Book Review (part 19: The Christology of the Gospel of John) – ‘Neither Jew nor Greek’ by James D.G. Dunn

John-AugustIt cannot go without saying that the apostle John’s lasting influence for the development of Christianity was utterly significant, despite his seemingly minor role depicted within the Gospel narratives. In this nineteenth post of my recap/review of James Dunn’s newest volume Neither Jew nor Greek I will sketch out the argument which depicts what many feel is the most controversial christology in the New Testament Gospels and how it affected the developing Jesus traditions within the second century CE (sections 49.1-3). Indeed, Dunn admits that the role of ‘John’ proved to be one of the most powerful influences in the making of Christianity, particularly when compared to James, Paul, and Peter.

The discussion begins by noting that the Gospel of John can surely be traced back to Jesus’ mission, notably to eyewitness and ear-witness testimony. John was able to draw upon personal knowledge of such features as the initial mission of John the Baptist, the early recruitment of the Baptist’s disciples, and the Judaean mission. These are traditions which possess a high degree of historicity which the Synoptics evangelists, who understandably wanted to mark the distinction between the Baptist and Jesus rather than the overlap, chose not to employ. For Dunn, the Gospel of John utilizes traditions which were authentic rather than legendary in character.

Mislabeling-the-Word-of-GodThe ‘Jewishness’ of John is subsequently argued at length. Dunn notes that the claim in John 20:31, “that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God,” is central to the claim of John’s Gospel. Jesus’ messiahship was rooted in the Jewish expectation of the messiah and built upon distinctive Jewish themes. The title ‘Son of God’ culminated from the typical commissioning of a prophet and the ‘Son of Man’ was reminiscent of Jewish reflections of the human figure in Dan. 7:13-14. Furthermore, the portrayal of Jesus in terms of Wisdom and Word was used with language which would resonate meaningfully and favorably in Jewish ears. On this point Dunn cites John Ashton who observes that Jesus’ claims “are made from within the Jewish tradition and cannot be explained in any other way.” All of these points indicate that there exists within the Gospel of John a sustained strategy to present Jesus as the one who fulfilled Israel’s hopes which surpassed the alternatives like Moses, the Torah, and the prophet.

Unfortunately, John’s evangelistic strategy was not very successful in winning his fellow Jews. Many of the Jewish authorities in his region had put believers in Jesus out of the synagogues. John had hoped that there would be persons similar to Nicodemus (John 3) and the blind man (John 9) who believed secretly and needed to step out in faith and confess their belief. Dunn rightly points out that the dispute between John’s use of Logos theology and Judaism is a dispute, in effect, is still not finally resolved. However, since John was firmly rooted in the Judaism of his time, he “would have denied that he was ignoring or breaching the boundaries which defined Israel’s heritage” (p. 762).

John is to be viewed, in a sense, as a distinctive contributor. The methodological reminder to ‘Let John be John’ is stated from the beginning as a reminder to approach John on his own terms (despite the evidence that it intends to be in continuity with Jewish theology). Four particular subheadings are given: The Incarnate Word, The Son Sent and the Son of Man Descended, The Revealer, and John’s Christology in Gnostic Perspective.

 

1. The Incarnate Word

Dunn begins this section by declaring that it is not enough to point out the Wisdom and Logos language upon which John drew. What needs to be insisted upon is that the Logos/Wisdom had ‘become flesh.’ In order to drive home his point, Dunn contrasts this assertion from what he regards are less-qualified answers to the significance of John 1:14. For the Logos/Wisdom was not:

  • simply manifest in poetic metaphor to describe divine action;
  • as symbolized in the character of Israel’s heroes and heroines (as in Philo);
  • just as a casual visitor like an angelic character in human appearance.

Rather, the Logos/Wisdom became flesh, i.e., a human being who had lived a full life from birth to death. Although John regards the Logos as having been with God from the beginning and which was God (John 1:1) he did not attempt to downplay what the Logos had become: “that which is born of flesh is flesh” (John 3:6). The ‘Logos becoming flesh’ is not predicated upon the  extrabiblical Prayer of Joseph, a work which Dunn notes is describing a way of glorifying Israel in the person of its eponymous patriarch (p. 765 n.29). While the later Gnostics attempted to explain the gap between the creator and the creation with a lengthy series of aeons John instead chose to bridge the gap with the single step of the ‘Word becoming flesh.’

