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John and Philosophy

John and Philosophy

John and Philosophy

Critical Scholarship on the Fourth Gospel in relation to contemporary philosophy at the time, including Alexandrian Philosophy and Gnosticism.

R. Alan Culpepper, The Gospel and Letters of John, Abingdon Press, 1998, pp. 288-289

In the second century, questions were raised about the theological orthodoxy of the Gospel. The Gospel of John first appeared as a document of faith among second-century Gnostics. One Gnostic school in Rome took the name of Valentinus, who lived between A.D. 100 and 175 and founded a school with the purpose of raising Christian theology “to the level of pagan philosophical studies.” We cannot be sure that Valentinus knew the Gospel of John, but it is clear that his followers used it. Ptolemy, one of Valentinus’s early students, wrote a commentary on the prologue of John, and Heracleon, another Valentinian, wrote the first commentary on the Gospel about A.D. 170. Sketchy as the evidence is, it shows that while the Johannine writings were used only tentatively by the Church Fathers before Irenaeus (about 180), the Gospel was treated as an authoritative writing by the Valentinian school in Rome. 

Several sources between A.D. 150 and 180 confirm that John was widely known, but the status of the fourfold Gospel was still fluid: Marcion accepted only an edited version of Luke, the Valentinians added the Gospel of Truth, and Tatian wove the four Gospels into one continuous account. 

When others began to use the Gospel of John, Gaius, a presbyter and noted orthodox scholar in Rome, rejected the Gospel and denied that it was written by an apostle. Gaius was an opponent of the Montanists, an enthusiastic group in Asia Minor who based their claims regarding the Spirit on John. While his basic concerns seem to have been theological, Gaius sought to discredit John by carefully noting its historical discrepancies and the places where it contradicted the synoptic Gospels. Gaius is significant because he shows that the authority of John was not so firmly established that it could not be challenged by one of the leaders of the church. The form of his argument is also telling: he sought to discredit the Gospel of John by showing that it contracted the synoptic Gospels, which by implication served as the standard by which a gospel could be judged. 

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 from the Gnostic writer Basilides (c 130); the earliest known commentary on John was written by the Gnostic Heracleon (c 180).

G. H. C. Macgregor, The Gospel Of John, Harper and Brothers, New York, 1928

Aims and Influences

The books of the New Testament all had their origin in the practical needs of the early Church, and owe their vitality to the fact that they sprang directly out of the life of that Church at various periods and in given circumstances. Our Gospel can be understood properly only as the Evangelist’s attempt to interpret the Christian faith to the Church of his own day — a largely Gentile Church, with its headquarters at Ephesus, probably early in the first decade of the second century. (p. xxvi-xxvii)

John seeks to interpret the Gospel of Jesus in the light of history for three-quarters of a century. By the time he wrote the last representatives of the Apostolic Age had passed or were passing away, the bonds with Judaism had been definitely broken, and a Church now largely Gentile had become the custodian of a religion that, severed from its historical origins, was unfolding itself into a far wider significance. If the Christian message was to live for a new age, it must be reinterpreted in new terms. To understand Christ, it was necessary not only to know the actual facts of his life and teaching but also to take into account the great religious movement to which those facts had given the impulse. Hence, almost unconsciously John alters the perspective of the earlier Gospels, and looking at Jesus’ life across the intervening years reads into words and incidents the point of view of his own later age. A good example is John 4:35-38, where John ‘presents the facts of the divine life, not as men saw them at the time, but as they appeared long afterward in the retrospect of an enlightened faith.’ (p. xxvii)

[The Fourth] Gospel sets out to interpret the Christian story and Christian experience to the new world of Hellenism by translating the Gospel into a form intelligible to Greek modes of thought… Whether or no the actual key to the understanding of the Gospel is to be found in ‘a transmutation of Jewish and Christian ideas into their Greek equivalents,’  John’s great achievement was to transplant the Gospel of Jesus into a new soil before its roots had time to wither. (p. xxix)

There can be little doubt that certain definitely polemical aims can be traced in the Gospel. The controversial tone of Jesus’ discourses as reported by John is intelligible only if they are related to the contemporary situation of the Church in John’s own day, and treated as the Evangelist’s attempt to repel attacks, to which Christianity was subject, in the early years of the second century, though on account of the narrative form in which John’s work is cast this controversial interest is on the surface less obvious than in Paul’s letters. (p. xxix)

It is possible that John has colored his picture of the Baptist in the interest of his polemic against the Jews. Baldensperger indeed held that the Gospel was primarily intended as a polemic against a Jewish sect of Baptist disciples who exalted their Master above Christ. In support of this theory Acts 18:25Acts 19:3-4 are quoted as proving the existence of such a sect at Ephesus. Reference is also made in the Clementine Recognitions (1:54), which date perhaps from the early third century, to the fact that, ‘Some even of the disciples of John, who seemed to be great ones, have separated themselves and proclaimed their own Master as Christ.’ It is certainly significant that, on every mention of the Baptist, John pointedly emphasizes his subordination to Jesus, and it may well be that he wishes to counteract a contemporary Jewish movement which sought to buttress its opposition to the spread of Christianity by exalting the Baptist at the expense of Christ. Possibly the infection had spread even into the Church itself. But any such Baptist controversy cannot be more than a quite subordinate motive in John’s mind, and may have to be eliminated altogether if, as appears to be the case, there is evidence that some at least of the Baptist passages are due to the hand of a Redactor. (p. xxx)

