Genre of the Gospel of John: Chronology (Part 4)

This is the fourth installment of my series exploring the issue of the genre of the Gospel of John. My first post on John's genre explored the expressed authorial intent and audience reception. The intent to impart "truth" and eyewitness accounts pointed to the genre of ancient biography or historiography. The second post dealt with John's subject matter, which focused on the life and significance of Jesus, and concluded that this strongly pointed towards the genre of ancient biography. In the third post, I concluded that the prologue of the Gospel of John reinforces the analysis pointing towards the genre of ancient biography, both in its content and as a literary device.

This post will analyze the chronological framework and use of time in the Gospel of John as a genre indicator. On the face of it, the Gospel of John does not seem to differ all that much from the other Gospels in its chronological framework. They narrate the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, up through his death and resurrection. The Gospel of John, however, provides more precise dating of the chronology than the other Gospels (though Luke, as with other ancient historiography, pinpoints his narrative in the broader chronology of the Roman Empire). John refers to a number of chronological pinpoints, such as Jewish festivals and specific references to numbers of days related to events in the narrative.

The chronological indications are primarily the named Jewish festivals: three Passovers (2:13; 6:4; 12:55) and the feats of Tabernacles (7:2) and Hanaukkah (10:22) between the second and third Passovers. In additional, there are the two weeks of counted days, one at the outset of Jesus’ story (the week of his manifestation: 1:19-2:11), the other the last week of his story (the week of his glorification: 12:1-20:25). Since a large part of the action takes place either at named temple festivals or in strict relation to the last of them, a large part of the Gospel’s whole narrative is very precisely dated.
Bauckham, The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple, at 100.

John also “ties the whole sequence of precise dates from the first Passover onward to an absolute dating, when ‘the Jews’ at the first Passover say, ‘This temple has been under construction for forty-six years.’ (2:20). The starting date may be obscure to us, but it was evidently not to the author. There seems to be no explanation of the precise figure here (forty-six years) other than a claim, at least, to precise chronology.” Bauckham, op. cit., page 100. Only the Gospel of Luke has any comparable interest in pinpointing its narrative by time references.

This is reminiscent of ancient historiography, which -- as Bauckham quotes Lucian as advising -- should "follow a chronological arrangement as far as he can." (Ibid., page 100 (De Historica Conscribenda, 101)). Such a chronological framework, however, was not typical of biographies.

Through the body of each Synoptic Gospel is not difficult for readers to realize that the apparent chronological sequence is a narrative convention covering a frequently topical, rather than chronological, ordering of material. It was not uncommon for ancient biographies to deploy chronology only at their beginning and end, arranging the interesting material topically and not always with any clear principle. This was almost the rule for lives of philosophers and artists.... It is surely the case that the prevalence of precise chronology in the Gospel of John would have made it look, to competent contemporary readers, more like historiography than the Synoptics.
Bauckham, op. cit., page 101.

Now that we have addressed ancient historiography and biographies, what about ancient novels? They certainly follow a sequence of events, but do they have a comparable focus on chronology and dating their events as we find in the Gospel of John? It appears that ancient novels do not and are very different than what we find in the Gospel of John.
One important element of historical writing, however, is conspicuously missing from the novels: dating. None of the extant novels specifies a particular year or other chronological reference point situating their narratives in the historical timeline. Although readers can extrapolate a rough idea of a given’s novel’s temporal situation, the novels essentially float in time, untethered to particular historical events.
Lawrence Kim, “Time,” in The Oxford Companion to the Greek and Roman Novel, ed. Tim Whitmarsh, page 147. Indeed, Kim notes the “Greek novelists’ aversion to mentioning their historical present.” Ibid., page 148. Time is an issue to the novelist in a sense, but it is what Kim describes as "adventure time." References to months, seasons, and years are rare. Ibid. “The days and nights are rarely broken down into smaller units of time; the hour in its durational usage (‘for an hour’) appears only in Petronius ... and temporal expressions such as ‘at mid-day’ ... or ‘around the first watch of the night’ ... are only occasionally employed.” Ibid. In adventure time, the focus is on the story and its purposes rather than specific dates, times, or even time periods. "Any connection with specific events, practices or places would restrict the power of chance essential to the adventure time.” Ibid., page 153.

The Gospel of John's chronological framework points more towards historiography than biography and ancient novel. Until this point in the series, the genre indicators have weighed heavily in favor of ancient biography, with some indicators also being consistent with ancient historiography. The chronological framework of John is the first indicator that so strongly indicates ancient historiography. Nevertheless, the cluster of indicators favors ancient biography with indications of ancient historiography. This should come as no surprise, as ancient biographies could be on a sliding scale with one end bending more into historiography.


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