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A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth

Often, people argue that the Gospel of John was not written by the Apostle John. In the past, some even suggested John was written as late as 160 A.D. However, the discovery of the John Rylands papyrus (P52 = Papyrus Ryl. Gr. 457) that contained a few verses from the Gospel of John and which is dated to around 125 A.D. pretty much ended arguments about dating it any later than around 100 A.D. But, of course, the dating of the Gospel is secondary to the Christian contention that it was written by the Apostle John or one of his immediate followers.

Recently, something was pointed out to me in the Gospel of John that adds to the evidence that it is historic. In J.P. Moreland's Scaling the Secular City, Dr. Moreland lists five marks of historicity in the Gospel materials: (1) the form of Jesus' sayings, (2) Other distinctive features in Jesus sayings, (3) the presence of irrelevant material, (4) the lack of relevant material, and (5) counter-productive features. While Moreland's category three (irrelevant material) deals more with the fact that the Gospels contain much material that would have been irrelevant to the growing Christian church and place it firmly in its early First Century context, it has a broader meaning. Specifically, the Gospels contain some incidental details that do not seem to be particularly important to the narratives that suggest that the latter are historic. For example, John 8:8 describes how Jesus bent down to write in the dirt during the attempted stoning of the prostitute. This detail is unimportant to the account, and many have noted that its inclusion suggests that it is part of the narrative because that's exactly what Jesus did. This "writing in the dirt" is one of the more noted examples of incidental details in the Gospel accounts which argue for their historicity. What I was shown, and am about to relate, would fit in most nicely with category three (irrelevant material), but is really more of an incidental detail like the "writing in the dirt" of John 8:8 which simply inserts a bit of human element into the narrative.

In John 20: 2-8, John (who orthodox Christianity largely agrees is the "beloved disciple" mentioned repeatedly throughout the Gospel) visits the empty tomb with Peter. What is interesting is how the author describes the trip to the empty tomb. I set forth the account here from the NASB with the verses that I find important for purposes of this post highlighted.

So [Mary Magdalene] ran and came to Simon Peter and to the other disciple whom Jesus loved, and said to them, "They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid Him." So Peter and the other disciple went forth, and they were going to the tomb. The two were running together; and the other disciple ran ahead faster than Peter and came to the tomb first; and stooping and looking in, he saw the linen wrappings lying there; but he did not go in. And so Simon Peter also came, following him, and entered the tomb; and he saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the face-cloth which had been on His head, not lying with the linen wrappings, but rolled up in a place by itself. So the other disciple who had first come to the tomb then also entered, and he saw and believed.

Note that John mentions on three occasions that he beat Peter to the tomb. It first notes that John ran faster than Peter and beat him to the tomb, then notes that Peter was following John, and finally that John had come to the tomb first. Now, what theological signficance is played out by highlighting on three occasions that John beat Peter to the tomb? None, that I can discern. Some commentators suggest that John had more youthful exhuberance than Peter or that his greater love for Jesus propelled him to the tomb faster than Peter, but to mention it three times?

It seems to me that this is an incidental detail surrounding the arrival of John and Peter at the tomb that has an air of authenticity about it. To put it mildly -- John is proud of the fact that he could outrun Peter and makes sure to mention it repeatedly. John outran Peter and wants everyone to know it. So, not only is the detail incidental, it is evidence that John himself authored the Gospel that bears his name because there is no other reason to include this bit of pride into the account.

Now, before anyone says, "That's it? You're arguing that the Gospel of John was written by the Apostle John on that basis?" No, I am not saying that I am arguing that the Apostle John wrote the Gospel of John on that basis alone. What I am saying is that this is an additional small bit of evidence that adds to the other evidence (external and internal) that the Gospel of John was written by the Apostle John. The question that I have for anyone who doubts that authorship by the Apostle John is this: why is the results of the race between Peter and John included? What theological purpose did it serve? How is this not an incidental detail that simply shows that the author was relating what really happened? I think this adds to the credibility of the orthodox view that the Apostle John did in fact author the Gospel that bears his name.

6 comments:

Of course, the adulteress pericope is not typically recognized anymore as being original to GosJohn... (thought I might better bring that up before an opponent scored easy points off it {wry grimace})

But I agree, the doodling in the dirt is one of those details that looks like historical verisimilitude. The terse dialogue looks right, too; and (though opinions differ on this) how Jesus treats the situation at least matches up, I think, with the sort of things found in the canonicals. The main sticking points for historicity (beyond the question of originality to GosJohn, which seems pretty settled as 'not'), are its lack of attestation in surviving records before a certain point (even in commentaries), and how plausible the behaviors of the priests are supposed to be. (_Lots_ of dispute on that.)

Anyway, the point being: you may have ironically testified to how good a piece of _non_-historical data looks.


As to the racing to the tomb--myself, I think it looks even _better_ than historical. I think it synchs up with GosMark, and we're looking at further adventures of the 'young man' at the tomb that morning. (Meaning the "beloved disciple" _is_ probably named John, but _not_ bar Zebedee... {ggg!}) The author is _very_ good at leaving little hints around about synching up with the Synoptics in various places, including in that particular pericope on another topic (and in regard to another Gospel); which is one of my favorite 'historical earmarks', too.