There is little evidence that our Evangelist was influenced to any great extent by the contemporary Hellenistic ‘Mystery Religions.’ … First there is the conception of  ‘regeneration’ or ‘ new-birth,’ whereby the initiate became partaker of a divine essence and was thereby ‘ reborn into eternity.’ … Now it must be remembered that not even the use of much of the actual terminology of the Mysteries, as in the case of both Paul and John, necessarily involves the adoption of the ideas which it expresses. The Christian community at Ephesus, following upon the influx of heathen converts, must have been flooded with quasi-magical conceptions of religion drawn from the atmosphere of the Mysteries. Nor is it surprising to find our Evangelist using the language of the Mysteries, in chapter 3, when he speaks of the ‘birth from above,’ in chapter 6 as he develops his profound sacramental teaching. Like Paul, in his eagerness to find a common standing ground with those whom he would win for Christ, he sometimes uses categories which are theirs rather than his own, if indeed he does more than use imagery which is the common property of all mystics. And while adopting Mystery conceptions he infuses them with new meaning and new life. He speaks of ‘regeneration’ but gives it a new ethical connotation, borrowed not from the Mysteries but from Paul; the Spirit blows where it will and is confined to no material channel. It is only of Spirit that Spirit is born, and only by the power of the Spirit that regeneration is achieved. He accepts without question the real ‘efficacy of the Sacraments. Yet he clearly desires to counteract the prevalent tendency towards a materialistic view of them, and all the emphasis is on their spiritual aspect : ‘What gives life is the Spirit : flesh is of no avail at all’ (John 6:63). (p. xxxi-xxxii)

There remains for consideration the Evangelist’s attitude towards certain internal controversies of the Church and in particular towards ‘ Gnosticism,’ the battle of which with the orthodox faith had already begun at the time of writing. The Gnostic heretics of the second century were men who attempted to interpret the figure and message of Christ in such a way that they would fit into a preconceived Hellenistic theology, every Gnostic system being ‘an attempt to blend Christianity with the theosophical speculations of the age,’ Fundamental is the idea of a dualism running through the whole universe. God is by nature good and pure: the material creation evil and tainted. Therefore by no possibility can a world essentially evil be the creation of the supreme deity, nor can there be any direct contact between God and the material world. Hence the conception of subordinate divine beings, intermediate agencies, aeons, emanations of the Deity, which bridge the gap between God and the world. These were thought of as the ‘archons’ or rulers of a huge system of concentric spheres over-arching the earth, and were originally identified with the heavenly bodies themselves, whose movements were supposed to sway human destinies, and provided the astrologer with his stock-in-trade. A similar dualism was thought to exist in the nature of man, whose soul and body are as alien one to the other as are God and the world. The soul is a spark emanating from God Himself, while the body is but part of the impure matter of which all created things consist. From such a prison there is no escape for the soul save in a ‘gnosis’ or knowledge of its divine nature. That is, man’s salvation is to be wrought out, not by moral effort, but by the communication of a certain esoteric ‘knowledge’ which will enable the possessor to propitiate the intermediate powers, often malignant, and so open the way to God. Thus, as Dobschiitz has well put it, ‘Gnosticism is, in the first place, intellectualism; one-sided overvaluation of knowledge at the expense of moral activity.’ Finally, holding this dualistic conception of the universe, Gnostic thinkers within the Church naturally scouted the idea that the Logos, the highest emanation of the Father, could in any true sense take upon himself a material body. Hence the denial of the reality of the Incarnation, and the refusal to admit the true humanity and real suffering of Jesus ; in a word what is known as ‘Docetism.’ We have within the New Testament clear indications of the spread of such more or less developed Gnostic tendencies. In particular may be noted the heresy which Paul attacks in his letter to the Colossians. (p. xxxii-xxxiii)

As regards the Fourth Gospel’s relation to Gnosticism two extreme positions have been taken up. It has by some been definitely claimed as a product of Gnostic Christianity, and was indeed referred, in antiquity, to the Gnostic Cerinthus as its author; by others it has been as definitely regarded as a polemic against the rising heresy. The truth is midway between the extremes. Tinged with Gnostic influences John certainly is. He shares with the Gnostics a certain dualism in his conception of both man and the world, and a certain intellectualism in his conception of faith and in his insistence upon the necessity of ‘knowing’ God. There is a dualism which envisages a deep division set between light and darkness (John 1:5), the children of God (John 1:13) and those of the devil (John 8:44), spirit and flesh (John 3:6), the Church and the world (John 17:16)… In particular we have the notion of a plurality of ‘logoi’ corresponding with the plurality of ‘ideas’ in Plato, of which the highest represents the deity, and of the ‘logos’ as the agent of the deity in creation. Parallel with this conception is the idea, of which there are traces in the Old Testament, of the ‘Wisdom’ of God, as a second divine being distinguished from God Himself, who is represented as assisting God at the creation — a figurative way of saying that at the creation God made use of His Wisdom (cf. Job 28:12 ff. ; Prov. 8:22 ff. ; Wisdom of Solomon 7:22 ff.). (p. xxxiii-xxxvi)

