Critical Scholarship of John

Critical Scholarship of John

Criticism of John

James D. G. Dunn, Christianity in the Making, Volume 1, Jesus Remembered, Paperback Edition, 2019

In 1847 F. C. Baur produced a powerful case for his conclusion that the Fourth Gospel was never intended to be ‘a strictly historical Gospel’. Given the strength of Baur’s critique, the inevitable conclusion could hardly be avoided: John’s Gospel is determined much more by John’s own theological than by historical concerns. Consequently it cannot be regarded as a good source for the life of Jesus. The conclusion by no means became established straight away. But for those at the forefront of the ‘quest of the historical Jesus’ the die had been cast. The differences between John and the others, which had previously been glossed over, could no longer be ignored. It was no longer possible to treat all four Gospels on the same level. If the first three Gospels were historical, albeit in qualified measure, then such were these differences that John’s Gospel could no longer be regarded as historical. Over the next hundred years the character of John’s Gospel as a theological, rather than a historical document, became more and more axiomatic for NT scholarship. (Pages 40-41)

“Few scholars would regard John as a source for information regarding Jesus life and ministry in any degree comparable to the Synoptics. It is worth noting briefly the factors which have been considered of enduring significance on this point. One is the very different picture of Jesus ministry, both in the order and significance of events (particularly the cleansing of the temple and the raising of Lazarus) and the location of Jesus ministry (predominantly Jerusalem rather than Galilee). Another is the striking difference in Jesus style of speaking (much more discursive and theological, in contrast to the aphoristic and parabolic style of the Synoptics). As Strauss had already pointed out, this style is consistent, whether Jesus speaks to Nicodemus, or to the widow at the well, or to his disciples, and very similar to the style of the Baptist, as indeed of 1 John. The inference is inescapable that the style is that of the Evangelist rather than that of Jesus. Probably most important of all, in the Synoptics Jesus’ principal theme is the Kingdom of God and he rarely speaks of himself, whereas in John the Kingdom hardly features and the discourses are largely vehicles for expressing Jesus’ self-consciousness and self-proclamation. Had the striking ‘ I am’ self-assertions of John been remembered as spoken by Jesus, how could any evangelists have ignored them so completely as the gospels do? On the whole then, the position is unchanged: John’s gospel cannot be regarded as a source for the life and the teaching of Jesus of the same order as the Synoptics… We shall certainly want to call upon John’s gospel as a source, but mostly as a secondary source to supplement or corroborate the testimony of the Synoptic tradition.” (Page 165-167)

F. F. Bruce. The Canon of Scripture. Kindle Edition.

Of the four gospels, John’s took longer to win universal acceptance among catholic Christians than the others because (almost from its first publication) some gnostic schools treated it as though it supported their positions. The earliest known quotation from John comes in the gnostic writer Basilides (c 130); the earliest known commentary on John was written by the gnostic Heracleon (c 180).

V. H. Stanton, The Gospels as Historical Documents, Part III, The Forth Gospel, 1911, p. 209

“The difference between the Synoptic representation of the person and the Ministry of Jesus and that in the Fourth Gospel is such that we are compelled to ask whether we can use them both. To many critics… they give their preference to the Synoptics. Although they do not by any means regard them as fully trustworthy, they hold them to be so by comparison with the fourth evangelist. It is held that a presumption in favor of the Synoptic accounts is raised by their greater naturalness and lifelikeness, and the absence of the appearance of any such special doctrinal purpose as there is in the case of the Fourth Gospel, by which their character as narrators might be impaired. And it is held also that the result of a detailed comparison is to demonstrate their superiority to such an extent and in so many instances that, even where the best case can be made out for the Fourth Gospel, it is most probable that the others are in the right.” 

C. H. Dodd, The Authority of the Bible, Second Harper Tourchbook Edition, 1962 p. 215

“It is therefore worth while to exercise the most strenuous historical criticism in seeking to recover the earliest and most trustworthy forms of the Gospel tradition. A century of such criticism has not been without result. We may now say with confidence that for strictly historical material, with the minimum of subjective interpretation, we must not go to the Fourth Gospel. Its religious value stands beyond challenge, and it is the more fully appreciated when its contribution to our knowledge of the bare facts of the life of Jesus becomes a secondary interest. This is not to say that it makes no such contribution. But it is to the Synoptic Gospels that we must go if we which to recover the oldest and purest tradition of the facts. These Gospels coincide, overlap, diverge, confirm and contradict one another in a way that is at first simply perplexing. But out of these curious interrelations of the three it has been possible to deduce a gradually increasing mass of probable conclusions about the earlier sources upon which they rest.”

C. K. Barrett, The Gospel According to St. John, 2nd ed., London: SPCK, 1978: p.141

It is evident that it was not John’s intention to write a work of scientific history… John’s interests wore theological rather than chronological… He did not hesitate to repress, revise, rewrite, or rearrange.