themes that are usually thought to reveal a gulf between John’s treatment of the Jesus tradition and that of the other Gospels. This gulf, he argues, is often more apparent than real.
All the essays originated in lectures or seminar papers, and are inevitably somewhat technical. But they make a strong case that the original readership of the Gospel was Christians who already knew St Mark’s Gospel but were open to reading a selection of the same material (a much smaller number of miracles, for example) in a different, more “Johannine”, way.
If Bauckham occasionally seems to overstate the case — taking the “tenth hour” of 1.39, for example, as eyewitness testimony: who would have remembered the exact time in a world without clocks and watches? — this is no more than a reminder that very different views are still held among scholars about the historical status and theological significance of a Gospel that is strikingly different from the others and yet has always been held by the Church to hold an essential and authoritative place among the four.
Canon Anthony Harvey is a former Sub-Dean of Westminster Abbey.