But it was Philo, the famous Jewish thinker of Alexandria (20 B.C.- A.D. 50), who combined these Greek and Hebrew conceptions and brought the idea of the Logos to its fullest development. He took over the main Stoic conception, but so identified it with Plato’s idea of the ‘Good’ and the Hebrew thought of the ‘Wisdom’ of God, that instead of being merely immanent in creation the Logos for him became endowed with an independent existence. In the Philonic ‘Logos’ the Greek idea of immanent reason is combined with the Hebrew idea of divine creative-energy and self-revelation. Yet Philo’s Jewish faith forbade the identification of the Logos with the Deity Himself, and it therefore sometimes appears as a kind of ‘second God’ independent of but subordinate to the God of the Old Testament, though Philo’s monotheism makes it unlikely that this assertion of the existence of a second divine agent is intended in anything more than a figurative sense. There is in fact an inevitable clash between the primary Greek conception and the demands of Hebrew monotheism, an antinomy which is never wholly reconciled. (p. xxxvi)

It must be admitted that ‘the underlying intention of the usage in Philo and the Targums is absolutely different. Philo is working out a philosophical system designed to effect a synthesis between . . . the religious tradition of the Hebrews and Greek Neoplatonism. The Targums are popular renderings of the Old Testament lessons intended for congregations . . . who were sufficiently advanced to find difficulty in the more startlingly anthropomorphic expressions of the Old Testament,’ Phrases such as the ‘Word of the Lord’ (Memra)  ‘are merely reverential paraphrases,’  ‘To Philo, on the other hand, the Logos is the name of a Divine Principle conceived of, along the lines of Greek philosophical thinking, as a connecting link between Transcendent Deity and the material universe,’ Now John was no doubt impregnated with Old Testament thought; he may well have been influenced by the Targumic idea of the Memra (though it is uncertain whether that usage was earlier than his time); but in so far as the Prologue is quite clearly a philosophically conceived attempt to build a bridge between Greek and Hebrew modes of thought, John must be pronounced indebted for his Logos-doctrine to Philo, who was the first to attempt such a synthesis by popularizing the term ‘Logos,’ Through Alexandrian usage the ‘Logos’ had become a current philosophical term… John seized upon it as an invaluable category for the interpretation of the Gospel, and to that extent, he is indebted to Philo… But one supreme distinction between John’s thought and Philo’s must be noted. Even admitting that sometimes Philo ascribes a real personality to the Logos  ‘he is thinking all the while of the divine reason and activity, which he personifies as the intermediate agent between God and the world. John, on the other hand, starts from an actual knowledge of the earthly life of Jesus, and the conception of the Logos is always blended in his mind with the impression left on him by the Person.’  John is primarily concerned not with the Word as a philosophical principle but with the Word made flesh and manifested in human history in the whole life of Jesus Christ. (p. xxxvi-xxxvii)

The thought of Jesus as the revelation of the Logos in history is the key-note which vibrates throughout the entire Gospel. The Logos-doctrine is everywhere presupposed in the body of the Gospel, though the actual use of the term ceases with the Prologue. It is this that explains the insistence on the omniscience and omnipotence of Jesus, his inviolability, the minimizing of the purely human elements in his personality, his continual reference to his own Person as the source of life, and in particular such claims to pre-existence as we have in John 1:30John 17:5John 8:58. Finally, though the term ‘Logos’ is never used of Christ in the body of the Gospel, its content reappears under the categories of ‘ Truth,’ ‘Light,’ and ‘Life.’ (p. xxxviii)

The word ‘truth’ is used to describe the Logos in his reality. The conception runs back to Plato’s doctrine of ‘ ideas,’ the fixed forms which are regarded as the original patterns of which all particular things in the material world are only copies, the highest idea, the Idea of the Good, representing God. Thus for John ‘ truth,’ the supreme reality, becomes an equivalent for the divine nature. God is  ‘the only real’ (John 17:3), and all other things are ‘true’ or ‘real’ only in so far as they reflect God’s thought and purpose. Thus Christ, being the Logos, whose supreme mission is to be the medium of the divine revelation, is in his own Person ‘the truth,’ and the only means whereby men can lay hold of the eternal reality. (p. xxxviii)

Closely akin to ‘truth’ is the idea of ‘light,’ under which category John expresses the thought of the Logos as the source of divine revelation. Indeed ‘light’ for John is broadly speaking identical with ‘ truth,’ with the further implication that the higher reality is ever seeking to manifest itself. As essentially one with that higher reality Christ the Logos is ‘the truth’; as one, who in his own Person reveals that reality, he is ‘the light.’ Yet no one definition can exhaust the content of this characteristic Johannine word.  ‘The term is chosen because of its very largeness and vagueness. Light is the immemorial symbol of all that is divine and holy; it suggests gladness, security, quickening, illumination. . . . Taken generally, however, light is the equivalent, in the language of the imagination, of what is abstractly called “the truth.”‘ (p. xxxviii-xxxix)

