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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Review of Bart Ehrman’s book ‘How Jesus Became God’ (part 10 – Johannine Prologue)

In today’s review of Ehrman’s new book on christology, I will examine his arguments regarding the Johannine Prologue (John 1:1-18). One of Ehrman’s primary theses is that the Synoptic Gospels have a low christology while the Fourth Gospel as, in his words, “an extremely high Christology.” One gets the sense that Ehrman is trying to push the Synoptics and the Fourth Gospel in mutually exclusive directions based on how it (key word) might be interpreted. He shoots off a catena of proof texts from the Fourth Gospel in order to make his point. This may have the affect of overwhelming the unsuspecting reader, but I will attempt in this post to look closely at his arguments, in particular, regarding John 1:1-18.

Logos-is-the-greek-word-for-reason-or-for-wordOn page 273 Ehrman claims that the Johannine Prologue describes Christ as “a preexistent divine being–the Word–who has become human.” He goes on to remark that the “Logos in Greek–was sometimes understood to be a divine hypostasis, as aspect of God that came to be thought as its own distinct being…separate and distinct.” I will come right out and state that I think that this is a gross misreading of the evidence, particularly, the Jewish background regarding the Logos/Wisdom of God. One only has to look at the texts which almost certainly influenced the writer of the Fourth Gospel in order to get a sense of what he means when he uses the Logos in his Prologue. Consider the following passages:

 Yet these things You have concealed in Your heart; I know that this is with You. (Job 10:13)

For He performs what is appointed for me, And many such decrees are with Him. (Job 23:14)

What is with the Almighty I will not conceal. (Job 27:11)

We note here that in the book of Job, one of the more poetic parts of the Hebrew Bible, God’s decrees are “with Him.” This is very similar to John 1:1 where the Word was with God. Job is best understood as saying that, when God’s decrees are “with Him”, that his plans are in his mind and a part of his divine purpose. Other passages say a similar thing:

My son, if you will receive my words and treasure my commandments within you. (Prov. 2:1)

Proverbs, another highly poetic book in the Hebrew Bible, likewise speaks of words being within a person. They are decrees and commandments which are treasured within someone. Certainly this language is not to be taken literally, as if words literally exist inside of a person’s body.

And Wisdom is with you, who knows your works (Wisd. of Sol. 9:9)

All wisdom is from the Lord and is with Him forever. (Sirach 1:1)

The intertestamental literature, which are both full of poetry, follow the lead of the wisdom material located in the Hebrew Bible by describing God’s wisdom as being with God. This is not saying that wisdom, although highly personified, is an actual female figure alongside God. Rather, this is a metaphorical way of expression God’s wise intentions and interactions with His people, i.e., God acting wisely with creation.

So when we get to John 1:1 where the Logos was with God, I contend that these parallel passages should be given more weight in the interpretive process. The Logos, which is certainly personified in the fullest extent in the Prologue, was with God in the same way that God’s plans, decrees, and wisdom were with Him.  This suggests that the Logos is not a separate person alongside God, but rather a way of talking about God’s utterance which is certainly involved in creation. Consider the following passages and ask yourself whether they speak of a separate entity alongside God or not:

By the word of the LORD the heavens were made, and by the breath of His mouth all their host. (Ps. 33:6)

To Him who made the heavens with understanding. (Ps. 136:5)

The LORD by wisdom founded the earth, by understanding He established the heavens. By His knowledge the deeps were broken up. (Prov. 3:19-20 cf. 24:3-4)

By his knowledge everything shall come into existence, and all that does not exist he establishes with his calculations and nothing is done outside of him. (1 QS 11:11, tr. Garcia Martinez)

By the knowledge of the Lord they were distinguished, and he appointed the different seasons and festivals. (Sirach. 33:8, my translation)

O God of my ancestors and Lord of mercy, who have made all things by your word. (Wisd. of Sol. 9:1)

