4. Historiographical Characteristics of the Gospel of John

testimony.jpgBauckham, Richard.

The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple: Narrative, History, and Theology in the Gospel of John

Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007. Pp. 313. Paper. $29.99.

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In this chapter (originally published in New Testament Studies 53, no. 1 (2007): 17-36) Bauckham seeks to dispel the myth that John’s Gospel is merely theology and not history by breaking new ground by assessing the Fourth Gospel as historiography.  He says:

This chapter is a first attempt to assess the Gospel of John by the features characteristic of Greco-Roman historiography. Its contention is that, far from appearing the least historical of the four Gospels, to a competent contemporary reader John’s Gospel will have seemed the closest to meeting the exacting demands of ancient historiography. [p. 95]

The nice thing about breaking new ground is that there aren’t many (if any) arguments against your position.  For this reason Bauckham sets forth a pretty straightforward and unchallenged argument for the historiography of John’s Gospel.

He begins by examining the topography of the Gospel noting that “[a] good historian was expected to have a thorough knowledge of the places where events of history took place…” [p. 95].  John is on par with the Synoptics for how many places are mentioned by name (Matt. = 35; Mark = 30; Luke = 30; John = 31), but dwarfs them in how many places are unique to his Gospel (Matt. = 8; Mark = 2; Luke = 5; John = 17 (!)) [p. 98]. Bauckham also notes that “John’s narratives are typically much longer than the Synoptic pericopes, so that, in a sense, far less happens in John. There are far fewer events to be located.” [p. 99]  This explains John’s tendency to be more specific with the places he does mention.  Rather than simply naming a region, he can name the town or city in the region.  Rather than just name a city or town, he can name a landmark in that town.  Bauckham says: “[c]onsequently, throughout this Gospel we always know where Jesus is, usually very precisely.” [p. 99]

He then moves onto chronology and notes John’s use of Jewish festivals in dating events: “three Passovers (2:13; 6:4; 12:55) and the feats of Tabernacles (7:2) and Hanukkah (10:22) between the second and third Passovers. In addition, there are the two weeks of counted days, one at the outset of Jesus’ story . . . the other the last week of his story.” [p. 100]  According to Bauckham “[i]t is surely the case that the prevalence of precise chronology in the Gospel of John would have made it look to contemporary readers, more like historiography than the Synoptics.” [p. 101]

Topography, Chronology, and Theology converge into what Bauckham describes as theological historiography.  He prefers this description over and against one or the other designation by itself.  He notes that the history of the Gospel is incorporated into a “metahistory” which is framed by reference to the beginning of time in John’s Prologue and the end of time according to Jesus’ final words in the Epilogue. [p. 102]

He rounds this chapter out by examining briefly the selectivity of John in the events that he chooses to record, the narrative asides, eyewitness testimony, and the discourses and dialogues of the Fourth Gospel.

Concerning selectivity we see that the events in John are relatively fewer in number but he takes the time to develop his stories and a comparison of John’s miracles with those of the Synoptics shows that he:

[S]elects the most impressive (e.g., the blind man had been blind since birth [9:1], Lazarus had been dead four days [11:17]) and those most significant in terms of their spiritual meaning as signs.  The selectivity gives him space to develop the significance of the signs. [p. 104]

Of the narrative asides (parentheses), John takes a lot of breaks to translate Hebrew/Aramaic words,  explain certain things such as the Jewish customs, to cite Old Testament passages, etc.  Bauckham simply notes that this is an area in which more research must be done before any concrete judgment can be made as to the significance of the similarities between John’s Gospel and other narrative literature.

He doesn’t develop the section on eyewitness testimony, but instead directs people to his book on the subject.  He does say however that:

The historiographical ideal [. . .] was that the historian himself should have been a participant in many of the events and that he should have interviewed eyewitnesses of those events he could not himself have witnesses . . . In a literary context of this kind John’s Gospel would seem readily to meet the contemporary requirements of reliable historiography, probably better than the Synoptic Gospels. [p. 106]

Bauckham notes the extreme importance of discourse and dialogue in ancient historiography because of the oral/rhetorical culture in which it is set.  There are two problems with speeches in historiography: (1) the sources, and (2) how to represent the speech.  For an eyewitness or one who has interviewed eyewitnesses the source is more sure but then how to represent the speech becomes a problem.  Bauckham says that:

Even in the rare case where a verbatim report were available, the historian could not merely transcribe it, for it would be far too long. This makes it clear that any speech in the context of a historical narrative could at best be only a representation of the speech actually delivered. [p. 106-107].

Of the Gospels he says:

Both the Synoptic and the Johannine ways of representing the way Jesus taught combine realism and artificiality. In one sense, John’s presentation is more realistic than theirs, but at the same time it required much more than theirs did the putting of words into Jesus’ mouth. [p. 109]

Time will tell how strong (or weak) Bauckham’s arguments are for the Fourth Gospel as historiography, but until shown otherwise I find myself persuaded by the case that he makes for it.


4 thoughts on “4. Historiographical Characteristics of the Gospel of John

  1. There is a begging question in that John only mentions Pharisees and never Sadducees. The latter group perished following the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70, leaving the Pharisees as the only group creating Rabbinic or Talmudic Judaism. This poses a real question as to the historicity of the fourth Gospel.

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