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.
In this chapter (originally published in Jesus in Johannine Tradition, ed. R. T. Fortna and T. Thatcher (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001), 101-11.) Bauckham challenges the long held beliefs that the Fourth Gospel was written especially for the so-called Johannine Community and underwent a series of redactions.
He draws from his earlier work “For Whom Were Gospels Written” in The Gospels for All Christians: Rethinking the Gospel Audience and says that the Johannine Community has been long assumed but rarely argued for. His position is that from the evidence we do have we cannot conclude that the early Christian movement was composed of various isolated communities but was rather a “network of communities in constant, close communication with each other” [p. 114]. For this reason he feels that the Johannine Community hypothesis is implausible. He then sets forth a simple yet incredibly poignant argument when he says:
And if the Gospel was not addressed to a particular community, we cannot expect to learn much from it about the evangelists’ own community, even if there was only one such and even if it did influence his thinking and writing. [p. 115]
He also challenges the two-level reading strategy championed by J. Louis Martyn saying that “against the two-level reading strategy, the most important point to make is that it has no basis in the literary genre of the Fourth Gospel. It is genre that generally guides readers as to the reading strategy appropriate for a particular text.” [p. 117] He is here arguing that it doesn’t make sense in light of John’s Gospel fitting under the broad heading of Greco-Roman biography to read it as a history of Jesus concealing a history of the very community to which it was written. Such an interpretive approach is completely foreign to what we know of how ancients biographies were read.
He goes on to note various problems with this two-level reading in practice, such as inconsistency in application, the necessity of placing everything in temporal order to know the order in which the events of the community took place, every character in the Gospel not being able to plausibly represent a character in the community’s history and context. He says: “Every example of the strategy in practice is riddled with arbitrariness and uncertainty. The more one realizes how complex and selective the practice of this reading strategy has to be, the less plausible it becomes.” [p. 117]
Bauckham then argues against the idea that the language and symbolism in John’s Gospel are somehow designed so that only the initiated can understand it. He gives three main reasons why this isn’t so:
First, the evangelist himself sometimes explains the meaning of figurative or enigmatic sayings of Jesus. [. . .] Second, the misunderstanding by Jesus’ hearers… frequently have the literary function of leading Jesus to explain the image he has used or to develop it in ways that clarify its meaning. [. . .] Third, what no characters in the Gospel understand before Jesus’ resurrection are his many enigmatic references to his coming death and resurrection. The evangelist makes it clear . . . [p. 120-121]
For these reasons Bauckham believes that not only was the Fourth Gospel intended to be read and circulated throughout all believing communities, he also believes that it was intended to be read by interested non-Christians as well! He notes how the images in John “come from the common experience of all people of the time: light and darkness, water, bread, vine and wine, shepherd and sheep, judgment and witness, birth and death.” [p. 122]
Another point he raises is how John is the most accessible of the Gospels to those with minimal knowledge and little education in the faith. I appreciated this observation very much because it resonates with my experience. When I was newly converted to Christ I spent a lot of time in the Gospel of John. It was the first book of the Bible that I had read and I read it quite a few times before moving on to the rest of the NT.
All in all I think Bauckham has done well to argue his point. I’m going to have to go back and read some of my favorite authors (e.g., Raymond Brown, Larry Hurtado) with fresh eyes and see how well they stand up to Bauckham’s presentation.