 

2. The Son Sent and the Son of Man Descended

The incarnate Logos had become the Son of God, a son who is the Father’s only begotten son (1:14). John 1:18 furthermore indicates that this only-begotten one, who is in the Father’s close embrace, has made him known. This, for Dunn, indicates that the incarnate Word is a revelatory figure of the Father. In other words, ‘Son of God’ in John is not simply a person who is favored by God, but is the one who acted as the Father’s plenipotentiary in the fullest sense. For Dunn, the repeated assertion that the Son has descended from heaven is an indicator of a commissioning (cf. John the Baptist being sent from God – John 1:6). Therefore, the verses describing ‘descending’ and ‘ascending’ (3:13; 6:62) seems to be directed against the characterization of the patriarch and prophets as those who in effect ascended into heaven to hear what God said. The opening of heavenly reality gives an opportunity for Jesus to communicate to those on earth who are ready to receive it.

 

3. The Revealer

Dunn notes that which had already been observed by Bultman that in John’s Gospel Jesus is the revealer, “but all that he reveals is that he is the revealer!” For John Jesus has revealed God, the Son has revealed the Father, and the uttered Word has revealed the one who uttered the word. In all of this, Dunn rightly reminds us that,

Jesus as the incarnate Word and Wisdom fulfills that role previously filled in Second Temple reflection on Word and Wisdom — not least their role as revealers (p. 768).

The Fourth Gospel presents the theme that Jesus is the closely-related revealer of the Father (in the fullest sense of the words):

  • No one has seen God, but Jesus has made God known (1:18);
  • “Whoever sees me seed him who sent me” (12:45)
  • “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (14:9)
  • Jesus and the Father are one (10:30)

Dunn note the corollaries with the statuses of such figures as Moses and Mohammed, but insists that Jesus as the one who fully reveals God is at the heart of John’s Gospel. Along the same lines, Dunn makes sure that his readers are still ‘Letting John be John’ by remarking that,

it should not be assumed that in his talk of the Son’s dependence of the Father (as in 5.19), John was already caught up in the later debates about the relationships of the two persons of the Trinity, the Father and the Son (p. 768).

This insistence was a needed stress in light of many readers of John reading post-biblical ideas back into the Fourth Gospel’s distinctively Jewish presentation of Jesus as the revelatory expression of God’s Logos/Wisdom.

 

4. John’s Christology in Gnostic Perspective

In a stroke of bad luck, the presentation of Jesus as the Son sent from the Father had striking parallels with the later Gnostic Redeemer myth. The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls helped scholars in the twentieth century to observe that the dualism of light and darkness in the Gospel of John possessed contemporary Jewish parallels rather than owing its origin to a so-called pre-Christian Gnostic Redeemer myth. Nevertheless, John was well on its way to being portrayed in Gnostic terms, as confirmed by its popularity with the Valentinians. Many of the Nag Hammadi documents were strongly influenced by John’s Gospel (and its distinctive prologue).

However, Dunn rightly points out that the Valentinian exegesis of John, expressed by Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, and Hippolytus, recoils from taking seriously the Logos ‘becoming flesh.’ “Rather they bring to their reading of the prologue the assumption that the divine realm is much more complex than Jewish monotheism allowed…” After citing many of the specific examples of Gnostic interpretations, Dunn concludes that Irenaeus and Clement of Alexandria were right to claim that the Gnostics abused John’s Gospel.

 

cross_mosaicIn his concluding thoughts Dunn traces the trajectory of the Johannine writings on into the second century, noting that its christology provided “the basis for the Logos christology which the Apologists took up in their own philosophical way” (p. 799). Two of the big take-aways from Dunn’s sustained argument are that: (1) John needs to be properly situated in its Jewish context (with all the attached messianic expectations), and (2) the christology of John began to be abused and confused from an early period in the second century. It is not altogether surprising how these two points are related to each other.

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Book Review (part 17: How the Gospel of John Contributed to the Parting of the Ways) – ‘Neither Jew nor Greek’ by James D.G. Dunn

In the seventeenth post regarding my recap/review of James Dunn’s newest volume Neither Jew nor Greek  I will draw out a particularly fascinating discussion on how the Fourth Gospel contributed (and in what sense) to the ‘Parting of the Ways’ between Judaism and Christianity (section 46).

The-Breakup_0Dunn outlines this chapter by first discussing how the terms ‘Judaism’ and ‘Christianity are unhelpful terms because they are not defined and distinguished entities during this period of inquiry. He moves on to note some of the early strains between the followers of Jesus and their Jewish counterparts, such as the death of the Messiah, the once-and-for-all sacrifice of Jesus, and the lynching of Stephen in Acts 7. Furthermore, Rome’s involvement certainly caused ripples between the two groups with the destruction of the temple (70 CE), the fiscus Judaicus, and the revolts in 115-117 and 132-135 CE. During this time Judaism was being refined with the slow emergence of Rabbinic Judaism and the fading away of other sects (Essenes, Sadducees, etc.).  Four NT documents (Matthew, Acts, John, and Hebrews) are likewise examined to see in what sense do they depict the conflicts between Jews and early Christians. Finally, Dunn notes the writings of the second century Apologists, Church Fathers, and others to observe how the tone has changed during their time periods. This entire chapter is a gold mine of excellent historical data and should be required reading for Church History students (who rarely get exposed to the developments between the first and second centuries CE).