Finally, John sums up the spiritual gift communicated through Christ the Logos under the category of ‘life,’ Sometimes the expression used is ‘eternal life,’ but the epithet does not postpone the promise to the future, for John insists that through Christ ‘life’ is bestowed here and now, but rather suggests the origin of such life in the higher ‘eternal’ world. John gives us no exact definition of what he means by ‘life,’ for John 17:3 defines not ‘life’ itself but the means of its communication, and ‘life’ is something greater than the knowledge of God through Christ by which it is conditioned and mediated. John assumes that in God, the supreme ‘reality,’ and in the Logos, who is the ‘light’ revealing Him, there exists a ‘life’ different in kind from mere physical life, which is the ‘real’ or ‘eternal’ life (John 1:4John 5:26). It has been held indeed that in some passages John appears to regard this ‘life’ as an almost ‘semi-physical’ bestowment, particularly in the Eucharistic discourse in the sixth chapter (John 6:51-59). Men to possess true life must become incorporate with Christ and absorb his divine substance into their own nature. But this is just an instance of how the Evangelist may use the current language of the ‘Mysteries’ without in any way consciously committing himself to their semi-magical conceptions. Such teaching would be utterly out of harmony with the general trend of his thought. It may be that, in accordance with the Logos hypothesis, the true life is regarded as a higher kind of being, almost as a substance which can be transferred from person to person. But for John the divine life is preeminently the life of Jesus; and the gift of Jesus to men is just the secret of his own moral and spiritual personality. ‘The words that I speak unto you,’ says Jesus, ‘they are spirit, and they are life’ (John 6:63). (p. xxxix)

Wilbert Francis Howard, C. K. Barrett, The Fourth Gospel in Recent Criticism and Interpretation, Wipf and Stock; 4th ed. edition, 2009

The Fourth Gospel, its Purpose and its Theology (1906), the first of many books by which Dr E. F. Scott has enriched the study of the New Testament, made an immediate impression in this country, which remains after a quarter of a century… the critical debate was treated as settled in favor “of the position  which is now generally accepted by continental scholars.” The indecisive character of the external evidence drives us to the gospel itself. by assuming a date early in the 2nd century, and an author who was in no sense in apostle or contemporary of Jesus, Dr. Scott expounds the Gospel as a reinterpretation of Christianity to a larger world of Hellenic culture exigencies of controversy. In this narrative we are to recognize the work of one who identified The eternal Christ of inward religious experience with the Jesus of history, and who went back to the historical record to understand its deeper meaning, and to complete it and interpret it in the light of all the church had learnt by faith concerning the person and work of the exalted Lord. One of the most striking features of the book is the vivid way in which the Evangelist’s subordinate aims are brought to light. (P23)

MS. Evidence of the early use of the Gospel becomes the more interesting and important if it is held.. that neither Ignatius nor any other of the Apostolic Fathers can be shown to have known it. Even Justin shows only the first tentative use of the Gospel by an orthodox Christian. The gnostic heretics indeed had used the Gospel earlier; and this early Gnostic use, and the early orthodox disuse together constitute one of the major problems in the early history of the Gospel. The data also lead… to the conclusion that the Gospel was written not (as the tradition maintains) in Ephesus, but in Alexandria. In support of this view … (a) the two papyri (Rylands and Egerton) prove that the Gospel was in use in Alexandria before A.D. 150, and if it is not certain that Ignatius knew the Gospel this is the earliest evidence for its existence. (b) The Alexandrian Gnostics are known to have used the Gospel. (c) Internal evidence points in the same direction. Alexandria, the home of Philo and of the authors of the Corpus Hermeticum, was a likely place for the development of a Christian Logos-doctrine, and form a suitable background for the simultaneous anti-docetic and anti-Judaic polemic of the Gospel. (d) the heretical reputation of the Alexandrian Church would account for the slow reception of the Gospel by orthodox Christians. (P.165)

Most modern writers are agreed that there exists a connection of some kind between the Fourth Gospel and Gnosticism. This seems to be affirmed both by the contents of the Gospel, and by its external History, in which it was first used by the gnostic heretics themselves, and subsequently adopted as a major weapon in the armory of those who, like Irenaeus and Hippolytus, fought the Gnostics and drove them out of the Church, and though it was it was denied… it becomes increasingly difficult to deny that John was aware of the terms of gnostic thought. It remains of course possible that his relation to this kind of thought was negative – that is, he knew it, but disliked, rejected and opposed it. (P.170)

Ernest Findlay Scott, The Historical and Religious Value of the Fourth Gospel, Boston and New York, Houghton Mifflin, 1909

Subordinate Aims

“When we look below the surface of the fourth Gospel we seem to discover clear traces of this interest in the contemporary life of the church. Several of the more striking peculiarities of the Gospel are not capable of explanation until we read it not only as a history of Jesus, but as a tract for the times called forth by the practical requirements of the second century.” (Page 18)

“It is impossible to avoid the inference that the evangelist, writing at a time when the synagogue was in strong opposition to the church, took occasion to read back into the past the conflict of the present. His Gospel became, in one of its aspects, a reply to the Jewish antagonists, whose arguments were more dangerous than any others to the progress of the Christian mission.” (Page 20)