Worship the God of heaven, who causes the rain and the dew to descend on the earth and does everything upon the earth, and has created everything by his word. (Jubilees 12:4)

Wisdom being his mother, through whom the universe arrived at creation. (Philo, Fug. 109)

Wisdom, by means of which the universe was brought to completion. (Philo, Det. Pot. 54)

In these passages, all from within poetical wisdom literature. God creates things with his word/wisdom. This is a way of portraying God has having a powerful word, a word which speaks things into creation. It also portrays God as acting wisely within his creation, using his own wisdom in the ordering of the cosmos. James D. G. Dunn’s assessment of the evidence is striking:

“Prior to v.14 we are in the same realm as pre-Christian talk of Wisdom and Logos, the same language and ideas that we find in the Wisdom tradition and in Philo, where, as we have seen, we are dealing with personifications rather than persons, personified actions of God rather than individual divine beings as such. The point is obscured by the fact that we have to translate the masculine Logos as ‘he’ throughout the poem. But if we   translated logos as ‘God’s utterance’ instead, it would become clearer that the poem did not necessarily intend the Logos in vv.1-13 to be thought of as a personal being. In other words, the revolutionary significance of v.14 may well be that it marks not only the transition in the thought of the poem from preexistence to incarnation, but also the transition from impersonal personification to actual person.” –Christology in the Making, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996) 243, emphasis his.

What must be stated here, with emphasis, is that the word (Logos) and wisdom in these passages are not separate divine beings or hypostases alongside God. That would be to take the poetical writings and read them too literally and woodenly. And this, I contend, is what Ehrman (among others) has done with John 1. He sees the Logos and argues, implicitly, that this must be read literally rather than within the discourse of poetic wisdom literature wherein God’s word and wisdom is personified in acts of creation. A personification is not the same things as a distinct person. When Psalm 85:10-11 personifies righteousness and peace, are we to think that the psalmist is regarding them as hypostates or distinct persons? Or when the arm of YHWH is personified in Isa. 51:9 and described in feminine terms, is that arm now a distinct person alongside YHWH? Or maybe when repentance is personified in Jos. and Asenath 15:7-8 we should add him to the divine court of beings. Not likely, I suggest.

John 1 is best read as the personified Logos, which is active in creation and fully expressive of God, eventually becomes embodied in the human Jesus. Therefore Jesus speaks the very words of God (one of the primary motifs in the Fourth Gospel). He is God’s mouthpiece. If the Logos is properly understood in light of all the wisdom literature cited above, then John 1:1-18 does not indicate that Jesus literally existed as a preexistent being, as Ehrman argues.

“and the Logos was with God” (John 1:1b)

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John 1:1b states that “the Logos was with God.” Since the Logos is best understood as God’s creative utterance, one needs to attempt to get at what the author was trying to convey with this statement which places this very word with the one God. I have attempted to demonstrate in my previous post (see below) that the Johannine Prologue needs to be understood within its poetic framework, thereby taking seriously the metaphoric themes, such as the personification of God’s attributes. Consider the following parallels with John 1:1b,

Yet these things You have concealed in Your heart; I know that this is within You. (Job   10:13, not in the NIV)

 

For He performs what is appointed for me, And many such decrees are with Him. (Job 23:14, also not in the NIV)

 

My son, if you will receive my words and treasure my commandments within you. (Prov. 2:1)

 

But if they are prophets, and if the word of the LORD is with them, let them now entreat the LORD of hosts (Jer. 27:18)

 

And Wisdom is with you, who knows your works (Wisd. of Sol. 9:9)

 

All wisdom is from the Lord and is with Him forever. (Ecclus. 1:1)

It seems, therefore, that to indicate in a poetic context that one’s word is with God has nothing to do with a separate pre-existent person being in the presence of God. Rather, it more likely suggests that God’s creative utterance is near to him, in his midst, or close by. Stay tuned for further installments on the Johannine Prologue.