The Johannine Community

Bart Ehrman said in his Fresh Air appearance today (starting about 13 minutes in):

What scholars have thought for a long time now is that John is the last Gospel to be written and that the understanding of Jesus had changed dramatically in the years between the Gospels; that specifically John’s Gospel was written in a community that was a heavily persecuted Christian community; that started out probably as a community of Jews worshipping in the synagogue who had come to believe that Jesus was the Messiah, but had been kicked out of their synagogue probably because they were trying to convert people and people didn’t want to be converted and they ended up making themselves into a nuisance and they got kicked out of their synagogue. . . . 

Just a couple of years ago I was a firm believer in the Johannine Community from reading Raymond Brown and later Larry Hurtado (who devoted quite a bit of space in Lord Jesus Christ to this alleged community) but then Richard Bauckham came along and seriously challenged that belief.  I commend to your attention my review of chapter 5: “The Audience of the Gospel of John”  in Bauckham’s The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple for a brief synopsis of his argument against the Johannine community.  If you don’t have access to this book but have the earlier volume edited by Bauckham The Gospels for All Christians: Rethinking the Gospel Audiences then you can read the first chapter “For Whom Were the Gospels Written?” to see his argument in its earlier stages. [Update: I’ve just checked Google Books and you can read the entire chapter in the limited preview.  Just make sure not to venture elsewhere lest you use up all your page viewing privileges.]



14 thoughts on “The Johannine Community

  1. I hope Ehrman’s new book isn’t as speculative as this quote suggests it might be. Really, these comments about the Johannine community (particularly the last line or two) are no less speculative than most of what Karl Barth wrote.

  2. Ranger: I think it’s more along the lines of saying that the Gospels are full of contradictions and discrepancies. While I don’t hold to inerrancy I’ve always been amazed at just how insignificant all the actual discrepancies are. But yeah, Ehrman’s proposal about the Johannine Community is imaginative to say the least.

  3. To quote N.T Wright, “building castles in the air”… :-)

    I’ve got nothing against Bart but this doesn’t look good.

  4. I agree Nick, Bauckham pretty much demolished any notion of the Fourth Gospel being a type of story about a Johannine community – in fact he effectively dismantled any notion of a Johannien community at all. Along with the books you mention he also talkes about it in Jesus and the Eyewitnesses.

    I think Gary Burge is in line with Brown too from what I’ve read in his John Commentary and his dissertation book on the role of the Spirit in John.

    To hold on to notions of a Johannine community you have to knock down Bauckham and that would be hard to do if not impossible since the evidence is so scant.

  5. Steph: I think he stole that from Sir Philip Sidney (c. 16th century).

    Brian: I just came across an article yesterday that argues against Bauckham on this point.

    David C. Sim, “The Gospel for All Christians?: A Response to Richard Bauckham,” JSNT 84 (2001): 3-27.

    I haven’t read it all yet so I don’t know how well the author did.

  6. I think Bauckham’s thesis is not quite plausible as many make it to be. Practically, the gospels must have had a local domain before they could reach a universal audience, at large. In contemporary term, we would call this “local domain” an ecclesiological community.” Frankly, I dont find Bauckham’s argument quite persuasive, for instance his disregard for a prior Johannine community. I would not go far to claim that there were Johannine communities, giving birth to our Fourth Gospel. This is perhaps too speculative! The fact that, there’s no textual refutation to assert affirmatively that the fourth Gospel was not a communal collaborative effort. On the other hand, the ambiguities in John’s Gospel, particularly when it comes to the text’s arrangement and order, and even in its theological content, suggest that the Gospel was perhaps a collaborative labor of a Christian group.

    Moreover, suppose one takes Dr. Dave Black’s thesis into account that Matthew and Luke might be called “manifestos”. That is, “Matthew was a manifesto asserting the right of the Jewish-Christian church to exist alongside the world’s greatest religion, Judaism. And Luke was a manifesto asserting the right of the Gentile-Christian church to exist alongside the Jewish-Christian church as complete equals. As you can see, when it comes to the Gospels, I like the term manifesto.”

    In the same way, looking at the theological structure and implications of the fourth Gospel, one could almost assert that the Gospel of John presupposes a sectarian community, as my friend Rod suggests that the Samaritan Christian church (represented by the samaritan woman at the well in John 3) could all coexist together (with that of Matthew’s and Luke’s, and of course Mark’s ) and that each community was equally valid.

  7. Lou you do have a point – how else are we to explain the “you” singular and “you” plural in the “conversation” between Jesus and Nicodemous in John 3? Some postulate it is John talking to the Jewish unbelievers in Messiah. Hard to say.

  8. Steph: I know, I was just pointing out that N. T. Wright is a liar and a thief. Well, at least a thief. ;-)

    Celucien: I think it’s one thing to say that they had a ‘local domain’ at first and quite another to argue for an alleged Johannine Community. Bauckham’s main point seems to be that the Fourth Gospel was not the product of this community nor was it ever intended only for this community and I think he does well to point out the arbitrariness of the method that arrives at this conclusion. And aside from the prologue and final chapter I don’t see much if anything to suggest more than a single author (with perhaps an editor/redactor or two).

    I’ll have to look further into Black’s thesis but at first glace just the term ‘manifesto’ seems somewhat anachronistic. I’ll reserve judgment on the argument until I learn more about it.

    Brian: I think a more plausible understanding is that Jesus is addressing the Pharisees (or Jews generally) through Nicodemus. Keener suggests that Nicodemus “functions as a representative of the world that fails to receive Jesus’ witness.” (The Gospel of John, 1:560) Either way I have my doubts that a Johannine Community is in view.

  9. Well I never thought you’d agree 100% with me on that! Don’t let Chris Tilling hear you say that! ;-)

  10. This is a good discussion. I too have been reading the likes of R. Bauckham and L. Hurtado. I have been struggling with the Johannine Community this week because I am writing a section on my dissertation related to it.

    I went back and looked at Hurtado’s comments on the Johannine Community and a footnote on page 350 (fn. 3) where he references the ABD article “John, Gospel Of.” R. Kyar wrote that article and does a good job describing the theory behind the Johannine Community.

    I was reminded as a I R. Kysar’s review of the Johannine Community, that there is a difference approaches to a Johannine Community: (1) some favor a date late int he first century connected with the alleged Birkhat ha-Minim, somewhere around AD 85, (2) Others favor a date around the Jewish Revolt of AD 66-70. I don’t put much stock in the Birkhat argument, but I do think there was some separation between Christian and Jewish communities which lies behind the Gospel of John. This best explains those passages J. L. Martyn referred to (9:22; 16:2; 12:42). How else can you explain these passages? They must refer to a separation between the communities (whatever the date). Therefore, the Gospel of John was connected in some way to a “community.” This is the death knell for R. Bauckham’s argument IMHO.

  11. David: Thanks for bringing another perspective to the discussion. I’ll have to look at the Scriptures you mention in depth before I offer a reply. BTW, what exactly is your dissertation on?

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