“We know that the First Epistle of John (a kindred writing, which comes to us from the same school, if not from the same hand) is directed against certain heretical teachers. These appear to have been precursors of the later Gnostics, who denied the reality of Christ’s appearance and death, and sought to resolve his message into a vague philosophical system. It is highly probable that the same type of heretical teaching is combated in the Gospel. The writer goes back to the earthly life of Jesus, and follows it step by step through its earthly progress. He lays stress on details which serve to illustrate the Lord’s humanity. He offers solemn testimony to the material fact of the death upon the Cross.’ The whole Gospel centers on the thesis that the Word was made flesh, — that the divine nature has imparted itself to men through a human life. But while the evangelist is thus strongly opposed to Gnosticism, there is reason to believe that he has himself been touched by Gnostic influences. He makes frequent use of well-known Gnostic watch-words; he draws a Gnostic distinction between the two classes of men, — the earthly and the spiritual, the children of darkness and the children of light; with all his insistence on the reality of the Saviour’s life he never loses sight of its ideal significance. This twofold attitude to the Gnostic speculations is one of the chief problems of the Gospel. In order to solve it fully we should require to know something of the personality of the writer and of the particular circumstances in which he wrote.” (Page 21-23)

“Living at a time when the unity of the church was in danger, and when various abuses were creeping into its life and sacraments, he sought to remind it of its true character. He reads back into the gospel history the conditions of his own day, in order to submit them to the Master’s judgment. Jesus himself becomes the counselor and legislator of his church… Under the form of a biography of Jesus it deals with problems and difficulties which did not arise until after his death. It bears a constant reference not only to the events which it narrates but to the situation of the church in the early part of the second century.” (Page 25-26)

Christian Development

“Judaism and Christianity had come to open quarrel; and the younger religion had to seek its future in the great Gentile world, to which its beliefs and ideals and traditions were all strange. It was evident that if the church was to survive and to maintain itself as a living power, its whole message had to be re-interpreted. Some expression must be found for the revelation in Christ, which would set it free from its mere local and accidental elements and give it a meaning for Gentiles in the second century as it had had for Jews in the first. Our Gospel was written in those years of critical transition. The task which the evangelist laid on himself was that of interpreting to a new time and translating into the terms of a different culture, the truth as it was in Christ.” (Page 28-29)

“The Christian theology is presented in the fourth Gospel under Greek forms of thought. Paul was a Jew of Tarsus, one of the centers of Greek philosophical culture; and a Hellenic influence has been traced in not a few of his speculations. But the prevailing colour of his thought is Jewish. He was trained in the Rabbinical schools and borrowed from them the theological ideas under which he explained the new message. The fourth evangelist — though almost certainly a Jew — had entered deeply into the spirit of Greek philosophy. In his endeavor to set forth the inner meaning of the Christian revelation, he discards the Jewish forms, which were unintelligible to the wider audience he has in view. In a far more radical sense than Paul, he re-interprets the message.” (Page 31-32)

Logos Philosophy

“Greek philosophy was chiefly represented in the first and second centuries by Stoicism; and the central doctrine of Stoicism was that of the Logos, or immanent Reason of the world. An attempt had already been made by Philo, a Jewish thinker of Alexandria, to reconcile Greek philosophy with the Old Testament on the ground of this Stoic doctrine. The Greek term ” Logos” signifies ” word” as well as “reason”; and Philo had availed himself of this double meaning. Into the Old Testament allusions to the creative and revealing word of God he had read the philosophical conception of the Logos; and had thus evolved that theory that within the being of God there was a secondary divine principle, the Word or Logos, which was His agent in the creation and government of the world.” (Page 32-33)

“We must needs admit that in his endeavor to represent Jesus as at once man and incarnate Logos, the evangelist falls into many inconsistencies. Not only so, but he divests the historical life of much of its meaning and its true grandeur, in order to bring it into conformity with the Logos idea. We miss from his narrative some of the most striking episodes of the Synoptic story, — for example, the Baptism, the Temptation, the Agony, the Cry from the Cross. These could not be reconciled with the theory of the Logos and had therefore to be omitted… The prayers of Jesus cease to be true appeals for God’s help and guidance. He is himself one with the Father and knows beforehand that his prayer is sure of fulfillment.” As many things are omitted, so there are certain features added which impair the human reality of the portrait.” (Page 36-37)

Gospel Message

“The message of Jesus is concerned with the coming age, or kingdom of God; but the kingdom itself is identified with its chief blessing. Jesus can speak, almost in the same sentence, of “entering into the kingdom “and of “inheriting eternal life.” The fourth evangelist takes advantage of this equivalence of the two terms and discards the idea of the kingdom altogether. It was related to hopes and beliefs that were specifically Jewish, and he replaces it by the more general conception of life.” (Page 50)

Historical Value

“From our knowledge, rather, of what Jesus was when he appeared on earth, we can discern him still, and receive the new truth which he imparts to us through his living Spirit. The fourth Gospel itself is the grandest illustration of this profound and far-reaching doctrine. Writing in a new century, for a people of alien race and culture, the evangelist goes back to the teaching of Jesus; but he does not simply reproduce it as it had been handed down. He translates it into new language; he interprets it with the aid of later theological forms; he brings it into relation to contemporary problems and interests, which had not yet emerged in the Master’s own lifetime. Literally considered the message is different from that which had come down in the tradition. The words attributed to Jesus had not actually fallen from his lips, and the whole picture of his earthly life and surroundings is in many respects altered. Yet the writer claims authority for his Gospel. He is convinced that he, as truly as the Synoptists, is recording the deeds of Jesus and the words he spoke. For through the historical life, he has a vision of the eternal life. The literal teaching has been illuminated to him and filled with new meanings and applications. Nearly a century had passed by since Jesus had departed; and through all those years his revelation had been unfolding itself, under the growing light of the world’s thought and knowledge.” (Page 72-74)