I will now move to interacting with Dunn’s section on how the Gospel of John contributed to the ‘Parting of the Ways’ between what eventually came to be known as Judaism and Christianity. The section (46.5c) notes how the GJohn apparently goes out of its way to argue how traditional Jewish icons are now passé in light of the coming of Christ (temple to body, purification water into wine, Jacob’s well into living water, manna from heaven to bread of life, etc.). These themes seem to indicate that GJohn invites its readers (especially the Jews of its time) to see Jesus as the fulfillment of Israel’s hopes and visions.

It is in GJohn that ‘the Jews’ are the designated antagonists, regularly hostile to Jesus. In John 8:39-44 Jesus defines them as “children of the devil” rather than children of Abraham. This sharply distinguishes ‘the Jews’ from Jesus and his followers (who are also Jewish). It seems, after a closer examination, that ‘the Jews’ most likely refers to the Jewish authorities, in contrast to even the neutral crowds and common folk observing the dialogues of Jesus and his opponents.

IMG_1352Of particular interest is the phrase coined by GJohn aposynagogos, “expelled from the synagogue.” In John 9:22 the parents of the blind man refuse to stand up for their own son in fear of ‘the Jews’ who threatened to put out of the synagogue anyone who confessed Jesus as Messiah. The next reference is in 12:42 where many of the rulers believed in Jesus, but did not publicly confess him for fear of the Pharisees, lest they be put out of the synagogue. The third and final reference is in 16:2 where Jesus warns that his disciples should expect to be kicked out of the synagogue. It has been common in Gospel of John scholarship to suggest that the blessing against the heretics (known as the birat ha-minim) had already been pronounced by the post-70 rabbinical authorities and that this pronouncement in synagogues explains the social situation exhibited in John 9:22; 12:42; and 16:2. Dunn argues that this suggestion is problematic and unable to be sustained historically principally because the reference to the Christians within this blessing  was likely a later addition. Dunn concludes, nevertheless, that the three references to synagogue-expulsion indicate that the pressures towards the parting of the ways was instigated on the side of Judaism rather than Christians.

The other relevant feature in GJohn is the objection on the side of Judaism that claims being made of Jesus by his followers were a threat to God’s unity. Dunn cites John 5:18 (‘the Jews’ seek to kill Jesus because he was calling God his own Father, thereby making himself equal to God) and 10:30-31 (‘the Jews’ pick up stones to stone Jesus in response to the statement, “I and the Father are one”). In the Synoptic Gospels there appears to be no fierce reaction from the Jewish authorities quite like John 5:18 and 10:31. Dunn notes that the question of why these claims about Jesus were not made prior to the year 70 CE has not been sufficiently asked. The solution seems to be that John’s understanding of Jesus is best explained through the lens of God sending an authorized agent who bears the name and privileges of God himself.  Or, in the words of Dunn,

…much of John’s christology can be best seen in the context of late Second Temple Jewish reflection on divine epiphanies and divine agency.

Dunn goes on to note some of the particular christological points in GJohn. Of interest are these bullet points:

  • The Wisdom/Logos christology of John 1:1-18 is essentially a part of the Wisdom theology of Lady Wisdom traditions exhibited in Prov. 8; Sirach 24; and Baruch 3-4. Philo’s Logos theology is also influential;
  • John 3:13 seems to be a direct rebuttal of other Jewish claims to heavenly journeys and apocalyptic visions (only Jesus is the designated revealer of God);
  • The Son of Man ascending/descending in 3:13 and 6:62 is an extension of reflection on Dan. 7:13-14, a reflection in which 1 Enoch and 4 Ezra also were taking part;
  • The motif of Jesus as the one whom God “sent” sounds like the theme of God sending a prophet, but transcends both the prophet and the kingly figures;
  • The “I am” statements and other claims like John 8:58 “would not ring oddly to anyone familiar with the ‘I’ claims of Wisdom.”

John’s christology was not foreign to the Judaism of the period, argues Dunn. It seems that it was the claim that Jesus was God’s authorized agent, likened to God’s Wisdom, which was the factor provoking the post-70 CE rabbis to regard these Christ-followers as heretics (the minim). Dunn notes that the Gospel of John did not finalize this split, pointing to the second-century christological controversies which continued to bring definition to Christianity and Judaism which were both attempting to define each other over and against the other.