Namely, what Mary says when she first arrives at where Peter is staying: she has drawn the obvious and natural (and naturalistic {g!}) first conclusion: "They've taken his body and we don't know they've laid him!" ('we' don't know? The Evangelist didn't mention anyone else with the Magdalene there, did he? But the Matthean author does...!)

Jason,

With respect to the story of the adulteress not being part of the original Gospel, I certainly agree that many people think that it is not part of the earliest copies of John. However, it is my understanding that many of those same people would agree that it is still authored by the same person as the Gospel of John, and that it was part of that author's teachings that was added later on.

Other than that brief qualification, good thoughts. I always enjoy your takes.

Actually, I've read (though I didn't mention it) that part of the dispute concerning the adulteress pericope, is that the language style is more like something in GosLuke than GosJohn (which may explain why in one extant copy of GosLuke the pericope can be found inserted after 21:38.)

Metzger, in his notations concerning the evaluations of the UBS committee, reports "that the style and vocabulary of the pericope differ noticeably from the rest of the Fourth Gospel (see any critical commentary)"; although he also allows that "[o]ccasionally an attempt is made to support the Johannine authorship of the pericope by appealing to linguistic and literary considerations".

Edersheim, in his _Life and Times_, adds, "From first to last it is utterly un-Jewish. Accordingly, unbiassed [sic] critics who are conversant either with Jewish legal procedure, or with the habits and views of the people at the time, would feel obliged to reject it [in its present form at least], even if the external evidence had been as strong in its favour as it is [instead] for its rejection." This is especially notable, insofar as Edersheim (and others) also demonstrate that the author of GosJohn was not only reasonably well conversant in pre-70 Jewish procedure and ideas (insofar as these can be reconstructed from sources external to the canon), but also that he was either cognizant of, or at the least very good at reporting, extremely subtle inter-rabbinic issues--ones that would, and do, commonly fly past Gentile readers (such as ourselves) completely unnoticed, but which fit into his narrative extremely well once recognized and reckoned into his account.

So--taken altogether, and still agreeing with most commentators (conservative _and_ liberal, though sometimes for differing reasons {g}) that the pericope nevertheless seems based on an actual occurence with Jesus somehow (aside from the fact that I simply very much _like_ the story, and can even find places to put it into a harmonization, in line with suggesting this woman is the same person as spoken of in other areas of the Gospel, when the extant data is put together)--even so, I have to concur that there are serious arguments not only against its originality to GosJohn, but also to it being part of Johannine tradition per se at all (at least in the only form we have of it, generally speaking.)

Which is kind of annoying. {s}

Fwiw, though, I _can_ imagine a scenario in which this occurs very early in the ministry, after Jesus has taken advantage of an invitation to dine by members of the rabbinic fraternity, to criticize their practices; the point being to test whether _Jesus_ will go outside the norm of judgment protocol (not that they themselves were intending to do it). In this scenario, my suggestion would be that the apparent un-Jewishness is intentional on the part of the characters as part of the test/trap they're setting for Jesus.

But then, I'm an author, whose job (or hobby anyway) is to help other authors come up with ways to integrate their story elements. In this case, I can only make an educated guess at best, not much different from fictional extrapolation. {shrug}

So the writing in the ground is an 'irrelevant' detail?

What exactly would be a relevant detail? The names of Jesus parents, the baptism by John, the birth in Bethlehem, walking on water?

Presumably these would count as relevant details.

Yes, at least three of those would count as relevant details, because they have nominal importance to the story, including to its meaning.

The names of Jesus parents may admittedly be considered irrelevant insofar as the story itself goes. (The authors could have just left them unnamed for whatever reason and referred to them by their relationship instead. I seem to recall that the author of GosJohn does precisely this in regard to Mary; he _certainly_ does it in regard to the names of the sons of Zebedee.) On the other hand, to the extent that a person cares about Jesus as a person, the names of His family may be considered legitimately relevant in an external fashion. Even then, I think that they could be properly classed as incidental, because their inclusion doesn't add internal meaning to the story.


The writing on the ground, on the other hand, may be mysterious and interesting, and thus relevant (though inscrutable) to the external meaning of a reader--obviously it has some relevance for historicity, according to the judgment of some people, precisely by being _ir_-relevant to the meaning of the story internally. (This is also the point to fictional verisimilitude.) But I think even the greatest literary critic living or dead would be challenged to find a relevance for the dirt-drawing in relation to the story _itself_. It comes out of plot-nowhere, it overtly leads to plot-nothing. Neither the author nor any character comments on it or its meaning, nothing in the resolution of the story overtly ties to it, and the final remaining link of its meaning to the reader is entirely obscured, because we don't even know what Jesus was 'egraphing' in the dirt.


Now, I and any number of people can sit around imagining what was written on the ground, based on internal story details (or even not, if we wish). But that's entirely an exercise of interest on our part. Consequently, yes the writing on the ground is almost as irrelevant as any detail in a story could be. (Its mysterious oddity is the only thing that saves it from being completely trivial as a story detail.)


And I confess to having some difficulty believing that a dedicated anti-supernaturalist would consider some otherwise unreported scribbling on the ground to have remotely the same level of relevance, internally or externally, as the detail of Jesus walking on the water.

Jason,

I couldn't have said it as well. Thanks.

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