“He (the author) availed himself of categories of thought, unknown to the primitive age, which were derived mainly from the philosophies of Greece. These new categories were in many ways well fitted to express Christian ideas; but it cannot be denied that something was lost by the adoption of them. The teaching of Jesus became abstract and mystical, instead of simple and direct. An appeal was made to the intellect more than to the underlying instincts of the moral and religious life.” (Page 76)

“It asserted itself heir to five centuries of Greek thinking. It was acclimatized in the general culture of the time and penetrated it more and more with its own spirit. To the fourth evangelist, more than to any other teacher, the church was indebted for the mighty progress of the next three centuries. He transplanted the new religion from its Jewish soil into another, where it could take deep root and send out its branches freely.” (Page 77-78)

“It is true that in this endeavor to portray Jesus, in his earthly ministry, as the ever-living Christ, the evangelist has modified and idealized the facts. As a work of history his Gospel is secondary to the Synoptic records, and its evidence must always be sifted and controlled by means of them.” (Page 82)

Henry Latimer Jackson, The Problem of the Fourth Gospel, Cambridge [Eng.] : University press, 1918

The Self-Dating of the Fourth Gospel

We now address ourselves more particularly to one of ‘ the two main tendencies in the early Church which lie near the main current of its historic development,’ viz. Gnosticism. It is, of course, impossible in these pages to treat in detail of successive stages in and the many phases of — to repeat from a previous chapter — ‘ the boldest and grandest syncretism the world has ever beheld,’ and nothing more shall be attempted than a very general and bare outline of Gnosticism in its leading features. Of the Gnostic sects it has been said that they ‘ were the result of the contact of Christian principles with the current ideas of the first century,’ every Gnostic system being ‘ an attempt to blend Christianity with the theosophical speculations of the age ‘ ; ‘ in a sense, however, Gnosticism is more ancient than the Church, being a philosophy of religion which seeks in the end to explain every cultus’; it is then suggested that ‘the great test to which primitive Christianity was exposed from the outside world was not so much the danger of succumbing to persecution, as of adapting itself to the popular philosophies of the heathen and Jewish world.’ (pp.87-88)
 
That truths, or elements of truth, are perceptible in Gnostic doctrines no one would venture to deny; at the same time they are adumbrated and distorted by what was a main principle with the ‘ intellectualism ‘ so preeminently characteristic of Gnosticism, the belief that matter is essentially evil in itself. Some qualification is, perhaps, necessary; there is nevertheless truth in the remark: ‘ Herein lies the inherent weakness of Gnostic systems ; they strike at the root of all morality, by denying that man in his state of material existence is responsible for his sins, which they assert are not the result of his free choice, but the inevitable consequences of the state in which he is placed.’ In practice a result, in some quarters, was of two sorts; on the one hand a resort to asceticism as the means of keeping the essentially evil body in subjection, on the other no restraint whatever was exercised, as the evil body with its evil desires was held to be beneath contempt. As the principle was pressed to its logical conclusion, it was maintained that by no possibility could a world essentially evil be the creation of the supreme Deity ; and hence the work of creation was referred to an inferior being, while it was argued that of communication between the supreme God and the material evil world there could be none whatever. Intermediate agencies, aeons, emanations of the Deity, were accordingly conceived of. (pp.88-89)
 
The conception being scouted that the highest of the emanations of the Father could take upon himself a material body, there came flat denials of the reality of the Incarnation, protests, in many forms, against the true humanity, the real suffering, of Jesus; in a word Docetism. There was indeed, so it was allowed by some, a man Jesus upon whom the superior aeon Christ had descended at the Baptism, but only to desert him at the Crucifixion; others, again, alleged that it was really Simon the Cyrenian who was crucified and by mistake, while the real Jesus looked on and smiled. Whatever the explanations offered, they alike show ‘how rooted was the idea that God could not possibly have anything to do immediately with matter, or with the sufferings of a material universe ; if He seemed to make such contact, it was only in appearance. The suffering Christ was a phantom ; not a hair of his head was touched, let alone a bone being broken.’ (p.89)
 

Now, there are clear indications of the spread of more or less developed Gnostic tendencies both in the admittedly genuine Pauline Epistles and in those which may or may not be traceable to Paul himself. Thus in the case of the Colossian heresy, which has ‘ been pronounced to contain all the essential elements of a Gnostic system ‘ ; the situation is less clear in the so-called Epistle to the Ephesians, yet there are hints at errors similar to those which pre- vailed at the neighboring Colosse; as for the Pastoral Epistles, they suggest that need had arisen at Ephesus to deal with the question of asceticism and to draw plain distinctions between true knowledge and knowledge which is ‘falsely so called.’ Nor is there room for doubt that, whether he be Paul or not, the author of the Epistles to Timothy was confronted with, at all events, the germs of Docetism when, 1 Tim 3:16, he points emphatically to Jesus as ‘manifested in the flesh.’ Yet it must be admitted that, if he really was Paul, he had himself used language in some degree savouring of Docetic tendencies at an earlier period; thus when, Phil 2:5., he speaks of ‘Christ Jesus’ as ‘taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men.’ (pp.89-90)

We now turn to our Gospel. As we have seen already, it was not only commented on by the Gnostic Heracleon, but held in estimation by Basilides ; and, such being the case, we may well be incredulous in respect of the very late dating of a previous suggestion. But the question is whether we be now pointed to the nearer date sought for by the manner and matter of its contents when compared with that Gnosticism which has been rapidly surveyed by us. (P. 90) 