In sum, the Gospel of John indicates that the rabbis expelling Christians from the synagogue in a disagreement as to whether Jesus really was God’s authorized and empowered Messiah, and that the Johannine community indicates that this schism was well under way at the end of the first century CE.

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Review of Bart Ehrman’s ‘How Jesus Became God’ (part 4 – John 10:30)

This is installment number four of my responses to Bart Ehrman’s newest book on christology. I began with my previous post my examination of the third chapter entitled ‘Did Jesus Think He Was God?’

IAnd TheFatherAreOneOn page 124 Ehrman continues to build his argument which serves to contrast the christologies of the Synoptics with the Fourth Gospel. I was quite disappointed when he elected to deploy John 10:30 in order to make his case. John 10:30 has Jesus declaring, “I and the Father are one” (ἐγὼ καὶ ὁ πατὴρ ἕν ἐσμεν). Ehrman further elaborates on this passage on page 125 when he makes such statements as, “he is saying that he is equal with God,” “who was in fact equal with God,” etc.

The reason I say that this is disappointing is because even the most conservative scholars of Johannine literature don’t interpret John 10:30 as if Jesus is claiming coequality with God. In fact, that particular argument has for a long time been dropped from christological arguments over the content of the Fourth Gospel. This makes me question whether Ehrman even attempted to consult commentaries on the Gospel of John when he was researching for his current book. Here is what he might find, first from Raymond Brown, The Gospel According to John I-XII,

We note that vss. 28 and 29 make the same statement about Jesus and about the Father: no one can snatch the sheep from either’s hand. This leads us to an understanding of the unity that is expressed in 30: it is a unity of power and operation…in itself this description remains primarily functional – pp. 407-8

Another from Urban C. von Wahlde, The Gospel and Letters of John, vol. 2,

Jesus claims to have the same ability as the Father. In that sense, the Father and Jesus are “one.” Yet, in this context, the statement is not a metaphysical one. It is a statement of functional unity and in spite of its aptness for later Trinitarian debate, I would argue that its original meaning is not substantially different from that of 5:17-18. – p. 473

Or again in the 2nd edition of George R. Beasley-Murray’s John,

The setting of v 30 in relation to v 28-28 shows that a functional unity of the Son and the Father in their care for the sheep is in mind. From earliest times it has been observed that Jesus says, “I and the Father are en, not eis, i.e., one in action, not in person. -p. 174

The late F.F. Bruce makes similar comments in his The Gospel and Epistles of John,

Here we have a particular application of the statements in John 5:19-23. So responsive is the Son to the Father that he is one in mind, one in purpose, one in action with him. -pp. 232-3

James McGrath’s contribution to the SNTSMS entitled John’s Apologetic Christology likewise echoes the same point,

Nonetheless, the claim of the Son to carry out divine prerogatives is the key issue, and thus it is the idea that the Son and the Father are one in action that is in focus in the controversy described in the passage. -p. 119

Marianne Meye Thompson’s article on the Gospel of John in the Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels is quite informative,

When the Gospel speaks of the unity of the Father and Son, it points especially to their unity in work of revelation and salvation (8:16; 10:25-30; 14:10-11; 17:10). That is to say, the actions and words of Jesus were truly the actions and words of God. -p. 378

Warren Carter’s insightful work on John: Storyteller, Interpreter, Evangelist states,

This intimate reciprocal relationship is marked by unity in function and purpose: they are one (10:30) – p. 53

The commentary on John in the New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. IX, written by Gail R. O’Day, makes a lengthy observation,

It is critical that the contemporary interpreter read v. 30 in the context of Johannine theology and not through the lens of the christological controversies of the second through fourth centuries or of the trinitarian doctrine that developed out of these controversies. The Greek word “one” is neuter, not masculine, so that Jesus is not saying that he and God are one person, or even of one nature or essence. Rather, he is saying that he and God are united in the work that they do. It is impossible to distinguish Jesus’ work from God’s work, because Jesus shares fully in God’s work. -p. 677

I can multiply these quotes, but my aim was to demonstrate that the near consensus of modern scholarship on the Gospel of John understands John 10:30 as a unity in purpose, rather than a statement of coequality between the Father and the Son. The same unity, expressed by the neuter en, is spoken in reference to Christians united with God and Jesus in John 17:22, 24. It is surprising that Ehrman does not cite John 10:29 (“The Father is greater than all”), 14:28 (“The Father is greater than I”), or the powerful 17:3 (“You [Father] are the only true God”). These verses would show that Ehrman’s reconstruction of the Fourth Gospel’s christology has significant room for improvement.

Let this be a lesson to all of us. It does us no good to simply cherry-pick our favorite passages and ignore the ones which might hurt our case. Responsible reconstructions and interpretations require readers to take seriously all of the evidence in addition to honest interaction with what other scholars are writing/saying on that subject.