There are two extreme positions. In the one case our Gospel has been definitely claimed for Gnosticism’; in the other it is said to be characterized throughout by a pronounced antagonism to Gnostic modes of thought. The truth, however, does not appear to lie in either quarter, and it is far more reasonable to decide that, in some degree sympathetic, it also tells plainly of a discriminating mind. That it is not untinged by Gnostic influences might be admitted; its author has occasional resort to a terminology in use in Gnostic circles, he makes room for an ‘ intellectualism’ of a certain kind, elements of dualism are perceptible in his conceptions, the idealized portrait of his Christ is suggestive of a Docetism from which he himself is not altogether free. On the other hand it must be as readily admitted that, by no means blind to momentous issues, he fastens on and repudiates errors detected by him in Gnostic doctrines which were making their appearance in his day. (P. 90)

Our Evangelist is no advanced Gnostic. As for his Gospel, it is not the work of one who, realizing the gravity of the situation, is constrained to grapple with and refute a Gnosticism which has arrived at the hey-day of its development. What might be allowed perhaps is that, not definitely hostile to Gnosticism in its earlier stages, he occasionally reveals a discriminating sympathy; yet it must be added that, alive to errors creeping in and already fraught with mischief, he is bold to speak his mind. That his Gospel is altogether strange to the Gnostic movement it is hard to believe. (P. 91)

We are led to the conclusion that our Gospel places us in a day when Basilides and Valentinian had yet to elaborate their systems, and that accordingly it is prior to the year a.d. 135 or thereabouts. (p.91)

By what space of time? If so be that our Evangelist is really the Beloved Disciple, necessity is of course laid upon us to retrace our steps so as to get within a period when he still survived; and in that case we should have to date our Gospel at least as early as a year or two after (if not before) the close of the first century. Yet, apart from the contingency that, not a real person, he ‘ represents the Church in its essential idea,’ he may be not so much author of as authority for our Gospel ; and it may be said at once that it is not absolutely imperative to decide for a date within the life-time of an eye-witness of the life of Jesus. And besides, there are considerations which forbid us to travel very far back in our search. Whatever the identity of the Evangelist, he writes at a date later than the latest of the Synoptics; and here we bear in mind the uncertainty which attaches to the dating of the Matthaean and the Lucan Gospels. The very fact of his dependence on the Synoptics is an argument in favour of the theory that some time had elapsed since their publication. Nor is this all ; the world in which he places us is not diverse only in locality, but in conceptions which suggest an after day. The One of whom he tells is not so much the Jesus of the Synoptic representation as the Christ of the experience of his own inmost soul. (pp.91-92)

Were our search to end at this point the conclusion would be reasonable that, although no precise date can be fixed, our Gospel can be safely assigned to the period A.D. 100-125. (p.92)

The Making of the Gospel

 

The Fourth Evangelist is, in all probability, not the Apostle John; — who, then, is he? Conjectures are numerous; (P.106)

Whoever he was, the Evangelist was assuredly a Jew. By birth and early training he was, in all likelihood, a Jew of Palestine who, at some period or other, had quitted his Palestinian home, and after much travelling, had found himself on the soil of Asia Minor; in the event he settled down at Ephesus. It may or may not have been the case that he was already full of years when he began to pen his Gospel. Beyond all question he was a man of soul and brain, of a contemplative turn of mind, in touch with Greek philosophy and versed in Alexandrine speculation, a philosopher and a theologian. He may indeed convey the impression that he had actually been eye- and ear- witness of at all events some of the events and scenes told of by him in the pages of his work. Yet the temptation is now and again strong to say of it that the evidences of dependence are so many and so convincing ‘as to justify or even compel the inference that the author is not an eye-witness supplementing the Synoptic account by his own minute remembrances, but a writer somewhat remote from the events’ which he purports to relate. (P.110)

Unquestionably there are sections which illustrate diversity of view and standpoint. Two of them have already been enumerated while a third (John 10:21 ff.) has just been noticed in a foot-note reference; and the question then arises whether, apart from divergence of conception relative to the sending of the Paraclete, the self-same author who can apparently dispense with an external Parousia has nevertheless had resort to the turns and phrases of Jewish Eschatology, or whether the sections do not rather indicate the hand of one who still clung to materialistic conceptions of Resurrection, of Judgement, of the Second Coming of the Lord. There is ground for hesitation ; yet on the whole we are, perhaps, guided to the conclusion that such fluctuations are to some extent accounted for by variety in mood. The Fourth Evangelist, be it added, is by no means the only man of letters to be at times inconsistent with himself. (P.119)

Chapter 20 with its record of three several appearances of the Risen Lord — to Mary Magdalene ; to an unspecified number of disciples; to, so it would appear, the same disciples, but, this time, Thomas with them. The point, then, is whether, looking to their nature, the stories are precisely what the Evangelist has prepared us to expect. His Christ has, indeed, spoken of his impending death; yet no word has come from him which can be so construed as to suggest both a conviction and a prediction of an external Resurrection, while the allusions actually met with are strongly indicative of a coming to, of an abiding presence in the believer’s heart. Nay more ; the tone and tenor of the great Farewell Discourses are scarcely in keeping with an expectation that, before three short days had passed, the speaker would have rejoined his disciples, in outwardly visible if mysteriously transfigured form. (P.120)

It must be confessed that the stories give us pause. They are singularly beautiful stories. They testify to an actual Easter assurance, howsoever vouchsafed and apprehended, which brought conviction to the souls of the disciples and enabled them to say their ‘Jesus lives.’ A deep spiritual significance may be read into them. We are nevertheless constrained to ask again: has any word come from the Evangelist which expressly invites his readers to expect such stories? It is not altogether easy to answer in the affirmative; and the question arises: is he himself responsible for the stories — stories, quite in the Johannine manner, of spiritual experiences in concrete form — or must their presence, not necessarily their origination, be accounted for by a redactor’s hand? (P.120)

Turning to the Prologue (John 1:1-18), we are confronted by a twofold question: — do we possess it in its original form — from whose pen does it come? No doubt features are presented by it which, at first sight, might dispose us to differentiate between hand and hand. They are present in John 20:6-8 and 15; where, with abrupt transition from ‘great abstract conceptions,’ we seem, if only for a moment, ‘to touch the solid earth,’ and then ‘are taken back to the region of abstractions which we had hardly left’; and the suggestion is not farfetched that they are no part of the original text. It might well be pleaded that no real loss is involved by their removal; that, on the contrary, they seem but to impair the ordered sequence of majestic cadences. (P.121)

The identity of the Evangelist is, and probably will remain, an enigma. Whether the Beloved Disciple (who is not the Apostle John) or some other person be the author, the Gospel was certainly not written by a tour deforce; prolonged and careful preparation was involved; long time on the literary stocks, it was built up in collaboration with members of an inner circle. He himself never published it; when first it emerged from its depository he had, in all likelihood, already gone to his rest; and, when actually given to the world, it had, so to speak, ceased to be his Gospel to become our Fourth Gospel. Or in other words, the original treatise of the Evangelist had been somewhat freely dealt with — supplemented, interpolated, and perhaps modified — by editorial hands, yet so as to lend the semblance of compactness to the expanded work. If room must really be made (and this is doubtful) for a plurality of redactors they would differ in mental caliber and trend of thought. There is no settling the question as to who precisely they were, yet it may be said of them that, for all their diversity, they belonged to the Johannine school at Ephesus. (PP.122-123)

Then and Now

The Synoptic tradition was not simply explained by him, but, in and by his interpretation of it, purified and refined as he transferred the Jesus of Capernaum to Ephesus, and sought to make the Christ of his experience a reality for Hellenistic and Hellenic modes of thought. (P.129)

That, prior to its publication, it should be subjected to a revision which savored of conventionalism was, perhaps, natural in the circumstances ; nor is there ground for wonder that, even when so worked over as to become our Fourth Gospel, it was slow — as seems to have been the case — to win its way to general acceptance. (PP.130-131)

What of its historical value … That it is of no small importance, as an ancient document, for the student of antiquity no one will deny. The grave question is whether it be safe to turn to it as a reliable source for the Life of Jesus. The answer must be tinged with hesitation. It is one thing to say that ‘ we cannot . . . write a Life of Christ as if the Gospel of St John had no existence’…  for the larger part of evidence relative to the earthly life of Jesus we must admit dependence on the Synoptics (P.132)

Let it be granted that the real Jesus, in respect of each several point in his human development, was other than our Evangelist depicts. It may then be added that he, the Evangelist, profoundly conscious that personality is after all the highest force, and that it is far less a question of what the man says and does than of what the man is, has seized on great ideas which absorbed the soul of Jesus ; and, in his portraiture, has presented them in concrete form. Whether eye-witness or not, he is linked in spiritual affinity with Jesus. In his spiritual Gospel the Christ of his experience is accordingly invested with a personality which, tremendous in its impressiveness, cannot for a moment be regarded as naught but the mere creation of pious fancy, of an imaginative mind. (P.133)

Kegan Chandler, Hermes & John, The Fourth Gospel in the Early Gnostic World

Abstract

The Gospel of John is an evangelistic, multi-front polemic written, in part, to compete with an early Hermetic Gnosticism. Alongside GJohn’s exaltation and defense of Jesus in the face of Jewish rejection, GJohn also offers a Jesus, and a Jewish-Christianity, congenial to both the Jewish and Greek minds. John presents the Jewish-Christian versions of Gnostic religious trends in order to persuade a Hellenistic audience to adopt Christianity, and probably to draw back members of his own community who were being lured away by those trends. Despite the insistence of many scholars that Judaism can account for every feature of the Fourth Gospel, some features are best, and even only, explained by an awareness of Hermetic Gnosticism. Thus GJohn proves to be a multi-front polemic: dealing with Jewish objections to Jesus, and competing with a rising Gnosticism, are two arms of John’s great mission to establish a Jesus, and a Jewish-Christianity, which can stand on its own in a widening, Hellenistic world. Ultimately, a careful analysis of GJohn’s deliberate contrast with early Hermetic teaching will reveal serious implications for orthodox readings of John’s Christology, namely, that John’s Jesus is a genuine human being who does not literally pre-exist or share a substance with God. 

70-Page Research Paper: http://www.theologicalconference.org/media/docs/pdf/2017/Chandler.pdf

Original Theological Conference Presentation: 

Hermes & John Supplemental Audio Series